The tunnel came to an intersection. Hundreds of skulls formed the wall in front of her. Their eerie smiles seemed to mock her as she searched for the next eagle. Whoever had buried the staff wanted to make sure the markers were a pain in the ass to find.
Tendrils of magic grazed the back of her neck and she froze.
The other witch was sending out feelers for her.
Daniela whipped around, her magic poised at her fingertips to summon a fireball if needed.
Before the spell could fly, a man grabbed her and lifted her off her feet. His hand clamped over her mouth, muffling her scream. “Shh!”
The wild beat of her heart pounded in her ears, breaking her concentration. This strange man was hauling her off into a side crypt, and she couldn’t even cast a simple spell to save herself. Her helplessness faded as anger replaced it. She may be in Rome’s mass grave, but she refused to become a permanent fixture.
The man released her before she could summon the spell again. He pressed a finger to her lips and pointed to where she’d been standing, right before he doused her flashlight. Darkness descended on them.
She tried to wrench free of her captor, but he pressed her against the damp wall. The man was a rock-hard mass of muscle, even though he’d appeared lean when she’d glimpsed the outline of his body. The spicy scent of his cologne tickled her nose. He turned around and kept his back to her, allowing her only a glimpse of the flickering lights coming from a side tunnel when she peered over his shoulder.
Thank God I’m not alone down here with this lunatic. She opened her mouth to call for help, but when she heard the other party’s conversation, her blood chilled.
“Shut up and find the next marker,” a woman muttered. “I need to find the staff before Morwen’s little brat does.”
“What makes you think she’s sent someone?” a male voice replied.
The flickering lights grew closer, outlining the silhouettes of three people. They paused in front of the wall of skulls.
“Colette, perhaps you should consider making this your new home,” the other male joked. “The decor seems to fit your tastes.”
A swing of Colette’s arm sent him crashing into the skulls. The crunch of dry bone echoed through the tunnels, but the man picked himself up off the ground and laughed. “I must have hit close to home to get her that pissed off, eh, Phil?”
“Shut up, you imbecile,” Colette growled.
A beam of light turned toward the crypt where Daniela hid behind her captor. He smashed her even closer to the wall until her nose pressed against the soft cotton of his shirt.
Her head spun, and she wasn’t quite sure if it was due to his presence or the fact she’d been holding her breath since she realized who the woman was. Morwen had warned Daniela about the vampire witch, but she never expected to be less than twenty meters from her.
“I sensed another witch down here,” Colette continued. The light flickered back to the intersection. “I’ve lost her trail, though.”
“Maybe you’re not as powerful as Marcellus thinks you are.”
She raised her hand to strike him again when Phil aimed his flashlight to the ground. “Someone has been here.” All three of them bent over the footprints in the dust marking the place where she’d stood before her captor whisked her off of her feet.
Daniela’s throat tightened. Please don’t let them come this way. One vampire I can handle, but not three. She looked up at her captor, wondering if he would set her free or turn her over to them. He didn’t even flinch.
“The footprints end here,” the first male vampire said.
“She must have sensed my presence and retreated. Find her.” Colette pointed in the direction Daniela had originally come from, and the other two vampires bolted. She lingered behind, taunting in a singsong voice,“Come out, come out wherever you are, little witch. I’ll find you eventually.”
Her temper flared at Colette’s insult. Little witch? Doesn’t she realize that I’m the third most powerful witch in the Foundation?
Her captor reached behind and grabbed her wrist, the commanding grip dousing the inferno of magic inside her.
Several seconds passed before Colette followed the other two vampires. Several more elapsed before Daniela allowed her breathing to return to normal. Morwen was right about Colette wanting to find the Staff of Octavius, and God only knew what she’d do with it once she got it. She’d probably make opening up a portal to Hell seem like a party trick.
All the more reason to find it.
Her captor released her and took a step forward, allowing her the opportunity to squeeze past him. She’d just reached the skull wall when he caught her arm and started dragging her back to where they’d hidden.
“Let go of me.”
“Silence!” He pulled her closer and whispered in her ear, “Do you want them to find you?”
“At least I know their motives.”
Her knee smashed into his groin, but all she got from him was a short grunt. His viselike grip didn’t waver. “I thought Morwen had better sense than to send someone else to find the staff.”
She stopped struggling. “You know Morwen?”
“Yes,” he replied, his face still concealed in the shadows. She knew nothing about her captor other than he seemed to be made of stone and had the slightest French accent.
Before he could elaborate, heavy footsteps pounded down the tunnel and light bounced off the slime-coated walls. “I heard something this way,” Colette’s voice echoed.
Her captor tightened his grip on her arm and carried her back into the darkness. This time, he didn’t smash her against the wall to hide her. He raced through the pitch-black tunnels with a speed that made her heart want to jump into her throat, twisting and turning as if he had his course already mapped out and memorized. How did he know where to go? What was to stop them from crashing into a wall? Or worse, a pile of bones?
At least they were losing the bloodsucker.
His steps didn’t falter as he ran past the heavy iron gate she’d opened earlier that evening using her magic, and carried her up the four flights of stairs to the Via Agrippa. The humid night air bathed her face, a stark contrast to the cool damp of the catacombs. She didn’t have time to enjoy it. Her captor set her down and continued to drag her through the crowded street.
