Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Taste of Love: Richard

Spreading out the newspaper on the picnic table, Dawn pulled the red Sharpie pen out of her handbag and searched for another job. Her eyes dropped down to the want ads and skimmed over them. "I can't stand one more day at that place," she complained as a bird sang above her in a tree. "Why did I even say yes?" Because I have bills to pay and an empty checking account won't help me with rent, water, or cable, she thought.

Biting into the apple, she prayed she would spot another restaurant manager's job, so her four-year business degree wouldn't be wasted. Thinking about her old manager's job brought Richard Drace front and center in her mind. "Stop thinking about that man after what he did to you," she scolded herself, tossing the apple into the trashcan beside her. "He didn't want you in his life or business, so why are you still giving him a second thought?"

Yet, his compelling, magnetic eyes were rooted in her mind like a bad dream. All she had to do was close her eyes, and there they were, staring back. "Richard Drace is one man who's way out of your league." D4 had been in the papers a lot lately. She remembered reading a critic's comments just last week, wondering how a business started out with such promise only to slowly fade into the background.

Several times she had wanted to go back and offer Richard some help, but the last instance they had been together was different from any other time. He had pressed her back against the wall with his tall, towering body and leaned down like he was going to kiss her until Melissa burst in on them. Ashamed at being caught in that position with him, Dawn shoved Richard away and then rushed from the office.

Deep down, the love she felt for Richard was still there, waiting to be stoked by him. But Richard wasn't interested in her like that and never would be. It had pained her seeing him out with Emily two nights ago. Swallowing down the hurt at the memory, Dawn looked back down at the newspaper in front of her. "Get over him and move on. Once I have enough money saved up, I can get out of this town."

* * * *

Walking with his head down, lost in his own personal thoughts, Richard didn't see Dawn sitting at the bench until he was almost upon her beautiful form. The afternoon sunlight bounced off her shoulder-length black hair that now had a kinkier look to it. She was just as he recalled—gorgeous. Moving softly so he wouldn't startle her, Richard stopped in front of the table, blocking out the sun.

"Hello, Dawn."

Dawn looked up and gasped when she found him standing above her. "What are you doing here?"

"Can I join you?" he asked, pointing to the empty seat. It was fate. He was meant to leave D4 to find her.

"Sure," she replied, sliding the newspaper closer to her.

A smile touched the side of his mouth as he slid in front of her and noticed the want ads. "Are you looking for a job?" Richard drawled with the Texas accent he knew Dawn loved so much.

"Girl has to pay bills," she answered, looking at him quickly and then back down at the newspaper.

Closing his eyes, Richard said a quick thanks and reopened them. He took the paper away from Dawn and pitched it into the trash. "I have the perfect job for you."

"Hey, don't do that," she snapped, getting up, reaching towards the paper.

Richard touched Dawn's arm, noticing how soft her skin was. "Please sit back down so we can talk," he said softly. Her eyes filled with suspicion as Dawn did as he asked.

"Would you think about coming back to D4 as manager?" his silky voice asked.

Her eyes widened in shock, as Dawn drew back from him in amazement. "Y-you can't be serious?" she stammered.

Leaning forward on the bench, he said in a controlled voice, "I wouldn't joke about my business. I know you read the papers and saw that D4 is in a lot of trouble. I know you can help me get it back on top."

Jumping up from the picnic table, Dawn grabbed her purse without answering him and headed back to her car in the parking lot. She had moved so fast that Richard sat there, stunned, before it dawned on him to get up and follow her.

"Stop!" he yelled, chasing after Dawn. Catching her at the grass's edge, he spun her back around to face him. "Did you not enjoy working with me?" he questioned.

"It was okay," she replied, shaking off his touch. Moving to her car, she unlocked it and got in without taking another look in his direction.

"Please reconsider coming back," Richard pleaded as Dawn was closing the door. "I need you," he pleaded, stepping back from the car as she pulled out. Richard hoped he had reached the soft spot that he knew was inside Dawn.

* * * *

When Richard got back to the restaurant, there wasn't a customer in sight, and the crew was in the back, cleaning up the kitchen. "Everyone can stop working and go home," he told his employees. Everyone stopped working and stared at him like he had spoken a foreign language.

"Are you saying we're fired?" Melissa asked.

"I can't afford to keep paying you and save D4 at the same time." Richard replied, looking at his stunned workers. "So I'm going to let you go and close down for a while. Hopefully, I can hire another manager or, if I'm lucky, get Dawn to come back." He heard the groans coming from Melissa. "If you have a problem with Miss Summers, you can leave now because I have spoken with her and offered her the position back."

He wasn't going to be dumb and allow Melissa or anyone else to cost him Dawn again if she came back to work for him. While she was gone, he had started to realize that he wanted a little more than an employer and employee relationship with his stunning former manager.

"I've your paychecks back in the office if you come with me. I'll pass them out," Richard stated, going toward the back of the building. He paid his staff and thanked them for their service. All of them but one filed out of his office in a state of confusion, and he could understand why. Melissa stayed behind and gave him a harsh look. He didn't need three guesses to know what her problem was.

"Do you really want to bring Dawn back?" she complained, standing at the edge of his desk. "She had such horrible people skills. I don't know if I can come back here if she comes back as manager."

Richard knew now that Dawn was right about Melissa and he should have never hired her back. The way she lingered behind him and gave him her advice was something he didn't appreciate.

"Melissa, you don't have any say if Dawn comes back as manager or not. You're my employee, not my business partner. I think it would be best if you took your check and left," he said, holding it out to her between two fingers.

Snatching the check out of his hand, Melissa stormed towards the door. "Well, I can promise you that I won't be back if Dawn is rehired. I can't work for someone like her." With that, she marched out of the room.

Reclining in the desk chair, he looked around the small, cramped space that he called his office. D4 was the most important thing in his life right now. Dawn had to come back to help him save it. Seeing her today in the park had been a sign she was meant to be in his life. It had been almost two months to the day since she walked out of this office.

Richard couldn't believe how touching her today affected his blood pressure. It had shot up to a dangerous level. He wondered what made Dawn want to leave her current job. The last time he had heard about her, she had a good job working for a firm. Hell, he didn't care about the reason as long as he could convince her to come back. Pulling a legal pad from his desk, Richard started writing down ideas for how to save his business.

* * * *

"How long do you want me to work for you?" Dawn's voice broke through Richard's thoughts as she came into his office.

He wanted to be surprised to see her, but he wasn't. He knew that Dawn loved the time she spent here at D4. Sitting up straighter, his gaze slowly traveled up her body, finally making eye contact. He couldn't stop the pleasure he felt from shining through.

"I can't say, because I don't know how long it will take you to save my restaurant," he confessed. Thank God, she's going to take the offer. Stay calm and don't scare her away.

"What went wrong after I left?" Dawn asked.

"Do you mind having a seat so we can talk better?" he asked, pointing to a seat in front of her.

Coming further into his office, Dawn sat down on the edge of the chair and stared at him. Richard saw the uneasiness on her face and the distrust in her eyes. He hated that he put that look on her face, but he would try his damnedest to get rid of it. "I'm really glad you decided to take my offer." Richard smiled, lighting up his already handsome face.

