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By LUCINDA BETTS
APHRODISIA BOOKS Copyright © 2008 Lucinda Betts
All right reserved.
Chapter One The most powerful book in the history of humankind had vanished-on Blaze Williams's watch.
He slammed his palms on his father's cylinder desk, anger chasing fear through his veins. The antique framed photos jumped across the aged mahogany, as did the yellowed files. Blaze had lost the Canticles Al Farasakh.
He couldn't believe the wonder he'd let slip through his hands. Murad II made peace with the Karaman Emirate in Anatolia after years of bloody war with the book. Thomas Jefferson helped build a nation with the book's knowledge. Nelson Mandela had read smuggled copies of its pages and used its wisdom to demolish apartheid.
But now it was gone. After two hundred years of care by Blaze's family, it was gone.
With a sigh, Blaze sat back in the heavy chair, and the cushion shifted under his ass. His dad belonged here, not him, and all the frustration in the world wouldn't bring his father back to life, wouldn't change the cold, hard facts-his dad was gone, and so was the book.
Still he opened the bottom drawer, as he'd done at least five times since he'd come back from the funeral. In his mind's eye, he saw the book, the Canticles Al Farasakh, just as he'd seen it throughout his entire life-the scarlet, velveteen cover worn thin around the edges resting here in this drawer.
But his mind's eye was wrong. Now he saw only the swirls in the dark-brown wood of the drawer's bottom. He touched the panel just to be sure, but grainy unevenness, not velveteen, met his fingertips. And although he'd already checked several times that day, he squatted down and peered to the back of the drawer.
But the book wasn't there.
Where the hell was it? It'd been here the night his father died. It'd been here after the paramedics left, because Blaze himself had put it in the drawer. The housekeeper wouldn't have touched it, not in a million years. As far as he knew, no one else had been up here. No one else even knew about it.
So where the hell was it?
A braying ring from the yellowed rotary phone gave him a start. Blaze stared at the length of coiled wire connecting the handpiece to the body as the phone rang a second time. Something more antique than the rotary would have suited this office. But nothing in this office had changed in years since they'd left the backwater of Cameron County, Pennsylvania, for Manhattan.
Nothing had changed except the Canticles Al Farasakh, which was now missing. No good could come of this.
The phone rang a third time. "Blaze Williams," he said, catching a whiff of his father's scent on the handpiece. The pain of his loss washed through him, leaving him almost breathless with sorrow.
"Blaze," a deep voice said in his ear. "It's Kellogg Brownroot."
"I just called to tell you how sorry I am," Kellogg said. "You have my condolences."
"Thank you. And thank you for the flowers. My father would have liked them." Not.
"You're welcome," Kellogg said. "Look, I know this is a terrible time to bring up business but-"
"You're right. This isn't a good time, so-"
"So you know I wouldn't mention this if it weren't important," Kellogg insisted.
"What do you want?"
"I didn't want you to get hit by another nasty surprise," Kellogg said. "I thought I should warn you."
"Your father and I reached an agreement I believe made it into his will."
"What sort of agreement?" Blaze couldn't imagine his father agreeing to anything concerning Kellogg Brownroot.
"Well, maybe your father already told you," Kellogg said, "and this call is needless."
"Told me what?"
"Zachariah was going to sell me the logging rights to your virgin timber in Cameron County. He was going to put in a logging road first to sweeten the deal. He said you'd oversee it."
"What?" Blaze couldn't keep the incredulity from his voice. His father would never have let Kellogg Brownroot log the land.
"Yes," Kellogg insisted. "I'm logging that forest."
"You know that land's been in my mother's family since Europeans first set foot in the New World," Blaze said. "Logging it isn't high on my list of priorities."
"May your mother rest in peace," Kellogg said. "And that's why I'm giving you a heads-up. I didn't figure you'd need another shock at the reading of the will. Just in case Zachariah didn't tell you, that is."
"He didn't tell me," Blaze said. There was no hiding his surprise anyway. "And you're right. I probably didn't need another shock."
"That's what I thought."
Blaze chuckled in response.
"Why're you laughing?" Kellogg asked.
"I'm just surprised."
"Well, that's why I called."
"No," Blaze corrected. "I'm surprised at you."
"Yeah," Blaze said. "I'd have figured with all your fingers in the coal and oil pies, you'd been too busy to dip into timber, too."
Kellogg chuckled, a deep, smooth sound-almost practiced. It reminded Blaze of a late-night deejay's laugh. "It was actually your father's idea. Zachariah said I should try something different. Spread my wings."
"Look," Blaze said, with a patience that surprised him. "The lawyer's reading the will tomorrow. We can talk after that." He hung up the phone before Brownroot could answer, before Blaze said something he regretted.
He drummed his fingers on the antique desk, at a loss. His father would not have agreed to give Brownroot the logging rights. He definitely wouldn't have suggested it. But then why did Brownroot sound so certain? And where was the Canticles Al Farasakh? He had a strange feeling that the two were related, and he'd learned not to ignore that feeling. God, what he wouldn't give to have one more conversation with his father.
