Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book. I began this practice in February of 2011. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site. If you want to read the opening to the previous fifteen novels, click here.
This month, I’ve excerpted Completely Smitten, which I wrote as Kristine Grayson. The storyline follows Utterly Charming, and Thoroughly Kissed, both of which I’ve excerpted here. You don’t have to read either book to enjoy Completely Smitten. The Grayson novels are marketed as romance, but in truth, they’re light fantasy. For those of you who have been asking, this is Sancho’s story.
I hope it will wet your appetite, not just for this book, but for my other Grayson novels as well. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.
Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:
Darius has been a sidekick forever. Always the best friend, never the hero. Known throughout the ages by a variety of names from Merlin to Sancho Panza, Puck to Andvari, Darius has kept his real identity secret.
Three thousand years ago, he disrespected true love. So, as punishment, the Fates took away his good looks and forced him to unite 100 soul mates before he got his looks back. He just united his 98th and 99th couple. He has one left when he meets Ariel Summers.
Ariel Summers, a world-famous triathelete, is hiking the Idaho Wilderness to come to terms with a career-ending injury. She falls off a cliff, but somehow manages to stop on a ledge halfway down. But she needs help, and a handsome man provides it—using magic. She meets Darius in his true form, which he can revert to once a year—and falls in love with him.
Or does she? Because Darius’s lifelong enemy, Cupid, lurks in the woods, and he’s shot an arrow at Ariel. Did it hit? And does it matter? Because Darius knows Ariel is part of the final couple he must unite. He can’t bear to unite her with anyone else. But Darius doesn’t deserve true love. So he must break Cupid’s spell, find Ariel’s soul mate, and unite them. Even though he doesn’t want to.
Copyright © 2011 by Kristine K. Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
First Published by Kensington 2001
(2700 Years Ago)
“Cupid is stupid.” Darius stabbed his javelin into the ground and crossed his arms.
The sky was an unbelievable shade of blue and the grass was emerald. In the distance, Mount Olympus disappeared into the clouds. To his left, a silver pool with a golden waterfall released spray that haloed in the sun.
He was covered with sweat from his practice session. He had spent most of the day with the javelin. The day before, he had concentrated on his discus throw. In a few weeks’ time, he had to defend his position as the first winner of the Olympic Pentathlon, and he was not about to give up his title.
The Fates stood before him. They wore white gowns that were held in place by a gold broach on the right shoulder. Their sandals were also made of gold.
“Cupid?” Clotho asked. A large replica of a spool of thread held her blonde hair in place.
“Whom are you calling Cupid?” Lachesis asked. Her red hair had been divided into sections, which Darius took to be representative of Lots. Her supposed duty as a Fate was the Dispenser of Lots, the one of the three who theoretically assigned each living person a destiny.
“Eros.” Darius answered the question with more than a little annoyance.
“Eros?” Atropos asked. A golden set of shears held up her long black hair in an elaborate style. “No one calls Eros Cupid.”
“The Romans do.”
“Those pretenders who give so much credence to Romulus and Remus?” Clotho asked.
“Those pretenders are going to be important,” Darius said. “Just you watch. I think they’re power-hungry, greedy, and more than a little vicious. I bet in a couple hundred years, everyone will have heard of Rome.”
“You’re not here to wager on anything,” Lachesis said. “You are here to answer our questions.”
He knew that. He had known that the moment they had whisked him away from his practice session near Athens. He had no idea where he was now. He had been about to throw his javelin and then, one blink later, he was standing next to this pool.
Darius knew the pool was magical. Water could turn silver in the moonlight and golden in the sunlight, but it was never both at once.
“Ask away,” he said. “But get me back before the sun goes down. I have a lot of work left to do.”
“Throwing that stick?” Atropos asked.
“It’s not a stick,” he said. “It’s a javelin.”
“We know,” Clotho said. “But you are not a warrior. You are a gamester.”
“We do not approve of games,” Lachesis said.
“I’ve heard you don’t approve of much.” Darius was getting tired of this. And he was getting cold. The air here had a chill and his sweat hadn’t dried yet. Although it should have. Were they doing this deliberately to torture him?
“Really?” Atropos asked. “Who told you this?”
Darius shrugged. “People talk, you know.”
“About us?” Clotho asked.
“About everything.” He didn’t want the Fates to know he had checked up on them. He figured they weren’t much of a threat to him, but it was always good to know your potential enemy.
“You listen to gossip.” Lachesis frowned. “Is this where you get your information about Eros?”
“What information?” Darius said. “All I did was tell you he’s stupid.”
“You dare malign the God of Love?” Atropos asked.
“He’s no more the God of Love than I am.” This conversation was going nowhere. Darius wished he had a tunic, but he didn’t want to spell one while in the Fates’ presence. That would show them he was uncomfortable, and he didn’t want to be at a disadvantage. “Eros is a little spoiler who likes playing with people’s lives. Just because he’s decided to use his considerable magic to bring couples together doesn’t mean that I have to respect it.”
The Fates raised their chins in unison. They did most things in unison. They were the ruling tribunal of the magical, the court of last resort. They had the power to punish those who misused their magic, and their sentences were feared throughout the known world.
Feared by everyone except Darius. He’d done a little research on the Fates. He’d found out that they were students of the Powers That Be—interns to be more precise, practicing their newly acquired knowledge on those below them.
If the Fates misused that knowledge, they’d be demoted, returned to the ranks of the average mage. There was no guarantee that they’d move into the exalted ranks of the Powers That Be anyway. There hadn’t been a vacancy in that august body since Earth was covered with primordial ooze.
“Did you or did you not induce the mortal known as Homer to write of Eros…”
Then Clotho paused and a piece of parchment appeared in her hand. A moment later, parchment appeared in the hands of Lachesis and Atropos.
They read in unison:
“Evil his heart, but honey-sweet his tongue.
“No truth in him, the rogue. He is cruel in his play.
“Small are his hands, yet his arrows fly far as death.
“Tiny his shaft, but it carries heaven high.
“Touch not his treacherous gifts, they are dipped in fire.”
Darius frowned. “That wasn’t Homer. I told Homer to ignore the bastard.”
“Eros is not a bastard,” Lachesis said.
“His mother is one of the Powers That Be.” As Atropos said that, all three Fates bowed their heads and spread out their hands in a reflexive movement.
“She would be quite angry to hear you speak like this.” Clotho cringed just a little as if she were afraid of Aphrodite.
Darius ignored them. They seemed to prattle a lot. “It was another poet whose name escapes me. They’re all alike, thinking—well, thinking too much, for one thing. And they never exercise. Whoever said writers were touched by the Gods were wrong. Writers are ignorant, easily manipulated, arrogant—”
“Did you or did you not force those words to be written?” Lachesis asked.
“Well, I didn’t force them,” Darius said. “It was more like a suggestion.”
