Soul Deep, book 4 of The Soul Series
Recovering mage Tars Suinn has done some terrible things—like cursing his best friend to be a dragon for a thousand years—all in the name of a love that wasn’t real. He’s not seeking redemption that he doesn’t believe he deserves, but has spent much of the last decade trying to make up for his past.
Ke’an Oliviera’s ability to breathe underwater wasn’t enough to allow her to save her fiancé from drowning. But it’s been 15 years, and her attraction to Tars makes her think she’s finally ready to move on. Until someone begins stalking her with unsettling reminders of her past.
Tars hasn’t had feelings for a woman like this since…no, he never has. He’s terrified he’s more capable of causing harm than nourishing a real relationship. But he can’t leave Ke’an vulnerable to her stalker. As their feelings for each other grow, Ke’an wonders if they can build anything new as long as Tars remains lost and afraid.
Thanks to their extraordinary abilities, they’re enlisted to help face a global threat in the form of a billionaire mage with delusions of ascendancy (and ties to Ke’an’s stalker). In trying to save the world, can they find themselves…and each other?
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The problem isn’t the concept. It’s the execution. Tars gripped the cool metal rail and lifted his chin so the ocean breeze blew his hair off his face. The salty sting in his nostrils, the glimmer of sunshine on the water, brought a familiar ache to his chest even as the rhythm and energy opened his mind and stimulated his creativity.
An organization built by extraordinary people, brought together to combine their abilities and do fantastic things. To save lives. Well, it wasn’t even a fresh concept. No one could fault the base idea. The coercion, captivity, experimentation, and murder—those were the problematic parts.
“No way!” Kids crowded to the rail next to him, breaking the spell. Footfalls pounded the weathered wooden boards of the deck outside the small aquarium that was today’s field trip. They jockeyed for position, each one craning and squeezing to see the ocean for the first time. One small girl slipped her hand into his. He cradled the fragile fingers carefully, his throat tightening a little at her show of trust. She had to crouch to look under the rail because she couldn’t see over it. One of the bigger boys pushed his way in, and the kid he’d shoved knocked into Chiara.
The boy side-eyed him. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right.” Tars knew they were all just excited. None of them had been to the beach before, despite living only two hours inland. He’d traveled the world so easily for so long, it humbled him when he met those who were far more limited.
“Come here.” Klipper bent and hefted Chiara into his arms so she could see better. “Look.” He pointed, far out. “I bet it’s a dolphin.”
Everyone oohed and squealed and then tried to act cool. With the kids occupied for the moment, Tars’ mind wandered again to the materials he’d received earlier this morning. He’d been going through channels to obtain them for quite some time, and it was hard to concentrate on what he was doing now instead of what he wanted to be doing. He’d only had time to flip through the documentation, skimming the official report summary right before leaving for this trip. The little he’d absorbed had been enough to convince him he was right.
Pike Laurent had had some brilliant ideas. Psychopaths often did. Tars would know. Their problem was in how they chose to develop those ideas. Abducting people and holding them against their will while performing experimental science on them…who could think that was the best approach? But maybe, maybe, if he was careful and smart, he could take those ideas down the right path. Do something good that would counter the bad that had been done.
The shouts and increased jostling brought him back again. He didn’t want to tell the kids they’d seen a wave slapping against a rock instead of a whale breaching. Why crush their imaginations with reality? That happened far too often in their daily lives as it was.
“Mr. Suinn! Mr. Suinn! Is it time for the tour yet?”
He smiled at LaDarius. “Close. Our guide will meet us out here when she’s ready. We made good time and got here early.”
“Maaaan, why’d there hafta be no traffic?” LaDarius whined. He scoured the ground, then the handful of tables on the deck around them, his right hand flexing. “Can I go down to the sand? I need rocks.”
“No.” Tars settled his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He’d been on juvenile probation for breaking windows in an abandoned warehouse. He and his mother now lived temporarily in the Draak, a facility in south central Massachusetts that provided shelter, education, counseling, and more to those in need. The boy’s compulsive desire for something to handle, to throw, was an unfortunate coping mechanism for dealing with his father’s abuse of his mother. They were working on more productive alternatives.
“Right.” LaDarius took a deep breath and shoved his hands in his pockets, his eyelids shuttering halfway. His lips moved slightly, and Tars knew he was making a list of the Doctors and their wardrobe preferences, from Twelve backwards. Tars had never seen Doctor Who until recently, and found the show’s combination of whimsy and insight to be fascinating. The kids mostly like the cool aliens and stuff.
“Hello!” A warm, rich female voice carried over the chatter. They all turned, and Tars absorbed a kick to the stomach that he’d only felt once before, a long, long, long time ago. His vision tunneled around the woman who’d just come through the aquarium’s doors. One elegant, golden hand caught the acres of dark hair being tossed wildly by the wind. Her smile was dynamic, conveying so much in so little time. Joy at the elements that caught her up in their dance. Pleasure at the greetings offered by the kids, quickly followed by eager questions that lit her dark eyes with the passion of education. A dimple carved itself into one cheek, bringing mischief.
