Love, Artifacts, and You

Cover of the best adventure romance Love, Artifacts, and You by Sarah Ready. This is a romance book and includes friends to enemies to lovers, treasure hunting, and a happily ever after.

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Love, Artifacts, and You is the best treasure hunting action adventure romance novel. If you love Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone, you need to check out Love, Artifacts, and You today!


Read the excerpt:

Andrew

I lift the Heart of the Empress from its watery tomb and lock my eyes, not on the gemstone, but on Emma. Her eyes reflect the glow of the lanterns, and the sparkle of the world’s largest pigeon blood ruby.

“We found it,” she whispers. Her awe-filled voice echoes around the rocky limestone walls of the cenote.

We found it.

She reaches toward me, her fingers hang in the air, five feet away at the edge of the murky pool. She’s in dirt-caked cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt and boots, and she’s covered in cobwebs and cave muck. I feel a smile curve on my lips. And it’s because I know she’s reaching for me, not for the two-hundred-karat ruby I’m holding above the water.

The look on her face. It makes me hungry, makes me think of kissing her, of laying under the stars in the humid, sap-scented heat and kissing her lips.

We did it.

My Uncle Rigo lets out a ragged yell of astonishment. “You did it, boy. You did it! Your mother, she’s watching over you. She sent you this luck. You’ve the golden touch, boy. The golden touch!” He whips around to Edward Castleton, Emma’s father. “What did I tell you? My nephew is a bloodhound. You owe us more than the porter’s fee, Castleton. Much more.”

“Let me see it,” says Castleton in a hard, whip-like voice. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end and I itch to look behind me.

Emma breaks my gaze and looks toward Castleton. “Dad?”

“Give it to me, boy,” he snaps.

I carefully step over the bottom of the pool and wade toward the water’s edge. The closer I get to shore, the heavier the ruby feels in my hand. Castleton watches the gem with flinty, steel-hard eyes.

My uncle claps his hands and chuckles to himself.

I glance down at the Heart of the Empress. She looks just like the drawings in Cortez’s journals. A ten-inch heart made of solid gold, covered in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, hundreds of gemstones, and at the center a two-hundred-karat blood red ruby.

Men would kill for this. My skin goes cold but I brush the thought aside.

Not these men.

I’ve been with Castleton for thirteen years, since I was four years old. My guardian, Uncle Rigo, is his porter. We haul his luggage, set up camp, cook his meals, take care of his travel arrangements, ease the way with locals, and sometimes, like on this trip, help with the hunt.

For the past three months we’ve been sleeping at the edge of this cenote, a twisting underground cavern that opens like a gaping mouth into the thick rainforest. We’re in conquistador territory of centuries past—a two-day hike to the nearest village.

Every day we followed the maze of the watery labyrinth described in Cortez’s journal. Left, right, right, left at the cross, right at the spider rock, left. Then, dive into the pool at the heart of the cavern, murky as an uncut gem.

The floor of the pool, fifteen feet down, was jagged like the shards of a broken glass strewn over a muddy floor. For days, I dove to the bottom. I’d pull in a breath and kick my way down into the murky green water lit only by my dim waterproof headlamp. I dredged the bottom and searched the shallow cracks, until finally, I found her. The Heart.

I step onto the solid gray limestone floor of the cave. The cold water sluices from my clothing and makes a puddle at my feet. I shake the water off my face and out of my eyes. Castleton and my uncle crowd me at the edge of the pool. Emma stands on her tiptoes behind them. She’s always complaining that five-foot-two is an unfair height. She hops up and down, but I bet she still can’t see. I’ll hear about it later. The thought makes me smile and takes away the last vestiges of foreboding.

“Let’s see it,” Castleton says. He holds out his hands. They’re perfectly smooth, bone white, with round, clean nails.

My hands, wrapped around the Heart, are tanned and chapped, with broken nails that seem permanently encrusted with dirt. No matter how often I clean them, the next day, I work and they’re dirty again.

I set the heavy artifact in his clean hands.

He lets out a long sigh, like the sigh you give after watching the last orange of the sunset slip under the sea.

“The Heart of the Empress.” His voice reverberates in the cave.

He holds up the stone to the lantern’s light, and even coated in centuries of grime, the blood ruby still glows, just as it must have in Queen Isabella’s court.