“While you were pretending to be this mortal poet’s muse?” Atropos asked.
“I wasn’t pretending. I was his inspiration. I’ve inspired a dozen poets. They sing of my athletic prowess. They—”
“Eros is very angry about the phrasing in this so-called work of art,” Clotho said.
“Particularly the ‘tiny his shaft’ part,” Lachesis said.
“It was all we could do to prevent him from showing us how inaccurate that was.” Atropos grimaced, as if the memory were distasteful.
“You brought me here because of a poem?” He’d heard that the Fates were capricious, but he had no idea how capricious.
“Of course not,” Clotho said. “There are other complaints.”
Darius resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He was certain there were other complaints. The battle between him and Cupid or Eros or whatever the little troublemaker wanted to be called had been going on for the last ten years.
It had started when Darius was fifteen. He had been walking through the agora in the center of town. He wasn’t shopping, although he had bought himself a few too many glasses of wine at some of the market’s booths, but he was still steady on his feet.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw some movement. A slender man wearing a loincloth was pointing an arrow at him. Darius hadn’t come into his magical powers yet, but he was the fastest man in Athens. He managed to snatch the arrow away from the man before the man had a chance to release it from his bow.
At that moment, Darius realized the man he was dealing with had wings—dirty little stumpy wings—and he was very angry.
He wasn’t used to being thwarted when he was shooting his arrows of love. Darius had misunderstood the reference at first, and when he finally did understand it (after much shouting), he grew even angrier.
Darius believed that Cupid—as he started calling the little bastard almost immediately (having learned that the barbarian name irritated the golden-haired cherub)—should have recognized another mage, even if the mage was six years away from gaining his powers.
Cupid, on the other hand, said his power over love extended beyond mortals to mages, an argument that irritated Darius to this day. Mortals, in Darius’s opinion, were useless creatures with the lifespan of gnats, certainly not comparable to the magical immortals who could live for thousands of years.
When Cupid pointed out that Darius took that attitude because he hadn’t lived as long as most mortals and didn’t know what magic was, the damage had been done. Darius decided the two of them were enemies for life.
“What other complaints?” Darius asked, as if he didn’t know all the things he had done to the winged troublemaker.
“You tipped his arrows with lead,” Lachesis said.
“So?” Darius said.
“Couples that were supposed to fall in love hated each other on first sight,” Atropos said.
“So?” Darius asked. “Why should it matter? If emotions are that easy to trifle with, maybe they should be banished.”
“You have disturbed the cosmic order,” Clotho said.
“You’re telling me that little idiot’s arrows are part of the cosmic order?” Darius shook his head. “What purpose would that serve?”
“I grant you,” Lachesis said, “it is a crude device and our predecessors—”
The Fates looked at each other and shuddered slightly.
“—could have been more subtle,” Atropos finished.
“But they had a master plan,” Clotho said.
“They believed that love is the essence of all existence,” Lachesis said.
“We still believe that,” Atropos said.
“It is the basis of our prophecies,” Clotho said.
“What prophecies?” Darius asked, then mentally kicked himself. He really wanted to get back to practice. He needed to finesse his javelin technique and he was here, talking with these glorified secretaries. He planned to win his second Olympic competition like he had won his first—without magical intervention of any kind. That meant he had to be in tip-top physical condition. A missed day was a missed opportunity.
“No one has told you of the prophecies?” Lachesis frowned and looked at the others.
“You are in charge of destinies,” Atropos whispered to Lachesis.
“Assigning them, not explaining them,” Clotho said.
“I know that.” Lachesis sounded annoyed.
“So what is Darius’s?” Atropos said.
“I don’t remember if you ever shared it with us,” Clotho said.
Darius was getting annoyed. How disorganized were these women?
Lachesis patted her tunic as if she were searching for something. Then she snapped her fingers and another piece of parchment appeared.
“He must have a heart before it can break,” she said.
“What in Hades does that mean?” Darius asked. “I have a heart. I can feel it beating every time I run.”
“A heart does more than beat,” Atropos said.
“Most hearts,” Clotho said softly to her companions. “Remember, we are speaking of Darius here.”
“Ah, yes,” Lachesis said. “The man who destroyed several perfect love matches all for the sake of a grudge.”
“The man who tried to kill the God of Love,” Atropos said.
“That twerp is not the God of Love!” Darius said.
“That is correct,” Clotho said. “Eros is not the God of Love, but he is the closest thing to it that we have at the moment.”
“At least until he serves out his sentence,” Lachesis said.
“By my calculations,” Atropos said, “he still has seventy-five arrows left in his quiver.”
Clotho sighed. “That’s too many. It will take him another three hundred years to go through them.”
“It was not our sentence,” Lachesis said. “Our predecessors believed this would work.”
Atropos nodded. “It was fine when mortals were primitive, but if a boy like this one can see through the cherub with the arrow routine—”
“I am not a mortal!” Darius said.
“We know that,” Clotho said. “But it really doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t have been able to see what he was doing.”
“We are not here to discuss Eros,” Lachesis said. “We’re here to discuss his complaints.”
“They’re more than complaints,” Atropos said. “Some are quite serious.”
“Particularly the last,” Clotho said.
“If you mean the hot wax thing,” Darius said, “I can explain.”
“You do not need to explain,” Lachesis said. “You interfered with the greatest love of all time. The redemptive love.”
Darius rolled his eyes. He hadn’t done much. Cupid had fallen for a beautiful, smart, and cold woman named Psyche and made her promise not to look at him. Stupid promise, which of course she couldn’t keep. So one night, Darius talked her into looking at Cupid in his sleep and then Darius made hot wax from her candle drip on his shoulder.
Cupid, like the baby he was, ran home to Mommy, and Psyche, to Darius’s surprise, cried like the world had ended.
“They weren’t suited,” Darius said. “She’s as cold as winter in the mountains and he doesn’t have the brains of a newborn lamb.”
“You are too young to know this,” Atropos said, “but one of the things we do is create myth.”
“He is heart and she is soul. They must be united before any relationship can last,” Clotho said. “By separating them, you doomed all lovers to impermanence and heartache.”
Darius shook his head. “I don’t have that much control.”
“No, you do not,” Lachesis said.
“Eros has returned to Psyche. But the damage was done. It is now extremely difficult for soul mates to unite,” said Atropos.
“Love at first sight is no longer enough,” said Clotho.
“The winged arrow becomes only the first step,” said Lachesis.
The afternoon was waning. Darius shifted on his feet, anxious to leave. “What does this have to do with me?”
“You,” Atropos said, “must be punished for meddling in things that only the Powers That Be should touch.”
At the mention of the Powers That Be, the Fates again bowed their heads and moved their hands.
“Punished? How can I be punished for something I didn’t know was wrong?”
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” said Clotho.
“He wasn’t ignorant,” Lachesis said. “He thought it amusing to meddle with Psyche’s psyche.”
