Some Enchanted Season – Sample Chapters

ONE

 

Shreveport, Louisiana—1990

 

Shivering at the edge of misty Cross Lake, Kevyn Llewellyn pivoted slowly and forced her attention to her immediate need—a god.

“Fools.” She sighed and longed for a cup of steaming lemon water and her own warm bed. “They must be fools.”

She slid her gaze from the serene lake to the bus­tling, swarming scene of activity before her. To get to the water’s edge, she had weaved through a throng of over six hundred athletes from across the nation, all preparing to begin the first leg of the fifty- one-kilometer Shreveport Triathlon. Bemused, she considered the athletes’ upcoming endeavor: swim­ming one kilometer through water that was still chilly from the previous evening’s thunderstorm; biking forty kilometers on winding asphalt roads; and then completing the circuit with a ten-kilometer run that was intensified by the hilly terrain and humid, blistering Louisiana August heat. “Fools,” she repeated, and wondered what she was for being there among them.

As she worked her way along the pine- and cypress-lined banks toward the parking area, she dodged the out-flung arms and avoided the outstretched legs of the triathletes as they warmed up.

“Crazy jocks,” she muttered, folding her arms across her chest for warmth. Her black cotton sundress had lost its crispness in the damp haze.

“Auntie!” a resonant voice rang out.

It was about time, she thought, casting a glance toward the road, where a large van with the radio call sign KPOP scrawled across its side in orange and green letters was parked. Sure enough, Kevyn saw her nephew, Atticus, darting through the athletes, oblivious to their glares.

“Wait up!” His hair bounced in glossy waves as he crossed the uneven ground in loping bounds. He came to a halt beside her, panting from the exertion. She glared up at mischievous eyes the same deep teal color as hers, a nose tip-tilted only slightly less, and the same silver-streaked hair at the temples that was a Llewellyn family trademark.

“Sorry,” Atticus said. “I’ve been tied up with details. These remotes are a dog to pull together. I’ve got a couple of minutes before airtime, though. So, how’s it going? Enjoying the view, Auntie dear?”

Kevyn followed his gaze to a burly athlete, who eyed her speculatively before stripping off his mus­cle shirt, obviously for her benefit. Quickly, she grabbed Atticus’s arm and tugged him along with her toward a spot at the fringe of the activity.

Atticus grinned. “What’s the hurry?”

“In the first place, how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t call me ‘Auntie.’ It sounds ridiculous, and you know it. You’re six inches taller than I am, not to mention two years older.”

“But you are my aunt, Kevie. Blood kin, much as you might wish to disown me.” He dropped an arm around her shoulders as they moved on. “It’s an unusual situation, you must admit.”

“Not as unusual as you make it,” Kevyn grumbled. “Like jogging through hundreds of people shouting ‘Auntie’ when a simple ‘Hey, you’ would do.”

“But it’s so much fun,” he insisted.

“For you, maybe, but not for me. I don’t appreciate being introduced as your old maid aunt either. Save your attention-getting devices for your show. I have enough trouble dealing with the real you, much less your alter ego.” With studied disdain, she removed his arm from her shoulder. “I don’t know why I put up with your nonsense. I’ve known fourteen-year-olds who were more mature than you.”

“You haven’t answered me. Have you found a vic­tim—I mean, a man you like?”

“Atticus, it isn’t a matter of what I like. It’s a mat­ter of what Fantasy Books wants.” She kicked a tuft of tall grass. “This project is giving me ulcers,” she grumbled. “If I didn’t need the money so badly…” Her voice drifted away. The problem was, she did need the money. “I’ve just never had this much trouble finding a model before, that’s all.”

“It seems I remember you saying the artwork for this book cover would be a snap.”

“I must have looked at a thousand pictures. All ‘pretty boys.’ Sultry and spoiled, sullen and pouty, and perfect for lounging poolside on the pages of GQ. But nothing even remotely phys­ical enough for”—she paused, then lowered her voice dramatically— “Darius: Warrior God of the Gray Planet.” Her laughter sounded a bit strained, even to her own ears.

“You can’t tell me you aren’t interested in all the beefcake that’s strutting around here,” Atticus re­marked with a sly gleam in his eyes.

She wrinkled her nose in distaste and faced the crowd again. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into coming to this ridiculous triathlon. I should have stayed in bed. Look at them,” she insisted. “Not an ounce of brain in the lot of them.”

“My, my. Judgmental, much? Besides, you need brawn.”

“No. That’s exactly the point. He’s muscular, of course, but not brawny. He’s intelligent and noble and valiant and…” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “My deadline’s in three weeks, and I’m desperate.”

“You’re going to have to do your own hunk-hunting. I’m going on the air, and besides, the blondes I have in mind are a bit curvier, if you get my drift.” Atticus straight­ened her hat and tweaked her lightly on the nose. When she tried to retaliate with a halfhearted swat, he darted away, sing-songing, “So long, Auntie dear…”

Kevyn watched him bound off toward the remote transmission van where he’d be broadcasting the morning’s activities. She attempted to stifle her smile, with little success. They were close, though their relationship was certainly not that of an aunt and nephew. He was more like a brother, or a friend… and quite often, an albatross.

An announcement over the public-address system warned the athletes that they had five minutes before the race started. To gain a better vantage point, Kevyn moved to the crest of a low hill, pulled an old, tattered quilt from her straw carryall, and spread it on the damp grass. After producing a sketchpad, a case of artists’ pencils, and a camera, she dropped to the ground.

