Riders On The Storm


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Rain pelted against the rider’s leathers as he slung his bike through the night and up winding mountain roads. Bone-chilling cold penetrated his joints, making it difficult to shift the hog’s gears or apply the brakes effectively.

Northern California was nothing like the warm South. San Francisco had been cold, Redding colder, and after passing Shasta Lake, freezing rain had started to fall. Nearing the base of Mount Shasta, the rain turned into .22 calibre hail bullets. This new weather, direct from hell, marked the end of his endurance.

Shit, he thought. He felt defeated. He felt as if he’d travelled through a deluge of steel splinters.

He contemplated turning around and heading to the dinky fleabag motel he’d seen about 15 miles back, but then a sign he could easily have missed swam into blurred focus – MiddleofNowhere Tavern.

Laughing aloud, he turned off the road, hurtled drown a narrow drive, and parked the bike in front of the massive stone inn’s heavy door. The machine occupied the area clearly reserved as cover for the valet.


Keelin wiped down the long redwood bar, wearily tossed the rag into the sink and sank down into a red leather chair before the dying fire.

“At last,” she sighed, and unbound her hair, which fell in auburn waves to her waist. Leaning forward, she rubbed her neck, massaging out the soreness. She was relieved to be finished with the day.

Then she poked the disintegrating logs until only hot embers fell into the grate. Bed, she thought. Her most pressing need.

The tavern was fully booked, every room occupied, save for her own. Ski season had descended and a veritable blizzard was due this night. Already, icy rain assaulted the window panes, and for a millisecond she fancied that a draft had whispered by from the front stairwell.

She heard soft footfalls. She had felt a draft. Then she heard steady dripping; it sounded like a leak.

“Shit, damn roof!” she exclaimed, jumping up and nearly knocking over the man who stood to the left of her chair.

“Sorry.” His deep voice pulsed into her. “I don’t think it’s the roof leaking. It’s me.”

Keelin stared at the man as he sniffed and cleared his throat. He indicated the water running off him. “Uh, about the floor, do you have a towel?”

Oh yes. She liked the look of this one. He was tall and wiry, with long, light blond, almost white hair that he had pulled back from his clean-shaven face. His eyes, a dark turquoise, looked a little tired. He ran strong hands through his wet hair and absently flicked more water on to the wooden floor.

Keelin realised she was gaping at him, and shook herself. “Don’t worry about the floor. I’ll get you a towel. But you are absolutely drenched! I think you may need more than that.”

Now she was trying not to laugh at him. He was like a drowned rat. Her eyes twinkled merrily.

“Towel will do, for now,” he responded, pinching the bridge of his nose and stifling a sneeze almost soundlessly.

Not certain if she should bless him, Keelin went behind the bar and found a terry towel. “This should help. Now, how about a seat in front of the grate. I’ve snuffed out the fire, but the heat from the embers is nice. You could warm yourself. I’m Keelin, by the way. This is my place. Please, make yourself at home.”

Her inviting voice touched his cold ears like a blessing.

“I’m Rochad. And thanks.” He shook her hand, thrilled by the soft electricity of her touch. He smiled for the first time that night, blue eyes sparking into life. “I appreciate the offer. Though heat up close might be hard on the leather. It tends to tighten when dried too fast, and then…well, there may be no getting it off. Uh, perhaps a beer if it’s not too much trouble?”

He smiled again, surveying her casually: auburn hair cascading; slim, yet not thin; full breasts beneath a white blouse; tiny waist, with an immaculate white apron tied around curvaceous hips; slender legs enclosed in britches and full-length brown riding boots. His gaze reached her face, and lingered there. Pert features. Suddenly it struck Rochad: Keelin possessed the face of a fairy princess. Her honey brown eyes warmed him on the inside.

“A beer is no trouble at all, Rochad.” Clearly he was one of those rough, tough types – dripping wet, freezing cold, but loathe to admit it. Keelin grinned as she filled a glass with her homemade pale ale and passed it to him across the bar.

God did his touch ever feel incredible, she thought, for though his hands were cold there was a heat to him that could not be ignored.

Taking a long swallow, Rochad stared at Keelin, a slow purposeful caress with his eyes that made her hungry for his hands on her body. She shivered convulsively, a response that Rochad did not miss.

He raised an eyebrow, suddenly appearing both wild and wise. “Go back to your fire, Keelin, and be warm. I can’t rightly go anywhere tonight – the bike won’t make it up to the lodge in this weather and I need to thaw. The only thing I’ll need is a room. Have you got one?”

