Gabe scowled at his reflection. He’d never be rid of those dark smudges under his eyes. No matter how many hours he slept or how much painkiller his mother heaped on him, he couldn’t shake the exhaustion riding him since the Cat-Mantis incident. It had only been a month and a half and Gloria kept telling him to give it time. To Gabriel, who’d never been sick in his eighty year life, he’d already given it an eternity.
Of course, it didn’t help that the brand new member of the Usuriel family came straight out of the womb screaming both mentally and physically. Only a few weeks old and already that baby was hard to shield when she was upset. Gabriel had a feeling his little sister was going to be a much bigger handful than he’d ever been.
Straightening his shoulders, he pulled a brush through his long, wavy black hair before pulling it back into a loose ponytail. At least that feature was as thick and sensual as usual. He’d yet to date a woman who didn’t adore running her hands through his soft, luxurious locks. If he was vain about any part of his appearance, his hair was it. Most men didn’t have the patience or skill to take care of long hair properly. Gabriel had about sixty years to figure out just the right combination of styling and products that worked with his. This was one of the many ways that experience gave him an edge in the dating scene.
Not that he usually needed it. Between a sarcastic wit and the immortal good looks of the Usuriel clan, he really didn’t have to work that hard at attracting women. In fact, dodging them was usually more of a problem than seeking them out. That being said, he’d always enjoyed the company of beautiful women and keeping himself looking presentable was just one of those things he’d fallen into the habit of in his youth.
Today he was grateful keeping up with himself had become second nature. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so nervous to be going on a date. Probably since he’d started seeing Mystra, if he was honest with himself. He shook his head and caught himself tucking that errant lock of hair behind his ear. He’d had that nervous habit as long as he could remember. God, he felt like a true twenty-five-year-old for once. It had been a long time since any woman made him feel… young.
Olivia did just that. His mind slid over their conversation again. Just the way she’d tilted her head and accused him of trying to play a practical joke on her; the cross between audacity and humility made him melt. How long had it been since a woman caught him off guard like that? Was his telepathy slipping or was he just getting that arrogant in his old age? He did find some people harder to read than others, though truthfully his usual mental shields kept out all but the strongest emotions most of the time. It was impolite, to put it mildly, to snoop about in people’s heads without permission. Yet even without using his telepathy, eighty years of experience dealing with mortals meant he wasn’t often surprised by their reactions. Olivia had managed it in their first interaction. It made him more eager for her company than he wanted to admit. Last time he’d felt so giddy about a girl, he’d ended up ruining things well enough to break both of their hearts. Even though it had been almost twenty years since Mystra, he wasn’t sure he wanted to repeat the experience.
He nearly slipped with the razor on his neck and decided he needed to focus on the here and now for a moment. Once his face was smooth and the flawless angle of his jawline clearly visible again, he applied some herbal aftershave and nodded at his reflection. Well, it was as good as he was going to get these days.
With one more scowl for the dark shadows under his eyes and the sickly pallor of his skin tone, he sighed and pulled on his newest ship suit. It fit as only a tailored garment could and he found himself standing a little taller as the fine, blue fabric settled satisfyingly against his skin.
Things will be different with Olivia, he told himself. I’m not running away or putting things off anymore. He slid a hand to his chest, where the near-fatal damage still felt like a heavy pressure despite the low dose opiates his mother had prescribed. If he was truly honest, the whole incident had rattled him pretty well. Between feeling truly vulnerable for the first time in his long life and knowing just how miserable it was to watch someone he was in love with find someone else and settle down, Gabriel found himself in a position he’d thought he was far too old for. With Olivia, he wasn’t just looking for a dinner companion and casual sex. Though he would never admit it to his mother, Gabriel Usuriel was wife shopping.
Now that he looked presentable, Gabriel tapped his implant to check the time. He had about a half hour before Olivia was supposed to show up. That was just enough time to pick up their meal in the cafeteria and gather a few flowers from ‘Ponics to liven up the table setting. Feeling a small amount of pride at the near-second nature of skillful courtship he’d perfected over the last half-century, he strode confidently to the mess hall.
Dinner was in full swing, so he had a little wait to get through the line. He nodded pleasantly to Marton and Melissa as he took his place behind them in line. They swapped polite greetings before stepping forward to select their food. Gabriel let his gaze wander the huge, curved mess hall while he waited for the second officer and his wife to finish their turn. Near the door he caught sight of Mystra and Draper, their four children laughing and playing around the table while their parents smiled indulgently. With a pang that was almost physical, he quickly looked for some other part of the dinnertime crowd to hold his attention.
A feeling of anxious unease crept up his spine. Searching for the source of the unpleasant emotion, his gaze fell across two figures glowering at him from the corner. Benny and Orville were projecting angry loathing in his direction so loudly that he could pick it up from across the room. Gabriel matched the pair’s aggressive energy with a cold stare of his own.
