Rappelling into a potentially bottomless pit to find treasure: priceless. Engaging in a no-win discussion at the same moment: a freaking waste. Mia blew out a breath and swung her head from side to side. White light from her headlamp bounced off the smooth andesite volcanic rock wall in front of and behind her. No escape from the predicament she now found herself. A predicament she could only lay at one pair of steel-toed booted feet. Hers.
“I don’t have time for this,” she growled.
From above, Graham Reynolds, her business partner of three years, and recently, the other half of her idiotic one-night stand brought on by too many Pisco Sours, shouted down at her, “What’d you say?” His deep voice bounced off the hand-chipped cistern walls.
“I’m a little busy. Can we talk about this later?’” Her clipped tone matched the level of her aggravation. Good for her, but she was sure the edge in her voice was completely lost on Graham. Perceptive he was not.
Why the hell was he bothering her with this now? Ah, but you knew this was coming, Mia. Over the last two days, all the signs had been there. Subtle hints he figured her sleeping with him, one freaking time, meant something besides a release and an overabundance of alcohol. But she’d been too careless, or deliberately obtuse, and dismissed the noises he made about making their partnership and relationship something much more permanent.
Graham, a darker blog in front of the cave’s low light, crouched at the lip of the pit. With her abseiling into an unknown situation, he’d stayed above to be her belayer. Not that she’d have let him go first. Her hunt; her choice.
“No,” he answered.
Her lips pulled into a snarl before she responded, “Why the hell not?”
“Because this way, I have your undivided attention, Mia-mine.”
The urge to continue downward danced over her skin, and she let out an exasperated sigh as she peered into the depths of the newly discovered cisterna before. If he got off her back, she’d be the first one in the pit. The first one to find its treasures.
Odds were high she’d find something the stuffy Trustees of the British Museum would be drooling to take off her hands. Maybe she’d find burial shrouds or a rare Moche backflap, the traditional armor made of gold, copper and silver worn by their warrior-priests. She smiled. That would be quite a coup and the money would add quite nicely to her bank account. Mercenary, sure, but a girl had to live. And she liked to live.
So did Graham. Better than her. So why was he interfering by wanting to talk about their, um, relationship right now? A shit-load of money in her pocket meant a shit-load in his.
Focus, Mia, focus.
She had two choices. Go back up. Then she’d be forced to talk. Or ignore him and get on with checking out the dried-out cisterna beckoning below her. Time passed as quick as Indiana Jones’ bullwhip. If Sweeney, her relic hunting opportunity spotter, was right, she’d only have two days to explore the pit. After that, the real archeological team with a real permit to excavate Corihuayrachina would arrive, and she’d be kicked out on her ass.
But if she avoided the conversation. . . Mia pursed her lips. Might as well get this over with. Didn’t matter what she said since Graham wouldn’t be satisfied. Or happy. And he controlled the rope. He could easily halt her descent. While she could climb on her own, that would waste more valuable time. She was metaphorically, and literally, stuck. Damn it!
“Fine, Graham, let’s talk,” she ground out between clenched jaws.
“You coming up?”
Hell, no. If she did that, she’d definitely be up there the rest of the afternoon and another day would be wasted. “No, I’m fine.”
“Have you thought about what I asked?”
Ah, the proposal. Had she thought about it? God, yes, but not in the way he expected. The damn thing had lingered in her mind like a niggling threat to her perfect life and the perfect partnership. Sleeping with him. She shook her head. Note to self: no more alcohol.
Shit. He wasn’t going to give up. “Yeah, Graham, I have.”
How was she going to tell him she didn’t want to marry him? Oh, the words would come easy. Graham, I can’t marry you. I don’t want to destroy our partnership just because I had too much alcohol and felt horny and you were the closest hunk in sight.
See, no problem with the words. Lovely, Mia. Geez, painting that night in such a light sounded callous even to her, but she had never lied to him. Never indicated or promised more. She loved her globetrotting and freewheeling life. It didn’t come with a demanding husband or whining kids. No ties. No commitments. No one counting on her.
No one to let her down.
She’d tried a serious relationship, tried love, once. For two years. Not quite marriage, but for her, close enough. Thought it could work, but she was too independent, and he was too disapproving. Their philosophical approaches to what she did, and life in general, spanned too much territory neither had been willing to travel.
Mia shrugged off the walk down memory lane. Time to face her error in judgment and shatter their partnership. “Graham, listen, I—”
“What’s that?” he interrupted.
She cocked her head, turning an ear upward. The only sounds she heard were the mournful cry of the wind as it blew through cracks and crevices and the occasional faint squeak of vampire bats from the subterranean depths. About what she’d expect in a Peruvian cave not frequented by tourists. It had only been pure luck that had put Sweeney in Lima when the cisterna had been discovered. “What’s what?”
“Did you hear it?” The quiet timbre of his voice dimmed as if he’d turned his head away.
“Hear what? I didn’t hear anything.”
“I did.” The light moved, plunging the thirty or so feet above her into total darkness. “Hang on, I’ll check it out and be right back.” The light darted from side to side as he moved.
Hang on? She rolled her eyes. Where did he think she was going to go? “Graham, stop screwing around.”
A few small stones displaced by his boots, pelted the top of her head. “Hey, watch out!”
He knew better than to kick something down without calling rock in warning. She blinked away the fine grit then sneezed. The sharp explosion cracked like a shot. No sarcastic reply about her waking the dead. In fact, no noise at all. Not even the shuffle of his boots.
After bracing her soles on the pit wall, she looked up. Dust motes cavorted and sparkled in the light of her headlamp, which achieved only a slight lessening of the inky black above her. The glow from Graham’s headlamp was completely missing. Good thing she wasn’t afraid of the dark. It didn’t get any darker than this.
Nothing. She was going to kick his ass if he was playing some kind of game with her hind end dangling high above the pit’s floor.
There. She froze. For a minute she thought she heard the distant mumble of voices from further down the tunnel. Tilting her head, she strained to listen. The dull thump of heavy boots bounced into the cisterna sounding less like the soft pad of Graham’s worn-smooth soles and more like thick-soled military boots. Like the bulls running in Pamplona, the wearers seemed to charge to the pit’s edge.
Anxiety rolled in her stomach. She quickly reached up and switched off her headlamp. Her gaze was locked on the rim high above her. Peruvian bandits’, maybe? The heavily armed bands of thieves and murderers prowled the jungles and ruins to waylay and steal from stupid tourists and foolish tomb raiders who explored remote sites without protection.
Way to go, Mia, her conscience taunted. What the hell was she going to do if bandits had stumbled across their camp? She’d left her Glock, damn it, in her backpack on the cave floor. Not that she could do much in her current position. Although…sans Glock didn’t mean she was without resources. The worn hilt of the Bowie knife comfortably strapped to her calf was proof of that.
The thud of boots stopped. More dirt and pebbles dribbled onto her head, some deflecting off her helmet with tiny plinks; others, pelting her cheeks and eyelids. In her chest, her heart galloped and her muscles flooded with the heady flush of adrenaline.
Still, she said nothing. Did nothing. Instincts made sharp by years of dangerous situations screamed something was wrong. Whoever was above her was not Graham. She didn’t even want to distract her mind to wonder where he was. If he was injured, keeping her wits about her was the only way to keep them alive. Lord, please keep Graham safe.
The rope jerked, catching her off guard. One of her boots slipped from the wall with a spine-shivering scrape against stone. Was that a test? To see if someone was on the other end? Her palms turned moist. Whoever was up there couldn’t fail to feel her weight.
“Hola! I know you are there.” The cultured Castilian Spanish voice gave her pause. So, not bandits. Okay. Dealers in black-market antiquities? Not okay. The thugs running stolen history through the black-market were unpredictable, but always lethal.
She’d rather have the bandits.
“Mia! Don’t…” Graham’s plea ended abruptly with a heavy flat sound, of flesh pounding flesh.
Anger mixed with concern rose to her chest. She pulled her lips tight. Still couldn’t see a damn thing. Using the tips of her fingers, she felt the bare walls for solid toe or finger holds. Not much in the way of free-climbing holds. A few splits and cracks in the stone. She was already edging, her boots barely gripping the slight holds as she braced herself.
“Criada, I do not like games. You will answer.”
A hard yank on the rope rocked her from side to side. Boots slipped. Her body careened into the wall with a muffled slap. Mia couldn’t stop the soft grunt as her hip connected with hard stone. Sonofabitch. The bastard was strong. Would he drop her into the pit?
She reached for the pack on her back, carefully slipped out the crampons and slipped them over her boots. She hated to use the ice climbing equipment on the stone but didn’t see another option. He’d hear her try to knock in the pitons.
Better answer the man before he decided she wasn’t worth the effort. “Who are you, and what the hell do you want?”
“Ah, so you are there.” A smoky beam of light from a high-powered flashlight arrowed at her.
Mia closed her eyes briefly at the sudden slap of brightness. Red sparks danced behind her eyelids. “Where’s Graham?” She blinked rapidly to clear her gaze.
A rolling laughter rumbled around her and set her teeth on edge. “Your lover, si? He is of no consequence. A means to an end. You should worry about yourself.”
Biting off a few more choice words, she huffed out a breath. Had they killed Graham? She’d tear their hearts out. As annoying as he was currently acting, she sure as shit didn’t want anything to happen to him.
“Are you ready to talk, senorita?”
