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Thanksgiving Treat: First Three Chapters of STILL

Still series by Camilla Monk - Ebook and Audiobook

HOY!

A little Thanksgiving treat: a sneak peek at the first three chapters of STILL, my new NA paranormal romance, to be released at the end of February! 


It always started like this, a pulse inside me, like a warning before the tide surged, roared . . . and froze everything.

Twenty-year old Emma just landed in Rome, to find the father who walked out of her life more than a decade ago and was too busy eating pizza to call. Traveling with her is a secret she’s carried alone since childhood: sometimes, around her, time stops. People and cars freeze, rain hangs still in the air and there’s only her left in the silence.

To make things worse, instead of her dad, Em runs into a past she’d rather forget in the person of Lily, her estranged step-sis. As the two of them reconnect, Em starts to pick up some creepy vibes from Katharos, the mysterious archaeological foundation Lily works for—and more specifically the ancient stone table they’re digging up near the coliseum…

Faust, the blind hobo Em keeps running into, might be the key to piercing Katharos’s secrets. Actually, he might even have something to do with that pesky time-freezing thing…


 

I

Officially, this is not my story. It’s not my face you saw on CNN and Rai News after it was all over. I didn’t lose my mother at a young age; as far as I know, she’s still alive, probably doing fine. My paternal grandfather wasn’t a world-class historian, and I didn’t enroll in Harvard at seventeen to follow in his footsteps—I was never really good with books and studying. Just didn’t have the brains for that.

But I was there. I went to Rome to visit my dad at the time—booked a round trip ticket and six nights in a budget guesthouse with my tips from Tuna Town. I know, I know . . . Keep your jokes; I’ve heard them all. We had the cheapest tuna rolls on Broadway, though, and fresh most of the time. Anyway, I hadn’t seen my dad since I was seven, so it might sound like the adventure of a lifetime. It could even have been my story: this girl who decides to burn her meager savings on a trip to Italy to find the mysterious genitor she hasn’t heard from in thirteen years. There’s a tearful reunion, they sort out their issues, and she moves to Rome at the end—to start a new life and all.

I’ll get to that part, but let’s start with the afternoon right after I landed. I was sitting on a bench in a tiny park square tucked by the Piazza di San Marco—little more than a patch of grass under a few parasol pines. With my ripped jeans, my old Eastpak, and a can of beer tucked between my knees while I munched on a two-euro slice of margherita, I probably looked like your average gutter punk to the untrained eye. The October sun was warm in my hair—a messy bun dyed a washed-out turquoise. I liked that color, even if my blonde roots looked a little greenish.

Washing down the pizza with a slow sip, I watched over the rim of my can as buses came and went from a station on the square. Tons of buses, white and red, vomiting families of tourists coming to visit Roman ruins and that castle thing overlooking the piazza. It kinda looked like a Greek temple, with columns everywhere, white marble, and a statue of a guy on a horse in front of it. Old stuff, very nice. I took a couple of pics, mostly to pass the time because I couldn’t muster the courage to hop on a bus and go knock on my dad’s door.

I had his address saved in Google Maps; well, I hoped it was his, anyway. I’d found it not long after discovering his Facebook profile a few weeks ago, but he hadn’t replied to my friend invite. Maybe social media wasn’t his thing. He must be in his mid-fifties after all, which, to my twenty-year-old self sounded like some sort of pre-mummification stage. I set my beer down on the bench and took out my phone to check my Facebook feed for the hundredth time. I chewed on my nails. No new notification.

A few taps and a tiny profile pic of a fifty-something guy with graying blond hair appeared. Big grin, a tan, and sunglasses—taken during a vacation, I gathered.

Gabriele Lombardi.

Lombardi . . . the last name I had never worn. The name of a quiet Italian dude who’d sometimes visit our Brooklyn flat on Sundays and take me to Coney Island for the afternoon. We never did any rides, just strolled up and down the Boardwalk and shared a hot dog. He didn’t know what to say to a six-year-old, so he’d be like, “Guarda, dei gabbiani!” Look, seagulls! Meanwhile, I’d eat my half of our hot dog in dignified silence because I already knew what a seagull was. I would have wanted to hear about his job instead, or if he’d left Rome because of all the slavery there, like in Gladiator. And maybe, if I’d been brave enough, I’d have told him about the secret weighing in my chest and keeping me up at night, but I was too shy—too awkward for any of that.

