Hello friends and curious strangers–the time has come! Here is the first chapter of EXPERTUS, the sequel to TEMPUS.
EXPERTUS is out in just a few weeks! Can’t wait to share the whole thing with y’all!
“Si vis pacem, para bellum.”
If you want peace, prepare for war.
Zay’s slate-colored eyes skated along the perimeter of the crowded restaurant before he returned his attention to the guests at his table. Zay. Mercilessly vigilant, even now, at dinner with friends.
Chapel liked that about him. Liked how his tall frame hummed with energy, even when he was sitting, like a snake coiling back to strike its prey. Chapel knew Zay could be on his feet in a breath, incapacitating any threat before half of a minute brushed off the clock. She liked that about him, too.
She watched Zay’s reflection in a mirror over the bar as he brought a cup to his mouth and took a long, indulgent drink, laughing at something Rush or Marielle just said.
Running a hand down the back of her auburn bob—a wig—Chapel stood. She left a cash tip and slipped from her stool.
Cigar smoke hung in the air like a fog. It stung her eyes and throat, but she breathed slowly, almost relishing in the ache. She enjoyed this part more than she cared to admit—stalking the target.
The men in the room had loosened the knots on their ties, and the women were languishing in their booths. It was late, but Chapel’s mind was alert, her muscles taut.
A set of bookcases divided the bar area from the dining room, and Chapel dipped behind the one Zay’s table was placed in front of. It was loud, but as long as she leaned her head their direction, she could hear most of what was said.
“I think a Seer would round out our team,” Marielle was saying. “I heard Gabriel Luxe is training a new recruit who never misses.”
“We don’t need a Seer,” Rush said, sounding more aggressive than normal. “We need Peaches.”
Marielle made a gagging sound. “You’re worse than Zay.”
Chapel shifted so she could see them. Through the crevice between two thick books, she had a partially obscured view of the three of them.
“All I know is,” Rush said, “that girl has trained more in the last eight weeks than you’ve trained in the last eight months.”
Marielle’s full lips tugged together in a pout. “I don’t like to sweat.”
Zay finished his drink and leaned forward. “Neither does Chapel. But she doesn’t like to lose more.”
Marielle’s dark hair swayed with the slow shake of her head. “I can’t decide if she’s really that good or if you’re really that whipped.”
Rush moaned. “Dang, Marielle. Aren’t you tired of these entry-level missions? Spying on potential recruits? The occasional fist fight?”
Zay rubbed a hand down the side of his smooth jaw. He’d shaved. “I am. I’m ready for our team to move to the next level.” His eyes touched Rush’s, then Marielle’s. “With Chapel as an asset, Jackson will have us upgraded to a Field Team before the end of the year.”
Marielle twirled her straw in her drink, around and around. “If she weren’t your girlfriend, would you be campaigning so hard to have her join us?”
Rush smacked a hand on Zay’s back and laughed. “Of course he would. Have you seen the legs on that girl?”
“Watch yourself, Lopez,” Zay said.
“And if I don’t?”
Zay touched the cufflinks at his wrists. “We’ll go outside and settle it like gentlemen.”
Rush’s mouth twisted in amusement. “My boy, you ain’t never settled anything like a gentleman.”
Everyone at the table laughed and Chapel felt a sick feeling swirling in her stomach.
The server came by and Rush ordered several desserts. He gave a big yawn, settling back into his seat and nodding at Marielle.
“What’s your problem with Peaches, anyway?” he asked once they were alone again. “I thought the two of you had come to some sort of an agreement.”
Marielle speared a piece of rare steak and bit into it with her front teeth. Chapel grimaced. They had been sitting so long it had to be frigid.
“You know, I ask myself that question a lot.” She chewed thoughtfully. “I think it has to do with how she comes off—all concerned and wide-eyed. She’s like bubble gum. Sweet at first, then it loses its flavor.”
“On that happy note.” Zay stood and headed in the direction of the bathroom.
Chapel watched his retreat as annoyance flared from her core outward. It was time.
She closed her eyes and let their conversation melt into the innumerable ambient noises around her: the sound of glass connecting with glass, the undertones of hushed voices, the burn of cigar paper.
Goose bumps swept across her body and she sucked in a breath.
Easing around the bookshelf, Chapel approached the table on Marielle’s side. She wasn’t worried about being seen—she had watched Marielle train. She spent so much time worrying about what was behind her, that she rarely registered anything in front of her face. That was true for most areas of Marielle’s life.
Walking while preparing to use Tempus was a lot like walking and needing to pee. It made Chapel jittery and stiff. That was why, when a server dashed out in front of her with a tray full of drinks, Chapel was thrown off balance. Or maybe it was the four-inch heels.
“Excuse me,” Chapel said, using the shelf to keep herself upright. But what she really wanted to say was, MOVE.
She needed to hurry. She had altered Zay’s drink before it left the kitchen, and its result would be fast-acting.It would prompt a visit to the restroom, induce nausea, and—depending on how much he’d eaten—knock him out for five to ten minutes.