A room was what she didn’t have, but she supposed she could allow him to stay in the parlour of her apartment; she had allowed other guests to do the same when a blizzard was imminent. After all, her bedroom door was a massive gothic oak barricade, and inside she’d be safe, should this man have any ungentlemanly thoughts. And Mack would be here just after dawn.

“I’m booked solid through the week,” she said. “But you’re welcome to stay in the living room of my quarters.”

“I appreciate it,” he said. “I’m in your debt.”

“Were it summer or even spring, I’d offer the cottage in the back yard, but there’s no fireplace and it is just too damn cold. Feel free to bring your pint.” She yawned. “Actually, I was about to head to bed before you arrived.”

Rochad strode to the foot of the bar, picked up his leather pack, and then followed her silently down the hall and up two flights of carpet-covered stone stairs. She unlocking the big door at the top of the landing, and moved to one side, inviting Rochad to step across the threshold. The room was enormous and filled with extraordinary museum pieces. An imposing stone fireplace, logs and kindling already in place, occupied most of the main wall. Keelin went to it, produced long matches, and set the kindling ablaze.

He watched her graceful movements, then turned his attention to the rest of the room. Lead-paned windows ran nearly the entire length of the opposite wall, with heavy red drapes on either side. A sitting area offered an overstuffed leather couch, a wrought iron table and two large armchairs. Beyond the chairs, a gothic door stood ajar, and he could see another fireplace where a fire already flickered merrily.

Keelin noticed Rochad was pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand again. She took the pint from him and he sniffed and drew in a sharp breath before releasing the most impressive sneeze Keelin had ever witnessed.

“Hisshhhuptishhhah!” He sneezed forcefully into cupped hands.

“Bless you,” Keelin said, placing the ale on a small table. She reached into her apron pocket and offered a tissue that Rochad gratefully accepted.

“Thanks,” he said, wiping his nose.

Keelin stared up at him openly, invitingly. Laying her hand lightly on his arm, as if to gain his undivided attention, she smiled warmly and said: “So Rochad, since heat is not good for the leather, have you anything to change into? Because to be cold and wet is obviously not good for the man.”

Her voice seemed to flow into his awareness like spun sugar, and Rochad grinned. “I’m fine. My nose is extremely temperamental. I’ll sneeze for a while after being out in the cold; at least until I thaw.” He paused, and sighed. “If the rain hasn’t soaked through my pack, I’ve something. But if my things are wet, Keelin, can I assume you are about to offer me an alternative?”

This man spoke her name with such comfortable familiarity. “May I?” Keelin reached up boldly, pulled the towel from him and tossed it into a basket near the door. Then she took his pack and felt it. “Delightfully damp,” she said, and laid it gently at his feet.

She stood on tiptoe to smooth his wet hair back from his forehead and, without hesitating, moved her hands to his leather jacket and unzipped it, exposing the soaked white T-shirt that clung to his well-muscled shoulders and chest. She removed the jacket and hung it on the back of an antique wooden valet.

Without her standing by his side, the cold air hit his back and chest, and now it was Rochad’s turn to shiver. Keelin took his hand, gently pulling him to a huge Victorian wing back chair just to the left of the fireplace.

“Sit,” she commanded.

Rochad, mesmerized by the woman in front of him, sat obediently.

Keelin turned and pressed a wooden panel that clicked open from floor to the ceiling, exposing a built-in linen closet lined with cedar. She pulled two towels down, one large, one small. She hauled off his wet shirt and dried him with the large towel. As gooseflesh rose on his skin, Rochad pinched the bridge of his nose and stifled again, an almost silent “Mtchuh!”

“I’ll be quick, Rochad.” She wrapped a thick quilt around his shoulders and kneeled to remove his boots and socks. “That’s good. Nice dry feet. Stand, please.”

Unquestioningly, Rochad stood, and the quilt fell to the floor behind him. Looking up into his eyes, Keelin made quick work of his button and zipper, and then bent to peel the wet leather over his hips and down his thighs. Her eyes never left his as she asked him to step out of the pants. He did so, and the leathers were whisked to the back of the room and hung with the jacket on the valet. She called over her shoulder: “The thermals are wet as well. At least, around your knees. But I’ll let you remove those, Rochad.”

Rochad chuckled and did as she had suggested, first wrapping the large towel around his waist. “So, having you take off my underwear isn’t included in tavern hospitality?”

