Chapter 1: Grounded
First, the world was shaken to its core when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11. Then the world suffered during the SARs outbreak. Then there was West Nile … and Corona Virus … and now this.
With each pandemic, the world became a little more frightening. What was even more frightening to Sansa, was that the entire globe was adapting just a little too well to each new threat.
As Sansa edged her way through the gymnasium – keeping the regulated social distance between her and everyone else, of course – she shook her head and shivered.
It shouldn’t be this easy. We should be really scared, she thought. But everyone was acting like Oh well, it’s no big thing, we’ve been through it before. The world was just too damn complacent.
Sansa took a deep breath and focused on her mission. She was here to find someone to fill her spare bedroom. She looked up and gazed around the room as someone bumped against her. Sansa’s first reaction was to recoil in fear, but instead she laughed mockingly at herself.
Everyone who’d gotten off the plane had been tested and cleared. The town limits had been restricted and everyone who’d been allowed through had also been tested and cleared. There was no Cardio-Respiratory Obstructive Disorder in North Burlow, Vermont. C-ROD is what they were calling this one. Still, everyone was being careful. Goods and services were still coming in from outside their safe little haven. All it would take is one sick factory worker or one contagious vegetable packer on a farm somewhere. They couldn’t spray every piece of fruit or Lysol wipe every bottle of dish soap.
Shake it off, Sansa told herself. Just shake it off.
Sansa reassured herself that the now practiced reaction to any kind of threat, be it terrorist or biological, had been swift and sanitary. As soon as the news of a global outbreak had been announced, all air traffic had been immediately grounded.
This is a bad one, Sansa remembered thinking.
The planes almost literally dropped from the sky, landing at the most readily available airport or landing strip. Since the major cities and airports were immediately overrun, many flights had been diverted to smaller towns with sleepy airports and private strips.
The same thing had happened just after 9/11 although Sansa had been a lot younger then and didn’t remember much from back then. And besides, she’d been living with her family in Chicago at that time. But she did remember reading about small towns that had taken in stranded travelers. That’s exactly what was happening now.
The plane that landed at Tully Field had been diverted from Montreal. The Royal Air 747 out of London, UK fortunately had not been a crowded flight ensuring that everyone on it would likely find a place to sleep in their new, temporary home.
Avoiding the small crowds of mingling people, Sansa stepped off to the side of the gym and scanned the crowd. She had one spare bedroom with a twin bed to offer up. If necessary, she could take in a couple, take the spare room for herself, and give them her bedroom.
Whoever she invited into her home, he … she … them … fuck it! … whoever … would have to be quiet and leave her alone to do her work.
Sansa smiled politely as the mayor’s wife offered her a cup of coffee. She sipped it, winced, and resigned herself to chewing on the rim of the paper cup to avoid actually drinking the disgusting swill they’d brewed. How could anyone not realize how horrible this shit was? But, she kept quiet and drank it because she was trying to become a part of the community.
It hadn’t been easy when she’d first arrived in North Burlow. It was a small quaint town that didn’t easily accept outsiders. But during a crisis like this one, everybody showed their community spirit, their neighborliness and worked together to overcome the obstacles. If Sansa was going to prove herself to be a real part of this community, she certainly couldn’t snub her nose at helping out right now.
So … at the very least, she was taking in a border. A border, she reminded herself, who could be stranded with her for weeks, maybe even months depending on how bad this pandemic was. She would have to choose carefully – very carefully.
Sansa decided to bite the big one and get in there and mingle. Her first target was a young couple about the same age as her – early thirties, she guessed. They looked like a typical suburban couple, smiling, arms lovingly around each other as though they were protecting each other from the big, bad strangers.
As soon as Sansa stepped up to say hello, the woman erupted in verbal diarrhea. Sansa never even had a chance to introduce herself. Instead she listened as the woman complained that she would be missing her stories. By the way she said the word stories, Sansa assumed the woman was referring to a soap opera.
“We’re not even in the right country!” the woman declared haughtily. “Of all the backwater burgs to stuck in …” She turned to her husband and whispered loudly out of the corner of her mouth. “They probably don’t even have indoor plumbing here.” Then she turned to Sansa and smiled a very wide and toothy smile that was about as genuine as her bleached-white caps.
Sansa smiled back, turned on her heel and fled. She was nearly bowled over by a short, fat balding man, his haggard wife and their three demon spawn. The young boys, who ranged in age from 4 to 12, were running haphazardly screaming at the top of their lungs and grabbing handfuls of people’s clothing as they tore around the room.
The wife looked almost desperate as she approached Sansa with her hand out. Sansa shook it, then stepped back to maintain a psychological distance as well as a physical one.
“Hi, we’re Joanna and Phillip Peterson and those are our three boys –” She was cut off when Sansa yelped loudly. The oldest of the hellions had run behind her and yanked painfully at her ponytail.
Sansa shook her head and gazed pointedly at the parents. “No. Absolutely not,” she informed them as she hustled away.
Sansa spied a quiet woman standing next to her teenage daughter. Both were smiling pleasantly as their eyes searched the room. Sansa gulped, said an internal prayer and walked toward them.
“Hi, I’m Sansa.” She offered her hand and the woman shook it politely.
“Hello. I’m Daphne and this is my daughter Madison.” Sansa and Madison nodded at each other.
“It is just the two of you?” Sansa asked. “I only have one spare room, so you’d have to share.”
Sansa noticed Madison’s eyes widen ever so slightly.
“Yes. It’s just me and my daughter. We were on our way to visit her father in Ottawa, but frankly I’m not going complain about not seeing that son-of-a-bitch.” She chuckled in an attempt to cover the malice in her voice, but Sansa already had her reading on them. It was confirmed when Madison finally showed her true colors. The girl snorted loudly.
“Maybe you don’t care, but it was my birthday and now I’m not gonna get my new MacBook. At least if we were in Montreal, Daddy could have come and picked us up, but noooo. So now I’m stuck here with this piece of shit,” she said waving her iPhone threateningly in her mother’s face. The girl swiped at her phone and began texting as though she was stabbing the phone with knives instead of her thumbs. “Better have fucking good internet in this shithole town,” she muttered as she texted.
Sansa drifted to the edge of the crowd. She had pledged to take in a border. If she didn’t choose someone soon, she’d end up with one of the leftovers that no one else could stand. Knowing what the people in North Burlow were like, that would be pretty damn bad.
Sauntering toward the edge of the gym, Sansa rotated her head on her neck and heard a loud crack. She nonchalantly dumped her coffee in the waste bin, then turned to survey the quickly thinning crowd. Just as she was about to give up, Sansa spied a very large man sitting alone in the corner.
The man had his head down, elbows on his thighs as he focused on the pocket novel open between his knees. His longish hair hung limply around his face, obscuring his features. She watched for a moment as he flipped a page in his book and continued reading. He seemed completely oblivious and indifferent to everything that was going on around him.
Sansa waited a moment longer, watching and studying him. He was definitely a passenger because his carryon suitcase was sitting on the floor beside him. He flipped another page, took a deep breath and flicked his eyes over the crowd before refocusing on the book. Something about the set of his shoulders hinted at reluctant resignation for his predicament.
He was quiet, he liked to read, and he was obviously comfortable with his solitude. Perhaps he even preferred it, wanting to be left alone, just as Sansa did. She found herself gravitating toward him, eyes locked on the mysterious stranger.
Sansa stopped a few feet away in front of him. The man must have noticed her feet, because he lifted his head slightly and peered at her through his hair. Impatience exuded from him as he set his bookmark and begrudgingly sat up straight.
“Oh!” Sansa gasped. In his upright sitting position, he was face to face with her. Standing, Sansa realized, would have brought him to a towering height. But that wasn’t what had startled her. The right side of his face was a mass of scar tissue that extended from the rear edge of his chin to almost the crown of his scalp.
The man swept his fingers through his hair on the right side and pulled it back displaying his face for her. He even turned his head slightly to the left so that she could get a good look. Sansa noticed that in addition to the missing patch of hair near the top of his head, his right ear resembled a mangled chunk of cauliflower and his right brow drooped over his eye giving him a permanent look of spiteful melancholy.
After a long moment, the man let his hair fall back down and he flashed his hands at her as if to say, there, you’ve seen it, so what’s it going to be? Choose me or move on, I don’t care.
Sansa couldn’t move. He was kinda scary looking but nothing gave the impression that he was different from anyone else in this room … aside from his size and his dreadful wound. Sansa hadn’t even realized that she was no longer looking at his face, but unconsciously, she was absorbing the other minute details that were helping her to form an impression of him.
He was neatly dressed in clean Wranglers, a lightweight navy blue pullover sweater with a short zipper near the throat, and dark brown suede running shoes that looked almost new. His full beard was neatly trimmed as were his fingernails. He wore a stainless steel chronograph watch. Sansa knew they were fairly expensive, but nothing so showy or flashy as a Rolex. Overall, he was neat and clean.
Assuming that she was deciding against him, the man dipped his head and went back to his book with no concern whatsoever. Sansa turned her head to gaze over what was left of the disappearing passengers from the plane. It was either him or one of the others that she’d already decided against. She gave the man with the mangled face another cautious glance.
Sansa took a step closer. The man closed his book, waiting, but didn’t look up.
“I have one spare room if you’re interested,” she offered hesitantly. The man finally looked up at her. He seemed to be making his own evaluation as he gazed at her from top to bottom.
“Alright, then,” he said in a thick belly-rumbling voice. He sat up and waited, undoubtedly giving her a chance to bolt in the event that she was having second thoughts. Sansa attempted to smile pleasantly, but she could feel the corners of her mouth faltering as her eyes drifted over his horrifying scars one last time.
After sizing each other up a moment longer, the man set his bookmark again, straightened up and stretched as he stood. From behind him, draped over the chair, he grabbed a tan car length canvas jacket. It reminded Sansa of a Carhartt work jacket, but clearly that hadn’t been its purpose. It, too, looked brand new.
He put on his jacket and grabbed the handle of his carryon as he followed Sansa across the gym floor. At the exit, Sansa approached the mayor’s wife, one of the three women who were registering placements.
“Sansa Stark,” she said as she dug her driver’s license out of her purse. The mayor’s wife took her ID and recorded her name, license number, and home address. She handed it back and turned to the man who was about to become Sansa’s house guest.
“I’ll need your passport,” the mayor’s wife told him. But he had already retrieved it from his coat pocket and was holding it out toward her. He didn’t need to say his name, since it was on his passport, but he and his host hadn’t introduced themselves to each other. He spoke his name, more in Sansa’s direction than to the clipboard lady.
“Sandor Clegane,” he said nodding to Sansa.
When all their information had been taken down, Sandor followed his host out to the parking lot. She aimed in the direction of a little Volkswagen Beetle that was painted to look like a lady bug. Plastic eyelashes had been added around the headlights.
Sandor scrunched his mouth up and cursed internally. Are you fucking kidding me? he thought tossing his head. But Sansa walked right past it. The only other vehicle in that direction was a dark burgundy Ford F-350 Super Duty with a quad cab.
Sandor looked at the sky. Thank God for small favors, he thought with a sigh of relief. Let’s just hope my luck holds out.
Chapter 2: Welcome To The Stark Hotel
So far, things weren’t as bad as he’d assumed. Sansa seemed quiet and intelligent, not too girly and if his luck held out, it would be just the two of them. He’d never thought to ask if she had a husband, boyfriend, or kids waiting at home. But then, beggars couldn’t be choosers, either.
If her demeanor was any indication, he could ride out this storm in relative peace.
When he’d first seen her in the gym, his impression was that of a spoiled princess who might have a mental checklist that she was going through each time she met someone. He couldn’t blame her though for the people she’d rejected. There were very few people from the plane that he’d been able to stand for longer than five minutes.
He pretended to read his book as he watched her walk around the gym. As his gaze followed her, his opinion of her slowly changed. She had politely taken the cup of pig swill they’d referred to as coffee. She’d even smiled as she’d sipped at it. Her tactfulness in disposing of it had been subtle and gracious.
This woman didn’t belong in this town, Sandor decided. She most certainly didn’t come from here originally. The way she moved among the others, confidently but at a safe distance told Sandor that she was still considered an outsider by the others. Maybe she still felt that way about herself.
Sandor guessed that she was in her early thirties. She was thin, pretty, and alert. Her thick auburn hair had been pulled back into a simple ponytail. Sansa didn’t wear much makeup and, like him, she was dressed casually in jeans, a t-shirt, and a barn jacket.
Low maintenance, he thought. He could live with someone like that for a few months or however long it took to get through this pandemic. When she had abruptly dismissed the couple with the three screaming brats, Sandor had tucked his book into the pocket of his jacket and started to stand up.
If he didn’t take some initiative soon, he’d be living in the community center gym for the next God-knows-how-long. But then he’d watched her approach the woman with the teenage daughter and figured that would be the end of his chances. Women always tended to gravitate to other women. So he’d pulled out his book and gone back to reading.
She was wearing practical shoes. That was the first thing he noticed when she’d approached him. They were low rise hikers like his. Comfortable like running shoes, but stylish and practical.
The next thing he’d noticed was her reaction to his face. She’d given a surprised little gasp, but nothing more. Sansa had not recoiled in horror or even made a face more than arching her eyebrows in surprise. If she was repulsed by him, she’d hidden it well. Based on her gracious retreat from the others – except the couple with the boys, and even then her words had been blunt without being mean – he figured his feelings wouldn’t be hurt in the least by the words she chose to convey her rejection.
To his surprise, she’d actually taken a chance on him. He’d even given her the opportunity to change her mind, but she’d set her mind and invited him to be her guest.
Sansa and Sandor rode in silence as she drove down the narrow country lane to wherever it was she was taking him. Sandor was surprised at how deftly the petite woman handled the pickup truck. Most of the women he knew would have been much more comfortable in the Beetle.
“Thank-you for taking me in,” Sandor offered, thankful that he’d finally thought of something to say. It had taken him far too long to realize that he hadn’t shown his appreciation to his host.
Sansa smiled. “Your welcome.”
Sandor rubbed a hand over his face and gazed out the window at the passing wilderness. For some reason, he felt the need to have a conversation, but his brain wasn’t complying and she wasn’t making it any easier with her short conciliatory responses. He had no idea why he was so uncomfortable with silence all of a sudden. Usually, he was the one hoping that everyone else would shut the fuck up. But no, not today. Today his brain wanted to be a fucking Chatty Cathy.
Sandor sighed and tried to make small talk. “Are you far from town?” he asked.
Sansa shook her head. “Just a few minutes.”
Sandor stared at her wondering if she knew how to hold a conversation. The silence was suffocating him. Funny, that was never a problem before today.
“Nice truck,” he finally blurted. He squeezed his eyes shut not believing that of all the words in his vocabulary, those were the only two he’d been able to string together.
Really? That’s all ya got? he wondered, bewildered.
“I was relieved when you walked past the VW Beetle,” he said praying that she’d have more to say than a one-word response.
Sansa never took her eyes off the road as she answered. “That car belongs to the mayor’s wife,” Sansa informed him. “It’s not really practical around here. Especially in the winter. I opted for something a little more utilitarian.”
Just when he felt like they were getting somewhere, Sansa turned off the main road and slowed as she navigated a long narrow driveway. At the end of the driveway was a modern ranch built to look like a Victorian-era home.
“This is it,” she said as she threw the shift into park.
The house was slate blue siding with white trim. It was almost a Cape Cod style, but with Victorian accents. The overall look was quite appealing. Past the side of the house, Sandor could see a lake in the distance. The home was surrounded by dense forest as far as the eye could see. There were no neighbors anywhere close by and it occurred to Sandor to wonder how safe Sansa felt out here in the wilderness all by herself.
He needn’t have worried, because after Sansa climbed out of the truck, she opened the rear passenger door and retrieved a Remington rifle from the back seat. She slung it into the crook of her elbow and trudged toward the house. Sandor gathered his belongings, followed her in, and reminded himself not to piss her off. Out here, it would likely be very easy to get rid of his body.
“You can sleep in here tonight,” Sansa said swinging the door wide. She stepped back to allow her new houseguest to see the entire room.
The bedroom was average size, a typical 12 x 12 similar to most suburban homes. The furnishings were simple. A plain dresser, a nightstand with a small, plain tabletop lamp, and a bookshelf loaded with pocket novels. Shoved into the corner was a twin bed – like the kind you might find in the room of a pre-teen girl.
“You’re kidding, right?” Sandor Clegane turned to look at Sansa as if this was some kind of ridiculous joke and he was waiting for the punchline. There was no way in hell he’d be able to fold his body in half to sleep on that bed.
“It’s just for tonight,” she sighed heavily already wondering if all this inconvenience was worth the trouble. “In the morning I’ll switch things around so that you can have the other room.” Hand still on the doorknob, Sansa stood aside so that he could enter the room and deposit his luggage.
After his bag had been unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the area rug, Sansa gestured back to the hallway.
“I’ll show you the rest of the house,” she informed him.
Sansa led him to the kitchen first. “You’re welcome to anything in the fridge or cupboards. If we run out of something, write it on this list,” she said pointing to the magnetic note pad that was stuck to the side of the fridge. “You can make your own breakfast and lunch. I’ll make dinner for both of us. Clean up after you –”
Sansa stared blankly. “Beg your pardon?” She really, really hated being interrupted.
“Supper. You said ‘dinner’ but the evening meal is called supper. Dinner is at noon,” Sandor corrected her in his thick English accent. Sansa couldn’t believe the nerve of this guy.
“Mr. Clegane,” she began, not trying to hide her annoyance. “You’re in Vermont now. Vermont is in the United States. You’re not in England anymore. Over here we use dinner and supper interchangeably. The meal at noon is called lunch.” She arched her eyebrows high as if to ask, do you mind terribly if we continue?
Silence. Great, wonderful. Sansa rubbed her hands together and continued her spiel regarding the kitchen. “Clean up after yourself and wash your own dishes.”
Next, Sansa led him to the family room. The room was huge with high vaulted ceilings supported by heavy beams. At one end was a floor-to-ceiling fireplace constructed from large fieldstones. The overall effect was rustic and homey.
“TV,” she stated matter-of-factly pointing to the plasma big screen. “I’ve got Netflix, IPTV, and an antenna. No cable. IPTV gets almost every channel in the world so if you want BBC you can get news from home or, you know …” she added smugly, “Keep up with Coronation Street.” When he snorted at her, Sansa rolled her eyes and turned to continue the tour.
She abruptly turned back and Sandor almost stepped on her before halting his forward momentum. She immediately put her hand up to keep their bodies from colliding, but succeeded only splaying her fingers against this chest. A very warm and muscular chest, she reluctantly noted.
“Oh! Sorry. I just wanted to mention that I don’t have any video games or anything, but I still have a Wii with all the sports discs. So if you want, you can play tennis, golf, or do some boxing to get some exercise when it’s raining. It rains a lot around here in the spring.”
“This is the only bathroom at the moment,” she said pointing through the door. “There’s an ensuite bathroom from the master bedroom, but I started renovating it and I haven’t gotten around to finishing it.”
After showing Mr. Clegane where the fresh towels were in the linen closet, then showing him the laundry room, Sansa led him back to the west end of the house to a set of wide double doors. Before she opened the doors, Sansa informed him that the whole house was his.
“This is the only room that’s off limits. You can use the reading room,” she said pointing to the quiet space across the hall. The reading room was a cozy nook with a plush lounge chair and at least half a dozen floor to ceiling shelves crammed with books.
“There’s also the sunroom off the kitchen, the front porch, or the deck out back. You can use any room in the house. Most of the time you’ll have the whole house to yourself anyway, because I’ll be in here.” Sansa cocked a thumb over her shoulder to the thick wooden doors she was leaning against.
Sansa huffed, turned around, and slid the door panels apart where they disappeared into the walls on either side. Beyond was a dimly lit den decorated similar to the reading nook. Dark, gleaming wood shelves lined the walls. In this room, there were at least a dozen of them crammed with books, binders, storage baskets and office supplies. In front of the bay window, but facing toward the center of the room was an executive size desk. Between the desk and the bay window, a high-backed leather task chair sat half-cocked to the scenic view of the woodland and lake beyond it.
The back of the desk was framed by three monitors. The rest of the desktop was clear save for a keyboard, mouse, a neat stack of file folders, and a notepad scribbled with what to Sandor, looked like hieroglyphics. Under the window was a long bank of counter-height cabinets. The only thing on top of the counter was a printer and the stack of printer paper to the side of it.
With herself positioned between the counter and the desk, Sansa could easily turn in her chair to adequately use both work surfaces.
“If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to stick your head in. Don’t worry about bothering me while I’m working.” Sansa shrugged. “I’m always working.”
“What do you do?” Sandor asked wondering why she had three monitors.
“I’m a programmer. I design and develop websites.”
“And you’re still busy right now?” he asked. With the world suddenly come to a grinding halt, Sandor was surprised that her clients hadn’t dried up like everyone else’s had.
Sansa tossed her head making her long red hair bounce over her shoulders. “I create websites for kids,” she explained clasping her hands. “With everyone home and parents trying to homeschool and entertain, I’m actually busier than ever.” Sansa bit her lip. “So … I apologize in advance if I’m not a good host, but on the other hand, you’ll pretty much have free run of the place.”
Sandor bobbed his head in concession. “Is there anything else I should know?” he asked uncomfortably. “Any rules?”
Sansa thought for a moment. “Other than the standard contamination precautions? Just the usual common sense stuff. No smoking in the house, take your shoes off at the door, pick up after yourself. I am a very neat and organized person, so I’d appreciate it if you treat my home with respect.”
Sansa licked her lips. She didn’t want to seem like a bitch, but she didn’t know this man. He was a stranger in her house and she knew nothing about him. She was 5’-4”, he was more than a foot taller. Sansa was 130 pounds, and he was … well, at least double that.
“I hope you realize that I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean I’ll let you take advantage of me. I’ll let you know if you do anything that bothers me. But if you disrespect me or my home in any way …” Sansa pointed in the vague direction of the front door.
“I don’t care what the world’s like out there. You will not be in here.” Her face felt tight and pinched. She tried to relax, but she needed to know that Mr. Clegane understood her.
Sandor nodded agreeably. If it was the other way around, if this was his home and he was opening it up to strangers in need, he would have made the same message quite clear. For that reason, he would try to be the best houseguest he could be. Not only was he away from home, but he was trapped here in this backwater hole in the middle of Nowheresville, U.S.A. If Miss Stark kicked him out, God only knows where he’d be forced to stay.
Sansa had a nice modern home on a very large private lot at the end of the road. Her property overlooked the lake. She even had a private dock with a small fishing boat. She was quiet and so was her house. No kids, no animals, and hopefully, no nuisance.
Of all the other families he’d seen at the community center, Sandor was thankful that Sansa had chosen him. He couldn’t quite understand why she had, but he wasn’t about to refuse a gift. Certainly not now, in this place, and under these conditions.
Chapter 3: Stranger In My Home
Sansa and Sandor stared at each other, tight-lipped, neither knowing what to say to the other. Sansa shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her jeans and rolled her eyes around the room looking at everything except the strange man who was staring at her. She had no clue what to say next.
Obviously, Mr. Clegane wasn’t a big talker. He’d barely said two words the entire time Sansa had shown him the house. In a way, that was a good thing. It meant that he’d be self-sufficient and hopefully be able to keep himself quietly entertained while she worked.
That was one of the reasons Sansa had picked him. If she was going to have someone in her home, she didn’t want to be a babysitter, activities director, personal chef, or handmaid. She’d rather not have anyone in her home at all, but there comes a time when the community has to come together and help. North Burlow had needed help and Sansa was doing her duty as a good citizen, stepping up to the plate.
The other reason she had chosen Mr. Clegane was sheer intrigue. The man was massive, quiet, timid, and severely scarred. She was curious to know how it happened, but not so curious that she was going to make him uncomfortable and invade his privacy by asking. If it came up, so be it. If not, Sansa was pretty sure that she could go on living a normal life without knowing the answers to all the world’s mysteries.
“So …” Sansa finally uttered with a scrunch of her face. “Are you hungry?” She looked at her watch. It wasn’t quite five o’clock yet, but she didn’t mind cooking early if Mr. Clegane was hungry. She couldn’t guess when he’d last eaten. “Did you have lunch today?”
Sandor’s stomach rumbled at the mere mention of food. His last meal had been the paltry breakfast they’d served at the community center. The food had gone down like army slop. Runny scrambled eggs that couldn’t fill a toddler’s stomach let alone his massive gut. Two slices of thin bread that’d had the word “toast” whispered at them. And finally coffee that appeared to be no more than hot water with a brown crayon dipped in it.
“Famished,” Sandor admitted.
“Do you like homemade fried chicken? I just got a big package of chicken pieces,” Sansa offered. Sandor could feel the drool pooling in the corners of his mouth. He swallowed and nodded.
“Sounds great. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Yeah. Find a cure for the pandemic and get out of my house, Sansa thought sourly. She cursed herself internally and smiled. It will all be just fine she assured herself. I’m sure Mr. Clegane will be the perfect gentleman.
“Would you like some utensils?” Sansa asked heavy with suggestion. She eyeballed Mr. Clegane as he devoured half a chicken, then slurped noisily on his fingers.
Sandor took in a deep breath. He had a feeling this was going to be a very long quarantine. He hoped Sansa wasn’t going to be one of those nitpicky, constantly nagging women who had to comment on anything and everything he said or did. If that was the case, he’d go back to the spare room, grab his shit and take his chances out in the wilderness.
“Fried chicken is finger food,” he informed her, flicking his eyes to the knife and fork she was using to pry the meat off her drumstick. In a show of diplomacy he added, “This is really quite good. Thank-you.” He pointed to the large container of potato salad. “May I?”
Sansa rolled her eyes dramatically. “Of course, help yourself,” she said dripping with phony civility. It’s only your third helping, she thought sarcastically.
“Sorry, but breakfast was a little … thin,” he told her. Before he resumed eating Sandor set down his fork and looked across the table at his hostess. “I’ll pay for the groceries while I’m here,” he proposed. “I know how much it costs to feed a man like me. And I really do appreciate you taking me in.”
Sansa nodded, her hackles settling down slightly. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. She reminded herself that not everyone did every single thing the way she did. And not only was he a man, but he was British. He was probably raised with a very different way of doing things. There might be a bit of culture shock at first, but she supposed that eventually they’d get used to each other.
To his credit, Sandor had actually used the napkin she’d given him before he’d put his chicken greasy fingers all over everything. She got up and began collecting the dishes.
“I’ll do the dishes,” he offered. “It’s the least I can do.”
Sansa shook her head. “That’s not necessary. Why don’t you relax,” she said nodding toward the reading room. “Going through quarantine screening yesterday must have been quite an ordeal. I’m sure you didn’t sleep well on that cot last night. And then after spending all day sitting in that gym …”
Exhausted or not, Sandor deposited the dirty dishes in the sink and helped put food away. “Thank-you, Miss Stark, but if it’s all right with you, do you mind if I have a shower?”
Sandor tried to remember when he’d last had one. Was it two days ago now? He flown out of Heathrow on Tuesday morning, arrived in Vermont in time to relive Tuesday morning all over again and sat on the tarmac for most of the day while the health unit scrambled to set up their screening stations. They spent the night on the plane and were finally released for screening on Wednesday morning. Today was Thursday.
“No need to be so formal, Mr. Clegane. We’re going to be together for a while so please call me Sansa.”
“And I prefer if you call me Sandor.”
As soon as he was out of the room, Sansa rearranged the contents of the fridge, putting items in their proper places. She just had a certain way of doing things and it was going to be difficult for her to get used to having someone else around making a mess of her order.
Calm down! Sansa admonished herself. She snorted as she put the pickle jar back in the spot where the butter was supposed to be. It didn’t really matter where this or that was located in her fridge, and a little change might do her some good.
Accepting a few minor changes in her life would be a good thing. If she didn’t, she’d end up being one of those crazy cat ladies, living alone, never married, pinched face and hair in a bun pulled way too tight. Sansa did not want to be that woman.
By the time Sandor had gotten out of the shower – nearly twenty minutes later, Sansa noted glancing at her watch – Sansa was back in her office continuing work on a kids website dedicated to math and learning numbers. It was just after six in the evening, so Sansa figured she’d work for a couple more hours to make up for the time she’d lost at the community center and getting Sandor settled.
Ears pricked up by the strange sounds of someone else moving around her home, Sansa listened as Sandor had come out of the spare room and gone into the bathroom … for twenty minutes! she reminded herself. She tried to dismiss the distraction and focus on her coding, but every floorboard squeak or door closing caught her attention.
How anyone could run a bed and breakfast was beyond her. Sansa didn’t think she ever get used to having a stranger in her house, poking through her things and … ugghhh … she’d have to share a bathroom with him.
She tried to resign herself to the fact that it was probably no different than staying in a hotel room. You never really knew who’d been there before you and what business they’d been up to the very same bed shared by hundreds of people over the span of a year.
Sansa suddenly looked up when she heard a door slam. She’d forgotten to mention to Sandor about the wind tunnel. The spring weather had been warm, so Sansa had most of the windows open to get some fresh air blowing through the house. That always seemed to create a wind tunnel that sucked the interior doors shut. Each door had a decorative stopper placed near it, but sometimes the wind was so strong that it could rip the doorknob out of your hand when you weren’t expecting it.
The door slammed again and Sansa heard Sandor curse under his breath. Head down, nose to the grindstone, Sansa was determined to get some work done. She opened a browser, found an internet radio station that was streaming ambient music and tried not to dwell on the fact that there was currently a naked stranger wandering the halls of her home.
When the bathroom door opened, Sandor peeked his head out to make sure the coast was clear. Sansa’s towels were ridiculous. Tarzan had more coverage with his loincloth. The towels were so small that the corners barely met when he’d wrapped it around his waist. The slightest breeze and he’d be flashing all of his worldly assets. Then, to top it off, a gale force wind whipped through the hallway. It was a kneejerk reaction to lunge for the door handle. When he did that he’d lost his grip on the corners of the towel and found himself standing in the center of the hallway naked as the day he was born.
Sandor made a mad dash for the spare bedroom. When he turned to close the door behind him, the knob was wrenched from his still damp hand and slammed. He wondered if Sansa was already regretting her decision to host him.
After slipping into clean jogging pants and a t-shirt, Sandor sat on the edge of the twin bed and considered what to do with himself for the rest of the night. It wasn’t even seven yet and Sandor was exhausted. He’d had a long and blessedly hot shower. It had done a lot to relax him and take the tension out of his muscles. Falling asleep tonight was not going to be a problem.
Bouncing on the edge of the bed, Sandor tested the springiness of the mattress. It was going to be a whole hell of a lot more comfortable than the army cot he’d spent last night on or the plane seat he’d slept in the night before that. He knew that he’d be gone in a second as soon as his head hit the pillow, but it was too early. If he fell asleep now, it would throw his inner clock off completely. He was already suffering from jet lag. If he could stay awake until ten or eleven, he could get his sleep cycle back in order.
Sandor opened the bedroom door – with a tight grasp on the handle – and nudged the heavily weighted doorstop in front of the door. It was shaped to look like a patchwork dog.
Cute, he thought as he wandered through the house taking a look at the home he’d be inhabiting for the next while. The house was tastefully decorated with simple artwork and décor. It wasn’t overly feminine and there was just the right amount of knickknacks to make it homey but not kitschy.
At the west end of the house, Sandor noted that Sansa’s office door was closed. A sliver of light glowed from the space under the door. She was at work, just where she’d said she’d be. Sandor stepped into the reading room and turned on a small table lamp giving the room a warm, inviting glow. He perused the shelves for his next book. Her titles were a mixed bag of adventure fiction, chick lit, memoirs, thrillers, horror, historical fiction, and classical literature. There was a little bit of everything and most of it looked interesting – except the chick lit, of course.
Sansa had whole shelves dedicated to single authors including John Grisham, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, Jennifer Wiener, and James Rollins. From the biographies, he picked up a book entitled Laughing On The Outside about John Candy. Sandor Flipped through it but decided it wasn’t something he think he’d be interested in. He put it back and picked up The Measure Of A Man by Sidney Poitier. This one was more his style and he decided to hold onto it. When he finished the book he was reading right now, he’d give this one a try.
He was currently three quarters of the way through a book entitled Dragon Games by some guy who called himself Lord Varys. The only reason he’d picked it up was because someone had left it behind in the airport. At first, the premise of it had seemed kind of fantastical and just plain weird, but it had gripped him from the first page.
There was no way he was going to do any reading at the moment, however. Reading always helped Sandor fall asleep so he decided to wait until he was in bed and read a few chapters until his eyes grew heavy. Right now what he needed was to stay awake for at least three hours.
He didn’t particularly care for television, but maybe he could figure out IPTV and get the BBC news out of London. Sandor walked into to the family room and turned on another lamp. It took him a while to figure out the remote control buttons, but that used up a half hour nicely. He supposed he could have saved time by asking Sansa, but he didn’t want to be a bother on his first night in her home.
Finding himself slumping down on the couch, Sandor looked at his watch. It was 11:30. The BBC hadn’t told him anything new. Sandor was actually a little suspicious about what he’d seen and heard. Most of the news had contained vague details and political diplomacy that avoided answering the real questions. Some of the still shots and stock footage had been taken from the Corona Virus outbreak from years ago.
What were they hiding?
Sandor decided it was finally time to get some sleep. He was actually hoping to see Sansa before he went to bed. He wanted to thank her again and say good night, but she was still in her office working. He turned off the TV and each lamp he’d turned on as he retraced his steps to the spare room. In the kitchen, he poured himself a glass of ice water and brought it with him.
In the closet in the spare room, Sandor found extra pillows. He propped them in the corner on the bed and sat up to read for bit. He decided to leave the window open for the night. A warm balmy breeze wafted through bringing with it the fresh scent of spring, the lake, and the pine trees. He only managed two chapters before he found himself nodding off. He put his book on the nightstand, turned off the light and crunched his tall frame down into the tiny bed. Even as curled up as he was, the bed was much more comfortable than the cot in the gymnasium and he knew he’d get his first good sleep in three days.
Sandor took a deep breath of the sweet-smelling night air, closed his eyes, and was gone.
Sandor woke with a jolt at the sound of a loud thump. He opened his eyes and looked at the digital clock that sat across the room on the dresser. It was 2:35 am. He listened as Sansa made her way through the house, used the bathroom, brushed her teeth, and went into her bedroom.
He wondered if she’d been working all this time. If that was the case, he really would have the house mostly to himself. He preferred it that way. He’d been alone most of his life, had few attachments, and no entanglements. His life was simple, detached, and uncomplicated. That’s how he wanted it to remain.
Sansa seemed like an intelligent woman, but just not very social. If they kept out of each other’s way, they could get through this and then, when it was over, he could go his way and she could go hers.
But as he drifted back to sleep, Sandor had a feeling it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Chapter 4: Settling In
Sandor woke early, well-rested and re-energized. His joints were a bit stiff and his back sore from being curled up on the small bed, but he’d slept amazingly well despite that. The fresh, cool night air had done him a world of good. He honestly couldn’t remember having slept that deeply in a long time.
Immediately hungry, he got up, dressed, moved quietly through the house so that he wouldn’t wake Sansa, and headed for the kitchen. The first thing he noticed was the Keurig and decided it was about damn time for a decent cup of coffee. He located the Keurig cups, found a mug in the third cupboard he looked in and set up the machine with a full water tank.
While the brewer was heating, Sandor took stock of the fridge contents. Sansa must have done some shopping right before he’d come. She had fresh eggs and bread, milk, lots of meat and cheese. The fruit and vegetable drawers were stuffed to the brim.
In his search through the fridge and cupboards, Sandor noticed that Sansa didn’t have much in the way of junk food. That was just fine with him. He preferred to eat healthy.
Sandor opened another cupboard and discovered the liquor cabinet. Sansa had a few bottles of scotch and whiskey, rum, vodka, and a mixed selection of wine. He made a mental note to ask her if she had any beer, and if not, he’d pick some up on the next grocery run. Until then, he didn’t mind a nice glass of wine.
Coffee maker heated, frying pan out, Sandor sipped a glass of OJ as he started to cook.
A pungent, sickly sweet aroma filled her nose. Sansa opened her eyes, blinked away the sleep and looked at the clock. It was just after seven in the morning. By the time she’d drifted off to sleep, she’d gotten, maybe, four hours.
That was her fault, of course. She’d only intended to work for a few hours, but that’s how it always worked out. Sansa always promised herself that it would only be two hours, three tops. But it was always way past midnight when she realized that she’d been at her desk four hours or more and then finally dragged her ass to bed. It was a rut she couldn’t get out of no matter how hard she tried.
Groggy and muddled, Sansa sat up in bed. She could hear the sound of clinking utensils coming from her kitchen. It took her a moment to remember that there was a stranger living in her house. But what the hell was he doing at seven o’clock in the morning?
Sansa lifted her head and sniffed the air. Was that … bacon?
Sansa bounded out of bed, down the hall and into the kitchen. “What the hell are you doing?” she yelled.
Sansa gave Sandor quite the start when she’d exploded into the kitchen in a fury. In his reflexive reaction, he dropped the glass of orange juice he was holding and it shattered on the tile floor.
“Christ woman!” He grabbed at his chest. “You scared the crap out of me.” Sandor moved the frying pan off the burner and headed toward the paper towel holder.
“What are you doing?” Sansa demanded again. She stood in the center of the kitchen doorway in striped pajamas of the style his father might have worn back in 1972. A long bathrobe hung open in the front and her hair stuck up in every direction.
With handfuls of Bounty in his hand, Sandor knelt down and began mopping at the mess using the towling to sweep the bits of broken glass into a pile at the center while sopping up the juice. Sansa stood there glaring at him.
“I was making breakfast,” he informed her as though she hadn’t quite figured that out.
“I told you yesterday that I would do the cooking.”
Sandor looked up from his hands and knees, baffled. “You told me to make my own breakfast and lunch,” he reminded her.
Sansa huffed. “I was thinking more along the lines of cereal or toast.”
Sandor stood up to his full height and approached her with a handful of orange juice-soaked paper towel. He leaned over her and looked down into her face keeping his voice low and even. “You didn’t say cereal or toast and even so, this,” he said indicating the length of his body, “needs more fuel than cereal or toast.”
“I don’t like other people using my kitchen,” Sansa informed him.
Sandor deposited the paper towel in the waste bin and ripped off some more. As he knelt down to continue cleaning the mess, he said, “Maybe you should have thought of that before you took in a border.” He wiped the floor again but it would need to be swept of the remaining broken glass and mopped to get rid of the sticky juice residue. “Maybe you should just let me cook. You might be surprised,” he suggested.
“Right. And this is what happens. You end up breaking my dishes and making a mess.”
Sandor looked up to see Sansa, one hand on her hip, the other thrust in the direction of the spot on the floor that he was attending to. Sandor sat back on his heels. “This happened because you came screaming in here like a wild woman, scared the crap of me and I dropped a glass, which by the way, I’m cleaning up.”
“Uggghhh!” Sansa snarled, hands tightly fisted. She turned on her heel and stomped back to her room.