Her sharpened pencil poised, she scanned the area, seeking inspiration. Her gaze drifted until it settled on a masculine pair of legs walking toward her. Lazily, her gaze slid upward, then locked on lean, muscled thighs moving in a sleek, lynx-like rhythm.

Powerful legs—certainly capable of striding mas­terfully across the heavily atmosphered terrain of Euripides, the Gray Planet…

Her interest heightened, she dragged her eyes up and over the navy-blue competition swimsuit that molded every bulge. She memorized the smooth flat planes of stomach, the wide expanse of chest, the broad shoulders…

This body was made for more than lounging poolside in a swimsuit ad. This body belonged to a warrior who moved with all the grace of a god—Darius.

And then—he was gone, swallowed up in the mass of athletes gathered at the starting line near the water.

And she hadn’t recorded a single, exquisite detail. Springing to her feet, she allowed the pencil and pad to fall unheeded to the rumpled quilt. She stifled a familiar pang of frustration as she strained to decipher the number emblazoned on the man’s bright yellow swim cap, but could only make out two rounded digits as he melted into the crowd of triathletes.

She hadn’t even gotten a good look at his face, though she’d certainly gotten a terrific view of everything else.

The crack of the starter’s pistol signaled the beginning of the race, and the stampede began. Within seconds the racers had turned the placid lake into a churning, splashing cauldron of bobbing yellow swim caps. How was she ever going to find Darius in that?

Twenty minutes later the leaders had completed the roughly circular route marked by buoys and row­boats filled with safety personnel. Kevyn walked with the other spectators to the man-made beach, where the swimmers had entered the water and would now emerge. Standing behind the barricade, she watched them come out of the lake, first in a trickle, then in larger groups. Five minutes passed, then ten and fifteen, without any sign of Darius.

Finally she spotted a lone swimmer drawing near the shore. What he lacked in speed, he obviously made up for in endurance. The rolling action of his shoulders as the muscles moved beneath the surface of his skin, his hands sometimes slapping, sometimes slicing cleanly into the choppy water—these were images that captivated her imagi­nation. Her fingers tingled and itched to sketch his musculature. Darius. He had to be the one.

He rose from the lake, water streaming down his body in shimmering rivulets, tracing every contour. His head fell forward as his chest heaved. He stretched his neck, then rolled his head from side to side before rotating his shoulders.

Close enough to touch him, Kevyn remained spell­bound as he lifted his face toward the sun. His high cheekbones and the hollows beneath them, the hard, lean angles of his face, all combined to lend him a foreign look. European? Nordic? Slavic? she wondered.

A tremor of excitement shot through her body. Her search was over. This was truly Darius. Her mind swirled with visions, startlingly clear now that her indecision was behind her: Darius standing triumphant, proud, arrogant, against a rich Prussian blue sky, his waist-long platinum hair and golden body bathed in silver moonlight.

Then he abruptly tugged the swim cap from his head, flung it to the ground, and started toward the changing tents. His hair wasn’t blond.

It was red.

It fell down his neck in damp, unruly auburn waves, the still-dry crown blazing with glints of gold and cinnamon, reflecting fiery touches of sunlight.

Kevyn’s breath escaped in a low hiss, her lips parted. The man had red hair. She knew a moment’s panic as she continued to stare until he disappeared through the open tent flaps. Then, she knelt down and reached under the barricade to retrieve his swim cap. She wiped away a smear of mud. Fat, round numbers scrawled in black Sharpie glared back at her; a single red hair clung, taunting.

Wadding the cap into a ball, she lifted her chin. All right. So what? He was still perfect, if she used a little artistic license. She strode toward a woman who clasped a clipboard against her bony chest.

“Excuse me.” Kevyn smiled and pointed at the clipboard. “Is that a list of competitors?”

“Yes, it is.” The woman angled a weathered face toward her. “This is the official roster.”

“One of the athletes lost his swim cap, and I’d like to return it to him. Could you tell me his name, please?”

The woman hesitated, then held out the clip­board. “I doubt if he’ll want it back, but you can look.”

“Oh…” Kevyn stared at the clipboard as she clutched the damp, mud-spattered swim cap. “You’d better look for me. My hands are dirty.”

The woman shrugged and glanced at the number on the swim cap, then flipped past the top sheet. She ran a finger down the second page. “Here it is, number 86. Huh. Sergei. A Russian, I guess?”

Again she held the clipboard out for Kevyn to look, but Kevyn just shrugged.

“Yes, that’s definitely Russian.” No wonder he had such a distinctive European look.

“Sergei Rivers. That’s an unusual name,” the woman mused. “It sounds kind of familiar, but I can’t quite place it.”

Rivers? Kevyn frowned. She thanked the woman and started up the slope. With Atticus tied up for the entire day, it was up to her to find and secure the services of the mysteri­ous warrior-god.

 

v

Long hours dragged by. She sat in her parked Volkswagen bug con­vertible on the side of the road where the last por­tion—the running portion—of the race was taking place. She brushed an annoying strand of silver-streaked hair from her eyes and lifted her hair off her neck. Fighting off thirst, gnats, and a ferocious headache, she was at the point of giving up…

Then he rounded a curve limped up the road toward her. One of his legs was badly scraped, yet he ran on. “Fool,” she muttered. But at least she’d found him. Now all she could do was settle back and wait for him to complete the circuit. He would pass her again on his way back to the finish line.

