Treasure Laid Bare [Department 57]
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by Lynne Connolly
Category: Erotica/Paranormal Erotica/Suspense/Thriller
Description: Series: Department 57; Previous Book: Crystal Captive Although part of the Department 57 series, this title can be read on its own. If Garon and Tara succumb to the passion that is burning them alive, they'll lose their one chance to stop the Blood Countess before she becomes too powerful to kill. If they don't, they'll lose their focus--unless they can find another way. Publisher's Note: This book is a re-edited revised version previously released by another publisher, and contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Same-sex interaction (f/f), violence.
eBook Publisher: Loose Id, LLC, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: August 2009
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [357 KB]
Reading time: 231-324 min.
Tara had a pretty good idea what Helen's response would be when she saw the gorgeous Garon. They went to the back room and Helen looked up from the book, lying open on the table before her. Her eyes widened when she saw Garon Rothwell.
"Hello," she purred, emphasizing the last syllable. Even in her neat schoolmarm garb, she presented a more delectable picture than Tara could ever hope to achieve.
Garon stared at her, blinking, and Tara mentally consigned another gorgeous man to her friend. While she couldn't resent Helen's sex appeal, she wished she had some of that allure for herself. "Garon Rothwell," he said briefly, thrusting out one large hand.
Helen extended one smooth white hand and delicately placed it in his. Tara thought of the hard patches of skin on her own hands, earned from years of working, and suppressed a sigh. Helen had always told her she should look after her hands. She began to think it might be worth the effort. Too late for this one, though. Helen had him firmly in her sights.
"Helen Johnson. I teach the ... young ladies outside." The pause before the last phrase made Rothwell laugh, a rich, full laugh of someone who knew how to enjoy life.
"Did you hear a scream?" His voice took a sharper edge. "A disturbance?"
Helen shook her head, smiling. "Nothing at all. I was trying to make sense of this book. Perhaps I was concentrating too much to be bothered by anything else."
Rothwell's brow cleared. "Ah, someone capable of concentration. A rare trait, these days."
Tara didn't mention that she could do it too. When she worked, she was able to shut everything off, so much so that her mother had suspected her of being deaf.
"Let me see. I may be able to help." He bent over her shoulder, and Helen leaned back. She wore a crisp, white blouse buttoned primly up to her neck, but the blouse was silk, falling softly over the curves of her generous breasts. Tara wished she'd taken Helen's advice to be more careful in her selection of underwear. The soft, seamless bras Helen wore did provide a better shape than the restrictive, underwire or sports bras Tara generally used to keep her unruly body under control. It was too late now. Another win for Helen.
Rothwell's attention seemed to be completely on the book. He frowned then reached over and touched it. "May I?"
"You should wear these." Tara grabbed a pair of white cotton gloves and held them out to Rothwell before remembering these gloves had no give in them. They would never fit him. She bought them for her own use.
Smiling, he took the gloves and used them like a cloth, holding the book carefully. "My apologies."
Then Tara noticed Helen wasn't wearing gloves, either. They lay in a crumpled heap on the table. Helen didn't usually ignore her requests. She understood how valuable some books could be, how acidic residue from the hands could damage the delicate pages. These pages were old and highly vulnerable.
Rothwell read the page, his dark eyes scanning the lines quickly. "It is Hungarian. My mother's tongue. This is a book of spells and enchantments. I hadn't believed Cristos until he told me. This is why he sent me." He looked up and met Tara's gaze directly. "This book may have belonged to a famous Hungarian. One many people would prefer to forget."
Helen sharply fixed her blue eyes on him. "Who was she?"
"The female vampire," Tara breathed. "Dracula's mate."
Rothwell surprised her by bursting into laughter. "Not quite. There were a few hundred years between Erzsébet and Vlad."
"But if he was a vampire, he could have lived that long," Helen pointed out, humor coloring her voice. "Tara has a fascination with such things, you know, as you can see from the shop."
Tara colored up. "I'm more interested in real crime. Báthory was a real woman, arrested for a real crime. She killed young girls, didn't she?"