Sandor found some floor cleaner under the kitchen sink, disposed of the larger chunks of broken glass and finished cleaning the floor. When the floor was finally clean and glass-free, Sandor moved the frying pan back onto the burner and resumed cooking his bacon. Drumming his fingers on the countertop, he reluctantly added a few more strips. He took two more slices of bread from the bag and deposited them in the third and fourth toaster slots but didn’t push it down yet.
The bacon was almost done, so he removed the carton of eggs from the fridge and put a second frying pan on the stove. Sandor was about to ask Sansa how many eggs she’d like when he cringed at a horrible screech coming from the hallway. He turned off the burner and went to see what Sansa was doing.
The tiny woman was in the process of pushing a tall dresser down the hallway toward the spare bedroom still dressed in her pajamas and bathrobe. She was barefoot as well, he noted. Sansa caused another loud squeal as she pushed a shoulder against the dresser moving it through the spare bedroom door.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Sansa stepped away from the dresser, breathing hard. “I told you I would switch things around so that you could have the other room.” Her tone was decidedly begrudging and accusatory. “I was bringing my dresser into this room. It seemed easier than moving all my clothes from one to the other.”
Sandor took a deep breath and moved to where she’d managed to push the heavy piece of furniture. He opened a drawer, stuck his hand inside it and easily dragged the dresser against the wall in the spare bedroom. At her direction, he dragged the empty dresser from the spare bedroom into the master.
In the big bedroom, Sansa had already stripped the king size bed and piled the sheets for the laundry. A blue and green patchwork quilt was neatly folded back on the side of the bed. The room was tastefully decorated just as the rest of the house was, not overly feminine, but not too bland either.
Sandor looked forward to finally stretching out his body when he went to sleep tonight. He appreciated that Sansa was willing to give up her room for him, and obviously she’d understood his need for the comfort of this bed over the other one.
“Thank-you for switching rooms with me,” he said pleasantly. He decided to take the high road see if maybe Sansa would mellow out a little. Sansa nodded politely, having quelled her wrath from the kitchen incident.
“I wouldn’t be much of a host if I expected you to sleep on that tiny little bed for very long. And it’s more than comfortable enough for me.” Sansa pointed to the closet. “I still might have to come in once in a while for something but most of what I need is in the dresser.”
“Is there anything else you need moved?” Sandor asked.
Sansa shook her head. “That will do for now.” She stripped the spare room bed as well, added the sheets to her pile, and stomped toward the laundry.
“Since I’m cooking, would you like some eggs?” Sandor followed Sansa back toward the kitchen. Sansa stopped and examined her guest carefully. She chewed on her lip for a moment. In all likelihood, they were going to be in forced cohabitation for at least a couple of months. She might as well get used to him and try to be civil.
Sansa nodded. “I’m going to put the sheets in the wash, then I’d like to take a quick shower. Do you mind waiting?”
Sandor shrugged. “Of course not.”
Sandor had heard Sansa finishing up her shower, so he’d gone ahead and cooked the eggs – two for her and four for him – pushed down the toast and brewed his coffee. She arrived just in time for him to take the potatoes out of the oven, plate everything and place her plate on the table. He served the food and coffee and sat down across from her.
Sansa looked back toward the kitchen with trepidation. “Aren’t you going to clean everything up?” she asked obviously perturbed. The forkful of egg never quite made it into Sandor’s mouth.
“Aye. When we’re done. I prefer to eat my food while it’s still hot.”
“Umm …” Sansa began to nibble at her breakfast. Sandor noticed that she was very prim and proper as she ate. And stiff. Sansa needed to relax, he decided.
“Do you always work that late?” he asked in an attempt to make conversation.
“I don’t mean to, I just get … you know … in the zone. I guess I forget what time it is.”
It had never even occurred to her that Sandor knew this because she’d awoken him on her way to bed. Just because she was thoughtless didn’t mean he had to be. Sandor was going to show her just what it meant to be courteous.
“Sorry I didn’t think to ask how you wanted your eggs. I hope they’re okay.”
To her credit, Sansa smiled and nodded with a mouthful. She swallowed. “This is very good, thank-you. I generally prefer my eggs over hard but this is fine.”
Sandor had cooked the eggs over easy, but he was a good cook and Sansa enjoyed a hot breakfast for a change.
“So, where are you from?” Sansa asked finally showing some interest in her guest.
“Originally from Leeds,” he told her. “Then I moved to London.” He took a long sip of coffee and decided he’d have a second cup this morning. Compared to the swamp water he’d been given over the last three days, this coffee was like liquid crack. He might even have three cups.
“You’re not originally from here are you?” he asked Sansa. She shook her head.
“I was born and raised in Chicago. I came back here because this is where my mother is originally from.”
Sandor chuckled. “That would be funny if it turned out you were related to Ned Stark.”
“Why would that be funny?”
The conversation came to an abrupt halt as Sandor and Sansa stared blankly at each other. Sansa flared her nostrils and went back to eating her breakfast.
“Really? You're related to Special Agent Ned Stark?” Sandor asked. “We’re talking about the head of the Chicago Field Office?” he clarified, just in case. Sansa nodded. Sandor couldn’t believe it. The one man who he … Sandor shook his head. Nope, he wasn’t going to think about it. If he thought about it he might slip and say something and then he’d find himself in a world of trouble.
“He’s my father,” Sansa answered robotically. She took a bite of her toast just so she could keep her mouth busy and avoid having to say anything.
“Wow. Why did you move all the way out here?” Sandor asked.
Gesturing her hand in a vague direction somewhere outside the house, Sansa swallowed then answered. “It’s like I said, my mother’s family came from here. The airstrip where you landed? That’s Tully Field. Tully is my mother’s maiden name.” Sansa took a sip of coffee to wash down the toast. “None of my family lives around here anymore, though.”
“But why did you move out here?” he asked again.
Sansa sighed. “A little too much publicity for me,” she explained. “I prefer a quiet life.”
Sandor nodded. He could understand that. He wished he could have a quiet life. Unfortunately, he mused, the path we choose is hard to divert from once you’ve been on it for too long. Sandor had been living his chosen lifestyle since he was very young. There was no looking back now.
Suddenly realizing something, Sansa snapped her head up and gazed across the table at Sandor. “How do you know about my father?” she asked. Sansa was surprised that he would know of her father, being from England.
“In my line of work, your father is quite well known all over the world.”
“Oh. Are you involved in the Financial Crimes sector?” Sansa asked.
Oh shit. Think! Think fast!
This wasn’t exactly a line of questioning Sandor had prepared for. He’d lasted a full six hours in his vow to keep himself detached and uninvolved with Sansa. And then, of all people he had to be stuck living with, it was Ned Stark’s daughter.
“I’m a security consultant,” he blurted.
“Is that why you were going to Montreal? For business? Or do you have family there?”
“Business,” Sandor confirmed. “I don’t have any family.”
Sansa still had a half piece of toast left, and a little bit of potatoes, but she couldn’t eat anymore. She sat quietly and sipped her coffee watching Sandor as he finished his breakfast. Her initial assessment that he was a quiet, solitary man seemed to be accurate. He was polite, well-mannered – except when he was eating with his fingers – and he was a good cook.
She cocked her head slightly as she examined his face. If it wasn’t for the scarring on half his face, he would have been a handsome man. Really, he still was a handsome man, at least, on the left side. Sansa wondered if that was why he seemed so dark and brooding. Or was it because he was so alone with no family? There was something in his eyes, maybe from whatever had caused his horrific injuries. She couldn’t even imagine what kind of pain he must have been in when it happened.
Her eyes drifted down over the scar tissue where it disappeared in rivulets into the edge of his beard. The soft brown hair was thick over the lower half of his cheeks and his chin, becoming softer and lighter where it trailed off down his neck and under his shirt.
Not being able to stand it a minute longer, Sandor flicked his eyes up at Sansa. She’d been staring at him, and it made him uncomfortable. When his eyes locked with hers, she quickly looked away, caught in the act of studying him.
Sandor stood up and started collecting dishes. “If you’ve got work to do, I’ll take care of all this.”
Sansa protested, but Sandor told her not to worry about it. He didn’t really have anything better to do anyway. He just wanted her away from him. The less time they spent together, the better. When this was all over, he would need to get away quickly with no regrets and no trouble.
The daughter of Special Agent Ned Stark, Head of Financial Crimes and Head of the Chicago Field Office. And he was living with her. Un-fucking believable. Could his luck get any worse than this?
Chapter 5: Nitpickers Anonymous
After the kitchen was sparkling clean, Sandor decided to check out the property. The day was warm and sunny and he wanted to stretch his legs, get some fresh air and exercise. If the weather was like Sansa said, he wanted to take advantage of every chance he got to enjoy the outdoors.
The property was huge and absolutely amazing. From the house, there was a long expanse of yard that sloped down to the lake. It was at least 500 yards from the deck to the edge of the beach. The beach consisted of around 200 feet of river rocks that slowly dipped beneath pristine, crystal clear water. At the east side of the beach was a short floating dock with a ten foot aluminum boat moored against it.
Making his way back up the property, Sandor walked the edge of the clearing until he located a path that disappeared into the thick lush forest of pine trees. With nothing immediately pressing on his schedule, Sandor decided to follow the path.
The narrow dirt track meandered through the wilderness, slowly climbing uphill. Sandor walked at a casual pace for about forty minutes. When the path came out of the trees and into a clearing, Sandor was standing at the edge of a sheer cliff that was about ten feet above the lake. A looped rope hung from a tree near the edge. Obviously, this is where kids came to swing out over the water and do their Tarzan impressions as they dropped to the lake below. If he was here until it got warm in the summer, Sandor might come up here and have some fun and go swimming.
Sandor leaned against a tree and stared out over the sparkling water. This place was a paradise for someone like him. He wondered if Sansa realized just what she had, whether she appreciated it the way he did.
If ever he decided to retire, it would be in a place like this. But he would never retire. Sandor knew that his life would end before that ever happened. Of course, if he got lost out in a place like this …
There were a dozen different banks accounts under a dozen different names located in a dozen countries. And it was all his, waiting for the day he made the decision to get out. The only reason he hadn’t was because he was afraid. No one ever believed that Sandor Clegane could be afraid of anything, but he was. He was afraid of the Lannisters and he was afraid of fire.
He was working on the pyrophobia. Sandor had a good therapist and they were finally making progress. Or at least they had been making progress until the world came to a sudden grinding halt. Now he’d be set back again.
And he wasn’t really afraid of the Lannisters in the individual sense. Sandor was afraid of the power they held over him. He worried that if he did decide to try and get out, he’d never really be able to escape them. They had people everywhere and unlimited resources.
But there was no reason to worry about that right now. Travel restrictions were in effect, he’d been grounded in the middle of nowhere, and he didn’t have access to his next assignment. Everything … everything, had been put on hold.
It was almost noon. Sandor pushed himself up from against the tree and started back down the path to Sansa’s house. When he arrived back, he cut around the west end of the house and stopped short when he realized he could see in through the window of Sansa’s office.
Her back was to the window and she was hunched over her desk. Sandor shook his head. If she sat like that all the time she’d get old really fast. Her posture was terrible and her face was too close to the monitor screens.
Sandor could see a coding window open on one monitor, the front page of a brightly-colored website featuring cartoon characters on another, and a series of small windows open on the third – her email, a few open messages, and a media player. He watched for a few moments as her fingers tapped away at the keyboard. She was writing an email. Mellow instrumental music drifted through the open window.
It was a shame that a woman like that lived out here all by herself, alone, and isolated. She was obviously very intelligent. She was also pretty. Sansa’s red hair slid over her shoulder as she turned her head slightly to gaze at the monitor on her left. Her skin was pale and flawless with very light freckles over her nose. Sansa had full red lips that …
Sandor smacked himself on the forehead. Whatever happened to staying detached, not getting involved? The last person in the world he would want to get involved with was the daughter of the one FBI agent who was out to get him.
Christ! What was the matter with him?
It was his intention to head for the spare bedroom to pick up his personal items from the nightstand and transfer them to the master bedroom. When he entered the room, the beds were still naked. He’d forgotten – and obviously so had Sansa – that they’d been stripped and the sheets put in the wash.
Glancing down the hallway, Sandor decided to take care of it himself. He didn't want to have to interact with Sansa any more than was absolutely necessary. As long as they stayed out of each other's way, they'd be fine. Instead of bothering the little princess with it, he’d grab the sheets, make the beds and be done with it. But when he looked in the laundry room, he discovered that the sheets were still in the wash. He transferred everything to the dryer, threw in a dryer sheet and then went back to move his things into the master bedroom.
It was likely that Sansa would still have a few personal things that she wanted to move into the spare bedroom, but Sandor didn’t want to piss her off by touching her stuff. He’d let her do that on her own, so he put his things away then headed for the kitchen.
After making himself a sandwich for lunch and enjoying it in the sunroom with his novel, Sandor cleaned up in the kitchen again. From there, he went to the laundry room. He retrieved the clean sheets, separated them and made the spare bed first, then the master bed.
The next two hours were spent in the sunroom reading. Sandor realized that’s probably where he’d spend most of his time. He loved the room. It was warm and bright and quiet. It was close to the kitchen for snacks, and had a door leading out to the rear deck with easy access to the lake. Matter of fact, he realized, this room was right next to Sansa’s office. If she ever actually turned around in her chair to look out the window, she’d see this very same view.
And speaking of Sansa … Sandor set his book down in his lap and listened. He heard the office door open and the wood floors creak as Sansa went down the hall to use the bathroom. Then she went into the kitchen. There was a soft thud from the fridge door when it closed hard.
Sandor crinkled his brow, listening, but he heard nothing. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a slight movement. Sandor turned his head to see Sansa standing in the sunroom door glaring at him.
“Oh, hello,” he said pleasantly.
“Would you mind not putting your feet on my furniture?” she snapped. Sandor immediately pulled his feet from the ottoman and set them on the floor in a knee jerk reaction.
“It’s a footstool,” he protested, confused.
“We clearly need to establish some rules,” Sansa declared with her fists firmly planted on her hips. Sandor could only stare back at her with his mouth hanging open.
“I’ve already told you that I’ll do the cooking, so please …” she stated thrusting a palm at him in a stop gesture, “… don’t break any more of my dishes.” Sansa pointed back down the hall, her face pulling tighter and tighter as her voice grew louder. “Put the seat down after you use the washroom, and pull the shower curtain back so that tub can dry or it’ll get all mildewy.”
Sandor sat back, crossed his arms, arched up his good eyebrow, and waited out her tirade.
“And I noticed that you put your toothbrush in the holder.” Her foot was tapping in double-time. “Don’t you have a toiletry bag where you can keep your stuff?”
Sandor stood up to face her. “I prefer to keep it out where it can dry so it doesn’t get all mildewy,” he retorted sarcastically. That only seemed to make Sansa angrier.
“Then, I go into the fridge, and everything is put back in the wrong places. The jam goes on the left and the ketchup goes on the right. The milk should go behind the orange juice.”
“Are you serious?” he asked completely bewildered.
“I like things the way I like things,” Sansa shouted. “If you’re going to live in my house, you’ll do things my way.”
“Does it really matter whether the orange juice is in front? Or if the cheese is touching the butter?” He waved his hands about dramatically.
“Yes!” Sansa stomped her foot. “And by the way, did you put fabric softener in with the bedsheets?”
Sandor shrugged. “Aye, so what?”
Sansa fairly screamed at him. “They’re 300-count Egyptian cotton! They don’t need fabric softener. You wasted a perfectly good dryer sheet.”
“One dryer sheet? Really?” Sandor dug in his pocket and flipped her a quarter. Sansa batted it away. It landed on the floor on its edge and rolled under a chair.
“And have you never heard of hospital corners??” Sansa was practically flipping out. Sandor bit his lip to try and keep from laughing. If only she realized how ridiculous she looked right now. He bit harder until his lip almost bled. All he needed was to laugh at her and send her on a killing spree.
“And one last thing,” she said jabbing a finger in his chest. Sandor highly doubted there was one last thing. With this woman there would always be one more thing … and one more … and …
“You took John Candy off the shelf and put it back in the wrong spot.”
Sandor balked. He’d put it right back on the same shelf where he’d found it and he told her so. How the hell had she even noticed that?
“It wasn’t in the right spot. It was out of order. All my books are alphabetized by title except biographies. They’re alphabetized by the name of the person they’re about. You put John Candy after Cher.”
He couldn’t hold it any longer. Sandor burst out laughing. Sansa was near to turning purple with rage, but Sandor threw his head back and roared with laughter. Her fists were clenched at her sides and her entire body was trembling. Sandor could feel the wrath coming off her in waves. He wiped the tears out of the corners of his eyes and got himself under control.
Wait … was she? Aye … She was actually growling at him.
He took one large step toward her moving so close that she bent backward slightly as he peered down at her. He poked her in the center of her forehead with his finger.
“You need to get laid!”
Sandor went back to the master bedroom, kicked the doorstop out of the way, stood back, and watched with a smug expression as the wind tunnel grabbed the door causing it to slam. He stretched out on the bed, testing its comfort, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to read. He was too riled up.
Sandor snorted. Sansa was the one whose key had been wound a little too tightly. The woman needed someone – like him, maybe – to yank that ten-foot pole out of her arse. He rubbed a spot on his temple to ease the headache. After he’d poked her on the forehead, Sansa had shrieked at a pitch that could shatter glass.
Sandor wouldn’t be surprised if she was on the phone right now trying to get him removed from her home and placed somewhere else.
“Has he assaulted you or caused you physical harm?” the sheriff asked.
“No,” Sansa admitted.
“Has he threatened to cause you physical harm?”
“Has he caused any malicious damage to your home or property?”
Sansa sat up straight. Finally!
“Yes, he broke a glass,” she told the sheriff. If anybody could get Sandor Clegane out of her house, it was Barristan Selmy. He was on the committee that had helped place the stranded travelers.
“How did he break it? Did he throw it at you?” he asked.
Sansa sagged again. “No, he dropped it.”
Barristan asked the last question on his list. “Do you fear for yourself or your property in any way?”
Sansa was frustrated. “He’s rude and disrespectful. This is my house and all I asked was that he do things my way. I cannot live with this man in my house,” she protested. “Can’t you find somewhere else for him?”
Barristan sighed heavily. “We’ve already got people living here in the gym that have no place else to go. Can you give me an example of what he’s doing wrong?”
Sansa opened her mouth with the intention of responding immediately, but her words caught in her throat. Everything she could think of to say would make her sound ridiculous.
He left the toilet seat up. He left my books out of order. He put fabric softener in the dryer with the bed sheets!
Sansa shook her head. “No,” she told the sheriff. “He really hasn’t done anything that bad.” Sansa hated admitting it, but maybe she'd gone a little too far.
“All I can suggest is that you try to get along with him. Find some common ground. As long as he’s not hurting anything, try relaxing your rules a little. I’m sure it won’t take long for you to get used to each other.”
Sansa hung up the phone and sat back in her chair. Maybe she was being ridiculous. When she thought over the things that she hadn’t been able to tell the sheriff, they sounded even more ridiculous in her own head than when she’d screamed them at Sandor.
Sansa considered that maybe she needed to join one of those self-help groups like alcoholics anonymous, but for people like her who were too rigid and set in their ways. She might even have conceded on that point, but then he’d laughed at her. He’d actually laughed at her. She rubbed the spot on her forehead where he’d poked her.
And then! Sandor had the nerve to tell her she needed to get laid. The man was insufferable. Why did she always have to end up with men that made her life miserable?
Sansa clicked her mouse on her inbox and reread the email she'd received two days ago. The timing couldn't have been worse. She was just starting to really settle into her new life and now she felt like she was losing control again.
Maybe I can't control that, she thought reading the email again, but I can control everything else around me. And yet, the more she tried to take control in her life, the more rigid and more regulated she tried to be, the faster everything fell apart.
She knew this was the wrong approach. Everything she tried had failed. Now she had a stranger in her home reminding her of just how much of a failure she was. But she just could not seem to let go of her unbending ways. She was a wagon wheel in a deep rut and she was unable to claw her way out of it. Sansa knew she was on a self-destructive path, but she didn't know what else to do. She would have to accept it and try to live with the memories of her past breathing down her neck.
The only way she could live with Sandor Clegane, she realized, was if she never saw him. If Sansa stayed in her office and only came out for food and bathroom breaks, they’d likely barely see each other. He could do his thing, she could hide away in here, and in a month or two he’d be on his way.
Easy, she told herself. But it was a lie and she knew it. Sansa turned back to her monitors and went back to work.
Chapter 6: Alone Together
It was nearly seven of the evening. Sandor was going to try his damnedest to be at least a reasonable guest and not get Sansa too riled up again, but he was getting hungry. She wanted to do the cooking and he didn’t want to piss her off. He enjoyed the quiet serenity of her home and property. Sandor could easily get used to living like this, but that wouldn’t last long if she decided to kick him out. All he had to do was stay out of her way and ride out the storm. Sandor had lived through a lot worse - he could live through this.
Fearing that he was about to wake a fire-breathing dragon, Sandor knocked lightly on the door to Sansa’s office. He slid one of the panels back and popped his head in. She leaned to look around the edge of her monitor. Her browed dropped as she glowered it him.
“Yes?” she asked with clear distaste.
“You told me you don’t want me to cook, but it’s almost seven.”
Sansa glanced up at the clock. She was right in the middle of testing an animation. She had half the coding done and was working out the bugs. If she dropped it now, she’d lose her place and have to start all over again. It would be another hour before she’d get through all the lines of code. It was at the forefront of her mind to somehow blame Sandor for this, but really she was more frustrated than anything else.
Glancing at Sandor, who was waiting with his head hanging in her doorway, she seriously considered the state of her kitchen. Yes, he had put things back in the wrong places in the fridge, but did it really matter? Sansa wasn’t even sure how she’d come up with her rules for where the milk had to be in relation to the orange juice. And frankly, the countertops, sink and stovetop had been cleaner than ever before. Sansa hated to admit it, but Sandor had been particularly diligent in his cleanup.
Little changes, Sansa thought, pushing away her bitterness. She tapped a pen on her desk and looked up at Sandor.
“Go ahead and make whatever you want,” she said in defeat. She tried to keep her voice pleasant and upbeat, but her pride was being pulverized. “I’m kind of stuck in what I’m doing at the moment.” She shrugged. “The kitchen is all yours,” Sansa conceded with severe annoyance.
In the freezer, Sandor found a large package of ground beef. The freezer bag contained several smaller bags, each containing what looked like one pound of ground beef. Sansa had probably purchased larger packages and re-bagged them into one-pound portions for easier use. Reluctantly he admitted that it made good sense.
While two pounds of beef were defrosting in the microwave, Sandor looked through the cabinets for pasta. He made mental notes of where everything was as he located the spaghetti sauce, seasonings, pots, pans, and a strainer.
There was another knock on the office door.
Sansa couldn’t believe Sandor was back already. She’d never be able to stay out of his path if his path always brought him into her office.
“Yes?” she asked impatiently when he stuck his head in again.
Sansa pointed through the wall with her pen. “It’s in the door of the fridge. Yellow cardboard container.”
“Oh, I already found it, I just wondered if you like it on your pasta.”
Huh? Sansa could feel the deep crinkle form in her forehead as she stared back him, wondering what he was up to. “Sure. Why?”
“Okay,” he said with a nod then disappeared. When her office door opened again a few moments later, Sandor walked in carrying a tray. On the tray was a large bowl filled with bow tie pasta. The pasta was covered with thick, meaty sauce and sprinkled lightly with parmesan cheese. On the side were a buttery garlic roll and a large glass of red wine.
“You really didn’t have to do this,” Sansa told him reluctantly. Her amazement was only superseded by her hunger. The food smelled delicious.
Sandor shrugged. “I don’t mind. I was cooking for myself anyway. Doesn’t require more work to cook enough for two.” Sandor dragged his eyes to the floor trying hard not to look at her. There was a red spot on her forehead where he’d stabbed her with his fingernail. He bit his lip again and suppressed a grin.
She was about to say something to him, but Sandor’s cell phone pinged. He took it out of his back pocket and swiped at the screen. The expression on his face was one of surprise.
“Sorry, but I need to take this,” he told her gesturing with his phone. Sandor left the tray and retreated quickly, finally allowing his smile to go as wide as it wanted. He was glad that she hadn’t seen the smirk on his face. If she had, Sandor would likely be cleaning pasta off the back of her office door and purchasing new pasta bowls.
His first inclination was to plop down in front of the TV and maybe find a movie on Netflix. Then Sandor thought better of it. In all likelihood, Sansa would freak out on him for eating on the couch or having food in the family room. God forbid he dropped a crumb where he wasn’t supposed to.
So instead, he sat at the dining table alone to eat his dinner. He placed his phone on the table next to him and swiped open the text message.
“Where are you?” the message read. The contact number was one that he recognized immediately, but it was not registered in his contacts. Sandor didn’t have any contacts. Any phone numbers he needed to know had been committed to memory.
“Maine,” he texted back. The encryption app scrambled his message before it disappeared from the screen. North Burlow was fairly close to the Maine border. If his employer demanded a rendezvous for some reason, it would be a short trip in Sansa’s truck. He didn’t want to give up his actual location. Better cautious than to be too trusting. Sandor trusted no one.
It took a few minutes for the response to come back and unscramble. “Keep communication open. Will be in touch.”
Beside the bowl, Sandor had placed a fork on top of a napkin. Sansa picked up the fork and hesitated before taking a bite. Her first thought was to wonder about the state of her kitchen. If she was going to try and accept this stranger in her house, Sansa was going to also make some concessions. One of those concessions was that he cleaned up after himself properly.
After breakfast, Sandor had left her kitchen pristine. All the countertops had been wiped, the dishes dried and put away, and the food put away. Sure, hadn’t put things back in exactly the right spot, but at least he’d put them back.
Sansa speared a bow tie and considered carefully what would happen if she ate this dinner. She would have to swallow her pride, say thank-you and admit that he’d done something nice for her.
And what if she liked his food? Sansa would have to admit that, too. And then she would have to apologize.
Sansa had pitched a fit. She’d been no better than a 150 pound toddler having a tantrum. Yes, she was rigid, but the way she’d behaved, Sandor Clegane probably thought she was psychotic. If it wasn’t for the stress she was under right now, Sansa could probably be a much better host. She needed to calm down, ease her obsessive-compulsive attitude and maybe try to open up a little more.
Calming herself down and relaxing could start with a sip of wine. Sansa pulled the tray closer, moved her keyboard out of the way and sampled the pasta. Even though it was no longer piping hot, the rich flavors and mouth-watering aroma were beyond anything Sansa had ever produced. And this had come from her kitchen? Just wow.
“Just remember you asked for this!” she threatened around a mouthful of pasta as she stabbed a fork at her office door. From now on, Sandor would be doing all the cooking.
Sandor dreamt that he was being chased. It was one of those James Bond scenarios where he was flying down ancient stone stairways in an ultra sporty MINI Cooper while being chased by ninjas on a motorbikes. At the end of a narrow one-way street, he cranked the wheel, drifted through six lanes of freeway traffic without hitting anything, drove off the end of the pier and landed on the back end of the departing ferry with only inches to spare. Suddenly, the whole MINI shook when he realized that one of the motorbikes had landed on the roof of his car.
Sandor jolted awake. He blinked his eyes realizing that he’d just experienced one of those nightmare jolts. It was a reflexive action where the body jerks causing you to wake from an active dream. Sandor sighed. He’d experienced it many times before. Due to his line of work, no doubt. He’d always been fine-tuned to his surroundings often waking at the slightest sound, abruptly alert and ready to spring into action.
But Sandor didn’t think it was a nightmare jolt this time. It hadn’t even really been a nightmare in the strictest sense. The dream had not instilled a feeling of fear in him. It had just been a very vivid dream and it had awakened him. He still felt relaxed and knew that it would be only minutes until he fell back to sleep.
He was laying on his side with his arm hanging over the edge of the bed. Sandor stretched languidly relishing his ability to do so in this huge, comfortable bed. Even if she was a bit of a bitch, Sandor had to give Sansa credit for switching with him. He closed his eyes and tried to convince his mind to pick up the dream where he’d left off. He wouldn’t be satisfied unless he outsmarted the bad guy.
Sandor’s body jolted again. Except he hadn’t fallen back to sleep yet. He opened his eyes and listened. He heard snoring. If it wasn’t him, then it had to be …
Sandor rolled over slightly and nudged something in the bed behind him. He glanced at the clock. It was 1:46 am. Assuming that Sansa was predictable in her habits, she would’ve stayed up way too late working and only just headed for bed. In her state of exhaustion and by force of habit, she probably forgot that she’d switched rooms with Sandor.
How in the hell had she snuck in here without him noticing?
Sandor wondered if he was losing his edge already. He was too comfortable, too complacent.
Cautiously rolling onto his back so that he wouldn’t wake her, Sandor turned to find Sansa naked in the bed next to him. She had the covers tucked under her arm leaving only her shoulder exposed, but it was a damn fine shoulder. Sandor assumed that Sansa had been too tired and half asleep at that hour and so simply peeled off her clothes and crawled into bed.
Thank God he was at least in his boxers.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think about the fact that there was a beautiful naked woman lying next to him in bed. His body, however, had different ideas and reacted immediately. He pinched himself painfully in a delicate spot until any desires he might have had disappeared. He was not that kind of man, nor was he inclined to be.
No women, no children, he recited internally. The mantra applied to several areas of his life.
Lying on his back, he debated whether to wake her. Her snoring wasn’t so loud that he wouldn’t be able to sleep with it. It was more of a loud purr. If he woke her, he was likely to send her into another hissy fit. If he let her sleep, neither of them would be at a loss – unless she woke first and decided to castrate him which was a distinct possibility.
If Sansa woke first, she’d have to admit that she’d made a mistake and crawled into the wrong bed. If it came to an argument, Sandor could always feign ignorance that he was asleep and didn’t know she’d been there. No matter how it worked out, one of them would have to get out of bed first and be at least mildly embarrassed. Sandor knew that if it was him, his embarrassment would be quite prominent in the front.
Sandor looked over at her again. It was a shame that Sansa was so … so … unlikeable. She really was quite pretty. If he was another type of man, he might even wake her up and find out if it was purely unintentional that she’d ended up in his bed.
No, that wouldn’t work. Especially since they were going to be stuck here together for so long. If he knew that he could pack up and leave tomorrow – no strings attached – then maybe. But no, not like this. And definitely not with her.
So now he was back to his original question. To wake her or not to wake her. Would he even be able to sleep with her lying next to him? He supposed he could pretend to kick her in his sleep. Then she would wake up, realize her mistake and sneak out.
“Christ! It can’nae be this difficult to make a fucking decision,” he mumbled quietly to himself. Thinking it over, he realized that he’d only been awakened because she’d landed heavily on the bed. There might’ve been a chance that he wouldn’t have awakened at all. She was the one who had crawled into his bed, not the other way around so why should he do anything about it? On that note, Sandor decided to take his chances, roll over and go back to sleep. If he woke up with his eyes scratched out or certain body parts missing, so be it.
Sandor yawned and stretched as he looked at the digital clock across the room. It took him a long time to come full awake. He couldn’t’ remember sleeping that well since … well, since forever. The rest of Sandor’s night had been deep and dreamless and …
He stopped mid-stretch and rolled toward the center of the bed. The other half of the bed was empty. Sandor suddenly wondered if he’d dreamt it all. Had Sansa crawled into bed with him? Or had it been part of some weird dream?
He got up and got dressed and opened the curtains. Another beautiful day. But what to do with it? Sandor realized he was going to have to find a way to keep himself busy during the quarantine. There was only so much of reading, walking in the woods, and cooking that he could do. He could always go fishing on the lake. Maybe he could take language lessons online. Sansa had a whole shelf filled with jigsaw puzzles in the family room …
I hate jigsaw puzzles, Sandor reminded himself. Time for breakfast. As he was about to open the bedroom door, he noticed something lying on the floor. He bent down and picked up a pair of black silk panties.
So it wasn’t a dream after all, Sandor thought with a smug grin. Sandor opened the bedroom door. The door to the spare bedroom across the hall was closed and Sandor could hear Sansa snoring through it. She must have awakened, realized her mistake and gone back to her own room. In her haste, she probably gathered her clothes off the floor, missed the panties in the dark, and fled. There had been no screaming, no fighting, and all his body parts were still intact.
Life here is going to be interesting, Sandor admitted.
Chapter 7: Little Changes
Sansa sat on the edge of the twin bed and listened to the sounds of Sandor moving around in the kitchen. She was quickly growing used to having someone else in her home. It had only been two days, but already she could feel the difference. The house didn't feel like a mausoleum. There was a new warmth - in the smells of food cooking, the tinkling of utensils, the sight of something that had moved slightly indicating that she wasn't alone.
Before Sandor came here, Sansa still hadn't felt alone, but the presence in her house had been a ghostly one. She'd felt the presence of memories that haunted her. Now, instead of the hollow emptiness of death and violence, there was an awakening life force.
As much as she hated to admit it, having Sandor in her home made Sansa feel alive. It wasn't always in a good way, because frankly, he made her blood boil at times, but even the anger, frustration, and embarrassment made her heart pump blood and raw emotion through her veins. The one emotion she was feeling right now however, was humiliation but at some point, she was going to have to go out there and face him.
Sansa rubbed a hand over her face and tried to convince herself that stuff like that happened all the time, that it was no big deal, that he probably didn't even realize she'd been there. Sansa had been exhausted, up working far too late again, and had gone to bed. Her bed. She'd done it without even thinking. But how had she not noticed that there was a huge, naked man in there with her?
Because it was dark, quiet and she'd been half asleep.
Sansa remembered the bed feeling strangely warm and cozy. And there was a calming scent in the air that had lulled her immediately to sleep. But then she'd rolled over and put her arm around her dog Lady ... Lady was dead, she'd suddenly remembered with a shudder, and yet here she was warm and covered in fur and ... and then she'd been wide awake, the realization come to her.
The fact that Sandor had never awakened, and that she'd been able to crawl out of bed without rousing him had been astounding. Unless he'd been pretending to be asleep ...
Sansa sighed. She couldn't hide in here forever. She was an adult for goodness sake and it's not like anything had happened. It might even be kinda funny. Sansa forced herself onto her legs, steeled her resolve and headed for the lion's den.
Anticipating that this morning might be similar to yesterday, Sandor made extra in case Sansa woke while he was cooking. This morning it was corned beef hash with egg on the side and of course, coffee. Sandor didn’t like the Keurig, though. He wanted the option of having more than one cup without having to go through the whole rigmarole each time. Besides, Keurig cups were not environmentally friendly.
On the grocery list, he added a coffee maker. He’d see if he could pick one up when he did the shopping.
“Are we out of something already?” Sansa asked.
She stood in the kitchen doorway, hair slightly askew, but with a pleasant smile on her face. Today she was already dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. There was a slight flush in her cheeks. Sandor wondered if she was embarrassed about her mistake, crawling into his bed. For the sake of her pride, he pretended he wasn’t aware of it.
“I was thinking I might try to pick up a coffee maker when I shop next. One cup at a time just doesn’t quite do it for me.”
Sansa bobbed her head in agreement. “I got a Keurig because it’s just me and I normally only have one cup a day,” she explained. She took a deep breath, held it in and tried to smile brightly. “So … what are you making for breakfast?”
Sandor turned his back to her and poked a wooden spoon at the pan on the stove so he could grin without her seeing it. “Corned beef hash. Would you like some?”
“It smells really good. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Sure. You can make coffee. How many eggs would you like?”
Sansa waved away at the eggs. “None for me. I’m not used to eating heavy in the morning so the hash will be more than enough. Thanks.”
As Sansa set herself to the task of warming the mugs and filling the water tank, Sandor took the opportunity to watch her. She seemed different this morning. Something about her had changed. Her shoulders weren’t hunched up as though she were bracing for impact, and her expression was softer and more mellow.
It only took a few moments to get the coffee maker ready. Sansa waited in uncomfortable silence until Sandor told her he was almost done and she could brew the coffee. They each took a plate and a mug and sat in the same places as they had the previous morning. Sandor took a long gulp from his mug.
“Thank God for good coffee,” he stated. He needed to say something to break the smothering silence. His brain wanted to play Chatty Cathy again and Sansa was back to the way she was when he’d first met her, not saying much of anything. He couldn't really blame her, though. He could see the blaze in her cheeks and knew she was feeling very self-conscious.
“The coffee at the community center should have been grounds for conviction of a war crime,” he added.
Sansa nodded. “It was pretty bad,” she agreed. “But your pasta last night was really good,” she admitted. Sansa pointed to her dish with her fork. “This is really good, too. Who taught you to cook?”
“I learned on my own.” He indicated the size of himself. “As much as I eat, restaurants are too expensive and I like good food so I had no choice but to figure it out.”
“Thank-you for cooking dinner last night.” Sansa held her breath and squinted one eye shut. “And … I’m sorry for my behavior.”
Sandor stopped eating and rested his arms on the edge of the table. He wanted to see where this was going to go.
“I realize I’m difficult to live with. I can’t promise any changes, but I’m going to make an honest effort to be a little more … umm … a little less rigid.”
Sandor nodded in conciliation. He chewed a large bite of egg and waited for her to continue the conversation. If they were going to meet in the middle, Sansa would have to cover her half of the ground between them.
Shame-faced, Sansa poked at her breakfast and took a small bite. “So … how did you sleep last night?”
Sandor snorted sending a mouthful of coffee into his sinus cavity. He pounded a fist on his chest, hacking and coughing.
“Are you okay?” Sansa leaned across the table holding her napkin toward Sandor. He took it and blew coffee out of his nose.
“Went down the wrong way,” he wheezed. They were obviously skirting around the same thing but doing their best to avoid it. He cleared his throat and took a breath. “I was really comfortable, thanks.” Realizing this was his chance to lighten things up and maybe sever the tension, Sandor grinned at her.
“I put your underwear in the hamper. You left it behind on the floor when you snuck out.”
God love her, Sandor thought. Regardless of the now cherry red tinge on her cheeks, she actually smiled. “I was half asleep when I went to bed. I guess I just forgot.”
“Really? Is that all?” Sandor smirked at her.
Sansa shook her head emphatically. “No, I was not trying to get laid,” she informed him bluntly but still smiling.
Wow, she’s got a sense of humor, too!
“I probably shouldn’t have said that. I guess I was just a little surprised that a woman like you,” he said nodding in her direction, “is single and unattached. You know, despite your idiosyncrasies.”
The color drained from Sansa’s face as her cheeks went from bright red to pasty white. Suddenly, she wasn’t so hungry. She pushed the bits of potato around on her plate with the tines of her fork.
“I’m sorry did I assume too much?” Sandor asked.
Sansa shook her head. Sandor noticed how her thick eyelashes batted against her cheeks. He could imagine the feeling of them, like angel hair against his skin. A long red curl fell over her shoulder.
“Is that why you left Chicago?” He softened his voice as much as possible to convey concern, but being nurturing didn’t come naturally to him. It felt … weird.
“I had a boyfriend.” Sansa was hesitant, but Sandor waited patiently. There was more that she obviously wanted to say.
