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Authors: Jean Brashear

So Tempting

BOOK: So Tempting
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So Tempting

By Jean Brashear

Copyright © 2011 by Jean Brashear

Cover art by Angie Bare Graphic Design

http://www.angiebare.com

E-book formatted by Jessica Lewis

http://www.Author'sLifeSaver.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to your online retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.

Prologue

The mage lay on the earthen floor inside the circle he'd warded with runes, clad in a simple woven robe embroidered with spells of focus, of strength, of protection for his physical shell as his essence cast outward.

One last time, he sought the Light. The Song that would lead him to the Soul Star which animated the amulet he'd once sworn to protect.

The Eye of the Magos, gone twenty years now.

He was the last of the Light Walkers, a people descended from the star voyagers and older than the Romany they favored.

But his skills had faded with his faith. He could still see the starbursts, but he could no longer separate them into the ribbons, the hues he had once Walked as his father had done before him. As he'd done so easily in his youth.

Before. When he'd believed in the legend.

The Eye of the Magos heals when honor defeats hate, when love vanquishes lies

Love breeds Light

Light grants Power

Only in Darkness does the Eye lose the True Path

Before he'd lost his only love, watched her die as he stood helpless.

Before his birthright had been stolen, and his heart had grown colder with each passing year, his powers diminished.

His father had told him of the existence of a Prism able to separate Light into its colors, that could, in times of great need, show the Protector the path of the Song that would lead to the Soul Star. He'd searched the world over for the object, investigated every belief system, every religion, every rite, however obscure, hoping that somehow one would lead him to the Soul Star and onward to the stolen amulet.

Here in these high desert mountains, studying the Ancient Ones, was his last stop...and he'd found nothing.

You will be a powerful mage, possibly the most powerful of all, his father had told him.

You were wrong, Papa. I have failed all the generations before me, father to son back in time to the first of our people. The grief he'd thought to be done with, once more assailed him.

One more time, he would try, but this would be his last. Slowly he slipped from this world into the Other Sky as he slowed his breathing, as he began to chant in a tongue few would recognize. He floated, searching even as faint hope waned...aimless, every direction the same to a man gone blind, rendered deaf...

The world cracked.

Abruptly he plummeted. Spiny, poisoned tentacles slithered around him. Stung him until his skin burned. Grime and filth swirled through the opening, covering him, drowning him...

Gasping, he awoke on the hard-packed earth, the hem of his robe stained, his feet smeared with unspeakable filth.

And in the dark recesses of his lost soul, the Eye of the Magos screamed.

The amulet was found, and Evil had claimed it.

The mage shuddered, but inside him, hope was born. At least he knew that the amulet still existed.

He was its only Protector. There was no time to waste.

Chapter One

Crisp morning rays sliced through Santa Fe's high desert air, painting the alley just off the Plaza with clean lines of light and shadow. Above them, the crystalline blue bowl of sky was streaked by wispy cotton clouds. Against a backdrop of golden adobe walls, deep in the cool shade that would vanish by midday, newly-minted Detective Jace Carroll stood over the body of Sam Sunshine.

She jittered like a racehorse, poised just before the gate opened.

Not that she didn't feel a little shame cast a pall over the thrill of being there. Sam was a grizzled old drug addict who'd been a fixture on the Plaza, panhandling with a funny, harmless grace for as long as she could remember. Jace had liked him—everyone did. He was a piece of an older Santa Fe being lost to the influx of money and bored socialites searching for a new playground.

The crime scene techs kept working, oblivious to anything but measurements that needed taking, photos to be shot.

Earl Ramsey, the veteran detective who'd let Jace accompany him on this first case, stood beside her, hands shoved into his pants pockets, head lowered and voice soft. "I could never reach him."

She glanced up in surprise. "You knew him?"

Earl, a shambling big bear of a man, shrugged. "I was a young cop; he was a flower child. I'd never seen anything like them. They lived in teepees just outside of town. New Buffalo Clan, they called themselves."

His gaze peered into the past. "Sam tried to convince me to change my way of thinking. Make a new world." The creases around his eyes deepened. "I couldn't see what needed changing. I married Martha, and life went on." Voice heavy, he continued. "For Sam, life stayed suspended somewhere in that haze."

"He never harmed anyone that I heard."

"Sam reserved all his harm for himself. He couldn't come to terms with the world as it existed, always wanted some new excitement, some cause to pursue." He stared at his friend's body. "In between times, he killed the pain of reality with whatever was handy."

Jace winced. He could be describing her younger brother Jimmy. "Think that's what happened here?"

"Probably. No sign of a struggle, no visible body trauma."

"We'll know after the autopsy."

The older man gazed into the distance. "His body's been abused enough just by living. Doesn't seem fair to subject it to more." Earl's jaw hardened. "But the law's the law."

"I'm sorry, Earl."

He shrugged. "It's part of the job." He looked over at her. "You really want this gig? Violent Crimes?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Why?"

"Why?" she echoed.

"It's a simple question, Jace. You're going to figure out others' motives—how about your own? Why are you so all fired-up to get a piece of the action?"