She only needed three.
Anticipation and anxiety clashed inside of her. She couldn’t suppress the growing pool of energy any longer.
Chapel blinked for a breath longer than normal, and when her emerald eyes fluttered opened, everything around her was still and quiet.
She leaned her neck from side to side and focused on pushing through the burn in her thighs. It was getting easier to take immediate action during an episode, but Chapel’s body still resisted.
Jackson said it was because her muscles were convulsing after the explosion of energy she released, and that eventually they would grow accustomed to the phenomenon and relent.
Rush said she just was out of shape.
Chapel crossed to their table and reached inside the pocket of Rush’s suit jacket. Easily, she found what she needed—a silver chain attached to a tarnished watch. It had been his grandfather’s, and inside it was a faded photograph of his parents. She unhooked it from its clip and slipped it into her purse.
Marielle was easier. She had a Japanese butterfly comb holding up one side of her black satin hair. The wings were encrusted with tiny diamonds and pearls, and its antennae were sapphires the same gray blue as Zay’s eyes.
Appropriate, since he had given it to her once for her birthday.
Chapel tugged the piece from Marielle’s hair and tossed it beside Rush’s pocket watch.
“Bubble gum,” Chapel mumbled. She unwrapped a piece that she had in her purse. It was mint, but it would do.
She chewed it until it was good and slobbery before taking it out and sticking it inside Marielle’s half-open mouth. “I’ve got your bubble gum,” she said, clamping Marielle’s jaw shut with a finger.
Chapel was turning to leave when two hands slipped around her waist.
“Hello, Sweet Girl,” Zay said directly into her ear. She shivered. “That was an awfully mean thing you just did.”
Chapel choked back her gasp and swallowed. “She kind of asked for it.” She wiggled against him, but he tightened his grip.
“Maybe,” he said. “But you provoke her. If you ignored her, she’d stop.”
“You’re probably right.” Chapel bared her chin into her chest and jerked. But his hold was secure. “But where’s the fun in that?”
Zay’s laugh tickled her neck. “I’m crazy about you. Did you know that?”
With her restrained arm, she motioned to the table. His attention needed to be divided. “What’s the story tonight? I thought you were working.”
“We just finished and thought we’d have dinner.”
“Tracking a potential recruit? Or Rogues?”
He shook his head. “Classified.”
Chapel tried not to let that sting. “More insider info I can’t know?”
“Pledge Thanatos, and I promise to brief you within an inch of your life.”
She swallowed. “I’m working on it.”
Then she jumped in the air and let her weight drag her to the ground, breaking his hold on her.
She scrambled up and spun around, the fringe on the edge of her dress getting caught between her thighs. She laid her purse on the table to smooth her hemline.
“Maybe next time,” she said, “I’ll think through my mission wardrobe a little better.”
Zay’s eyes sparked like flint striking steel. “Nah,” he said. “I’m into it.”
She fought a smile. “So, tell me. How is it that you’re still awake?”
Zay ran a hand down his tie. His suit contained exactly zero wrinkles.
“Chloral hydrate as a sedative is not a terrible choice.” He started orbiting her as he spoke. “But sometimes, when made by someone of—How should I say it?—limited experience, it can taste salty.”
Chapel gritted her teeth. She knew she’d used too much salt.
She retrieved the purse from the table and matched his movements, not letting her guard down. They circled each other like they had so many other times in the training ring.
“But I watched you drink it all,” she argued.
Chapel chanced a glance at the table. There were so many dishes and glasses, it was difficult to tell whose was whose.
“You switched glasses,” she said. “But with whom?”
“Let’s just say Rush is going to sleep well tonight. Really, really well.”
In a movement so fast she didn’t even flinch, Zay stepped toward Chapel and snatched the purse.
Chapel stopped moving and stamped her foot. “Give that back.”
He raised a single, dark eyebrow. “Seriously?” He motioned to Marielle’s fallen hair. “I remember this challenge. Jackson loves it. The favorite things one, right?”
She was in the middle of a Genex practice test, and Zay was about to ruin it.
Chapel backed up against Zay’s vacated chair. “Yes.”
“Then what were you going to take from me?” he asked, sticking her purse in the back band of his pants. “What’s my favorite thing?”
She pushed her lips together. “Well, I thought about your pride. But Jackson said I have to return with tangible items.”
He moved her direction and she skittered back. Grabbing his suit coat, she rolled it into a ball and threw it at him.
He swatted it away and laughed. “You’ve resorted to throwing things?”
“No,” she said. “I’ve resorted to taking things.” She held up the Shelby’s keys that she’d just lifted from his jacket. “Thanks for the ride home.” Then she popped the scoop of a spoon on the table and let it fly his direction, binging him on the side of the head.
“Hey,” he said, “that hurt.”
She laughed. Using her slight build to her advantage, Chapel slipped between Rush’s chair and the wall.
But Zay was blisteringly quick, and he met her as she was passing on the other side. She laughed as his fingers skimmed her shoulder.
“I knew you were going to be trouble,” he yelled at her back. “But I had no idea.”
