THE BRETHREN’S KEY
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A new Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance
by Debra Elise
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CHAPTER ONE – The Brethren’s Key
“Don’t move. Don’t scream…act as if you know me, and all will be well.”
One moment Dr. Britt Harmony was striding towards the conference hall, the next her path was blocked by a behemoth in traditional Scottish garb. She made a move to step around him only to be pushed up against the wall. Her head bounce checked off the hard service slamming her face into his shoulder. Another inch lower and she may have lost an eye. She raised a hand to inspect the bruised area, when a thick, warm arm wound around her waist. Her body jerked at the intimate contact, “Listen I think you have me mistaken with someone else. I—”
A large hand pinned her face into the man’s massive chest effectively cutting off her protest.
Head throbbing from the impact, her vision blurry, she tried to raise her head up to look at the face of her attacker. Shooting pain erupted above her right eye. Unable to lift her head to escape. Now. Her career depended on it.
When his grip didn’t loosen, she stomped on the stranger’s foot and lifted her leg to knee him in the groin when a glint of metal caught her eye. He held a knife in his hand. A very long, very sharp blade which emitted an ethereal glow. Mesmerized by its beauty than by its wicked intent, she moved into action.
Britt took in a breath to scream for help, but as she filled her lungs an earthy scent mingled with a bite of the sea overwhelmed her senses. His scent imprinted upon her and relaxed her. It was—familiar— and odd as she was sure she’d never encountered the scent.
Finding the strength to raise her head, she looked into the strangest color of eyes she’d ever seen. Emerald green, several shades darker than her own pale green, and they matched the shock she surely expressed.
Her attacker froze as did she. Neither one of them seemed unable to look away. Seconds ticked by before he let loose a growl that touched her deeply. Her core reacted to the husky tenor of his voice. Spasms traveled outward igniting all of her nerve endings. Confusion at her reaction, and his, robbed her of the opportunity to defend herself.
He propelled them towards the exit of the hotel’s conference facility where she was set to give her groundbreaking speech in exactly seven minutes. Britt struggled to find words to make him stop. To make sense of what was happening to her.
Britt began to fight the hold he had on her.
“Lass, you need to understand two things straight off. One, I’m stronger than you and two, your lecturing days are over.”
The sound of his voice elicited another spark of awareness. Ignoring her boy’s reaction, she tested his first theory again and wrenched her arm in the process. Strong. Check. As for the second, he couldn’t have been more wrong. “Listen, you obviously have the wrong person. Perhaps I look like whomever you were searching for, but I can assure you I would remember if we’d met before. I never forget an asshole.”
“This is not a case of mistaken identity, Dr. Harmony. You work for the Ancient Artifact Conservatory of London. You graduated, with honors, in archeology with a minor in mythology from Yale and your topic of discussion this afternoon is the discovery of a scroll. A scroll you’ve taken without permission. You believe this scroll will lead you to the first of three emerald tablets. How am I doing? Oh, and your favorite color is red.”
Britt dug in her heels. “I haven’t told anyone about the validity of the Emerald Tablets let alone that there are three, how do you–“
“Because it’s my job to know. To protect.”
“The scroll?” Her heart skipped. She’d told no one outside the conservatory what was written
“No. The world.”
She looked the man up and down. He was straight out of central casting. Someone was pulling a prank on her. Yes, that’s what this was. She’d seen signs for a movie audition in the lobby of the hotel. A local production company was seeking an actor to portray the hero. A Highlander. Men had been coming and going wearing kilts of varying plaids since she arrived from London yesterday. She’d even been hit on by a few of them in the bar last night. This one was taking his role a bit too seriously.
Maybe someone had paid him to do this? She wouldn’t have put it past Greg, her creep of a coworker, to orchestrate this farce as payback. ‘Jealous much’ should have been the whiny researcher’s middle name. At least he’d chosen a convincing actor. “Look, Mister. I’m not sure how much Greg paid you, but I’ll double it if you go back and join your fellow actors. I don’t have time to play. I’m the keynote–“
“Lass, I’m no actor and I’ve never spoken to or met a man named Greg. Rest assured every word I’ve said is truth. Now move.”
He grabbed her above the elbow and propelled her through the milling crowd in the hall outside the main conference room. Five minutes. Five minutes until she needed to be at the lectern. Dammit. She was not going to miss her opportunity.
She pulled her arm again, but he would not budge. The man was a solid mass of granite. “Tell me who you are right now, why you’re dragging me away from my job, or I will scream my head off.”
He ignored her demand and managed to get them within twenty feet of the main exit. Now in full panic mode, she searched for someone to help her. He pulled her tighter to him. He ran a hand down her arm and patted her on the head. Great to anyone paying attention to them he would look as if he was comforting her instead of kidnapping her. The word bounced around in her head. Why would anyone want to kidnap her?
