“Ms. Barrett is a mistress master of words. A novel well crafted and a story beautifully told.”
– Belles and Beaux
“Victoria Barrett’s ingenious concept of time and time-travel will captivate readers who crave the unusual, intelligent, and fresh approach to an old idea. Barrett brings a refreshing, clever and intriguing concepts to readers and then adds three enthralling romances to craft an unforgettable reading experience.”
– Romantic Times
“Barrett writes a complex, extremely entertaining tale. Classy tale of eternal love, a very special offering that doesn’t come along often.”
– Affaire de Coeur
“Warning: If you need sleep, do not start this book at night! Maybe This Time will keep you turning pages well into the wee hours. Highly unusual, highly entertaining. Deliciously vivid. Will capture your heart from page one.”
– Rebecca Sinclair
“A truly wonderful book. Teaches us love is stronger than anything, even death.”
– Genie’s Women’s Fiction Exchange
“A multifaceted gem. Exceedingly mesmerizing. Readers will clamor for more of Victoria Barrett’s novels involving the mysterious elders.”
– America Online
“One great story about everlasting love and the trials that go with it. Sensuous but sensitive, and you definitely will not set it down until you’ve read the last page.”
“A non-stop read for time-travel and reincarnation aficionados.”
– Kathe Robin
Awards & Honors:
Excellent, Romantic Times
Excellent, Affaire de Coeur
Five-Star Gold Award, Gothic Journal
Laurel Leaf Award
Finalist, National Readers’ Choice Award, Novel of the Year
Finalist, Maggie Award of Excellence
© 2006 Vicki Hinze
Contemporary New Orleans
The amulet at his neck vibrated.
Kevan Buchannan vacillated, turned off his computer, then stared at its blank screen. Muted sounds drifted in through his office window; a blues band belting out jazz, people laughing and dancing in the French Quarter street below. Though tempted to kick back and relax, he couldn’t. Soon he’d be “gifted” with yet another glimpse of the future, a gift natural to him . . . frightening to others.
But not to Alyssa.
A dull pain lodged in his chest. Had it really only been three days since they’d argued over her refusal to marry him? It seemed forever.
He stared at his desk lamp’s distorted reflection in the computer screen. They’d been good together. Better than good. How could he understand her reasoning? How could any man? She wouldn’t make a lousy wife. And she wasn’t just his lover. S he was also his love. His . . . love.
The woman was driving him insane.
Again the amulet vibrated at the hollow of his throat. After months of waiting and wondering when the next vision would come, when he would again image the Elder, it was finally time.
Kevan closeted his thoughts until his pulse leveled, until the tick of his office clock grew to a steady thump inside his head. Then he opened his mind to the vision.
The ticking sound faded.
The vision started.
Surrounded by darkness, he stood alone. A slight wind ruffled his hair and breezed lazily across his skin. On the horizon, light flickered and gnarled fingers of mist swirled together, thickening to fog and descending on him.
As a boy, how many times had he imagined a giant face behind him, mouth puckered, cheeks hollowed, sucking at the fog until it engulfed him?
When the familiar cool mist gathered on his skin, he lifted his face to it. Maybe here he would find peace–if there was any.
The fog parted, revealing the bumpy stone path. He walked down to its end. When the fog merged into a solid wall in front of him, he stopped and waited, feeling hollow, empty, and alone–emotions he wouldn’t have recognized before Alyssa came into his life. He’d loved her. He still loved her. He always would.
A low hum sounded. The fog retreated to the horizon then weakened to misty trails that disappeared.
Cold rain soaked his jacket. Kevan squinted, helping his eyes to adjust. Pale moonlight streaked through a lattice fence, casting weak shadows on the ground. Beyond the fence, tombs blackened with mold and cracked by age stretched up toward the sky like unwelcoming sentries.
Hesitant, he followed the weed-ridden path and entered the crumbling cemetery, then followed the scent of roses to a freshly dug grave. An uneasy shiver crept up his spine. A funeral had just been held here. He’d never before envisioned a funera . . .
Concentrating, his vision of it grew more focused, more clear.
It was Alyssa’s funeral.
Holding a black umbrella, Kevan stood alone beside her rain-swept grave, staring at the gaping black hole, at the lone spray of thorny white roses stripped naked of leaves. Heavy raindrops pelted his umbrella and pinged off her silver coffin, now suddenly inside the hole.
Sensing movement, he looked left. Two men in black, hooded coats appeared near a sagging gate, their chins dipped low, obscuring their faces. Mocking the rain, a twisted oak limb stretching out over their heads, ignited and burned. The fire sizzled. Crackled and hissed. Its bright flames licked at the bark, the leaves, and glinted on something shiny in the men’s hands. What were they carrying?
Treading to Alyssa’s grave, they made sucking sounds with their shoes in the mud. They carried shovels. “Good evening,” Kevan said. Golden shovels.
They moved past him without a word or a glance. Why were they ignoring him? Others encountered in his visions conversed openly. And why were they hiding their faces?
