Authors: Sandra Cox
An Ellora’s Cave Romantica Publication
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Black Opal Copyright © 2008 Sandra Cox
Edited by Helen Woodall.
Photography and cover art by Les Byerley.
Electronic book Publication May 2008
The terms Romantica® and Quickies® are registered trademarks of Ellora’s Cave Publishing.
With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the publisher, Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc., 1056 Home Avenue, Akron, OH 44310-3502.
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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the authors’ imagination and used fictitiously.
To Karen and in remembrance of Lee and Tadji.
A special thanks to my wonderful editor Helen Woodall; Marc Niswonger for his IT help; Mona Risk, Jeane Daly and Ginny Lester for critiques; Jaclyn Di Bona for sharing her linguistic skills; and Members of the Pond for continued support.
The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
Blondie: King Features Syndicate, Inc. Corporation
Charlotte Douglas International Airport: City of Charlotte, North Carolina Municipal Corporation
Corvette: General Motors Corporation
Derringer: American Derringer Corporation
Glock: Glock, Inc.
Kodak: Eastman Kodak Company
Lamborghini: Same Deutz-Fahr S.p.A
Mack Truck: Mack Trucks, Inc.
Norman Rockwell: The Trustee of the Norman Rockwell Family Trust
Princeton: Trustees of Princeton University
Rolex: Rolex Watch U.S.A., Inc.
Superman: DC Comics
Victoria’s Secret: V Secret Catalogue, Inc.
Wonder Woman: DC Comics
anadelle Limited Partnership
She stared intently at the computer screen. She’d broken the code and figured out her father’s password. It’d been easy. The warden said her father had written her name and the word amulets in his own blood before he died.
Scanning the screen, she read—
Legend has it that out of all the mortals on earth five women found favor with the gods—
Sophia whose face was pitted and ravaged by pox,
Pelagia who had the body of a woman and the mind of a child,
Olympia a poor widow with children to feed,
Helen, who lost four of her children to the plague and begged the gods to spare her remaining child,
Zoe, a young queen whose village was razed and plundered and she herself taken as a slave.
Moved, the gods created five special amulets in the form of armbands for the women to wear on their forearms.
For Sophia an amulet forged with beauty and creativity.
For Pelagia an amulet forged with knowledge.
For Olympia an amulet forged with wealth.
For Helen an amulet forged with healing.
And for Zoe a golden amulet, with a black opal at its center, forged with power.
The air-conditioning in the room was cold enough to leave goose bumps but Victoria Price didn’t notice. The black leather chair creaked in protest as she leaned back, her breath leaving her lungs in a hiss.
The pain in her hands made her glance down. They were fisted so tightly the moon-shaped crescents in her palms where her nails dug in were filling with warm red blood.
The mingled scents of alcohol and heavy perfume hung like a low mist in the air.
Beads of perspiration glistened on Sabina’s forehead as the heat from the stage lights enveloped her. Eyes closed, she barely felt it. When Sabina sang she became one with the music. Every strum of the guitar, every bluesy note of the sax vibrated through her body and into her soul. She could feel her emotion reflected in the throbbing hush of the audience as the song erupted from her throat like a nightingale in flight.
She clasped the sweat-slicked microphone in her hands and drew air deep into her lungs. Just as she reached for the high note, a hard body careened against her and knocked her off the stool.
Sabina saw the horror on the faces of the audience as she arced through the air in slow motion before she and the man wrapped around her, slammed against the wooden floor. Moments later the large stage light landed with a loud crash, splintering the stool she’d been sitting on.
The audience jumped out of their seats, screaming. Their voices filled with fear and panic.
“Pull the curtain,” the manager yelled over the shrieks.
Clutched too tightly to move, she heard the short harsh gasps of her rescuer and felt his heart knocking against hers. And even though she’d never been in his arms, she knew who held her. Still in shock, she blurted out the first thing that came into her mind, “What are you doing here?”
“It appears I’m saving your life.” The voice was calm, whiskey-smooth but she’d felt the shudder that ran the length of his body before he spoke.
“What the hell just happened?” His arms tightened around her, barely allowing her to breathe.
Sabina feared her ribs were in danger of being crushed. How could such a slender-looking individual be so strong?
Before she could respond, Sabina saw Maureen Wolfe pushing people out of the way and running toward her. Maureen reached down and ruthlessly yanked her from Adam Morelly’s arms.
At Maureen’s touch, a wave of revitalization washed through her. She looked up into her friend’s face. “Hello, Maureen.”
Maureen winced as bruises that hadn’t had time to hurt rushed out of Sabina’s body, through Maureen’s system and into her healing amulet.
“Let go, Maureen. I’m all right.”
And I’m causing you pain.
