“How’s it feel to prove the existence of Christ?”
The wavering masculine voice invaded Noelle Keane’s laboratory as a door clicked shut. She looked over her shoulder to greet aging archaeologist Gabriel San Lucee with a smile.
“Morning, Gabriel.” She turned back to the cloth.
Thirty-three inches of fragile cloth swathed the laboratory table. Laid out with less care than anyone had given the delicate weave in centuries, it bore dark stains in the wrinkled center, telltale marks of its original insignificance. But though it had once been little more than a scrap meant for the trash, millions revered it. Now the flimsy piece of material would gain more respect and attract thousands of devotees. All in the name of a mythical being who no one could prove existed.
Noelle ran her gloved hand across the rough surface, smoothing out wrinkles that would never see an iron. In her other hand, she held a typed printout of her carbon-dated findings. The evidence was there, and yet all it proved was that the Sudarium of Oviedo covered a body in the approximate year 33.
Not what body. Not which month. Not even where it had been used. Supposition laid claim to all those things. Scientific fact, however, verified only its age. That and the blood type AB. All the rest of the findings—such as pollen type and traces of myrrh that had been verified in the midnineties—could relate to any number of ancient funerary practices in Palestine.
She folded it into a loose square, small enough to fit into the airtight canister that protected it.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Pulling on gloves, Gabriel joined her at the table and leaned a hip on the edge. He extended a wrinkled hand toward the metal container. “May I hold it?”
She passed him the canister. “I haven’t proved Christ existed. Until they dig up his bones, that won’t happen. And even if they do dig up his bones, barring your God suddenly appearing to tell us otherwise, we can’t prove the bones are Jesus Christ’s.”
He clucked his tongue as he pulled the veil-thin cloth out and draped it between his palms. “You still haven’t come to see the truth?”
“The truth is here.” Noelle wagged her paper beneath his nose. “Black and white.”
A lazy grin crinkled the corners of his gray-blue eyes. He put the Sudarium back into the canister and reverently set it in the middle of the table. “Tell that to all the people lined up outside and the throngs of Christians waiting to follow that little can to the airport.”
“I suppose that’s why you’re here?” She picked up her travel log, signed the necessary forms to verify she’d performed the accelerator mass spectrometry herself, and stuffed them all into her briefcase. She couldn’t remember a time Gabriel hadn’t dropped into her sanitized laboratory unannounced. Since she’d accepted the lead scientist position in D.C. six years ago, he popped in almost monthly.
Truthfully, she already knew what brought him here today. Gabriel had been part of the team of scientists that dated the Shroud of Turin in the eighties. He’d want to see this supposed counterpart.
“Well, yes and no.” He slung a leather satchel that had seen better days over his shoulder and set it on the table. “Yes, I wanted to see the Sudarium. But I needed to talk to you as well.”
“Make it quick. I’ve got a flight to catch. That little baby has to be back in the Cámara Santa tonight. If it’s not, Father Phanuel will have a coronary.” She shrugged out of her lab coat, hung it on the wall, and went to the mirror to tighten her ponytail. “He’s convinced someone’s going to steal it.”
“With good reason, Noelle.” Gabriel pulled out a rolling stool and sat down. “The same reason I wanted to talk to you. People coveted that cloth before it came here. Now, people would kill just to touch it. Let alone possess it.”
She shot him a glance through the mirror and adjusted her glasses. “I think I can handle escorting the thing back to Spain. I got it here, didn’t I? Seth’s going to meet me at the airport and keep me company across the ocean.”
“Ah yes, your faithful shadow, Seth.” Humor lightened Gabriel’s eyes. He pushed a hand through short, thick, white hair, and a frown tugged at bushy eyebrows. “I don’t think you should trust anyone with this, Noelle. It’s too significant.”
Slowly turning, Noelle dropped her gaze to the gnarled cane resting against Gabriel’s left leg. He’d devoted his life to proving the Shroud of Turin was legitimate. Now he was almost eighty, and all he had to show for his research was a shroud that dated from the thirteenth century and a crippled leg. His shooting upon that shroud’s return was the reason for her cadre of governmental guards.
