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Excerpt of Assassin's Honor by Monica Burns

Purchase


Order of the Sicari #1
Berkley
June 2010
On Sale: June 1, 2010
Featuring: Ares DeLuca; Emma Zale
352 pages
ISBN: 0425234169
EAN: 9780425234167
Paperback
Add to Wish List

Romance Paranormal

Also by Monica Burns:

Dangerous, August 2015
Paperback / e-Book
Mirage, July 2015
e-Book (reprint)
Wanton Christmas Wishes, November 2014
e-Book
His Mistress, April 2014
Paperback / e-Book
Love's Revenge, February 2013
e-Book (reprint)
A Bluestocking Christmas, November 2012
e-Book
Obsession, May 2012
e-Book (reprint)
Kismet, February 2012
Paperback / e-Book (reprint)
Inferno's Kiss, October 2011
Trade Size / e-Book
Love's Portrait, September 2011
e-Book (reprint)
Pleasure Me, March 2011
Paperback / e-Book
Assassin's Heart, September 2010
Paperback
Assassin's Honor, June 2010
Paperback
Kismet, January 2010
Paperback
Mirage, June 2009
Paperback
Dangerous, January 2009
Paperback
Forbidden Pleasures, February 2006
Trade Size (reprint)
Holly, Ivy, and Me, December 2005
e-Book
The Art of Pleasure, September 2005
Trade Size (reprint)
Rogue in Disguise, January 2005
e-Book

Excerpt of Assassin's Honor by Monica Burns

Chapter 1

"Oh my God, they were right," Emma gasped.

She shifted her body so the light behind her shone directly on the ancient tomb's wall. Her parents had always said the Sicari weren't a myth. No one had believed them. Not even her.

Guilt bit into her. She should have trusted their instincts, even if they hadn't always trusted her academic knowledge. With a gentle stroke of her brush, she tapped another piece of dried mud off the wall. The tangible icon was evidence the elite guild of assassins had really existed. Her father had always said the Sicari were descendants of Ptolemy's personal guard. And here was the proof her father had been looking for.

Awed, she stared at the partially revealed symbol on the sandstone wall. The hilt of a sword rested against the rim of a chakram while the blade interlocked with the circular handheld weapon. The simplicity of the design didn't minimize the mark's ominous appearance.

Excitement raced through her as she peered at the emblem more closely. Her fingertip lightly brushed across the surface of the chakram portion of the icon. The chakram, when thrown, could slice through a skull when it hit its victim before returning to its owner. She knew several warrior clans in India had used the chakrams against Alexander the Great's troops. Ptolemy had been at the conqueror's side then, and his men could have easily adapted the weapon for their own use.

She'd grown up listening to her dad talk about the Sicari. Labeled assassins by the Praetorian Guard under the Roman Caesars, they were ruthlessly hunted down, arrested, and executed. Her father had never found any explanation for the persecution of the Sicari, but he'd had numerous theories. The most plausible being a power struggle within the Guard itself when Constantine I had been Caesar and abandoned pagan beliefs for those of the Church. Her father had hypothesized that the few Sicari who had escaped the persecution had gone into hiding only to become what they'd been branded simply to survive. He'd even speculated that they still existed.

Carefully, she dusted a fleck of dirt off the wall to reveal a little more of the emblem. For once, she appreciated her unique gift as well as her clumsiness. If she hadn't tripped over her toolbox, her hand might never have touched the spot where the icon was hidden. She could have done without the unexpected static shock, but her vision of a scribe etching a symbol into the wall had been enough incentive to scrape away the top layer of plaster.

While her special talent was generally limited to ancient artifacts, it didn't make the initial contact any less pleasant. Just as unpleasant were the fleeting images she sometimes saw when someone handing her an artifact brushed against her finger.

With another stroke of her small, delicate brush, more of the mark appeared through the dried mud. The radio attached to her belt hissed softly, and she suddenly remembered Charlie. He'd kill her for not calling him right away with the news of her find. He might be her friend, but he was boss and mentor first. Grabbing the walkie-talkie off her belt, she pressed the talk button.

"Charlie?"

Releasing the button, she waited for a response. After several seconds of nothing but a quiet hum, she tried again. "Charlie, I know you're there, so stop ignoring me. I've got something I want you to see, and it's important."

She might be deep inside the burial chamber of Cleopatra's ancestor, Ptolemy I, but she knew the radios worked. She'd heard from Charlie over the damn thing just an hour ago. This time after a long pause, she heard static echo out of her radio. Gritting her teeth, she waited for her teacher's easy Southern drawl to warm up the dark, musty chamber she'd been exploring. When he remained silent, she stared at the walkie-talkie and frowned. She hit the talk button one more time.

