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Assassin's Heart

Assassin's Heart, September 2010
Order of the Sicari #2
by Monica Burns

Berkley
Featuring: Lysander; Phaedra
ISBN: 0425236528
EAN: 9780425236529
Paperback
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"A uniquely smart, erotically sexy stand-out read!"

Fresh Fiction Review

Assassin's Heart
Monica Burns

Reviewed by Sue Burke
Posted August 21, 2010

Romance Paranormal

After learning a disturbing truth about his heritage, Lysander breaks off a relationship with the woman he loves so she will not discover he is in fact a half-Praetorian monster. Lysander would rather break Phaedra's heart than have her come to hate him. But fate has other plans for the pair and their paths once again cross when they must travel to Rome to find an ancient artifact. The two of them reconnect on their journey in more ways than one; they begin to dream of ancient Rome and a star-crossed couple whose unhappy past may hold answers to the present day lovers' destiny.

Sexy and smart, ASSASSIN'S HEART, is a stand-out read. While sinfully erotic at times, Burns never loses track of what is really important to readers; character development, relationships and story arc.

Learn more about Assassin's Heart

SUMMARY

The truth of the soul.

Lysander Condellarie never understood why he had telepathic and telekinetic powers until the night his Praetorian father tortured him and left him for dead. Now, the half-angelic, half-demonic face he sees in the mirror is a reminder of the monster he must keep hidden or face expulsion from the order of assassins know as the Sicari. But his dreams of Ancient Rome hint at a destiny he finds hard to accept, especially when it involves the woman he loves, but can never have.

The consequences of desire.

A gifted healer in the Order, Phaedra DeLuca witnessed her mother’s murder when she was just a little girl. The haunting memory makes her loathe everything Praetorian. When she travels to Rome in search of an ancient artifact, she must work alongside a man who once cruelly rejected her love and healing touch. But her dreams of Ancient Rome tell of an irreversible and possibly dangerous future. For the distant past and present are about to collide--with the one man she is destined to love.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

A Year Ago, Chicago

Lysander woke to screams. Pain was the next signal he was still alive. The cut on his thigh ached with the force of a charging bull ramming a horn into him. The screams intensified. They sounded like an animal's high-pitched squeals of terror and pain. His gut twisted. Dominic? Or Peter? He instantly reached out with his mind, and tried to figure out how many Praetorians were in the other room. Not a single emotion or thought.

Christus, how long had he been out? His telepathic ability had never been that strong, but at least he should have been able to know how many of the bastardi were out there. A salty taste on his tongue said his mouth was full of blood. He spit it out onto the floor and opened his eyes. The darkened room was not much bigger than a storage room. Nylon rope bound his wrists, pulling his arms up over his head in a painful stretch. He tugged on his restraints gently.

Merda, he hurt. How long had he been hanging here? The screams on the other side of his prison's door rose on a wild crescendo until they died down to low piteous cries. Praetorians had developed their torture skills during the Inquisition. Technology had just updated those skills. A cold, vicious bite of unfamiliar emotion tried to surge through him. He suppressed it.

No one survived Praetorian torture sessions, and the remains of the Sicari he'd seen said they'd died an agonizing death. He closed his eyes in a desperate attempt to shut out those gruesome images. Think about something else. Phaedra. The ugly emotion building inside him eased slightly. Deus, she had a gorgeous mouth. And her hair. Soft as silk. Threading his fingers through that dark silk last night . . . last night. He winced as grief lashed at him. Maybe the Elysium Fields would let him recreate those incredible moments with her as often as he wanted.

Beside him, a soft whimper of fear forced him to turn his head. Marta. A few feet away, he saw his healer tied to the wall. Praise Jupiter, at least she was still alive. In the next breath, he remembered what happened to healers. Guilt gnawed at him with savage glee.

"Marta?"

"I'm scared, Lysander." The terror in her voice almost made him give in to his own fear.

"I know, cara."

"They took Peter first."

It was a simple statement, meant only to inform, but it sent more guilt slicing through him. This was his fault. He should have known something was wrong the minute they entered the warehouse.

"Marta—"

"Let it go, Lysander. You're not to blame." Her forgiveness ate away at him, but he ignored it.

"We're getting out of here." His fingers explored the knot of nylon holding his wrists together in a painful grip. Sailor's knot. Immediately, he visualized the rope slipping apart in opposite directions until it released him. Nothing happened. In the near darkness, he saw Marta turn her head toward him.