She met his concerned gaze with a warm smile. “I’ll be fine. There’s four cars ahead and behind me. The Church owns the plane. My assistant will be with me—I’ll be just fine.”
His eyes narrowed as he studied her expression.
She’d seen that look enough times to know Gabriel was about to dump some revelation on her she wouldn’t like. The hairs on the back of her neck lifted, and unease rolled in her belly.
“I’ve arranged for a personal guard.”
“You what?” She blinked. Her glasses slipped down her nose, and she hastily shoved them back into place.
“I spoke with the director. We both feel it would be a good idea to have someone with you. Driving you. The caravan is nice, yes. But the men inside are strangers easily bought. It’s not like Pope Benedict arranged for the Secret Service to escort you.”
Noelle folded her arms over her chest and scowled. “I thought you retired. Doesn’t that mean you can’t piddle around in my lab and interfere at will?”
A hearty chuckle rumbled in the back of his throat. “Come now, don’t be cross. It’s one day out of your life. Besides, I brought you something to make up for it.” He flopped open his satchel and stuffed a hand inside.
“More like something to bribe me with.” Unable to keep her grin under wraps, Noelle sidled into a chair next to him. Gabriel’s trinkets were always fascinating. But whatever he brought for her always included a personal request. Date some little object he’d picked up from someplace he wouldn’t say, in some corner of the world he’d forgotten. She suspected half of them ended up on eBay.
True to form, he pulled out two felt-wrapped parcels tied with a white string. He selected the smaller and gently tugged at the ties. The ribbon fell away. Gabriel plucked the folded fabric apart. He held his open hand beneath her chin.
Noelle looked down on a gold ring set with a vibrant red stone. She gingerly took it between thumb and forefinger and held it to the light. Intricate etching along the band formed a crude basket weave pattern that lacked even a hint of patina. Yet the artistry was old. Imprecise and rough—a product of an era where everything came from the hands of men. She brought it closer and traced a short nail over the prominent cabochon. Etched into the polished surface, a clubbed chevron had been spared the scars of centuries.
Though beautiful, she’d seen many of similar type. “Roman.”
Gabriel nodded. “I know that much. But I want to know if it’s empire or republic.” He nudged her elbow. “Try it on.”
Smirking, Noelle gave in to the tradition. If she had a jewelry box for all the ancient decorations Gabriel had made her try on over the years, she’d never want for accessories again. She slid the ring onto her finger and cocked her hand, allowing him to inspect the trinket.
“Lovely. Can’t you see who might have worn it? She would have dark hair like yours. Elegant hands.” He caught her fingertips and turned her wrist under the light. “It would glint at banquets, a symbol of her husband’s wealth. Perhaps she was an empress. That’s gold, you know.”
She retracted her hand and slipped the ring off. “I figured as much. There’s no tarnish on it at all. This doesn’t look polished—but we won’t know until I get it tested. We might find chemical residue.”
He winked in the affectionate way that always reminded her of her long-gone father. “You’ll tell me if you do.” Freckled hands pressed the protective cloth into hers.
She wrapped it up, twisted on her stool, and stuffed it into the bag that would hold her precious cargo. When she swiveled around to face him again, Gabriel had the next package unwrapped. Sitting on the tabletop, a heavily patinaed arm torc waited. The patches of green and red iron oxide shimmered in iridescent color, marking it as bronze.
Noelle picked it up to examine it more closely. Triple wound, it coiled in a near-perfect circle. On each end, a tiny serpent’s head came to rest in the center. Each bore fragments of some jewel, or perhaps glass, which served as onyx eyes. Cross-hatching behind the miniature heads created masterful scale work.
“This is gorgeous,” she murmured. She turned the torc beneath the light, and her eyebrows furrowed. Out of place with the other artwork, a Templar cross had been etched into each serpent’s head. “That’s odd.”
“I thought so too. Can you see if there’s any difference in the age between the crosses and the rest of it?”