I had no idea, back then, that Italy was even farther than Florida, and that this occasional Sunday dad of mine didn’t have legit visitation rights because he’d never filed for paternity in the first place. I didn’t know there’d be one too many fights with my mom over alimony, one too many threats of suing his lazy ass, one last Sunday, one last hot dog, and that I’d never see him again after that afternoon, when the seagulls paused in their flight above our heads for a short eternity.

Whatever. Tough shit, I guess. I chugged another gulp of beer and listened to the city’s noise, the cars, and the laugh of strangers, getting reacquainted with what little Italian I’d learned from my dad as a kid, like a song I wouldn’t remember well, but whose melody lingered. The notes threaded with Roman voices to fill the gaping holes in my vocabulary, and I could tell that those two women worked in a hospital, or that the guys sitting in the grass were checking their phone to see how to get to Quartaccio—wherever that was. Not bad for a high school dropout with a record 0.6 GPA. I gave a snort when I noticed an ad on the side of a bus with the words test di admissione. College, the final frontier . . .

I manspread wider on the bench with a bitter sigh and craned my neck to look up at the azure sky. Maybe I should message him again, and say “Hey, I’m here in Rome”? But what if he thought I was a stalker and he freaked out? What if he didn’t want to be found? Okay, that one was far-fetched; he was on Facebook, after all. And yet goose bumps bloomed under my hoodie in a familiar mix of shame and dread. It was kind of too late for that, but I was starting to realize I’d fucked up—again. I’d pictured myself starring in my very own Lifetime movie and blown $700 on a stupid impulse. Now I couldn’t even find the balls to call him and simply ask, “Do you remember me? Do you want to see me?”

“Okay,” I announced, to no one in particular—scared a couple of pigeons though.

I slammed my beer on the bench. Night wouldn’t fall for another couple of hours, at least. Museum tickets and tourist stuff were expensive, but I could always take a stroll around the piazza to clear my thoughts—the forum with the old Roman ruins was right behind that palace with the horseman. No need to pay for a ticket to check it from the street and snatch a few pics. I grabbed my backpack and beer. I frowned down at the almost-full black can. Honestly, that shit tasted worse than a Natty Daddy you drink alone for breakfast, and I didn’t want to be the girl who drowns her sorrow in grandma’s rubbing alcohol.

But I didn’t like to waste either. I decided to leave it up for whoever wanted to grab it—a bit of street solidarity never hurt. I’d barely shrugged on my backpack before this old guy with dirty track pants and gaping sneakers popped up behind me. Bumdar alert: dude hadn’t even bothered removing the cardboard sign around his neck—a few lines in Italian hastily scribbled with a Sharpie. I made no attempt to decipher it; his toothless grin spoke for itself. I flourished my hand toward the can with a wink.

He took the can and toasted me with it, chewing out a few words in a raspy singing voice. It took me a couple of seconds to make sense of the jumbled syllables—he wanted to know what a nice girl like me was doing in Rome.

My lips parted to reply. No sound came out. A loud and familiar beat in my chest muted my voice. His. Everyone else’s.

Oh God. Oh no . . .

It always started like this: a pulse inside me, like a warning before the tide surged, roared . . . and froze everything. The bum had raised my beer to his lips; golden drops remained still in the air above his open mouth. The tourists stood paralyzed mid-stride. The children’s grins were empty masks; their legs were coiled, ready for a jump that wasn’t coming, like birds about to fly away. The cars and the buses had stopped. Over the suffocating silence, all I could hear was the blood drumming in my ears, my neck. I staggered back, buried my face in my hands. I didn’t want it anymore—this hideous disease I could tell no one about.

It’d been weeks, perhaps even months since the last time, and like always, I’d almost allowed myself to believe it’d never happen again. How the fuck do you sit down in front of a shrink—or worse, your social worker—and tell them that you’re doing great, except when time stops, and everyone and everything is frozen but you? Don’t worry, though, it’s been like this since I was a kid; I’m used to it. I mean, sure, I freak out a teensy bit when I wake up at night, and I see a drop of water hanging midair from my kitchen faucet, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Nothing the right kind of meds and a straitjacket can’t fix, right, Doc?