Dawn kept herself calm. "I should let you know that when D4 is back up and running the way you want it, I will leave," she tossed out, shocking him. "Too many of the employees don't like how I run the business, but I can't allow a place as beautiful as this to fail."

Looking at her mouth, Richard wondered what it would be like to kiss her. Dawn looked so striking in her lavender top and matching skirt. They brought out the richness of her lovely brown skin. Focusing back on the words coming out of her luscious mouth was hard, but he did it. "Dawn, I fired the staff. If you want to hire all new employees, we can. I'm a hundred percent behind you this time," he stated, staring straight into her eyes. "I want to you know that I'm willing to do anything to help you."

Dawn didn't seem to trust how agreeable Richard was being with her. "I don't understand the change in you. The last time we talked about this, you let me know I was just the manager and nothing else. Did you wake up one day and change your mind?" she asked, arching one eyebrow over soulful eyes.

Chuckling, Richard loved that Dawn still had the outspokenness he found so sexy. "Can't I admit to being wrong without you rubbing it in more? I know you were the one who kept the suppliers and investors happy when I wasn't around to do it. You wouldn't believe how many of them told me I needed to hire you back."

Folding his hands, he placed them on the desk, leaning forward to be a little closer to her. "Dawn, I think you have your own mini-fan club," he teased, making his drawl more noticeable. "How did it get past me how much they liked you?" he asked, flashing a sexy smile.

Crossing her unbelievable legs, Dawn adjusted her skirt before answering him. "You were busy with your girlfriend Emily, and then you had to keep Melissa happy so she wouldn't quit. Other things were more important to you at that critical time, and I took on the problems of D4. Isn't that what a good manager does when the owner is MIA?"

Pissed off by the way Dawn pointed out his flaws, Richard wanted to hurt her back. "The reason I stopped coming around was much as I should have was I got tired of you constantly having a crush on me."

Dawn took his insult without batting an eye. "I guess we both know where we stand with each other. If you don't have anything else to say, I'd like my job back."

Richard wanted to take the words back. Dawn didn't have to come back, but she was doing it. Clearing his throat, he said, "I should apologize for what I just said." He watched her face for a reaction.

"Why should you apologize when you meant every word? Your honesty is what I like the best about you. Don't change it now," Dawn retorted. "The only thing I wanted to add to my agreement is that you'll give me a good reference when I leave."

"I can't believe you're serious about that," Richard said, confused, as he got up and moved within touching distance of Dawn. "You're really going to leave after you help me? What if I want to hire you permanently?"

Dawn shook her head. "I can't agree to that. Like I said earlier, I'll help you get D4 back up and running, but after that, I'm leaving Houston and would appreciate a reference from you," she informed him staring straight into his eyes.

Perched on the edge of the seat, she waited for an answer. Words left Richard at the possibility of Dawn no longer being in the same town. He would agree to her wishes for now because, in the end, Dawn wouldn't leave him or the restaurant. "You have a deal, Miss Summers," he said.

Following his movements, Dawn stood up and shook his hand. "Good. I'll see you tomorrow morning at eight o'clock sharp."

"Why can't we get started right now?" he asked, shocked by the fact that Dawn was leaving.

"I've a date," she replied, going out the door without looking back.

Richard didn't like being jealous, but he was. Dawn didn't need any distractions from him or the restaurant. He needed her free for any time he might want her. Oh, you want her and not at only to help with D4. Tomorrow, they would set some ground rules about dating while helping him out. There would be no outside dating until D4 was up and running smoothly again. The only man she was going to be spending any time with was him.

Instead of following Dawn and finding out who her date was, Richard decided to stay at D4. He had to make sure all the windows and doors were locked and the security alarm was set. Richard wondered who Dawn had a date with, because during the two months she had worked for him, he never saw a guy around her.

Why did he care so much anyway? Dawn only wanted to be his employee now and nothing else. So why couldn't he forget how so soft her skin felt hours ago, or how her perfume still lingered in the room? Yet he did notice how Dawn didn't look at him like she used to, and it did hurt a little.

Richard knew he needed a night out to push Dawn to the back of his mind. Until he came to grips with the fact it might be too late and he might have already lost her to another man, Emily was always happy to hear from him. He would drop by her house on his way home. If Dawn had a date tonight, he sure in the hell was going to have one, too. Even if it wasn't with the woman he wanted.

The Collettes: Luna by Dahlia Rose

The letter arrived with no return address and the paper of the envelope seemed too old to be used as stationary these days. Georgina Matthews turned the envelope over and over in her hand as she stared out into the cool New York night. She stood on the fire escape of her tiny cramped apartment in the Village and let the noise of the city fill her head for a moment. Everyone called her George. Growing up, anyone who dared to call her Georgina found themselves with a broken nose or eating dirt. Her father had taught her how to fight, because he knew what was out there. Knew what lurked in the darkness of the alleys in New York. George knew her mother hated that she lived in the city.

Being a southern belle from Atlanta, Analisa Matthews felt George should be Georgina. Her daughter should be there, dressed in pastels, marrying a rich banker.

I would if the rich banker had long legs and liked stilettos.

A wicked smile curved her lips at the thought. Her mother still chose to believe she was going through a phase. Analisa had decided George was experimenting with her sexuality, that some day she'd like men.

This sure has been a long, fun-filled experiment. She laughed softly at her own joke.

George looked down at the low slung jeans she wore. A chain wrapped around her hips, connecting through the piercing at her navel. A black tank shirt that said "Bitches Rule!" fit tightly across her chest.

She gave a small smile. Yeah, Mom would hate to see how I'm dressed today.

Her thoughts went back to the envelope in her hand and she breathed out a long sigh. A letter showing up in her mailbox without even a stamp made her uneasy. Her instincts made her skin crawl—this could not be anything good. She hadn't heard from her father in weeks and now this. Not delaying the inevitable any longer, she ripped it open and began to read.



To the Daughter of David Creve;



It saddens me to my very core to have to write you this letter. I grieve now as I tell you of the loss of your father. He died doing the thing we all take pride in doing. Ridding the world of the undead and the demons that walk the streets. I only wish I could have fought by his side to the end, but my injuries prevented me from doing so. The only thing I can offer you is my condolences and the name of the three undead sisters that caused his untimely departure from this world. The Collette sisters, Sola, Luna, and Willa. Born of undead parents, they are a curse upon the world. They now seek the amulet pieces that will allow them to walk in the day and drink from our human blood. They must be stopped by any means necessary. Your father died trying to protect the world from them and their evil, now you must take up where he left off. For your father's sake, for all of our sakes, because we all depend on you now.



With each word George felt her body chill and turn to ice. The father who taught her that things really did go bump in the night was gone. She never even got to fight by his side. She wasn't given the chance to tell him goodbye. The note was left unsigned. It was obvious one of his men thought she should know how her father died. The battle he fought all his life now carried his blood.

