The following excerpt is unedited and may differ from the final format and/or published work.
BOOK 1 — The Order of the Sicari series
|Book 2 — Assassin’s Heart||Book 3 — Inferno’s Kiss|
|Book 4 — The Praetorian (Coming Soon)|
“Oh my God, they were right,” Emma gasped.
She shifted her body so the light behind her shone directly on the ancient tomb’s wall. Her parents had always said the Sicari weren’t a myth. No one had believed them. Not even her.
Guilt bit into her. She should have trusted their instincts, even if they hadn’t always trusted her academic knowledge. With a gentle stroke of her brush, she tapped another piece of dried mud off the wall. The tangible icon was evidence the elite guild of assassins had really existed. Her father had always said the Sicari were descendants of Ptolemy’s personal guard. And here was the proof her father had been looking for.
Awed, she stared at the partially revealed symbol on the sandstone wall. The hilt of a sword rested against the rim of a chakram while the blade interlocked with the circular handheld weapon. The simplicity of the design didn’t minimize the mark’s ominous appearance.
Excitement raced through her as she peered at the emblem more closely. Her fingertip lightly brushed across the surface of the chakram portion of the icon. The chakram, when thrown, could slice through a skull when it hit its victim before returning to its owner. She knew several warrior clans in India had used the chakrams against Alexander the Great’s troops. Ptolemy had been at the conqueror’s side then, and his men could have easily adapted the weapon for their own use.
She’d grown up listening to her dad talk about the Sicari. Labeled assassins by the Praetorian Guard under the Roman Caesars, they were ruthlessly hunted down, arrested, and executed. Her father had never found any explanation for the persecution of the Sicari, but he’d had numerous theories. The most plausible being a power struggle within the Guard itself when Constantine I had been Caesar and abandoned pagan beliefs for those of the Church. Her father had hypothesized that the few Sicari who had escaped the persecution had gone into hiding only to become what they’d been branded simply to survive. He’d even speculated that they still existed.
Carefully, she dusted a fleck of dirt off the wall to reveal a little more of the emblem. For once, she appreciated her unique gift as well as her clumsiness. If she hadn’t tripped over her toolbox, her hand might never have touched the spot where the icon was hidden. She could have done without the unexpected static shock, but her vision of a scribe etching a symbol into the wall had been enough incentive to scrape away the top layer of plaster.
While her special talent was generally limited to ancient artifacts, it didn’t make the initial contact any less pleasant. Just as unpleasant were the fleeting images she sometimes saw when someone handing her an artifact brushed against her finger.
With another stroke of her small, delicate brush, more of the mark appeared through the dried mud. The radio attached to her belt hissed softly, and she suddenly remembered Charlie. He’d kill her for not calling him right away with the news of her find. He might be her friend, but he was boss and mentor first. Grabbing the walkie-talkie off her belt, she pressed the talk button.
Releasing the button, she waited for a response. After several seconds of nothing but a quiet hum, she tried again. “Charlie, I know you’re there, so stop ignoring me. I’ve got something I want you to see, and it’s important.”
She might be deep inside the burial chamber of Cleopatra’s ancestor, Ptolemy I, but she knew the radios worked. She’d heard from Charlie over the damn thing just an hour ago. This time after a long pause, she heard static echo out of her radio. Gritting her teeth, she waited for her teacher’s easy Southern drawl to warm up the dark, musty chamber she’d been exploring. When he remained silent, she stared at the walkie-talkie and frowned. She hit the talk button one more time.
“Stop fooling around, Charlie. This is important,” she snapped into the receiver before releasing the communication switch.
A gurgling noise burst out of the radio followed by a few seconds of static before the chamber grew quiet again. She growled in disgust. One of these days, he’d cry wolf once too often with her and then where would he be if something really was wrong.
The memory of his heart attack more than a year ago made her frown. It hadn’t been severe, but the doctors had warned him to take it easy. Advice he’d ignored as usual. The thought of something serious happening to Charlie sent a wave of fear sluicing through her. If he was having a heart attack . . . spinning around, she grabbed her flashlight off the cool, stone floor and dived for the narrow opening leading out of the burial chamber.
The tight squeeze had her cursing her wide hips, and not for the first time. Coughing from the dust her movements stirred up, she crawled as fast as she could through the narrow tunnel toward the main chamber where Charlie had been working.
If he was having a heart attack, they were in trouble. There wasn’t anyone except a couple of locals at the base camp. Mike and the rest of the team had gone to survey the artisans’ cemetery almost a mile away. Not to mention the fact that Sayid, the dig’s foreman, had taken the truck back to Abydos this morning to pick up their monthly supplies. He wouldn’t be back until late in the evening at the earliest, and until then the camels were their only other form of available transport.
Reaching the main chamber of the tomb, she slid out onto the dusty, stone floor. All the lights were out, except for the dim glow of a bulb at the chamber’s main entrance more than half a football field away. What the hell had happened to all the lights they’d strung up two months ago?
Sayid. He’d promised her that damn generator wouldn’t break down again. If it weren’t for the Magna flashlight she carried, she’d be virtually blind. As it was, she could barely see anything. How many ways could she grill the man’s ass? She stumbled a few steps toward the center of the huge stone room while thinking about it.
Silence. Sweeping the light across the floor of the massive chamber, she pushed aside her fear. But she had a hard time ignoring the déjà vu slithering its way into her head. The whisper of a sound reached her ears and she spun around trying to determine its origin. She saw nothing except muraled walls and several sarcophagi yet to be opened. The quiet seemed even heavier than the ancient pillars looked. She shuddered.
“Goddamn it, Charlie. Answer me.”
The cold silence pushed the hairs on her skin upward. No, she wouldn’t go there. Everything was fine. People couldn’t respond when they were unconscious. That’s the only reason why he didn’t answer her. The beam of the flashlight swept its way across the wall to the last burial tunnel. It illuminated the elderly man slumped over at the tunnel entrance. Emma leaped forward and raced to his side.
Flashlight clattering to the ground, she gently eased Charlie back until he was lying flat on the floor. Kneeling beside him in the near darkness, her fingers pressed into the meaty flesh at the side of his neck. The wet and sticky feel of his skin beneath her fingertips made her swallow hard.
God, he was sweating so profusely. Not a good sign. When she didn’t feel a pulse, Emma reached for his wrist, praying for a miracle. Even a fluttering heartbeat beneath his leathery skin would ease her fear. Nothing. Panic latched on to her as she grabbed her radio and screamed into it. Mike knew CPR. He could—no. Mike was at the cemetery with the rest of the team.
The blaring silence from the two walkie-talkies only emphasized how far away help was.
A clattering of falling rock echoed off in the distance. Fear coiled in her belly as her fingers brushed across the gritty floor and she grabbed the flashlight. The sturdy metal tool cooled her hand as she pointed it in the direction of the noise. Not even a rat staring back at her. She shivered and tried to ignore how the mural on the ancient tomb’s wall looked almost menacing in the stark beam. She dragged in a deep breath. This wasn’t five years ago. She sagged deeper onto her haunches, her Magna slipping out of her hand to hit the floor with a soft metallic thud. Charlie’s heart hadn’t been any good. She knew that. But she hated how helpless and lost she felt at the moment. A tear slid down her cheek.
One drop became two until a steady stream of tears soaked her face. She didn’t think, she simply reacted as a wave of fury swept over her and she pounded Charlie’s chest with her fists.
“Wake up, goddamn you! Wake up.”
With every sob, she hit him harder, but he still didn’t move. As her crying subsided, her anger gave way to a cold numbness. There were things she needed to do, but she didn’t know what. She couldn’t even think straight right now. She dragged the back of her hand across her eyes in an attempt to wipe away the remaining tears. The sudden, pungent scent of copper made her wrinkle her nose.
There was something familiar about it. Her stomach started to churn. Oh God. That smell had been on her hands the day her parents were murdered. Their blood had stained her hands when she’d held them, and she’d never forgotten the way the musky metal scent had permeated her skin. Teeth chattering from the icy fear sliding through her, she reached for her light.
For the first time she realized the metal had a sticky feel to it, and she wanted to throw up. Blood was sticky. The beam of her flashlight hit her friend’s face, and she screamed. The mark carved into his cheek was the same one they’d found on her parents’ faces.