His heart burned and longing simultaneously weakened his limbs and filled him with power and strength. He sensed the gathering of unseen energies, fire and air swirling around him. Panic beat at the back of his mind, searing his chest, moving him back, away from the woman, until the rail stopped him. The impact against his spine jolted him back to reality. The burning was empty lungs. Moron. He could practically hear Alexa’s scathing tone in the word. Breathe.
Air swooped into him, and everything else faded to a manageable level. But it didn’t disappear. Panic was absolutely the right response to this reaction. Alexa Ranger—an earlier version of her, three lifetimes ago—had inspired that first kick to the stomach, sending him on a deplorably regrettable journey. He would like to believe he was no longer susceptible to such base stupidity, but he hadn’t earned that trust yet. Not from anyone else, and definitely not from himself.
But he couldn’t move. The woman had crossed the deck, that smile still in place, her hair tamed into a twist over her shoulder. She wore what must be a uniform, khaki slacks and a deep blue polo with the company logo above her…uh, below her collar. Her shoes were the same shade of blue, some kind of sneaker.
“Hello,” she said again, holding out a hand. Tars shook it in a daze, but noticed a delicate silver ring bearing a light-green polished stone. It seemed to glow against the burnished copper of her skin. He managed a nod, but it must have been pitiful because her smile faded. She withdrew her hand and slipped both into her pockets.
“Are you Mr. Suinn?” A note of uncertainty had crept into her tone, but her voice was still rich, with the faintest of South American accents. Brazilian? He wasn’t certain.
“Yes, of course. My apologies.” He almost put out his hand and saved himself from looking foolish just in time. More foolish, anyway.
Her smile returned, but at half the power. “I’m Ke’an Oliviera, the assistant director here. I’ll be your guide today.”
Tars stared. No. Freaking. Way. “You’re—Ke’an Oliviera?” She wasn’t the one he’d communicated with to arrange today’s activities. He’d certainly have remembered when he read those files this morning.
Now she’d dropped all attempts at welcome hospitality. “Is something wrong?”
“No. I’m sorry. You made me think— It’s nothing. Please. Proceed.”
She narrowed her eyes but slowly turned toward the children. “Hello, everyone! Are you all excited to meet our gang?”
“Yeah!” they cheered, fists pumping upward, some of the smaller kids jumping up and down. Tars did a quick count. Fourteen. Everyone was here. He exchanged nods with the two other chaperones and helped them shush the kids and gather them closer to Ke’an so they could hear.
Ke’an Oliviera. He still couldn’t believe it. She had been one of Pike Laurent’s abductees. He’d just learned her name this morning. And now here she was, the very same day.
He’d stopped believing in destiny, synchronicity, any kind of spiritual hand guiding the world. It had been one of the bases of his destructive obsession, after all. But then again, maybe it wasn’t her. Maybe she had a common name. Or even an uncommon one shared by two people. That would almost be a more believable coincidence than this.
He had a hard time paying attention to the tour. Ke’an engaged the kids and the chaperones alike, and though the small facility didn’t have the exciting marine life a larger aquarium would, she made the tidal pools and fish tanks out to be intriguing, fascinating worlds. But Tars’ mind was a swirl of speculation and disbelief. Part of him struggled to make sense of this meeting. Common sense insisted it was akin to traveling a thousand miles and meeting someone who lives a block away from you back home.
But beyond all that was the elements. Energies he’d denied himself for years, from which he’d cut himself off so completely that he no longer detected them even if he tried…now he sensed them all around him. Coils and eddies, heat and cool, the rare denseness of earth energy. Even the empty pockets that indicated water energy he couldn’t manipulate. All of it was present and pulsing with life, with a suddenness that frightened him.
He followed the group into a spacious, sand-colored room filled with a central touchpool. The kids spread out around the wall, half of them already leaning out to stick their hands in the water before they’d been given permission. Tars gripped a few shoulders, tugging them back just enough to signal them to wait and listen. When everyone had settled and Ke’an had turned over the presentation to another staff member, he circled the pool to get closer to her.
“What do you think this is?” called the new tour guide.
“Starfish!” several of the kids yelled back.
“Sea star,” corrected Melina, a studious young girl who’d regaled Tars on the bus about all the things she’d looked up prior to the field trip.
“That’s right. Good job,” the tour guide said, and Melina flashed a rare smile. Tars felt his own lips curling in response.
“We call them sea stars because they’re echinoderms rather than fish.”
Tars tuned out the lecture and stepped up behind Ke’an, who was typing something on her phone.