My uncle chuckles the hearty, happy laugh he reserves for lost artifact finds. “My nephew! Your son recovered the Empress’s Heart, what do you think of that, Celia?” he asks. “I may only be a porter, but someday, someday soon, your son will be someone. Someone!” He’s talking to my mom, his only sister, dead for thirteen years now. He does it when he’s overwhelmed with emotion or head-cracking drunk. Right now, he’s overwhelmed.

I look over Rigo’s shoulder at Emma and wink.

She pushes her long thick bangs out her eyes and shares a smile of happiness and laughter.

We did it.

My uncle is still talking, “He’s an artifact bloodhound, he is. We’re talking partnership. Fifty-fifty split.”

Castleton says something in response.

I don’t listen. I don’t care about the find. That’s for Castleton and my uncle. Let them worry about money and fees and partnerships. None of that matters to me.

What do I want?

Emma.

Emma and me together. Kissing under the stars.

Tonight, Emma mouths at me.

I give a subtle nod of my head.

Tonight.

***

I sneak through the inky tropical darkness. The insects and the night creatures howl and whine, covering up any noise I could make. It’s nearing midnight. Castleton and my uncle stayed up late, drinking and toasting each other around the flickering fire. They passed the Heart of the Empress back and forth with the liquor bottle.

I cleaned up, made dinner and started to pack up camp. We’ll be leaving tomorrow, or the next day at the latest. We’ll head to the city, where Castleton will get the ruby to the proper channels. Then we’ll head to the airport, and to the location of our next hunt.

Except for Emma, she’ll fly back to New Hampshire for her final year of boarding school. Tonight might be our last night together for another ten months. I rub at my chest, I’ve always hated it when she leaves for school.

For the last eight years, Emma’s spent summers with her dad at base camp. Which meant she spent them with me. Summers are my favorite time of year, no matter where I am in the world. Because summer means Emma.

I press my fingers to the flap of her tent and listen. There’s no noise from inside. There’s only the loud night whir of the forest. Maybe she’s already asleep? Then, her hand reaches out of the tent and grabs my calf. She yanks me down and I roll through the low entrance. My breath rushes out in a sharp oomph.

Laying on the nylon covered ground, I stare up at the peak of Emma’s tent. The full moon shines through the blue fabric and gives the tent a soft luminescent glow. Emma scrambles on all fours toward me and her face appears over mine. I have enough light to make out the freckles sprinkled over her nose and cheeks, even the one just above her lip that makes me want to kiss her every time I see it. When I first saw her, I was ten, and I thought those freckles meant she’d be trouble. I was right.

“Took you long enough,” she whispers. Then her mouth spreads into a wide grin.

I take a deep breath and pull in the smell of castor soap, bug spray, and loamy forest.

“They stayed up late celebrating,” I say.

Castleton and my uncle don’t know that Emma and I meet at night. When we were younger we had the run of the camp. As long as my chores were done we could play or swim or dig or run free. But the year Emma turned fourteen, Castleton turned a disapproving eye on our friendship. And Uncle Rigo gave me the talk. Emma was not for me.

The disapproving stares from Castleton and my uncle’s talk kept us apart when they were around. But, every other minute of the day we stuck together.

“They were discussing partnership,” I say. I sit up and lean against Emma’s raised cot. She settles in next to me.

“Good. They should. You’ve been instrumental in every find since the USS Seafarer and that was three years ago,” she says. “If I had my way, you’d have been partner years ago.”

I shrug and she shoves at my shoulder.

“Don’t shrug at me. You have so much potential. You could be the greatest archeologist in the world. You have so much knowledge and more experience than most tenured professors. I don’t understand why you don’t want more.”

She pauses, then climbs up onto her cot. I follow her and spread out next to her. It feels sinful to lay in a bed with her. My hand aches to reach out and touch her.

“What would I do with more?” I ask. “More makes people miserable. I see it all the time, in every country I’ve visited. The more people have, the more miserable they are. Once you get more—more prestige, more money, you spend the rest of your life chasing even more of it and being terrified you’ll lose all of it. No thank you.”

Emma lets out a short huff. She rolls on her side and looks at me. Her eyes are wide, deep pools in the moonlight. “So what do you want? What would make you happy?” she asks.

I stare at the freckle above her lip and ache for it.

Emma licks her lower lip and I hold back a groan. Her eyes go dark.

