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Virtual Desire

Perfect Heroes #2

Ellora's Cave
ISBN: 978-1419946363

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True love's the gift which God has given
To man alone beneath the heaven:
It is not fantasy's hot fire,
Whose wishes soon as granted fly;
It liveth not in fierce desire,
With dead desire it doth not die;
It is the secret sympathy,
The silver link, the silken tie,
Which heart to heart and mind to mind
In body and in soul can bind.

The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott (1805)

Chapter 1

She appeared in a glittering column of snow. Her long white skirts floated about her as she came toward him in the indigo night. She was a creature of the vast ice fields.

Beautiful. Sensuous. Alluring.

He stood frozen in place and watched her, his body numb in the icy wind despite the heavy furs he wore. His mind refused to believe what his eyes saw and his body craved. Golden hair, like a close-fitting cap, hugged her head. Sinuous movements of her arms beckoned him near. Ribbons of silvery fabric streamed behind her as she lifted her arms to him.

With a quick turn of his head he scanned the horizon. Where were her retainers? Her protectors? The ice fields stretched unbroken in the moonglow save for a few treacherous red rocks that pierced the snow and tripped the unwary foot. He scrubbed his gloved hands over his face.

Reluctantly, he turned east again to the beguiling ice woman. A new fear, fear that he had lost his mind, joined with an older fear that he might not survive this formidable land. He drew a deep steadying breath and caught a hint of summer flowers along with the scent of ageless ice.

She waited in silence, many yards away, and raised her hand to him again. He obeyed her summons without thought, mesmerized by her, unable to resist.

The thick snow crust crunched beneath his boots. The wind rose in a mournful ululation as it lifted her sheer gown and twisted it against her body. The fabric traced her lush shape, her full womanly curves.

A man might warm himself in her embrace.

He pictured her lying naked on his furs, arms open in invitation as they were now, welcoming him. The enticing vision tumbled about in his head. He tried to grasp the warm thoughts, but his mind stumbled along with his feet.

A shriek of wind jerked him back to his path and his goal. The woman blurred a moment before his eyes, then became sharp-edged. Touches of her femininity appeared and disappeared in the eddies of her swirling gown. A sweat flushed his skin beneath the layers of his clothing.

For moments he staggered forward, drawing no closer to her. Touching her became imperative, necessary, as necessary as drawing the chill air into his lungs. He imagined her kiss. Her lips would be full and ripe and gleaming with moisture as if she had just licked over them. He imagined that her taste would heat his blood. He craved the warmth of her body, the intoxication of her scent, the comfort of her long white arms.

He stepped into her embrace and clasped . . . nothing.

He howled at the pain of it, clenched his fists, and fell to his knees. Around him lay nothing but vast empty space. A blast of raw wind cut his cheeks and harrowed his spirit. With little will to go forward, he knelt head down and cursed the gods.

How smooth and slick and beautiful the world had looked when he'd begun his journey. He had lost count of the sun-risings. Three? Four? Seven? His body yearned for sleep. Clumsy with the cold and fatigue, he fell to his side. A sudden stab of pain tore at his cheek and burned like fire up his face to his eye. The flames of pain defied and mocked the cold.

A wounded animal sound echoed in the empty expanse of wasteland. Had the sound come from him? Struggling on limbs that repeatedly refused to obey, he staggered upright, ashamed of his lapse.

There at his feet gleamed a bright red gem. It glittered against the icy white moonglow. As he watched, more gems appeared. They bounced and rolled away, scattering in the snow. With shaking hands he tore off his gloves and reached for one that lay alone, perfectly round and gleaming. The numb tips of his fingers were clumsy as he tried to lift the fine jewel. It burst and became blood, running between his fingers.

His blood.

Another bright red drop fell to the ice, congealed, and magically transformed into another priceless gem. He dashed the drop away with an angry sweep of his hand. More appeared, but he understood now and would not be tricked again.

Relentlessly, he trudged along, too tired to mark his direction with the moons overhead.