“He does not know what damage he inflicts,” Atropos said.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m standing right in front of you.”
“In the terms of an immortal’s existence, you are less than an infant,” Clotho said.
“But even infants must have their hands slapped to learn the limits of their behavior,” Lachesis said.
“So,” Atropos said, “we sentence you thusly—”
“Thusly?” Darius asked. “Who talks like that?”
Clotho crossed her arms and glowered at him. “We do, when we are about to make a pronouncement about someone’s fate.”
“Listen closely, Darius,” Lachesis said, “We are about to take control of your future.”
“Sure you are,” he said, grinning at them. “As if you have that kind of power. You’re just glorified secretaries.”
All three women rose to five times their normal height. They towered over him, making him feel quite small indeed. Since he was a tall man, feeling small made him uncomfortable, but he tried not to show it.
“Who is your mentor, Darius?” Atropos asked.
“Bacchus,” he said.
“That drunkard?” Clotho frowned at her companions. “I thought we decided he would never again mentor a young mage.”
“We did,” Lachesis said. “But Darius’s assignment had already been grandfathered in.”
“What did Bacchus teach you?” Atropos asked.
“Besides how to drink wine without paying for it yourself,” Clotho said.
“He did a week’s worth of work with me, showed me how to use my powers, told me that I had enough discipline since I was an athlete, and then sent me on my way.”
“He what?” Lachesis grew even taller.
“He said I should come back when I was twenty-five. By then I would know what kind of troubles I faced and we’d deal with them.”
“Have you gone back?” Atropos asked.
Darius shook his head. “I was thinking of going after the Olympics. But I’ve been busy.”
“He’s been unsupervised,” Clotho said.
“He is young,” Lachesis said.
“He does not know the law,” Atropos said.
“And he’s standing before you,” Darius said. “Can we include me in this conversation?”
“Still, he has no discipline,” Clotho said.
“He has no respect for traditions,” Lachesis said.
“He has done more than any other to destroy loving relationships,” Atropos said.
“Probably because he has not had one himself,” Clotho said.
“Hey!” Darius said. “I have family.”
“Loving family?” Lachesis asked.
Darius frowned. He hadn’t seen his family since he was ten. That was when he had been sent to Athens to apprentice to an older mage. That mage had been Bacchus, who had left him on his own until he came into his powers, then gave the lessons that he had just described to the Fates.
“He cannot answer,” Atropos said. “He does not know.”
Clotho sighed and shrank to her normal size. “Standard judgments might be inappropriate here.”
Lachesis shrank too. “I did like the idea of tying him to a tree and shooting him with arrows for a thousand years.”
Atropos smiled. It was not a nice smile, especially at three times normal size. “And having him pluck the arrows out before the shots could be fired again.”
“Such a punishment will only push him farther into darkness,” Clotho said. “Right now, his actions can be attributed to ignorance and a need for attention.”
Darius didn’t say anything. For the first time since he’d been spelled to this place, he was worried. He hadn’t thought they could do much to him, but this talk of thousand-year punishments was beginning to upset him.
“No one has taught him appropriate behavior,” Lachesis said.
“Perhaps we should tie Bacchus to a tree,” Atropos finally shrank to her normal size.
“I think all we need to do with him is deny him wine for the next millennium,” Clotho said. “That will be punishment enough.”
“But what of Darius?” Lachesis asked.
“He needs to learn the true nature of love,” Atropos said.
All three Fates stared at him. The hair on the back of Darius’s neck rose. “I’ll learn. I promise. You can teach me anything.”
The women smiled in unison. It was a very unsettling look.
“Don’t worry,” Clotho said. “When we’re through with you, you’ll know more about love than anyone else in the world.”
“Why does that sound like a threat?” Darius asked.
Lachesis put her hands on his shoulders. “Because,” she said gently, “it is.”
The Aging, Annoying
God of Love
Ariel Summers should have heeded the warnings. Every portent had shown that this trip was going to be strange.
She wasn’t superstitious, not really. Sure, she had her rituals before every race, just like other athletes she had met. Some athletes kissed their religious medals; others carried a lucky rabbit’s foot; still others recited a little mantra or prayer.
Ariel laid out her transition equipment in a very special way—shoes first, then bike, then shirt—and she always put on her swimming cap exactly fifteen minutes before the swimming portion of the race started, no matter how hot it was. She painted on her own numbers, starting with the right leg, and never let anyone else pin her singlet to her shirt.
Rituals were important because they told her body that it was about to participate in a triathlon, and it helped her mental preparedness. It had nothing to do with superstition. She really didn’t believe that because she forgot to put on her cap at the right time on the day of the Ironman Canada, she had been doomed. It had only been coincidence that she had torn her rotator cuff. It had nothing to do with failing to follow her rituals.
Nothing at all.
But she couldn’t help feeling a little odd about this hike into the Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness Area. First of all, there was the name: the River of No Return. Part of her worried that it was prophetic.
Then there was that incident with the park ranger as she headed onto the trail. Usually trailheads in areas this remote were unguarded. A hiker signed in and then was left on her own. The little sign-in box was miles from anything or anyone. Often there wasn’t even a Port-A-Potty nearby, just a rickety wood outhouse that could barely stand and lacked toilet paper.
But three days ago, when she started her hike, a man stood right next to the sign-in box. He looked like the cartoon character Dudley DoRight (not like Brendan Frasier, who played him [quite admirably] in the movie)—oversized chin, small piggy eyes, and exceptionally muscular chest. He wasn’t wearing a Canadian Mounted Police Uniform since it would have been out of place in Idaho, but his brown rangers’ uniform had a similar effect, right down to the narrow pants, which he had tucked into his boots.
“Where’re you going, Miss?” he’d asked in a booming cartoon character voice, and she’d nearly aborted the trip right there.
After all, it had been clear where she was going. She was already in the mountains. Ahead of her was a narrow trail that led through the tall pine trees toward the river. The trail only ran in one direction, and since she had just arrived at the trailhead, it would be logical that she was going into the wilderness.
“I’m, um, going on a hike,” she said.
“You should have a companion.” He had frowned at her, and if he had volunteered to accompany her, she would have ended the trip right then and there. The whole point of this hike was to do it alone, to test her own strength and stamina, and to reflect on her future.
She didn’t need an oversized cartoon hero babysitting her in case she encountered a crazed squirrel.
“I decided to go this one alone,” she said.
“In that case, sign here.” He gave her a big grin and patted the paper attached to the box. She gave him a reluctant look, then filled out one of the sheets and shoved it through the little hole, just like she was supposed to do.
When she was done, she frowned at him. “I’ve never encountered a ranger at the trailhead before.”
“Just waiting for a friend, ma’am,” he had said and for an odd moment, she was afraid he’d give her a salute. But instead, he nodded at her and wished her well.
