Echo of Distant Thunder

Book One in the Arcana Ancien series

Philippa Grey-Gerou and Emery Sanborne

 

Prologue

Sunset. It was his favorite time of day. The sun giving leave to the darkness in a final glory of flame and blood. The burning brilliance of death, however temporary … Yes, there was nothing better.

“Don Alessandro, we have word!” The excited exclamation interrupted his peace.

But he did not turn at once. Instead, he let his gaze linger on the Mole Antonelliana as the last traces of light and color tugged free. That was beauty.

With a sigh of contentment, Alessandro turned his back on reflection to deal with the news.

“Pietro.” He greeted the nervous, balding man who kneeled before him. “You may rise.”

The man did, twitching nervously. “Father, the eremites have received a sign leading to the vessel.”

Alessandro had grown used to these reports over the years, only to have them turn out to be wild-goose chases and dead ends. Excitement at news had died a long time ago. Nevertheless, he felt an unexpected flare of hope. Perhaps it was the time of day. He was always more optimistic at sunset.

“Have they indeed,” he replied coolly.

“Yes.” Pietro’s headed bobbed. “They are certain beyond doubt that they are on the right path. And there have been portents that the time is ripe for breakthrough.”

Pietro was so fond of dramatics. It made him a born messenger, albeit a trying one. But he was reliable, which made up for his other faults.

The little man forged ahead, finally getting to the heart of the matter. “They have located a gentleman they know can lead us to the vessel.”

“That’s it?” Alessandro let his annoyance show. This wasn’t the first time the brothers had made such a claim. The flicker of hope he’d felt earlier faded. “Do you not remember two years ago, Pietro?”

Pietro blanched but stood his ground. “This is not another Marseilles, Don Alessandro. There is irrevocable proof this time.” He held out a manila envelope, hand barely shaking. “They are well aware of your wariness and have thoroughly investigated the matter before sending you the information.”

The brothers were learning; that was something, at least. Alessandro took the envelope from Pietro and broke the seal. Inside were several photographs. Hope began to return as he looked them over, familiar faces gazing back up at him from cellulose and developer. And with hope, satisfaction. After nearly twenty years of setbacks, things were finally going his way.

He removed one of the photographs and held it up to Pietro. “Send him a message and make it very clear that we will not stop until we have what is rightfully ours. Understood?”

Pietro bowed. “Immediately, Father.”

“That is all.” Alessandro dismissed the man and turned back to the window. He smiled at the dusk-shrouded city. It was only a matter of time before things were set right.

Chapter One

“Honey, I’m home!”

Graeme Shepherd closed his girlfriend’s front door and set aside his book pack and the brown paper bag containing an exceptionally fine merlot on the entryway table before taking off his coat, careful to keep the snow on it from scattering all over the hall. Winter was reluctant to give up its hold on Philadelphia, marking the last day of classes before spring break with an enthusiastic snowstorm. None of his students would have shown up for class anyway as half of them were probably on a beach somewhere already.

He envied them, really. Warm weather, plenty of sun … though it was the Mediterranean and not the Floridian coast he longed for. It could be worse. He could be stuck in London with the cold and rain. The light snowfall of Philadelphia was far preferable to that.

The smell of beef and mushrooms simmering in sherry drew him from his thoughts and toward the kitchen, but he’d gone only a few steps when he heard Diana’s voice on the stairs above him. “Did you remember the wine?”

Retracing his steps, he found her descending the stairs, radiant in a shimmery emerald gown, more than a nightgown, not quite an evening dress, that made the green of her eyes pop, her coppery curls more auburn in contrast. Graeme couldn’t help smiling. For thirty-eight, Diana looked and acted ten years younger. It was that vitality that attracted him as much as her passion. She made him feel alive again. And for that he was very grateful.

