The stars had seemed so bright in the dark sky of the North York Moors National Park just a few nights prior, but here, in the heart of Sin City, the lights of the Las Vegas Strip flickered and flashed with such brilliance, that the modest twinkling of those celestial bodies high above could scarcely be seen. It was magnificent, but in the same way the violent wrath of a hurricane inspires awe and wonder.
A shiver rippled down Claire’s spine, not quite in fear, but not so wholly different from it either. She’d been to plenty of big cities, from Glasgow to Alexandria, but this was her first trip to the United States, and this manmade wonder of a city was certainly the most luminous of all the places she’d seen. It seemed to light up every dark corner, leaving no shadows and no place to hide. But that was merely an illusion, was it not? Las Vegas was the epicenter of every wicked pleasure the world had to offer.
Standing at the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, her muscles twitched with the urge to scurry back to the airport. It wasn’t that she was a timid being by any stretch of the word, but a woman with secrets such as hers couldn’t help but feel overly exposed in such brilliant surroundings. Unfortunately, flying off to a dark, little corner of the Earth wasn’t an option.
She’d decided on a whim to catch an early flight, arriving days before she was expected. Now though, she questioned the logic behind spending an unnecessary weekend in the luminescent metropolis. Nevertheless, what was done was done. Besides, with the streets and buildings teeming with people, one woman was unlikely to draw any undue attention.
“You get used to it after a while,” Will Jamieson said good-naturedly in a deep, booming voice that contrasted sharply with his tall, wiry frame as he followed her gaze from one bright sign to the next. “Either that, or you start wearing sunglasses around the clock.”
She laughed, thinking that wasn’t an entirely ridiculous idea.
She’d worked with Will on and off again for the past five years, often ending up in overlapping research projects. He was the only person in the U.S. she knew well, and he also happened to be the assistant in charge of the collection at UNLV. He’d offered to show her around the city when they spoke on the phone last month, but at the moment, the only part of the city she wanted to see was the exit.
Still, he was the whole reason she’d decided to arrive early. He’d been her only friend for years, though they hadn’t spent more than a few days’ time together in the same city. Mostly, they communicated through phone or email. It was safest that way, but it was nice to get together with him outside the professional arena.
Determined then not to make a beeline for the airport, or to hide away in her hotel room, she squared her shoulders and motioned for Will to take the lead. And off they went in a straight line, which brought them to the entrance of one of the most well-known hotels in the city. Another monstrous building, of course, though one lacking the intricate detail of the historic buildings of Armagh or Rome.
Amazed nevertheless, she walked through the glass doors and into the massive lobby, the click of her low heels echoing against the marble floors despite the throng of people milling about. The concierge desk was easy enough to find, and ten minutes later, they were equipped with tickets to the evening’s entertainment: a much-raved about variety show in which they were lucky to snag tickets for, at least according to the concierge.
And it certainly lived up to the concierge’s praise. The acrobatic performance was impressive, a far cry from the traveling circus her uncle had taken her to see as a child. The dancers were truly mesmerizing, moving with so much grace, it appeared as though the laws of gravity didn’t apply to them; that they floated over the glossy surface through every twist and turn.
Even the magician was entertaining. Though the illusionist she’d seen dazzle an audience in Cairo was a uniquely skilled performer, this man—a tall, lean man, despite his fifty years—had a kind of stage presence that captivated the viewer.
It was clear that his act was rising to its pitch when he looked out over the audience. “I’m in need of a volunteer,” he crooned into his microphone.
As he looked over the crowd, she could almost feel the intensity of his gaze as it settled on her. She silently willed him to move on, but it was clear his perusal had ceased as the spotlight centered above her head and he pointed directly to her.
“Would you please come up and help us out, Miss?” he asked expectantly.
Out of a crowd of thousands of people, what were the chances he would have singled her out? Then again, it certainly wasn’t the strangest thing to ever happen to her, was it?
She debated slinking down in her seat, but Will was making a concerted effort to push her out of her seat by her elbow.
“Go on, get up there, Claire!” he encouraged with a big, goofy smile on his face. She would have to clarify with Will later that showing her around Las Vegas did not involve showing her the theater stage—particularly not when there were thousands of people in the seats surrounding it.
Avoiding the stares from the people in the seats next to her, she rose graciously and made her way to the stage, vowing never to return to Las Vegas again.