“What can I get for you, Gabe?” Lizzy’s friendly voice broke the silent stand off and Gabriel shook himself before offering the cook a rueful smile.
“Hi Liz,” he said, “Can you do an old man a big favor?”
She narrowed her eyes at him and gave him a sly grin. “This wouldn’t have something to do with a girl, would it?”
He shook his head bemusedly at her. “Who? Me? I’m far too old for that nonsense.” He gave her a wink. “How did you know? Am I that transparent?”
She paid him back for the wink with a genuine laugh. “You’re never humble unless you’re trying to get into someone’s ship suit,” she teased. “Oh, don’t give me those sad baby blues. I’m not trying to hassle you. If anything, I’m glad you’re feeling well enough to chase someone again. How can I help?”
“You know what everyone likes,” he said, pointing to the offerings on the buffet. “Which one of these would Olivia Coffing choose?”
“Liv?” Lizzy’s eyebrows shot up. “The girl who works in the archives?”
Gabriel nodded. “Red hair? Green eyes? Freckles?” he supplied, just in case she thought he was confused.
“Yeah, yeah, I know her,” Lizzy said, waving a hand. She knew everyone on the ship, so that wasn’t much of a revelation, but Gabriel silenced the sarcastic retort before it could come out of his mouth. Contrary his mother’s assertions, he could be diplomatic when it suited his purposes. “I know you like redheads, but she’s a little serious for your usual type. She’s never at the tavern and her last relationship was almost ten years ago. I don’t know that she’s even flirted with anyone since Marton broke off their engagement.”
Gabriel shrugged and felt the scar tissue on the inside of his rib cage shift uncomfortably. Before he could think about it, his hand found its way to his sternum and he caught Lizzy looking at him with a concerned expression. He gave her a tired smile. “I could use a little peace and quiet these days, I think.”
She looked at him with a rather gentle expression. “You’re not just looking for a little fun, are you.” It was more of a statement that a question. “Liv isn’t a girl to go along with a quick fling. She’s too intelligent and mature to be taken for a ride. I hope you realize that.”
It was too close to the thought he’d had earlier for his comfort. Gabriel dropped his gaze. “Are you going to help me out or give me a lecture?”
“Just letting you know what you’re getting yourself into with that one,” Lizzy said, “Though, I have to say, if you are looking to get serious she’s probably the best marriage material on the ship.”
He flashed a look up at Lizzy. She wasn’t a telepath but damn if she wasn’t reading him like a memory pad today. He wasn’t completely comfortable with his extremely uncharacteristic emotions towards Olivia. Hearing it come out of Lizzy’s mouth made him feel very exposed and he didn’t like it.
“Can we bring this conversation back to food?” He heard the thin edge of temper in his own voice but there was no help for it. He knew he had a reputation for being cankerous, but to be fair he’d never lost his temper and torched anyone. If he said a few things out of line now and again, well, that was a better way of venting than blowing things up.
With a shrug that completed ignored his sulky tone, Lizzy pointed to a roasted tofu and veggie dish. “Liv likes tofu,” Lizzy said, “And plenty of fruit. I’d grab an orange. She almost always takes one.”
In apology for his flash of temper, Gabriel gave her his best melt-your-bones smile and was rewarded with a light flush that made Lizzy’s cheeks brighten. It had been many years since he’d shown Lizzy a good time, but it was gratifying to know that his charm hadn’t faded as badly as his complexion. “Thanks, Lizzy. I appreciate the help.”
“Not a problem,” she replied as she watched him gather up his own selection of chicken soup along with the tofu dish. “Just watch yourself with Liv, okay? You haven’t dated someone like her since Mystra.”
He sighed and picked up an orange, tossing it in one hand before settling it on his tray. “I know. I think it’s about time I gave it another try.”
Lizzy’s smile was genuine as she said, “Good for you.” Then she turned to Gramps O’Harre who had just stepped into line behind him. Gabriel took that as the dismissal it was and left the mess hall, ignoring Benny and Orville’s whispers behind him.
Fifteen minutes later, Gabriel was just finishing the last touches to the flower arraignment in the center of his tiny table when Olivia’s voice came through his implant.
“Gabriel?” she sounded uncertain and he smiled. Nice to know he wasn’t the only one a little nervous about this date.
“Come on in,” he said, knowing Stella would unlock his POD door at the invitation.
The oval door slid open and revealed Olivia’s figure in the doorway.
