Bethany Kinden didn’t normally help criminals smuggle mysterious things inside antique statues, but when she did, her work was flawless. It had to be. Her brother’s life depended on it.
Sure, Benjamin had gotten them both into this mess, but he was still her flesh and blood, and she couldn’t turn her back on him.
Even if it got her killed.
She’d spent the last several days doing nothing but the criminals’ dirty work, and if she didn’t return to her paying art restoration jobs soon, she wasn’t sure how she was going to make rent this month.
Of course, not making rent wouldn’t be a big deal if she failed in her task and the assholes killed both her and Benjamin.
She eyed the small drilled hole in the bottom of the statue where scraps of wadded up newspaper were barely visible. The mystery of what was inside poked at her, urging her to pull out the contents and see what they were smuggling, but she refused to give into curiosity’s annoying demands. No matter how curious she was, it was safer not to look—for both her and her brother.
Just as she adjusted the light to a better angle to begin plugging the hole, a knock sounded on her door. It was late—well past time for her clients to be stopping by. Her brother had already promised to leave her alone until she was no longer angry at him, and all of her friends knew she was working on a rush job.
That left the list of possible visitors a little too short for comfort.
Her hands went clammy as anxiety ricocheted through her system. She’d told the asshole criminals she wouldn’t be done until tomorrow. She probably should have padded her timeline, but the guns they had tucked under their jackets warned her that lying to them might not be the healthiest course of action.
She briefly thought about pretending she wasn’t home, but her music was playing in the background, and her curtains were thin enough that someone could easily see her moving around inside.
She had no option but to face the assholes and deal with more backlash from her brother’s poor life choices.
Bethany wiped the grit from her hands on her jeans and answered the door. Instead of the two armed thugs she expected, there was a young couple standing on her welcome mat.
“We’re sorry to bother you, ma’am,” the man said. He had a muscular, corn-fed farm boy kind of build, and blue eyes that hardly left the pretty woman at his side. “But we heard you are the best at restoring old statues, and we have a bit of an emergency.”
Bethany stood there, trying to figure out what a statue emergency might look like when the woman spoke. “I’m Sue Sullivan. This is Dalton Thatcher. We’ve come all the way from Nebraska to see you. I know it’s late, but can we come in?”
The drive from Nebraska to Florida was long enough to pique Bethany’s interest. That, combined with their statue emergency, made her positively curious.
Manners had Bethany backing away from the threshold so they could pass. “Sure,” she said. “But I’m really busy, so you’ll have to be quick.”
The couple shared a silent look filled with concern and more than a little fear.
Instantly, Bethany wished she’d told them to go away. The last thing she needed was another set of someone else’s problems to deal with. Her brother’s were more than enough.
The couple looked around the space that served as both her living room and restoration studio. It was an open, airy room, painted a pale yellow that made the most of the natural Florida sunlight. During the day this room was almost as bright as the outdoors. Now, it was filled with artificial light and warm shadows.
The windows were covered with gauzy sheers that hid her neighbors rundown crap-shacks and swayed on the cool winter breeze. She wasn’t close enough to the Gulf to see it, but she could smell just a faint hint of salt and surf and hear the cries of seagulls.
One corner of the room she’d set aside as a space to relax and watch sappy movies. The ancient, boxy TV and beanbag chair didn’t look like much, but she didn’t need anything more. Every penny she saved went into growing her business and reputation. That was far more valuable than any fifty-five-inch flat screen could ever be.
One day she would have that dream studio on the beach, but for now, this small, sunny house was all she needed.
The rest of the space was filled with tables holding sculptures and ornate picture frames in need of repair. A few pieces were in progress, including the trio of small statues hiding drugs—or whatever—in them.
Bethany shifted in front of them so the couple wouldn’t look too closely.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
The two shared another one of those secretive looks that made Bethany wonder if she should have taken that gun her brother had offered her after all. She wasn’t altogether sure she could use the thing on another living creature, but unfortunately, she also wasn’t sure if she might actually find herself needing to.
Sue’s hand tightened around Dalton’s arm. He covered her fingers, patting them in an effort to comfort her. “We have this statue. It’s very dear to us. We’d like you to restore it.”
“I’d be happy to do so. I’ll get the paperwork for you to fill out and get started on it next month. Did you bring it with you?”
“We did. But, we were hoping you could do the job right away. We were planning to stay in town so we could take him home as soon as you’re done.”
Him? Not it? The statue really was dear to them.
“I’d love to help you, but I’m booked up for several weeks. I promise I’ll call as soon as it’s done, though.”
“I’m afraid it can’t wait. It’s an emergency.”
Bethany waited for them to explain, but they said nothing. “I don’t understand.”
The woman swallowed nervously. “My uncle is dying. He wants to see the statue repaired before he passes. I’m afraid he doesn’t have much time left.”
