Amber closed her eyes, leaned her forehead on the cold wood of the door and inhaled the comforting scents of wood polish and age that assailed her upon entering the backdoor of the antique shop. The smells were a part of her life and brought with them simplicity and routine.
But no matter how safe she felt at that moment, it was time she stopped ignoring events and looked at them for what they were. Related or not, there were too many things piling up for her to continue in her blissful haze of self-denial.
Something was happening.
She might have felt excluded from her tribe for most of her life, but that hadn't stopped the Native American beliefs from becoming ingrained within her. There was more at play in this world than what could be seen. Joseph and his mystical knowledge of events was proof of that.
Good or bad, it was time Amber prepared herself for whatever was to come. She needed all the facts to do that, and she was certain her aunt had them or at least knew who did.
Acceptance was the first step in moving forward. So forward she would go--just as soon as she could move. A small, mirthless laugh puffed from her chest at the contradiction. Having the will did not bring with it the courage.
Right. She licked her lips, straightened her back and exhaled. Despite the whacked-out events around her, she still needed to open the shop and take care of the responsibilities of the day.
Never ask why, always ask what. Her aunt's mantra echoed through her thoughts almost as if Aunt Bev stood behind her and whispered the words in her ear. A shudder snaked down Amber's spine, enticing her to call out. "Aunt Bev, you here?"
Silence. She was still alone.
Amber pushed away from the door and moved down the short hallway to the small office, removing her winter outerwear and hanging her coat on the hooks lining the wall. Rubbing her hands together, she moved to the thermostat and nudged the heat up a tad. Her aunt would probably have a small cow at the extra two degrees of warmth, but to heck with it. Bravery came in small steps, and she would consider this her first one.
She flicked on the light and turned toward the desk to grab the front door keys. Shock froze her in place, comprehension registering as her mind processed the state of the office. It was destroyed. The usually ordered space was now a jumbled mess of tossed papers, broken objects and emptied file drawers. Even the safe had been pried open, the contents emptied onto the floor. Clearly ransacked by someone in a hunt for what?
Panic followed quickly on the heels of the numbed shock. Pinpricks of needles shimmered over her skin, igniting her heart rate and engulfing her in a cold, damp sweat. Her mouth was suddenly parched as her brain fuzzed to one, and only one, thought.
Amber tore from the office, careening into the shop, heedless to any danger that might still remain. All thoughts of personal safety, of calling the cops or exiting the building were obliterated by the overriding need to get to the stone.
To ensure its safety and hold it so no one else would ever get it.
Some small part of her brain recognized the insanity of her actions and thoughts. But it wasn't enough to stop her. Driven by a craze that defied explanation, Amber barreled through the disaster field of the shop. Heedless of the broken glass, blocked aisles or shattered objects that littered her path. Her only thought was to find the stone.
She reached the back corner where the sewing trunk sat overturned and open, the top tray tossed to the side, the antique quilts tumbling from the depths. Dropping to her knees, she dove into the contents. Her fingernails scraped over the hard wood of the trunk, her knuckles banging against the sides in her frantic search for her hidden box.
It had to be there.
She couldn't process the overriding need that assailed her. The bird mark burned, and sweat beaded on her forehead and raced in rivulets down her chest.
The box wasn't there. No. It had to be there. It couldn't be gone. It was hers. She was unwilling to accept defeat. Not that fast.
Amber clenched her teeth in determination and tore into the quilts, grabbing and patting madly at each one. Where was it? She would know if it was gone, wouldn't she? Some unfounded intuition within her said she would. That she would feel the loss.
It was that vital to her.
Finally, her hand hit upon something solid within the folds of a quilt. She stilled, hoped, then dove blindly through the mass of painstakingly hand-stitched squares, careless of the fragility of the cloth, mindless to everything but reaching the object within.
The sensitive skin of her fingertips brushed over the etched wood before she grabbed the small box in her hand. Relief, like nothing she'd ever felt before, rushed through in a raw waterfall of emotion. The burning on her hand instantly cooled, and her panic descended in a crescendo of stark, jagged breaths.
It was there. Still hers.
Slowly, almost afraid to be wrong, she pulled the box from beneath the material. She flipped the lock, springing the lid open to see the stone glistening within the folds of the violet cloth. Visual confirmation set loose a swarm of butterflies to flutter wildly within her chest.
She snapped the lid closed and rested back on her heels, her fingers gliding gently over the carvings in reverent wonder. The air in the shop hung heavy, expectation and anticipation all jumbled into one tense ball of sensation. The energy was almost tangible, enticing her to claim what was hers.
To possess what she so desperately wanted.
She clenched the box to her chest that heaved with anxious gulps of stale air. Mine. Yes, she would claim it. It was too hard to ignore and deny. The contents of the beautiful little box belonged to her.
She pushed to her feet and crunched over the broken glass on shaky legs to reach the back counter. Using her arm, she brushed the pens, paper and random objects out of the way, uncaring of where they landed. She set the box down in the newly cleared spot and simply stared at it. How did it hold so much power over her?
Yes, power. That's exactly what it was. There was no other word to describe the control it seemed to have imposed on her since the moment the box had been shoved into her hands.
Amber lifted her gaze from the box to survey the room, which she had ignored up till now. Quick, analytical eyes took in every detail of the shambled destruction. The beloved Edwardian writing desk sitting tilted on its side. The treasured, Noritake crystal serving pieces shattered in their case and scattered across the floor. Even the enormous grandfather clock that had honored the back wall with its grace and strength since the shop opened was lying face down in a pile of splintered wood.
