An Excerpt from
Shivering at the edge of misty Cross Lake, Kevyn Llewellyn pivoted slowly and forced her attention to her immediate need—a god.
“Fools.” She sighed and longed for a cup of steaming lemon water and her own warm bed. “They must be fools.”
She slid her gaze from the serene lake to the bustling, swarming scene of activity before her. To get to the water’s edge, she had weaved through a throng of over six hundred athletes from across the nation, all preparing to begin the first leg of the fifty- one-kilometer Shreveport Triathlon. Bemused, she considered the athletes’ upcoming endeavor: swimming one kilometer through water that was still chilly from the previous evening’s thunderstorm; biking forty kilometers on winding asphalt roads; and then completing the circuit with a ten-kilometer run that was intensified by the hilly terrain and humid, blistering Louisiana August heat. “Fools,” she repeated, and wondered what kind of fool she was for being there among them.
As she worked her way along the pine- and cypress-lined banks toward the parking area, she dodged the out-flung arms and avoided the outstretched legs of the triathletes as they warmed up.
“Crazy jocks,” she muttered, folding her arms across her chest for warmth. Her black cotton sundress had lost its crispness in the damp haze.
“Auntie!” a resonant voice rang out.
It was about time, she thought, casting a glance toward the road, where a large van with the radio call sign KPOP scrawled across its side in orange and green letters was parked. Sure enough, Kevyn saw her nephew, Atticus, darting through the athletes, oblivious to their glares.
“Wait up!” His hair bounced in glossy waves as he crossed the uneven ground in loping bounds. He came to a halt beside her, panting from the exertion. She glared up at mischievous eyes the same deep teal color as hers, a nose tip-tilted only slightly less, and the same silver-streaked hair at the temples that was a Llewellyn family trademark.
“Sorry,” Atticus said. “I’ve been tied up with details. These remotes are a dog to pull together. I’ve got a couple of minutes before airtime, though. So, how’s it going? Enjoying the view, Auntie dear?”
Kevyn followed his gaze to a burly athlete, who eyed her speculatively before stripping off his muscle shirt, obviously for her benefit. Quickly, she grabbed Atticus’s arm and tugged him along with her toward a spot at the fringe of the activity.
Atticus grinned. “What’s the hurry?”
“In the first place, how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t call me ‘Auntie.’ It sounds ridiculous, and you know it. You’re six inches taller than I am, not to mention two years older.”
“But you are my aunt, Kevie. Blood kin, much as you might wish to disown me.” He dropped an arm around her shoulders as they moved on. “It’s an unusual situation, you must admit.”
“Not as unusual as you make it,” Kevyn grumbled. “Like jogging through hundreds of people shouting ‘Auntie’ when a simple ‘Hey, you’ would do.”
“But it’s so much fun,” he insisted.
“For you, maybe, but not for me. I don’t appreciate being introduced as your old maid aunt either. Save your attention-getting devices for your show. I have enough trouble dealing with the real you, much less your alter ego.” With studied disdain, she removed his arm from her shoulder. “I don’t know why I put up with your nonsense. I’ve known fourteen-year-olds who were more mature than you.”
“You haven’t answered me. Have you found a victim—I mean, a man you like?”
“Atticus, it isn’t a matter of what I like. It’s a matter of what Fantasy Books wants.” She kicked a tuft of tall grass. “This project is giving me ulcers,” she grumbled. “If I didn’t need the money so badly…” Her voice drifted away. The problem was, she did need the money. “I’ve just never had this much trouble finding a model before, that’s all.”
“It seems I remember you saying the artwork for this book cover would be a snap.”
“I must have looked at a thousand pictures. All ‘pretty boys.’ Sultry and spoiled, sullen and pouty, and perfect for lounging poolside on the pages of GQ. But nothing even remotely physical enough for”—she paused, then lowered her voice dramatically— “Darius: Warrior God of the Gray Planet.” Her laughter sounded a bit strained, even to her own ears.
“You can’t tell me you aren’t interested in all the beefcake that’s strutting around here,” Atticus remarked with a sly gleam in his eyes.
She wrinkled her nose in distaste and faced the crowd again. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into coming to this ridiculous triathlon. I should have stayed in bed. Look at them,” she insisted. “Not an ounce of brain in the lot of them.”
