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….I have to recommend this to those who love the mystical and the magical, some great action, a touch of angst and a very happy ending in unusual circumstances…..”
Rainbow Book Reviews – “….As a sequel, this is a great book because it picked up on the characters and their stories, and answered many of the questions I had at the end of the first book. But I think it would work even as a standalone story, with enough riddles, quirky characters, and grand mysteries to keep me entertained…..”
Literary Nymphs Reviews – 4/5 – “….Then there’s the theft at Windsor Castle. It’s pretty obvious Ms. Scott did a great deal of research about its history and layout and the same goes for DaVinci’s works. It’s all nicely integrated into the plot and adds a nice sense of realism. With this manuscript theft comes new characters, some ultimately good and others bad. As you might guess, Alex’s powers don’t stay gone forever but come back gradually and without explanation. It’s handled well but there are still questions about his powers that have been left unanswered. I can only hope that at some point in the future Ms. Scott will work those into a plot.
So, if you enjoy an action packed, danger filled story with a smooth plot and a great paranormal component then I suggest that you give this new release a try….”
Dark Diva Reviews – 4.5/5 – “….As a fan of Ms. Scott, I eagerly await anything that she writes as I know that I will not be dissatisfied. Book of Secrets is a different style of writing as compared to her other popular series, but none the less, just as well written. At times I found my heart beating wildly as we were led on a racing adventure and then smiling pages later. Mystery and suspense meld with ancient history and mythology, a combination that would intrigue any reader; especially this reviewer. I can only hope that Alex and Luke will speak through Ms. Scott in the near future as a book three is definitely in order. If you are a fan of Ms. Scott and have yet to read this series, do not let it pass you by. You will not be disappointed….”
“The best way to remain in the museum after it closes to the public is to be inside before it closes,” Alex Sheridan said. He paused for a moment to allow Chris to have his say but the other man said nothing. Alex was relieved Chris didn’t immediately argue but he also wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to manage the feat he had just stated as fact. He just had the feeling that if he said the words convincingly enough then he would be able to find a way to make this happen. Chris Samuels, his friend, ex-US Army lieutenant, and now mastermind of their little team, probably imagined every worst-case scenario possible. That was just what he did.
Chris sat back in his chair and crossed his legs at the ankles. Tapping a rhythm on the table in the restaurant, he narrowed his gaze.
“I’ve done the Ashmolean before, you know,” Alex added helpfully. Griff snorted a laugh and Alex turned to look at the man sitting next to him, wondering if he should issue a snappy comeback. How else was he supposed to say it?
Griff shook his head and looked away at the waiters walking quietly between tables with plates of cakes and sandwiches and pots of hot water for tea.
“You’ve done it?” Chris said. His tone was derisive and his voice carried a note of laughter. “Is that what you call stealing from one of the oldest museums in England? And was that before or after you fell in a pit of fire and lost all your freaky powers?” Chris asked the questions casually but there was a hint of warning underlying them.
“Chris has a point,” Griff added. “You may well have ‘done the Ashmolean before’ but we keep coming back to the fact that if you go for this today you will be going in blind.”
Alex turned back to look across the street from their table in the Randolph Hotel. The Ashmolean Museum was a gorgeous building, almost as pretty as the British Museum in London, with columns inspired by ancient Greece. Tourists of all nationalities grouped around the museum, the hotel, spilling onto the busy road and posing for photos while chatting excitedly. Alex couldn’t hear them, merely see their wild gesticulations and the smiles on their faces. Here inside the hotel everything was subdued and quietly respectful with a rarefied air. Around twenty people sat scattered in informal groups around the high-ceilinged room. There were no more than one hundred steps between here and the museum, and Alex could picture each footfall in his mind. The carved marble in his jacket was a heavy enough weight to remind him of what was at stake to make his observations of distance and obstacles acutely relevant.
“Can’t you, just this time, walk in and simply place the thing where someone in authority can find it?” This came from Griff who, based on the tone of his voice, still couldn’t comprehend what drove Alex to do what he did.
“I took it in stealth, I want to replace it the same way,” Alex said. He was completely aware of how stubborn he sounded. Not even Luke completely understood why Alex pushed himself into situations like this. How could he explain that he felt alive when he danced with danger and the risk of discovery? Or that, at the moment of replacing the item he had originally stolen, the flood of memories of how he used to be was like the high from some drug.
“So what do you plan to do?” Chris interrupted his thoughts. He and Alex had talked about everything at length. Quite possibly he was the only other one who really got the rush of adrenaline. As a black ops soldier he’d been in war zones where even breathing was damned dangerous. He knew.
“Play it by ear. Visit and decide where it goes, then hide.” Saying the words made everything appear so matter-of-fact.
“You make it sound so simple. You’re six foot two and it’s not like you blend with the crowd. They have extra security on Guy Fawkes Night and probably some kind of watch list.”
“I’ve never been on any watch lists. Whatever I stole no one ever knew it was me,” Alex defended. That was true. Still, before the fire and the loss of all his ‘powers’, for want of a better word, he could have walked into any museum and moved cameras, played with people’s heads, even disappeared into what Edward had called ‘other space’. Now he was stuck just being normal and no one outside of his head could understand the frustration.
Griff stood in a flurry of motion and with a barely hidden sigh of exasperation. “Let’s just get on with it,” he said.