"It won't work." The word was a quiet sigh of defeat. "They gave the three of you some type of drug to suppress your telekinetics. Dominic tried to free himself all the way up to the last minute, but he couldn't. We're going to die here."

No. The Praetorians wouldn't let her die. She was breeding stock.

He buried the thought and returned his attention to the rope holding him hostage. Closing his eyes, his fingers helped him memorize the way the rope was tied. The screams in the other room gained momentum again, and almost as if they came from a distance, he heard Dominic's thoughts. A whisper more than anything else. Nothing clear. The drug had to be wearing off. But would it wear off in time to get him and Marta out of here?

The thought heightened his desperation to free himself. There wasn't anything he could do for his friend, but maybe he could get Marta out of here. Save her from a fate worse than what he would end up enduring. Even knowing that didn't make it easy to shut out the screams.

Almost as if she could read his thoughts, her fear vibrated through the room like an instrument being played with a wild fury. It reinforced his belief that his abilities were returning. He focused his attention on the knot, concentrating hard on mentally undoing the twisted fibers.

Dominic's screams grew louder—bouncing off the walls of the room at a frightening level. A sickening dread clawed at him. Concentrate. His friend was as good as dead. He had to focus on getting Marta out of this torture chamber. Overhead, he felt a slight movement in the rope.

Triumph rolled through him. He wanted to tell Marta, but he didn't. It would be cruel to raise her hopes only to see them crushed if he didn't succeed in time. The thought made him work harder. The rope nudged its way free a tiny bit more. In the back of his mind, he heard Phaedra's voice whispering encouragement.

He was certain it was a figment of his imagination, but it bolstered his courage in a way nothing else could. He'd be damned if he was going to lose her, just when he'd found her. He turned his attention back to the rope, only to sense what seemed to be Phaedra's fears for him. Impossible. He knew full well it was simply his mind compensating for the pressure he was under right now. The mind did strange things when it was under stress.

Once more, he focused on the rope, blocking out everything but the nylon knot. After several minutes, the mental drain made him ease up on his concentration. Christus, this was almost as hard as when he'd taken Cleo's dare as a kid to unlock the cabinet holding the Order's sacred Assent of Office parchments. This time his failure wouldn't be the Indictio. And right now, he'd willingly take on that hard labor. He visualized the rope's knot unraveling when a sudden shift in emotions echoed in the back of his head. Dominic's shrill screams swelled even louder in the small prison then abruptly went silent. A dark emotion slithered through his veins.

"Lysander."

The minute Marta said his name, he turned his head toward her. The resignation on her face filled him with rage, guilt, and fear. He'd failed. He was going to die, and Marta—he shut down the images of what she was going to endure.

"I'm still here, cara."

"They're coming."

"I know," he said hoarsely.

He frantically pictured the knot above his head falling open, releasing him from its hold. When that didn't work, base animal instinct took over, and he sawed at the nylon with his wrists in a hopeless effort to free himself.

"Lysander?"

"I won't let them breed me," she whispered, almost as if consoling herself. "I'll find a way to keep that from happening."

"Fotte," he roared as the door to their prison flew open.

Blinded by the sudden light streaming into the room, he stretched out with his thoughts to determine how many Praetorians there were. Two. Fear and rage swelled inside him as he continued to saw at the rope with his wrists. Someone rushed at him and his last thought was of Phaedra before the light in the room blinked out.

He awoke to find himself in restraints on a hard surface, his head locked into place by a leather strap. The rafters directly above him said he was still in the warehouse. The soft clink of metal tools hitting against each other made him want to turn toward the sound, but he couldn't. A quiet chuckle echoed in his mind, and he instinctively threw up a shield against the mental probe.

"Do you have a name, Unmentionable?"

The pleasant tone of the man's voice didn't ease the sudden fear crawling across his skin. It increased it. He closed his eyes and tried to stem the emotion that threatened to drown him. No. He couldn't give in to the terror. It would drain his ability to keep this bastardo out of his head. He swallowed hard and tried to focus on something pleasant. Something the Praetorian couldn't use against him. Flowers. When was the last time he'd bought flowers for someone? The thought was idiotic, but he could sense the Praetorian's irritation as his mental barrier kept the man from probing deeper.

"Come now, Unmentionable. Tell me your name."

"Why? It doesn't really matter, does it?" An image of Phaedra slipped past the shield.

"Not really, but it does personalize the experience." There was a note of amusement in the man's voice that said he'd seen Phaedra. It sent a bolt of rage through him.