She returned to him, handed him the ale and indicated that he should sit. She sat on the footstool facing him, her back to the fire, and placed the small towel across her lap. “Here,” she said, patting her lap, and pulled his feet on to her thighs. “This way we can both be comfortable until the room warms and I make up the couch for you. Better?”

Rochad nodded as he sipped the ale. “Much. Thank you. Uh, Keelin, can you hold this again for a sec?” He handed over the glass and quickly cupped his hands, sneezing: “Haaatchhh! Huptishhhahhh!”

Sniffing, he rubbed the bridge of his nose and winced slightly. “Damn it was cold out there.”

“Bless you. So I take it you are not planning to catch a nice case of pneumonia?” Keelin handed him another tissue.

“Thanks. Seriously, I’m thawing out now. Any significant temperature change pretty much takes hold of my sinuses until my body balances out. I don’t know what made me consider working up at the ski lodge. Thinking about it now, going from one extreme to the other could have me sneezing for the better part of every damn day.”

“That would certainly be something,” Keelin said, eyes shining. “Wait. You say you are planning to work up at the lodge? My brother owns the place. Crap, he said nothing of any Rochad. I was under the impression he’d hired some young hot shot snowboarder type.”

Rochad chuckled. “Hot shot huh? By whose authority? Your brother’s Mack, am I right?” Keelin nodded, and Rochad continued: “Did he happen to tell you the name of this hot shot? I think I’m entitled to know whose ass I’ll have to kick for trying to take my job.”

Keelin frowned. “Oh crap, I am sure he told me. Um, wait. Yes – RJ something, um, RJ David.”

Rochad’s features smoothed into amusement. Then he cupped his hands over his mouth again.

“Huptuuushaahhh!” he sneezed harshly. “Phew, I think that one robbed me of life force.”

“Geez! Bless. Are you sure you’re warming up?” Keelin’s voice was full of concern.

Rochad nodded. “Yes, I’m getting warmer by the second.” He cleared his throat. “RJ David is another matter all together. I couldn’t lose to a better man.”

Keelin adored Rochad’s company already. He was so good natured, so fabulous to look at; and the sneezing – well, it just did things to her insides. “So you know him then?”

He winked, nodded, then pinched the bridge of his nose again. “Ahhhh…” He began a sneeze, but it faded. “Yes, I know him very well.” He leaned forward, moved his feet off Keelin’s lap and held out the dog tag that hung round his neck. She held it in her delicate fingers, turning it over to read the inscribed name. Their faces were kissing-close.

Eyes twinkling impishly, she read aloud: “Rochad Johan David ‘RocketMan’. Nice and humble. So you are the hot shot, huh? I took you as more of an outlaw myself. A very sneezy outlaw.”

“Ya did, did ya? And sneezy? Ya think?” Rochad reached out to stroke her auburn locks.

“Oh, I know so,” Keelin whispered. “ And you are about to sneeze again.”

Rochad turned to one side and stifled. A near silent sneeze. “Hhhchmpf!” Then he pulled her to him. “So, Keelin, tell me what I am about to do now.”

“Mmmm…” Keelin moaned and took his face into her hands. She climbed on to his lap and sat astride him. “Now you are going to kiss me and do your very best to avoid sleeping on the couch.”

Rochad stroked her hair, and shook his head “You are right Keelin, but wrong about the reason. I am going to kiss you, but not to avoid sleeping on the couch. That I will do gladly. I am going to kiss you because I’ve wanted to taste your lips from the moment you parted them to speak.”

And with that, he lowered his lips to hers.

Pulling her hungrily to his bare chest, RJ’s arms wound around her slim waist. Keelin slipped fingers through his damp hair and pulled free the band holding it back, so that she could luxuriate in its softness. She slid her hungry tongue between his warm lips passionately, pressing against him. Kisses rained upon her lips, face and throat until she felt Rochad tense, holding his breath as he leaned to one side.

He sneezed loudly, uncovered: “Haatttchhh! Haptishhhhhahh!”

“Aww, bless you RJ,” she soothed. “Let’s get you to bed, then? That just doesn’t sound good.”

“Keelin, if you leave me now, I am not sure how well I’ll sleep…”

Pressing her finger against Rochad’s lips, Keelin smiled. “Shhhh. Who said anything about me leaving you by yourself? Rochad, we can’t have you out here all by yourself, cold and sneezing with no one to offer a blessing, can we?”

