The Passion Season:
Book I of the Covalent Series
by Libby Doyle
Genre: urban fantasy/paranormal romance
He is Barakiel. Warrior. Exile. Hopeless romantic. Barakiel is Covalent, a race of ancient beings who use their great power to keep the elemental forces of Creation and Destruction in Balance. The Covalent Council exiled Barakiel to the Earthly Realm as the price of the treachery of his father, Lucifer, who wages perpetual war against it. Lucifer also relentlessly pursues his son. The Council thinks Lucifer views his son’s power as a threat, but Barakiel knows his father seeks to destroy even the memory of love.
She is Alexandra “Zan” O'Gara. FBI Agent. Army veteran. Recovering drunk. Zan’s troubled past left her with little interest in men, but she had never encountered anyone like the stunning Rainer Barakiel. Zan believes Rainer is a wealthy businessman with expertise in edged weapons who can help her with a case. From the moment she meets him she wants him more than she’s ever wanted anything, but her intense attraction is as frightening as it is thrilling.
This is their love story. As Zan’s deepening feelings for Rainer lead her to confront her emotional damage, he struggles to meet the demands of his home world so he will be free to love her, and to reveal his true nature. Through the gruesome crime that first brought Zan to his door, Barakiel learns that his presence in the Earthly Realm has placed some of its most vulnerable citizens in danger. Compelled to protect them, he undertakes a series of duties he may not survive, even as Zan rescues him from centuries of a deadened heart.
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The antique weapons collector to whom Professor Carson had referred Zan owned several acres along the Delaware River in the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia, slightly north of the Betsy Ross Bridge. She pulled over on Richmond Street for a minute or two to go over the background check the clerk had included with her copy of the consulting agreement.
Rainer Barakiel, 33, had immigrated to the United States from Germany nine years previous. The owner of several offshore companies, he was known for his philanthropy, especially his support of the Philadelphia Orchestra and environmental organizations. He was also known for his avid pursuit of antique bladed weapons, no matter the cost. The man spent a lot of money on violins as well, the kind that had names. Her information did not include a picture. Zan wondered what a guy who collected weapons and violins would look like.
She paused to gape for a moment when she arrived at the address. The place could withstand a siege. It was ringed by a high stone wall in front of an even higher line of thick hedges and black alders, with a stand of cherry trees at the west side. It sat behind some kind of disused industrial facility. An elevated pipeline ran along the southern side to the river, next to a few small businesses. The northern boundary was the old course of the Frankford Creek, with the river to the east.
Zan drove through the open gateway to find a huge building made of glass and mismatched wood that extended almost all the way to the river, with two small outbuildings beside it. She figured living on a former industrial site was a small price to pay for all that space and privacy, and those beautiful cherry trees just beginning to bloom.
The front of the main building had a set of massive wooden double doors and a smaller heavy wooden door to the side with the bell. She rang, and when the door opened she forgot she was supposed to speak. He was gigantic, at least six foot eight, with broad shoulders and a lithe, athletic build. A few strands of unruly, mid-length blond hair fell over eyes that seemed to be several shades of blue at once. They drew her in with more than their beauty, as if something primeval was hidden in their depths, just barely restrained. He faintly smiled. She knew her face was getting red.
What the hell. Don’t be such a fool.
“Um, hello, I’m Special Agent Alexandra O’Gara of the FBI.” She stuck out her hand. “My office made an appointment.”
“Yes. I’m Rainer Barakiel. A pleasure to meet you.” His voice was rich and deep and he spoke with a slight accent. When he shook her hand, she held it too long. She still felt flushed.
“I, um, I appreciate you taking the time for this, Mr. Barakiel.”
“I’m happy to help.”
God, so lame. He must have to deal with swooning women all the time, but I doubt he expected it from an FBI agent.
Turning gracefully, he showed her through the door. Zan tried not to stare at the way his jeans fit his hips, or the contours of his muscles beneath his gray cashmere sweater. Gripped by a strong urge to run her hands all over him, she was lucky his place was filled with fascinating things to distract her. Antiques and art were arranged tastefully in the open space, among brown leather couches and chairs and colorful woven rugs. Pale sun from high skylights glinted off a sunburst mosaic above the mantle of a huge concrete fireplace. Zan tried to concentrate on her surroundings, at least until her pulse slowed down.
