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Winter cast a gray pallor over snowcapped fields as the SUV wound down a narrow country lane. Lucan reclined in the passenger seat, outwardly the picture of perfect knightly composure. Inside, however, naught remained at peace. In the passing of nine miles, he would set his eyes upon his seraph. The weight of her identifying serpentine torc pressed into his palm. Though he kept his hand tucked into his coat pocket, his anxiety seeped out through the clench of his fingers. Would she welcome him? Or would he face the trials Merrick and Farran had when they found their eternal mates?
He shifted in his seat, crossed the opposite ankle over his knee. His right hand tapped against the passenger door’s armrest. Four days’ travel, and he had never known a more indefinite passing of time. Even after centuries of existence, when he had become accustomed to the never-ending setting suns, the short span of time was unbearable. Salvation came with this Chloe Broussard. Escape from the eternal suspicion that plagued his wakefulness.
Love too might grace his life—if the archangel Gabriel paired him appropriately. Though, in truth, Lucan cared little about the sentimental bonds. ’Twas the tie to brotherhood, the knowledge his fate would remain in the Almighty’s hands that mattered most. All else was naught but fancy. A trifle enjoyment of comfort the Templar cast aside long ago.
He breathed deeply to quell the rapid beat of his heart. If they did not arrive soon, he would rather shove open the door and walk. Whilst a foot journey would delay his inevitable meeting further, his mind would not be preoccupied with questions. Nor would he suffer this unexplainable hope he could not seem to cast aside.
“Rest easy, brother, we have but a few more miles.” Caradoc shifted behind the wheel. The grimace that crossed his face as his aching bones settled into the leather seat belied his own suffering.
For a heartbeat, guilt swamped Lucan. He should not be so eager to embrace healing when those he cared about suffered. As a former commander and the second unto Merrick, Caradoc deserved his soul pairing far more than Lucan. Merrick and Farran each found theirs—Lucan had become convinced Caradoc would follow. But nay, Gabriel came to him. Bade him to take Caradoc, enlist Gareth from Europe, and deliver the serpents to Chloe before Azazel could ensnare her.
Laughter in the backseat washed away Lucan’s brief unease. He glanced over his shoulder to find the younger Gareth grinning broadly. “Bah, Caradoc, you expect him to rest easy when he waits to discover whether his mate bears the face of an old crone or that of an angel’s grace?”
Caradoc shrugged, but the hint of a smile fringed his grim expression. “’Tis naught more than a betrothal. We have all been down such paths. Tell me, Gareth, when you were pledged as a lad, did you pause to consider what the maid would look like?”
Gareth’s laughter deepened. “Nay. She would bear me sons. More comely wenches were made for my pleasure.”
The reminder of lives left behind tightened Lucan’s chest. Banter that should have lightened his heart only brought bitterness. Scenes of the family he had once known, and their violent demise. The maid he would have wed had killed those who shared his blood. Or rather, the forbidden love she gave to a man Lucan believed capable only of generosity and kindness. She brought that man, the one he had called brother, to an early grave as well.
As if Caradoc sensed Lucan’s discomfort, he murmured. “Leave Enid behind, Lucan. She has no place in this.”
Lucan nodded long and slow. Enid resided in the grave. Next to her beloved. He had thought little of her through the centuries. He would not make the mistake of allowing her to rise from the dead. Yet the irony of circumstance did not escape him. Chloe posed the same risks. She held the same power to bring brothers to blows. To shred ties that ran deeper than blood and destroy families. For he would kill for her, as he had killed to avenge his murdered father.
She was his seraph. His to protect against all others, including his Templar brethren, should jealousy override sense and oaths. Already the fierceness of his preordained bond filled his blood.
The road curved around a sharp bend, then flattened out once more. Tall pines sheltered the asphalt from the recent snows. Ahead, a row of vehicles tucked into the landscape marked their destination. Caradoc slowed the SUV and eased into the gravel parking lot. He shut off the engine, then swiveled in his seat. His gaze flickered between Lucan and Gareth.
