The serpent in the stone (the gifted series)

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Table of Contents

The Serpent in the Stone

Copyright

Praise for THE SERPENT IN THE STONE

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

A word about the author...

Thank you for purchasing this publication of The Wild Rose Press, Inc.

The Serpentin theStone

by

Nicki Greenwood

The Gifted Series, Book One

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

The Serpent in the Stone

COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Nicki Greenwood

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Contact Information: [email protected]

Cover Art byKim Mendoza

The Wild Rose Press, Inc.

PO Box 708

Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708

Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com

Publishing History

First Faery Rose Edition, 2013

Print ISBN 978-1-61217-816-5

Digital ISBN 978-1-61217-817-2

The Gifted Series: Book One

Published in the United States of America

Praise forTHE SERPENT IN THE STONE

3rd Place, 2006 Barclay Sterling Contest

Dedication

To Heather,

for the phone call

Chapter One

Twenty years later, Sara Markham still struggled to erase the images of her father’s blood.

She rubbed at her aching temples. Last night, she’d relived the old nightmare again—Robert Markham, a noted archaeologist, found murdered at his ransacked university office. The papers and networks had a field day with it, splashing photos and speculation around like they were playing at a water park. No one stopped to think about the family whose life had been ripped apart. No one had any answers. Or clues. Or leads.

Until now.

Yesterday, in his safe deposit box, she’d discovered a stone amulet and a beat-up book of fairy tales. What those things had to do with her father’s murder, she couldn’t have said, but they had been worth hiding in a little steel box for two decades.God, I want coffee.

The ocean breeze misted across her face. Gulls wheeled overhead, their cries drowned out by rushing waves and the whine of the speedboat’s engine. Sara touched the stone pendant, secreted away under her sweater with the silver locket her father had given her on her tenth birthday. That was the day all hell had broken snarling off its chain and rampaged through her once-normal life. Celebrating it had been unbearable. Forgetting, impossible.

The amulet and her father’s work were definitely connected. He had never in his life done anything without purpose. Now, the trail of clues had led her, her sister Faith, and their own team of archaeologists here: Hvitmar, Shetland, a tiny uninhabited island at the archipelago’s northernmost tip. She hoped—and feared—she’d find the answer to that lifelong “Why?” hidden under the soil of this lonely scrap of earth in the middle of the ocean. Maybe then, they could put his soul to rest at last.

Faith spoke over the noise of the engine. “Lambertson says the island is normally quiet. Nothing but seals and birds. The earthquake last month opened a fissure wide enough to see the field wall buried a few meters down.”

Faith’s flaxen hair caught the sunlight as they sped along. As twins went, they were polar opposites: Sara with the chestnut hair and hazel eyes of their mother, Faith as blond and blue-eyed as their late father. Like night and day, particularly in the way they handled the secret they’d shared since that tragic birthday. Sara thought it a curse. Faith embraced it. But they’d always had each other.

After all, they’d never met another gifted person with whom to share the burden—let alone a multi-gifted one. Paranormal power bonded them as surely as blood.

Dustin Sennett looked back over his shoulder from the driver’s seat. “There it is. Looks nice and inviting,” he said, pointing.

Sure enough, the profile of Hvitmar reared up from the sea ahead. Sheer cliffs on its southern end sloped off gradually to the north.

Sara crossed her fingers. Not superstitious. Just...cautious.

“You don’t think Lamb will try to hand this off to Flintrop’s firm if we find something, do you?” Faith asked. Her tone snapped with dislike. She and their competitor, Alan Flintrop, had dated briefly, but Flintrop, L.L.C had been scooping projects out from under Gemini, Limited’s nose too long for that to last. And this, of all projects, was too important to lose.

“Lamb knows how much we want this,” Sara said, though she wasn’t so sure herself. Their old mentor and Robert’s onetime partner, James Lambertson, had offered them the project and even loaned them two men from his own London-based firm to help. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t call on Flintrop’s larger, better-supplied firm if their find proved major. She seethed just thinking about it.

