Levi

“Did you read the stuff I gave you, Marcella?”

She straightened her shoulders. “Some of it. I don’t have much free time so I focused on the particulars of your investigation, figuring that’s where you needed me to concentrate my efforts on your behalf.”

With the dishes cleared, washed and put away after Saturday supper, Levi had spread the books out on the dining table. Marcella listened to the faint sounds of Mother Superior’s favorite game show coming from the parlor and fidgeted in her chair, casting nervous glances at the doorway while the man who tempted her as no other ever had inched closer. Father Tom had gone back to the rectory, so she knew he wouldn’t be walking in to discover the depths of Levi’s inappropriateness where she was concerned, but the other Sisters were just in the next room.

So close, yet so far away.

“You’re avoiding your own history.” Levi’s glare was penetrating. “You better find time to read it over.”

“My duties toward the Sisters are my first priority.” She lifted her chin, though she could no longer hold his gaze.

“Marcella, there’s a demon on the loose. It doesn’t get more ‘first priority’ than that.” Levi tapped a wrinkled piece of paper. “The culprit is on this list, I’m certain of it.”

She looked down and gasped. “These are all priests!”

“Yes, I know.” Levi nodded with a great deal of exaggeration, and only then did she remember who his investigation targeted. “I met Joseph Ortega at the hospital today,” he said. “He tried to kill his little brother, but doesn’t remember doing it. His parents have been fighting and they go to addiction support meetings led by the people on that list.”

Marcella rubbed her brow. “I find it highly improbable that a man who has devoted his life to God would ever—”

“This is why you need to read the histories I gave you,” Levi interrupted. “The Garguiem investigate the clergy. We swore an oath in the Middle Ages to protect the integrity of the Church from any who sought to corrupt it from the inside.”

She’d had no idea of his order’s true purpose. Having thought that Levi would find evidence to rule out any and all clergymen from his investigation, that he was simply mistaken in his focus, Marcella struggled to comprehend. Truth be told, she had a difficult time imagining anyone calling on the forces of evil that, if Levi were to be believed, were infecting their city, let alone so many men of the cloth turning to such practices as to warrant an entire group of crusaders like the Garguiem.

With a sigh, she pushed the paper back toward him. “Well, I know it’s not Bishop Guzman. And you can strike Father Storey off your list completely.”

“Why don’t you think it could be them? Not even Father Tom has discounted them yet.”

“I don’t see how the bishop would have the time to summon demons, considering his workload, and Remy—” she cleared her throat—“Father Storey isn’t that type of man.”

Levi’s eyes narrowed and a muscle in his jaw jumped. Marcella suddenly understood how such a soft-spoken, reasonable person could claim to be God’s Warrior.

Remy, is it?”

“I’ve known Father Storey for several years, Levi. Since before I joined the Sisters of Clemency of the Divine. His family was very good to me during the most difficult time of my life.”

“Is he a top priority, Marcella?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” The tone of Levi’s question made her nervous, so she changed the subject and hoped that would distract him. “I called Detective Sorenson and asked a few questions about the deaths of the homeless men at the Marine Yard. I told him everyone at the shelter was upset about it.”

For a moment, she didn’t think Levi would take the bait. Then the set of his lips eased and his shoulders lost much of their tension. “Not a lie.”

“No, but, unfortunately, there are no leads and no evidence to suggest that the deaths weren’t caused by an animal, with the sole exception of a few cuts being too clean.” Remembering the stories some of the shelter’s residents had been only too happy to tell her when she’d been there on Thursday, Marcella had to pause to swallow the lump rising in her throat. “The majority of wounds were ragged but a few on two of the bodies looked as if a knife could have caused them.”

“Only on two bodies?”

“That’s what Detective Sorenson said, and that there were a few internal organs missing but he wouldn’t tell me if they were treating those cases differently than the others.”

“Hmm.” Levi rubbed a spot below his ear covered in a swirl of black ink, which competed for space with the vivid dragon design covering the rest of his neck. “That could be a ritual sacrifice. I’ll have to check out the Marine Yard for myself.”

“They’ve stepped up patrols, not that it will do any good,” she muttered. “The police only drive by and take a peek. They don’t go through the fence toward the back, where all the men find shelter from the storms this time of year.”

