CHAPTER 1 – ARTIFACT
The Moroccan wrist-cuff in the glass box was exquisite. Layla Price gazed down at the antique Berber artifact resting on its black velvet cushion, watching the gallery’s light reflect off the ornately-fashioned silver. Inset with red coral, amazonite, bone, and amethyst, not to mention exquisite turquoise and yellow cloisonné enamel, the cuff was part of a collection of North African artifacts featured at the Vermillion art gallery for August.
Leaning over the display, a glass of chardonnay to hand, Layla tucked a curl of her sable hair back up into its twist. The cuff, featuring a bone hamsa with a fiery red coral teardrop in the center of the palm, seemed to ward or forbid any who might touch it – as if it was not to be owned, lest it claim the one who owned it. Enameled vases and inlaid tables, Berber necklaces and archways of colorful zellij mosaics were forgotten as Layla stared at the cuff. Lifting her glass, Layla sipped her chardonnay, refreshed by the crisp, smooth flavor in the muggy space of the gallery. The Vermillion was a local spot in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the long, narrow space allowing almost no meandering room between the displays. The tiny gallery featured a bar in the back, though almost no-one wandered the exhibit today. It was a shame; the pieces were exquisite, and brought a feeling of desert spice and evening winds to the stuffy space.
As if called up from the hamsa-cuff, a breeze lifted the air inside the gallery, stirring Layla’s curls. She was still dressed in her little black work dress and heels, showing her slim curves and long legs. Simple but low-cut, the dress attracted attention when Layla shook up a drink at the Needle & Thread secret bar – from where she had just come, off her bartending shift for the night.
Glancing over, Layla saw the zephyr was just the glass door, propped open by a geek-chic gallery host to let in the evening breeze. As the host set the door, a man slipped in from the street, nodding to the host then gazing around the fantastic display. Dressed in an elegant ensemble of a crisp white collared shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows, narrow pinstriped charcoal trousers with a shiny black belt and Oxfords, he was obviously rich. Men didn’t get that lean, mean physique without dedicated training, and those tall, cuttingly handsome looks weren’t fed pizza and beer.
Rifling a hand through his brush-cut black hair as he gazed around, his piercing green-blue eyes perused every glass case from the door as if searching for something. His gaze finally came to the hamsa-cuff and he noted Layla – then those eyes traveled up Layla’s curves from high-heels to hips, to cleavage, to her face. As the man’s eyes locked on hers, an electric current shivered through Layla. Piercing, drowning, she was suddenly unsure if those eyes were blue or green, or a searing Mediterranean aquamarine. Vibrant and molten, they devoured her as flecks of gold in their depths caught the evening sun through the gallery’s windows, scattering it like a sea on fire.
Staring at her, the man’s lips fell open. She saw him inhale, then lurch forward as if drawn to that electric sensation Layla felt tingling through her body. Like her entire nervous system had come alive at the sight of him, Layla’s breath was fast as she flicked her gaze away. Tingles and heat rushed through her. Her head reeled and Layla locked her eyes on the hamsa-cuff as if it were the only thing that could save her from the man’s intense, almost carnal presence.
She felt him move closer – stirring the breeze from the door with a flush of heat that smelled of cinnamon and anise, even desert jasmine. But it was just his cologne wafting around her as he paused then moved on by, giving Layla a wide berth as he moved toward the bar with his hands thrust casually in his pockets.
Shaken by the man’s arrival, Layla breathed deep, one arm clutching her waist as she tried to hold her wine glass steady. She could still feel his heat surging across her skin with a palpable pressure – as if he had touched her as he walked by, even though he hadn’t. She couldn’t get enough of his inundating cologne; the scent intoxicating on her tongue.
Alarm raced through her with her sudden attraction. The last time she’d experienced a heat so intense with anyone was Gavin, and what a train wreck that had turned out to be. Six months after they’d broken up, she could still feel the disaster of that relationship. Screaming and throwing art-vases at each other, Layla had stalked out of his penthouse apartment downtown and never looked back. Too-hot-to-handle Gavin could keep his tech money and his Tesla Roadster – and the five women he’d been fucking on the side. Now, two months post-grad from the University of Washington with a PhD in International Studies but with no proper job, Layla was only good enough to serve assholes like Gavin their drinks; the Seattle job market abysmal for non-tech positions.
Feeling a presence return to the gallery, Layla’s gaze lifted to see Hot Guy idling near a tiled arch. His gaze shifted to her as he sipped a blood-red wine, as if he felt her watching. The sensation of a desert wind blew through Layla again as she met that searing aquamarine gaze – watching her with a level intelligence and dark passion. It rocked her and she dropped her eyes to the floor, the tiled mirrors – to anything but stare at Hot Guy Trouble.
