Saturday, October 11, 2008

Before You Say Goodbye by Christine London

Spice and resinous tang, he breathed her in, cascading kisses across her face. Hands cradling her head, he couldn’t stop consuming the reality of her. Overwhelming relief flooded his chest, threatening to smother him in its intensity.

Her cheeks were wet. He drew back from her, engaging her eyes. Jesus…those eyes. Red-rimmed with emotion, smudged with melted mascara, they were beautiful.

“Aubrey, don’t cry. I’m okay.”

“God, I thought I’d never see you again,” she breathed in short, laboured gasps.

He hooked his arm around her shoulder and brought her to his chest. “They’ve let me go. It was all a huge cock up.” He felt her wedge clenched fists between them.

“Who’s they?’ her voice quavered, potent with imagined horrors. He captured her upper arms in a firm grasp, her fists now pressing into his sternum.

“I don’t know. Americans.”

“Americans?” Her forehead furrowed in anxiety.

“They thought I was some bloke named Steele.”

“Mistaken identity?”

“Apparently.”

Fists relaxing, her hands dropped to her sides. “What did they want?”

“The contents of my carry-on bag…oh, and my mobile.” He patted the side pocket of his coat in well-rehearsed gesture of cursory search.

The starch melted from her posture. “So we buy you a new toothbrush and some underwear.”

“I’m afraid it’s a bit more complicated than that.” The brick was back in his stomach. A line of concern appeared between her brows, mirroring his. “They sort of made away with—” He paused, unable to say it.

“What?” she questioned, her agate eyes burning with intensity.

“With a rather important package.”

“We’re not on Mars, Benn. We can get it replaced”.

He cursed his open book face. Biting his bottom lip, he tried to change what was already written in his eyes. “I can’t.”

She curled her fingers around his forearm. “Why not? What could be that rare?”

He drew in a deep breath and sighed. “Gems. My father’s.”

Her mouth opened in surprise mixed with commiseration. “Oh…Benn.”

“Well there’s no point crying over spilt milk, is there?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re not gonna take this lying down.”

He stared at the yellow-orange striations that swirled through her irises. Her eyes looked as though they would self-combust. “I refuse to expose you to any danger.”

Her hand tightened around his forearm. “I appreciate the sentiment, I do…but I can take care of myself.”

“These guys may have bungled who I am, but they meant business.” He jutted his head forward, eyes lasering sincerity into hers. “I’ll not have you in harm’s way.” Fear welled up in him. He hadn’t been with her more than five minutes and already he knew he’d lie in front of a bus for her. “No.”

She dropped her hand from his arm and turned away. The sight of her back felt glacial.

“Come on, Aubrey. I’m just being reasonable. Neither of us is equipped to handle—” He cut himself off and blew out a puff of frustration. “So I suppose this qualifies as our first fight?” Sensing the tension radiating from her, he instinctively kept his hands to himself. Tentatively, he moved around to face her. Before he entered her peripheral vision, she whirled, sending him recoiling in astonishment.

“I’m a fucking mystery author. I’ve written at least a hundred such scenarios. I’ve done research with dozens of criminal justice professionals and gotten my characters out of more circuitous plot twists than a snake on steroids.” Her face was flushed with anger, her body puffed up in animal charade.

Benn tried to contain it, but an explosive chortle escaped his lips. Aubrey’s eyes widened even further.

“Don’t take this wrong, woman, but you crack me up.”

She struck his shoulder, packing quite a wallop. He reached for the spot with a reactive hand. “Owe!”

“Come on…give me a break. I barely touched you.”

Rubbing the offended muscle he retorted, “If that’s your soft touch, remind me not to get on your bad side.”

“I never should have had that cab follow you. If I’d ‘ov known you were gonna resume the chase after they’d let you go Scot free—”

“Don’t be insulting…I’m a colonial, not a bleedin’ Celt.”

A brief questioning look flashed across her face before she made the connection. “Ha ha. Very funny. I’m glad you’re taking this so lightly.”

“I’m not. It’s just that you have to keep your sense of humor through life or you’ll die of some cardiovascular malady.” He studied her. “Aubrey? Come on…stick with me here.”

Reprimand and mirth warred on her face, finally melting into a reluctant smile. “Okay.”