Worse still was the slit across his throat and the blood trailing down his neck. Blood she’d mistaken for perspiration. The flashlight clattered against the stone floor as she frantically rubbed her hands against her khaki dungarees. Even without a light shining directly on it she knew some of Charlie’s blood had already dried on her hand. She could feel the flakes of it between her fingers and it terrified her. Instinct made her recoil from his body, and she scurried backward like a crab racing for safety.
Someone had murdered Charlie. Killed and marked him the same way they had her parents. She froze. Whoever had killed Charlie might still be in the tomb. Hiding in the dark. Waiting. Waiting for her. Self-preservation took over, and she scrambled back toward her Mag. Clutching the heavy-duty light in a death grip, she lurched to her feet and raced toward the light at the end of the vast chamber.
Her boots hammered against the stone floor as she ran, the sound filling her ears with a thunderous roar. By the time she reached the foot of the steep slope leading up to the tomb’s entrance, she was gasping for air. Slipping and sliding, she made her way up the dirt-covered incline into the brilliant sunlight.
Blinded, she tripped over the two steps leading down the hill to the base camp. Tumbling head over foot, she careened down the hillside with a loud cry of pain and fear. Shouts answered her scream, and when she staggered to her feet, she saw Mike and several other team members running toward her.
The next several hours passed in a blur. She wavered between hysteria and an icy numbness. It wasn’t until she entered the Cairo police station that she realized how desperate her situation was. She and Charlie had been the only ones in the tomb. For the police, it was cut and dried. Literally. The moment she’d arrived she’d been ushered into a small room, which had a large window overlooking the station’s central desk.
The main area of the police headquarters wasn’t well lit and she imagined it helped keep the room cooler. The interrogation room she sat in was the exact opposite. Already she could feel the heat from the glaring lightbulbs pushing down on her. Through the window, she watched Mike Granby arguing with a swarthy-skinned police officer. Behind her, Roberta Young, the dig’s financial backer and self-declared intern, paced the floor. The tall woman’s restless movements only served to shred Emma’s nerves that much more.
“Roberta, please,” she rasped. “Sit down.”
The woman immediately pulled a chair out from the table and sat down next to her. With a gentle pat of Emma’s arm, the woman’s gaze turned toward the action in the squad room. Somewhere in the back of her mind, it registered that Roberta looked like a fashion plate for the latest in archeological field gear. The woman was a Swedish goddess, tall with flowing blond hair that she pulled back in a ponytail. She was always gorgeous. Even in the field the woman managed to look like she could go straight to a fancy dinner with just a change of clothes.
“How are you holding up, dear?”
“I can’t believe he’s dead.” A tremor rushed through her. “I’d talked to him just an hour or so before I found him. He was alive. I swear it.”
“I believe you, Emma. I’m sure you’ll be cleared of all charges. It’s not like you and Charlie fought all the time.”
“What?” She stared at the woman in amazement.
“A couple of interns said they heard you cussing Charlie out last week,” Roberta said with a careless shrug. “I’m sure the two of them misconstrued the episode.”
“I don’t understand . . . when . . . oh God, the police aren’t going to believe anything I say.”
“Christ, I’m sorry I brought it up.” Roberta rubbed her hand in a reassuring manner. But it didn’t calm Emma’s nerves.
“Why don’t they tell me whether they’re going to charge me or not.”
“They aren’t going to charge you. Everyone knows you couldn’t have done this,” Roberta said in that cultured voice of hers.
The inflections were the result of her boarding school upbringing and immense wealth. And money was something the woman had in spades. She’d inherited the family import business when her parents were killed in some type of freak accident. Emma had never heard the details and had never asked. Roberta wasn’t one to put on airs, but when the woman wanted something, she usually got it.
Would Roberta use her wealth and power to help her out? It wasn’t as if the two of them were best friends. But if the woman kept her out of jail . . . her stomach lurched at the thought of incarceration. Closing her eyes, Emma leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. She couldn’t believe this was happening. The police were going to think she killed Charlie. They’d lock her up.
“For someone who complained that he’d be a better team leader if Charlie weren’t around, I’m unimpressed by Mike’s leadership skills at the moment,” Roberta said with disgust.
Emma raised her head to look at the other woman, who nodded toward the window. With Charlie dead, Mike was next in line to lead the excavation team. Emma watched him gesture angrily in her direction, but the policeman’s less than conciliatory expression didn’t change. Frustration evident in his manner, Mike wheeled away from the officer. Seconds later, he burst through the door of the interrogation room, his tall, burly frame filling the cramped space. He squatted down next to her and grabbed her hand.
“Emma, they’re refusing to let you go.”
“Well, there’s a surprise.” Roberta’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
Mike ignored the woman, but Emma saw his mouth thin with anger. He tugged on her hand to make her look at him. “I need you to listen carefully, sweetheart.”
“It’s okay, I understand why they don’t want to let me go.” She slowly nodded her head.
“Damn it, it’s not okay.” Mike growled. “Look, you’re in shock, but I need you to hang on for a little while longer. I’m going to the consulate to get some help, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
She stared at him in silence. It made sense that the police wanted to close the case quickly. She was the prime suspect, no, only suspect, in Charlie’s murder. Blaming her for Charlie’s death simplified their job. The way her parents had been killed didn’t help matters either. The reality of all of it seemed distant somehow. Almost as if she was watching it happen to someone else. Mike grabbed her shoulders and shook her.
“Emma, listen to me. You’re not to say anything until we get you a lawyer.”
“I’m not to say anything,” she whispered.
Mike’s large hand squeezed hers tightly and he gave her a hug before he stood up. “Hang in there, doll. We’re gonna get you out of this mess.”
“I think I’ll tag along with you,” Roberta drawled.
“No, someone needs to stay with Emma.” Mike glared at the Swedish blonde.
“I have some powerful friends at the consulate, which means I’ll get results.”
Mike didn’t bother to hide his anger, but he didn’t argue with the woman. Instead, he jerked his head in agreement. With one last pat on Emma’s hand, Roberta stood up and a moment later she was alone. The moment they were gone, a shiver raced through her until goose bumps rose up on her flesh.
God, she felt sick. Bowing her head, she shivered despite the room’s hot temperature. Whoever killed Charlie had to have been involved in her parents’ deaths. That mark mutilating his cheek had been the same one she’d seen on her parents’ faces, a diagonal line with a backward C just above it. Bile rose in her throat again, but she swallowed it along with her fear.
There was nothing she could do at the moment except wait. The minutes ticked by and she tried to occupy her thoughts by watching the activity outside the interview room. Anything to avoid thinking about the moment when she’d found Charlie’s body. She glanced down at her watch.
Had it been an hour since Mike and Roberta had left or two? She couldn’t remember. The hair at the base of her neck stood on end as she suddenly sensed someone watching her. Her gaze scanned the station’s front desk. Seeing nothing unusual, she shifted her gaze to the area behind the main counter.
It took her a moment to see him because he stood in the darkest corner of the office space. The shadows concealed his face, but something about his body language told her he was studying her carefully. Arms folded across his chest, he stood with one shoulder pressed against the wall in a relaxed pose. Despite his casual stance, she was certain a police station wasn’t his normal environment, yet there was nothing about his manner that marked him as an outsider either.
Unable to take her eyes off him, she felt a light touch against her cheek. Almost as if someone had brushed the back of their hand across her face. There was something comforting about the sensation. It was a soothing touch that made her think everything would be all right.
She closed her eyes and drew in a quiet breath. Perhaps Charlie’s spirit was here trying to reassure her. Another feathery caress touched her cheek and she reached up expecting to feel a warm hand. She sighed with disappointment when she encountered nothing but her own skin.
The door behind her opened and she turned her head. She immediately recognized the policeman entering the room. She’d seen him when she’d first entered the station. He nodded politely at her.
“Miss Zale, I am Detective Shakir. I will be investigating Dr. Russwin’s murder.” The officer took a seat opposite her and laid a pad of paper on the table. “I have a few questions I’d like to ask you about your colleague.”
“I don’t think I should say anything until I have an attorney present.”
“Certainly, but perhaps you could tell me if you’ve seen this symbol before.”
With several swift strokes of his pencil he drew a mark she knew well. Her palms suddenly damp with sweat, she struggled to hide her fear as she met the detective’s watchful gaze. She swallowed hard at the memory of Charlie’s bloody corpse.
“Yes,” she said as her breath caught in her throat. “Someone . . . it was on Charlie’s face.”
“Can you tell me what it means?”
“No. I’ve been trying to find out what it means for the past five years, but I can’t find anything like it.”
“So you have seen this mark before.”