At a more leisurely pace Alex stood and stretched tall. The restaurant was set up for afternoon tea and it was quiet enough for their small corner to be private but it was a different matter outside the old building. Stepping out into St Giles, dodging buggies and camera-wielding tourists, they finally managed to get across the road when the lights changed and ended up at the bottom of the steps. Even though some daylight remained, there was the hint of smoke in the air and the autumnal wind carried with it the expectation of the firework displays that would be widespread tonight.
The last time there had been a great theft from the Ashmolean had been New Year’s Eve night over ten years ago. Alex couldn’t claim responsibility for that, but he knew who had carried out the audacious theft of the Cézanne. Even to this day Alex agreed that using the noise of fireworks to drown out the sounds of the theft was ingenious. He’d never had to employ tools like that before. The very fact thefts existed, executed by people without the abilities he used to have, meant he had a template he could work from if he needed. The security would probably be tighter tonight; the museum would have learned from their loss. On the flip side they would not be expecting anyone to try the same thing again, let alone someone replacing a missing artifact.
Alex glanced across at Chris, who nodded in return. There was a way of doing this. Chris and Griff visited, Alex staying a little behind, and they simply walked the museum, enjoying great artifacts of the past. They touched what they were allowed to, and stood and admired what they couldn’t. Chris and Griff gathered intel, but mostly they were just there to case for escape points if Alex were to need a way out. Alex wandered around by himself, deliberately avoiding the Greece display where the tablets were held until very close to the end of his tour. He was adept at making it appear he was part of a group, always tagging along with others and even initiating conversation. All the while he watched and learned.
A new display of Roman pieces found in a field just outside Bicester made him curious, and he leaned in to check out the arrangement of it all. Coins, a helmet, and several knives without hilts were shown to their best advantage in glass presentation cases and his fondness for all things Roman made it easy to linger a while until the next group swept by and took him with them. He considered the taller glass cabinets under the bridge that connected the art displays with the atrium and the marble statues, and imagined the way down from that height in the staggered cases. They formed a natural staircase that dropped three feet at a time. He was a fit, agile man, and even without his powers he would be able to make very short work of getting down to floor level. Much better than the security teams he had scouted the previous night, all of whom appeared to be fit and healthy but maybe a little complacent with the routine of it all.
Alex made his way through the middle area until finally he arrived in the area labeled Ancient Greece and stood directly in front of a beautiful display of various Grecian artifacts. The glass of the surrounding cabinets was lit in a muted glow and the tablet itself hung suspended by near-invisible clear plastic hooks that encased it from top to bottom. What was left was stunningly beautiful and intrigued the greatest minds. The part in Alex’s jacket had been the fifth piece of five that was a special order. He had never understood why the man who bought his and Edward’s skills only wanted one part of the five-part puzzle but his was not to reason why. They had stolen it six years before and no one had anything linking it to them. Nor had the museum publicized the theft, not after the loss of the Cézanne a few years before.
The plaque explained the history of the piece and he was engrossed when he caught movement reflected in the glass; someone stood behind him. He imagined from the invasion of his personal space that it was Chris or Griff. There had to be a reason why they had broken protocol and connected with him, and with a wash of concern he turned to face the person to his side.
“Alex Sheridan,” the man acknowledged. Alex didn’t immediately react. He couldn’t. Shorter than Alex by five or so inches, the man was dressed casually in jeans and a jacket with a backpack slung over his shoulder and his eyes hidden behind shades. To all intents and purposes he appeared nothing more than a tourist strolling the corridors of history. Just like Alex.
“Dragan,” Alex replied softly. For a second they simply stared at each other then Dragan pushed his glasses up into his scruffy hair. Piercing amber eyes looked at him and a flood of memories pushed Alex back a step. The last time he and Dragan Jovanovic had met it had been Alex with the upper hand. Alex who left with the artifact. Alex who made the money. Dragan had been the one left with nothing but the bitterness of being defeated by a man he had nicknamed ‘Ghost’.
“Ghost.” He inclined his head. “It’s been a long time.” His voice was that curious mix of Serbian and American that was a product of a European birth and an education at Harvard. An ex-member of the Serbian art theft team known as The Pink Panthers, he was, to Alex’s knowledge, one of the only ones who’d outlived their mafia supporters. He’d been gone a long time. Five, maybe six years. Alex had thought him dead.
“Why are you here?” Alex asked quickly. The group he had attached himself to was exclaiming in loud voices over the perfect physique of a carved marble statue of Apollo and was steadily moving away. Too soon Alex would be standing on his own in the middle of the room talking to someone Interpol had on their art theft list. Not good. Really not good. A sharp pain travelled from one temple to another and he tensed at the familiar sensation. Now was not a good time for one of his regular migraines to make an appearance.
“Same as you I imagine,” Dragan said with a smirk.
“Firework night. Quite a precipitous night. Don’t you agree?”
The chatting from Alex’s retreating cover group was lessening and Alex had to move if he wanted to stay firmly under the radar. Rooted to the spot he couldn’t move nor take his eyes off Dragan.
“I’m replacing everything I stole,” Alex said quickly.
“So I heard. You and your Lord and your soldier and the man who knows languages. Luke MacKinnon? Some kind of anti-thieving team I think? And he is your partner, this Luke?”
“He has nothing to do with what I am undertaking here.”
“I am sure he doesn’t, but I think he soon will.” With this cryptic statement and a civil nod of his head, Dragan walked away as if he had all the time in the world and as if he wasn’t carrying a pistol under his jacket.