Mia scowled. “I don’t see as I have many choices.” She slipped her hand down to her calf and slowly pulled out her knife. Catching the light from the top, the silver blade flashed, giving her a ridiculous sense of security.
“You are, I’ve been told, something of an expert in finding things. Buried, thought to be lost, things. My employer has an opportunity for you. An opportunity to find the biggest, most valuable, treasure in the world.”
The man sniggered, a patronizing rumble, as if he indulged a recalcitrant child. Her hackles rose. “Ah, but you see, your lover, he has offered your services to my employer, and my employer has graciously accepted.”
She hissed. What the hell? “Graham doesn’t speak for both of us.”
“I assure you, criada, he did.”
Mia’s jaw clenched. Damn, damn, damn. Her mind whirled, filled with confusion and quite a few unkind comments about Graham. What had he done? As soon as the thought entered her mind, she shoved it aside. Time enough later, after she was sure he was okay, to find out. First order of business? Get both of them out of this mess with skins intact.
“My employer wishes to meet with you to discuss this treasure. I will send instructions to your office detailing when and where. I suggest you attend.” The man’s voice pitched low, deep and sharp with a cutting edge. “Otherwise,” he fired off a few Spanish words she could barely hear, “those you care about will receive the same treatment as your lover.”
“And senorita? Do not think to go to la policia. We are everywhere.” The man’s tone deepened. “Defy us…I think you know the consequences.”
Meatier thudding and the clunk of boots against flesh followed by a few sharp cries from Graham. Alarm rippled along her spine. The bastards. The rope whip-snapped, stretched then released, and she plummeted.
“Damn it!” Mia jammed her crampons into the rock wall. Metal spikes scraped against the rock before biting deep, halting her descent with a violent wrench of her back and shoulders. The tough nylon of her harness bit into her upper thighs, pinching flesh as the rope slammed into the belay loops and pulled taut. She bit her lip on a cry of pain. Terror kicked her heart into double-time as icy sweat pooled between her breasts.
“Christ,” she murmured, resting her helmeted forehead against the wall.
She lifted her head at an agony-filled cry, followed by the dull thump of something heavy hitting the cavern floor above her. More pebbles and dust cascaded onto her head. Mia bent her neck, preventing debris from hitting her in the face. Small stones slid down her neckline, scratching the skin under her shirt and lodging inside her sports bra. Masculine laughter rebounded throughout the cave and into the pit.
When the worst of the detritus trickled to a halt, she knuckled the grit away from her eyes, switched on her headlamp, and focused her gaze on the arm hanging over the side. Limp, like a soggy noodle or stretched out elastic. Jesus, Graham. Was he dead? She fought the nausea twisting her insides and took a steadying breath.
The thud of boots receded then disappeared. When all she could hear was the continuous moan of the wind as it moved through the cave, she called Graham’s name. Several times. No reply. Just that flaccid hand seeming to reach out, fingers beckoning for help.
Muscles in her legs quivered with the strain of stopping her fall. Acid in her stomach swelled, trying to force bile into her throat. She forced the sour liquid down. How was she going to get out of the pit? With Graham out of commission, he wouldn’t be able to pull her to the top, and she was not rigged to climb even with steel spiked crampons fixed to her boots. But she had no choice.
Swinging her backpack to the side again, Mia dug deeper into its pockets. Her fingers brushed up against the saw-teeth of a few of the spring-loaded cam devices made to bite into even the smallest fissure. Thank god her oh-so-efficient assistant, Jordyn, hadn’t had time to get her very organized hands on Mia’s things before they flew to Peru from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.
Now to find any significant cracks or cuts she could use. Using her helmet light, Mia scanned the smooth surface of the volcanic rock. Spotting a decent one, she slipped in one of the Camelot’s and jerked the trigger to expand the cams. After snapping in a draw, she repeated the same steps and, bit by bit, pulled her body to the top. The muscles in her arms joined her legs in quivering at the exertion.
“Guess I need to spend more time on the rock-wall,” she muttered as she reached the lip. Bracing herself to push her aching body over the edge, she heard a soft moan. “Graham?”
“Hmmm?” he mumbled, obviously in pain.
“Stay with me, partner.” She heaved herself over the side and tugged Graham into her lap.
Her headlamp washed over him as where she smoothed his sweat-dampened hair from his battered face. The wan glow revealed his split skin and swollen lips. Semi-dried blood trailed from the corner of his torn bottom lip to his chin. Droplets on his clothing gleamed in the dim light, flashes of ruby tears.
When she ran her hand down his side, he hissed and jerked. Focusing on his breathing, she noticed the raspy edges. Damn, he had a fractured rib. Maybe two.
“Mia, I’m sorry,” he whispered. One eye cracked open. Remorse and guilt shone in equal measure.
She sighed. “It’s okay, Graham. We’ll talk later.”
Despite the sour feeling in her stomach from the thugs’ attack, she just didn’t have the heart to tear him a new asshole. She’d wait until he healed. The abrasions, broken ribs and the bruises were minor enough. He’d live.
At least until she found out what the hell he’d gotten her into.
“What a bastard!”
Hearing such a word from her assistant’s mouth was blasphemy. The petite blonde with sparkling green eyes and sharp-pointed nose dusted with freckles, wrinkled said nose and frowned. Mia hid a smile. Unlike her boss who didn’t shy away from profanity and had quite the repertoire, Jordyn kept her swear words to a minimum.
In this case, her cursing fit since Mia had just told Jordyn what Graham had done. Or at least what Mia thought Graham had done. They stood outside his room in the Nacional Dos de Mayo hospital in Lima. The stark white corridors and the pungent antiseptic smell, standard operating procedures for hospitals everywhere, made her inner child cringe. Just because she had more than an occasional reason to utilize hospital services didn’t mean she had to enjoy being there.
“You should just leave him here, Mia. If he volunteered you for something dangerous, he deserves to suffer. Pull the plug, I say!” Jordyn flung out her hand, her tone rising at the end.
A middle-aged nurse, her shoes squelching on the glossy tiled floor, looked over her glasses and glared at them as she walked by. Mia smiled and winked at the nurse then turned back to her drama queen assistant.
“He’s not on life support, Jordyn. There’s no plug.”
“Couldn’t we get one?”
A chuckle escaped Mia. “Geez, Jordyn, blood-thirsty, much? Graham’s going to be fine.”
Jordyn tossed her head. “More’s the pity.”
At this point, without knowing the details except he’d somehow gotten them involved with a dangerous organization, Mia agreed with the assessment. “I need to go talk to him.”
Jordyn nodded. “Sure. Want me to stay till you’re done?”
“No, I’ll walk from here and meet you back at the hotel. The Miraflores Park Hotel in the Malecon de la Reserva, right?”
“Yep. That’s it. Room 532. Be careful. Those jerks that attacked you could be watching you in the hospital.”
Mia jerked her head in acceptance even though it was unlikely the Spaniard and his men would be watching to see what she’d do. Since her “new employer” planned to contact her later, she didn’t expect anyone to hang around the hospital. And it was highly likely they’d know where to find her anyway. Black market runners had resources she could only dream of.
Before she could turn away, Jordyn darted at Mia and wrapped her arms around Mia’s waist. She let out a soft oomph and staggered back a slight step, carrying the girl with her before Mia found her balance for both of them. Standing stiffly, arms straight at her side, she looked down at the top of Jordyn’s blonde head. What was this hug all about? In the two years they’d worked together, not once had her assistant hugged her. And she’d been in more danger than this.
“I’m so glad you’re okay, Mia,” Jordyn whispered.
Mia had no idea what type of response to give. After an unending second or two, Jordyn disengaged, stepped back and swept her fingers through the mop of tousled blonde curls that defied any attempt at control. Something that disgusted her control freak assistant.
Pink kissed Jordyn’s pale cheeks and her eyes dropped. “See you later.” She turned to leave then whipped around, her embarrassment forgotten. “Want me to have room service fix you something to eat?”
As if making sure Mia didn’t say no, her stomach picked that moment to rumble loudly.
Jordyn giggled. “Guess that means yes,” she said and stormed down the hall.
Lips quirking into a grin, she watched her assistant disappear around the corner. That was Jordyn. Full speed ahead and take no prisoners. Grabbing the room door handle, Mia turned and pushed. The door gave with a quick inward pull that had her half stumbling into the room. Her forward motion came to an abrupt halt when she crashed into a hard shape.
Two hands grabbed her by the shoulders. “Easy. Where’s the fire?”
Helvete, she swore. Shrugging off the man’s grasp, Mia lifted her eyes to meet those of the stone wall she’d run into. Or maybe he ran into her. She supposed it depended on one’s opinion.
Her eyes traveled up. And up. Good lord. The Goliath towered over her five foot seven inch frame. Her gaze ran into a square chin then continued she found his emerald, smiling eyes. He must be about six four, easy.
And not Peruvian. Not even a mestizo. In fact, with his clean cut, long face, and sun-kissed blond curls, he was as far away from Peruvian as a person could get.
An easy smile played on his lips, deep lines creasing the corners of his eyes. Those piercing green irises took her breath away. She’d never seen such a bright color represented in pupils. Had to be contacts. What a damn shame. She didn’t like artifice in any form.
“Miss, are you okay?” Mr. Gorgeous Eyes backpedaled, and Mia got a good look at him. At his tall frame partially wrapped in a white lab coat that should have made him look boxy and unattractive but didn’t.
Hell no. In fact, it stretched across his broad chest in an evocative pull and tug that hinted at a sculpted chest. Hmm. Her libido kicked into high gear. Anyone want to play doctor?
