Seven Forbidden Arts #5
Sean Rivers lives with a dangerous secret. He possesses a forbidden art. As geomancist, it is in his power to destroy landscapes with earthquakes and volcanoes. Knowing his kind is hunted by forces of both good and evil, Sean’s job as mixologist in Cartagena, Colombia is the perfect cover. Until Asia, a zesty beautician walks into his life and wrecks the very laws of physics.
When Sean and Asia compete for the premises where Sean intends to open his cocktail bar, he pulls out all the stops to win the challenge ... to Asia’s detriment. Together they end up catering for the guests of a drug baron who rented Isla del Pirata for a week-long birthday celebration. The kingpin has no intention of letting Asia leave. Ever. If Sean is to rescue her, he’ll have to use his art, blow his cover, and maybe even his life.
Release Date: April 12, 2016
Sean Rivers woke up with a jerk from his dream. In his room above Jerry’s Pub, the early sun made the yellow curtains glow. The rest of Cartagena was still asleep. He wiped a hand over his sweat-ridden face and cursed his Scottish bones for waking every morning.
He didn’t deserve to wake.
He didn’t deserve to breathe.
In his dream, Maddy died all over again. He watched helplessly, night after night, as the earth cracked and swallowed her whole. Her dark blue eyes, a mirror image of his own, pleaded with him, even as her fingers slipped from his slick grip. He didn’t break eye contact. He saw terror and death in her gaze. Down and down she went with flailing arms and a red billowing skirt ... and then the terrible thump.
A shudder tingled down his spine. The nausea he woke with every morning had become as familiar to him as eating and pissing. He had learned to live with the discomfort, as one would tolerate a persistent flu. He swallowed back the acid in his throat and let his stomach settle. The urge to throw up left him with a queasiness that locked his teeth together.
He needed a shower and a shave. The smoke from the bar clung to his damp skin and hair. He massaged his jaw in an effort to release some of the tension that made the joints ache and welcomed the sharp pricks of his stubble in his palm. It reminded him that he had crossed the border from subconscious suffering to wakeful torture. The real nightmare, the one of facing another day, had just begun.
He sat up and pressed his thumbs hard into his eyes, exorcising the mental image of the dream that lingered. Sparks popped across his black vision. Wiping the guilt away wasn’t as easy. The only thing that gave him enough motivation to battle on was finishing what he and Maddy had started. Opening a cocktail bar in Colombia had been her dream. They’d made a great team, the best mixologists in the country, but she had always been a better performer than him.
Another month or so and he’d have enough money to make it happen. Jerry promised he’d wait until Sean could afford to take over the rent. The plan was to convert the sleazy bar into a classy cocktail lounge and to open in six months, on Maddy’s birthday. Until then, he was content to work in Jerry’s bar.
Every bone in his body felt battered. The pub had closed at two in the morning when the die-hard bikers had left. He’d spent the next two hours stacking chairs and tables, scrubbing floors, washing glasses, cleaning windows, carrying crates of empty bottles outside, and hauling full ones in. Jerry had people for those chores, but it put off wrestling with his dream for another couple of hours. Even if physical exhaustion never delivered the redemption he was after, he still tried. The mind with its built-in survival instinct was a fucked-up thing. Even if the heart had given up, the mind carried on, poking sticks into the wheels, trying to find coping mechanisms and defenses. In his case, physical labor had become his outlet.
Knowing there was no way he’d go back to sleep, he swung his legs from the bed. His hand habitually went to his throat to touch the crystal pendant Maddy had given him for their twenty-seventh birthday, the last one she ever celebrated. The heavy weight was strangely absent. He felt around his collarbone and gripped nothing but skin. Though he knew the leather string wasn’t there, he jumped up and stalked to the mirror on the wall. The only image reflecting back at him was the formula tattooed on his left pec–Newton’s law of gravity.
He turned back to the bed with a feeling of dread. He had not taken it off since the day Maddy put it around his neck, not because as a geomancist he knew the significance of the stone—he had long since given up on the hope that it could save him—but because it was the last thing she’d given him.
“Crystal,” she’d said, “to purify and protect.” It had become his reminder of the promise he had made himself not to let her dream die with the body that had been lowered into the Highland soil of their homeland. The dream was the only part of her he could keep alive.