They neared the dock at the island’s southern end. When they reached the pilings, Dustin cut the motor and moored the boat. Thomas Callander began unloading supplies. Sara shouldered her own pack and stepped onto the dock, surprised at the warmth in the air. For late winter, it sure felt like spring. At least they wouldn’t freeze on this project.

The fissure lay on the island’s north end, a mile or so from the dock. She groaned at the thought of trudging that whole distance loaded down with supplies, but there was no other boat access. Their larger equipment had been flown in a couple days ago. Absorbed in planning, she walked along beside Faith without seeing her surroundings, until her sister paused and nudged her arm. “What?”

Faith jerked her chin ahead of them. Sara looked up to find a tent staked near the southern cliffs.

Someone had beaten them here.

She marched toward the tent, fully expecting to see Alan Flintrop and his smug, toast-of-New-York’s-anthropology-circles smile. Instead, she found a man in a denim jacket and blue jeans, sitting in a camp chair and writing in a small leather book. She dropped her bag. “Who are you?”

The man looked up, and she formed a quick impression of stubble and magazine-worthy good looks.His storm-blue gaze traveled over her figure, sending tiny frissons of awareness—and hazy recognition—through her body.A fringe of chocolate brown forelock couldn’t quite hide the thin scar over one of his eyebrows.He didn’t seem surprised to see her, which sent her hackles up instantly as he laid aside his book and stood up.“Ian Waverly,”he said, and held out his hand.

Suspicion elbowed her interest aside.That name.Why did she know that name?She slid her hand into his.

Slam.She felt her eyes change color from hazel to emerald, the way most people felt rippling gooseflesh across the skin.The influx of power sent a chill up her spine.His grip tightened on her hand, convulsive, and then his thoughts rushed into her mind in a flurry of images.

Her grade school playground. Todd Garrett was picking on her sister again. He’d plucked Faith’s locket, a golden one, from around her neck and was taunting her with it. When Sara reached out, her sister’s necklace flew unaided across the schoolyard and into her hand. She looked up, scared and shocked at what she’d done, and her gaze locked onto that of a boy with storm-blue eyes.

Sara screwed her eyes shut to cut the images off.She reopened them cautiously, though she knew they would have turned back to their normal color the moment she closed them.

This man knew what she was. If he remembered. If he believed what he’d seen. She’d guarded the secret of her gifts ever since that first instance, that unprepared childhood fumble. Fear sliced through her and she stamped it back.

What in God’s name was he doing here?Fighting to control the dread galloping along her nerves, she risked another look at him.The expression on his face spoke volumes.

Hell yes, he remembered.

****

Ian hadn’t wanted to believe what he’d seen then, and didn’t now.Hating the savage righteousness clawing through his gut, he pulled his hand from hers and fisted it, as if digging his nails into his palm could stop the proof in its tracks.

This was why he’d followed her to Shetland. This was why he’d volunteered to do a birding project on this godforsaken little speck in the ocean. Hell, he’d been torn between watching her and avoiding her for the past twenty years. He’d often wondered—against his will—what happened to her after they graduated high school. Did she still have her power? Had he been mistaken?

No question now.Her eyes had changed color.This woman, this slip of a woman, had power just like—

He stifled the rest of that thought and forced a smile.“We work at the university together.I teach in the biology department.Wildlife,”he added, tilting his head toward the cliffs, where scores of seabirds circled in the salty air.

“Sara Markham.DoctorMarkham,”she said.Her gaze scoured him.

She’d grown.Obviously, she’d grown, what the hell had he expected?But time had been unfairly kind to Sara—Doctor—Markham.He tried to ignore the curves of her body and the way her hair blew loose around her shoulders.The way she held herself rigid in the flight-ready pose of cornered prey.She looked like a wild creature herself, belonging more to wind and water than to his childhood nightmares.

Like a selkie.The ferryman who brought him to Hvitmar had told him stories about the mythical seals-turned-women that haunted the Shetland coastlines and took human mates.Crazy stories.

Not so crazy right now.

They weren’t alone.Behind Sara stood another woman, tall and blond, with a knapsack over her shoulder and an interested stare on her face.On her right were two men, carrying bags of their own.“I’m doing a study on the local birds,”Ian said at last.