The more time that passed, the more the runners who passed looked progressively worse, more winded, more heated, more exhausted. Kevyn swatted a fly away from her face, frustrated. Sergei Rivers should have been back by now, surely.

She couldn’t forget how exhausted he had looked when he’d limped past. She twined her fingers in her hair and leaned forward on the steering wheel. The thought of that magnificent body collapsing with heatstroke set her nerves on edge.

Finally, she couldn’t take it any longer. She glanced at her watch and wiped her arm across her brow. Grabbing her bag, she jumped out of the car and started after him. She hadn’t spent hours wait­ing for the guy to have him pass out and get carted away before she could use him.

Then she saw him.

He struggled, stumbling along, thrusting one foot in front of the other, his eyes fixed doggedly on the road.

Without pausing to think, Kevyn scurried toward him, her hair tumbling around her shoulders, her wide-brimmed hat bouncing on her back. “Excuse me, er… Ser-gay, is that how you pro­nounce your name?”

His head snapped toward her. For a moment, his eyes remained unfocused. Then they fixed on hers, his gaze hard and piercing. “Who… the hell… are you?” His hoarse voice sent alarm skidding down her spine.

“Are you all right?” she demanded.

He said nothing, but kept trudging along, deter­mination etched on his flushed, drawn features.

Kevyn jogged hesitantly beside him, her mind rac­ing. What was she supposed to do?

“You look like you’re in trouble,” she began again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

His face was beaded with sweat, his hair plastered to his brow, his eyes glazed as he squinted against the glare of the midday sun. It seemed to take all of his energy simply to move.

“You’ve got to stop,” she panted. “Your leg looks awful, and you’re going to have a stroke if you don’t cool off!”

“Buzz off, lady,” he choked out without turning his attention from the road. “I’m fine… I’m doin’ just fine.”

“That’s ridiculous. You certainly are not fine. Just look at you. Why—” With a softer voice, she tried a different tactic. “Why don’t you stop and rest?”

“I’m… fine…” He swung out his arm as if to push her away, his hand brushing weakly against her bare forearm.

“Please.” Kevyn rubbed the spot where his touch had scorched her. “I can’t afford for you to hurt yourself.”

He didn’t respond.

Her throat stung, and her head pounded with each step. As they rounded another curve, Kevyn saw her yellow Volkswagen beckoning invitingly.

Suddenly, the man’s foot caught in a pothole, and he crashed to the asphalt.

“Oh, gracious!” Kevyn dropped to her knees, ignoring the gravel biting into them, and reached out. “Are you hurt?”

He rolled to his side and clutched his leg. She gasped at the sight of blood running through his fingers. “Look what you’ve done now.” She dug frantically in her bag for tissues.

He lay there as she dabbed the gash, then shook his head as if to clear it. “Who are you?”

“My name’s Kevyn.” She offered her hand. “Here, let me help you up.” Between her pulling and his will power, she managed to stand him upright, though he leaned heavily on her shoulders for a moment before he attempted to stand alone. He wiped a hand across his brow, then rubbed the side of his face, smearing blood. Turn­ing a pained gaze toward her, he tried to straighten. “I’m not quitting.”

Kevyn attempted to hide her dismay. This man wasn’t determined—he was insane. Her own shoulders slumping, she watched as he tried to take off, and staggered. Only by ducking quickly under his arm did she manage to keep him from crashing to the pavement again.

“Gotta finish…” he muttered. “… almost there… aren’t I?”

“No. You’ve got over half a mile to go.”

“Not far, then.’’ He lurched forward.

She tried to hang back, but his momentum took her with him.

“I’ve… gotta… finish.”

“Lord, I’m as big a fool as you are,” she said as she stumbled beside him. She desperately scanned ahead on the road in an attempt to avoid more potholes. As they half-ran, half­-staggered along, she watched the hypnotic pattern of their feet moving in unison. “You’re going to owe me, I hope you realize that.”

She drew him near her car, and visions of home and icy pink lemonade danced in her aching head.

“Fifty-one kilometers…” he muttered under his breath. “Then… I’ll win…”

Kevyn filled with compassion. “I hate to break this to you, but the guy who won finished two and a half hours ago.”

“No. The… the bet. With Skipper…”

Kevyn stopped dead in her tracks, and he almost fell on his face again. “What did you say?”

His eyes clouded as they tried to focus on her. “Why—why’d we stop?”

“A bet? How much money do you have riding on this?” she asked, alarmed.

“Dinner,” he answered. “A really—really—good—dinner.”

“Wait. I’m practically carrying you, and it’s just so you can win a lousy dinner bet?”

“Got it in one, babe.” He lurched away from her. “And I don’t need you, anyway.” He lurched forward without her, and his leg gave out again.

Yet again, Kevyn held him up, though anger surged through her.

“Of all the asinine, pigheaded things I’ve ever heard,” she sputtered, lugging him toward the car, her fury growing with each pained step. “I’m about to keel over, my head is splitting open—” She propped him against the car, and he attempted to brace himself on the too-low side of the open con­vertible with trembling arms. “You look like you could just about die at any moment—and you want to keep going to win a bet?”

“You don’t have to understand it. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s—it’s a guy thing. A lark. A matter of pride—”

“You’re damn right, I don’t understand it. You’re killing yourself to win a bet, and you expect me to go down with you? Buddy, I’m going to save you in spite of your­self.” With that, she gave him one small shove, and he landed in the backseat on top of her quilts and paint supplies. His initial grunt of surprise turned into a load moan.