“Do you remember when we first met?” she asks. She reaches out and brushes her fingers across my jaw. My heart beats wildly in response.

“You said I was a barbarian,” I say with a smile.

“A Visigoth,” she says.

“That’s right. I remember.” A Visigoth, to nine-year-old Emma, was a horrible insult, since the Visigoths sacked Rome and destroyed all its treasures. The Visigoths left the jewel of the Roman empire a smoking ruin, a shell of its former self.

She nods. “But then my dad told me if I didn’t like you he’d fire your uncle and send you away. He told me if you ever displeased me, he’d send you both back to the third-world slum he found you in—back to picking pockets and sniffing glue fumes off your hands.”

“Really pleasant,” I say.

I’d heard the story from her before. The years before my uncle took me in are a hazy blur. I remember my mom begging on a street corner, and hunger so intense it became a consuming monster. I remember stealing tourists’ wallets for a man who in return gave me a coin and a splatter of glue on my hands. I’d inhale the fumes to numb the hunger. Then one morning my mom was gone. Someone sent word to my uncle. At age four, I became his ward. No one could find my father, an American I’d never met.

Then Dr. Castleton found us. He realized I spoke six languages fluently, a survival mechanism learned from conning tourists. He learned that my uncle had a broad back and the ability to navigate any circumstance, and he decided to bring us along on his hunts.

Emma raises her eyebrows. “My dad’s protective.”

“Yes,” I agree.

She frowns and touches her fingertips to my jaw, featherlight. My heart speeds up.

“I decided that day that I’d do everything in my power to like you.” Her lips twitch, then curve into a smile. “There’d be nothing to stop me from becoming your best friend, so my dad would never send you away.”

“I made it hard,” I say.

“You were terrible.”

“I thought you were a snotty princess.”

“I am,” she says. She lets out a happy laugh.

I lean forward and brush my lips over hers. Her laugh cuts off with a gasp. Then her fingers slide up my jaw, to my cheek, through my hair. I taste her, wood-smoke and mint, fresh water and jungle. She’s the one thing, the only thing on earth that I’ve ever wanted more of. Emma is my more.

She pulls her mouth away. I reach for her and she pushes me away.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

My brain is fuzzy, I can’t remember her question.

“What will make you happy?” she asks.

I look at her, bathed in filtered moonlight, laying on her cot, in the cocoon of her small tent, and my chest is so full.

“You,” I say in a low voice.

She takes in a sharp breath. “I’ve decided. I’m not going to Oxford,” she says.

I stare at her in shock. She looks back resolutely.

“What? No. That’s your dream. You’ll go to Oxford, get your PhD, run Castleton once your dad retires, sit on the boards of a thousand museums around the world…” The last is a joke, but not by much.

“It’s not my dream if I can’t do it with you,” she says. “None of it matters if you’re not there too.”

I’m not going to Oxford. We both know it. No university in the world would accept me. A boy, born in an alley, pulled off the streets, who’s never gone to school, who could barely sit still long enough to learn to read and write. My mother never learned to read, my uncle only knows how to sign his name. No, university isn’t for me.

“I’ll be here.” I gesture around the tent, meaning that I’ll be with her father on the hunt. “I’ll wait for you.”

She shakes her head. “After I graduate high school, I’ll start at Oxford. There’ll be no time to come back. My dad is already talking about it. Summer classes, internships, tours, straight through until I get my PhD. He won’t let me back on the hunt. I won’t see you. Not for six years, eight years, maybe more. I can’t do it. I won’t.”

There seems to be less air in the tent when I think of the years she won’t be here. But still.

“You’re seventeen,” I say, “Don’t throw your future away.”

When my uncle gave me the talk, he told me that Emma wasn’t for me. That she belonged to a boy in America. A boy that went to a school like hers, that had a family pedigree like hers, that had old money and culture like her. A boy that matched her and raised her up. Not one that brought her down.

I didn’t understand him until now.

If Emma gives up Oxford, or going to university to stay with me, she’ll be stuck. Just like the ruby was stuck at the bottom of the pool, no one will be able to see Emma shine, or see her brilliance. I’d bury her light.

“You’re seventeen too,” she says, and she pushes at my shoulder. I let out a grunt. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what you want.”

I can’t, she knows I can’t.

I’ve always wanted her.

“We both know you have better things waiting for you,” I say.