“My, my. Judgmental, much? Besides, you need brawn.”
“No. That’s exactly the point. He’s muscular, of course, but not brawny. He’s intelligent and noble and valiant and…” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “My deadline’s in three weeks, and I’m desperate.”
“You’re going to have to do your own hunk-hunting. I’m going on the air, and besides, the blondes I have in mind are a bit curvier, if you get my drift.” Atticus straightened her hat and tweaked her lightly on the nose. When she tried to retaliate with a halfhearted swat, he darted away, sing-songing, “So long, Auntie dear…”
Kevyn watched him bound off toward the remote transmission van where he’d be broadcasting the morning’s activities. She attempted to stifle her smile, with little success. They were close, though their relationship was certainly not that of an aunt and nephew. He was more like a brother, or a friend… and quite often, an albatross.
An announcement over the public-address system warned the athletes that they had five minutes before the race started. To gain a better vantage point, Kevyn moved to the crest of a low hill, pulled an old, tattered quilt from her straw carryall, and spread it on the damp grass. After producing a sketchpad, a case of artists’ pencils, and a camera, she dropped to the ground.
Her sharpened pencil poised, she scanned the area, seeking inspiration. Her gaze drifted until it settled on a masculine pair of legs walking toward her. Lazily, her gaze slid upward, then locked on lean, muscled thighs moving in a sleek, lynx-like rhythm.
Powerful legs—certainly capable of striding masterfully across the heavily atmosphered terrain of Euripides, the Gray Planet…
Her interest heightened, she dragged her eyes up and over the navy-blue competition swimsuit that molded every bulge. She memorized the smooth flat planes of stomach, the wide expanse of chest, the broad shoulders…
This body was made for more than lounging poolside in a swimsuit ad. This body belonged to a warrior who moved with all the grace of a god—Darius.
And then—he was gone, swallowed up in the mass of athletes gathered at the starting line near the water.
And she hadn’t recorded a single, exquisite detail. Springing to her feet, she allowed the pencil and pad to fall unheeded to the rumpled quilt. She stifled a familiar pang of frustration as she strained to decipher the number emblazoned on the man’s bright yellow swim cap, but could only make out two rounded digits as he melted into the crowd of triathletes.
She hadn’t even gotten a good look at his face, though she’d certainly gotten a terrific view of everything else.
The crack of the starter’s pistol signaled the beginning of the race, and the stampede began. Within seconds the racers had turned the placid lake into a churning, splashing cauldron of bobbing yellow swim caps. How was she ever going to find Darius in that?
Twenty minutes later the leaders had completed the roughly circular route marked by buoys and rowboats filled with safety personnel. Kevyn walked with the other spectators to the man-made beach, where the swimmers had entered the water and would now emerge. Standing behind the barricade, she watched them come out of the lake, first in a trickle, then in larger groups. Five minutes passed, then ten and fifteen, without any sign of Darius.
Finally she spotted a lone swimmer drawing near the shore. What he lacked in speed, he obviously made up for in endurance. The rolling action of his shoulders as the muscles moved beneath the surface of his skin, his hands sometimes slapping, sometimes slicing cleanly into the choppy water—these were images that captivated her imagination. Her fingers tingled and itched to sketch his musculature. Darius. He had to be the one.
He rose from the lake, water streaming down his body in shimmering rivulets, tracing every contour. His head fell forward as his chest heaved. He stretched his neck, then rolled his head from side to side before rotating his shoulders.
Close enough to touch him, Kevyn remained spellbound as he lifted his face toward the sun. His high cheekbones and the hollows beneath them, the hard, lean angles of his face, all combined to lend him a foreign look. European? Nordic? Slavic? she wondered.
A tremor of excitement shot through her body. Her search was over. This was truly Darius. Her mind swirled with visions, startlingly clear now that her indecision was behind her: Darius standing triumphant, proud, arrogant, against a rich Prussian blue sky, his waist-long platinum hair and golden body bathed in silver moonlight.
Then he abruptly tugged the swim cap from his head, flung it to the ground, and started toward the changing tents. His hair wasn’t blond.
It was red.