Kevyn jumped into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. As the car roared to life, he tried to raise himself up. “Just a damned minute—”

Glancing over her shoulder, she threatened, “You’re not going to end up in a hospital recuperat­ing from your suicidal lunacy when I need your body now.” The car jerked forward, and he fell back, his head hitting the door with a dull thud.

What was she supposed to do now?

She sent a desperate prayer to the heavens—grateful to the powers that be for delivering this perfect warrior-god into her grasp, yet frantic for new inspiration as to how to handle him.

Shifting gears, she made a sharp U-tum and roared away, leaving a spray of gravel in her wake.

 


TWO

The original ebook cover

The original ebook cover

“Water…” The word ripped from Rusty’s throat in a dry gasp. “My legs, my stomach…” His voice sounded like a hollow echo in his throbbing head. Someone was grinding steel cleats into his calves, grinding and twisting red-hot blades deep into the muscles of his legs and his stomach. His throat was parched sandpaper, his mouth filled with sawdust. He tried to swallow.

A hand touched his forehead. “Your temperature’s down,” a woman’s voice said as he blinked, strain­ing to focus. Before he could respond, she pulled her hand away.

He opened his mouth to speak and felt something cool and hard press against his lower lip.

“Here, drink this.”

He stretched toward the glass and gulped at the trickle of water. His thirst wiped out all thoughts and questions. “More,” he begged.

“Only a half an ounce for now,” the voice said anx­iously, withdrawing the glass. “Not too fast. How do you feel?”

“How do you think I feel?” he demanded through cracked, stinging lips. “I’m dying. Turn on the damn whirlpool and—and—for Pete’s sake, turn up the heat and—and where’s Ernie?”

“There isn’t a whirlpool,” the woman answered as she sponged his face. The ensuing chills alternately refreshed and infuriated him. Then, incredibly soft fingertips spread something moist and creamy and heavenly across his lips. “This aloe vera cream should help.” She pulled her fingers away an instant before he succumbed to the ridiculous notion of sucking them into his mouth.

Rusty squinted, straining to focus on what seemed to be a stark image in black and white—a white face, with features his burning eyes couldn’t recognize, and black hair, framing the face in stark midnight waves. A shiver of unease rippled through him, and again, he groaned at the pain.

“Who are you?” This was one time when, if some­one with an ingratiating smile hovered over him and offered a hypodermic of Novocain, he’d be tempted to accept. He felt himself sinking lower into the pain… into cool, refreshing water. “Water,” he demanded weakly. His large hand groped, then fell limply beside him.

“Drink it slowly.”

He stared through the haziness and began to dis­tinguish features… a raven-haired widow’s peak, eyes of a smoky blue… She turned away from him and receded into the periphery of his vision, leaving him oddly disturbed, dissatisfied.

The sound of running water tantalized him. She was filling a tiny glass at a sink… An old-fashioned pedestal sink…With a great effort, he moved his head. He wasn’t at the rehab center. He was in a bathroom. He was in a bath… tub. A bathtub. He shook his head. “Wait a damn minute. Where am I?”

She appeared before him again with the glass. He gulped the water down before she could pull it away, and snatched the glass out of her hand and clumsily dipped it into the bath water. He quickly tossed the water down his throat, once, twice, three times.

“Stop it!” Cold water splashed over his head. He dropped the glass and she whisked it from the floor and out of his sight. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”

“I don’t care,” he said through clenched teeth. He reached for his thighs and squeezed and kneaded, gasping as pain and relief battled for prominence in the much-abused muscles. “Damn, I’m cramping.”

“I know… I know…” she soothed. “Just be patient…”

Again, he strained to focus his vision, and finally her features crystallized, none so telling, so incrimi­nating as the odd threads of silver streaking her inky black hair. He strained to remember. He’d seen her before.

The fog cleared.

“You!” He sat up abruptly. “You—you made me lose my bet!”

“Now, sit back down before you swoon again,” she scolded, and gave his shoulder a light shove. He fell back into the tub, splashing a wave of water over the edge.

“Where the hell am I?”

“Thank goodness. I believe Miss Lucy was right. All you need is a little more time, a little more water, and you’ll be good as new.”

“Who are you?” he demanded desperately.

“Shhh… just relax.”

Damn it, that was all he seemed capable of doing. He drifted back into the fog without fighting. After he regained his strength, he’d figure out this damned mess.

 

 

 

Squatting by his side, Kevyn mopped his face with the sponge, mentally noting the straight nose and high cheekbones, facial contours that blended so strangely to produce such masculine beauty. For he was beautiful in a virile way. She held the sponge in her hand, ignoring the water that ran down her arm and dripped from her elbow onto the floor as she stared at him. Now that she had him up to his neck in tepid water in her tub he appeared so large and real and overwhelming.

Heart pounding with relief, she assumed a cross-legged pose on the closed toilet lid, her sketchpad and drawing pencil In hand. Finally reassured that he was in no immediate danger—that she hadn’t made the most foolish and possibly imprudent decision of her life in order to save her contract—she sketched quickly. This was one sitting she’d better complete in a hurry, for beneath the surface of his exhaustion, the man emanated the tension of a caged animal.

A very well-developed animal, at that. She snorted with disdain. His musculature was the product of hours, days, years in a gym. And if it seemed a trifle ungrateful to judge the vanity of the male who was providing her with the money she so desperately needed, well, she’d be grateful with her wallet.