“My apologies. Are you all right?”
The soft English accent purred over her skin. Yum. Gorgeous and English. A tempting combination, one she had a weakness for.
“I’m Doctor Kincaid.” His head canted to the side. “Are you a relative or friend?”
A scratchy voice interrupted, “She’s my fiancée.”
Mia flinched, and her brows drew together. Obviously, the beating had dislodged something in his brain. She didn’t recall agreeing to marry him.
“Fiancée?” tall and sexy, asked mimicking the question in her mind.
Mia looked around Dr. Kincaid’s broad shoulders and scowled at Graham. Her partner seemed small in the hospital bed. Diminished. As if the beating, or her understanding of the reason behind it, took something from him. His light brown hair lay in tangled waves over the bandage enveloping the top of his skull. A bruise in lovely shades of red, purple and yellowish-green circled one blood-shot eye.
After a final glare, she forced a smile she didn’t feel and turned back to Dr. Kincaid and offered her hand. “I’m Mia Langdon.”
A gleam of something flashed into his eyes when she said her name. More than that, his gaze seemed to sharpen, turning from languid interest to intense examination. Wonder what he knew about her? She gave a mental shrug and continued, “Graham and I are partners.”
“Ah, partners.” An unspoken questioned hovered behind the smile.
“Business partners,” she clarified. She didn’t want to hurt Graham, especially not until she discovered exactly what he’d done, but she had no intentions of letting him go on thinking she’d agreed to marry him.
As Dr. Kincaid nodded, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. He took her hand, his large warm one engulfing hers in a comforting grasp and held it just a bit longer than was appropriate. She didn’t mind. Not when her libido was running rampant.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Langdon.”
“Mia,” Graham whined. “I need to talk to you.”
Yeah, she bet he did. And she so wanted to talk to him. Ignoring Graham for the moment, she offered the doctor an apologetic smile. “Nice to meet you, Doc. If you’ll excuse me…”
Sidling around him, she went to the bed and stood beside Graham and didn’t watch the handsome doctor leave. The door reopened then closed and Graham relaxed. Putz.
He reached out and took Mia’s hand. Before she could even think about it, she snatched it back. She ignored the flaring of his nostrils and the flash of hurt darkening his eyes. Annoyance rolled in her stomach like a storm-tossed sea.
“Graham, what’s going on?”
His gaze darted from side to side as if he was looking for an out. Fat chance. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “I haven’t had a bath in two days and have worn these clothes for both of them. I’m hungry, and I want to go to sleep. What did you do?”
He shrugged. “I’ve, uh, gotten into trouble.” His explanation tripped to a halt.
“Well. . .” He swallowed hard then let out a nervous chuckle. “Um. I met someone who said they would dissolve my debts if you found something for them.”
Debts? She hadn’t known he had debts as in the kind with a capital D. Letting that slide for a moment, she asked, “Found something?” She clenched her fists. She did not like the direction this conversation was going. She worked for herself. Not for others. Sure, what she found often ended up in others’ hands, but she found each item first for herself. Then sold them. “What sort of something?”
When he didn’t explain right away, she put a hand on her hip. “Graham, spill it.”
She felt her mouth drop open and closed it with a snap that ground her teeth together. “Sekhmet’s arrows? Did something get dislodged in your brain with that beating?”
Mia spun around, strode to the small window, and looked out over the front entrance of the hospital. Hanging over the parking lot like a soft blanket, the garua, a dense fog, coated vehicles and vegetation with moisture. Between September and March each year, Peru, especially the coastal areas, was blanketed by the clear fog. She’d be in for a soaking by the time she got to the Miraflores.
Mia sighed, her breath misting the glass. Sekhmet’s arrows. Any tomb raider or relic hunter worth their salt knew what the arrows were. Or, they knew of the story. Sekhmet, the Mighty One, a warrior goddess of Egypt, also known as the Eye of Ra, a weapon of vengeance. According to Egyptian mythology, she’d nearly destroyed humanity with her flaming arrows and thirst for human blood. And someone wanted Mia to find them?
She turned back to face Graham. Her partner, once a man full of vital energy and strength, now seemed so much less. Why hadn’t she ever noticed his soft chin and smallish eyes? And while she still held a soft sentiment for him, if she’d had any doubts about saying no to the marriage proposal, they were gone now.
He sat up, face screwed into a wince. “You can’t say no.”
She let out a quick bark of laughter. “Of course, I can. I just did. Find the arrows yourself.”
“They’re offering a lot of money. Enough so you don’t have to sell any more objects. You can retire.”
“I’m not interested in retiring.”
His lips pressed into a thin line, a sign he was getting frustrated. “Come on, Mia, you know I can’t do this alone. You have an instinct for such things. I need you.”
“That’s too damn bad. The arrows are dangerous. And in the wrong hands, they’re deadly.”
With that, she turned on her heel. At the door, she looked over her shoulder and gentled her tone. “Look, rest up and get better. We’ll talk about money when you get out of the hospital and we return to England. See you later.”
As she stepped through, she heard Graham calling for her to return. He wanted to discuss the offer. Ignoring his entreaty, she headed down the long hallway. Against the tile, her worn boot heels made a soft click-thud. Before she turned the corner, she looked back over her shoulders. The handsome doctor, Kincaid, stood at the nurse’s station. She could feel his sharp gaze boring into her as she walked away. What was with this guy?
She sucked in a deep breath and immediately regretted it. The pungent scents of disinfectants stung the inside of her nose, reminding her of all the reasons she hated hospitals. Even gorgeous doctors weren’t immune from her dislike.
All right, Mia, shake it off. Damn that Graham. This was all his fault. She wasn’t usually this suspicious. Okay, so she was but not so jittery. Graham should know her by now. She might be mercenary. She might be willing to risk life and limb to retrieve some of the relics she did. What she wasn’t willing or mercenary enough to do was go after a blood-thirsty relic from Ancient Egypt that could possibly destroy the human race. Even she had limits.
Her belief and views on things that go bump in the night made her unpopular and often the butt of jokes from the more scientific types. They just didn’t understand. Including one stick-up-his-ass archeologist in particular. She gave her head a mental shake. Christ. That was one path she didn’t want to walk.
At least, not without a boatload of wine and chocolate.
Two days later, wind whipped tendrils of dark hair about her face as Mia moved the little Mazda MX-5 Miata into the curves of Shooters Hill Road, leaning into the turns and switchbacks leading to her family home on the outskirts of the Oxleas Wood, an ancient forest. Scenery blurred by, a swirl of green, browns and splashes of brilliant reds and yellows from the changing leaves.
Bless Gus, her stalwart journeyman and sometimes bodyguard, and Jordyn for anticipating Mia’s needs. Unable to travel with her this time due to a family emergency, Gus had stayed behind to watch the cottage. So, instead of having to take a London Taxi, she had collected her baggage and walked out of Terminal 5 at Heathrow and right there, at the valet stand, waited her gorgeous soft-top, copper red mica third generation Miata.
Her eyes had drunk in the little car. “Hello, darling,” she’d purred as she danced her fingers over the smooth painted surface of the fender walls, along the bonnet and up the driver door frame. As she finished her inspection, she heard a low whistle and turned to look.
Two valet attendants were staring at her, their slack jawed and hungry expressions making her think they eyed a big, juicy steak. “What? You think guys should have all the fun?” She flipped them a smile over her shoulder as she stowed her bag in the back and slid into the driver’s seat. The soft leather cradled her form, and she sighed. She’d have to give Gus and Jordyn a raise.
An hour later, despite the problems in Peru and Graham’s revelations, damn, she felt pretty terrific. She was home. She was in the front seat of her sporty convertible and would soon be surrounded by her things.
Mia slowed as she approached the front gate to Lazhward, her family home named after the place famous for the mining of lapis lazuli. Like the ancient Egyptians, her grandmother’s passion for the rare blue stone was evident, not only in the jewelry she left her granddaughter, but also in the tiles scattered throughout the interior of Lazhward.
As she approached the estate, a sense of homecoming enveloped her, much like the welcoming embrace of her grandmother. Mia inhaled and pulled frosty air deep into her lungs. The clean, moist comfort of shadow-draped trees mixed with a fresh, overturned earth smell left her feeling alive. Grounded. With a sense of control and normalcy. At least until she reached the open double iron gates of the estate.
Her heart slammed to a stop in her chest. The gates were flung wide, a gaping wound in the pale stones. The gates were never left open. She had too many valuable items in her home. None of the household staff would make the mistake of leaving the grounds unprotected. Gus and Jordyn would make sure of that.
Something was very wrong.
The car crunched to a hard halt in front of the porch. She did a quick scan of the grounds and house. Other than the front gate, nothing appeared at odds; still, a shiver crept down her spine as the hairs on the small of her neck lifted. While keeping an eye on the house, Mia reached behind the passenger’s seat and tugged her gun case to her lap. Having done this too many times, without removing her gaze from her surroundings, she pulled out her Glock and reloaded it, empty after the flight from Peru. Tucking the loaded gun in the back waistband of her khaki pants, she climbed out of the Miata.
The last time some overzealous tabloid reporter looking to make his mark with a story on the eccentric rich girl who liked to raid tombs had trespassed, he’d done so by climbing a section of the back wall. No one was quite sure how he’d done it, and he didn’t say, since the top of the stones were razor wired. He certainly hadn’t come in through the front gate.