Her grasp firm, Maureen held on a moment longer.
“Is she all right?”
Sabina turned her head and saw her other friend, the beautiful Isabella Tremaine-McHenry, owner of the beauty-creativity amulet staring at her anxiously. Isabella’s face was dead white.
Sabina pushed Maureen’s hands away. “I’m fine.” As she started to rise, Adam got to his feet and pulled her up in one smooth motion.
The manager came rushing up wringing his hands. “Ms. Comti, are you all right? I assure you, nothing like this has ever happened at the Odyssey Lounge before.”
Sabina straightened her shoulders. Even though she wasn’t wearing the power amulet, its residual effects still slicked her skin. “I’m fine. Why don’t you go and reassure the audience and invite them back tomorrow night.”
“That’s a fine idea but it will be standing room only. Every night is sold out.” He ran his hand through his thinning blond hair, leaving the short mousse-lacquered strands in disarray.
“I’ll perform an extra night.”
“Oh would you, Ms. Comti? That would be perfect. Thank you.” His thin rounded shoulders sagged in relief.
“Mr. Lewis.” Adam Morelly’s voice wasn’t raised but it carried an edge like a finely honed stiletto.
The stage manager raised an inquiring brow. “Sir?”
“Ms. Comti’s concern may be for the audience. Mine is what happened here tonight. I want a full accounting. I want a background check on everyone who’s been on stage in the past twenty-four hours and I want it yesterday. I don’t care if they’ve worked here since the dawn of time.”
“And you would be, sir?” The nervous little man looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be apprehensive or annoyed.
“I’m Adam Morelly.”
Sabina didn’t think it was possible but the stage manager looked even pastier than he had before. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he gulped. “Johnny Morelly’s nephew?”
Adam chin dipped in a short, sharp nod.
“I’ll get right on it, sir.”
“And I want the security in this place doubled.”
“Surely, you don’t think it was anything but an accident,” Mr. Lewis protested.
“Just do it.”
Sabina stared at Adam. Here was power that didn’t come from an amulet. Dressed in black, a diamond winking on his left pinkie, he looked as dangerous as a panther and every bit as untamable.
She glanced at her friends and saw them exchange a look. It might just be time to have a cozy little chat. But before that… She turned to face Adam. “What exactly is your uncle to the manager?”
“His boss.” He stood with his legs splayed. His dark eyes hooded.
For some reason she couldn’t fathom or didn’t want to, she felt a queer little tug of disappointment as her lips formed an O.
Well, that explains it
. There was no reason Adam should be here to see her perform. They’d only met once, at Maureen’s wedding. Just because he’d overwhelmed her senses didn’t mean it was reciprocal. Though there were times when she could have sworn he was as much aware of her as she aware of him and his hard edgy body.
“Thank you seems inadequate after you have just saved my life.” Strange she’d never noticed those specks of glittering amber in his eyes before. Once again she thought of a wild cat ready to leap. She reached out her hand.
He didn’t make the clichéd return about what she could do to repay him. He simply clasped her hand and said, “You’re welcome.”
She felt her blood quicken and heat shoot through her at the contact.
His thumb caressed the back of her hand then he let go. “Let’s get you to the hospital.”
“That’s completely unnecessary. I feel fine.”
“It must be the adrenaline still pumping. I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck.”
“That’s because you cushioned me with your body and took the worst of the fall,” Sabina said, pushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear, proud that her hand barely trembled.
Adam watched her, his glance lingering on her hair.
Maureen stepped forward and took Adam’s hand. “I want to thank you for saving Sabina’s life.”
He gave a visible start as if something had just pumped through him.
Maureen dropped his hand.
He stared at her through narrowed eyes. His glance slid to the amulet on her left arm, then to the one on Isabella Tremaine-McHenry’s arm and finally to Sabina’s bare arm.
He looked back at Maureen. “How did you do that?” he asked, his voice rough, his breathing hard.
She blinked at him, her expression puzzled. “I’m sorry?”
“When you touched me just now.”
“Mr. Morelly, maybe you should go to the hospital and get checked out. You may have bumped your head. I merely shook your hand,” she said gently.
He brought her hand up to his lips and kissed the back of it. His eyes narrowed and the muscles along his arms jumped as if he’d received a jolt but all he said was, “I never argue with a lady.”
Maureen’s green eyes twinkled and her unruly auburn hair flew around her shoulders as she glanced at him and shook her head. “To use an antiquated expression, you, sir, are a rogue.”
He tipped his head. “If I’m a rogue then you must be ‘a lady faire’.”
She laughed and slipped her arm through Sabina’s. “We are going to steal her away now, Adam. I promise you, we’ll take good care of her.”
