Book One of the Time Dancers series
I want you to know from the outset that when Gavin singled me out, making me his goal, target, raison d'être, school project, or whatever the hell I was to him, I really was minding my own business. To me, he was and always will be a big pain in the ass. He's also the one person who understood me, healed me, and made eternity seem too short a time, so I cut him some slack … sometimes, anyway.
I was forty-two when I met Gavin. My life was pretty uneventful until I reached forty—the year from Hell. Besides turning forty, my husband left me, my mother died, my kids took off for college, leaving me alone for the first time in my life, and I had to start using reading glasses. Yeah, that reading-glasses thing was a total bitch.
We met at a party my best friend, Tammy, threw. My friendship with Tammy confused even me. Ethereal, blond, and blue-eyed, Tammy appeared much more fragile than she was. She ruled her household and prominent social circle with her tiny iron fist. Even her real-estate-mogul husband, James (never Jim), deferred to her wishes. Trust me, only Tammy could have gotten me to a party of any kind.
"Come on, Charity, you're becoming positively reclusive."
Tammy chewed her salad, the only food I ever saw her consume. I guess that's why she'd remained so slim into middle age, and I hadn't. "I really don't go much for parties. You know that."
She gave me that pained, guilt-inducing stare, and I reconsidered. After all, how bad could it be?
I'd been divorced and very much alone (as in celibate) for more than two years and getting kinda itchy, if you know what I mean. However, a woman of a "certain age," five foot five and one hundred fifty pounds isn't exactly in demand these days. Go figure. Besides, James had invited a client who was interested in the cabin my family was selling.
On the surface, Gavin was the kind of guy women notice—sexy, sinfully gorgeous. He looked at me as though I were a candy bar, one he intended on thoroughly enjoying down to the last bite then licking the wrapper clean of any remnant of sweetness before tossing it away. He made my teeth sweat.
We "nice girls" have sweet tooths, too. At least I used to be a nice girl. That was also before Gavin, but I'm not complaining. Nice is boring and wasteful. You squander years saying "no" to things you later regret having missed doing while you could still enjoy them. After all, we're a long time dead.
What made Gavin so appealing? His curly blond hair and sapphire eyes gave him a cherubic guise. But no way, no how, in any reality, was Gavin anyone's angel. Michael, Gabriel, and all their minions would have bust a gut, if they had guts, laughing at the absurdity of such a notion. Gavin was gorgeous; he was also as devious, cunning, and seductive as any vice.
Still, with all his faults, in the eons of his existence as a Time Dancer, he had saved the world, or at least kept the fabric of time from unraveling, a time or two.
Yes, eons. That's the thing about Time Dancers—they're virtually immortal, with enhanced physical bodies at their peak of fitness. I haven't seen one yet who looks a day over thirty.
My name is Charity Donovan. It used to be Charity Peters, but I got my name back in the divorce. I was lucky to get that. Ed Peters, my ex, was a shark—that unique subgenre of lawyer for whom Hell has a special ring. Unlike natural predators, these sharks swim in schools, protecting their own in the "Good Ole Boy" network.
I had always worked with computers, so at any rate, I wasn't dependent on the good graces of Ed Peters for my livelihood. Like any graces, good or otherwise, could be found in Ed.
My straight brown hair was far removed from its original chestnut color but as close as I could come with color from a bottle. Those annoying little gray hairs, taking over like weeds, had necessitated the use of something.
Surrounded by a plethora of lines, my eyes had retained their original chestnut shade, matching my original hair color. I'd always been able to find reasons to laugh and much preferred it to crying as a cathartic, even if it did show on my face.
So I agreed to attend Tammy's party for family, friends, and business acquaintances. Talk about strange bedfellows. Maybe I'd find Mr. Right in such an eclectic collection of people. Right, and as they say, "Maybe monkeys will fly out my butt."
I'd been at Tammy's since early afternoon, ostensibly helping her prepare. We both knew I was more of a hindrance than a help. Tammy just wanted to check out—read "redo"—my hair, clothes, and makeup. I figured she'd redo my body, voice, and personality if possible. Luckily or unluckily, she couldn't, so I got to leave those three things as they were.
She kept saying she had someone special for me, someone who'd asked to meet me in person. I couldn't imagine who'd even know me, let alone ask about me, but Tammy would say only that he was a client of James' interested in the cabin. So I spent the first half of the party anxiously awaiting Mr. Mystery Man.
I should have known Tammy wasn't one to be impressed with anyone ordinary. Someone who would be a suitable date for me. Someone who wouldn't intimidate me. Someone within a decade of my age. I really should have known.