Still, in case she was wrong, she’d wait until she had something more concrete before calling the police. The last thing she needed were men in blue running about her place. After all, she liked her privacy. And paid a shit load of money to ensure her privacy. Even from the good guys.
She climbed the stone steps to her front door. Sonofabitch. Her heart rate tripled. The ornate front door with its stained glass panes and cast iron trim also stood wide open. Darkness filled the gap between the door frames. For the first time in her life, the entrance to her home, usually so inviting, left her feeling chilled. Even threatened.
Mia pressed her lips together into a tight slash. There’d better be a damn good reason for both the front gate and door to be open.
After drawing off her boots and placing them to the side, she slipped into the foyer. The chilled marble leaked through her socks. She blinked her eyes rapidly to force them to adjust to the dim interior. When her vision had cleared, she scanned the inside. Whispery motes danced upon the stream of bright sun spilling from the large windows at the top of the burnished marble grand spiral staircase twining in an upward path to the second floor. No sounds of any sort swirled around the cavernous interior.
With her back against the wall, she made her way to the dining room she never dined in and into the kitchen with its warm oak cabinets, soft green granite counters and scarred oak trestle table smack dab in the middle of functional U-shaped arrangement. Except for a coffee-stained mug sitting at the side of the sink, nothing marred the smooth surfaces. No sign of a struggle. And no Gus or Jordyn. Or Daniel, her techno-geek genius. Someone should be around.
She grabbed her lower lip with her teeth. Hmm. Should she risk calling out? Bad idea. If there was someone in the house that didn’t belong, she didn’t want to alert them as to her presence. At least, not until she was ready.
She tucked her hand into the side pocket of her utility pants and grabbed . . . nothing. Damn it. No cell phone. She’d given it to Jordyn at the hospital to download the Peruvian site pictures and hadn’t bothered to ask for it back. Mia puffed out a silent breath. She was on her own. No problem; she preferred it that way.
On silent but swift feet, she moved from one room to the other on the downstairs floor. Tomb-like stillness greeted her. Even the normal creaking and twitching of the old house had quieted as if it waited with baited breath for her to locate its invader.
She stopped in front of the closed double doors to the last downstairs room, the den slash library. Her favorite place to be. A refuge from the demands of her time and energy. Her sanctuary.
Mia sucked in a steadying breath and stretched out a hand to grasp one of the curved handles on the double doors. Before she took hold of the smooth metal, she paused and reached around to pat the hard steel of the gun tucked into waistband at the small of her back. Another source of comfort.
Her fingers wrapped around the lever, and she twisted. The door opened without a sound. She pushed in one side and twitched to a halt.
In the center of the room sat Gus and Jordyn. The stout figure of her butler-come-handyman and the trim form of her assistant were secured to two sturdy ladder-back chairs. Strategically placed as they were, she couldn’t fail to see their expressions and bound bodies.
Jordyn’s blue eyes were wide, the whites dominating her face. Pale gold freckles stood out in stark relief against ivory skin. Mia’s stomach clenched as her gaze swept over Jordyn’s body and narrowed on a jagged tear on her assistant’s sleeve. Except for that, Jordyn appeared unharmed. Thank God.
In contrast to Jordyn’s terrified expression, the normally stoic Gus’s brown eyes were dark with anger. He took his job as protector of her person and things seriously. The fact that someone got the drop on him probably left him with the need to tear someone to shreds. She hoped she could give him that.
If there was anyone left. A quick scan about the room showed nothing significant missing. So, either they were looking for something else and were elsewhere or were plain thieves looking for money and jewels.
How dare someone invade her house, disrupt her privacy. Attack her staff. She stepped into the room. Something she did, maybe her movement, caught Gus’ attention. She pulled up short at the roll of his eyes as his gaze darted to a point to her right.
She jerked her head in the same direction. A fist honed in on her face. She swore and bent backward. Labeling herself all kinds of stupid for being taken off guard, Mia stepped back. In a swift, smooth movement, she side kicked with her right leg. The intruder’s arm blocked the blow.
Dancing on the tip of her toes, she spun and lashed out with her left arm. She quickly ended with an elbow to his head. The shock of the blow shot electric tingles up her arm and into her fingertips. The strike did more damage to the man. His knees buckled, and he crumpled to the ground.
Mia hastened over to Gus and untied his bonds. The chair crashed back as he surged to his feet and went over to the thug. From somewhere (she swore he was the MacGyver of butlers), Gus produced a pair of handcuffs and clicked them around the thug’s wrists.
Satisfied that he had the bad guy in hand, Mia went over to her assistant. Jordyn’s large eyes stared at her over the top of the gag. Mia gently slipped it from her mouth. Jordyn took a deep gulp of air then smiled. A weak, pale imitation of the normal vibrant grin, but still a smile.
“You okay?” Mia whispered. Her fingers knotted into her fists at her side. The urge to turn around and pummel the prone figure into a puddle on the Berber carpet tightened her nerves into tangles.
Jordyn nodded. “Yeah, sure.” Her gaze slipped to the intruder. “I haven’t really seen you fight before.” Her tone sounded strange. Blue eyes swung back to Mia. “That’s so totally cool!”
Words failed her. For a moment, Mia simply stared at Jordyn. Good grief, of all the reactions she’d expected, delight hadn’t been on the list. “You’ve seen me fight before, Jordyn. In the Game Room.”
Jordyn hitched her shoulders. “Sure, but that was just training. Against dummies.” Her cheeks flushed pink as she looked at Gus. “Sorry, Gus, I don’t mean you.”
Gus chuckled. “Of course, dyvooshka, I know you did not.”
The sound of clapping. Mia pivoted, her Glock aimed unerringly at the voice. A tall man stood at Gus’s side, a Colt .357 revolver pressed up against her butler’s temple. Embarrassed fury had turned Gus’s face apple red.
“Well done, Ms. Langdon. I see the reports I’ve heard of you are quite accurate.”
“Let him go.”
“Not until we’ve talked.” The tall man used his free hand to gesture at her. “If you’d be so kind as to discard your weapon and move over, with the lovely young girl beside you, to your desk, I won’t be tempted to put a hole through your erstwhile man’s head.”
Mia pressed her lips into a thin line. Scowling, with her hands upraised and her palms outward, she placed the Glock on the side table and took Jordyn’s arm. Pushing her assistant ahead of her, they moved to the back side of her father’s massive, old desk.
With Jordyn sequestered in her father’s tall leather executive chair, Mia rounded on the tall man. “Now, talk.”
The new intruder had thick, tawny-gold hair that tapered neatly to the collar of his open necked dress shirt under the black leather jacket. A teeth strikingly white smile spread across the lower half of his tanned face. What saved him from being perfect was the cynical twist to his full mouth. Still, she bet many women would find him drool-worthy.
What was with all the handsome guys lately? It seemed she couldn’t go more than an hour without seeing men who were the poster children for every woman’s fantasy. Or was just her fantasies?
“My employer is getting impatient. She requires an answer.”
She? “An answer to what?”
His head tilted. Icy blue eyes looked deep into hers. “Don’t be coy, Ms. Langdon. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Well, you see, I’ve already given my answer so I really don’t understand your purpose in being here.” Mia placed both hands on her desk’s front edge. “I suggest you leave right now before I get madder than I already am.”
“You and your men broke into my house, assaulted my employees and now threaten one of them with a gun. I’m plenty pissed right now, but still willing to let you walk away with your manhood intact.”
“And if I don’t comply with your eloquent demand?”
She shrugged. “You’ll leave me with no choice.” Her fingers slid under the desk’s lip. “I’ll have to make you leave.”
His laughter rippled forward, a rich, rolling guffaw that actually sent freaking shivers along her spine. Christ, Mia, just how long has it been since you had sex?
“And how do you intend to do that?”
She let a slow smile dance across her lips. “Like this.”
With a swift, sure movement, she snatched out the stiletto blade from the hidden compartment under the desk and threw it with precision at the tall man. At the same time, Gus collapsed to the floor and did a backward flip. The blade punched into the man’s shoulder. He let out a cry of pain and rage. Cursing and knocked off balance, his fingers tightened involuntarily on the trigger. The Colt roared out a single shot that split the wood of the paneled wall on the opposite side of the room.
Mia lunged across the desk, her ass sliding on the smooth surface. She kicked the gun from his hand with the side of her foot. Her feet hit the floor, and she immediately flipped a snap-kick at the man himself. He blocked with both hands and before she could pull back, used her forward motion to spin her around. His right arm came from behind, snaked around her neck in a one-arm chokehold against his chest.
“I expected more from you, Ms. Langdon.” His words blew a warm gust across her neck. Tiny hairs lifted. “I’m disappointed.”
Mia took a deep breath, suppressing the flush of heat. Sparring while angry was a dumb way to get pulverized.
“Don’t be,” she countered. “I don’t want to mess up my new carpet with all your blood.”
A low chuckle rumbled, the movement of his chest dancing across her back. He made as if to pull away, setting her up for a fall. Anticipating, Mia grabbed his choking arm and tucked her chin. Simultaneously bringing her foot inside his right instep, she shoved her left elbow back. Air left his lungs with an oomph. His hold eased.
Keeping her advantage, she squatted, pulling him forward. Springing up with her knees, she tossed him over her shoulder. In mid-air, he twisted, yanking his arm from her grasp. Caught off guard, she wobbled. He flipped over and sideswiped her.