"Stop fooling around, Charlie. This is important," she snapped into the receiver before releasing the communication switch.

A gurgling noise burst out of the radio followed by a few seconds of static before the chamber grew quiet again. She growled in disgust. One of these days, he'd cry wolf once too often with her and then where would he be if something really was wrong.

The memory of his heart attack more than a year ago made her frown. It hadn't been severe, but the doctors had warned him to take it easy. Advice he'd ignored as usual. The thought of something serious happening to Charlie sent a wave of fear sluicing through her. If he was having a heart attack . . . spinning around, she grabbed her flashlight off the cool, stone floor and dived for the narrow opening leading out of the burial chamber.

The tight squeeze had her cursing her wide hips, and not for the first time. Coughing from the dust her movements stirred up, she crawled as fast as she could through the narrow tunnel toward the main chamber where Charlie had been working.

If he was having a heart attack, they were in trouble. There wasn't anyone except a couple of locals at the base camp. Mike and the rest of the team had gone to survey the artisans' cemetery almost a mile away. Not to mention the fact that Sayid, the dig's foreman, had taken the truck back to Abydos this morning to pick up their monthly supplies. He wouldn't be back until late in the evening at the earliest, and until then the camels were their only other form of available transport.

Reaching the main chamber of the tomb, she slid out onto the dusty, stone floor. All the lights were out, except for the dim glow of a bulb at the chamber's main entrance more than half a football field away. What the hell had happened to all the lights they'd strung up two months ago?

Sayid. He'd promised her that damn generator wouldn't break down again. If it weren't for the Magna flashlight she carried, she'd be virtually blind. As it was, she could barely see anything. How many ways could she grill the man's ass? She stumbled a few steps toward the center of the huge stone room while thinking about it.

"Charlie?"

Silence. Sweeping the light across the floor of the massive chamber, she pushed aside her fear. But she had a hard time ignoring the déjà vu slithering its way into her head. The whisper of a sound reached her ears and she spun around trying to determine its origin. She saw nothing except muraled walls and several sarcophagi yet to be opened. The quiet seemed even heavier than the ancient pillars looked. She shuddered.

"Goddamn it, Charlie. Answer me."

The cold silence pushed the hairs on her skin upward. No, she wouldn't go there. Everything was fine. People couldn't respond when they were unconscious. That's the only reason why he didn't answer her. The beam of the flashlight swept its way across the wall to the last burial tunnel. It illuminated the elderly man slumped over at the tunnel entrance. Emma leaped forward and raced to his side.

Flashlight clattering to the ground, she gently eased Charlie back until he was lying flat on the floor. Kneeling beside him in the near darkness, her fingers pressed into the meaty flesh at the side of his neck. The wet and sticky feel of his skin beneath her fingertips made her swallow hard.

God, he was sweating so profusely. Not a good sign. When she didn't feel a pulse, Emma reached for his wrist, praying for a miracle. Even a fluttering heartbeat beneath his leathery skin would ease her fear. Nothing. Panic latched on to her as she grabbed her radio and screamed into it. Mike knew CPR. He could—no. Mike was at the cemetery with the rest of the team.

The blaring silence from the two walkie-talkies only emphasized how far away help was.

A clattering of falling rock echoed off in the distance. Fear coiled in her belly as her fingers brushed across the gritty floor and she grabbed the flashlight. The sturdy metal tool cooled her hand as she pointed it in the direction of the noise. Not even a rat staring back at her. She shivered and tried to ignore how the mural on the ancient tomb's wall looked almost menacing in the stark beam. She dragged in a deep breath. This wasn't five years ago. She sagged deeper onto her haunches, her Magna slipping out of her hand to hit the floor with a soft metallic thud. Charlie's heart hadn't been any good. She knew that. But she hated how helpless and lost she felt at the moment. A tear slid down her cheek.

One drop became two until a steady stream of tears soaked her face. She didn't think, she simply reacted as a wave of fury swept over her and she pounded Charlie's chest with her fists.

"Wake up, goddamn you! Wake up."

With every sob, she hit him harder, but he still didn't move. As her crying subsided, her anger gave way to a cold numbness. There were things she needed to do, but she didn't know what. She couldn't even think straight right now. She dragged the back of her hand across her eyes in an attempt to wipe away the remaining tears. The sudden, pungent scent of copper made her wrinkle her nose.

There was something familiar about it. Her stomach started to churn. Oh God. That smell had been on her hands the day her parents were murdered. Their blood had stained her hands when she'd held them, and she'd never forgotten the way the musky metal scent had permeated her skin. Teeth chattering from the icy fear sliding through her, she reached for her light.