“Yes.” She nodded as she stared down at the roughly drawn symbol. “My parents were mutilated with it, just like Charlie.”
“Ah yes, your parents were murdered in the same fashion as Dr. Russwin, correct?”
“I . . . yes . . . I really don’t want to say anything else until my friends return.”
“I quite understand, Miss Zale, but you would like to find the person who killed your friend, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course.” She bit her lip as she met the man’s unreadable gaze.
“As I recall, you were the one to find your parents, correct?”
“No, Kareem found them.” A warning shot fired off in her brain, and she shook her head in protest. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to wait until my lawyer gets here before we continue.”
“Certainly.” He turned in his seat to look over his shoulder.
Following the direction of his gaze, Emma saw the man in the shadows move his hand slightly. The almost indiscernible movement echoed with the air of a man accustomed to power and how to use it. Her heart ricocheted off her chest wall as she watched the silent exchange between the two men.
Her gaze jerked back to the detective as he grunted with disgust. Irritation pulling his mouth downward, the policeman sent her a hard look. Whoever the man in the shadows was, the detective definitely didn’t like taking orders from him. And that hand gesture had been a command.
“Miss Zale, can you tell me what Dr. Russwin might have been searching for in the tomb?”
For moment, she just stared at the officer. What kind of question was that? They were excavating the burial site of a Pharaoh dead for more than two thousand years. What did the man think Charlie had been looking for? It would take hours for her to explain everything they were hoping to find compared to what they would actually discover.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you’re asking.”
“Was Dr. Russwin looking for something special? Something specific? An artifact or inscription you might not have known about?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Emma frowned and shook her head. Charlie had always been open with her and the team. Although he did have the habit of keeping a new discovery to himself until he’d confirmed its authenticity.
“What about this?” Detective Shakir tossed a small medallion onto the table.
The metal object had a flat, hollow ring to it as it bounced against the wood surface until it spun to a halt. Dull and darkly colored, it blended in with the dark wood of the tabletop. Startled, she barely glanced at the coin before she looked up at the detective’s surly expression. The officer was far from happy, and her gaze immediately swung toward the man in the shadows.
She could almost see him narrow his eyes as he lowered his chin just a bit. He had an air of anticipation about him that she recognized. It was the same kind of excitement she always felt when she and Charlie hovered over a new find. The exhilaration that came when you shared a breakthrough with someone who would appreciate its importance. Whoever he was, this guy wasn’t a member of the Cairo police department. What made it equally strange was her sudden conviction that he was trying to help her. Dragging her gaze away from the man in the shadows, she stared down at the coin on the table.
It took her a full minute or so to grasp the magnitude of what she was looking at. When her chest became tight from lack of air, she sucked in a deep breath. A Sicari coin. She jerked her head up to look in the stranger’s direction. The anticipation she’d sensed in him had evolved into satisfaction. Almost as if it pleased him immensely that she’d recognized the artifact.
“I take it you’ve seen this before.” Detective Shakir’s words made her start and she saw the hard look of accusation in his dark eyes.
“No, I’ve never seen the coin before.” She stared at the artifact in the center of the table for a little longer before lifting her gaze to meet the policeman’s dour expression. “But the symbol represents an ancient order of assassins called the Sicari.”
“Would the doctor have recognized the coin?”
“Absolutely,” she said with a sharp nod. “He and my parents wanted to prove the Sicari Order wasn’t a myth. Charlie would have been ecstatic if he’d found something like this.”
Without really thinking about it, she stretched out her hand toward the artifact then stopped. She hated that first moment when she touched any type of antiquity. She never knew what to expect.
“It’s quite all right to look at it more closely,” the detective said.
Still she hesitated, but when his eyes hardened with suspicion, she had no choice but to pick up the ancient currency. The instant she touched the coin, the familiar flash that always accompanied her visions occurred.
It was like watching a badly edited movie on fast-forward. Scenes from the distant past flowed through her head like a raging river. First, she saw the coin’s creation and the Roman centurion who carried it as a good luck charm. The surreal vision grew more confusing as it exploded in a bloody composite of crucifixions, persecutions, and assassinations.
Then in a brilliant flash, the vision threw her forward to the last few seconds of Charlie’s life. The emotions her friend experienced at the moment of his death barreled through her and she dropped the coin with a gasp. Christ, Charlie had been carrying this artifact when he died.
Trembling, her gaze was inexplicably drawn to the man hidden in the shadows. He was connected to the coin, but she didn’t understand how. She saw him stiffen, and in the next moment, the door of the interrogation room flew open and slammed against the wall. Startled, she cried out in fear then found herself enveloped in Mike’s bear hug of an embrace. Exhausted and overwhelmed with emotion, she sank into a dark well of silence.
Emma came upright in bed with a small scream. Her heartbeat pounded loudly in her ears as her gaze darted from one corner of the dimly lit room to the next. Where the hell was she? She sagged as she remembered—Chicago.
Was it morning? She turned her head to look at the clock. Almost six in the evening. Her heart sank with dismay. Just another nightmare. There’d be more of the same later tonight. Pushing a shaky hand through her tousled hair, she scrambled off the bed.
She bit back tears. God, she felt old. Not much past thirty, she was beginning to feel twice that age. A single teardrop slid down her cheek. With a swipe of her hand, she wiped it away. If Charlie were here, he’d ream her good. Don’t go gettin’ that hangdog look, Emma Zale he used to say. Life is a gift, enjoy it while you can. No, he wouldn’t want her to grieve for him. But it was hard not to. Even harder not to deal with the resurrected sorrow for her parents that she’d buried deep inside her.
With the force of a machine gun, rain pelted her bedroom window. She winced at the sound and pushed her feet into a pair of sneakers. It had been raining just as hard at the cemetery earlier today. She shivered in the October chill. Grabbing her sweater off the rocking chair, she shrugged into it as she made her way downstairs.
Quiet filled the house, and it unnerved her. She kept waiting for the sound of shovels scraping against sand or Charlie’s gruff voice chastising Sayid over a small indiscretion. Some sound to tell her it had all been a horrible nightmare and she really hadn’t left Egypt after all.
Thunder rumbled overhead as she entered the study. Another flash of lightning lit up the sky followed by an ominous thunderclap. After so much time spent in the desert, Emma couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen so much rain. She crossed the room to stand at the window overlooking the small garden at the back of the house where she’d grown up. One hand pressed against a cool glass pane, Emma stared out at the water-soaked grounds barely visible in the fading gray light.
The memorial service today had been a messy affair. Charlie had to have been laughing his ass off at everyone huddled beneath umbrellas outside the mausoleum. He had despised Western funeral traditions. The bastard had probably made it rain as payback for his siblings refusing to spread his ashes across the Ptolemy dig.
The gloomy weather matched her depression and, deep inside, her fear. The nonstop rain since her return just a few days ago reinforced how tired she was of the foul weather. It had taken almost a month for Mike to settle matters with the authorities and arrange transport of Charlie’s remains back to the Windy City. More like an eternity.
If not for two of the locals and their testimony about the stranger dressed in a monk’s robe leaving Ptolemy’s tomb, she’d probably still be sitting in a grimy jail cell at this very moment. Throughout the three-week investigation, Mike and Roberta had been her saviors. Somehow, Mike had convinced the police to release her into his custody, and between him and Roberta, they’d bullied the Cairo authorities into moving more quickly with their investigation.
While Mike had returned to the excavation site to deal with the representatives from the government’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. Roberta had stayed behind to keep her company. The days had passed slowly, but the other woman had kept her entertained with stories of high-society intrigue and folly.
Roberta’s wit was every bit as sharp as Emma’s friend, Ewan Redmurre. Perhaps that explained why Ewan couldn’t stand the woman. As an Oriental Institute board member, Ewan hated it when someone upstaged him. And Roberta had done that and more by buying herself an internship with her financial backing of the Ptolemy dig. It hadn’t made Charlie happy either.
Although they’d released her, the Egyptian authorities remained suspicious of her, and the university’s Oriental Institute hadn’t hesitated to yank her out of the country the first chance they got. After the dean’s call this afternoon, she had the distinct impression she wouldn’t be working a dig anytime in the near future either. In fact, if Stuart had his way, it might be never. That thought depressed her even more.
She turned and crossed the study’s hardwood floor to sink into the large, swivel chair her father had loved so much. The well-worn leather held the distinctive aroma of her dad’s pipe tobacco. She closed her eyes and drank in the smell. Amazing how after five years the scent still clung to the leather. Her fingers brushed across the smooth, dark wood of the mahogany desk as she scooted closer.