“He was from a very … influential family.” Sansa had chosen her words carefully. Even now, two years later, she was extremely cautious in her choice of words. Using the wrong words had gotten her into trouble in that old life, and the media had been unforgiving.
Sansa scrunched up her cheeks and looked Sandor in the face. “You obviously know who my father is. Well, it turns out that my boyfriend’s family … Well, they weren’t who they appeared to be on the surface and my association with them was a bit of an embarrassment given my father’s position.”
Sandor intuited what Sansa was saying between the lines. “Organized crime?”
Sansa gulped and smiled derisively. “Let’s just call it what it is. Irish mob.”
"You didn't know who they were before you got involved?" Sandor asked.
Sansa shook her head. "I was in college. I met a boy. I fell in love." She shrugged her shoulders. "When I finally met his family, they kept their business hidden from me for a long time - because of who my father was."
“And you got away from them?” Sandor was thinking of his own precarious position.
“I was close enough to cause embarrassment, but not close enough to be involved. Fortunately, I was smart enough to put on the brakes when I realized something wasn’t quite right.”
If only Sandor had been that smart. Sansa was lucky enough to come from a good family that protected her. She had education and opportunities that Sandor could only dream about. He’d had no one and very few options, but he’d made the most of what he did have. At least he’d had the presence of mind to give himself some insurance for the future.
For the second day in a row, Sandor offered to clean up after breakfast. Sansa had insisted on helping since he’d done the cooking, but he could tell she was edgy about getting to work. He really didn’t mind. After all, there wasn’t much else to do.
Cleaning and cooking gave him something to do and kept him on a schedule. He was starting to develop a daily routine, but he also feared getting bored. He felt sorry for those people who were trapped in tiny little apartments with children and spouses. He had the freedom of a fairly large home with lots of property to wander and a woman who mostly kept to herself.
Over the next few days, Sandor went off in different directions for his daily walk. Whether he wandered the shore of the lake, or climbed upward into the forest, he discovered something new. There was a lot of wilderness to explore, and he often encountered wildlife that didn’t seem to mind his presence too much. So far he’d come across deer, raccoons, chipmunks, an inquisitive red fox, and several saucy, chattering squirrels.
For the first time in his life, Sandor had room in his head for his own thoughts. The details of his next business assignment were no longer swirling endlessly through his head. Sandor reflected on the world around him, debating such things as how this pandemic would affect the economy and how the lack of pollution would affect the earth.
He thought about Sansa. Other than meals, Sandor hadn’t seen her in days. True to her word, Sansa had been more accommodating. She was trying and Sandor recognized her effort. Rigidness wasn’t the only thing she was trying to overcome, however, and Sandor feared that she might be trying to struggle with too many changes at once.
In addition, to her fastidious nature, she’d been trying to normalize her schedule by not working as late. That appeared to be the worst struggle for her. Sansa was clearly a Type A personality – when she wasn’t actually working, she was thinking about work.
Sandor also suspected that she was still in an adjustment period to her new surroundings. She couldn’t have been in North Burlow for very long. Even if she’d been here for a couple of years, it was obvious that she didn’t go out much, so she was likely still getting used to the town and the community.
Sansa was also trying to be more social with Sandor. During their meals, they engaged in more conversation, even joked, and learned a little more about each other. That was the part that made Sandor nervous.
If he gave in, if he opened himself up, he could easily get to like the woman. But where would it stop? It was easy to say that they could be friends and that’s it, but it never really ended where you wanted it to. If they became friends, he might get to liking her more and where would that lead?
Sandor didn’t want to care about her. He didn’t want to get to know Sansa that well. When you cared about people, that meant that your emotions were involved. Sandor couldn’t afford to have emotions which was why there was no one in his life to create that problem in the first place.
Caring about someone, having feelings, is what got them killed. Then when that happened, there were more feelings and that led to carelessness and bad judgment. It was too dangerous for Sandor. If he allowed himself to have emotions, Sandor could get himself killed.
So then why was he puzzling over this? What was the fucking problem?
That was the fucking problem.
Sandor stood below Sansa’s office window and watched her work. He wanted to do something good with his life. He had caused the world too much pain and sorrow and he felt that he owed a lot to the world for his very existence. Sandor had never thought much about making amends, about paying back the cost of his own life when he’d taken so many.
Sandor Clegane was thinking about that now.
If he confessed his sins, cleared his conscience, and did some good in the world, would God forgive him? Sandor wasn’t really sure that he actually believed in God, but he believed in hell. He’d seen it, he’d visited, he had barely escaped it, he never ever wanted to go back. So if there was a hell, there must surely be a heaven, but he’d never get there unless he started making his own changes.
There was no hope for him with someone like Sansa unless he was worthy of the life that God – or whomever – had given him. Until that happened, he couldn’t get attached to her. He couldn’t let her anywhere near him, for her own safety.
Sandor began to move to the other side of the window with the intention of circling the house to the front door. Suddenly, Sansa lifted her head from her usual hunched over position and focused on the right monitor. Sandor immediately stepped to the left so Sansa wouldn’t be able to see him from her peripheral vision. But he could still see her.
Sansa clicked on an email in her inbox. Without taking the time to read it, she backpedaled in her chair until it bumped the countertop under the window. Sansa looked frightened, her whole body trembling. She couldn’t have been frightened by the content of the email because she hadn’t had time to get that far. It must have been the sender that caused her reaction.
Sansa reached forward to her mouse and clicked on the corner to close the email. Then she hit the delete button. Sansa sat back heavily in her chair and stared at the screen. Sandor could see the fear in her eyes.
In an attempt to remove any immediate reminder of the email, Sansa reached forward and turned off the monitor sending the screen to blackness. Pushing off the edge of her desk, Sansa turned her chair to stare out the window. Sandor hastily dropped below the window where he’d be hidden from view.
Quietly, Sandor duck-walked around to the corner of the house before standing up and coming around to the front. Without hesitation, Sandor went to the kitchen and quickly threw together a sandwich, cut up an apple and poured a glass of iced tea. He put it on a tray and burst into Sansa’s office with it.
Sansa was still gazing out the window. She gasped as she whirled around in her chair, clutching at her chest. Her face wore a mask of fear. Sandor recognized it. He saw it every time he visited a client.
“Are you alright?” Sandor asked as he brought the plate to Sansa’s desk. Sansa forced a smile and nodded.
“I’m fine. You just startled me.” Nervous fingers teased the hem at the neck of her t-shirt. She was a bad liar.
Sandor set the tray down. “I thought you might be hungry, so I brought you some lunch.” Unlike Sansa, Sandor was a good liar. He was practiced at it, had spent his entire life perfecting his talent for fabrication.
Sansa glanced at her right monitor. Sandor knew that all she was seeing was a black screen, but she still looked worried.
“Thank-you,” she finally remembered to say. She moved toward her desk in the pretense of enjoying her lunch, but Sandor doubted she would eat it at all let alone enjoy it.
“I’m going shopping tomorrow,” Sandor informed her. “Let me know if you have anything to add to the list.” Sansa nodded and took a bite of her sandwich, though it was clear she’d done it only for his benefit.
Sandor left the office and closed the doors behind him. He’d purposely lingered in her office to get a look at the gun safe that was tucked in the far corner. The rifle he’d seen on the first day was in a rack on the wall above it.
Later, when he knew Sansa was in bed, when he could hear her snoring, he’d pay her office a visit and find out what was in the gun safe. When he visited town tomorrow, he’d be purchasing more than just groceries.
Given Sansa’s romantic past and her father’s position, Sandor had the feeling something dangerous was brewing. Adding himself to that mix could result in an explosive situation. Whatever it was, he wanted to be ready for it.
Chapter 8: The World Changes
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sansa asked.
Sandor was waiting with his hand out to Sansa. “We have to eat, don’t we?” He eyeballed the set of keys that Sansa hadn’t handed over yet.
“But you’re from England. Do you know how to drive in America?” Sansa chewed the chapped skin off of her lips.
Sandor put his hand back down at his side, slightly annoyed. “I’ve traveled extensively all over the world, including America. Until you’ve driven through rush hour traffic in Istanbul, you’re not really an experienced driver.”
“You’ll take a mask, right?” Sansa asked. “And wear gloves. And maybe put a few Lysol wipes in a baggie to take with you.”
“I’m not going to get sick. I’ll be fine.”
“How can you be so sure? There are still people out there who haven’t been tested, who think they’re magically immune. And meanwhile, they’re walking around like Typhoid Mary making everyone else sick.”
Sandor sighed. “I’m a big fucker. I’m tough to kill.” He gave her a look, half annoyance, half smirk. Sansa handed over the keys to her truck.
“Aww, are you worried about me?” Sandor grinned sheepishly at her as the grabbed the keys and headed out the front door. Sansa followed along behind him so she could set the GPS. She’d suggested he go to the Costco in Burlington, VT. It was only about 40 minutes away and there were a few other shops in the area that were allowed to remain open under the essential services ruling.
Costco would pretty much have everything Sandor needed. His trip to Montreal was supposed to be a one day in and out thing, so he’d only come with a carryon. He wanted to pick up a few more clothes, some work-out gear, a pair of trainers so he could exercise, a few larger bath towels, and a coffee pot. He took Sansa’s list and added a few of his own items.
Driving to Burlington was the easy part. Sandor had passed maybe five cars on the way there. With the radio set to a smooth jazz station, the windows open, and the highway all to himself, Sandor felt a sense of freedom that even his daily walk through the wilderness hadn’t given him.
Flicking his eyes up to the rearview mirror, Sandor glanced at the rifle lying across the back seat. He wasn’t particularly comfortable with it just out of reach like that, but Sansa had insisted that it be in the back and out of sight.
When he’d asked about hunting in the area, Sansa informed him that the deer population had gotten pretty thick this year and a little way off from the property there might even be a bear or a moose to be had. Hunting and fishing would save them some money as well as giving them a little variety in their diet. There was only so much chicken Sandor could stand.
He’d asked her to take the rifle with him “just in case.” In case of what, he refused to discuss with her. He didn’t really know, but he also didn’t like the feeling of being naked in public. Without some sort of protection on him, he felt naked.
Besides that, he’d watched BBC news every night, and checked out CNN a couple of times. It was all the same bullshit. No one really knew anything though they seemed to have a lot to say. The news people couldn’t seem to nail down exactly what this C-ROD was. That’s what scared him the most. If somebody did know the truth about what was out there, they weren’t saying much. It reminded him of a hostage situation where, just off screen, someone was holding a gun to the head of the person in front of the camera. That spokesperson was going to say whatever they were damn well told to. It caused a shiver to run down Sandor's spine.
In addition to the Costco, there was a gun and ammunition supply store in Burlington that Sandor planned on visiting – whether it was open or not. He wanted to buy something of his own. The Remington was fine for Sansa, but Sandor needed something with a little more oomph. And not knowing what they would be facing in the future, Sandor wanted to keep his options open.
There had been no problem breaking into the gun safe in Sansa’s office last night. It was one of those cheap flimsy things that was really only meant to keep guns out of the hands of children. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been much in it except a little more ammunition for the rifle, and an old Mossberg shotgun that had seen better days. The Mossberg was still in good working condition and could come in handy, but Sandor didn’t want to depend on it except as maybe a last resort. He hadn’t found any shells for it, so that was another thing for him to pick up.
Sandor touched the spot on his side, just under his jacket where he’d usually be wearing a conceal holster. Somewhere in Montreal, in a toilet tank in the back of a café, an unclaimed Glock 19 was probably still strapped waiting for him to pick it up. Oh, how he longed for the days before airport security.
Oh, well. The world changes, Sandor thought as he drove through a community that had turned into one giant ghost town. Since there was no one around, Sandor pulled over to the side of the road and put the truck in park. He pushed himself back and stretched over the seat to grab the rifle, something he wouldn’t have been able to do while driving. He checked the safety and nudged the rifle into the soft space between the passenger seat and the console.
Now, he felt a little more ready for whatever might come at him.
Sandor unloaded the truck and set everything on the front porch. From there, Sansa took the supplies inside, wiped them down with disinfecting wipes and came out for more.
“You bought an awful lot of food,” Sansa commented nonchalantly.
“I don’t want to have to go back for awhile. The more we can get now, the longer we can wait before I have to go shopping again.”
“But this must have cost you a fortune. How bad was it?” she asked referring to the line ups and crowds.
Sandor shrugged it off. “I have money,” he answered dismissively. “Shopping wasn’t bad at all. They were pretty organized and the lines moved fast.” The last thing Sandor pulled out of the truck was a new suitcase.
“You bought a suitcase?”
“I was only supposed to be in Montreal overnight so I didn’t bring much with me. I needed some clothes and other things so I figured I may as well buy a suitcase to carry it all when I leave.” The clothes and towels Sandor had purchased were neatly folded and strapped in the case. Also in the case, and out of view from Sansa, were the other essential items Sandor had purchased, but not from Costco. There was one item still left in the truck, but Sandor would bring it in later when Sansa was out of the way.
The two of them worked together, mostly in the kitchen, to sanitize everything and find room in the cabinets, fridge, and freezer. The cases of dry goods that Sandor had acquired were stacked in a storage area off the laundry room.
When everything was put away, Sansa went back to her office. Sandor waited patiently until he knew she'd be "in the zone" and completely focused on her work. Then he went back out to the truck and retrieved the last item. Sandor took the suitcase and another long hard plastic case to the master bedroom where he carefully unpacked his “essentials,” listening closely for any movement from Sansa.
Sandor had noticed a loose kickplate at the base of the dresser in the bedroom. In anticipation of his trip today, he had pried it loose and discovered the perfect hiding spot. After examining his new hardware to make sure everything was in order, he slid the cases under the dresser and re-fastened the kickplate.
Sandor looked at his watch. It was almost time to start making their supper. He was glad that Sansa had allowed him to do the cooking. She’d only cooked him one meal, and Sandor had been so hungry that she could have fed him a bowl of dirt and he would have enjoyed it. But her fried chicken wasn’t the best. She’d had the heat too high on the stove and used too much cooking oil. Tonight, Sansa was going to find out what really good fried chicken tasted like. And part of the enjoyment was eating with your fingers.
“Come on.” Sandor gestured for Sansa to follow him out to the rear deck so that they could look at the lake while they ate. Sansa rarely came out of her office and she hadn’t stepped more than two feet outside since he’d come here over a week ago. She needed some fresh air and her pale skin could use some sunlight.
Sansa sat in one of the Adirondack chairs. A plate of fried chicken was waiting for her on the wide arm of the chair. Sandor watched her carefully as he handed her a frosty bottle of Rolling Rock. He’d picked up a few cases and stuck a couple bottles in the freezer to chill them while he was cooking.
Sansa turned her head looking for something, then started to get up.
“Sit,” Sandor demanded pointing to her chair.
“You forgot utensils. Do you –”
“I didn’t forget anything, princess. Sit.”
Sansa glared at him. Sandor glared back, his one good eyebrow arched high.
“You’ll never enjoy life if you don’t get your hands dirty once in a while. You’ve got a beautiful view and an amazing piece of property and you’ve probably never actually seen it.” He shook his head as he picked up a drumstick and started gnawing on it.
“I’ve seen it,” she protested. “Remember, I actually live here.”
“Aye, so it was you that put the tire swing over the cliff?”
Sansa lifted her chin defiantly. “Yes,” she said.
“Ha!” Sandor shouted pointing a naked chicken bone at her. “It’s not a tire swing.” He motioned to her plate with a finger. “Eat before it gets cold.” He skimmed his teeth over his bottom lip. “And don’t even think of getting out of that chair until you’re done.”
“What am I five?” Sansa retorted.
“Don’t make me force feed you or you’ll wish you had more than just a napkin by the end of it.”
“I’d like to see you try.” Sansa’s voice was dripping with snark. Sandor got out of his chair, planted his knuckles on the arms of Sansa’s chair and leaned in close until they were almost nose to nose.
“You’re the one who said you were going to make an effort to change,” he reminded her, his voice low and threatening. Sansa could feel his breath on her face and the rumble of his voice in her chest. The thing that surprised her was that the sensation wasn’t exactly unpleasant. She held up a hand to him. Sandor relented and moved back to his own chair.
Begrudgingly, Sansa stared at her plate. The chicken looked really good and smelled scrumptious. She picked up a drumstick and took a bite. Sandor watched as her eyes widened and her tense features relaxed.
She didn’t even have to say anything. Her face said it all. It was one small victory for him, and he thought, it was a victory for Sansa as well, even if she didn't realize it yet. Sandor raised his beer bottle. Sansa sighed in surrender and followed suit, clinking it against his.
“That was really delicious, Sandor. Thank-you.” Sansa swigged the last of her beer. Sandor was on his second. “I can’t remember the last time I just sat and had a beer.” Sansa rolled her eyes. “And eating with my fingers wasn’t so bad,” she admitted reluctantly. After only one beer, Sansa had mellowed considerably and Sandor made a mental note to get some alcohol into her more often.
“Well get used to it. It’s finger food week. Tomorrow I’m making hamburgers.”
“And the day after that?” she asked intrigued.
“So does that mean it’s also going to be a ‘beer with dinner’ week?”
Sandor grunted in the affirmative. He sat quietly staring out at the serenity of the slowly dimming sky.
Sansa tried to learn from his example. Sandor always seemed so at peace with his surroundings. She settled back into her chair, took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. She was itching to get back to work, but she was always itching and frankly, she wanted the itching to stop. Sometimes she felt like a housefly trapped between two panes of glass, buzzing frantically and beating its head against an invisible barrier with panic and frustration until it fell exhausted to the windowsill and died.
Sansa didn’t want to die in a glass box always looking out at the world. But she had so much work to do. She realized that it was her fault for taking on too many projects at once.
Sansa opened her eyes. She vowed that when she finished one of the projects she was working on right now, she wouldn’t replace it with another one. Part of the reason she’d been so rigid and controlling was because of her lack of control. Even Sansa could recognize that she was trying to overcompensate from one facet of her life to another. Controlling the little things in her life, the nitpicky details, gave her a sense of control where she didn't have it in other areas - the fear of being found, the fear of being on her own and isolated, the fear of not being successful at her work and thusly not being able to support herself.
She looked over at Sandor. Just seeing him sitting there, so relaxed and sedate - it was almost contagious. Sansa felt her own body begin to loosen and unwind.
“Thanks for dinner,” Sansa said. She leaned forward and pushed herself out of the deep chair. “I should probably be getting back to work for a bit, though.” For some reason, her hands were sweating so she wiped them on her jeans. Sansa was a little nervous, but couldn’t put her finger on what it was that was making her edgy.
Sandor turned his head to look up at her as she stepped next to his chair. His hair fell back away from the scarred side of his face. Sansa didn’t realize until now, that she’d avoided looking directly at him. She paused a moment to let her eyes drift over the gnarled and twisted tissue. The more she looked, the longer she let her eyes linger, the less it frightened her. He certainly wasn’t grotesque. He wasn’t ugly.
The only thing Sansa could see as she looked deep into his gray eyes, was a quiet acquiescence. Whatever had happened to him, he had accepted it and moved on with his life. Perhaps there was a touch of sadness, and Sansa had a feeling that it had to do with his solitary existence. The man had to feel loneliness occasionally, didn’t he?
Sansa didn’t want that to happen to her. Not only was she single, but she didn’t have any friends. Her only friends were her brothers and sister. She spoke to them often, but it wasn’t the same as having a real friend – someone you could share a beer with while eating fried chicken and watching the sunset.
“Sandor, could you do me a favor?” Sansa’s jaw was set with determination, but her belly erupted with butterflies. “Don’t let me work too late?”
Sandor shrugged with his chin. “Ten o’clock.”
“What’s at ten o’clock?”
This time Sandor shrugged with his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe see if there’s anything on the telly.” He thought for a moment. Sandor definitely wasn't going to let her watch the news - not after what he'd seen in Burlington today. He pointed his beer bottle at her. “I know. Netflix and chill.”
Sansa snorted and bit her lip. Her face turned pink. “I’m sure you’re a really nice guy, but I … ummm …” Sansa grimaced.
Sandor looked confused. “What? We’ll have a beer and watch a movie.”
“Uhh …. Ohh.” Sansa scratched her head. “You don’t know what Netflix and chill means do you?”
“Watch a movie and chill out?” Sandor still didn’t get what the problem was.
Sansa giggled. “Netflix and chill is code talk for …” Sansa bit her lip suggestively and pumped her fist at him.
“Oh.” Unfazed, Sandor looked down and considered it for a moment. When he looked back up at her, he grinned and waggled his one eyebrow. The effect was kinda comical. “So … is that a ‘yes’?”
Sansa shook her head and giggled as she gathered the plates and took them back into the kitchen. Sandor leaned over the edge of his chair to look behind him and watched her go. If she’d taken a closer look at his expression, she might have realized that Sandor Clegane wasn’t necessarily joking.
Chapter 9: A Step In The Right Direction
It had been difficult to drag Sansa away from her desk, but after fifteen minutes of whining and pleading, she had reluctantly shut down her computer. Sandor grabbed another beer, and Sansa mixed a shot of Whyte and McKay with cranberry juice and Lemoncello.
On one end of the couch, Sansa sat with her legs tucked under her. On the other end, Sandor flipped up the footrest and stretched out. After half an hour of discussing the types of movies they liked and what they could agree on, it was too late to watch a movie. Sansa suggested a Canadian sitcom that was available on Netflix. It was called Kim’s Convenience.
For someone who really didn’t like television at all, Sandor had to admit the show was hilarious. They watched two half hour episodes and added it to favorites so they could watch it again tomorrow night.
Sandor let Sansa use the bathroom first, then said goodnight to her as he went in. “You’re room is that way,” he joked, pointing across the hall. Sansa flipped him the bird, smiled – fabulously – and closed the door behind her.
Sansa had just washed up quickly and brushed her teeth. For Sandor, a cold shower was in order. It wouldn’t be any use, because the minute he lay down in bed, he’d be thinking about her again.
It had snuck up on him so slowly, that Sandor hadn’t even realized it until it was too late. He had that squirrely feeling in the pit of his stomach and he couldn’t concentrate. If Sandor couldn’t get it together and be able to focus, he’d miss something – some vital clue that would result in serious trouble.
His first order of business tomorrow, would be to start getting back in shape. Sandor had allowed himself to get a little too soft. To everyone else he was imposing and intimidating, but size aside, he had a certain level of discipline he needed to maintain. He had his workout clothes now, so after breakfast, he would go on a long run and use the time to study the perimeter of the property.
As he towel-dried, all his efforts to get his mind to focus immediately evaporated along with the water on his skin. He thought about Sansa. The only way she wouldn’t be a distraction is if he just shagged her and got it over with.
Sandor shook his head. Sansa was not that kind of woman and he didn’t want to make her into one. If he allowed that to happen, any progress they’d made would shoot right through the goose. Sansa was making an honest effort to change her habits and was becoming much easier to live with. If Sandor ruined that by sleeping with her, he would be the one who’d be impossible to live with.
Sandor liked it here. He was beginning to like Sansa. It was a delicate situation. Sandor was an expert at handling delicate situations. If he didn’t handle this one just right, he’d be one step closer to hell. If she was any old assignment, he wouldn’t care. But Sansa was innocent and he wasn’t going to drag her down with him. If he played his cards right, Sansa could be the one that helped lift him up a little closer to Heaven.
The new coffee pot was out of the box and the old Keurig was in the box – for now, anyway. When he left, Sandor would leave the coffee maker behind. That way, Sansa had the option to go back to the Keurig if she wanted, and also have a coffee maker on hand if she ever had a party or when her family visited.
“You look different this morning,” Sansa said as she wandered into the kitchen.
Sandor wanted to tell Sansa that she, too, looked different, but it wouldn’t be for the same reasons. He looked different because instead of jeans and a t-shirt, he was in jogging pants and trainers. Sansa looked different because she was stunningly gorgeous this morning.
It was amazing what a full night of sleep could do for you. She didn’t get to bed until midnight, but she’d been relaxing in front of the TV for an hour before that and she’d slept for seven hours. There were no bags under her eyes, her cheeks were rosy, her hair sleek and shiny, and she was smiling. In fact, she exuded a glow that made Sandor’s mouth drop slightly in awe.
Then the awe dropped a little lower. Sandor clenched his lips together and breathed in through his nose to calm the stirring he felt in his boxers.
“I’m going for a run,” he finally said when he’d snapped out of it. “I need to stay in shape.” He filled the tank of the coffee maker, put in a filter and coffee and started it brewing.
“What’s for breakfast?” Sansa asked.
“Just cereal with fruit.” He patted his gut. “I’ve been living a little too large.” He got two bowls out of the cabinet. “You want to come for a run?” he asked without thinking.
“I think I should probably start by walking first. I don’t even do much of that,” Sansa joked.
Oh thank Christ, Sandor thought. All he needed was to be out in the middle of the woods and see Sansa all sweaty and …
Sandor grasped the edge of the counter and leaned over in pain with a groan. Why the hell did he do this to himself?
“Oh my God, Sandor. Are you okay?” She started toward him, but Sandor propped his chin on his outstretched arm, still bent at the waist, and grimaced at her.
“I’m fine,” he muttered with a strained voice. Without standing upright, he pointed to his temple on the disfigured side of his face. “Headache,” he lied. “Comes on all of a sudden sometimes.”
When he’d gotten himself under control, Sandor stood up, took in a deep cleansing breath and poured cereal. They ate together as usual, but Sandor tried hard not to look directly at Sansa.
“I didn’t realize eating healthy could taste so good,” Sansa remarked. She’d agreed to try some frozen blueberries mixed in with her cereal. Now, her tongue was stained blue. She licked her lips and smiled sending a tingle through him. Sandor didn’t say anything, but went back to his breakfast.
He could feel the tension due to their lack of conversation. Sandor and Sansa had been getting on really well. Every morning over breakfast, they chatted casually about nothing in particular. They laughed over the mundane details of their daily life. They’d started getting to enjoy each other’s company.
But now, Sandor couldn’t speak to her, couldn’t even look at her, and Sansa could feel that something wasn’t right. Sansa had always suffered a lack of confidence and often times, crippling insecurity. As a result, she wondered if she’d done something wrong. It was an immediate defense mechanism stemming from her control issues.
Sandor looked upset about something. What else could it have been except for her?
“Thanks for prying me away from my computer last night,” she said suddenly realizing she’d never shown her appreciation. “I finally know what it’s like to get a whole night’s sleep,” she joked.
Sandor nodded, stared into his bowl, and almost bit the head off of his spoon with his next bite. She kept her head down and ate silently, her brow creased with worry. Sandor knew it was his fault. His inability to have a normal conversation with her this morning didn’t have much to do with her – it had everything to do with her – but there was no way he’d be able to explain that to her. It made Sandor feel like shit.
“You want coffee?” he asked standing abruptly.
“No thanks,” Sansa answered weakly.
Sandor filled his cup, took it to his bedroom, and closed the door behind him. He set the mug down on the nightstand, knelt beside the dresser and pulled off the kickplate. From the hidden space, he removed a hard plastic clamshell case and released the clasps on it. Before opening the lid, he looked back at the bedroom door. He’d come in here to remind himself why he couldn’t get involved with Sansa.
Slowly, Sandor lifted the lid of the case. Nestled into black foam were the parts for a Ruger SR9 with a stainless steel slide, extended 25-round magazine, and a sound suppressor. Sandor quickly removed each piece from its nest and assembled it in only a few seconds as though he’d done it a thousand times before. He had done it a thousand times before. And that’s why he couldn’t get involved with Sansa.
Sandor sat on the edge of the bed. He touched the tip of the cold steel silencer to his forehead and thought about the purpose of the tool he now held in his hand. The weight of it reminded him of the power it wielded. It gave him the power to play God, to take life. It was the tool of death. And that’s why he couldn’t get involved with Sansa.
If she found out who he was, what he was, she would end up being worse than when he’d first met her. She would be horrified, afraid, rigid, probably slip down into a full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that’s why he couldn’t get involved with Sansa.
Any desires he might have had, any thoughts of the woman down the hall, slowly disappeared as he tapped the sound suppressor against his forehead. When he was reassured that he was in a better place mentally, Sandor began to disassemble the Ruger. He placed the parts back in their nests, closed the case, and concealed it in the space under the dresser.
Sandor left the house and performed a perimeter check as part of his long run. He wanted to become familiar with the edges of the property, where there were pathways in through the woods, where the undergrowth was too thick to traverse, and where there were blind spots from the house.
After circling the property, Sandor began his serious run up to the cliff. At this pace it was a good twenty minute jog there and back. That was easily accomplished over flat ground or a paved road, but the path to the cliff was uphill over uneven ground with smaller hills and valleys along the way. And Sandor hadn’t been for a run in over a week. Today would be a good refresher to get his body back into healthier habits.
Sandor focused on the twisting path in front of him, listening as the whisper of the wind soughed through the trees. Most of the trees had their leaves now, but there were still some varieties that were just bursting with heavy buds. Their bony fingertips clacked as they swayed and bowed. Only the soft thudding of his footfalls on the dirt and the coarse sound of his breath were not a natural part of the landscape.
Pressing his lips tightly together, Sandor sucked great lungfuls of air in through his nose, feeling the burn of the cool, fresh spring air in his chest. His heart beat was strong and regular, perfectly timed with his steps and his thoughts. He cleared his mind, tuning into the signals of the raw wilderness.
When he arrived at the cliff, Sandor was covered with light perspiration that refreshed his skin with the exhilaration of the purified blood that pumped through his veins. He looked out over the water and knew that he was back where he was meant to be. Not just in this place, but in his mind, in his body, and in the re-established connection between them.
By the time Sandor arrived back at the house, he would experience a euphoria that had been eluding him for far too long. His head swirled as he bent with his hands on his knees to catch his breath. With his vision cleared, Sandor strolled along his usual path around the back of the house and under Sansa’s window.
Per her usual setup, Sansa had her coding window open on the left monitor, email and assorted utilities open on the right, and her latest website project open on the center screen. She wasn’t looking at any of them. Slunk down in her chair and turned slightly to the right, Sansa was biting her nails.
In all the time he’d spent with her now, he’d never witnessed that habit. It could only mean that something was bothering her. The deep crease in her forehead confirmed it. It wasn’t like her to be so unfocused. Sansa always had her head deep in her work even when she wasn’t at her desk. Sandor could often see the wheels turning behind her eyes while they ate meals or when he visited her to discuss something. He might go into her office and talk to her, but never really have her full attention.
Today, her mind was far away from her work.
Sandor skinned the leftover chicken and pulled the meat off the bone. He placed the shredded chicken on a tortilla wrap with lettuce, olives, sundried tomatoes, and a dab of poppyseed dressing. He peeled and cut up a mango and placed half of the fruit on the side of the plate. Without knocking, he carried the plate into Sansa’s office with a glass of milk. Delivering her lunch every day had become a welcomed ritual for him. It was an excuse to check up on her, make sure she was eating and to scope for evidence - evidence of what, he wasn’t sure, but if something was amiss, he’d notice. It was one of his many talents and one of the things he got paid to do.
Sansa looked up from her monitor, but continued to peck away at her keyboard. She smiled and thanked Sandor for the lunch. He normally walked away and left her to her work, but today, he was on an archaeological expedition, digging for clues.
“How’s work going?” he asked casually, leaning over her desk to set the plate down. He watched Sansa’s fingers continue to tap. She glanced up at him and pretended to be absorbed in what she was doing. Sandor watched her fingers very carefully. Sansa was typing nonsense.
He nonchalantly moved behind her desk under the pretense of looking out the window to the lake. As soon as he did, Sansa finished her typing, clicked her mouse and hit enter causing the notepad window that had been filled with gobbledygook to disappear. Sansa thought she’d moved too quickly for him to notice, but Sandor had seen a perfect reflection of her monitors in the window.
Sansa turned her full attention to Sandor. “Work’s going great,” she said with a little too much enthusiasm. “Thanks for the lunch.”
Sandor was about to turn and leave when the phone on Sansa’s desk rang. Sansa let out a yelp and jumped, clutching at her chest. The phone was her business land line. She laughed at herself as she answered it.
“Hello?” She listened for a moment. “Yes, he just got back. Did you want to talk to him?” she asked looking up at Sandor. He looked down at her with confused curiosity. Sansa listened for a moment longer, agreed to something, then handed him the cordless handset as she checked her watch.
“Hello, Mr. Clegane. My name is Margery – the mayor’s wife? Do remember me? I registered your placement at the community center?”
“Aye, right. What can I do for you?”
“Well, we’re just checking in on everyone after a week or so. Make sure there aren’t any problems. So how are you settling in? Are you and Miss Stark getting on well?”
“Aye, everything is just fine. Miss Stark is a good host,” he told her as he glanced at Sansa.
Margery sighed with relief. “That's great to hear, Mr. Clegane. If there is anything you need – anything at all – don’t hesitate to let us know.”
“Thank-you I appreciate that,” Sandor told her. He handed the phone back to Sansa. She set it in the base and looked at her watch again, flicking her eyes nervously.
“Margery called earlier but you’d just gone out for your run,” Sansa said for no particular reason. He noticed her cover her watch with her other hand. Sandor was good at reading body language. She was anxious about something.
“Well, thanks for the lunch,” she said for the third time. Sansa was trying to get rid of him. She nodded in his direction. “Looks like you need to have a shower,” she suggested.
Sandor heard a soft thump from the front of the house. Sansa flicked her eyes quickly refocusing on Sandor.
“What was that?” he asked.
Sansa shrugged feigning ignorance. “What? I didn’t hear anything.” She was such a bad liar. There was another soft thump. Sansa coughed to try and cover the sound. Instinct took over and Sandor reacted. He stalked across the room, grabbed Sansa’s rifle and tried to leave. Sansa was blocking the doorway.
“What’s going on? What’re you doing?” She tried to hang on his arm as he shoved past her to the front door. “It’s probably just a raccoon. Or a squirrel. Or … or …”
Sandor gave her a severe look and she backed off. Her face was creased and she was chewing her nails again. Sansa shuffled along behind Sandor as he burst out through the front door. He swiftly thumbed the safety, swung the rifle around, and aimed it as a portly gentleman dropped the lid to the wood box and dove around the corner of the house with a yelp.
Sansa lunged under Sandor’s arm and shoved the barrel of the rifle upward. As she did, the tip of her finger nudged the trigger and the gun went off blasting a hole through the porch roof.
“What the bloody fuck?!” he yelled turning on Sansa. Sansa was stunned. She gazed up at the ragged hole in the ceiling of the overhang, then back at Sandor with her mouth hanging open.
“Are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on?” Sandor bellowed. Sansa ignored him and leaned to the side to look past him.
“You can come out, Sam,” she called. Sandor followed her line of sight and watched as the man Sansa had referred to as Sam, peeked out from behind the corner of the house. With a reassuring gesture from Sansa, he cautiously stepped out into the open. When he realized the gun was no longer pointed at him, Sam dusted himself off.
“I think I’ll be on my way, Sansa,” he stammered nervously pointing back toward the white Toyota parked in the driveway. He scuttled off without hesitation.
“You’re going to fix that!” Sansa declared pointing above their heads. She stomped down the porch and opened the woodbox. The woodbox was normally where firewood was stored in the winter. Right now, it was mostly empty.
“It was your fault the gun went off,” Sandor reminded her.
“Maybe, but I wasn’t the one who grabbed it and pointed it at someone. Is that how you operate? Shoot first and ask questions later?”
Actually, it was, but Sandor felt no need to point that out to her.
Sansa lifted the hinged lid, removed a large square cardboard box, and carried into the kitchen. She set it on the dining table and cut the tape at the edges. Sandor stood across the table from her. Sansa lifted the lid of the box so that Sandor couldn’t see it. She studied the contents for a moment, then turned the box so that Sandor could see it.
The box contained a small chocolate cake with the words Happy Birthday Sandor written across it with green icing.
“Surprise,” Sansa said flatly. “I hope you like chocolate.”
Chapter 10: The Nature of Fear
Still clutching the rifle in his hands, Sandor gaped at Sansa. He looked at the cake then at her. She was pissed. He’d been trying so hard not to piss her off and now he’d blown a hole through her roof, and she’d been trying to do something nice for him.
Sandor thought quickly. Why did she think it was his birthday? It wasn’t his birthday. But she’d obviously ordered a cake and tried to have it secretly delivered.
“When Margery called me earlier, she informed me that it was your birthday,” she explained to Sandor, saving him from saying the wrong thing. “She recorded it from your passport.”
Ohhhhhhh, shit! Sandor thought, suddenly recalling the details on his fake passport. His name had been real, but everything else about it wasn’t, including his port of origin. He’d used his real name, because no one knew what it was, not even his employers.
“Margery thought it would be a good idea to do something nice for the travelers who are stranded away from their homes and families.” Sansa shrugged. “So I ordered a cake for you. Sam and his wife run the local bakery and he did me a favor.” She shook her head. “I’m not a bad cook, but I can’t bake.”
Sandor looked down at the gun in his hand. When he looked up again, Sansa lifted her head. She’d been looking at the gun, too.
“You wanna tell me what that’s about?” she asked nodding to her rifle in Sandor’s hands. He had no words. No one had ever done anything like this for him. Sandor wasn’t even really sure when his true birthdate was. He’d changed it so many times over the years that the actual day eluded him.
“I … ummm …” Sandor suddenly remembered to make sure the safety was engaged on the rifle. He stepped forward and handed it to Sansa. She took it carefully and stepped back. Sandor took a deep breath and got his thoughts in order.
“I’m really sorry. I overreacted. In my line of work I sometimes get a little paranoid, I guess.”
The concern slowly drained away from Sansa’s face, but her posture was tense.
“I’ll fix the roof,” he promised. Sandor looked down at the cake again – with his name on it. A strange feeling of warmth wormed through his chest.
“Thank-you, Sansa.” His words were caught in his throat. “I don’t have any family, so no one has ever done anything like this for me. It means a lot.”
Sansa sighed. “I wanted to do something nice for you for putting up with me,” she admitted hesitantly. “I treated you like crap in the beginning, but you make me lunch every day and cook dinner every night.” She waved a hand to indicate the house around them. “You’ve been doing most of the cleaning.”
“I almost blew a hole through your friend,” Sandor confessed. The tension in Sansa dissolved and she started to laugh. It was a snickering little giggle that she sometimes got in a stressful situation.
“Yup,” she agreed nodding.
“I suppose I should call him and apologize.” Sandor began to laugh, too. He had no clue why he was laughing, but Sansa’s amusement was infectious. Sansa set the gun down on the table and spread her arms wide.
“Happy birthday,” she said diffidently, stepping toward him. Sandor felt his body tense slightly as she gave him a light, friendly hug. In that brief moment of contact, Sandor felt the warmth of Sansa’s body against his. Her hair smelled fruity and her skin smelled soapy. On his rough hands, her hair was silky soft.
Sandor had made the mistake of wrapping his arms around her for a moment. Her tiny body, pressed up against his, had excited him in ways that went beyond physical desire. It baffled him that someone actually wanted to be that physically close to him, that a woman would want to touch him simply because she’d wanted to and for no other reason.