For the first time she realized the metal had a sticky feel to it, and she wanted to throw up. Blood was sticky. The beam of her flashlight hit her friend's face, and she screamed. The mark carved into his cheek was the same one they'd found on her parents' faces.

Worse still was the slit across his throat and the blood trailing down his neck. Blood she'd mistaken for perspiration. The flashlight clattered against the stone floor as she frantically rubbed her hands against her khaki dungarees. Even without a light shining directly on it she knew some of Charlie's blood had already dried on her hand. She could feel the flakes of it between her fingers and it terrified her. Instinct made her recoil from his body, and she scurried backward like a crab racing for safety.

Murder.

Someone had murdered Charlie. Killed and marked him the same way they had her parents. She froze. Whoever had killed Charlie might still be in the tomb. Hiding in the dark. Waiting. Waiting for her. Self-preservation took over, and she scrambled back toward her Mag. Clutching the heavy-duty light in a death grip, she lurched to her feet and raced toward the light at the end of the vast chamber.

Her boots hammered against the stone floor as she ran, the sound filling her ears with a thunderous roar. By the time she reached the foot of the steep slope leading up to the tomb's entrance, she was gasping for air. Slipping and sliding, she made her way up the dirt-covered incline into the brilliant sunlight.

Blinded, she tripped over the two steps leading down the hill to the base camp. Tumbling head over foot, she careened down the hillside with a loud cry of pain and fear. Shouts answered her scream, and when she staggered to her feet, she saw Mike and several other team members running toward her.

The next several hours passed in a blur. She wavered between hysteria and an icy numbness. It wasn't until she entered the Cairo police station that she realized how desperate her situation was. She and Charlie had been the only ones in the tomb. For the police, it was cut and dried. Literally. The moment she'd arrived she'd been ushered into a small room, which had a large window overlooking the station's central desk.

The main area of the police headquarters wasn't well lit and she imagined it helped keep the room cooler. The interrogation room she sat in was the exact opposite. Already she could feel the heat from the glaring lightbulbs pushing down on her. Through the window, she watched Mike Granby arguing with a swarthy-skinned police officer. Behind her, Roberta Young, the dig's financial backer and self-declared intern, paced the floor. The tall woman's restless movements only served to shred Emma's nerves that much more.

"Roberta, please," she rasped. "Sit down."

The woman immediately pulled a chair out from the table and sat down next to her. With a gentle pat of Emma's arm, the woman's gaze turned toward the action in the squad room. Somewhere in the back of her mind, it registered that Roberta looked like a fashion plate for the latest in archeological field gear. The woman was a Swedish goddess, tall with flowing blond hair that she pulled back in a ponytail. She was always gorgeous. Even in the field the woman managed to look like she could go straight to a fancy dinner with just a change of clothes.

"How are you holding up, dear?"

"I can't believe he's dead." A tremor rushed through her. "I'd talked to him just an hour or so before I found him. He was alive. I swear it."

"I believe you, Emma. I'm sure you'll be cleared of all charges. It's not like you and Charlie fought all the time."

"What?" She stared at the woman in amazement.

"A couple of interns said they heard you cussing Charlie out last week," Roberta said with a careless shrug. "I'm sure the two of them misconstrued the episode."

"I don't understand . . . when . . . oh God, the police aren't going to believe anything I say."

"Christ, I'm sorry I brought it up." Roberta rubbed her hand in a reassuring manner. But it didn't calm Emma's nerves.

"Why don't they tell me whether they're going to charge me or not."

"They aren't going to charge you. Everyone knows you couldn't have done this," Roberta said in that cultured voice of hers.

The inflections were the result of her boarding school upbringing and immense wealth. And money was something the woman had in spades. She'd inherited the family import business when her parents were killed in some type of freak accident. Emma had never heard the details and had never asked. Roberta wasn't one to put on airs, but when the woman wanted something, she usually got it.

Would Roberta use her wealth and power to help her out? It wasn't as if the two of them were best friends. But if the woman kept her out of jail . . . her stomach lurched at the thought of incarceration. Closing her eyes, Emma leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. She couldn't believe this was happening. The police were going to think she killed Charlie. They'd lock her up.

"For someone who complained that he'd be a better team leader if Charlie weren't around, I'm unimpressed by Mike's leadership skills at the moment," Roberta said with disgust.

