Paulette Noble
Crafter & Tale Weaver

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An excerpt from

A Virtual Reality
Part Two: Realizing Intentions

Before dawn the next morning, I awoke with a barely stifled scream on my lips. Sweating and shaky, I carefully slipped out of bed, not wanting to wake Suzanne or the children who slept peacefully between us. I splashed water on my face from the basin on top of the long dressing table then grabbed my robe and snuck into the parlor.

On the sofa, Carson slept with a bare arm thrown across his face. His naked chest rose and fell with each soft snore. A narrow line of sandy curls connected his nipples and ran down his defined belly, disappearing behind the blanket that lay across his lower half. Did he have any clothes on at all?

Blushing, I quickly turned away.

Before the now cold fireplace, Joshua lay on his side, facing away from me. He looked so peaceful when he slept. I was disappointed that I couldn’t see his face. I watched him for movement, for any evidence at all of his waking, but he lay perfectly still but for the slow rise and fall of his blanketed chest.

Padding past the sleeping men, I flipped the lock on the glass-paned door and escaped to the small balcony beyond. I wanted fresh air and hoped that the solitude of the night would ease my mind.

I had had this nightmare once before, but that had been weeks ago. Joshua had been there to comfort me, but I knew that wouldn’t always be the case. Once we solved this problem, he would leave the simulation. I had to learn to handle the terror of being hunted through the streets of a deserted and decayed Parsol by that she-demon alone. I knew now that the ethereal voice beckoning me, enticing me, was Sheila. She’d threatened to take over my sexual “education.” I did not want to know what her version of “education” entailed. My inexperienced imagination was frightening enough.

Softly closing the door behind me, I turned and leaned against the heavy railing that edged the small balcony, taking a deep breath of the damp night air. Tinged by the wholesome and not altogether unpleasant scents from the stable, I also detected a faint scent of baking bread. I supposed the bakers had to be up very early to have their wares ready for morning consumers. Sitting down in the further of the two chairs, I closed my eyes and put all my attention on the odors around me. I concentrated on identifying everything that I could, from the flowers in the garden below me, to the trees, to the individual scents from the stable and the town.

Dawn found me still analyzing my surroundings through a single sense. Our balcony faced east and the buildings in that direction were low so the sun soon found me. After the cool dampness of the night, I basked in the drying warmth. A small noise startled me out of my reverie. I nearly jumped out of my chair as I turned to face it.

Either still in his clothes from the night before or he’d tossed them back on, Joshua lounged in the other chair, his hands clasped across his belly, his long legs stretched out with his ankles crossed, and stared at me. One thick eyebrow lifted.

“What?” His intense gaze made me feel very self-conscious.

He smiled. “Nothing.”

I settled back into the chair, embarrassed at being caught doing something unusual. Raising my face to the rising sun and closing my eyes again, I tried to return to my previous state of bliss but couldn’t. I was too aware of his presence. I almost always was.

“How long have you been sitting there staring at me?”

“Nearly as long as you have been sitting there.”

I opened my eyes and looked at him without turning my head. “You’ve been watching me for two hours?”

“Closer to four, but yes,” he answered.

Had it really been that long?

“Don’t you ever sleep?” I snapped. Admittedly, I was more irritated with myself that I hadn’t noticed him there sooner. I closed my eyes again.

“You know I do not require sleep,” he replied.

I could see his accompanying smile in my mind as easily as if I were looking at him, and felt a tug low in my belly. I loved the dimples that appeared when he smiled and always wanted to touch them. I held back because that’s not how you touched your brother, adopted or not, and we were supposed to have been raised together as siblings. I tucked my hands under my thighs and breathed slow and deep, forcing myself to relax.

“Did you learn anything useful last night?” I asked. It was high time I distract myself from Joshua’s dimples. “When you and Carson crashed that wedding party?”

“We hardly crashed it, Gillian,” he answered. “It was an open celebration in the town square.”

“But did you?”

“Yes, we made several useful contacts and have a few appointments set for later today.”

“So we’ll be on our way soon?”

“With any luck, in a day or two.”

“Good.”

“Now are you going to tell me why you are out here?”

I sighed in surrender, and told him about the nightmare. It wasn’t actually an exact repeat of the one I’d had—it was more like a continuation in that same awful place. She still called to me even as she hunted me, toying with me. I feared that if I answered, even to refuse her salacious offers, she would find me—and I knew that would be very, very bad.

While I described the dream, Joshua came before me and knelt between my knees, taking my cool hands in his, warming them. He agreed it was possible she could use the contact in the dream to influence me and perhaps even to find me.

“Next time she comes for you in your dreams, call to me, Gillian.” He pulled me forward and placed my hand over his heart. “Call from your heart, like you did when you were ill in The Cove, and I will come.”

Closing the small gap between us, I touched my forehead to his. “I will try,” I whispered, closing my eyes to stave off the tears. Sheila’s immense interest rattled me more than I cared to admit.

The door to the balcony opened. “Gillian, have you seen Joshua? Carson wants to—oh!” Suzanne stood in the open door and stared at us, her eyes wide. She must have seen me from the window, but not Joshua.

“Gillian’s out there?” a small voiced cried. The matching small body pushed passed her startled sister and rushed us, giggling.

Joshua immediately grinned and opened his arm. Liselle crashed into us, joining, expanding, and completing our near-embrace.

Miriam, the cautious one, at least compared to her impetuous little sister, peered around the edge of the door and, with a nod, I invited her to join us. She brightened and ran over, too. Miriam didn’t slow as she crashed into us, her momentum carrying her, Liselle, and Joshua over in a heap to the side, pulling them all out of my arms. The girls laughed with the freedom of happy children. Even Joshua chuckled.

“Nothing like an attack of exuberant children in the morning to get your blood pumping, hey?” Carson commented from behind Suzanne, his hands on her shoulders. More than a head taller, he easily saw over her.

Joshua moved the girls and pulled himself up with the balcony railing. “All right, you two,” he laughed, a gleam in his eye. “I believe it is time to prepare for our next adventure.” He carefully stepped past them, his large, bare feet somehow finding plenty of room.

 

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