Having the ability and the opportunity for that kind of contact with anyone had been totally foreign to him. Sandor had never put his arms around anyone before – not like that. This had only been the simple pleasure of contact with another human being. Not because he was restraining someone who was struggling, and not the frenzied clutching and grasping of unadulterated lust. It was just …
His thoughts were interrupted when Sansa strolled back into the room. She had taken the gun back in her office and put it away. “So … hamburgers for dinner, right?”
“You’re not angry?” Sandor inquired, surprised.
Sansa shrugged. “Yeah, a little I guess. But I think you literally blasted the tension out of me. I’ve been on edge lately and that …” she gestured indicating the front door, “That definitely took the edge off.” She shrugged again. "It's just a porch roof. If you can fix it I'll just try to be glad that something worse didn't happen."
Sandor nodded and set to work. Sansa helped by getting the plates ready and opening two bottles of beer for them. While he barbecued, Sansa set her iPhone in the wireless speaker dock and tuned the iHeart app to 70s music.
As she took out condiments, hamburger buns, and cheese slices, Sansa swayed in time with the music. At Sandor’s request, she opened a can of baked beans and heated them on the stove. Sandor watched her through the open patio door as Sansa twirled around the kitchen. Her hair flew out in a wave around her as she dipped and bobbed.
“You’re in an awfully good mood,” he commented from the deck.
Sansa acted appalled. “This is supposed to be a birthday party,” she protested sidestepping toward him in time to the rhythm of the music. She snatched the bbq flipper out of his hand and tossed it on the shelf at the side of the grill. Sansa grabbed his hands and urged him to dance to a song with a fast beat.
Sandor pulled his hands away and stepped back, timid and uncertain. “I’ll just watch,” he insisted. Sandor couldn’t dance and he wasn’t about to make a fool of himself in front of her. Instead, Sansa be-bopped and put on a show that wasn’t all grace and refinement. She was being silly, maybe for the first time in her life. Sandor liked the way she looked and moved, beaming with a wide smile and a carefree, playful attitude.
He wanted to dance with her and put his arms around her again. He wanted to hold her and caress her warm skin and feel her arms around him. He wanted –
His head jerked up. “What?”
Sandor gasped and froze. He stared at the flames and couldn’t move. The flames reached out and swiped at his face. It wanted to claw at him. He backed up, but the flames grew higher stretching and squirming out of the barbecue and reaching for him.
Sansa sprang into action, grabbed the flipper and moved the burgers off to the other side of the grill until the grease fire had dissipated. The burgers weren’t burnt or charred. The fire had just been a tiny one. It happened all the time because Sansa had never quite gotten around to cleaning out the base of the grill properly.
She turned around to see Sandor sweating profusely, rigid, and pale-faced. His eyes were wide and he trembled slightly. She would have sworn that she could hear his heart pounding from two feet away.
“Sandor, it was just a little flare-up. Are you okay?” Sansa put her hands on his arms breaking the hold the fear had over him. He took a shuddering breath and nodded uncertainly, clearly still in shock.
Sansa immediately understood that whatever had happened to Sandor in the past, whatever had caused his scarring had also made him deathly afraid of fire. He may have seemed strong and intimidating on the outside, but inside, Sandor had fears that no one else would ever understand. It was the first time Sansa had ever seen him react so emotionally.
After her outburst a week ago, Sandor had been largely unmoved by Sansa’s tantrum. She had seen him smile when they joked and frown when they had a disagreement, but his moods were very staid and even-tempered. Sansa suspected that, if the right buttons were pushed, Sandor could become enraged, aggressive, and violent. She’d seen a hint of that when he’d almost killed the baker and instead blown a hole through her roof. But even during that event, Sansa had seen a cool and reserved calmness in him. It was the sort of ready-for-anything preparedness that she suspected would keep him composed and level-headed in a crisis.
But add one small grease flare into the mix, and Sandor had been overcome with paralyzing panic.
“Sandor,” Sansa said gently squeezing his arm, “Why don’t you go inside and keep an eye on the baked beans. I’ll finish cooking the burgers. Sandor nodded apprehensively without a word and went inside.
Sansa placed her empty plate on the deck and drank the last of her beer. She discovered that she did not at all mind the taste of the Rolling Rock, but one was her limit. Sandor was halfway through his third. The anguish had finally disappeared from his face and he seemed relatively calm again.
They had sat and silently eaten their meals as they looked out over the lake, the same as they had done the night before. Neither seemed to be bothered by the silence, and they didn’t make any attempts at conversation.
Sansa wasn’t sure if it was the right time, so she took a delicate approach hoping that Sandor might open up to her a little bit.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked. Her words and her voice were cautious and quiet.
“Then can you tell me what made you so crazy to below a hole in the porch roof?” Sansa looked over at him, but Sandor wouldn’t look at her. He stared out over the lake, his face expressionless. “And don’t tell me you were a little paranoid because you’re in security.”
Sandor thought seriously about just how much he should tell Sansa. He didn’t know her well enough to assume how she might react in a critical situation. He realized that the best approach would be to feed her a little at a time and observe her behavior carefully.
“I’m just a little worried.”
Sandor turned to look at her. Sansa’s brow was furrowed, but she wanted to know. Sandor was an expert at reading people’s eyes. Sometimes, people asked questions even when they really didn’t want to know the answers. He didn’t see that in Sansa right now, so he felt safe answering her.
“I think this pandemic is a lot worse than the news is letting on. If Donald Trump was still president, he’d be calling it fake news.”
“Why? What have you seen? Did something happen when you went to Burlington?” Her concern had deepened and maybe there was a little fright in her, but not the edge of panic fear that Sandor had seen so often before – even in himself.
“I think I’m going to go back to Burlington again in a couple of days and get as much as I can before there’s nothing left.” Sandor heard Sansa suck in a sharp breath. He narrowed his eyes at her. “People were buying camping equipment,” he confided. “And guns.” He wouldn’t tell her that he was among those who’d decided to arm themselves.
Sansa felt a ripple of fear shiver over her skin. “What do we need to do?” she finally asked.
Sandor was relieved. At least he knew Sansa was intelligent enough to ask the right questions. He could tell that there was fear in her now, but it was the type of fear that motivated, not crippled. She might have been difficult and borderline obsessive-compulsive in the beginning, but Sandor could also see that Sansa had it in her to adapt and that was a very good thing right now. She still might need a little guidance to make sure she kept moving in the right direction, but Sandor would help her and maybe the two of them could pull through this together. Thankfully, she was in the right place, on a large piece of property that could allow them to be mostly self-sufficient if it came to that.
“I’ve got a package coming to the house so don’t be alarmed if a UPS or FedEx truck pulls in the driveway,” Sandor informed her. Sansa nodded her head absently, deep in thought.
Suddenly she realized something. “I don’t really keep that much ammunition for the rifle.”
But Sandor shook his head. “I’ve already taken care of that,” he confessed. “I’ve planned ahead for a few other things, too, but let’s not get too ahead of ourselves just yet.” Sandor tried to smile. It was difficult given his panic attack and the roof that he’d have to fix tomorrow, but he forced the corners of his mouth upward.
“Isn’t this supposed to be birthday party?” he asked.
Sansa smiled with relief. She decided that she was going to follow Sandor’s lead. If he said everything was okay, she’d relax. If he told her to brace for impact, she’d try to be ready for it.
Sansa took up the dishes and returned with a slice of cake for each of them. Sandor’s was noticeably larger than hers, but it didn’t last as long.
“I think you should start working out,” he suggested after gulping down a tall glass of icy cold milk. “Not just to get in shape, but it sharpens your senses, too.”
Sansa agreed. She cautioned him that she’d be slow going at first, but Sandor was willing to work with her and catch her up to where he thought she ought to be physically.
“No more surprises, okay?” he said. “If you know someone is coming here, make sure you tell me.” Sansa agreed to that, too.
“I think that’s enough gloom and doom for tonight,” Sandor said as he pushed out of his chair. He offered a hand to Sansa as she got out of her chair. He pulled her close to him and gave her a quick hug. He thanked her again for the cake and the birthday surprise, but all he really wanted was the brief moment of physical contact.
Sandor regretted the life choices he’d had to make. He regretted never being held or comforted. Never once had someone asked him if he was okay. When Sansa saw him in his panic, her only concern was for him. She had handled the situation perfectly.
There had been no teasing or joking, and Sansa had not made fun of him. That had been the other half of his fear, that she would look at him as some sort of freak, instead of as someone who was scarred on the inside as well as on the outside.
Now, Sandor’s fear wasn’t about fire. It wasn’t about how Sansa would look at him or what she would see in him. What worried Sandor now, was the way he was looking at Sansa.
Chapter 11: It's All Downhill
It turned out that the porch roof was easier to fix than Sandor had originally assumed. Sansa had extra pieces of plywood in her storage shed and Sandor found an unopened bundle of shingles in a rear corner. Fortunately, the rifle had blasted right through the center of a sheet of plywood, so he only had to replace two of them – the one under the ceiling of the porch and the top one under the shredded shingles.
Most of the morning had been dedicated to tearing the damaged roof apart and the afternoon was spent putting it all back together. The only thing Sandor didn’t have was the paint. The entire underside of the porch ceiling would have to be painted, so he opted to save that for another day when it was a little warmer and the air was drier.
There was a storm coming. Sandor could feel it in the air. He suspected that the coming storm wouldn’t just be about the weather. He had noticed a bit of an edge in Sansa this morning. Something was bothering her. He had subtly inquired about it, but she assured him she wasn’t angry about the porch.
When he asked if it was about the pandemic and what he’d told her of his suspicions, Sansa admitted feeling a little worried. Sandor could tell that wasn’t it, either. There was something else.
He thought back to the day that he’d watched her reaction to an email she’d received and immediately deleted and wondered if there was more to that. The only way to find out would be to come right out and ask her. He could easily admit to having seen her through the office window as he’d walked by and maybe get her to open up that way. Sandor knew he was going to have to be open and honest with her if they were going to be able to fully trust each other when they needed to the most.
… Which brought him to his next concern. And that was him. Sansa knew nothing about him, not really. If it was up to him, she would never know the truth. However, her father was Special Agent Ned Stark. His employers were in the top ten on Ned Stark’s wanted list. And Sandor was living with his daughter.
If he didn’t handle this situation just right, it would all come out wrong. It would blow up in his face and someone would get hurt. Sandor didn’t really care if he was the one who got hurt. He’d made peace with that possibility a long time ago. But if something were to happen to Sansa …
Bloody fucking hell! Sandor cursed. He threw the hammer as far as he could out into the yard, but kept his rage silent. This was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid. Already, he recognized that he was starting to care for her.
Sandor sat with his legs hanging off the edge of the porch. It was time he put some real thought into this and figure it out. On one hand, he liked Sansa. He had enough money to get out of the business and start doing some good with his life. He could easily hide away in a place like this and live comfortably. He wanted the freedom to love someone and be loved. Sandor felt pretty sure that could be a possibility with Sansa, but he didn’t want to start going down that road just yet, not until he decided what to do.
On the other hand, he would have to tell Sansa the truth – all of it. When he did, she would hate him and want nothing to do with him. If by some miraculous turn of events she still wanted to be with him, her family would be dead set against it and he’d probably go to prison for the rest of his life when her father found out who he was. Assuming, of course, that Ned Stark got to him before the Lannisters did. If the Lannisters got hold of him first, he’d be dead and buried – if any of his body parts were ever found and that might not be likely.
Sliding his fingers through his hair, Sandor pulled in frustration. He was driving himself insane over this when he had other, more important things to think about. Sandor didn’t even know how Sansa felt about him. She might not even consider him. Sure she had been nice to him, tried to surprise him on his birthday. But maybe that’s all it was. Maybe Sansa was just being nice. Any decisions he made wouldn’t mean shit if she had no feelings for him.
The sky started to darken turning overcast and threatening. A few hard drops of rain pelted the new roof with a sharp snapping sound. Sandor looked at his watch and realized it was nearly time for him to start cooking.
He put tools away and cleaned up the mess. Sandor went inside and informed Sansa that the roof was fixed, it looked good, but that it needed to be painted. She looked up from behind her wall of monitors and forced a smile to acknowledge him, then went back to her work.
In the master bedroom, Sandor grabbed some clean clothes and one of his new towels and got ready to take a shower. As he turned around, he noticed the door to the ensuite and decided to have a look.
Sansa had mentioned starting a renovation, but all she’d really done was to get through the demolition stage. The outdated vanity had been unfastened from the floor and moved. The plumbing had been disconnected and temporarily capped. The corner where Sandor presumed an old shower unit had been, was barren with only a lonely set of faucet handles and showerhead pipe – minus the showerhead – protruding from the wall. The floor tile was still intact and in good shape, but the toilet was not. And lastly, next to the linen closet was a large cardboard box containing a brand new corner shower unit waiting to be installed.
Sandor would talk to Sansa about it and see if she’d be willing to let him finish it off. He needed some sort of project to fill his time and take his mind off of the endlessly circling question of Sansa.
Sansa looked up when Sandor told her that he was done working on the front porch. She tried to smile, but there was too much going on in her head. She pretended to go back to what she was working on, but Sansa hadn’t been working on much of anything. She was just too damn edgy right now.
Chewing on her nails was an infrequent habit. It was something Sansa only did when she was really worried about something or extremely frustrated. At this moment she was both worried and frustrated. She examined her nails and winced. There wasn’t much of them left anymore.
Sansa had just received another email and she was debating whether to tell Sandor about it. She’d promised to let him know if anyone was going to be coming to the house. Sansa wasn’t sure whether to tell Sandor, because she couldn’t trust whether the email was a sick joke, an idle threat, or a warning of some kind.
If Sansa told Sandor, then she’d have to share the nitty gritty details of her relationship with the biggest douche bag on this side of the world. If it was anyone else, Sansa wouldn’t care. But it was Sandor and so she did care. The man would probably think her a right idiot for getting involved with not one, but two assholes in a row. After what she would tell him, Sansa wondered if a man like Sandor could have any respect for her.
He was only supposed to be a temporary border. He was supposed to be quiet, leave her alone, and stay out of her way. Instead, he’d turned out to be a really nice guy who had actually put up with her shit and given back some of his own without making her feel stupid, useless, or inferior. Sandor was even kind of sexy in a mysterious damaged soul kind of way.
Sansa closed her eyes and remembered back to that very first day. She’d been showing him the house and turned too quickly, nearly bumping into him. Her hand had landed on his chest and a wave of intense heat had swept through her like a blast furnace. Then she’d given him a friendly hug on his birthday. It was just supposed to be a platonic gesture of celebration, but instead it had made her all tingly in the panties. That wasn’t supposed to happen. However, that had been the end of it, or so she thought.
During the barbecue incident, Sansa had realized for the first time that Sandor wasn’t just some random stranger living in her house. He was a flesh and blood man with feelings and fears and worries. Sandor needed comforting and affection just like everyone else. He made mistakes and told lies.
Sansa didn’t quite buy the story about working in security. It didn’t quite jive with that fact that he knew who her father was, especially in his line of work, if in fact, he was in some sort of security position. If he was an accountant … maybe, but no. Sansa assumed that Sandor had a good reason for not being completely honest with her about that. She would give him a little leeway on that because there was something about him that she knew she could trust. That, and the fact that she had her own skeletons carefully hidden away in a locked closet. Sansa was no Mary Poppins and eventually Sandor would find that out.
In Sandor, Sansa could see a sense of loyalty and duty. He was blunt and straightforward, honest when he could afford to be, and he had a particular quality that Sansa didn’t. Discipline. She couldn’t even go to bed at a decent hour without him dragging her out of her office. Sometimes Sansa forgot to eat for Christ sake!
Every morning, Sandor was up at seven, made breakfast, cleaned up, then went for his morning walk – which now had become his morning jog. Lunch was served at noon followed by dinner at five. She could almost set her watch by him.
Maybe Sansa and Sandor could have gone on acting as roommates, just two people sharing a house. But after dinner and after cake, Sandor had hugged her again. And damn! she had felt the need in him. Sandor had needed her. Then, Sansa had felt the reluctance in him when it came time for him to let go of her. His need had given her some of her own.
Sitting back in her chair and rubbing her temples, Sansa spun around to look out her window. How was it possible that a man she’d never met before and had only known for a little over a week, could know her so well? She closed her eyes, pictured his face, imagined those huge, strong arms around her with just enough pressure to squeeze out the bad and magically make all her worries and fears melt away. Sansa wanted to feel the heat on her cheek when she pressed it against his chest.
Sansa groaned as another wave of desire rolled over her. She propped her face in her hands with her elbows on the countertop next to the window. Sansa sighed deeply wondering how she was going to figure out how Sandor felt about her. She didn’t want to come on too strong or make a move prematurely. Sansa didn’t even know if Sandor was interested in having a relationship or getting involved with anyone. His life might not be the sort that would accommodate another person.
Why did everything always have to be so damned complicated? She was supposed to be making a decision on whether she would tell Sandor about the emails and instead, she was fawning over whether Sandor was someone she could be romantically involved with.
Holy shit, he was right. I do need to get laid, she thought sarcastically.
As planned, Sandor went back to the Costco in Burlington, but he didn’t come back with much. His fears had been realized and there hadn’t been much left worth paying for. Sandor was glad he was out here, with Sansa, instead of in the city. Here, they could be safe, they had each other to rely on, and their chances of survival would be a lot better.
That meant getting Sansa ready, physically and mentally. Sandor was thankful that she was smart enough to recognize that the things he was pushing her to do were for her own good as well as his. If they didn’t work together, it could all very well fall apart.
It took nine days for Sansa to make a run all the way to the cliff in one go. The first day, she walked with Sandor up the path to the cliff and back. On day three, Sansa felt so exhilarated, that she walked the path once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Day four was a combination of light jogging and walking. Sandor encouraged her to jog until her lungs burned painfully. There was some whining and staunch resistance on her part, but she grudgingly pushed herself to the limit – with Sandor’s help.
Day nine involved threats of violence, but Sansa made it all the way to the cliff in a light jog with a steady pace.
“If you jog all the way back, I’ve got a surprise for you,” Sandor promised. Sansa was skeptical.
“There is no way I’m making it all the way back at a run,” she told him.
“It’s all downhill. It’s easier and there’s the reward of knowing something special will happen when you get there.” Sandor ran backwards in front of her egging her on.
He’s such a damn show off, Sansa grumbled internally. If he was going to make her do this, then she would damn well make him listen to her complaints. Sandor took it all in stride as Sansa called him a few choice names and threatened him with bodily harm, but he was proud of her for the effort she was making.
Even Sansa had to admit that she was elated when she arrived back at her home, still on her feet, and lungs feeling like Freddy Kruger had had a go at them. As she huffed and puffed and caught her breath, Sansa asked what her surprise was.
“I want you to see something,” Sandor said gesturing for her follow him down the dock. He stood at the end of the dock and looked over the edge. Sandor pointed down into the water.
“Tell me what you see.”
Sansa moved to the edge letting her eyes follow where Sandor was pointing. “What am I supposed to be looking at?” she asked. But as soon as she finished asking the question, she already knew it was too late.
Sandor threw her in.
It was still early in the year. The lake water was icy cold and it bit into Sansa’s skin with sharp teeth. It was invigorating, it was brain numbing, it was suffocating, it was crippling. It was the most wonderful Sansa had ever remembered feeling. As she stood in the shallow water, dripping and frozen to the core, Sandor pointed and laughed. His smile and his amusement were 100% genuine. Sansa wanted nothing more than to wipe that smile off his face.
Suddenly, he started. “Oh fuck!” he yelled as Sansa flew out of the water and came after him. She never would have though it possible to make her legs work again let alone chase him into the house. Sansa couldn’t stop laughing as she bolted across the yard after him.
A long, hot shower later, Sansa sat in the sunroom sipping the hot cocoa Sandor had made for her. Her emails were temporarily forgotten and so was the pandemic. She was safe in her home with someone she trusted. Even she had to admit that Sandor had gotten her to accomplish a goal that she never would have dreamed of on her own. Sansa was getting in shape and physically felt the best that she ever had in her life.
There was the suspicion that the way she was feeling had to do with more than just her daily exercise regimen. Some of Sandor’s discipline was rubbing off on her, so Sansa vowed that within the next three days, she was somehow going to let Sandor know what she was feeling.
Sandor watched Sansa sitting in the sunroom sipping her hot chocolate. He wanted now more than ever to change his life and he wanted Sansa to be part of it. If Sandor was going to make that change, it would have to be soon.
As if the devil himself had been listening to Sandor’s thoughts, his cell phone pinged. He sighed, pulled it out of his pocket and watched as the encrypted message was decoded.
“Be advised: Aerys in transit. Engage and divert. Location and details to follow. Please acknowledge.”
Sandor’s shoulders drooped. He should have known better. Just when he’d had the courage to make a major life decision for his own benefit instead of someone else’s, he was being called into action.
Aerys was the code name for the Lannister’s oldest son. The little shit was a pain in the arse and Sandor was being summoned to deal with him. Sandor typed in the required response.
As much as he hated to admit it, this was his life, and Sansa would never be able to be part of it. Sandor hardened himself, dismissed any emotions he might be inclined to have, and went to his room to pack. He would have to be ready when the instructions came.
Chapter 12: Do You Want Me?
Fingers typing feverishly at her computer, Sansa was clear-headed and refreshed and sharp. The daily exercise had reconnected her mind and body somehow giving her access to untapped resources in her own brain. Feeding her muscles had made fuel for her brain and she was on fire.
In only three hours, Sansa had accomplished almost a full day’s worth of work. Two of her five websites were complete and had been handed over to their owners. The third one was rapidly nearing completion. That left her with only two websites to work on when previously she’d been working on five. Finally, Sansa would have time to tend to some of the other areas in her life. There was so much she had neglected over the past two years. She had a bathroom to finish. She wanted to put in a vegetable garden and if she was going to do that, now was the right time of year.
Sansa was feeling free and liberated. She wanted that feeling to continue so she had made herself a promise. Sansa was going to tell Sandor about the emails she’d been getting. He would know what to do and maybe between the two of them, they could figure out the best way to handle it. Depending on how that went, Sansa would try to start easing herself into Sandor’s mind in a more personal way, maybe see if she could get a little closer to him.
Sansa finished off an email to officially close out the second website. She turned off her monitors, gathered her lunch dishes, and tossed them into the kitchen sink with the thought of doing them later. As she started to walk away, she stopped short, whirled and looked at the dirty plate and fork in the basin.
Little Miss Rigid was going to do them later?? Wow. In such short time, Sansa had made a lot of changes in her life and the only person she could think of to thank for that was Sandor. She had calmed down considerably, was more carefree and was appreciating her life for a change.
An idea suddenly came to her and she ran back to the reading nook. She grabbed and armful of books off the shelf, closed her eyes and put them back. When her fingertips deduced that all the books were back on the shelf and the spaces filled, Sansa opened her eyes and looked at what she’d done.
It was very unsettling.
“Okay, maybe it’s a little too soon for that,” she chuckled to herself. She rearranged the books again, but still, she was proud of herself for having at least thought of it.
The distant sound of tires crunching over dirt and gravel grew louder, so Sansa went to investigate. Sandor had told her that he’d had a package coming so she wasn’t surprised to see a FedEx truck slowly rolling past the tree line. Sansa stayed behind the closed front door until she saw the driver get out and stack two large cardboard boxes on a hand truck.
Sansa stepped outside the door but stayed on the porch. When he saw her, the driver stopped a few feet away from his truck.
“Are you Sansa Stark?” he asked from a safe distance.
“Yes,” she answered nodding.
“Where do you want me to leave these?”
Sansa pointed down bedside her on the porch. “Just here.” She retreated inside and closed the door behind her so that the delivery driver could approach. She watched him unload the boxes where she instructed, then as he got back in his truck and drove away.
Sandor was not in the sunroom or on the back deck. She knew that he was still in the house when she noticed his shoes parked next to the doormat just outside the rear door by the sunroom. The bathroom door was open, so he wasn’t in there.
The master bedroom door was also open. As she peered through it, Sansa noticed that the door to the ensuite was ajar. Now what was he up to? Sansa hoped he didn’t plan on fixing her bathroom. He’d done too much already. She walked across the room and pushed the door open.
Sansa licked her lips and stared. Sandor was on his knees with his head down reading the installation instructions for the new shower. He had unboxed it and had several parts lined up across the floor in front of him. When Sansa had absorbed all that, she went back to looking at what had initially caught her attention.
The ensuite window faced directly west. At a certain point in the afternoon, the sun streamed directly through it. Without the little bathroom window open, the ensuite could get very warm very quickly. Sandor had obviously gotten too hot. His t-shirt was in a pile on the toilet seat and his back was to her.
Sansa licked her lips again. Sandor was a solid mass of strength under smooth, tanned skin. Clearly defined muscles lined his wide back, thick upper arms, and broad shoulders. Near the inner edge of his right shoulder blade, Sandor had a tattoo of three dogs – maybe they were wolves? – facing alternate directions.
As he turned a page, Sansa watched the tattoo move slightly as his muscles flexed beneath his skin. Intense heat began to pool between her legs. She wanted to reach out and brush her fingertips across that muscular back and feel the raw strength just under the surface. Sansa wanted to lean against him and feel the heat coming off of him, feel it passing through her skin, and draw his musky scent into her lungs.
The rest of Sandor, she imagined, would be just as strong and solid, just as hardened. Sansa put her hand over her mouth to stifle the groan as the heat between her legs turned moist. Her breasts swelled as her heartbeat pounded in double time.
Sandor grunted as he pushed himself to his feet. Head still down, looking at the installation diagram, he began to turn around.
“Fuck!” he shouted, clutching at his bare chest. He jumped, his head snapping up when he realized Sansa was standing there staring at him. Sansa’s mouth dropped. If she thought the back of him was sexy …
Her eyes drifted from the soft thin hairs that started just under his chin and down his neck to where the hair thickened into a soft mat of brown that covered his chest. His muscles were toned and firm across his pecs, down his abdomen to where his chest hair began to concentrate in a dense narrow strip that disappeared into the waistband of his jeans.
It was tempting to let her eyes drop lower, but Sansa gulped and dragged her gaze back over the length of him to his face. A nervous quiver tingled over her skin. Pushing the tension down to her toes where Sandor wouldn’t notice it, Sansa curled her toes into fists against the hardwood floor.
Seeing Sansa looking at him that way was making Sandor uncomfortable. He shoved his thoughts away before he was tempted to prove to Sansa just whatever it was that she was thinking. He quickly turned and grabbed his t-shirt and pulled it over his head.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said absently as he pushed past her into the bedroom. “I was going to talk to you about it, but I wanted to see how difficult it would be to install the shower first.” He set the instructions down on the bed and perched himself beside them.
“Do you want me for something?” he asked when she hadn’t spoken. It was difficult for Sandor not to focus on the way Sansa was licking her lips, the way her breasts moved because of her breath coming in short panting gasps, and the desire in her eyes. No woman had ever looked at him that way before. It made him want her even more, but he couldn’t have her. Not ever.
He turned his mind to the two hard plastic clamshell cases hidden under the dresser. The second longer case contained a Ruger AR-556 MPR autoloading rifle with automatic firing capabilities and a 19” barrel. It had an extended 50-round clip, night vision laser scope, and a titanium sound suppressor with flash-resistant baffles.
Sandor recited the specs in his mind. It was a mantra that helped him focus his mind where it needed to be. At this moment, Sandor could not afford to lose that focus. He turned his eyes down and waited for Sansa to say something.
“Actually … ummm …” Sansa tried to shake it off. Getting her head back in order wasn’t nearly so difficult as she might have thought, because Sandor made it quite clear that he had no interest in her. Not that way, at least. He had brushed right past her without so much as a glance. He seemed almost embarrassed by the way she was looking at him. And Sansa couldn’t see even a hint of reciprocation in the blank expression on his face.
It was confusing because Sansa could have sworn that she’d felt it in him, too. On the night of his birthday, Sandor had hugged her and she’d felt the stiff reluctance in him when he had finally released her. Sansa had seen wanting in him, she was sure of it. But now, there was nothing but the stranger she’d met on that very first day.
“Your packages were delivered just now. I mean, I assume it was your packages,” she stammered. “But my name is on them. They’re on the front porch.”
Sandor nodded, obviously waiting for her to leave.
“There is something I wanted to talk about.” Sansa tried to keep the disappointment out of her voice and focus on her task at hand. She wanted to ask about the contents of the boxes, but Sansa had been on a different mission. If she didn’t do this now, she might lose her nerve. “Can we go to my office? I need to show you something.”
When he’d finished reading the emails, Sandor turned in Sansa’s chair to face toward the window. Sansa was standing next to him looking out at the lake. Although it had been difficult, Sansa told him everything that had transpired in her relationship with Ramses2@chatmail.com. She’d swallowed her pride and trusted him. It had been humiliating, but at least now he knew.
Sansa would only refer to him as Asshole. She couldn’t say his name. The taste it left in her mouth was unbearable. Sansa had long ago pushed his name, his face, his torments, far out of her mind. There was no reason to think about him ever again, no reason to fear him – or so she’d thought.
Sandor sighed heavily, turned back toward the computer screen and reread the emails paying close attention to the little details he’d learned to notice between the lines.
“Honestly, he doesn’t seem like to much of a threat to me,” Sandor told her. He pointed to something on the screen. “The way he talks sounds like a lot of bluster. He’s too specific in what he says he’ll do.” Sandor turned around in Sansa’s chair again. “If he really wanted to instill fear in you, he wouldn’t tell you exactly what he was going to do. He’d let you try to figure it out, worry about it. Fear of the unknown can turn us into our own worst enemies.”
Arms crossed tightly, Sansa turned to Sandor. “That would make sense except there’s one little problem with that theory.” The expression on Sansa’s face was severe.
“What’s that?” Sandor asked.
Sansa pointed to the computer monitor. “He’s dead.”
Sandor’s brow shot up over his forehead. “Are you sure?”
Sansa nodded emphatically. “Pretty sure.” But her tone of voice had said, “Definitely. Absolutely. No doubt about it.” She had already told him more than she’d intended. Sansa didn’t want to have to explain how she’d pointed her father’s Mossberg at Asshole’s face, pulled the trigger and blown his teeth out through the back of his skull.
Sansa didn’t want to explain the details of how Ramsay had punched her in the face repeatedly, broken her nose, chipped her front teeth and sent her into unconsciousness. She didn’t want to tell him that she woke to find Ramsay violating her, how she’d screamed for him to stop. She couldn’t even really remember how the gun had come to be in her hands, but she did remember using it.
Sansa was chilled and quivering. She pinched her eyes shut and willed away the vivid memories. Hands at the sides of her head, she tangled her fingers in her hair and pulled, breathing deeply in through her nose and out through her mouth.
As she began to calm down, Sandor touched her lightly on the arm. The one small touch, the warmth of his fingertips on her skin, seemed to suck the poison out of her. The misery drained away and she was able to regain her composure.
“I was actually in a relationship with someone else at the time,” she went on to explain. “I had broken up with Asshole long before that, but he came back. He showed up one day and started …” Sansa choked back a sob.
Don’t go there again, she told herself. Remembering the things he’d done to her were far worse than what she’d done to him. He’d deserved it, and she’d do it again in a heartbeat.
“He was violent. Even more than he’d been before,” was all she told him. Sansa looked directly at Sandor. “He tried to …” Still, she couldn’t say it. Sansa turned to the window and tried to look as far away as possible. “I killed him before he killed me.”
Sandor waited patiently until he felt Sansa was ready to continue. She seemed to shake it off then turned her attention back to him.
“Do you know who’s sending these emails?” he asked. “Someone is obviously trying to frighten you.”
Sansa shook her head. “No.” She knew, but she refused to tell Sandor. That was a whole other discussion for a different time. It was bad enough that Sandor now knew how naïve she’d been. Sansa didn’t want to explain that relationship number two, the one she’d been in when she’d killed Ramsay, had been just as bad. And all of that tangled mess, she thought to herself, is connected, and now it’s coming back to bite me in the ass.
Tears welled up in her eyelids. Sansa opened her eyes wide refusing to allow them to spill over. She did not want Sandor Clegane to see her cry. He already thought she was a fussy princess, she wouldn’t be a blubbering baby in front of him, too.
“The first email,” Sandor said. “Did that come the day before my plane landed?”
Sansa nodded. After two years, she had finally begun to relax believing that she was blessedly free from her relationships, that she had actually escaped, that she would never have to face that part of her past again. Then, somehow, she’d been found. The emails were just a way of taunting and torturing her.
“Is that why you were so ... uptight?” he asked choosing his words carefully. Sansa nodded again never taking her eyes off the view of the lake.
“The things he did …” Sansa began to quake at the mere memory of it all. She felt like she was going to throw up. Sansa pinched the spot on the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath, calming her insides.
“I know I said he doesn’t sound like much of a threat, but it does sound like he – whoever this is – is intent on coming here and confronting you,” Sandor informed her. “It’s something we need to consider.”
“But the travel restrictions,” Sansa pleaded. “He can’t.” She realized she was trying to convince herself more than Sandor.
“To someone like this – someone who would go to this much trouble to frighten you – that won’t matter. He’ll find a way.” Sandor stood up next to Sansa. “He will come here,” he told her.
Sandor reached out to put a hand on her shoulder, but Sansa shrugged away. She didn’t want to feel the touch of him. Sansa felt confused, alone, and frightened. Sansa knew that Sandor would help her, but she also feared wanting more from him. He was too good to her and he was the kind of man she wanted in her life. He was the kind of man that had actually changed her.
Sansa shook her head. No that wasn’t it. Sandor was the kind of man who made her want to change herself, to become the best sort of person she could possibly be. How could she not want more of him?
Sansa straightened her back, lifted her chin and turned to face Sandor. “Tell me what we need to do,” she said swallowing back the tears.
Sandor reassured Sansa that he would be here and that he would help her handle the situation when the time came. That is, after all, what he did for a living. When he’d gotten Sansa to relax and felt that she was adequately confident that it would turn out okay, Sandor asked her about the bathroom renovation, but Sansa changed the subject.
“What’s in the boxes that were delivered?” she asked.
Sandor brought up the renovation because he wanted Sansa to focus on something other than Asshole and the subsequent emails that would undoubtedly come in the following days. So far, Ramses2 – who wasn’t really Ramsay – had only sent four of them, but he suspected an increasing pattern. There had been a lot less time between each email with every new one that popped up in her inbox.
Instead, she wanted to know what he’d ordered. Sandor worried that it would only make her more edgy and frightened, but he needed to be honest with her. Sandor needed to prepare her for the reality that might be coming. Whether that reality was a result of the mysterious email or because of the pandemic, the boxes on the front porch would help protect her.
“An alarm system,” he admitted reluctantly.
“But I have an alarm system,” Sansa protested. Of course, she had never actually armed it and wasn’t sure if she could remember the passcode, but the doors and windows were all rigged. “I never turn it on because I like to leave the windows open. Besides that, Ramsay is dead and no one except my family knows where I am so I never …” She trailed of when she saw Sandor shaking his head. “I guess I should start using it.” She felt stupid about not thinking to take that precaution earlier.
“It doesn’t matter. By the time someone got up to the house, it would be too late. We need to know that someone’s coming before they get here.”
Done for the day – how could she possibly get any more work done? – Sansa shut down her computer and left the office. Since she only had two projects on the go now, and no plans to take on any more for the foreseeable future, Sansa had time to sit and relax and do a lot of nothing for the rest of the day.
Feeling like the fly between the window panes, Sansa took it upon herself to go for a run to the cliff. The exercise cleared her mind, invigorated her, and helped her focus. She changed into running clothes and told Sandor that she was going out but she didn’t give him time to respond. She didn’t want Sandor to join her or ask if she wanted him to come along. She didn’t. Sansa wanted to be alone.
If she really wanted to be honest with herself, Sansa wanted to be back at home. She wanted to be near Sandor. She wanted to try again and see if she could get him to open up the way he had on his birthday. His behavior today had her doubting herself, but Sansa knew what she had seen in his face when he’d hugged her. She could lie to herself and deny it, but she was positive she’d been right the first time.
So what had changed? What had made him act so standoffish to her today? He may have been acting aloof, but Sansa suspected that’s all it was – an act. And she wanted to find out why.
As her feet thumped softly on the dirt path, Sansa focused her resolve to find her courage. She was an adult. She was finally at a point in her life where she could account for her feelings, her mood swings, and how it all affected her behavior. If she could do that, then she could let Sandor know what was in her heart as well as her mind.
Sandor looked at his watch. It was just past three of the afternoon. As he sat reading a new book he’d selected from Sansa’s shelf, in the back of his mind, Sandor was thinking about what to cook for dinner. As long as the weather was holding out, Sandor figured he may as well do some fishing and maybe put some of his catch in the freezer. The lake was just ahoppin’ and fresh fish would taste mighty good, but that didn’t solve his problem of what they were going to eat tonight.
Somewhere in the house, a door slammed. Sandor couldn’t remember if he’d put the doorstop all the way in front of the bedroom door, but he supposed he ought to check. When he turned down the hallway, it wasn’t the bedroom door that was closed, but the bathroom.
Where the bedrooms had heavily-weighted animal doorstops, the bathroom door had one of those flimsy little rubber wedges. The wedge never really stuck to the ceramic tile very well and sometimes a good gust would catch it and then the wedge was useless.
Sandor opened the bathroom door and sure enough, there was the rubber stopper lying next to the edge of the bathroom cabinet. He reached out with his foot and pushed the wedge under the edge of the door a little too hard – he really jammed that fucker under there – causing the doorknob to bang against the wall. Sandor heard a loud gasp.
When he looked up, Sansa was standing there utterly naked.
Chapter 13: Opening Doors
Sansa looked in the mirror. She was beginning to notice the changes in her body that told her she was getting older. Small lines around the corners of her mouth and eyes, and the hollows in her face that started to fill in giving her a rounder look. Despite that, Sansa thought that she still might be attractive. She had never been vain – perhaps even a little insecure. One thing her mother had always taught her was to appreciate the way she looked and to try and have confidence in herself.
If only Sandor could look at her the way she looked at him. Of course, she didn’t deserve it, and her initial behavior toward him had almost guaranteed that he would never look at her that way. And yet, she was positive that she’d felt something in him, some need, some sort of yearning.
There was also the possibility that it wasn’t specifically Sansa that made him feel that way. Maybe she just reminded him of his loneliness. Sansa could have been reminiscent of what he didn’t have in his life.
Whatever. It didn’t matter. If nothing else, perhaps Sandor could at least consider her a friend. They seemed to be getting along well and were enjoying each other’s company. If Sansa and Sandor could be friends, that meant she’d have a friend of some sort. She certainly didn’t have any right now.
Sansa pulled off the rest of her workout clothes and moved to turn on the shower, but heard a soft thud. She peeked around the corner of the L-shaped bathroom to see the bathroom door swing open. Obviously, she hadn’t latched it properly and …
Sandor moved through the door and gave it a hard shove. Then he looked up and saw her standing there naked. Sansa couldn’t move, frozen to the spot. She watched as Sandor scanned the length of her, his mouth slowly dropping to an open-mouthed stare. When they finally locked eyes, the spell was broken and Sansa’s knees gave a little. She turned her back, snatched the towel from the hook next to the shower and wrapped it around her.