Which she narrowly avoided but only because her fighting teacher, Kenji, seemed overly fond of that particular action. Using her imbalance, she threw herself to the side, out of the path of his leading leg, rolled, and leapt to her feet.
Before she could go after him again, he leaped to the open window and spun around to face her. “Our discussion is not finished, Ms. Langdon. Merely postponed.” His lips split into another broad grin. “My employer wants the arrows, and you will get them for her. I suggest sooner, rather than later.”
Mia swore. Gus tossed her Glock and she caught it, pulling back the hammer and aiming it at the same time. Only to be aiming it at empty space.
A few more choice words slipped from between her lips. She walked over to the window and slammed it shut then flipped the lock. Not that it would hold if he wanted back in; it apparently hadn’t before. Still, it felt good, and right now, she needed all the feel-good feelings she could find.
“Mia, I’m sorry.” Gus’s gravelly voice fluttered over her skin reminding her she wasn’t alone. She took a deep breath and found her center before she turned around.
“The mudak surprised me when I stepped outside to find out why the north wall camera did not work.”
“Gus, don’t worry about it.” She walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder. The muscles under the burly man’s arm twitched. Nothing she could say or do would be harder on the older man than he was on himself.
“Mia, meelahyah, what is this the man says about you going after arrows?”
Well, crap. Gus was already upset that he hadn’t been able to go with her to Peru. If she told him about the attack in Peru, he’d never let her go off without him. But, she didn’t see any other way around telling him.
“The weasel Graham got Mia into trouble, Gus,” Jordyn rushed to answer before Mia could dance around the subject. “Graham was beat up and Mia was threatened.”
Gus had turned his attention to Jordyn when she started talking, but whipped his head around and focused an intense stare on Mia. The urge to shuffle her feet and stare at the ground twitched at her nerves. Thanks a hell of a lot, Jordyn. Mia hadn’t had a case of the daddy-shame moment for years.
“What is this?”
“It’s fine. Gus,” Mia said, keeping her tone as soft and as placating as she could while she tossed a close-your-mouth glare at Jordyn. “Graham’s okay. I’m okay.”
“I do not care about the doo-rak. I care about you.” Gus came up to her and laid both large hands on her shoulders. He stared into her eyes for a minute as if seeking the truth of her words then before she could read his expression, pulled her into her second hug in a day. “You tell me later, da?” He stepped away and rubbed his shaved head. “I double check the system and bring in more patrols.”
Speechless, Mia could only nod. He bobbed his head at her and grabbed the downed man by his bound wrists. “First, I get rid of trash.” Hoisting the man over one shoulder, Gus strode for the door.
She watched him leave then stared a bit longer before turning to Jordyn. “Thanks a bunch for the reveal, Jordyn.”
At least the girl had the presence of mind to blush. “Sorry, Mia. I just couldn’t help myself.”
Mia sighed. The girl didn’t have a malicious bone in her body. Mia would never have thought telling Gus what had happened could be so uncomfortable. At least, she had more time to come up with an explanation that wouldn’t make Gus lock her home down like Fort Knox.
“It’s fine,” Mia said. “Hey, you okay?”
Now that the Gus issue had been resolved, Jordyn’s eyes widened and the gleam of excitement entered the green gaze. “I’m fine, but wow, just wow,” she breathed the word on soft exhale. “Is this what you deal with all the time?”
“Often enough to not be surprised.” Mia bent and swept up the file folder Jordyn had obviously dropped when she’d been snatched.
“No, I don’t mean the fighting. I see you do that all the time. I mean the gorgeous guys. Do you get to see ones like him,” she jerked her thumb out toward the window where the black clad stranger had disappeared, “all the time? I mean, he was totally hot.”
Mia stared at Jordyn feeling as if she’d stepped into another dimension. Even after three years working together, the twenty-five year old could still shock the hell out of her. “So, instead of being freaked out that you and Gus were tied to chairs with guns being pointed at you the only thing you wonder about is whether I get to see good-looking men?”
Another disgustingly cute blush. “Well, of course, I was freaked out, but I knew you or Gus would take care of it. And I didn’t say good-looking. I said totally hot.”
“Like that’s a difference,” Mia muttered. She looked down at the folder in her hand and the bottom fell out of her stomach. Sweet Jesus. Her gaze swung back to Jordyn. “What the hell is this?”
When Jordyn looked up, her eyes wide and sweetly innocent, geez, the girl did innocence like nobody’s business; Mia waved the folder at her.
Jordyn shrugged, her chin dipping low. “I figured if you were going to go get those arrows, you’d need his help.”
Was she kidding? “Why on earth would you think that I’d ever need his help?”
“Come on, Mia.” Instead of being cowed in any shape or form, Jordyn continued, “I know you two split up a year ago but no one knows more about Sekhmet than—“
“Jordyn Alicia Kraft, if you value your job, not to mention your life, do not say his name,” Mia growled, her tone low and threatening.
This time common sense and self-preservation ruled over curiosity and plain orneriness. Jordyn ducked her head and nodded. “Okay, sorry. I was just trying to help.”
Mia bit back a heavy sigh and took a deep breath. Her assistant didn’t mean anything by bringing up a past hurt, and she was right. Harrison Stanton was the best at what he did, the cheeky bastard. Still didn’t mean she intended to seek his help for anything. Ever.
She put a hand on Jordyn’s shoulder. “I know you were, and I appreciate your support. But, I’m not going after Sekhmet’s arrows so it doesn’t matter.”
“No.” Mia tossed the folder onto her father’s old desk. “Graham’s on his own. I told him those arrows are too dangerous and wherever they are, they need to stay there.”
“Not even after they broke into the house?” Jordyn gestured at the chairs, the ropes that had only recently been wrapped around her and Gus.
Mia scowled at the reminder. “Especially not now.”
Whoever they were would find out she didn’t do threats or coercion. She pulled out the recently vacated leather chair from behind the desk and sank down into the worn but still soft cushion. Books of all kinds filled the built-in bookshelves and, when she sat at the large black cherry desk, surrounded her with her father’s very-missed presence. The tingle on her skin often made her feel as if his spirit lingered to infuse her with the same love of history he had. The last true legacy her father had left behind.
A pile of mail lay sorted and stacked into neat little piles. Bills, which she’d send to her accountant, invitations to museum events and other kiss-assery celebrations (sure, they scoffed at her but welcomed her contributions and support) and requests for grants.
“Not that I don’t think Graham should shrivel up and die, but aren’t you worried those guys will finish the job?”
Mia shook her head. “I gave him money.” She shoved the neat piles to the side jumbling the orderly stacks. Ignoring Jordyn’s disgusted frown, Mia propped her feet up onto the desk top. “He’ll pay his debt and that will be the end of the quest.”
“But that man said a woman wanted to talk to you. If it’s about the money, why would she need to see you?”
Mia shrugged. “To extort more? Maybe she figures if she sees me in person, she can sink her claws deeper.”
“Are you sure?”
Was she? If Jordyn had asked her before the attack in her house, she would have said yes. Either they were real serious about their money or real serious about the arrows.
“I have no idea. Money or arrows. Doesn’t matter. If they come back again, their boss will find out how much I hate being bullied and how little I like threats.”
In a flash of movement, Kenji darted at her, ferreting under her defenses and scored a slash on her upper left arm. Mia hissed at the initial sting but ignored the pain. Instead, she focused on disarming the sneaky bastard. When he came at her again, she was ready. In the same moment she swiveled her hips to remove her body from danger, she caught Kenji’s thrust on her blade nearest the guard and diverted his point downward while the point of her epee slid upward toward Kenji.
The slithery Chinese bent his neck, swung his head and body under her epee and lashed out at her with a forward punch that knocked the blade from her hand and a side kick that propelled her backward.
Before she caught her balance, his high-roundhouse kick came at her in a blur of smooth motion. Mia shoved her outside forearm toward the strike, her body bursting in toward his. The kick slammed into her angled forearm, sliding upward and lessening the blow instead of coming directly at her arm.
She dropped down and swung her leg in a side sweep that, by the widening of his eyes, took Kenji by surprise. His ass hit the mat but didn’t stay there. A back arch took him to a standing position. She held the fighting position, her fists raised, her feet spaced evenly and her body balanced.
Kenji lifted both of his arms, palms outward. A small smile twitched at the corner of his lips. “Very good, Mia.” His tone was as modulated as his expression. Not even a rapid rise and fall of his chest. Grr. “It seems as if the apprentice has surpassed the teacher,” he continued and bowed his head at her.
Mia snorted and relaxed her stance. She swept up her epee and tossed it to Kenji who snatched it out of the air. “Not exactly.” Her fingertips searched and found the slash on her arm. She brought blood-smeared fingers to her eyes. Her jaw twitched. “After all, you did score a mark.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t scored one on you yet.”
He chuckled, a warm purr of sound that rolled over her skin. Mia strode over to the sideboard and picked up a hand towel to remove the sweat from her neck and shoulders. Under lowered lids, she studied her mentor.
Shoulder-length black hair pulled back into a loose ponytail gleamed iridescent under the light. When he smiled, which wasn’t often, white teeth flashed against olive skin. Of indeterminable age, Kenji’s strong features held a certain sensuality.
Even though they had worked together for over three years, she felt she knew little about him outside their limited time together. While she knew he was from China, she didn’t know where exactly, what had brought him to England or where he lived. Or if he even had family still in China or in England. And since she never saw any sexual interest in men or women, she had no idea if he was gay or straight. Not that it mattered either way. Still, she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t curious.
