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Alexia Reve-Drake pressed her spine more tightly against the broad trunk of the tree, hoping that the tree and the darkness would hide her from the men seeking to harm her.
She forced herself to breathe slowly, trying hard to listen over the rapid pounding of her heart. A light breeze shuffled fallen maple and oak leaves, rustling them across the museum's parking lot. From a distance, the sound of traffic on the expressway hummed. It was long past rush hour, and no squeal of tires or blare of horns broke the steady whir of passing cars.
"Where'd she go?"
Alexia held the breath she'd just inhaled and fought the hysteria urging her to scream.
While the entire day had been one confusing event after another, she hadn't expected it to end like this.
She swallowed the terrified cry threatening to escape. This wasn't the first time today she'd heard her name whispered.
A hushed crooning that came from nowhere to beat against the inside of her head. Even though she had never mastered the skill of telepathy, she had learned how to protect her mind from others.
But right now she couldn't concentrate hard enough to call up even an iota of protection. She was too rattled by the men after her. And this intruder was stronger, his will more powerful than any she'd encountered before.
Stronger andnot quite human. She sensed the raw, predatory power of a beasta power that had touched her once before, sending her life into chaos. This intruder was a lethal enemy who could easily slip through her visualization of a wall closing off her thoughts to others.
"I think we lost her." Leaves crunched underfoot as the three men continued their search. Sheshivered, certain the masked trio would never give up their hunt.
Her shivers turned to tremors of fear. She took a chance and glanced around the tree. Overhead lights glared, casting eerie shadows onto the pavement of the museum's nearly empty south-side parking lot. At this time of night only two cars remainedhers and a pale gray sedan.
The night maintenance crew and security guard parked in the lot on the other side of the building. Maintenance wouldn't reach her end of the museum for another three or four hours. And Bill, the young night security guard, would most likely be on his cell phone with his new wife.
Unless some miracle occurred, nobody would be aware that she was still here, let alone in danger.
Unable to control her fear and suddenly growing anger, she silently screamed, "What? What do you want?"
The intruder laughed. A harsh, evil sound that nearly sucked the breath from her. Finally he answered, "The grimoire."
Alexia briefly tightened her hold on the padded envelope clutched against her chest. She cringed, instantly relaxing her hold when the ancient vellum pages inside crinkled like old tissue paper.
She hadn't been forced into this type of silent conversation in years. Not only was this intruder evil incarnate, the mere act of conversing without speaking dredged up memories she'd prefer to keep locked away. Yet she wasn' t about to alert the men seeking her by speaking out loud. Instead, she thought, "Then take it."
In truth it wasn't as if the pages were hers to begin with. Someone had delivered them to her office in the museum this morning before she'd arrived. It wasn't until late in the day that she'd had time to inspect the contents of the envelope.
At first, she'd been thrilled. It wasn't every day that a medieval paleographer got a chance to research and translate dead languages. There was little she loved more than poring over words older than some civilizationswords and symbols that most members of her community had only heard or read about.
But a paragraph into the translation changed her excitement to horror. The opening of the first sentence hinted that the pages would contain secrets more powerful than the human mind could imagine.
That was when she'd felt her intruder's virtual touch. The need to physically translate the pages was unnecessaryshe had only to form the words in her mind for him to have the spells.
"You never should have sensed my presence."
"If you're so damn clever, why didn't you translate the work yourself?"
His anger was hotand swift. A wave of fire shot through her. She swayed slightly at his abrupt departure from her mind, then leaned even more against the tree for support.
"He'll have our heads if we don't find her."
This speaker was human and nearby. She tamped down the urge to curseher intruder could have taken his cronies along with him when he'd left in such a huff.
She peered around the tree again. The men were still there. Somehow she had to get away.
"Maybe she slipped back into the building."
At last she heard two sets of pounding footsteps heading back toward the museum. What was the third man doing? She attempted another glancehe was still there.
Let him wait all he wanted. It wasn't as if she'd move from the safety of her tree before he was gone.
He turned his head in her direction and she immediately jerked back. Had he seen her?
The crackle of leaves let her know how close he was to finding her. "I know you're out here." His deep voice rasped from little more than an arm's length away. "You may as well show yourself. We aren't leaving without you."
Did he think she was stupid? She closed her eyes and fought for control as she reached into her coat pocket. She tipped her head, listening, trying to pinpoint his location.
She heard him muttering. The sound came from her right. He was too close. As slowly and quietly as possible, she moved cautiously to her left.
"We just want the translation." His footsteps stopped. "Give it to us and we'll leave you alone."
Not hardly. These manuscript pages came from more than a simple book.
The pages were sections from another manuscript, a druidic grimoire that supposedly never existed. A supposition totally off base.
She knew for a fact that the Dragonierre's Manual did indeed exist. For nearly four centuries it had been in the possession of the Drakesher estranged husband's family. She'd seen it several years ago.
How had these pages become separated from the manual? It was kept locked away in a safe. Did Braeden know that a few of the pages had been nabbed? Or had the manual she'd seen always been incomplete?
The package's arrival before the daily mail call meant they'd gone to a lot of trouble to ensure the pages found their way to her desk. They'd somehow bypassed all the security measures and broken into her office to make the delivery.
She'd been set up. The why was pretty obviousthere were few people who could actually do the translation. The who was what worried her. Was it human or something more sinister?
Either way, was it aware of her connection to the Drakes and the value of the manual? What evil was planned with the translation?
If what she'd heard about the manual was correct, the spells and rituals were powerful. In the wrong hands the magic could be used to literally bring down nations.
"I can stay out here all night," said the man, sending her heart into another frenzy.
He was so close now that she could probably touch him. Instead, she curled her fingers around the cold, hard steel in her pocket.
