I want to thank Nancy Halifax, proprietor of the Halifax Gallery (17 Quartz Lane, Old Quarter, Frequency City), for her professional insight and advice. Her bold efforts to expand the accepted critical boundaries of modern art have redefined the meaning and definition of the artistic vision.
And to Chimera, the daring artist who started it all.
Boy, howdy, I couldn't have written this book without you two. Any mistakes are, of course, entirely attributable to Miss Halifax and Chimera.
Welcome to my other world, Harmony.
Late in the twenty-first century, a vast energy Curtain opened in the vicinity of Earth, making interstellar travel practical for the first time. In typical human fashion, thousands of eager colonists packed up their stuff and lost no time heading out to create new homes and new societies on the unexplored worlds. Harmony was one of those worlds.
The colonists brought with them all the comforts of home: sophisticated technology, centuries of art and literature, and the latest fashions. Trade through the Curtain flourished and made it possible to stay in touch with families back on Earth. It also allowed the colonists to keep their computers and high-tech gadgets working. Things went swell for a while.
And then one day, without warning, the Curtain closed, disappearing as mysteriously as it had opened. Cut off from Earth, no longer able to obtain the equipment and supplies needed to keep their high-tech lifestyle going, the colonists were abruptly thrown back to a far more primitive existence. Forget the latest Earth fashions; just staying alive suddenly became a major problem.
But on Harmony, folks did one of the things humans do best: they survived. It wasn't easy, but two hundred years after the closing of the Curtain, the descendants of the First Generation colonists have managed to fight their way back from the brink to a level of civilization roughly equivalent to that of the early twenty-first century on Earth.
Here on Harmony, however, things are a little different, especially after dark. There are the creepy ruins of a long-vanished alien civilization, a mysterious underground rain forest, and a most unusual kind of animal companion. What's more, an increasingly wide variety of psychic powers are showing up in the population. Seems that something in the environment on Harmony is bringing out the latent psychic talents in people.
Of course, there are some folks who don't need any help from the environment. They already possess paranormal abilities. Turns out that several members of the Arcane Society were among the First Generation colonists. .
If, like me, you sometimes relish your romantic suspense with a paranormal twist, Harmony is the place for you.
SOME MEN WALKED STRAIGHT OUT OF A WOMAN'S dreams. Some qualified as full-on nightmares. As far as Lyra Dore was concerned, Cruz Sweetwater had a booted foot planted solidly in both realms. When the jolt of awareness shot through her, she almost dropped her glass.
"I can't believe it," she said, sputtering a little on a sip of champagne. "The bastard is here."
But the truth was, she was not all that shocked or surprised. Deep down, she had known that sooner or later he would come back into her life. There had been a relentless, disturbing sense of inevitability about the whole thing. Like watching a slow-motion train wreck, she thought.
A part of her had even dared to hope that when he did come back, it would be on his knees. But with her luck—the infamously unreliable Dore luck—that was highly unlikely to happen.
That was the way with dreams. The good ones had the decency to vanish forever with the dawn. Nightmares, on the other hand, had a nasty tendency to return to haunt you again and again.
"You're kidding." Nancy Halifax looked around the crowded gallery, her attractive face alight with excitement. She did not have to ask who "the bastard" was. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," Lyra muttered into her glass. Another whisper of intense awareness shivered across her senses. She knew Cruz was nearby in the same way she would have known if any other species of top-of-the-food-chain predator was in the vicinity.
"This is just a small gallery affair," Nancy said. "It isn't the sort of high-end auction or museum exhibition a Sweetwater would attend. There's only one reason why your guy would come here tonight. He knows you're here. He wants to talk to you."
"He's definitely not my guy, and if you think he's here to see me, I've got a lovely amber mine I can sell you," Lyra said. But deep inside, hope spiraled through her.
"I'll bet he wants to beg you to forgive him and take him back. I don't see him, though. Are you sure he's here?"
Nancy was a striking woman who stood close to six feet tall in her bare feet. Tonight she was wearing three-inch heels to accent her sleek-fitting black sheath. Her view of the room was no doubt excellent.
"Positive," Lyra said. "If you don't see him, it's because he doesn't want you to see him. Not yet, at any rate. He's hunting."