She nods. “I have things waiting. A big old creaky estate built back in 1792. A fancy degree from one of the best schools in the world. Charity galas, museum exhibit openings.”

I picture her in a ballgown under the golden chandeliers of a museum exhibit hall. The dress is tight over her chest and frothy like sea foam around her hips. It’s like the formal dress in the photo she showed me from her debutante ball. She glows amidst the gold-streaked marble columns in my mind.

“I have lots of things waiting,” she says. “But I’d rather be with you in a tent, dirty and exhausted after a day of digging, than anywhere else in the world.”

I close my eyes and picture what that would look like.

“Your dad would disown you,” I say.

“Probably. I bet he wants me to marry Justin Van Cleeve.”

My eyes open and I stare at the ceiling, trying to remember what the Van Cleeve kid looked like. He was her escort to the debutante ball. Blond wavy hair, a dimple in his chin, tall, moneyed, wore the formal suit like he’d been in one plenty of times before. A twinge of irritation flashes through me.

I’m the antithesis of Van Cleeve. I have thick black hair, brown eyes so dark they look black, sun dark skin, and jeans and long t-shirts washed so many times I can’t remember their original color.

“So after your dad disowns you, then what?” I ask.

She grins at me. “We live out of our tent.”

“How will we get food, money?”

“We could live near a tourist archeological site. Maybe somewhere near here. You’d be a translator, I’d be a guide. At dusk, you’d go out and catch fish. I’d find fruit, fresh mango. We’d cook our food over the fire. Then we’d sit under the stars. You’d be tired, so I’d rub your back. I’d be sleepy, so you’d hold me close. Then we’d go in our tent and lay down on our cot.”

“We’d be married?” I ask.

“Mhmm,” she says.

“We’d be poor,” I say.

“Rich in love.”

My breath catches. She’s never said she loves me. I’ve never told her.

I inch my hand over the cot and find her fingers. I take her hand in mine and gently squeeze.

The thought is as appealing as the siren songs of ancient Greece. I want what she’s describing so badly.

“Someday, we’ll start our own business, Santiago and Castleton. You heard your uncle, you’re a bloodhound. I’ll find the dig sites, you’ll find the artifacts. We’ll be unstoppable.”

I hear a twig snap outside the tent. Both of us tense and go quiet. We’ve always been careful to never be caught. We stay still and silent for a minute, two, finally I relax.

“It was nothing,” I say.

She nods, then she leans closer. “I was thinking…”

“What?” I ask.

“Have you ever wondered…”

“What?” My heart thuds at the low tone of her voice.

She takes a deep breath. “Have you ever wondered…what it would be like to make love?”

I go hard in half a second and grow dizzy as the blood rushes from my head.

Holy ever loving…

I’d trade a thousand rubies to hear her say that again.

“Emma…”

She wrinkles her nose. “Oh. You haven’t.”

“Emma—”

She shifts and moves to get up from the bed.

“Sorry,” she says. “I just thought…we were talking about—”

I grab her arm and pull her down. She lands on top of me and the cot shudders under us. She wiggles against me and I know the moment she feels how hard I am because she goes completely still. Her eyes go wide and she pulls in a sharp breath.

“Oh,” she whispers.

I feel like I’m on fire. The only thing I can concentrate on is where her warm body presses into mine. She relaxes further into me and slowly, slowly, I wrap my arms around her back and imprison her against me.

She stretches out over me and drags herself along my length. I groan at the flash of agony. Then I draw in a breath and thrust up toward her. She sends her hands to my shoulders and presses her lips to my jaw.

My word.

“I’ll come back,” she says. She rocks against me. “After I graduate. I won’t go to university. I’ll come back to be with you.”

“I’ll wait for you,” I promise. “I want you to go to university. I want you to meet your potential. I’ll wait.” Forever, I’d wait forever.

I can barely think. I want more than anything to make love to her, to strip her naked and make love under the stars.

Another twig snaps. Then another.

The fog clears from my mind and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end for the second time in twenty-four hours. The forest has gone completely quiet.

I stiffen and push up onto my forearms.

The forest only goes quiet when there’s a predator nearby.

“What is—”

“Shhh.” I press my hand to her lips.

I roll off Emma and silently come to my feet. I have to crouch in her tent. I step carefully toward the entrance. When I’m there I pause and gesture at Emma to stay back.