After the threatening phone call she'd received before dawn this morning, she'd slipped the gun into her coat. However, this wasn't the danger she'd expected.
"It's a nice clear night. It'll get real cold soon." She heard him zip up his jacket. "It won't bother me none. I can wait."
His darkly ominous tone didn't convince her of his professed patient character.
The man sighed heavily and then said, "You're a smart girl. You know he'll eventually get what he wants. One way or another, he'll have the power with or without your help."
She clamped down on her tongue, determined to hold back the gasp trying to claw its way out of her throat. Dread crept down her spine as she realized they knew full well the secrets these pages contained.
Just as she'd feared, whoever was in charge of this venture was out for nothing more than power and evil. Offering either up to them was not an option.
"I'll make you a deal."
To her surprise, the man's hot breath brushed her ear. Alexia jerked away from him. "No."
He grabbed her arm, preventing her from pulling out her gun. "I'd say your choices are rather slim. Give us what we want, or we'll take it."
Unable to break free of his hold, she stalled for time to think. "I only received the pages today. There hasn't been time to go over them. I have nothing to give you."
He jerked her closer until she had to tip her head back to look up at him. The glare from an overhead light pooled down on them. A latex mask covered his entire head. The only part of him visible beneath the grotesque caricature of a lion were his eyes and mouth.
He stared at her through beady, bloodshot hazel eyes. His thin lips curled, his breath felt like the fires of hell against her face. "Oh, blue eyes, I have everything I needyou and the pages. He'll be more than able to convince you to finish the job."
Even with her high-heeled boots on, he towered over her. The man tightened his grasp, making her wince. She swallowed. It didn't take much imagination to guess what type of convincing they'd use.
Alexia forced down her panic. If she allowed herself to lose control, she wouldn't stand a chance of escaping.
She'd give her eye teeth for a good idea right about now, but all she could think to do was buy time. "You'll need more than just me and the pages. It's not like I have every word and symbol in every language memorized."
He dragged her behind him as he headed back toward the museum. "You just show me what books or stuff you need and we'll take 'em along."
"It's after hours. The building is locked." Since she wasn't a permanent staffer, she didn't have a key, just a small office in the basement.
"No problem, babe." He laughed. "You think a little thing like a lock will slow me down?"
She wasn't going with him. Alexia dug in her heels and fought frantically to get him to release her arm. It was like trying to shake off a mountain lion.
He stopped and faced her. "You're wasting my time." To add emphasis to his words, he tightened his grip until tears formed in her eyes. "I'm not letting you go."
Alexia gritted her teeth to keep from flinching. She was not going into the museum with him, and she had to act before he met up with his accomplices. She'd rather die.
In the end, she might die, but not without a fight. She stiffened her spine. "And I'm not going with you."
Before he could finish another laugh, she kicked him. The hard heel of her boot caught him in the kneecap. She wished it could have been higher, but she'd take what she could get.
He gasped. His eyes widened and she planted the end of the three-inch heel into his kneecap again. And that was all she needed, because he released her arm.
Before he could grab her, she whirled away, pulled the Beretta from her pocket, slid the safety off with her thumb before pointing it at his chest. Her lack of experience would require both hands for a good aim, but she wasn't letting go of the package in her other arm. No matter what her instructor insisted, one-handed would have to do. He was close enough that she only had to calm herself and hold the gun steady.
He shook his head. "That's a joke, right?"
Alexia shrugged. "It's a real gun with real bullets, if that's what you're asking."
The man took a step closer. "You aren't going to shoot meI can see it in your eyes."
In all honesty she'd never shot anything except a target at the local gun club's shooting range. And she'd only done that out of pure necessity. Alexia suggested, "Perhaps you need to look again."
He started to reach inside his jacket.
She took a deep breath before pulling back on the trigger. The reverberation shivered through her, but she held her stance, and then heard a satisfying whoosh as the bullet tore through his leather jacket.
She spun and raced for her car, not caring how badly she'd injured him. From the curses he spouted, she assumed he'd live.
His angry shouts brought his buddies to his side just as she reached the car. Before they could catch up with her, she wrenched the door open, tossed in the padded envelope and her gun, threw herself into the driver's seat, started the car and took off, tugging at her seat belt as she drove.
A quick glance in the rearview mirror revealed that while she may have shot the man, it hadn't stopped him. He held his arm and screamed at the other two as all three of them raced for their light-gray four-door.
Alexia drove with no destination in mind. There was little doubt that they'd soon be on her tail, but where could she go? Not to her sister'sshe wouldn't put Maureen or the kids in jeopardy.
To the police? No. What would she tell them? That she was in possession of an ancient Druid text containing secrets to powers unimaginable? They would either ask if Halloween had arrived two weeks early or think she was a kook.
Alexia checked the rearview mirror again. No headlights shimmered off the mirror. So, now what? Her relief faded. Where could she go?
Outside of two twenties in the pocket of her jeans, she had no other cash on her and her cards were in her desk drawerat home. Alexia swore. Of all times to start leaving home without plastic, why on earth had she picked this month?
She rolled her eyes. Simple. She hadn't wanted the temptation of a credit card when she was saving every dime for her upcoming trip to England.
She had to go home. Alexia frowned. What if they knew where she lived?
Sweat dampened her back from the sinking feeling that someone might be waiting for her at her town house. But she had to take the chance.
When she pulled into her neighborhood, she flipped off the headlights before turning onto her street, then pulled into the first empty space along the curb. Heart pounding, she rolled down the window and peered toward the middle of the block at her town house.
Over the rush of her pulse she heard nothing unusuala door slamming, a horn honking from the next street over, two cats fighting in Mrs. George's yard. Everything she'd expect to hear around midnight.