"I'm sure it does," he snarled as he opened his eyes to meet the flat gaze of the Praetorian. He rolled saliva and blood around in his mouth and spat it at the man. "Lysander Condellaire, Primus Pilus of the Order of the Sicari, son of Aurelia and Massimo Condellaire."

"A Primus Pilus. I'm honored." The man pretended to brush off a fleck of the spit that had not even come close to him. "It's not often I have a First Spear to administer redemption to. I am Nicostratus. Your judge and jury. As a heretic, you may repent at any time."

He didn't answer. Something said this bastardo liked to talk to his victims, and he wasn't going to give the son of a bitch that satisfaction. In fact, he was going to fight hard not to give the man any kind of response, no matter how bad—a red-hot needle of pain scraped its way across his skin. He nearly bit his tongue off to keep from screaming out loud.

Instead, he dug his fingers into his palms, and his body jerked violently against his restraints. It was impossible to escape the needle's persistent fire or the excruciating pain. When it stopped, he found himself breathing raggedly with relief—ready to sob. A moment later, his body bucked hard against the straps holding him down.

Ever so slowly, the skin on his face gave way to the man's cruel touch. Nerve endings sent horrifying signals to his brain at their sudden exposure to the air. He almost wept from the pain, but swallowed the cries he wanted to let loose.

"You're a brave man, Condellaire. It's not often I encounter an Unmentionablecapable of holding back his cries when I strip his skin."

Lysander opened his eyes and he choked on a rush of bile as Nicostratus showed him a strip of flesh dangling from a pair of small forceps. He swallowed the bitter fluid in his throat, but not before a wave of helplessness crashed over him. The emotion sent him spiraling down into a dark place where he wanted to hide from what was happening to him. No sooner did he hit the bottom of that hellish pit than he fought back. He bucked his body against his restraints.

"Fotte you, you Praetorian bastardo," he mumbled, each word more agonizing than the last as the movement of his lips tugged at the exposed muscles on his cheek. In his mind, he visualized his fist driving itself into the man's face.

His effort was rewarded by Nicostratus's head flying backward from the invisible punch. In less than two seconds, the man recovered and quickly reached for something on the tray next to the table. Needle in hand, the Praetorian pushed up Lysander's sleeve and proceeded to inject him with something.

"You're stronger than I thought. But this should keep you in check," Nicostratus said with just a hint of anger. The man started to push Lysander's sleeve down but stopped. "Well now, what have we here? A birthmark?"

The man's voice was coaxing in a way that sent an icy sensation creeping over Lysander's skin. An instant later, the exposed nerve endings on his cheek lit up in a bitter blast of fiery pain. Christus, the Praetorian was patting him on his exposed muscle. He fiercely bit down on the groan rising in his chest. When he didn't answer, the man made a small noise that indicated curiosity.

"Tell me, Condellaire, did your mother ever explain where this mark comes from?"

"My father, you bastardo."

"Your father. I see."

A whisper of sound drifted through his head. The son of a bitch was trying to read his mind again. Desperately, he fought to fortify the shield around his thoughts and filled his head with nonsensical images. Anything to block the man's probe. He would not let his mind betray the guild or the Order. The Praetorian's thoughts strengthened in an effort to dig deeper.

Lysander shored up the fragile wall he'd built inside his head with images of his mother. Determination and willpower helped him to pull every memory of his mother he could find inside him. The Praetorian chuckled. It wasn't a pleasant sound. Rather it encouraged the helplessness that had taken root in his stomach and spread through every muscle in his body.

The man's mental probe withdrew and Lysander's muscles shuddered into a limp state, his ability almost on the edge of failure. Christus, he couldn't fail. He wouldn't give this bastardo that satisfaction. The sound of metal against metal told him the carving was going to begin anew. Eyes closed and fists clenched tightly, he locked his jaw in preparation for the fiery needle to carve its way into his skin again.

"This is for not knowing me, boy."

Puzzled by the statement, the tension in his body eased just before the laser hit his skin. One thin stream of fire after another flew across his eye in an X pattern. Deep in the back of his mind, he started to sob from his inability to save his friends or himself from this hell. He was powerless, and the knowledge crushed him. Somewhere he heard the sound of screaming, and he realized it was him as the laser continued its terrible path across his cheek. He sank into the pit.

When he came to, he immediately wished he could crawl back into oblivion. He automatically opened his eyes, and the action shot a bolt of lightning deep into the back of his head as his eyelid pried itself off his seared eyeball. It pulled another roar of pain from him. Nicostratus laughed.