“What a fantastic place.”
“Thank you.” He dipped his head toward her in an old-fashioned display of manners that she found charming.
“This whole property is great. What was it used for, before you lived here?”
“This land was part of the old Rohm and Haas Chemical plant you can still see as you enter. The facility was shut down in 2010.”
“I wish more people would reclaim these abandoned places by the river. Most of it just goes to waste, and meanwhile they’re developing Chester County farmland.”
“Yes.” He looked at her intensely. “I felt good about redeveloping a brownfield. I had to do a lot of remediation, but now it’s an excellent place to live.”
“All you need now is for the city to buy the front parcel and turn it into a park.” Zan gave him her best sunny smile, with an openness she knew made people trust her.
“That would be ideal,” he replied, “but I’m not holding my breath.” He returned her smile.
My god, you’re beautiful. How are you that beautiful? Why am I here? The knives.
“Um, in the interest of not taking up any more of your time than necessary, these are the knives in question.” Zan held up the case. “Daggers, I think. Did Professor Carson explain where we found them?”
“Well, someone conducted some kind of ritual in Independence National Historical Park. We wouldn’t be that concerned with weird people doing weird things at night, but we found a human spleen. We tested the DNA and ran it through the database and discovered that the spleen came from a body found this past winter by the Philadelphia police. All its internal organs had been removed. The police called us because they suspected organ trafficking, but we never found any evidence of it, so we weren’t much help. No one ever filed a missing persons report on this man, and Philly PD was never able to identify the corpse, let alone solve the crime.”
“Disturbing,” he said.
“Very. We thought if you could tell us something about the knives it might give us some insight into what this whole thing was about, maybe generate some sort of lead. They look old, and Professor Carson said you are an expert in antique bladed weapons.”
“Yes. I collect them. I’ve learned a lot over the years.”
“Let’s take a look,” Zan said. He led her to a massive carved table to the left near the kitchen area. She opened the case and laid the daggers out on a cloth. After he leaned down to scrutinize them, he said they were ceremonial daggers and asked if he could pick them up. Zan told him that because they were evidence, he would need to wear latex gloves. She handed him a pair. He tried to put one on for a minute, then frowned at her.
“I’m sorry. It’s too small.”
Zan stared at his hands. They were huge, but not meaty. They looked like they could crush a man’s skull, but also assemble a fine Swiss watch.
Or maybe gently touch me.
She felt the heat rise to her face again. He raised an eyebrow.
“You can use the glove like a handkerchief and just pick it up that way,” she said, fixing her gaze on the floor.
Picking up a dagger, he held it level with his eyes. When he had done the same to all four and they were back in the case, he motioned Zan closer. He showed her the intricate motifs and the manner in which the blades were joined to the hilts. He explained that from these features, he could determine that the blades were ceremonial, made in France in the late 19th century. She struggled to listen to what he was saying. That impossible face was so close, and she could smell him. He smelled like a pristine forest in the spring.
“What kind of ritual was it?” he asked. “These daggers would have been used for ceremonies, like the opening or closing of a formal meeting. They are valuable as antiques but they are not real weapons.”
“We haven’t really explored the evidence in terms of the ritual yet, because we’ve been concentrating on the spleen.” Zan shook her head. “That sounds odd, doesn’t it?”
“It’s an odd situation.”
“If I showed you some crime scene photos, do you think you would have any insight?”
He rubbed his chin. “I might be able to say whether the daggers were related to the ritual.”
“That could be helpful. May I bring them by?” Zan asked, failing to disguise her pleasure at the idea.
“I’m leaving town for a few days tomorrow. Can you come back this evening?”
“Yes, I think so.” She paused to consider for a moment. “I need to remind you that you can’t discuss anything about this with anyone. Did you read the agreement?”
“Yes. I understand that I’ve agreed to keep all this confidential.”
“Good. I should be able to come back around 7:00.”