Shit. How do I know he was carrying a gun? Why can I visualize the gun? Why can I sense the shape of it when it’s hidden? Why does he have a gun? Why does my head hurt?
Hell, why didn’t the Ashmolean have some kind of anti-terror security scanner? Dragan wasn’t the kind of man who had a gun without the intention of using it. Didn’t the Brits take anything seriously? Calming his breathing, Alex considered his options. Dragan being here, in the vicinity, with a gun, and some kind of intention to carry out a theft, was a very large spanner in the works. The attention of the police could be raining down on them, especially if Dragan used the damned gun.
What do I do? Stand here? Carry on with what I was planning? Do I call the whole thing off?
Thoughts ran and twisted in his head and the pain knifed again. This time it hurt enough for Alex to move the hell away from standing there like an idiot. He consciously followed the direction that Dragan had taken but when he rounded the corner the man had disappeared from view. Instead he caught a glimpse of Chris and Griff walking toward the exit and glanced at his watch. Thirty minutes to closing and the place was still busy enough to hide whatever he was doing. If he stayed and did this thing tonight then he needed to pull himself the fuck together and stop worrying about what ifs and maybes. His plan consisted of a quick ‘in and out’ and pushing thoughts aside that could rock his equilibrium, he focused.
Striding confidently past exhibits, he took a left then a right out to a door marked Staff that Chris had cleared as the best entrance, and pushed it open. He already had the words at hand if he was spotted but the luck of the gods remained on his side and he ended up heading down the back stairs to the basement and the dry storage area. Down here everything was covered in protective packaging and was storage for a mix of items rotated into display and new exhibit contents.
After standing still for a second he then turned on his heel and headed to the back of the large labyrinthine area. Dodging behind a pile of large gray crates to avoid two chattering staff members, he finally found himself in an area full of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Happy that he was safely out of sight and earshot, he settled with his back against the wall and his ass pressed on the cold floor. He was prepared for the cold. The cold was nothing, nor was there fear of where he sat or why. No. This time his head was full of Dragan. What the hell was the man doing in broad daylight in Oxford, jeez, in England at all? How had he stayed alive after the great mafia showdowns of 2008? So many families turned on each other and the hired help often went first. The Pink Panthers, named for the diamond in the eponymous series of movies, was not only disbanded but ruthlessly hunted down by rival families and authorities alike. Dragan was, to all intents and purposes, the last of his kind.
Alex flicked through what Dragan had said then he remembered the almost throwaway line about Luke. Something about Luke soon being part of this? This what? The retrieval and replacement scheme he worked on? What?
His headache subsided as he calmed his thoughts and lost himself in memories and finally he arrived in a place in his head where he could relax and wait until the dark and the fireworks. Luke was in another University town, Cambridge, delivering a lecture on translation and Alex had been the willing audience as Luke practiced his speech.
God. He wished Luke was here. Now.
* * * *
Luke wrapped up his speech with a flourish of his hands and a summary that he had practiced over and over for many long hours. The applause was deafening in the acoustics of the medieval university hall and for the first time since he had agreed to talk fourteenth century translation he was pleased he had said so.
He wasn’t the best at standing in front of people and talking. It didn’t matter that he was an expert in what he was talking about or that he had experience in ancient languages that a lot of the professors and students alike would sell their own grandmothers to own. Of course he couldn’t talk about what had happened with Alex, or the crazy connection the two of them had, or even the fact Luke’s name was carved into Alex’s skin as part of some gods against man battle. Keeping Alex a secret was as vital to him as keeping hold of Alex’s heart.
“Thank you so much,” Professor Jameison said. He pumped Luke’s hand so hard that Luke had to rub his fingers when he finished. The short, balding, bespectacled man was a master of ancient Greece and was one of those that, if only they knew what Luke had seen, would be pinning Luke down for information. To know the Oracle. To have slept with the Oracle. That was some pretty intense and heavy stuff.
“You’re welcome,” Luke replied. He gathered together his papers and the notes he had prepared but not actually read from, and pushed them all into his case.
“We would be honored if you could join us in the refectory for a drink?”
“I’m so sorry. I promised I would be back home for later tonight, so I really need to think about battling through the traffic.” Nothing anyone said could get Luke to stay away from Six Pillars tonight. Alex was coming home and after one of his jobs he always needed Luke as his center.
“A pity. But I must say I would appreciate the chance to discuss the scripts in more detail at a later point. Should I have my assistant contact yours for a time?”
Luke smiled. An assistant? Wouldn’t that be nice. He may know a few languages, he may well have an instinctive need for learning, but he was still a low-paid researcher working on his own papers. Taking on jobs like this one in Cambridge where he was paid a pretty decent fee made it at least feel like he contributed something financial to his and Alex’s life. Of course, Alex being left a large part of Thanos’s billions did make life a little easier, added to the fact that they now shared an apartment in Griff’s family home for half of the year.
“Please get her to email me and I will be very pleased to come back.”
Making his excuses and accepting both congratulations and questions on his way out, he realized that the November sky, redolent with the scent of bonfires, was so dark he couldn’t immediately find his car. Evidently medieval buildings didn’t have outside lighting as a given. Finally in the car, he checked his cell. There were no messages from Alex although Luke had an insistent nagging at the base of his skull that he really needed to get home soon.
Nothing will go wrong. Alex knows what he is doing.
