Read Dark Sins and Desert Sands Online

Authors: Stephanie Draven

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Paranormal, #Nocturne, #paranormal romance, #Mythica, #Fiction, #epub, #category romance

Dark Sins and Desert Sands

“Whatever it is, Layla, it’s going to be all right.”

It wasn’t going to be all right. She was the twisted minion of an evil god. What comfort could a mortal man like Ray really offer her? And yet his arms were the only safe place that she’d ever known. “You have no idea who I am or what I’ve done.”

“I know what you’ve done. I was there, remember?”

“I’m nothing, nothing but what he made me!”

“Don’t say that,” Ray murmured against her lips. “It’s not true.”

But it was true. And yet, as Ray rocked her, it wasn’t fear that surged through her.

She kissed him. Because it might be the last time she could.

She’d never thought that Ray was hers to keep, but she hadn’t realized before now that she wasn’t even her own to give.

Books by Stephanie Draven

*
Poisoned Kisses
#98

*
Mythica

STEPHANIE DRAVEN

is currently a denizen of Baltimore, that city of ravens and purple night skies. She lives there with her favorite nocturnal creatures—three scheming cats and a deliciously wicked husband. And when she is not busy with dark domestic rituals, she writes her books.

A longtime lover of ancient lore, Stephanie enjoys reimagining myths for the modern age. She doesn’t believe that true love is ever simple or without struggle, so her work tends to explore the sacred within the profane, the light under the loss and the virtue hidden in vice. She counts it amongst her greatest pleasures when, from her books, her readers learn something new about the world or about themselves.

DARK SINS AND DESERT SANDS

STEPHANIE DRAVEN

Dear Reader,

The Minotaur was a bastard child born to a cursed queen. His mother rejected him as a monster and the cuckolded king locked him in a labyrinth, giving him sacrificial children to eat. In the end, it was the Minotaur’s own half sister, Ariadne, who helped to engineer his demise.

For me, the symbolism of the story seems obvious. Our darkest secrets can never truly be locked away, and always come with a price—whether it’s a sacrifice of our innocents or our innocence. In this novel, I’ve envisioned a much happier ending for my Minotaur, but I hope that, like the heroine of this book, you ask the crucial questions that need to be asked.

I love hearing from readers, so please stop by www.stephaniedraven.com.

Yours,

Stephanie Draven

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I’m indebted to my friend Ibrahim C. for shedding light on the various beliefs and practices of American Muslims, but any misunderstanding or cultural insensitivity in this book is my fault, not his. Thanks also to my agent, Jennifer Schober, and my editor, Tara Gavin. To the Romance Divas.
To Sheila Accongio, Leah Barber, Lisa Christie, Sabrina Darby, Inez Kelley, Kai Lawson and Christine Rovet. To my husband, who made this—and every other book I write—possible. To my sister, for her inventive support. And to Neil Gaiman for
American Gods.
Though I invented most of the riddles in this book with the help of Inez Kelley and Adam Dray, I’m also indebted to Phil Cousineau’s collection,
A World Treasury of Riddles.

DEDICATION

To my brother-in-law and sister-in-law for their service. And to my parents, who gave me a moral compass with which to navigate the world.

Prologue

The eyes are the windows to the soul.

 

T
he old proverb was wrong, Ray thought. Eyes aren’t windows to the soul; they’re doorways. And through those doorways, Ray Stavrakis could cross into another person’s mind. Into memories. Into dreams. Into fears. Into the darkest corners of the human soul.

Unfortunately, Ray had never seen the eyes of the man he was trailing, and, in the dark, he could only glimpse the back of his victim’s head.

The old Syrian neighborhood in Aleppo was a confusing labyrinth of twisting cobblestone streets and covered bazaars, but even without light from the occasional hanging lamp, Ray knew his way as if it were mapped in his blood. After all, Aleppo was part Greek and part Arab—just like him. His ancestors had settled in Aleppo after leaving Crete; he should’ve been
comfortable here, but so soon escaped from his dungeon, every sensation stung.

The faraway horns of taxis in the distant marketplace pained him like trumpets blaring directly into his ears. Someone in one of the apartments above was smoking a hookah pipe and the smoke floated down from an open kitchen window, mixing with the heady scent of oregano. The smell sickened him; it was as if, having spent two years in a box where the stink of sweat and blood and urine were his only companions, he couldn’t bear any other odor now.