When she turned her head, Sandor was still standing there watching her. He snapped his mouth shut and hastily turned his eyes to the floor, but he made no move to leave. Sandor had a white-knuckled grip on the door handle. He took a deep breath and slowly lifted his head to look at Sansa again.
Sansa studied his eyes. She could see that look again. It was the same one she knew she’d seen in him before and she realized that he’d been fighting it. Whatever it was, he was trying to resist, trying not to like her, trying to not see her. A prevalent sadness shadowed his features. It was intensified by the droop of his scarred eyebrow and the pull of the wounded tissue on that side of his face.
Sansa took a tentative step toward him, and Sandor took a step back. She licked her lips and swallowed.
“Sandor, I need to have a shower,” she said quietly. Sandor seemed to come back to his senses and stepped backward closing the door behind him.
When Sansa finally found Sandor, he was sitting on the cliff with his legs hanging over the edge. She immediately knew he wasn’t in the house because his shoes were gone. He hadn’t been on the immediate property and her truck was still parked in the driveway. Sansa took the chance and checked the one place she knew he liked to go.
Sansa sat beside him and swung her feet over the edge next to his. She didn’t want to crowd him, but she wanted to be close. For a long time, they both looked out over the water without a word.
“I figured you would hate me forever,” Sansa finally admitted.
“I don’t hate you.” Sandor looked down at his warring fingertips. "I know you were afraid." He picked up a stone from the ground beside him and tossed it out as far as he could. Both of them watched as the stone sailed out across the air and dropped to the water below.
“I know what it’s like to be afraid,” he told her quietly. “Some people have different ways of handling it. For you it’s about getting control. For me it’s about losing control.”
Sansa shifted slightly so that her body was angled toward him. She placed a hand on his knee and he didn’t react. “How did it happen?” she asked.
Sandor lifted his chin high, opened his mouth, sucked in a chestful of air, and blew it out again. “When I was very young, I was pretty small. I was actually smaller than most boys my age. I grew really fast later on, but in the beginning I was thin and underweight. My older brother, Gregor, was the opposite – he was bigger than most. Because of my size, I developed an inferiority complex. Sometimes it’s called small man syndrome.”
Sansa nodded. She’d heard of it and suspected that a certain Asshole had that same complex. Maybe even both of them.
“I guess I thought that fighting Gregor was a way for me to show how tough I was. We used to roughhouse and playfight a lot when we were small. But as we got older, he sometimes took it too far. He would get really angry and turn vicious. He became blinded by some need to cause pain.”
Sandor sighed, his expression turning cloudy as the memory came back to life inside him. “I should have known better, but part of me wanted to prove something, I guess. I knew he was getting too carried away, too violent and cruel, but I pushed and he …” Sandor put his head down and focused his eyes on Sansa’s fingertips on his knee.
“I was ten. It was wintertime and we were fighting in the house. It was really cold, so there was a roaring fire in the fireplace. When I realized that Gregor was starting to go over the edge, I tried to stop it, but it was already too late. Gregor wasn’t there anymore. It was Mr. Hyde … he’d become some sort of inhuman monster. I tried getting away from him, but he grabbed me by the hair and smashed my head against the edge of the hearth. When he saw the blood, that made it worse. He wanted to really hurt me.”
Sandor shuddered, closed his eyes and grabbed Sansa’s hand as he recalled the horror. He squeezed her fingers and it hurt her a little, but Sansa didn’t protest.
“Gregor tried to push me into the fireplace, I fought back but he was too big, too strong and something else had taken over in him. He shoved my face down into the flames and held me there while I screamed. I could feel my skin melting. The smell of my hair on fire and my skin burning.” Sandor coughed to try and cover his emotions, but there were no tears in his eyes, just bewilderment and grief.
“I can forget the pain. I can forget the anger.” Sandor shook his head dejectedly. “I’ll never forget the stench of my burning flesh. I can smell it even now.”
Sandor snorted derisively. “My father blamed me for it. He said it was my fault for instigating it. I knew what Gregor was like and I deserved it.”
“Sandor!” It was the first sound Sansa had made since Sandor had spoken. She inhaled deeply to prevent the tears that threatened to erupt from her. “No one deserves that. You didn’t cause it.”
“I know. Believe me I spent a lot of time in therapy figuring that out.”
“I don’t understand how your own father could blame you for something so horrible. You were the one who was hurt.” Sansa wiggled her fingers so that Sandor would loosen his grip. She was starting to lose feeling in them. Sandor relaxed his fingers, but kept hold of her hand.
“What happened to your brother? Did anyone –”
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Sandor stated bluntly. He let go of Sansa’s hand and wiped his damp palm on his jeans.
They sat for a while longer staring out at the slowly dimming sky. It was nowhere near darkness yet, but the sun was getting low in the sky. Sansa wanted to talk about what had happened back at the house, but she wasn’t sure it was the right time. It was too soon. Sandor had just shared the most painful and horrifying experience of his life. He had trusted her and opened up to her.
Sansa somehow knew that it was the most difficult thing Sandor had ever done. He had been so stiff and reserved around her, always keeping his poker face, always hiding his emotions. This was a man who didn’t let anyone in. But he had opened the door to her. It was a start.
She meant to tell him that they should be getting back before it got any darker. Sansa was getting hungry and they still had a forty minute walk back to the house. She had no intention of bringing up “the incident,” but Sandor must have thought it was on her mind. Obviously it was on his.
“Sandor,” she said. Sandor pushed himself back from the edge and stood. He offered a hand to Sansa, she took it and he pulled her to her feet.
“We should head back,” he told her before Sansa had a chance to say more. His words were short and rushed as he turned back down the path to the house.
Sandor set a quick pace, his long legs and lengthy stride forcing Sansa to walk at a near jog to keep up with him. They made it back in half an hour. In his stiffened body language, Sansa could sense that the door Sandor had opened was now closing. He was like a granite boulder rolling downhill, picking up speed, likely to smash whatever obstacle appeared in his path. The closer they got to home, the more his shoulders became hunched, the lower he hung his head.
By the time the house came into view, Sansa was almost running to keep up with him. As he climbed the porch steps, Sansa leaned against a post to catch her breath. Sandor was tense and agitated. His face was pinched and his eyes narrowed. Whatever this was, Sansa didn’t want it in her house. She wanted it released out here in the open, not cooped up behind closed doors.
He stopped with his hand on the door and didn’t move.
“Sandor, do not go in that house,” she warned.
Sandor turned to look at Sansa. There was no malice, none of the panicked and frustrated woman he’d first met. She wasn’t angry or bitter. There was only concern.
Sansa stayed at the bottom of the steps leaning on the post. If she tried to follow him up the steps, he was likely to run inside and hide.
“Please come down here and talk to me,” she said softly.
“I can’t.” His voice was solid and firm.
“Yes, you can. I’m only five steps away. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Sandor turned around and quickly descended the steps to stand directly in front of her. He leaned his face close. “I can’t,” he said again. “I know what you want to talk about and I’m telling you I can’t.”
Sandor threw his head back and stared into the quickly darkening sky. Frustration was overwhelming him. He growled into the heavens.
“I can’t!” he shouted. Sandor wrenched his head to the side causing a loud crack.
Sansa felt a painful lump in her throat. When she spoke, her voice was strangled and hollow. “If you can’t tell me why then at least tell me something.” Sansa felt the corners of her mouth pulling down and she fought it. She would not let Sandor Clegane see her cry.
Sandor grabbed her by the shoulders bringing his face only inches from hers. “I can’t,” he said again. His voice was quieter and strained. “I can’t even tell you why. I wish I could, but I can’t. I want to, but I can’t.”
Sansa hunched up her shoulders and scrunched her chin. “Why?” she asked again. That was the only word she could safely form without losing her shit and bursting into tears.
Sandor sighed painfully. He moved one hand to the back of her neck and caressed the edge of her jaw with his thumb. “If I did, you would never want me here. You would hate me.” Sandor’s eyes widened with what appeared to be fright. “I don’t ever want you to hate me.” He was suddenly quiet and remorseful. “I wouldn’t be able to handle that.”
Sandor’s lips parted slightly and Sansa wanted nothing more than she wanted Sandor to kiss her. His lips were red and full and pouting and sad. Her breath caught in her chest as a sharp pain sliced through her. Sansa’s skin tingled nervously in hopeful anticipation, but Sandor pulled his hand away from her and stepped back.
Regret and disappointment darkened his expression. His brow dipped low over his eyes. Sandor turned and climbed the steps to the porch leaving Sansa alone. She didn’t make any move to follow him except for her eyes. And those, Sandor saw when he turned to look at her, were pleading with him, begging him to change his mind.
Stepping toward the door, Sandor paused, almost giving in to what he really wanted. They both wanted it and he knew it. Just as Sandor was reaching for the doorknob, his phone pinged.
“Fuck!” he yelled, his shoulders sagging. Of all the fucking moments for his phone to go off, why the fuck did it have to be now? Sandor gritted his teeth and pulled out his phone. He swiped the screen, entered his password and waited for the unscrambled message to appear.
“44°39'07.4"N 73°28'04.6"W Thursday 1425hrs. Retrieve and return.”
Sandor touched the link for the coordinates. Google maps displayed the location information for Plattsburgh airport in upstate New York. Plattsburgh was an hour and a half away. Sandor rubbed the spot between his eyebrows. When he got his hands on that little cocksucker, he was going to fucking kill him.
“Retrieve and return,” Sandor mumbled under his breath. Ohhh, he was going to retrieve and return, all right. Matter of fact he was going to shove that little fucking cunt so far up his mother’s twat, Sandor would be elated knowing he was doing the world a huge favor. Sandor hated the bitch and he hated the demon seed she’d spawned, and now he was expected to be a fucking babysitter.
Sandor was done. He shook his head in defiance. This was the last straw. He was out. Yes, Sandor would go to Plattsburgh. Yes, he would retrieve, but he would not be returning that little cunt to his mother. Sandor was going to do what Sandor had always been paid to do and the world would be a much better place because of it. If he survived, he would come back here to Sansa, tell her the truth about who he was and hope for the best.
Sandor turned back to Sansa, still waiting at the bottom of the steps. “I have to leave.”
“When?” she asked with disbelief. “How? There’s no way for you to go anywhere.” She shook her head and thrust her hand toward him. She realized she had asked the wrong questions.
“Why?” she asked emphatically.
Sandor’s phone pinged again. He looked angry but not with her. The message said, “Acknowledge.”
Sandor typed in the required response and put his phone back in his pocket. “My employer has been … tracking a … a threat,” he finally stammered.
“So … are you a spy or something?” Sansa asked suddenly confused.
A spy? If only, Sandor thought suppressing a smirk. He shook his head. “No, I’m not a spy.” He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “I’ll tell you everything … after.”
“When are you leaving?”
“I have to leave on Wednesday. I’ll need your truck.”
A little bit of relief eased Sansa’s mind, but she didn’t quite trust it. “So you’re coming back?”
Sandor shook his head. “I don’t know.” He nodded toward the truck. “I’ll make arrangements to get a new truck delivered to you by Friday,” he assured her.
Sansa was stunned – for so many reasons that were now swirling through her head. She was stunned that Sandor could just whip up another brand new truck as if out of his pocket. She was stupefied that he would just leave, knowing how dangerous it was out there with the pandemic – if it was as bad as he said it was. She was shocked that his employer would put him at risk that way.
Worst of all, he was leaving her. They had finally gotten to a place where they were opening up, beginning to trust each other, able to admit how they felt, and now he was leaving.
Sandor watched as all the same thoughts he was having floated through Sansa’s mind. He could read it clearly in her eyes. He was going to have to leave and he might not be coming back. If he never came back, he knew he would regret all the chances he’d never taken. He wasn’t going to miss that chance now – with someone who wanted to take a chance with him.
FUCK IT!! If he was going to die, he wanted to die knowing that he’d spent at least one day of his life loving someone and being loved.
Sandor hopped back down the steps toward Sansa, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her.
Chapter 14: A Glimpse Inside
The first time he’d seen her naked, Sandor hadn’t been able to take his eyes off of Sansa. She’d had some kind of inexplicable hold over him. Her skin was pale and flawless. Her legs were strong and toned, likely from the daily run, topped by a small, neat patch of hair. Sansa had a flat, taut stomach and full breasts that were high and pert with small dark nipples. She was fucking gorgeous.
Sandor was utterly entranced. And Sansa had stood there letting him look at her. Sansa did finally cover herself, but not before letting him see everything that would make it that much more difficult to deny himself what he wanted so very much.
Sansa hadn’t seemed bothered by that fact that Sandor had looked at her that way. Almost as though she’d wanted it, because now, it was out there, neither of them could take it back nor could they deny the mutual attraction.
Sandor knew that Sansa would find him at the cliff, but he didn’t know that the thing she would ask was not about him seeing her naked, but about his scars. Sandor hadn’t been prepared for it, and yet he was totally at ease with answering her question. There was pain inside him as he forced himself to relive the memories. But there was also relief that Sansa knew some small part of the truth that had made him who he had eventually become. There was still much more to tell her, things that were even more painful than his face had been, but Sandor realized it wouldn’t be so difficult – not with her.
Then, she’d uttered his name. He couldn’t face what he thought she was about to say next, so he left.
Getting up and walking away from Sansa made Sandor worry that she would somehow be disappointed in him. Talking about his attraction to her was impossible for him and he felt guilty about that. He could tell her the horror of getting his face burned off by his own brother, but he couldn’t talk about his feelings.
By the time they got back, the silence had been almost unbearable. Thankfully, Sansa had forced his hand. She wouldn’t come inside the house until she’d made him say something – anything – about what had happened between them.
All Sandor could say to her was, “I can’t.” It made him feel small and pathetic and ineffectual. It wasn’t until he’d said his last words to her that he’d seen a spark of respect from Sansa.
“I don’t ever want you to hate me. I wouldn’t be able to handle that.” Sandor could see it in her eyes. Sansa understood that not being able to tell her everything that he wanted to was breaking his heart. She could see the torment in him as sure as he could feel it.
And after all that, Sandor had still been able to walk away from Sansa. He’d climbed the steps – had his hand on the fucking doorknob! – and his goddamn phone had gone off. That’s when he gave up. There was no clearer sign from God – if there was a God on this godforsaken planet – and it had been sent by the very people who hated everything God stood for – life, love, happiness, and freedom. That message had been tantamount to flipping the kill switch for him – literally.
If Sandor Clegane had to die, he was going die happy with the memory of loving the most beautiful woman he’d ever known.
Sandor took the steps so fast that he almost skied down them on his huge feet, skidding from one tread to the next. He couldn’t get his arms around her fast enough. Sansa gasped as he pulled her into his embrace, holding her so tightly against him, he worried whether she could breathe.
His lips landed hard on hers, heat searing the delicate flesh at the corners of his mouth. Her lips were so soft, so sweet. Sandor breathed deeply inhaling Sansa’s scent as she relaxed into him, falling against his chest. His hands worked over the surface of her, wanting to feel every inch of her all at once. His fingers twined through the silkiness of her hair, the waves of it sliding over his knuckles like cool water.
The feeling of her supple, delicate form pressed against him made him instantly hard. Sandor groaned, his breath short and shallow, as his body reacted and he pulled her closer. He felt her racing heart in her throat as he moved his lips down over her chin, along the ridge of her jaw, to the sweet spot at the top of her neck. He wanted to kiss her everywhere, but her red, swollen lips called him back for more.
Moving his hands up her back, Sansa arched into him, all curves and softness and radiant heat filling his arms. She parted her lips slightly and Sandor probed deeply, tasting her, electrifying her with the touch of his tongue. Sansa gasped and so Sandor kissed her harder, desperately, yearning for more than just her mouth.
Sansa felt her breasts swell as Sandor made every nerve ending scream with desire. At first limp in his arms, Sansa quickly became enraptured by the tickle of his mustache around her mouth, the feel of his beard on her cheek, the burning trail of his fingertips along her spine. She wrapped her arms around Sandor’s neck and pulled herself closer, forcing her body into his.
Sandor panted into Sansa’s mouth as his tongue caressed hers. A low grumble rose from deep inside him as he kissed her whole mouth, biting playfully at her bottom lip, pulling it gently with his teeth. A shiver bolted down his spine, when Sansa scratched his scalp lightly with her fingernails, kissing him more urgently, harder, wanting and needing him.
As Sansa moved her hands forward to his face, her fingertips grazed the scarred tissue behind what was left of his mangled ear. Tangling her fingers in his hair, Sansa gently pulled away ending their kiss. Her breath was rapid and shallow as she fought for air.
Sandor could feel his own shoulders heaving as he gasped. A whisper of concern flitted through his mind as Sansa had pulled away from him, but she grasped him by the chin and forced him to look to his left. She stepped backward and onto the first porch step so that she was closer to him in height. Sandor felt the palm of Sansa’s hand on the rippled skin of his cheek as she caressed upward, dragging his hair away from his face. He blushed knowing that she was examining the way his scars twisted and knotted among the flat spiderwebs of gnarled tissue.
The scarring was cold, hard, and corrugated under her fingertips. The wavy grooves of damaged skin coiled this way and that across the top of his scalp, down his cheek, becoming smoother and more pliable near the bottom of his jaw where his beard was missing. She brushed at the indistinct line where his whiskers tapered off and became scar tissue. Sansa scraped a fingernail along the edge of the cauliflowered ear and felt a shiver run through Sandor. His breathing relaxed as he allowed her to intimately explore the wound that had caused him more pain on the inside than the outside. He could feel that pain ebbing away with the tenderness of her touch.
Sansa turned her head away from his and leaned forward, pressing her smooth flawless cheek against Sandor’s damaged one. She slid her skin across his as she turned her face, grazing her mouth over the cool, leathery skin. Sansa gently kissed his chin, his cheek, his drooping eyebrow, the edge of his mangled ear, the hairless patch on his scalp. Sandor groaned, his flesh rippling with goose bumps from the current that sizzled through every fiber of him.
Sansa turned his chin back so that she could look with profound fondness into his gray eyes. Limpid pools of blue gazed back, sinking deep into the heart of him, open, inviting, and free from any doubt. There was no reservation, no hesitation. Only trust, confidence, and desire filled her eyes. Sansa saw that in Sandor as well.
Sansa wrapped her arms around Sandor’s neck and turned slightly so that he could pick her up. He lifted her easily and carried her inside to the bedroom, kissing her lips through the kitchen, her neck as he went down the hall, and the hollow at the base of her throat as he set her on the edge of the bed.
Their clothing lay strewn wherever they had dropped it, forgotten, as they discovered each other. Sandor lay beside Sansa, his rough, callused hands sweeping across her pale skin. He traced the swell of her breasts, felt the soft weight of them on his palm. Sansa rolled toward him, unable to control her need to touch him the way he was touching her.
Sansa hooked an arm under his, her hand curling over the top of his shoulder as she kissed him. The thick hair on his chest tickled her breasts and stomach. Her fingertips played with the tiny hairs on his neck, down his strong, muscled arms, his solid back, the firm round curve of his ass to the back of his thigh. Sandor mirrored her movements, exploring the topography of her body.
Lying on their sides facing each other, Sandor placed his hand behind her knee and guided her leg over top of his. Sansa wiggled closer as heat radiated between them. His chest hair grazed over her skin with each deep breath he took. She quivered with nervousness, as Sandor moved closer seeking the heat that burned from within her.
The warmth between them was more than just desire for each other’s bodies. For Sandor, Sansa filled all the emptiness inside him. She represented the love he’d never known from a woman, the friendship he’d never had with anyone, the comfort and trust. Sansa was the conduit for all the pent up emotions he’d never been able to express, finally released. Sandor was finally free from the prison that had held him captive for his entire life.
In Sandor, Sansa felt the raw masculinity, but without the violence, shame, and pain that had reduced her to an object, a thing to be owned and ordered around. She could speak and think freely for herself without threat of reprimand or punishment. Sansa could love and be loved the way she wanted, with complete abandon, not always fretting over how each movement, each touch , each sound uttered in passion, might be interpreted. She gave herself over completely and willingly to be taken by gentle hands, thoughtful words, and genuine desire.
Their breath barely registered, only light gasps, as they moved into each other. Sandor’s passion became urgent and frenzied as he body experienced the passion he’d never felt before, for anyone. The rhythmic quaking of his muscles rippled along his arms and back as he gripped Sansa tightly between his arms. She trembled, shuddering and breathless, her own body responding to the overwhelming sensations from his. Her movements became sharp and frantic when Sansa felt the rumble grow from deep within Sandor’s chest. The rumble turned to a roar as he lost control, his body betraying and defying his will, an entire life’s worth of anguish and grief disintegrating in an instant.
Sandor wrapped his arms tighter around Sansa, burying his face in her hair. As his gasping breath abated, Sandor’s arms trembled dangerously as he continued to support his weight over Sansa. He collapsed to the side but kept her close within his arms. Sansa curled into the hollow of him, hugged him tightly, calming herself, their breathing falling into sync.
Sandor lifted his eyes to look into hers. The coolness of her blue eyes had brightened, the sparkle of happiness making them shine. Sandor stroked Sansa’s hair and touched his forehead to hers. She was more beautiful than ever, a rosy glow on her cheeks, her forehead smooth and free from her worries and fears. The cloudiness that had shadowed her eyes was gone now.
Touching a fingertip to her lips, Sansa pouted dramatically. He could tell that her lips were swollen and sensitive, partly from the forceful passion with which he had kissed her and partly from the scruff of his whiskers on her.
Tenderly, cautiously, Sandor touched his lips to hers. No matter what happened on Thursday, he vowed that he would return to her. He would bare his soul, tell her everything, and hope that Sansa could find it in her heart to love him.
It was almost ten of the evening, before Sandor, dressed in jogging pants and a t-shirt, stumbled to the kitchen on shaky legs. Slices of cheese and hard salami, olives, fruit, and bread would have to suffice. It was all Sandor could do to control his trembling hands as he sliced. He poured wine and put everything on a tray, was about to return to the bedroom with it, when Sansa came into the kitchen walking cautiously on doe legs.
She had thrown on one of his t-shirts. It came down almost past her knees. A quirky grin scrunched up one side of her mouth. She self-consciously straightened her mussed hair. Sansa arched her eyebrows and chewed her lip. Her expression was comically apologetic.
“I’m sore,” she whimpered shyly. Her face flushed red with embarrassment. Sandor laughed out loud as he strode toward Sansa and wrapped his arms around her. It had been what … three … four times? He’d honestly lost count, so wrapped up in her, so lost in his passion for her.
They had a full day together tomorrow. There were things that would need to be done before he left, but Sandor would still have some free time to spend with Sansa. Somehow he would find a way to let her know just how much he loved her.
Chapter 15: Fide, Officium, Obsequium
Sandor brought the tray into the family room. They curled up together on the couch and watched their favorite sitcom, Kim’s Convenience, and simply enjoyed the laughter and the nearness of each other as they nibbled the food and sipped wine.
When their bellies were sated and eyelids grew heavy, Sandor carried Sansa back into the bedroom. When she protested reminding him that she was sore, Sandor chuckled and assured her that his body needed sleep, just as hers did.
They shucked their clothes and crawled into bed. Sandor lay on his side behind Sansa. She backed into him, tucking her smaller body into his as his arms encircled her, snuggling her close. He was drenched in her warmth, her scent, and her beauty. He felt himself falling as he relaxed and his eyelids became impossibly heavy.
Sandor kissed the back of Sansa’s neck, nuzzled her hair, and listened as her deep breathing turned into that familiar purr. Knowing that she was already deep asleep, Sandor said the words to her that he knew he’d never be able to say when she was awake. He told her the thing he might never get the chance to tell her.
“I love you, Sansa.”
They were words he’d never said to anyone before, and which had never been said to him. He prayed that he would return from his trip, that Sansa would forgive him for who he was, and that she might say those words to him someday. If he could hear those words and watch as her lips spoke them – to him – he would willingly give up everything he had for the one thing he wanted, had yearned for his entire life.
“I love you, Sansa,” he whispered again. He closed his eyes and dreamed of her.
It was the first time Sansa had awakened before Sandor. He was always up and preparing breakfast, and she, aroused by the smell of food and the sound of cooking utensils, soon followed. He cooked while she made coffee. It was a routine they had fallen into without even realizing it.
But this morning was different. Sansa sat in the sunroom sipping a glass of orange juice thinking about how much different her life was from five years ago when she was still with Asshole. Or three years ago when she was with Asshole #2. Or two years ago when she had fled to Vermont. Or a month ago when she had welcomed a stranger into her home. How about twenty-four hours ago – when Sandor had seen her naked, when she first learned of his horrifying childhood trauma, when he ran down the steps and kissed her.
Sansa closed her eyes and calmed her breathing as a wave of heat rolled over her skin. She could feel the blush in her cheeks though no one was there to witness it. She was embarrassed because it forced her to admit to herself that it was the first time she had been kissed. It wasn’t the first time that her lips had touched a man’s lips, but still it felt like her first kiss.
Catelyn had taught her children to be strong and confident. She taught her daughters to be self-assertive and independent, and yet, Sansa had become insecure. She wasn’t sure if her insecurity resulted in her poor relationship choices, or if her relationships had caused her to become insecure.
Whichever it was, Sansa had very little self-respect by the time those men were done with her. At least she’d been smart enough to take what little self-respect she had left and high-tail it out of Dodge City.
That wasn’t love, Sansa declared. She could say that now – with confidence – because she had just experienced what love really felt like. The way Sandor had touched her and caressed her was something Sansa had never experienced from another man. He had been gentle and patient. His words had soothed and excited her. His fingertips gave her pleasure.
Ramsay had been cruel and sadistic. His had been the fetishes of nightmares. With him, there had been restraints, belts, cold hard slaps, sharp stings, and eventually punches. Ramsay had gone beyond what most people thought of as rough, using anger and pain – oh so much pain, her pain – to give himself pleasure.
Sansa shivered and pulled her cardigan tighter around her. Sansa had gotten away from Ramsay, with the help of her brothers and her sister. They were her protectors. Jon and Robb had threatened to kill him. Arya had been especially aggressive toward Ramsay and that had surprised Sansa because she and Arya had never been that close. Bran and Rickon had been in college at the time and blissfully out of the loop.
Jon had threatened to tell their father, and Sansa had begged him not to. How did you discuss one man’s twisted sexual fantasies with your dad? No, Sansa had convinced Jon and Robb and Arya to keep her secret. Besides, it was over, Ramsay was gone and that was the end of it – or so she’d thought.
In the meantime, Sansa had met and fallen in love with Asshole #2.
Sansa shook her head. She was not about to let either of them invade her mind or mess with her emotions. Not after what she had experienced with Sandor. There was no way he’d ever harm her. Every touch had been tender, affectionate, and loving. He’d taken his time, wasn’t rushed or rough. Every moment of pleasure had been for the benefit of both of them. Sandor had never taken pleasure for himself, but had instead given it and received as much pleasure in Sansa’s reaction as when she had reciprocated with her touches and caresses.
The back of Sansa’s neck grew hot as she recalled how many times they made love. Sandor could not get enough of her. It was as though he’d been making up for lost time – like he was catching up for all the years he’d never known her. And each time, just when she was sure she could stand no more, Sandor would find another sensitive spot on her body, another way to give her pleasure. He had utterly pulverized her defenses and she was helpless to resist him. Let’s face it, Sansa didn’t want to resist him.
Sansa wondered if Sandor’s voracity came from the possibility of him not returning. If she’d stopped to consider it earlier, she might have recognized that whatever it was he did for a living, it was dangerous. She’d asked him if he was a spy and he’d almost laughed at her, but maybe it had just been the wrong word. Did anyone even use the word “spy” anymore? Nowadays they were known as undercover operatives. Or maybe he was in the CIA or FBI or … No, Sandor was British. So maybe he was MI6.
“Uggghhh, who cares?!” Sansa grumbled tugging at handfuls of her hair. The point is, there was a possibility that Sandor might not be coming back. After all they had been through, finally managing to thrust their true feelings out into the open, there was a chance she might lose him.
He was the first man, the first relationship she’d ever been in, that she had felt what true love was. He was affectionate and caring and he loved her.
A giant bubble seemed to burst in Sansa’s chest. It swelled, it ached, it sliced her with sharp daggers, then it burst. Then, it began to leak from her eyes. Sansa’s eyes brimmed over and warm wet tears streamed down her face as she remembered his voice as she had fallen asleep. Actually, Sansa had already fallen asleep, but Sandor’s voice had awakened her. She’d listened for a moment and decided it was her imagination. But just as Sansa was about to drift off again, she’d heard him.
“I love you, Sansa.” And he’d meant it.
Sandor woke up with his arm slung across an empty half of the bed. He came immediately awake when he realized that Sansa wasn’t there. According to the digital clock, it was already after ten of the morning. He’d overslept by three hours.
Rolling onto his back, Sandor stretched, feeling the ache in his muscles. His arms, legs, and stomach were sore and tight. Sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, he tested his legs. Sandor swiped his hands over his face in an effort to brush away the rest of the sleep that fogged his mind. He cracked his neck and the important tasks for the day began to filter into his consciousness.
There was no question that tonight, Sansa would feel his affections again, if she would allow it. He wouldn’t be surprised if he’d worn her out completely. No matter how many times he’d wanted her, she was there, eager, wanting him in return. But there was only so much that her tiny, fragile body could take.
If he knew that his own body wouldn’t protest, Sandor could want her again right now. However, they hadn’t had a proper supper last night and it was already way past breakfast. They needed food – to give them fuel for the long day ahead, and to replace the reserves they’d used up last night.
Sandor threw on a pair of jogging pants and a t-shirt and went to find Sansa. He found her in the very first place he looked, a favorite spot for both of them. Sansa was sitting in the sunroom wearing only his t-shirt and a cardigan sweater. Her feet were pulled on onto the edge of the chair with her arms around her bent legs and her shoulders were shaking. She was either laughing or crying.
“Sansa?” He stepped through the doorway to find her with her head buried into the circle of her arms and legs. She lifted her head to look at him. Sansa’s eyes were red and puffy and her face was wet and flushed from weeping. She’d been crying hard.
“Sansa what’s wrong?” Sandor began to move quickly toward her, but Sansa bounded off the chair and came at him. She threw herself into his arms and hugged him tightly. Her crying amplified, her small body wracked with great shuddering sobs.
“Sansa, what’s wrong?” Sandor asked again. He wrapped his arms around her, holding tightly so she’d know that he would never let go. He stroked her hair as she cried into his chest. Sandor felt a stab of pain through his heart at seeing her like this, but was reassured in the fact that she had come to him, that it wasn’t something he’d done to hurt her.
When the sobbing began to subside and became sniffles and gasps, Sandor took her by the upper arms and held her away from him. With her chin on his chest, Sansa looked straight up at him and smiled. She couldn’t tell him, not like this, if it meant the sanctity of the moment would be disturbed because she got a crick in her neck.
Sansa took Sandor by the hand and pulled him over to his chair. “Sit,” she requested. Sandor sat.
Sansa stood between his knees so that they were almost face to face. Placing her hands on his cheeks, she smiled even though a few straggling tears still rolled down her face. He looked up at her in wonderment, his eyes huge and warm and full of adoration.
“You love me,” Sansa told him. “I heard you say it.”
Sandor’s eyes widened in surprise and fear. He took Sansa the by the wrists and forced her hands down away from his face, but he didn’t let go of her. Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe. His chest felt constricted. His stomach lurched and he was afraid that he was going to vomit, even though his belly was empty. He turned his head down, still holding onto Sansa’s wrists, gasping and swallowing until the urge passed.
Sansa struggled to free her hands from Sandor’s strong grip. She lifted his face and forced him to look at her. His eyes were wild like a trapped animal, his body stiff and angular.
“Sandor, I love you, too.” But the wildness was still there and his eyes darted frantically. Sansa leaned in and kissed him. She kissed him long and tenderly until she felt the panicked tension go out of his lips. Sansa felt his body relax, his mouth soften, and he began to kiss her back.
When she knew that he’d calmed down, Sansa pulled away. She cocked her head slightly and brushed the hair away from the damaged side of his face.
“I love you, Sandor,” she told him. Sandor pulled her toward him again and rested his head against her breasts. He wrapped his arms around her and held on for dear life afraid that this was some sort of dream and that if he let go, it would all disappear in a puff of smoke.
He hadn’t expected this. Sandor had been sure Sansa was asleep when he’d told her that he loved her. He might not have said the words if he’d thought she could hear him. But she had. And she loved him, too. Sansa had said the very words he prayed that he might someday hear from her lips.
Sandor’s stomach clenched again when he realized that Sansa had expressed love for a man she didn’t really know. He had vowed to come back after his trip, tell her the truth about him and then tell her that he loved her. Now everything was all out of whack. He felt the panic rising him again but closed his eyes and forced it back down.
Pulling Sansa away from him, Sandor grasped her by the shoulders and looked up at her. His expression was pained. He shook his head. “Sansa, you don’t love me.”
Sansa was confused and her face showed it. Her expression changed to disbelief, then defiant confidence. “Yes, I do. You told me that you loved me and I’m telling you that I love you, too.”
Sandor shook his head again. “No, you don’t. You can’t love me.”
“Why not? I’ve lived with you for over a month. And in that time I’ve come to know a man that is the kind of man I’ve always wanted in my life. You’ve been kind and patient and honest and I –”
“No, Sansa. I haven’t been honest.”
Sansa and Sandor looked at each other for a long moment. Sandor hoped Sansa could see the truth in his eyes, but Sansa wouldn’t be deterred.
“About what? Is it that you lied about what you do for a living? I know you’re not in security. I figured that out. So what do you do? Do you work for the government? Is it something you’re not allowed to talk about?”
Sandor was growing frustrated because he had the feeling that no matter what he said, Sansa wouldn’t hear him. He pulled the ottoman up behind her knees and made her sit down in front of him. Her knees were still between his. Sandor leaned forward and clasped both of Sansa’s hands within his. He took a long deep breath, and looked Sansa in the eye.
“Sansa, you don’t know who I am because I haven’t told you the truth about me. And I won’t. Not yet. I have to leave here tomorrow. If I make it back –”
Sansa gasped and started to cry again. Sandor let go of her hands and swiped at her tears with roughened, clumsy thumbs.
“Is that why you were crying?” he asked.
Sansa nodded between sobs. “I don’t want to lose you,” she whimpered. “I can’t. Not after what I’ve been through. Not after finally finding you. I love you, Sandor. You do love me, don’t you?”
Sandor’s heart wrenched painfully in his chest. He did his best to wipe away her tears again. Then as before, he clasped her hands between his. “Sansa, I need you to listen to me. I will try my damnedest to come back to you. But I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that there’s a chance I might not.” Sandor’s breath caught in his throat and he felt that rising lump threatening to come from his belly, but he swallowed and willed it away. “I do love you, Sansa. And it’s because I love you that I’m going to make you a promise. If I come back, I will tell you everything.” Sandor gave her hands a shake for emphasis. “Everything.”
“Why can’t you tell me now?”
“I can’t tell you now, because I love you. And if I don’t come back, this is the way I want to remember you – loving me. If I told you everything now, there’s a chance that you would hate me and that’s not the way I want to leave here. I couldn’t leave here and go do what I have to do knowing that you hate me.”
Sansa shuddered as her sobs made one last appearance then disappeared. Her tears had stopped but the look on her face reminded Sandor of youth and pure innocence and he saw a glimpse of what Sansa must have looked like as a child.
“I don’t understand why you could ever think I’d hate you,” Sansa told him.
Sandor nodded. “I know.”
Sansa thought for a moment. “Sandor, will you do me one favor? Will you tell me something about yourself that I don’t know? Something you haven’t told me yet?”
Sandor considered her request carefully and nodded.
“Is Sandor Clegane your real name?” she asked.
Sandor chuckle and nodded. “I’m not a spy. I don’t work for the government or any government agency. I really am originally from Leeds. I don’t live in London.” He smiled simply and waited.
Sansa thought for a moment, then brightened when she thought of a question she didn’t know the answer to and one which Sandor was bound to be able to tell her. “Why do you have a tattoo of three wolves?”
Sandor kissed her fingertips and smiled. “Fide, Officium, Obsequium,” he recited.
Chapter 16: Loyalty, Duty, Obedience
“They’re dogs, not wolves. Their names are Fide, Officium, and Obsequium. That’s latin for Loyalty, Duty, and Obedience.”
Sansa pulled her head back with a scowl. “Obedience?” It hinted at something cold and harsh, rather like the unwanted memories from Sansa’s personal history.
“My life hasn’t exactly been warm and fuzzy, Sansa.” Sandor grimaced, hesitant to tell her too much more at this point. “I was fifteen, I was on my own and at the time, I thought it was cool. I wanted people to think I was tough.” He swallowed feeling regret. “And that’s exactly what people thought of me.”
It suddenly occurred to Sansa that loyalty, duty, and obedience were the major guiding factors in Sandor’s life so far.
“Was that all you had?” Sansa asked.
Sandor nodded. “It’s really not so bad. Loyalty and duty are important for everyone, I think. Loyalty, for sure. Duty … well there are times we have to do things that we might not agree with, but we have a duty. Obedience …” Sandor tossed his head. “That depends on who’s in charge. But it’s the code that I’ve lived by for most of my life – since I was fifteen.”
“How old are you?” Sansa asked, suddenly realizing that she didn’t know. She felt silly for asking and her face showed it.
Sandor kissed her fingertips again and sighed knowing that Sansa would always have more questions. He wanted to answer all of them – when the time was right. He decided to give her this one last answer to an innocent question, but that was all.
Before he had a chance to stop her, Sansa asked one more question. “Has anyone ever loved you?” She pulled her hand away from his and brushed her palm against his cheek feeling the warm skin and the softness of his beard. Sandor took her wrist, turned his head and kissed the inside of her hand. If the question had come from anyone else, he would have been angry. Sandor, however, understood that Sansa meant the question to show concern for his miserable childhood, for his solitary life, for his resistance to personal attachments or sociability.
“I only need one person to love me, Sansa.” He squeezed her hands tightly. “If today is my only day, that’s enough for me.” Before he had a chance to speak, Sandor pulled her face close and kissed her. Everything in his body became aroused again. He could feel it in his lips, in his skin, in the way her scent filled his nose. Sandor wanted so badly to take her right back into the bedroom, but he knew there were important things that needed to be done today.
It was getting close to lunch, so Sandor told Sansa to go ahead and have a shower while he made them a hearty brunch. He cooked eggs and sausages and thick grits (something he’d grown fond of during his trips to the southern states). He fried potatoes and made toast.
While they ate, Sandor explained the things that needed to be done. There was a lot of ground to cover (literally) and Sandor still wanted some free time this evening to spend with Sansa.
Leading Sansa along the tree line, Sandor explained to Sansa where people could come onto her property from the forest, or by the lake. He showed her the areas that couldn’t be seen from the house. The various pathways into the woods would have to be monitored, as well as the blind spots.
“It’s only a matter of time before someone shows up from the city,” he explained. “People are fleeing to the country. Your driveway isn’t obvious to anyone if they don’t know where to look, but people are going to start looking to for those out-of-the-way places.” Sandor pointed to the ground under their feet. “Like here.”