The men stabbed their tools into the mound of wet dirt, then dumped mud onto Alyssa’s coffin. The clods splattered, then thunked hollowly. And with each clump that fell, the pain searing Kevan’s chest intensified. His breathing shallowed. His pulse thrummed. He tried to look away and couldn’t. Adrenaline, terror, regret, gushed through his veins.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he forced himself to accept the inevitable. He couldn’t stop the ground from swallowing her, but he couldn’t watch it. Dear God, he couldn’t . . . watch.
The steady rain grew to a thunderous downpour. His tears, his anger at her leaving him, knotted in his throat. He lifted his collar against the icy chill seeping into his bones, and blinked, allowing himself no other release of the pain clawing holes in his stomach. He had to hold on to the pain. It was all he had left now. She didn’t love him. Why didn’t she love him?
Lightning flashed, setting blaze to mighty oaks, to vines smothering the tombs, to rocks that logically could not burn, conjuring visions that flickered through his mind like snapshots. Alyssa, angry and spattered with mud, clinging to him even as she cursed him. Alyssa, bold and defiant, glaring down at him from the back of a white mare, a pre-tartan Scottish plaid draped across her shoulder. Alyssa, proud and challenging, standing at the altar of a candlelit church, dressed in an eighteenth-century wedding gown and about to marry an English lord she didn’t love. And then Alyssa–just as he’d seen her three days ago, when she’d refused to marry him. Beautiful, sitting in her sterile office, absorbed by the only thing capable of absorbing her: a computer.
The storm raged to a tempest. “Leave!” A male stranger screamed inside Kevan’s mind. “Run! Hurry!”
A violent wind whipped up. Howling through the trees, it carried a portentous warning and plastered Kevan’s eyelids shut. Panic seized his stomach and, furious because he’d yielded to panic, he clenched his jaw, shielded his eyes, and forced them to open. Immediately irritated by flying debris, they began to tear and ache.
“You must leave!” The stranger insisted.
An image of Kevan running down the stone path flooded his mind. Deep in his soul, he sensed eternal danger. Black and bleak and lethal. He fought the urge to heed the warning and escape before it was too late. But Alyssa was here. “No! I can’t! I won’t leave her like this!”
The wind whistled a high-pitched shriek. Cringing, Kevan dropped the umbrella and cupped his hands over his ears to block out the sound. Rain drove into him, stinging his arms, his legs, his back. Lightning lashed at the sky; deadly streaks that ripped through the darkness, slammed into the ground, then exploded in flaming balls of fire. Heat scorched his skin. His eyes stung, his throat felt raw, and the warning voice inside his head grew deafeningly loud. Kevan bellowed. “I’m not leaving her!”
Pain stabbed through his chest. He bent double and sank to his knees in the mud. “Do what you will!” he rasped out. “I’m not going without her!”
An ominous whisper pierced the roaring wind. “Affix time.”
The pain stopped as abruptly as it had started. The rain gentled to a fine mist. Gasping, drained and weak, Kevan tried to make sense of this. Affix time. Was the moment of Alyssa’s death the key to this vision?
He mentally collected his energy, focused, then studied the image of himself beside her grave. No gray streaked his black hair, no new lines creased the skin at his eyes. The suit was one he wore often–the one he wore now–and his were the only footsteps near her grave-site.
Her death would come soon.
Fear slithered through his pores. The visions always had been like a jigsaw puzzle; never this simple or clear. Now he understood her refusal to marry him, but the knowing made her rejection harder to accept, not easier. Harder, and more terrifying.
Alyssa hadn’t loved him. But she hadn’t loved anyone else. Demanding perfection in others, her pride, her lack of humility and modesty–all had rendered her incapable of loving.
Incapable. His heart hammered, sweat slid down his temples, his ribs. Her snapshot images proved his worst fears. She hadn’t elected not to love him; she couldn’t love him! Him–or anyone else!
He collapsed on the ground, venting the tears clogging his throat. The fear he’d worn like a shroud died. Despair replaced it. Until now, he’d hoped she would change her mind. But she hadn’t learned that love is pure, people aren’t; she couldn’t change her mind. Not now. Not ever.
God help them both.
Kevan bowed his head and prayed. Hopeless, fervored prayers born of grief. Alyssa couldn’t love. She was going to die never having known life’s greatest joy. To die! And there was nothing he could do . . . wait.
Wait! He scrambled to his feet. Was that the message in this vision? That there was something he could do? He scanned the tops of the tombs, the shadows between them, and shouted, “Elder? Elder, I need guidance.”
Frowning at that unexpected result, Kevan again focused on the snapshot images. But he couldn’t hold on to any of them. Instead, a new image formed. One of him as a ghostlike apparition, kneeling in a puddle beside Alyssa’s grave. A crystal amulet–different from his, more like the one the Elder wore–hung from his neck, a silver sword from his side. He touched the cold mound of dirt covering Alyssa’s coffin and whispered something he couldn’t hear. A rumbling started deep within the ground. The mound glowed, cracked and split. Alyssa rose from within the gaping hole, then followed Kevan’s apparition down a golden stone path.