“Yes, your henpecked old lover remembered to bring the wine home. For a change.” He caught her around the waist the moment she moved within reach and drew her close against him. When Graeme had given up his old life, he’d never expected to find someone like her waiting for him, making his penance that much easier to bear. She was just one more thing that made him certain he had made the right choice.

She chuckled, leaning in to caress his mouth softly with hers before tracing the outline of his lip with her thumb. “Well, I know you were grading exams today. Anything could have happened in the wake of all those horribly declined modifiers and poorly conjugated verbs.”

“You know, these people did achieve a certain mastery of the English language. Why on earth do they find Latin so difficult?”

“Maybe because they just don’t know how sexy it can be.” Her arms draped around him, bringing her shapely curves into closer alignment with his body.

He settled his hands on the contour of her waist to encourage her invasion. “So you’re saying if I seduced them, they would pay more attention in class?”

“No.” She kissed him again lightly. “But I guarantee they’d show up more.”

“And how about you?” He pulled her a little closer. “You look dressed for seduction yourself. Shall we take the wine upstairs and start with dessert?”

“Absolutely not. The noodles would be mush by then. Besides,” she caught his hand to guide him back toward the kitchen, “you need to eat to keep your strength up.”

He willingly followed, grinning at the promise in her words. Diana always knew exactly what he needed. A night getting lost in each other more than made up for spending the better part of the day going bleary-eyed over often illegible and barely intelligible papers. He’d translated badly damaged scrolls from nearly twenty-five hundred years ago with greater ease than some of the rubbish his students turned in.

Graeme shoved the thoughts from his mind. It was over and done with, and he had more than earned the rewards that were being laid out before him.

Heading over to the stove, he lifted the lid off the simmering beef burgundy. “Another masterpiece,” he announced.

The compliment earned him a swat on the back of the hand with the spoon Diana had picked up. “Nearly three years, Graeme, and you still haven’t learned,” she chastised, nudging him out of the way to stir the sauce.

He laughed, setting the lid on the counter so that both of his hands were free as he maneuvered behind her. “If it wasn’t so irresistible, maybe I could keep my hands off,” he murmured, letting said hands trace along the satiny concealed lines of her enticing frame. He drifted his right hand upward, brushing her curls to the side to reveal the smooth expanse of her neck. Nuzzling there, he continued, “But, really, for all your protests, Diana, you seem to mind it more when I keep my hands off.”

She leaned back into his touch, but it was apparent that most of her attention was focused on the meal. Pleasure was no excuse for letting the food suffer, he knew all too well. “Keep your hands on my ass and off the food, and you’ll never hear another complaint,” she stated, turning down the burner and replacing the lid before spinning to face him. She backed him up until she had him pinned against the kitchen island. “There’s about five minutes left to go on the sauce. That should give you ample time to make up for your indiscretion.”

“Five minutes? Either I’m losing my touch or you’ve lowered your standards.”

“Yes, well, you weren’t the only one to have a bad day.” She didn’t hesitate, shoving his jacket off his shoulders as she stole a quick, fierce kiss.

He tossed the coat aside and followed it with his tie. “So you think a quick shag before dinner is going to make up for a long, tedious day spent with young, pretentious art majors with too much eye makeup and not enough sense? You must not have had that bad of a day, then.”

She grinned against his mouth. “I love it when you say shag. It just sounds so … dirty.”

“Shag’s not dirty.” He stroked the satin-covered swell of her behind, leaning closer to trace his lips along the sensitive column of her throat before pausing at her ear. “Now,” he murmured low and intentionally provocative, “if I promised to spend the next several hours fucking you until you can’t move anymore, that would be dirty. And very, very satisfying.”

“God, Graeme.” She wilted against him, her face pressed into his shoulder, allowing him to inhale the fresh scent of her hair. All the tension of the day eased out of him. “The things you do to me.”

“The things I will do to you.” He kissed her, teasing her lips apart before gently pushing her away. “After we eat. I’m famished.”