I have a machete in my tent. Castleton has a gun for protection against wild animals. Something is here. I can feel it in the way the silent jungle holds its breath, like a jaguar right before it jumps.

Emma materializes next to me. “What is it?” she whispers.

I shake my head.

“Stay he—”

The sharp crack of a gunshot thunders through the silence.

Emma screams.

I grab her, clamp my hand over her mouth.

A man yells. Another gunshot. I hear my uncle scream. It’s hoarse and full of pain. A thick fiery fear burns through me.

Someone’s here. They’re here for the ruby, or for us, or…I don’t know. But they’re here to hurt us.

I take Emma’s hand and drag her through the camp. We run low, close to the ground, sprint toward the thick trees and vines. At the trees, I push Emma in, usher her toward the low, fat-leafed bushes.

“Hide. Get in,” I say.

Another gunshot cracks in the night. My uncle screams again. There’s shouting, the sound of fists hitting flesh and garbled words.

“Run, get out, run!” That’s Castleton. He’s screaming, and then, he’s cut off.

Emma gasps. The whites of her eyes glow with fear in the moonlight.

“Get in, get in.” I push her under the thick bushes. No one will see us under them.

Castleton shouts out again, a garbled, pained noise.

“Andrew!” she cries.

There’s the beating of feet on the ground. The shouts of at least a dozen men. One sends out a call. A flashlight spears the darkness behind me. I’ve been seen. I have a split second to make a decision.

I hold Emma’s eyes. Maybe for the last time. But if I can run back, draw them away from her, then…it’s worth it.

There’s a flash of some emotion I can’t name in her eyes.

“No!” she cries.

“Yes,” I say.

I yank the bushes down and sprint through the undergrowth back to camp. The men at the tree line chase after me. There’s at least eight on my tail. I jump over the hot coals of the fire. The heat singes my pants. My tent is less than ten feet away, the machete just inside the entrance. I can grab it and lead the men deeper into the forest, farther from Emma.

I see my uncle, bathed in darkness, prone on the ground. Two men stand over him.

I hear another guttural yell from across camp. Castleton?

I dive to the entrance of my tent. I shove the flaps aside, grasp the handle of the machete and swing around.

I see too many things at once.

The man over my uncle cocks his gun and aims at my uncle’s still body.

Castleton is shoved toward the light of the fire.

The group of men surrounds me in a tight semi-circle.

I see everything as if it’s a still life, or a memory, and I’m no longer living this life. I see it as if I’m standing outside of myself. A numbing chill sweeps over me and pulls me back into myself.

I raise the machete in front of me, like a prayer. As if a single blade used to chop through jungle growth can save us all.

Please.

I count thirteen men.

What have they done to my uncle, to Emma’s father? What will they do to us?

The man above my uncle pulls the trigger. My uncle jerks but doesn’t make a sound.

They won’t let us live.

I shout and run at the man in front of me. I swing the blade, readying for it to cut into flesh.

A shot sounds.

Before the noise stops, a burning agony rips through me. I fall forward, crash to the ground. The machete buries itself in my thigh.

They shot me. They…

A scream rips through the night.

Emma.

My Emma.

Blackness roars over me in consuming, searing pain.

***

Six Months Later

I tear through the jungle, ripping vines and thorns away with bleeding hands. I can hear them behind me. The men—I call them the wardens—chase me down. Each labored breath is a jagged knife in my lungs. I’ve lost at least thirty pounds in the last months. I’ve no muscle or flesh left to power me. I’m running on will alone.

My uncle is dead. They killed him yesterday when he was too feverish and weak to enter the mines. For weeks I’d been dragging him in the mine behind me, giving him half of my finds so he’d live long enough for us to escape—I’d stopped waiting for help to come months ago.

In the mines we’re chained together, six in a group, the metal lengths bind us as we crawl deep into the stagnant hell where we search for stones. If you don’t bring out quota, you’re beaten. If you can’t walk to go in, you die.

Every day that Uncle Rigo didn’t find anything, I’d give him enough stones to keep him safe. He never healed properly from the gunshot wounds. Six months ago, I was young and still healthy, I was well within a week. “Your mother, she’s watching over you,” he’d say. “She’s your angel. That Emma too, she’s well, you’ll see. Your mother will keep you safe.”

I didn’t remind him that my mother didn’t keep me safe on the streets when she was alive. What could she do when she was dead?