Where were they going? Kevan tried to follow, but couldn’t lift his feet. “Elder!” he called out. “Elder, where am I taking her? Why am I here?”
Pain ravaged Kevan’s chest. In a cold sweat, he watched helplessly as the image disappeared. The pain was a signal as familiar to him as his amulet vibrating. Nothing more would be disclosed; his grace, the Elder of the Council of Perfection, was summoning.
Kevan closed his eyes. When he again opened them, he was standing on the stone path, surrounded by dense fog. No mud sullied his hands, his clothes were dry, and no wind rustled. All was still. Silent. Reverent.
He straightened his shoulders, responding to the summons with the respect the Elder had earned over the years, with the decorum due his visionary master of time and destiny.
Enveloped in a shimmering silver mist, the Elder appeared on the path. The brown stones beneath his feet turned golden. Small and robed in white, he might have been seventy, or seven hundred, or seventy thousand. No telling lines marred his smooth, translucent skin and the crystal amulet at his neck glowed, but his eyes, flat and colorless, reflected no light.
“It has been some time, Kevan.”
“Yes, your grace.” Kevan bowed his head, crossed his chest with his right hand. “It’s good to see you. Though I don’t understand the–”
The Elder interrupted in the raspy whisper Kevan never felt certain truly had been spoken or heard. “Acknowledgement is the first step toward enlightenment.”
“She must die, then?”
“That depends on you.”
“On me?” Kevan failed to keep his surprise from his voice.
“Your love for this woman has remained steadfast throughout time.”
Where was this leading? “Yes.”
“But only now have you seen the vision.” His carriage regal, the Elder stepped closer, out of the mist. “Have your feelings for her changed?”
Acid poured into Kevan’s stomach. In all their years together, the Elder never had been less cryptic or more blunt. That he was now, worried and alerted Kevan. This was no ordinary vision. “Yes, your grace, my feelings for Alyssa have changed. They’ve deepened.”
“Even though you now are aware of her inability to love . . . ?”
Kevan swore he’d give everything he owned if he could honestly deny that truth. “Because of her inability. She’s been denied–”
“No.” Elder frowned. “Without acceptance, acknowledgement–”
“Is useless.” Kevan’s stomach sank. Drawing in a shuddery breath, he squared his shoulders and met the Elder’s empty gaze. “She hasn’t yet become a universal woman.”
Nodding, a shadow fell across the Elder’s eyes. “But she also rejected you and denied your love of value to her.” He fingered his amulet. “During the tempest, you realized that your soul was in eternal jeopardy, yet you refused to leave her.” The Elder pursed his lips. “I would know why.”
“I love her.” A warning bell clanged in the deep recesses of his mind. The Elder had heard him call. Why hadn’t he answered? He’d always responded. . . .
The reason hit with the force of a sledge. This wasn’t about time! “Only a foolish man denies his destiny, your grace. Alyssa is mine.”
“And you are not foolish.”
Kevan mustered a thread of a smile. “Perhaps I am. I fell in love with a woman never capable of loving me back.”
“Mmm. Unlike forever, never is a relative term.” The Elder stepped back into the mist.
Perplexed, Kevan looked up, afraid to blink, afraid to breathe. “Elder?”
Quiet authority filled the Elder’s voice. He lifted his chin. “Your devotion and perseverance have not escaped the recognition of the Council, Kevan. Thus, you have earned this reward: cast out the past from the Great Book. Remold your history , your destiny–if you dare. Your gift is to love Alyssa again, as you have loved her before.”
Shock bolted through Kevan. He tensed against it. “And my trial?”
The Elder’s expression grew intense. “To guide her to love’s light.”
Kevan’s shock doubled. “The Council has interceded.”
“On your behalf, yes.” The Elder sounded resigned . . . and concerned. “Accomplish this mission, and Alyssa Cameron will be yours for eternity.”
Reeling, Kevan forced himself to think. Nothing came without cost. Nothing in life, or in death. His heart began a slow hard beat that pounded in his temples. “And if I fail?”
“If you fail, you shall not fail. Seek your destiny and win.”
He paused to decipher the message, in a sense relieved that it was cryptic. Loving Alyssa was his destiny. If he led her to love’s light, he hadn’t failed, but won her eternal love. If he wasn’t successful, then she, not he, had failed. Though both of them would suffer the consequences.
Narrowing his colorless gaze, the Elder plundered Kevan’s soul. “Do you accept the Council’s challenge?”
All or nothing. Eternal love, or its absence. And in the case of failure, for him, an eternity trapped in the hell of unrequited love. He would never know peace. The risk, like the reward, was high.
Solemn, Kevan looked up at the Elder. “I accept.”
“Very well.” The Elder tipped his head slightly. His beard grazed his chest, and pity laced his voice. “Henceforth, you shall be known to the Council as the Prophet.”
Sensing the Elder’s fear, Kevan stepped forward. “I need to know–”
“I can say nothing more.” He raised his hand and turned his palm upward. “May wisdom realized through your gift serve you now in following your heart.”
The Elder’s silvery image faded. The golden stones on the path again turned brown, and the faint sounds of the ticking clock grew distinct, loud.