The paper crumpled in her fingers and angry tears fell down her cheeks. She smoothed it back out slowly, folded it, and put it in the pocket of her tight jeans. Crawling through the window back into her apartment, she took a bag out of the closet. Throwing in a few articles of clothing, a bible, a wooden cross and all the wooden stakes she had, she zipped the bag and threw it over her shoulders.

Walking out of the studio, she locked the door and stepped into the city night. She would take up her father's last mission to stop the Collette sisters by any means necessary. Even if it meant her life; she would have her revenge.

An Arrangement Among Gentlemen by Jennifer Mueller

Late in the winter of 1916, a train rolled to a stop in the snowbound rail station in the middle of Alberta, Canada. The station was small, but of picturesque brick with a slate roof. Two men in heavy wool shirts and pants and thick fur coats stood waiting for the train. They looked nervous. No, on second thought, one looked nervous. The other looked furious.

"Please, Miss Olivia, let me help you down the steps?" The porter asked after several people had disembarked. The two men perked up at the name and watched as she took the porter's arm. The younger man watched not her face, but the foot that emerged from under the skirt that was lifted for descent. Once down the stairs, the porter handed her a stout silver-capped walking stick. Both men could only stare. Olivia had thick black hair and dark eyes that made her pale skin stand out. Under a full-length seal coat, she was dressed in the latest fashion.

The men walked over to the train. "Olivia Thatcher?"

She raised her eyes. They weren't black as they first thought, but a deep blue-gray that reminded them of a horrendous storm over the mountains. It didn't bode well for the present situation.

"Yes."

The older of the two men walked forward and offered his hand. "I'm George Garrett and this is my son, Cort. I'm glad you could make it in this weather."

"Funerals make no plans concerning the weather."

"I'm sure you won't find my son so much trouble we need to worry about funerals."

Her eyes flickered annoyance, and the storm in them grew. "I'm rather surprised, seeing as you arranged this fiasco that you wouldn't consider my being here as proof that my father died last month. I won't have his death thought of so lightly. Martin, could you show Mr. Garrett where my things are?"

George could only stare in disbelief at the way she had spoken to him.

"Of course, Miss Olivia. Come with me, Mr. Garrett. I'll have you out of here right away," the porter answered.

She was alone with Cort as they rounded the building. Olivia began to walk away to get some exercise after being on the train for so long. She had made it only a few feet before she began to fall. A strong arm caught her easily. She looked over and saw Cort clearly for the first time through her anger. He had longer, sun-streaked light brown hair, and a hint of stubble on a rugged and quite handsome face. He was tan and staring at her with bright green eyes. Olivia suddenly felt very uncomfortable with the position she found herself in and tried to pull away from him.

"Careful. This snow is slick if you're not used to it," Cort warned.

"It's not the snow. I suppose my father forgot to write that this stick isn't just for show. Not being able to walk much the last few days has made it worse than normal."

Cort ignored her attempts at leaving his side and slipped her arm in his to keep her from falling again. "We'd best walk a bit then. The ranch is another three hours by car in this weather." There was a strained silence as they made their way down the station platform.

Olivia opened her mouth several times to say something, but she finally had to force it out. "I'm going to get this out of the way now. If I don't meet your expectations, tell me now, and I'll head home, consider this a tour of your beautiful country, and inconvenience you no further. I have no intentions making either of us miserable with this blasted arrangement."

Cort started to smile, and Olivia's heart caught in her throat as she waited for an answer. That smile was disconcerting. He was either smiling because he approved or because he was glad she gave him an out. He stopped walking and turned to her. His hand gently traced her cheek, the calluses of his hands rough against her skin. Then he kissed her cheek gently in welcome.

"If you're worried about my expectations, never fear. You've already greatly exceeded them."

"And, if I remember the letter I read, all that means is I have a pulse and some semblance of looks," she snapped, annoyed. She was not one to be won over so easily, despite his looks. Or maybe it was that her heart betrayed her and pounded furiously in her chest. She only hoped he couldn't tell her voice had become huskier since his kiss, peck on the cheek that it was.

There was only that smile again. "My father did me a great injustice then, as he never met any of my women. Their semblance was anything but vague, and their pulses quite rapid." His hand found her wrist and searched out her own pulse. "Like yours is just now." He started walking again, half-grinning at her annoyance. Then the grin faded. "I'm sorry I shouldn't joke when you're still grieving your father."

"Thank you," she murmured.

"Your father's letter was rather wrong as well. Fine looking doesn't begin to describe you properly. Magnificent is what comes to mind."

"I'm a cripple." Olivia announced, as a matter-of-fact.

"Crippled is my mother who spends her time in a chair all day because it hurts too much to move. Do you mind my asking how you came to need the stick?"

She kept her face straight ahead. Her jaw tightened; she was not sure she could say it out loud, even after all those years. Then, to her amazement, her voice broke the silence. "I fell off a horse when I was eleven. That's not quite descriptive enough. It rolled on top of me with my leg pinned between it and a tree. My leg was shattered badly. They thought, after it happened, that they would have to remove it completely. I was back on a horse as soon as I was able. It was the only way I could get around. They told me I would never walk again. It took me two years to work up to just walking across the room. I'll probably always have this limp, slight though it looks after nine years. The main problem is my knee gives out quite easily. It's easier to walk with the stick than to fall on my face twenty times a day." The silence returned as the wind blew fiercely. Her clothes were not suited to the weather. Olivia pulled the coat around her tighter.

"I just can't figure out why a woman would have to have a marriage arranged. I can understand it even less now that I've seen you. You're not plain by any means, your eyes match, and your fingers aren't webbed."

"For that matter, why do you? If your experience is as well rounded as you claim, you should need it less than I." Olivia saw that one hit home, and Cort flinched.

"I was told only this morning that I was engaged. I thought my father had more respect for me. I guess I know how he feels about me after this."

"Then we're both thrilled with this arrangement, aren't we?" she snapped. His jaded father had written a reply without ever telling Cort of the decision, just as her jaded father had written the letter claiming she was in need of a knight in shining armor.

As they slowly made their way to the car, letting her get the full enjoyment of being off the train, they said little. Perhaps they both knew at that moment that, if they said much more, they would begin fighting over something that was neither of their faults.

"Took your own sweet time now, didn't you? We've got to get back," George snapped as they reached the car.

"Just shut up and leave us be, now that the damage is done," Olivia hissed as she climbed in. Cort was grinning, trying not to let anyone see. Somehow, from that small gesture, she knew she wasn't the woman anyone thought she would be: she was headstrong, opinionated, determined, even tough. It was best George learn early that she was able to take care of herself; if the look on his face at her tongue was any indication, he wasn't happy about the real Olivia Thatcher.

They headed out of the station and town without another word. Despite the bumps in the country roads before they were barely a few miles out of town, Olivia's head fell to Cort's shoulder. She was sound asleep. It was the end of a long journey, and coming from England was no small feat in these times of war. Even though the United Stared had threatened Germany against sinking neutral ships after the Lusitania, it was still not uncommon for them to be blown out of the water.