“Have they always done that, Marcella? Shelter in the Yard?”

“For a while now. The Yard had to cut back their operations, and since they’re storing less cargo these days, they don’t bother hiring security guards for the back lots.” She shrugged. “What’s the point of guarding empty warehouses?”

“That seems too damned convenient.”

“Maybe, if a person is behind the attacks, they’re just taking advantage of the situation.”

Levi stared at her for a long moment, but Marcella didn’t think he was seeing her at all. “Why did the hours of operation get cut back in the first place? This harbor is busy and I know it’s one of the main ports in the region.”

Marcella stared at the tabletop as bad memories rose up to haunt her. Stuffing them down, she still had to clear her throat to continue. “A few years ago, a lawsuit was brought against the Waterview Trade Association because people who worked in the Yard kept getting sick. Really sick.”

“The WTA is the board of combined companies in charge over there, right?”

Marcella nodded and shuddered at the same time. “They own the Marine Yard. The city placed limits on their business until such time as they can comply with the Harborpoint County health codes.”

“But the city didn’t shut them down?”

“It’s not economically possible for Waterview to shut down the Yard altogether, so they limited the amount of hours an employee can spend there and ordered the WTA to fix everything.”

“Why would that limit operations?” Levi rubbed his jaw. “Why not just work in shifts?”

“Half the warehouses over there are undergoing renovation, like the ones at the back of the Yard where the unfortunates find shelter. They’re trying to bring it all up to code, but the WTA have been having trouble.”

“Like the infected rats,” Levi mused.

“It’s obvious God has a hand in it, retribution for their crimes.” Marcella tried to keep her lips from twisting, but found it was nearly an impossible task. She vowed to ask for patience and the ability to forgive in her nightly prayers. “A very prominent local businessman had put in a bid to buy the whole operation a few years ago, but the WTA turned it down.”

“Who?”

She felt her cheeks growing warm and concentrated on the books spread around the table, rather than meet Levi’s eyes. “Theodore Storey. Remy’s father.”

“Hmm.” His lids lowered until only a glimmer of blue could be seen through his thick, dark lashes. “Why did they turn down his offer?”

“Their greed got the best of them.”  Marcella’s words turned bitter in her mouth so that she had to take a moment to ask God’s forgiveness. She had thought she’d gotten control of her emotions long ago, but realized some hurts went too deep to excise completely. “Now they’re being punished for it.”

Levi’s brows pulled together. “Marcella?”

“The WTA refused the offer.”

“So, Storey didn’t get his way? That’s rather suspicious, considering the trouble at the Yard. And the murders. And my presence in town.”

“He’s not responsible. Good heavens, he cares about the community, about the employees there. He would have cleaned it up, Levi!”

“Still, it’s a lead I should look into. If Storey—”

Marcella jumped out of her chair. “People died there!”

For a moment, she stared down at Levi and fought to contain the agony ripping through her chest. Old memories, grief and despair rose up to choke her, tightening around her lungs until she felt as if she were suffocating. As she’d done so long ago, Marcella tried to let God’s love fill her up so that there was no room for anything else, but the pain was deeply entrenched.

Time dragged out until Levi finally asked, “People you knew?”

The look in Levi’s eye as he got to his feet was beyond intense. He kept his gaze trained on Marcella’s face as he stalked her. For every step she retreated, he moved forward, until she was against the wall and he was pressed against her. She stared at the doorway across the room and wondered how fast she could get to it with him in the way.

“Marcella.”

“My mother.” The confession ripped from her, burning her throat and squeezing her heart as it escaped. “I dropped out of college because we needed every cent for her medical bills.”

“You took care of her?”

“As best I could.” She bit her lip. “It wasn’t enough. Nothing anybody did was enough to save her.”

“What about your father?”

“My mother never spoke of him and I never asked. What did it matter? It was just me and her for as long as I can remember.”

Levi raised his hand to cup Marcella’s cheek and she thought she would break. The emotional wall she depended on to keep bitter despair from dragging her into a dark spiral shuddered as his palm—so warm and gentle—offered her the same sense of connection she’d felt when they had gone to the park. Her heart expanded and picked up its pace, a heavy tingle moved through her torso. In that moment, it was such a relief to know she wasn’t alone, even though nothing could ever come of it, that Marcella had to close her eyes against their sting.