"Now then, my son. We need to talk as we don't have much time."

"Just end it, you sorry fotte." The pain it cost him to speak made him slide toward the dark edge of the abyss, and he closed his eyes again.

"I'm not going to end it, Lysander. I couldn't kill my own son." The words ripped through him with the same painful force of the laser the man had used on him. This son of a bitch wasn't just insane, he was sadistic.

"Merda di toro."

"No, it's true. I'm as surprised as you are. And I find it interesting that no one told you about your mother and me. We had a . . . well, let's say she resisted my charms."

Pain made his thoughts sluggish. Resisted. Was the bastardo saying he'd raped his mother? Not possible. The man was taunting him in an effort to break him down. The Praetorian made one more attempt to break the last defensive wall he'd built around the Order's strategic information. Unable to think straight, an image of Phaedra filled his head, and he clung to the memory of the night before. Nicostratus made an insulting noise.

"Ah, yes, that reminds me of how I fucked your mother. If I'd known she was ready to breed, I would have taken her with me."

"You're a liar." Each word sent fire shooting up into his brain; it took him a moment to realize he was sobbing the words.

"No, my boy. Take a look."

Lysander tried to keep his eyes closed, but fingers pinched his eyelid, forcing open the only eye he had left. He stared at the mark on Nicostratus's arm. Immersed in agony, he couldn't focus. Despite his uncertainty as to what he was really looking at, he wanted to throw up. Deep inside him, a vague thought registered the image, but he refused to believe it. He tried to shake his head.

"What?" he whispered, barely able to speak.

"Look closer, Lysander. It's proof I'm your father."

"A mark?" He closed his eye, praying for oblivion. Fingers pinched his eyelid again.

"The eagle. Do you see it?"

He groaned as he blinked and focused on the mark the man had on his arm. The bastardo had lost it. That mark wasn't an eagle—it was a bird. His mark was an eagle. His mother had said it belonged to his father.

"Your's . . . bird. Not . . . eagle." He barely got the words out as he hovered on the brink of consciousness.

"Look again, boy."

Suddenly, there were two arms with matching eagles in almost identical spots thrust in front of him. They blurred. He was seeing double, that's all. The helplessness reached his heart, tearing it apart like a rabid animal. He stared, his mind trying to comprehend what he was seeing.

"No." He didn't have the strength to shout, and the Praetorian laughed.

"But of course it's true. I knew the minute I probed your mind. How else do you explain your extraordinary ability to resist my repeated probes for information? A true Sicari might show some resistance to me, but they would not be as strong as you." Nicostratus made a soft sound of amused disapproval.

"Not true," he rasped then roared with pain as the Praetorian bastard lightly tapped his skinned cheek again.

"You would have made a fine Praetorian, my boy. Your ability to defy the pain you're in is exceptional."

The laser hit his skin again from his ear down to his jaw. The pain pulled a pitched scream of agonized terror from him, and he fell backward into a black pool of nothingness—his last thought was of ancient Rome and Phaedra running to meet him. He was home again.

He had no idea how long he'd been out, but when he awoke, everything was silent and dark. Was it nighttime in the Elysium Fields? He tried to sit up. The slight movement sent fire streaking through every cell in his body. He started to cry. The Praetorian had left him here to die. Alone. His own son.

He grew still with horror. He wasn't Sicari. He was Praetorian. The obscene thought pulled a cry of denial from him. His mind hovered on the brink of despair. Impossible. It couldn't be true. But they shared the same birthmark. The whisper of truth curled through his head. He wouldn't believe it. The bastardo was lying. A teardrop rolled over his skinned cheek, and it pulled a sob of anguish from him.

"Fotte. Fotte. Fotte."

It was a roar of fear and helplessness, as well as a cry of agony. More tears flowed over his bared muscles, until the pain sent him back to that dark place again.

Voices filtered their way down into the pit, and he shuddered with terror. They'd come back for him. Like a wild animal anticipating more torture, he tugged at his restraints, ignoring the fire that consumed his body. He wouldn't be able to keep the son of a bitch out of his head this time. He heard running feet, and then he smelled the soft scent of a woman. Marta?

"Dulce matris Deus." Cleo leaned over him, her cool hand brushing across his forehead. Horror widened her eyes as she stared down at him. In the next instant, she spoke into her mike. "Lysander's alive, but I don't know for how much longer. He needs the Curavi. Now."

