Excerpt from Redemption:
Fire. Heat blasted his face and Adriano swiped the tears from his eyes. He needed to be able to see and already, barely ten feet inside the door, the smoke was thick and black, choking his lungs and stinging his nose and mouth.
“Amy,” he called out and paused for a moment to listen, ears strained, eyes burning and fear churning in his gut. Only the greedy roar of the fire answered, and he forced himself to take another step and then another, deeper into hell.
Normally, the girl would have been easy to track but he couldn’t smell a damned thing. His senses were as blunt and useless as a human’s. Amy’s mother had pointed toward the southeast corner of the building as she wept, tearing at the arms holding her back, and that was the direction he headed, grimly forcing his way down the narrow hallway littered with pieces of fallen plaster and wood. He hoped Amy wasn’t anywhere near this place. He hoped she’d gotten frightened and was hiding at the park or a friend’s house. Maybe someone had only missed her in the count.
The building shuddered and he instinctively reached out a hand to steady himself against the wall only to snatch it back when heat singed his fingertips. His men had set this fire, following orders directly from the top. It would be ironic if he died here but he could accept that, so long as he was the only one.
Clamping his mouth closed, he buried his face in his shirt sleeve and eased under a fallen support beam. The creak of straining wood sounded eerily loud above the rush of flames. There wasn’t much time before the whole building fell on his head but only one room left to check. The last one on the left, closed. The people here had been sleeping six or seven to a room, the girl’s mother had been working late and the child had been lost in the confusion.
It seemed unlikely that anyone would have taken the time to close a door behind them in the panic to get out. The metal knob burned his palm but he barely felt it, his heart stopping in his chest when he realized it was locked. He stepped back and kicked it twice until the wood split enough that he could push his way inside.
“Amy,” he called out again, his voice a dry croak.
And then he saw her. Her foot poking out from beneath her blankets, little toes curled. This was the part he remembered so vividly in his dreams. Those tiny toes, nails painted with pink polish, a chip on the big one. He snagged her ankle and pulled her toward him, dragging her toward the window. She was heavy and he knew it even then. Before he managed to haul them both over the ledge. Before he crawled to her across the grass sodden with the spray from the hoses. Before he looked into that angelic face and those staring eyes.
She was dead. And it was his fault.
Five years of exile, only days from going home. A few feet of stone to clear and he’d be inside the temple. A couple of nights to learn the layout of the tunnel system and he’d have his hands on a treasure valuable enough to trade for a pardon. Three weeks, maybe less. Adriano couldn’t afford to get careless now so he watched Sophie Martin, trying to decide if she was a threat to his plan or only a distraction. From where he stood, she didn’t look like much of a threat but she sure as hell was a distraction.
She perched on the top rung of a shaky ladder, talking to herself or the tenon head—he couldn’t tell which. Long brown hair pulled back from her face, she was dressed in old cargo shorts and a loose fitting olive T-shirt, the screen print on the back so faded he couldn’t make out the words. The other men in camp—human men—barely gave her a second glance and he didn’t understand it. Her face was pretty enough, and she had a strong healthy body with small high breasts and a good ass. A great ass, really. Pert, round and nicely formed. Even with the long shirt she wore, he could see the curve of it when she moved. Beautiful.
He’d never been in this position before, lusting after a woman who liked to push people away. He’d never lusted after a human, period. Never fucked one. Not even during those long stretches of chastity when he’d go months without meeting a willing shape-shifter. To him, lying with a human had always seemed too much like acceptance of his sentence, too much like defeat.
He’d attempted to ignore his attraction to Sophie but was done trying to convince himself he didn’t want her. He wanted her. He also needed to get close enough to keep her out of the tunnels until he had the stone.
How did one seduce a human? He had no idea. With his kind, there was no subtlety involved. Attuned as they were to changes in scent, heart rate and body temperature, there was no way to mask sexual interest and with no artifice possible, it was a simple matter of acceptance or rejection.
He’d presented himself to Sophie and could tell that she was aroused, no matter how she tried to conceal herself, dressing like a color-blind teenage boy and dodging his gaze whenever he tried to catch her attention. He could smell her reaction. Faint but alluring, her scent stirred his cock to life every time he came near her. It should have been a simple indulgence to mutual attraction, but Sophie…
Well, Sophie was being difficult.
He crossed his arms over his chest, settled his back against the stone pillar and waited.
He didn’t want to disturb her until she was done. Too serious about her work, she put in longer hours than anyone else on her team but was also given to sudden flights of fancy. His lips tugged into a smile. She looked like she was flying now, screwing up her face to mimic the leer of the jaguar figure she brushed clean.
He was honest enough to admit that part of her allure was the challenge she represented, enough of a predator to appreciate the thrill of the hunt. Sophie hadn’t taken a lover since she’d arrived, accepted friendship from the others grudgingly and kept herself so tightly controlled at first he’d thought her hopelessly, fascinatingly frigid.
Then he began to notice little things—the flush that came to her face at an unexpected find, the strange sense of humor that had her pulling faces at the carvings when she thought no one was looking, the furtive hungry looks she cast his way. She’d surprised him and that alone was rare enough to stir his interest. The others were irritating and frivolous but blessedly easy to distract. They’d been content to sift through the debris uncovered by the landslide until the engineers arrived. They cataloged their shards of pottery and attempted to preserve the exposed funeral bundles. No one was stupid enough to risk their lives in an area of the site already studied by generations of archaeologists, stripped, cataloged and sold off to museums around the world.
Of all of them, Sophie’s heart was invested in this place which is why he’d found her teetering on a piece of shit ladder doing the groundkeeper’s job. People would take advantage of enthusiasm like hers.
She was intelligent, curious and inconveniently industrious. He’d caught her again last night nosing around in the rubble, camera in hand, and escorted her away with a stern warning that the area was unstable. It was the truth. The earthquake and subsequent landslide had tumbled huge stones, collapsing the tunnels beneath the ruins and leaving sinkholes all over the place. It was, after all, the reason he was here. That instability created a unique opportunity for someone in his line of work.
Sophie wouldn’t stay put and he didn’t want to have to kill her for stumbling down the wrong tunnel at the wrong time. He wanted her. Needed to keep a better eye on her.
What was it the Americans said? Two birds, one stone. Sophie liked stones.