Emma raised her head to look at the other woman, who nodded toward the window. With Charlie dead, Mike was next in line to lead the excavation team. Emma watched him gesture angrily in her direction, but the policeman's less than conciliatory expression didn't change. Frustration evident in his manner, Mike wheeled away from the officer. Seconds later, he burst through the door of the interrogation room, his tall, burly frame filling the cramped space. He squatted down next to her and grabbed her hand.

"Emma, they're refusing to let you go."

"Well, there's a surprise." Roberta's voice dripped with sarcasm.

Mike ignored the woman, but Emma saw his mouth thin with anger. He tugged on her hand to make her look at him. "I need you to listen carefully, sweetheart."

"It's okay, I understand why they don't want to let me go." She slowly nodded her head.

"Damn it, it's not okay." Mike growled. "Look, you're in shock, but I need you to hang on for a little while longer. I'm going to the consulate to get some help, and I'll be back as soon as I can."

She stared at him in silence. It made sense that the police wanted to close the case quickly. She was the prime suspect, no, only suspect, in Charlie's murder. Blaming her for Charlie's death simplified their job. The way her parents had been killed didn't help matters either. The reality of all of it seemed distant somehow. Almost as if she was watching it happen to someone else. Mike grabbed her shoulders and shook her.

"Emma, listen to me. You're not to say anything until we get you a lawyer."

"I'm not to say anything," she whispered.

Mike's large hand squeezed hers tightly and he gave her a hug before he stood up. "Hang in there, doll. We're gonna get you out of this mess."

"I think I'll tag along with you," Roberta drawled.

"No, someone needs to stay with Emma." Mike glared at the Swedish blonde.

"I have some powerful friends at the consulate, which means I'll get results."

Mike didn't bother to hide his anger, but he didn't argue with the woman. Instead, he jerked his head in agreement. With one last pat on Emma's hand, Roberta stood up and a moment later she was alone. The moment they were gone, a shiver raced through her until goose bumps rose up on her flesh.

God, she felt sick. Bowing her head, she shivered despite the room's hot temperature. Whoever killed Charlie had to have been involved in her parents' deaths. That mark mutilating his cheek had been the same one she'd seen on her parents' faces, a diagonal line with a backward C just above it. Bile rose in her throat again, but she swallowed it along with her fear.

There was nothing she could do at the moment except wait. The minutes ticked by and she tried to occupy her thoughts by watching the activity outside the interview room. Anything to avoid thinking about the moment when she'd found Charlie's body. She glanced down at her watch.

Had it been an hour since Mike and Roberta had left or two? She couldn't remember. The hair at the base of her neck stood on end as she suddenly sensed someone watching her. Her gaze scanned the station's front desk. Seeing nothing unusual, she shifted her gaze to the area behind the main counter.

It took her a moment to see him because he stood in the darkest corner of the office space. The shadows concealed his face, but something about his body language told her he was studying her carefully. Arms folded across his chest, he stood with one shoulder pressed against the wall in a relaxed pose. Despite his casual stance, she was certain a police station wasn't his normal environment, yet there was nothing about his manner that marked him as an outsider either.

Unable to take her eyes off him, she felt a light touch against her cheek. Almost as if someone had brushed the back of their hand across her face. There was something comforting about the sensation. It was a soothing touch that made her think everything would be all right.

She closed her eyes and drew in a quiet breath. Perhaps Charlie's spirit was here trying to reassure her. Another feathery caress touched her cheek and she reached up expecting to feel a warm hand. She sighed with disappointment when she encountered nothing but her own skin.

The door behind her opened and she turned her head. She immediately recognized the policeman entering the room. She'd seen him when she'd first entered the station. He nodded politely at her.

"Miss Zale, I am Detective Shakir. I will be investigating Dr. Russwin's murder." The officer took a seat opposite her and laid a pad of paper on the table. "I have a few questions I'd like to ask you about your colleague."

"I don't think I should say anything until I have an attorney present."

"Certainly, but perhaps you could tell me if you've seen this symbol before."

With several swift strokes of his pencil he drew a mark she knew well. Her palms suddenly damp with sweat, she struggled to hide her fear as she met the detective's watchful gaze. She swallowed hard at the memory of Charlie's bloody corpse.

"Yes," she said as her breath caught in her throat. "Someone . . . it was on Charlie's face."

"Can you tell me what it means?"

"No. I've been trying to find out what it means for the past five years, but I can't find anything like it."

"So you have seen this mark before."

"Yes." She nodded as she stared down at the roughly drawn symbol. "My parents were mutilated with it, just like Charlie."

"Ah yes, your parents were murdered in the same fashion as Dr. Russwin, correct?"

"I . . . yes . . . I really don't want to say anything else until my friends return."