“It’s okay, Luke.” Alex’s voice echoed in his head and Luke smiled. It was just wishful thinking that it was actually Alex’s voice and not just a thought that manifested as if it were planted there. He missed that connection they had experienced in Greece. The connection hadn’t lasted long but he had just gotten used to it when Athan had left Alex. He’d only noticed how much he had grown used to it when it had completely gone.
Just short of three hours driving and he headed up the winding road to Six Pillars and parked on the wide drive. After grabbing his papers and bags he hurried into the house and without hellos was intent on finding either Griff or Chris and hearing how Alex was getting on.
“And?” he asked. Griff looked over at him from stirring something that smelled vaguely Italian and tomato-y on the gleaming stainless steel stove.
Griff knew exactly what to say. “Everything’s fine. He went in. He hasn’t contacted us. Security was light and the crowds were heavy.”
Luke deflated a little as the worry left him then he winced as a band of pain squeezed his temples. Rubbing at the offending areas he cursed. The pain had been on and off all afternoon.
“Okay?” Griff asked, looking concerned.
“Fighting a headache; the motorways were hell. I just need some pain meds and a shower.”
“He’ll be back by two,” Griff offered. Luke managed a smile. However much he smiled though, Griff could see straight through him. “Someone phoned and left a message for you.” Griff turned back to the pot. “Chris wrote it on the pad.”
Lord and Lady Morgan had left the house mostly empty when they spent their usual six months in Monaco, and just the four of them lived here. Him and Alex in the west side of the building, Griff and Christopher in the east part. The fact that four men lived here was easy to spot to an untrained eye by the piles of notes and takeaway menus that littered the side counter. It never failed to amaze him that pizza was still delivered to a house as grand as Six Pillars or to a man as titled as Griff.
“I cooked pasta,” Griff said. “It’s this bake thing if you’re interested.”
“You cooked?” Luke said. “Are you feeling okay?” He rummaged through the notes until he discovered one in Chris’s handwriting in among the clutter. A single name: Smith, and a contact number.
“Ha bloody ha,” Griff deadpanned. The very British swearword sounded so damn dry.
“This was it? Just a name and a number?”
“You need to ask Chris, he took the message. Dinner’s in twenty.”
“I’ll be down. Where’s Chris?”
Luke wandered out of the kitchen and down the long hallway to the room off the study where he knew he would find Chris. When Alex was out doing his thing, Chris could be found in the empty room doing his. The ex-soldier worried just as much as Luke did. Luke knocked and entered just as Chris finished a roundhouse kick to the punching bag hanging from the ceiling. He was sweating and concentrating and Luke hesitated to interrupt his friend for a moment. He took a step back to leave but words stopped him.
“You need to talk to him, Luke.” Chris held on to the bag to stop its swaying and pushed his other hand through his short, sweat-damp hair.
“No. To your idiot boyfriend. He’s gone into that place with no fucking plan, no backup, and a wish for his crazy-assed powers back again.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Luke said. He meant it. He would talk to Alex for all the good that would do. Recently Alex had become more and more reckless in the way he approached his retrievals and replacements and Luke fought very hard to keep his worry on the down low.
“I’m just…” Chris stopped and stepped away from the bag. He used a shrug to punctuate the unfinished sentence and Luke knew exactly what he was trying to say. He was worried. Luke was worried. And now he had a freaking full-blown headache.
* * * *
Alex opened his eyes and then checked his watch. He hadn’t slept but he had relaxed and the plan for what he was doing was very set in his head. The headache was getting worse and he felt a sick dizziness as he clambered to stand. Settling his breathing, he let his newly opened eyes become accustomed to the dark and debated using the small flashlight in his pocket. He had a pretty clear idea where he needed to go and he visualized a path. The security cameras only started outside of this storage room and he knew enough to avoid every single one on the route he needed to take. Opening the storeroom door led him to a darkened corridor and, pausing for a moment, he took the way he had come in back out to the museum. The guards patrolled every so often, there were the cameras, the Ashmolean wasn’t stupid—they had enough to protect everything that could be taken. They just hadn’t planned on someone putting something back.
The museum was silent, no one near him. For a second an overwhelming feeling of want washed over him. He hankered for the ability to play with the cameras—to turn them to another source. Pointedly he stared up at the nearest camera, one focused away from him, and flinched when it shook slightly. It didn’t move completely but Alex frowned. He was losing it, thinking anything about moving cameras.
Quietly he made his convoluted way in the direction of the exhibit and in a few minutes the missing piece of stone had returned to its place. For a second he watched it, back where it should be, and some emotion flooded through him. Luke. Alex was proud of what he was doing because it was what Luke wanted. Did that make him a pushover? Was that why he stood in the museum in the gently lit hall staring like a calf-eyed idiot with a feeling of pure peace inside him? Closing his eyes briefly he shook his head to clear the thoughts. Luke would listen to what Alex said and would just give that damn enigmatic smile. This particular piece of marble had been hidden from the public eye for quite a few years now and Luke wanted people to be able to see and touch these links to the ancient world.
Nodding at the marble, silently admiring its placement, he turned and made his way to the only egress that Chris had identified as a safe and easy way to leave. Attuned to the silence of the museum, it was easy to hear approaching footsteps, and quickly Alex slid behind the nearest sculpture big enough to hide him. When the footsteps passed he moved across the glass bridge and with agile grace that belied his size he used the tops of cabinets to reach the ground floor in seconds. Clearly one guard prowled the first floor and that left two other guards somewhere in the building. Waiting for a second, he listened carefully and frowned when he heard voices.
“It came from here,” one guard said.