Why was he crossing this merciless field of ice?

For love. For the love of a friend more brother than any man of blood family could be. For a bond more precious than that of a lover.

As his strength waned, he found himself standing and staring at the four blue-green orbs slowly aligning overhead.

He was lying--if only to himself. The love of a friend might have sent him on his mission, but the salvage of his honor, his good name, kept him moving forward through ice fields no other warrior had dared to cross.

For without his friend, honor was all he had. He had no family, no illustrious ancestors, no lifemate waiting dutifully for his return.

Time passed. He knew this from the growing indigo shadows that reflected the Tolemac heavens and defined the sharp red rocks that tripped his feet. He knew this from the near perfect alignment of the moons.

If he did not survive his quest, his name would be forever inscribed on the roll of cowards and traitors, there for all future generations to see and vilify. Surely, a just end for a man with no lineage.

Where was he?

Confused, he turned first one direction then another.

He stared down at the fur cloak in which he had wrapped himself. Blood matted the front. Where had blood come from? Was he wounded?

Idly, he wiped at the frozen red stains. Where were his gloves? Lethargy prevented him from searching for them. His gold ring looked copper in the night. He wasted long moments staring at it, turning his hand this way and that.

Finally, he conceded the ice to be the victor, the cold a merciless conqueror, impervious to a warrior's sword or knife. With regret, he fell to his knees and scrabbled in his furs for the stone he carried close to his heart. The stone echoed the color of the orbs overhead, captured in delicate strands of silver. The talisman slipped from his clumsy fingers and fell to the ground. He dug about near his knees, searched the ground in all directions, but the stone had disappeared, lost in the soft snow.

He tried in vain to rise, but his legs no longer obeyed.

"What more do you demand?" he asked the heavens, fists clenched. Try as he might, his strength was gone. As was the stone.

And lost with it, his desire to go on.

He would not fulfill his quest.

Dignity demanded he not collapse cravenly but meet his fate face to the heavens. The four small moons beckoned overhead. He liked to think they were watching over him and would ease his passage from this life to the next. The moons drew closer like friends rushing to meet in a stellar embrace.

"I failed," he whispered. His eyes drifted closed. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Lightning streaked across the barren horizon.


Gwen Marlowe twirled across the ballroom floor, spinning and laughing. She came to a halt before a young man who had entered the Ocean City Music Pier's ballroom in a blast of rain and salt-laden wind. "Neil, my Tolemac Wars ball is going to be great."

Thunder echoed across the cavernous room.

"Only if this storm doesn't close the bridges and keep everyone at home," he said and handed her a foam coffee cup.

"Pessimist." She took a swallow, then threw out her hand to the long row of floor to ceiling windows. "The weatherman said the brunt of the storm is going to miss us."

"If you say so." He dug her sneakers from under a chair and held them out.

Gwen ignored them and gulped her coffee. She peered from one of the tall windows. The two-mile long Ocean City boardwalk had only a few piers extending out into the ocean. The Music Pier was one of them. Glowering clouds and intermittent bursts of rain obscured the view. The radio had predicted the storm would move east and miss their small island off the coast of New Jersey which lay midway between the bright lights of Atlantic City and the Victorian charm of Cape May. She hoped the meteorologists were right. "Don't you feel like we're on a ship right out in the ocean?"

"Maybe the Titanic? Only the iceberg's in here."

"Don't say things like that!" She bit her lip. Maybe the weather would ruin the ball and all her work.

He touched her on the shoulder. "Don't worry, this old place has taken a hammering since 1928. I don't think one small nor'easter is going to knock it down. And the tickets are sold. It'll be standing room only in here tonight--storm or no storm." He moved about the ballroom gathering assorted litter from her decorating efforts and stuffing it into a trash bag.

"Come on, Neil. I need your honest opinion. Does this look like the ice fields from Tolemac Wars II or not?"

She held her breath. Neil Scott examined the ballroom, hands on hips. Water dripped off his ancient black leather jacket and beaded his short dark hair. Gwen noticed circles etched beneath his eyes.