I hold onto the prayer that Emma is alive. That she escaped. That she’s safe and not in another hell, like this one. After they took me and my uncle, they drove us south for days, bound and blindfolded in the back of an SUV, until we reached the mines. Hell.

I crash through a thicket full of stinging vines and thorn-covered trees. I stumble and catch myself on a tree trunk. An inch-long spike pierces my palm. I let the pain clear my head. A shot of adrenaline pumps through me.

They’re only fifty yards behind me. Gaining.

I veer to the right. I can see light. The sky. I haven’t seen the clear blue of the sky in so many months. I go in the mine before sunrise and come out after dark. The blinding blue spurs me on. I’ll reach it. I’ll find help. Emma.

I race into the clearing. The sunlight blinds me. I blink at my surroundings as my heart thunders in my chest.

Run, it says, run. Get away.

There’s a dirt track ahead, a mud-slicked SUV pulls in front of me.

I shout out.

The SUV stops. Blocking the road past.

The door opens. Crudell steps out. A vicious smile spreads across his face.

“Well. Well, well, well,” he says.

Red covers my vision, blinding out the blue sky, the sun, my freedom.

Crudell is the cruelest, most sadistic man I’ve ever known. And yesterday he killed my uncle. I let out the noise of a wild animal. I rush him.

He raises his arm and hits me across the head with his club.

***

One Year Later

Crudell’s fist smashes into my nose. I feel the bone break. My eyes sting and white spots flash in my vision. Blood rushes out of my nose and it starts to swell. I pull in air through my mouth and taste the coppery blood dripping from my nostrils.

“How many now?” asks Crudell.

I squat against the wall of his office, a shabby wooden structure with two small windows and a coveted portable air conditioner. There’s a corkboard on the wall with a yellowed map of the mine thumbtacked in place. Crudell catches me looking at it and hits me again.

I shake away the dizziness.

I lean against the wood. My wrists are cuffed together and looped into a large metal screw in the wall.

“How many?” he asks.

“Six,” says the man I call Bigfoot. Mainly because I’ve never heard his name and he always kicks the people who don’t move fast enough.  

Six refers to the number of times I’ve tried, and failed, to escape.

“I should kill you,” says Crudell.

I watch the expression on his face. He wants to, but for some reason he won’t.

Blood runs backward from my nose down my throat. I spit onto the termite-gnawed gray wood floor.

“You’re right,” says Crudell. “I can’t. I’m paid one hundred thousand dollars to keep you alive.”

My head snaps up. I look at him. What’s he saying?

He studies the swelling of my face. Then, “That’s right. Every year you live, here, with me, I get a hundred thousand more.” He smiles his snakelike smile.

One hundred thousand? For me? To keep me in this hell?

“Ah, I have your attention,” he says, pleased with himself. “Ask me,” he says. He leans back against his desk, a metal monstrosity rust-stained from years of sitting in jungle humidity.

I don’t ask him. I made it a rule on the day I met him to never engage in conversation. He holds out his long-fingered hands. “Yes, exactly, you want to know who pays me to keep you.”

I turn my attention away from him to the map on the wall. Maybe there’s another way out I haven’t found.

“Emma Castleton,” he says.

I don’t register the name at first, it sounds so different coming from him. But slowly it sinks in. Against my will, I turn back to him.

My eyes sting and my vision blurs.

“What did you do to her?” I snarl, breaking my own long-held rule. “Where is she? If you’ve hurt her I’ll kill you. I’ll—”

Crudell laughs as if this is the funniest thing he’s ever heard, and then Bigfoot joins him.

Crudell dabs at his face with a red bandana then shoves it back into the pocket of his shirt. The smile fades from his face, like it was never there. He walks around his desk, opens a drawer, pulls out a manila folder and drops it onto the desk’s cluttered surface.

“I wondered,” he says, “how, even though you can barely stand upright…”—he looks over my bony and starved frame—“how you keep escaping. Then I realized…” He snaps his fingers and holds up a piece of paper. “You still have hope. Hope is power. Maybe you thought the girl was your friend?”

I grit my teeth together.

“Or you thought you loved her?” He watches me carefully, then his eyes glint and he lets out a low laugh. “Oh, that’s delicious. You did.”

He walks in front of me and holds the paper up a foot from my face.

I won’t look. I won’t.

But I do.

It’s the copy of a deposited check. One hundred thousand dollars, signed in elegant, flowing cursive, Emma Marie Castleton.