She and Kenji got along well enough. Patient and exacting, he’d brought her fighting abilities, both hand-to-hand and sword, to a new level. And she wasn’t kidding. She wouldn’t consider herself her level until she’d drawn his blood.
“If that is your plan, maybe I should get a thicker jacket,” he drawled. He flowed over to the weapons wall and carefully replaced both epees into their sword stands.
Mia stretched her arms above her head. The slash in her arm gave her a slight twinge, and she grimaced.
“Jesus Christ, Mia, do you have to fight with untipped blades?”
In mid-stretch, she turned her head to look over her shoulder. Graham stood in the doorway, one of his arms in a sling. The snazzy colored bruises on his face had faded into a sickly palate of green, yellow and brown. Heavy circles hung under his eyes giving him a drooping hang-dog look. Other than that, he looked pretty good for a guy who’d had the shit kicked out of him just a week ago.
“Sing a different tune, Graham.” Mia finished stretching and working out the kink in her shoulder. “You know why I do this.”
He moved into the room, barely giving Kenji a brief acknowledgement of his presence. From their first meeting, Graham had taken an immediate dislike of Kenji and wouldn’t participate in the training. She’d have paid for Graham to have lessons; he just refused to take her up on the offer. Said he didn’t need the training. She figured he just didn’t want it from Kenji.
Graham didn’t need a lot of formal training. She had to admit, most times he fought well. Not as good as her and certainly not as good as Kenji, but well enough. Graham’s skills had helped save their asses on enough times for her to feel comfortable with him at her side. A thought occurred to her. He hadn’t fought so well at Corihuayrachina.
On the other hand, Kenji simply acted as if Graham didn’t exist. As if he was an inanimate object filling a space. Not a flesh and blood human. Actually, it was kind of amusing at times. As long as they didn’t cross any lines; disrupt her household, she let their testosterone-laden shuffle continue.
“Okay, sorry.” Graham stopped in front of her, pulling her focus back to him. Up close, his skin was sallow and streaked with red. “You’re looking well.” His eyes swept over her body, hunger gleaming in the brown depths.
While nausea didn’t churn in her stomach, she no longer felt the same pull of desire she felt before their recent trip toPeru. Pisco Sours and one night. Guess that had to be the shortest sexual relationship she’d ever had. And probably the stupidest.
She tore open a bandage, slapped it on the cut then scooped up her short kimono and slipped it over her tank top, tying the sash. Oddly enough, she felt uncomfortably exposed. Not a usual sensation for her.
“Thanks, Graham.” She lifted her gaze to his. “How are you feeling?”
He shrugged. “Better.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Kenji moving toward the exit. “Hey, Kenji, see you Friday?”
“Of course.” A small smile pulled at the corners of his lips, and he nodded at her. As usual, he completely ignored Graham.
“Mia.” Graham pulled her attention back to him. “I need to talk to you.”
Yeah, I’ll bet you do. “Sure, let’s go talk in the study. I need to look at some bills.” She slid him a sideways glance. “Especially those recent hospital ones.”
He waved his hand. “Just take it out of my salary.”
Mia’s brow rose. Really? Had she actually heard him tell her to take from his salary? Maybe the beating inPeru had knocked something loose. He’d never suggested she do that. Even after the Jeep incident where he’d been on a drunken binge in Cologne, Germany, and driven the bloody thing into the Rhine. After he’d jumped out, of course. One thing was for sure, Graham was always good at saving his own ass.
She headed for the study, Graham close behind her. Once inside, she walked over to her father’s desk and flopped into the old chair. Snatching up the pile of mail Jordyn had stacked neatly on the blotter dead center of her desk; Mia kicked her feet on top of the wood and leaned back. The ancient chair squeaked and groaned in protest. She was going to have to get it replaced one day, but hadn’t the heart to get rid of something of her father’s.
She thumbed through a couple of envelopes and tossed them to the side. Hospital bills as she’d suspected. Graham settled in the armchair in front of the desk, his own posture stiff and uncertain. Fingernails clenched on the armrest. Oh boy, she was not going to like this conversation.
“Listen, Mia, you know how much I appreciate you paying off my debt.” He paused and rubbed the back of his neck. “Look. They approached me again.” His throat worked as he took a big swallow. “She still wants you to get the arrows.”
“Of course, she wants the arrows. Who wouldn’t? But, I’m not changing my mind on this, Graham. Those arrows are dangerous. I’m not going to try and find them. She needs to give it up.
“On second thought.” Mia cocked her head. “Why don’t you go? You are more than capable of doing this without me.” Well, that might not be a completely true statement; but he was good. He just needed someone to do the research part. The part that happened to be what he liked least.
He shook his head. “I don’t have a nose for finding things. You do. More than a few times since we’ve been partners, you’ve found what others said didn’t exist. Point of fact,” he jerked his thumb toward the antique sideboard near the large window.
She knew exactly what he was pointing at. Her refusal to sell the priceless bowl had caused an argument which had nearly ended up ending the partnership.
“The Euphronios krater,” he continued. “Everyone said the one at the Met was the last, yet you, somehow, found another intact vase. You could sell the krater to any museum for millions.” Graham frowned. “I still don’t know why you won’t. You’ve sold more priceless items. Boggles the mind.”
Of course, it would. He didn’t know that this was the last archeological piece her father had hunted. His piece of all pieces. His last expedition to Cocos Island near Costa Rica, where he died, had given him what turned out to be the final clue to find the second Euphronios krater.
She turned her head. Warmth filled her when she saw the ancient Greek terra cotta krater, a bowl used for mixing wine with water. This one was created around 515 BC by the renowned Greek vase painter and potter, Euphronios. For hundreds of years, the one currently on loan by Italy to the Met, Metropolitan Museum of Art, was thought to be the single surviving vase out of the original 27.
The background of glossy black painted around the red-clayed figures depicted two scenes. One from the Trojan War showing the death of a son of Zeus and the other side was a 6th century BC scene of Athenian youths arming themselves before war. Not the most striking piece or even the most valuable piece she owned, but special in the only way that mattered to her.
Her father’s last expedition had been to find the second surviving Euphronios he believed existed. When he’d died, she’d wanted to finish the hunt for him. And she had. Two years after he’d died, she brought the krater home. Even though the world’s most prominent museums, especially the Met, and Italy clamored regularly for the priceless artifact, she’d never give it up. A last memento of her father.
“I’m not about to rehash old arguments with you, Graham.”
He threw up his hands in surrender. “Fine. No argument, but the krater proves my point. You have a knack for finding what others say can’t be found. That’s why she wants to hire you.”
“Well, she has an odd way of getting my help.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Oh? You don’t know?” Her feet dropped to the floor. She stood, her palms resting on the desk’s surface. Leaning forward, she pinned Graham with a glare. “Your mysterious she sent her bully boys into my house. They broke in, busted my window and threatened my staff. If she thinks that’s any way to gain my cooperation, her head is filled with sand.”
Graham’s mouth dropped open and closed. Then did that fish-like gesture a couple of more times. She could almost hear the gears of his mind working. Concentrating on the contents of her desktop, she let him stew a bit.
While the amount he said the private collector was willing to pay for the arrows was extremely generous, and she was sure to enjoy the challenge of finding these dangerous items an adrenaline smorgasbord, she was not about to go traipsing about the world for them. Yeah, she could be as mercenary as she’d been accused of being, her mouth tightened over the memory of the one who’d branded her as such, but she was not stupid.
She absolutely believed in the things that went bump in the night. How could she not with the field she’d chosen and the adventures she had? There were mysteries out there that defied any kind of reasonable or scientific explanation and stretched the boundaries of belief. Certainly Sekhmet’s arrows did just that.
The ancient Egyptian story went that the great god Ra became angry with mankind because they no longer respected or feared him. In his anger, he plucked out his right eye and created the lion-headed Goddess, Sekhmet. Ra set Sekhmet on mankind and she, with her flaming arrows, kicked their asses. Once she decided who to target, the arrows didn’t stop until they found their target. With the blood-thirsty weapon, Sekhmet killed so many humans, the other Egyptian gods and goddesses, especially Osiris and Bast, pleaded with Ra to stop her.
Except he couldn’t. With every human she killed and blood she drank, she became addicted to the blood and ignored his commands. Eventually, it took gallons of red-dyed beer to get her so drunk, Osiris and Bast were able to extinguish the flames and take the arrows away from her and save the human race from extinction.
Osiris hid the arrows, the location of which was guarded by a mystical guardian and priests. As with all things, the reality became legend and the location of the arrows’ hiding place lost forever.
And now this collector wanted to dig the freaking things up? Not with my help.
“I’ll talk to her.”
Mia lifted her eyes to Graham. His face had paled, the bruises standing out brighter against the bleached skin. “Sure, you talk to her. You tell her that if she ever sends someone into my house again, she’ll cause a fight she won’t be able to win.”
He nodded, an abrupt jerk of his head. “I’ll make sure she apologizes and pays for the window.”
“She can keep her money. I don’t want it.” Mia narrowed her eyes. “Any of it.”
“Come on, Mia.” Impatience laced his tone. Apparently, he was done trying to placate her. Good. “It’s just a legend and means nothing. It’s a great deal of money. You could retire.”
She rolled her eyes. Again with the retirement. What, and raise a passel of kids, become a soccer mom? No offense to those with kids or soccer moms, but that just wasn’t for her. She’d also been accused of being an adrenaline junky. That she agreed with. She loved the rush of danger, the stress on her body as she pushed it to do more and more and the thrill of finding something thought lost.