"I feel like I'm in the middle of a blizzard, not a rain storm--a Tolemac blizzard. Relax. You've recreated the game." He grinned. The sudden smile wiped away the biker-from-hell-in-training look and hinted at the handsome man he might be if he got enough sleep. "You should do stage design," he said. "It looks great. Even if the Tolemac warrior, himself, showed up, he'd be impressed."

"Really?" She skidded along the polished floor in her socks and adjusted one of the drapes that gave the impression of a mountain of snow on red rock. "I spent a fortune on all this. And wait 'til you see my gown."

"I draw the line on fashion commentary." He bent and retrieved the remnants of silver streamers and tossed them into the trash bag.

"But I could use a guy opinion. I made it myself, you know. I hand-painted each layer of white silk with seven shades of white and silver. I hand stitched the silver sleeve ribbons--"

"Enough. This is really more information than I need."

Gwen scooped up a handful of artificial snow and threw it at him. It clung to his shoulders and hair. "What's wrong? Up too late with your coven?" He took off his jacket and shook off the snowflakes. A snake tattoo slithered around his upper arm, just showing at the sleeve edge of his T-shirt.

Perhaps prompted by the angry gray sky outside, Neil was garbed all in black. Daggers and skulls hung from one pierced ear. Gwen never minded Neil's many personas. He was just as likely to appear at the video game shop they owned together in a white shirt and rep tie. He worked hard, was always on time, and did grunt work without complaint. He was the perfect business partner.

On the front of his black T-shirt a hideous skeleton wielded a lacrosse stick. Neil had once been a star attack player for Johns Hopkins. These days he attacked nothing more challenging than cardboard boxes that needed to be broken down for the recycling bin, his weapon a utility knife.

"Are you finished in here?" He pulled his jacket back on.

She nodded and took a last look around the room. "All that needs to be done is put out the food. If I do say so myself, the room looks like a winter snow scene straight out of Tolemac Wars II." Tolemac Wars II was the latest and hottest virtual reality game. Thanks to her friendship with the game's creator, she had a monopoly on the game. If you wanted to play Tolemac Wars II in South Jersey, you had to patronize her boardwalk game store, Virtual Heaven. "Let's take these trash bags back to the shop."

They ran the two blocks on wet, slippery wooden boards. Her store stood in the nearly unbroken row of shops that graced the northern end of the two miles of Ocean City's boardwalk. Wind gusted from all directions. Rain fell in sheets. The Atlantic Ocean hammered the boards with savage pleasure. On the horizon, lightning flickered.

"Should there be lightning in November?" she gasped, out of breath. "What if there's a power failure?" She cast a longing glance up to the apartment she rented over her shop. She'd left a light on. It splashed a yellow glow over the small balcony fronting the apartment. She resisted the urge to go back to her warm snug bed. Fatigue was creeping in. She'd started her decorating at dawn and now, even though it was still early in the morning, she wanted to crawl into her bed and sleep the rest of the day away.

"If the power fails, you're cooked." He ducked under the awning over her shop door.

Gwen saw his half-hidden grin and turned the key with a jerk. "I get it. I'm obsessing. You're the pessimist and I'm the optimist. Okay. The ball will be a huge success, written up in game magazines nationwide, the extra ten pounds I gained this summer will be adequately hidden under my flowing . . ." Neil dragged a finger across his throat. "Never mind," she finished.

Once inside, she punched in the code to turn off the security alarm. Neil flipped several switches and light flooded the shop. She tossed her raincoat behind the service counter.

Neil scooped up a white envelope that lay on the rubber mat by the front door and placed it on the counter. He slipped a CD into the boombox sitting next to the cash register. She winced as Mozart's "Jupiter Symphony" filled the shop. "Jeez," she called to him. "Do we have to listen to that stuff so early in the morning?"

