Sleighed (Severton Search and Rescue Book 1)
There were diamonds in the sky and on the ground, everywhere seeming to sparkle. Sorrell could smell cinnamon and the pine from the tree. She stood next to Keren who was manning a stand for the walkers when they finished their descent of the pike. The crowd was large and there was a soft buzz. One or two had mugs of mulled wine, others hot chocolate and a few had a plastic glass of beer.
The snow had stopped and it was forecast to stay that way until Christmas Day, when more was due. It would be a true white Christmas and she was looking forward to it, even though it was very different to the one she had expected at the start of the year. She hadn’t envisaged being involved in a Christmas dinner for seventy elderly people and some of their relatives, and then spending the evening at the farmhouse of her new boyfriend.
The boyfriend who was currently on top of a fairly high peak and about to descend it in what were pretty tough conditions.
All heads turned towards Scarhead Pike. A teenager cried out in far too enthusiastic tones that he could see the light, to which he received a rather sarcastic response from his father, but he was right. The orange dot in the distance was there, with another behind, and then another and another.
The river of fire had begun to roll down the peak, its flames contrasting sharply against the white snow and the black sky. A moving line of torches, remembering those that couldn’t be there, those that had gone.
A hush had descended on the town, the viewers spellbound by what they were seeing. The choir had fallen silent and even the children spoke in hushed voices, all but the youngest watching the flames as they were carried nearer.
“Zack’s leading,” Keren said. “Rayah told me before. She’s with her dad and uncle in the middle. Scott will be last down. He’ll do most of it in the dark.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” Sorrell said. All of the line were there now, descending the peak. One torch was set further back, and now she knew that was Scott’s.
Keren shrugged. “He’s protected by Satan’s minions so he’ll be fine.”
“Seriously?” Sorrell said. It was hard enough walking on normal ground let alone down a slippery, rocky hill.
“He could walk that route down that peak blindfolded. He’s done loads of night rescues recently. You don’t need to worry about him. Out of the three of them, he’s the most cautious,” she said. Sorrell heard the tone of regret in her voice.
“But Alex is the detective,” she said. “Surely he’s the most sensible. Scott runs a bar.”
“Scott is, well, Scott,” Keren reasoned. “Look at it now. It is something, isn’t it?”
The night was clear; visibility was perfect, although Sorrell had found out that the river was carried out even when the weather was wet, as long as it wasn’t deemed too dangerous.
The flames grew brighter as Zack neared, followed by the line of walkers. She moved away from where Keren was standing closer to the finish line where they were given the piece of last year’s town Christmas tree to light then throw onto the bonfire. The torch was then taken off them by one of Jonny’s crew and extinguished safely. Then the aftercare began.
She saw Zack, recognising him by the way he walked quickly, the breadth of his shoulders and his confident pose. An older teenager was with him, smiling broadly and looking more tired than Zack despite his age. The crowd started to applaud, Zack looking unfazed, then he shifted back and allowed the young lad to go first, his expression elated.
It wasn’t a race, but Sorrell figured there were some bragging rights for those who finished at the front.
Zack took the piece of log and lit it when he approached the fire, passing his torch to one of Jonny’s men. The log had just a trickle of a flame, but erupted when it was thrown onto the fire, a round of applause from the crowd.
He headed straight to her, his eyes focused only on her. He wore a coat and trousers that were fleece lined and he appeared as if he’d just had a gentle stroll around town rather than going up a hill that was tough even without the ice and snow.
“How was your first River of Fire?” he said after he’d kissed her.
She nodded. “Amazing. It’s really something to see.”
He looked towards Scarhead Pike where the river continued, Scott’s flame some distance at the back, watching the people in front. Shepherding. “I’m never sure whether it’s better to do or better to watch.”
“When’s the last time you watched?” she said, half knowing the answer.
“When I was eleven. I was old enough at twelve to take part and I haven’t missed a year since. Scott, Jake and Rayah are the same. Alex has had to because of work,” he said, taking off his gloves. “I’ve booked a table for us at the Swan. I wasn’t sure if you’d fancy it, but I knew it would be pretty busy after this. I do need to get a quick shower first,”
“That sounds good,” she said. “I haven’t eaten there yet.”
“Excellent. How do you feel about helping me get warmed up?”
They were back in bed three hours later. Her head was on the top of his chest, the thick duvet covering them both, although he gave off enough heat for her not to need one almost.
“I loved watching you coming down the peak this evening,” she said, feeling sated and sleepy.
He used a hand to move her hair out of her face. “Not going to lie, it was great to know you were there waiting for me.”
“I bet there have been girls waiting there for you before me,” she said. “Come on, Zack, I’ve heard your reputation.”
He didn’t say anything and she felt him tense beneath her, his hand frozen on her waist.
“You know, Ells, you keep mentioning other women or girls like you’re just one of many, as if you’re just the one I’m passing time with at the moment. I don’t feel like that about you but I think because your ex didn’t realise how good he had it, you don’t see that.” He paused, rearranging them so she was on her side looking at him. He tucked the duvet around her. “I’m not interested in seeing another woman than you in my future and I know I’m going out on a limb saying that and to be honest, telling you that is harder than doing that climb tonight in the snow because I don’t know how you’re going to react to this. I don’t know whether I’m just a stop gap while you get your confidence back or if you’ll ever believe that I feel more for you than just someone to help me keep warm this winter.”
She stilled, feeling his tension through every muscle in his body. This man, this glorious man who made her feel so much was on his knees because of her and yet still she didn’t know herself how she could respond, whether she was able to give him what he asked.
“I don’t know, Zack. I don’t know if I can put myself out there and think of a future like I did before.”
He held her, saying nothing. When he spoke, it was as if all the world was waiting for his words.
“Give me twelve days, Sorrell, or just a bit more than. Let me have the twelve days of Christmas to make you know that what I feel is real.”
“Until twelfth night. Then if you don’t think it can work we’ll discuss where we go from there.”
“And if I think it will work?”
“Then we discuss where it goes from then.”