Key of Solomon: Relic Defender, Book 1

Dedication

Like other things in life, the birth of a book takes a village of people and I’d like to thank mine. From the special friends who read and critiqued this story in its infancy to my local chapter, the Rose City Romance Writers who helped me always remember why I love writing. Huge hugs and thanks to the Hooligans and my family for all of your unabashed encouragement. Without all of your love and support, I could never have continued.

I’d like to give special thanks to the following: My husband of 20 years, Steve, for all the encouragement, support and affectionate nagging it took to keep going; To agent Barbara Poelle, who is not my agent, but was the first industry professional to sing the praises of this story (I can’t tell you how much that meant to me); and finally, but not least, to my editor, Bethany Morgan who loved this story enough to give it a home.

Chapter One

“Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.”

Janwillem van de Wetering

 

Chicago, Illinois

University of Chicago

Present Time

Lexi Harrison stalked the hallways of Haskell Hall, the sound of her low-heeled cowboy boots making a satisfying click on the tiled floors. A swift-moving current of fellow students within the Anthropology Department flowed around her, their frenetic movements signaling the approach of the end of the year. This late in the year, no one moved like the proverbial tortoise. Not when finals and dissertations were coming up fast.

In fact, if it hadn’t been for her professor’s urgent summons, by special courier to her apartment for Pete’s sake, she wouldn’t be here herself. Every spare hour, no, second, she had was slotted for polishing her dissertation.

Within the next month, she’d graduate with her PhD and be able to start her new job with the Anderson Wyatt archeological team in the cisternas of Peru. Her fondest wish come true. She didn’t have time to waste. Lexi pursed her lips. Except Professor Xaviera wasn’t just a professor. He’d given so much to her and in so many ways, acted as the father she never had. He called. She came running. No questions. Confusion, definitely, but no questions.

She came to an abrupt halt in front of his office door. A roil of unease curled in her stomach. Why the hell was his door closed? A gregarious man, he preferred a near constant ebb and flow of students and colleagues into his sanctum. A smile twitched on her lips at the memory of one occasion she’d come up on him arguing with the Dean and head of the Anthropology Department.

“I’m the oldest damn professor on staff, and if I want the damn door gone, the damn door should be gone,” she’d heard him shout.

His strident tone had ricocheted down the hallways bouncing off eardrums and making glass shudder. Her professor had lost that battle. One of the few to her knowledge. Since then, she’d never seen the door closed. Until now.

She knocked once before entering. At first, she didn’t see the tall, lean almost skeletal figure of Professor Xavier.

“Please close the door, Lexi.”

Was that her professor? The soft, scratchy voice was nothing like his normally robust and booming tones. After complying, she turned toward the large armchair sitting near a small floor lamp. Professor Xavier sat in the tattered chair, his elbows resting on his knees.

Actually, what he did could not be called sitting. Like a deflated vinyl doll, he slouched, his lean frame bent as if only a little air kept him upright. To her searching gaze, he looked defeated. Broken. Her stomach lurched. As if he’d been forced to do something he didn’t want to do. Were all her carefully crafted plans about to come crashing down like a house of cards? The unease twirling in her gut kicked into high gear.

“Professor, you wanted to see me?” she said.

He didn’t move. Didn’t lift his head. Didn’t twitch. She waited a few seconds. Caught herself rocking with impatience and forced herself to stand still. Then waited a few more seconds. “Professor?” she asked when the seconds stretched into a long-ass minute.

His narrow shoulders lifted into a huge sigh. When his eyes plunged into hers, she started, her weight shifting backward at the lost expression in his dark gaze. What the hell was wrong with him?

Xaviera’s lips pulled into a weak smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Thank you for coming in.” He gestured to the ladder-back chair that sat opposite his. “Please have a seat. This won’t take long.”

Christ, she felt like a first year student facing down a tenured professor instead of a doctoral student having a conversation with a beloved mentor. She moved around the chair and sat.

“Is there something you need from me?” she asked. “Am I in trouble?”

He sighed again. “No, no. You are not in trouble.” Xaviera wobbled to his feet and stood swaying.

Instead of concern, worry flooded her system. “Professor, are you okay?” Had she ever seen him ill? She couldn’t think of a single time. Yet, right now, his gray tinged skin looked as if he’d just crawled out of the grave.

Another weak smile. “Yes, my dear, I’m fine.”

He walked over to his wall to wall bookcase and pulled out a thick book that looked as if only force of will kept it together. With gentle fingers, he opened the cover. She caught the flash of something gold. Not a book then. Some kind of safe to hide valuables? But, the device looked so real. Even from where she sat, she clearly saw the uneven edges and heard the crackle of pages.

“Actually, I have something to give to you,” he said as he studied the object in his hands.

She felt her eyebrows rise. He had something for her?

Xaviera turned around and stuck out his hand. “Here.”

Equal parts reluctance and compulsion swept through Lexi. Those were followed by a bone-deep warning that his gift threatened to change her perfectly planned life. The life where she’d leave Chicago. Leave Illinois altogether.

About damn time too. The decision to finish her degree at the old age of twenty-six, originally a good idea, soon lost its charm by the time she reached thirty. Nevertheless, Lexi wanted to be done. Done and gone. Too much pain from a lost, lonely childhood haunted Chicago’s streets. Haunted her.

“Please, Lexi. Take it. It’s important.”

With slow movements, she took the box and pulled it near. Her eyes widened. Good grief, was that real gold? She smoothed the tip of her finger over the top. The smoky luster of the gold had a pitted and scratched timeworn appearance, the edges joined as if fused by hand in high heat. Even the rounded corners spoke of handling and environments that took hard edges and whittled them into velvety lines.