Rothwell's smile held no mockery in it, unlike Helen's. "Yes, indeed she did. Over six hundred, if the stories have any truth. She was said to have bathed in their blood, even drank it, because she thought it improved the complexion."
"If it did, you can bet there would be a face cream containing it," Tara said. That made Rothwell's smile broaden, and Tara wished he wouldn't do so. It gave her ideas she would be better forgetting, now Helen had claimed him.
"It might do," Helen said quietly. "It makes sense. Is that book full of recipes, then?"
Garon glanced at her. "Yes, some. This page has none, however. This page is different."
"It is a page to summon the dead."
The silence fell suddenly, broken only by the sounds of the wind in the trees outside and the subdued murmur of the girls in the next room.
Tara moved first, walking to the side table. "Would you like some coffee, Mr. Rothwell?"
"Garon, please. Yes, I would enjoy that. Black, no sugar."
Tara poured the coffee and brought it to him, putting it carefully at the other end of the table, away from the book. He was absorbed in reading.
"Could you read us some of it aloud?" Helen's voice cut sharply through the silence. "Do you speak Hungarian?"
"Yes, I speak it, but I will not read this. It may be too dangerous."
Helen's laughter tinkled gently. "You believe in all that? Even Tara doesn't believe in the stuff she sells."
"Then she should." He looked up and met Tara's gaze. The world stopped for a fraction of a second, as though he were drawing her in. "This book is dangerous. Or was."
Helen gave him a flirtatious look from under her lashes. "I was trying to pronounce some of the words when you came in. I hope I haven't inadvertently done something wrong."
"I hope not too." He turned back to Helen, closing the book. When he saw the cover, he drew one finger gently over one of the designs she'd drawn. Tara felt as though he was drawing fine strokes on her skin. She shivered. He glanced up at her. "I'm sorry." Then he placed the book carefully on a cloth at the edge of the table, out of harm's way.
Tara busied herself putting the volume away in its custom-made slipcover, then in the box she'd prepared for its transport, in a block of polystyrene she'd cut precisely to fit the cover. She felt better once it disappeared out of view. Not just because she had put it out of danger of damage but also because the book made her shudder. All the time she'd worked on it, she'd had to suppress feelings of violence, feelings once familiar, but ones she now wanted to forget. A melancholy loneliness overshadowed it, something she was too aware of these days. Perhaps she had somehow hooked up to the feelings of another owner of the book, her own loneliness matching that of the unknown person. From what she had read of the notorious Erzsébet Báthory, she had completed her life in isolation. Tara had no wish to connect with someone so evil.
Rothwell--Garon--explained the story to a fascinated Helen. "Erzsébet Báthory was a high noble in Hungary, a relative of the king. She married Count Ferencz Nadasdy and went to live at his home, the Castle of Csejthe in Transylvania. Nadasdy abandoned her for the art of war, preferring to fight, but she always loved him and expected him to return to her."
Helen's eyes softened. Tara loved a good romance but wondered how Garon knew all this. He had said that his mother was Hungarian, but the events had been a long time ago, and Hungary had more to concern itself with these days.
"She wanted him back, but he never came. One day her maid, brushing her hair, pulled too hard, and Erzsébet hit her, scratching her cheek deeply. Later that day, she noticed the skin where the maid's blood had fallen on her was fresher, better looking. The maid became her first victim."
He told a good story; Tara had to admit that. His deep voice with its trace of accent was compelling, just right for a story of ancient evil.
"She continued to kill until she had killed every peasant girl she could find. Then she sent for young aristocratic women, saying she would teach them the ways of the court. She killed them too. Her husband had died in the arms of a whore in Budapest, and Erzsébet became obsessed with the idea of bringing him back, this time for her own use. She gathered a coven about her, but the deaths of the aristocratic girls had alerted the authorities. It was also not a good time for her politically, despite her high rank, and she was brought to trial. She was not put to death, but she was walled up in her own room, her only means of communication with the outside world a small aperture in the wall."