Neil didn't answer. Perhaps he hadn't heard her over the music. She smiled. More likely, he was ignoring her. She guessed she'd pushed him over the edge with her Tolemac ball worries. He shrugged out of his jacket and began to open cardboard cartons.

Gwen set up the cash register for the day. Usually, she only opened her shop on weekends in November, but this was the week of the wargame convention in nearby Atlantic City and she'd been open everyday for the conventioneers, especially women, who'd flocked in to play Tolemac Wars II. She'd started her plans for the ball the minute the game con booked into Atlantic City.

She picked up the envelope Neil had found, examined it a moment then flipped it into the trash unopened.

"Why'd you do that?"

Gwen started as Neil spoke. "It's just a letter from my mother."

Neil salvaged the note. "Why don't you open it?"

Gwen rounded the counter, took it from his hand, and threw it back into the waste can. She sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. "Did you sleep in those clothes?"

Neil retrieved the note and again slapped it on the counter. "I showered," he said. "It's not me. I thought it was you, no offense."

When Neil turned his back to crank up the CD player's volume, Gwen surreptitiously sniffed her underarms. "Not me." She tapped the letter with a finger for a moment, then slit the envelope flap open with her thumb.

She scanned the short note as she picked up Neil's jacket. It smelled innocently of old leather.

"What's it say?" Neil plucked his jacket from her hand and folded it onto a shelf behind the counter. He also picked up her raincoat, shook it out, and hung it on a hook.

Gwen shoved the letter into the back pocket of her jeans. "It's just the usual invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. You know. Everyone will be there, why not good old Gwen?" She lifted the waste basket and sniffed. "This place smells like wet wool." She glanced overhead. "Could there be a leak somewhere?"

A sharp rap on the window glass made Gwen whip around. "Oh, dear." She waved Neil off and went to the door. She opened it a scant inch. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Hill. We're not open yet. Not until ten o'clock." She pointed to her watch that said nine. "The game needs to warm up. I haven't even turned it on, I'm sorry." She needed all her strength to pull her shop door firmly shut on the woman swathed in a raincoat who flapped a twenty in her face. With a sigh and a decisive turn of her key, Gwen locked the door.

She turned to Neil. "These women have no life. Don't you think it's worse now that we have Tolemac Wars II? The women are even more gaga over this warrior than the first one."

Neil nodded then touched her arm. "How come you're not going to your folks' for Thanksgiving?"

"You've never tasted my mother's cooking. If you had, you wouldn't ask." Gwen shook her head. She was not about to tell Neil her family troubles. Neil had enough trouble of his own. He'd just dropped out of graduate school to look after his alcoholic mother.

"I'll take out the trash. Maybe that will take care of the smell." Neil propped the back door open and gathered up several plastic bags.

Gwen grabbed the vacuum cleaner and dragged it across the shop to the virtual reality booth that daily stuffed her cash register with tens and twenties--or her and Neil's cash register. The boom in virtual reality game popularity had necessitated a partnership--she just didn't have the ability to run the shop alone anymore.

She gave the Tolemac warrior an affectionate pat on his chest as she passed his poster. Women flocked to the shop to play his game. They made no effort to hide their addiction to the eerie experience of donning a headset and entering the handsome warrior's world.

"Hope you're ready for business, buddy," she informed the warrior. "Mrs. Hill's getting anxious."

Neil ran back into the shop, accompanied by a blast of salty wind. "Are you talking to me?"

Gwen shook her head. "No, I'm talking to this guy up here." She jerked her thumb at the poster.

"If he ever starts talking back, I'll know you're working too hard." Neil hefted an armload of recyclables.

Gwen frowned as she plugged in the vacuum. Her fingers traced a jagged tear across the bottom of the Tolemac Wars poster. "Oh no, Neil, look at this."

Neil came to her side. "I guess someone tried to steal the poster again. What is this? The fourth one this month? Must be those nutty women from the game convention."

"More like Mrs. Hill. These posters are so hard to come by," Gwen complained, but Neil didn't answer. The door banged shut behind him.