Brushes by M. Christian

Finger slipped carefully into the handle, heat passing through the delicate ceramic from the recently boiled drink, losing degrees of temperature to become comforting warmth, she brought the cup up gently, carefully. One inch. Another. Another. The ritual of a sip, the elegance of patience: finger in handle, cup up to mouth, a pause of fragrance, then lips touched gently to rim. Taste. Savor. Taste again to compare.

The British used it as the cornerstone of a lion-emblazoned empire. The Japanese had made it a religion. Sitting in the lounge of the Pont Royal Hotel--immaculate linen tablecloth, Lennox kettle and cup, silver service, velvet drapes parting the view of the Saint Germain district of Paris, a waiter at the door prepared to do whatever was needed to ensure the pleasure of her stay--Constance could believe that tea was, indeed, something to fight wars over, to pray to.

Steady and refined, careful and graceful, charming and poised, it was ballet with a cup and saucer, opera with a kettle, chamber music with sugar and cream. Tea, especially tea in the lounge of the Pont Royal Hotel, was perfect, or as near to it as anyone could come.

Then the waiter wasn't waiting by the door. Passing between her table and the window with its rich maroon drapes, he gestured to a corner table. Behind him, moving slower through the linen islands--having less of his skill in navigating the room--came the man, followed by the woman.

He was young, his body lithe and fluid, yet with the hesitation and stumbling that comes from some uncertainty in life. His hair was brown, but not common. His was a mixture of many shades, making it changeable with every turn of his head, every shift of his muscled body. His face was expressive but not comedic, handsome without being cut from cold marble. Like his shifting hair, his eyes also became many kinds of brown as he looked around the room.

She was young, her figure tight, supple, and limber, but with the hesitancy and awkwardness that came with trying to understand her own body. Her hair was blond, but not from a bottle. Hers was true shine that glowed with every movement of her lissome form. Her face was animated but not loud, pretty without being from a mold. Like her bright hair, her eyes glimmered and shone as she surveyed her surroundings.

Watching them come in and sit down, Constance swallowed hot tea--through a cold and tense frown.

* * * *

Finger slipped carefully into warm, golden metal on a hot summer day. That sensation had lingered more than many other details. More than the perfume of roses. More than what her friends--or his, for that matter--had said to her before or after the priest heard the vows. More than the butterflies that had fluttered in her stomach. More than the champagne in a flute, with its jeweled bubbles streaming up from the bottom.

Other things were long forgotten, but the ring sliding onto her finger had remained--a faithful memory of her wedding day.

Hot tea to her lips again, she scowled at the tan liquid in her cup. The beverage was excellent--as only something served in the lounge of the Pont Royal Hotel could be--but the remembrance wasn't. Faithful, yes, because it remained close at hand, even when not wanted, but its flavor was bitter.

On her left hand, on that meaningful finger, she still had her ring. On days like today, she wanted to pull it off, leave it behind as a generous tip for superb service, but she never did. Turn it, yes, around and around, but that was all. Tarnished and cold, it still meant something. Even if it was a tarnished and cold meaning.

It was different for her husband. Clearly, for Escobar, his matching gold meant nothing.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Son of a Preacher Man by Sammie Jo Moresca

Tuesday afternoon, Bianca arrived at the Alabama worship hall of the Reverend Bobby McNaughton, planning to confront him about a sensitive matter. The pale, yellow grass contrasted against the brown leaves littering the edge of the woods. Moss slithered around the trunks of second growth oaks. Spring was stubborn this year.

The parking lot hosted only seven vehicles. It could have held seven thousand. She parked her white, hard-topped Jeep. The afternoon sun beat down on the windshield, warming her. As Bianca shoved the door open, her cell phone dropped onto the concrete. She stumbled out and grabbed it. A pulsating rumble approached. Smoothing her gray, knee-length skirt, she stood and shut her door, careful to lock it.

He parked his Harley in the space next to hers. She focused on his tattooed arms as he revved it up three times. He looked over at Bianca with the scariest eyes she had ever seen. She shuddered and hurried across the lot to the walkway.

She sat on a cold stone bench, carved in memory of someone's son. Looking at a side doorway, she could hear the gaggle of middle-aged women who congregated with cameras, bibles, and fried chicken.

"Hi, Desi," they cooed.

The tattooed man said, "Hello." He nodded and pushed the intercom button. Someone buzzed him into the reflective glass door.

So that was Desiderio McNaughton. Late twenty-something problem child of his righteous father, the great Revered Bobby McNaughton. The tabloids had chronicled Junior's life story, from high school high-jinks to his last overdose. There's probably one in every family. Kids of cops and preachers sometimes are the most troubled. She snorted. Yep, I'm the former, and look at what trouble I jumped into.

And that's how it went for the next four days. Bianca paced around the grounds of Fort God, waiting and watching for Reverend McNaughton. His female followers held vigil, sometimes singing hymns. Nobody ever penetrated the entrance of the church, except Desi. The doors remained locked. Worshipers were only allowed in on Sundays.

On Friday at five o'clock, Bianca realized this wasn't working. She'd have to find another way to get to see the reverend. The ladies had all left, and she decided to take a quick reconnaissance stroll around the grounds. Stained glass windows in teal, amber, and blood-red animated the beige stucco façade.

A rear door flung open. Bianca's breath hitched.

Desi stepped out. Shoulder length wavy black hair, full beard, neatly trimmed. And those scary cerulean eyes. Wild, don't-you-dare, I'll-kill-you, give-me-a-chance, please-love-me eyes. He said, "Hi."

Bianca nodded.

"You here to see 'im?"

"Yeah." She began walking toward the front of the building.

He joined her. "I've seen you 'round."

"Un-hunh." In the southern air thick with pheromones, she tried to act cool, despite her racing heart. This guy was scarier ... and hotter than she'd expected.

"He's not coming."

"Hunh?"

"My dad. He's rehearsing in a warehouse."

"Warehouse?"

"Yeah. I don't know his reasons. Wants to be top secret, I guess ... I'm Desi." He stuck his hand out.

Oh, no. I guess I have to shake it. She did, as she tried not to stare at his tattooed knuckles.

His shake was firm, and he smiled as he tried to look into her eyes. She wouldn't let herself stare into his.

"Well?" he demanded.

Her mind raced. "What?" She looked around the grounds, no one else was in sight. No one to witness ... him killing her ... him kissing her ... She shook off the danger in her fantasy and tried to focus.

"I told you my name, what's yours?"

"Oh ... sorry. Lor--uh ... Bianca."

He cocked his head. "Loruhbianca ... sounds like Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques." He sang the words.

"I mean, I'm Bianca."

"Whatever. So, are you comin' to the ball?"

"I ... don't know anything about it."

"I figured you were in town for the fundraiser. We always get a load of groupies in quarterly."

"Groupies?" What an odd choice of words. "You mean devout followers?"

"Nah, groupies. Females, nineteen to ninety, flocking to fornicate with the good reverend."

She furrowed her brow. "No, he's not like that..."

Desi spit into the well-manicured boxwoods. "Not that I've ever seen evidence of. But the women keep hoping. The younger ones even try to go through me. The older ones are grapefruits."