The soft-leaded pencil flew across the page as she detailed his facial features. He began to stir, but was obviously not fully back in the real world. Yet, after a few minutes, Kevyn saw a discernible change in her warrior-god. His head seemed to clear, and this time when he braced his hands on the side of the tub and raised himself up, it was a controlled movement.

His damp auburn eyebrows lowered into a menac­ing glare. “What the hell is going on here?”

Kevyn tossed the pad aside and stood up. “Consid­ering all I’ve done for you, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop cursing at me.”

“Considering all you’ve done to me, I oughta do a lot more than cuss!” He pushed a wet shock of hair off his forehead and grabbed the sides of the tub as if to stand. Suddenly, the expression on his face changed dramatically, and his gaze lowered to his body. “Where the hell are my clothes?”

A small towel covered his lower torso under the water, though each swirling current threatened to dislodge it, and there was nothing under the towel except for—himself.

“We had to remove anything constricting. Don’t worry,” Kevyn reassured him. “I didn’t undress you. Miss Lucy did.”

“What?” He clutched at himself in an instinctively protective gesture, his flushed face blanching. “Who in the hell is Miss Lucy?”

“Really, Mr. Rivers. You’re cursing again.” She frowned as she reached for her sketchpad and tossed him a towel.

“What’s that you’ve got? You—you were—you were drawing me, weren’t you?” he stammered.

“Your clothes are on the windowsill. I’m sure you can manage by yourself.” Kevyn clicked shut the door and clutched her sketchpad tightly against her body. She needed more time, more sketches, not to mention his signature on a release form. Somehow, things weren’t going as smoothly as she’d hoped. She’d banked on his gratitude.

Instead, she had a surly jock in need of a good soaping down.

Oh, well. She shrugged and felt a smile tugging at the comers of her lips. She’d give him a minute to cool off. He’d come around.

 

v

 

Rusty stared at the closed door with its faded tur­quoise paint peeling from large hinges, at the glass doorknob and the large keyhole below it, and felt a surge of panic. What if she locked him in, held him captive? He pulled shakily to his feet, glanced down at his body, and realized that one question super­seded all others.

“Who the hell is Miss Lucy?” Rusty thundered again, but received no reply from beyond the door. His fingers dug into the thick terry towel she had given him. Black? Whoever heard of black towels?

He began rubbing himself dry, wincing when the towel brushed over the raw scrape on his leg. He had to get out of this place. The room revolved a half-rotation, but he gritted his teeth and grabbed his running shorts. That woman was more than strange; she was spooky. That silver-streaked hair was bizarre, and those slanting eyes seemed to dis­sect him at will.

Spooky and bizarre and beautiful. Yes, downright beautiful. But he’d be damned if he was going to let that fact interfere with finding the nearest exit.

Tugging his gray satin shorts over his hips, he attempted an instant replay of the events that had landed him here—wherever “here” was. He couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary. That is, until she’d entered the picture. The way she kept looking at him sent chills down his spine. He was used to being admired, even ogled, but something about the way this woman stared left him feeling… endangered.

He braced his hands on the sink and stared into the mirror, not liking what he saw there—his own haggard reflection, sunburned and probably dehydrated. He had to leave before anyone other than Skipper discovered what an idiotic stunt he’d pulled.

He yanked open the door and stepped into the dark hallway. She stood there, waiting, those strange, slanting eyes seeming to glow. “Where are my shoes?” he demanded.

“Oh, those.” She stepped out of the shadows. “I threw them out the window. Your socks, too. They stank something awful.”

“Those are expensive running shoes, lady. I have prescription orthotics in those shoes!”

“Then the airing out will do them good. Come along with me, and I’ll see if I can find you some­thing to drink. Miss Lucy says you need plenty of fluids, but only a few sips at a time.”

“Who is Miss Lucy?” he demanded again.

“She’s a sweet little lady who lives downstairs. A retired nurse. That’s why she knew what to do for you when—” A grinding noise whirred from behind a square door in the wall. “I’ll bet that’s her now.” She swung the door open, revealing a dumbwaiter that held a tray with a large pitcher of lemonade and two glasses.

“You thought some old lady was going to be in there?” Rusty asked, aching, alarmed, appalled… and absolutely salivating at the mere sight of lemonade.

“Of course. She has arthritis in her knees.”

“I know the feeling,” he grumbled under his breath, flexing his legs and grimacing.

She took the tray and slammed the door shut with her hip. “How do you think we got you up here? We certainly couldn’t have carried you.”

“I was in there?” He grew weaker at the thought. “I hate small spaces.”

“I know. You didn’t like it at all,” she stated matter-of-factly. “It was a tight fit, too. Come on, and I’ll give you some of Miss Lucy’s lemonade. You still look a little pale.”

“Look, lady,” he said, grasping for some sem­blance of control. “I’m not following you anywhere! I want my shoes, and I want out of here.”

“You’re in no condition to make demands, Mr. Rivers. You’re lucky you aren’t in the hospital. Not that I expect any gratitude, mind you.”

“Lady—” he snapped. “I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know where I am. I don’t remember getting here, and I sure as hell don’t re­member getting in that—that contraption. It seems to me that maybe I should have been in a hospital, and you’ll be damned lucky if I don’t call my lawyer!”

“Mr. Rivers,” she said, twirling to face him. “Miss Lucy is thoroughly qualified to handle a case of heat exhaustion, and if I hadn’t intervened and rescued you—”

“Abducted, is more like it!”