A small stack of mail sat in the center of the desk, and she sorted through it. The invitation to the opening of the Oriental Institute’s latest exhibition made her grimace. Just what she needed—intense scrutiny from her peers and other interested parties. Not showing up wasn’t an option either.
Most everyone knew about Jonathan’s infidelity, and she refused to let him, or anyone else, think she was afraid to be in the same room with the son of a bitch. Resigned to attending the event, she pulled on the handle of the middle desk drawer in search of a pen. It didn’t give way easily.
Exasperated, Emma released a sound of frustration. The drawer had been cantankerous since her parents had left home for the last time. She’d just never taken the time to try and fix it. Now was as good a time as any. She bent over and looked at the drawer slide. In the darkened space, she could see where a wad of paper had been jammed up into the groove, making it difficult to budge the drawer.
With a sigh, she tugged harder. It gave way a small amount, enough for her to grab the drawer with both hands and jerk on it. Her efforts pulled the entire drawer free of its tracks so it scattered its contents out onto the floor.
“Damn it to hell,” she muttered.
The only things left in the drawer were a couple of paperclips and some crumbs from God knew what. Wrinkling her nose, she scooted her chair closer to the trashcan and flipped the drawer over to knock out the dirt. The moment she saw the envelope with its crumpled corner, taped to the edge of the tray’s bottom she frowned. So that’s what had been keeping the tray from sliding open smoothly.
The drawer resting on her knees, Emma carefully peeled the yellowing tape off the wood. She reached for the letter opener on the desk. Why would her father tape a letter to bottom of the drawer? Maybe a safety-deposit box she didn’t know about? The opener lifted the envelope flap with relative ease and she pulled out the folded square of paper.
A Vigenère cipher written in hieroglyphs. Why would her father have written a cipher in hieroglyphics? Puzzled, she studied the paper and blinked. Over the years, she’d solved a lot of difficult ciphers her dad had written for her. This one made her think she should have taken up Latin instead. It would have been easier.
By using hieroglyphics instead of letters, her father had brilliantly combined the two mediums. A computer hacker might be able to decipher it with the right database, but by hand—the person decoding the message would need to know cryptology and hieroglyphics. She was pretty certain there weren’t too many people running around Chicago fitting that description.
Quickly cleaning up the drawer’s spilled contents, she shoved the tray back into its slot and picked up the cipher. Why had her dad hidden the coded message? For that matter, why tape it to the bottom of a desk drawer?
As she studied her father’s familiar handwriting, a tremor went through her. If only her parents and Charlie were here to help her sort out this whole mess. Maybe she’d have answers to questions she was still asking.
Her gaze fell on the Sicari coin lying next to the stack of mail. She set aside her father’s coded message to pick up the medallion. She’d found it in Charlie’s personal effects a couple of days ago. How the authorities had missed it when they’d searched through his things, she had no idea. She expelled a noise of disgust. The police had taken greater care with his belongings than hers.
The coin was almost identical to the one Detective Shakir had shown her, except this one was far more weathered. When she’d first found the artifact, she’d been terrified to touch it. But when she’d finally succumbed to the necessity of it, she was relieved the artifact had only shown her images from the distant past, nothing recent.
Emma tilted the coin so the overhead light outlined the profile of Constantine I on its head, before flipping it to study the Sicari icon on the reverse. The writing was indecipherable, but the icon was the same as the one she’d seen on the wall of Ptolemy’s tomb. She frowned. The coin she’d touched in Cairo had been found near Charlie’s body. She knew that because her vision had shown him holding it when he died. But this one—this artifact had been in his possession long enough for him to leave it with his belongings and return to the dig.
She turned the coin over to study the worn text. Iter Sicari Domini factis, non verbis aestimatur. She frowned and released a sigh. The last six years had been spent reading hieroglyphics, and her Latin was really rusty. She’d need to download some translator software to verify a lot of the text. At least she recognized two of the words. Domini was Latin for “lord” and Sicari meant “assassin.” Did domini refer to a deity or was it used in a different context here?
A soft creak of wood echoed in the hall. She jerked her head up at the sound and her heart slammed against her chest. Had she forgotten to lock the front door? No, she distinctly remembered turning the dead bolt.
God, when had she become so irrational? She rubbed her forehead with a sense of self-disgust. What on earth made her think the person who’d killed Charlie would come after her? As the memory of her parents’ murder flitted through her head once more, she shivered. They’d died the same way Charlie had and with the same mark on their cheeks. It was stupid to think their deaths weren’t connected.
The Cairo police obviously thought they were. It was why they’d taken the easy way out and focused on her as a suspect. But what about the mysterious cloaked figure the locals had seen? An unidentifiable man carrying a sword. Emma could understand why the locals’ story had raised eyebrows at police headquarters. It sounded worse than a B-movie plotline. A puff of air blew past her lips as she flipped the coin over to study the opposite side again.
Even as far back as his college days, her father had believed the Sicari assassin order still existed. When he’d first met her mom, he’d been an intern for the Sorbonne in the south of France in Cathars territory. Even then he’d been searching for signs of the Sicari Order.
Her father had been involved with another woman at the time, but the minute he’d seen her mother, there had never been anyone else. Their marriage had been one of deep love and trust. Something Emma never expected to have. Her parents’ kind of relationship was far from the norm.
The coin came back into focus, and her thoughts drifted back to the story the locals had told about the stranger at the scene of Charlie’s murder. They’d made the man sound like some avenging monk from the Elizabethan era. Had the Sicari ever dressed like that? Maybe the man at the dig . . . Emma snorted with disgust at the wild notion.
God, that had to be the most ridiculous thing she’d considered yet. She’d found an icon proving the Sicari had existed. She hadn’t found one them alive and living in Chicago. Another squeak of the hall floor whispered its way into the study. Her gaze jerked up to stare at the room’s dark doorway. The pitch-black beyond the softly lit office reminded her of Ptolemy’s tomb and finding Charlie’s body. With the memory came the fear once again.
The chill of it wrapped its tentacles around Emma. Burying the coin and her father’s cipher under some papers, she quickly stood up and glanced around. A weapon. She needed a weapon. The Egyptian dagger on the bookshelf caught her eye. She’d given it to her father on his last birthday. It was just for looks, but it had a sharp point. Better that than nothing at all.
Her hand slid around the metal grip as she unsheathed the blade. Looking down at the silver weapon, she winced. Christ, she was losing it. She’d locked the frigging front door. She knew that. It was just the house settling. Houses did it all the time. Particularly old houses like this one. She didn’t like the way a voice in the back of her head laughed at her attempt to dismiss the soft noises. Fine. She’d check the locks in the house. When she finished, she could feel like a fool. But at least she’d be a safe fool.
The dagger sleeve didn’t make a sound as she set it down on the papers at the desk. With as much stealth as she could manage, she circled the desk and started toward the door. She only got halfway across the room when a man suddenly filled the doorway of the study. Terror kept her immobile, her scream locked in her throat.
Tall and solidly built, he would have been intimidating no matter what the setting. Dressed completely in black, he moved with a raw power reminiscent of a large predator. The effect was so striking she half expected to hear a low-pitched growl fill the room. Black pants hugged long muscular legs, while a thick, black turtleneck sweater and hip-hugging black leather jacket shouted danger. He wore his dark blond hair cropped short, and his strong features resembled the busts she’d seen of early Roman emperors.
Emma swallowed hard. Throughout history, scribes had depicted Lucifer as a beautiful blond angel. Maybe they were accurate. Her fear almost paralyzed her, but her fingers tightening on the dagger reassured her that she could protect herself. She waited for him to rush her, but he simply stood quietly just inside the doorway. Something about the way he watched her sent a chill down her back. He seemed familiar and yet she was certain she’d never seen him before. This was a man one didn’t forget.
“Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my house?” she managed to croak.
“I’m here to collect something that doesn’t belong to you.” The deep richness of his voice had a soothing, almost hypnotic, quality to it. Her fingers flexed around the dagger’s metal grip.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No, I didn’t.” His evasive answer held a mocking note that irritated her.
“If it’s the coin you’re looking for, I don’t have it anymore,” Emma sneered with more bravado than she felt. “So you’d better get out before the police arrive.”
“Never lie unless you can be convincing.” Amusement curled his lips in a slight smile. “I’m not convinced.”