Gwen swore aloud. She looked up at the warrior who glowered at her as if blaming her for the desecration of his poster. His silver blond hair blew back from his magnificent face. His black leather breeches and elaborately embroidered white tunic molded his body. Gwen always imagined he stood foursquare to the wind so that his fans could admire the honed contours of his body and the straight noble lines of his profile. "Vanity, thy name is not woman. Or at least not in Tolemac," she muttered.

Abandoning her vacuum, Gwen leaned over the service counter and dug up a roll of tape. As she plastered the poster back to the wall, she spoke to the warrior. "Don't blame me if every Tanya, Dawn, and Helen try to steal you off the wall. If you weren't so damned perfect and beautiful, they'd leave you alone. Maybe a few scars and scuffs would wipe that haughty sneer off your face." She laughed and patted the warrior on a well muscled thigh, tossed the tape on the counter, and returned to her vacuum. "Of course, Mr. Tolemac Warrior Snob, if you weren't so beautiful, you'd be just another game--and I'd be poor." She sniffed. "Whew. Whatever it is, it reminds me of a wet sheep dog--or maybe just the wet sheep."

She stepped into the entrance of the free-standing chamber that housed the Tolemac Wars game. It was formed of four matte-black walls with an inner chamber, also with walls of unrelieved black.

The classical music rose to a crescendo behind her, masking something else, something close and furtive. A rustle. A soft mousy sound that tickled her spine with apprehension and froze her fingers on the light switch.

Gwen stood poised, ears straining. The sound was not repeated. She ran to the counter and hit the eject button on the CD player.

Silence pounded in her head as she listened. Had she imagined the sound? Had a trick of wind playing over the roof carried in the sound of a distant fog horn? Trembling, Gwen tiptoed farther into the virtual reality chamber and flicked the switch. Light filled the game chamber.

A polar bear was her first thought. A huge, dirty polar bear lay sprawled in her game chamber, filling the space with its body and wet animal scent.

With a scream in her throat, Gwen turned, tripped over the vacuum and ran. She skidded on the smooth carpet and lunged out the back door.

Rain pounded the wooden boards of the back steps. Wind lashed cold drops against her face. Salt air and low-tidal smells choked her as she gasped for breath and fought the panic that welled within her.

Lightning pierced the sky. Neil stood next to the trash dumpsters, black against black, and frowned at her.

Gwen felt suddenly foolish. Shame that she'd panicked and run made her press her hand to her pounding chest and take a deep, steadying breath.

The back parking lot held only her car, the trash containers, and Neil. "What is it?" he called. Water lapped over the sidewalks and gushed in gutters.

"I-I-I heard something." She rubbed her cold hands on her arms. Her fleece top and jeans were getting soaked.

Neil bounded up the steps two at a time. "What?"

"In the game booth." She omitted what she'd seen. Something held her tongue. Let Neil see for himself. Together, they went back into the shop. As they entered, she caught a whiff of sweat. It underlay the wet animal scent as well as the salt and sand smells that were such a part of a shore community that they went unremarked.

Gwen held up a hand to Neil for silence. Not far from her front door, the Atlantic Ocean snarled. Wind rose and fell with a whine. Nothing else stirred. She tiptoed to her counter and pulled out a long metal bar that was supposed to be locked onto her car's steering wheel. She just couldn't remember to use it. As she brandished it like a sword, she slipped cautiously to the game booth, Neil right at her elbow.

The game booth was really a small room inside another. The inner room held a raised platform and a wide screen for spectators to view the game while it was being played. The players had no use for the screen. They wore a headset that covered their eyes and ears; they experienced the game as if living it.

Gwen took a deep breath, poked the bar around the curved wall and followed slowly after.

Neil shoved past her and stood with his hands on his hips. "These gamers!" he said in disgust. With his battered work boot, Neil prodded the mountain of fur that lay half on and half off the control platform.

Gwen relaxed at Neil's apparent unconcern.