“It’s probably some damn computer glitch,” the other replied. He sounded way past annoyed and straight on to pissed.
“We can’t always blame this stuff on computers.” Guard one laughed as he said this.
Alex watched as the two walked the very corridor he needed to use to get to the skylight in the Civil War hall. Anxiety knotted in his chest and he breathed through the issues.
Alex couldn’t work out which guard was exclaiming but he hugged closer to the sculpture. Something didn’t sound right.
“There’s glass everywhere. Look. Up. The skylight. It’s been smashed.”
“There’s a bag. A red one. Wait. Sound the alarm.”
Alex’s stomach sank. A red bag? Dragan had been holding a red rucksack. He wouldn’t have made this mess though. He was an expert. The alarm was a shrieking cacophony of discordant notes and the museum lights came on full and bright. Alex winced. Fuck. Two guards blocked his only exit, thinking was difficult with the noise in his head, the light burned, and Dragan was somewhere in the freaking building. What the hell was he going to do now?
“Police are on their way. Five out.” This was a third voice. Probably the guard Alex had evaded coming across the bridge.
“I’m going to check north.”
“I’ll take south.”
“They could be armed. Stan, stay here at the skylight.”
“You said they could be armed. Should we be splitting up?”
If Alex weren’t in shit up to his neck he might even think the whining was funny. Not many art thieves actually went around with heat. Except, it seemed, Dragan. In that freaking red bag. Think. Think.
Scrolling through possibilities to get the hell out was messing with his head. There were several potential exits but most of them left him exposed once he left the building. The roof wasn’t an option. Fuck. Pain banded his head and he winced again. Then the burn started. As fear edged into his normally calm thoughts, heat began to build inside him. He held up a hand and the sleeve of his black polo neck fell back to expose his wrist. Blue. Sparking just under his skin, a cerulean blue that squirmed and formed into shapes. In disbelief he watched as it coalesced into recognizable letters. The same letters that had been carved into his skin. The same that had disappeared in the fire. Concentrating the burn until it sat in the center of his chest, he inhaled and exhaled deeply. The burn cascaded through his body and he welcomed the hurt it spread along its path.
This was Alex with the power of the gods under his skin, and closing his eyes tightly he concentrated on his Self. Athan wasn’t inside him. There was no trace of the boy who had been so much a part of him for so long. This was all Alex and it was frightening and exhilarating at the same time. When the gray hues of images burned inside his eyelids he opened his eyes. Everything around him was blurred and faded as if he were looking through dirty, cracked glass.
Could he have sidestepped into his other space?
Taking an experimental step away from the carvings, he inhaled and then moved directly into the line of sight of a very nervous Stan. The guard was jumpy and looking between the room around him and down at his watch.
“Come on… come on…” he muttered.
Alex stopped right in front of him but the guard looked right through him. Fuck. This was real. This was happening. Not wanting to waste a single moment, he moved behind the guard and lifted the red bag. It would vanish into the other space with him—something he’d never been able to explain to Luke, or even understand himself. In a smooth movement he climbed two cases until finally he reached the last display and stood under the broken skylight. Seconds later and he was out on the small side-extension roof. One minute more, with sirens sounding right outside the museum, and he was running at a fast pace back to where he had left the car. Halfway between the Ashmolean and his car he shifted back to the now. Not consciously. It just happened. He hoped to hell no one spotted that freaky-ass trick.
Dropping the red bag on the passenger seat he belted himself into the car, started the engine, and drove away as sedately as he could. The buzzing in his head sounded familiar. Something was happening inside him.
How the hell was he going to explain this to Luke? They’d only just settled into a routine of being normal. Well, as normal as it got between an ex-thief like him and an academic like Luke.
How the hell he was going to explain to Luke what had just happened?
Alex swung the VW Golf in a smooth arc to end up the far side of the stone fountain. He needed time to get around how he was feeling.
“Fuck,” he muttered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Killing the engine he rested his forehead on crossed arms against the steering wheel. The scent of leather teased his nostrils and he inhaled deeply. After spending the last few hours in the basement of a museum, surrounded by the remnants of some Egyptian display of sarcophagi and wall paintings, it was good to breathe in something fresh. His heart rate slowed as he concentrated on calming the hell down. He didn’t think he had ever made it from the city to here in such a short time. Yes, it was nearly two am and blacker than pitch, meaning it was unlikely he would meet much traffic. Yes, he had the sense to stick to speed limits as and when he could but that didn’t mean he hadn’t pressed his foot harder to the floor on more than one stretch of road. But he didn’t even remember some of the journey. At least getting here in forty minutes meant he had some time now just to calm the hell down. He had texted Luke when he left the museum so Luke would assume he wouldn’t make it home for another ten minutes.
Lifting his head a little he then banged it down on his arms. And again. Luke was going to freak the hell out when he found out what had happened. There was no sense in expecting any other result. After everything in Greece they had thought it was over, that despite some kind of residual energy sparks Alex was essentially normal. He wanted to be normal for Luke. He didn’t want to scare him away.
A sharp flash of turquoise sparked behind his eyes and he lifted his head again, this time to slump back in the bucket seat and exhale noisily. This was happening more and more often, the sparks of blue tracing a path under his skin that he could almost see if he watched carefully. The paths didn’t follow veins but the marks he had once had on his skin. That was the one thing that really scared him. Pulling back his sleeve, he held up his forearm and peered close. The tail of the phoenix used to run there, down the length of his arm, wrapping his bicep and ending with Greek symbols just at his wrist. There was nothing there now. Frustrated, he clenched his fist and relaxed back—he was certain if he could just get a handle on this then Luke would never have to know. His cell chimed a text and he grabbed the offending item to read the screen. Luke.
