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BLOOD SOAKED THROUGH the dirt. At least, that’s what it looked like at first. Sera’s pulse quickened as she carefully swept dirt off the item buried beneath the soil. A dark crimson pendant attached to a chain appeared before her. She used her soft-bristle brush to clear the area around the necklace until she was certain it was on its own.
Oh my god…
Sera stared at the artifact, holding her breath as if she might blow it away. Her heart pounded like a drum.
Despite Chad’s warning not to waste her time, she had picked the zone she was digging in with a sense of purpose, knowing the other sites around the ancient Roman temple’s altar would have long since been looted. She’d expected to find common pottery shards along the temple’s sidewall, where niches were often found in excavations. But a silver necklace with what appeared to be a ruby a little bigger than a quarter? Never in a million years.
Knowing she shouldn’t touch it with her bare hands but unable to resist, Sera ran a fingertip along the chain to the gemstone. It drew her in like a mythical Siren calling from her treacherous shore.
“Holy ******* Nora’s voice over her shoulder sliced through the enchantment, making her jump. Nora knelt next to Sera, green eyes wide as she stared at the artifact. “Is that a necklace?”
“Okay, good. You see it, too,” Sera said, still not quite trusting her vision.
Blonde curls bounced as Nora laughed. “It’s not a ghost. Of course I see it.” She turned around, still on her knees. “Hey, Chad! Come see what Sera found.”
Sera’s heart sank at the thought of sharing her find with Chad and the rest of the crew. Eventually, he would see it, of course. It wasn’t like she could just pocket it and walk away, but she wanted more time alone with it first, to study the amulet—yes, that was the right word for it. Amulet. Certainty settled over her, like the word had been implanted in her mind. She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that protection was its purpose. Of what, she hadn’t a clue.
“Did you find some shards like we—” Chad stopped short, his jaw dropping as he caught sight of the amulet. He recovered quickly as other members of the team wandered over. Word of the amulet spread like wildfire, and Sera found herself surrounded by the entire crew within moments.
As excited chatter buzzed in her ears, Sera’s breath grew shallow and her vision hazy. The amulet swam before her eyes as she attempted to calm herself. An intense desire screamed at her to grab the artifact and run far away as fast as possible. It wanted her to take it. To have it. The irresistible force drew her hand toward the amulet and—
“Hey, girl, you okay? Your skin is pastier than normal.” Nora’s face appeared in front of her. “Everyone step back. Sera needs some space.”
A breeze swept back strands of her hair as the crew complied. Sera closed her eyes and filled her lungs with the Italian air, her heart slowing its racing cadence.
“Let’s get her into some shade before she passes out. It’s not every day the team makes the discovery of a lifetime,” Chad said.
The team? Sera’s eyes snapped open at his choice of words. He raised an eyebrow, almost daring her to correct him. But of course, she wouldn’t. She would avoid the confrontation, as usual.
“Josh, you and Lauren start recording the location of the necklace,” he said.
She did a double take. He was assigning undergrads to a find of this magnitude?
“I feel better now. I’ll work on the amulet,” she said shakily as Nora helped her to her feet.
Chad’s eyebrows pulled together. “The what?”
“It’s an amulet. It’s here to protect the temple.” She did her best not to cringe from his glare as she explained.
“It sure did a piss-poor job.” Nora snorted.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You’re going to rest.” He turned around. “Back to work, everyone. We’ll have time to gawk at the pretty necklace later.”
Sera frowned as he casually dismissed her and walked away. World-renowned archaeologist Dr. Charles Lambert—Chad, as he preferred to be called by students—made significant advancements in remote sensing technology in the last decade, sending his career skyrocketing. The college’s archaeology department had been using his new methodology last year when they discovered the buried temple in Campania, Italy.
After requesting to lead their excavation this summer, Chad had agreed to return to the university as a visiting scholar for the next school year, much to the excitement of the entire archaeology department. At just under forty, the man was beginning to show signs of his age with salt-and-pepper hair and reading glasses. According to Sera’s best friend Nora, he also happened to be the star of almost every female student’s romantic fantasies. His bachelor status only added fuel to the flame.
For the most part, Sera found him to be charming, witty, and good-looking. But as she remembered some of his more suggestive comments and inappropriate touches over the summer, her nose scrunched up. She had a feeling he was single for other, less attractive reasons than just not having found the right woman. Much to her annoyance, trying to be polite and not rock the boat somehow meant he didn’t get the hint she wasn’t interested.