She didn’t react for several seconds, not even a flinch at his voice. But he knew she’d heard him, so he waited until she finished typing and put the phone away. Then she turned, raking him with a dismissive expression he didn’t understand.
“I wanted to thank you for helping to arrange this excursion today. I’m sure you’re aware most of these children have never even seen—”
“Yes. We’re always pleased to have a chance to educate kids about marine life. My assistant did all the arranging, though, so he’s the one you should thank.”
This time it was Tars who needed a few beats before he responded. Her tone chilled, but the smooth, lightly accented notes were like music stroking into him, a sensation he’d never associated with anything but his abilities as a mage. His heart clutched, this time not with attraction, but fear. This woman was dangerous.
“I’ll be sure to share our gratitude with him, then.” He inclined his head and retreated to join his charges at the touchpool wall again.
“You okay, T?”
He looked down to find LaDarius frowning at him. “Yes, certainly. Why?”
LaDarius glanced at Tars’ fist and shrugged. “You seem mad.”
Tars released his tight hand and slid both into his trouser pockets. “I’m not mad at anyone.” But he was definitely irked. Not at Ke’an’s coldness, but at his own urge to warm it. He wanted to find out why she was dismissive of him and change her mind. Despite the fact that he’d just deemed her dangerous. She made him feel in ways he hadn’t since Alexa. And his feelings for Alexa had never been pure or real, so it stood to reason that the best thing to do was heed these as a warning.
But what about destiny?
No. He had centuries of belief to support the notion, and only a decade or so of the opposite. But the successful businessman he’d been could make a solid case for coincidence. Small world syndrome. Logic was more powerful than the notion of fate.
What was her assistant’s name? All the phone calls and e-mails, and he couldn’t remember… Lamar. That was it. He was standing in the far corner of the room from Tars, wearing a wireless headset over his curly mop of hair and watching the kids like a careful parent.
Tars made his way around the group, smiling at the exclamations and squeals. No false boredom here, he was pleased to see. Chiara, the smallest of all the children, was pulling herself up the smooth wall of the touchpool, trying to see better. Tars spotted a stool and bent to grab it, but by the time he’d straightened, she’d breached the top and was overbalancing, one hand reaching toward a horseshoe crab. There was no time to react, but Klipper caught Chiara around the waist and swung her away from the water.
“Thank you,” he told the boy, setting the stool on the ground. Klipper lowered her feet to it, and Chiara leaned on the wall, avid and completely oblivious to what had almost happened.
“Gotta watch out for each other, right?”
“Right. Good man.” He gripped his shoulder and continued on his course.
Lamar looked at him expectantly as he approached. “Mr. Suinn. Everything going okay?”
“Absolutely. I wanted to thank you for all your hard work. Ms. Oliviera tells me you’re responsible for all the preparations.”
He scoffed. “She always says that. I just do what she tells me to do. She loves getting groups like this here, and teaching is the favorite thing of pretty much everyone here. So it makes it like not coming to work at all.”
Tars nodded, wondering when he’d ever felt that way about anything. Maybe in the very beginning, when he’d been an apprentice mage, so long ago when he and Ryc were best friends and neither had met the peasant girl who’d bring them all so close to destruction. Alexa and Ryc had found that love, that passion again. Happiness. For the first time in the ten years since the curse had been ended, Tars felt a craving to find it for himself.
His gaze found Ke’an, making him scowl. That was ridiculous. He’d just met her. He couldn’t put that kind of weight on either of them. It was better to ignore these notions and carry on as he had done.
Lamar checked his watch and positioned the headset microphone in front of his mouth. “All right, everyone, it’s time for lunch!” His voice echoed from the speakers mounted by the ceiling corners. “And then we’ll let you meet our secret, extra-special guests. Anyone hungry?”
“Yeah!” they all cheered.
“Then follow me!”
As he had done throughout the tour, Tars counted the kids as they passed him, made eye contact with the chaperones, and brought up the rear as they moved from the touchpool room. They walked down a corridor dimly lit by the lights of the aquarium that made up one wall, and entered the cafeteria-style eatery. A handful of people were scattered around the tables, patrons who’d arrived since the aquarium opened for regular business. Sandwiches, apples, bags of chips, and bottles of water were distributed to Tars’ kids, who turned the room into organized chaos for a few minutes before they’d filled tables and their mouths and everything settled down again.
Tars strolled between the tables, hands clasped behind his back, and tried to focus on the kids’ behavior. But his attention kept straying to Ke’an, who consulted with her staff and then disappeared down a hallway. An overhead sign indicated it was the business offices.
Stay here. There’s no reason to go down there.
And yet, the longer he held himself back, the stronger became the urge to follow her. Not because she’d dismissed him. There had been a time long, long ago when such treatment would have affronted him. He’d endured too much to care about such pettiness anymore.
But in truth, he didn’t feel affronted. He felt…challenged. And even after a thousand years, it was something completely new.