A man who equaled him in height stood next to a rust covered Land Rover outside the revolving doors and lifted his hand. Her kidnapper returned the signal with a nod.
“Once we’re outside, I’ll explain further. But right now, I need you to calm down.”
“Fuck calm. You’re not taking me anywhere. Never let them take you to a second location. That’s what the experts say and I’m not going anywhere with you.” Her voice held a tinny pitch, she was frantic to end this charade or whatever the hell it was. She stopped walking and put all her weight on her heels to keep him from dragging her further.
That worked for all of point five seconds. Her world tilted, and she was swung up into his arms and cradled against his massive chest. Her breath left her and when she found it again, she again took in his spicy scent into her lungs. With it, a sense of contentment came over her.
“Now, lass. I’ll only do this one more time. I know how much you enjoy me carrying you across thresholds, but tis the last time. Having you so close gives me too many ideas and I don’t want to embarrass these nice folks.”
She watched in amazement as a smile spilt his face and he made a show of looking at a few people who stopped to watch the spectacle. What was it with this guy? Did he really think he could get away with forcing her to his will?
“Ugh. No one is believing your bullshit. Put me down.” Did he think anyone with a lick of sense would believe such nonsense?
“Look around, Lass, no one is paying attention.”
She looked, and he was right. Except for the doorman who was grinning and propping the revolving doors open so they could pass through without falling.
If he got her in that car… no, it was not going to happen. She opened her mouth and in the time it took for her to suck in a mouthful of air, he’d stopped walking, flipped her to face him. Her legs dangled, her chest plastered against his and he kissed her. Hard, fast and dammit, effective. She let him kiss her for a moment as her body melted into his.
The idiot thought she’d succumb to a kiss? Taking the opening gifted to her, Britt wound a hand up behind his neck and found his hair tied in a leather strap, she grabbed the tail and yanked his head back and kneed him in the groin. Except her alignment was off and she kneed his thigh. He was too damn tall for her to reach his family jewels.
He broke from their kiss with a grin. “The name is Quinn Smith and I’m only going to tell you once—no kicking. It’s not ladylike.”
She snorted and did it again. Only higher and this time she scored. His eyes widened. Shock and anger appeared in his gaze.
“Well, good thing I’m no lady, asshole.” She turned her own anger into action and pushed off his chest, landing on the pavement ready to run. She pushed herself up but before she could take a step, she slammed into another granite wall. His friend had moved and was now blocking her only hope of escape.
“Quinn. You’re not going to let this slip of a woman best you, are you?”
Incredible. That’s the word that flashed into her mind as she assessed the situation. Gone was any hope of making it back into the symposium and triumphantly presenting her finding. The scroll detailing the Emerald Tablets.
She clutched the strap of her messenger bag which had thankfully stayed put during her ordeal and prayed they didn’t ask for it. She wasn’t in the car yet. There was still a chance for escape.
Both men continued to speak as if she wasn’t there. She scanned the area for another option when she noticed a few people milling about and pointing toward them. She shouted to one but got no further than “Hey!”
Quinn waved a hand and Britt gasped as a wave of energy pulsed towards the small crowd. Each person shook their head and moved on without giving her or her captors another look.
“What the hell did you do?” She lifted her face up to Quinn. “What was that?”
He shrugged his shoulder. “A mere interruption to their memory. They’ll be fine. Now let’s walk over to the car without any more kicking, hmm?”
She looked from one to the other. Both men wore bored looks as if they kidnapped women every day. She’d already tried and failed at running so there was no other choice but to resort to a woman’s greatest weapon. Tears. “Please. Let me go. I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” She sniffed and wiped away a tear from her chin.
Quinn’s partner in crime looked at her with the oddest expression considering her performance was spot on—in her opinion. Perhaps he’d never seen a woman cry before. She snorted. With his looks that was hard for her to believe. Men like them wouldn’t be lacking for female companionship and if they’d met under different circumstances perhaps she and Quinn could… oh, my lord. Now she was fantasizing about hooking up with the wanna-be highlander? Get a hold of yourself, Britt. Her efforts were met with a grim silence.
“Enough. You have something we want, nay need, and your fake tears are useless, Lass.”
“Quinn?” Roane interrupted.
“Walk to the car without another outburst and once inside perhaps we can negotiate–“
“Negotiate? There is nothing to negotiate except letting me go.”
“Quinn. I really need you to—”
Ignoring Roane, he once again grabbed her elbow and walked her towards the vehicle, opened the door and pushed her inside. He quickly followed and grabbed her thigh as she scrambled for the opposite door. He latched the seatbelt over her lap.