"Dad, I wish you were here right now," he muttered to himself.
"I'm here, son."
"I can't believe how much I miss you," he said without thinking.
"You don't want," the ghost of his father gave a dramatic gasp, "help, do you?"
Blaze blinked and looked. Sure enough, Zachariah Williams sat opposite him in the chair Blaze himself usually used.
Zachariah's quirky grin covered his face, and Blaze saw laughter in his eyes. His dad had always enjoyed a good prank, and coming back from the dead was amongst the greatest practical jokes.
"Your pride will be your downfall, son," the ghost said with that crooked smile. "Don't be so afraid to ask for help."
"Dad!" Blaze stepped around the desk to hug his father. The feel of his dad's warm flesh under his ever-present suit and the astringent scent of his cologne made Blaze hug him closer.
"You're squashing me, son," he said. "I can't breathe."
"Of course you can't breathe. You're dead."
"Don't hold it against me."
"Sorry." Blaze pulled him tighter for a minute. "It never occurred to me a ghost would feel so alive." Keeping his hands on his father's shoulders, Blaze stepped back and looked at him. Zachariah's hazel eyes sparkled with life. "I can't see through you or anything."
His dad smiled and squeezed Blaze's arms. "Have a seat," he said, stepping back and indicating the chair behind the mahogany desk.
"But-" Blaze stopped a moment. "That's your chair."
"Not anymore," Zachariah said. "And some ghostly clichés may be wrong-like this transparency thing-but one rumor's true: I don't have much time. And we have big problems."
Blaze sat. "It's Kellogg Brownroot."
"Yes," Zachariah said. And all the warmth and laughter that had been in his gaze was gone, sending a serious chill through Blaze.
"What's that bastard done?" Blaze asked.
"Crossed a threshold."
"What kind of threshold? Is he dead too?"
"We could only wish," Zachariah said. "He'd be less trouble that way."
"So what threshold are you talking about?"
"When Genghis Khan stole the Canticles Al Farasakh, he crossed the threshold and conquered the Jin Dynasty, killing hundreds of thousands. Then he invaded the Khwarezmid Empire and the Kara-Khitan Khanate, killing thousands more. He was a uniter among the Mongols-until the Canticles made him cross that threshold." His hazel eyes looked pained as he spoke.
"And Brownroot has the book?" Blaze guessed.
"Brownroot stole the book."
"And what happens if we can't get the book back?"
"Idi Amin had the Canticles for a short time," his father warned. "So did Mussolini."
"But so did Jefferson and Gandhi."
"They weren't innately evil; they didn't cross the threshold. Brownroot is greedy and immoral-and he stole the book."
"That bastard." Blaze ran his finger around the neck of his shirt, trying to loosen the tie, which suddenly felt like a noose.
"It's not good," his father said. "Not at all."
"What do we do?"
"There's only one option: you've got to toss that SOB into the second dimension."
"The second dimension?" Blaze pretended he didn't know what his dad was talking about.
"Use the final spell in the Canticles," his father said, flashing him a knowing look that did little to dispel the dark feeling in the room. "The spell I forbade you to memorize."
Blaze looked silently at his father for a moment before he said, "I memorized it anyway. When I was eighteen."
"Ah," his father said. "Nothing like the taste of the forbidden. I'd hoped you might do that, thought it might stick in your memory better if I told you you couldn't."
Blaze shook his head. His dad had always been able to see him so clearly. But then a darker thought sprang to mind. "Who's helping him?" Blaze asked. "He doesn't have the training to use the book alone."
"You have to find that person, that assistant."
"But who'd work with him?"
"A dragon ... or if he finds an evil magic user ..." The ghost of Zachariah Williams ran his thumb over a carved groove in the armrest. "If he's smart enough, he might even figure out some of the spells himself. And no one said he's brainless-just evil."
"And it gets worse."
"It's started already. He's using it. Look." Using a wizard's gesture, Zachariah Williams rolled his palms open with a great flourish, his stubby fingers elegant despite themselves. Blaze felt the ambient magic converge in his father's hands, throbbing and powerful. Then, as his father's fingertips came together in a final gesture, an image appeared, smoky and translucent where his father's ghost self was solid. It shimmered right above his desk.
Among thick palm trees, a unicorn stood, her red and green mane rippling. She seemed to be standing atop a Mexican-looking pyramid, and her nose hung to her knees. At first, Blaze didn't see the cause of her angst. But when he did, he wished he hadn't.
Thick blood poured down her forehead, matting her forelock to her face-and her horn was gone. An oozing stump stood in its place.
"Who took her horn?" Blaze asked, fearing he knew the answer. A heavy rage grew in his heart.
"Is this the only unicorn he's attacked?" An image of Ivy's face flashed before his eyes, and adrenalin raced through his veins. "Is Ivy ...?" He couldn't finish the question.
