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Nothing extraordinary has ever happened to MAGGIE O’Brien until the day she plays a fantasy game for the first time. When something goes awry, she finds herself in a world engulfed in war, a world of warriors and quests. When KERED comes to her rescue, Maggie can’t deny his devastating effect on her. And once she falls in love, she has only one decision to make . . . his world or hers.
Originally published May 1999 by Dorchester/Love Spell.
The warrior loomed over her. His leather jerkin, open to his waist, revealed a bounty of chest muscles and a corrugation of abdominals. Tight buff breeches hugged lean hips and well shaped thighs. Maggie O’Brien’s gaze jumped from his belt buckle to his jewel-encrusted boot knife, avoiding the obvious indications of a man well endowed. Clear thought fled.
“Is the poster straight now?”
Maggie jerked to attention. “Huh?”
Gwen Marlowe scrambled down from her low stepladder. “The poster? Is it straight?”
Maggie crossed her arms and hugged herself against the chilly air in Virtual Heaven, Gwen’s video game shop. “Yes. It’s fine.”
The two friends faced the poster that advertised Tolemac Wars, a virtual reality game.
“Kinda cute, isn’t he?” Gwen said.
Maggie tipped her head back and examined the man who bristled with weapons and bulged with muscle.
“You bet.” She sighed. “Why don’t real men look that good?”
“Now, Mag, don’t be so cynical.” Gwen gave a playful tug to an unruly lock of Maggie’s long black hair. “There are a few men that great, even here in Ocean City, New Jersey. Maybe if you looked up from your soldering iron, came out of your jewelry shop, you might see one.”
Maggie snorted with disdain, clinging stubbornly to her viewpoint. “Some artist conjures them up to torture us wallflowers. He reminds me of those guys you see on the covers of romance novels. Those men don’t exist either.”
“Funny you should mention that. The artist who did the poster is a cover artist for Hearts on Fire Publishing. I just read all about him in Video Game magazine. The article said he uses live models, so that guy up there really exists. Now, stop gawking and come help me count my change. Haven’t you seen the Tolemac warrior before? He’s the hottest thing in virtual reality games.”
Maggie followed Gwen to the front counter. “No. I’ve never heard of him. You know I hate computer stuff.”
They counted the store’s earnings. There wasn’t much. The summer crowds were long gone and the stormy November weather was keeping the less intrepid Ocean City residents home. Soon the small amount of income would not justify the expense of keeping the game store open through the winter. Each day, another store turned its shuttered face to the nearly empty boardwalk.
As Gwen chatted, Maggie found her attention drifting to the poster and the medieval man who dominated it. She caught the tail-end of a question.
“—so why did you come here tonight? You might be right next door, but it seems like we never see each other anymore. I know you didn’t come to play a game.”
Maggie hid a sheepish grin and went to the front of Gwen’s store for a bag she’d dropped by the door. A distant roll of thunder reminded her a nor’easter was moving in. “I’m invited to a storm party—”
“A storm party? What the heck’s that?” Gwen snatched the bag from Maggie’s hands and spilled the contents on the counter, heaping it with clothing, jewelry, and shoes.
“You know . . . an excuse to have a party. I guess it’s also to mark the end of the season. I was hoping to meet someone new.”
“Finally. I was beginning to worry about you. It’s time you got over Tony.”
“I’m over Tony,” Maggie murmured.
Gwen placed a sympathetic hand on Maggie’s. “You say that, but your reclusive behavior tells me different. I want my happy, vibrant friend back. You’ve hidden in your jewelry shop for months. I know he hurt you, Mag, but Tony and you just weren’t meant to be. Try to think of him as just another boyfriend.”
Maggie dipped her head and hid behind her hair. Gwen had no idea of the depths of humiliation and pain that thoughts of Tony engendered, even now, months after their break-up. There would never be another Tony. After all, there couldn’t be another man so mercurial anywhere on earth.
Or Maggie hoped not. “I really thought we’d eventually get married, Gwen. All those empty promises—” Maggie mentally shook herself, determined to banish the painful thoughts. She straightened up and met her friend’s eyes. “Help me pick something to wear. I can’t make up my mind. I want to look good.” Maggie grimaced. “My stomach is in knots just thinking about it.”