The mockery in his expression kicked her anger into high gear. Arrogant bastard. Why in the hell hadn’t she taken those karate classes her mother tried to push her into years ago? She might have been able to take him. Then again, maybe not.
Just the breadth of his chest and width of his shoulders would have made Emma think twice about going up against him even with martial skills. He could easily crush her. So why didn’t he? His amusement grew more pronounced as he moved deeper into the room. Sweet Jesus, was he wearing a sword on his back? Her heart skipped several beats before it settled back into a frantic rhythm. Taking a quick step back, she raised her meager weapon in a defensive gesture.
“Come any closer and you’ll be sorry.”
This time the man actually chuckled. He arched his eyebrows at Emma as a strange pressure bit into her skin at the base of her palm. They were the only two people in the room, but she could swear someone had her by the wrist. The unseen hand squeezed tighter until her fingers flexed open and released the dagger.
The pressure vanished as the blade left her hand. But it didn’t hit the floor. Instead, it hovered in the air just below her hand before it flew across the room to become embedded in the wall on her right. The blade wobbled back and forth for a moment, until it grew still and remained buried deep in the wood.
“Now then,” he murmured. “I want to know where the Tyet of Isis is.”
Horrified, she simply stared at the dagger sticking out of the wall. What the—he’d done the impossible. No, she knew differently. Anything was possible. All she had to do was look in the mirror for proof of weird science. But it didn’t change the fact she was in trouble. Trouble with a capital T. She didn’t know how he’d performed that particular trick, but it made him even more dangerous than she’d realized. Determined not to show any fear, she shook her head as she dragged her gaze back to his.
“The Tyet of Isis is a symbol, not a thing.”
“Correct,” he said as his mouth tilted upward. “A symbol in the form of a knot often used to represent the Egyptian goddess Isis. But I’m looking for an artifact that goes by the same name.”
Arrogant bastard. He was laughing at her. “Well, I don’t have what you’re looking for.”
He narrowed his gaze to study her for a long moment. She didn’t like the way his intense scrutiny seemed to bare her soul to him. It disturbed her. He walked past her to study the artifacts shelved on the wall behind her father’s desk. So much for making him think she was a threat. But with his back turned, she’d be stupid not to make a run for it.
Emma leaped toward the door. It slammed closed before she’d gone two steps. Still racing forward, she tugged on the doorknob, desperate to escape. The door didn’t budge. Oh God, if he could make knives stick in the walls, close doors, and keep them shut, what else was he capable of? A sinking feeling gnawed at the pit of her stomach. He’d managed to squeeze her wrist without touching her—could he choke her to death, too?
Panic set in. Whirling around, she realized she had nowhere to run. Her back flat against the door, she rebelliously met his gaze as he moved toward her. Large hands braced on either side of her, the man pinned her between himself and the door. She drew a quick hiss of air into her lungs.
Dark blue eyes narrowed as his gaze slowly dropped to her mouth. It lingered there for a breathtaking moment. A slight shudder rippled through her as his gaze slid downward in open appreciation. She didn’t know what was worse, his blatant interest in her physical attributes or the pleasure his interest gave her.
God in heaven. Had she totally lost her mind? The man had broken into her home, practically threatened her with bodily harm. There her thoughts stumbled. Well, he hadn’t actually threatened her. All he’d done so far was intimidate her. Emma flinched as he exhaled a harsh breath.
“You really don’t know where it is, do you.” Not a question, but a resigned statement. “Show me the coin.”
“I’m not showing you anything,” she snapped. “Except the door.”
If she had to die, then she damn well wouldn’t make it easy for him. His amusement returned as he leaned into her more. Less than an inch separated their bodies now. She caught a whiff of spice wafting off him as his warm breath caressed her ear. Damn. She was an idiot to even think the guy smelled heavenly.
“Aren’t you the least bit curious?” His whisper tickled the side of her neck with heat. She swallowed hard at the way her body reacted to him.
“Curious about what? How you got into my home? Why you’re threatening me? Whether you’re going to kill me?” At her words, he jerked back from her, his features hard as an ice sculpture.
“If I wanted to kill you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Now show me the coin.”
Something in his voice warned her to do as he said. She sidled past him, noting the small earpiece and wire that disappeared beneath his clothing. Her heart sank. He wasn’t alone. He’d brought backup.
Shaking with fear, she leaned over the desk and pushed the papers aside, taking care not to expose the cipher. Her fingers never even came close to the coin before it flew past her into his hand. God, how in the hell did he do that?
Transfixed by his ability, Emma stared at him in awe and terror. She’d heard of telekinesis, but never seen it in action. And unless he was a magician, she couldn’t come up with any other explanation. He studied the antiquity for a long moment then sent her a grim look.
“Where did you get this?”
“Charlie Russwin. I’m not sure where he found it,” she answered automatically.
“This one is different from the other one,” he murmured as he looked at the coin again. “The Sicari emblem isn’t as clearly defined.”
Floored by his statement, she stared at him with her mouth open for several seconds. How did he know about the other—? Cairo. He was the man she’d seen in the shadows at the police station. She should have realized it sooner. It was why he’d seemed so familiar and yet unrecognizable. Her gaze narrowed as she watched him examine the coin.
“You were at the police station.” At the quiet accusation, he slowly raised his head to look at her. His expression revealed nothing, but she thought she saw a glint of admiration in his dark gaze.
His brevity annoyed her.
“That’s all you have to say?”
“For the moment.”
There it was again, that amusement of his. She wanted to punch him. Who was this guy? There weren’t many people who knew about the Sicari Order, even among academicians. He extended his hand to return the coin to her. She hesitated. What kind of thief would give it back as if they’d been discussing work?
His amusement deepened as his dark eyes dared her to take it from him. Infuriated by the challenge in his glittering gaze, she snatched the bronze currency from his grasp. The moment she came into solid contact with the coin and his fingers, a strong charge of electricity charged through her. The images came fast and furious. Dark, mysterious, and potent, they held her powerless.
Suddenly, death filled Emma’s mind with its foul stench. Dark, torturous, and bloody. The Roman solider was dying. He laid the coin in the palm of a young man’s hand and wrapped the fingers around the coin. The new owner lifted a young boy up onto a horse then gave the child the coin, pointing to the words on its surface.
As if someone had spun her around until she was dizzy, the images collapsed in on one another until a clear picture came into focus. The hooded figure, his cloak flowing out behind him, strode through a massive cathedral. Deadly purpose filled the assassin’s stride, the coin in his pocket a family talisman. He vanished in the shifting images until a woman’s face flashed before her.
Death had frozen the woman’s pain on her face. Then with the speed of a freight train, the vision threw her forward. The stranger stood over a dead man, his sword dark in the moonlight. Blood covered his hands and she wanted to scream at the sight of it. Rage, pain, grief, love, and something much darker flowed through the coin and his fingers and into her mind. The overwhelming power of it made the room spin as she fought to remain upright.
Desperate to break the connection and find sanctuary from the deluge of emotions, she jerked her hand free of his. The Sicari coin fell to the floor, where it bounced several times with a repetitive clang until it went silent.
The man reached for Emma, but she staggered away with a cry that stopped him. Falling to her knees, she bent over to touch the floor and prayed for the nausea to pass. Once in a while, she’d pick up images from another individual when they’d hand her an artifact. Never anything like this. The intensity of the graphic scenes and the emotions she’d felt had been overwhelming.
“Let me help you.”
His words struck her as funny. He’d broken into her home, demanded she hand over an object she didn’t have, and now he wanted to help her? It was his fault she felt so crappy. She choked out a bitter laugh.
“No . . . thank you. I think you’ve done . . . quite enough for the moment.”
“You’re a telepath.” Crouching beside her, he studied her with thoughtful deliberation. Like Lake Michigan during a storm, the deep blue of his eyes echoed with a mysterious, dark danger. And he was dangerous. He’d killed before. She’d seen the blood on his hands. It chilled her. No, it was the coin. Everything she’d seen had come from the coin. None of what she’d seen was related to the stranger. Her breathing hitched at the memory of those last images. She had never been a good liar.
“If you mean . . . I can hear what people . . . are thinking. No,” Emma muttered as her equilibrium began to right itself. She uncurled from a fetal posture and eased herself up into a sitting position. “When I touch inanimate objects—antiquities, I see images, flashes of past events.”
“Does it always make you this ill?”
“No.” She pulled in a deep breath. “But then it’s unusual for me to see things when I touch someone.”