It fell down his neck in damp, unruly auburn waves, the still-dry crown blazing with glints of gold and cinnamon, reflecting fiery touches of sunlight.
Kevyn’s breath escaped in a low hiss, her lips parted. The man had red hair. She knew a moment’s panic as she continued to stare until he disappeared through the open tent flaps. Then, she knelt down and reached under the barricade to retrieve his swim cap. She wiped away a smear of mud. Fat, round numbers scrawled in black Sharpie glared back at her; a single red hair clung, taunting.
Wadding the cap into a ball, she lifted her chin. All right. So what? He was still perfect, if she used a little artistic license. She strode toward a woman who clasped a clipboard against her bony chest.
“Excuse me.” Kevyn smiled and pointed at the clipboard. “Is that a list of competitors?”
“Yes, it is.” The woman angled a weathered face toward her. “This is the official roster.”
“One of the athletes lost his swim cap, and I’d like to return it to him. Could you tell me his name, please?”
The woman hesitated, then held out the clipboard. “I doubt if he’ll want it back, but you can look.”
“Oh…” Kevyn stared at the clipboard as she clutched the damp, mud-spattered swim cap. “You’d better look for me. My hands are dirty.”
The woman shrugged and glanced at the number on the swim cap, then flipped past the top sheet. She ran a finger down the second page. “Here it is, number 86. Huh. Sergei. A Russian, I guess?”
Again she held the clipboard out for Kevyn to look, but Kevyn just shrugged.
“Yes, that’s definitely Russian.” No wonder he had such a distinctive European look.
“Sergei Rivers. That’s an unusual name,” the woman mused. “It sounds kind of familiar, but I can’t quite place it.”
Rivers? Kevyn frowned. She thanked the woman and started up the slope. With Atticus tied up for the entire day, it was up to her to find and secure the services of the mysterious warrior-god.
Long hours dragged by. She sat in her parked Volkswagen bug convertible on the side of the road where the last portion—the running portion—of the race was taking place. She brushed an annoying strand of silver-streaked hair from her eyes and lifted her hair off her neck. Fighting off thirst, gnats, and a ferocious headache, she was at the point of giving up…
Then he rounded a curve and limped up the road toward her. One of his legs was badly scraped, yet he ran on. “Fool,” she muttered. But at least she’d found him. Now all she could do was settle back and wait for him to complete the circuit. He would pass her again on his way back to the finish line.
The more time that passed, the more the runners who passed looked progressively worse, more winded, more heated, more exhausted. Kevyn swatted a fly away from her face, frustrated. Sergei Rivers should have been back by now, surely.
She couldn’t forget how exhausted he had looked when he’d limped past. She twined her fingers in her hair and leaned forward on the steering wheel. The thought of that magnificent body collapsing with heatstroke set her nerves on edge.
Finally, she couldn’t take it any longer. She glanced at her watch and wiped her arm across her brow. Grabbing her bag, she jumped out of the car and started after him. She hadn’t spent hours waiting for the guy to have him pass out and get carted away before she could use him.
Then she saw him.
He struggled, stumbling along, thrusting one foot in front of the other, his eyes fixed doggedly on the road.
Without pausing to think, Kevyn scurried toward him, her hair tumbling around her shoulders, her wide-brimmed hat bouncing on her back. “Excuse me, er… Ser-gay, is that how you pronounce your name?”
His head snapped toward her. For a moment, his eyes remained unfocused. Then they fixed on hers, his gaze hard and piercing. “Who… the hell… are you?” His hoarse voice sent alarm skidding down her spine.
“Are you all right?” she demanded.
He said nothing, but kept trudging along, determination etched on his flushed, drawn features.
Kevyn jogged hesitantly beside him, her mind racing. What was she supposed to do?
“You look like you’re in trouble,” she began again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
His face was beaded with sweat, his hair plastered to his brow, his eyes glazed as he squinted against the glare of the midday sun. It seemed to take all of his energy simply to move.
“You’ve got to stop,” she panted. “Your leg looks awful, and you’re going to have a stroke if you don’t cool off!”
“Buzz off, lady,” he choked out without turning his attention from the road. “I’m fine… I’m doin’ just fine.”
“That’s ridiculous. You certainly are not fine. Just look at you. Why—” With a softer voice, she tried a different tactic. “Why don’t you stop and rest?”