It wouldn’t last. It never did. I massaged my skull and kept my eyes screwed shut, repeating the words in my head like a mantra: It’s almost over. It never lasts. Never. Just long enough to make me freak out in the middle of Central Park among frozen joggers and their dogs. Wax statues everywhere whose clothes wouldn’t wrinkle when I tried to touch them, water that wouldn’t wet my hands, and the silence, the silence drilling into my eardrums. I breathed through my nose. In. Out. Slowly, ticking endless seconds in my head until the hallucination passed.

Reality rushed back to me in a deep exhale. A car honked somewhere across the piazza, and the bum chugged down the rest of my can with a reassuring gurgle. A fat kid bumped into me; I was so out of it that I was the one who kept apologizing over and over as I stumbled away from the bench and toward the sidewalk. I needed to get away from the noise, the people. Right now. Scratch tourism; my new plan was to run straight to the guesthouse, check into my room, and stay curled in the dark until tomorrow.

Fighting the urge to climb on the first bus I saw, I resolved to ask for directions instead. Because my day hadn’t been shitty enough yet, might as well stack some cringeworthy social interaction in a language I hadn’t spoken in over a decade on top of it. I waved awkward fingers at a sweaty driver who sat slouched behind his wheel. “Quale . . . Autobus . . . Appia Alba?” Which . . . bus . . . Appia Alba?

My stuttering efforts were rewarded with a compassionate wince before he motioned at another station across the park with a doughy arm. “Può prendere l’ottantasette.” I remained stuck in place, my jaw hanging limply as I slowly processed his instructions. “Ottantasette,” he repeated, before thankfully adding, “Eighty-seven.”

I gave an eager nod. “Grazie mille, signore.” Thank you very much, sir.

Well, things were looking up. If the bus didn’t freeze on its way to my guesthouse, I might even consider the trip a small victory. I strode toward the station at a brisk pace, passing the bum I’d given my beer to earlier. Dude had collapsed on the bench, using his cardboard sign to shield his leathery face from the sun while he napped. I thought of that old Phil Collins song: “Just Another Day in Paradise,” but I wasn’t really sad for him because I knew there were good and bad days on the streets, and to him, a sunny afternoon and free beer probably made for a good one.

Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t pay attention to the elegant silhouette catching up with me until a soft voice said, “Em? Is that you?”

 

II

Two words: Oh and Shit.

I took a step away from the doppelganger of Audrey Hepburn smiling at me in her neat trench and navy cigarette pants. Lily tilted her head, and it made her sleek, jet-black ponytail bounce prettily. I gulped a breath that stayed stuck in my throat. What were the fucking chances? I mean, flying 6,000 miles away from New York all the way to Europe, I’d been ready to deal with a lot of weird shit, starting with bidets and tourist scams. What I hadn’t counted on was running into my stepsis. To be honest, I thought I’d never see Lily again, or maybe someday she’d walk past me down Broadway, and she wouldn’t recognize me—or she’d pretend not to.

“Em?” She tried again. “Is that really you?”

My mouth opened, ready to reply, “No,” and maybe babble something in broken Italian, but Lily would probably see through my bullshit, and it’d make things even worse. I took an instinctive step back. “Wow. You’re, like . . . in Rome too?” I tried to sound cool, but I couldn’t filter the dismay from my voice, and she picked up on it.

Her lips quivered into a nervous smile. “This is just crazy . . . I actually live here. I’m doing a gap year before my MA.”

Of course, she was. See, back when I was a teen and my self-centered, Slipknot-fueled angst more or less peaked, I developed this theory that if God existed, He’d sent Lily just for me, a stepsister to slowly torture me by being everything I wasn’t and could never be. A wholesome girl with top grades, amazing friends, an amazing dad, a heart of gold, you name it. But I had it all wrong. God, or whoever, had not sent Lily for me. He’d sent her for my mom. God had looked upon that loser Gabriele, his rust-bitten Honda Civic and Sunday hot dogs in the guise of child support. God had taken good note of the bizarre and apathetic kid my mom was stuck with—and don’t get me started on her cramped one-bedroom right above a laundromat.