"Grapefruits?" A jet rumbled above them. She looked up at it.

"Sour. Too good for the likes of me, or who they pre-judge me to be."

She couldn't stop staring at the ice in his eyes as he mumbled an explicative.

The old grapefruits must be onto something. The son of a preacher man certainly doesn't respect me, talking that way. The ball, though, sounded like a good opportunity to have a talk with Reverend McNaughton. "How do I get a ticket?"

"Sold out. Always are. Just show up and crash."

"Okay. When and where?"

"Tomorrow night. At the Westwood resort. On the waterfront. Know it?"

"No."

"Well, I guess you're outta luck then."

She glared at him. "What's the dress code?"

"Black tie."

"So, evening gowns and tuxedos then?" Where the heck would she get an evening gown?

"Yeah, but I'm not dressin' up for those fuckers. They're all so caught up in their own asses, they don't care about me. I don't own a fuckin' penguin suit anyway.

"You're not attending then?"

"Oh, I'll be there. I'm the entertainment."

Bianca felt a pang of compassion in her stomach. "Don't be so hard on yourself."

"Hunh?"

He didn't seem to get what she meant.

Bianca asked, "What're you wearing then?"

"My mom said I should wear my kilt. I think I'll put my hair up, too."

Her eyes bugged. He laughed.

"I do have a plaid skirt, you know. From the clan. I'm a Puerto Rican-Scotsman."

"Your mother's Puerto Rican?"

"Yeah, I was born there. Dad was in Puerto Rico doing one of his annual summer salvation gigs and fell in love with the beauty queen." Desi's cell phone rang to the tune of "Bad to the Bone".

He answered, "What? ... Okay. On my way. Later."

He flipped the lid and put the small black phone in the chest pocket of his black tee shirt. "I've got a thing. See ya. At the ball, right? Just tell them your name is Schmidt or Finklestein or Frankenstein, or somethin'. Anything Jewish. They'll let ya in. Dress up pretty, and act like you're too good to fart."

Desi jogged off to his Harley.

She wondered why a Protestant reverend would attract a Jewish audience. And if the Salvation Army had any size ten evening gowns.

* * * *

Reverend McNaughton preached an interesting, uplifting sermon to benefit the Tsunami relief effort. Specifically, the organizations caring for the orphans. He left the stage and reappeared on the main floor, thanking the high rollers at the VIP tables. A crowd of women closed in on the pastor. Bianca tried to press forward, only to be shoved back by a thick-necked security guard. "No more pictures tonight. Give him space!"

Fine. It wasn't as if she'd be able to blurt out her business above the throng's din anyhow. Following the music, she made her way to the west side of the classy room, to where the band played. Looking at the lead singer, it suddenly made sense when Desi had told her he was the entertainment. The wild child looked dangerously delicious dressed in those long leather pants. He had a very smooth voice and the women were hooting at him. Yeah, you can dress 'em up, but give 'em an open bar and even prim and proper librarians will let their hair down. She couldn't get close to the preacher man's son, either.

Weaving through the intimate crowd of thousands, Bianca reached her table. She squeezed into her seat in between two distinguished drunks, and she broke a piece of white chocolate from the top of her dessert sculpture. It tasted even better than it looked.

Bianca felt like an imposter walking with the well-to-do. She didn't belong in this world. And she didn't even yearn to have the privilege and money these people did. She just needed to speak to the reverend and arrange to take back what he had in safe keeping.

"C'mon." Desi whisper-shouted in her ear as he pulled out her chair.

Startled, she hesitated. Where does he want me to go? With all the hot women here, why is he even bothering with me at all? She gulped down the champagne in front of her and decided to find out.

She followed him out of the ballroom, through the pre-party room and past the security at the pearl-curtained entrance. They took the escalator down to ground level. She stopped and removed her high heels. Holding the hem of her blue dress in one hand, shoes in the other, Bianca trotted after him. He held the door for her. They walked down the dock. A cold wind blew through her blonde up-do, a long strand broke loose. "It's gotten cold tonight."

"Yeah, it does that by the water. So, you have fun with the rich and pompous?"

She shrugged and said, "No." Then she blurted, "You did. It looked like you were dancing with cloned Paris Hiltons. I've never seen so many thin blondes in skimpy black dresses in my life."

"They're nobody."

"Well they seemed to have enjoyed your performance, and were hanging all over you afterward."

"Don't be fooled. I'm not. They're just trying to get to my dad through me. Always are. You, too, right?"

"What?" She felt the heat of shame rising up. "Yes, but ... no."

Desi stopped in front of a speedboat. He looked at Bianca.

She thought she saw his icy blue eyes twinkling in the halogen lights on the dock. No doubt something illegal caused the twinkle. Exhaling, she said, "Yes, I did come here to try to have a word with your father. But that's business. I don't wanna sleep with him."

"Business?"

"Unfinished business. But me hanging around you is accidental."

He laughed. "You feel like you're about to have an accident?"

"No. I mean, I didn't seek you out. You are just everywhere I happen to be."

"Okay then. You just happen to be following me around then. What're you, a private dickette or something?" He searched her eyes.

"No," she sighed. "That didn't come out right. I guess it does look like I'm following you, but really, it's all ... oh, I dunno."

"C'mon then." He stepped onto a boat ramp and reached for her hand.

"We can't just board somebody's boat," she protested.

"My boat." He snatched her shoes and tossed them on the deck. "C'mon, I'll buy you a drink."

She fumed at the loss of her footwear. No way was she getting aboard a boat after midnight with a strange problem child with spooky eyes.

Desi leaned over and put his hands on her waist. He picked her up a foot off the ground, swiveled, and set her aboard.

She asked, "You got a restroom?"

"Below deck, first door on the left."

Navigating the narrow ladder in her evening gown was no easy feat. It was probably ruined by now, but oh well. She wouldn't need it again. Frustrated that she couldn't fit inside the small enclosure and deal with the folds of all that taffeta, she unbuttoned, unzipped, and stepped out of the long skirt, tossing it over the back of a chair before entering the head. She felt the propulsion of the vessel as she did what needed to be done. Oh no no no no no. He's set sail. She heard the motor.

Hyacinth's Light by Augusta Li and Eon de Beaumont

The cart's descent into the canyon, if nothing else, at least impeded the barrage of swirling dust that had assailed the travelers for days. Trevor's tailbone knocked against his hard plastic seat as the solar-powered vehicle bumped down the steep, rocky path. Grit permeated everything: hair, pores, clothing, and fingernails. He felt it in his nose when he inhaled and between his teeth when a sudden lurch of the cart made them clunk together. He'd given up on attempting to wipe the reddish grime from his glasses and tried to adjust to seeing the world through a blood-colored smear.

Finally the journey neared its end. Not far below, sheltered by walls of rock, lay the town of Phocis. Trevor had been summoned to investigate, and hopefully cure, a mysterious illness spreading among the residents. Those who knew the ancient healing arts were few on earth, and an absolute rarity on this remote planet. Besides himself, Trevor had only met one other doctor in the two years since his boots first touched the scarlet surface of Delphi 3. He detested traveling in the slow-moving, open-top cars. He preferred the quiet of his small room where he could test the healing properties of the alien flora. But people were dying and there was no one else.