“Whilst we are here for Chloe, we cannot forget the Veronica. With it, Azazel can decode the angels’ language. Once Chloe uncovers the reliquary that protects it, he will stop at naught to obtain the sacred cloth.”
Lucan met Caradoc’s heavy stare, understanding all he did not say. If Chloe were oathed by that time, she would remain untouched. If Azazel discovered her seraph’s blood before she spoke her vows, a fate far worse than death awaited. The previous attempts on Noelle’s life lent credence to the archangels’ belief Azazel wished to replace his lost lover, Lilith. Worse, should he possess a seraph, should he break the prophecy by claiming this one, Azazel’s ascension to the Almighty’s divine throne would all but become guaranteed.
Gareth broke the heavy silence by opening his door. Cold air washed into the comfortable heat. Caradoc winced as the gust cut through his heavy coat, and Lucan braced himself for the wintry outdoors. He stepped out into the snow.
Two mobile trailers sat beyond the memorial stones that marked this tiny village as a casualty of Hitler’s greed. Bits of rubble, chunks of buildings that once stood straight and proud, edged the gravel path to the trailers’ doors. Lucan surveyed the protruding rocks, sadness filling his heart. Such unnecessary destruction. Ornes could have become a great city like its sister, Verdun. ’Twas a good thing the European Templar commander, Alaric, deigned to accompany their quest. He would hate to see the nothingness his homeland had become. But like so many other strongholds that had once known glory, the le Goix legacy crumbled beneath the fist of time.
Like Lucan’s beloved Seacourt.
He shook off the momentary melancholy and fixed his gaze on the smaller trailer’s front steps. With purpose, he strode for the door. His brothers followed behind, their distance respectful.
Halfway down the path, the door burst open. Dressed in a coat so large it dwarfed her, a woman bounded out. Her long auburn hair caught in the breeze and streamed out behind her. She approached at a determined pace, arms folded across her chest.
Lucan’s pulse jumped as Chloe Broussard marched directly toward him. ’Twas time. Four days finally came to fruition with this moment. He found his smile, hoped it did not falter like the anxious stuttering behind his ribs. Letting go of her torc, he withdrew his hand from his pocket and extended it in greeting. “I am Lucan. ’Tis a pleasure to meet you.”
She came to an abrupt halt two feet before him. Her gaze dropped to his hand, before lifting to his face. Amber eyes widened for an instant, then narrowed just as quickly. “You were supposed to be here this morning. It’s almost five, almost dark, and my team’s sat idle all day waiting on the Church’s representatives to supervise what we’re perfectly capable of not only excavating, but also documenting, cleaning, and preserving for shipment. But it seems the Church didn’t trust our integrity.”
Lucan clamped his teeth together, silencing a defensive bark. God’s teeth, for once ’twould be nice if Gabriel made the bonding of seraphs easy.
* * *
Lucan’s eyes hardened like steel and clashed with Chloe’s annoyed scowl. She turned her back on the three imposing men, unwilling to let Lucan’s handsome face sway her into better spirits. Held back by the insistence from the Vatican that she wait until their representatives could be present, her team had missed a full day. A delay that would cost them dearly if the overcast sky made good on its threat of snow.
She stomped inside the trailer, letting the door bang shut behind her. Determined to ignore the twinge of guilt her unprofessional attitude brought, she dropped into her desk chair and folded her arms across her chest.
As expected, Lucan and the other two blocks of stone ducked through the doorway and entered the single-wide’s makeshift office. They formed a triangle in front of her desk—two blond corners at the rear, with Lucan as the point man. She let her gaze wander across the masculine faces. At Lucan’s right, the slightly taller, sandy blond wore a haggard expression. As if he had seen more from life than his midthirties warranted. He regarded her with subtle curiosity. Like a colleague who assessed a competitive peer. Beside him, the other blond’s expression brimmed with humor. Soft brown eyes crinkled at the corners, as if he enjoyed some inside joke.