“Safety first.” He stared her down as he rubbed his fingertips into her flesh.
Without taking his eyes off her, he spoke to Roane. “Drive.”
Roane guided the ancient rover away from valet parking and onto the main road. She whipped her head around and gazed at the front of the building where she’d thought she’d be announcing her greatest triumph. Not in her wildest dreams did she think she’d be leaving in such a manner. Certainly not kidnapped, kissed and manhandled by a man better suited for an epic movie than real life.
“You’re nuts. You both are if you think you can just take me like this. Look, I meant it when I said I’ll tell no one. I need to give this speech. Over two hundred of the world’s top archeologists came here specifically to hear what I have to say.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. She watched in fascination as his green eyes darkened and his full lips thinned. Lips she had a first-hand knowledge of and suddenly wanted to taste again.
On the verge of real tears, Britt looked out the side window and watched the cityscape of Inverness whiz past as they left the storied city and headed towards the famed highlands. A strangled laugh erupted from her. Never let them take you to another location, that’s how you get dead. She blew that one big time.
“We’re not going to kill you, lass.”
Quinn responded to her as if she’d spoken the thought aloud. Perhaps she had. Perhaps she was going mad. They were all mad.
“Crazy. You two are certifiable if you think you can get away with this. Someone will report what he or she saw. I’m sure there were surveillance cameras and… ugh, I have rights goddamn it and being kidnapped and manhandled by you and the Rock is so not on the list of things to do while in Scotland.”
She could have sworn Quinn’s mouth tilted up in the beginning of a grin before he reformed his features into an unreadable mask.
“Um, she’s right about the kidnapping part, Quinn. That wasn’t part of the plan.”
“True. But plans change. It seems the Fates have decided to toy with me after all.” He turned his attention back to her. “Rest assured the plan to end you is no more. And your role in assisting us, and mankind, has begun.”
“End me?” She stiffened. What the hell did the Fate have to do with any of this?
Perhaps they’d suffered a psychotic break, but two at the same time? Maybe they were on drugs? Or maybe they’d somehow discovered she not only found proof of the tablets but, and this still seemed weird to her, also her own connection to them?
Quinn hadn’t broken eye contact with her since he’d pushed her into the backseat. She couldn’t look away either. His energy pulled her in and she was beginning to get a very bad feeling about all of this. Not that being kidnapped wasn’t bad, but deep down she knew her world was never going to be the same after today.
A cough sounded from the driver’s compartment. Then another.
“So, now I’m a guest? Well, hell where’s my complimentary glass of champagne?”
Her sarcasm was ignored. She could really use a drink though, anything to take off the edge.
“Shit, Quinn. Tell me you noticed her right eye?”
Damn. Her hand flew to her face as she sat up tall in the seat and strained to see into the rear-view mirror. Damn. Her natural green eyes stared back at her. Well, her right one. The left was still dark brown.
“Shite, Roane I’m not blind. It’s why she’s with us.”
Britt, still staring at herself in the mirror, watched her reflection pale. She sat back, closed her eyes and prayed.
She felt both man’s attention on her, yet she’d be damned if she spoke to them again. What dumb luck had occurred that her contact would pop out? And now she had a shiner to boot thanks to her head-butt to Quinn’s shoulder.
Weariness descended, and she chanced a peek at the imposing man who held her life in his hands. He was still staring at her. Instead of a the perma-scowl, he’d worn since this farce had begun, his face now held a quizzical glare as he studied her as one would a bug under a microscope.
“It’s what kept me from taking her life.” His words were directed to the Rock while he looked at her.
Now there’s a string of words she’d never heard before. Instead of succumbing to a full freak out, she shook her head and began to laugh. She followed up with reciting every curse word she knew.
Somewhere between ‘ass hat’ and ‘mother fuckers’, he’d shifted his large frame closer to her. His thigh brushed hers. She reacted by scooting closer to the door, but not before she’d felt a zap of awareness. She cringed at her body’s response and at his statement.
Britt had been aware from a very young age what would occur if the wrong, or maybe the right person would discover her once well-hidden feature. A key-shaped pupil had marked her. Its appearance had been awaited for generations or so she’d been told. She was still fuzzy on the details.
Now revealed, it was just her dumb luck that the behemoth of a man sitting next to her seemed to understand it’s meaning.
Out of ideas, she decided to plead for reason. She never got the words out. Instead, an ear-splitting concussion exploded around them.
Quinn threw his body over hers and she heard Roane yell.
“Midnight Riders on our six.” Roane turned the air blue and began driving in a weaving pattern which made her stomach roil. What the Hell? This was not happening.
Quinn lifted his head and stared out the rear window. “More like the second string.”