“—from your own lunacy, you probably would be in a hospital at this very minute.”

Could she be right? She was so calm and rea­sonable and… he was so confused. “Look, lady, I don’t know who you are or what you’re trying to prove. All I know is that I’m getting out of here. Where’s the door?”

“Now, let’s not be hasty.” She raised the tray as if to tempt him. “Try some of this lemonade.”

“Lady, I don’t—”

“My name is Kevyn.” She turned away from him and began gliding down the dim hallway. “Just follow me.”

He took a step forward, intrigued and drawn and… “No, damn it— no!”

She stopped short, her slender back a black-clad exclamation point as she pivoted slowly, gracefully, and faced him. “Mr. Rivers,” she said, her tone low and cool and aloof. “Do not shout at me. Do not curse at me. I am only trying to help you. Is that understood?”

“Not by a long shot. I don’t understand a damn thing.” His fists clenched at his side. “Who are you? And why did you bring me here?” But before she could answer, before he could force her to answer, the room began its slow spin again, his stomach clenched and heaved again, his muscles sent protests to his brain again. Only sheer determi­nation kept him from dropping to the floor. Some IV fluids would not be amiss.

She rested a hand lightly on his arm, and even in the gloom her face seemed to gleam with disturbing intensity. “Why don’t we go sit down? You’ll feel more comfortable in the parlor.” She gave his arm a reassuring pat, then turned and left him to follow. He started to walk, each step a victory over the desire to collapse and rest.

Luckily, she didn’t expect him to follow her far. He stepped into the sitting room, bracing his shoulder against the doorjamb. Heavy velvet draperies hung over the windows, shutting out the glare. He had to admit, however grudgingly, that the subdued light was a relief to his burning eyes. He noted her move­ments as she filled the glasses with lemonade. She handed him one, then sank onto an upholstered chaise lounge that looked like it had survived two world wars—barely.

His legs threatened to give way under him, so he dropped to the camel-backed sofa, exhaling with a weary gasp. He tried to gather his defenses. The room was filled with clutter, which lent it a cozy, though shabby, feeling. Whimsical figurines—uni­corns, trolls, and elves—peered at him from shad­owy shelves of an old, scarred cherry secretary.

And candles abounded. Dozens of them on every surface: Short ones, tall ones, fat ones, and slender ones. He shivered. The place was a firetrap.

A sleek black cat leaped from a high shelf and landed at his feet.

“Demon!” She reached for a box of matches as Rusty leaned forward to stroke the cat. It twined around his feet, loudly purring.

“Don’t encourage him,” she said, and one scratch of the match against the box sent the cat bristling, then bounding out of the room.

“What was that about?” he asked as she lit the clutch of candles on the small table between them. “Encourage him to what?”

“To stay,” she said simply. “He’s a stray and I don’t want to encourage him to stay.”

“Then let him go.”

“He might get hurt. He was hurt when he came.” She leaned back in her chair, the smoking match still held in her fingers. “He doesn’t like flame.”

He froze. “I’m not a cat,” he said in measured tones, eyeing the distance between himself and the door. And then, annoyed with her for being spooky and himself for being spooked, “You can’t just keep me here until you decide I won’t hurt myself again.”

“Of course not!” she snapped defensively. “I simply didn’t know where else to take you. And besides, I need you.”

His fingers tightened on the glass as his pulse stripped gears. He jerked to his feet and edged toward the doorway. “I think I’ll go find my shoes now.”

“No! Not yet!” She rushed across the room to his side. “Please let me explain. This is very important to me. I have a deadline that—”

“Deadline?” The word hit him like a pail of water. “I should have known!” Slamming his glass down on the table, he turned away from her.

“But I’m willing to pay you,” she insisted. “I really need you very badly.”

“Is this some kind of publicity stunt? Sure you need me,” he barked out, reality chasing away the eerie fantasy that had gripped him. “You need my name, is more like it.”

“Your name? What does your name have to do with it? Not that you don’t have a nice name, er, Sergee, but—”

“It’s Sair-gay. With a hard g,” Rusty said. “But nobody calls me—”

“All right, Sergei, but I don’t need your name, just your body.”

“My what?” He stared at her, slack-jawed with disbelief.

“I’m an artist, Sergei. I want you to model for me. Not nude. I only use professionals for my nudes. And this job doesn’t call for a total nude, anyway—’’

“Thank God!” he said, remembering the condition he’d awakened in earlier.

“You can’t imagine how long I’ve been looking for my Darius model.”

“What kind of scam are you trying to pull?” He backed away from her. “Darius sounds like some kind of Greek. I’m no Greek.”

“This Darius is an alien.”

“Okay, lady. You can play games all you want to, but I don’t look Greek or alien. If you thought you were going to convince me to do this by batting your baby-blues at me, you can forget it. You want a celebrity? You can go through my agent, just like everybody else. And by the way…’’  He paused and let his eyes send a message of pure disdain. “You can’t afford me.” He checked possible routes for escape, ready to get out of this place once and for all.

“Agent? You mean, you are a model?” She scam­pered after him as he paced back down the hallway. “That’s wonderful! This is perfect. It’s like it was meant to be! I thought you were just another one of those… those crazy jocks!”

He froze, the old insult burning through him at lightning speed. “Don’t you mean dumb jocks?”

She stood stock-still and stared at him through startled eyes. And then, quietly said, “I would never call anybody that.”