“Hello,” she said, tucking a strand of her red hair behind one ear. She dodged his gaze as she peered around the tiny but mostly clean single POD. She had on a clean ship suit and he could tell by its uniform blue color that it was relatively new. She’d put on a little lip color and it echoed the copper of her curls quite attractively. A heart shaped necklace hung at the opening of her collar and he followed its arrow down to the lovely curves of her breast. That bust-to-waist ratio was always key to a woman’s appeal for him and he wondered how he hadn’t noticed how perfect Olivia’s was until recently. She had a little more hip than he usually cared for but it wasn’t a deal breaker, he decided, as she caught sight of the flowers and smiled. Her lips curved upwards quite sensually and he found himself wondering how long it had been since she’d been kissed. Those lips just looked too perfect for kissing… and other things.
“Hi, Olivia. You look lovely,” he said, pulling out her chair. “Please, come in. Have a seat.” He swallowed hard and mentally shoved his libido in a bucket of ice. He really didn’t need to scare her off by moving things too fast. The downside to his reputation was that mature, worthwhile women had a habit of distrusting his motives. Not that they were always wrong to do so, he admitted. But he needed to watch himself if he wanted Olivia to agree to a second date.
“Tofu,” she said with a little laugh, “How did you know that’s my favorite?”
Gabriel shrugged. “Telepaths and all that,” he lied with a wave of one hand. “I didn’t have time to scrounge up any candles. My apologies.”
“This looks nicer than I was expecting, even without candles,” she said, shaking her head at him. Her smile reached her green eyes as she took in the table cloth and the white roses that sat in a low vase in the center of the table. They weren’t as impressive as a long stem arrangement, Gabriel thought, but he didn’t want them straining their necks around the centerpiece just to see each other the whole time they were eating. It was little touches like that where his experience came in handy.
“It’s still warm,” Olivia said in surprise as the two of them sat and picked up their forks “How did you manage that? My plate is always cold as alloy by the time I get it to my POD and I don’t see a microwave in here.”
“Don’t touch the edge of the plate,” he advised. Obediently, she moved her hands away from the dish. He reached over and touched the rim. A thought and a little tongue of blue flame slid around the edge of the plate. Fresh steam rose from her tofu and vegetables. “See? Easier than a microwave.”
Olivia’s eyes were wide but he didn’t sense any fear from her. That was almost a little odd, since most dates he demonstrated his skills in front of tended to be a little skittish afterwards. Still, he’d found that if he was going to have a relationship longer than a few dates with a woman, it was better to get the shock and awe of his psi-abilities out of the way sooner rather than later. To his surprise, the first thing he felt from Olivia after her initial surprise was delight.
“Well that’s just downright useful, isn’t it!” she said with a smile. She blew on a piece of tofu and took a bite. “Just as hot as the mess hall.” She shook her head in wonder.
He found himself sitting a little straighter and giving her a more relaxed smile. “Yeah, actually. It is pretty useful.”
They ate quietly for a moment, then Olivia tilted her head at him. “Okay, I’m not trying to be too forward or anything. But I have to ask. Why?”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Why what?”
She spread her hands, indicating the pretty little place setting he’d put together for them. “We’ve never said more than a handful of words to each other. I mean, we’ve lived on the same ship our whole lives… well… my whole life anyway, and we’ve managed to pretty much ignore each other. So why the sudden dinner invitation?”
Gabriel shifted uncomfortably and looked down at his plate. “I need a reason to ask a beautiful woman on a date?”
Olivia gave a rather dry laugh and he could feel her skepticism quite clearly. “Beautiful, huh? Listen, I like sex as much as the next girl. If that’s what you want, I guess a fling might be kind of fun. But I’d rather know now instead of in two weeks when you’re dodging me around corners.”
Well that was a new approach. Gabriel tilted his head at her, trying to decide exactly what kind of response wouldn’t scare her off. He hadn’t expected her to be quite so… direct.
“I know I have a bit of a reputation,” he said slowly, taking a bite of his chicken soup to buy himself some time to think, “But I’m not trying to get into your ship suit if that’s what you’re afraid of.”
“You’re not?” There was something between teasing and disappointment in that comment.
“Not that I don’t find you attractive,” Gabriel reassured her, heat suddenly rushing into his face. Sweet Fate, he was screwing this up already. How did she make him feel so comfortable and yet so awkward at the same time? “I’m just… not trying to rush you into anything… you know… that you’re not comfortable with.”
A small smile played on the corner of Olivia lips as she watched him flounder spectacularly. “So, what you’re trying to say is that you like me and were hoping for a little more than a one night stand?”
“Ummmm… yes. I think,” Gabriel couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so completely out of his element on a date. Without thinking about it, a hand slid to his chest. Just a touch of high emotions was enough to make his ribs feel like they’d been bound in alloy these days. “I mean, if you’re interested, that is.”