Moving around the gallery, he took his wine and his tall, hot self in the opposite direction – idling at every mirror, gazing into every case of jewelry. Stepping to the wall, Layla avoided him. Admiring an inlaid vase, she was awed by the breathtaking detail. But the only piece that truly called to her of her mother’s Moroccan heritage, was the six-inch cuff in its spotlit box. Migrating back, Layla’s gaze sank into the shining silver, the bleak bone of the hamsa – the red coral like a drop of blood in the center of the palm.
“Arresting, isn’t it?”
A smooth baritone voice at her side nearly made Layla drop her wineglass. Of course, her hot kryptonite had migrated to her side, admiring the wrist-cuff, his rakish good looks even more exquisite up close. She glanced over, trying not to stare and failing. His cheekbones were high, his jawline cuttingly defined, his short black hair thick and glossy. With slightly tanned skin, he looked Mediterranean, though those piercing aqua eyes with their flecks of gold were unreal. His short black stubble looked soft, and Layla fought an almost irrepressible urge to lift her fingers to his jaw and touch him.
“It’s lovely.” Layla returned, trying to make her voice firm. His heady desert-spice musk flowed around her as his presence pressed upon her like a hand caressing down to things unseen. Sipping her wine to cover her blistering reaction to him, Layla tried to ignore the wetness she felt down below and the hammering of her pulse. Usually, if she dismissed men long enough, her ardor got the hint. Working as a bartender in high-class Seattle establishments since undergrad had given her a lot of helpful tricks against sexy bad boys – and Layla set her determination firmly in place, knowing this one was as sexy and bad as they came.
“As if it could take you by the hand and lead you into danger,” he murmured, sidling nearer with his gaze riveted to the cuff. “Or out of it. Protection or devastation. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
“Rumi.” Layla’s eyebrows lifted; rich assholes didn’t speak poetry. She blinked as she turned to him, her determination to brush him off slipping. “The cure for pain is in the pain.”
His lovely lips quirked, his aqua eyes smiling with delight – transforming him from devastatingly handsome to absolutely annihilating. “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” His gaze flicked down to the cuff then back up to pin her; flooding Layla with his intense presence. “I feel a strange pull when I look at this thing. As if my only option is to surrender, and be bound by it.”
Layla wasn’t entirely certain they were speaking of the artifact anymore. Flooded with heat, she flushed across her own light olive skin, unable to draw her gaze away from drowning in her unexpected companion. “As if there could be no other way,” she mused, feeling the strange pull of not only the Moroccan cuff, but also the man beside her.
A moment passed between them, shivering with heat. Currents of air stirred from the open doorway, the lurid smell of the city blending with the man’s cinnamon spice scent. Layla could feel him; pulling her, surrounding her with an almost animal magnetism. As if their bodies understood each other, Layla found them moving closer as they tried not to fall into each other and failed. His gaze pierced her, drowning her; though she saw something equally annihilated in his arresting stare. His lips had fallen open as they pulled steadily closer.
Suddenly, Hot Mystery Guy cleared his throat, his beautiful black lashes blinking. He made a quick gesture to the gallery host, lingering by the door and fanning herself with a Japanese paper fan. Hustling over in her black T-shirt, black jeans and combat boots, she beamed behind chunky square-rimmed glasses, her blonde hair shaven on one side.
“Questions?” She chirruped, adjusting her glasses.
“How much is this piece?” The man queried, his baritone smooth and rich like Turkish coffee. Layla suddenly realized he had a vaguely Mediterranean accent, though she couldn’t place it.
“Oh!” The gallery host blushed and adjusted her glasses again. “It’s not for sale; none of these pieces are. They’re being displayed from a private collection. I’m so sorry. But we are taking donations for the gallery, if you’d like to make a gesture of your appreciation for the show?”
With a sly smile that made his handsomeness obliterating, the man produced a gilded pen from his pocket and a cream linen business card from a gold card-holder. Writing a number on the card, he held it out to the gallery host. “Please make a call to the owner. Here is my offer for this piece, and I can pay it right away. I’ll wait.”
She took the card, a doubtful frown pinching her ash-blonde brows. But when she saw the sum, those blonde brows climbed her forehead. “Sir! I’ll be right back.”
Hustling away so fast she was practically running, she headed for the bar. Layla glanced over, watching the man put the pen and card-holder back in his pants pocket, his smile rakishly delightful.
“Couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Layla sassed, sipping her wine. “Just had to go flashing that money around to get anything you like.” Being brazen and cheeky was her back-up against hot rich men, if her body’s dismissal failed.
Which it had. Spectacularly.
His gaze pierced her, full of delight and carnal devouring. “I know someone this piece of jewelry would be perfect for. It would be a tragedy to leave it languishing in a glass case rather than gracing her perfect wrist.”
“Lucky her.” Layla’s gaze fell back to the cuff. She felt forlorn suddenly, that this rich asshole had purchased it, probably for his wife or lover. And that he could – just throwing around his money and his Rumi and aqua eyes and making the world do his bidding. And yet, the most disappointing thing was that he was otherwise engaged. It speared Layla’s heart suddenly that he had someone else – someone who was not her and never would be. Her ardor struggled, as if he’d trapped it and now it needed to be free. Her heat diminished as she sipped her wine, staring at the Moroccan cuff and letting conversation with Hot Mystery Guy drop.
“And how is it that an arresting creature such as yourself has come to be here on a Friday night, when all the rest of the world is out dancing?”
Layla blinked, realizing that he was striking up conversation while he waited for the judgement on his price. She glanced over, trying to not be arrested by his incredible eyes and still failing. “I just got off work. I heard this show was coming in and I’ve been looking forward to it.”
He cocked his head, giving her a keen once-over that made her flush and tingle again, damn hormones. “Bartender,” he spoke with a slight grin. “And half-Moroccan, if I’m not mistaken. You smell like twists of orange and lemon-peel with a splash of sweet bourbon. And that light olive skin and loose curls I’d know anywhere. Though those pale jade eyes of yours… I can’t rightly say where those come from.”
“Worldly, aren’t we?” Layla sassed him again, swirling her wine. It both pissed her off and impressed her that his assessment had been so acute – a little too acute. “I was born near Marrakesh, though my family moved here when I was an infant. My mother’s Moroccan. Have you been to Morocco?”
“I was born there also.” Uncouth, he clinked glasses with her, his incredible eyes witty. “I still have a place there, and family. I try to get back as often as I can.”
Of course he has a place there. Layla thought sourly. Probably has a palace in every corner of the world and thinks nothing of it.
“Your eyes are hardly Moroccan, either,” she bit somewhat harshly, irritated suddenly.
“No, they’re not.” He cocked his head, brows furrowing at her terseness. “Tell me, have I—”
But he got no further as the gallery host whisked back, practically tripping in her haste, her eyes wide behind her chunky frames. “The owner said yes!”
“Fantastic!” The man’s face opened from worry to immense pleasure and he gestured to the case. The girl produced a bundle of keys and unlocked the glass. She slid the velvet pillow out with reverence, liberating the artifact. The red coral and bright silver caught the lights, dazzling as if exuberant to be free. While the white bone ate the light – devouring it as if hungry for more.
“I’ll just be a moment boxing it. If you’d meet me in the back?”
“Leave the item here; I’ve no need for a box. Run the sum on this – and please add a twenty percent tip for the gallery.” Reaching out, the man slipped a black credit card embossed with a scarlet R into the pocket of the girl’s black t-shirt. Eyes enormous, she set the velvet pillow with the cuff on top of the glass case.
“I’ll be right back.” She spoke, then hustled off.
With slow reverence the man reached out, fingers hovering over the cuff. His aqua eyes were a thousand miles away as he set his fingertips to the scarlet coral, stroking the bone and inlaid silver as if stroking a lover’s skin. His lips fell open and his sigh seemed to fill the gallery, susurrating upon a sudden wind that intensified the scent of his cinnamon-jasmine cologne. As if responding to his touch, the bloody coral teardrop threw the evening light in a pulse like a beating heart – though it was just the last rays of the sun flashing out through the windows.
“Hold out your wrist.” The man’s voice was a whisper in the empty gallery.
“What?” Layla startled, glancing at him.
“Hold out your wrist,” the man’s gaze caught hers, drowning like a Mediterranean ocean. “I want to make sure it fits the woman it’s for.”
“Oh! Sure.” Layla was shaking as she held out her left wrist, wineglass in her other hand. She wanted more than anything to have the cuff bound upon her, yet it was somehow terrifying. Draining his wine and setting the glass on a pedestal, the man’s long fingers claimed the cuff. With a deft touch, he pulled the long silver pin, then clasped the cuff around Layla’s wrist. The silver was so cold it burned, as if the cuff held an otherworldly energy. Setting the pin, the man’s hands slipped away.