The vision was over.
Kevan opened his eyes. Bathed in sweat, his hands trembling, he tugged his tie loose from his throat and took in a deep, steadying breath. His quest would begin soon. And, for the first time in his life, he wouldn’t have his visions to guide him . Only love. And fear.
Never before had the Elder doubted Kevan’s success. But this vision was different from the hundreds he’d had in his twenty-seven years. It required no interpretation; its message was vivid and clear. This vision was of Alyssa.
And it, like all the others, would come to pass.
Shaking, his heart jackhammering, he took one last look at the familiar furnishings in his Canal Street office, then stared at his blank computer screen. Again, he concentrated on the ticking clock. Waiting. Feeling stripped bare and frightened. Knowing that the visions wouldn’t come to him again. Knowing that his love for Alyssa would be his only guide in pursuing his quest. And praying that his love would be enough. Alyssa’s destiny, his destiny, depended on it.
Unbidden words filled his mind. “Have faith in your humble servant.”
Pain split his chest. Kevan Buchannan slumped forward, and died.
His quest had begun.
The death-wait would soon be over.
Alyssa Cameron had lain for days, feeling her strength shrivel and the pain that throbbed in her head mushroom. Fifty. So young to die.
Fifty? Fifty? She touched her hand to her temple. No, not fifty. Twenty-two.
Twenty-two, and she would die alone.
Few would attend her funeral. They said she’d killed him. Had she?
Poor Kevan. She should have married him. Love, that alien emotion, had plagued poor Kevan. He’d loved her and yet he, too, had died alone.
Shifting on the damp sheets beneath her, she plucked at her hospital gown, sticking to her skin. She’d allow herself that regret with Kevan, but no others. She’d been given time to put her affairs in order and couldn’t complain about her life. She’d had financial comfort, computers to fascinate her, and more men than she cared to recall. Had she been married three times, or four?
Droopy-eyed, she stared up at the white ceiling, at the blue and white dots dancing along the tiles. So hard to remember. So hard . . .
Pain shot through her skull and bolted down her spine. She sucked in a sharp breath, grabbed the handrail and squeezed, praying for the throbbing to ease, for death to come and make the pain stop.
Married? Had she been married? Fuzzy. Her memory grew more and more fuzzy.
She concentrated hard. She’d worked. Computers. Twenty-two and never married. No. No, she’d never married. Poor, poor, Kevan.
Another pain sliced through her temples, spiked down her spine, and set fire to her limbs. Stiffening, she sank her teeth into her lip and bit down until her mouth filled with the iron taste of blood. Done was done; tears wouldn’t help. Kevan was gone. She would greet death alone.
And no one would mourn.
Anger trickled through her like fizzling sparks on a dampened fuse. Every life lost deserved mourning, didn’t it? What mistakes had she made that not a single soul would grieve for her? What god-awful crime had she committed? What had she done wrong?
The pain in her head exploded.
Her blood seeped, no longer rushing through her veins.
Her heart stopped.
This was what it felt like to die. But she didn’t want to die! She didn’t want to feel her body grinding to a halt! Shouldn’t someone be with her? Kevan! Where was Kevan?
She fought to concentrate. Nooo! Oh God! Oh God . . . Kevan was dead. Poor, poor Kevan.
She couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t go through this alone. Someone should know. Yes. Someone. Anyone. Fumbling with the cord tangling with her IV, she pressed the nurse’s call button. Had she mashed it down? So weak. So . . . incredibly weak. Panic set in, she silently screamed. “Kevvvvaaan!”
Her body went limp.
She couldn’t move. Couldn’t feel the needle in her arm that had her skin an angry swollen red or the tube shoved down her once raw throat. The nauseating smell of antiseptic that had tortured her for days faded. Her vision dimmed to ink black. And the sounds of rushing feet disappeared.
Silence. Sweet silence.
She couldn’t be dead. Dead people don’t exist. And she did exist!
Her thoughts, emotions, and ideas were still with her. Maybe she hadn’t died. Maybe she’d gone crazy!
A sensation of movement surrounded her. Oh God, she was the object moving! She floated up, hovered at the ceiling, and looked down at the nurses and doctors crowded around her bed. Shouting orders, their voices were anxious, their movements jerked and frenzied. A jolt rammed through her body, shoving her out of the room, out of Tulane Medical Center. Darkness enshrouded her and she accelerated, speeding into the unknown.
Clutching at her chest, she drew in a sharp breath. She could breathe and move again, but the darkness. . . . Why the darkness?
Warm air rushed past her hands, spreading her fingers. She reached out, stretching into the sinister pitch, trying to slow her speed. But her hands met nothing solid. She couldn’t focus. Her stomach lurched, and dizzy, she cried out. “Slow down! Would you please slow me down?”
There seemed nothing present to cause an echo, yet her voice bounced back to her. No sights. No scents. Only the sensations of warm air rushing over her skin and her speeding along. Was this some sort of wind tunnel? Where was this place? What was this place? Where–what–was she? She crossed her chest with her arms, and strained to see, but only the darkness was out there. Only the . . . darkness.