‘You staying out there all night?’
Casually Alex looked up and to the left to the room at the end of the east wing where he knew Luke would be looking down at him. Thank God his lover wouldn’t have seen inside the car at the dramatic crap he was putting himself through. He took his cell, exited the car, and allowed himself a few seconds of standing in the glow of the interior light. Luke told him that he loved those moments when Alex was home safe after a job and he first glimpsed him climbing from the car. Sketching a casual wave up at where he knew Luke would be standing, he closed the door and locked the car. Patting her roof he sent a prayer heavenward, thankful that Griff’s collection held this beauty. Solid and sturdy, she didn’t look like a supercar, not like the small sports car he had owned with Edward, but she sure stuck to the country roads leading up to Six Pillars like shit to a blanket—even when the driver at the wheel had entered some kind of catatonic state.
He took the stone steps to the main door two at a time and let himself in the front door. Checking his sweatshirt was zipped to the throat and up under the chin, he then took another set of stairs and near jogged to the last room. He threw open their bedroom door and wasn’t surprised that Luke sat at the desk in the window. What surprised him was that the only light in the room came from the glow of Luke’s laptop and the small bedside lamp. What the hell was Luke doing sitting in the semi dark?
They were in each other’s arms in seconds. When Alex maneuvered them until Luke was pressed against the wall, he set about proving to Luke just how much he had missed him.
Retrievals, a euphemism for what he and Edward had used to do, had always given Alex a natural high. Sex had been hottest just after they had lifted whatever object they were targeting. Tonight was no different, except it was Luke, the man he loved, in his arms, and to top it all, Alex hadn’t retrieved an item but replaced one.
The kissing grew more heated, punctuated only with a command from Alex for Luke to strip. Together they pulled at Luke’s clothes until he stood naked. Still fully dressed, Alex hugged Luke close. The touch of skin on skin was the one thing that Alex needed but the one thing he knew he should limit. Especially after tonight. He hugged Luke so close it was inevitable that the man would want to know why. Normally there was sex, or in their case, hot, sweaty, balls-deep lovemaking. Luke pulled at Alex’s shirt but Alex simply placed a hand over his.
This was as far from normal as was possible. Luke knew Alex, could read him, and he pulled away even as Alex tried to stop him.
“What do you mean no? What happened?” Luke asked. “Alex? Talk to me? Could you not replace the artifact?”
“It was good. It went well.”
“So what’s wrong then? You look like hell.”
“It’s been three days, I’m tired,” Alex defended.
“Don’t lie to me.” Luke crossed his arms over his chest and showed that pissed look he had perfected so well over the past two years. The stance was his not-taking-any-shit posture. Didn’t matter that he was naked and so hard and ready he probably hurt.
“Something happened.” Alex finally offered the simple words when it became clear Luke wasn’t backing down. Maybe it was the simple way Alex said it. Or the defeat in his voice but the expression on Luke’s face changed from mutinous and demanding to compassionate and questioning in an instant.
“Talk to me.”
Alex knew he had to tell Luke what was going on, whatever consequences it had for them or for their love. Luke might take this happening in stride. Hell, he may well take one look at Alex’s body and just lose it completely. Fuck. Who knew and why was Alex all of sudden doubting Luke’s love and compassion?
Flicking the main light on and crossing to close the drapes Alex finally stilled with his back to Luke. With a sharp breath, in and then out, he unzipped his sweatshirt and pulled it and his T-shirt off over his head in one smooth move.
“Interesting,” Luke muttered. He was a master of understatement and Alex knew his boyfriend well enough to know that the simple word held his own version of ‘holy shit’ and ‘what the fuck’.
There was no touching. Luke didn’t immediately cross to Alex and trace and press and demand answers. There was no need.
“Jesus, Alex,” Luke murmured.
“How bad is it?” Alex asked. Tension ramped up in the room. He had seen the pale blue in the mirror—this was why he wore the damn sweatshirt up to his throat, but the burning had intensified tonight. He knew it would be worse.
“Every-everything…” Luke’s voice was low and awed. “It’s all there…”
“I thought so,” Alex said softly. No sense in swearing and cursing the gods or whoever forced this crazy shit onto him.
“You thought so?”
“There’s been times—you know—when we made love that the burning was there under my skin. I just… tonight.” He stopped and bowed his head. “There was a security guard and he was coming around the corner and before I knew it…”
“What? Did you have to deal with it? What did you do, Alex?”
“Nothing.” Alex looked back at Luke over his shoulder. “I swear nothing needed to happen. He didn’t see me is all.”
Alex heard rather than saw Luke sit down on the bed. For the first time since he had found out about the thing that was inside him, he wished it were easy for Luke to just hug him and reassure him everything was going to be okay. He felt the hopelessness that emanated from his lover and, despondent, he pulled on the zipped sweatshirt so it covered his back. Luke knew not to touch Alex that was all. He wasn’t pulling away he was just being considerate to Alex’s empathic side. Over and over Alex repeated those thoughts until he was almost convinced they were true.
“I’ll understand if you don’t want this…” Alex’s voice trailed away.
“This what exactly? What is it you think is happening?” Luke had a layer of irritation in his voice. Alex knew it wasn’t directed at him, more at the impossibility of what was happening to Alex’s body.