If he’d had to do it on his own, without Sansa, it would have taken a lot longer for the invisible fences to be installed. Fortunately, Sansa was a level-headed woman who wasn’t prone to needless panic and useless drama. If she had been one of those kind of women, he’d have kept the monitoring system a secret and he’d be having a bitch of a time getting it operational on his own.
“A little to the left,” Sandor called as they aimed the two laser reflectors between the trees. They looked similar to the safety guards for an automatic garage door opener and worked on the same principle. If the laser was interrupted, it sent a signal to the monitoring system setting off an alarm that would send a notification to his cell phone.
After setting up the first laser fence, Sandor downloaded the app to Sansa’s phone and they tested it. Both of them received the notification immediately. There were eight more laser fences to install. The only unprotected area was the shoreline. The beach was too long to set up a laser fence across it. However, Sandor explained that the beach was fully visible from several rooms in the house including Sansa’s office and the sunroom.
“No one can come off the lake from the beach without being seen.”
“Except at night,” Sansa pointed out. “We have to sleep at some point.”
But Sandor already had a plan for that as well. On the two most prominent trees at either end of the beach, Sandor set up dual head motion detectors each with three 160 watt bulbs that produced 10,000 lumens. Not only would it scare the crap out of whoever set it off, it would turn night into day in an instant.
“But what if I don’t notice it?” Sansa asked.
“Trust me, you’ll notice. One head is aimed in front of the beach and the other one is aimed at the bedroom window.” Sandor nodded emphatically. “You’ll notice.”
“So? We’re done?” Sansa asked hands on her hips admiring what they’d accomplished. She marveled at how well she and Sandor had worked together. He’d patiently answered her questions and gently corrected her when she didn’t do something quite right. His corrections always came with explanations. He never yelled or got angry. Sandor never made her feel incompetent or ineffectual.
“No.” Sandor led Sansa back to the house and to her office. “Open the gun cabinet and get the Mossberg. Bring the shotgun and the rifle out to the porch. I’ll be right back.” Sandor walked down the hallway to the master bedroom.
When Sandor came out to the front porch, Sansa was waiting for him with a gun propped against the wall on either side of her. She looked at him curiously.
“How did you know the gun cabinet contained a Mossberg shotgun?”
Sandor stared at Sansa. How was he supposed to explain that it was his job to know things like that. He would have to tell her that he broke into it (very easily) because he didn’t trust her back then and because he didn’t have any weapons of his own at the time. Sandor would have to tell her that he’d already started having worries about what the news wasn’t telling them.
He opened his mouth hoping that something relatively intelligent would come out of him, but Sansa held up her hand and gave her head a toss.
“It doesn’t matter.” She thought of what Sandor had told her of his trips to Burlington. He was the type of man who prepared for the future. Sandor was always prepared.
Sandor had a box of ammunition in each hand. He had more inside, and he would tell Sansa where it was stored later. For now, he wanted to concentrate on making sure she could adequately defend herself. Just because she owned guns didn’t mean she knew how to use them.
“Well fuck me in seven hells!” Sandor blurted. His mouth hung slack as he watched the last soda can spill its contents. The brown syrupy liquid spurted out of a small neat hole with the rhythm of a heartbeat. Gluck, gluck, gluck.
“I’d rather do that here,” Sansa suggested. Her tone was unquestionably naughty. She grinned up at him and waggled her eyebrows.
Sandor had set six cans on a fence rail. He figured that in six tries he could get a fair idea of how good a shot Sansa was. He sure as hell wasn’t expecting this.
Sansa had picked off the cans as though she’d walked right up to them and swatted them off the fence with her hand.
“Where the fuck did you learn to shoot?”
In a bolt of blinding memory, Sansa’s life flashed before her eyes. She broke out into a sweat, her entire body instantly covered in a thin sheen of perspiration. She could feel the blood draining from her face as the edges of her vision darkened.
Sansa felt Sandor’s arms around her as her legs started to give out. His touch was immediately healing and her senses quickly returned to fully functioning. Sandor supported her as they walked over to a wooden bench where he sat beside her and held her close.
“My brother Jon found out what was going on between me and Ramsay when he came down from Alaska for a visit,” Sansa began. “He’s the one who helped me leave Ramsay, but then he told Robb and Arya. They promised not to tell my dad on the condition that I learn how to take care of myself. So Jon brought Robb and Arya and me back to Alaska. We stayed for a couple months and did survival training. Robb and Jon taught Arya and me how to shoot. They took us hunting and fishing and skeet shooting.” Sansa looked up at Sandor who was listening raptly.
“They were really good teachers and we learned quickly. Arya is a better shot than me, though.”
“Wow,” Sandor muttered. “If you’re that good and she’s better … Well, I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley.”
Sansa ignored his comment and continued while she still had the energy to talk about it. “After we came back, that’s when I met … my next boyfriend. I don’t want to tell you who he is because it’s just too humiliating.”
Sandor nodded for her to continue. “He and his parents were really good to me. They treated me like one of the family. They took care of me. They were rich and I guess I got a little caught up in that. That’s easy to do when you get to go to the country club, or sailing on a yacht, and when you’re wearing designer clothes. They even set up an office for me in their house.”
“But then Ramsay came back. I killed him,” Sansa admitted weakly. “I shot him with that.” Sansa pointed to the Mossberg.
So that’s why she’s kept it locked away in that gun cabinet, Sandor thought. For Sansa, the gun was a reminder. It was a physical symbol of the violence of that day and it was something that she could literally seal up and lock away and throw away the key. Except that she’d kept that key, because Sansa was a practical woman.
“After that my boyfriend started becoming clingy and possessive. It started out with him being overprotective but then he became controlling and started behaving oddly. It’s like he was jealous of Ramsay somehow and almost … he almost started …” Sansa began to tremble as a watery glaze covered her eyes.
Sandor gently rubbed her back, in soothing circles. He knew she would find the words, so he sat patiently and waited. Unexpectedly, Sansa nodded.
“I was bought and paid for,” she realized. “He owned me.”
“How, Sansa? How could he own you? What made him think that?”
Sansa ignored his question. “He began to punish me if I wasn’t obedient …” Sansa gave Sandor a funny look and he immediately understood her reaction to his tattoo. “He told me what his family could do to me. That’s when I realized who they really were … what they were.”
“But you left,” Sandor prompted.
Sansa nodded. “I left, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. He started stalking me. So I came here.”
Sandor wasn’t stupid. Even when she’d first shown him the emails, Sandor had known that it was Sansa’s second boyfriend who was sending them. It didn’t take much intuition to figure that out. The question was … why?
“Do you think he knows where you are?”
Sansa shook her head. “At first I wasn’t so sure, but I can’t think of any way he could know. Only my family knows where I am and they would never discuss it with anyone. Remember, my dad is FBI. We know how to keep a secret.”
“I hope so, because I don’t want anything to happen to you while I’m gone.” Sandor hugged Sansa, gently tilted her head back and kissed her.
Sansa sighed and laid her head against Sandor’s chest. “While you’re gone? The way you say that makes me have hope that you’re coming back.” Sansa pressed her chin into him and looked up into his downturned eyes. “I do want to have hope that you’re coming back, Sandor. I can’t lose you. Not now.”
“Believe me when I say that I want it just as much as you do. Maybe more. You have a family that loves you. You’ve grown up knowing what love is. I’m only just finding out.”
Sansa shot upright, her face tight with anguish. “Then why are you going? Stay here. Quit your job. You can disappear out here.”
“Sansa, I can’t!” Sandor seized her tightly by the shoulders. “I have been loyal to my employer for twenty-five years. I have a duty to them. They –”
“They demand obedience,” Sansa finished for him. Sandor nodded. “And if they don’t get it?” she asked.
“They’ll make me pay for it.” Sandor was going to finish by saying, “With my life,” but he knew it wasn’t necessary. He could see in her eyes that she already understood.
Chapter 17: Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow
Ask her a month ago, Sansa would have said that she was happy in her solitude, existing peacefully and quietly in her cozy home. Now that she realized what life could be with someone she truly loved, and who genuinely loved her back, Sansa knew that she could never go back to that blissful ignorance.
The house was too empty, too quiet, and too lifeless. There was no music, no soft footsteps coming to her from down the hallway. Her meals were bland, her voice hollow in the loneliness of the house, and the bed too cold without Sandor lying next to her.
Determined not to slip back into her pre-Sandor way of life, Sansa set the alarm on the digital clock. She would continue to get up every morning at seven, she added frozen blueberries to her cereal, and she went for a long run to the cliff and now, even farther beyond that, pushing her body to the limit. She had several more alarms set on her cell phone for lunch, dinner and time to get ready for bed. It might have seemed silly for Sansa to set an alarm to tell her to go to bed, but if she didn’t, Sansa was sure she would regress to her old habits.
Sandor wouldn’t tell her where he was going or what it was he had to do. All he’d told her was that his employer had been tracking a threat. Sansa suspected that Sandor had used alternative words to describe his “mission,” but she’d understood the underlying meaning. Sandor had to go after someone. What he was supposed to do when he found his target was only a macabre assumption.
Apprehend … or eliminate? Sansa wondered.
Sansa stood at the top of the cliff and looked out over the water. She would have gone farther today, but the weather was threatening and she wanted to head back before the storm hit. He’d only been gone two days, but in an instant, Sandor had changed her life … again. This time, by leaving.
Dropping to her butt with her feet hanging over the edge, Sansa recalled the day Sandor had sat with her in this spot and told her of his tragic childhood. She hadn’t allowed herself to cry for him then, but now she wished she had. One of them needed to cry but she knew that Sandor never would. He’d made peace with his past just as he’d made peace with the possibility of not returning.
Sansa didn’t want to realize that kind of acceptance. She wanted to fight it and resist it, but it wasn’t up to her. Whether Sandor returned to her – she had no control over that. That was the only fact she was willing to accept.
Standing in the driveway with their arms around each other, Sandor and Sansa embraced for a long time. Neither was willing to let the other go, even though they both knew it had to be done. Sandor kissed the top of Sansa’s head. He buried his nose in her hair and breathed deeply. He wanted the memory of her scent deeply engrained in him.
“You know what to do,” he said calmly, hands gently cradling her head away from him. It wasn’t a question, but a confirmation. Sansa nodded.
“I still don’t understand why you’re not taking one of the guns,” Sansa worried. “I can’t use both of them at the same time and you need one.”
Sandor shook his head. “If you’ve come to know me at all, you know I’m prepared,” he reminded her.
Sandor shook his head again. “Don’t ask any questions you know I can’t answer.” He smoothed back her hair. Sandor inhaled deeply. “Do you trust me?” he asked.
Without hesitation, Sansa nodded. Sandor almost wished she hadn’t been so quick in her response. He smiled slightly and took another deep breath.
“If you haven’t heard from me by the 27th, there’s something I need you to do.” Sandor chewed on his lip and his brow creased. It was the first time Sansa had seen Sandor look so unsure of himself.
“In the bedroom, remove the kickplate from the bottom of the dresser. Just give it a good shove and it’ll come loose.”
“Taped to the bottom of the dresser is a package.” Sandor paused. Whatever he was about to tell Sansa was obviously difficult for him. “If you haven’t heard from me by then, I want you to give that package to your father.”
Sansa gave him a quizzical look. She was about to ask what it was about, but Sandor cut her off.
“Don’t mail it,” he said shaking his head. “Take it to him in person. Can you promise me that?” Sandor swept the loose hairs away from her face. “Just get in the truck and go and don’t stop until you see your dad and put that package in his hands.”
When Sansa continued to stare at him without a word, Sandor gave her head a light shake. “Promise me,” he pleaded.
Sansa nodded. “Okay. I promise, Sandor.” She didn’t understand it, but hers was not to understand. This time she needed to obey, and for Sandor, she would.
“But you’ll have my truck,” Sansa reminded him.
Sandor shook his head. “I’ve already ordered another one for you. It’ll be here Friday afternoon.”
Oh, right, Sansa thought. Sandor had magic in his pocket and she hoped it was white magic and not black magic.
Sandor gave her a long kiss. He wanted so very much to stay, to take her back in the house, back to bed and stay there, but he had a job to do. Sansa had already given him more love than he’d ever had in the entirety of his life. If he never got anything more, he was already happy to have what Sansa had given him.
Squeezing her hand as he walked away, Sandor refused to look back. There would be no good-byes. He would not let this be the end. Saying good-bye was admitting defeat, giving up. Sandor would never do that.
He climbed into the truck, then Sansa ran up behind him.
“Wait, Sandor,” she panted. “Why do you think you might not come back?” She looked up at him through the open window of the cab, imploring him. “If you do your job, if you obey, then why do you think you might not come back?”
Sandor started the truck and leaned out the window taking her hand. He focused his eyes on her with determination. “Because I’m going to do my job, but not the way they expect me to. If things go the way I hope, I’ll come back and we’ll be together. But Sansa …” Sandor slipped his hand behind her head threading his fingers through her soft, silky hair. “Things never go the way you hope. But if I don’t at least try, they’ll always own me. You know what that’s like.”
Sansa nodded. She stepped up onto the side rail and leaned through the window. Sandor kissed her one last time.
“Sansa, thank-you for –”
“No.” Sansa shook her head. She wouldn’t allow him to say anything that might jinx his return. “I love you,” she told him. “Please be careful. Wear the mask and gloves, stay safe, and come back to me.”
Sandor nodded and drove away.
The alarm system worked just the way Sandor said it would. Sansa looked up from her monitors and checked the notification on her phone. At first, she thought she’d gotten so deeply into the zone of her coding – she was anxious to complete another website and have even more free time – that she’d thought it was dinner time already. But it was only 2:30 and her phone had signaled that someone was coming down the driveway.
Sansa had to admit that she was a little on edge. Sandor was gone, she’d received another email from Ramses2 this morning, and Sandor had made her wary of the mysteries surrounding the pandemic. A pandemic, she noted, about which the news people weren’t completely being straightforward.
Rifle safely in hand, Sansa peeked through the sidelight of the front door. Two pickup trucks were playing follow the leader into her dooryard. The first one was a dark red Ford. The second one was a beige Chevy. Sansa debated whether to step onto the front porch with her rifle prominently displayed, or if she should leave it just inside the door.
There are at least two of them and one of me, she concluded. Leaving the rifle inside the door would be too far out of reach in a crisis situation. Sansa opened the door just as the drivers were exiting their vehicles. Both were wearing N95’s and surgical gloves. The driver of the second vehicle was holding a clipboard. Both strangers eyed the rifle but didn’t seem bothered by it at all. Their lack of concern made Sansa even more wary of what might be going on in the world, especially the situation immediately in front of her.
“Sansa Stark?” asked the man with the clipboard.
“Who’s asking?” Sansa didn’t like the paranoia she’d adopted, but she supposed that was partly Sandor’s fault. Since he’d instilled it in her, maybe it was good thing.
Clipboard guy looked down at his paperwork. “The Hound ordered a Ford F-350 Super Duty to be delivered to Sansa Stark at this address.” He looked up but Sansa stared back without a word keeping her face as placid as possible.
The Hound? It must be Sandor’s handle, or his code name or something. He told her he’d ordered a truck for her and that it would be arriving today. She just wished she had some other confirmation that this was legit from him and not some sort of trick.
Clipboard man looked down again to read something. “There’s a note on the bottom of the requisition,” he told her. “Fide, officium, obsequium.” He looked up at Sansa again. “Does that mean anything to you?”
Sansa couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, that’s for me,” she nodded toward the brand new vehicle. “Do I need to sign anything?”
“No.” The man who’d been driving the first vehicle swung his arm wide and tossed her the car keys. Two sets of keys were on the ring. He moved around to the passenger door of the second vehicle and got in.
Clipboard man pointed to Sansa’s new truck. “There’s a package on the front seat. Owner’s manual, insurance card, ownership – everything’s registered. The plate tags are already on and they’re current until your next renewal in ...” He looked at his clipboard again. “In July.” That’s when Sansa’s next birthday was.
“Everything has been sanitized on the inside. You might want to give her a wash just to be safe, but it’s clean,” clipboard man assured her. He removed the top sheet from his clipboard and dug a disposable lighter out of his pocket. He flicked the lighter, held it to the requisition until it caught the flame, and dropped the burning sheet to the ground.
Leave no paper trail, Sansa thought, deepening the mysteries playing in her mind.
With a wave of his clipboard, he climbed back into his driver’s seat and left.
Sansa waited until they were long gone and went to inspect her new truck. This one was brand new. Her old truck, the one Sandor had taken, had been bought brand new when Sansa moved here two years ago. This one was the same color and model, but being the latest model, it had upgraded features. There was more chrome, tow hooks, front and rear dash cams, a full security package, and Sandor had ordered Sirius satellite. The seats were leather, but with microfiber inserts – much easier on the ass in the heat of summer and the frost bite of winter, Sansa mused.
Back at her desk and looking out the window toward the lake, Sansa wondered wondered how the hell Sandor could magically conjure up a brand new pickup truck in the middle of a pandemic. She wanted to know what Sandor was doing at this very moment. She wondered who he worked for. Her skin beaded with goose flesh as she wondered why Sandor thought she might hate him.
When Sansa had tried to force him to face the sexual and emotional tension between them, Sandor had refused to talk to her about it. He wouldn’t give her any answers.
“If I did, you would never want me here. You would hate me,” he’d told her. It made Sansa wonder just exactly how much she didn’t know about him. He’d promised to tell her everything if … when … he came back. Sansa opted to keep a positive outlook regarding his return. Until she knew his truth, Sansa still wanted him back, still believed she loved him. Sandor hadn’t given her any reason not to. Yet.
Sandor arrived in Plattsburgh just after four in the afternoon. He’d given himself a lot of extra time to scope the layout of the town and slowly work his way toward the airport in a roundabout way so that he could surveil the surroundings of the airport. He’d worked his way through downtown Plattsburgh first, meandering the streets, looking for anything out of the ordinary. He wasn’t worried about being followed. With almost no one on the streets, it was easy to see whether he’d picked up a tail.
Locating a surveillance point at the airport had been fairly easily. Sandor found an old service road that skirted the airport. The path took him up a hill to the east of the main runway. The access road had been well-traveled in the recent past and it hadn’t rained recently. That meant that Sansa’s truck wouldn’t leave any fresh tire tracks leading to his hiding spot.
The area was wooded, but not too densely, leaving Sandor with adequate cover, but still allowing him to see the airport below and all the open ground surrounding it. He spent the night in the truck dozing off only occasionally into a light sleep. He felt safe allowing himself to get some shut-eye knowing that at the slightest sound, he’d be wide awake and alert.
Sandor spent the morning watching the comings and goings at the airport. There wasn’t much to see. No more than four employees were in the building at any given time. One freight plane came in and Sandor watched it being unloaded on the tarmac.
At shift change, two of the four employees left and two more took their places. Sandor looked at his watch. It was just after two. His instructions advised him that Aerys would arrive at 1425. But when three o’clock came and went with no more movement at the airport, Sandor knew something wasn’t right.
Unfortunately, that meant he’d have to go down there and find out what had gone wrong.
On slow approach, Sandor observed four vehicles in the parking lot. Just a small town airport, there most likely wouldn’t be a lot of staff during regular times. This however wasn’t regular times. There were two people moving around outside on the tarmac or near the unloading area that Sandor could see, all of whom wore the uniform of airport employees.
Sandor put on his N95, surgical gloves, a pair of sunglasses, and tucked his hair under a knitted cap. The mask, glasses, and cap hid much of his scar decreasing the likelihood of an accurate description of him.
He cautiously made his way to the front entrance, seeing everything that moved or seemed out of place. As soon as he entered the building, the manager on duty peered out through the window of the main office, but kept a safe distance. The man appeared visibly shaken, trembling nervously.
“I was supposed to meet an arrival at two-thirty,” Sandor told him paying close attention to every detail of his immediate surroundings. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.
The man in the office shook his head trying to act annoyed, but Sandor could clearly see that the man was scared. “In case you haven’t noticed, the airport’s closed to the public. We’re only getting in freight deliveries.” The manager stood rigid. Sandor studied his face carefully and noticed a bead of sweat run down the side of the man’s face. The airport interior was cool.
The two men stared at each other. By his expression, Sandor made it clear that he didn’t believe what he’d been told and that he didn’t like being lied to.
The manager backed up and raised his hands in surrender. “I don’t want any trouble,” he stammered. Sandor reached inside his jacket and showed the manager just what trouble looked like. With each step the manager retreated, Sandor advanced forcing the other man deeper into his office. As Sandor stepped toward the doorway, his eyes flicked down to the floor behind the desk. There was a man lying on the floor, only his feet and ankles visible.
Joffrey had already been here, done his damage and fled.
“When did he get here?” Sandor asked.
“Around 1:45. He was hiding in the freight plane.”
“Was he blonde? Thin? About mid-thirties?” Sandor asked. The manager nodded but refused to look Sandor in the eye.
“Just tell me what you can. I need to find him.” Sandor thought for a moment. “He could be sick,” Sandor added. He hoped that any incentive to get the manager to talk would be worth it. You couldn’t question a dead man.
“He’s driving a 2015 BMW. Navy blue. He asked which way to the 89. But that’s on the other side of Lake Champlain and the ferry ain’t running.”
“Say where he was going?”
“Ahh … it was … ahhh …” The manager sweated heavily as he stared down the barrel of Sandor’s Ruger. “… North Buford? Ahh maybe North Burton? Something like that …”
“North Burlow?” Sandor asked.
The manager excitedly nodded. “Yeah, that’s right. North Burlow.” The manager flicked his eyes off over Sandor’s left shoulder. It was a fraction of a second, but Sandor had seen it. In the reflection of the office window, he saw a fifth employee approaching.
That’s how he got out, Sandor realized. He’d pretended to be one of the airport staff leaving at shift change.
Sandor sat inside Sansa’s truck and hastily wiped down the surface of the gun. Hopefully it would be quite some time before the bodies of the airport employees were discovered. Sandor hoped for at least a one hour head start. He’d easily managed to drive away without directly being seen by the other two employees of the airport who'd been busy laboring out on the tarmac. If they did manage to give a description of him to the authorities, it would be vague at best.
Sandor pulled off the road a safe distance from the airport. He stared calmly at the center of the steering wheel, then suddenly erupted in a rage pounding his fist on the dashboard. His hand went through the vent, so he turned his rage on the dashboard display unit sending sparks and a puff of smoke through the cab.
Without a further thought, Sandor wrenched the truck into gear and hoped that he would make it home to Sansa before Joffery Baratheon did.
Chapter 18: Together Again?
Sansa sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the kickplate of the dresser. It would be easy to pull the bottom board off and find the package Sandor had hidden there. But if it was taped to the underside of the dresser, she might rip the envelope or whatever it was. If Sandor came back before the 27th, he’d know that Sansa hadn’t kept her promise to wait. He’d never trust her again. So instead, she curbed her curiosity and left it be for now.
But should she trust him? What was in that package? Did he have evidence incriminating his employer? Who did he work for? What did Sandor really do?
Sandor had promised Sansa that when he came back, he would tell her everything – everything that might make her hate him. But why would she hate him unless he’d done something terrible. Had he committed crimes? Obviously. And whatever was in that package held all the details.
The only thing that kept Sansa from doubting him was that Sandor had promised to tell her everything. That meant that he might have a reasonable explanation for his misdeeds – an explanation that wouldn’t be apparent from the documented evidence that was sealed inside the package hidden under her dresser.
It didn’t really matter whether she found out now or later. She could wait. If Sandor had bad things to tell her and she decided not to forgive him for it, if she decided that she did, in fact hate him, it wouldn’t matter whether that came now or later. If Sansa opened the package now, she might never discover that Sandor really was a good man that had been stuck in an impossible situation.
Sansa decided to wait. Two weeks wouldn’t make a difference to the eventual outcome.
Because the roads were empty, Sandor was able to push the envelope as he sped down the freeway at breakneck speed. He ignored speed limits completely and stop signs were just a suggestion. Sandor took corners with two wheels nearly leaving the ground.
He tried calling Sansa, but her phone went straight to voice mail. Sandor tried calling her business line, but that rang about a dozen times, then went to voice mail.
Joffrey couldn’t already be there, could he? Even if the car he was driving had GPS, Joffrey would be unfamiliar with the roads and turns. He’d be taking it a lot slower than Sandor was currently driving. For whatever reason Sansa wasn’t answering, it didn’t likely have anything to do with Joffrey. That made Sandor even more concerned.
This is why he never should have gotten involved with Sansa.
Sandor realized, of course, that he was not directly to blame for Sansa’s precarious situation, but he was to blame for not focusing. There had been clues and he’d missed them. If he’d been paying attention, if he hadn’t been all goo-goo eyed over Sansa, he might have put the pieces together a long time ago.
Sansa told him that she didn’t want to mention the name of her second boyfriend because it was too humiliating. Sandor should have clued in that it meant that her boyfriend came from a well-known family – someone whose name Sandor would have recognized. They were from the Chicago area and her relationship with him was an embarrassment to Sansa’s father.
If he’d knitted all those facts together earlier, Sandor might have realized who Sansa’s boyfriend had been. But Sandor had never heard of Sansa before. That’s the one thing that had thrown him off.
Over the years, Sandor had cleaned up a lot of messes for the Lannisters. He’d helped cover up the death of Joffrey’s father, Robert Baratheon. Then he’d been instrumental in “cleaning house” so that Cersei Lannister could take control of the Baratheon’s business dealings resulting in her being able to create her own Lannister empire.
Once Lannister Incorporated had been firmly and irrevocably established, Sandor had been made head of a certain facet of their security detail. He was responsible for taking care of their dirty work. Often times, that included cleaning up Joffrey’s messes.
Joffrey had had a string of less than stellar girlfriends, and it was Sandor’s job to throw out the trash. He had no idea where Joffrey had picked up some of these women, but in most cases, they were gutter rats. Sandor would deliver money or ultimatums so that the Lannister name would not be stained. If the women proved themselves to be more difficult than that, it became someone else’s job.
No women, no children. If Sandor had any honor in his life, that had been it.
It’s likely that the reason Sandor had never heard of Sansa, was because she wouldn’t have been a problem for the Lannisters. Sansa was from a good respectable family, she was intelligent, pretty, socially acceptable … and she had been obedient.
Sandor knew that Joffrey did have an acceptable girlfriend for awhile, but Cersei had only made mention of her once. “Little Dove” is what Cersei had called her. Other than that one time, Sandor would have had no reason to come in contact with Sansa. When his services were required, Sandor always received an encrypted text message with the details of his assignment. If a face to face meeting was needed, the text message would include a location and time, most often at the Lannister offices, and sometimes in other remote locations depending on what the meeting was about.
The one thing Sandor couldn’t figure out was how Joffrey had found Sansa. Ned Stark would have made sure it would be difficult to find her. Sansa’s family certainly never would have shared the information with anyone. If the Lannisters ever wanted to locate someone who was evading them, it was Sandor’s job to find them. The Lannisters had never asked him to find Sansa Stark.
Sandor had a suspicion that Joffrey had done this on his own. But honestly, Joffrey was twenty pounds of stupid in a five pound bag. That little cunt couldn’t find his own ass with a tracking device. So how the hell had he found Sansa?
Sandor felt like a one-man chase scene in an action movie as he pushed Sansa’s truck to the limit. With each mile, he grew more tense as the possible scenarios ticked through his head. Sandor scanned his mental checklist of details trying to figure out how Joffrey had located Sansa, what his intentions were, and how he was going to fix this.
He was now twenty minutes out of Burlington. By the time he passed through Stowe, he had called Sansa several times, but there had been no answer, making him more desperate to get back to her.
“Little Dove,” he mumbled. For some reason, Cersei’s pet name for Sansa, kept coming back to him, but why?
“Our Little Dove has had an accident,” he remembered her saying. Accident, what accident? Think, Sandor, think!
Suddenly, he slammed on the brakes. Sandor had cleaned up so many messes for that family, that one bled – almost literally – into the next. He remembered that it was one of the few times, Cersei had actually phoned him. Usually, he received encrypted text messages, but this time it had been a voice call because Cersei had wanted to impart just how delicate this particular situation was.
Sandor shook his head. All of the Lannister’s “situations” were delicate, but Cersei had wanted particular care in cleaning up after their Little Dove had had an accident. When Sandor went to the assigned location, the scene had been a bad one. Someone had shot a man in the face. Sandor’s crew was responsible for getting rid of the evidence and sanitizing the little apartment.
It had been Sansa’s apartment, he was sure of it now. And that’s how Joffrey had bought and paid for her.
We cleaned up your mess, you owe us. He could hear that little fucker threatening her with those very words. Joffrey and Cersei had probably kept some sort of evidence, or at least told her they had, in order to keep her in line. Sandor was guessing it had been a bluff. Even if they had evidence that Sansa had killed someone, the Lannisters wouldn’t dare do anything about it. They had enough against them without volunteering the details of a crime to the very agency who was out to get them.
Sandor jammed his foot down on the accelerator. The tires squealed as the truck fish-tailed. He had to get to Sansa as quickly as possible. There was no time to waste.
I walk this empty street
On the boulevard of broken dreams
When the city sleeps
And I’m the only one
And I walk alone, I walk alone
My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating
Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me
Till then I walk alone
The music wasn’t quite loud enough to shake the loneliness out of Sansa. She hit the volume button on the bluetooth speaker to drown out the smothering quiet of the house while she made dinner … for one. She threw some leftover spaghetti on a plate and tossed it in the microwave and poured a glass of wine. As she sipped and waited for the food to heat, Sansa wished she could call Sandor.
Sandor had given her his phone number but cautioned her to use it only in the event of a real emergency. He wanted to keep any communication to an absolute minimum until all of this was over with. Sansa didn’t want to distract him from whatever it was he needed to do. All she wanted, was for Sandor to get back to her safe and sound.
The microwave beeped, breaking through Sansa’s reverie. But when she turned around, the microwave was still working. Her brow furrowed, she turned down the music and listened. The beeping she heard was the tweedling of her office phone. By the time she ran in to answer it, the phone stopped ringing. Sansa checked the caller ID, but it was blocked. Probably just a scam or a telemarketer. The pandemic seemed to bring them out in droves. Yesterday, she’d deleted almost fifty scam and spoof emails.
Upon returning to the kitchen, the microwave beeped – for real this time – and Sansa took her plate to the sunroom. Just as she was about to take her first bite, the song on her phone changed. It was one of those faddish songs that Sansa had liked for about five minutes, but that now made her ears bleed. She set her dinner down and trudged back to the bluetooth dock.
Sansa sighed. Maybe instead she would go and watch Kim’s Convenience on Netflix. She could use a laugh about now. As she turned off the doc and closed the music app on her phone, Sansa noticed several missed calls from Sandor. But why hadn’t her phone rung?
After a few minutes of investigation, she discovered that the music app had a “do not disturb” function that overrode her notifications. Sansa unchecked the box changing her settings so that it wouldn’t happen again. She scrolled through her contacts, found Sandor and tapped the call icon. The call went to voice mail, so she left a message.
“Hey, it’s me. Sorry I missed your calls. I had to change the settings on my phone. I’ll explain later. Is everything okay? Call me back.” At the last moment, Sansa nervously added, “Love you.”
Sansa shoved her phone into her back pocket, grabbed her plate of now lukewarm pasta and headed to the TV room. Her butt was barely in the chair when her phone pinged.
“That was fast,” she muttered as she yanked it out of her pocket. But it wasn’t Sandor. It was an alarm notification. Sansa checked the security app. Someone had started to come down the driveway setting off the alarm near the road, but not the one closer to the house. Then, an alarm to the north had gone off. Whoever it was had most likely gone on foot to the path that circled around toward the beach.
Her dinner and all thoughts of Sandor abandoned, Sansa raced back to the office and retrieved her rifle.
Standing behind the drawn blinds in the sunroom, Sansa peeked between the slats peering out at the beach. It was nowhere near evening yet, but the sun was low enough in the sky to have dipped past the treetops. The beach was still bathed in light, but shadowed. Sansa made the mistake of glancing up at the security lights Sandor had installed. She was wondering how effective they would be when they instantly burst to life, temporarily blinding her.
Sansa charged back through the house and to the little table in the hall near the front entrance. The drawer in the table is where she kept her car keys, her N95, a small box of disposable gloves and the usual assortment of junk drawer debris. She put on her mask, a fresh pair of gloves, and also grabbed her sunglasses so that she could see through the glare of security lights.
Skulking from window to window, Sansa needed to find out where the trespasser was now located. Through the glare of the lights, Sansa saw the vague shadow of someone hovering behind the thin cover of the tall weeds near one end of the beach. Instead of going directly toward the light like a moth with a death wish, Sansa exited the front door, skirted the far side of the driveway and crept up to the beach in the shadow of the trees. By the time she got to where she’d seen someone hiding, there no longer appeared to be anyone there.
Sansa stepped away from the tree line so that she had a good distance to turn in a slow circle and check the area around her. She knew that if she was too close to the tree line when she did this, someone hiding in the underbrush would be able to surprise her.
Backing into the center of the dooryard, Sansa swiveled her head slowly as she released the safety on her rifle. The hair stood up on the back of her neck. Someone was watching her, she was sure of it, but she couldn’t see anything. At the moment, the main part of the driveway was at her back, the trees were to her right, the house to the left and the beach straight ahead. Sansa crab-walked toward the house holding her rifle at the ready. She paused only when she heard the tiniest rustle from the trees. Sansa didn’t turn her head, but instead listened closely.
It could have been leaves or grass blowing in the breeze. It could have been a small critter. But then she heard the faintest snap of a twig. Sansa whirled toward the tree line and pulled the rifle into her shoulder. When whoever it was realized that they’d been found out, they began to move freely.
Sansa watched the shadow of a figure behind the underbrush rise from a crouch. The body moved slowly and carefully toward Sansa. For every step he – Sansa assumed it was a man based on the size of him – took forward, Sansa took a large one backward.
With a huge sigh of relief, Sansa let her body sag as Sandor’s massive bulk parted the weeds. He stepped out into the open with his hands raised in surrender, but Sansa noted that his body language was tense, his eyes focused, and his movements slow and stealthy. Sandor was wearing his PPE mask so she couldn’t see his mouth, but his jaw worked in tense circles. Her eyes flicked upward to his right hand. His large fist was tight around the grip of a pistol. It was one of the largest she’d ever seen, and it appeared to be equipped with a silencer.
Something – Sansa couldn’t quite put her finger on it – wasn’t right. Sandor locked eyes with her. He grimaced, narrowing his eyes. Sansa kept her rifle aimed in front of her. Whoever this was in front of her was not her Sandor. This was someone else, someone she didn’t know or recognize.
Why had he come through the woods and not up the driveway? Why did he have a gun she’d never seen before? And with a silencer no less? Why wasn’t he saying anything to her?
“Sandor, I –”
Sansa’s words were cut off by Sandor’s expression. He winced, shook his head and tightened the muscles in his face dramatically. His eyes narrowed as he glared at her. His eyes seemed to say, Fuck you, you stupid little girl.
Slowly, Sandor lowered and straightened his gun arm, gripped the pistol with both hands and pointed it at her. Sansa couldn’t believe this. Who was that? Who had she really been hosting in her home?
Sansa’s heart began to hammer as she stared down the length of the barrel at the man she’d thought she was in love with. Everything she’d thought she’d known had been wrong. Sansa’s emotions turned sour inside her, a cold, bitter chill racing through her veins making her skin prickle with goose flesh. Her stomach lurched giving her the urge to vomit. Instead, she tightened her grip on the rifle and held her aim.
Step by step, Sansa slowly backed away from him and Sandor advanced. Sandor shook his head at her.
Don’t do it, girl. Don’t you fucking dare, he warned her.
But Sansa continued to back away. This wasn’t getting them anywhere. Sandor stopped and allowed Sansa to back away from him.
When she felt she was a safe distance – but really there was no safe distance from the gun Sandor had aimed on her – Sansa implored him. “Sandor, why are you doing this?”
Sandor winced again and watched his mask lift slightly as he must have flared his nostrils.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Hound. Has mother sent you after me again?”
Cold dread filtered won through Sansa’s limbs. The voice had come from behind her and she recognized the high pitched almost pre-pubescent sounding tone. Sansa glanced up at Sandor. He flicked his eyes to the left, then released one hand from his gun and motioned for her to turn around.
Sansa did as she was told, stepping to the side. Sandor side-stepped in the opposite direction keeping his gun aimed at her head. Hot tears began to fill her eyes, but if Sandor had any sympathy for her, he wasn’t showing it. Terror overcame Sansa as she realized there was no way out of it this time. Trembling uncontrollably, Sansa turned to face the reality that had indeed come back to bite her in the ass. Joffrey smiled his evil, pathetic smile at her. He, too held a gun, but it was lowered at his side. He wouldn’t need to use it if Sandor was here to do his dirty work for him.
“Sansa, my love. Finally we are together again.”
Chapter 19: Debts Owed To The Devil
“What are you doing here?” Sansa asked barely managing to hold back the tears. She flicked her eyes to the left where Sandor stood still aiming his gun at her.
Joffrey coughed a long, dry, hacking cough. His eyes were bloodshot, puffy, and rimmed with red. Snot dripped over his upper lip, and some similar substance oozed from the corners of his eyes. Joffrey sucked in a wheezing breath and coughed again not bothering to cover his mouth.
“Do you realize how hard I worked to find you?” He shook his head. “You shouldn’t have run away from me, my love.” He waved the gun around apparently having forgotten that he held it.
Joffrey stepped toward her and Sansa backed away from the triangle formed by the three of them. Sansa lowered her rifle. It would be useless to her now when it was two against one.
“I’m glad I found you,” Joffrey said. “Now I can take care of you. But you do realize you’ll have to be punished first. Mother says it wouldn’t look good if I married you without disciplining you for your unladylike behavior.” He gestured with the gun toward Sandor. “Thankfully the Hound is here to take care of that.” Holding the gun to his chest, Joffrey gushed with phony sympathy. “You do realize how much it would hurt me to have to punish you, don’t you?”
A fit of coughing and wheezing wracked Joffrey’s thin body. A snot bubble formed under his nose and he snuffed. The sound of it turned Sansa’s stomach. She kept her distance trying to maintain at least eight feet between them. She may have been wearing a mask, but any microscopic spittle cast into the air could still land on her skin.
“And speaking of unladylike behavior …” Joffrey turned to glance smugly at Sandor. “I see you’ve become familiar with the Hound.” Joffrey mocked a gasp of surprise. “Or should I call you Sandor? Is that your name?” Joffrey turned his attention back to Sansa. “After all these years I finally find out the dog’s name.”
Sansa realized then why Sandor had grimaced at her. She had revealed his long-hidden name to his employer.
“How did you find me?” Sansa demanded.
“My love did you really think I’d let you get away from me? All I had to do was look for your work. I know of your love for children. The work you did on those programs was very good, indeed. I had to search through thousands of websites. But eventually I found one designed by White Wolf Programs. Fitting name, I think.” Another coughing fit. Joffrey grabbed his chest and wheezed as he struggled to breathe. Sandor flinched nervously as Joffrey inadvertently pointed the gun on him while wiping his nose with his sleeve.