The sense of speed lessened to a smooth glide. She lifted her hands and shifted her weight, trying to steer, but nothing altered her course. Odd. And even more odd, she wasn’t afraid. Anyone in their right mind experiencing this would be terrified. She should be terrified. So why wasn’t she?
For a long moment she felt nothing. Then it struck her. That nothing was the absence of pain. She pressed her fingers against her arm where the IV had been. No knots, or swelling–and her head didn’t hurt. She wasn’t suffering any of the symptoms from the tumor that had caused her death–if she had died. For the first time in days, her memory was sharp and clear. She vividly remembering dying. Yet, if she were dead, would she be here? Wouldn’t she just be . . . dead?
“Hello?” she called out. Pinching herself, she winced. New pain was possible then. “Hello?”
No one answered. But finding her own voice comforting, she called out again. “Where am I going? Did I die? Is this the way to Heaven? Hell? Some other place I haven’t heard of? Hello?”
Still, no answer.
Supposing she had died. Was what came after a search, then? An eternity of floating through this darkness? She shivered. She’d always hated the dark, and now she was engulfed in it. What if this was eternity? What if she did nothing more than float, isolated and alone, forever?
Her heart began a slow hard beat and her skin crawled. She rubbed hard at her arms until the gooseflesh disappeared. Panicking wouldn’t help her now. Would anything?
In her distant path, a brilliant light appeared. Its rays spilled into the darkness in glistening shimmers that were warm and appealing. Anticipating being enveloped in it, her limbs tingled and alien feelings of safety and security welled in her stomach. Poignant tears stung her eyes. Feeling them fall, she touched her cheeks, then touched her wet fingertips, confused, awed. But she never cried. Never. . . .
Tiny pastel bubbles depicting her life’s joys and sorrows flickered in perfect miniature around her. Her parents, who had died years ago, were together, smiling at her from inside a pale pink sphere. Beside it, encapsulated in an opaque blue globe, she saw her own funeral, the empty pews inside the church.
Her heart pounded. Once she crossed the threshold, she’d never again be alone. Certainty filled her. Happiness, contentment such as she’d never known, would greet her in the light. So close now that the radiating heat warmed her, she cried out to move faster; eager, longing.
A massive and flowing shadow loomed ahead. A sentry? Her throat went dry. Would it refuse to let her pass? Tensing, she called out to it. “Move. Do you hear me? You have to move out of my way!”
The ominous shadow grew larger, blocking the heat from the light’s rays. Chilled and desperate to again feel that wonderful warmth, she screamed. “Move! Damn it, you have to move!”
Her forward momentum slowed to a near halt. Squinting, she just made out the shadow’s silhouette. An image began to form–a man.
Near him now, the wind died, and she stopped. She tried reaching for walls, but there were none. A ray of soft light beamed down the tunnel, and shone on the sentry. He was a magnificent giant, standing on a crystal platform. Firm, muscular, and heavy-boned, he stood statue still. His hair, thick and glossy black, curled low on his strong neck. His eyes were closed; his mouth, wide and set in a firm line that didn’t welcome or shun her. A crystal amulet hung at the hollow of his throat from a strip of leather coiling around his neck. A belt riding low on his hips embraced a gleaming silver sword, its hilt encrusted with fat emeralds and rubies the size of plump cherries. And his broad chest, bare and covered with a soft-looking down, showed no evidence of his breathing.
Her heartbeat sped to a canter and she expelled a soft swoosh of breath. He was totally masculine. The epitome of manhood. Beautiful.
Then he looked at her.
“Dear God!” she gasped. “Your eyes. . . .”
Glinting flecks of the coolest gray, his eyes whispered secrets of wisdom, purpose, and authority. His force, raw and unearthly, withered her, somehow draining her strength, yet she couldn’t look away. She didn’t want to look away.
Why didn’t she? What power did he hold in those eyes? Without touching her, he’d imprisoned her. Was he an idol? God?
“Alyssa Cameron.” His tone, rich and smooth, comforted her like a warm cloak on a wintry night.
He spoke a language she’d never heard, yet she understood him. “Yes.”
He touched the hilt of his sword, and a crystal platform like his formed beneath her. Warmth radiated from it, crept up through her feet to her thighs, then spread through her body to her head. For some reason she didn’t understand, she smiled. When he smiled back, she felt dazzled. Something strange was happening inside her; she was being molded into someone else. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?
Compelled by an overwhelming urge to touch him, she stepped forward. But the dark distance between them didn’t shrink, it expanded to a full three feet. Quickly, she stepped back.
The giant looked down at her, his face shadowed. “I’ve waited for you.”
Her stomach fluttered. “Waited?” She’d never seen him before in her life. If she had, she definitely would have remembered. “Who are you?”
Prophet paused. She didn’t know him. He’d known that she wouldn’t, but it still hurt. He’d loved her throughout time. “I am the Prophet, Alyssa.”
“You’re a psychic?” Alyssa asked, her expression perplexed.
“Of sorts,” he hedged.
The color drained from her smooth cheeks. “Am I . . . dead?”