She brought the torc closer and squinted at the miniscule carvings. “I’ll do my best. When do you need these back?” Before he could instruct her, she eased the torc up over her elbow, fitting it snugly onto her arm. She pushed her shirtsleeve to her shoulder, then twisted to admire the piece. For the first time since Gabriel had started bringing her objects on the side, she could see what he saw—a visual of the long-ago person who might have cherished the forgotten object.
“It’s really pretty, Gabriel.”
His heavy hand clapped her shoulder. “I’m glad you like it. That one’s yours.”
“Mine?” Noelle’s eyes widened. “I can’t accept this. It’s got to be worth a fortune.”
Features that still held a hint of color from all his years in the field lifted with a smirk. “Where’d my skeptic go? You don’t know how old that is.”
A flush crept into her cheeks. “I know it’s authentic. You’ve never brought me a fake. No matter how old this is, it’s still got to have significant value.” She pushed at the trinket to slip it off her arm. “I can’t accept it.”
Gabriel grabbed his satchel, snapped it shut, and stood. “You can. Consider it your reward for successfully dating the Sudarium.” He slung his bag over his shoulder, then braced himself on his cane. “Come on. I’ll introduce you to the men I hired.”
Noelle pushed at the torc again, but it refused to budge. Under her breath, she muttered an oath. She should have known better than to shove it onto her arm thoughtlessly. The last time she’d tried on something that was a little too tight, she and Gabriel nearly had to cut it off. If not for his brilliant idea to soak her hand in ice water until her fingers almost froze, she’d have destroyed a ring worth thousands.
“Try soap later,” he commented.
Noelle watched Gabriel limp toward the door. A frown pulled at her forehead as his long-ago accident sifted into her mind. He hadn’t expected someone would try to shoot him, especially not after disproving the theory on the shroud. Maybe his guard wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. She glanced at the canister. “I need a few minutes, Gabriel. I don’t have this packed right.”
Knowing glinted in his eyes. “I’ll hobble over to the candy machine. Want anything?”
Noelle shook her head.
When the door to her laboratory thumped shut, Noelle picked up the canister and shoved it inside her oversized purse. She lugged the larger satchel Father Phanuel had packed it in to her locker, and stuffed in the change of clothes she kept on hand in case of a chemical spill. Satisfied it didn’t look too bulky, she snapped the tiny padlock on the fastener shut and pocketed the key. Stopping at her cluttered desk, she scribbled a note to Seth instructing him to pick up the relic at the boarding gate. While she’d like to convince herself Gabriel was being overprotective, she knew in her heart he was a practical man. He wouldn’t caution her unless he felt she had reason to worry. Better to take precautions, even if they were unnecessary.
Still, the idea he’d hired private security niggled at her pride. She did a reasonable job living on her own in D.C., even with her apartment being in a shadier side of town. She hadn’t been mugged, hadn’t been threatened, and hadn’t once felt as if she needed a protector. Accepting Gabriel’s suggestion that now might be a wise time to become dependent on someone else just didn’t sit well.
A knock signaled Gabriel’s return. She tossed the bag and her purse over her shoulder, grabbed her coat, and pulled on her winter hat. Winding her heavy scarf around her neck, she headed for the door.
In the hall, she handed Gabriel the canister’s satchel. “Take this to the airport for me, would you? Gate 23—I’ll meet you there with Seth.”
Gabriel reached down, and in a gesture that could only be marked as fatherly, he clasped her hand in an affectionate squeeze. “I’ll have Lucan do the honors.”
“One of the men I hired.”
Even better. Gabriel might observe the weight difference. Someone unfamiliar with transporting artifacts probably wouldn’t catch on. When she arrived at the airport, she’d reclaim the bag, and no one would ever be the wiser.
Gabriel urged her toward the back stairs. “We’ll go this way. There’s a slew of reporters on the front steps.”
Noelle rolled her eyes. The things people would do over a myth. She’d never understand religion or the power it held over mankind. It was so much easier to comprehend the properties of science, the genetic links between the different species, as opposed to trying to sell the creative fiction of a greater power. Science could be proved. Theology only existed as long as people believed.