Tara gave a small cry of distress, and he instantly turned, the spell broken. Now she felt foolish and forced a smile. "I'm a little claustrophobic."
Immediately Garon came toward her, hands palm up in the age-old gesture of peace. "I'm so sorry; I wouldn't have disturbed you with that story had I known."
"It doesn't matter, really." To stop him taking her hands, Tara reached for her coffee cup, but she was too late. He touched her, and it happened again.
Electricity arced between them in an invisible bond. Startled, she met his eyes, wide with surprise. Then he relaxed and smiled, keeping her hand enclosed in his. "You are a remarkable woman." Embarrassed, Tara glanced over at Helen and caught a look she never thought she'd see in her friend. Hatred.
Helen had never wanted for men, or women for that matter. It had always been her aim to help Tara attract more men after she had admitted her recent inadequacies in that direction. Perhaps she wanted Garon more than she cared to admit. Tara could understand why. The man was physically devastating, his slightly exotic appearance enhancing the appeal of his tall, strong body.
At first inclined to concede the field to Helen, Tara stiffened at that look of sheer dislike. While she was determined no one would interfere in the friendship between herself and Helen, a little gentle rivalry might add spice. She smiled up at Garon. "It's nothing, but thank you for your concern." Abruptly she asked Garon the question haunting her since they'd heard the scream. "What happened in there? Was it me?"
He released her hand and looked down, choosing to pick up his coffee, then met her eyes again, the cup cradled in his hands. "No, it wasn't you. Something or someone attacked us after it was released. Are you psychic?"
Tara shrugged. "I have an open mind on the subject, but I've never seen anything like that."
Helen leaned back in the hard chair, a smile playing about her full lips, no sign of the sudden flash of hatred Tara had seen a short moment before. "Are the girls all right?"
"Perfectly," Tara hastened to assure her. "Just ... something strange happened, and Mr. Rothwell--Garon--seemed to stop something. Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it was a freak wind after all."
"Perhaps it was," Garon said and watched Helen get to her feet. "I would encourage you to put out that story, if anyone asks."
"I'd better go see." Helen sent Garon a lingering look on her way out.
Garon put his cup down after taking a good draft of the hot coffee. "We know it was something else. Whatever it was came from this room. It was evil, wholly evil. I have prevented it from spreading, but I don't think I had much to do with its withdrawal. It seemed to concentrate on one spot, but now it has gone." He reached out to where the book lay in its protective casing. "Lock that up. There is nothing there now, but I sensed a residue, ashes if you like, of something evil. I would not like anyone to steal it."
"You believe all that?"
He turned a guileless gaze on her, all sincerity, all truth. "How could I not? Miss Carlisle, I am a Sorcerer. I live that life."
Tara's first instinct was to laugh, but she realized it could be seen as derision. It was, a little. She had seen real evil, experienced it, and it wasn't in a small bookshop in Connecticut.
"It comes where it comes," he said, as though he had read her mind.
"All that stuff?"
He seemed to change the subject. "What do you know of Cristos?"
She stared at him, collecting her thoughts. There were worse places to stare, but he didn't do much for her concentration. "He's a valued client. He collects old books on the occult and has the money to pay for them. I bind some for him, sometimes to his own design. Now I find he's an officer for the CIA. I didn't know that before." She put her own cup down next to his.
"He asked me to come to look at the book, since I was in the area. His interest is professional."
Cold hands clutched at Tara's heart. No, not again. Never again. Did this man know her history? Was that it?
"Cristos runs Department 57," Garon said, not appearing to notice Tara's sudden tension. "It is devoted to the occult. We are a subcontracted department to the CIA, who has decided to fund some of our projects. He plays on the American paranoia, the desire of the authorities to have these powers for themselves." He paused. "They belong to no one, even those who can use them. They are too dangerous."
Tara shivered. "What has that got to do with me?"
"Nothing, except the book." He studied her, his dark eyes boring through to her soul, and a strange warmth suffused her mind. "What are you afraid of? Or should I tell you?"
She shook her head. "Nothing."
"I know you," he said, softly. "Tara King."