Sara crossed her arms.“On my island?That’s quite a coincidence.”

Herisland?The image of the selkie evaporated in a cloud of territorial insult.He forgot what she was.“This island is big enough for two researchers,”he said.“You don’t interfere with my birds, and I won’t interfere with your dig.”

Her voice went frosty.“You know about the dig?”

“Yeah, I know about the dig.”And even now, part of him wished more and more that he’d never learned of it.

The blond woman bent and hoisted up the pack by Sara’s feet.“We’ll go set up the tents,”she said, and she and the men hurried away.

Sara followed their retreat with an open-mouthed look as though she wanted to call the others back.Then she came toward him with slow, deliberate steps.Her eyes were hazel, not the bright green from before.He found himself wanting to step back anyway.She studied his face, her own as pale as porcelain, but her full lips firmed.“Luis Rivero.”

“Yeah,”Ian said, thinking of his friend back at the university.Luis worked in Sara’s department.It was he who had told Ian of her upcoming assignment in Shetland.

“Man can’t keep his mouth shut,”she muttered.With uncanny insight, she fired,“Are you following me?”

“No,”he lied.“I’m here to study birds.Think you can handle that?”

She backed off one step at a time, with a look that seemed to go right through him.Torn between hostility and unbidden curiosity, he watched her turn to walk away.

Well, you got what you wished for,he told himself.What was he supposed to do with the proof, now that he had it?

It was sure as hell too late to give it back.

****

“He’s cute,”Faith said as she and Sara checked Sara’s tent stakes.

Sara shoved a lock of hair behind her ear and tried to trade fear for focus.No such luck.Her belly was in knots.“Are you nuts?I’m telling you, that man is the same kid who saw me first use telekinesis!”

Faith gave one of the tent ropes an experimental tug and said,“I don’t see why you’re all wound up about it.If he didn’t blow you in when we were ten, what makes you think he’ll do it now?He might even think he dreamed it.”She grabbed another stake, looking much calmer than Sara felt.Uncharacteristic for Faith, whose temper had legendary changeability.

“You didn’t see the look on his face,”Sara snapped.“He remembers, Faith.”

“Well, since he’s here, you should at least have asked him if he wants to come down for dinner,”chided her sister.“He’s alone up there, or didn’t you notice?No army on his heels, waiting to arrest you for being you.You could examine him more closely for nefarious intent.”Faith wiggled her outspread fingers with what Sara assumed she meant to be scathing sarcasm.

Sara refused to admit that she hadn’t noticed much beyond the pulse-pounding look he’d given her...and her reaction to it.Part terror, and part...well, she wasn’t willing to admit what that other part might be.“Sure, I’ll just waltz up there and volunteer to become a government guinea pig,”she said.“What if he’s working for a lab, and waiting to dissect me once he’s proven what I did?I’m not about to make myself his best pal.”

Faith shot her a look of impatience.“Honestly.Don’t you think you’re overreacting even a little bit?”

Snatching a mallet, Sara pounded the last corner stake into the ground.“Need I remind you that his presence here endangers you, too?Momdoesn’t even know what we are, and I trust him a lot less.”

Jabbing toward her with a tent stake, Faith said,“If you won’t go up there, I will.Come on, Sara, this is just crazy.”

Sara flung a hand toward Ian’s camp.“You want him?Go get him.Just don’t cry to me when he goes mad scientist on you.If we’re lucky, we’ll finish this dig without having anything to do with him.”

Her sister secured a last rope, then stood up.She shook her head.“It’s been years.You might consider actuallytalkingto him before you decide he’s out to lock us up.”She stiffened, and her gaze swept the moor.“Did you hear something?”

“No.”Sara checked, but Thomas and Dustin had returned to the boat for a second load of supplies.Faith often heard things Sara couldn’t, but she knew Faith wasn’t using her psychic power at the moment.Worried that Ian might be watching them, she turned in a circle.Nope, nothing.At least, nothingshecould see.“Birds?”