“I don’t know. I don’t feel the scar tissue, so that hasn’t come back.”
Horrifically scarred by priests in an ancient Grecian temple as the child that Alex had been so many centuries before, the patterns carved into his skin had been covered by thick dark tattoos. When Athanasios had left him to ascend to wherever he went, every single mark on his skin had vanished. He had been reborn from an intense fire simply as Alex.
When Athanasios had gone, the young boy’s consciousness had taken with it the physical scarring—all scarring except Luke’s name in raised markings on Alex’s inner thigh.
“I know, I mean, there’s no scarring I can see,” Luke said softly. “The markings are faint but under the skin—like a tracing or something.”
“And no tattoos.” Alex lifted a handful of material and twisted to check what part of his back he could see in the large wall mirror. Nothing.
Luke paused and when Alex met his gaze he was thoughtful and considering. “We always said the tattoos were something that you created, the Alex who was a man, not Athan the boy. When the scarring was cleared the tattoos went as well.”
“Tell me what you can see then,” Alex pleaded. He crossed to sit next to Luke on the bed, close enough to feel his body heat but far enough away so that there was no touching.
“Tracings under the skin, like you see blood rushing through veins under a microscope. Brilliant sapphire blue with sparking and… I don’t know how to describe it? Does it hurt?”
“It always hurts,” Alex replied. He could have been diplomatic and said it didn’t, but two years ago, he had promised to never lie to Luke again. “The pain is something I can put in a box in my head. Sometimes it is tight and I feel like my lungs are going to burst with the constriction. Other times it’s just this rush of warmth. I don’t think it is in my blood though—not in my veins. But you can see, right? See that it is following the patterns of what used to be there. The phoenix? The sun and the words inside the shapes?”
“I would need to check against my master notes—I could get the ones that I took in Greece when I sketched the carvings and tattoos…” Luke began the sentence then bowed his head.
Alex felt the overwhelming sense of despair that shot through Luke. That was another thing he needed to talk to his lover about. The fact that he sensed Luke’s emotions was something he didn’t even want to contemplate. It was way beyond just knowing the various emotions that made up the man he loved. This was actually sensing the feelings inside Luke. Not only that, but he was ‘seeing’ other people as well. Not entirely—more like a radio just off-station where every so often the talking and music were sharp and clear and other times they were more like discordant white noise.
Walking down the street and knowing what people were considering—anger, fear, despair—and then touching any one person by accident and having their base emotions flood into him was worse than hell. Not only that but he was having those damn flashes of color behind his eyes, case in point when the guard turned the corner. He had slipped into his ‘other space’ in an instant and was hidden from anyone’s sight. The feeling was so familiar yet it frightened the shit out of him. He’d only just gotten used to not having the skills he used to have and for them to all of a sudden smack back into him…? Too much.
An empath with his abilities, including the freaky way he looked at the world as flashes of color and sound and raw emotion, was never going to last long in the general population. He had spent most of his early twenties staying away from everyone except Edward. His lover had been the only one he could sleep with, or touch. Then there had been Luke. Luke grounded him.
“Luke? Does any of it look the same to you?” He hated the defeat in his voice. Empathy was a double-edged sword but he had come to terms with it once—he could do it again.
“I don’t need to look at my notes.” Luke lifted a hand out in front of them and traced imaginary patterns in the air, each movement accompanied by his soft voice explaining what he had seen. “The sun with the flames and the phoenix that sits to one side, with the wings that cover the expanse of your back.” Luke shifted on the bed slightly and for a moment their thighs touched. Alex was rusty at putting up barriers and before he could put anything in place, he realized with despair that worry had given way to a strange fear inside Luke. “Then there is the writing,” Luke continued, “sun, life and air.” He shook his head and dropped his hand to his lap resting it there in a loose fist. “I am guessing your chest is as patterned?”
Alex lifted a hand and placed it where his heart was. “Yes. That is what I first saw, and then the burning.”
“And your arms?”
“Both of them. I don’t understand.”
“So you said you felt this happening when we’re making love?” Luke asked. “When else does it happen?”
“Before, when we were together, there wasn’t the intensity I felt tonight. I know it’s getting worse. The last find and replace and then this one.” Alex used the shorthand term he and Chris had come up with when they started Sheridan Investigations. Find and replace was a more official term for Alex finding what he and Edward had stolen and putting it back where it came from.
“Heightened emotion,” Luke summarized. Alex could only nod at this very close to the mark fact. Luke placed his hand flat on Alex’s thigh and Alex started at the touch. “Can you do the other thing? Knowing what I think?”
Alex didn’t want to answer. Who in normal civilian life wanted a freak who could read every emotion or thought they had? He didn’t have the thought connection to anyone other than Luke. The only time he had managed to connect with someone else was with Chris when Luke and Alex had been prisoners of Lord Arriseth. What was Luke going to say if Alex told the truth? Two years they had been together, and Luke was the other half of his soul. If he lost him now because of this curse…?
“I can see every thought written on your face, Alex,” Luke said. His words were so damn gentle. “I don’t have to be an empath to see you worry about what I am thinking.”
“It’s just… look… I’m sorry you’re scared,” Alex whispered and then turned to face Luke. “I understand whatever you decide to do is best for both of us.”