Her gaze flashed back to the rear-view mirror. A Humvee on steroids hugged their tail along with two motorcycles. Each carried a passenger holding weapons. Was she in a movie and no one bothered to tell her?
“Faster, man,” Quinn bellowed.
Their speed increased as Quinn reached under the bench seat. “Lift your feet.”
A grenade launcher. She’d been sitting on top of a fucking grenade launcher this entire time. “Who the hell are you?” Panic laced her demand. Britt watched in fascination as he readied the weapon and hefted it to his shoulder. She had no time to be terrified. She just wanted answers.
“Get down on the floor and cover your head.”
He didn’t have to tell her twice. She watched Quinn stand up through the retractable roof, aim, and fire. She ducked down into as tight a ball as she could and covered herself. Time stood still as seconds ticked by and then the grenade met its target. She recited a prayer her Papa had instilled in her from childhood and waited.
A roar of triumph came from above her as another ear-piercing blast erupted behind them. Men yelled. Screams of pain rang out. She was in the middle of a god damned war zone.
“Damn, Quinn. Your aim’s improving. The Humvee’s toast, but the idiots on the cycles are still pursuing. Say the word and I’ll do a one-eighty if you want to go one-on-one.”
Roane’s words sent a chill through her and not the good kind.
She looked up at Quinn as he descended through the roof’s opening. His features were back to their natural scowl as he made eye contact with her.
“No, we can’t chance they’ll take the woman if we let them get too close.”
“Hey, the woman has a name.” She crawled up on her knees and took her first look at the chaos behind them. Puffs of white smoke were scattered along the pavement and the charred Humvee weaved drunkenly before it came to a rest. Flames were everywhere and the screams had gone silent.
Quinn ignored her and whipped off his jacket. She blinked. Twice. Three times as his biceps were revealed. A sleeveless t-shirt hugged his chest. Various markings wound around his arms and ended on his shoulders. Some of the tattoos looked Celtic in origin, others resembled Egyptian hieroglyphs. Her palms itched to trace them. He flashed her a grin and she found it hard to breathe. A scowling Quinn was something to be wary of, a smiling Quinn was devastating.
She continued to watch as he pulled a serrated knife from his waistband and hit a button to lower the rear window. A blast of acrid smoke filled the cabin.
“Shite. They’re using chem bombs. Roane, toss back a mask to Britt.”
Tears began to form and her eyes stung as she gulped in a mouthful of the bitter smoke.
“Hold your breath until the mask is on. Understood?”
She nodded and wiped away the nonstop flow of tears. She grasped the mask and followed Quinn’s directions as she placed the breather over her mouth and sucked in fresh air. Kidnapped or not, an acute awareness of the danger she was in clicked into place and she began to tremble. Her life was now in the hands of the handsome stranger.
“You’ll be fine as long as you do as I say. Got it?”
What could she do? Her lungs were full of a poisonous gas she hoped to God would clear out with the breather, men with horns had attacked them; were still attacking them. Any choice she had was taken away from her the moment he’d stepped into her path.
Another series of pops sounded outside the vehicle. She adjusted her mask and resumed her position on the floor and nodded at Quinn. He leaned down as if to comfort her but pulled back his hand. She was not expecting softness from a man who’d killed others in their escape.
Without a word, he turned back to the fight and shouted at Roane for an update. She made herself relax by chanting a poem her father had written for her and for the first time since he’d grabbed her arm and marched her from the hotel, she felt safe. Something was telling her he’d never hurt her, and she was going to hold on to that feeling with everything she had and pray to those who came before her that everything would work out.
“They’re falling back,” Roane shouted.
“What?” Quinn climbed over the console and sat in the passenger seat.
“They’ve retreated. Maybe they realized we’re too smart to let them take us out.”
Quinn shook his head. “No. Dante’s forces wouldn’t give up so easily. He commands them to fight to the death. Ours or theirs.”
“What if it’s not his band of idiots? Should we consider someone else knows about her?” Roane asked.
Quinn turned back, and his gaze pierced hers. “Do you know of anyone who would want you dead?”
“Besides you? Gee, let me think… uh, no.”
He ignored her sarcasm but not her words. “You no longer need fear me or any of the Brethren. Your life is vital to our mission. Rest assured we’ll see you safely out of this.”
“Right. You expect me to take your word on that and just go along without any …” Her thought forgotten as her eyes widen and her scream rent the air. Through the window behind Quinn appeared a black object. A big, black helicopter beelined for them. Outlined in stark contrast to the pink and red hues of the setting sun.
Guns were aimed directly at them. Check that—cannons mounted on its rails. “Mother of all that’s holy. Who are these men and why are they after us?”
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