Her gaze shifted to Lucan, and a strange tightness possessed her skin. Her work took her to the four corners of the world. She’d seen, spoken to, and even worked with handsome men. For that matter, her brother had been known to make women titter stupidly when he walked into the room. But this man … His broad shoulders screamed strength. His narrow waist said he knew the meaning of a hard workout. Yet, the way he looked at her, as if he could read her very thoughts, made her wholly uncomfortable. Behind the unmistakable sharpness of annoyance, interest fringed his unusual gray eyes. And the raven hair that fell almost to his shoulders suggested an uninhibited nature that contradicted his neat attire.
A shiver raced down her spine as the word naughty flitted through her thoughts.
He quirked a dark eyebrow. One corner of his mouth threatened to yield to a self-assured smile.
Heat crept into Chloe’s cheeks. She quickly averted her gaze and shuffled a stack of papers from one side of the desk to the other. Handsome maybe. Cocky she could do without. Particularly if she had to work beside him for the next several months. She’d had her fill of trying to prove herself among her colleagues.
Fixing her stare on the less threatening face to Lucan’s left, she cleared her throat. “Is there a particular reason you decided to show up today?” Sarcasm crept into her voice. “Why not tomorrow? By then we might have a foot of snow to dig through and three extra pairs of hands would be welcome.”
With the smoothness of brandy, Lucan’s deep British accent washed over her. “I fear we are both victims of miscommunication. We were instructed to arrive this evening, milady.”
Milady? Chloe blinked. The antiquated title prickled her arms with goose bumps. She left her chair to give herself a bit of breathing room and drifted to the long countertop behind her. Picking up a printed copy of the Vatican’s communication, she flicked the corner of the paper. “It says here Sunday the nineteenth. I assumed we’d start the week promptly this morning.” Turning, she strode back to the group of men and thrust the paper at Lucan’s wide chest.
He pushed it gently aside. Reaching into his coat pocket, he withdrew a folded square of paper. As he pressed the creases smooth, Chloe groaned inwardly. She didn’t have to look to know what that sheet of paper would say. Inevitably, his copy would read Monday the twentieth. Her luck wouldn’t have it any other way.
She accepted his outstretched offering and scanned the paper, confirming her suspicion. Her angry sails deflated, she let out a heavy sigh. “I apologize.”
“No apologies are necessary.” Lucan’s mouth lifted with a smile. His eyes sparkled with the gesture, not unlike silver beneath bright sunlight. “’Tis understandable you would be upset.”
For a moment, Chloe could do no more than stare. If he’d been handsome moments ago, that warm smile made him breathtaking. Her gaze skipped down to his boots, making note of the thick expanse of his thighs, the way the denim fitted snug. As she again met his discerning stare, and that dark eyebrow quirked as it had before, her cheeks heated once more. Good grief, he wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable by her appreciative appraisal. If anything, she half suspected he’d have no qualms mentioning it aloud if his friends weren’t present.
He took a confident step forward and extended his hand a second time. “Shall we try this again? I am Lucan.”
Swallowing hard, Chloe slid her palm into his. His fingers tightened just enough to make the strength in his hands obvious, but his grip came nowhere close to painful. Pleasant almost. If it weren’t for the overwhelming masculine presence that flooded her awareness. She tugged on her hand, anxious to be free of the unsettling sensations that accompanied the scrape of his skin.
The pressure around her fingers strengthened, trapping her in place. Lucan nodded over his left shoulder. “This is Caradoc.” He tipped his head at the other man. “And Gareth.”
Chloe offered the other two men an uncomfortable smile. “A pleasure, gentlemen.”