After all, she thought, polar bears did not wear battered leather boots.

Neil gave the lump a harder kick. "Yo, bud. Up and outta here." The small mountain didn't move. "Should I call the cops?"

Gwen frowned. And say what? A polar bear in boots is snoozing in our shop. Now that Neil had demonstrated the thing's harmlessness, she grew brave and made a few fencing moves at the mountain. She prodded and poked and circled.

"Or maybe we should call the exterminator." Neil bent over, hands on knees. "Come on, bud. This isn't the Seaview Motel."

The offending gamer shifted. Gwen squeaked and danced away. The disgusted look Neil aimed at her made her straighten up and justify herself. "Well, it moved." She feigned nonchalance, but she did not lower her "sword."

While Neil cajoled, Gwen took in the small details. Dirty fur, like a matted bath rug, swathed the figure from head to foot. Boldly, Gwen poked the pile again.

Nothing happened. She prodded the flat, scuffed sole of one boot. The furry mountain abruptly shuddered. Gwen jerked away, back coming up against the wall. The pile shifted and rolled off the platform onto its back on the floor.

It flopped back like a beached whale and snored--a decidedly loud snore.

"Sound asleep," she whispered in disgust.

"Maybe drunk," Neil whispered back.

"At this time of morning?" Gwen held the metal bar in both hands, ready to whack the man if he stood up.

"Probably sneaked over from Atlantic City." Neil reached down and dragged the furs open in the center of the long form. "How the hell'd he get in here, anyway?"

Gwen dropped her bar. She hated it when Neil was right. Under the furs, the man was garbed exactly like the warrior in Tolemac Wars II. Costumes were de rigueur at the game convention as well as at her ball scheduled for that night. A dirty, blond beard covered the lower half of the man's face, yet his features were hauntingly familiar. "Boy, lose the beard and he'd win the prize in any Tolemac warrior look-alike contest, wouldn't he?" she asked.

Neil grunted. "Not unless he takes a bath before the final judging." Then he frowned. "Did you forget to check the back door last night?" The "again" didn't need to be said.

She winced and busied herself examining the man. He opened his eyes and licked his tongue over dry lips. "Come . . . warm . . . me."

Gwen found herself staring. His eyes were as blue as a northern fjord, his voice low and seductive. His eyes fluttered closed. A smile curved his mouth.

"Oh, great. A rude Tolemac impersonator," Gwen muttered. "What should we do with him?"

Neil scratched his chin. "I don't know. If you call the cops he might get thrown in jail.

"Gamers are not criminals," she said.

"You're right. They also spend tons of money in shops like ours."

The man rolled his head and snorted like a large boar. It was then Gwen noticed a long gash that extended from his right eye to nearly his chin. Dried blood matted the front of his furs. "Oh, Neil, he's hurt." She dropped on her knees at the man's side. He was a long, tall mountain of fur. "And he's really dirty. It's his fur coat we're smelling. Must of swiped it from a bear. A wet, muddy bear." She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

Yet, despite the coat's condition, where Neil had separated the furs, she could see an elaborately embroidered shirt. She'd seen that pattern of black and gold on white so many times, she could not fail to recognize it now. "His coat might be dirty, but his costume is beautiful." She reached out cautiously and touched the man's shirt.

Heat zinged up her arm. She snatched her hand back.

As if his body had become aware of his surroundings, the man began to shiver. He tucked his hands into his armpits and curled onto his side. The small chamber once again filled with his harsh growling snores.

"We could at least clean his cut," she said. Neil frowned. "He's shaking, he must be cold. Shouldn't we at least get him upstairs? I could clean his cut."

"Yeah, I guess we don't need him lying here when we open up."

"Kered?" The man whispered. His eyes remained closed, but his hand groped toward her.

Involuntarily, she took it. He shivered. His hand was hot. Fever hot. While she held it, the heat seemed to flow up her arm. The hair on her nape stirred. With difficulty, she extracted her hand from his hard grip.