But not these arrows.
“As I’ve already told you, I’m not interested in retiring.” She pinned a hard look on him. “And I’m not going after the arrows.”
Graham opened his mouth but before he said anything, he was interrupted. “Hey boss, got something hand-delivered by courier.” Jordyn came into the study, her vibrant energy filling the room.
Her assistant bounced to the desk, her curls flopping. She totally ignored Graham whose lips had thinned in irritation at the slight. “Looks like an invitation.”
Mia took the proffered envelope and slid her finger under the flap. The cream colored card slipped out. Golden gilt framed the words. Yep, an invitation.
“So, who wants you now?” Jordyn rested her butt on the corner of the desk and fingered the fringe on the bottom of the vest Mia had brought back fromPerufor her. “Another museum? A rich socialite who thinks you’ll add a dash of prestige and scandal to her party?”
“So cynical, Jordyn,” Mia murmured while she perused the invite.
“Not cynical. Pragmatic. They all want something from you even if they disagree with what you do.”
“That’s because she’s special,” Graham interjected. His comment only earned him a raised eyebrow from Mia and a roll of eyes from Jordyn.
“So, what is it then?” Jordyn continued.
“As you said. An invitation. For tonight.”
“Tonight? Isn’t that cutting it a bit close?” Jordyn reached over and snatched up the pile of bills Mia had set aside. “I’ll take care of these.”
“Thanks. And yeah, tonight is cutting it a bit close.” She handed the card to her assistant. “And normally, I wouldn’t. But this one, oh yeah, I’ll go.”
Jordyn’s eyes scanned the contents then widened. “Oh.”
“What is it?” Graham stood and came around the side of the desk. Before Jordyn could react, he jerked the card from between her fingers. His mouth moved as he read. Mia knew when he’d reached the location of the event because his lips tightened, and he scowled.
“Jordyn, please tell Gus to get the car ready. I’d like him to drive tonight.” Mia swung her legs from the desk and stood. “And would you mind getting out the Vera Wang, the red one, and make sure it doesn’t need pressing? I’m going to take a shower.”
Mia walked past Jordyn and put a hand on her shoulder. She got a few steps closer to the door when Graham said, “I don’t think this is a good idea, Mia.”
“Actually, I think this is just the kind of distraction I need,” she tossed over her shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow. We need to talk about Thailand. Daniel got a hit on the diadem.”
With Graham calling out to her and Jordyn trying to shush him, Mia left the two behind. Yes, indeed, she was in for an interesting night. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t attend museum exhibit grand openings; however, she had a weak spot for anything Egyptian, and she’d heard about the extensiveness and rareness of the objects being displayed.
Sure, it’s the exhibit you want to see, not its curator.
Shut up, she told her mocking self.
Since Harrison seemed to keep popping in her mind, and she had a justifiable restlessness after Graham’s revelations and the mention of the arrows, it seemed quite a good time for her to see how he was doing.
And if it meant she got to aggravate the hell of Harrison Braden Stanton by her presence, all the better. She didn’t just want to see him; she wanted to piss him off. “These are a few of my favorite things,” she sang as she headed up the stairs.
Swipe and jab, the smooth punch and slide of the rapier’s sharp Toledosteel into the cloth covered chest. The warm flush of exhilaration flowed through Harrison Stanton. He’d been practicing the ballistra for months now and finally had executed the difficult move without falling on his bum. A wide grin stretched his lips.
“Well done, my son.”
Harrison turned around and faced his father. The tall man standing before him was in his human persona, in a white pinstripe Versace suit with a royal purple shirt and tie. Instead of holding his crook and flail in his hands, both palms rested on the ram’s head cane. Emerald eyes, too green and shining with an inner glow to be real, smiled warmly at him.
“Father.” Harrison bent his neck.
“You have learned much over the last year. I am pleased.”
Osiris, Egyptian God of Resurrection, of Duat, the Underworld and Patron of the Dead strolled around the perimeter of the stage, eyeing the artwork and statutes. When Osiris had first come to him, shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Harrison had thought the richly dressed man crazy. As far as Harrison had known at that time, a construction worker named Thomas was his father. His mother had never mentioned, or hinted, that Thomas had married Elena Rogers while she was pregnant with another man’s child.
The revelation hadn’t changed Harrison’s affection for the man who had raised him since birth. Seeing Osiris, however, reminded him that he hadn’t called his parents in over a week. He made a mental note to call them that evening.
“Thank you, Father.” Harrison took a deep drink from the bottle of water on the side table. The cool, sweet water slid down his parched throat. “What brings you here today?”
“Do I have to have a reason to see my son?”
“You usually do.”
Usually, it meant attending an auction to acquire a certain piece of ancient Egyptian culture before it ended up in the hands of unsavory collectors or even another museum. Only the British Museum, where Harrison curated, was exempt from losing priceless objects.
Most people assumed the Trustees gave Harrison large amounts of money to obtain those items. An assumption the Trustees were happy to have continued. The reality was that Osiris gave Harrison the funds. His father would have given him more, for his own living. He wouldn’t accept any money except what was needed to protect the valuable objects. He may believe and support his father but that didn’t mean he would profit from it.
A chuckle. “Yes, that is true. As it is true this time.”
Harrison tilted his head. He hadn’t heard of anything particularly noteworthy up for auction or even purchase off the black market. But then his father had more resources, including his magic, to find what he wanted. “What piece do you want me to get?”
Osiris tugged at his neck, straightening the already straight tie. Interesting. His father seemed uncertain. Concerned. “I do not wish you to acquire a piece. I wish you to prevent a powerful, dangerous, relic from falling into the wrong hands.”
“What type of weapon?” Harrison’s brows drew together as he ran through several arsenals in his mind. “A spear? Gun? Nuclear weapon?”
“Nothing so mundane.”
Harrison released a sharp bark of laughter. Bloody hell. Had his father just called a nuclear weapon mundane? He’d only been half joking when he suggested that one.
“Sekhmet’s flaming arrows,” his father continued. “Set and his progeny are searching for the arrows and are close to finding them. You must not allow that to happen.”
Shock flew through him. Shock that the arrows were real and more shocked that someone was actually close to finding them. After meeting his father, Harrison had quickly learned there was much more to the world and much more to the myths and legends of Egypt’s ancient gods and goddesses than everyone believed. Including the fact that the gods and goddesses had mated with human males and females to create children. Why they felt the need to do that, his father had never said. There were more, he’d been told. And they would begin to find each other. After that…Osiris wouldn’t say.
Still, the arrows. Ra had almost allowed the human race to become extinct when he created and released the goddess Sekhmet and her flaming arrows because his pride had been insulted. Harrison shook his head. Now was not the time. He needed details from his father.
“Who is seeking the arrows?”
Osiris’ brows furrowed. A very human expression for an immortal. “That is something I have been unable to discover. Set masks his children well.” Bending at the waist, he leaned forward, staring intently at the painting of a scene at the temple at Karnak. A sound disturbingly mimicking a snort came from Osiris. “Absurd. Mberas was a low class priest. He would not have even been permitted in the temple during the Amun-Ra celebration.”
“Father, could we focus on the arrows?”
Osiris straightened and tugged on his tie again. “Yes.” He turned and faced Harrison. “The progeny of Set will not be able to find the arrows alone. He, or she, will seek assistance. You must discover who the progeny has hired and prevent the arrows from falling into Set’s possession.”
Harrison rubbed the back of his neck. “This assumes the arrows will be found.”
Osiris nodded. “That is the other part of your task. Your fellow humans continue to explore near their resting place. They are no longer safe in their current place of rest. You will find them and return them to me. I will locate a new domicile far away from the possibility of discovery.”
Harrison nearly groaned out loud. This task was completely unlike what he’d been asked of in the past twenty years.
“How will I know who is hired?”
“The servant will seek you out. Soon. This much I know.” Osiris clapped his hands. On the table a book suddenly appeared. “You will find the arrows here.”
Walking over to peer down where his father pointed, Harrison nearly choked on surprise. For the second time in the last thirty minutes. He looked up at his father. “The arrows are here?” He knew his tone sounded incredulous.
Bloody fecking terrific.
Osiris suddenly turned and focused on the main entrance to the room. “This is important, my son. Your world is at risk if the arrows fall into Set’s hands.” With that, his father’s form burst into a mass of pinpoint lights that formed a shape of a charging bull before dissipating into the air.
On the heels of that dramatic exit, the sharp click of her heels on the parquet floors echoed through the room before he saw her. Her being Eleanor van Allen, the daughter of one of the Museum Board directors, and his girlfriend. He knew that determined and confident step like he knew the catalog number of each of his exhibition objects.
Like a model on a catwalk, Eleanor stuck a pose before she strutted down the slight incline above the stage. Two vertical lines between her brows just above her nose and the slight curl of her lips told him volumes about her current mood, but failed to reveal the source of her aggravation. The question was, was she brassed off with him or something else? He hoped he wasn’t the sad bastard. He didn’t need the drama. Not after his father’s revelations.
“Harrison, I can’t believe you’d invite her.” As she neared, she waved a white piece of paper in his direction.
Shite, he was the guilty party. “Invite whom?” Even as he asked, he had a gnawing suspicion what name he’d see.
