How had it even come to this—standing in her arroyo in the wake of a fight for her life, and a fast-growing fight for her heart?
It wasn’t as if her voice held unearthly beauty. She sang because it pulled something from her even as it smoothed something within her. She seldom formed words—she chose the melodic line from a haunting Górecki suite, or the rousing notes of a Zimmer soundtrack. They all lived in her head, ready for the moment.
But now she sat in silence, there in the scree of the slope, digging her heels in while her pounding heart settled and her hand slowly relaxed around the lovingly carved wood of her mellow flute.
The rest of her body wasn’t so fast to settle. Beneath that jolting fear, she felt the warmth of her response to his fierce grin—a sensation that grew with the memory of it, bringing new pulses to life in intimate places, little deterred by inexplicable circumstances or even frightening ones.
She tried to tell herself she didn’t even know him, but that was already a lie. There had been a wealth of knowledge exchanged in their shared moments—plenty of evidence of the caring, the gentle consideration, that balanced his ferocity.
And here had been that thing that no man or woman could explain, or successfully deny—the moment of connection when something important sparked to life.
Not a thing she’d ever felt before—but one she recognized instantly.
And the day had given her a new and unexpected understanding—the pattern to his presence here. Winter solstice. And the first day of an old calendar spring. This day of spring equinox.
The earth days of an ancient calendar, not to be denied any more than the sizzle of awareness between Arlie Parker and Jaice Theyasa.
Whether she wanted it or not.
Early May came in a siege of unusually warm weather, with heat radiating off the bare soil and clients grown cranky. Beltane, by the old calendar.
Jaice Theyasa walked into her world with a deliberate stride, dressed in loose pants and a long, formal tabard cinched at the waist with a wide, heavily stitched belt. The shirt beneath wasn’t nearly as practical as previously, with enough material in the sleeves to impede action. His appearance on the whole seemed bolder—striking red borders on a deep blue tabard, the shirt a deeper blue with red detailing along the way. His hair had been fastened back with more care, and instead of studs his ears bore things that dangled.
Arlie felt herself as plain as she was, an angular woman in an asymmetrical top that shirred gently around her breasts and jeans that had seen better days. She’d pulled her blond-streaked hair into careless plaits behind each ear, and now she wished she’d taken more care.
Amazing how readily she now accepted the fact that this man might just come out of nowhere to be in her somewhere.
He stood with hands clasped gently behind his back, as perfectly broad in the shoulder and lean at the hip as any man could be, as quietly assured in motion.
A man who knew where his body was in the space around him, and who knew exactly how to use it.
Arlie’s heart beat hard and fast and stupid. Long-distance relationship had nothing on this moment. It hadn’t stopped her from imagining time with this man and his strong hands and that wry little laugh in her ear.
“I’m here,” she told him from the trees. No doubt he knew it. She had the clear impression he’d not yet looked her way simply so it remained her choice to engage. When he did turn, it was with hands still clasped behind as if to reassure her how very noncombative he intended to be.
She said, “My name is Arlie Parker.”
“Arlie,” he said, as if that meant something.
“You’re not from this…” She hesitated on the best word even though she’d thought of nothing else in the past month. Planet. Universe. Culture. “World.”
At that he gave her his faint smile. His gaze never left her, as if he was simply drinking her in, and it made her hum with an anticipation she could hardly fathom. The chance to be here, to talk to him. To confirm that she still wasn’t crazy.
Just maybe, to see if she did to him what he was doing to her.
Arlie swallowed hard, fingers restless against her flute. “Somehow my singing brings you here. I get that. And the timing is related to our seasons and ancient holidays.”
Jaice looked as though he might say something then, but instead raised his head just slightly. Maybe an approval, maybe a settling in. There was a poignant quality to his silence—as though he would have spoken, had he been able. Or allowed.
She took a step closer, which hadn’t been her plan—but she felt an irresistible compulsion to see the complexities his eyes, the golden brown that shone brightly within the teak of his skin. One step turned to two as the slope crumbled beneath her, a tiny little landslide of stone and sand that she rode expertly to the dry wash below.
And then, because she didn’t assume he would remain the only one of his people to arrive, she glanced downstream, confirming her escape route—the complex clump of half-fallen trees twining over the channel. Spring grass sprang up in that sheltered spot, a favorite of rabbits and hawks alike.
Arlie knew just how to squirt beneath those tangled branches. She knew how to use the personal Taser tucked in her light jacket, too.
“Are you wary?” he asked.
She made a sound of disbelief. “After the last time?”
He lifted one shoulder in a dismissive gesture. “There is no danger on this day. I know who I fight. I know who I don’t.”
“What’s that make you?” She shifted to the side to eye him—his outfit, the brief cascade of bright metal and unfamiliar feathers at his ear, the half-visible tattoo at his hairline. “A gladiator?”
He took a step to mirror her movement, and then another, so they circled in a dance, growing closer at each turn. He said, “Almost.”
“But not today.”
He released the quiet clasp of his hands and Arlie took a step back, breaking the pattern of their dance. He held out one arm, letting the sleeve fall away to reveal the crisscrossing wrap of a bandage. “Today I heal.”
She extended fingertips to the fine material. It resisted her touch, stiff and unyielding. “That must hurt.”
“It would,” he said. “If I could feel it.”
“How do you not—” she started, but didn’t finish. There was, clearly, too much she didn’t know.
“You should be aware,” he told her, quite abruptly. “There is risk to our time here.” He dropped his arm, and the sleeve slid back into place.
“After the last time I saw you and your friends,” she said, “I think I know those risks.”
“That’s not—” But he stopped, closing his mouth in frustration—leaving her again with the impression not that he hadn’t had the words to say, but that he’d been unable to say them. He took a step closer and for all her long-legged height, she found herself looking up to his gaze again.