And so she started down the trail, feeling disconcerted, as if time had gone out of sync.
The feeling really hadn’t left her. It was the morning of her third day and she was almost halfway through the trip. This night would be spent at a hot springs often used by rafters. She had thought it would be a good idea to stop at public sites a few times along the way, to see people, just in case she did run into trouble.
She hadn’t so far. The weather was lovely—cool in the evenings, warm during the day. The sun was out all the time, but it was thin at this altitude, and it wasn’t as hot as she had expected, considering she was making the trip in July.
Her backpack—in which she carried everything she needed—was comfortable, and the wilderness area was lovelier than she had been prepared for.
For the last two days, the trail had run above the river. Two thousand feet below, the river’s waters frothed over rocks and down waterfalls. Rafters went by, the guides looking serious and the rafters themselves screaming or laughing and having a good time. They almost never looked up and saw her, and she was grateful.
Ariel always did best alone. She had learned that after her parents died. Before that, she had been a coddled only child, touched by fairy dust, as her mother used to say. The world had seemed safe and easy.
Then, three days after her twelfth birthday, her parents’ car had been hit by a truck that had crossed the median, and there had been nothing left—of the car, of her parents, of her life.
Ariel had gone to live with her unmarried aunt in Monterey Bay. By the age of thirteen, she had made no friends. She had come home one afternoon to hear her aunt talking to social services.
“She’s such a strange child,” her aunt had said. “Never speaks, just watches television. I don’t even think she’s cried. I have no idea what to do with her.”
“Are you able to care for her?”
“Well, enough, I suppose,” her aunt said. “After all, she should stay with family, although God knows I never wanted children.”
That was all Ariel heard. She dropped her books, banged out the back door, and ran as far from the house as she could get. Midway through her mad dash, she realized that running felt good. It made her feel like a strong human being—one who could survive on her own.
From that moment on, Ariel became determined to be the strongest girl in her class. She could out-run, out-jump, out-ride, and out-swim all the girls and most of the boys. Her aunt hated the athletics, saying they were not feminine, but Ariel loved them and refused to give them up.
Which was why she was here, on this mountainside, all alone. Every time she hit a setback, she spent some time by herself, proving her own strength. This hike would allow her to focus on her future. She had some important choices to make.
The rotator cuff injury was too severe. Her doctors had ruled out any more competitive swimming. They might have allowed her to participate in a sprint tri, but she wasn’t good at the short length. Her strength was the Ironman—a 2.5-mile swim, followed by a 100-mile bike ride, and ending with a 26.2-mile run—all done within a single day.
She loved the challenge of it, pushing her body to its extremes. That was why she was here.
Walking through the primitive area of Idaho alone was an extreme.
And it was strange. That morning, it had gotten even stranger. As dawn’s thin light was just filtering through the evergreen branches, she had crawled out of her tent to pee. Dew glistened silver on the grass, and overhead she could hear birds chirping.
She had tiptoed across the cold ground toward the two rocks she had designated the night before as her bathroom site, when she saw a man pointing a bow and arrow at her.
He was short, bathed in gold, and he had little wings on his back. Gold curls rimmed the bottom of his skull like a skirt, but he was bald on top. Wrinkles covered his face, and it looked as if his nose had been flatted by a steamroller. He had a scar on his shoulder, and in his mouth, he clenched a half-smoked cigar.
“For this,” he said, “I come out of retirement. Like I still owe the Fates something. I was drunk that night I told the Enquirer everything. It wasn’t like I blew too many secrets. A single one-time punishment, they say. Jeez. What kind of trick will they pull next time they need a marksman, I ask you?”
He grimaced at Ariel.
“Why am I asking you? You, who are so uneducated as to have no clue who I am. You, who fail to realize you are in the presence of greatness.”
Then he released the arrow.
That snapped her out of her reverie. She ran for the trees, her breath coming hard, her body working without warm up. She moved faster than she ever had—she was not a sprinter—and finally she found an outcropping of rock that protected her.
When she looked back, the little man was still there, cursing. The arrow was stuck in the ground. He bent over and grabbed the shaft, tugging at it.
“Like those three harpies will ever know,” he was mumbling. “As if I wanted to help him in the first place. Why they assumed we’d become friends, I have no idea.”
He pulled, and the arrow finally came loose. He looked at it and frowned. Then he broke the arrow over his knee. Wisps of smoke, in the shape of red hearts, floated out of the arrow’s center, and then faded as if they never were.
“Good enough,” he said, and shoved the broken pieces of arrow back in his quiver. Then, in a blinding flash of white light, he disappeared.
Ariel rubbed her eyes. She was crouched on the damp ground, behind the rock cropping, breathing hard. Dawn’s light still filtered through the evergreen boughs, and dew still covered the grass—except in the places where her footsteps had disturbed it. Footsteps that made it look like she had been running.
But there was no little man with a cigar and wings, and there was no broken arrow that created smoky red hearts. She must have been asleep and dreaming.
That was a new one, and a bit disturbing too, especially since most of her campsites from now on would be near the river. What if she slept-ran into the water—or over the edge of a cliff?
That was the thought that had been worrying her all day. She really wasn’t thinking about competitive swimming or torn rotator cuffs. She was wondering if the stress of the last few months had damaged her mind.
Twigs, leaves, and broken branches covered the dirt path. Even though the hiking trail had been open for a month, no one had bothered to clear the winter debris. A sign, posted at the fork, warned of slides and unstable rocks, but Ariel didn’t plan to dislodge any of them.
She was smart enough to keep an eye on her surroundings at all times. People died every year in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness Area. She didn’t plan on being one of them.
She planned to come out of this trip refreshed, her confidence in her body’s abilities renewed. The rotator cuff injury had shaken her, and the loss of the Ironman—particularly when she’d been favored to win Hawaii this year—was especially hard.
Some of the other tri-geeks, people she’d known since she started running tris in high school, told her to swim through the pain. But she had done some research on her own. If she did, she might lose the use of her arm altogether. She planned on living another seven decades, and she felt that the use of her arm was more important than being in some record book as the winner of the Hawaii Ironman.
Even if it did come with endorsements and great publicity. She hadn’t been doing triathlons for the money anyway. She had been doing it for the challenge.
Hiking was a challenge. It was just a different kind of challenge, one that she hadn’t tried before.
Physical activity had always been her escape in the past.
She saw no reason why it wouldn’t work now.
Darius sat on a hillside, feeling grumpy. He had no reason to feel grumpy. The day was beautiful—the sky a clear blue, the sun shining down through the pine trees. The air smelled fresh and clear, summer in the mountains. In the distance he could hear the roar of the river, and it wasn’t even accompanied by the screams of rafters.
The hiking trail was empty. He hadn’t seen anyone all day except, of course, Cupid.