She pouted slightly. “More interested in food than me. I should be insulted.”

“Fortunately for me, you take as much pride in your cooking as everything else you do.” Unbuttoning and rolling up his sleeves, he headed out to the foyer to retrieve the wine.

“The opener is already on the table,” Diana called out from the kitchen.

“Why am I not surprised.” He smiled to himself, making his way to the dining room where two tapers sat ready to be lit for the meal. With a quick glance to make certain that Diana was still involved in the kitchen, Graeme grinned and waved his hand over the candles. Flames jumped quickly to life on the tips of the slender wicks. It wasn’t something he did often, but he was feeling a bit daring tonight, and it was good to make certain his skills weren’t too rusty. Magic had once been his life, until the incident in Gloucester that led to him turning his back on it. Yet, however much he might have given the magic up, he knew it would always be a part of him. On nights such as this, when Diana put him in one of these moods, he could remember the good parts.

He noticed that Diana had pulled out her good dishes for dinner. It was a simple touch that said so much. As did the dress. And all without trying too hard. Early in a relationship, they were the sort of things done to impress. At this point, it was a very nice gesture.

Graeme had the wine uncorked and poured by the time Diana emerged from the kitchen with the first of the food. He relieved her of the dishes, and she gave him a smile before disappearing back the way she had come. When she returned, he waited until she had set the last plate down before pulling out her chair with a small flourish.

She beamed at him as she sat. “Thank you.”

“I think it’s the least I can do.” He leaned down and kissed her briefly before moving to take his own seat.

“You did manage to remember the wine this time. Everything else is gravy,” she teased. She reached for his plate and began to serve the food. “So, Professor Shepherd, any big plans for spring break?”

He loved it when she played at formal. Of course, there was very little he didn’t love about Diana Glendower, except perhaps the tendency she had for stealing the covers at night. Well, it was more of a guarantee than a tendency.

“I was thinking of going for something low-key this year. Staying in, avoiding the world for a week. Perhaps getting lost in a good book or whatever happens to capture my undivided attention.” He looked her levelly. “And yourself, Doctor?”

“I have plenty of excitement planned. It’s not spring break unless you do something a little wild.”

“And what is that?”

Her smile was both enigmatic and innocent. “That remains to be seen.”

“You’re not going to clue me in?”

She shook her head, the candlelight dancing over her curls. “You’ll find that out if you’re meant to.”

“Oh. So I should be worried about that amorous young protégé of yours after all.”

“Hardly.” She snickered. “You’ll be pleased to know that he is no longer a threat. Young Georges has gotten himself engaged.”

“Poor man.”

“Watch it. It’s not too late, you know.” She cocked one eyebrow in warning as she picked up her fork. “I could have him wrapped around my finger in a second if I wanted to.”

“I know you could, temptress.” He caught her free hand and lifted it to his lips. “I don’t know what it is with you and foreign men. I was certain I was going to lose you that first trip to France. All those French men everywhere you turned.”

“Lucky for you I find the British accent much more appealing. Now, if they had been Australian…”

“Note to self. Never take you to Australia.”

“Or Italy. There was this boy when I was younger…” She sighed melodramatically.

“Revised note to self. Keep you chained in the basement.”

She laughed. “Just eat. We’ll discuss bondage later.”

Dinner was comfortable. Good food, good conversation. They discussed office politics and department gossip, current events and plans for summer. A normal slice of everyday existence with an amazingly uncommon woman. When he’d left his old life behind, he never expected to find someone like Diana waiting for him on the other side. It made so many of the sacrifices worth it.

Going on three years, the relationship with Diana was the most serious one he had ever been in. And that included his less than spectacular marriage of nearly a year. Well, there had been another relationship, but that hadn’t exactly ended well, either, nor had it been what one could classify as “serious.” Things had probably worked out so well with Diana because he had gone into the relationship with rather low expectations. Once bitten and all that. One night’s indiscretion had turned into a weekend fling had evolved into the two of them all but living together. It was … unusual, but it worked.