Swallowing his bile, he stalked his prey through the narrow, shadowed streets, his long leather coat snapping at his heels with every step. The man he followed walked faster, slipping a little on the cobblestones. The street was slick with the evening’s dew, which mixed with moss to form a primordial ooze. Still, Ray’s footsteps kept pace, clopping steadily behind, closing in.

Bathed in the faint yellow light of a street lamp, the man turned to look over his shoulder. Ray saw the furious whites of the Syrian’s eyes—the threshold—and those dark pupils beckoned. Ray leaned forward, ready to seize the man’s mind, but something made him hesitate. Maybe he wasn’t yet the monster they tried to make of him. He wanted to give the man a chance. Just one.

As his prey opened his mouth to shout for help, Ray shoved him beneath the stone archway, his broad forearm at his victim’s throat. The Syrian struggled, barely choking out in Arabic, “Who are you? What do you want?”

The Syrian’s voice was the sound of petty tyranny, the sound Ray had learned to obey for his survival. It
was almost enough to make him quake. But Ray reminded himself that he was free now. He wasn’t the one trying to run away. “Don’t you recognize me?” he snarled at his former prison guard. “Then again, you did put a bag over my head.”

The first hint of recognition showed in the man’s eyes. “I know you…Rayhan Stavrakis.”

It was good to hear his name. A name gave him back a little of his humanity. After all, in the dungeon, he’d had no name. They’d only ever called him by number. He watched his former guard struggle, trying to catch his breath. Ray saw the man’s fingers twitch, inching for the pistol in his pocket. So much for trying to do things the nice way.

The guard shuddered. “How did you escape?”

Just like this,
Ray thought. Focusing his powers, he reached into the periphery of the Syrian’s mind and seized control. Ray had escaped by turning his captors into his puppets. Now he’d stay alive the same way. “Drop the gun,” Ray commanded, feeling the slightly dizzying rush of his power. “And give me your wallet.”

To the guard’s obvious astonishment, he obeyed Ray’s commands. The pistol hit the stone and skittered away as the man reached for his wallet and thrust it into Ray’s hand. All the while, his eyes were wide. “How are you doing this?”

Ray couldn’t have answered that question even if he wanted to. “Where are you keeping my family? Tell me, or I swear I’ll end you right here.”

The guard’s astonishment turned to fear. Even in the pale light, Ray could see that the blood was draining from the man’s face. “We don’t have them!” the Syrian cried. “They’re back in your country. Safe. We
only told you we captured them to make you talk.” It was what the others had said, too. “I’m telling you the truth,” the guard insisted. “What else do you want from me?”

At this question, Ray heard himself snort into the dark, low and bestial. There were so many things he wanted. He wanted the past two years of his life back. He wanted to clear his name. He wanted to know who had accused him of working with the enemy. But the Syrians didn’t know why his own government had wanted him tortured, nor had they cared.

“I want the woman,” Ray finally said. Every day he’d spent in the dungeon, he’d held her face in his mind, obsessed. He remembered her questions and her cool-eyed stare. He hadn’t had these powers then; he’d been at her mercy and he remembered how her questions inexplicably, impossibly, were
worse
than torture. Most of all, he remembered the way she’d toyed with his emotions. “The psychologist. The one who interrogated me. I want her name. Her
real
name.”

The guard’s mouth tightened into a thin, infuriating line of silence.

Ray had already given the man one chance. He wouldn’t give him another. As the anger welled, Ray’s scalp felt as if it were being pierced by some outgrowth of bone. His feet seemed to harden into iron hoofs. He never knew if it was an actual transformation, or just the sensation that accompanied his power. He only knew that when he bucked forward, he was able to ram through the pathetic psychological bulwark his guard threw up against the invasion.

Then neither man was simply standing on the street; they were both inside the Syrian’s mind.

“Get
out!
” the Syrian shrieked, but Ray was unmoved. The maze of the man’s mindscape wasn’t complicated. To the left, a shadowy upbringing of poverty. To the right, his secret fondness for pornography and his fear of scorpions. It shouldn’t be difficult to find the information Ray was looking for.