"He's attacked others but not Ivy," his father said. "In fact, Ivy approaches the injured creature as we speak. Whether or not she can save the unfortunate creature's life-or her ability to channel magic-remains to be seen. Much depends upon Ivy herself-her confidence in her own skills, her ability to find the right kind of assistance."
His father closed his hands completely, and the image evaporated like smoke.
"I don't understand," Blaze said, rubbing his forehead. In his eyes, Ivy was the epitome of skill and confidence. "How's Brownroot doing it? Unicorns are damned hard to catch." He should know. He'd tried his best to capture one in particular.
"He's already using the Canticles Al Farasakh. He must need unicorn horns to do whatever evil thing he has planned."
"But why? Horns purify. They heal. If he was using a unicorn horn to stop an assassin, maybe I could see him stealing one. But multiple horns? Why?"
"What he's doing is not in question. But I don't know why." Zachariah raised a shaggy eyebrow. "That's for you to discover."
"So why'd you get him interested in timber? We don't want him near Cameron County. If he learns about the Heart of the World, we're in big trouble. Add the Heart's power to the Canticles-and greed ..." Blaze shook his head. "He might be unstoppable."
"You don't want him near Ivy," his dad said.
Which was true-but not the point. Blaze asked, "Can't we kill him? Getting this bastard might be worth the bad karma."
Zachariah held up his hand. "We can't kill him. Aside from the moral issue, killing him will just loose whatever evil's inside him on the world. It'll land in someone else. And if a dragon gets his hands on his greedy little soul ... our work would be prolonged."
Blaze sighed, seeing no other options. "So I need to use the last spell in the Canticles Al Farasakh to shove Kellogg Brown-root into the second dimension."
"Yes, and it's a difficult enchantment, requiring more magic than any magic user has ever used."
"Even you? Even when you locked the Dragon Fafnir away with his horde of gold?"
"Your task is similar, and I had the book," Zachariah reminded him. "And even if you memorized the spell with all the zeal of a sneaky adolescent, you need all the power you have now-and it'll still be difficult."
His dad opened his palms again, and an image reappeared above the desk. The hornless unicorn was gone, replaced by an image of Blaze himself. He stood tall and strong, his shoulders confidently back as his hands prepared a spell. Thick magic coalesced around him, pulsating in the way only magic can. Suddenly an apparitional dragon flew toward the image of himself, and Blaze watched the face of his ghost self focus in concentration. He dropped the beast with confident ease. The dead dragon's chin rested on Blaze's feet.
"My shoulders aren't that broad, Dad."
"They are, and you're missing the point."
The man in the image looked mighty-not a word Blaze usually associated with himself. But it was a father's prerogative to believe the best of their children, and Blaze said, "I got it. I need all my power."
"Without fail," Zachariah said.
"I get it," he snapped. He read his dad's message loud and clear. He'd been reading it so long it'd become ingrained. He'd never jeopardize his power for some quick lay. "I've kept my virginity this long," he said, hating to use the word virginity in reference to himself. "I'm not going to throw it away at this point."
The left side of Zachariah's lips curled high, and he shook his head. "It's not going to be easy for you, going back to Cameron County. Seeing those lovely green eyes, all that blond hair."
The smoky image above his desk shifted. The apparitional Blaze faded, and a woman appeared-a beautiful woman. Hypnotic green eyes laughed behind thick lashes, and a wild mane of golden hair tumbled over her shoulders to her perfectly rounded ass. Her full lips curled in a playful smile, a smile that proffered an irresistible invitation.
Suddenly nervous, Blaze swallowed. Finally he croaked a name. "Ivy." " In the flesh-flesh you need to resist."
"That image," Blaze pointed to the smoke vision teasing him from the top of his own desk. "That's not real. That's your interpretation of her."
"It's real. No need to deny her beauty," his father said, thumping the arms of the chair again. "No need to deny the attraction."
"Jesus, Dad," Blaze said. That old buzzard had taken a hit in his own power when he'd succumbed to Blaze's mother, but Blaze couldn't see taking that route. And he didn't like discussing it, not even with-no, especially with-the ghost of his father. "Do we have to talk about this?"
"She was beautiful when you knew her, son," Zachariah said. "She's even more stunning now. You know you want her. You always have. But you can't give in to those lustful urges."
"I can control my-"
But the image above the desk shifted again. The ghost Blaze walked up to Ivy. No, he strode up to her. Then he wrapped his hand around the base of her neck and pulled her to him, his fingers twining through her hair. Only she didn't resist-not at all. Pressing her lithe body against him, her lips opened to his. The image was so powerful, Blaze could almost feel her tongue dancing over his. He could almost feel her soft breasts pressing against his chest, her supple thighs pressing against his cock.
"Jesus, Dad," he said. "Stop it." Just what he needed-a raging hard-on in front of his father's ghost.
"I just want you to see how easy it'll be to give in to her."
"I won't and she won't," Blaze said, knowing his words held an absolute truth.
Excerpted from She by LUCINDA BETTS Copyright © 2008 by Lucinda Betts. Excerpted by permission.
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