“I knew it was you, my love. And finally we could be together again.” He gestured between himself and Sansa with the pistol. “We make a good team, you and I. And think of how beautiful our babies will be.” Joffrey’s face turned bitter and tight. “Now all I have to do is fuck you,” he hissed. “Will you be so eager to spread your legs for me?” Joffrey snarled as his eyes darted momentarily in Sandor’s direction. “Surely if you let a dog like the Hound fuck you, you’ll be more than happy to bend over for me.” Joffrey’s face twisted into something evil. Pink drool dripped from his lips. Sansa was horrified. The capillaries around the alveoli in Joffrey’s lungs were beginning to burst. Soon the pink drool would turn rich with red.
Eyes wide and frightened, Sansa took quick steps backing away from Joffrey and Sandor. Joffrey advanced leaving Sandor slightly behind him. Sandor’s gun was still trained on Sansa and Joffrey could most likely see the muzzle through his peripheral vision, but Joffrey’s gun was pointed at the ground.
Sansa saw movement from Sandor but tried not to look directly at him. She couldn’t. She believed that Sandor had been summoned by Joffrey with the intent of punishing her and forcing her to go home with him. It was probably Sandor’s job to take her out if she didn’t obey.
Now Sansa finally understood exactly what Sandor was. She realized why Sandor was afraid she might hate him. And Sandor was right. Sansa had wanted to believe that Sandor was a good man, that he was kind and decent. She had wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt that suffering a childhood trauma that included having half your face burned off by your own brother could make you rough around the edges. But this went beyond what Sansa had expected.
Knowing what she knew now, Sansa would rather die than go back with Joffrey. If Sandor was supposed to kill her, then so be it, but she wouldn’t go down without at least some resistance. Still, Sansa harbored some hope for self-preservation.
“Joffrey, you’re sick.” Sansa wasn’t sure where she was going with this but she needed to distract him.
Joffrey laughed. The laugh turned into an uncontrollable hacking cough. When his lungs were too worn out to cough anymore, he wheezed deeply. His breath rattled in his chest and his voice was strained and garbled.
“Do you really think that some little bug could hurt me?” he asked as if he were some sort of invincible super hero. “Lannisters always survive.” Joffrey seemed to have a revelation. He pointed the pistol upward in the air beside him. “Our motto is that Lannisters always pay their debts.” He stepped closer, Sansa backed away. “However,” he sneered, “Lannisters always collect their debts as well.” Joffrey took quick stumbling steps forward. Sansa almost lost her balance falling backward as she tried to maintain her distance.
“You owe us!” Joffrey yelled. Malevolent rage masked his diseased features. Sansa gasped in horror. While Joffrey was distracted, Sandor made a movement that caught Sansa’s eye. She tried to watch him through her peripheral vision so that Joffrey wouldn’t catch on.
Sandor took one hand off the grip of his gun and mimicked popping his finger in his mouth by moving his lips behind his mask, then held it in the air. Before Joffrey noticed any movement from him, Sandor resumed his two-handed grip on the pistol. It was his way of telling Sansa to check the wind direction.
At the moment, Sansa was at a side wind to Joffrey and Sandor. She had turned the triangle somewhat so that the beach was on her left. The wind was rolling in off the lake. It was ever so slightly in her direction.
Sandor crinkled his brow, narrowing his gaze on Sansa. She could see him, but preferred to keep her focus on Joffrey.
“Hound, tell my love what happens to people who don’t pay their debts to the Lannisters.” He turned slightly toward Sandor. Sansa noted how Sandor’s posture stiffened.
“Perhaps I should show her,” Sandor offered in a low growl.
Joffrey examined Sansa closely, coughed, and shook his head. Black smudges were beginning to form under his eyes. From retching, no doubt. Joffrey was getting sicker, quickly.
“No,” Joffrey said. “I don’t want her harmed. “If my love agrees to be a good little girl, we don’t want to mark her pretty face.” Joffrey reached out as if to caress her cheek, but Sansa scrabbled to the side forcing the triangle to turn to her advantage. Her back was now turned more toward the beach putting her upwind of Joffrey.
Sansa suspected that Sandor was up to something, but his gun was still trained directly on her. She wasn’t sure who or what to believe. She watched the subtle movement as he flicked the safety with his thumb. She gasped using her reaction to steal a glance in Sandor’s direction.
Sandor winked at her.
What the fuck is going on? Sansa wondered. Her eyes darted frantically looking for an answer.
In a show of surrender, Sansa opened her fingers from the death grip she’d had on her rifle. She slowly moved it down and away, her fingers splayed. Cautiously bending at the knee, not taking her eyes off either Joffrey or Sandor, Sansa lowered the gun to the ground. Her knees cracked as she rose to standing again, her hands in the air by her head.
In the new position, with Sandor slightly behind and to the side of Joffrey, Sansa could look almost directly at Sandor without Joffrey realizing it. Sandor flicked his eyes to the left. Twice.
He wanted her to run?
Sandor subtly nodded his head, but still had the gun pointed at her.
Sansa took a few quick steps backward as Joffrey sunk into a new fit of coughing. Snot sprayed out his nose, his eyes weeped slime. Joffrey bent at the waist hacking. He covered his mouth with the back of the hand holding the gun, but when he brought it away from his mouth, his hand was covered in pink foam.
While Joffrey was bent over and not paying attention to her, Sansa suddenly bolted praying that she’d interpreted Sandor’s signals correctly. She ran toward the far end of the beach, but she knew that Sandor could run faster than her – a lot faster and he had a much longer stride.
Sandor ran after her, but pulled up short when he neared the end of the beach. He whirled and faced Joffrey.
“Get her you fool!” Joffrey wheezed, his words barely audible. He gasped and sputtered. “I command you to go after her!” he attempted to scream. It came out sounding more like a whine. Blood sprayed from between his lips. Joffery looked up at both of them, the gun in his hand completely forgotten. His eyes were wide, even more bloodshot than before. The thick mucus that streamed out of his nose had turned pink. Joffrey dropped to his knees gasping and struggling to breathe, his skin tone turning pallid and blotchy.
On his knees and looking down, Joffrey saw the gun in his hand. He blinked at it as though he wasn’t sure how he’d come to have it. He threw his arm upwards to aim, but he didn’t have a chance to use it.
Sandor fired first. The pistol made a quiet thrrrrp sound as it discharged. A small neat hole appeared between Joffrey’s eyebrows. He fell forward and landed on his face with a dull thud.
Sandor turned to where Sansa had run. She’d stopped on the far end of the beach and watched with shock and disgust as the scene unfolded. Sansa tore her eyes away from Joffrey’s limp lifeless body and glared at Sandor. She watched as he engaged the safety, opened his jacket, and holstered his weapon. He spread his hands wide to show he meant no harm to her.
Sansa had so many questions but she couldn’t ask them all at once. Her mind whirled as thoughts passed through her like race cars whizzing by on the Indy 500 track. Her mouth opened but nothing would come out. She could do nothing more than stare back at Sandor with amazement, horror, disgust, and a thousand other vile emotions.
Eyes wild as she tried to latch onto a thought and keep hold of it, her head spun with the sheer weight of all that had happened in the last half hour. Gasping, she tore her mask off as though it was preventing her from being able to breathe.
Joffrey had found her. He had been deathly sick with C-ROD. Joffrey had obviously known who Sandor was, but had known him only as the Hound. Sandor had gotten a call, left, and come back with Joffrey.
“You work for the Lannisters?” Sansa finally asked, bewildered.
“And you were sent here to deal with me?”
Sandor shook his head. “I was sent to retrieve Joffrey and bring him home. I never even knew the connection between the two of you until an hour ago,” he told her gesturing back toward Joffrey.
“But you had your gun pointed at me. You were going to kill me,” Sansa accused him.
Sandor shook his head again. “I had to get things turned around.” He swung his arms to indicate how the three of them had changed positions so that Sansa wouldn’t get hit by blood spatter carried on the wind. “I couldn’t take the chance that he would shoot you, so I had to make him think that I would.”
“So you were never going to kill me?”
Sandor cocked his head. He’d hoped Sansa would realize he would never be able to harm her.
“You would never hurt me?” she asked. Sandor answered by reaching up and tugging off his face mask.
“But you worked for the Lannisters?” Sansa looked at the ground as thoughts came together and formed ideas. “Is this what you do for them?” She shrugged. “You kill people?”
“Sometimes,” Sandor admitted grudgingly. “I did other things for them as well.”
“So you’re, what … some kind of hitman?” She didn’t like the way the word felt as she said it, but it was the only one she could think of.
“More of … an enforcer.” Sandor tentatively stepped forward, but Sansa tensed, ready to run if he got too close. She held her hand up to warn him away.
“So you kill people, you break legs, you … what … cut off fingers …?” she hissed.
Sandor nodded subtly. “I clean up messes,” he added. He watched Sansa’s mind work, but she hadn’t made the connection.
“I cleaned up your mess, Little Dove.” Sandor kept his voice soft and smooth. Sansa’s eyes widened. Her posture softened and her mouth snapped shut.
“I never knew who you were, but I was the reason you owed a debt to the Lannisters. I’m the cleaner that was sent in to deal with the mess you left behind. I didn’t put the clues together until today.” Sandor took a step closer and Sansa allowed it.
“That’s what she called you, right? Little Dove?” Sandor took another step closer. “You needed their help and you were indebted to them.” Sandor stepped up next to a tree. He slowly reached inside his jacket, unholstered his gun and carefully set it in the crook of the tree trunk. Sandor stepped sideways away from the tree and closer to Sansa.
“If you had called the police … or your father, you wouldn’t have gotten into trouble. It was self defense.” Another step. “But you panicked and you asked them for help. You gave them something to hold over you and they tried to take control of your life.” A few more inches closer and Sandor was almost within reaching distance of Sansa.
“They did the same thing to me. I was fifteen – a lot younger than you and I was naïve. I needed their help. They took me in, they fixed my problem and they made me pay them back for it.” Sandor pumped his fist in the air. “They made me pay for it over, and over, and over.”
Suddenly, Sansa lunged at him. She snarled and screamed as she hit him with her fists. Sandor let her do it. Sansa pounded on his chest and swung at his face. Sandor turned his head away, but he allowed her to take out her frustrations on him.
“You kill people!” she screamed. “You’re a killer! You’re … you’re … an assassin. You get rid of bodies and cover up crimes.”
Taking Sansa by the arms, he held her in front of him and made her look at his face. “You killed someone, too, Sansa. They used that to try and get control of you, but you were smart enough to get away from them before it was too late. If you had stayed, they would have found a way to make you owe them even more.” Sandor gave her a small shake to make her pay attention.
“When I had nowhere to go and no one to help me, the Lannisters were more than willing to take me in and give me all the help I needed. It didn’t take long for me to figure out why. They helped me because they wanted to own me. I was never a killer Sansa, not in the beginning.”
Sandor got down on one knee so he could look Sansa directly in the face. “They were the ones who killed my father and my brother. Then they started making me do jobs for them. Little things at first and I was happy to do it because I was thankful. Then the jobs got bigger and dirtier. I thought I had no choice. After the first time I …” Sandor paused not wanting to say the words. “After the first time I killed someone there was no going back. Then I really did have no choice. And each time I did what they told me to I got in deeper and deeper. If I ever had any second thoughts, if I ever refused to do a job, they made sure to remind me what I owed them.”
“I wasn’t smart like you, Sansa. I had no education. I had no family that I could go to for help. I hadn’t done anything wrong when I was fifteen. But by the time I realized that, it was too late.”
“You still could have left,” Sansa disagreed. “When they realized what they were doing to you, you could have left.”
“And go where?” Sandor asked. “Why would I have left? I had no place else to go. I had nothing to go to. I was too young and stupid to realize that I had other options.” He stood up and looked down into Sansa’s face. He was closer to her now and Sansa had relaxed. “I was bought and paid for.”
Sansa knew that Sandor would never hurt her. She was beginning to recognize that on the inside, Sandor Clegane was the same man she’d come to know. He’d been a young boy in a hopeless situation and he’d been taken in by the devil. But he did have choices and he’d made them.
“Sansa, you grew up knowing what it was to be loved. Your family made sure you knew that you were worth something. I never had any of that, but I did know right from wrong. I made the mistake of trusting the wrong people. As far as I understood, I was worthless except in what I could do for those people. Unfortunately, they gave me a purpose in life.”
Sandor pulled Sansa closer to him. He lifted a gentle hand to caress her cheek and sweep the hair away from her face.
“Sansa, it wasn’t until I met you that I realized I was worth more than the jobs I was performing for the Lannisters.” He cradled her face in his hands. “Sansa, when I met you, I found out that I could be more than what they’d made me into. When I met you, that’s when I learned what love was.”
Chapter 20: Small Contact
Sansa bolted awake with the scream stuck in her throat. She sat up in bed soaking wet and gasping for air. Shoulders heaving, she shook her head to try and dislodge the remnants of the nightmare from her mind.
Sansa jumped again in a fright when her bedroom door slammed open against the wall. She looked up to find Sandor standing in the doorway in shock. Dressed only in boxer shorts, he stumbled forward into the darkened room.
“Sansa, are you okay?” Sandor perched himself on the edge of the small twin bed and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She stiffened in his arms, but his soothing warmth and gentle touch quickly relaxed her. Sansa was shaken from the violent images she was still seeing behind her eyes, but they were fading rapidly.
“I’m fine,” she said shrugging him off.
“But, you’re soaked.” Sandor tried to help Sansa get to her feet. “You should –”
“I’m fine!” Sansa knew that she’d spoken little too loudly, but she’d just been ripped from sleep by a bitch of a nightmare and she didn’t want Sandor to be so fucking good to her. She wanted to hate him, but she couldn’t even do that.
Sandor backed off. He retreated toward the door with his hands raised.
“I think you should have a shower. The hot water will relax you and I don’t want you to catch a chill and get sick,” he told her. Sansa nodded at him. Regret clouded her expression. She hadn’t wanted to hurt Sandor’s feelings, but she had.
Sandor was trying to be the same man she’d known before he’d left, and Sansa had to admit that he probably was. But she wasn’t the same woman now, knowing what she did – about him, about C-ROD, about how her mess had gotten cleaned up … about everything she’d learned in the past twelve hours.
When Sandor had gone back to the master bedroom, Sansa crawled out of bed, grabbed a clean pair of pajamas and went to take a quick shower. When she came back to her room, she discovered that her bed was drenched from her nightmare sweat.
Reluctantly, she went into Sandor’s room.
“Can I sleep in here?” she asked. “My bed is wet.”
Sandor answered by throwing back the covers so she could get in. She stayed on her side and he stayed on his. There was more than enough room for both of them, though neither would get much sleep.
Sansa stared at the darkened ceiling. She was relaxed enough to fall back to sleep, but her mind was too busy. Her thoughts played over the events of the evening, trying to make sense of it all. In her heart and in the logical part of her mind, she’d understood Sandor’s life. Sansa supposed that if she had been put in the same position of poverty, neglect, abuse, and no education, she easily could have found herself in the same circumstances. If it had been her, she might have ended up being a prostitute or working for a drug dealer.
People in desperate situations do desperate things, she considered. Sandor explained to Sansa that Jaime Lannister had befriended him when they’d met on the streets. Jaime had gotten into a fight against a trio of men that were bigger than him and he was losing badly. Sandor had come to his rescue, hoping that the spoiled little rich boy would give him some kind of reward – maybe just enough for a meal or two. But Jaime had given him much more than that. Sandor was introduced to Tywin who saw the advantage in taking in the angry and bitter fifteen-year-old boy who was more than six feet tall and already quite massive in his physique.
As it turned out, Jaime never really wanted anything to do with Sandor, he’d simply seen an opportunity for his father’s business and ran with it. Jaime had recognized the desperation in Sandor and played it to the Lannister advantage.
Sansa rolled over onto her side away from Sandor. She didn’t want to see him lying beside her. It reminded her too much of seeing Joffrey lying in the dirt in her dooryard. Sansa pinched her eyes closed as the scene played back inside her head. She’d known that C-ROD was bad, but fuck! If Sandor hadn’t put a bullet in him …
Sansa squeezed her eyes tighter trying not to see the memory of his suffering. And it had happened so quickly. When Sansa had first seen Joffrey, he’d looked tired and no more sick than if he’d had a common cold. Then, in a matter of minutes, his lungs had begun to rupture and … and …
“Uggghhhh!” Sansa flopped onto her back and thumped her fists against the mattress.
“It’ll fade,” Sandor whispered. “I know it doesn’t feel that way right now, but it’ll fade.”
Sandor wiggled his fingers across the surface of the bed until they touched Sansa’s. He lightly stroked the back of her hand. She allowed it, but made no move to reciprocate and that was okay with Sandor. At least she wasn’t recoiling from his touch. It was a start.
They both lay silently staring into the hushed darkness of the room. Cool air wafted in through the open window. Only the sound of the waves on the lake and rustling of the forest could be heard. The ambient sounds were relaxing and calming. Both Sansa and Sandor felt at ease with their sleeplessness and each other’s presence.
“Have you ever seen anyone die that way?” Sansa asked quietly.
“Was it your doing?” Her question was hesitant and her words soft.
“No.” Sandor slipped his hand under Sansa’s, but he didn’t try to hold her hand. He wanted only to feel the weight of her fingers on his palm. “When I was in Burlington that last time,” he told her. “When I …” Sandor thought better of what he’d been about to say. “I don’t make people suffer. That’s why I shot Joffrey. I know what happens at the very end. I didn’t want you to see that and I wanted to save him some agony.”
Sandor was relieved that Sansa was talking to him voluntarily. It hadn’t been that way only hours ago. After he’d killed Joffrey, and after he’d explained the position he’d been in when he was young and stupid, Sansa had refused to speak to him.
He’d gone about the business of taking care of the remains, but that had been a tricky endeavor. Sandor wanted to make sure that no wild animals would become contaminated and contagious and spread the sickness. Sandor dug a shallow grave next to where Joffrey had dropped and used a shovel to roll him into it. Then, he’d piled dry wood and charcoal on top of the body and covered it up carefully so that there was an air pocket. Only a fuel soaked rag trailed out of the ground. Sandor lit the rag and watched for a while to make sure that it was working the way it was supposed to.
“It’s how you roast a pig,” Sandor had explained to Sansa. The heat would be intense sanitizing the surrounding ground and reducing the remains to ash. And there would be no fire. Not only would an open fire would be a problem for Sandor, but the smoke might draw unwanted attention.
Now all Sandor had to do was figure out what to do next. If he informed Cersei that Joffrey was dead, there would be hell to pay. Sandor didn’t want Cersei or Jaime to send anyone in this direction looking for him or Sansa. It didn’t matter that Joffrey would have been dead anyway, they would want someone to pay for the loss of their golden son.
If Sandor went back to Chicago without Joffrey, they would most likely kill him. The only thing he could do is stall for time. Sandor decided that in the morning, he’d send a message that he’d retrieved Aerys but that travel would not be possible do to restrictions and the dangers of the pandemic. It wasn’t exactly a lie. He had located Joffrey and knew exactly where he was. And travel was problematic right now.
Hopefully, Sansa would allow him to stay. The longer he could be here with her, the greater his chances that they could work things out between them.
Sandor could feel Sansa moving on the bed beside him. He wanted desperately to be able to pull her closer to him and wrap his arms around her. He wanted her to love him again the way she had before. The only saving grace Sandor could feel right now, was that Sansa didn’t hate him. She had shrugged away, was cold, distant, and aloof, but at least she didn’t hate him. In her own mind, Sansa was probably trying to figure things out. She was most likely trying to unravel her feelings amidst all that had been dropped on her.
Sandor sighed and closed his eyes. He listened to Sansa’s soft rhythmic breathing.
“Will we be okay here?” Sansa asked. She’d kept her voice low in case Sandor had fallen asleep. Sandor turned his head to look at her. Sansa rolled on her side to face him. Even in the darkness, he could see that her face was creased with worry.
“You’ll stay here won’t you?” she asked. “I don’t want to be here alone. Not now.”
Rolling on his side to face her, Sandor sighed deeply and reached over to pull the bed sheet up over Sansa’s shoulder and tuck her in.
If you say you love me, I’ll stay. That’s what Sandor wanted to tell her, but he knew he would stay because Sansa had asked it of him. He would stay because he loved her, because she had shown him love even if she no longer felt that way. Sandor would stay as long as he could to protect her and keep her safe.
“Aye,” he whispered. “I’ll stay but only if that’s what you really want.”
Sansa turned her eyes away for a moment, then back at Sandor. She nodded causing her hair to sweep across the pillow case making a halo around her head. Sandor wanted to be able to reach out and stroke that silky softness. He wanted to kiss her, hold her, give her comfort, and promise her that everything was going to be alright. It made his heart ache not to be able to touch her, but he wouldn’t do it unless she initiated it. Stroking the back of her hand had been a risk, but he wouldn’t push her any further than that.
Sansa pulled her lip in between her teeth and watched Sandor carefully. She knew he would never hurt her. Despite knowing who he really was and what he did for a living, she felt safe with him and she trusted him. He had never lied to her, but had always been completely honest. It would take time for her to work through her feelings, but she knew that somewhere inside, she still loved the man who was lying next to her and who wanted so much to be loved. Sansa hoped he could be patient with her … again. It would take some time, but she would get there.
Slowly and cautiously, Sansa slid her fingers across the surface of the bed beneath the sheets until they found Sandor’s. He didn’t react but let her move at her own pace as the pads of her fingertips worked over his knuckles. She curled her tiny fist around his index finger and closed her eyes. Within moments, Sansa was asleep.
Sandor watched her for a while longer. His entire body was warmed by the simple contact she’d made as she grasped that one small part of him. Sansa was frightened and needed him. She needed his support and comfort. What Sansa didn’t realize, was that Sandor was frightened, too, and he needed her. Even if she didn’t know it, Sansa was giving as much comfort to Sandor as he was giving her.
As he watched her sleep, Sandor’s love for Sansa deepened. He prayed that Sansa could again feel the way he felt about her. But, no matter how much she decided to love him, Sandor would always love her just a little more.
Weak light filtered in through the gaps of the bedroom curtains. It was still very early and not time to get up yet. Sandor awoke feeling refreshed, but warm. He blinked his eyes as his mind cleared from the pull of slumber and he quickly became aware of why his body was so warm.
Sandor lay on his side facing Sansa. And she was lying on her side facing him. Sansa was nuzzled up against him and her legs tangled up in his. Her head rested on his arm with her face pressed into his chest. There was no way Sandor was going to be able to extract himself without waking her.
Sansa’s face held a pleasant expression of contentment. Regardless of what she might think of him, Sandor could see that his nearness gave Sansa a feeling of safety. As if she’d read his thoughts, Sansa squirmed snuggling closer.
His free hand hovered in the air above her shoulder. If he touched her, she would wake. Or, he could stay like this and let her wake up on her own. He didn’t mind lying here feeling her small, delicate body next to his. Sandor felt like he could lay here forever, gazing over her, watching her face as she slept.
Sansa turned her head slightly causing a wisp of hair to fall across her eyes. Gingerly, Sandor used his thumb to brush the hair back over her ear. Her eyelids fluttered and she moaned, but there was no more movement from her. Sandor took a chance and gently rested his hand on her shoulder. Her skin felt warm and soft. He swiped a thumb across the width of her shoulder. Every moment of contact was a blessing for him.
Sansa’s eyelids fluttered again, her lashes long and thick against her skin. Sandor watched cautiously as she came awake. Her eyes opened, focused on his chest, then turned upward to look directly into his. They lay there motionless, eyes locked. Sandor was about to withdraw his hand from her feeling as though he might be overstepping her new boundaries. Before he had a chance to move, Sansa slipped her arm under his and wrapped it around him urging him closer.
“Hold me,” she whispered.
Sandor relaxed his body and put his arm around Sansa. As soon as he did, Sansa pressed her body into his. He held her close wanting much more than that, but resigned himself to what Sansa had given him. It would still take some time to repair the damage their relationship had suffered, but Sansa had made her decision. If she was willing to work her way to forgiving him, he was willing to wait until she did.
Chapter 21: Wait and See
“Do you want to talk about it?” Sandor asked.
They sat together on the deck drinking coffee. It was unusual for Sansa to have more than one cup of coffee a day, but this morning after breakfast, she’d needed a second dose of caffeine. Her eyes were puffy with dark circles and her face was drawn and pallid.
Sansa didn’t answer, but instead took another sip from her mug. Hunched over with her head down, Sansa tried to force her thoughts to focus, but she was too scattered, her mind wanting to dart in every direction at once.
When she’d awakened in Sandor’s arms, Sansa had felt safe and secure and loved. Yet, as she sat here next to him, the logical part of her brain reminded her that he was the Lannister’s pet dog. A well-trained one, according to Joffrey.
Sandor had been kind, patient, and loving. He was a hitman, an assassin, a cold-blooded murderer. Sansa loved him, but she hated everything he represented. She couldn’t make sense of her feelings in light of the brutal facts.
“Who did you kill?” Sansa mumbled.
Sandor turned his head slightly and eyed her cautiously. He took a long sip of coffee, then set his mug down on the wide arm of the deck chair. He was trying to think of a way to explain the breed of scum that Sandor had dealt with over his career. Sandor would never make the mistake of suggesting that these men somehow deserved to die. That wasn’t up to anyone except for God.
“The men I dealt with weren’t angels, Sansa. They were drug dealers, thieves, rivals … even men like me. One of the men I had to deal with brutally raped and murdered two women who worked in one of their brothels. When Jaime found out that one of their dealers had been selling to little kids, I had to … I had to take care of him.”
“So they deserved it?”
“No, Sansa. I’m not a mind-reader. I couldn’t look inside their souls and decide that they deserved it. No one can do that. All I did was a job that I was paid to do.” Sandor shifted in his chair twisting to face Sansa. The edge of her mug was pressed between her lips, but she wasn’t drinking. Her gaze was vacant and distant.
“These were not good people, Sansa.”
Her eyes came up to meet his for a moment, then Sansa looked away again.
“Don’t get confused between heaven and hell. I wasn’t working for God, I was working for the devil. And the men I had to deal with – they were working for the devil as well.”
“Men?” Sansa lifted her gaze to peer at Sandor over the rim of her mug. “Just men?”
Sandor confirmed it for her. “No women, no children.” Sandor shifted back to face forward in his chair. He looked down into his nearly empty mug. “I know it may not seem that way, but I’m not a monster. I don’t care for making anyone suffer. There are other men out there who enjoyed that sort of thing, but I could never stand for that. That’s why I killed Joffrey. I couldn’t stand that little piece of shit, but I couldn’t watch him die in that kind of agony.” Sandor turned a beseeching eye toward Sansa. “If I did anything good yesterday, I’d like to think I did Joffrey a favor by putting him out of his misery.”
It took a long time for Sansa to speak again. By that time, what was left of her coffee was ice cold and curdled, but her lip still hugged the edge of the mug.
“Were you ever asked to kill a woman?”
Sandor nodded. “Yes. I refused.”
“Did you ever refuse to … you know … If you refused to kill a woman, why didn’t you refuse all the other times?”
“That was the job I was paid to do. If I didn’t do it, they would have no use for me. Then it would be someone else taking my place and I’d have been the one on the receiving end.” Sandor shrugged. “Simple self-preservation, I guess. Besides, I was able to justify it in my own mind because it’s like I told you before. These were not good people that I dealt with.”
Sandor was frustrated. He wanted Sansa to try and see things from his perspective, but he didn’t want to force her to think his way. He just wanted her to understand. Sandor stood and knelt on the deck in front of Sansa. With his hands on her knees – another risk he was taking by being that bold – he huffed and looked up at her.
“Sansa, if I could go back twenty-five years and never have met Jaime Lannister, I would do it in a heartbeat. If I could change history, if I’d been in a different position so that I didn’t have to make the decisions I did as a naïve, broken fifteen-year-old who was all alone in the world with no one to help me … maybe I would have lived my life differently.”
“I didn’t know what I was getting into when I was young … and stupid … and desperate. But I know what I’m doing now. I want to do things differently. I want to do good things and have good people like you in my life. I don’t want to have people like the Lannisters in my life anymore.”
“Sansa, I would expect you to hate me if I was the kind of person who didn’t want to change. But I do want to change. I want to make a lot of changes in my life.”
It was the most Sandor had ever spoken in one straight shot, and it wore him out. Never before had he been so open with anyone about what he wanted or how he felt. Sandor realized that if he couldn’t be that way with Sansa, there wouldn’t be any hope for change in him.
Sansa felt it, too. To hear Sandor say all those words with such conviction and emotion woke something inside her. He had somehow reached into her heart and said the words she needed to hear from him. Not just because they were the words she wanted to hear, but because it was how he truly felt. The words he’d spoken were the ones he needed to say. Sandor was finally admitting to himself that he’d regretted too much of how he’d lived his life. He didn't want any more regrets.
Sansa nodded but Sandor could still see reluctance in her face. “I understand,” she said simply. Sansa inched forward flicking her eyes at Sandor. He stood and moved away so that she could stand up.
“I think I’m going to go for a run,” she told him. Her voice conveyed that it wasn’t just about the exercise, but that she needed to clear her head and get lost in her thoughts. A run to the cliff and back would help her do that.
When Sansa came back to the kitchen after changing into her workout clothes, Sandor was waiting for her at the kitchen table. He’d been waiting patiently with his hands clasped. A large, thick yellow mailing envelope sat on the placemat across from him. Next to it was Sansa’s cordless phone from her office.
“Before you go, can I have five minutes?” Sandor asked nodding to her place across the table. Sansa sat in her chair.
“I have a decision to make and I need your help,” Sandor told her. Sansa didn’t respond but waited.
“I have to send a message to Cersei. She’s probably already wondering because I didn’t keep her updated yesterday.” Sandor took his phone out and lay it on the table beside him. “I need to let her know the status of my assignment. If I tell her the truth, she may send someone out here after me. It doesn’t matter that Joffrey was dying, she’ll want someone to take the blame and that will be me.”
“I’m aware of their sense of entitlement,” Sansa agreed. “Joffrey was their golden boy.”
“The way I see it, I have three options. I can go back to Chicago alone and take my chances. Or I can stall and wait it out here.”
Sansa waited. Sandor had said there were three choices, but he’d only mentioned two. She cocked her head expectantly. “Soooo … what’s the third choice?”
Sandor held his breath and nodded to the envelope. “You call your father and turn me in.”
Sansa’s face dropped. “I would never do that, Sandor.” She huffed looking down at the edge of the tablecloth and unconsciously began picking at it. “I know that I’ve been a little distant. I said that I don’t agree with the choices you made and I don’t like what … what you do …” Sansa flapped a hand at him. They both knew what she was talking about. There was no need to elaborate. “But I would never turn you in. The truth is, you can’t judge someone else’s choices until you’ve been in the position to make those exact same choices yourself.”
Sandor felt that familiar swelling in his chest. He respected Sansa for having thought through this and drawing wise conclusions.
“I tried to imagine what I would have done in your shoes and I didn’t much care for the options I would have had,” Sansa admitted grudgingly. “I won’t turn you in.”
“I would go to prison, but at least I’d still be alive.”
Sansa shook her head empathically. “No you wouldn’t. Even I know that the Lannisters have people everywhere. They would get to you in prison. If they didn’t, one of their enemies would. There are men who would take the first available opportunity to stick a shank in you.” Sansa shook her head again. “I don’t want you to go to prison. You said you would stay here with me.”
“Sansa, no matter what choice I make, your father is going to find out who I am or I’m going to die. Maybe both.” Sandor shook his hands at her. “I can’t just stay here and pretend like it’s all going to be okay. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.” He was growing frustrated because he didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t often that Sandor found himself in such a predicament. “I need to respond to Cersei. If I don’t do that soon, it won’t matter what decision I make.”
Sansa considered everything Sandor had said. She folded her hands together on the table, resolute in her decision. “I think you should go with option number two.” Sandor stared at her.
“No one can go anywhere right now. It’s too dangerous out there. There are travel restrictions. What are they going to do – get in a plane and fly out here? I don’t think that’s likely.” Sansa dismissed whatever she thought Sandor was about to say. “They’re not stupid. They’ll hide away in their compound where it’s safe and wait until things cool down first.”
“I still think you should call your father.” Sandor pointed to the envelope. “With what’s in there, he might be able to find way through this. He’ll never let me anywhere near you ever again, but at least I’ll know I did the right thing.”
“I need some time, Sandor. I need to sort this out … for myself. But I don’t want you to go. And I don’t want anything to happen to you.” When her eyes began to turn glassy, Sansa turned her head down and gazed absently at her fingers. Her eyes welled up and overflowed, dripping fat hot tears down her cheeks.
Sansa sniffled and tried to dry her cheeks with the back of her hand. “I think you should contact … whoever,” she said pointing at his phone. “Tell them you’re in Maine and that you have Joffrey but that it’s too difficult to travel right now. At least that’s a start. See what response you get and go from there.”
Reluctantly, Sandor had to admit that everything Sansa said made sense. He inhaled deeply through flared nostrils, eyed his phone, then hastily picked it up. After entering his password, Sandor sent a message parroting what Sansa had said. He set the phone down and waited.
“How long until you get a response?” Sansa asked sniffling. Sandor held up a finger. They waited no more than forty seconds when Sandor’s phone pinged.
“Situation under advisement,” he read aloud.
“What’s that mean?”
Sandor looked up. “It means they’re taking it under advisement.” He shrugged. “They’re taking the circumstances into consideration.”
“So we just wait and see?”
He nodded. For the first time in his life, it was Sandor who felt like the weak and helpless one. He’d come to Sansa for help instead of the other way around. It was him who’d come to her and she had been the strong wise one, talking him through it.
Sansa pushed the envelope across the table toward him. Sandor pushed it back.
“I think you should keep it. If anything ever happens to me, this could protect you.”
Sansa smacked her hands on the table and stood abruptly. “I can’t deal with this right now. I need to think.” She held her hands up beside her face waving Sandor away as she left through the sunroom.
“We’ll talk about it when I get back,” she promised. Sandor sat and watched her go. He was glad she left when she did, because Sandor didn’t want her to see him this way. As he thought about what had just happened between them, Sandor realized that Sansa was struggling with her feelings. She still wanted to love him, but she had to come to terms with the reality that had been – and until he completely broke away from the Lannisters, still was – his life.
Sandor wiped the tears from under his eyes. He would do anything for Sansa … anything. No one in his life had ever made him feel anything let alone bring him to tears. It was the first time he ever remembered crying. If it meant he could be with Sansa, he’d be happy to do it again.
Chapter 22: The Mountain That Moves
After the fourth night in a row, Sandor suggested that Sansa come to bed with him in the master bedroom. She always ended up there anyway. Maybe if she was lying next to him, he could stop her nightmare, wake her up before she got to the point where she was drenched in sweat.
Every night, Sandor was awakened by her screams. And every night, Sansa had to get up, have a shower and change into dry pajamas. The next morning she’d strip her bed … again and wash the sheets.
He wasn’t trying to persuade her into anything other than feeling the comfort of him being close by when she needed him. Sandor understood that he needed to give Sansa time to work through this on her own. Every once in a while he’d catch her staring at him, analyzing him, trying figure out how she felt.
Sansa had experienced the horrifying truth of what C-ROD did to those infected with it. Then she’d witnessed Joffrey’s death. Sansa had been forced to stand there and watch as Sandor did the thing he’d been paid to do for most of his adult life. She’d watched him kill someone with no more thought than if he’d swatted a fly.
The fly might have been Joffrey, but Sansa had witnessed the cold, brutal killer in him. Sandor really had no choice in the matter. If he hadn’t killed Joffrey, Sansa would have witnessed much more pain and agony as the virus slowly strangled him while he bled out – through his mouth, nose, and eyes. Or, Sandor reminded herself, Joffrey might have shot Sansa.
Which would have been the lesser of two evils? Sandor wondered. Let Sansa see him do his work, or let her watch as a man met the most horrifying fate possible.
The daily run to the cliff was helping. Every day, Sansa felt herself loosening up. She was thinking more clearly, more in tune with her emotions, and feeling a stronger yearning for Sandor. And just as he said, the nightmares were fading.
The nightmares weren’t about killing or about Sandor’s work, they were about the pandemic. Sansa had a deep-seated fear of what was coming. The issue with Sandor working for the Lannisters was more of a fly in the ointment to what was really bothering her. She didn’t want the Lannisters, Sandor’s predicament, or evidence of past crimes to take Sandor away from her. Sansa’s greatest fear was of him leaving her. Not only would she be torn apart from the man she loved, but she wasn’t sure if she’d make it through the coming storm alone.
But there was something else. It was on the tip of her tongue, in a dark fold of her memory and whatever it was, it was resistant to revealing itself. It was for that reason that Sansa had didn't allow herself to get wrapped up in Sandor again just yet. If she was lost in her emotions, she would miss something important. It was what had happened to Sandor and Sansa didn’t want to make the same mistake.
Sandor had sent another message to Cersei asking for a weather report. It was code talk for wanting to know what was going on, asking for an update from their end. Cersei had responded with a similar message as before. They were “testing the wind direction.” All Sandor and Sansa could do was sit and wait.
At the top of the cliff, Sansa climbed into the rope swing and swung out over the water. It was still too early in the year, and the water still too cold, but it wouldn’t be much longer and the lake would be warm enough to swim. As Sansa sailed out over the edge of the cliff, she closed her eyes and imagined herself letting go, flying into the air and … not dropping into the water, but sailing through the sky like a bird.
Ha! she thought sarcastically, like a Little Dove.
Suddenly, Sansa’s eyes flew open and it hit her like machine gun fire. She jumped back onto solid ground, her eyes darting frantically as it came together in her mind.
Joffrey always told Cersei everything. He was stupid that way. It was stupid because he and Cersei never agreed on his way of handling things. Joffrey was flighty, grandiose, and arrogant. Once he had his mind set on something, he was like a dog with a bone. Sansa rolled her eyes at the irony of it.
Cersei would have been happy to give up on Sansa, but Joffery had obviously insisted on coming after her. He’d said, “Mother says it wouldn’t look good if I married you without disciplining you for your unladylike behavior.”
Joffrey must have told Cersei that he’d found Sansa and that he planned on coming after her. Then Cersei had sent Sandor after Joffrey. She must have known that they’d all end up in the same place. But in her message to Sandor, she had never asked about Sansa.
Because Sandor had not mentioned Sansa to Cersei.
“Holy shit,” Sansa sputtered. Cersei was onto them. She was stalling because Sandor had never asked Cersei what to do with Sansa.
Sansa bolted down the path as fast as her legs would take her. She was fast, but careful not to lose control running downhill. She wished she’d thought to bring her phone so she could call ahead to Sandor, but her phone had been too bulky to run with.
Sansa focused on her legs, on her breathing, and on getting back as fast as she could. She prayed that she hadn’t been too late in figuring it out.
Any changes he was going to make had to start today. Before Sandor pulled his shirt on over his head, He turned and looked over his shoulder and into the mirror. There was nothing he could do about the tattoo he’d gotten when he was fifteen. There were tattoo removal procedures, of course, but it would never really be gone.