“And now, I’ll need just one more volunteer,” he called out after she’d joined him on stage and introduced her to the audience.
A man in the front row stood up, though the magician hadn’t called upon him. He started toward the stage, his back straight and his head held just a little higher than anyone else’s. She would’ve assumed it was part of the act if it wasn’t for the way the magician’s mouth gaped open for the briefest of moments. The hush that fell over the audience as the man ascended the stairs and crossed the stage confirmed it.
She had no idea who this man was, but evidently, he was well-known to both the performer and the audience. Though on second glance, it was quite possible that the sheer beauty of the man had stunned the audience into silence. He was tall, well over six feet, and he moved with the mesmerizing grace of a lion stalking its prey. The breadth of his chest and shoulders filled out the impeccable suit he wore, and there was no doubt what laid beneath it was sleek, chiseled muscle.
“Allow me to say what an honor it is to have you on our stage, Mr. Hunter,” the magician said eagerly as the man reached the top of the stairs.
The man—presumably, Mr. Hunter—nodded, accepting the praise graciously, as if he were well accustomed to such responses, which in all likelihood he was. He must be someone important to bring an entire arena full of people to an awed hush.
But there was more to him, she recognized as he came closer; something dark and irresistible, and as the performer welcomed the man to shake her hand, she was grateful she’d had the forethought to wear her gloves, having no desire to make contact with the Adonis before her.
The next few moments passed in a blur as she did her best to focus on the instructions the performer gave her, and as little as possible on the co-volunteer standing far closer to her than she would like. But it was almost over; though she didn’t know anything about the act, she could tell by the rising pitch of the performer’s voice and the taught tension of the crowd the conclusion must come soon.
And when it did—the magician having miraculously interchanged her extremities with Mr. Hunter’s, then returning them to their rightful owners—she bowed and left the stage, taking care to keep her distance from the man.
She returned to her seat just long enough to glare at Will and retrieve her purse. She’d had quite enough of strange magic and even stranger men. When the audience’s attention returned to the stage, she slipped out the back and took a deep, steadying breath in the relative quiet of the lobby.
“Miss,” her co-volunteer spoke from disconcertingly close behind her, effectively scattering whatever calm she’d obtained from fleeing the theater. His voice was deep, smooth and sexy; a voice one could listen to indefinitely and never grow tired of hearing.
That ridiculous thought nearly sent her running as fast as she could, but some small part of her wouldn’t let her leave. Urged toward his darkness by that same treacherous part of her, she turned around.
“I was under the impression the act was over, Mr. Hunter,” she said with more nonchalance than she felt.
“It’s Noah. Come; have a drink with me.”
It wasn’t a question, it was a cocky statement, no doubt bred from the confidence that came from his apparent status and wealth.
“I’m afraid I can’t,” she replied quickly before any part of her—small or otherwise—could ring in with its own opinion.
“You can’t? Why not?” The man was stunned.
He was definitely not the type to be told no with any frequency. He was probably accustomed to having women falling into his bed at the snap of his fingers, and here he was thinking she was no different than the others.
“Because I don’t want to have a drink with you,” she replied bluntly.
It went against her breeding to speak so rudely, but he’d irked her, and really, there was no other way to get through to a man like him—a man who was quite clearly used to getting exactly what he wanted.
“That’s a shame.”
The boyish smile he bestowed upon her did strange things to her insides, but she did her best to ignore it. Fortunately, her bluntness seemed to be enough; he returned to the theater without another word.
As the door closed behind him, she remembered the pretty blonde that had been sitting in the seat next to him, her hand intimately on his thigh. The audacity of the man! He’d been in the middle of a date with one woman, and had come following after her in hopes of securing another? Rude or not, she’d been justified in turning him down.
Feeling mollified over her behavior, she left the building. She proceeded to spend the next two days closeted in her hotel room, burying her nose in research. Not that the man had single-handedly driven her into hiding; research was a necessary crux in her field, though she relished it far more than others.
Of course, it probably wasn’t necessary to her work to have spent more than half the time researching Noah Hunter.
She couldn’t help it. Her mind had returned to him over and over again. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was about him—beyond his arrogant philandering—but something had riled her deeply. The strange feeling he’d evoked inside her had lingered, though she hadn’t touched him once. It wasn’t anything she’d ever experienced before, and perhaps that was what was most disturbing of all.