A soft moan escaped Rochad’s lips as he stood, swept Keelin into his arms without effort, and strode toward the bedroom door. He placed her on the bed, drew back the coverlet and unlaced her boots. Climbing in next to her, he pushed her hips gently and she rolled over as he untied her apron and tossed it on to the floor.

Keelin rolled back, pressing against Rochad and kissing him deeply. He lay back on the pillow and shivered. Turning his head, he cupped his hands again. “Huh happptishhh! Uptishhhahh!” He sniffed. “Damnit, sorry.”

She kissed his cheek. “Bless. No apologies. Your sneezes are incredibly sexy.” She pulled the covers over them both. “RJ, I know you said you’re fine, but we have to keep you warm. I have seen very strong men become extremely ill due to exposure.”

Lying on her side, facing him, she moved her hands over his stomach and chest, making a study of his upper torso and rubbing him warm at the same time.

Rochad kissed her forehead, sniffing. “I’m fine.”

He reached to unbutton Keelin’s blouse, his hands brushing her shoulders as he pushed the fabric back, freeing her breasts. He sucked gently on her nipples, then nibbled and licked each one. His breathing was deep and regular, soft on her warm flesh…until he drew in air sharply, his face pressed to her stomach, and stifled sneezes against her skin. “Htchmpf, chmpf, chmpf!”

Keelin moaned loudly, and Rochad moved up, gazing into her eyes. “So you say my sneezing is sexy?”

“Oh Rochad! Extraordinarily.” Her reply was breathless, and she closed her eyes, ready to give herself to him completely.

Rochad wanted to devour her whole. He could tell she was already close to climax, and it gave him a heady feeling to think that he had caused this. Abruptly, he wanted to know that she was as profoundly attracted to him as he was to her. For what was probably the first time in his life, he didn’t want a one-night stand. Rochad knew he wanted more than a week with this woman, more than a season; and an idea occurred to him slowly, just as the next sneeze was building. “Uh, Keelin?”

She opened her eyes and looked at him, her hand resting on the side of his face. “Yes? Are you okay?”

Fighting the sneeze was causing his sinuses to clog, which in turn made his eyes fill with tears. Sounding a little more congested than he actually was, he said: “Do you know, you may be right after all. I, uh…I could be coming down with something. My throat is a little tender, and normally I would have stopped sneezing by now.”

Keelin’s brow furrowed with concern. “Oh RJ, shit, I’m so sorry. Rest. You have to rest. How selfish of me. Can I get you anything? An aspirin?” She felt his forehead, which was a little warm, and then felt her own, which was warm from passion. “We should stop. Being overheated is no good.”

RJ felt a pang of guilt, and then the sneeze he had been struggling against returned with renewed forced. He lay back and succumbed to it utterly. “Hetcchhhhsssshhahh!”

That sneeze drained the hell out of him, and he almost wondered if there was some truth to his ruse after all.

“Aw, bless you. Here, you should have another pillow.” And Keelin offered Rochad her own.

“Thanks, no. You keep it.” He shivered, and Keelin pulled her shirt on and drew the covers over them both. “Maybe I should sleep on the couch, Keelin. If I am getting sick, I would hate to have you catch it.”

Keelin laughed good-naturedly. “RJ, it would be a little late for that now. But you needn’t worry, I haven’t been sick in just under a decade. My brother insists on making this winter elixir. At first I didn’t believe him when claimed it was a preventative medicine – he has been completely full of bullshit before. But when he took it, he didn’t get sick for the first time in like five years. So I figured I’d try it. You know, it really works. Anyhow, if you are ill, I would never forgive myself for wasting your energy. But no couch for you. You’re staying right here.”

And with that, she kissed his lips gently, drawing him close.

Rochad nuzzled against Keelin for warmth, happy to forego further lovemaking tonight, now that a deeper and more lasting relationship seemed likely. He listened to the even tones of her breathing, feeling his own breath come in the ragged gasps that preceded what he knew would be the final sneezes of the evening. He turned from Keelin’s shoulder, sneezing loudly: “Ashhhhhh! Huuptishhhhh!!”

“Bless you,” whispered Keelin softly, stroking his hair when he leaned back against her.

Taking hold of her fingers, Rochad kissed the tips of each one. Quietly, almost uttering a prayer, he said: “Thank you, angel, thank you.”

Keelin smiled in the dark. The thoughts that carried her into slumber were far from those of an angel – she was planning the things she and Rochad would do together as soon as he was well.