She climbed the steps to the platform. Appreciative, he studied the long length of her legs and strong calves. A dancer in her free time, she had the lithe and limber look. The black dress draped over her slim form added to the overall appealing picture.
When she stopped before him, he leaned forward and gave her a kiss on her cheek. Chanel No. 5 wrapped around his head, embracing him in an odor of rich femininity. Not overpowering; yet not subtle either. He much preferred the warm smells of sun, earth and water. Only one woman had ever managed to combine all three scents and she did it naturally. Harrison shook his head. He did not want to think about Mia.
Eleanor handed him the paper. One elegant, ringed finger with pale pink nail polish jabbed at a single name among all the others as if it was highlighted. “Invite her.”
Harrison looked down and winced. Sod it; he was right in his suspicions. Holy Christ, as if merely thinking about her had conjured her. “I did not invite Mia Langdon.”
“Then how did she get on the guest list, Harrison?” Eleanor’s voice had risen, taking on a shrill tone edging the posh London accent.
He set the paper down on the small table and took both her hands in his. Her soft skin was as cool as her demeanor. “Eleanor, I’m not the only one who put people on there. Nor am I the only one involved in the exhibit. The Trustees likely put on some names as well as Rogers and likely Jensen.” Harrison nodded. “That’s it then. It was probably Jensen. He’s always liked Mia and has a soft spot for archeological rebels as he calls them.”
“Tell him to uninvite her.”
Harrison lifted an eyebrow. He’d rather face down a herd of charging bull elephants than tell Jensen who to invite. Or not invite as in this case. “Uninvite her? That’s not up to me. Jensen invited her; he’d have to uninvite her.”
Eleanor slipped her hands from his and leaned close, sliding one hand up his arm then a finger along his neck. Lush eyelashes fluttered over violet eyes. “Would you talk to Jensen for me? Please?”
Bloody hell times two. He did not enjoy these games women played and had hoped Eleanor was above them. Again, he captured her elegant hands in his. “It’s too late, Eleanor. But don’t worry; it’s unlikely Mia will show. Not after her last two, er, interactions with the Trustees.”
And him, but he didn’t say that. The argument he and Mia had ultimately led to their breakup when she accused him of being a kiss ass, namby pamby stone-cold bastard of history while he called her, and he grimaced as he thought it, a mercenary bitch.
Prior to that, for a time, both had thought they could get past what each did. And believed. She thought he stood on the sidelines of history, evaluating, examining, but not experiencing. He decried the number of relics she found, and indeed, she was quite talented at that, only to end up in the greedy hands of private collectors instead of the careful hands of academics and science. Those who would treasure the objects not for their intrinsic value, but for their historical one.
It turned out, their core beliefs were so different, and neither had been able, or willing, to change.
Eleanor’s lips dropped into a pout. Quite an attractive pout. He suspected she’d gotten her way on any number of things with that look. Maybe he was a stone-cold bastard since it had no effect on him at all.
“Fine,” she snapped when he made no response. She lifted a slender hand and smoothed back the white-blonde hair above her temples as if had come undone from her tight coiffure. Which it hadn’t the nerve to. “If Mia comes, she better just stay out of my way.”
With that, she spun on her three-inch heels and stalked off the platform nearly crashing into Kyle, his assistant, who was bounding down the aisle toward him.Harrisondidn’t hear what she said to Kyle. She had no patience for the “little people” as she likened Kyle to. When Kyle flushed, the tips of his ears turning bright read,Harrisonsuspected whatever comment Eleanor had made was not flattering.
He frowned. Recently, he questioned his attraction to Eleanor. Was he attracted to her or her family’s connections to the Trustees? No denying she had plenty to offer in both cases. Or, if he was being honest with himself, was he more attracted to the fact she and Mia were as different as night and day? Get a grip, old man.
As he watched Kyle’s approach,Harrisonrubbed the back of his neck feeling the muscles tense. Bullocks, if he hadn’t so much respect and admiration for Jensen, he’d be inclined to go kick the older man’s arse for inviting Mia.
God save him, despite his assurances to Eleanor, this would likely be the only time the obstinate woman showed up at one of these openings. Knowing her fondness for ancient Egyptian, he could almost guarantee it. Not that he was about to tell Eleanor. That kind of hassle he did not need.
Kyle reached the stairs and bound upward. Curly brown hair topped his assistant’s lean, sharp-pointed face and dark brown eyes framed by wire-rimmed glasses. Even though Kyle had been his assistant for only six months, he’d already proven to be quite accomplished and about as composed as himself.
Harrisoneyed Kyle and frowned. Well, usually as composed. The youth fairly twitched with excitement.
“I’m sorry, Professor.” Kyle skidded to a halt in front of him. “You need to come immediately. Something’s happened in the Ancient Egyptian exhibit.”
“Easy, mate.”Harrisonput a calming hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t fix. What happened?”
Kyle took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes, Professor, but you must come. I can’t explain it.”
“Very well,”Harrisonsaid and gestured for Kyle to lead the way. “Let’s go take a look, shall we?”
As he stepped through the high archway into the exhibit, he heard the group of museum staffers and university students bleating like sheep as they huddled in a semi-circle near the back of the Ancient Egypt exhibit. Harrison’s stomach leapt then dove before settling into an uneasy roll. Without any reason to believe, he knew the something had to do with the Sekhmet statute. The ten foot Aswan red granite statute depicting her lion-headed warrior aspect had arrived a month ago and just placed in the display the past weekend.
The crowed parted to make way for him and Kyle. Despite the unsteady state of his insides, at first glance, nothing appeared out of place. Until Harrison saw the chunk of red stone lying amidst smaller pieces on the floor at the base of the statute.
His jaw clenched. What a cock up. He bent down and picked up the largest piece. It only took a split-second for him to recognize the piece. He looked back up at the statute and his eyes went without hesitation to the place where Sekhmet’s shoulders were. Instead of two with one holding a quiver of arrows wrapped in her broad hands, her right arm was completely missing.
The quiver was the chunk of granite lying in pristine condition among the gravel of the arm. At least, he assumed the gravel was the arm and hand.
Harrisonapproached the statute. Two feet from the statute, the air seemed to curdle. To thicken into a barrier he felt as if he was not permitted to cross. That he wasn’t the one Sekhmet wanted. That she wanted, no, that wasn’t the right word. That she needed someone else.
Ignoring the feeling as well as the whispers around him, he went to Sekhmet’s right side and scanned the area where the quiver used to rest. Shite, the thing looked as if it had been shorn cleanly from the granite mass via a diamond cutting blade or precision laser. Certainly, not the work of the average thief or grave robber.
He rubbed his chin. And why only cut the statute and leave the pieces behind? The statute as a whole was valuable. Pieces of it were not. Wonder if his father had anything to do with it. He’d not been happy when the statute had been delivered. Seemed to be something about it being Sekhmet that concerned him. A stretch, old man, to think your father would stoop to vandalize a statute.
“Professor, what does this mean?” Kyle’s dark head came in close besideHarrison’s.
Without taking his gaze from the statute, he said, “It means our security isn’t very secure.”
“Get out of my way! Don’t you all have work to do? The opening’s tonight for God’s sake! Get back to work!” The strident tone, a combination of Southern drawl and Yankee twang, rolled overHarrisonand made his teeth ache.
Ah, the Museum Administrator. Not an older gentleman with pristine white hair, a wise-lined face and elbow patches on his worn jacket. Instead, Clifton Abbey looked more like a rock star with long dark hair streaked with gray pulled into a rough ponytail and a soul patch as the Americans called the small hair square under his lower lip. The wanker even had a small diamond earring in his left ear.
Abbey pushed past the quickly disbursing crowd heading directly for Harrison. The man’s cologne reached him first, a punch of heavy fragrance that scratched at the back of his throat. He resisted the urge to choke.
“Stanton, what is going on?” Abbey thrust his chin forward.
Harrisontilted his head. As Mia would say, what a putz. Feck, since when had he started remembering her quaint little phrases? Since you heard she was invited to the party, his inner critic mocked.
“What does it look like, Abbey?” Clearing his mind of thoughts of the stubborn tomb raider,Harrisongestured to Sekhmet. “Apparently, the crack security team you hired for the opening isn’t up to snuff.”
The slight hint of a sneer curled Abbey’s thin lips. “I doubt it. It was probably one of your rabble that vandalized the statute. After all, most of them are little more than vagrants.”
Since all of his students had fled at the Administrator’s arrival,Harrisondidn’t respond. He merely arched a brow and stared at the Trustees’ toady. For some reason, since day one of Abbey’s arrival, he’d seemed to make it a mission to haveHarrisoneliminated from the Museum. To no avail, of course, but it didn’t stop the small man with the Napoleonic complex from continuing to try.
Abbey’s lips pulled thinner. He turned fromHarrisonand faced Sekhmet. The corners of his lips curled downward.
“I suggest you have someone get this cleaned up immediately,” he said as he sidled away from the statute.
When he facedHarrisonagain, his body was angled perpendicular to the statute almost as if he didn’t want to turn his back on the Goddess. “We don’t need any of our guests tripping over the debris,” he continued. “If we had time, I’d suggest you remove the nasty thing; however…”
“However,”Harrisoninterjected, “it’s not your call.”
Abbey flattened his lips until they disappeared. “Well, then,” he cleared his throat, his Adam’s apple twitching nervously. “I’ll leave you to the clean up. Get it done soon.”
With that last toss of bravado, Abbey backed up a few more steps then spun on his heels and walked away.
What a putz.