“I’ll be here. In the meantime, if I may take some photos of these daggers, I can send a few emails. My contacts may be able to discover their provenance.”
“That would be extremely helpful. Just don’t reveal that they were involved in a crime.” He nodded and began to snap pictures of the knives with his phone.
“I have to say, Professor Carson was right,” Zan said. “I’m amazed you were able to identify a time period and a use for those in just a few minutes. I would love to have that kind of expertise. I know a lot about guns because it comes with the job, but I love edged weapons. They’re so elegant.”
“Yes.” He looked at her intensely again. “Would you like to see my collection?”
“I’d love to.”
Just great, O’Gara. One handsome face and you toss your professionalism right out the window.
They moved to the left, behind the open kitchen, to an ultra-modern staircase of black and silver and honey-toned wood leading to a mezzanine lined with bookshelves. Zan enjoyed following him up the stairs.
Look at that ass. That ass is perfect.
They walked along the mezzanine to a huge sunny room at the back. Zan stood gaping when they entered. Save for several large windows, every square foot of the stucco walls was hung with bladed weapons: axes, pikes, halberds, and swords, mostly swords, in more styles and sizes than Zan knew existed. Wood and glass cases filled with daggers and other small blades sat at the far ends, with an island of leather couches and chairs at the center, rimmed around a thick Persian rug in velvety red.
“This is the coolest room I have ever seen,” she said. He chuckled and thanked her.
That was adorable. God. Get ahold of yourself.
“So, um, Mr. Barakiel, what kind of time span do these weapons represent?” she asked.
“Please, call me Rainer.” Zan flushed and looked up at him. He still had that adorable look on his face, like a little boy showing someone his secret clubhouse. Before she gave a thought to what she was doing, she had asked him to call her Zan.
“All right, Zan.” He uttered her name in a tone so resonant she wished she could hear him say it over and over. “In answer to your query, my earliest dates from the 8th century, a Saxon sword that I keep in an airtight case.” He gestured toward the left-hand wall. “My most recent, this here, was delivered just last month from Watanabe Korehiro, one of the last master sword makers in Japan.”
“A work of art.” Zan surveyed the sword from different angles. “Do you have favorites?”
“The swords. My favorites are always changing. I loan them to museums on occasion. When they come back I usually become interested in them again.”
“Any favorites at the moment?”
“A few. Here is my perennial favorite.”
Rainer walked several steps to the right and pointed to a simple, heavy broadsword hanging about six feet up the wall, a huge blade of bluish metal that gleamed dully, like platinum.
“I’ve never seen a sword that big before, or metal like that. When was it made?”
“The 15th century. The sword maker was ahead of his time. This steel alloy is immensely strong. It’s a superlative weapon. Would you like to take a closer look?” Rainer reached to take the sword off the wall. He held it out to her.
“Can I touch it without gloves? It must be so expensive.”
“You can’t harm it.”
Zan took the gargantuan blade with both hands and did a simple block stance, then a thrust. Rainer raised both his eyebrows.
“I’m surprised you can lift that to shoulder level.”
“I’m a strong woman.”
“I can see that,” he replied in a low voice. The way he looked at her made Zan almost drop the sword. She adjusted her grip.
“This sword is unbelievably well-balanced.”
Did I just impress him? God, I hope so.
“Ah, see now,” Zan said. “My arms are getting tired, so you weren’t far from right. I could never actually use this sword.” She pivoted and held it out to him with a slight bow. “Your sword, sir.”
Rainer smiled as he took it. Zan realized he hadn’t been smiling before, not a real smile. This time it was like strong sunlight falling on a person who’d been trapped in the bitter cold.
“You’re trained?” he asked.
“A little. I used to study kendo in college, Japanese sword fighting, but I don’t have the time now. For the job, we’re mostly trained in firearms, but we get a decent amount of training in hand-to-hand, some other weapons. How about you? Is your interest more than aesthetic?”
“Yes. I’ve studied the fighting arts since I was a child.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”
Rainer tilted his head and regarded her, his lips pressed together.
He doesn’t know what to make of me. I don’t know what to make of him either, but oh, those lips. I better get away from this man. I’m on duty.
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