Chapel laughed harder.
It took Zay several long strides to bring himself within arm’s reach of her. Chapel felt the pads of his fingers brush her arm just as she slid between the legs of a frozen server. Zay had to go around him and the table he was leaning over, costing him precious seconds.
Chapel circled and headed back the way she came—toward the exit.
But Zay anticipated her movements and met her there, backing her into the row of shelves she’d just hidden behind.
A tug inside her gut let her know that the window Tempus created was coming to a close.
Just over her left shoulder was a stacked-stone fireplace. The flames inside shook and darted in the hearth. She felt its warmth licking at her back.
Chapel took the Shelby’s one and only key and dangled it in the air. “I want to offer a trade,” she said. “Give me the purse and I won’t throw these into the fire.”
Zay stared at her hand. “You wouldn’t.”
“I know Jackson thinks I’ll fail,” she said. “But I need him to believe in me. I need him to fight for me to be Thanatos.” She licked her lips. “So, you tell me. How desperate am I? To get out of this deal with Bellum?”
To highlight her point, Chapel took a step back and draped her arm near the flames. When Zay flinched, she knew she had him.
“But then you won’t have my keys,” he said, eyeing her warily. “You won’t have my favorite thing.”
After two months of being his girlfriend, she knew one thing for certain.
“Won’t I?” She lifted her other hand to her waist.
A slow smile broke across his face. “You’re bad.”
“The baddest good girl Thanatos will have the pleasure of hiring. Now, I’m going to count to three.” If she waited too long, Zay would find a way to outsmart her. “One, two …”
“Wait.” Zay reached behind him and removed the purse. “I’ll give it back. But we’ll make the trade at the exact same time.”
Chapel refrained from showing her excitement. For the first time since she’d entered the restaurant, she thought she might actually accomplish her goal.
“I’m serious,” she said, drawing out her threat. “I’ll do it.”
Zay put her purse on the floor and placed a foot on top of it. “Throw me my key, and I’ll kick you your purse.”
“Zay.” She waited until his gray eyes locked with hers. He was so handsome it made her throat burn.
She let her head tilt to the side as she assessed his expression carefully. His thick, dark eyebrows were lifted slightly as if in question. His lips were gently pursed, drawing attention to the silver pucker of a small scar indenting the top crescent. His gaze was steady, revealing nothing.
“Zay,” she repeated. “Do you promise?”
“Of course,” he said. No inflection. No flinching.
“Okay.” Chapel shifted, her heels pinching against her sweaty feet. “Let’s make the trade.”
Zay nodded. “Ready? One, two, three.”
Chapel tossed the key and let it fly, silver body, end over end, spinning in time with her quickly beating heart. Zay stretched a hand up and snatched it from its arc in the air.
As for the purse, the purse he kicked high in the air right in front of him. It landed in his other hand.
Disappointment flooded her chest. He had tricked her. And it hurt. A lot more than she thought it would.
“You jerk,” she said. She meant to sound angry; instead her voice was thick with tears.
Zay made a frustrated sound “Why did you trust me?”
Chapel cleared her throat before answering. She would not cry. “You gave me your word.”
He pointed to himself. “I am the enemy.”
She jerked the wig off her head, loosing strawberry blonde hair down her back. She scratched at her itchy scalp.
“Our deal was mutually beneficial,” she said. “We didn’t have to be enemies. You just chose to be.”
Zay put both hands on his hips and looked down at her. “Anyone who has something you want is the enemy, Chapel.”
“Well,” she said, “that’s a terrible way to live.”
“That’s the way you have to live now,” he snapped.
Chapel’s eye widened at his tone.
“I’m sorry.” He opened his mouth, shut it, then opened it again. “I just want you to be safe. I just want you to understand the dangers of this way of life.”
Her gut contracted and she almost fell to her knees. Her energy was depleted—it was time to close this thing down.
Behind her was a gap in the bookcases, just wide enough for her petite frame. She stepped through it just as Zay lunged after her. His fingertips brushed down her elbow, but he couldn’t reach far enough to stop her.
“I want to trust you,” she told him. “Even when you have something that I want.”
He moved a stack of books out of the way. His eyes looked sad. “Don’t mistake Zay your boyfriend for Isaiah the Reader,” he said. “When it comes to war, you can’t be suspicious enough.”
“You’re so dramatic.” She reached inside the sleeve of her dress and pulled out a purse—her purse. “And yet, so right.”
Zay’s face froze while he put the pieces together. “When you were messing with your dress,” he said. “You switched your purse with Marielle’s.”
“Confuse the enemy,” she repeated the words he had told her so often. “One of the best methods in defeating someone physically superior to you.”
“Babe.” He was grinning at her now. “That was hot.”
Chapel tried to push a smile to her face, too, but it felt plastic. “Thanks.” Her body shook with a heave, and she walked backward to the door. “Enjoy the rest of your date.”
“I’m working, Chapel.”
She glanced over her shoulder just as she left. “With you, Zay, is there ever a difference?”