"I quite understand, Miss Zale, but you would like to find the person who killed your friend, wouldn't you?"

"Of course." She bit her lip as she met the man's unreadable gaze.

"As I recall, you were the one to find your parents, correct?"

"No, Kareem found them." A warning shot fired off in her brain, and she shook her head in protest. "If you don't mind, I'd like to wait until my lawyer gets here before we continue."

"Certainly." He turned in his seat to look over his shoulder.

Following the direction of his gaze, Emma saw the man in the shadows move his hand slightly. The almost indiscernible movement echoed with the air of a man accustomed to power and how to use it. Her heart ricocheted off her chest wall as she watched the silent exchange between the two men.

Her gaze jerked back to the detective as he grunted with disgust. Irritation pulling his mouth downward, the policeman sent her a hard look. Whoever the man in the shadows was, the detective definitely didn't like taking orders from him. And that hand gesture had been a command.

"Miss Zale, can you tell me what Dr. Russwin might have been searching for in the tomb?"

For moment, she just stared at the officer. What kind of question was that? They were excavating the burial site of a Pharaoh dead for more than two thousand years. What did the man think Charlie had been looking for? It would take hours for her to explain everything they were hoping to find compared to what they would actually discover.

"I'm sorry. I don't understand what you're asking."

"Was Dr. Russwin looking for something special? Something specific? An artifact or inscription you might not have known about?"

"No, I don't think so." Emma frowned and shook her head. Charlie had always been open with her and the team. Although he did have the habit of keeping a new discovery to himself until he'd confirmed its authenticity.

"What about this?" Detective Shakir tossed a small medallion onto the table.

The metal object had a flat, hollow ring to it as it bounced against the wood surface until it spun to a halt. Dull and darkly colored, it blended in with the dark wood of the tabletop. Startled, she barely glanced at the coin before she looked up at the detective's surly expression. The officer was far from happy, and her gaze immediately swung toward the man in the shadows.

She could almost see him narrow his eyes as he lowered his chin just a bit. He had an air of anticipation about him that she recognized. It was the same kind of excitement she always felt when she and Charlie hovered over a new find. The exhilaration that came when you shared a breakthrough with someone who would appreciate its importance. Whoever he was, this guy wasn't a member of the Cairo police department. What made it equally strange was her sudden conviction that he was trying to help her. Dragging her gaze away from the man in the shadows, she stared down at the coin on the table.

It took her a full minute or so to grasp the magnitude of what she was looking at. When her chest became tight from lack of air, she sucked in a deep breath. A Sicari coin. She jerked her head up to look in the stranger's direction. The anticipation she'd sensed in him had evolved into satisfaction. Almost as if it pleased him immensely that she'd recognized the artifact.

"I take it you've seen this before." Detective Shakir's words made her start and she saw the hard look of accusation in his dark eyes.

"No, I've never seen the coin before." She stared at the artifact in the center of the table for a little longer before lifting her gaze to meet the policeman's dour expression. "But the symbol represents an ancient order of assassins called the Sicari."

"Would the doctor have recognized the coin?"

"Absolutely," she said with a sharp nod. "He and my parents wanted to prove the Sicari Order wasn't a myth. Charlie would have been ecstatic if he'd found something like this."

Without really thinking about it, she stretched out her hand toward the artifact then stopped. She hated that first moment when she touched any type of antiquity. She never knew what to expect.

"It's quite all right to look at it more closely," the detective said.

Still she hesitated, but when his eyes hardened with suspicion, she had no choice but to pick up the ancient currency. The instant she touched the coin, the familiar flash that always accompanied her visions occurred.

It was like watching a badly edited movie on fast-forward. Scenes from the distant past flowed through her head like a raging river. First, she saw the coin's creation and the Roman centurion who carried it as a good luck charm. The surreal vision grew more confusing as it exploded in a bloody composite of crucifixions, persecutions, and assassinations.

Then in a brilliant flash, the vision threw her forward to the last few seconds of Charlie's life. The emotions her friend experienced at the moment of his death barreled through her and she dropped the coin with a gasp. Christ, Charlie had been carrying this artifact when he died.

Trembling, her gaze was inexplicably drawn to the man hidden in the shadows. He was connected to the coin, but she didn't understand how. She saw him stiffen, and in the next moment, the door of the interrogation room flew open and slammed against the wall. Startled, she cried out in fear then found herself enveloped in Mike's bear hug of an embrace. Exhausted and overwhelmed with emotion, she sank into a dark well of silence.

Read additional chapters at Monica Burns Website.

Excerpt from Assassin's Honor by Monica Burns
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