After an almost vertical drop that made Trevor clutch the bar of the roll-cage beside him, he and the driver reached the town's gate. The box canyon narrowed at either end like the neck of a bottle, and the citizens had blocked off both entrances to the town with a lattice of copper-colored piping, probably scavenged from the ships that had brought them to this world. Four men stood watch, their clothing caked with dirt the same hue as the landscape. When the cart stopped a few hundred yards in front of them, they straightened and squinted in the late morning light. Trevor stepped out of the vehicle and pushed his spectacles up the narrow bridge of his nose. His oilcloth trenchcoat flapped around his ankles. The guards' heads inclined toward one another. They smirked and whispered, their big, calloused hands rising now and then to conceal the motion of their lips.

Trevor knew what they were saying. He knew they reacted to his thin frame, large, full-lashed hazel eyes, wavy, dirty-blonde hair and pink, pouty lips. Not for the first time Trevor watched as his beauty made the rugged pioneers judge him as weak, inexperienced, or both. Upon first glance they'd view him as a liability, someone they'd have to waste valuable time and resources to protect, rather than an asset. Waves of annoyance rose from them like heat from the red rock. He brushed his thick fringe away from his eyes and cleared his throat.

"My name is Doctor Trevor Wainwright," he said. "Your Mayor Grey is expecting me."

One of the men, the leader from his carriage, stepped forward. His round belly protruded over his belt, but his chest and shoulders were broad and powerful. He looked past the young physician as if he'd never spoken and focused his eyes on the cart. "You're in from the Capital," he said, addressing not Trevor but the driver. The men who worked transporting goods and people had to be capable of protecting both. "Any supplies come in?"

The driver, who resembled the guards much more than the doctor, shook his head. It had been close to a year since a supply ship had delivered fuel, solar cells, building materials, seeds, or medicine from earth. Though they watched the landing pad in the center of the Capital with anticipation, many of the planet's settlers had given up hope. With no means of communication, they had no way of knowing what had halted the flow of desperately-needed goods. Another war, another viral outbreak, or another devastating natural disaster on their home planet; any one of the things they'd traveled into the stars to escape could stop the ships from launching. No one knew when, or if, they would return. In the mean time, the people scraped out the most primitive of existences from the hot, dry land.

"Any word?" the guard continued.

"You know there ain't," the driver grunted sympathetically. "Brung some bolts of cloth and this young fella, but that's it."

The two older men looked at one another and then at Trevor, and pity passed between them. Trevor sensed an apologetic shame from the driver at having to hand off the babysitting of the pretty-boy to the guard. Being an empath helped him immensely in his work, but Trevor had discovered that the skill made most people uncomfortable and had learned to keep it secret. He smiled and pretended to be unaware of the older men's opinions.

"Well, we ain't got much," the guard continued, motioning to his men to open the gate. "Nothing really grows 'round here but corn. We'll fix you up with a meal and a drink, though."

"Could you please direct me to the Mayor's house?" Trevor asked the guard again.

"End of the street," was the older man's only response, so Trevor lifted his bag from the floor of the cart and started off down the dusty main road.

This resembled every other frontier town Trevor had ever visited. Modest houses scrabbled together from pieces of metal, bits of the ships, and scant amounts of lumber that had arrived before the supply freighters stopped coming lined the wide, dirt road. Only stunted trees barely taller than a man grew on Delphi 3, so wood became precious. Many officials proposed quarrying the abundant red stone, but the lack of fuel and machinery slowed the process. Trevor passed by the general store and noticed windows empty of provisions. He passed the tavern, where two haggard-looking whores nodded at him in greeting. One of them rested her bony bottom on the porch railing, and Trevor noticed a crooked leg, probably broken but never set, dangling down. Other people marked his passing: women plunging worn dresses into buckets of dirty water, old men sweating on rocking chairs, grandmothers trying in vain to coax beans or tomatoes from patches of vermillion dust. A few of the citizens looked up at Trevor, but none spoke to him. He felt from them mild interest dulled by despair or resigned apathy. Not even the prostitutes could muster any excitement for the pretty youth.

Directly overhead Hyacinth, the red dwarf star that lit the planet crimson for twenty hours of each day, was about to be joined by Phoebus, the closer, cruel white sphere that raced across the sky in half the time. When both suns burned side by side, they produced a heat and light too intense to be tolerated, and the population retreated indoors. The first visitors to Delphi 3, intent upon creating a moralist society based on an ancient religion, had dubbed this time An Hour of Prayer and Meditation. The time was to be spent reading texts thousands of years old even before the wars and plagues had leveled earth's population. Subsequent residents found a better way to pass the hottest part of the day, though, and the daily respite became known as Love Hour.

Trevor arrived at Mayor Grey's house during the first few minutes of Love Hour. His shadow huddled close to his feet, and he felt his fair skin burning even through the planks of the mayor's long, narrow porch roof. White glare reduced the details of the manor to washed-out shapes, but he could still notice the luxury. Large logs formed all three stories of the rectangular structure, and intricately carved columns supported the two balconies above him. Cool blue stone, unlike anything to be found on the planet, shingled the roof and decorated the ground beneath his feet. A tiny, brick-colored lizard skittered across Trevor's toe to stretch its belly on the chill rocks. Four yellow eyes regarded Trevor with, if anything, more interest than the human inhabitants had shown. Glass glittered in every window. Most impressive of all was the ornamental bushes with waxy green leaves that dotted the property's perimeter. Trevor shook his head when he thought about how much water must be wasted to maintain them. Compared to the shanties he'd passed, the mayor's home seemed positively palatial. Enough lace to clothe the entire town had been squandered as drapery, and priceless pine made into benches and tables to adorn the decks. Most people gathered around large spools that had once held wire or cable to take their meals. Even one piece of actual furniture was a treasure.

When he rapped on the heavy oak door, Trevor was greeted by a huge bald man with a long scar stretching from his left eyebrow to the corner of his mouth. The top of the doctor's head barely reached the man's shoulder. He leered at Trevor, emanating both lust and a palpable desire to hurt. Though Trevor encountered this reaction as often as the dismissal the guard had shown, the force of the man's craving, combined with the way his thick tongue mopped his few teeth, made the younger man clutch his pack defensively in front of his chest. When he introduced himself, he tried and failed to sound confident and unafraid.

The man stood so long smirking that Trevor wondered if he might be deaf. Sweat darkened his dirty blue shirt at the armpits. Finally he said, "Right then. The mayor's taking his tea. Follow me."

Trevor pushed his wide-brimmed hat from his brow. It swished behind him and lay against his back, held by a string around his neck. As he followed the man through the dusky rooms of the grand house, Trevor tried to remember the last time he'd tasted a cup of tea. Being originally from New Albion, he was quite fond of it and missed it acutely sometimes. He hadn't thought a leaf was left on all of Delphi 3.