And so, in his great benevolence, God had sent her a reasonably hot, mild-mannered, widowed art-gallery owner named Richard and his sweet little girl—Lily. To replace us both. Thanks, God.

“Em.” Lily was still standing there, expecting some sort of reaction from me, I gathered. Her pale hand reached as if to catch me before I flew away. I stiffened. She dropped it back at her side just as soon. “I’m just really happy that you’re okay. We even thought—”

I cut her off with a tight chuckle. “Well, I’m not dead.”

She shook her head just a little too emphatically. “No! I mean, of course not. We were just worried . . . because we didn’t have any news.”

For two years and four months. From the second I turned eighteen, and I was able to erase myself from the background of their family portrait for good. “I lost my phone,” I said lamely.

She winced. “I guess it happens. So, are you here on vacation . . . or maybe to see your dad?” she added hesitantly.

“Yeah. Just left him,” I replied, looking straight into her big, brown eyes.

In the space of an unsteady heartbeat, I nearly regretted my lie, wondering if Lily of all people would buy it. She’d witnessed enough fights between Mom and me that’d end up with Mom grabbing her Blackberry from her purse and tossing it on the couch with all her strength—she missed and shattered the screen, once—yelling, “Well if we’re not good enough, call your father! Come on, Em; call him!” Of course, I didn’t have his number, and I don’t even think she had it either, after years without hearing from him. So yeah, I’d never really opened up to Lily about all that, but she basically knew.

I braced myself for a doubtful frown on her part, but her face lit up. “That’s great. I’m so glad you two reconnected.”

I gave a lopsided smile in response. “I’m glad, too, I guess.” My eyes darted around, seeking a way out—an excuse—anything to cut this train wreck short. “Okay, um, I don’t want to hold you or anything. You must be really busy with work and stuff.”

A couple of awkward seconds ticked by, during which I waited for Lily to wave me goodbye and run off to call my mom and let her know that oh-my-God I wasn’t actually dead or turning tricks in Mexico. But she didn’t move. Instead, she replied, “Yes, work’s been a little crazy lately. I’m interning for an archeological foundation. I’m helping them on a research project, and they offered me a grant to translate an incredible piece they’re excavating”—she quivered with excitement as she added—“on the Palatine!”

I gave a robotic nod. Far as I knew, the Palatine was this big hill full of ruins, and you could get a combined ticket to visit the whole thing along with the coliseum for twelve euro, which was a fair deal compared to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican—sixteen euros? Get out! But I figured that Lily didn’t care about that. I pursed my lips in appreciation—of what, I wasn’t sure. “Sounds really cool. It’s great that you still study . . . history.”

I hoped we were done with small talk and she’d just leave now because I had officially run out of things to tell her. All I knew was that she’d enrolled in Harvard five years ago. I still remembered the day my mom had called to give me the great news. Normally, she’d only call when she received my report cards from Saint-Henry—a unique boarding institution empowering differently abled learners since 1904! Their words, not mine. Mom had said, “Lily has been accepted into Harvard”; then she’d asked, “And what are you going to do?” I knew my card was full of Fs and shit like, “I have never seen this student in my classroom,” or “Emma’s disruptive behavior is preventing her from exploring her potential to the fullest,” so I kept quiet. My mom had sighed and hung up, like always.

I didn’t realize I’d zoned out until Lily tilted her head again like a pigeon. “Em?”

My gaze snapped up. “That’s me. Well, um, I guess I’ll be on my way.”

Her shoulders hitched; she flashed me a pleading look. “Are you doing anything else today?”

My poker face wavered, and I forced a smile on my lips as I kept lying my ass off. “I was going to visit . . .” stuff. “The coliseum.”

“Oh my God, are you serious? Actually, I was on my way there. Our digging site is behind the Coliseum, near San Bonaventura.” She grinned. “Come with me, I’ll give you a tour no ticket can buy.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but one fact stood out from this slow-motion crash: I had lied my way straight into a concrete wall. I scanned the Piazza, the buses and a couple police cars blaring their sirens to pass them faster. Still no providential cop-out in sight and my brain cells were running on empty. I shrugged helplessly.