“Where are you taking me?” Would causing a scene with a spell be safer than going along with this stranger?
He stared straight ahead as he pushed deeper into the throngs of people that glutted the sidewalk. “Away from them.”
“And why should I think you’re better than them?”
That made him pause. He stopped and turned to face her.
Her gut wrenched. Mio Dio, a man shouldn’t be that gorgeous. Ebony black hair framed a face with a strong jaw and a slightly crooked nose—his only flaw as far as she could tell. But his eyes took her breath away. They were such a deep blue, they almost matched his hair.
He looked her over from head to toe and sucked in a deep breath. His mouth fell open, and for a few heartbeats, they just stared at each other. Then his jaw tightened. “I’m the least of your worries.”
As if on cue, a woman’s scream pierced the night. Daniela spun around. The crowd parted like the wake of a speedboat, but it moved way too fast for normal humans. Her throat closed up. The vampires.
The stranger yanked her out of her daze and pushed her against the window of a crowded café. Gorgeous or not, she was getting tired of the Neanderthal treatment. She was about to give him a piece of her mind when his lips crushed against hers, cutting off her words and nearly making her swoon. At first she resisted, but he continued to kiss her, slowly wearing down her defenses. By the time his tongue brushed against the seam of her mouth, she eagerly opened it to him.
She couldn’t remember the last time a man had kissed her this way. So strong. So domineering. So possessive it made her toes curl. A flush spread from her face all the way to the pit of her stomach, and her sex ached. Although she barely knew him, she already wanted to forgo this sexual foreplay and head straight to the bedroom. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she began kissing back with a ferocity that surprised her.
Perhaps it surprised him too. A muffled gasp worked its way out of his throat. He pressed his body against hers so that his erection rubbed against her mound. For a would-be rescuer, he acted like he wanted to screw her right here in the middle of the street. One hand grabbed her buttocks, lifting her so he could grind against her. The other worked its way between them and cupped one of her breasts.
Her head reeled with each delightful twist of his tongue, and she slipped further and further into her lust-filled trance. He could be working with the vampires for all she knew, but at this point, she almost didn’t care.
She froze and opened her eyes. Her mission. She needed to find the Staff of Octavius before Colette, not waste time playing tonsil hockey with a stranger. And as much as she wanted to continue, her duty to the Foundation came first.
He must have sensed her unfortunate jolt of reality, because he ended the kiss by gently sucking on her bottom lip. “I think they’re gone now.”
She barely noticed the dazed people pulling themselves off the ground around them or blaring horns from blocks ahead. Her voice didn’t want to work. “Gone?”
“Oui.” He placed a quick peck on the corner of her mouth. “They passed us and are probably several kilometers away by now.”
The fog of lust evaporated, leaving her with a sharply cruel vision of the situation. He’d only kissed her to hide her from the vampires, and she’d humped him like some horny teenager. Merda! She hung her head, unable to meet his eyes, and tried to slither past before he caught on to her humiliation, but his arms formed a barrier on either side of her.
“We were lucky,” he said.
“Were we?” Daniela snapped her head back up and pursed her lips. “Lucky in what way? That they didn’t catch us? Or that you got to feel me up in the process?”
A hint of a smile played on his lips. “That we avoided a confrontation with them. The kiss was a delightful bonus.”
The magic inside her welled up until the air crackled around them. Secrecy be damned! She was going to blow him halfway across Rome.
“Hey, hai intenzione di scoparla?” a male voice asked from nearby, and the people around them laughed.
Her anger turned from the stranger who’d boldly kissed her to the arrogant punk who’d asked if her rescuer-assailant was going to fuck her. She tensed her muscles, ready to unleash the spell poised on the tips of her fingers.
“Careful,” the stranger whispered. “Blowing him up will only attract unwanted attention.”
And his distraction didn’t?
He turned to the teenager and replied, “Not tonight.” Then his gaze slid back to her and his grin widened. “Unless you would like to continue this elsewhere.”
“Vaffanculo!” She shoved him away and stomped off with her spine rigid and her shoulders squared. In the brief amount of time she’d known this asshole, he’d gone from a potential kidnapper to a possible lover to man whose balls she wanted to smash.
When he caught her hand again, he pressed a keychain into her palm. “Your room is being watched. Stay here tonight.”
Icicles formed in her veins. “What do you mean my room is being watched?”
He chuckled softly. “Morwen needs to learn not to give her employees a company card.”
“But my things—”
“Already taken care of.”
“Why should I trust you?” Blood pounded in her veins as she waited for his answer. Her gut told her she could trust him, even though her mind remained cynical. And she wasn’t even going to start on how much her body craved a repeat performance.
He closed the space between them until their noses touched. She caught a faint whiff of mint as he replied low enough for only her to hear, “The staff is no longer here in Rome. I moved it.”
His confession shocked her. Perhaps it would’ve been easy for him to figure out what she was looking for, but for him to tell her he’d beaten her to it? It was almost unbelievable. “Where?”
“That’s for me to know.” He backed away. “Stay safe, little witch.”
He spun on his heel and disappeared into the crowd, leaving her hot, bothered and confused.