“Wh-what are you? Just a bull. Just a creature,” the guard stammered, as if to reassure himself. He wasn’t the first to mistake Ray for an animal. Perhaps he wasn’t mistaken at all. Lowering his head so that his sharpened horns twisted like glinting daggers toward the man’s heart, Ray chased the panting and terrified guard through his memories, ramming open another door, and then another. At last, he cornered the Syrian in the memory of the room with the steel floor.

The air puffed out of Ray’s nostrils in an angry cloud of rage. Here, in the guard’s memory, Ray’s torture lived vividly. Ray saw himself on the table, blindfolded and strapped down, his hardened muscles bracing and twitching as the guard swung a set of bloody cables in a hissing arc through the air until they broke with a snap on the bleeding palms of his shackled hands. The well-aimed blows had felt like a jolt of electricity. Agony had jumped up his arms and exploded in his temples. Ray remembered. This torture made the toughest men scream and he’d been no exception. He watched now as his memory-self twisted and writhed, rattling the chains against the table in torment.

He’d always wondered if his tormentor felt any guilt or regret. Now that he saw it through the guard’s eyes, he knew the answer. No guilt, no remorse. Not even the coldness of duty. Instead, he felt the man’s sadistic
pleasure at the memory, sickly sweet, almost sexual in nature, and it stoked his rage.

“What do you want?” the guard pleaded again. “What more do you want?”

“I told you,” Ray said. “I want the woman.”

“She was a civilian contractor working with the Americans. I don’t know her name!”

But he did. The memory was filed away in the cluttered recesses of the Syrian’s mind and Ray was able to find it. Ah, there she was.
Dr. Layla Bahset.
How could someone so exquisitely beautiful have taken any part in such ugliness? He’d have to find her and ask her himself. Ray would be the interrogator this time, and she’d help him clear his name if it was the last thing she did.
The very last thing.

The Syrian lingered in the torture room, obviously enjoying the memory. Inside the mindscape, Ray could make the Syrian feel anything. Ray could make him gasp for air and think he was dying, so he grabbed him by the throat and the man stopped breathing. But unlike the Syrian guard, Ray didn’t enjoy the pain of others, so he relaxed his mental hold.

The man came up gasping, without any apparent gratitude. “I’m not sorry for what we did to you, Rayhan,” the guard rasped. “I liked how you screamed. And why shouldn’t I have enjoyed it? For once, they gave me a real traitor to punish. A man who cannot decide if he’s one of
us,
or one of
them
.”

It was a common, but foolish taunt. As if Ray couldn’t be both an American and a Muslim—not that he believed in God anymore. “You enjoyed my screams?”

The guard wheezed. “So much. And when they
catch you and throw you back in that box, I’ll make you scream again. You’ll beg—”

“Shut up!” Ray’s teeth clenched, his temper a haze of red blood. This same man had burned his inner thighs with cigarettes and had locked him in a coffin for days on end. Now Ray shoved him against the blood-spattered wall of the imaginary torture room and growled.

The guard laughed, an edge of fear in it. “When they catch you, I’ll break each bone in your hands and feet and make you thank me like the dog you are.”

Ray felt himself snap, pulling the Syrian forward by the neck.

The guard gasped over the fingers clamped around his imagined windpipe. “Where are you taking me?”

Ray didn’t answer; he just dragged the man like the carcass of a hunted animal. The guard began to scream even before he realized it was the room with the scorpions. Ray had glimpsed it, the memory of a boy playing in the sand, stung again and again by the creature’s venomous stinger. Perhaps it was a real memory or only a childhood nightmare. It didn’t matter either way. Hauling the man to the door, Ray threw him inside.

There, in anticipation of his fear, the scrambling scorpions multiplied and swarmed over the guard’s face and hands. The man struggled to escape them, his mouth open in silent horror. He tried to pull himself up from the depthless sandpit of his own terror, but before he could, Ray slammed and locked the door.

On the dark streets of Aleppo, one man slumped under a lamplight, clutching desperately at his face. His eyes rolled back and his lips went blue with fear as he screamed incoherently about scorpions. The other
man—the one in the dark leather coat—dabbed at the rivulet of blood that dripped from his nose. “
Dr. Layla Bahset,
” he murmured, then turned and walked away.