“Maggie, you could go in those old gray sweats and you’d look good. You’d have all the dates you wanted if you’d just try a little. Bat those gorgeous blue eyes. Put on some blush. Flaunt those cheekbones.”
For a bleak moment, Maggie considered her friend’s words. “I’m not sure I’m ready.”
“Yes you are. Think positively. Not all men are domineering womanizers like Tony. Give another guy half a chance and you might find a whole new world out there. Now, let’s see these outfits.” Gwen sorted through the pile of clothing and held up a short red dress. “Pretty stunning, but not you.” She cast it aside in favor of a wad of black material. Shaking it out, she said, “You always look great in black. Let’s see this on you.”
Maggie cast a regretful glance at the red dress. She’d spent a fortune on it and the matching shoes in an uncharacteristic moment of panic spending.
She looked about the long, low displays of games. “Where shall I go? I can’t change out here.”
Maggie and Gwen turned to the expanse of glass windows fronting the boardwalk shop. Rain pelted the window, obscured their view of the wide wooden promenade and the roiling ocean just beyond a stretch of sand.
“I think the bathroom is probably freezing about now. I know! The virtual reality booth. Come on.” Gwen led Maggie to a free-standing chamber by the poster that had occupied so much of Maggie’s attention.
Maggie paused at the entrance and stared up at the warrior. “He is beautiful. Arrogant, I would think, but . . . powerful.”
The warrior had eyes an improbable shade of aqua. His tangled brown hair reminded Maggie of a surfer’s, with sun streaks like streams of lava running through its length. Above him, the Tolemac sun, a red nightmare in a purple sky, appeared ready to sink behind a mountain range of sharp peaks, their summits capped with gilded snow.
“Who’s the woman behind him?” Maggie asked Gwen. “Why’s she so indistinct? She almost blends into the background.”
“I call her the Shadow Woman. She pops up at the most convenient times and saves him from some peril. She’s a slave.”
“How do you know she’s a slave?” Maggie asked.
“No arm rings.” Gwen entered the virtual reality booth.
Maggie’s gaze returned to the warrior. Three silver-hued rings encircled his well developed upper arm. Maggie sighed, then followed Gwen. “Is she his slave?”
“Maybe. I only know she’s really good at saving his butt. I suppose, after we go home,
after the shop is closed, he rewards her, somewhere out there in cyberspace.”
“Cyberspace? Do I know where that is?”
Gwen just shook her head. “We’ve really gotta work on you.”
The virtual reality booth was formed by four matte-black walls. Gwen crossed the chamber to stand behind a console on a tiny raised platform that faced a curving expanse of white screen.
“This screen lets me watch what the player is doing,” she said. “When really young kids play for the first time, I give them hints. If I didn’t, Mr. Warrior God out there would be buzzard bait in two minutes. Wanna try? I can walk you through the opening scenes.”
“No way.” Maggie cringed, her words punctuated by a loud roll of thunder. The lights flickered. Maggie grabbed Gwen’s arm as they were momentarily plunged into darkness before the lights came back and steadied. “That was scary,” Maggie gasped.
“Just another storm,” Gwen answered, unconcerned. “Try on that dress.” Gwen played with the console a moment as Maggie pulled off her gray sweatshirt and sweatpants and kicked off her sneakers. “Don’t tell me you’re still wearing that old underwear from college.”
Maggie looked down at her faded panties and bra. The elastic was shot in the bra, and the straps repeatedly slipped off her shoulders. In exasperation, she unhooked it and tossed it aside.
She lifted the black knit dress and held it against herself. “I’ve worn this a million times.”
“If you look great in it, who cares?” Gwen tapped a few buttons on the console. A soft glow rose from the edge of the screen and suffused to a deep indigo as it sharpened into the same background featured in the poster. The words Tolemac Wars flashed red on the screen and then began to drip like bloody wounds.
Gwen punched another button and the Tolemac warrior emerged.
Maggie stood gape-mouthed as the man from the poster approached on the screen. Despite a long sword and other weapons, there was nothing hesitant or clumsy about the warrior’s movements. He came out of the purple shadows, his stride confident, his movements lithe and fluid. He kept his head down, watching his step on the rocky terrain.