Even now she caught a glimpse of his true, petty colors as he referenced taking credit for the find away from her. More than once that summer, he’d hinted that he could use his celebrity-like status in the archaeological world to make or break their careers after graduate school. Most of the students thought his influence was awesome, practically lining up for autographs. Not Sera. In fact, it wouldn’t be a total surprise if she bruised his ego by ignoring his directions about where to dig and then making a career-altering discovery. After today, it looked like he might try to break her career.
Even though Nora often said Sera and her boyfriend Hiro were made for each other, she thought Sera was crazy for not being absolutely gaga over Chad.
If only she knew the full truth about his behavior.
“I’m totally taking advantage of your fainting spell to take a break myself,” Nora said as she sat in the sparse grass beneath a pine tree. The parasol-shaped trees littered the rolling hills around the site.
It wasn’t unusual to still be friends with the same people from elementary school. But it was far less common to share similar interests all the way through college. Serafina and Eleanor had formed a lifelong bond the moment they met in their Li’l Archaeologists summer program, despite being opposites in just about every way. Nora was the light to her dark—blonde and outgoing next to brunette and reserved.
Sitting next to her, Sera scoffed. “I didn’t faint.”
“I wouldn’t have blamed you. Did you see the size of that ruby? It was a ruby, right?”
Josh and Lauren’s animated conversation as they took measurements and recorded data sparked a fire in the pit of Sera’s stomach. It wasn’t like her to be so possessive over a find, but she couldn’t help the jealousy that burned inside, especially because she couldn’t hear what they were saying about the amulet. Chad walked over to the pretty blonde undergrad and said something that made her laugh as she placed a hand on the man’s arm. Rolling her eyes, Sera dropped her gaze.
“That or some kind of glass bead or lesser gemstone made to look like a ruby. It’s hard to tell while it’s still in the dirt.” Sera gulped half of her water bottle, choking on the last bit as it went down the wrong tube.
Nora gave her a few hard pats on the shoulder to help clear her airway. Sera waved her away as she coughed. It was hardly the first time she needed rescuing while doing something as simple as drinking water. Being the opposite of graceful came with risks.
“Didn’t Chad tell you not to dig in that area? I’ll bet he’s kicking himself so hard right now.” Nora laughed, leaning against the tree.
Unease roiled in her belly as she glanced over at the man, still chatting with Lauren. “Not too hard, hopefully. He might not give me credit for the find if I’ve gone and hurt his feelings.”
“He wouldn’t do that.” Nora shook her head, brushing loose dirt off her pants as she stood. “I know you have something weird against him, but he’s really a good guy.”
Sera kept her mouth shut as Nora returned to her tools on the exposed temple floor, the only part of the ancient structure left besides the wall built into the side of the hill. Sera had tried to tell her about the interactions, but her best friend had the man up on a pedestal. It wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for Sera’s imagination to get the best of her, and Nora had brushed off the comments as if that were the case.
Because she normally enjoyed attention from most of the male population, it infuriated and motivated Nora that Chad didn’t seem to notice her interest. Sera had already mentioned her boyfriend to the guy more than once and pointed out her friend’s hard work and dazzling personality. He just didn’t seem to get it. Or more likely, he just didn’t care.
Over the summer, she had reluctantly come to the conclusion that women who didn’t fawn over him excited Chad—but also angered him. Shivers ran up her spine as she remembered his clenched jaw when she brushed him off the last time. She hadn’t disclosed everything to Nora yet because she didn’t want to admit her thoughts out loud and make them a reality. Besides, the summer was almost over and she wouldn’t have to see him again for at least a few weeks. No sense in stirring up trouble.
What would I even say, anyway? Hey, Chad keeps flirting with me and it’s annoying? Yeah, like that would go over well. Nora would kill to have the man’s attention on her.
A breeze swept through and rustled the tall grasses surrounding the excavation site on the Campanian hillside. The sweet smell of lavender, prolific in the nearby village, mixed with the musty scent she loved from the overturned dirt. Mounds of earth removed from the buried temple sat not far from the site, waiting to be replaced when the summer ended.
It was moments like these that reminded Sera how happy she was to be following in her mother’s footsteps. If only her mother had lived to see it.