“You’re not the perfect Casanova that you pretend to be, are you?” she said, leaning on one hand and really looking at him for the first time. Her gaze traveled over his face and he noticed how soft, rounded and expressive her features were. He found her both unsettling and strangely approachable. There was a lot of intelligence and strength hiding in those green eyes. Perhaps Lizzy had been right when she said Olivia was the best bachelorette on the ship. How had he never noticed her before?
“I usually do better than this on a first date,” he said, forcing his hand away from his sternum and back to its place beside his plate. He resisted the urge to shrug since he knew it would set his chest off worse than it already was.
“For your reputation’s sake, I hope so,” she teased, picking up the orange by her plate and considering it. “Though, I will give you some presentation points. I’ve never had a date snoop around the mess hall long enough to figure out my favorite fruit.” When he didn’t sense anything more threatening than amusement from her direction, his nerves eased a touch. “But I still don’t understand. You hardly know me. Why the sudden interest?”
Feeling a little cornered, Gabriel considered lying. Then he reflected upon how easily Olivia had seen through all of his usual smoothness and her utter lack of intimidation when he displayed his pyrokinesis. Perhaps, with her, honesty might actually be a better idea.
“I’m about to sound kind of crazy,” he admitted slowly, setting his spoon down and folding his hands on the edge of the table. He glanced up at her. She was watching him quietly, a look of genuine interest on her face. He took a deeper breath, calming himself and making sure his chest wasn’t about to tighten up on him again. He hated how badly this injury threw him off. “I had a dream when I…” he trailed off, never quite comfortable with discussing his near-fatal incident. He cleared his throat and tried again, “After I was hurt last month. For some reason I had a dream about you.”
“Me?” Olivia raised an eyebrow and took a sip of water. Her eyes were the color of new leaves, he decided. He really hoped this admission didn’t ruin whatever chance he had to court her because despite how awkward this date had already been, he still found himself more attracted and intrigued by Olivia than the last five women he’d dated put together. “Was it… interesting?”
“What? No, nothing like that,” he was really blushing now. He shook his head a little too fast. “No, I mean, it was just you telling a story. There were children… in the mess hall and they were upset and… it was completely innocent, I promise. Mostly I just found you a rather calming presence and I… I guess that’s what I needed right then.” He hadn’t stuttered this badly around a woman in ages. Hell, he hadn’t stuttered this badly around a woman ever! What was it about Olivia that made him feel like a gawky teenager?
However, rather than looking skeptical or upset as he’d feared, Olivia nodded slowly. “Okay, so a dream. That’s what made you ask me out?”
“It sounds dumb, doesn’t it,” he said, ducking his head.
“No,” she replied, her voice more thoughtful than anything. “It actually makes a lot of sense. You were feeling vulnerable. The dream made you feel a little better, so you went in search of something that reminded you of it. That’s basic psychology to me.”
He blinked at her, feeling as if she’d put his confused thoughts and emotions into perfectly logical context. His shoulders relaxed. “You make it sound so reasonable,” he said.
She waved a dismissive hand. “It is. Though I can’t imagine I can compare to a dream. Sorry, but I’m not anything special. Just the local spinster archivist. I’m afraid you’re in for a large dose of disappointment.”
“I don’t know about that,” Gabriel replied, a half smile tugging at his mouth. “You seem pretty interesting to me.”
Olivia glanced up at him then, expression startled as if she’d been expecting him to agree with her mundane nature. Their eyes met and he gave her a genuine smile, the kind that he didn’t give people outside his family all that often. It caught her off guard, her face flushing and lips parting, as if she hadn’t realized how handsome he was until now. Perhaps she hadn’t let herself notice. She’d assumed he would just reject her once they’d had a conversation longer than “hi, how are you.” I do have a chance, he thought a touch smugly as he heard her heartbeat pick up.
“You’ll definitely regret the whole dancing part,” she said, a touch faintly. His telepathy suddenly picked up her attraction quite clearly. It took all his self-control not to step around the table and do exactly what she’d accused him of at first. “I’m serious about the whole clumsiness thing. I’m about to obliterate your feet.”
Gabriel laughed and had the satisfaction of watching her shiver. Now that he knew he had her interest, he was feeling much more like his usual self. “Don’t worry about that,” he reassured her, “I’ll be graceful enough for both of us.”
Olivia’s smile widened, revealing a dimple on one side. She shook her head if she wasn’t sure what to make of him. “Your default mode is somewhere in the arrogant asshole range, isn’t it?”
He chuckled and gave her his most innocent blue eyes. Despite her easy, unguarded emotions, he had no idea what was going to come out of her mouth. It was irresistible.
“With good reason,” he said, smiling wickedly. He glided to his feet with as much Usuriel grace as was left to him. It wasn’t nearly what it had been before Stella tore his chest apart, but still enough to make Liv’s breath catch as he held out a hand to her. He’d settle for that, he decided, and gave her an encouraging smile. “Come on. We should go or we’ll be late.”