Luke nodded and something inside of Alex began to relax when Luke wasn’t rejecting him. Half of him had expected unconditional acceptance, and that Luke’s love for him would get them through anything. But the other half, where his head still couldn’t get around what had happened to him, feared rejection. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe creepy ancient power coursing through his body was too damn much for Luke to handle, maybe it wasn’t.
Luke sighed, shook his head, then he did something wholly unexpected. In a smooth move, Alex was lying on his back, with his feet still flat on the floor, Luke straddling him. Impatiently Luke pulled the material of the top up until Alex lifted his arms and allowed the whole thing to be removed.
“I’m not scared of you,” Luke murmured. He leaned down and kissed a short path between one nipple and the other then concentrated on worrying the left with his teeth before suckling. Alex arched his back to get closer while at the same time fighting desperately not to let too many of Luke’s emotions through his barrier. Raw passion was a sensation that speared through him and cut deeply. Making love to Luke when he healed after losing the ability to connect had been intense and perfect. There was no need for barriers and he could just give everything of himself. Making love now, with the absolute purity of need that he had to have, would probably kill him.
“What are you scared of then? Don’t say you—you’re—jeez Luke—don’t say that you’re not scared,” he stuttered as Luke’s fingers followed the path of lips and tongue and traced unseen patterns on his skin. “I can feel it inside you.”
“For you,” Luke whispered against his skin. “‘M scared for you.” His direction changed and gently he moved until he lay chest to chest and his hands cradled Alex’s face. “We don’t know why this is happening. It could be residual energy, or maybe what happened to Athan left a scar inside you… or… hell, I don’t know.” They lay there together for a while and then Luke asked the one question Alex had hoped to avoid until he had gotten his head around this whole thing. “How strong are your barriers at the moment?”
“I’ve lost practice… I’m trying.” Flexing his thighs he attempted to lever Luke off of him but Luke was going nowhere.
“Don’t push me away,” Luke said. His words were a demand.
“You know how much it hurts…” Alex pushed again but Luke was not giving way. Luke must remember the rawness inside Alex when he connected to too much emotion—when it flooded him with pain. What if he lashed out? Hurt Luke? Why would Luke force him into this position? He must have said it out loud because Luke answered.
“Because you could never hurt me and I sure as hell couldn’t hurt you.”
He released one of Alex’s hands and Alex didn’t think to immediately use it to push Luke away. Something in the hypnotic tone of Luke’s words stayed the movement.
“Touch me, Alex.”
Alex lifted his hand and gently placed his palm on Luke’s chest. He could hear the gentle thump-thump of Luke’s heart and feel the emotions that went along with it. Compassion. Need. Lust. Love. None of it hurt. Not one iota of it was anything less than intense. For a second he closed his eyes and imagined the emotions coursing through them both. Like threads they weaved around each other and he consciously allowed some of his own need to reach and touch Luke.
Luke hissed at the connection and Alex’s eyelids opened immediately. It wasn’t pain that he found in Luke’s expression but glazed passion.
“Do that again,” Luke said. “You can’t hurt me. I couldn’t hurt you even if I tried.” Luke leaned down and placed a gentle kiss to Alex’s lips at the exact moment Alex began to tentatively lower his barriers. Allowing more and more to connect, he felt a lust so intense rise in him that he wanted Luke inside him now. Luke would take care of him. Luke would hold him steady in this sea of conflicting needs. All Alex had to do was trust.
Luke slid his tongue along the seam of Alex’s mouth and Alex parted his lips to taste his lover. A tingle began at the base of his skull, the blue behind his eyes increasing in intensity. This is what had happened before—this was how the lovemaking went each time. The spark inside Alex grew and grew until he was certain even Luke could feel the heat. The kiss deepened and Luke pressed down groin to groin. He moaned deep in his throat. Luke was naked but Alex still wore his pants and shorts. He needed them off… now.
Luke got with the program. Slipping to one side, he helped Alex push off the offending items but he didn’t immediately climb back on. Instead he lay back and pulled Alex to cover him. Then they kissed. The kisses were lazy and then fast and desperate and then nothing more than an exchange of breath as they stared into each other’s eyes. Alex saw the flecks of amber in the center of Luke’s soft brown eyes then saw past that to the need inside the man. Unconsciously they had been moving against each other as they kissed and Alex was so close to coming he couldn’t stop the rising feeling. An answering lust radiated from Luke and, gazes locked, they rocked in a rhythm as old as time. There was no pain, no electric shocks paralyzed him, only devastating and overpowering love.
The orgasm that stole his breath, answered with Luke arching up against him in the throes of his own completion, was nothing compared to the sapphire light that surrounded them both in a cocoon of awareness and heat. Every cell of him sparked and shifted and Luke was writhing under him as the sensation of ecstasy went on and on.
“I love you,” Alex said at the peak of it all.
“Love. You,” Luke said below him.
Consciously pulling the connection away gently and a step at a time, Alex finally rolled off Luke and lay to one side. Luke had gripped his hand as he moved and held tightly until the two men lay quiet and unmoving. The air around them held a static charge and the room was in utter blackness. The lamp was off, the computer quiet.
“Did we just blow the electricity?” Luke whispered. He glanced over at the clock on the bedside table that flashed 12:00.
“I think we did,” Alex answered. He turned his head to face Luke. “That was…”
“Intense? Hot?” Luke smiled.
“Perfect.” Alex wasn’t going to question why having Luke’s feelings cascade into him was the opposite of pain. Luke hadn’t thrown him out, he didn’t think Alex was a freak, and he loved him. Yes.