But at the last moment, his long fingers strayed over Layla’s wrist – touching skin-to-skin with the silver cuff between. A hard pulse rocked Layla. Like a firebrand had been thrust through her from the cuff and the man’s touch, it caused her to cry out in exquisite pleasure and terrible pain. The man grunted, doubling over as if he’d been punched, his hand spasming tight upon hers.
With a roaring flow, a bright wind rushed through Layla as his hand clamped down – filling her nostrils with cinnamon and anise, jasmine and orange peel, destroying her with a vision of light. Vast deserts rolled away from her. Vistas of canyons; cities of ancient splendor. The feel of a desert wind as it surged through an oasis at twilight; the roaring demon of the sandstorm. She cried out again, shuddering and dropping her wineglass to shatter upon the gallery’s floor as the man’s fingers twined into hers – flooding her with a roaring, ancient passion.
With a gasp, Layla broke away from the man’s touch, staggering to the gallery wall to prevent herself from falling. The man stood near the pedestal, his iron-wrought frame shaking like a leaf in gale as he stared at her with eyes that shifted through every color now, including gold – amazing and impossible. Heat and pleasure continued to rock Layla, flooding from the hamsa-cuff and where the man had touched her.
With a shudder, Layla hastily unpinned the cuff, dropping it. It was saved from landing in Layla’s shattered wineglass by the man’s serpent-fast reflexes. Cradling her wrist as surges of pleasure just this side of orgasm rocked her, Layla saw a red mark burned into her inner wrist. The hamsa with its bloody teardrop was seared into her flesh – right over the spot where the bone inlay had been.
The gallery host came running with a broom and trash sweep-up as Layla massaged her wrist, still unable to process what had just happened. Handing back the man’s credit card with a receipt, the host nodded to him, then began sweeping up the glass.
“Forgive us!” The man murmured, making a nominal motion to help, though he was still breathing hard as if he’d just run a sprint.
“No, it’s no problem!” She waved him off. “People break glassware in here all the time. And you’re all set with the purchase. Thank you so much for your patronage, we truly appreciate it! If there’s anything else I can do?”
With an unsteady step back and a shiver, the man produced a scarlet silk handkerchief from his trouser-pocket and wrapped the cuff, then pocketed it. His gaze simmered upon Layla, though his eyes had returned to their regular piercing aqua. Those eyes snapped back to the gallery host. “Yes. Best restaurant in a three-block walk?”
“Oh, I recommend Lark,” she answered. “Take Pike west to 10th, head south, then over and down on Broadway. You can’t miss it.”
Before Layla could react, the man set a hand to the small of her back, then whisked them out the door and into the Friday night bustle on Capitol Hill. He breathed out shakily as they passed through the door, heat rising from his body as he stepped close, his hand searing upon Layla’s back. With a chuckle, he flashed Layla a smile from his still-burning aquamarine eyes.
“I could use a bite after all that excitement. Shall we?”
“Get dinner?” Layla balked, pulling back against his hand, shaken by what had just happened.
“Unless you have other plans?” Though his touch eased as they gained the sidewalk, he didn’t let her go. Hot Mystery Guy cocked his head, his penetrating gaze gone so dark in the twilight it was cobalt. Layla was about to decline, but his gaze was so arresting, his hand at her back so hot that she hesitated. Her body still reeled from whatever had just happened; her pulse pounded with each whiff of his cinnamon-desert cologne as a flooding passion rocked her. The entire episode had left her unseated from reality – the mark upon her wrist vivid from the burn of cold silver.
“You paying for dinner?” Layla sassed at last. So much for all her protection mechanisms against Hot Guy Trouble.
“Of course. There is nothing I would love to do more.” Her Hot Mystery Guy smiled, annihilating like a falling star in the dusk, and Layla felt heat surge through her all over again. She was undone by that smile, she realized suddenly. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for it. As if it bound her heart, Layla felt her passion and pleasure leap to him – needing that smile in her world like she needed breath. It swept her away so completely that she was left dumbstruck by how fast he had snared her. How hard she had fallen to his searing touch, to that cinnamon-jasmine scent breathing around her like a desert zephyr – to this deep and ancient lust surging between them.
With a graceful gesture, he beckoned down the sidewalk. Trying to pull her shit together, Layla stepped into the throng before he could arrest her again. With easy strides he accompanied her, threading through the punks and early drunks with a serpentine grace, his hand never once relinquishing its place at the small of her back. As if he, like the hamsa-cuff that had marked her, couldn’t bear to parted from Layla.
And for her part, Layla didn’t shrug him off.
Copyright 2018 Ava Ward. All Rights Reserved. No part of this content may be reproduced or used without the author's written permission.