They reached the parlor at the back of the house. Mayor Grey sat on a chair in front of another finely carved table. He was an ordinary looking man, with a patch of slate-colored hair on the back of his head and rounder than he had a right to be when so many went hungry. The big man with the scar stopped just outside the room and said, "This here's that doctor from the Capital, sir."

The mayor looked up from his delicate little cup and regarded Trevor. A wave of disappointment washed over the young physician. The mayor had been expecting something else, perhaps a sage-like older man or a seasoned pioneer, anything but the too-pretty youth before him. Even so, the mayor dabbed at his lips with a cloth napkin and stood up. Extending his hand, he said, "Pleased to meet you. I'm Thaddeus Grey, Mayor of Phocis."

"Doctor Trevor Wainwright."

"This is my son, Quentin."

Looking up, Trevor saw a young man standing by the window, looking out through the cleft in the curtains. His shirt matched the parchment color of the lace, and Trevor hadn't noticed him when he'd first entered the parlor. Quentin's arms crossed in front of his chest, and he didn't turn to greet Trevor until his father cleared his throat. Quentin looked much more suited to frontier life than Trevor: deeply-tanned skin stretched over an impressive amount of lean muscle. Chestnut hair, painted by the suns with streaks of red-gold and burgundy, tumbled in loose curls around his shoulders. He had high, chiseled cheekbones and a strong chin. But he also had night-blue eyes a little too large for his face and an upper lip that formed a perfect bow, and Trevor discerned at once that the mayor's son also knew how it felt to be a little too beautiful to be taken seriously. The doctor also couldn't help noticing the way the fabric of Quentin's tight trousers hugged his long legs or the patch of sparse hair visible at the V of his shirt collar.

To Trevor's shock, he sensed an odd emotion when Quentin looked at him: appreciation. He knit his eyebrows together as he tried to define the cause. It seemed impossible, but it was as clear to Trevor's enhanced perception as the light of Phoebus. Quentin found him attractive. The sensation struck him and passed in seconds, like a shiver shook the body when a lover's fingernail traced the spine.

Feeling suddenly conscious of the dirt coating his body and what he smelled like after days on the road, Trevor said, "Perhaps we should get right to work. Can you tell me the nature of the illness?"

"Of course," the mayor said. "Sit down and join us for a cup of tea."

Unable to refuse, Trevor peeled off his overcoat and hat and draped it on the back of one of the wooden chairs. Behind him, the big man's beefy shoulder leaned against the frame of the door. Hunger that had nothing to do with the plate of muffins dotted with bits of dried fruit wafted from him like an odor. Mayor Grey's faded eyes met those of his servant, promising all of his appetites would be sated, and the scarred man turned and left, his boots echoing in the spacious halls. The mayor filled a cup for Trevor. They even had a dish of sugar cubes!

"Quentin, won't you join us?" the Mayor said, noticing his son had turned his back to them and his attention to the window again. Reluctantly, the attractive young man crossed the room and slumped into a chair. He made no pretense of hunger or thirst, but gazed over Trevor's shoulder toward the door.

After draining and refilling his cup, Trevor asked, "What sort of symptoms are the victims of the illness displaying?"

"Weight loss, lethargy and pallor, accompanied by a high fever," the Mayor said. "Most can't or won't eat, and even those who do waste away regardless. Most are dead in two weeks, no matter what we do."

"Does your town have a medical facility, Mayor?" Trevor asked.

"We've set up a hospital in the Town Hall. Phocis is really quite a progressive city, Doctor Wainwright. We have our water pumped from an underground spring. I was in the process of providing plumbing to all of my citizens when we ran out of energy cells to power the pumps. I've started to lay tracks for a solar bullet train that will connect to our nearest neighbor, Clarus. I assure you, Doctor, in a few years this will be a finer place to live than the Capital, provided I receive what I need to complete my projects."

To Trevor's mind, all of the Mayor's bragging only wasted valuable time. It offended the young doctor that Thaddeus Grey's concern leaned so much more toward building schemes than to his dying people. The idea of completing a railroad was as grandiose and ridiculous as proposing people be transported by unicorn-drawn, gold-plated chariots. On Delphi 3, the settlers devoted every ounce of their energy to producing food. More often than not, they fell short. That Mayor Grey would waste effort on such foolish endeavors was even more irresponsible than his ludicrous mansion. But the man clearly wanted a monument to himself and his rule: the Thaddeus Grey Pan-Delphic Railway, he'd likely christen it.

Beside Trevor, Quentin radiated hatred and disgust. Certainly his father was uncompassionate; possibly a megalomaniac, but the force of Quentin's loathing made Trevor suspect some more personal slight.

Steering the conversation back to the sick, Trevor said, "Do you know how the disease is spread?"

"No, but it seems to affect mainly the young," the Mayor answered.

"Children?"

"Some, but mostly people about your age, Doctor. Our young husbands and new mothers. If we don't stop this plague, we'll have no one left but the elderly."

No one to build your aqueducts and lay your train tracks, Trevor thought. "I'd like to see the patients," he said.

"You'll want to rest up first," the Mayor responded.

"Actually," Trevor said, standing and pushing his chair in, "I'd like to see them as soon as possible. Now, if that would be all right. Which way is the Town Hall?"

"I can take you," Quentin offered.

Aneshu by L.E. Bryce

Judging from the people crowding the corridor near the makeshift dressing room, the performance had been a success.

"You have yet another visitor," said Elami, rolling his eyes. "Should I let your admirer in, or let him languish outside?"

Aneshu glanced over his shoulder at the mirror, catching the reflection of the god. Ezru's gilt-edged mask still obscured his face, leaving only his jaw and painted lips visible, and he had not changed out of his sky-blue robe. At his shoulder, holding the mask of the goddess Shalat, his companion fluttered with nervous energy. Aneshu shook his head. "He can wait along with the others."

"Are you sure? This one looks like a nobleman."

Elami sounded like a bakti boy in a brothel, and no doubt would have behaved like one had the man come for him. If he wants to solicit sex he can go right back to Tahrun's bed where he belongs. "He wouldn't be the first nobleman." Aneshu regarded the cluttered space below the mirror, then the door, with disinterest. "Where is Abi with my water and linens?"

"He's trying to wade through the throngs of your admirers."

"I'm an actor, not a courtesan."

"You wouldn't know it, judging from the lovelorn look on this man's face. You aren't going to keep him waiting, are you? He might be fabulously rich."

Aneshu did not fail to catch the jealous note in Elami's voice. Elami wanted his share of the attention, never mind that it was too much to expect for one's very first night onstage. "They aren't going to see anything until I've changed and washed off these cosmetics." Some actors might receive visitors in costume, but long habit taught Aneshu to leave his role onstage. Tahrun expected his performers, even top-earning ones, to behave with dignity. He paid them well, tolerated their love affairs, and granted them privileges other slaves lacked, expecting professional conduct and profit in return.

"If he wants an easy lay," snorted Aneshu, "the man's looking in the wrong place. Now be a dear and go find that wretched boy so we can get out of these costumes. I know you want to go to the party and I don't plan to spend tonight trapped in a dingy dressing room."