Cupid had shown up at Darius’s front doorstep shortly after dawn, looking angry, disgruntled, and generally out of sorts. Darius’s greeting hadn’t helped.
“They still making you wear diapers?” Darius said as he peered through the screen door.
“Fine way to greet a man you haven’t seen in five hundred years.” Cupid’s voice rasped from too many cigars. The butt of his last one stuck to his lower lip and moved when he talked.
“Hello, Cupid,” Darius had said. “I thought you gave up the arrows and wings around the birth of Christ.”
“I thought so too. Damned Fates decided I needed a refresher course. They slapped the wings on me last night. I think they’re just drunk with power.”
“They have been holding the same job for a very long time.”
“Too long, if you ask me.” Cupid shuddered. “You know, it’s cold up here at this time of the day. May I come in?”
Darius looked at Cupid’s wings. “If you don’t shed.”
Cupid snapped his fingers, but the wings didn’t disappear. He sighed. “Guess I haven’t finished my little task. Or is there a mandatory time limit on form-altering spells?”
“I have no idea,” Darius said as he held the screen door open.
Cupid stepped inside. “I’d heard that the Fates made you four feet tall with a long white beard and a hideous mug.”
Darius started. He hadn’t realized any of the magical knew about that part of his sentence. They knew about the other part, of course. He was a laughingstock because it had been nearly three thousand years and he still hadn’t put one hundred soul mates together.
He’d just finished the ninety-ninth couple a few months before and he had come to his Idaho house as a getaway. The Fates granted him two weeks every year—taken either in whole or in part, whenever he chose—when he got to look like himself. For the last few years, he’d been taking a week in solitude, up here.
“But you look just like you always did,” Cupid was saying. “How’d you keep from losing your hair?”
Darius didn’t answer that question. Instead, he asked, “Where’d you hear that I got slapped with a different body?”
Cupid shrugged. “Bacchus, maybe. Or whatshisname, later called himself Rasputin—crap. The brain’s going.”
“So are the wings,” Darius said, looking pointedly at the feathers covering his hardwood floor.
“They’ll be gone by the end of the day, I’m sure,” Cupid said. “And none too soon. They itch.”
He sat on Darius’s overstuffed couch and put his feet on the coffee table Darius had made out of a tree stump.
Darius debated whether or not to offer him food. The sooner he got Cupid out of the house, the sooner he’d be alone again. “To what do I owe this visit?”
“Old times,” Cupid said, pulling the ancient wool blanket Darius had on the couch over his torso. “Do you know there’re not a lot of folks who can remember Ancient Greece anymore?”
“You just mentioned Bacchus.”
“The last time I saw him was Spain four hundred years ago. He did something to really piss off the Fates and disappeared into deep storage around then.”
“What about Pan?”
“Went legit about ten years ago. Does concerts in the style of Yanni. Makes a mint, and doesn’t like talking to the riff-raff.”
Cupid rolled his eyes. “I don’t talk to Hermes anymore.”
“You never willingly talked to me either,” Darius said. “I interfered with your sentence from the Fates, or so you said.”
“So they said. Seems to me that’s why you’ve been playing matchmaker for most of your life.” Cupid leaned back on the couch, then exclaimed with pain as he crushed his wings. “Still not used to the damn things. Listen, offer me breakfast, and then I’ll get out of your way. I’m too damn tired to whisk myself back to Monte Carlo.”
“What’re you doing in Monte Carlo?” Darius asked.
“Running a casino.” Cupid took the cigar out of his mouth. “Don’t look so surprised. Casinos are safe. They’re one of the few places in the world where young lovers are scarce.”
“What does Psyche think about this?”
“Psyche?” Cupid grinned. “She loves the games, man. It was her idea to open the place. She’s a lot more adventurous than she looks.”
He leaned back and closed his eyes. Within thirty seconds, he was snoring. Darius sighed and stood. He and Cupid had reached a sort of peace five hundred years ago. Of course, it had come at a price. Cupid had spent most of that last visit laughing at Darius for failing to complete his sentence. Cupid seemed pleased that Darius was still paying for the things that had happened two millennia ago.
Darius still didn’t like the little creep. Breakfast was all he was willing to do. He made pancakes and sausages, and pour some of his homemade syrup into a pitcher.
When he finally served the food, Cupid was too busy stuffing his face to talk. He’d made Darius get up three times to bring him more syrup and then, when they’d finished eating, Cupid had disappeared without a real good-bye.
But he’d never been good on manners. It was one of the many things that Darius still disliked about him. The other was the stench of cigars that he couldn’t seem to get out of the house.
Darius had come to his favorite reflecting spot just so that he could get some fresh air. He still didn’t see the point in Cupid’s visit. They hadn’t talked about old times. They hadn’t talked about much at all. Darius got a sense that Cupid had remembered why their mutual dislike was…well, mutual.
A twig snapped, pulling Darius out of his reverie. He sighed and hoped this hiker wasn’t in trouble. The last few were so relieved at seeing a house, they stopped just for conversation. After this morning’s visitor, the last thing Darius wanted was conversation.
Then a woman emerged from the trees. She was too thin. He could see the bones in her arm even from this distance. But it wasn’t a thinness caused by excessive dieting or illness. This was an athlete’s thinness, the kind that came from pushing a body to its very limit. A kind he both recognized and respected. The body he wore at the moment—his original body—had that kind of thinness.
He had always found that look extremely attractive.
With a shrug of her shoulders, she adjusted her backpack. It looked heavy—at least 50 pounds—and she carried it as if it weighed only five. Within easy access she had rope, a knife, a flashlight, and a bottle of water. She was prepared.
She wore her auburn hair pulled back from her face. Darius strained to see her features, but couldn’t make them out clearly.
She moved with an athlete’s grace, with a confidence that very few people ever attained.
He inched closer to the tree, peering around it so that he could see her better. She walked with her head up, taking in the beauty of her surroundings. He looked too, trying to see this familiar vista through her eyes: the jagged mountain peaks, the bright summer sunshine, the ribbon of water running through the valley below.
She was conquering this place, hiking through it alone, making it her own. He, on the other hand, came here to hide. He used an airstrip that had existed since the 1930s, and he had never hiked in, not once, in the more than one hundred years he’d owned the house, hidden in the woods above him.
She had just passed beneath him when he heard a snap and then a rustle. He stiffened, hoping the sound didn’t portend what he thought it did.
He looked down, saw tiny rocks sliding toward her. She saw them too, and tried to step backward, but it was too late.
The path disintegrated beneath her and suddenly she was falling toward the raging river, a thousand feet below.
The path crumbled beneath her hiking boots. Ariel jumped backward, but not quickly enough. Her weight made the path disintegrate faster. She reached for the stable part of the mountain, but her hands couldn’t find purchase.
She suddenly found herself on her back, sliding down the cliff toward the water. She couldn’t grab anything. Her pack was between her and the ground.