She followed Gabriel up the musty metal stairs reserved for employees onto the rooftop parking lot. The sun glared off high banks of snow, a false illusion of warmth against the frigid blast that whipped through her hair. As they stepped around the first row of multicolored vehicles, the front doors on a silver SUV opened. Two men climbed out. Two giant men who looked like they could turn that SUV on its side with little effort.
Noelle bristled. Gabriel hadn’t hired security, he’d hired damn bodyguards. “I won’t forget this, Gabriel,” she mumbled under her breath.
His chuckle only annoyed her further. Gritting her teeth, she sank into her coat and accepted she didn’t have a choice. Maybe she could have gotten out of this back in her laboratory. But not now. Not after she’d agreed. And certainly not when she couldn’t pry his bribe off her arm.
As they approached the waiting vehicle, Gabriel gave her a sideways glance. “I’ll send Lucan ahead with the Sudarium. I would trust him with my life, so you don’t need to worry about its safety. Farran will escort you to your apartment, then take you to the airport when it’s time to leave.” He came to an abrupt stop and pulled on her elbow to turn her around. Bracing his hands on her shoulders, he dropped his head to meet her gaze. All traces of good humor drained from his expression. His eyes glinted with warning.
“When you get to Spain, Gareth will meet you at the baggage claim. He’ll have a red armband over his jacket. Allow no one but him to escort you to your hotel.”
A chill worked its way down Noelle’s spine, and she shivered. In all the time she’d known Gabriel, she’d never seen such deadly seriousness.
She opened her mouth to ask for an explanation, but Gabriel silenced her question with a gesture at the waiting men. “Dr. Keane, please meet Lucan.”
To her utter surprise, the dark-haired man took her hand and kissed the back of it. “A pleasure.” Silver eyes shone with sincerity, a striking contrast to the tousled locks that brushed against his shoulders.
Before she could recover from the surprising greeting, Gabriel cut in. “Lucan, you will take the second car with me, and we will go to the airport ahead of Dr. Keane.”
With a respectful, subordinate nod, Lucan accepted the directive.
Curiosity pulled Noelle’s gaze to the larger giant at the same time Gabriel addressed him. “Farran, this is Dr. Keane. You will escort Noelle to her apartment so she can gather what she needs. Do not leave her side.”
Noelle’s gaze traveled over the imposing figure leaning against the driver’s door. Blond hair tumbled in the crisp winter breeze. A slight wave to his long lengths gave them a softer appearance. He dwarfed her easily, his broad shoulders a good five inches taller than the top of her head. Dressed in faded blue jeans that hugged thick thighs, and a well-worn leather jacket that accented a trim waist, he cut a breathtaking picture. As her gaze drifted up, taking in his well-defined chin, high cheekbones, and nose that sat slightly off center, it skidded to a stop and locked with an intoxicating pair of ale-brown eyes.
Her heart kicked into her ribs. Wow. Maybe Gabriel’s bodyguard wouldn’t be half bad. She could spend a few hours with this guy and live off the resulting high for months to come.
With a tentative smile, she extended her hand.
Farran glanced at it. Then, on an indistinguishable mutter, he scowled. Not even bothering to accept her handshake, he pushed off the door, yanked it open, and climbed behind the steering wheel.
To her shame, Noelle wilted inside. Although his gruff rebuke stung, his reaction didn’t surprise her. Men like Farran had never found her remotely attractive. Then again, glasses, ponytails, and lab coats didn’t appeal to many men, period. If Farran hadn’t brushed her off now, he would have when she tried to talk to him and all that came out was drivel about elements, reactive compounds, and carbon footprints.
Anger rose on the heels of her hurt, and she shot Gabriel a look meant to kill. Except Gabriel had already crossed the parking lot, leaving her the only option of getting in Farran’s vehicle. She grumbled to herself, crossed to the passenger’s side, and opened the door. So much for that euphoric high. In this man’s company, time would crawl at a turtle’s pace and with each agonizing tick, remind her of all her shortcomings.
Copyright © 2012 by Valerie M. Hatfield