Her voice being steady worried him. Where was her fear? Without it, their mission would be impossible. “You died two days ago.”
She shut her eyes, shielding from him the green that rivaled his emeralds. God, how he hated it that he must put fear in her eyes.
“I thought I’d lost my mind.” She looked up at him from under her silver-tipped lashes. “That was bad enough. But dead. . . .”
His stomach churned. He swallowed and softened his tone. “It takes getting used to. But once you accept it, you’ll do fine.”
Wary, she licked at her lips. “What do you want from me?”
His heart twisted. He wanted everything. Her humor and temper, her quirks and faults–all of her, good and bad. But most of all, he wanted her love. “I’m your guide, Alyssa. My mission is to help you.”
“To do what?”
“On your journey.” Again he hedged, unable to put her mind at ease and unwilling to reveal what he could until she was prepared to listen to it.
She stepped out of one of her high heels and rubbed her arch over her other foot. “Where am I going?”
This wouldn’t sit well with her. But he had no choice. “I can’t say.”
“If you can’t tell me, then how are you going to guide me?”
Still no fear. And none of her usual tenacity. This wasn’t good. “We’ll manage.” He rubbed at his temple. What would spur the old Alyssa into surfacing? Ah . . . “You’ve no reason to fear me. I won’t harm you.”
She frowned and swiped at a wrinkle in her skirt. “I don’t fear you. And I’m capable of helping and protecting myself.” She tilted back her head. “Are you new at this guiding business?”
“New?” Better. With little reassurance, she was handling the shock of her death well. But then Alyssa would; she looked within to fulfill her needs, not to outsiders. That truth hurt, but it was also why they were here and not on Earth, living out their lives.
“If you were more experienced,” she said in a haughty tone that was transparently forced, “you’d know that the dead don’t need guiding. They need burying.”
He swallowed a chuckle. “Didn’t you see your funeral in the sphere?” He pointed to her jacket. “Look at your clothes. Aren’t they the same?”
She glanced down and fingered her lapel. “This is the cream suit I saw.” Again frowning, she looked back up at him. “Where are we? And if I’m dead, then why do I still feel and look like . . . like me?”
How like her to accept that proven without qualm or emotion. Part of him was glad, but another part of him wished she’d needed consoling. God knew he could use a little. Where in blazes was her fear? That facet of her character clearly needed restructuring, too. “You feel like you, because you are you, Angel.”
“Angel?” Her skin paled even more. “I’m an–an angel?”
She sounded torn between elation and despair. Now what should he make of that? “Not as you picture an angel, no.”
“I didn’t think so.” She slid him a look laced with doubt. “You’re not very accomplished, are you? No offense, but even a new guide shouldn’t see me as an angel.” She slid her foot back into her high heel. “Don’t you know what to do with a corpse?”
“You aren’t a corpse. And, though you have much to discover, you are an angel, Alyssa.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Have you heard the saying that a rose can’t deny its petals?”
He rubbed at his temple. “Here, you’re the rose and your destiny is the petals. You can’t deny your destiny.”
“Wait a second.” She lifted a hand. “Look, I appreciate a smooth line just as much as the next woman, but aren’t you stretching this? I mean, roses? And angels are pure and gentle, aren’t they?” She smiled her skepticism. “I don’t think I’m a likely candidate for wings.”
“You aren’t–now.” He watched her pulse throb at her throat. She was nervous. Not afraid, but nervous. Well, that settled it. A detour before they began their mission was necessary. “And, yes, angels are pure and gentle.”
“That proves my point.” She smoothed her hair back. Its long silvery strands captured the light and sparkled. “I’m far from pure or gentle, and I’m even further from soft, so let’s get down to the real business–”
With a zipping whistle, the platform under her feet cracked. Yellow, green, and blue prisms streaked wildly through the tunnel. Alyssa’s mouth rounded in an “oh” and, hunching her shoulders, she cupped her ears.
Wincing up at him, she crowded her feet onto the small section of crystal that didn’t float away. “What happened?”
Weak fear lit in her eyes. He hated it. But she had to learn not to dispute him. She wasn’t slow. She’d figure it out. “It is of no consequence.”
That remark earned him a frown he’d be feeling for a week. She licked her lips with a smooth, pink tongue. “Now, look, Prophet.”
He sighed and tapped his fingers against his bicep. “Yes?”
She nodded. “I’ve tried to be patient, but I want some answers–without the cryptic nonsense. And I’d appreciate it if you’d can the drivel.”
“Me being soft and gentle–and I resent being compared to a rose. A thorn, maybe, but never a rose.” She shot him a warning look. “It’s been tried by the best. My petals don’t crush.”
True enough, he admitted. But, one way or another, she was going to bend, and hopefully to blossom. “I see.”
“It’s clear by your expression that you don’t see at all. But you will.” She gave her jacket hem a tug. “Now, I gather I’m supposed to travel somewhere and you’re to act as my guide. So let me just ask you a question or two and then we can get on with it. You can explain the rest as we go.”