Unusual? This was the first time she’d ever had a physical reaction this strong—this overwhelming—when taking an artifact from someone else. Occasionally, she’d glimpse some small tidbit of a colleague’s past when objects had changed hands. But even then, her physical reaction had been little more that a bite of static electricity. Nothing so intense it would make her sick to her stomach. Even then, all she’d ever experienced was an awareness of incidents, not images. And most definitely not images like the ones she’d seen with this man. She shuddered. He must have served as a conductor of sorts.
“But you did see something when I handed you the coin.”
The flat, emotionless statement made her heart pound as fear pumped blood through her veins at an accelerated rate.
“Everything was pretty much a blur,” she lied as her gaze slid away from his. Strong fingers grasped her chin, and she stiffened, waiting for the electric shock and the visions to happen again. But they didn’t. She closed her eyes in a brief prayer of gratitude. He’d simply been a conductor for the coin, which explained why some of what she’d seen had been associated with him.
“I seem to recall advising you not to lie unless you do it well.”
A hint of irony touched his lips as he effortlessly pulled her to her feet. Large hands cradled her waist as he steadied her. The touch made her heart skip a beat as a jolt of awareness slid through her veins. Primal and intense, the sensation swept through her like a wave crashing against a rocky coastline. Suddenly realizing she hadn’t contradicted him, she swallowed hard.
“No. Really. Everything was jumbled together. Most of it didn’t even make sense.”
Releasing her, he folded his arms across his chest to study her with a watchful gaze. His features suddenly brought to mind the bust of Ptolemy they’d uncovered at the dig last year. The arrogance and unrelenting expression on his face only emphasized his likeness to the ancient Pharaoh.
“Most of it?” His eyebrow arched with wry skepticism. “What did make sense to you?” That hadn’t been a question. More like a command. If she obeyed, he might let her live.
Ares knew he intimidated her. The fear flashing in those wide hazel eyes simply confirmed the knowledge. Yet she remained defiant. He liked that about her. Even that day in the Cairo police station he’d admired her strength and courage.
She’d been even more frightened then. Frightened and vulnerable. It had been that vulnerability that had made him reach out to comfort her when he shouldn’t have. But he’d been intrigued by Emma Zale then just as much as he was now. And that wasn’t good—especially when she was so easy on the eyes.
Her light brown hair barely touched her shoulders, and there was just a trace of red running through it. The color suited the fire in her. A flash of spirit that still burned in those beautiful eyes. Long, dark eyelashes almost brushed her cheeks as she averted her gaze in an attempt to hide her rebellious expression.
Then there were her curves. She’d lost some weight since that day in the Cairo police station, but she was still full and lush in all the right places. His fingers bit into his biceps. Christus, he needed to focus on why he was here, not Emma’s softly rounded body.
But it was difficult to ignore the way her cardigan caressed amply rounded breasts or how her jeans hugged her voluptuous hips. A man could get lost in her body if he played his cards right. He grimaced at how easily she could distract him. She tilted her chin up and met his gaze.
“You’ve killed before,” she said softly.
He went rigid. Merda. What else had she seen? Tension stretched the muscles in his jaw so tight his whole face ached. God help him, and her, if she knew too much. If the Praetorians suspected for one moment—he dismissed the thought. She flinched as he narrowed his gaze at her.
“You seem quite certain of your facts.”
“Well, I didn’t actually see you kill someone, if that’s what you’re implying,” she snapped. “But I know death when I see it—feel it.”
He didn’t doubt her. He’d seen the morgue photos of her parents in her case file, and he’d seen Russwin’s body in Cairo. He could empathize with her, too. But when it came to denying his past—he couldn’t. As a Sicari, he was trained to kill. Blood stained his hands, but he killed only to protect the innocent or administer justice when the legal system failed. A Sicari didn’t kill for pleasure. It was against their code of honor. Now Praetorian warriors—those bastards enjoyed torturing their prey. They didn’t believe in honor. If they’d ever had any honor at all, it had died out of their bloodline when the Roman Empire fell.
“There are some who find killing a pleasurable occupation,” he said coldly. He didn’t like admitting it, but the condemnation in her voice stung.
“I’m sorry.” She heaved a sigh. “I felt the pain of your loss, and I understand what it’s like to want justice for someone you care about.”
The muscle in his cheek twitched. Mater Dei, the woman had seen a hell of a lot more than he thought. Did she know the Sicari Order had a file on her—on her entire family? He should have left the house the moment he realized she was here.
But he hadn’t.
Biting the inside of his cheek, he turned away from her. Leave it to him to trust his librarians’ research and not his gut. Sandro and Octavia were going to wish they were still file clerks when he got through with them. Emma Zale had never heard of the Tyet of Isis until tonight. He’d bet his life on it.
Fotte. He’d put her at risk by coming here. All it took was one fleeting thought for a Praetorian to realize she knew something—even if it was only a sliver of information. A growl of frustration rumbled out of him. At this point he wasn’t left with much in the way of choices. He whirled around to face her. She jumped back, her hands up in a gesture of surrender.
“Look, I don’t have what you’re looking for. So just go. I promise to forget the whole thing.”
“It’s not quite that easy,” he muttered.
“Of course it is. You just turn and walk out of here.” She pointed toward the door. “You can still walk, can’t you?”
Despite the gravity of the situation, her sarcasm made him laugh. She refused to be bullied in spite of her fear. Eyes wide with surprise, she stared up at him. With another chuckle, he bent his head toward her.
“I like you, Emma Zale.” She looked at him in amazement, and he laughed softly. “You’re going to need that humor of yours.”
“How in the hell do you know my name?”
“The same way I knew where to find you.” He shrugged. The less she knew, the safer she was. The more she knew, the harder it would go for her if the Praetorians caught up with her.
“That’s not an answer and you know it.”
“True, but it’s the only one you’ll get for the moment.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means you’ll have to come with me,” he said with resignation. Taking her with him was the last thing he wanted to do. Emma Zale meant trouble. And problems he could do without. She’d only complicate matters for him.
“I’m not going anywhere with you.” Her mouth tightened in a rebellious pout.
“Unfortunately, you don’t have a choice.”
“That’s what you think,” Emma snapped. With a vicious shove, she knocked him off balance and leaped toward the door.
“Deus damno id, woman.”
He quickly recovered his equilibrium then reached out with his mind to stop her. She stumbled as he forced her to face him. Gritting his teeth, Ares narrowed his eyes at her. It was time Emma Zale realized exactly what she was up against. Slowly, he pulled her toward him.
She fought every step of the way, but he easily overpowered her resistance. His ability had limits dependent on distance as well as his physical and mental exertion, but she didn’t know that. And manipulating her wasn’t that difficult. With little effort at all, he forced her to cross the room until she stood less than a foot away from him. Jaw clenched in anger, his thoughts sent her stumbling forward until her body pressed into his.
The scent of coconut butter filled his nostrils as his body reacted to hers. The primal response startled him. Arms at his sides, he held her tight against him with nothing more than his thoughts. Damno, she felt good.
“Afraid?” he growled, irritated she could affect his senses so easily.
“No,” she snapped.
“Not even just a little?”
His anger gave way to something else as he studied the succulent fullness of her mouth. The moment he visualized rubbing his thumb across her plump bottom lip, she gasped. Her hand flew to her mouth, her fingers touching the spot that fascinated him.
“Let me go.” Anger made her eyes flash with amber sparks. Definitely feisty.
“I don’t see me holding you against your will.” He clasped his hands behind his back with a sense of satisfaction. A second later, he pictured her arms sliding up to encircle his neck. Outrage parted her lips in a loud gasp as she reached up to cling to him. He bit back a smile at the sound.
“If you don’t let me go, I’m going to scream,” she snapped.
“No. I don’t think you will.”
Lowering his head, he lightly brushed his mouth across hers. Her body went rigid with surprise, but he barely noticed as he unclasped his hands and reached for her waist. Sweet. She tasted sweet with just a tinge of citrus. He wanted more. His hands cupping her face, he deepened the kiss, teasing himself with the warm flavor of her. Releasing his mental hold on her, he half expected her to pull away. She didn’t.
He nibbled at her bottom lip, waiting to see if she’d open herself up to him. When she did, he eagerly explored the heat of her soft mouth. His body hardened in a split second. Christus, she was hot against his tongue. Hot, sweet, and delectable. His hands slid down over her shoulders and across her back until he cupped the lush curve of her bottom.