He walked back to the bed, ripped the sheets down, and turned the pillow over. It had to have come off in the night. There was no sign of it. Going down on his knees, he checked under the bed. Nothing. Had he lost it last night, while he was mixing mood cocktails for the bar’s clientele? Had it dropped off on the way to the Turkish grub joint up the road where he had dinner?
Grabbing the T-shirt he had worn the night before, he marched to the open window and plucked the curtains aside. The air was already humid. Not a breeze blew in from the sea. Today, the ocean view failed to catch his attention. He pushed his palms on the windowsill and peered down at the cobblestone street in the hope of spotting the lost necklace. If he’d dropped it outside, the chances of finding it were slim. Someone could have picked it up by now. He scrutinized the length of the street, but nothing glittered in the sun. He’d have to go down to look for it. It was a ridiculous notion, but he felt incomplete. It was as if Maddy’s dream had been ripped from his body, out of his reach.
Nobody was moving around yet. The shops below were shuttered. The bustle of brooms sweeping the pavements would only start in a couple of hours. Restaurants and stores wouldn’t open until much later. He was about to pull the smoke drenched T-shirt over his head when a woman turned the corner and strutted down the street. Something about her made Sean pause.
She was a delicate, young-looking lass, on the short side. Her steps were purposeful, as if she did everything with a predetermined focus. Her head was held high and her back straight. She made a good deal of noise with glittery, platform flip-flops that beat the pavement. She wore a bright blue bikini with white, see-through pants and over-sized sunglasses with pink lenses. A white silk scarf was twisted around her neck. No blouse or T-shirt, just the bikini top stretching over the firm mounds of her chest. Her breasts were almost too big for her tiny body. In a city like Cartagena, it wasn’t wise for a woman walking alone to flaunt tits like that. Dark blonde curls that reached her jawline bobbed energetically to the rhythm of her feet.
She was a looker, all right, but what halted him wasn’t her beauty. It was her lust for life; a hopeful determination that bounced off the pavement with every clack of her heels. He knew it couldn’t last. Life’s cruelties would find her. She reminded him of what he had once been and of all he had lost.
She carried a canvas beach bag the size of a suitcase over her shoulder. It was too early for the beach. Not even the umbrella and chair vendors would be out yet. Instead of turning for the stairs on the beach side, she stopped right in front of Jerry’s Pub and banged on the door.
What the hell? She knocked a second time before he had gathered himself enough to lean from the window and call down, “Can I help you?”
The female lifted her heart-shaped face and pushed her sunglasses over her hair. She had green eyes with brown specs and freckles running over her nose and cheeks. On closer inspection, he noticed she wasn’t as young as her figure had first made him think. Definitely not a teenager. Late twenties maybe. There were fine creases around the corners of her eyes, suggesting someone who smiled a lot.
Her gaze traveled up and down his naked chest and finally ended on his face. “Is this the premises that’s for rent?”
She turned in a semi-circle with outstretched arms. “This is perfect–sea view, busy street, prime spot. Say, how many customers do you have on a weekend night?”
Believing Jerry would never go back on his word, he told her, “You’ve got the wrong address.”
She squinted at the number on the wall. “Nope. Number eight.”
“Hold on just a wee sec. I don’t—”
“Can I see the inside?”
He lifted a finger. “Wait right there.”
She didn’t answer, only started tapping her foot on the concrete.
Sean jerked the T-shirt over his head and pulled on a pair of more or less clean jeans over his boxer shorts. He took the stairs two by two down to the bar. When he opened the door, his visitor cocked her head and blew out a puff of air. He was going to tell her she was lost, but she moved around him, light as a pussycat on her feet. She swirled through the room toward the bar. A whiff of green apples and something fresh and lively, like daisies, followed in her wake.
“Perfect.” White plastic bangles clanked together as she swept her arm over the lounge area. “The reception can be here.” Her head turned to the bar counter. “And the refreshments will be over there.”
She tapped a pretty bow-shaped mouth with an index finger. Sean’s attention was riveted by the blue varnish and miniscule white flower with which her nail was decorated. She might as well have tackled him to the floor and gagged him from the way his body remained immobile and his mouth useless. He was too dumbfounded to speak.
“The massage room will have to be upstairs, to profit from the view.”