He had her attention. Nervous, Alyssa rattled. When she slid into her authoritarian mode, she was afraid. Still, her fear had been too long in coming to be safe for either of them. “How long are you going to talk before you get to your questions? “
She stopped mid-sentence to glare at him, then drew in a shuddery breath. “Since I still exist, I assume Heaven and hell are real. Am I correct?”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“What kind of answer is that?” She grunted. “Don’t you know?”
“What I know isn’t relevant. It’s what you know that matters.”
She rolled her gaze, then asked point-blank. “Am I going to Heaven or hell?”
Before they were done, he imagined she’d think she’d spent a fair amount of time in both. “Not exactly.”
Her frown deepened, and she stiffened her shoulders. “Look, we’re discussing my future here. Just talk straight about it, okay? If not to Heaven or hell, then where am I going?”
“You’ll see . . . in good time.”
“I don’t care for puzzles.” A warning in her tone, she laced her hands behind her back. “Actually, I hate them. They irk me.”
He well knew that they did. And right now, he was the puzzle irking her most–and thoroughly enjoying it. “Regardless of preference, we must master some puzzles.”
“And this is one, mmm?” Caught up in her thoughts, she paced a path on the jagged crystal and nearly walked off its end.
Beautiful. Head to heel. “Exactly.” Smiling to himself, Prophet touched the hilt of his sword. The platform began moving with her, staying solidly beneath her feet.
He hiked a brow. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” She flushed and lowered her gaze.
“You must answer me.”
“Must?” She shot him a disgusted look. “A little macho, don’t you think?”
“Not at all.” He slid her a wicked grin. “Well, perhaps a little.”
“You’re cute.” She let her gaze sweep his length. “But not that cute.”
If her pupils hadn’t dilated and her nostrils flared, he might have believed her. “Cute has nothing to do with it. It comes with clout.”
“Whatever.” She shrugged, but her cheeks went pink. “I read this book once about a woman who died and was stuck in limbo forever.” Alyssa looked up at him, clearly wanting reassurance.
He didn’t give it to her. “And?”
“It isn’t like that here, is it? I–I don’t think–”
“It depends,” he waffled, needing to see how she’d react under pressure.
“Tell me it’s not like that.”
He held her gaze, and said nothing–one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do.
“If it is, I won’t stay here.” She lifted her chin. “I just . . . won’t.”
“You can’t deny your destiny, Alyssa.” For her, limbo would be torture. She was a doer, not an observer. “Remember the rose?”
Blinking furiously, she resumed pacing, stretching her path. “The truth is, I’d rather be in hell. At least there you know what to expect.”
“Fire and brimstone?” he suggested.
She tilted her head. “That’s not exactly the way I have it pictured.”
Cooking. Alyssa despised it. “Hell’s kitchen?”
She went ashen. “Does hell have a kitchen?”
He couldn’t do it. He’d eaten a few of her meals. They hadn’t killed him, but they could’ve. No one in the universe deserved that kind of torture. Especially Alyssa. Cooking would be her hell. “Angel–”
“Since I’m not going there, that’s irrelevant. I’m here, for what that’s worth, and I don’t much like it, either.”
She rambled on, asking about getting transfers, dispensations. That tugged at his heartstrings and he tried again to interrupt. “Angel.”
Still, she went on. And half-wondering why this woman had to be the woman who tied him in knots, he raised his voice to be heard. “Angel, you aren’t going to be stuck in limbo or in any kitchen!”
She stopped suddenly and stared at him; alert, relieved, and hauntingly beautiful. Aching to hold her, he fisted his hands to keep from reaching out to her. It’d been so long. And the odds were stacked against him ever having the chance to hold her again. Maybe just this once–
The amulet at his neck vibrated briefly then stopped. It was time. “You’re the product of a failure in the system, Angel.”
“Failure?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “I’ve never failed at anything important in my life.”
“That’s not true. But it’s the system, not you, that’s failed.”
“The system?” Perplexed, she wrinkled her brow.
He should have known. She’d never accepted anything without proof. “Life, Angel.” Noting her confusion, he explained. “From medieval times until the twentieth century, a negative imbalance in the electrical impulses coming from Earth caused man y to leave their current level of learning and to proceed on to their next level too soon.”
“Think of it as a short circuit.”
“Uh-huh. And what caused this short circuit?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Some say pollution. Some say greed.” He gazed deeply into her eyes. “Many don’t say, they just accept.”
Alyssa paused to think about this. The hole in the ozone layer near Antarctica? The destruction of the Brazilian rain forest? How could those–or other–things cause this?
No, Prophet was just misguided. Dead was dead and that was that. Still, she’d be stupid not to humor him. She specifically recalled dying and, though she didn’t understand it, she was here–wherever here was–and not six feet under in some cemetery. Until she learned the lay of the land, a misguided prophet was better than no prophet. “What do these impulses have to do with me?”
“Like many others, you left your current level too soon–without first discovering all you needed to fulfill your destiny.”
“Okay. So . . . ?”
“So,” his gaze scorched her soul, “now you must go back.”
“Go back?” Innately knowing he didn’t mean to her life in New Orleans, she cringed, not liking the sounds of this at all. “To what? Or to where, for that matter.”