Nothing had escaped the wrath of the assailant. Every piece of furniture was broken, every mirror cracked, every fragile piece of glass shattered. Pictures were torn from the walls and savagely cut apart. Clouds of fluff billowed around the room, ripped from chair cushions and decorative pillows.
Clearly, the intent had been destruction, not theft. The formally cozy, welcoming shop now felt cold and violated.
Much like herself.
Biting down on her bottom lip, Amber gathered her courage and opened the box once again.
The stone glimmered in stunning shades of violet that randomly reminded her of the crisp, silk scarf that had encased the neck of her CEO. But the colors evolved, moved and changed, ascending upon each other--violet, amethyst, purple, gold--drawing her into the stone's depths as it sparkled with an unnatural light that defied logic.
And it called to her. Whispered enchantments. Promises. Beckoning her to claim it. The air sparked with electricity, snapping with small pops of static as it charged around her. The odd occurrence only registered in Amber's peripheral awareness as her sole focus now was the stone and her need to possess it.
Her heart raced, and her breath stilled. The stone was reaching out to her like physical fingers pulling her closer.
Urging her to touch it until she had to comply. She wanted to comply. She was incapable of resisting. She reached her hand out, following the call of the stone. Everything in her demanded she make it hers.
Her hand hovered over the shining gem. The air held its breath, and her pulse slowed before her fingers drifted down to cover the stone.
A bolt of searing hot force shot through Amber's hand, up her arm and through her body like a jolt of lightning signing a note of pure power. She lifted the stone out of the case to reveal that it was attached to a long, gold chain made of tiny, delicate links. It pulsed in her palm in sync with her heartbeat, sending waves of scorching energy with each repeated throb.
She stared in wonder at the breathtaking brilliance she held captive. The stone was amazing. It was pure beauty, warmth and brilliance all in one.
It was hers.
A sudden chill ran up her spine and Amber jerked out of her trance with a sense of danger. But from where and why? The shadows in the room appeared to grow longer, darker, closer. The air felt tight, crushing her like a physical weight.
She shoved away from the counter and pressed against the wall. The energy in the room crackled with expectation. She scanned the area searching for what, she didn't know.
Suddenly, the air shifted and pushed against her in a quick gush of force.
"What in the...?" Her words died out as the figure formed before her. Where there was once just space, a man now stood. Solid and strong. Six foot six inches of pure testosterone. And not just any man.
It was her CEO. The man who stole her breath, hunted her with his eyes and made her heart race.
Without a thought, Amber launched herself at the form. It had to be a figment of her imagination. Gorgeous men did not form out of thin air.
She slammed into the wall that was the man's chest, igniting a fire inside her and knocking the wind out of her for the second time that day.
Damn. He was real.
She scrambled away, confused and terrified. The sound of the air rushing through her nostrils in short, panicked puffs and the sharp bite of her teeth on her lips told her she was awake. This wasn't a dream.
The man commanded attention from his solid, stiff shoulders down to his firm, wide-spread stance. He was still dressed in the black wool trench coat and slacks he had worn to the rally, complete with the violet silk scarf tucked neatly into the folds of his coat. Like always, he reeked of authority.
He was a man who was used to being obeyed.
His deep blue eyes penetrated her with precision and calculation. He scanned her from toe to head and back down, a perusal that left her skin tingling under his gaze. His assessment halted to focus on the fist that had a death grip on the stone.
He stepped forward and grabbed her wrist in one lightning-quick motion. His fingers clamped around the fragile bones, firm, but not painful. The restraint only underlined his strength. Amber yanked on her arm to pull it out of his grasp, but he held firm.
"No." He couldn't have it. It belonged to her.
Heat seared through the thin layer of her shirt where his long, strong fingers circled her wrist. The bird mark tingled with an awareness that was almost welcoming. It didn't burn like she'd become accustomed to. Instead it rippled with warm, soothing waves of...longing.
"Let me go," Amber demanded. "What do you want?"
She watched, entrapped both physically and mentally by the man before her. His focus was on her hand, not the object she held within it. He didn't lift his head or meet her eyes. Instead, he slowly reached out his other hand and pushed up the material of her shirt, revealing the stark, white bird etched into her skin.
His breath hitched, and his hand stilled a moment before his fingertips brushed lightly across the surface of her skin in an elegant caress over the bird. The touch left a trail of heat, the warmth reaching deep into her body. She was certain her imagination was running crazy because it felt like the bird shuddered in delight. The sensation rebounded within her. She bit down on her tongue to hold back the startled gasp that threatened to betray her.
"You are the Marked One," his deep voice murmured, an edge of awe mingled with the words. His fingers still stroked the bird in seemingly absent wonder.
"What?" she croaked. Amber cleared her throat and tried again, desperate to sound coherent and unafraid. The energy poured out of the stone and swirled around them in hot, vibrating waves. "What do you want? Why are you here?"
"You are the Marked One." His voice was stronger, more insistent.
Her breath stuck in her lungs as her mind flashed back to the alley. To the exact words the Asian said before he gave her the stone: We are not the enemy of the Marked One.
"What are you talking about?" What the hell was the 'Marked One'?
He jerked his head up, his eyes locking with hers to silently convey the importance of his next statement. "The one who bears the mark of the white bird will have the power to change the world."
She broke eye contact and looked down at the bird etched on her skin. Despite the profound statement just made by the overwhelming man before her, relief flooded her system.
He didn't want the stone. It was still hers.