The only thing upstairs was his bedroom. At last, with the threat to his private sanctuary, he managed to find his voice again. “Hold it right there, pussycat. What are you talking about? This is Jerry’s bar.” Soon to be his.
She cocked an eyebrow, as if to say, ‘So?’ and untied the scarf around her neck. To add insult to injury, she wore his pendant around her neck.
Sean’s jaw dropped and then clenched. “What the...?”
Was this some cruel joke? He reached for the necklace, but she took a step back, her hand covering her throat.
“Where did you get that?” He crossed his arms. It was all he could do to prevent himself from snatching it from her delicate neck.
Her fist closed around the crystal. “I found it. It’s mine.”
“No, it’s not.” He advanced on her, and she took another step back. “I’ve been looking for that.”
“You don’t want to push me, not on this.”
She lifted her chin. “Prove that it’s yours.”
Without breaking eye contact, he threw a thumb over his shoulder to the framed photo of him and Jerry hanging on the wall.
Her gaze followed the path of his finger. She took three delicate steps around him and stopped in front of the frame. It was a picture Maddy had taken of him and Jerry on the night of their birthday party. They had celebrated here in the bar, just after she had given him the pendant. The crystal had caught the flash of the camera, causing a white halo on the photograph. When they had the print developed, Maddy said the white circle of light–angelic light–was an omen of death. He pushed his sister’s voice from his mind and trained his attention on the female who studied the picture with a tilted head.
When she turned back to face him, Sean held out his open palm in silent instruction. Obediently, she lifted the leather string over her head and placed the precious crystal in his hand. His fingers closed around the stone with relief.
“I found it in front of the kebab shop,” she said with a smile.
The gesture was genuine, creasing the corners of her eyes into something that reminded him too much of a warm sun shining on a cold Highland lake, like homecoming.
Only when it was secured around his neck did he say, “I’m glad you did.”
Her expression turned curious. “It means a lot to you.”
“You said something about rent?” he said, deliberately cutting further interrogation short.
Her green-brown eyes scrutinized him from top to bottom before her gaze flittered over the formula of the first law of thermodynamics tattooed on the inside of his upper right-arm. He was especially fond of that law–energy couldn’t be created or destroyed.
“You’re Sean, aren’t you?” Without waiting for his confirmation, she continued, “You sound and look even more Scottish than what I imagined. What made you decide to move to Colombia? How long since you’ve relocated? Three years? You have to give me some expat tips. Weather must be a big improvement over the Highlands. That’s where you’re from, right? I hear you have this knack for blind mixing a drink to suit a customer’s mood. Never get it wrong. Say, what would you mix for me?” Her hips rocked gently as she shifted her weight.
He took a deep, long breath on her behalf. She was a nosy, inexhaustible kitten with long cat lashes and wee pads-on-her-paws kinds of steps. Would she be playful if a man made a move, or would her tail sweep and her tiny claws come out? What would he mix for her? He took in every inch of her small, lithe body. She’d be a spicy Thai ice latte spiked with vodka. Poison in a small bottle. Suddenly his curiosity was stirring, but not about the possible reasons why she had barged through the door and spoke no sense about rent. It was the kind of curiosity that stirred in a man’s pants.
He narrowed his eyes a fraction. “What did you say your name is?”
“Sorry.” She brushed her palms on her transparent pants and held out her dainty hand. “Asia Sommer.”
He managed to contain the frown that almost slipped out. His hand folded around hers. Her skin was pleasantly warm. “Asia, like the continent?”
She gave an apologetic shrug. “My mother wanted to name me after my father, but since she didn’t know his name, she named me after the continent he was from instead.”
Damn. What was he supposed to say to that?
“Anyway,” she looked away, “I’m here to see Jerry.”
What was Jerry brewing behind his back? Sean was territorial about the bar, and Jerry damn well knew it. “As you can see, he’s not in.”
She knew a lot about him. She could be working for a gift hunter or a government agency. The whole rent thing could be a set-up. Suspicion tightened his throat. “How do you know so much about me, pussycat?” His lips twitched, but there was no humor in his tone. “Are you a stalker?”
Her smile faltered a fraction at his downright rudeness, and he felt a loss of warmth, as sure as he’d feel a shadow stretch over that sunny piece of Highland her crinkling eyes had conjured.