I noticed Gavin right away, but then so had every other female in the place. For some reason though, he singled me out. He stared, and I tried to pretend I didn't see him, since I really didn't figure he was interested in me. But I'd never felt such a physical pull to another person, let alone a stranger.
When he made a beeline for me, I turned to see who his target might be, but I stood alone. Me? Was he blind? Lost? Crazy? Fascinated, I watched the Adonis approach.
He could not possibly be the man. Silly me for thinking that, after thirty-plus years of friendship, Tammy might actually know me and the type of man with whom I'd be comfortable.
He stood about a foot taller than I, outweighed me by about seventy pounds, and could not have been more than thirty years old. The blue of his suit reflected and intensified the azure of his eyes. His smile wiped every bit of data from my buffer. That's computerese for: I stood there frozen in place like an empty-headed moron … and gawked.
He tilted his head to the side, a puzzled frown on his face. "Are you okay?"
The cocky, knowing look in his eyes disturbed the butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I prayed they didn't take flight—taking my dinner with them.
"I have a proposition for you. Do you have a few minutes?"
Okay, a proposition, the cabin, now that made more sense. Still, I seemed to have lost my ability for coherent thought. "Uh-huh."
He laughed outright this time. "I wish all women were as obliging as you. How about out here?" He indicated the terrace.
Not wanting to be too repetitive, I switched it up a little this time. "Okay."
We strolled out onto the terrace.
"Do you know anything about Einstein's Theory of Relatively and Time Travel?" he asked.
I blinked at the non sequitur. Einstein?
"What am I saying? Of course you do."
For some unknown reason, I'd read Einstein's discourse on time relativity last week. You do a lot of strange things when you're bored, but what did that have to do with a cabin purchase and a hot young man, who, by the way, had to be more than a decade my junior?
"Yes, Einstein. His theory on time folding in on itself and worm holes, the whole thing on relativity."
I think I blinked at him, which he took for a sign of intelligence or interest or something, because he continued talking about Time, The Universe, and Everything. My brain in free-fall, not with his ramblings but with the way the muted lights shone off his curls and highlighted the ocean-depth color of his eyes, I remained silent, watching his full lips move, and dreamed of kissing them. Boy, it had been awhile.
His lips stopped moving, and I gazed into his eyes. He considered me, not with curiosity at my mute fascination, but with a burning intensity I couldn't quite identify. It sent frissons of excitement down my spine to settle low in an area that hadn't seen any action for quite a while. He raised his hand to my face, lightly caressing my cheek.
"Me, too," he whispered, as though he'd read my mind, and I fancied he felt the same pull I did.
His hand visibly shaking, he lowered it and pulled on a polite but distant façade again. "So what do you think?"
"Think about what?"
He sighed and started his speech again, but stopped, seemingly considering a different tack. He smiled, something that really should be illegal around the female population, considering how lethal it was. "You know, my house is much quieter and more conducive to private conversation."
"Oh, yeah." He leaned against the half wall surrounding the terrace onto which we'd wandered. "Most definitely. I can guarantee we can discuss my proposition uninterrupted."
"Yes, my proposition and anything else we'd care to discuss." He straightened and moved closer, holding out his hand.
I took it. His hand engulfed mine, and he pulled me slowly but firmly toward him, stopping when only inches separated us. I stared down at our clasped hands.
"Come with me?"
Looking up into his eyes, I nodded.
He smiled again, appearing pleased.
I smiled back, pleased I'd pleased him.
Putting his hand against the small of my back, he started us toward the exit. It never occurred to me at the time that no one knew, including me, where I was going and with whom.
What did occur to me was that the heat branding his hand into my back could be addictive. I swore I could feel each separate finger of that hand, and I never wanted him to remove his hand or his fingers from my body.
Tammy crossed the terrace where we'd left the house, directly into our path. "Oh good, you two have met."
I, of course, stood there, my mouth open in its new normal position, and blinked.
"Charity and I were leaving to get better acquainted," Gavin answered for both of us.
Why I chose that moment to muster some lucidity I'll never know, but I did. I turned to him. "Uh, who are you?"
He laughed, smooth to the end, the fastest thinker on two feet. "Did I forget that little detail?"
Naturally, I said, "Uh-huh."
"My name is Gavin Carpenter." He shook my hand then returned his palm to the small of my back. "Pleased to meet you. Now that we know each other, let's go get better acquainted."
"Okay." Sanity and good sense had deserted me again.
We continued past a dumbfounded Tammy, Gavin again filling any silence with a technical discourse on Time and everything you never wanted to know about it. I went along with him, not contributing anything to the conversation … monologue.