“Okay, follow me, then!”

Congratulations, Em. You played yourself.

……

Well, fuck me. All the turns I’d taken in life had officially taken me back to square one. Except in Rome, and in a mirror reality where Lily and I were on speaking terms, strolling down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, along old brick buildings and ruins. I wasn’t even sure we’d exchanged a single word the last time I’d seen her. I’d been seventeen our last Christmas together—Lily coming back from Harvard to celebrate with the family, me from Saint-Henry because . . . they closed during Christmas break, and there was just no way around it. I made a point to spend as much time outside as possible, only to crash on the couch in Richard’s home office around 4 am, long after everyone had gone to bed. So, this was probably the longest conversation I’d had with her since . . . ever, maybe.

I took some pics of the ruins and columns you see on all the postcards while Lily basically gave me a course on Ancient Rome, the imperial forums—sorry, fori—how politicians and merchants gathered there to do their business, the baths, the basilicas . . . Honestly, it was a little too much info at once what with all the names and dates, but I didn’t interrupt her. I liked the distance it put between us that she was ranting about stuff I didn’t really care about.

We’d just passed the massive stack of arches of a basilica, and Lily was telling me about emperor Constantine and how he kicked the ass of another emperor named Maxentius to take the throne, and after that guy drowned in the Tiber, Constantine grabbed his basilica too because these people obviously had no chill. She stopped in her explanations all of a sudden, and I knew my luck had just run out.

“What about you? I’ve been talking for ten minutes straight, and I realize I didn’t ask about, I don’t know, your life.”

I retreated behind yet another shrug. “Well . . . I just work, and I guess that’s about it.”

“Where?”

“At a restaurant on Broadway.”

The flash of compassion was easy to read on her dollface, but even with her fricking Harvard degree, she couldn’t see when it was time to drop the bone. “You’re a cook?”

“I work the dining room.” I figured it sounded classier than just telling her I was a waitress.

“Oh. That’s great.” There was a lot loaded in that single oh that I prayed we wouldn’t unpack.

“Money’s okay,” I quickly added. “I got my own place too.” A shoebox efficiency in the Bronx, but I was pretty proud of it nonetheless.

Lily’s mouth rounded in admiration, but I couldn’t tell if it was sincere. She said, “That’s amazing!” and reached for my hand, but I snatched it away discreetly. Undeterred, she went on, her voice a notch quieter. “I’m happy for you, you know. I know it’s not always been easy . . . I’ll be home for Christmas; maybe we could organize something with Mom—”

“I’ve already got plans,” I snapped, a sudden pressure welling in my chest. I hated the way she said it, ‘Mom.’ Her mom. Not mine.

Lily took a sharp breath and fished for her phone in her black Dior tote. “Okay . . . I’ll give you my number anyway.”

I pulled out my own phone and gave it to her. She noticed the Minions case; it made her smile. Her fingers skimmed across the glass screen, creating a new contact. Lily. When she was done, she handed it back to me with a hopeful smile. “Text me so I have yours?”

I clutched the scratched plastic case hesitantly. On a rational level, I’d rather get full-body herpes than give her my number, but I was also painfully aware of this tiny part of me that still wanted to belong somewhere. I watched my pride fly away and flip me off and chewed the inside of my cheek as I texted her. “That’s mine.”

After I was done, Lily pointed to the coliseum in the distance. I wasn’t sure why, but there was something vaguely threatening about its worn stones and the multitude of empty arches. A dead building, long-gutted from its inside. Creepy. It looked even more massive up-close; I felt like an ant in the shadow stretching across the square all the way to the avenue. Colossal stuff indeed. I followed Lily around a mile-long queue of tourists trampling the pavement impatiently, fanning themselves with colorful leaflets.

“It’s often difficult to get in, especially at this time of the year,” Lily noted. “But I can use my Katharos pass to take you for a private visit after hours. Tomorrow night, maybe?”

“Katharos?” I asked, to change the subject.

“The Katharos Archeological Foundation; that’s where I’m interning. They’re very active here in Rome. They finance expensive excavations, publish books about their finds, and they raise funds to protect sites from developers.”