A half hour later, she joined Josh and Lauren to provide oversight as they carefully removed the amulet from the ground and prepared it for transportation. The amulet would be stored in a box and cushioned with foam for the drive back to the hotel, where it would be locked up in the safe.
“This is the last of it for today.” Chad’s voice echoed across the valley. The shadows grew long as the team wrapped up, the sun beginning its final descent toward the hills.
After placing the amulet’s box inside the van, Sera straightened, wincing when her back resisted. It had been a long day. A tug pulled at her heart as she watched the van pull away. They didn’t have a lab set up at the hotel for proper cleaning of the amulet, but she hoped to spend more time studying it before the Italian government came knocking at their door. Fat chance.
An image of the bright red gem flashed through her mind. Sera thought she’d gone crazy when the glint of metal in the dirt caught her eye. It seemed improbable, even impossible, something so valuable had simply been left behind when almost nothing else could be found in the temple, not even the columns that had once stood as tall as giants. She must’ve gotten lucky. Goosebumps ran up her arms.
“You ready?” Nora asked.
Her sudden appearance made Sera jump. *****, Nor!”
“That never gets old.”
Never for Nora, anyway. Her petite five-foot frame made it easy to slink around and stay out of peripheral vision, and she knew it, too. Nora loved to see how long she could glean information or stand there without anyone noticing.
Grabbing their packs, faded from summers in the sun, the two women followed the van toward the village. Crickets started their evening song as the sun’s glow washed over the village rooftops. Locals nodded at them as they passed on the cobblestone streets, shops and restaurants now open for the evening following the afternoon siesta. The smell of freshly baked bread and browning meats wafted out the door of Sera’s favorite pizza place, setting her stomach growling.
It was a short walk to the old-world hotel, but entirely uphill. Both women collapsed onto the white steps leading up to the building’s front porch. Sera tucked her bag under her head and closed her eyes, relaxing in the few moments of peace before they needed to go inside.
“Something about this summer feels different,” Nora said.
Sera cracked one eye to peek at Nora. She was sitting up, gazing back down the valley toward their dig site. “Different how?”
“Final somehow. Like it’s closing out a chapter in our lives.”
Groaning as her sore muscles resisted, Sera pulled herself back to sitting. “I mean, it kind of is. We’ll be moving on to a new site next summer. Another fresh crop of grad students will take over here. I’m sure they’ll be excited to see if there were any other valuables left behind.”
Nora nodded, but her expression remained thoughtful and distant. “Or ****** they weren’t here this year.” She winked as she used Sera’s shoulder to push up to her feet. “I’ll meet you upstairs. I get first dibs on the shower.”
Leaning back onto one of the columns that supported the Romanesque hotel, Sera stretched out her legs in front of her, still ivory-skinned despite her best efforts with the Italian sun. Something felt different that summer, for sure, but she attributed it to making such a rare discovery. If anything, her chapter was just beginning.
Taking one last look over the rolling hills and picturesque landscape, she got to her feet and followed her friend inside.
LATER THAT EVENING, ancient-looking sconces lit the dining hall, their warm glow illuminating local artists’ paintings of the village and surrounding countryside hanging on the walls. The room was just large enough to hold their entire crew, including the handful of Italian workers.
Dinner in Italy is an event. Not the typical microwaveable meal, cell phone in hand, kind of dinner Sera was used to back home in America. In Italy, dinner is a time to gather together to enjoy food, family, and wine, sometimes lasting long into the night. Tonight was such a night, although the amulet was all anyone could talk about. Plates half-filled with pasta sat forgotten as hurried voices spoke with excitement about the rare find.
Sera found herself bombarded by questions from just about everyone, particularly the undergraduate students, as if she had all of the answers already.
“How did you know to dig along the wall?” Lauren brushed some of her dark blonde hair behind her ears as she leaned forward onto the table.
“Past excavations have shown that the walls often had niches for things like candles, incense, and amphoras. Looters usually focus on areas they think are most important, like the altars.” She avoided looking at Chad, the so-called expert, who had specifically directed the team to focus on the area around the altar despite her recommendations otherwise.
After downing the rest of her third glass of wine, Sera excused herself from the table before any more questions could be directed her way. She wished she’d followed through with her original plan to skip dinner and work on her dig notes instead.