We walked down the sloping driveway of James' and Tammy's comfortable Scottsdale home. Though only March, the temperature was an unseasonably warm eighty-five degrees during the day and sixty degrees now. Spring flowers had long since bloomed, unaware that Phoenix—of which Scottsdale is a suburb—always has one last winter hurrah during March, dropping temperatures and stripping blossoms.
We reached the end of the drive and the glow of the artificial lighting lining the concrete. Gavin kept walking toward a silver Dodge Viper. I stopped at the end of the walkway, self-preservation again making an appearance, but he had yet to notice.
He unlocked the car doors and turned, finally noting my absence. "Charity?"
"What do you want with me, Mr. Carpenter?"
"Okay, Gavin, what do you want with me?"
He laughed and said somewhat cryptically, "You should see the strength of your aura. It's the darkest red I've ever encountered."
"My what is what?" Okay, good looks, even really good looks go only so far.
"It'll take too long to explain. Come with me, and I'll clarify everything."
"Gavin, what do you want with me? Is this even about the cabin?"
He sighed and walked back to the driveway but made no move to touch me. "I'd really like to go into depth about that, but it would be so much better away from other people."
"Better for whom?"
Gavin's smile formed slowly this time, a hint of admiration in his eyes.
I felt like a puppy that had learned a new trick … maybe an old dog.
"Ah yes, for whom."
He moved to the split-rail fence bordering the driveway and perched sideways on the top rail, studying me. "Well, that's complicated. You could say just about everyone."
"So, are we ending world hunger or nuclear proliferation? Is the cabin going to house the homeless?"
"Actually, we're saving time."
I was beginning to wonder if he wasn't a gorgeous fruit-and-nut cake. Too bad, but just my luck. "Saving time? What exactly are we going to be doing?"
His eyes never left mine; not a trace of a smile touched his face. "No … big 'T' Time. We need to save Time."
While he watched me furtively back away toward the house, his expression was one of amusement, but he never cracked a smile.
"I see. Well, I sorta have other plans today. Maybe we could save Time next week."
I'd made it halfway up the sidewalk when he pushed away from his seat on the fence and sighed. "I knew any match for me would never come quietly, but for a while it looked like it might be a little easier than this."
No emotion on his face, he stalked toward me. I turned to flee, but he was at my back, his arm around my waist before I'd made it two steps. I opened my mouth to scream and found myself unable to squeeze even a squeak past the pain in my midsection.
"Charity, I know you're frightened, but I'm not going to hurt you. There's just no time to waste."
He sounded sincere, but he was very wrong. Oh, I had been frightened … now I was pissed. Dammit, it hurt. I clasped his pinky and pulled, bending back his little finger at the same time I stomped heavily on his instep—a move I learned in self-defense class.
"Dammit! You vicious … ouch, shit, that hurt!"
My words, exactly.
Gavin hopped on one foot and shook his abused left hand.
Again I turned to run. He snagged my dress in his right fist and pulled me toward him. He brought me close enough to snake an arm all the way around me. He slung me onto his shoulder in a fireman's carry, my stomach painfully balanced over him.
Being the female I am, my first and totally useless thought was how embarrassed I was to have him lift me. One hundred fifty pounds isn't exactly light. But that was hardly the most important thing here, was it?
Next, I noticed an absence of sound and movement. We were on our way to his car. I raised my head and looked around, forgetting for a moment my impulse to scream.
Birds flew in the late afternoon dusk, hanging in mid-air like puppets on invisible strings. Guests at Tammy's party, drawn by our argument, had stepped onto the terrace. Like mannequins, they stood immobilized in mid-conversation.
The pain in my middle increased and burned. Beginning in my gut, it radiated throughout my body. The world poised in mid-action as we passed by, I forgot screaming, kicking, or anything else. My brain froze like everything around us.
"You'll feel better when we return to the normal time flow."
I gave his words only a momentary thought. The burning pain soon took all my concentration.
As he set me down in the car on the passenger side, a wave of dizziness spread like ripples across a pond throughout my body. The pain in my stomach grew and traveled into my head. I turned toward Gavin, to ask him what was happening, when everything faded into darkness then … nothing.
* * * *
I don't know how much later I came to, but light shone around the shades of windows in an unfamiliar bedroom. Completely naked, I was tucked under the sheets and comforter of a strange bed. Putting first things first, I left the bed and wrapped the coverlet around me, heading for the facilities in the adjoining bathroom.
A terrycloth robe the color of Gavin's eyes hung on the back of the bathroom door. The events of the previous evening—I thought it was the previous evening—came crashing back, setting the ache in my head pounding at my temples.