Sigils from various religions decorated the burnished sides. An ankh, a cross with a loop at the top that meant eternal life to the ancient Egyptians, took a prominent place on the front, near the latch. On a side panel, the moon in her three phases, waxing, waning and full equaled womankind. As in mother, maiden and crone. Another one she recognized symbolized Thoth, the Egyptian God of the Moon, Magic and Writing.

The largest and most recognizable symbol, a pentagram, covered the lid’s surface.

“What is this?” She looked up and met her mentor’s brown gaze. Her head canted. His expression looked, well, odd. Part satisfaction, part anger and part something else. Something she couldn’t identify. Wasn’t sure she wanted to identify. Because, to her searching eyes, it looked too much like terror. What the hell would terrify her fearless professor?

“It’s a gift, Lexi. Think of it as a reward for finishing.” Deep lines at the corners of his mouth flattened and softened. “I’m proud of you.”

“Professor, this box is much too valuable. I can’t accept it.”

“A small trinket.” He waved a hand, the gesture dismissing her protest. “Still, you’ve earned it. I’ve never known as student so dedicated to learning as you have been. It has been a pleasure being your professor.”

She resisted the urge to duck her head and giggle. This courtly and respectful behavior was so unlike Xaviera. So unlike the larger than life, give ’em hell and take no prisoners attitude she usually had the joy of experiencing. This new side, along with his drained appearance, triggered a flight sensation that crawled over her skin.

However, she owed him more than that so all she said was, “Thank you, Professor. I’ll treasure it.”

He nodded and patted her shoulder before moving away. With a heavy grunt, Xaviera sank into the seat he’d vacated. Instantly, he seemed to forget she was in the room. His eyes took on a burning, faraway look. Really, what the heck was wrong with him tonight?

“Professor?” No response. He just sat there staring at something only he could see or maybe he stared at nothing at all.

She stood and went to crouch in front of him, her weight balanced on the balls of her feet. “Professor Xaviera. Are you okay?”

For a second, she didn’t think he heard her. His eyes cleared, and he focused on her, staring straight into her eyes. She rocked back, intending to stand when his hand shot out and grabbed her at the elbow jerking her to a halt. Off balance, she fell to both knees.

“Lexi, you must be strong for what lies ahead. I’ve done the best I could to prepare you but I fear it wasn’t enough. Trust the one who walks in the dark.”

“What are you—?”

Her question broke off when Xaviera threw back his head. He stilled with his eyes turned toward the office door. He unwrapped his fingers. She looked down at the small red marks then looked back at him. “Take the box,” he said. “Go now.” He did not meet her gaze.

Lexi tucked the gold box into her backpack, straightened and turned to leave. At the door, she looked back over her shoulder. The man who was more than a father still would not meet her gaze. Almost as if he was ashamed—her head tilted—or guilty.

“See you later, Professor.”

She grasped the knob and twisted only to feel the knob slip through her grasp and the door gave way. Her momentum, not anticipating the easy give of the door, propelled her forward until she collided into another body.

Instinctively, she rebounded and fell back a step. Hard fingers snagged her shoulders, their heat burning through her T-shirt into her skin. She let out a soft growl. For the second time in less than ten minutes, she’d been grabbed forcefully. Two times too many for someone who hated to be touched. With a shake of her shoulders, she wrenched free.

Only then did she look at her manhandler. He was not handsome. Oh, hell no, not handsome. Such a tame word to describe the man standing in the doorway of her professor’s office. Other descriptives came to mind. Proud. Compelling. Arrogant. Smoldering sensuality in the curve of his lips and silver glint in his dark eyes.

“My apologies.” He bent his head in a brief nod. “Did I interrupt?” His voice pitched low was obviously meant to be soothing. That’s the last thing it was.

Lexi resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest and raised her chin. “No worries. I was just leaving.” She held his thoughtful gaze, her own unwavering.

A slow smile tugged at the corners of his mouth before he stepped fully into the office and away from the exit. Without another look, she left but before the man closed the door behind her, she thought she heard him say, “Until the next time.”

But she couldn’t be sure. Too much noise in the hallway. Her shoulders lifted into a shrug. Who cared? She had more important things on her mind. Her professor’s weird behavior and the gift of an expensive gold box. The final draft of her dissertation on her laptop eagerly awaiting her return.

 

Meanwhile

Somewhere in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt

“Bring it to me,” Beliel called. He rocked, wrestling with the urge to join the five men struggling to climb the dune’s steep incline. By the black waters of Styx, he’d waited long enough.

Scorching light from the mid-day sun beat down on top of his head. He swiped a trembling finger through the liquid hanging on the end of his nose. A drop escaped and fell to his grit-covered mouth. Cracked lips soaked up the salty wetness.

“Lucifer’s balls,” he snarled. “If the dolts moved any slower the shifting sands would reshape the dune before they reached midpoint.”

“Indeed, master,” the misshapen figure crouched at his side crooned. Gaarp peered up at him. The soul-stealer’s over-sized mouth stretched wide. Pointed teeth, gray and jagged, flashed. “Shall I—encourage—them to move faster?”

Beliel shifted closer to the edge. The ground softened. Ripples flowed out from under his feet and traveled downward pushing the fine sand and pebbles into waves. He halted and fixed his unblinking gaze on the tableau below.

“No. Not while they bear the vessel. Until they’ve delivered the relic, I still need them.” He narrowed his eyes. “Afterward… We’ll see.”

“Yes, master.” Gaarp giggled. “Still, they are rather clumsy and vulgar.”

As if to underscore his words, one of the men wobbled, sandaled feet slipping. He lost his balance and fell to his bare knee. Debris clattered and plunged back into the recently excavated hole. The bronze jar tilted precariously, rocking on the oak plank.

“Careful, you idiots,” Beliel shouted.

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