She reengaged his eyes. “We know they thought you were someone else. That they are American and that they were carting you across London.”

“To City Airport would be my guess.”

“How do you know that?”

“I heard the planes taking off right overhead when we stopped.”

“You stopped?”

“Yes. They took me into some sort of warehouse. I could smell the coffee.”

“Coffee?”

“Yeah, must have been used to store beans. It permeated the air.”

“What did it look like?”

“Don’t know. My head was covered throughout. Right until they booted me into an alley just across the way.”

“Yes…of course.” She turned from him, gazing at the pavement in thought.

Hooking her elbow, he steered her toward Bankside. “Look, love, I’m as fond of tourist locales as the next bloke, but can we get out of the weather?”

* * * *

Dodging under a green awning, they made it through the heavy oak door of a bakery just as the heavens opened. Cinnamon and sugar assaulted the senses as the waft of warm air hit her. A bell tinkled as Benn pushed through just ahead. While he was looking around the cozy establishment, she studied him. Beads of moisture clung to his classic-cut charcoal coat. His hair—a riot of damp curls—danced over his collarbone, skimming broad shoulders. Now that they were out of harm’s way, she could concentrate on him. She’d not thought to really look at him until now. They were safe inside this throwback to the forties, with heaps of rolls, sweets and breads stacked beneath the glass of a display case. She ignored it all to focus on him.

“Could we have two sticky buns and a pot of tea?’ The depth of his voice penetrated her cloud of concern. It blanketed her in the fabulous reality of the man at her side. God, he was gorgeous. His online photos did not do him justice. She’d been attracted to him from his very first communiqué. His MySpace icon was alluring, showing his dark-haired good looks, the light blue of his eyes and the strength of his jaw line. The other photos in his pics file were all snapshots; self-generated, and at odd angles. What would a real photographer be able to do with the man?

She felt the muscles of her face slacken, lips parting to draw in air that suddenly seemed more urgent. He turned from the clerk behind the counter, ice blue eyes engaging hers.

“Would you rather have a scone?”

His words might as well have been Swahili. She flipped her focus switch to “on” for receptive language, quickly retrieving at least the last few words.

“Scone? Uhh…no. Whatever you’re having.” Under the loose wrap of her scarf, her neck seemed ablaze, sending radiant heat to her face. She tugged at the long end that looped over her shoulder until it dangled freely. His hand wrapped around her wrist and he leaned in to kiss her. The gentle touch of his lips at the corner of her mouth sent adrenaline-laced lust through her, like the shockwave of a nuclear blast. She felt his grip tighten, his other hand pressing against the small of her back. The churning of blood in her ears competed with the pounding in her chest. Invading her nostrils, damp wool mixed with the earthy spice of his cologne. The heady scent of him assailed her senses as it vied with the cinnamon and coffee for her attention. It was one of those moments suspended in time, lingering like a haunting refrain. If only she could press the sustain pedal in her mind and stay in it forever. What mixture of ingredients, what combination of ephemeral qualities opened the floodgates of emotion, confirming what the logical brain had suspected? As fire consumes its fuel, the reality of the man in physical form now consumed her.

Yes. She loved him.

Pentacles of Magick: The Revealing by Eliza Gayle

The guard pushed Jessie into her cell far harder than he needed to, and her head slammed into the far wall. Beyond the point of physical pain, anger bubbled instead. She had to find a way out. She had the will, she just needed a plan.

Hours later, she had no ideas and she just wanted to rest for a while. She didn’t know how long she had, but she decided her only chance of escape would be when they came to get her. In that case, she needed to rest.

Click. Click. Click.

Still huddled on the floor in the corner, Jessie realized someone was at the door of her cell trying to get in. The fuzz of sleep slipped away as she realized this was it. It was too dark to see for sure, but the man standing there wasn’t her normal guard and he wasn’t opening the door with his keys.

“Jessie, is that you?” His deep male voice did not belong to any of the guards she was used to, yet there was something familiar about it.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Jake sent me. We have to hurry.”

Her heart soared for her brother. She knew he wouldn’t leave her to die here. The door swung open and he reached his arm inside, waving for her to hurry up.

“Grab my hand, let’s go.”

She eagerly grasped his hand, willing her body to move her up and out of this hell hole.