I tried the bedroom door. It was locked, of course. Rubbing my temples, I moved to the foot of the bed and sat, trying to relieve the pain and form a workable escape plan.
It wasn't long before steps came from outside the door, and I got up to face whoever entered. As the ancient brass handle rattled and turned, keys jangled and hit the wood outside the door. The door swung heavily inward, admitting Gavin and a food tray. When he saw me, he paused, his luscious mouth forming a smile.
He had replaced his elegant dress clothes of the previous evening with a black metallic jumpsuit, the fabric absorbing the light around it and reflecting it back with a life of its own. Or maybe that was just Gavin. The material set off his tawny hair and cerulean eyes like the frame on a classic painting. I had a difficult time not answering his smile with one of my own.
"Good. You're awake. I brought you coffee, plenty of cream and sweetener, orange juice, toast, and scrambled eggs."
"Yeah, like I'm gonna eat or drink anything you bring me. What did you drug me with? Some kinda date-rape roofie drug?"
He chuckled and moved into the room, setting the tray on the table next to the bed. "I have never drugged anyone. Especially not with any date-rape roofie drug."
"Then why did I pass out, huh? I never pass out." I included the entire room with a sweeping gesture. "By the way, where am I? And why am I here? Where are my clothes? What time is it? For that matter, what day is it?"
He folded his arms over his chest and leaned back against the door, watching me.
"Well?" I ground out between clenched teeth.
"My turn now?" Sarcasm is not an attractive trait.
I curled both hands into fists, longing to slam them into his condescending grin. "I'd like to know where I am and what day and time it is. Then I'd like to know how I got here." I paused, checking to make sure he was listening. "But most of all, I want to know why."
"You're in a spare bedroom in my home, about eight hours after you left Tammy's house," he said, that smug grin still attached to his face. "As for how and why…" His shoulders shifted in a shrug. "A time-freeze shift is always … disorienting at first, but you'll get used to it. Combined with your panicking, no wonder you passed out. No drugs were involved. Your breakfast is perfectly safe."
I faced him and made a rude noise, folding my own arms across my chest. As badly as I needed coffee and as good as it smelled, I still didn't trust him. After all, besides sounding nuts, he had kidnapped me.
"Listen, Mr. Carpenter, I don't care what, when, or why anymore. As much as I've enjoyed your hospitality and our little chat, I'd like to leave now. So, if you'll just return my clothes…"
He sighed heavily, something he did a lot around me. "Raphael told me my match would be a match in every way. But I didn't realize you'd be so pigheaded."
"Pigheaded? Pigheaded!" A flush roared across my face like a sunburn, and I clenched my fists, digging half-moon divots in my palms with my nails. Who did he think he was?
"Listen, Mr. High and Mighty Shifter or Hop, Skip, Jumper man, I didn't ask to be brought here, and I don't want to stay." I stopped ranting and frowned. "And who's this Raphael guy?"
He watched my tirade, and his smile slowly grew. "God, you're passionate." He uncrossed his arms and stepped away from the door to approach me.
I took a step back, hitting the edge of the bed with the backs of my thighs.
He raised a hand and cupped my face, his thumb stroking my cheek. "We'll do great things together."
I couldn't help it. I laughed.
He dropped his hand and smiled that boyish, impish grin that, in spite of everything, I had started to crave seeing.
"Listen, Gavin, I don't know if you have some type of older-woman Oedipus complex or what, but I've been through one hell of a wringer with my ex, and bullshit doesn't go down as easily as it once did."
His laugh made me burn hotter. "Despite that lovely visual," he said, "I swear I've told you nothing but the truth." With his right-hand palm toward me, he gave me a mock Boy Scout salute. "So help me, God." Smiling, he lowered his hand. "I'm actually much older than I look." His hand brushed across my face again, stroking my cheek. "Besides, what I see when I look at you is much deeper than even you can see."
When I jerked my head back, he took back his hand, straightening.
"Yes, Raphael told me it would be like this." He studied me a moment longer. "I thought or hoped that maybe…" He shook his head and started for the door, stopping at the doorway. "You'll find clean clothes in the top drawer of the bureau and in the closet. I'll be back in half an hour to bring you to see Raphael, my … supervisor."
He started to turn, halted, and faced me again with that boyish grin. "I'd drink that coffee, if I were you. You're going to need it. Besides, what do you have to lose?"
He waited, his expression one of patience.
I blushed. "Why did you take my clothes?"
"Well, we wouldn't want you to leave before we had a chance to talk to you, now would we?"
He started to leave again. This time, I stopped him. "Who … um … undressed me last night?"
He grinned and left without another word. Well, I guess that was an answer of sorts.
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