What was so different about him? she wondered. No matter how many times she tossed the question about in her head, she came no closer to an answer.
Her research was of little help. For a man in the Las Vegas limelight, it was hard to believe there was little more to be found about him other than his name and recent business accolades. Aside from a lengthy list of all the women who’d been seen on his arm, she could find nothing else. And that meant Noah Hunter was a man with secrets. If there had been any doubt, that should have been enough to keep her mind off him, but it didn’t.
He followed her into sleep, half the time plaguing her with nightmares; the rest, bringing her so close to the brink that she woke up covered in a fine sheet of sweat, aching for him to fill her like he had in her dreams.
Her dreams had never been so vivid.
When her alarm sounded at six-o-clock on Monday morning, she awoke easily, gratefully abandoning the disturbing scene that had been playing out in her slumbering mind. Refusing to give the latest dream another moment’s thought, she rose from bed and got on with her morning routine as quickly as possible.
Now that Monday had arrived, she was anxious to make the short trek across town to the university. Her vast credentials, along with a carefully placed call from a fellow archaeologist, gave her access to all the findings from a recent expedition to Southern Jordan. The team of graduate students from the university had uncovered a small, but elaborate Neolithic community in an excavation in Ghwair I. It was a site so close to one that she and her uncle had visited, it was possible the school possessed something that might be of use to her.
Once inside the university, Will greeted her at the department’s entrance. “Do I need to ask how your weekend went?” he goaded with a knowing smile on his face. She had a feeling she knew exactly what he was talking about.
“You don’t need to ask because there’s nothing to tell. I spent the weekend in my hotel room.”
His smile grew brighter, though his eyes looked briefly like she’d stung him.
“Alone, Will. I spent the weekend alone—not that it’s any of your business.”
“You had Noah Hunter following on your heels, and you spent the weekend alone? You know I think the world of you, Claire, but are you crazy?”
“I assure you I am perfectly sane. Now, can we focus on why I’m here?”
He stared at her for a moment as if she was a strange, unidentifiable creature, but then he nodded and opened the door that led to the archaeology department.
They exchanged pleasantries on the way to the laboratory, but she was too distracted to engage in anything more. A thrum of nervous energy revved up in her veins, increasing exponentially with every step.
She half-expected to see the atoms of her body come apart in excitation at any moment, bouncing wildly against the confines of the long corridor. It was always like that each time she stood on the brink of discovery. Though she warned herself every time not to hope for too much, she could never heed her own warnings.
Not this close; not when her search might finally be over.
“So, is there anything particular you’re looking for from the dig?” he asked, guiding her past table after table of seemingly random items.
“Same as always. Ritualistic items, ceremonial tools; anything that might shed light on the spiritual or religious beliefs and practices of the community.”
He motioned to a small collection of items on a stark, metal table at the back of the room and then followed her there, standing back while she looked over the rocks, crude idols and other paraphernalia. She jotted down a few notes on the pad of paper that was ever-present in her purse.
Though it was true that her search had begun as a selfish venture, she had become genuinely fascinated with the plethora of religions that had held sway over civilizations for millennia. Most had similar roots, founded on the basis of worship and sacrifice to a deity or group of divine beings, but each culture was also unique.
Some benign societies sang and danced, and offered crops to their ethereal divinities. Others offered up their own people in sacrifice, like those hanged to Odin, the Norse God of War at Onsholt, or those sacrificed to Mizuchi, Kuzuryū and other vengeful dragons.
For Claire, though, the most fascinating—and terrifying—part of all her research was that it wasn’t all mythology. Other historians and archeologists could look upon their findings with a safe and comfortable detachment, no different than reading a fantastical fairy tale for the first time.
But Claire couldn’t do that. She knew better. She knew that while plenty of it was myths and folklore, some of it wasn’t. But just how much of it was true, she had no idea.
Though her hands trembled now, she slipped off her gloves and reached out to inspect one item and then the next. If she were anyone else, she would have been escorted from the building the moment her uncovered flesh touched the precious items—friend of the guy in charge or not. The relics hadn’t been handled without gloves since they were buried at least ten thousand years ago. But such was the benefit of her position in the archaeological community, and her familial connection to the great William Thomas, her uncle. It gave her the ability to conduct her research in the only way that would prove valuable to her.