The meal tapered off rather than ended, the food gone while the two of them lingered in conversation. Finally Diana rose, dividing the last of the wine between their glasses and taking their empty plates with her. “Why don’t you take the wine into the living room, and I’ll get dessert.”

He stood, as well. “At least let me help you clear away.”

“No, just let it sit. I’ll clear up later. Go on in, I’ll be right there.” And she disappeared into the kitchen.

Taking up the balloon goblets, he made his way into the living room. A small fire burned low on the grate in the fireplace. Taking up the poker, he tended it gently, adding logs from the stack waiting nearby. The flames caught quickly at the dry wood and flared, casting an amber glow around the room.

Diana appeared a moment later with a soft susurration of silk, bearing a tray with coffee cups, a carafe, and two pieces of sinfully dark ganache cake. “I stopped at the bakery on the way home.”

“You truly are a temptress.” He took the tray and set it down on the hearth, drawing her down to sit next to him. “Chocolate and silk. A promising combination.”

“I wanted to get this break off to a good start.” She swiped her finger through the icing and offered it to him. “It’s been a long semester.”

“It has.” Curling his fingers around her wrist, he drew the digit in with his tongue, the simple act setting warm desire pulsing in his groin. Her pulse accelerated beneath his fingertips as he worked the sensitive skin of her fingertip oh so slowly. By the time he released her, her skin was flushed, and her luminous eyes had gone dark and promising. “And winter break wasn’t much of a vacation.”

“Not with you leading that study group to Crete and me teaching an overload.” She withdrew her hand with obvious regret and handed him the plate with the marred cake. “So, for the next week, no work, no distractions. Just relaxation.”

He smiled as she forked a piece of her slice into her mouth, leaving crumbs and icing littering her lips. Her tongue flicked out to catch them, promising more of the same in more intimate circumstances later. “I’m not going to be able to relax much if you keep on like that.”

“Different kind of relaxation.” Her eyes sparkled wickedly. “Now eat.”

He did, teasing her as much as she did him with fork and tongue and fingers until they were both so aroused that they raced through the last bites. Snatching the fork from her hand, Graeme set utensils and plates aside carelessly before he pulled Diana onto his lap. Her gown rode up as she straddled his thighs, his hands tight about her waist. She rose up on her knees to bring them level, wrapping her arms around his neck as their mouths indulged in one another. He released her as her slender fingers worked the buttons of his shirt, and he shrugged out of it to cast it aside, quickly coming back to skate his hands up her back and then down again, lifting her skirt higher, searching for her. She sucked in a breath as he first made contact with bare skin and sighed it back into his mouth as he coasted over the supple roundness of her behind.

Graeme pulled back to look into her passion-dark eyes. “Maybe we should take this upstairs?”

“Mm. Maybe we should.” She began working the hasp of his belt buckle. “Later.” And she captured his mouth again.

If the lady wanted to be ravaged on the living room carpet, so be it.

He caught the hem of her gown in both hands and lifted it off in one smooth motion, leaving her naked in the firelight save for the most delicate scrap of green lace covering her mound. Her breasts were as enticing as ever, full and heavy, dark roseate nipples tightening into tempting distractions. “Beautiful,” he breathed softly.

Even after all their times together, Diana blushed, a soft, ruddy tone that covered all her skin. But she said nothing, instead slowing her frenzied action to admire him, reaching out to brush the palm of her hand lightly over the coarse hairs spread over his chest and down his belly. He hissed lightly as she slid her fingers back up closer to his skin, tangling and tugging through the strands. “You are too,” she said simply.

He gathered her close, indulging in the comforting sensation of skin on skin as they let their mouths continue the seduction, slower now and not as desperate. He pressed her back to lie on the rug, covering her body with his as their mouths lingered over each other, his fingers threading through her hair to guide her head. Graeme tipped Diana’s face to the side to begin exploring the length of her neck and curve of her shoulder, enjoying her sudden jerk as he nipped behind her ear before continuing down.