Using all her strength, she rolled over and grabbed her knife from her belt. The rock-strewn ground cut into her bare skin, abrading it. She stabbed at the dirt, trying to slow her slide so that she could grab a tree branch or a root or anything that would keep her from sliding the thousand feet into the river.
The strain pulled at her barely healed shoulder. She could feel the rocks scraping her skin, but she couldn’t seem to hold on to anything. She was sliding faster and faster and she couldn’t stop.
And the worst part of it was, no one was here to see her fall, to help her, to record her death. She would plunge into the river and she might never wash up again.
No one would ever know what had happened to her.
She struggled harder, her fingers raw and bleeding. Her knife was finally slowing her fall. She could feel the movement ease, her body remaining stationary while the dirt slide beneath her. All she needed to do was dig herself in somehow and she would be all right.
Carefully she shoved her toes into the ground, then stuck the fingers of her free hand in as well. She found herself hoping to see the crazed arrow guy. She’d pay him to haul her off this mountainside. She’d even explain to him how to do it, since she doubted that anyone who ran around the woods while wearing diapers thought of carrying rope.
The mountain seemed steady. The little landslide had ended, and she hadn’t slid any farther. She breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Then her blade snapped and the fall started all over again, faster this time. Suddenly she was in free fall, no longer touching the ground at all.
This was it then. She was going to die, alone, unnoticed on this mountainside.
The portents had been right after all. This trip was a strange one—and it was going to end in her death, the strangest journey of all.
Darius hurried out of the trees, running toward the path. The woman was sliding on her back like an overturned turtle. She wouldn’t be able to do anything from that position.
Then, to his surprise, she righted herself and pulled out her knife, all in the same elegant movement. She dug the blade into the ground, trying to slow herself.
She didn’t seem panicked at all.
It had been years since he’d seen an ordinary mortal who was so calm in the face of death. The last one had been Napoleon, and he hadn’t been calm, he’d been crazy.
Darius stopped just shy of the place where the slide began and watched her fall. She was slowing down—the blade was working—and he knew then that she would be all right.
He stayed above her, though. She might need his assistance getting back up the mountainside. Normal, human-like assistance, with rope and a lot of effort. No magic at all.
She stopped sliding near the edge of an embankment. The mountainside turned into a cliff face not a hundred yards from her feet. She dug her fingers and toes into the dirt and sighed with relief. Darius started the spell for the rope, hurrying toward her as he did so.
With a crack, the knife blade snapped, and she was sliding again, faster than before. He ran toward her but he was too late. She slipped over the edge of the cliff and vanished.
She didn’t even scream.
He knew what that edge looked like. It was a sheer drop to the river. No one would survive that fall.
Not without help, anyway.
Darius raised his arms and cast a spell, one he hadn’t used in a thousand or more years. He made it as specific as possible. He was creating a ledge, one that would break her fall, so it had to appear below her.
He only hoped he got to her in time. If the ledge was too far down, he’d kill her, and nothing he could do would bring her back. Not even the Fates would let him revive her.
The air crackled with lightening and thunder as the magical power left him. Then he heard a thud. He started down the slope, but more ground loosened, and he nearly lost his footing. So he murmured another spell and floated over the edge.
The ledge had formed about thirty feet below him. She was sprawled on it, face down, her body twisted at an unnatural angle. He floated toward her, terrified that she was dead.
He landed on the ledge and crouched over her. She was breathing, but she had been badly injured. Blood trickled out of her nose, and she made a strange whistling when she breathed.
It had been so long since he had used magic for anything other than parlor tricks and transportation that he had forgotten almost everything he’d learned. He wasn’t supposed to heal injuries or sickness from natural causes, but he might be able to slide this one by on a technicality.
He had created the ledge, so the injuries couldn’t be natural. They were his fault. At least, that was what he would tell the Fates when they decided to punish him all over again.
Darius closed his eyes and tilted his head back. The river roared beneath him and he thought he heard the scream of a rafter. A warm breeze caressed his face. He forced himself to blot all that out, trying to remember the exact words of the healing spells he’d learned from a midwife in King Arthur’s court.
After a moment, the words came to him. He clenched his left fist, and extended his right hand over the woman’s back. She was still breathing, but her breathing was shallow. Then he recited the words of the spell. Light appeared through his fingers and illuminated her skin through her clothes. He saw blood spilled inside her stomach disappear, broken ribs knit, a punctured lung mend.
He moved his hand, repeating the spell over her head, and then again over her arms and her twisted legs. He was careful though, to make sure it was only internal injuries that got healed. External ones had to remain. She would remember the fall and think it suspicious if she didn’t have scrapes and bruises.
When he was done, he felt dizzy. He sat down and put his face in his hands. He had forgotten how draining using real magic was.
But he wasn’t done. He had to make the ledge disappear before the seasoned rafters noticed it and realized it was new, and then he had to get the woman to a place of safety.
He scooped her in his arms. She was lighter than he expected. He could feel her muscles beneath her skin. She moaned as he picked her up. Her eyes fluttered and then opened.
They were a rich green, almost an emerald color, and they were natural, not contacts at all. The color enhanced her ivory skin and her auburn hair. He found himself staring at her as if he had never seen a woman before.
“My pack,” she whispered.
Her pack? It must have broken off after she started to fall the second time. He didn’t see it anywhere.
“It’s got everything….” Her voice trailed off, but he could still see the concern in her eyes. She wouldn’t rest until he told her what happened to it, and if she didn’t rest, he wouldn’t be able to get her off this ledge.
“It’s fine,” he lied. “I’ll get it after we get you taken care of.”
She smiled and mouthed “thank you” before closing her eyes. Her body went limp as she lost consciousness again.
He cradled her to him, feeling her warmth against him, then recited a levitation spell. They rose up the cliff face.
A yellow raft made its way down the river, and one of the guides stared up at him. The guide tapped someone beside him and pointed. At that moment, they hit white water, and the guide nearly toppled out of the raft.
Darius reached the edge of the cliff and landed on a safe area away from the slide. That guide would remember what he saw, but he wouldn’t be able to prove anything.
Still, Darius felt careless. One of the many rules of the magical was to avoid calling attention to himself and his spells. He should have used a location spell. Obviously, he wasn’t thinking as clearly as he would like. That irritated him. But the proximity of this woman, the nearness of her death, and the fact that he had used more magic in this one afternoon than he had used in the past hundred years was clouding his judgment.
He would have to be careful from now on.
He raised his hand, balanced the woman against his hip, and used the spell now. Their surroundings vanished. For a brief half-second, they existed in darkness, and then they appeared in the guest room of his house.
The guest room was big, with a comfortable bed made out of logs. Log furniture sat in the corners, and a desk he’d owned since the mid-seventeenth century sat beneath one of the windows. The main window opened into the forest. The green rug that covered the floor had grown threadbare, but it would do.