“Sure you wouldn’t, lady,” he muttered.

“It’s Kevyn, Kevyn Llewellyn. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“So you keep telling me, but so far you’ve done a pretty good job of it. I’m getting out of here.” He wheeled away from her with as much force as he could muster and strode down the hallway in the direction of the bathroom. “Wait a minute. I don’t have to get back in that… that thing, do I?”

“Why, why—yes,” she agreed anxiously.

“You’re kidding me.”

“The stairs have been boarded up for a long time.”

“What?”

“They—they boarded up the inside stairs when they turned the house into a duplex.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that the only way in and out of this place is—is—there’ve got to be stairs.”

“There are. There were.” She stared up at him, and suddenly her face was transformed by a radiant smile. “Termites. Termites ate the stairs last year, and they weren’t safe, and after I paid the extermi­nator, I couldn’t afford to have the stairs rebuilt. Which is why this job is so important to me, because once I finish this artwork, I can buy the lumber and pay the carpenters and stop using the dumbwaiter.” She stopped smiling and watched him nervously. “You see? That’s why I really need your cooperation. I’m running out of time.”

“Not running—ran. Out. Gone. And so am I.” He retraced his steps to the bathroom. “I’ll go through the window.”

“There’s no ladder!”

“I don’t care if I have to tie towels together, lady, I’m getting out of here, and I’m not going in that damned dumbwaiter, and I’m sure as hell not going to wait on the blasted carpenters.”

“No!” She flung herself in front of him, blocking the bathroom door. “I can’t let you do this. You’ll hurt yourself. You need to rest a little longer.”

“Lady—”

“Kevyn.”

“I’m not at all surprised you have a weird name. You are a weird person. Beautiful, but weird. Too bad. No offense,” he added as he peered over her shoulder.

There were only two black velour hand towels hanging beside the sink.

He turned and looked farther down the hallway. Sheets. Surely she had sheets.

He wheeled away from her and took off down the corridor, his legs at least beginning to get a bit of their strength back. A beckoning splash of sunlight across the floor at the end of the hall indicated an open door.

 

v

 

Kevyn watched helplessly as her last chance at Darius slipped through her fingers like water through a sieve. Why did he have to be so obstinate? And more to the point, exactly how expensive was he? She needed the money too badly to pay exorbi­tant modeling fees, but she was too desperate to do much haggling, providing that she could get him to sign the release in the first place.

He halted in midstep and shot a glance toward her. “What’s this?” he asked, pointing into the room.

“It used to be a ballroom. Now it’s my studio.”

“A ballroom?” He stared in clear disbelief at the windows and French doors spanning two long walls, allowing the sun’s rays to pour in. He scanned the stack of canvases leaned against a comer, and the several easels that held works in progress.

But it was the wall of finished products that seemed to draw him in. She followed him, hop­ing that proof of her professionalism, her accom­plishments, might soften his attitude toward her project.

He headed straight for the display on the wall: Scenes out of fairy tales—lush forest glades, spar­kling waterfalls, earthy grottoes populated with creatures ranging from gargoyles to fairies, all a vivid testimony to the imaginations of the writers whose works she illustrated. But he didn’t seem to be admiring her work. Instead, he walked straight to the large framed watercolor that was the collec­tion’s focal point, the one piece of art that wasn’t hers.

A thread of discomfort worked its way through her as he pored over the painting, an ornate work of a young nymph standing in profile amidst a confusion of blossoms, her body draped in gossamer veils, her arms spread out and raised. An exotic butterfly poised for flight, her body was as clearly revealed as if she were nude. Her head was flung back, her hair of ebony and silver-streaked moonlight tumbled down her arched back in a lustrous wave.

“That’s you,” he stated in a cracked voice, his gaze riveted to the painting.

She shifted her weight uncomfortably. “A friend did it. He was going through an art nouveau period.”

“Friend?” He looked at her assessingly, and she suspected that he was trying to determine if her black sundress really concealed that body.

“Yes, a friend.” She folded her arms across her chest, determined not to show her discomfort. “Simon Killingsworth. Miss Lucy was his grand­mother’s second cousin, once removed.”

Rusty’s face reflected disbelief. “The Simon Killingsworth ?”

“Yes.” She felt a tremor of hope. If he knew of Simon, maybe he’d be impressed enough to give her own project more serious consideration.

“The Simon Killingsworth from London? The one with green hair?”

“Well, he doesn’t have green hair anymore, and of course when he painted this he didn’t have green hair. And he’s not really from London. He’s from Bossier City, as a matter of fact.”

“I’ve seen the guy on television. He has a British accent.”

“It’s an affectation.” She leaned against the wall. “Simon isn’t even his real name. When we lived together, he was Van Kuykendal. Before that, Ralph Beauchamp… and so on and so on.”

He glared at the painting, and she recognized with a sinking spirit that he wasn’t going to be impressed with Simon Killingsworth or probably anything else she had to offer, even money. When he turned and faced her again, she realized she was wrong. Dead wrong. Alarmingly wrong.

His scrutiny robbed her of her breath. His gaze dragged leisurely down her body, pausing at her slender neck, her breasts, her waist, her thighs. Kevyn’s poise evaporated. She felt each scandalous inch of the trail his fiery gaze blazed. She was breathless until he finally returned his eyes to hers. Helplessly aware of how easily he was transposing the imagery of the painting onto her body, and even more helplessly aware of the way her trembling body was reacting to his blatant interest, she felt her pulse skip erratically as the blood tingled through her veins.