Halfway up the stairs, she lost her balance on the top step and crashed to the floor. The world spun around as she pulled herself to her feet, giggling. Thankfully, no one was around to see her inebriated state. Although, to be fair, it wasn’t much different from her everyday, awkward self.
Three glasses of wine wasn’t normal for Sera. Hell, wine itself wasn’t her thing. She preferred a wine cooler or some other fruity mix to the full-bodied drink she’d had tonight. But she hadn’t gotten a chance to see the amulet again, and drowning her sorrows the fastest way seemed like a good idea. The wine turned out to be quite tasty, too.
After climbing into bed, Sera’s imagination ran wild in the dark. Just how old was this amulet? Would it make her famous? Who did it belong to? Why was it left behind when all the other valuables were long gone?
This research paper is going to write itself… Mom would have been so proud. Wine-fueled sleep came quickly, but the night ahead was restless.
“ARE YOU SCARED, Tavia?” Liviana asked.
As she finished lacing up the back of her older sister’s white dress, Liviana paused, her hand resting at the top, her heart filled with warmth and pride. It was a special dress, sewn with care and reserved just for that night. She and her sister had sewn it together, giggling over the needles and threads as they wondered what the night would have in store for Octavia. Neither of them had been invited to the Bacchanalia festivities before, and those who returned never spoke about it. Nor about those who didn’t return at all.
“Not at all. I’m excited to finally learn what all this secretive nonsense is about.” Octavia double-checked her hair in the hand mirror, securing an errant strand back into her braid.
Liviana gasped at the disrespectful comment. “Tavia! It’s not nonsense.”
Octavia rolled her eyes. “Someday you’ll learn that adults make a big deal out of a lot of little things.” She tapped Liviana on the nose before leaving their bedroom.
Liviana followed her sister out to the open-air atrium of their villa, where they met with their parents. The lamps had already been lit as the day turned to dusk.
“It’s time, Octavia.” Father glanced out the open roof at the red sky. “Let us hope that Bacchus shows you favor.”
Wiping away her streaming tears with a handkerchief, Mother held their baby brother in the other arm.
“Come now, Agathe, this is no time for weeping.” Father’s tone held a softness despite his frown.
“I know. But may Bacchus grant us favor and let you return.” Mother tenderly touched Octavia’s face.
After kissing Mother’s hand, Octavia pulled a cloak around her own shoulders. She picked up the lantern by the door and followed Father outside, casting one last smile over her shoulder. In the distance, flickering lights from the temple sconces illuminated the hill on which the ancient building sat.
Liviana’s heart clenched as the door shut behind her sister.
THE NEXT DAY, Sera wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her dirt-stained hand as the group gathered beside the dig site. The summer had reached its end, and the team spent the day making last-minute notes and preparing the site for next year. Despite the lack of digging, it was an equally exhausting day as any other as they ran from task to task.
Looks like rain tonight, Sera thought, eyeing the grey clouds brewing on the horizon. Angry rain. She shivered. The details were fuzzy, but that **** dream about the two girls had left her with a sense of foreboding that hadn’t left her all day.
“All right, attention here please.” Chad’s voice interrupted the chatter. “This was an amazing year. I’m impressed with your work this summer. The Italian government should be pleased—we’ve made some incredible finds, especially the artifact Serafina discovered. I’m sure we’re all eagerly awaiting that report.”
He grinned in Sera’s direction, receiving only a groan in return. Everyone laughed, understanding the feeling all too well. Or at least in part. Chad would be the first to review her report, and there was no way to know what information he would change. Her nostrils flared at the idea of needing to suck up to him later if he tried to take more credit than he deserved for the find.
“I want to thank you all for your hard work and dedication to this dig.” Chad paused as a boom of thunder sounded in the distance. “Go get cleaned up and ready for dinner before the rain starts. We’ll meet in the dining hall in one hour.” He clapped his hands to release the team.
The group gave a half-hearted cheer, exhaustion starting to settle in as they rested in the shade.
“Doesn’t he look so hot right now?” Nora nodded toward Chad, who was directing the Italian workers to use mounds of earth to backfill the temple their team had just spent all summer digging out.
Sera drained her water bottle and licked her lips to catch the last drops, tasting salty sweat and dirt. Always dirt. At least she didn’t choke that time.
“I’ll admit he’s a good-looking man, Nor,” Sera agreed, somewhat relieved Chad had acknowledged it was her find. For now.