"I—" Jace had never tried to put it into words. She wanted to be there at the core of it, the dark heart of evil. To take it into her fist and feel it, taste it, smell it. Then maybe she'd comprehend a lot of things that had baffled her for years—why her mother drank, then slapped or ignored her children, why the only good part of her life had died with her father. Why at twelve, she'd had to fight so hard to keep body and soul together for the family left behind.

"To make sense of death, I guess. Balance the scales."

"Justice is a pipe dream, kid, and most deaths are pointless."

She didn't know how to respond.

"Forget me." He waved her off. "I'm old and jaded—been at this longer than you've been alive." He nodded at the gathering crowd. "But we need eager beavers. You can help me canvass the area."

Action. Her pulse sped. She turned toward the nearest knot of people.

"Jace?"

She halted. "Yes?"

"Don't give up on making sense of it. Sometimes that's all that holds the darkness at bay."

Jace nodded, elated that he was giving her a chance, no matter how insignificant the case, to work with him. She'd been itching to move into the Violent Crimes section, and she'd take anything she could get, any means to show Captain Gonzales that she was up to the job.

Her dad had been a cop, a good one. She'd nurtured the dream for years of being one, too, though the need to care for Jimmy had delayed her. She'd always had to work hard for what she got, be patient and cunning, look for her chance.

She'd make the most of this one.

* * *

"Unnh..." The figure on the cot groaned and struggled to rise.

"Don't sit up too fast." The Keeper of the Chalice held out a cup of water to the man cradling his head in his hands.

"What—what happened? Where am I?"

"Drink this." The man guzzled the water. "Take it easy. Your stomach might rebel."

Too late. The man fell to his knees, retching helplessly.

The Keeper's hands fluttered, then clenched. Casting a glance toward the rusty sink, the Keeper picked up the dingy cloth hanging on the edge and dampened it, then returned to the figure now sunk back against the cot, eyes squeezed shut in agony.

The Keeper proffered the cloth with unsteady fingers. "Take this and clean yourself."

The man opened his lids a slit. Suddenly they widened. "You." His eyes darted from side to side as if trying to understand where he was. "Wha—I don't remem—" He clambered to his feet. "Sam—where is he?" Unsteady legs buckled.

The Keeper studied him, waiting to see what he remembered.

The voice hoarsened. "Where's Sam?"

"You don't remember?"

Long moments passed. "No," he whispered. "We were—" He shook his head as if trying to jolt his thoughts back into place. "The
Magos
..." His voice trailed off as his frown intensified. "We'd ended our fast. Sam was ready for the Priestess, for the Sacred Waters—" Anxious eyes rose. "I want to see Sam. He's my friend. He might need help."

"Sam's dead, and you were the only one there. Tell me what you did to him."

With a cry of anguish, the figure collapsed to the floor.

* * *

Back at the station, Jace strode through the squad room, headed for her desk to type up her notes.

"Rough night, Justine?"

He knew better than to use the fancy name given her at birth. The nickname Jace symbolized her new life, her freedom from the past, but Detective Emilio Cardozo was no fan of hers ever since he and she had had a run-in when she was on patrol and had caught him making a lazy mistake. His presence was the only downside to being on Violent Crimes. "Maybe you look so tired because you need something to help you sleep, Blondie." He leaned closer. "Or someone."

Jace's comeback was on her lips when Earl caught her eye and shook his head. He was right; hazing rituals had to be endured. She'd put the jerk on the spot, instead. "What's new on that rape case?"

Cardozo snorted. "We don't even know we've got a rape on our hands. Girl waits a month, then reports it? No evidence, she can't remember nothin', she expects it to stick when she can't even give us a clue so simple as where she was?"

"But what about that other girl, a few months ago? She couldn't remember, either. We could have a serial rapist."

"What I got—" His emphasis made it clear she was excluded "—is some girls looking to get laid, playing with fire and somebody slips 'em a rophie or something. Or maybe they just had too much fun and feel bad, but they waited too long to come in. No chance to trace rohypnol in the blood now."

God, he pissed her off. "That's what you like, isn't it? Easy explanations so you don't have to work too hard."

Cardozo took a step forward, forearms bulging, fists clenched. Barely taller than Jace, he was all muscle.

Including his head.

"Jace." Earl called out a low warning before turning to answer the phone on his desk.

She subsided reluctantly. Damn it, you shouldn't be a cop if you weren't going to do it right. Remembering her father's pride in his uniform, how tall and straight he'd stood, his stern insistence that a cop's integrity was everything, Jace burned at the injustice. Her father was long dead at the hands of a cheap thug, and Cardozo stood here, the antithesis of everything her dad had believed in and died to protect.

"You watch yourself, Blondie."

"Cardozo, get back to work," Earl ordered.

Jace was about to tell Earl she could take care of herself, but Earl had already picked up the phone. Motion in the doorway caught her eye. She looked up into the vivid blue eyes of Assistant D.A. Gabriel McMullen, the impact of his gaze palpable across the crowded, noisy room. After a quick, solemn nod, the prosecutor broke the connection and spoke to Cardozo. Studiously avoiding any evidence that she'd even noticed him, Jace ducked into the hallway, then veered into the alcove where the drink machines were located.