Lucan’s thumb brushed across the back of her hand. The light gesture carried entirely too much intimacy for her liking. She pulled back, and this time, Lucan’s fingers let go. Her palm slipped free, but his gaze imprisoned her. Suggestion glinted in those steely depths. A silent, yet bold statement that invited her to enjoy a bit of wickedly sinful abandon.
She broke free from the rush of heat that infused her blood by returning to her desk. He might be drop-dead gorgeous, but colleagues and sex didn’t mesh. She’d learned that lesson the hard way. Nothing short of absolute desperation would let her entertain the notions Lucan’s eyes conveyed. And she hadn’t reached desperate yet. Two years without a man left her a bit hungry for physical satisfaction, but the lack of orgasms hadn’t erased all sense from her head.
Determined to communicate strict professionalism, she summoned her no-nonsense business demeanor. “So, gentlemen, since it’s so late, what do you say to an early start in the morning—assuming the weather cooperates?”
Lucan glanced toward the door. “There is nothing you require of us this evening?”
Chloe shook her head and forced her irritation aside. “No, we’ve done nothing today. I was instructed to wait until you arrived before we excavated any more relics that could belong to the Church.”
Caradoc gestured at the closed crates stacked on the countertop. “We would like to see the artifacts you’ve already unearthed.”
“Those?” She chuckled softly. “Those aren’t what you’re here for. Anything that could possibly carry religious significance is in the other trailer. My brother, Julian, already left for the hotel. He has the keys, I’m afraid.”
Lucan’s gaze narrowed with suspicion. “But the cars outside—no one is here with you?”
At the reminder she’d have to close up the field office alone, Chloe’s chest tightened. Out here, especially at night, the presence that had hounded her the last eight years intensified. She didn’t know what, exactly, it was, but she understood one thing clearly—it didn’t like her.
She ignored the chill that inched down her spine. “I’ve been doing paperwork all day. I’m used to working alone.” Just not at night. Never at night.
A slight frown pulled at Lucan’s brow. “Do you have much work remaining?”
“Oh, not much.” She gestured at the open record book on her desk. “I need to transfer notes on three more artifacts into the computer. Then I’ll head on back.” Forcing brevity, she laughed. “Just me and the trees. The quiet’s nice.”
The tight downturn to Lucan’s mouth evidenced his disbelief. He twisted to address Caradoc. “Go on. I will stay with her.”
“No!” Chloe blurted out. Lord no, not alone with him. She’d take the presence in the darkness over ten minutes alone with him. He posed a far greater risk. “I mean, thank you, but that’s not necessary. I’ve been here for a full month. I’m quite capable of locking up on my own. Rest assured, I won’t be fiddling with anything that would interest you.”
Lucan eased out of his coat and draped it over the back of a nearby chair. “’Tis not the Church’s interest that concerns me, milady, but your safety.” Leather creaked as he sat down.
“Till morn then,” Gareth chimed, his eagerness to be free of the trailer evident. He exited swiftly.
Caradoc clamped his hand on Lucan’s shoulder in a brotherly gesture of support. “I shall inform Merrick we have arrived.”
To Chloe’s horror, he too vanished out the door. Unable to look at Lucan, she stared at her blank laptop screen. “Maybe work can wait until tomorrow.”
Her feeble excuse met a wall of determination. “Nay. Do what you must. I will…” Trailing off, he glanced around the trailer. On spying Chloe’s coveted, specially shipped from Tucson, latest edition of Cosmopolitan, he picked up the magazine and scanned the cover. A smirk drifted across his sensual mouth. “I will learn how to turn a weekend getaway into an erotic paradise.”
Sheer mortification scalded her face. With a fierce push, she swiveled her chair around so she wouldn’t have to look at him and pressed the button to bring her laptop out of sleep mode. Torture. Not only did the Church seek to insult her ethics by demanding she cease excavation until their representatives arrived to oversee her work, they sought to torture her with a man who could define erotic paradise.
Copyright © 2013 by Valerie M. Hatfield