He sounded sympathetic. “To some of your learning levels.”
A shudder zipped up her spine. “To some of my what?”
“To some of–”
“This is a joke,” she interrupted, pacing again. “My secretary, right? Margaret is always going on about karma and soulmates and weird–” Alyssa turned to Prophet and planted her hand on her hip. “Did that contrary witch put you up to this?”
“No,” he said, giving into the urge to smile. “Your secretary is contrary but she is not a witch. Nor is she dead. Have you forgotten that you are?”
Her blush told him she had forgotten. She might as well confess. “Transitioning takes time.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve precious little to spare.” He lifted a finger.
Their platforms merged, bathing them in a hazy golden light that caressed his skin. A silver speck glittered on his jaw. She brushed at it, then waited for him to explain.
He chose not to. Instead he cupped her face in his big hands, and stroked her cheek with his thumb. His gaze darkened, grew intense and searing. Her cheeks tingled. And she swore she was glowing like his amulet inside. “Prophet? What’s happening to me? I–I feel–”
His breath warmed her face. “Shh, Angel.” He fanned her temples, her cheeks, with wisps of touch.
Her mind and soul opened, welcoming him. Somehow she knew that resisting would prove futile, but why didn’t she want to try? Why didn’t she fear him, or resent his invasion?
His effect on her startled her, left her breathless–and believing. “When I go back to these former learning levels, what must I discover?”
He bent low, covered her lips with his. She whimpered. His kiss was staggering, achingly familiar. They’d definitely kissed before, time and again. So sweet. So tender. So . . . long ago.
Rubbing the silky, dark hair covering his chest, she trembled. The scent of his skin, the ripple of muscle ridging his abdomen, every curve and plane of his body that she touched was known to her. Even the jagged scar on his shoulder triggered so me forgotten memory just out of reach.
He raised his head. A shadow slanted across his eyes and his voice sounded gruff, emotional. “Angel.”
Waves of pleasure rippled through her. “I know you,” she whispered. “Prophet, I know you!”
Sensing grief in him, she met his molten gaze. “How?”
He refused to answer. Disappointed, she stroked the ridge of his scar. “What must I discover?”
A slow smile curved his lips, so easy, so sure and devastatingly handsome. “Me.”
“You?” She flattened her palms against his broad chest and frowned. “But you’ll be with me?”
“Not always.” Regret lit in the bottoms of his eyes.
She could ask why, but he wouldn’t answer. “Where will you be? How will I know you?”
Certainty replaced the regret. “You’ll know me.”
That she feared he was right, galled her. “You appeal to me, okay? I admit it. But this goes beyond lust, Prophet, and your ego has no business messing around with my future.”
“Your future is important to me. Never doubt it. And if I’m arrogant, well, no one here is perfect.” He slid her a killer smile, then shrugged and threaded his fingertips through her hair. “Spun silver.” He sighed contentedly. “I remember the feel.”
He remembered more than the feel of her hair. She was sure of it. And this tenderness frightened her in a way his arrogance hadn’t. It got to her, and it shouldn’t. “I know you, yet I don’t know you. You say I must discover you, that I’ll be in–” she paused to gulp in air, “–one of my former learning levels.” She moved her hands to his waist and squeezed his sides. “Don’t you understand why I’m confused? I don’t feel dead. I feel normal. And you don’t look dead to me. Are you?”
“Give it time. You’ll–”
“If you’d just explain it to me, I wouldn’t need time.”
“Patience, Angel.” He stroked her jaw, letting his fingertips trail over her parted lips. “You’ll find me. You’ll make your discoveries, and all of this will become clear to you.”
He was about to leave her; she intuited it. Her heart felt bruised. Why did the thought of being separated from him hurt her? Along with everything else, the pain didn’t make sense. But her heart didn’t seem concerned with logic. It just ached .
Pressing his warm lips against her temple, he whispered. “I’ll be with you soon.” His grip on her shoulders tightened, then suddenly he let go of her, reared back, and feasted on the sight of her.
The hunger in his eyes worried her. If was as if he somehow knew her intimately. But that was impossible.
He lifted her from the platform, his hands trembling, then released her. “Safe journey, Angel.”
Drifting back the way she’d come, she reached for him. “Prophet?”
When he didn’t move to draw her back. She shouted. “No! No, Prophet! Where are you sending me? Why are you sending me away?” Tears she didn’t understand flooded her eyes. Inside, she felt ravaged. And deep sobs racked her body, tore at her lungs.
She’d gone off the deep end. She must have. She who had never loved, never cried, mourned losing Prophet? How could she mourn the loss of a man she’d just met? A man she knew, yet didn’t know? A man, she feared, wasn’t a man?
But mourn him, she did.
Through the increasing darkness. Further and further away from the light. Past the pastel bubbles that burst one by one until fog, then ink black darkness swallowed her.
Fear seized her stomach. She was shrinking, squeezing into a . . . a comfortable jacket.
Then it hit her. Oh God, the learning level was a life! The jacket was her body!
But which body? And in which life?