THAT EVENING, the dining tables had been pushed together to make one long one, and wine flowed in abundance. The rain beat a steady rhythm against the windows of the hotel as the crew ate and drank. From time to time, thunder joined the rain’s chorus with a resounding clash, as if the gods battled for attention.
Most of the team had already left the table, retiring to the library or heading upstairs for much-needed rest. Staying behind to finish yet another glass of wine, Sera and Nora were too excited about the start of their beach trip the next day to consider sleep. Chad and Claudio, the owner of the hotel, smoked cigars to celebrate the end of a successful summer. The strong tobacco scent drifted under Sera’s nose each time one of the men took a drag.
“I’ve been reaching out to peers of mine regarding the necklace. I’m getting the sense from them it’s a once in a lifetime type of find. Or even once in a few lifetimes. This could really launch your career, Serafina.” Chad swirled the wine around in his glass before lifting it to his lips again. His eyes remained fixed on her.
“Honestly, I just can’t wait to see it fully cleaned. From what I could make out yesterday, both the chain and the stone had intricate design details.” Her stomach clenched from the unwanted attention, and she looked down at her own glass.
The red hue of the wine reminded Sera of the amulet—a deep burgundy that undulated when she turned it as if there was liquid inside. She’d only gotten another brief look when they packed the amulet away, but the shifting color told her it might not be a ruby like some of the others thought.
An odd sensation floated through Sera’s mind, like a fuzzy image tickling the outer reaches of her memory.
The code to the hotel’s safe. Her gaze clouded over as she tried to remember how she knew it. She must have seen Chad enter the numbers when they unpacked the van. That was the only explanation. Maybe after everyone went to sleep, she could slip down and—
The sound of glass shattering made Sera jump. Someone in the kitchen muttered a curse, followed by clinking shards. Taking a deep breath, she took a sip of wine, pushing her previous thoughts away. The dream still had her on edge. She wouldn’t risk her scholarship money on getting another glimpse of the amulet.
“Leave it to the girls to worry about how ‘pretty’ the necklace is.” Chad smirked, wisps of smoke curling around his lips.
Almost forgetting their conversation, Sera’s cheeks flushed in embarrassment.
“Don’t be such an ass, Dr. Lambert,” Nora said with a slur.
Sera’s head snapped to the side to look at her friend. If she was brazen before alcohol’s assistance, she became even more so after a few drinks. It was time to get her up to bed before she could embarrass herself or, worse, try to get herself into bed with Chad.
He waved his hand in dismissal, giving Sera a wink. “Oh, it’ll be pretty all right, much like the girl who dug it up.”
Claudio chuckled and raised his cigar like a toast in agreement.
“And that’s our cue.” Sera got to her feet, pulling her resistant friend along with her. She had no intention of letting Chad continue his commentary.
“Buona sera,” the hotelier called out as the two women left the room. Chad said something under his breath to the man, and they both burst out laughing.
“Why, I never!” Nora tried unsuccessfully to pull her arm away to charge back into the dining room.
“Let it go, Nor. They’re acting like chauvinist pigs. We’re better than that.” Sera continued to drag her up the stairs. She opened the door to their room and pushed Nora inside.
“It’s so annoying that he’s still so hot even when he’s being a ******** Nora whined as she threw herself onto her bed.
Sera kicked off her flats and tucked them under her bed. “I don’t find anyone attractive when they act like that.”
Afraid she may have offended her friend when she didn’t respond, Sera turned back around to find Nora’s eyes closed. Soft snores purred beneath the tousled blonde curls covering her face.
Sera shook her head wistfully at the idea of falling asleep with such little effort.
Opening the door to the balcony and walking under the awning, Sera watched the rain fall like a sheet across the rolling hills whenever lightning lit up the sky. The musky smell of the wet countryside filled the air. Rain always reminded Sera of her mother, and she missed her more when it rained. Unlike her friends’ mothers, who kept them inside during a storm, Sera’s mother would grab her by the hand and dance with her in the mud-filled puddles. They would raise their arms to the sky and make up silly chants as they welcomed sweet relief on stifling summer days.
Normally, Sera would bask in the energy that came with the battering rain, the rolling thunder, and the crackling lightning. But tonight was different—tonight it felt ominous. Like a raging storm was looming on the horizon of her life. She shivered and closed the door, drawing the curtains to shut it out.
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