"Oh, come on, Lyra. You make him sound like a specter-cat stalking its prey."
"I should hope so."
"Think professional hit man," Lyra said. "A really, really well-dressed hit man."
"Isn't that just a little over-the-top?"
"Hmmm. No, I don't think so."
Lyra did not bother to search the crowd. There was no point. She was several inches shorter than Nancy, and even in her stiletto heels she would not be able to see over the heads of those around her. Besides, there was no need to look for Cruz. She already knew he was here. She could feel his presence with every fiber of her being.
She tried to fix her attention on the green quartz artifact in a nearby glass display case. The Swan Gallery's collection of alien antiquities was certainly respectable, but Nancy was right, the Swan wasn't a top-tier establishment like the Fairstead Gallery, which catered to the wealthiest and most exclusive collectors.
If the Swan had been such a high-end gallery, Lyra thought, she and Nancy would never have received invitations to the auction that was scheduled to begin in an hour. Neither of them moved in the higher circles of the art world. Neither of them was in a position to bid on any of the relics that would go on the block tonight. They were here only because they were friends of Harriet Swan, the proprietor. Harriet had been desperate to turn out a crowd.
"I still don't see him," Nancy said.
"That would be because he doesn't want anyone to notice him yet." Lyra downed another hasty swallow of champagne in a desperate effort to soothe her frazzled senses. "That's what all self-respecting predators do. They lie low, staying out of sight until they're ready to make their move. By the time you spot them, it's too late. Their teeth are clamped around your throat."
Nancy grinned. "Sounds interesting."
Lyra looked at her without saying a word.
"Sorry." Nancy had the grace to appear chagrined. "I know you have every reason to be well and truly pissed because of what Sweetwater did to you. But you've got to admit, those of us who didn't have a dust bunny in that fight have a right to be curious about him. I mean, he is a Sweetwater, after all."
"You didn't have a dust bunny in that fight?" Lyra repeated, outraged. "In case you didn't notice, that was your best friend who got mauled by Cruz Sweetwater and a bunch of overpaid Amber Inc. lawyers."
"Just a figure of speech," Nancy said quickly. "Don't worry, I'm one hundred percent behind you here. Best friends forever. You know that."
"Thank you," Lyra said stiffly. The electrifying tingle of energy that was stirring the fine hair at the nape of her neck was not fading. If anything, it was growing stronger. "Try to remember that friends are supposed to stick together in situations like this."
"Absolutely. I am definitely on your side. It's just that, well, Cruz Sweetwater is one of the men of Amber Inc. Everyone pays attention when a Sweetwater shows up. It's like having a Guild boss walk into the room. Actually, a lot of people would say that now that Cruz has taken over his family's private security business, he's got more power here in Frequency than the head of the local Guild."
"That wouldn't be hard," Lyra said dryly, "given the fact that the local Guild is between bosses at the moment."
"You know what I mean."
Lyra sighed. "I know. Sorry. I'm just feeling a little testy."
Harold Taylor, the chief of the Frequency Guild, had died recently, and the Council had yet to select a new boss. But that was, Lyra had to admit, a technicality. Nancy was right. As the new CEO of Amber Inc. Security, Cruz Sweetwater did wield more power than a Guild chief, at least aboveground. When it came to the underground world, the men of Amber Inc. had historically maintained very close working relationships with the Guilds. In Lyra's opinion, the association was not unlike an alliance between two criminal organizations that had agreed to respect each other's territories.
The ability to psychically resonate with amber had begun to appear in the colonists shortly after they had arrived from Earth. Initially it had been considered an odd adaptation to the environment with no practical importance. But when the energy Curtain that had made travel between the home planet and a host of new worlds possible had closed without warning, amber had become the one thing that stood between the colonists and total disaster.
When their high-tech machines inevitably began to fail, the struggling members of the First Generation—united in their determination not to be the last generation on Harmony—had turned to amber as a source of energy. It had served their descendants well in the two hundred years since the closing of the Curtain. Today it powered everything from washing machines to computers.