“I read the article about your Liquid Oscar in the Wine magazine,” she said. “It was all over the gossip magazines, too.”
Ah. That unwanted publicity. The nomination had been an error, one that hadn’t come from his side. A well-intending Jerry had thought it would be good for their business. Little did he know it could cost Sean his life.
“When will he be in?” she continued.
“Not until tonight.”
“I’ll come back then.”
“You’ll be wasting your time.” His voice could freeze the air. “The premises are not for rent.”
“Maybe you’re uninformed?” she said with a hopeful inclination.
Like hell. His tone dropped a few degrees more, resembling the brittle Antarctic glaciers. “I don’t think so.”
She flinched a little. “At what time will he be here?”
She wrapped her arms around herself. The way it pushed up her breasts made him want her to come back, but not for Jerry.
“Nine should do it.” The full-blown smile he gave her wasn’t warm. She seemed even more unsettled. “Shall I give him a message?” With each second, he sounded more like a cold-hearted bastard trying to get rid of her.
“Please.” The word whispered past her lips.
He imagined her saying the word from a bed of twisted sheets. Would she whisper, or would she scream? The thought made him hard.
“Just tell him Asia was here, and I’ll come back tonight. And please,” her mint eyes took on an urgent light, “tell him not to offer the contract to anyone else until he’s spoken to me.”
He rubbed at the back of his neck to eliminate the itch a premonition invited.
“What exactly did Jerry promise you, pussycat? I’d hate to see you disappointed.”
The echo of the smile that still clung to her lips disappeared. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that. It’s objectifying.”
“Oh?” He raised a mocking brow. “What pet name do you prefer?”
“None.” Her demeanor turned business-like. “I’ll be back tonight.”
He grabbed the ends of her scarf before she could turn. “You haven’t told me what Jerry promised you.”
Caution flickered in her eyes. “Look, I’m sorry if this means you’re going to lose your job. I understand it can’t be easy. If a spa required a barman, I promise I would’ve worked something out with you. I’m sure there are plenty of bars in town that’ll pay handsomely for your skills.”
His temples pulsed. His hearing got stuck on ‘lose your job’ and then it fast-forwarded and tripped over ‘spa’.
“A fucking what?” he said softly.
Her stance turned defensive. If at all possible, her back straightened more. “A spa, where people have beauty and relaxation treatments, in case you don’t grasp the meaning of the word.”
Anger heated his ears. “This is what Jerry agreed to, aye?”
“Not exactly. He’s looking at getting out of his lease, and I’m looking at renting. It’s a win-win for both of us. What I’m doing with the place afterward is really none of his business or yours.”
“You’re wrong, pussycat. It’s every bit my business.”
“I refuse to argue with you.” She lifted her chin. “I’m leaving. I can see when I’m not welcome, but I will be back tonight.”
She tried to take a step back, but he still held fast to her scarf. He twisted the ends around his hands, reeling her in. Her pupils expanded. The chocolate chips danced around in her green irises as her eyes flickered between his own. Ah fuck, he couldn’t help himself. He could fall into those pools and vanish there.
“By all means, come back tonight. I encourage it, but it won’t be for sealing a deal with Jerry. It won’t be for more than a complimentary drink.” His eyes trailed over her. “Unless you want it to be.”
She jerked on her scarf, almost tearing the fragile fabric from his hands. He let the material unwind slowly, taking his time to release her.
Stumbling a step back, a butterfly rhythm fluttered under the delicate skin in the hollow of her neck. “Are you always such a jerk?”
“Here I thought I was flattering you.” His obstinate hard-on certainly was.
“To think I was going to ask for your autograph,” she said with a condescending smile before racing across the floor.
“I’ll save you a front seat at the bar,” he called after her.
The minute the door slammed behind her, he rushed upstairs and rummaged through his jacket pockets for his phone. He dialed Jerry’s number, but all he got was voice mail. Forfeiting the much-needed shower, he pulled on his leather jacket, grabbing his helmet and keys on the way to the door. Twenty minutes later he stopped in front of Jerry’s cabin in a cheap harbor location. A note on the door read, ‘Gone fishing’. He slammed his hand on the handle bar of his bike. He didn’t know what the deal with Asia was, but giving up the bar was not in the cards, not in his lifetime.