Dalton seemed surprised by Sue’s story, which told Bethany that it was a pile of lies. No way was she getting involved in anything else sketchy. “I’m sorry. I wish I could help. There are other restorers I could recommend.”
“We’ll pay you well,” Sue said. “Whatever it takes.”
“That’s right,” Dalton added. “Whatever it takes. We can sell the house if we have to.”
“But you love that house,” Sue said. “You built it with your own hands.”
“I can’t think about that. Tristan needs our help.”
She nodded at the man and they faced Bethany as a united front, worry obvious in the tense lines between their brows.
The couple was willing to sell their house to gain her help? How in the world could she turn them down? Maybe it was just a statue, but it seemed so much more important to them, and Bethany was a sucker for someone in need.
Which was precisely how she ended up helping bad men smuggle drugs or counterfeit money or whatever was in those damn statues.
Still, she knew that if she didn’t at least try to help the couple, she’d spend the next year feeling guilty. “Let me see the job. Then I’ll decide.”
Dalton perked up with excitement. “I’ll be right back.”
If he was going to carry it by himself, at least it couldn’t be that large. Maybe she could sneak it in before she started back to work on her other jobs. Right after the assholes took their secrets and left her the hell alone.
Dalton came back through the door carrying a life-sized statue covered in a white sheet. Bethany had no idea how he managed so much weight without help. It made her wonder what kind of material she’d be working with. Certainly not metal or stone. Lightweight plaster, maybe?
He set it down with a heavy thud. Dangling over his arm was a sack bulging with the angular lines of broken stone. “Did the statue lose an arm?”
“No,” Sue said. “More like a chunk from his side.”
“How did that happen?”
“Shotgun,” Dalton said.
Bethany waited for the laugh to come indicating that he was joking. When she was still waiting several seconds later, she realized he was serious. “Someone shot your statue?”
“It’s a long story,” Sue hurried to say. “All we need to know is if you can fix him and how long it will take.”
Bethany lifted the sheet slowly so as not to snag any fragile pieces. The first thing she noticed was that the statue was definitely stone. Solid, dense stone. The second thing she noticed was that it had no base. Its feet were its only support. The third thing she noticed was that there was a dull, rusty stain covering the surface—one that looked suspiciously like dried blood.
She pulled the sheet all the way off and was met with the face of agony. There was, indeed, a large section of stone missing from the statue’s side. Imbedded just beneath the surface were several metallic bits she assumed were some kind of shot. A thousand tiny chips were gouged across the surface of the body, along with a few hairline cracks. She could see damage from both the elements and, if she wasn’t mistaken, fire.
The statue’s naked body was a work of art. Thick, muscular limbs depicting human perfection, and a package that would make any red-blooded woman swoon. Raw male power was evident in every line, down to the tiny striations in the muscle fiber. But it was his face that spoke to her. So much pain. So much misery and loneliness.
She had no idea how the sculptor had captured such potent emotion, but she felt the echoes of his pain as if the model were alive and standing right in front of her.
When she reached up to touch his cheek, her hand was shaking. “Where did you find this?”
“He’s a family heirloom,” said Dalton.
She stroked the face and swore she could almost hear a silent scream for help. All she wanted to do was drop everything and fix this work of art. “You keep referring to him as a man. I see why now.”
“We call him Tristan,” Sue said. “Can you repair him?”
Bethany tore her gaze away from Tristan’s face long enough to inspect the major damage to his side. “How many pieces do you have?”
“Most of them,” Dalton said. “There were a few crushed bits I wasn’t able to recover—dust, really.”
“Will you help him?” Sue asked.
“Yes.” There was no other answer. She couldn’t possibly send this work of art to anyone else. She had to know the repairs were done right. She didn’t understand why that need burned in her so fiercely, but she couldn’t deny it. “I’ll start working on it next week.”
“That’s not soon enough. My uncle may not have that long.”
“I want to help,” said Bethany, “but I’m in the middle of another rush job.”
She tore her eyes away from Tristan and glanced at the couple just long enough to see them sharing another one of those looks.
Dalton patted Sue’s hand again. “We really need him to be whole as soon as possible. Can you at least repair the wound in his side?”
Bethany looked inside the sack with the shattered stone pieces. There were a lot of them. “It’s probably going to take me about a hundred hours of work to do the major repair. If you want all the surface chips restored, it’ll probably be twice that long.”
A look of sheer terror crossed Sue’s face as she looked up at Dalton. “That’s way too long. What if he…?”
“We just have to hope Thyra leaves him alone. She doesn’t want to lose him either.”
Bethany almost asked who Thyra was, but decided it was none of her business. Over the past few months, she’d learned that the less she knew, the better.
Sue nodded and looked at Bethany, her warm brown eyes pleading. “Please fix him as soon as you can. He means a lot to us.”