The immutable laws of economics being what they were, whoever controlled the mining of standard resonating amber—SRA—controlled a lot of things on Harmony. And for the past fifty years, the mysterious, reclusive Sweetwater family had managed to corner a huge chunk of the market. Amber Inc.'s only serious competitor was the RezStone corporation, which controlled an equally large market share. The rivalry between the two firms was legendary.
"You can't blame me for being a little curious about Cruz Sweetwater," Nancy said. "I never even got to meet him three months ago when you were dating him."
"Take it from me: curiosity is a dangerous thing when it comes to Mr. Sweetwater," Lyra said.
He was very close now. The sparkling sensation fluttering across all her senses was making it hard to breathe. The half-empty glass she held trembled ever so slightly in her fingers. She could literally feel Cruz closing in on her. The urge to run was almost overpowering. Unfortunately, what she wanted to do was run to him, not from him. It was crazy, she thought. If she had any common sense, she would slip out the back door. Whatever Cruz wanted from her, it was a sure bet that it would not be good for her.
But the memory of the purple orchids sitting in the black vase on her coffee table swamped common sense. The latest delivery of the spectacularly gorgeous, outrageously expensive flowers had arrived that afternoon. The card that had accompanied them was identical to all the others: "We were meant for each other." There was no signature. There was never a signature.
She had dared to dream these past few weeks, but she was forced to acknowledge that her lovely little fantasy involving the return of Cruz Sweetwater had a dark side. Part of her was terrified that the romantic scenario she had conjured was nothing more than a seductive new variant of the strange, waking nightmares that had been plaguing her recently. If that was the case, at least it was a far more enjoyable hallucination than the others she had experienced.
The unnerving episodes were getting worse. She had not confided in anyone, including Nancy, half afraid that even talking about the strange visions would somehow make the awful dreams more real.
"There he is," Nancy said in a breathy voice. "He just walked into the room. I recognize him from the pictures in the newspapers. Wow. I see what you mean."
"I told you, the clothes are good."
"The suit is terrific," Nancy said. "Nothing like black on black to bring out the best in the male of the species, I always say. But that wasn't what I was talking about. It's that cool, sophisticated hit man thing he has going. You're right. Wouldn't want to run into him in a dark alley." She managed a slinky, theatrical shudder. "Now a darkened bedroom, on the other hand—"
"Don't go there," Lyra warned.
"You're just saying that because you didn't get there, yourself. I ask you again, as I have so many times these past three months. What were you thinking, woman?"
"Gee, I don't know. Maybe about self-preservation? What was I supposed to do, after I discovered that he was about to screw me out of the amber discovery of the decade, if not the century? Let him screw me literally? I don't think so. Besides, I was reading that marriage manual at the time, and it strongly advised against going to bed with a man too soon."
She had bought Ten Steps to a Covenant Marriage: Secrets of a Professional Matchmaker immediately after meeting Cruz. She had been so sure he was the right man. She had not wanted to leave anything to chance. The Dore luck had a way of going sour when you needed it the most.
But in the end, she had never had the opportunity to fall victim to temptation. And it was not Ten Steps to a Covenant Marriage that had saved her. The truth that she would never admit to anyone, not even her best friend, was that it was Cruz who had drawn the invisible line in their short-lived relationship.
He had never even tried to lure her into bed. There had been plenty of torrid kisses and a lot of heavy breathing three months ago, but that was as far as matters had gone. How much worse would she have felt after the heavy boot of Amber Inc. had come crashing down on her if she had made the mistake of sleeping with Cruz?
Then again, how much worse could she have felt?
"Here's a tip, friend," Nancy said. "Next time you meet a really interesting man, you might want to wait until after you've had a little fun in bed before you file a lawsuit against him and his company. Guys tend to get annoyed when they get sued."
"For all the good it did me." Amber Inc. had swatted her pathetic lawsuit and her even more pathetic lawyer without breaking a sweat.
"How did you do that, anyway?" Nancy asked, her attention still riveted on the scene behind Lyra.
"File a suit?" Lyra shrugged. "It's not that hard. It just takes money. A lot of it. More than I had, as it turns out."
"I wasn't talking about the lawsuit," Nancy said impatiently. "I meant, how did you guess that Cruz Sweetwater was about to walk into this reception a few minutes ago? You knew he was here before he even entered the room. What's up with that?"