She didn’t trust her voice to speak. She moved away from the picture that invited comparisons in which she didn’t want to participate.

He stepped in front of her and blocked her path. Before she could move around him, he stopped her with a slow grin. “You know, we just might be able to work something out, after all.”

She tried to push past him, but his hand touched her back, his strong fingers applying insistent pressure as his thumbs traced her ribs through the thin black fabric.

“I’m not an unreasonable man,” he said in a husky, good ol’ Louisiana boy drawl. “You want my body… and maybe I want yours.” Before she could react, he pulled her against him, molding her softness to the hard contours of his bare chest. In his eyes shone an assuredness, a mocking pleasure that staggered her as he continued. “The game looks a little different when we aren’t playing by your rules, doesn’t it?”

“You’ve made your point.” She placed her hands on his chest to push him away. But his expression changed. His thick lashes lowered, his face drew nearer, and suddenly, quite suddenly, it was no game. He was going to kiss her.

And she had no desire to push him away.

She couldn’t breathe, she could only wait, and then… then…

He released her. It was over, before it had begun.

“Damn.” He shook his head in bemusement. “Damn.” he repeated.

She tried to convince herself that she would have stopped him from kissing her, if he hadn’t stopped first.

She tried to convince herself that even now she wasn’t wishing he hadn’t stopped.

Her hand went nervously to her throat. “You must under­stand, Mr. Rivers, I don’t tolerate this kind of behav­ior from any of my models. I mean, I can’t have you leaving with the wrong impression. I brought you up here for strictly professional reasons.” She took a deep breath and pulled herself erect. “You’re free to go now, Mr. Rivers. I apologize if my actions have misled or inconvenienced you.”

“Mr. Rivers…” He studied her face carefully. “You’ve called me Sergei and Mr. Rivers. You hon­estly don’t know who I am, do you?”

“Sergei Rivers,” she responded evenly. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

“Are you telling me that when you picked me up today, you didn’t know who I was?”

“Should I?”

He shook his head. “You don’t know.”

Her nerves frazzled to the breaking point, she snapped, “Listen, you may think you’re someone special with your ‘agent’ and your ‘high price,’ but as far as I can tell, you’re just another egotistical jock!”

He recoiled as if she’d slapped him, and then his high cheekbones flushed. “What makes you so sure I’m a jock?”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “You were running in a triathlon. And”—she paused significantly, and let her gaze drop down his body—“you certainly didn’t develop those pectorals by tap-dancing.”

“For your information,” he retorted, “I am a dancer.”

She raked her gaze down his six-foot-plus-more body. “Like I believe that.”

“Lady, I can just about figure what it’d take to convince you, but I’m not in the habit of wearing pink tights and speaking with a lisp.”

She stiffened, her chin rising defensively, warily.

A remote smile molded his full, beautifully shaped lips. “You’ve heard of Alexandra Petrova, I’m sure. Alexandra Petrova Rivers?”

“The Russian dancer? Of course, who hasn’t?” Kevyn felt a trill of alarm and shook her head stubbornly. “No. I don’t believe it.”

“You don’t believe what?”

“I don’t know what I don’t believe. I just have a feeling that whatever you’re going to tell me—I don’t believe it.”

“She’s my mother.”

With a sinking feeling, Kevyn stared at his high cheekbones. No, it wasn’t so hard to believe after all. The son of a ballerina of Russian descent… Sergei.

“Okay. So maybe you’re telling the truth.” She couldn’t keep the grudging tone out of her voice. “Maybe she is your mother. But I still say you’re no dancer.”

“Are you quite sure about that?” His eyes took on the glint of rusty steel, warm in color but cold and threatening in their intensity.

“You don’t look like a dancer,” she said, but the seeds of doubt were wedged securely in her mind.

He stared at her for a moment that electrified her, that brought the tension between them to a crack­ling pitch. He squared his shoulders and then turned and paced deliberately toward the center of the vast hardwood floor.

That walk, she thought disjointedly, watching the sinew and muscles move beneath the surface of his golden-bronze skin, his toes turn out like those of a… ballet dancer. “Oh, my.”

He shook his arms loose, stretching first one leg, then the other. Each movement was fluid, yet pre­cise. With a quick snap of his head, he looked at her from over his shoulder and ordered her not to move. She was too spellbound to disobey. He judged the space between them. Then he let his head drop as he inhaled deeply once, twice, and then again, his chest swelling, his hair falling forward over his brow in a thick auburn wave.

With a sudden burst of movement, he performed a low glide, and with a violent thrust of his powerful legs, he was in the air, soaring with arms out­stretched, spinning and landing in front of her. Scant inches of electrically charged air separated them.

“My word,” she whispered, awestruck. He reached out and grabbed her hands, jerking them over her head. She felt herself being propelled toward him and tried to protest. But his control was born of strength and superb technique, and with a master­ful twist of his wrists, he spun her and dropped them both into a dizzying lunge.

Panic-stricken, she was spinning, falling, plung­ing toward the hardwood floor. Yet the moment of fear was short-lived, as she felt the strength of his arm cradling her back, lowering her swiftly yet safely to his muscled thigh. One hand slid firmly under her waist to keep her from rolling away from him, while the other moved to cup the back of her head as his fingers twined through her hair with a seductive pressure.

He lowered his face until his lips were a mere breath away from hers.

“Now. Do you believe me?”

~o0o~

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