“Maybe.”Faith waved a hand through the air as if testing it for vibrations.“I could have sworn— No.”Her mystified tone returned to normal.“If you’re so worried about Ian, you should go up there and keep an eye on him.Just saying.”With that, she walked away to her own tent.

Feeling chastised—and irritable, because Faith was right—Sara watched her go, then swept aside her door flap and entered her tent.

It smelled of old canvas.At the moment, it looked like a bomb had gone off.Crates, chairs, and her camp table had been scattered on the tent floor.Her cot stood waiting for setup in the corner.In a few hours, the disaster would be transformed into a tidy microcosm of sleep, study, and on-site labwork.

First things first, then.She’d need somewhere to sleep after the long day ahead.She pulled the cot open and locked it in place.She’d forgotten they were so small.

A flash of Ian’s eyes barged into her memory.Vivid.Intense.She’d never seen such a blue.Even now, the warmth of his hand seemed to linger on hers.

Damn it!Get out of my head!She tossed her sheets onto the cot to rub her palm on her jeans as if she could wipe away the remembered feel of his skin against hers.“You have no business being in there,”she said aloud.

“Are you talking to the cot, or someone invisible?”

She turned around.Thomas stood in the tent doorway, scratching his sandy-blond head.

She gave him a wan smile.“Sorry.A little internal argument.Too many things to do, and not enough caffeine in my system.”

“Equipment’s set up for survey, and Dustin’s working on preliminary photos.Anything else?”

“No, that should do it.I’ll be out after I tame the tent mess.”

When Thomas left, she went back to spreading the sheets out on her cot.Faith’s scolding rang in her ears.If she weren’t so cautious, they’d have been lab experiments by now.She hugged the wool blanket to her body, pressing her fingers into the rough fabric.

She’d never been on a dig alone.Teammates kept each other out of trouble, called for help when it was needed, and prevented injuries.What if something happened to Ian, with no one around to know it?She grimaced, not wanting that on her conscience no matterwhathis intentions were.

What the hell was he thinking, coming out here alone in the first place?Birds.Yeah, right.She pitched the blanket on her cot, and stalked out of the tent.

Faith met her before she’d gone more than a few steps in the direction of Ian’s camp.“Good, you’re out.Ready to start surveying?”

“I was going to... Never mind.What needs doing?”

“If you had something to do—”Grinning, Faith tilted her head toward the south end of the island.

Sara raised a hand to cut her off.When Faith wouldn’t stop grinning, Sara added a glare that she hoped Faith interpreted asShut up and quit looking so smug.“It can wait.”

So could giving that man a piece of her mind.First chance she got tomorrow.

****

What in hell is this?Ian wondered.He was locked in a room he didn’t recognize, barely able to see and without a clue what was happening.

The small room’s murkiness closed in on him, coffinlike.He tried the door again, but the handle still wouldn’t budge.The air boiled with hissing voices that made his skin prickle.A sharp metallic scent stung his nose.

Blood.

“Okay, not liking this now.”Determined to escape, he crept forward into the space.His questing fingers landed on what felt like a bookshelf, littered with heaps of scattered volumes.As he paced along, he kicked a few more of them and they slid across the floor.

He groped blindly, and winced when he touched something sharp that sliced across his fingers.His hand fell upon a banker’s lamp.He switched it on, squinting as the room came into focus.

A scarred cherry desk stood before him, all its drawers ripped out and the contents tossed on the floor.Broken glass.Shredded paper.File drawers thrown open and kicked aside.

The surface of the desk bore a blackish stain.He reached out to touch it.

A hand slapped down on his shoulder in a vise grip. He whirled around.

A man loomed over him, his face stark-white, his blue eyes burning.Blood covered him from head to foot.

Ian swore and wrenched backward over the desk in a futile effort to escape.

The man gripped Ian’s shirt in both hands and hauled him closer.Ian’s heart thundered in his chest.His attacker’s eyes shone like knives in the gloom.“Hhhhelp her.”

Ian gasped and sat bolt upright on his cot.The nightmare faded, giving way to the soft pre-dawn gray of his tent interior.His heartbeat crashed in his ears.Panting, he raked a hand through sleep-tousled hair.

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