At least the room didn’t smell of mothballs. He’d had the window open during most of his stay.
With a nod of his head, he used a slight spell to change the sheets. He couldn’t remember having a guest sleep over since Ernest Hemingway stayed here more than eighty years before. For all Darius knew, the sheets hadn’t been changed since then. It was probably less a reflection on his housekeeping skills than it was on his need for privacy. He hadn’t allowed anyone to stay in this house for a very long time.
It seemed odd to him that this woman was here now, right after his visit from Cupid.
Darius stiffened. Cupid hadn’t used those silly arrows on him, had he? Darius would have noticed.
Or would he?
Was that little creep finally getting his revenge?
The woman moaned again, and Darius focused on her instead. He laid her on the bed. Her hair had spilled out of its ponytail and cascaded across the pillow, accenting the pallor of her face. She still looked as if she were in pain, but that simply could be the after-effects of the fall. Her forearms were scraped raw and she had a large bruise on her right cheek.
He went into the bathroom and got his medical kit. From it, he removed some wet disinfectant pads and some bandages. Then he went back into the guestroom and cleaned off her scrapes.
She tossed her head from side to side. It appeared that what he was doing hurt her, but not enough to wake her up.
After he got the wounds cleaned, he bandaged them, then covered her with a blanket. He was staggering with exhaustion now—the magic use having taken its toll—but he still had several things left to do.
He went outside and reversed his ledge spell. From the river below, he heard shouts, followed by a curse, and then laughter. Apparently more rafters had been going by, but only one saw the ledge disappear. Darius smiled. That person would talk about his rafting hallucination for a long time to come.
Darius walked to the good part of the trail before doing his last spell. He watched the river, saw several rafts float by, and waited until he didn’t see them any more. Then he raised his arms and did a summons spell.
At first, he thought it didn’t work. Then a water-soaked backpack emerged from the river. The pack was torn and pouring water from its side. It rose the thousand feet, then dropped in front of him, landing with a soggy thud.
He wasn’t sure how he was going to explain this one to her. She was all right, but her pack had gotten wet? It had somehow fallen into the river and he had managed to fish it out, despite the steep canyon walls and the dangerous currents? Maybe he would tell her that a rafter had thrown it the thousand feet from the river below. Surely she would believe that.
He smiled. He was exhausted. He was getting punchy. Any more magic use would take the last of his reserves. That was what happened when a man didn’t stay in shape. If his best friend Aethelstan were here, he would be able to do all these spells and not lose a bit of energy.
Darius had become lazy over the centuries, and he hadn’t even realized it. All of the parlor tricks he had done to impress recalcitrant lovers had taken very little of his magical energy.
Then, in his mind’s eye, he saw her bruised face, heard her soft voice, filled with despair.
My pack. It’s got everything….
He knew what it was like to lose everything in a single moment. It was a sensation he never forgot, no matter that thousands of years had passed in the interim.
Slowly, he raised his tired arms to cast one more spell.
Heaven smelled like spaghetti.
Ariel kept her eyes closed. She lay on the softest surface she had ever been on in her life. A light, smooth blanket covered her, and her head was cushioned as if it were on air.
Everything was so clear. She remembered sliding over the edge and then falling, unfettered, toward the river and the rocks below. She had died on a beautiful day, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. If a woman had to go out, she might as well go out spectacularly.
She didn’t remember hitting—someone had been merciful there—and then an angel had come for her. Only it wasn’t one of the golden cherubs from the murals in her childhood church. This angel was even better.
He had curly golden hair and eyes so blue that they couldn’t have existed on Earth. His nose was perfect, his lips thin, his face filled with concern. It was almost as if someone had plucked the image of the perfect man from her mind and then let him cradle her as she made the transition from life to afterlife.
He was what a grown-up Cupid should look like, not like that wizened little man she’d seen in the woods. Wouldn’t it be funny if the Greek myths were the true version of the afterlife, not the Christian versions she’d learned in her parents’ church or that hokey white-light stuff she’d seen on countless TV shows?
But if the Greek myths were true, shouldn’t she be on a river right now, trying to find fare to pay the scary guy who was supposed to ferry her to Hades? And if she was dead in that Christian universe, the one that she had been raised in, shouldn’t she be standing at the Pearly Gates, talking to St. Peter so that he could decide whether or not she was supposed to go up or down?
She had seen white light, but that was sunlight glinting off her angel’s curls. She would swear to it. She thought, as she half-opened her eyes, she had seen eagles flying above him in the beautiful blue sky. A pair of eagles, obviously in love…
She smiled, stretched—and immediately whimpered. Every muscle in her body ached. If she were in Heaven, then someone had screwed up. She hurt.
Ariel opened her eyes. She was in a bedroom, with windows that had a view of a forest. Sunlight dappled across a thin green carpet. An end table covered with very old books sat across from her, and beneath the window an antique desk rested, a quill pen and inkwell on its edge. The bed itself appeared to be made of logs, cut and polished, but otherwise left in their natural form. Other furniture in the room also seemed to be made of logs as well.
This was not Heaven, although it did smell of spaghetti. She was in someone’s bedroom, and she was still in the Idaho wilderness.
She frowned, wondering how much of what she remembered was real and how much was a dream. She had fallen off the edge of that cliff—she knew that much. She would never forget the way time slowed down, the way she could feel every second, the strange calmness she felt when she knew she was going to die.
She had thought she was alone, and she accepted that. No one would witness her fall. Even if she managed to survive it, no one would save her. She had been on her own.
As she hit the open air, she had thought that she’d better enjoy the view because it would be her last.
But she obviously hadn’t been alone. Someone had seen her fall and had rescued her. But how? She had been on a sheer cliff, and she knew she wasn’t going to hit anything. She had looked down in those slow-motion seconds and saw nothing between her and the river.
It was a spectacular sight—frightening and beautiful at the same time. Part of her had felt like Wile E. Coyote—as if she wouldn’t fall until she realized she was in trouble.
But she had fallen, and somehow she had come out alive.
Ariel pushed herself into a sitting position and let out another cry of pain. Her back muscles hurt. Her shoulder was so sore, she wondered if she had damaged the rotator cuff again. Even the muscles in her arms and fingers ached, probably from trying to grab hold of the ground.
She’d thought she had, too, and then her knife blade had snapped. Snapped and sent her falling to her death.
Maybe Heaven was like they portrayed it in the movies—a place that was somewhat familiar. Hence the guestroom and the lovely smell of spaghetti sauce.
But that didn’t explain the pain. Only living bodies felt pain. And it wasn’t just her muscles that hurt; the skin on her arms and chest burned.
She looked at the sore places on her arms. Someone had bandaged them. Then she pulled her shirt back and saw a raw scrape that ran from her breastbone to her navel. She wondered if the entire front of her body looked like that, then realized it probably did.
