The trickster god of love watched the funeral proceedings from on high, heart twisting in his immortal chest. He realized that death was a part of life for humans, but he did not want to accept that one of his favorite matches had been torn asunder by tragedy. Even he recognized the Fates had gotten it wrong. Von and Amari, as much as any of his couples, deserved to grow old together. Now that opportunity had been taken from them. Unless…
* * *
Confused and drained, Amari Davis followed the tall, well-built man wielding a caduceus and sporting an odd, wide-brimmed hat decked with a pair of tiny wings. He reminded her of someone she had heard or read about in her previous existence, but in her current ethereal state the effort to hold on to her memories was too great. Except for that of a boy standing beside a large sycamore tree, cheering her on as she climbed. Him she remembered.
The arrival of another man wearing armor with a quiver of arrows strapped to his back interrupted her musings and caused her escort to stop.
The two men walked several feet away, heads together as they spoke in low tones.
Amari watched as their conversation grew heated, though she couldn’t hear what they said. Eventually, they reached a consensus, shook hands and her companion rejoined her as if nothing untoward had occurred.
“What was that about?”
* * *
Two Years Later
She was going to kill them!
How could they have done this to her? Sure, they’d sent her back to Earth, given her a second chance, an opportunity to reunite with her husband.
But in this body?
She lifted her face skyward. “Real funny, guys.”
Amari lowered her head to the sound of the gods’ laughter and stared at the bathroom mirror in disbelief, shocked by the image that greeted her. New, unfamiliar…and entirely male.
Talk about tricksters.
Not just any male, but a black male.
She wasn’t worried about her husband having an issue with her race—she’d been a black woman in her previous incarnation after all and Von had loved and married her. She thought he might have a smidgen of an issue with her current gender, however. Especially since she’d never gotten any inkling that Von played for the other team, was on the down-low, bi-curious, or any other variation thereof.
Amari knew Von, knew his soul.
Would he still recognize hers in this altered casing?
They’d met when they were seven and she and her parents moved to the predominantly white suburbs across the street from the Davises who welcomed Amari’s parents with open arms. Amari fell head-over-heels for the Davises’ son, Von, as much as any respectable boy-hating hoyden could.
From their first meeting they were inseparable, playing and getting into trouble together like a pair of Little Rascals. They really bonded one afternoon, however, when Von goaded Amari into climbing a tree that he knew was too big for her because it was too big for him. When she lost her footing, fell and had to be rushed to the hospital with a compound fracture of her arm, it was Von upon whom she’d first laid her eyes after regaining consciousness post-op.
Von was the pastor of a small town church now, one of the most compassionate and open-minded people Amari knew. She wouldn’t have married him otherwise.
Would that compassion and liberalism help them overcome this roadblock?
Stop overthinking, Amari. I have made an excellent match. I never make mistakes. Now go in there, and claim your soulmate!
Easy for Cupid to say.
Amari turned on the faucet, cupped her hands beneath the stream, bent and splashed cold water on her face.
She’d gone through almost thirty years of life as a woman before she’d died. She wasn’t going to switch gears now.
Amari stared at her face, admiring the sculpted symmetry and flawless dark chocolate skin beneath the light beard and mustache. The striking face could have belonged to her brother if she’d had a one.
Standing straight, she took a deep breath and pulled back her shoulders.
Here goes nothing.
* * *
“Are you not going to tell her about the catch?” Cupid asked.
“What would be the fun in that?”
“You are not exactly being fair.”
“Since when have we ever been fair?”
“No buts,” Hermes said, his tone pulling rank. “You asked me for a courtesy and I granted it. I will not warn Amari of the time limit on her task and you shall breathe nary a word either or I will revoke our agreement.”
Cupid scowled. Only his mother ordered him around and talked to him like Hermes just had but even then, Cupid did as he pleased. He would find a way to warn Amari, if it was but a mental prod in the right direction. He couldn’t let Hermes win after all.
* * *
Von Davis had been on sabbatical, exercising what Amari would have called his “white privilege”, long enough.
The last two years he hadn’t had the desire to minister to his congregation, hadn’t had the desire to lie. Instead, he’d been traveling abroad, engaging in dangerous pastimes—what his mother called suicide missions—burying his sorrows and trying to forget.
What kind of hypocrite would he have been to pray for and counsel his people, tell them to trust in the Lord, that all would be well if they had faith, when he had been questioning the Lord and his own faith every day since the accident?
When he’d lost Amari, he’d lost the part of him that believed good things happened to good people, even though he knew this wasn’t always true.
Amari had been a good person, and they had been good together. Yet fate had seen fit to take her away from him one windy day when debris had fallen from a construction site to strike her in the head. She’d died on the spot. He hadn’t had a chance to say good-bye.