A young woman barreled right into her. "I'm sorry—" The woman, in her late teens, maybe early twenties, juggled the soft drink she'd just opened. The can bounced, then rolled across the floor, spewing sticky fluid over their feet.

Hunched over, shoulders shaking, the young woman gazed helplessly at the mess around them.

Jace squatted beside her and righted the can. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Sorry, I didn't mean to—" Her voice caught on a sob.

"Hey, everything I own is washable. No sweat." Jeans and boots were tough to destroy. Jace hailed a passing secretary. "Colleen, would you please call the janitor up here?" Drawing the young woman to her feet, Jace put an arm around her. "Let's get you cleaned up."

Once inside the ladies' room, Jace dampened paper towels and handed them to the young woman. "I'm Detective Carroll."

"Detective?" The young woman looked more stricken than ever.

"That a problem?" She didn't seem the criminal type, but appearances seldom counted for much. Jace had arrested angelic-looking grandmothers. With a smile aimed at disarming, she busied herself cleaning the sticky liquid off her boots. "I didn't get your name."

Fresh tears spurted from the young woman's swollen eyes. To save her embarrassment, Jace faced her own pale green eyes in the mirror and ran her fingers through the short cap of blond hair that might as well have had a mixer run through it.

"Valerie. Valerie Turner."

Bingo. The second rape victim. Easy to see why she was upset.

"You know, don't you?" Valerie Turner asked. "Who I am."

Her poker face must be slipping. Jace shrugged. "I've heard a little about the case."

"Detective Cardozo doesn't believe me."

"Should he?"

Fire sparked in the girl's eyes. "I'm not lying."

"Why did you wait so long to report it?"

"I wasn't sure what to do. I—I wasn't supposed to be there."

"Where?" Cardozo had said that she couldn't remember anything after accepting a drink in the bar.

"The Club," she whispered.

"What club?"

"Never mind." Fear darted through Valerie's gaze.

She was halfway to the door before Jace stopped her. "What club?"

Valerie stepped back, drying her hands. "Listen, it's not your problem. I—I'm sorry about the mess."

"We can't help you if you don't come clean. Are you under age, is that it?"

"No," Valerie shook her head. "I'm twenty-one."

"Then it doesn't hurt anything for you to tell us what bar."

"Not a bar," Valerie whispered. "The Club." The door swished, and she was gone.

Jace charged out into the hall after her. They'd been hearing rumors about a roving nightclub, but no one had a good lead yet. "Valerie, wait!"

Not even a glimpse of the girl remained.

A smooth baritone voice intervened. "I wasn't aware you'd been assigned to the rape case, Detective."

Jace whirled. Despite her height, Gabriel always made her feel small. Looking at his rugged face, his twice-broken nose a souvenir of college football and his years as a cop, she clenched her fingers against the urge to touch. "I haven't."

"Then what are you doing, terrifying the victim?" One dark eyebrow lifted, his eyes cool. Sable-brown hair was neatly razor-cut well above his starched collar. Studying the expanse of white cotton over his chest, she stood very still.

"I didn't scare her off. Cardozo's doing fine by himself."

Firm lips quirked at one corner. "Surely you couldn't be accusing one of Santa Fe's finest, Detective?"

She snorted. "Has she mentioned The Club to you?"

"Which club?" Then his eyes widened as her meaning registered. "Tell me."

"Get me assigned to the case, and I will."

"From what I hear, you've already got your first case."

"Sam Sunshine. Big deal."

"Know the autopsy results already? You should put your newfound psychic abilities to work, Detective. His body's not even in Albuquerque yet." He leaned closer. "What did she say?"

Jace felt the heat of him all across the front of her body. "Not much. Just that she wasn't supposed to be there. Cardozo could have found out the same thing if he'd just listened." She turned on her heel.

"Jace." His voice vibrated in the air between them. "The moon."

She halted. Despite her best intentions, she felt their code words low in her belly.

"Gonna shine brightly tonight, I think."

Barely glancing over her shoulder, she challenged him. "Yeah?"

"Count on it."

Licking her lips slowly, Jace met his gaze.

Message received.

* * *

Cassandra Sabanne was sick of seclusion. At eighteen, she'd been a prisoner for six years, orphaned to the care of her much-older brother Dante. Her last escape from the Swiss convent school three weeks ago had paid off—sort of. She'd been liberated from the nuns, but backwater Santa Fe was hardly what she'd had in mind.

Action, that's what Cassie wanted. Sins of the flesh, glamour, adventure...all that she'd been missing while the world danced on without her. Everything her jailer brother would deny her.

She grimaced at the sunshine gilding the firs, dancing over the fluttering aspen leaves, the brilliance of the day doing nothing for her mood. "Even Switzerland wasn't this boring."

Melinda, the housekeeper's granddaughter, looked at her new friend in horror. "Easy for you to say. You've lived in Europe most of your life. I've never been outside of New Mexico."

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