Her heart pounded so hard it thumped against the wall of her chest, and the blood in her veins whooshed past her ears, drowning out the hum of the fluorescent lighting above. She passed over one item, and then the next.
She came to the last of the items in the small collection: a rock no larger than her fist, painstakingly carved into the rough shape of an oblong, humanoid-looking being with lopsided breasts and a lumpy, protruding belly. Her fingers lingered there, willing the idol to be the answer to the question that had burned in her brain for too long.
But there was nothing. Nothing was different.
Doing her best to hide her disappointment, she slipped her gloves back on her hands and made an appropriate comment about the magnificence of the team’s discovery. Of course, Will agreed with whole-hearted enthusiasm, obviously pleased with her assessment.
As soon as she was able to, she left the building, though Will followed right behind her. There was no way he could know how big of a disappointment the collection had turned out to be, and she couldn’t tell him. So, she did her best to plaster a smile on her face as they strode down the street in companionable silence.
Seconds passed, or maybe it was minutes—she wasn’t sure—but she spied an open-air café up ahead and swerved off the sidewalk toward one of the empty seats, narrowly missing stepping on Will’s toes in the process. She apologized, but he waved it off.
“Distracted by thoughts of something tall, dark and handsome?” he smiled, apparently attributing her misstep to the infamous Noah Hunter.
Before she could respond, a waiter appeared and she gave her order to the young man, who couldn’t have been a day past nineteen. He did his best to maintain eye contact with her as he spoke, she could tell, but his gaze kept slipping, like so many young men’s gazes were apt to do, covering her from neck to toes and back again in a single sweep. The light blush that crept across his cheeks as he met her eyes again was adorable. It was clear to her he was a guileless young man, and it made her smile, though carefully, so as not to encourage anything more.
She wondered, as he strode inside, how different his response to her would have been if he knew the truth?
“I don’t get it Claire,” Will said when the waiter was out of earshot. “You could have your pick of any guy out there—from gangly, young waiters to filthy rich hotel owners—and yet, I’ve known you for the better part of five years, and I can’t remember you talking about hooking up once. Not once.”
“Maybe I just believe in discretion,” she said, not willing to admit that there was a very good reason she hadn’t spoken about a single man in the past five years: there hadn’t been any. But it wasn’t easy for Claire; being with a man was a lot more complicated than it was for most people.
“Yeah, maybe,” he conceded with suspicion evident in his tone. “So, tell me then, what was wrong with Mr. Bigshot the other night?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied sarcastically, “Maybe arrogant, egotistical, rich boys just aren’t my type.”
He laughed. “So, you’d prefer the meek, poor guys? Because if that’s the case, I don’t know why we didn’t hook up years ago.”
He was teasing, of course—or at least mostly. He’d expressed his interest in her shortly after they’d met. She’d let him down as kindly as she could and was pleasantly surprised when he stuck around, content with the friendship they’d developed since.
“He was on a date, Will. What kind of guy asks someone out when he’s with another woman?”
“The kind of guy that gets a lot of women. And so what? I’m not suggesting you marry the guy, but where’s the harm in a little pleasure-seeking? They don’t call this place Sin City for nothing, Claire.”
Dismissing the conversation, and the image of pleasure-seeking with Noah Hunter that it brought to mind, she slipped off her gloves, pulled out the pad of paper from her purse and crossed off the Ghwair I excavation from her list. There were only eight possibilities left: four of them in the Americas, and the others in India, Nigeria, Turkey and the Scottish Highlands. She’d researched and investigated dozens of sites and archeological collections, trying to retrace all the places she and her uncle might have visited or the collections they might have come in contact with. As much as she hated to admit it, it became more likely each day that all her effort had been in vain. Still, she couldn’t help but to browse through the notes she’d made about each of the remaining sites and collections.
No, she wasn’t ready to admit defeat just yet. There was still hope.
As the young waiter arrived with her coffee, she breathed in the fresh, pungent scent. Stuffing the notebook back in her purse, she closed her eyes, determined to focus on nothing but the sun’s warmth on her skin and the gentle breeze that served to moderate the day’s heat. There would be plenty of time to plan her next step. For now, all she needed was a few minutes to not think, not worry.
A few minutes to forget all about the heavy weight she carried around on her shoulders.
Damn Noah Hunter for creeping into her head right then, filling her mind with ideas—ideas that might just be inappropriate, even for Sin City.