But what if the tattoo represented the beginning of the changes he was making? Sandor had an idea, but it would mean going into Burlington to find out. Sandor didn’t want to go anywhere right now, and he didn’t want to leave Sansa alone.
There had been a vibe Sansa was giving off. Sandor suspected that she was coming around, that her feelings for him were whole again, but something was holding her back. Every once in a while, he would catch her biting her nails or in one of her other regressive habits. Yesterday, he’d found her rearranging the spice bottles in the cupboard. And there was that ever present crease in her forehead.
Sansa was worried about something.
Sandor put the thick envelope back under the dresser and replaced the kickplate. It was almost lunchtime and Sansa would soon be getting back from her run. He headed to the kitchen to at least figure out what to make for them to eat. Sansa would want to take a shower first, then hopefully he’d have food ready by the time she was done.
Sandor’s phone pinged. That was immediately followed by another ping from the direction of Sansa’s office. He looked at his phone and saw the alarm go off for the trail that led to the cliff. There were two alarms set about 500 yards apart, so he expected another one go off shortly as Sansa passed by it on her way back. Sandor knew that meant that Sansa had left her cell phone in her office, which was why he’d heard the second ping.
As he opened the fridge door to assess its contents, his phone pinged again. At first assuming it was the second alarm, Sandor realized he hadn’t heard the echoing ping from Sansa’s office. He looked at his phone to see a message from Cersei.
“Where is my son?!?!”
Cold dread crawled down Sandor’s spine. As he stared at the words on his phone, another alarm went off, followed by an echo from the office. Sansa had passed the second laser fence.
Sandor closed the fridge door and concentrated on focusing his thoughts. Sansa would be back soon and then they could …
Ping! … Ping!
Sandor looked at his phone again. The first laser fence on the cliff trail had been triggered again.
Was Sansa running back up the trail? No, because if that was the case, she would have triggered the second one again after turning around.
Sandor’s heart began to hammer in his chest. He rushed out through the sunroom and onto the deck so that he could see Sansa if she came back into the yard.
Ping! … Ping!
With great trepidation, Sandor checked his phone again. The second laser fence had been triggered. Someone was following Sansa back. Sandor ran back to the bedroom, grabbed his gun and tucked it into the rear waistband of his pants.
Running across the yard to the cliff trail, Sandor watched Sansa emerge from the tree line. She looked worried, but not panicked. If someone was running after her, she wasn’t aware of it.
“Sandor,” she gasped urgently. “She knows. Cersei knows that –”
“Shhh!” Sandor hushed her. Her grabbed her by the arm and yanked hard as he ran back toward the house bent over. Sansa immediately sensed the danger that Sandor was reacting to. They sprinted back to the deck. Half way across the deck, Sansa heard a sharp whistling sound followed by a loud pop. The window of the sunroom erupted in a spiderweb of cracks with a small hole at the center.
Sandor threw his arm around her and dove for cover behind the deck chairs bringing Sansa tumbling beneath him. He shoved Sansa ahead of him crawling after her as they inched their way through the sunroom door.
Sitting on the floor of the kitchen, Sansa watched as Sandor peeked out over the window ledge at the yard beyond. A fraction of a moment later, another hole blew through the corner of the pane only inches from Sandor’s head.
Sandor pulled Sansa down beside him. “We can’t stay here. Go into the bedroom and take the kickplate off the dresser,” Sandor said. “Bring me the case you find there. I’m going out to the front porch. I’m going see if I can lure him away from the house.”
Before she crawled away, Sansa told him the mistake they’d made. “Cersei knew something was up because you never mentioned me when you reported in.”
Sandor winced and nodded. “Go!” he urged.
Sansa kept her head down as she made her way to the bedroom. She hadn’t heard any more shots, but she could hear Sandor moving to the front of the house. Sansa kicked the loose board on the dresser. Behind it was a long black plastic gun case. Knowing that Sandor couldn’t afford to be distracted by assembling it, Sansa took a chance and opened the case. Maybe she could and maybe she couldn’t but she wouldn’t know until she looked.
Nestled into foam were the parts for an automatic rifle. Except for the sleeker design, it wasn’t that much different from her Remington, but Sansa could see that it was far more powerful. She removed the parts and easily put them together. The clip was empty, so she loaded it. That took her more time because her fingers weren’t as strong as Sandor’s were, but Sansa knew that in the long run, she’d be saving him vital time and focus.
After the weapon was assembled, checked, and loaded, Sansa made her way back toward the front door. It felt like it had taken her an hour, but only a few minutes had passed since she’d left the kitchen.
Sansa rounded the corner in the hallway to see the front door standing wide open. It didn’t make sense. She got closer, keeping against the wall, listening carefully. Sansa could hear Sandor say something. His voice was low with a nervous edge. That was unlike him. Sansa knew that even in a crisis, Sandor was very calm and composed.
When she peered out around the doorjamb, Sansa saw Sandor standing in the middle of the dooryard, hands limp at his sides, gun pointed at the ground. He was just standing there, not moving. Sansa couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing.
Sandor almost looked … scared.
Sandor stood at the edge of the front porch and peeked around the corner of the house in the direction of the cliff trail. He waited patiently for his adversary to appear. Whoever it was, he was bigger than Sandor and hovering near the tree line. He was most likely scoping out the surroundings – if he hadn’t done that already and if this guy had been sent after him by Cersei, he would be good, maybe even better than Sandor.
Slowly, the man took cautious steps out of the tree line, always looking, always alert. The guy was massive – like weightlifter massive, his head shaven and he was covered in tattoos. He wore only a thin t-shirt leaving most of his arms exposed. His arms, neck, and below the hollow of his throat were covered in ink. The guy was still too far away for Sandor to see his tattoos clearly, but once he could, there would undoubtedly be a clue to this guy’s identity. There always was.
Sandor hadn’t needed prominent tattoos, he was known by his scarred face. As soon as this guy saw him, they would most likely know each other by reputation. Sandor had never seen him before, but that wasn’t unusual. The Lannisters had people all over the world. If they had a special assignment, they would sometimes bring someone in from another country.
The man crept closer and Sandor could start to see his tattoos, but his eyes kept flicking to the man’s face. He seemed familiar somehow and …
Sandor found himself drawn out from his cover. He knew who this was. As he stepped slowly out to the open yard, Sandor felt his bladder shrink. His skin crawled with cold as every hair on his body stood up. He couldn’t think. What he did realize, however, was just how naïve he’d really been his whole life.
The man standing before him had a gun pointed directly at Sandor’s chest, but Sandor couldn’t even raise his arm to point back. His eyes traveled over the length of his left arm. “Motus Montis,” was written on his forearm. It meant “The Mountain that Moves.” Mountain peaks were tattooed in bracelets around his biceps.
This was The Mountain, and his reputation preceded him. He was the one Sandor had been thinking of when he told Sansa that some men enjoyed the suffering of others. He did, indeed, know the man by reputation.
Sandor stood unmoving as the Mountain approached him. He’d known, as soon as he’d been able to see the tattoos clearly, just who the Mountain really was. On the inside of his right forearm was a tattoo of three dogs – just like Sandor’s.
Sandor swallowed and said a quick prayer that Sansa would somehow find her way out of this, unharmed. Sandor knew he wouldn’t be so lucky.
“Hello, big brother,” he said.
Chapter 23: Bringing Down The Mountain
“Hello, big brother,” Sandor said to the man standing before him.
Sansa pressed herself against the wall and searched her mind. She tried to find the memory of the day on the cliff when Sandor had had spoken of his childhood. How his brother had pushed his head into the fireplace.
Throwing her memory into fast forward, Sansa recalled the day after he’d killed Joffrey. Sandor told her how the Lannisters had “taken care” of the remaining Cleganes.
“They lied to him,” Sansa mumbled. All this time, Sandor had labored under the impression that he owed that debt to the Lannisters for the death of his father and brother. Instead, they brought Gregor into their service and manufactured the lie that Sandor would pay for the rest of his life.
Sansa carefully peered around the corner and tried to discern the whereabouts of Sandor’s brother. The man was still a far distance off with his back toward the beach, but he was slowly approaching the spot where Sandor remained rooted to the ground.
Sliding with her back toward the wall, Sansa moved away from the front of the house. She couldn’t go out the sunroom door because even if she made it out the door without being noticed, the deck would creak as she walked across it. Sansa continued on, back to the bedroom.
The bedroom window faced the beach, but at an angle from around the corner of the room. Quietly, Sansa slid the window pane to the side and tugged on the plastic loops to pull out the screen. With the screen out, Sansa was able to lean through the window and watch as Gregor Clegane moved just out of sight past the corner of the house.
Sansa waited a moment longer until she was confident that she wouldn’t be seen while crawling out the window. She lowered Sandor’s high powered rifle to the ground and jumped down beside it.
It was slow going as Sansa edged her way along the wall. By the time she got to the corner of the house, Gregor had moved past the left end of the front porch. Sandor hadn’t moved. If she was careful, quiet and slow, Sansa could creep up to the porch and be concealed beside it. It would be close enough.
Close enough for what? Sansa wondered. Her plan hadn’t gone any farther than moving into position. Did she have what it would take to shoot a man in the back? Could she be like Sandor, deciding another man’s fate?
Sansa reminded herself that it wasn’t the same. Gregor had tried to kill them. He’d been following her through the woods with the intention of exacting revenge for Joffrey. Sansa could only guess at how long Gregor had been watching them. He might have been here for days, spying and reporting back to Cersei.
Finally hunkered down under cover of the front porch, Sansa watched the two men. Sandor still had not moved as Gregor approached him. He lifted his chin showing no fear, but Sansa could sense it in him. Maybe it was the set of his jaw or something in his eyes, but Sandor was afraid.
Taking aim so that only the tip of the barrel was visible, Sansa kept her movements small. Too much movement and she’d be noticed by Gregor through his peripheral vision. Not enough movement, and Sandor might not know she was there. He should have seen her as she’d crept into position, but as focused as he was on the brother he hadn’t seen in more than twenty-five years, it was possible that he wasn’t yet aware of her presence.
“Finally come to finish the job, big brother?” Sandor spoke clearly, his voice low and even. “Or are you going to take your time with me?” Sandor threw his gun down beside him. Sansa couldn’t understand why he would do that.
Sandor raised his hands in surrender. Gregor lifted his rifle, tucking it into his shoulder. There was a long, quiet moment.
“The Dove,” Gregor said. His voice was so deep it sounded as though Gregor had to strain to speak.
“I’m the one who killed Joffrey,” Sandor told him. “And I’d do it again. If Cersei wants her revenge, it’ll have to be me.”
“The Dove,” Gregor repeated.
Sandor swallowed. “She’s gone. I sent her into the woods. You won't find her.”
Gregor laughed. It was a sickening sound, thick with twisted intentions. “The Dove,” he said again with more insistence in his voice.
Gregor had moved so close to Sandor, that Sansa would no longer be in his peripheral vision. Sansa popped her head up slightly so that she could clearly see the situation in front of her. There’s no way Sandor wasn’t seeing her now. She looked through the scope of Sandor’s rifle and aimed for the spot above the rear edge of Gregor’s ear. She was about to pull the trigger when a stiff breeze blew in off the beach.
Sandor was downwind of Gregor. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Still eight feet apart, there was a chance that Sandor would still be okay even if Gregor was sick. But if she shot Gregor, Sandor would be hit with the cast off.
Sansa sat up higher propping her elbow on the edge of the porch. Keeping her aim, she mimicked testing the wind and gestured for him to turn his position. She knew that Sandor would have seen it. He had to.
Sandor took a tentative step backward in order to get Gregor moving again. After a few more steps, he began to angle to the side rotating his body slightly. Instead of falling into Sandor’s pattern, Gregor side-stepped to cut him off. The only result was that they both were now closer to the house.
“You won’t get her so you may as well shoot me,” Sandor stated.
“I want the Dove.” Gregor licked his lips. His expression was repulsive.
Sandor dropped his shoulders. The set of his jaw changed, his eyes softened, and he lowered his hands to the sides. “Shoot,” Sandor said. He may have been looking directly at Gregor, but Sansa knew he was talking to her.
Sansa shook her head. She repeated the action that conveyed the wind direction.
“Shoot,” Sandor said again. Sansa shook her head. She watched as Sandor clamped his lips together and tensed his jaw. He needed to convey to Sansa how important it was that she be safe, even if it meant he had to sacrifice himself.
He was taking a chance, but it was the only way he could think of right now. “Obsequium!” he shouted. But Gregor had understood the message. Gregor didn’t so much as twitch, but in the bright light of day, Sandor saw Gregor’s pupils dilate.
Sansa sensed the movement only a fraction of a second before Gregor whirled and sprayed the corner of the house with automatic fire. She dove back down below the cover of the porch.
As soon as Gregor turned, Sandor dove at his feet. The momentum of his body against Gregor’s shins knocked the large, top-heavy man off his feet. Sandor reached between Gregor’s legs and snatched up his pistol. Gregor fell hard onto his elbows hitting himself in the face with the broad side of his gun and scraping his knuckles and chin into the driveway gravel.
Sandor rolled several times to give himself just enough distance. Gregor scrabbled to his feet, not an easy task for a man as large and bulky as he was. He was on his feet and swinging his rifle around toward his younger brother when Sandor lay prone on his back and fired.
Sansa watched Gregor stagger as Sandor fired three times, hitting Gregor in the chest. Thankfully, having rolled past where Gregor had been previously standing, Sandor had fired from upwind. The older brother stumbled backward with each impact. He looked down at his chest, shocked and amazed that Sandor had hit him.
Instead of falling back the way Sansa would have expected, Gregor slowly swung his gun up from his side having already lost some of his strength. Sandor fired twice more, but realized that Gregor would kill him if he didn’t aim small. He focused on one of Gregor’s eyes as he realigned his sight.
His attention turned and focused on Sandor, Gregor had momentarily forgotten Sansa was there. Sansa stood quickly, stepped forward from her hiding place, aimed Sandor’s gun and fired one shot into the back of Gregor’s skull.
Sandor jerked involuntarily as the right side of Gregor’s face ripped apart under the force of the bullet. In his death grip, Gregor squeezed the trigger sending bullets flying wild. Instinctively, Sandor covered his face with his arms and rolled to the side, but there was nothing more that he could do to protect himself. Sansa dove for cover behind the edge of the porch. The spray seemed to go on forever until there was nothing more that the stuttering tick of an empty clip. When the gun fell silent, Sandor watched as the elder Clegane keeled forward into to the dirt. The Mountain had toppled and fallen.
Not trusting what she’d seen, Sansa ran to Sandor with the rifle still firmly gripped in her hands, but pointed safely away in the direction of the beach. Sandor relaxed onto his back letting his arms flop down at his sides. His chest heaved with great gasps of relief.
“Sandor!” Sansa dropped to her knees beside him. She cautiously lay the gun down on the ground and began patting him down frantically checking for wounds.
“Oh my God! Are you okay? Did he hit you? Have you been shot?” Sansa’s hands were all over him. “Talk to me! Are you hurt?”
Sandor grabbed Sansa by the arms and pulled her down on top of him. “Sansa! Calm down. I’m okay. I haven’t been shot.” They lay there staring at each other in disbelief. For Sansa, it was because Sandor had miraculously not been hit by a stray bullet. For Sandor, it was because Sansa had just saved his life – and from the one man who he’d believed had been dead all these years.
The irony was not lost on Sandor. The Hound had been beaten by a Mountain, but the Mountain had been beaten by a Dove.
Leaning across his chest, Sansa looked down into Sandor’s face. Never again would she doubt what lengths the Lannisters would go to in order to own someone. Now, with both Joffrey and Gregor gone, Sandor and Sansa were both a little closer to freedom.
Trying to keep herself from hyperventilating, Sansa breathed through her nose and slowed her breath. She focused on Sandor as the edges of her vision turned gray, then cleared. Sansa smiled as her body was finally able to relax.
Sandor sat up and took Sansa’s head between his hands. “Are you okay?” he asked. Sansa nodded. Sandor struggled to his feet and pulled Sansa up beside him.
Suddenly, the realization of it all hit her at once. If Gregor had hit Sandor with a stray bullet, or if Gregor had shot Sandor when Sandor had told him to – though really he’d been talking to Sansa –he’d be dead. There were so many times in the last half hour that Sandor could have been shot and killed. She could have lost him. She could have found herself alone in the world again, without him.
“Sandor, I’m so sorry.” Before he had a chance to react, Sansa kissed him. Sandor broke their kiss and pulled away.
“Sansa, I wasn’t wearing a mask. What if he was sick?” he said with concern nodding toward his dead brother.
Sansa smiled. “I don’t care. I won’t spend another minute without you. Even if it means we end up dying together, you’re the one I want to be with. I’m so sorry I couldn’t say that days ago. I should have. I just … I couldn’t –”
“Sansa, it’s okay.” He gently swept her hair back from her face and tucked it behind her ear. “I understand what you had to go through. I’m glad you took your time so that you ended up making the right decision. I’ve made too many quick decisions in my life and look where it got me.”
“So … you’re not mad at me?”
“Ha!” Sandor grunted. “Are you kidding me? Why would you think that?”
Sansa couldn’t look at Sandor. She felt shame for how she’d treated him … yet again. “I was so cold to you. I was afraid you’d think that I didn’t love you.” She looked up at him then. “But I do love you, Sandor.”
Sandor smiled. No, he grinned, and he couldn’t help himself. “I know that. I knew that the whole time. If you didn’t love me, it wouldn’t have been so difficult for you. If you didn’t love me, there wouldn’t have been anything for you to figure out. You would have just kicked me out with no regrets.”
Sansa threw herself against Sandor’s chest and held onto him for dear life.
“I love you, too, Sansa.” Sandor wrapped his arms around Sansa and squeezed her tightly to him, never wanting to let her go. But he did let her go because he didn’t want to just hold her, he wanted to kiss her. With his hands cradling her head, Sandor leaned his head down close to hers, but Sansa pushed him away.
Her face scrunched up like she’d just bitten something bitter. “I can’t,” she said.
Now what? Sandor thought.
Sansa shook her head as she pulled away making a wretched face at him. She flicked her eyes in the direction of Gregor lying in the dirt behind them, but wouldn't - couldn't - bring herself to look. “I’m sorry. That’s just nasty.” Her expression turned apologetic. “It’s not exactly romantic."
Sandor couldn’t help but laugh.
Morbid curiosity began to overtake her and Sansa tried to turn and look, but Sandor held onto her head so she couldn’t.
Sandor shook his head. “Don’t,” he told her. “Trust me. You’ve had enough nightmares. Don’t do this to yourself.”
Sansa closed her eyes, took a deep breath, swallowed, and nodded. When she opened her eyes she was more relaxed again. She leaned down and picked up Sandor’s rifle. “What the hell is in this thing?” she asked with bewilderment. “His face exploded!”
Now it was Sandor’s turn to be apologetic. “They’re prefragmented hollow point bullets.”
“Oh. Okay,” Sansa said sarcastically, acting as though it was a normal everyday thing to blow someone apart with exploding bullets. Her face turned angry as she punched Sandor in the chest. “Why did you just stand there and let him come at you?" she demanded. "And why did you drop your gun?”
“I did it to protect you. I wanted him to focus on me so that you could get away. But you stayed so that's when I dropped my gun. If I was unarmed, Gregor was more likely to shoot me. If he shot me, you’d have no reason not to shoot him.”
“Why?” Sansa asked. She was dumbfounded and irate. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I love you and you’re more important than me. I owe a lot for the way I’ve lived my life. But you … you have a family who loves you. You have to –”
Sansa stopped in her tracks and turned to face Sandor. “Sandor …” Deep concern grooved Sansa’s forehead. “You do realize that you have family that loves you, too, right?” When Sandor didn’t respond, Sansa pointed to herself.
“Me, Sandor. I love you.” She poked him in the chest. “It was you who said that you only need one person to love you.”
Sandor sucked air in between clenched teeth and stiffened his jaw. He could feel his eyes becoming moist. He didn’t want Sansa to see, but she already had and she smiled warmly.
Sandor tucked his pistol into his waistband. He took the rifle from Sansa and put his arm around her turning her away from the gruesome scene. “Let’s go,” he said struggling to keep his voice even. He pulled her into the crook of his arm as he guided her back toward the house.
“But don’t we need to take care of … of that,” she asked pointing back toward what was left of Gregor.
“He can lay there and rot for all I care.” Sandor stopped and looked down at Sansa. “I have something more important to take care of."
Chapter 24: The Devil's Karma
“Dad? How are you? How is Mom and Arya?” Sansa looked over at Sandor as they sat on the deck with a beer.
From here, they could barely see the smoldering of the ground where they had buried Gregor, near where Joffrey had also fallen. To be on the safe side, Sandor had used a lawn sprayer to soak the area with a mix of bleach and disinfectant after he’d moved the Mountain.
Sandor listened to Sansa’s half of the conversation as she spoke with her family. They ensured each other that they were safe and healthy. Sansa told them that she’d taken in a border, but turned the conversation quickly to ask if they’d heard from the boys.
By the sound of it, Jon and Robb had experienced very little of the effects of the pandemic up in Alaska. Bran and Rickon, on the west coast, were also safe. The family took turns, with Sansa talking to her mother for the longest amount of time, then Arya, then the phone was given back to her father.
“Dad, I can’t really explain everything over the phone because it would take too long and it’s too complicated, but after this is all over, I need you to come out here for a visit.”
She listened for a moment. “Um hmmm,” she murmured nodding. Sansa glanced over at Sandor and he nodded for her to continue.
“I know you’ll be busy with work, but this would be … well … official. I can’t come back to Chicago, you’d have to come here. I can’t explain right now, but I promise that when you get here, you’ll understand.”
Sandor watched Sansa’s eyes as she listened to what Ned Stark was saying. “Yes,” she finally admitted. “Joffrey found me.”
“No, he’s dead.”
“He was sick.”
“No, I’m fine. I never got anywhere near him and it’s all taken care of, I promise. It’s just that …” Sansa gave Sandor another long sideways glance. Sandor narrowed his eyes at her and pointed to a cell phone that was now contained in a Ziploc baggie. The phone sat on top of the yellow envelope that Sandor had first shown to Sansa almost a week ago. Both sat on the deck at her feet.
“Dad, I have evidence. Lots of it.”
“No … no, Daaaad! Just listen. You need to trust me. I can’t come to Chicago and you can’t send anyone else. You need to come yourself. Bring mom. And bring Arya and Gendry if they want to come with you.”
Sansa listened for a long moment. Her eyes widened as her mouth dropped in a silent gasp. She nodded to no one. “Well that explains a few things. What? Oh … nothing.” Sansa waved a hand into the empty air in front of her.
“Okay, tell Mom I love her.” Sansa tossed her head reluctantly. “Yeah, okay, tell Arya I love her, too,” she said thick with sarcasm. Sansa hung up the phone and gazed at Sandor with a smug grin.
“What?” Sandor asked. “Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“Cersei’s dead. C-ROD.” Sansa pointed to Gregor’s cell phone. Before they buried and burned him, they’d taken his phone. Unlike Sandor’s phone which was unlocked with a password, Gregor’s phone had a fingerprint lock making it easy for them to get access to it and disable the security feature.
“I guess that’s why we never heard back from her.”
After disposing of Gregor, Sandor and Sansa had sent a message to Cersei on Gregor’s phone. “The Dove won. The Mountain is dead. The Hound owes you nothing,” it had said. There had never been a reply.
Sandor balked. “What about Jaime?”
“Apparently he’s fine.”
Sandor sat back in his chair and relaxed with a smug smile. “Good. A man as pretty as him should find lots of company in prison.”
They sat for a long while, drinking their beers and watching the sunset. Sandor reached over and took hold of Sansa’s hand.
“I just feel sorry for Myrcella and Tommen. I hope they don’t go to live with Tywin. He’ll probably turn them into a new little Cersei and Jaime. I hope we won’t have to worry about them, too,” Sansa reflected.
Sandor disagreed. “Tywin will go to prison, too. Myrcella and Tommen won’t be a problem. They’re sweet kids. When they find out the truth about their parents, they won’t want anything to do with that family. And Tyrion will make sure it stays that way.”
“They already know, Sandor. Myrcella and Tommen have always known about the family business.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Sandor said. He looked over at Sansa to find her staring back with an inquisitive expression. Sandor grimaced. He pointed to the envelope. “Criminal evidence isn’t the only documentation in there.” He casually took another sip of his beer.
“What?!” Sansa asked with mild frustration. She waited, but Sandor was evidently baiting her. “What’s in there?”
Sansa twisted in her chair to face Sandor. She was clearly very curious about what Sandor had to say next.
“I assume you know about the death of Joffrey’s father, Robert Baratheon?”
“Yes.” Sansa nodded searching her mind for what she remembered. “I think he was killed in a hunting accident, wasn’t he?”
“That’s how it was made to look.” Sandor chewed his lip.
“Was it you?” Sansa asked fearing the answer.
“No, but I knew that it was a set up.” Sandor hesitated. “And I knew why.”
Sandor watched as Sansa’s head sunk down between her shoulders. She could see that something was coming, but she had no clue what to expect.
“If I had to guess I’d say it was so that Cersei could take control of his business interests,” Sansa hypothesized.
Sandor slowly, ominously shook his head. He leaned over the arm of his chair bringing his face close to Sansa’s.
“Robert found out something that got him killed.” Sandor squeezed Sansa’s hand. He had no idea how she would handle the information she was about to hear. “Robert suspected that Cersei was having an affair. He assumed that it had been going on for a long time so he got a DNA test done on Tommen because he's the youngest. When he got the results, he had Myrcella and Joffrey tested as well. It turns out none of them were his.”
Sansa gawped. “Wow. So Cersei had been having an affair the whole time they were married?” After a moment of thought, Sansa seemed to dismiss the information. “But is that really worth killing someone? People have affairs all the time.”
“It’s not the affair that got him killed, Sansa. It’s who the affair was with that got him killed.”
Cold drifted over Sansa’s skin making the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She could see in Sandor’s eyes that whatever he was about to tell her would shock her. As if the events of the past two days weren’t shocking enough, Sansa had a feeling that she’d somehow gotten very lucky.
“Cersei’s children were fathered by Jaime Lannister.”
Sandor thoroughly enjoyed the look of shock on Sansa’s face. “Uhhh … ewwwww! But they’re brother and sister!”
Sansa’s jaw dropped. This was unbelievable. There was no way, uh uh, it just wasn’t possible. Sansa couldn’t breathe. She had the urge to vomit, but closed her eyes and breathed deeply until it passed.
“Her brother?” Sansa mumbled. “Her brother?” Sansa bolted upright out of her chair wrenching her hand away from Sandor. A full body shiver worked its way up through her. Sansa swallowed repeatedly to calm her stomach muscles.
Sandor stood and came to her. Sansa moved into his arms as she began to sob. “They had me in their family!” Sandor cradled her head to his chest as he gently stroked her back. “I was so stupid, Sandor. How could I have been so stupid. Especially after Ramsay.”
“You’re not stupid, Sansa. There’s no way you could have known. The Lannisters were experts at keeping secrets. They sucked you into their world the same way they did with me.” Sandor held her head to force Sansa to look at him. “You’re not stupid. You were a lot smarter than me. You got away from them, I didn’t. Always remember that.”
“But Sandor, it wasn’t your fault. They lied to you, too. They made you believe that your brother was dead, but they were just keeping him waiting in the wings until the time was right to use him against you.”
“I know. And that’s why I want to do this,” Sandor said referring to Sansa’s father. “It’s the right thing to do and you know it is. I need to do something good with my life.”
Sansa tried to pull away, but Sandor wouldn’t let her.
“There are lots of ways to do good with your life,” she pleaded. “What if my father decides to turn you in?”
“It’s a chance I have to take.” Sandor took Sansa by the arms and pulled her closer. “We still have time, Sansa. This pandemic isn’t going to end tomorrow.”
Sansa thought frantically trying to find a way out of this. “We don’t have to tell him about you. My father doesn’t have to know who you really are.”
Sandor shook his head. “You can’t hide me in the back of your closet. At some point I’m going to have to face him. Ned Stark might not know my real name but he’ll know my face. I can’t hide that.”
Sandor leaned down and kissed Sansa. His lips were soft and tender and Sansa felt all the love he had for her. Sandor looked down into her stunningly beautiful face.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
Sansa nodded to emphasize how she felt. “I trust you … with my life. I do love you and I do trust you, Sandor.”
“I love you, Sansa. And I need to have faith that it will all work out the way it's supposed to.”
One Year Later
“Are you nervous?”
Sandor nodded. He leaned back in his deck chair and took a long drink of iced tea. He wasn’t drinking as much these days. It wasn’t fair to Sansa and Sam wasn’t much of a drinker anyway. Besides, Sandor wanted to keep in shape. Four months from now, he’d need all the extra energy he could get.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine. Mr. Stark is a really nice fellow. And Miss Tully … I mean … Mrs. Stark is a nice lady as well.” There was a long pause. “If you need to get away from the women for awhile, you can always come into town and hide out in the bakery.”
“Thanks, Sam. I appreciate that.”
Sam got up and stretched. “I should be getting back. Gilly will be wondering where I’ve got off to.” He started down the steps of the porch, then turned back to Sandor. “I’ll bring the cake by tomorrow evening, then?”
Sandor nodded and stood to see off his friend. It still gave Sandor a twinge in his gut when it occurred to him that he had people in his life that he could refer to as friends. He’d never had that before he met Sansa.
Halfway to his car Sam turned.
“Thanks for not holding it against me.”
Sam waved away his concern. “I’d have probably done the same if it was me and Gilly out here and we started getting intruders like that. You two are not the only ones it happened to. So many people were fleeing the city …” Sam shook his head. They didn’t need to discuss it. It had been all over the news. Sam would never know the whole truth about their “intruders,” but he didn’t need to. It was over and done with.
He gave Sam a wave as he rolled down the driveway and out of view. Sandor sat for a little while longer, but it was almost noon, and he still had a trip to make to Burlington. Just as he was getting out of his chair again, Sansa came out to join him.
“How was your nap?” he asked. Sansa stretched and yawned.
“Are you going to Burlington?”
“Yes,” Sandor assured her. “And don’t worry, I’ve got your list.”
“And you finished painting the guest house? I want to make sure it’s aired out by tomorrow. I don’t want any paint fumes –”
“Okay, okay,” Sansa said flapping a hand at him. She turned and looked across the yard and admired Sandor’s handiwork. The guest house was a three bedroom bungalow with a small kitchen and one bathroom. It was the perfect size for family to visit when they came. When no family was visiting, Sandor and Sansa had the option of renting it out as a cottage during the summer.
After the health unit and environmental people had come and tested the soil, Sansa and Sandor got the all clear. Under normal circumstances, investigations might have taken longer, but there had been so many C-ROD victims, so many lost souls to be disposed of, that the authorities asked only for verification of who the people were and why they’d come to the property. In discussing Joffrey, Sansa and Sandor told the truth – a jealous ex-boyfriend who’d been stalking Sansa had showed up and died (they didn’t mention exactly how). When it came to Gregor, they stretched the truth a little more – Sandor’s older brother who he’d long thought dead had somehow tracked him down and shown up and also died of C-ROD.
Once the cursory investigations were complete, Sansa and Sandor poured the foundation over the tainted ground. Sandor had built most of the guest house himself over the course of the pandemic.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait until after lunch?” Sansa asked. Burlington was only forty minutes away and there really wasn’t much to pick up. Sandor had been waiting for the arrival of the new furniture Sansa had ordered for the guest bedroom.
“I want to go early. There’s something else I need to take care of while I’m there,” he explained mysteriously.
Sansa wrung her hands. Sandor was taking this all in stride, but it wasn’t just him that was taking a risk. She knew that her father was a fair man, and he’d see that there was now more at stake than whether or not Sandor was guilty of the crimes he’d perpetrated. Hopefully, Ned Stark would also be able to see that Sandor was a changed man, that he was doing all he could to make up for his transgressions.
Sandor was the first to volunteer to help anyone in the community who needed it. He helped out with charities and non-profits whenever he could. He was getting registered to help with a boy’s program in the city – a program for troubled youth who were going through the same things he’d experienced at that age.
“Are you ready for this?” Sansa asked. Worry creased her forehead.
Sandor smiled. He was doing a lot of that lately. “It’s kind of late to change our minds now,” he admitted. He put his arm around Sansa, kissed her, and gently stroked her belly. “Your parents want to meet the father of their grandson. Let’s just hope your dad decides not to make you a single mother.”
“That’s not funny, Sandor. And it’s going to be a girl.”
It was almost 4:30 by the time Sandor got back from Burlington. He backed up the older pickup truck next to the newer one, close to the edge of the front porch to make it easier to unload. Sansa came out to meet him.
“So what else did you get?” she asked expecting some sort of surprise.
“Just the furniture.” Sandor began to slide a large box out of the back of the truck and onto the deck.
“Did you remember the bumper pads?”
Sandor gave her a look. “Aye, I remembered the bumper pads. And I bought sheets. And I found a mobile I thought you might like.”
“Then what was the mysterious errand you had to take care of?”
Sandor stopped what he was doing and planted his fists on his hips. “Sansa, I’ve made a lot of changes and I’m doing a lot of things differently.”
Sansa nodded. She was aware of just how much Sandor was enjoying everything new he’d been doing with his life. He was living his life to … to the goodest. Sansa knew that “goodest” wasn’t really a word, but if it was, it was the perfect word to describe what motivated Sandor.
“There is something that’s been bothering me for a long time and I know it’s just symbolic but … It was just something I had to do.”
“Okay ...” Sansa wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be concerned, worried, or proud of whatever it was he’d done. Sandor sat on the edge of the porch near where Sansa was standing, and swung his feet over the edge. He tugged the bottom hem of his shirt up and over his head.
Sansa saw that his tattoo was covered with a large gauze square taped to his skin.
“Did you have it removed?” Sansa asked. Sandor shook his head. He reached across with his left hand and tried to pick at the edge of the tape but he didn’t have enough of a fingernail to get hold of it. Sansa brushed his hand out of the way and peeled back the bandage.
The dogs were untouched, but in a semi-circle around them was fresh ink lettering. It was raised and red and looked irritated.
Vita, Honos, Amor
“What does it mean?” Sansa asked.
Sandor stood, turned, and hugged Sansa tightly. He whispered in her ear. “Life, Honor, Love.”
“No more Fide, Officium, Obsequium?” Sansa asked as her eyes began to mist. She leaned back to look into Sandor’s face. He shook his head slowly. He couldn’t speak. Sandor was afraid that if he opened his mouth, he would completely lose it, so instead he just smiled and let the tears drip down his face.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Sandor. I promise.” Sansa helped Sandor bring the new furniture in and they began to put it together.
Catelyn and Arya sat on the deck drinking margaritas. They didn’t want to drink if Sansa couldn’t join them, but she’d insisted. Sansa wanted them to enjoy themselves as much as possible. A little bribery never hurt and she wanted everyone on her and Sandor's side.
The Starks were amazed at the home Sansa had made for herself. The property was stunning and they were intoxicated by the fresh clean air, silence, and tranquility. Catelyn and Arya were instantly smitten with the gentleman who’d come into Sansa’s house as a border and ended up staying. It wasn’t difficult to see just how much in love they were.
If Ned gave Sandor too much trouble, the Stark women were ready to band together in protest and even rebellion if it came to that. Even Gendry immediately liked Sandor and was starting to side with him. But there was still a lot of talking to do, a lot of details to figure out.
Sansa wandered down the dock to where the three men were loading the boat with fishing gear. Gendry was smiling brightly, enthusiastically looking forward to fishing with the boys. Sandor and her father looked mildly uncomfortable. Sansa could see that tensions were easing up … slowly, but there was some notable progress. She also noted that Gendry was strategically positioned between the two other men.
The three men had climbed in the boat and were ready to push off when Sansa approached. They all looked up at her expectantly.
Sansa stuck her hand out and gestured with her fingers. “Hand it over,” she stated firmly. Ned was the first to blink. He sighed deeply. He unzipped his jacket, reached inside, unholstered his pistol and handed it to Sansa. As an FBI agent, he was required to be armed at all times, but Sansa didn’t want to take any chances or leave him with any temptations.
Sansa checked the safety and made sure the chamber was empty. She waited, looking at the three men. When none of them moved, Sansa stuck her hand out and gestured again.
“Come on, you, too.”
Sandor got a perturbed look on his face as he unzipped his jacket and unarmed himself. Sandor kept his gun on him only because during the last months of the pandemic and in the days since, there had been a few “incidents” on the property. The economy was still in the shitter and there were a lot of people who were afraid to go back to the cities they’d fled during the pandemic.
Sansa raised her eyebrows at Gendry. He shook his head and raised his hands in surrender. “Don’t look at me. I work at Chrysler.”
Sansa gestured between Sandor and her father. “I don’t want a repeat of the Godfather scene with Fredo, got it?”
Ned and Sandor eyed each other grudgingly and nodded.
“Play nice, boys,” Sansa said as she walked away with a Ruger in one hand and a Sig Sauer in the other. She couldn’t help but grin. She realized just how much Sandor and her father were alike. They were either going to kill each other or they would end up being best friends. Sansa was betting on friends, and hoped she was right.
In the end, Ned Stark decided in favor of Sandor. He came to the conclusion that Sandor was, in fact, a good man and that he’d been sucked in by the Lannisters in much the same way as Sansa had. In a show of solidarity, Sansa had revealed everything about her sordid past relationships to her father, including how the Lannisters had covered up – via Sandor – the death of Ramsay Bolton.
Ned Stark decided to treat Sandor as an anonymous informant. According to the law, anonymous informants had to remain just that – anonymous. As long as they stayed in the quiet and sleepy town of North Burlow and so long as Sandor kept a relatively low profile, Sansa and Sandor could live happily and freely. Sandor was more than happy to stay out of the limelight and live a quiet, drama-free life.
The entire Stark clan finally met Sandor when they all came out for a visit five months later. All the brothers thoroughly approved of Sandor and made sure to take him out and celebrate the birth of the very first Stark grandchild.
Sansa gave birth to a girl. She agreed wholeheartedly when Sandor asked if they could name her Eleanor.
Sandor had forgotten much of his childhood, but as his life changed for the better, some of the long forgotten moments, before his childhood trauma, had filtered back to him. His mother, Eleanor, had died when he was very young. He barely remembered her, but he did remember that she had loved him. Sandor suspected that the reason he’d turned out to be a decent and good human being in the long run, was because of the small quantity of affection he’d experienced before she’d died.
Sansa smiled up at Sandor as he cradled their tiny, delicate daughter in his arms. The cycle had been broken and the Clegane name would mean something good for a change. Sandor had a large family who loved him. He had freed himself from his past. He lived his life only for good.
None of it would have been possible if Sansa hadn’t chosen him that day in the community center.
“Life, honor, love,” he whispered as he placed Eleanor back in her mother’s arms.
“Vita, Honos, Amor,” Sansa said back. It was the new family motto that they would live by for the rest of their lives.
Well, folks, this is it. It's been a wild ride. This fic was the most fun I've had writing so far and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
I may be away for a while. Although writing this fic was an absolute blast, it consumed a lot of time and energy and I need a rest.
Please stay safe, healthy, and most of all ... happy!