Maggie swallowed, the dress forgotten. “He looks so real.”
“That’s the point. The quality of the projection is incredible, isn’t it? It’s even more phenomenal with the headset. Don’t you feel like you could reach out and touch him?”
A flush heating her face, Maggie clasped the black dress to her bare breasts.
“He can’t see you, Mag.” Gwen grinned. “Go ahead, flash it for him.”
Maggie didn’t know what came over her. She threw out her arms and let the dress fall to the floor. Up on the screen, the warrior suddenly raised his head and paused, one boot po
ised to step over a tree root. He looked right at her.
With a gasp, Maggie flung her arms across her chest.
Gwen’s full-bellied laugh drowned her cry of embarrassment. “Oh, Maggie! You should see your face! The game always starts like that. I never thought you’d actually go bare for him. You must really like the guy. Try to remember he’s only a devastating combination of computer pixels.”
Maggie realized she hid herself from a man who might be smiling as if he enjoyed her naked display, but in reality was but a flicker of light and shadow. “That was mean,” Maggie chastised Gwen, then smiled ruefully. “I have to admit, though, you have perfect timing.”
She averted her eyes from the Tolemac warrior who now stood on the edge of a precipice, scanning the landscape, his hand wrapped about his sword hilt.
Suddenly, the screen dissolved to black. Maggie felt an intense sense of loss. He seemed so real. The warrior looked as if he could step down from the screen and sweep her up in his arms. The reality of it disturbed her.
“I don’t know. Damn.” Gwen fiddled with the console, but there was no response on the screen. “At least I don’t have to give you a refund. I guess I’ll have to call the repair guy.” Gwen slapped the console and the soft purple sky reappeared. “Yes!” she cried.
Reflecting shadows from the screen danced across Gwen’s face as Maggie slipped into the black knit dress, an old favorite, practical yet elegant. She walked up to Gwen who stood commander-like at her console and offered her back, bringing her hair forward. Gwen fastened the row of covered buttons trailing down the back of the sleeveless dress.
Maggie stole another look at the warrior. He stood on the precipice, outlined in a golden glow. It touched him with a muted purple hue as the fiery crimson sun slipped behind the peaks. Just as the luminous glow faded, the Tolemac warrior unsheathed his sword. In one fluid motion, he swept it aloft and the last ray of light flashed off the blade, shooting out to cross a rusty plain of craggy rocks. The light touched a distant peak and settled there in a ball of flame.
Maggie stood open-mouthed.
“You’re drooling,” Gwen said softly. “Would you like to play? You can be the Shadow Woman and fight at his side, defend his back.”
Maggie turned away, flipping her hair over her shoulders, feeling foolish and ridiculous. She really needed to get out more. How else could she explain becoming mesmerized by a painting, transfixed by light and shadow, color and form? She forced herself to leave the chamber and sort through the jumble of jewelry draped across Gwen’s counter.
Carefully, Maggie untangled a necklace, one she’d made for her shop, Maggie’s Treasures. She lifted it over her head to let it slide to rest between her breasts. The pendant, a lump of turquoise entwined in fine and delicate strands of silver, floated at the end of a chain like a blue planet hangs in the heavens.
She slipped on a pair of black suede flats then returned to the virtual reality chamber. As she approached the opening, thunder rolled again. The lights flickered and dimmed. A sensation of falling streaked through Maggie’s body. She clutched the wall. Her palm flattened against the poster, touched the hilt of the Tolemac warrior’s jewel-encrusted boot knife.
A spark leaped.
Maggie stifled a scream and snatched back her hand. In the flickering lights, the knife swelled and gained another dimension, each line of the knife’s Celtic engravings standing out in stark relief about the gems. Then the lights steadied, came up to bright, and the knife dissolved into a collection of shadows and color, an artist’s drawing, flat and unreal.
Giving herself a mental shake, sure she’d imagined it, Maggie hurried back to where Gwen cursed over her console. “Is it safe to be operating the game in this storm?” Maggie peered at the complicated equipment with a worried frown.
“Sure, it’s got surge protection. The worst that will happen is a shut-down.” Gwen looked up at Maggie and grinned. “You look great. I’ve always loved that dress. It flatters you.”