My stomach twists, refuses to accept it.

I lunge at Crudell. The handcuffs, looped into the screw on the wall, jerk me back.

I’ll escape. What has he done to her? I’ll get out and I’ll kill him.

***

Two Years Later

Eighteen attempts.

All failed.

I lay on the termite-gnawed floor of Crudell’s office.

The rough wood scratches my face. Sweat trickles down my forehead and mixes with the blood from my broken lip. I close my eyes and savor the coolness of the floor against my skin. I heave in another breath. Outside, the night is pitch black but the darkness does nothing to remove the oppressive heat.

Crudell squats down next to me.

“Another check from Miss Castleton,” he says. I hear the paper crinkle as he waves it in front of me. “Look at it,” he demands.

I open my eyes. See the date. Two years, it’s been two years. I see her signature.

“What have you done to her?” I ask. They’re the first words I’ve spoken to him in a year.

I dream of her. Picture her taken, blackmailed, scared.

Crudell’s eyes flash. Surprise. He’s surprised.

“Ah,” he says. “I didn’t realize.”  

He walks over to his desk. I take the time to close my eyes and dream of water. Cold water. Being clean. Sunlight. A table full of food, crispy bacon, crusty bread, a cold, juicy slice of watermelon. Chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips sprinkled on top.

An image of Emma, the freckles sprinkled over her cheeks and nose, flashes in my mind. She smiles at me and I dream of kissing the freckle over her mouth.

“Here. This should clear matters up for you,” says Crudell.

I open my eyes, come back to the present of aching bones, gnawing hunger and eternal thirst. It takes me a moment to understand what Crudell is showing me.

It’s a magazine. There’s a glossy photo as part of an article.

I blink, make my eyes focus on the image. It’s a woman holding the…the Heart of the Empress. The woman smiles at someone off camera. Not me, she’s not smiling at me.

My chest constricts and I feel as if I’m back in the depths of the mine. In the dark. There’s a howling in my ears.

The caption reads, Miss Emma Castleton donates forty-million-dollar artifact to the Metropolitan Museum, receives accolades.

The howling in my ears becomes a whine, a whimper, then builds again.

“Take me back,” I growl.

“What’s that?” asks Crudell.

The picture goes blurry. Who’s she smiling at?

She’s not scared. She’s not hurt. She’s glowing. Happy. More beautiful than before.

The howling drowns out everything else.

I hit my fists against the wood floor.

Slam. Slam. Slam.

“Take me back to the mine. Take me back.”

I need the darkness.

***

Three Years Later

No escape attempts in the last year.

Crudell has another check for one hundred thousand dollars.

He brings me to his office.

Shows me articles and photographs.

Emma at a gala dancing with Justin Van Cleeve.

Emma at a museum opening with her father. Yes, he’s alive.

Emma. Justin. More Emma. Her father. Emma.

Hope turns to hate.

***

Five Years Later

The mine presses down on me. The five people chained behind me claw at the walls. Tonight. I’m going to escape tonight. Five years. I’ve been in this hell for five years.

Crudell is dead. Dengue took him last week.

I’ll miss his little photo parades of Emma.

I grin into the darkness. I know I look terrifying when I smile. Mostly because when I bare my teeth the others always scramble away from me or hastily do the sign of the cross.

This mine has stripped the humanity from me.

No. She did.

Because she and her father wanted the Heart.

They wanted more.

I let out a low, scratchy laugh. The people behind me pause, wait to see if I’ve lost my mind. When I don’t do anything else they start digging again.

I want more now too.

Tonight, I’ll escape this hell and when I do I’ll destroy her. I’ll make her pay for every second of suffering, every ounce of pain. I’ll destroy her life and everything she loves. I swear on my mother, on my uncle, on God.

I’ll destroy Emma Castleton.

I’ll ruin her.

I’ll make her wish she’d never, ever laid eyes on me.

I’ll make her pay.

I’ll be the Visigoth to her Rome. I’ll leave her a smoldering, smoking ruin. A heart of ashes. She named me right all those years ago. I’ll be her destruction.

My latest treasure hunting action adventure romance Love, Artifacts, and You launches on October 26th, 2021. This is book 4 of the Soul Mates in Romeo Romance Series.

Best romance book, romantic comedy, contemporary romance, Chick Lit Best romance writer

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