High Prince Muhal and the court elite had been in the audience, as was the custom on the opening night of a major religious festival. Outside the temple--a massive silk tent surrounded by myriad lanterns like fireflies covered the plaza--and within, a magnificent fete was already underway. Aneshu had seen the preparations earlier in the day when he and the other actors arrived for the final rehearsal. Despite his exhaustion, he did not intend to miss the fine wine or company.

"Oh, you're impossible!" Through the mirror Aneshu saw Elami stick out his tongue, his crude manners an odd juxtaposition with the elaborate mask and costume of the goddess. "I'm going, but I expect you to tell me everything later."

Ezru's mask, specially crafted for an actor with different proportions, sat uncomfortably over his face. With his fingernail, Aneshu picked at the adhesive under the edge. He hated the stuff, how it itched under the heat of multiple lamps and his own exertions, and how it smelled ruined the skin of any actor careless enough not to employ costly ointments. Half my earnings, he thought bitterly.

If not for the possibility of injuring himself or destroying the elaborate paper-maché, he would have torn the mask from his face the moment he entered the dressing room. That stupid boy is going to get an earful from me when he comes. If he ever does.

The door creaked open behind him. At last. Aneshu turned in his chair, the cutting remark he meant to make dying on his lips the moment he saw the rich jewels and brocade of the man standing in the doorway. Aneshu did not recognize him. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you'll have to--" he began.

A lifted hand stopped his words. "No, do not speak," said the man, softly closing the door behind him. Aneshu tensed at the gesture. Greeting unfamiliar visitors was not something he cared to do alone, no matter how handsome, well-spoken, or wealthy they were.

Frustrated, he gestured to his mask. "It would be rude of me to meet with you like this."

"Not at all." Jeweled fingers touched his lips, urging silence. "You are as lovely as your statue."

Good gods, he thinks I am Ezru. Aneshu started to protest, falling still at the dark eyes that searched his face--no, the elaborately painted mask--not knowing what to do, or if he should do anything at all. A renowned actor he might be, but Tahrun never failed to remind him and everyone else in the troupe that they were still slaves who could be sold if they gave too much trouble.

Hands clasped his, raising them to full lips. "I know there is an actor under that mask," said the man. "But I also know that during these holy days the spirit of the god inhabits the flesh. I think you are still there."

Aneshu froze at the touch of those lips, warm breath exhaled upon his skin. Either the man was insane or excessively devout. At the moment Aneshu could not decide which. "What is your name?" he croaked.

"Ihmar," came the reply. "I realize I have been rude, even presumptuous in coming here, but I could not wait. Your images in the temple do not speak to me, nor do the votives I have placed upon my altar. But tonight, from the stage, you spoke to me."

Such compliments Aneshu understood well, though not in this context. Praise for rendering a character or scene in exquisite detail, yes, that he knew. Being mistaken for the god whose mask he wore, never. It would be blasphemy merely to suggest it, worse still to play along.

Mere inches separated them now, enough that Aneshu became uncomfortably aware of the young man's body heat and odor, his natural musk mingled with tamarisk. Had the circumstances been different, Aneshu might have found it stimulating.

Ihmar released his hands, moving to his shoulder, sliding up the embroidered linen in a light, tentative touch. "I have been unfortunate in love, you see," he said.

And you think I have been more fortunate? Aneshu bit back his retort. The one love affair he indulged in had ended badly, with ill feelings on both sides. Now he kept his liaisons discreet and impersonal, little more than a bit of friendly sex between acquaintances. His admirers plied him with gifts and compliments, but he never allowed any of them to take him to bed. It would have been demeaning, both to his profession and as a reminder that he had originally been sold to Tahrun as an akesh, a sex slave.

Fingers moved from his shoulder, up the column of his throat, to his jaw. "We are not so different, you and I," continued Ihmar. "I do not mean to presume, of course, for I am not a god, but I remember that you were once mortal, scorned by mortal maidens until a goddess saw your worth and loved you."

He bent closer, turning his head, and in the next heartbeat Aneshu felt lips touch the curve of his jaw. Ihmar's moustache grazed his skin, his warm breath brought unexpected shivers of delight and fear. What does he want of me? If he wants playacting with his fucking he ought to get one of his akeshi to dress up for him. Cold refusal, however, would not serve with a wealthy, well-connected admirer. Aneshu's hands came up, instinctively ghosting over Ihmar's arms, uncertain whether to draw the man closer or shove him away.

Those lips quickly found his, drawing him into a kiss that progressively deepened from the merest whisper of contact to two wet mouths crushed together, hotly twining tongues.

Oh, shit. Aneshu felt his cock begin to stiffen. This was wrong, he knew it. Ihmar had not come for him, but a phantom. It was one thing to play a god onstage; in the bedchamber it was quite another. The gods saw all, heard all. An artist who wished to depict a god making love must receive a blessing from that deity's temple. Even the priestess who lay with the High Prince as the goddess during the Great Marriage must undergo ritual purification.

Finally Ihmar drew away, lips tinted with the carmine Aneshu had worn for the performance, eyes hazy with passion. "Forgive me for my impertinence, but I was overcome by the moment." Once again grasping Aneshu's hand, he kissed it. "I should have brought gifts. Tomorrow night you shall have them, and the night after."

Tomorrow, and the night after. Aneshu swallowed at what those words implied. Did this man truly intend to be in the audience throughout the entire four-day festival? Opening his mouth, he started to protest, the words dying in his throat as the door opened and Abi entered bearing a bowl of steaming water. A moment later, seeing Aneshu and Ihmar together, the boy paused and stood dumbly, not knowing whether to stay or go.

Ihmar bowed and took a step back, withdrawing into the noisy corridor. Aneshu stood frozen, staring at the doorway, then the boy's face, seeing his own amazement mirrored there. Rational thought returned, then annoyance. He gestured to the dressing table, letting the boy set the basin down before soundly boxing his ear. "Where have you been all this time?" he hissed.

Abi yelped, but gave no answer. Aneshu turned aside in disgust. "I'll wager you've been gawking at the royalty down in the pavilion, haven't you? Tomorrow night it'll be the usual crowd, so I expect you here on time."

There was no answer, just a sullen look. Aneshu dismissed the boy, who, clutching his ear, slunk out of the room. The moment he was gone, Aneshu shut and bolted the door. Removing the mask required patience he did not have. He forced his shaking hands to wet the cloths Abi had brought, wring them out, and dab at the adhesive, cautiously loosening the mask.

As he worked, he avoided meeting his eyes in the mirror. Doing so would mean looking at the mask, its lush gold and ivory, its blood-red poppies suddenly ominous. He could not fathom what had just happened, or why. Ihmar had not hurt or threatened him, remaining polite even when passionate. Stranger things occurred with admirers, so why should he feel so shaken?

I know there is an actor under that mask. "You could have fooled me," he said to the mirror. Wet fingers rubbed carmine traces from his lips as though trying to wipe away the memory of Ihmar's maddening kiss. "You might have at least asked my name."