“Do you think so?” Maggie plucked at the skirt. It flowed past her knees and fell in a sweep just below her calves. “I’m not sure.” She wished for the total confidence of her friend. Gwen’s red sweater, typical of her bold color choices, made Maggie’s grays and blacks fade into the background.
“What about my necklace?”
“The necklace is perfect. It’s probably your best work. You really captured the feel of your Navajo background.”
“I won’t tell my Irish father you said that.” Maggie lifted the pendant and stroked along the delicate Celtic knotwork she’d designed into the chain. “It’s hard to merge the two cultures.”
“Matches the Tolemac warrior’s eyes, too.“ Gwen stepped from the console. “Stand up here and lets have a look at you.”
Maggie climbed the two steps to the raised platform. She twirled about self-consciously. The screen before her remained blank, the console Gwen had manipulated so expertly just resembled a typewriter missing most of the essential keys.
“How did you turn it on?” Maggie did not admit to herself that she wanted to see the warrior smile again.
Gwen joined Maggie at the console. “This is the gizmo that controls your weapons when you play.” Maggie picked up a small gun-shaped object, holding the thick stock in her hand and turning it about. “You hold it like a pistol. You push these buttons when you want to fire—blue button stun, red button kill. It’s super simple. The trick is, you must aim it like a real gun and have a pretty decent aim. You should be a crack shot. All that practice out on the reservation with your brothers.”
“I hate guns, Gwen. We shot bottles, but I always hated the feel of it, the power to hurt.”
“You only hurt the bad guys with this.” Gwen lifted a large, doughnut-shaped plastic headpiece from the console and offered it to Maggie. “Put this on. It puts you in the picture. If you turn your head, you’ll see to the side, to the back, and so forth. It takes a little getting used to.” As Maggie hesitated, Gwen pressed her point. “It’s really fun. Now, put it on. I’ll talk you through the game.”
Maggie shook her hair out to free the strands catching in her buttons. With the headpiece secured on her head, Maggie had the sensation of being top heavy. Her head wobbled on her neck.
“If you’re ready, say so.” Gwen placed the game gun in Maggie’s hands, curling her fingers about the stock. “Don’t accidentally shoot our stud muffin!”
As Gwen spoke, Maggie raised her head. She stood at the top of a mountain in a strange world. The title rose in the sky before her and dripped its familiar blood. Each drop glistened and, involuntarily, Maggie looked down to see if they splashed on the floor. Dizziness made her jerk her head upright again.
“This is very weird,” Maggie said. Her voice sounded hollow to her and far away. She experimented a moment, swinging her head about, feeling dizzy again as grass and trees spun and lurched before her. Very quickly, she took control and turned to the hill, facing where the warrior would appear, barely conscious of the boom of distant thunder.
“It’s so real,” Maggie gasped, her heart beating a little faster, for she knew what came next. Her breath shortened as she waited for him.
He did not disappoint her.
The Tolemac warrior climbed the rocky hill, each boot placed deliberately. Only this time, Maggie heard the crunch of stones beneath his soles, heard the sigh of the wind in the trees. A pebble dislodged and rolled, audibly bouncing along behind him.
He came straight toward her.
A swift and heated surge swept her body as she waited breathlessly, the gun clutched tightly in her hand. She wanted to know what he would do when he met her on the hill, for she stood in his path, stood stiffly at the console, not leaning as Gwen had, but rigidly in the waning light of the warrior’s world. She almost felt the heat of the burning sun, did hear the eerie cry of a bird in the distance. The scrape of his boots echoed about her. Her heart pounded in her ears. Her mouth dried.
Thunder rolled. It vibrated in her ears, magnified ten times its natural volume. Maggie raised her head in fear, looked from the path to the distant mountain peaks. A blinding sheet of lightning streaked across the heavens, setting the Tolemac warrior in sharp relief. The scent of ozone filled her nostrils. She shivered. Then, as the warrior raised his head and stared at her, the sky flashed a brilliant white. A sudden pain shot through Maggie’s head—pulsed from one side of her skull to the other.
She moaned in agony, clasped the gun to her chest, and shut her eyes against a dazzling flare of lightning. Her head rocked heavily on her neck. She stumbled, slipping to her knees just as the white flash broke into a thousand shards of color and pain.
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