“Cool.” I shot a doubtful look at the spotless red varnish of her loafers. “So, you’re digging and, like, dusting stuff?”

She shook her head and laughed. There was no bite to it, but I still felt dumb. “No, no. Most of the time I help analyzing the pieces we find. I draw them, and then I do research to see how they fit in our current state of knowledge about a given period. I do translation too. I want to do a thesis on proto-Italic alphabets, and the foundation has incredible pieces to study.”

“Okay.”

As we kept circling around the coliseum, the crowd became scarce, save for a little cluster of old people bickering around a souvenir shop. Lily stopped in front of a single arch standing a hundred feet away from the arena as if it’d been randomly dropped there. It was the size of a building, and there wasn’t a single square inch that hadn’t been sculpted with guys in skirts, horses, columns, Latin text . . . you name it. I took a pic because everyone else was. Lily watched me do so with a proud grin.

“It’s the Constantine Arch. He had it erected to commemorate his victory over Maxentius.”

“The guy he took the basilica from?”

Lily nodded. “You see the stylistic differences between the top and bottom half?”

“Sure.” Not at all . . .

“It’s because the arch is kind of a collage. The artists reused pieces from Trajan and Hadrian’s period and added their own, but the late Roman style was already veering away from the classical Hellenistic one. It was less realistic, less refined,” she droned, nodding with a frown of concentration. “Constantine’s Arch is a perfect surviving example of that stylistic dichotomy, and some would argue, of the decline of the empire at that time . . . Em?”

Someone, shoot me please . . . “Yeah, it’s . . . very cool.” It’s the same bearded guys in skirts. Everywhere.

I drew a quiet breath of relief when she walked us away from the dreaded arch. We made our way in blessed silence toward a green hillside where pines shadowed ruins emerging from the ground. A little farther down the trail, a tall scaffolding fitted with building wrap shielded a big chunk of the site from prying eyes. I stared up at the stone profile printed on the wrap and the sober black logo over it. Katharos Foundation.

A pair of beefy guards in dark suits guarded the entrance to the site. Lily flashed them her pass and a smile they didn’t return, and we were in. Honestly, the wrapping looked more exciting than the piles of dirt and the excavators it concealed. Lily motioned for me to follow her. “Come, it’s this way.”

I didn’t want to take her hand, but when she threatened to twist her ankle for the third time on protruding rocks, I let my hand dangle near hers in a silent invitation. She laced her fingers with mine, a smile on her lips. As we got closer, I stuck to my first impression that there wasn’t much to see around here, except . . . a big hole. Workers wearing blue helmets bustled around a pit some fifteen feet wide and so deep I couldn’t see the bottom from where I stood.

I watched them set up pickets and yellow tape around the hole and yell stuff to each other in Italian under the attentive eyes of a black guy who looked all business in a classy gray suit and camel coat. At his side a younger dude with a navy sweater and jeans ran two hands through his curly brown hair, looking awestruck. Lily waved at him excitedly, but he didn’t react. His gaze was set on the hole, eyes wide and unblinking, and I couldn’t place why his fascination sent a chill of unease crawling under my skin like that.

 

III

“Dante!”

Alerted by Lily’s squeal, the younger guy’s chin jerked up. He turned to acknowledge us with a ridiculously white smile.

He kind of almost winked. She blushed. I sensed an explanation coming. “Dante and I—” she began.

“—are fucking,” I completed in a matter-of-fact tone.

Lily’s jaw went slack, but her shock soon became a guilty grin. “He’s my boyfriend. He works for Katharos too. That’s how we met . . .”

“Not judging.” I shrugged, my palms up.

Why wasn’t I surprised that Lily’s boyfriend looked like an Armani ad, on top of digging top-secret archeological holes? She ran to him like in a movie and hugged him. It made my chest tighten a little because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d hugged anyone like that—maybe as a little kid? I averted my eyes and pretended to be super interested in the excavator gathering a big pile of rubble away from the hole instead.

When he tipped his head to look at me over her shoulder, she whirled around. “Dante, this is Emma Nielsen, my stepsister. Em, meet Dante Alessandri.”