Only after the incident had officials uncovered how unsafe the site had been, how many serious violations the proprietor had amassed. The knowledge was too little too late.
What money he’d earned from the suit he’d allowed his and Amari’s parents to lodge against the city, he’d donated to Amari’s family, his church and several other worthy charities close to his and Amari’s heart.
What good did having all that money mean to him if he didn’t have his wife with whom to enjoy it? He had been wealthy all his life but he hadn’t been truly rich until he’d met Amari.
A month ago, however, he’d received a sign while skydiving, his first since the accident.
His main parachute had failed, and during the several seconds of freefall afterward Amari’s face had appeared before him in the clouds, big as day, except it wasn’t her face at all. Von felt her spirit, however, then a strange voice told him all would be well and he and his wife would be together again.
Initially, he’d taken this to mean he would soon die, and he welcomed the idea of being reunited with Amari. Then the automatic activation device deployed his reserve, his training reflexively kicked in and he safely landed on earth.
Today was his first day back on duty after the sudden departure of his replacement.
He had once liked the intimacy of his small town church, the one-on-one contact with his parishioners, but wondered if hiding behind the day-to-day operations of a larger parish, a place where he could bury himself in the work, would have been a better idea.
Once Von arrived, however, the routine settled over him like a well-worn coat.
He’d come in early and spent the morning reviewing his agenda, checking e-mails, preparing a sermon for Sunday, studying the bible and praying. Praying for strength to get him through the day. Praying for another sign.
Von finished the last of numerous scheduled planning and staff meetings with his assistant, minister, and several congregational leaders. He looked forward to winding down with a simple lunch in his office and more studying and prayer.
He stood in the sanctuary after the meeting though, reflecting on the weight of his position. Being a pastor was a 24-7 job and he’d never taken lightly the privilege of caring for his people. The yoke of his vocation, however, was heavier without Amari’s insight, love and support balancing him out and he felt her absence more acutely than he had since first receiving news of her death.
Some days she’d stopped by to drop off a brown bag lunch when he’d forgotten to bring one, staying to lend him her shoulder and her ear when he needed comfort.
He remembered one exceptionally trying day when he’d had to rush to the emergency room late morning after a car accident involving a family from the church. By the time he’d arrived the patriarch had died. The afternoon found him consoling the worship leader who was struggling with his ministry and considering giving up. Before the day was over Von had a visit from a key lay person who confided his wife was cheating on him. Neither spoke for several moments then the tears flowed and Von soothed his colleague and friend.
Through it all, Von always had Amari to whom he went home and unburdened his stress.
Someone cleared their throat and the sound was almost deafening in the too-quiet nave.
Von glanced up from the lectern with a start and noticed the young black man standing at the front of the aisle staring at him. He had the eeriest feeling he knew the man, especially when the stranger’s dark-brown glance didn’t waver. “Can I help you?”
* * *
Amari couldn’t believe she stood less than ten feet away from her husband.
Von hadn’t changed. Except for the dark smudges beneath his eyes and the sadness radiating from him like a force field, he was as adorkable as ever in his rimless spectacles, tall and lean-muscled with his shirtsleeves rolled up his forearms the sexy way she liked.
Time stood still the same way it had when they’d first met and Amari had recognized a kindred spirit in the blond boy with the penetrating pale-blue eyes who’d ever after haunted her waking moments.
Should she tell Von she was his wife returned from the dead, let the chips fall where they may, or play 20 Questions? How could she play 20 Questions with someone who thought she was a complete stranger?
“Are you all right, young man?”
The alien address jerked her out of her stupor and she took several steps forward as Von wordlessly followed suit, stepping down from the sanctuary to meet Amari at the front of the nave as if drawn.
“Why don’t we start by introducing ourselves? I’m Pastor Von. And you are?”
“Amari Winters,” she blurted.
Von grimaced. “If that’s a joke, it’s not funny.”
Amari shook her head and closed the space between them again as Von stepped back.
“I’m not joking, Von.”
“You must be a…a male relative.”
“Look at me and tell me you believe that.” Amari held Von’s long-lashed gaze, something unfurling low in her belly and warming her entire body. The part of her to which she hadn’t yet become accustomed grew painfully hard, reminding her of the difficulties that awaited them.
Von dazedly shook his head. “I asked for a sign, but this?”
“You wouldn’t understa—.”
“Your pain? That you’re still grieving? That you’ve been traveling the world on a self-destructive mission to forget?”
“Who have you been talking to?”
“No one you know.”
Von glanced away and looked at the Stations of the Cross on the walls of the nave as if for guidance.
Amari waited, heart thudding as she turned the small diamond stud in her right earlobe.