She sighed softly as his hands cupped her breasts, his mouth lipping gently over the firm flesh as he moved down her body. He ran the flat of his tongue over one nipple and blew on it lightly, reveling in her throaty “Oh!” and the sight of it tightening even further. He nipped and suckled at it, not too rough, but not too gentle either, and was rewarded by the feel of her hips moving in time to his tongue, offering desperately needed friction against his own throbbing cock. He repeated the action on her other breast until she was mewling, clutching at his shoulders as she humped against his hip. He hooked his fingers into the fragile lace of her panties and drew them down and off of her, leaving her beautifully exposed in the firelight. Kneeling back down, he rubbed his cheek against the inside of her thigh, the friction of his shadowy beard rasping on her sensitive skin. He traced up the curve of her hip to lavish attention on the intricate tattoo that was the only blemish on her perfect skin, letting the tip of his tongue trace the filigree of it until she was twisting against him. But when he moved closer to her center, she stopped him.

“Not now,” she begged, her voice rough with desire. “Later. Right now I just want to feel you inside me.”

“Whatever my mistress commands.”

With a deft hand, he released his buckle and trousers, skinning them and the boxer briefs underneath down and kicking them aside. She was watching avidly, and he found he enjoyed the attention, so he made quite a show of stroking his cock with one hand as he admired her. “Maybe I’ll just enjoy the view for a while.”

“Only if that’s all you want to enjoy this week.” Her words were breathless and a bit petulant as she reached to pull him back down to her.

She spread her legs wide for him, wrapping one hand around his neck to draw him closer, taking his stiff length in her other to guide him in. “Diana,” he groaned as he made contact with the snug clutch of her channel, the warm liquid muscles wrapping around his head.

“Please, Graeme,” she begged. “I need you so much.”

“I’ll take care of you, sweet. Don’t you worry.” And slowly, implacably, he bore down, driving deep inside of her.

Her resultant cry was deep and resonant, and he felt it all along his shaft.

“Does it feel good?” he murmured in her ear as he established a slow, deep rhythm. “Is that what you needed? Tell me, Diana, how does that feel?”

“’S good, Graeme, oh, God, it’s so good…” She arched into his strokes, encouraging him to move faster, harder, deeper. He obliged her, wrapping his arms under her shoulders to hold her close and keep her from sliding across the coarse rug.

“You feel bloody marvelous,” he grumbled in her ear. “All tight and soft and eager. Even after all this time…”

She silenced him with her mouth, whimpering her pleasure down his throat as she invaded with her tongue in mirror image of what he was doing to her with his cock. He felt his own release tighten, felt her breath hitch as he gathered her ass in both hands and lifted her to meet his thrusts. She wailed and tensed, clutching at his arms as her whole body went rigid. But he couldn’t stop, didn’t stop, and moments later his own climax shuddered through him, spilling out in waves of pleasure as he collapsed on top of her.

Their sweat-slick bodies glistened in the firelight, the only sounds in the room their own soft sighs and gasps as they came back to themselves. Graeme rolled over, drawing Diana into his arms. She tangled her legs with his and rested her head on his shoulder, her arm draped over his waist. With one last deep cleansing breath, she said contentedly, “God, I’ve been waiting for that all day.”

He chuckled and kissed the top of her head. “If I’d known what was waiting for me, I’d have been over sooner.”

“Then you’d have spoiled the surprise.”

“Well, next time, the surprise is at my flat. I want a chance to pamper you for a change.”

She rose up on one elbow to look down at him with a smirk. “You want to pamper me, you can carry me upstairs and continue with dessert.”

“I will.” He pulled her back down into his arms, enjoying when she nestled close against him again. “After I get my strength back.”

 

 

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