He waved at me with a good-guy grin. I waved back. Again, awkward five seconds. The black guy walked up to them to whisper something in Dante’s ear, his face completely blank. If he noticed me, he gave no sign of it. I took a few cautious steps toward the hole to get a better look because I had no idea what to do with myself, but also, admittedly, because I was a little curious. It went much deeper than I expected, at least a hundred feet. Ropes hung all the way down from several reels, and a few workers equipped with climbing harnesses were busy scraping dirt from some sort of large circular stone plate half-buried in the earth among broken columns and cracked slabs of rock. With each swipe of their gloved hands, symbols appeared that looked like letters, but nothing I could decipher.

I stared, feeling a little . . . off. I was hyperaware of the noise of the engines and the voices ricocheting my way from the bottom of the hole. My ears were buzzing, and I thought maybe I’d drunk more beer than I thought.

Dante’s suave Italian accent filtered through my daze. “Chronos’s Table. It was part of a small shrine to Cronus—or Chronos, for the Greek. The building collapsed in the fifth century during a landslide, and the table was thought to have been destroyed.” He shifted closer to me with Lily latched around his arm. “It’s a completely unique piece.”

I stared down the hole at the concentric lines of characters covering the stone disc. “It was a table?”

“Not made for eating, though,” Dante said with a chuckle. “Rather, a ritual artifact.”

“What kind of ritual?” I asked.

Lily’s smile wavered. “We don’t know yet. We need to translate the inscriptions.”

“That’s what you meant when you said Katharos had incredible pieces,” I mused, eyeing Lily.

“Yes. The inscriptions on the table are a form of proto-Canaanite script like nothing we’ve ever seen before.” When my face remained stuck in a grimace of mild confusion, she explained, “What we call proto-Canaanite is a very early alphabet that was used to transcribe Semitic languages. It’s basically the ancestor to Greek and Latin, derived from hieroglyphs, but here, the characters are different, and so far, the table’s alphabet seems twice as crowded as Phoenician, for example.”

“More letters, more sounds?” I ventured.

“That’s the idea,” Dante confirmed. My lips quirked in fleeting pride as he went on. “It could be a written trace of an archaic language we’ve never encountered before, with a broader, more complex palette of phonemes.”

“And that it just awaited us for all this time inside a Roman temple; it’s insane,” Lily added in an awed breath.

I gave a slow nod and silently thanked Dante when he thought it useful to provide just a teensy bit of context. “We think the table largely predates the foundation of Rome—middle of the Bronze age, probably. Ancient Romans tended to either assimilate or erase older civilizations as they expanded—like the Etruscans, for example—so it’s extremely unusual that someone took the pain to preserve the table throughout the centuries and place it in a Roman shrine.”

“So that it can end up in a museum,” I noted dryly, watching workers position huge belts under the muddy slab of granite.

If he picked up on the sarcasm, Dante chose to ignore it. “And it’s all thanks to the next professor, Professor McKeanney,” he chuckled, wrapping his arm around her shoulders—God, did these two ever stop cuddling? “We would never have found the table without Lily’s research.”

I tilted my head at her. “Professor McKeanney? Like your grandpa?”

Her gaze grew wistful. “I’m not quite there yet; I’ll need to get my PhD first. It’s his discovery anyway, not mine. I just used his final notes and filled in the blanks.” Her eyes met Dante’s, who gave her shoulder a light squeeze. She smiled. “I owe him everything.”

“As do I,” Dante replied, in the kind of husky and tender voice I thought you only heard in movies.

Lily gave a happy nod. “He must have been watching over us, somehow.”

Ah, the legendary grandfather—my mother’s pride and joy. Back when we were kids, she never missed an opportunity to slip it into any conversation that the father of her trophy husband was a distinguished professor of archeology who’d been featured in several BBC documentaries—on TV. Just in case you didn’t get that right; he had been on TV.

Joke aside, the old McKeanney had been Lily’s childhood hero, some kind of Indiana Jones, but without the whip or the adventures. He’d written tons of books, taught at Harvard, and they’d even set a memorial plate there after he killed himself, a few months before I dropped from Saint-Henry. I didn’t know the details—only what I’d overhead from Richard and my mom during our final Christmas together. Apparently, the old man had never gotten over the death of Lily’s mother from Hodgkin’s lymphoma when Lily was three. He’d buried himself in his work for almost two decades to fight off depression until he jumped from a window.