Once again, he studied Maureen, his dark eyes hooded. “I don’t doubt it.” He turned to Sabina. “I’ll check on you tomorrow.” He wheeled and strode away.
Sabina heard the click of his heels as he trotted down the steps. She could hear his voice murmuring reassurances to the crowd. Putting the intriguing Adam Morelly from her mind, she turned to her friends.
Bella hugged her. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Thanks to Adam’s quick thinking and Maureen’s healing touch, I’m just fine.”
Bella turned to Maureen, laughing. “Good job handling Adam, sugar. Who would have thought you were such a little flirt.”
Maureen drew herself up and gazed down her thin aristocratic nose. “I beg your pardon.”
Bella waved her off, “Don’t get your thong in a wad. It’d be damn uncomfortable.”
Sabina giggled, wondering if Bella was trying to distract her from her near-death experience.
“Let’s get out of here,” Bella said. She paused for a moment and tilted her head listening. “Sounds like everyone has cleared out. Let’s go. Pull that silver lamé cowl thing up on your head so we don’t get mobbed when we go out.”
Sabina complied. She didn’t know if she would ever get used to the fame. It had hit her with the suddenness and intensity of a force field. Sometimes she found herself wishing for her former quiet existence. But still nothing could equal the sweet gift of singing, of holding an audience in the palm of her hand as mesmerized by the golden notes as she herself was.
As they exited the building, she grabbed her shawl and designer handback from her dressing room. She pulled a pair of dark glasses from her handbag, slipped them on, stumbled and took them off.
Bella grabbed her arm, righting her.
“Can’t see,” Sabina mumbled.
“Maybe because it’s nine o’clock at night and not a star visible in the sky,” Maureen chimed in helpfully. “Leave them off, it’s too dark to be recognized out here anyway,” she said, looking around. The dim yellow glow from the lamplights cast long shadows on the street.
Perhaps but the three of us together attract attention—Bella, blonde and beautiful, Maureen, a statuesque redhead, and myself.
As the walk light blinked on, they hustled across the street toward their hotel. Sabina huddled into her shawl, cold from more than the crisp late September air.
“I think a drink to calm our nerves would be in order. Your room or the lounge?” Maureen asked, her heels clicking against the pavement, while her long legs made short work of crossing the street.
“Lounge,” the gregarious Bella answered, as they walked through the hotel door and into the elegant lobby. Like a homing pigeon she headed for the bar.
They stopped in the doorway.
Maureen looked around the near-empty dark room. “Not many people around.”
A baseball game, with the sound turned down, played on the television over the bar. The bartender stole an occasional glance at the TV as he wiped down the long wooden counter with a damp white cloth.
Maureen pointed, past the lounging couches and tables, to a booth in the corner. Sabina and Bella followed her in.
As they slid across the high-backed wooden benches, Maureen got down to it. “Any chance that was an accident?”
Sabina opened her mouth then snapped it shut as a tired-looking waitress came over to take their orders. She took a swipe at their spotless table with a damp cloth. “What will you ladies have?”
Before Sabina could request her normal glass of red wine, Bella answered, “Three strawberry margaritas, jumbo.”
Sabina opened her mouth to correct her but the waitress was already gone.
Maureen plunked her elbows on the table and propped her chin on her fists. She looked at Sabina. “Bella’s very bossy.”
“Those that have more tact would say I’m a natural leader,” Bella countered. She flipped open her compact and checked her perfect features.
Maureen apparently decided to ignore the natural born leader remark and returned to her original subject. “If it wasn’t an accident how was it rigged to fall while Sabina was singing?”
Bella’s beautiful blue eyes narrowed as she snapped her compact shut. “Maybe it was all left to chance like Russian roulette. It would be just the kind of thing that would appeal to that crazy bitch. Maybe it could have fallen tonight, maybe tomorrow night, maybe when no one was under it.”
Sabina felt goose bumps roughen her body. She bit down hard to keep her lips from chattering. She really didn’t like to think about what would have happened if Adam hadn’t been there.
The waitress returned placing the large frosty pink drinks on the table and walked away.
Bella lifted her glass. “To the sisterhood.”
“To the sisterhood,” Sabina and Maureen echoed, clicking their glasses together.
Her glass halfway to her lips, Bella paused, “Where’s your amulet, sugar?”
Sabina swallowed, letting the sweet tangy concoction slide down her throat and warm the frozen spot inside of her. She licked the light ring of sugar and slush from her lip then replied. “It’s in my room. I never wear it when I sing.”
Bella nodded her approval. “I never wear mine when I paint, gives me an unfair advantage. Is it in your safe?”
“Nope, I’ve got a replica in my safe. If someone breaks in my room, the safe will be the first place they’ll look.”