“We should go and let her get back to work,” Dalton said. He wrote their contact information on the paperwork. “Thank you, Bethany. We’ll be in town for at least a few days. Call if anything…happens.”
“You know,” said Sue after jabbing an elbow in his side, “if your schedule changes or the work goes faster than you think.”
The couple was definitely hiding something, but right now, Bethany couldn’t bring herself to care. All she could think about was getting her hands on Tristan.
Tristan watched Bethany. The sight of her eased some of the searing pain he endured, though he had no idea why.
It was probably another sick joke his twisted mistress played on him.
His body was ravaged and broken. He was frozen inside that moment of torment when lead shot had ripped into him. If he hadn’t acted on instinct and turned to stone the instant before the blow hit him, the shot would have hit flesh instead of rock, and he would have died.
Over and over he’d cursed himself for his fast reflexes. If he’d hesitated for even a split second, he would have died as any normal man would have. But no, his instincts had saved his life and forced him to remain locked in his shell of pain—alive and aware of every tormented nerve ending.
Death was the only freedom a killer like him could ever hope to find.
But now, watching Bethany work, something in him quieted, allowing space for a portion of the rage he endured to trickle away.
She sat bent over her workbench, her long, graceful fingers working with efficient skill. He recognized the pieces of himself laid out like a puzzle before her, but as separated as he was from them, he couldn’t feel her touch.
Her black hair stood out from her head in a bouncy array of tight curls that made his fingers itch to touch. Her skin was darker than the stone she pieced together, lending her bare arms a network of shadows that highlighted her supple strength. The tight shirt she wore hugged curves that would make even the most beautiful sculptors of Idola envious, but it was her eyes that he could not seem to forget.
Even though she wasn’t looking at him now, he remembered exactly what it had felt like when she’d gazed into his dead eyes. She’d been close enough to him he could smell her skin, like some kind of dark magic meant to sooth his raging soul. She’d looked right into him, and the warm honey gaze had given him something he hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
He’d been so long without it, he’d almost forgotten what it felt like—pure and potent, with the kind of magic powerful enough to reach a soul as lost as his.
The hours slid by as he watched her. She rarely rose from her seat, and then only for a few moments. Her focus was absolute. He wasn’t even sure she was aware that an entire day had passed since she’d begun assembling his broken pieces.
All she did was work to repair him. She hadn’t even stopped to eat. Whatever the important job she’d spoken of was, it sat forgotten.
As the sun was setting on the second day of her tireless efforts, Tristan began to get upset. She wasn’t taking care of herself. She was going to work herself sick if she didn’t stop.
He had collected days of time off from his captor—time he’d never found a reason to use. Until now.
But if he were to turn to his flesh form and demand she eat and rest, he’d bleed out in seconds. Until the wound in his side was sealed, he was trapped in silence, forced to watch her work herself into exhaustion.
At one point, she laid her head down next to his pieces. She was still and might have slept for a few minutes, but it wasn’t nearly long enough. The music that seemed to be her constant companion played on. Tristan was helpless to do more than stare and wish he could tuck her safely in her bed.
It was then that he realized how strange his thoughts had become. Normally, he was too consumed by pain to do more than plot his mistress’s death. He’d become her slave a small handful of years after Jesus had been crucified. Since that time, Tristan had lived a life of violent service to his mistress Thyra. She’d caused him endless years of torment, and he’d spent most of them fantasizing about ways to kill her. After all, killing was what he did best.
Sadly, at some point during the past two thousand years, he’d realized that an entity as powerful as Thyra couldn’t be slain. She could, however, wish for death.
Tristan had spent the last few centuries imagining how he could finally make that happen.
But now, those familiar thoughts of suffering, and all the rage connected to them, seemed a waste of this precious time. There was no way to know how long he’d be here, in this bright, clean place, with the sound of music in his ears and the scent of Bethany’s light, magical fragrance surrounding him.
Soon he’d be back in his burned-out home, staring at charred, rotting beams and breathing in the stench of burned flesh and bone.
For as long as he was here, he wanted to languish in this place, in the presence of the woman whose artistic touch shone through everywhere he looked.
Someone pounded on the door. With his back facing that direction, he couldn’t see who it was. What he could see was the way Bethany’s body went instantly tense. Her tall, willowy frame tightened, and her dark hands began to shake.
She grabbed a cloth to cover the pieces she’d been working on, and hurried to answer the door.
“You done yet?” asked a man with a deep, gravelly voice.
“Almost. I just need a few more days.”
“Days?” His voice radiated irritation. “You said that the last time I was here.”
“It’s a complex task. It’s going to take as long as it takes. If I hurry, there’s no way the work will pass through customs.”
“The shipment goes out day after tomorrow. I’ll be back in twenty-four hours to pick up the statues. If you’re not done by then, my next call will be to your baby brother.”