With a tug, Ares removed the breath of air between their bodies, his cock pressing into her soft thigh. Desire sent his hand upward over her hip until his fingers brushed across the fullness of her breast, and his thumb rubbed over a hard nipple. She felt good. Sexy and tempting in the best possible way.
The image of her naked beneath him sent his temperature skyrocketing. His control slipped further as she shifted her hips against his in a carnal move that left him throbbing with need. The buttery sweet fragrance of her filled his senses, whetting his appetite for more. A moment later, her hand caressed him through his trousers. He groaned with pleasure as he eagerly pressed himself into her palm.
Damno, he wanted her hand around his bare flesh. No, he wanted a hell of a lot more than that. And God knew she was eager and willing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been laid, and this woman would be a hell of a lot more than just a one-night stand. The sweet softness of her would keep him coming back for more of the same. The jarring thought pierced the emotions raging through him. Fotte. What was he doing?
He jerked free of her and shoved his fingers though his hair. He’d only meant to silence her. He’d known she’d be trouble, but this had the makings of a disaster. He shot her a quick glance then looked away. That flushed, just kissed, look of hers only managed to make him hotter and a damned sight more uncomfortable. Furious with his behavior and his lack of discipline for the second time in one evening, he gritted his teeth. The best way to deal with the problem Emma Zale posed was to keep his distance mentally and physically. Still infuriated by his inability to master his attraction to her, he scowled at her.
“Do you wish me to continue my demonstration?”
“Of what? Your ability to control my physical movements or your unwanted attentions?” She returned his glare as she deliberately wiped her hand across her mouth. His eyes narrowed.
“I don’t recall you protesting too loudly,” he snapped.
Heat crested in her cheeks as Emma clenched her fists. Hell, he was a manipulative bastard, but he was right. She had kissed him back. She’d enjoyed kissing him. Worse than that, she’d caressed the hard thickness of him with the intimacy of a lover. And she’d wanted him. Wanted him in the worst possible way. The hot ache between her thighs told her that.
What had possessed her to get so caught up in a kiss she’d been willing to let him do whatever he wanted with her? She winced with disgust at her thoughts. She was out of her frigging mind. The man had broken into her home, held her hostage—how in the hell could she be attracted to him?
The muted chime of the doorbell suddenly echoed in the study. He jerked his head toward the closed door. She watched him as he evaluated the situation in the same way a predator calculated threats. The doorbell rang again. Without a word, he reached out and grabbed her arm. Dragging her with him, he pulled her into the dark hallway. The blackened corridor made her balk. It had been this dark when she’d found Charlie.
“No,” she exclaimed. “I—”
In a heartbeat, he covered her mouth with his large hand and jerked her backward into his chest. The moment his hard, muscular frame pressed into her back, a rush of heat flooded her veins. Nestled against him like this created a pleasurable, intimate warmth she didn’t want to enjoy. But she did. She liked it far too much. God, she really had lost her mind.
“Were you expecting someone?” he breathed into her ear. “Just nod yes or no.”
She nodded. Earlier at the memorial service, Ewan had said he might come by to check on her. If it was anyone she knew, it would be him. The doorbell chimed again and once more immediately after. Only Ewan rang the bell like that. Impatient and often irritating, it didn’t change the fact that he was brilliant when it came to ancient civilizations.
“It’s my friend, Ewan,” she mumbled into the hand covering her mouth.
The intruder tightened his hold on her, his arm riding up to brush against the underside of her breasts. Her body tingled at the contact. The warmth of his breath caressed her cheek as he pressed his mouth to her ear.
“It’s not safe for you here, Emma.” He hesitated. She could feel it in the way his hard body relaxed against hers.
He eased his hand away from her mouth and turned her to face him. The indecision in his expression startled her. After everything she’d seen, she knew it was a foreign emotion to him. For the first time she began to think he really was concerned for her welfare. She shook her head slightly.
“Why isn’t it safe?”
“I can’t tell you that right now. There’s no time. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“Oh right,” she sniffed with derision as the doorbell rang again. “Look, if I don’t let Ewan in, he’s going to call the police.”
“Answer it,” he rasped with harsh resolve. “But when he’s gone, you’re coming with me, Emma. Count on it.”
“Go to hell,” she snapped in a breathy whisper as the doorbell rang again.
He gave her a slight push toward the foyer. Although it was still dark in the hallway, her eyes had adjusted to the small amount of available light. And for some reason his presence made the darkness a little less threatening. That made it official. She was insane. Stumbling forward, she moved down the hall as the doorbell rang for a fourth time.
“Hold your horses! I’m coming,” she called out.
As she reached the front door, she looked over her shoulder. She couldn’t see her fallen angel hidden in the shadows, and her heart jumped with dismay. With a quick flip of the hall light switch, she illuminated the entire corridor. He’d simply vanished. A shiver trailed down her spine. God, what the hell was going on here? This guy made Houdini look like an amateur. No, not a magician. The stranger was anything but that. Her hand slid over her wrist as she recalled his uncanny ability. Turning back to the door, she reached for the doorknob then froze. The deadbolt hadn’t been touched. How in the hell had he gotten into the house? The sudden pounding on the opposite side of the door made her jump.
“Emma? Are you quite all right?” Ewan’s distinctive English accent echoed through the door, and she heaved a sigh of relief.
Without hesitation she unlocked the door and tugged it open. For once, she welcomed the sight of Ewan’s angular features and graying hair. Most of the time, his pompous attitude grated on her, but after the day she’d had, well, even the devil himself would be welcome. She winced inwardly. Definitely the wrong choice of phrase. Lucifer had come and gone already, leaving her more confused than she’d ever been in her life.
Always meticulous in appearance, Ewan Redmurre was a throwback to a fifties-era professor. Any fashionista would have a stroke just looking at him. But Ewan’s look fit his personality. Somewhat stuffy, rich in anal-retentive detail, but mostly—brilliant. Tonight, though, the rain had left him drenched and he was obviously displeased about it.
“What the devil took you so long?” he groused as he stepped into the foyer. “I’m soaking wet.”
She jumped aside as he shrugged out of his trench coat and proceeded to shake the rain off it onto the entryway’s floor. Gritting her teeth at the action, she took the coat out of his hands. Okay, warm fuzzies about Ewan were gone. Didn’t the man believe in umbrellas? Not waiting for him to shake the water off his fedora, she lifted it off his head then hung both items on the peg hooks next to the door.
“I was . . . talking with someone . . .”
Remembering the intruder’s concern for her safety, she frowned. Her hesitation surprised her. Ewan might be an ass sometimes, but she’d known him since before she could walk. He’d been a friend of her parents since their college days. Like Charlie, he’d been a rock she’d leaned on after her parents’ murder five years ago. She’d relied on him again today at Charlie’s memorial service. But the stranger’s concern had been so compelling . . . and for some crazy reason, she trusted him to keep her safe. No, she’d tell Ewan later when she had a better grasp of the situation.
“Do you want a drink?” she asked.
“Whiskey neat, if you please.”
She nodded at his request and passed through the living room into the kitchen. It didn’t take long to find the whiskey because the pantry was bare. She made a mental note to go grocery shopping.
“This someone you were talking with wouldn’t be that Frost fellow, would it?” Ewan’s crisp accent floated into the kitchen like a brisk breeze. “The last thing you need is to be talking to that moronic jackass.”
The mention of Jonathan made her flinch, and she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the older man’s comment. She chose to laugh. Jonathan would have been livid to hear himself referred to as a jackass, let alone stupid. Her ex-fiancé believed himself to be urbane and sophisticated, but he was really a liar and a cheat. Whiskey bottle in one hand and two glasses in another, she returned to the living room and arched an eyebrow at her guest.
“I haven’t seen Jonathan since the Institute’s annual fundraiser last year.”
It had been an awkward evening at best since it had been the first time they’d met since the end of their relationship. She finished pouring the whiskey, and the liquor bottle clinked softly against the wood surface of the coffee table as she set it aside. She forced a smile to her lips and offered Ewan a glass of amber-colored liquid. Deliberately, she ignored the frown of concern furrowing his brow. Instead, she plopped down into the plush corner of the couch. Ewan sent her a discerning look.
“I see. At least you’re not still carrying a torch for the fellow.”
“Nope,” she said in a carefree tone. She might not love Jonathan anymore, but the mere mention of his name could still make her stomach churn with nausea and pain. Finding him in bed with his anthropology intern two years ago hadn’t been nearly as painful as discovering the real reason for his marriage proposal.