She stripped the furs open all the way down the man's body. The garment revealed itself to be a long fur parka with a deep hood. The man's dirty, matted hair lay plastered against his skull--it could be any color from dark blond to white. His beautifully embroidered tunic, once soaked in sweat, now lay stiff against his skin. Yet he was the image of the man from the poster. "This might be the guy the agency hired for my ball, Neil."

The man's breath whistled through his nose.

"Looking like this?" Neil shook his head. "Let's call the police instead."

In her mind's eye, Gwen saw herself locking the back door, checking it. "I know I didn't leave the door open. I just know it."

"Then he sneaked in while we were busy with customers, yesterday and hid in the bathroom. No, that's ludicrous. How could a guy this big sneak past us?"

"Regardless of how he got into the shop, we can't leave him lying on the cold floor. And if he's from the agency, I can't exactly turn him over to the police either. They'd never supply another event for me." No matter how imprudent it might be, she decided to help him. She rose to her feet. "Let's get him upstairs to my apartment."

"Are you sure?" Neil asked. "He could be dangerous. He was reckless enough to break in here."

Gwen took one more look at the man. "You know, Neil. I think he just needed somewhere to sleep. Maybe he was broke and couldn't afford a hotel room." She put her hand on his forehead. It was cool. She grabbed his arm. The same zing of heat pulsed through her hands, but this time she ignored it.

Neil jammed his hands on his hips. "Are you sure?"

She tugged and pulled. The man did not budge. "I'm sure. After all, the ball's tonight. What's a few hours? Come on. Help me."

As Neil continued to catalog his protests as they hefted the man to a sitting position. "Yikes," Gwen gasped, "he's a dead weight."

"Smells dead, too," Neil quipped.

The man's eyes rolled in his head, then seemed to focus on them. "I was . . . not . . . quitting. I was just . . . resting," he said through perfect, white teeth.

"Anything you say." Gwen grabbed one arm, while Neil grabbed the other. After several false starts, they succeeded in hauling the man to his feet and propping him against the railing of the game platform.

She was five foot seven. The man was almost a foot taller.

"I'll unlock the back door to your apartment." Neil dashed from the chamber, leaving Gwen in sole possession of a very large male.

Her hands planted in the center of his chest, Gwen took a deep breath and staggered as the man's weight sagged forward. "Hurry, Neil, he's heavy," she shouted, looking up at the man who now towered over her. He began to list to the side. "And huge!" She wrapped her arms around his waist.

The man opened his eyes and stared down at her. Gwen could not have looked away if ordered. His beguiling blue gaze swept over her face and hair.

"I dreamed of you." His hands stroked up the column of her spine. His long fingers slid along her neck.

Hurry Neil, she thought as the slow caress of his fingers toyed with the hair at her nape. The zing had settled to a warmth that flooded her system.

"You . . . disappeared." He closed his eyes and began to slide. She accepted the inevitable and tried to ease his collapse to the floor. He fell to his knees, his arms loosely clasped about her waist.

He nuzzled his face against the soft fleece of her top and sighed. In moments, he was snoring again.

Gwen buried her hands in his matted hair and pulled his head back. His eyes fluttered open. She swallowed hard. She had never seen a man so dirty--or so handsome.

"I dreamt you. Your . . . taste. Your scent." His hands moved over her hips. Heat pooled where his hands journeyed. A memory of long-buried sensations coursed through Gwen's body as the warmth of his hands penetrated her jeans.

Drunk gamer or warrior wannabe, Gwen did not need to be reminded of how a man's hands felt on a woman's body. His hands stroked down her legs.

He gasped. His fingers gripped her tightly just above the knees and shoved. She squealed at the pain and landed on her bottom.

He lurched to his feet, stumbled backwards, and gripped the game platform. He swayed and stared down at her.

An expression of confusion crossed his face. The cut on his cheek oozed bright red blood. Then his features settled into the haughty lines she recognized from the Tolemac Wars poster.

Disbelief filled his voice. "You are a boy!"

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