She had ridden down the mountainside on her stomach. Of course she would be scraped.
Obviously the person who had saved her hadn’t known about this. She would have to tend to it herself.
She sat all the way up, letting the pain shiver through her. Slowly she eased her legs off the side of the bed. They throbbed too, and her knees burned. More scrapes, she assumed. More scrapes and pulled muscles.
Then she slid off the bed and her left leg buckled beneath her. She crumpled to the ground and sat there for a moment, pain so pure and fine coursing through her that it took her breath away.
She eased her leg out from beneath her and then looked at it. Something was wrong. If her leg wouldn’t support her weight, then some bone was probably broken.
She ran her hands along her thigh, over her knee, and down her shin. The skin was scraped and raw over the knee and part of the thigh—whoever had bandaged her arm hadn’t found these wounds either—but it was her ankle that caught her attention. It was puffy, red, and three times its normal size.
Ariel gritted her teeth and straightened her leg. This was just one of life’s new challenges. She was very lucky. She wasn’t dead. She had to remember that.
Using her elbows, she levered herself up, careful to keep her foot from touching the ground. She stood one-legged, searching for something that would act as a cane and seeing nothing.
So she had to hop out of the room. She sounded like an elephant, thudding her way forward. She hoped the floor was sturdy enough to take all this jumping. Otherwise, she might need to be rescued again.
The room next to hers was a bathroom, long and narrow, with a window that had a view of a private garden. The bathroom dated the house to the 1970s at the very least, even though the furnishings were modern—porcelain and chrome.
A medical kit sat beside the sink, apparently the same kit her rescuer had used to bandage her arms. She found a clean washcloth on the shelf above the sink. Then she sat on the edge of the bathtub, extended her leg so that she wouldn’t bump her ankle, and proceeded to clean up her wounds.
Vivaldi played softly on Dar’s battery-operated boom box. The boom box was on the counter, beside the sink, so that he could listen whenever he cooked—which was often up here. Back home in Portland, he acted like he had never made a meal in his life. Cooking was Aethelstan’s province—Aethelstan Blackstone, who had been Dar’s friend for more than a thousand years.
Most people in the country knew Aethelstan as Alex Blackstone, the famous chef. His restaurant, Quixotic, was a destination for most upscale tourists when they hit town. He also had his own line of gourmet food products, recipe books, and cooking accessories.
Ostensibly, Darius worked in the restaurant, managing its advertising and its work force. He didn’t need the money. He was richer than Aethelstan, richer than almost anyone he knew. And why wouldn’t he be? If a person lived nearly three thousand years and hadn’t learned how to earn and save money, then he was a fool—at least in Darius’s opinion.
He worked at the restaurant because he liked Aethelstan’s companionship and it gave him a cover for the work he had to do to fill out his sentence. While he was in Portland, he’d put two couples together: Aethelstan and his wife Nora, and Aethelstan’s former fiancée, Emma Lost, and her husband, Michael Found.
Darius stirred his spaghetti sauce. The sauce required a lot of attention, particularly since he hadn’t cooked it at this house in perhaps fifty years.
No electrical power wires ran to the house. There weren’t power poles this deep in the wilderness. Most of the electricity ran on two large generators that he kept fueled in the garage. Some of the rest of the power came from the solar units he had added onto the house in the 1980s.
And sometimes, when he ran out of fuel for the generator or when he simply had to watch a video or go out of his mind, he conjured up some electrical power all on his own.
Right now, though, he was cooking on the Franklin stove that he had installed in the house in the ‘teens. He considered that quite a sacrifice, because he had to build a fire in the stove to make the burners work, and the stove heated the kitchen unbearably. But this particular sauce had been his specialty since the mid-nineteenth century, and he had to make it.
He wanted his guest to experience the best of everything while she was here.
He wasn’t sure where that impulse came from—perhaps he was lonelier than he thought—or maybe he felt sorry for her. But he doubted it. He was attracted to her courage. He had never seen someone think so quickly or act with such competence. She was amazing. She was clearly an athlete, and a very smart person.
Darius sighed. He hadn’t been attracted to a woman like this in centuries—maybe ever. Especially a woman he hadn’t spoken to. He couldn’t ever remember being attracted before a conversation started.
It was still too early in the evening to open any windows to catch the cool mountain breezes. He had taken off his shirt in preparation, but it didn’t feel like enough. The kitchen was hot and stuffy, although the smell of garlic and oregano and the tomato-based sauce was divine.
Then the music thudded. Darius frowned. Vivaldi never thudded, not even when played by a particularly bad orchestra—and the recording he had was certainly thud-proof. He turned, wondering if the sound had come from the guest room.
He shut off the Vivaldi and listened for a moment, but didn’t hear anything else. Finally he turned the Vivaldi back on, and continued to stir the sauce.
Then he heard the thud again. It was followed by another, and another. He shut off the Vivaldi and listened to the thudding. It was irregular, and it definitely hadn’t come from outside.
Which meant his visitor was awake. Although he had no clue what was causing her to thud.
He hurried down the hallway. The door to the guest room was open, and the covers were thrown back on the bed. He peered inside the room, but didn’t see her.
Instead, he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. She sat on his bathtub, her left leg extended, her shirt unbuttoned.
She wasn’t wearing a bra. Her breasts were perfectly shaped ski-jumps. Stunning, except for the long red scrapes running down the front.
She hadn’t seen him.
He looked away, silently cursing himself for not thinking that she’d be scraped under clothing. If he’d thought of that, he would have had to repair the scrapes, or at least bandage them, which would require cleaning out the wounds, which would allow him to run a cloth along that upturned skin, down to the nipple…
A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead. He was hotter than he’d thought he was. Damn that stove. Its effects even reached back here.
He backed away, considering himself fortunate that she hadn’t seen him. He moved silently, going back into the living room. He grabbed his shirt, wiped off his hot face, and slipped the shirt on. Then he started whistling the Vivaldi as he made his way down the hall.
Something clanged against the porcelain tub, followed by a soft female curse. He walked slower, giving her time to cover herself up—although part of him wondered why he was doing that. He would never have done so in the past. But then, he wouldn’t have cooked his special sauce for just anyone either. He would have radioed for a plane and gotten the offending tourist off his property as quickly as possible.
He looked into the bedroom as if he hadn’t known she was gone. Then he looked in the bathroom.
She was still sitting on the edge of the tub, but she had covered herself. She clutched the washcloth in one hand. The medical kit had fallen into the tub.
He hadn’t realized how very beautiful she was. In repose, she had been merely lovely, her angular features almost mismatched. But with light in her eyes and animation in her face, she became the most beautiful woman he had ever seen—and he’d seen some world-famous beauties, from Helen of Troy to Emma Lost.
He attempted nonchalance. He leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms. Then he smiled.
“Hello,” he said, and waited for her response.
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