“Your reluctance to discuss this mysterious individual leads me to assume this is an affair of the heart. Have I met the young man?”
“I don’t think so.”
She could have told him about her visitor, but she really didn’t want Ewan to fuss over her safety. The stranger’s dire warning flitted through her head again. He’d been convinced she was in real danger and equally concerned about her safety.
An oxymoron given the man had accosted her in her own home. Well, maybe “accosted” wasn’t the right word. Hell, he hadn’t even told her whom she needed to be afraid of. On top of that, she didn’t even know his name.
“Have you heard from the Institute about when you can return to work?” Ewan’s words made her shake her head.
“Dr. Stuart wouldn’t give me a date. Apparently, there’s some concern that I’ve become a liability for the university unless I shift my field of expertise to something more local.”
“I believe he mentioned the word ‘classroom.’” She didn’t bother to hide her disgust.
“Bloody hell! The man is mad to think about putting you in the classroom.”
“Thanks for your vote of confidence regarding my teaching skills,” she said with more than a hint of sarcasm. He waved her protest aside as he leaned back in the recliner opposite her.
“No, no, my dear. Stuart’s a fool not to send you back to Egypt. Your work in Ptolemy’s tomb has been exceptional. Charles found the damn thing, but you’re the one whose work has made the excavation the success that it is. Even Michael Granby admits that, despite the man’s proclivity to tout his own credentials.”
Ewan pulled a pipe from his coat pocket with a pouch of tobacco. With his usual precision, her friend packed the bowl and proceeded to light it. Emma closed her eyes briefly as the tobacco’s aroma drifted across the room to tease her nose. The same brand her father had smoked. Her dad had always enjoyed his after-dinner pipe. She could still see him sitting in his recliner ready to debate his favorite topic—Ptolemy and the Sicari who’d served him.
The image was so real in her head, she tensed as she waited for her mother’s voice to echo out of the kitchen. But the sound never materialized. She opened her eyes and smiled at the man across from her. Ewan Redmurre rarely handed out compliments, and earning his praise meant she’d done something special—significant. She savored the thought.
She’d worked hard to build her reputation without the use of her unique gift. An ability Jonathan had thought he could exploit to his advantage. She thrust all thought of her ex-fiancé out of her head. Ewan Redmurre had just paid her one of the highest compliments she could ever receive. His approval wasn’t to be taken lightly given his degree of influence at the Oriental Institute. A member of the Institute’s Board of Directors, his power could easily advance or sidetrack any career.
“Thank you, Ewan.”
“You’re welcome.” He gestured at her with his pipe. “I don’t suppose they allowed you to keep your notes, did they?”
The subtle change of subject didn’t surprise her. Ewan always kept the best interests of the Institute at the forefront of anything he did. “Actually, they did. That and something else.”
“It was in Charlie’s belongings. A coin.”
“Good God,” Ewan exclaimed.
“Well, it’s not like I knew it was there,” she snapped in a defensive tone. “It’s not my fault the authorities didn’t find it when they searched through everything.”
This last statement held more than a trace of bitterness as she remembered her ordeal in Cairo and the way her things had been recklessly tossed into several large boxes. Ewan sent her a sympathetic look.
“I can’t imagine they made it easy for you. I take it they brought up the subject of your parents as well?”
She bobbed her head and glanced away from him. The rawness of the pain still lingered beneath the surface even after five years. Charlie’s murder had brought it all back. The memories she’d managed to keep at bay. There hadn’t been anything unusual about the dig she and her parents had been excavating. Everything had been quite normal until the night her mother and father failed to show up for dinner. When it grew late, she’d ordered the men to spread out and find the couple. Kareem had been the first one to find her parents. Even now, she could still hear his wailing cry of terror. She crushed the dark memories and turned her head back to Ewan. A look of assessment darkened his brown eyes.
“So where is this coin?”
“Let me go get it,” she said as gulped down the rest of her whiskey and unfolded herself off the couch. “I’ll be right back.”
Heading down the hall to the study, she half expected her mysterious stranger to materialize out of thin air. She certainly didn’t like the disappointment that flared through her when he didn’t appear. As she entered the office, she glanced to her left, fully expecting to see the knife still stuck in the wall. But it was gone.
Startled, she came to an abrupt halt. It had been in the wall when Ewan had rung the doorbell. She turned toward the desk. The knife sat on top of the papers covering the desktop. Her stomach lurched with apprehension as she sprinted forward.
Pushing papers first to one side and then to another, she realized the worst had happened. The bastard had let her answer the door while he came back here to take the coin. Furious, she slammed her fists into the desktop.
The rain eased slightly as Ares DeLuca stood in the shadows surrounding the Zale house.
The Emma he’d just met bore no likeness to the dry information in her file. She was feisty, vulnerable, and intelligent, with a bite of sarcastic humor. That, and a body designed by Titian.
Id damno. If he didn’t get his head back on straight, he’d make an even bigger mess of things. He’d made more mistakes tonight than in the entire time he’d been Legatus of the Order’s Chicago guild. Mistakes like knowing zip about Emma’s special ability.
How in the hell had Sandro and Octavia missed that? Her file mentioned nothing about a psychic trait. He frowned as he studied the dark window of her study. With just one touch, she’d learned far more about him than she needed to know. Knowledge was power, but it was also dangerous if you didn’t have all the facts. And Emma was a babe in the woods when it came to knowing anything about the Praetorians. It certainly hadn’t helped matters that she’d seen his past as well. The horror in her eyes had reflected his past in all its darkness. It was the first time he’d ever regretted being a Sicari. His jaw clenched at the thought.
Regrets. He wished he’d never kissed the woman. In Cairo, he’d allowed himself to reach out with his thoughts to caress her cheek. She’d seemed so lost, and he’d wanted to comfort her. But kissing her tonight? That had been madness in itself. All his Sicari training had fallen by the wayside the moment her body had pressed into his.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d failed to block out all emotions and focus on the assigned task. He hadn’t screwed up this badly since . . . he released a grunt of anger. The past was done. Emma was the priority now. And it took only one Praetorian passing by her in public to pick up on her thoughts.
Once the pride of Ancient Rome, and Caesar’s personal guard, the Praetorians had made the Sicari outlaws. From behind the cloak of the Church, they’d denounced the Sicari as assassins with evil powers. They’d rounded up men, women, and children like cattle and burned them at the stake or crucified them.
Those who escaped went into hiding, eventually becoming the assassins the Praetorians had branded them just to survive. Nor was it surprising their enemy had conveniently forgotten to mention anything about their own special powers. Abilities the Church would have viewed as coming from the devil. Telling their superiors in the Church they were telepathic would have made the Praetorians a target for persecution as well.
Fotte. He should have made Sandro and Octavia double-check their information on Emma before he barged into her home. Russwin’s notes had made it sound like she had the Tyet of Isis, and he’d been more than willing to believe it. He’d gotten his hopes up thinking he was finally going to learn where the Tyet of Isis was. He didn’t like making mistakes like this. Just one fleeting thought stirring in her head about him, the Tyet of Isis—any of it—could mean her death. Clearly the Zales hadn’t shared what they knew with Emma. Unless, of course, she was already working with the Praetorians . . .
Tension made his muscles grow taut. He hadn’t considered that possibility. In the next breath, he dismissed the notion. Her confusion tonight had been genuine. The Order had placed her under surveillance some time ago. If she’d been involved with the Praetorians, there would have been a note in her file. Her parents had been under surveillance for almost five years prior to their deaths, and extensive background checks had turned up nothing on the couple. It had been the same in Emma’s case. There hadn’t been even the slightest connection to the sworn enemy of the Sicari. And despite what some in the Order believed, working for the Institute didn’t make her guilty.
Scowling, he released a harsh breath through his clenched teeth. It had been a mistake to come here tonight. Merda. He should have been more patient. More careful. The Tyet of Isis had been missing for more than two thousand years. A few more weeks of surveillance on Emma would have been prudent. But he hadn’t chosen that path. Instead he’d put her in danger by plowing into her life like a bulldozer.
Once Emma got rid of her visitor, he’d convince her to come with him. He grimaced. More likely he’d have to kidnap her. The Sicari complex on Wacker Drive would have to suffice until he could figure out a way to protect her. He snorted with disgust. Protect her? He was delusional if he really believed Emma would ever be able to live by herself again. The Praetorians would stop at nothing to destroy the Sicari, even if it meant murdering innocent bystanders. He’d dragged her into this centuries-old conflict and he refused to let her become a victim of it.