Excerpt from This Time Forever by Lucynda Storey

Dr. Redmond counseled hospice, as did the oncologist. No, not yet. Skylar would decide how and where she died. Some damn cancer eating away at her would not take those final decisions from her. She balled her hands into fists. What else was there to do except prepare to die?

Well, damn it, she’d die her own way. She pulled the cord on the "open" sign and the light winked out. No point in staying late.

Fall would be in its full glory in a few days. The color change was amazing in October. She’d close up shop and head to Central City. Her most favorite place in the entire world was a cemetery just outside the former ghost town. Aspens grew in abandon, shading headstones worn smooth by wind and weather. Fifty years had passed since the last person had been buried there. Long enough to give the place a graceful serenity. She chortled at the irony. She’d drive up Clear Creek Canyon, park her car in one of the casino lots, hike the mountain, and end her sojourn at the cemetery to make her final peace with the world. Yes, if one had to die, doing so quietly in an environment one loved was the way to go.

Skylar pulled open the file drawer of her office desk. And just in case the end came more quickly than the doctors predicted and she couldn’t handle the pain…she rummaged through the drawer’s contents and sighed when her fingers touched cool metal. The heavy gun would take away the suffering.

Next to the desk sat a worn backpack. She’d taken the bag on her travels to Europe a decade ago. Skylar lifted it lovingly and placed the pack on the desktop. Threads caught in the zipper, a tear from a pen, even a frequently reattached strap weren’t enough to make her throw this part of her history away. Now the well-traveled knapsack would accompany her on the last, great journey of her life.

She shoved the gun into the bag, along with a bottle of Patrón Reposado tequila she’d intended for the tenth anniversary of the shop. Carefully, she packed her lined windbreaker around the bottle and then added aspirin, the oxycodone the oncologist had prescribed, and her favorite first-edition book, Crossing Oceans, Crossing Swords: The True Adventures of Captain Rand Edward Jamison. The swashbuckler, through his journal, had stolen her imagination as well as her heart long ago.

Damn! Everything was so frickin’ final. The tears she’d held back crested her lids and spilled as fast and hard as a sudden summer thunderstorm. "Goddamnit!" she sobbed. "This isn’t supposed to be how my life ends."

Her nose dripped. At least she wasn’t bawling her eyes out among the stacks. She reached across the desk to grab a Kleenex when the sound of the bell on the shop door jingled merrily through the store. "I’m closing," she choked out.

"Miss Skylar, help!"

She pushed away from the desk, alarm spreading through her, and hurried to her office door. "William? What’s wrong?"

The homeless veteran never asked for her help, although she’d given aid to him frequently.

"He cut me."

At his words, Skylar glanced to where his hands were clutched together over his stomach. A red stain spread from beneath his fingers, the blood seeping through his dirty blue shirt onto the floor, the trail reaching back toward the front door.

Rushing to him, she supported his sagging body. They staggered into her office, Skylar bearing the lion’s share of his weight. With a free hand she spun the chair behind the desk and sat him in it. She picked up her cordless phone and punched 9-1-1. "My God, William, who did this to you?"

"The man with the sword. Hid in his umbrella." William gasped the words as blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

"Hang on, William."

"Nine-one-one operator."

"Operator, send an ambulance to Sky’s Mile High Books, and hurry. My friend has been injured." She gulped, trying to get her breath. "He’s been attacked and is bleeding a lot."

Once more the bells on the shop door rattled, the light and cheerful sound at odds with the rasp of William’s breathing.

"I followed your bloody trail in here, you homeless bastard," a deep, menacing voice called. "You’re nothing but street scum and trouble."

The owner of the ominous voice sounded as if he meant business. Skylar dropped the phone onto the desk. Maybe if she got William to the storage room, she could get him out the delivery door. Hiding was impossible, not with the way William’s blood was dripping. "William?" she whispered, terror gripping her. "What set this guy off?"

"He wants my stone." With a bloody hand, William pulled an oddly shaped piece of polished pale green stone from the inside of his shirt. His breath came in shallow puffs. "But it ain’t his."

The weak, barely audible sound of William’s voice frightened Skylar more. Blood saturated his shirt and pooled in the stitching of her chair at his hips, soaking his threadbare jeans. There was so much blood. It spilled onto her black slacks and the long purple-and-black plaid flannel shirt she wore over them. God, please let the ambulance get here in time. "A piece of green rock?"

"Yes, I want that piece of green rock." William’s attacker stood in her office doorway. She froze as if in quicksand, wallowing in fear.

Good Lord, he was tall. His head, covered with long blond hair, nearly reached the sill, and his eyes were cloaked by a pair of Ray-Bans. A black duster covered his body and accentuated broad shoulders. The open coat revealed a powerful torso encased in a body-hugging tee-shirt, and his wide, aggressive stance echoed the danger she’d heard in his voice. He tapped an umbrella point against the wooden floor.

"No," William weakly whispered.

In the last thirty seconds, William’s color had paled significantly. Skylar placed a hand on his forehead, only to touch clammy skin. Without help he’d definitely die.

"Now, boy," his assailant grumbled, removing his sunglasses to narrow the stare of his brown eyes on the green shard in William’s hands. "I can make this quick, or I can make your death linger for days."

The sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath hissed through the room. Dear God! The blade had come from the man’s umbrella, just as William had warned. Well, the evil Mr. Steed was not going to hurt William anymore, not while she had breath left in her cancer-ridden body. She fumbled for the backpack and grasped the shoulder strap to pull it toward her.

The tall man took two strides and, across the desk, pointed the blade at Skylar. The tip touched the hollow between her breasts. "Don’t get any ideas."

She gulped and froze, afraid to move a millimeter. Without the gun, how could she save William? Where was help? With a sword pointed at her chest, a man at her side like Captain Rand Jamison would be handy. But the heroes of literature didn’t exist in today’s reality, no matter how hard she might wish.

"Whatever you do, don’t let him have it," William commanded with an unexpected burst of energy. He shoved the stone into her hand.

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