“No. Please. I’ll get them done. Just leave him alone.”
“He’s a good kid,” the man said. “The boss has just the right job set aside for him. I think he’s almost hoping you fail to get the work done on time. Benny would be an asset to the team. And once he’s in that deep, the only way out is feet first.”
It took Tristan a second to realize that the man meant Benny would be dead.
“I won’t fail,” she promised. “And if you so much as text my brother, the next call I make will be to the cops.”
“Are you threatening me?” asked the man in a calm, quiet voice.
Bethany backed up until Tristan could just see her from the corner of his eye. She held her hands up in front of her as if trying to ward the man away.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said, but the quiver of fear in her voice gave away her lie.
“No?” he asked. “Guess I need to step up my game then.” He lunged, picking up Bethany by her arms and shoving her back into the wall so hard a nearby picture frame fell.
Glass shattered. She let out a terrified squeak.
Tristan felt the telltale shimmer of power at the base of his spine. It wasn’t until he’d already begun the transformation to flesh that he realized what he was doing and stopped before he killed himself.
“You’re going to sit that sweet ass down and finish the job tonight,” the man said. “Or tomorrow, Baby Brother Benjamin and I are going out for a midnight stroll. And once he sees the operation the boss wants him to help with, there’s no going back. Benny will be ours.”
“I’ll get it done,” Bethany said. “Just promise me that Benjamin stays off limits.”
The man shrugged, and the move was powerful enough it actually lifted Bethany a little higher off the ground. “You do the work. Then we’ll talk.”
He let her go and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.
Bethany slid down the wall and hugged herself. Silent tears streamed over her cheeks.
Tristan ached to go to her and promise to kill the man who had touched her. He was good at killing, and he couldn’t think of a better target for his anger than someone who’d lay his hands on a woman as rare and beautiful as she was.
As soon as her breathing evened out, she pushed to her feet. But rather than going to work on whatever it was the dead man wanted from her, she came to stand in front of Tristan.
She was tall enough that without his base, she was only a few inches shorter than he was. From this distance, he could see straight into her honey-colored eyes.
There was so much sadness there—so much fear.
She cupped his cheek, giving him the living heat of her body. He felt it sink into his stone, driving away some of the pain his damaged shell inflicted upon him.
“I’m sorry, Tristan,” she said. “I really wanted to finish putting you back together tonight. I was so close. Guess I have to take a little break to deal with my brother’s bad choices.”
Tristan didn’t know what that meant, but it hardly mattered. She was speaking to him as if he were a real man, and that kind of attention had a potent effect. He was so used to being alone and unseen, he wasn’t sure how to deal with the swell of need that arose in him.
He needed to touch her, thank her, let her know what her gift meant to him.
Sadly, all he could do was bleed on her floor and give her a dead body to explain to the authorities. It was not the kind of repayment for her gift he had in mind.
She let out a sad sigh before turning away and going to work on a small statue next to the fragmented pieces of his body.
Her movements were hurried. She didn’t have that same slow, careful grace she’d used before. In fact, as he watched her, it almost seemed like she resented her skill.
As the hole that had previously been in the small statue became a seamless patch, her eyes kept straying to him.
Every time her honeyed gaze hit him, he felt it like a physical touch. The sheer warmth of her expression, the sympathy she had when she looked on him, was enough to make even stone squirm.
“That needs to dry anyway,” she said. “Let’s give you a test fit, shall we?”
She was talking to him, and the music of her voice was far sweeter than anything flowing from the speakers nearby.
Bethany carefully carried a section of broken stone she’d glued together. He knew that it had been gravel only a couple of days ago, but he couldn’t see a single seam or crack in her work. It was as if she’d knitted his flesh together again, as good as new.
The piece grated against his wound, making pain flare to life. He snarled at it to shove it back where it belonged, but the effort took a large bite out of his dwindling reserves of willpower.
“Perfect.” Her voice pulled him back up from the bleak depths of his pain. He wrapped himself in it, letting the soothing sound comfort him.
“There are still some metal fragments that need to come out, but I think it’s safe to start putting you back together.” She smiled up at him. “I’m as crazy as Sue and Dalton, talking to you like this. Guess I really need to get some sleep.”
She left him for a minute or two, and then returned. The stone piece went back into place, only this time it was a frigid pain, rather than the searing agony he’d felt before. Whatever glue she had used felt like an ice-cold blow torch welding his flesh together.
She took a long strip of cloth and bound him around the middle, using several layers to hold the mended piece in place.
“That’ll set tonight, and tomorrow I can start working on all the surface damage.” With that, she went back to work on the little statue, leaving Tristan aching for her touch.
He knew that what she’d do to him tomorrow would probably hurt like hell, but he didn’t mind. He didn’t care how much it hurt as long as she touched him.