When Von turned back, he homed right in on her nervous habit. “You can’t be.”
“But I am.”
Von cupped Amari’s cheek, caressed her cheekbone with his thumb as if to prove to himself she was real and not a mirage. When he tilted his head and leaned in for a kiss, Amari’s heart did a backflip in her chest.
Lips so familiar, full, searching and tender, Von’s delectable taste was her personal
aphrodisiac. Amari parted her lips beneath Von’s teasing, met his tongue with hers, returning his plea with equal measure.
The subtle spicy musk of Von’s cologne and natural male scent tickled something inside Amari, unearthing memories that had her pulling away and stumbling back.
She pressed her hand to her mouth, looked at her husband in shock.
“Why are you looking at me like you’re seeing me for the first time?”
Because she was!
How could Amari want him so badly, but feel like she was being unfaithful to her former self? How could she desire him the way she once did, when she had such different plumbing?
You are soulmates. Your…plumbing is inconsequential.
Amari wanted to believe Cupid, believe things were so simple, but how could she?
Her husband was a pastor and even if he recognized and accepted her beneath the male façade in which those devilish gods had trapped her—and from the looks of it he did—how was this supposed to work? Would Von give up his vocation to be with her? Did she want him to?
Amari’s heart constricted with the idea of Von having to turn his back on his congregation again.
“Ama, you’re overthinking this.”
“How can I not?”
“I still love you.”
“But how can you love me and be what you were meant to be?”
“I don’t care about that.”
Von caught and crushed her to his chest.
Amari pressed her face against his shirt and took a deep fortifying breath. Fabric softener and Von. Clean and fresh. Her man. Hers.
And he’d kissed another man. Never mind the man was her.
It made her doubt every encounter they’d ever had, every kiss, every touch.
She felt like she’d never known Von. Had he been on the down-low the entire time they’d been intimate? Had he been hiding such a vital part of himself from her?
Amari knew she was being unreasonable, even as the thoughts piled on top of each other into an impossible pyramid of doubt. Von’s attraction to her now didn’t equate to infidelity, but she couldn’t help feeling that he was cheating on her.
Von pulled back and gazed at her. “Don’t do this, Ama.”
He read her like the top line of an eye chart.
She was the problem—her doubts, her fears—and until she accepted her new reality, that Von loved Amari, no matter the gender, there would be no moving forward for them.
She couldn’t believe she was letting those trickster gods win, but she had to go.
* * *
Von watched as Amari retreated, shaking her head before turning and running from the church as if Jesus himself chomped at her heels.
He was confused and hurt, but most of all, he was angry.
Why would whoever had brought Amari back to life, send her back to him as a man? To torment him with what he couldn’t have, or shouldn’t want? To test him?
Whatever the answer, Von wasn’t going to let fate win again.
He loved her and still wanted her, no matter her gender, no matter how difficult it would be moving forward. He hadn’t let her race deter or dictate his feelings and he wouldn’t let her sex. He refused to let her go over a difference in anatomy.
Von sprinted from the church, out into an afternoon that had unexpectedly turned gray right before the skies opened up.
He spotted Amari a block away and shouted her name before the first rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.
Amari stopped and glanced over her shoulder, a defiant sad figure soaked in the rain.
She was standing in the same spot where she had died two years ago, the construction site long gone, replaced by a sprawling affordable housing complex.
She seemed to recognize the significance of her location the same instant Von did and started to make her way back to him as he made his way toward her.
Von saw the car hydroplaning on the slick pavement as Amari stepped off the sidewalk.
Amari saw the car and froze.
Von raced forward, hooked his arm around his wife’s waist, simultaneously flinging her out of the path of the speeding vehicle and tucking her against him as they careened toward the sidewalk.
The car never stopped.
“Ohmygod, what were you thinking?” Amari slapped his chest as she straddled him.
Von smiled through the pain of his scrapes and bruises, sat up and held her close. “I was thinking that I wasn’t going to lose you again.” He cupped her face with both hands and Amari gaped and stiffened like someone being robbed at gunpoint.
“Von…?” She looked around as if to make sure no one was nearby to witness their perversion and her husband’s downfall.
He leaned close. “I don’t care, Ama,” he whispered right before firmly kissing her on the mouth. Von felt her soften in his arms, her uncertainties melting away in the spring deluge as he held her tight.
* * *
Cupid and Hermes watched the couple from on high, both with wide grins etched across their classically handsome features.
“I know you warned them about my imposed time limit,” Hermes said.
“I did no such thing.”
“Not even a hint?”
Cupid looked at the hourglass on Hermes’ granite desk. The sand had just about run out. “I might have given them a nudge,” he admitted.
“Because what would be the fun if we did not?”
Both gods laughed, their jobs done for now.