He couldn't hear the response she got, but a sudden image of Phaedra filled his head. She was here. A subtle warmth filled him as her fear and worry for him whispered sweetly across his mind. Deus, he needed her right now. Needed to feel her touch. Her hand in his, her healing—no.

The sound of feet pounded on the warehouse floor once more, and first Ares then Phaedra came into view. He'd never seen a more beautiful, yet terrifying, sight in his entire life. He couldn't take part in seeing her lovely face marred by his injuries. Couldn't let her see the monster inside him. Terror lanced through him as she reached for his hand. Tormented, he tugged at the restraints. If she touched him—tried to heal him, she'd see him for what he was. He couldn't let that happen. Couldn't let her perform the Curavi.

"No. No Curavi."

Cleo clamped down on his arm. "Christus, he's out of his mind with pain."

"For the love of God, Cleo. Tighten those restraints." Panic laced through Phaedra's voice. "I can't heal him if he's fighting me. I'll heal the lesser injuries first. Then we can transport him. When we're home, I'll . . . I'll do what I can for his other wounds."

He saw her swallow hard and recognized her fear. The idea of her taking on his injuries was a nightmare, but he knew without a doubt that when she touched him she'd be able to see all the darkness inside him. He was too weak to keep her locked out of his thoughts if she touched him. She'd see. She'd see everything because the pain was too horrible to prevent her from learning the truth.

"No," he roared. "No Curavi."

The strength of his voice echoed loudly in the room, and he heard Ares utter a vicious curse while Cleo grasped his hand in a death grip. Fear and horror darkened Phaedra's eyes as she bent over him. Her mouth brushed across the ear on his unmarked cheek.

"Let me do this for you, carino," she whispered in a sweet, gentle voice. "I'm not afraid."

"No. Refuse the Curavi."

He tried to shake his head as he forged through the pain and ground out the words forcefully. Couldn't let her see. Her parents' murder . . . hated Praetorians . . . couldn't bear her hatred. He felt himself slipping off into oblivion and climbed up the cliff back into the pain. She'd heal him without his permission if he didn't protest.

"Listen, you dumb son of a bitch." Cleo's voice was harsh. "You let Phaedra heal you or I'm going to rip you a new one. You hear me?"

"No . . . dead already." And he was. He was Praetorian, and if anyone found out . . . he'd rather die.

"Give me your hands, Lysander. With your permission, I must touch you to heal your injuries." There was a frantic desperation in Phaedra's voice, but it only made him clench his hands into tight fists.

"I. Refuse. Curavi."

His voice wasn't loud, but it was strong and determined. He heard someone nearby release a vicious sound. Ares. His Legatus forcefully pushed Cleo aside to grip his arm.

"Take the goddamn Curavi, you sorry bastardo,"his guild leader ordered in a fierce voice.

Something wet hit his unscarred cheek and his gaze shifted from Ares to Phaedra. In the dim light, he could see tears clinging to her lashes. He wouldn't hurt her. Wouldn't let her see he was everything she hated. He loved her too much. He couldn't let her see that or his shame. He released a sob of pain.

"Is. My. Right. Refuse. Curavi." Each word was a labor of effort to say.

"No," Phaedra exclaimed violently. "I'm not about to let you die, you dumb bacciagalupe. Ares, make him take the Curavi."

"No. My. Right." He hovered on the edge of light and dark.

"I can't, Phaedra. If he'd been unconscious, it wouldn't be a problem, but he's refused. There's nothing I can do." Ares's voice was fierce with disgusted anger.

"Please, Lysander. Don't refuse me." His cheek grew wet as Phaedra bent over him, her mouth against his ear. Her hand bit into his arm and he felt a pulse of energy as she pleaded with him. "Don't try to save me from the pain. Let me save you. I want to do this for you. I don't want you to die."

The heat in her hand grew stronger, and a roar built in his chest. With a wild cry, he bucked against the restraints holding him in place. Restraints that proved he'd been powerless against the Praetorian, but he wasn't helpless anymore. He had the right to refuse the Curavi. And for her sake, he wasn't about to let her heal him.

"Get the fuck away from me. I don't want your goddamn healers touch. I refuse Curavi." The blast of words made him pay a dear price as a cloak of needles wrapped itself around him, digging into every part of his body. He saw the agony flare in her beautiful brown eyes, and deep inside a voice cried out for her. The only thing that kept him from taking his words back was the darkness welling up inside him. He was Praetorian. There was nothing that could change that. But it was his secret. A truth he couldn't share with anyone, not even the woman he loved.

Read additional chapters at Monica Burns Website.

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