“I’m… fine…” He swung out his arm as if to push her away, his hand brushing weakly against her bare forearm.
“Please.” Kevyn rubbed the spot where his touch had scorched her. “I can’t afford for you to hurt yourself.”
He didn’t respond.
Her throat stung, and her head pounded with each step. As they rounded another curve, Kevyn saw her yellow Volkswagen beckoning invitingly.
Suddenly, the man’s foot caught in a pothole, and he crashed to the asphalt.
“Oh, gracious!” Kevyn dropped to her knees, ignoring the gravel biting into them, and reached out. “Are you hurt?”
He rolled to his side and clutched his leg. She gasped at the sight of blood running through his fingers. “Look what you’ve done now.” She dug frantically in her bag for tissues.
He lay there as she dabbed the gash, then shook his head as if to clear it. “Who are you?”
“My name’s Kevyn.” She offered her hand. “Here, let me help you up.” Between her pulling and his will power, she managed to stand him upright, though he leaned heavily on her shoulders for a moment before he attempted to stand alone. He wiped a hand across his brow, then rubbed the side of his face, smearing blood. Turning a pained gaze toward her, he tried to straighten. “I’m not quitting.”
Kevyn attempted to hide her dismay. This man wasn’t determined—he was insane. Her own shoulders slumping, she watched as he tried to take off, and staggered. Only by ducking quickly under his arm did she manage to keep him from crashing to the pavement again.
“Gotta finish…” he muttered. “… almost there… aren’t I?”
“No. You’ve got over half a mile to go.”
“Not far, then.” He lurched forward.
She tried to hang back, but his momentum took her with him.
“I’ve… gotta… finish.”
“Lord, I’m as big a fool as you are,” she said as she stumbled beside him. She desperately scanned ahead on the road in an attempt to avoid more potholes. As they half-ran, half-staggered along, she watched the hypnotic pattern of their feet moving in unison. “You’re going to owe me, I hope you realize that.”
She drew him near her car, and visions of home and icy pink lemonade danced in her aching head.
“Fifty-one kilometers…” he muttered under his breath. “Then… I’ll win…”
Kevyn filled with compassion. “I hate to break this to you, but the guy who won finished two and a half hours ago.”
“No. The… the bet. With Skipper…”
Kevyn stopped dead in her tracks, and he almost fell on his face again. “What did you say?”
His eyes clouded as they tried to focus on her. “Why—why’d we stop?”
“A bet? How much money do you have riding on this?” she asked, alarmed.
“Dinner,” he answered. “A really—really—good—dinner.”
“Wait. I’m practically carrying you, and it’s just so you can win a lousy dinner bet?”
“Got it in one, babe.” He lurched away from her. “And I don’t need you, anyway.” He lurched forward without her, and his leg gave out again.
Yet again, Kevyn held him up, though anger surged through her.
“Of all the asinine, pigheaded things I’ve ever heard,” she sputtered, lugging him toward the car, her fury growing with each pained step. “I’m about to keel over, my head is splitting open—” She propped him against the car, and he attempted to brace himself on the too-low side of the open convertible with trembling arms. “You look like you could just about die at any moment—and you want to keep going to win a bet?”
“You don’t have to understand it. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s—it’s a guy thing. A lark. A matter of pride—”
“You’re damn right, I don’t understand it. You’re killing yourself to win a bet, and you expect me to go down with you? Buddy, I’m going to save you in spite of yourself.” With that, she gave him one small shove, and he landed in the backseat on top of her quilts and paint supplies. His initial grunt of surprise turned into a load moan.
Kevyn jumped into the driver’s seat and slammed the door. As the car roared to life, he tried to raise himself up. “Just a damned minute—”
Glancing over her shoulder, she threatened, “You’re not going to end up in a hospital recuperating from your suicidal lunacy when I need your body now.” The car jerked forward, and he fell back, his head hitting the door with a dull thud.
What was she supposed to do now?
She sent a desperate prayer to the heavens—grateful to the powers that be for delivering this perfect warrior-god into her grasp, yet frantic for new inspiration as to how to handle him.
Shifting gears, she made a sharp U-turn and roared away, leaving a spray of gravel in her wake.
What happens next?