Sad stuff, especially since he’d struck me as a decent human being the couple of times I’d met him as a kid. The kind of guy willing to pretend he was interested in my textbooks, even when I snubbed him like a little turd. My stomach coiled unpleasantly at the realization that he had ended it here, in an apartment in Rome. I shot a sideways glance at Lily, who rested her head on Dante’s shoulder while they discussed their mystic Ikea Table. It dawned on me that must be weird for her to be back here, right in her grandad’s footsteps . . . after that.

She turned to smile at me while Dante droned on. Like a bucket of icy water suddenly dropping over my head, I heard my mother’s voice again. Can’t you be a little less selfish? Lily lost her mother! How would it feel for you to lose me, Em? I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth. I knew how it felt. Like you’re stripped bare and you belong nowhere.

“Ehi! Torna qui!” Hey, get back here!

All heads flipped where that gravelly shout came from, mine included. On the other side of the hole, some hobo with a beer in hand staggered dangerously close to the edge. Blatantly ignoring the guards and workers yelling for him to get back, he let his body tip forward, even closer to the pit, reaching through thin air with a weird cane made of gnarled wood.

Dante’s eyebrows jerked a fraction, before he told me, “Sorry. They’re everywhere in the center because tourists keep giving them change.”

Lily watched with big sad eyes as two guards hooked their arms into the hobo’s to pull him away from the hole. He dropped his beer in the grass and managed to reach for his face to readjust small round sunglasses. I scanned him, an old habit even though he posed no threat to me at the moment. Long worn coat, wrinkled and patched up. Corduroy pants, threadbare at the knees, but not really dirty. Dark T-shirt, nice steel-toes showing through his busted boots. Dude hadn’t shaved in at least a couple of months, and the mess of sandy curls on his head could use a cut—or just a comb, really.

My eyes narrowed as they dragged him toward us. Mid to late twenties, probably. No red blotches on what was otherwise a fairly good mug, save for that mask of exhaustion the street eventually paints on all features. One of the guards pulled on his T-shirt so hard he nearly tore it off. Hold on—no beer belly? That toned stomach was either a great contouring job or a fine case of meth abs.

I smelled a fauxbo. Dammit, I hated those. Wannabe artists and trust-fund babies, most of the time, who played bum all night before returning to their Brooklyn loft at dawn to sleep the booze off until noon. Even so, anger zinged up my spine and directly to my head when a burly guard punched him in the stomach hard, just for show. I leaped in front of them without thinking. “Hey, hey! Easy! Dude . . . He’s just a bum.”

They stopped and shot an anxious glance at Dante and the black guy. Neither moved to stop me. Dante flashed me a stiff smile I gathered meant he didn’t want a scene in front of Lily—whose eyes were so wide they’d roll out of her skull any moment now. The guards released their hold long enough for the hobo to brace his palms on his knees and gasp out a trickle of saliva, which he wiped with the back of his hand.

I bent toward him gingerly, picking up a whiff of booze and something sweet like candy. “You okay?”

He raised his head at me, and I nearly stumbled back in surprise. His glasses had slipped askew, and I could see that the eyes looking into mine were empty—his gray irises encased milky white pupils. Blind. I glanced down at the cane he still gripped tight in his right hand. Figured.

He grinned, revealing incisors that didn’t look like he’d spent years in the gutter, even if they overlapped a little. I fought the urge to step away when he reached for my face and grazed it briefly. I shivered from the contact. He spoke, the faintest accent lingering in his raspy voice. “You smell like a tourist.”

I shook off the fleeting pang of compassion I had allowed to dwell in my chest as I hauled him up. “You smell like a drunk asshole. Nice to meet you too.”

A hoarse chuckle on his side. “Pizza and coconut shampoo. American girls always smell like that.”

Perfect. A fauxbo and a C-grade pickup artist. “Seriously . . . Get the fuck out of here.”

He whirled around, bowed to me on unsteady legs and lumbered out of the site with a dramatic wave of his hand. My lips twitched involuntarily. There was something about people who no longer gave a flying fuck—a spark that regular folks just didn’t have.

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