In the light of the doorway, he turned back to say something to her and froze. His hand fell away from hers. “Is this some kind of fucking joke?”

She knew then, and raised her head to the all too familiar piercing blue eyes and wavy black hair. “Oh, shit. Noah…”

The breath stole from her lungs as the memories crashed down around her, threatening to debilitate her. Electricity stuttered through her system as her magick attempted to rise to the surface before sputtering to a halt. No magick, not now. Jessie took an unsteady step on weak and wobbly legs. She could do this, just take one step at a time.

“What the hell has he done to you?” Noah grabbed her around the waist, pulling her close to his strong, solid body. Her cold skin soaked up his heat with little regard to the fact that touching him was detrimental to her mental health. His gruff voice sounded like barely controlled rage, a beast rising to the surface. A feeling she could well identify with.

“Have…to…go…now. Not much time.” She looked into his eyes, trying to communicate their need to hurry.

“I would agree. This place is crawling with idiots and users, all itching to impress their boss. I prefer to get us both out of here undetected. No one has to die tonight.”

Weak but determined, Jessie followed Noah’s lead away from her cell, down a back corridor that wasn’t familiar. “Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

He threw her a quick glance over his shoulder, his eyebrows raised and a smirk across his face. It was one of Noah’s famous “don’t be stupid” looks. The man could always cut someone down or put them in their place with a dark look or a single word. Instinctively she bristled against his typical alpha male behavior, wishing she were strong enough at the moment to show him what she thought of that.

No way could she fight him now as he tucked her tight against him, lending her his strength and a little of that magick that she got from him every time he touched her. The at-odds combination of his dark and light halves swirled inside her, searching for her beast. But this time was different than the past. The beast didn’t move—she’d repeatedly had her magick raped from her, each time leaving her less than the last time. She couldn’t help but worry that he’d gone too far, if it was already too late for her. Was she living on borrowed time?

“There’s some pretty tough security up ahead that you’re going to have to walk through alone, can you handle it, Jessie?” Her spine stiffened against him at the question. Any other day she would likely have been insulted and kicked his ass just for suggesting it, and he damn well knew it. She looked up at him and, sure enough, the amusement was there plain as day. He was enjoying this way too much.

“To get out of this place, I can do just about anything.” She gritted her teeth in determination. They continued through the tunnel that sloped downward, giving her the illusion of going further underneath the compound instead of up and out to where freedom waited. “Where are all the guards, Noah? This place is usually crawling with them. And why are we traveling deeper inside the mansion?”

“This is the path of least resistance, and your brother and mine are running a little special interference for us.”

“Jake is here?” Panic rose in her, sharp and swift, like a vice squeezing her body and making it difficult to breathe. “Oh no, Noah, he can’t be here. Scott will kill him. Tell him to go now, he has to leave before it’s too late.”

“Jessie, stop. Calm down. Breathe, baby, slow and deep. He isn’t here on the property. Denn’s earth magick is pretty powerful stuff, and he can accomplish a hell of a lot from a safe distance.” He grabbed her chin and gently pulled her head to look at him. “Look at me, Jessie. Breathe, damn it. Despite whatever hard feelings one or both of us might be harboring from our past doesn’t matter right now. I gave my word to Jake that I would get you out of here safe and sound. So, do as I tell you and follow my plan, and everything will be fine.”

She did breathe. Short shallow breaths. She would be of no use if she couldn’t keep her wits about her. Escape had to be the top priority.

“Jessie, look at me.”

She tilted her head to meet his cool, cobalt blue gaze with fire burning deep inside. If she didn’t watch herself she could get lost in those sexy eyes of his, and that would be a very bad thing.

“There is an infrared laser grid up ahead, lying between us and the exit out of here. We can use some magick to disable parts of it, but if we take down the whole thing everyone will know we are here and will be waiting outside for us. So it’s this or the front door. Your choice, darlin’.”

“I’ll take door number one.” She smirked as she turned back toward the corridor and headed in the direction they’d been traveling.

“Oh uh—”

She turned the corner and ground to a halt. There on the dirty floor, with his hands bound and mouth taped up, laid her guard. The same guard who had treated her like shit for weeks. She bent down slowly so that her mouth was not far from his ear when she whispered. “You should be afraid. Very afraid.”