Levi’s thumb swept over her bottom lip. “That must have been hard for you.”

“Burying my mother was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that—” she hated how her voice broke— “if the Storey Foundation hadn’t given me the money for a proper burial.”

Even as close as he was, Marcella was surprised Levi heard her. He pressed his forehead to hers and his breath coasted over her face as he placed her hands on his body—one hand over his pounding heart and the other against his neck. He moved her fingers over the ridge of a scar, buried somewhere under all the ink he wore.

“My brother was killed in action,” he whispered. “I don’t know what I would have done if it had been my mother who died, but I lost it when Gideon fell. I understand how much it hurts to lose someone you love.”

“I was so angry. The WTA—”

“You need to give your anger up. Feel it, then let it go. To hold on could open you to evil influences. It slips into the cracks and makes them wider.”

“After my mother…” Marcella dragged some much-needed oxygen into her lungs. “I decided to join the Sisters.”

“You don’t belong here, though, Marcella.” Levi tipped his head, putting his mouth a fraction of an inch away from hers. “You belong with me.”

The need to be present with another human being overrode everything but her grief. Marcella didn’t care that the Sisters were just yards away, or that the dining room doorway had no actual door. She didn’t care that she’d made vows for almost three years in a row, or that she was supposed to make them permanent in just a few, short weeks.

All she knew was that Levi was there, his hard body pressed against her, making her feel safe and connected, warm and tingling with curiosity. When he put his mouth to hers, all she knew was that she wanted his kiss, and perhaps needed it in a way she’d never needed anything else.

Like the dawn after a long, hard night.

Never had she been kissed the way he kissed her. The finesse Levi wielded so expertly had been seriously lacking in the few boyfriends she’d had. Even the quick lick Levi had given her in the park, a caress that had thoroughly shaken Marcella, was incomparable to what he gave her then, in the abbey’s dining room. The kiss he gave her was special—and told her how special he thought she was.

His lips swept over hers, teasing her into compliance, though Marcella knew total surrender was only a small step away in that moment. Coasting over her mouth, brushing gently, then slowly increasing the pressure until Marcella’s lips tingled and parted. Levi sucked the lower one into his mouth.

His whole focus seemed to narrow to her bottom lip, suckling softly, licking, using his lips and tongue to show the devotion he had toward her pleasure. Heat lit up her nerves and sparked over her chin, twisting into her chest until her nipples pulled tight enough to ache. Her emotions blew all over the place—confusion swallowed by desire, desire enhanced by his care of her.

She didn’t know what to do. Though she’d been kissed before, Levi’s caress was more than a simple kiss. She stood there, unable to breathe, as a man—the only man who had ever tempted her—laved her lip and made her ache for more. Then he gave it to her.

Levi fused their mouths with a groan Marcella echoed. His tongue swept in and stroked, bold and smooth, exploring her on levels that went beyond the physical. She could sense him learning as he tasted, and he used his quickly gained knowledge until what Marcella had thought was already hot and tempting doubled its allure. Her head spun.

Just as she was losing all her wits, Levi pulled back. In the distance, through the rush of her pulse resounding in her ears, Marcella heard the last notes of the game show’s melody. She struggled to make her body aware that the Sisters would soon be on their way to their beds, and she knew that if Levi hadn’t stopped, they would have been caught—but the situation was bad enough as it was.

Lungs clenching until her chest heaved, Marcella put her hand to her mouth and spun toward the window. She felt Levi’s body heat fade as he moved away, felt the protest of his distance in the tightening of her own muscles, then heard the soft sounds of books closing and paper shuffling as he tidied up for the night. In the hall, floorboards creaked.

“Goodnight, Marcella,” Sister Mary Benedict called out.

Turning to face the woman where she stood in the doorway, Marcella managed to smile and dip her head, praying that her face wasn’t as flushed as it felt, that her lips weren’t as swollen as they seemed. She fought to keep her voice steady and strong, rather than breathless. “I believe I’ll go to bed as well, Sister. Levi is finished for the night.”

Without looking at him, Marcella swept from the room. There would be a great many things she would have to add to her prayers, so she figured she might as well get started on them. After all, it might take all night to list the sins her body contemplated.