“RUB it, Pip, and see what pops up,” Valdemar said to Philip, grinning and winking salaciously.
If only it had been a sexual tease, Philip thought ruefully, but alas, it wasn’t.
Shoving the ancient electric-blue-and-gold-trimmed oil lamp against Philip’s stomach, Valdemar laughed good-naturedly and trotted off like an Arabian stallion. Val Velde might not have been an Arabian, but he was definitely a stud with his stunning blond Viking appearance, sexy sky-blue eyes that could’ve melted the sun into a pool of jelly, and a bright suggestive smile with pearly white teeth, like some exotic carnivore about to ingest its lunch with a single bite.
Philip had hoped for nearly a year Valdemar would do just that with him—but he never had.
Sighing despondently, Philip turned his attention back to the ancient lamp they’d recovered just today at the archeological dig site at Majlis al-Jinn, the ninth-largest cave chamber in the world—one that after the Great Unveiling had been revealed as a site of an ancient ruined city of unknown origin. The domed cavern of fossiliferous carbonate rock consisted of a single massive chamber 310 meters by 225 meters—and the floor area more than quadrupled after the discovery of the city. Before the Unveiling, the site used to be a favorite hangout of spelunkers, base jumpers, and cave climbers. There were three vertical access points on the freestanding cavern roof, but only one was used.
There was a single entryway into the ruined city from the lowest point of the cave, where two substantial pylons and an arch above a gateway opened up to gigantic stairs leading down into the city proper. Illumination to the city had been provided by the light shafts and their reflections on the light-colored sediment and rock as well as bronze cups of oil that had been lit during the heyday of the palatial city. Remnants of the sweet scented oil had been recovered from these vessels.
Much of the city had been excavated and cleared by flooding and cave-ins, but mostly the city, with its plazas, colonnades, and structures great and small, had been undamaged despite all the time that had passed. Carbon dating of the artifacts found on-site had determined them to be between twelve and fifteen thousand years old, far surpassing even ancient Egyptian culture. The arid desert air kept the structures untouched by the elements, and in the cave the temperature was always a balmy seventeen to eighteen degrees Celsius.
The cavern and the excavated city had been closed to tourists for years now, as it had been classified as a UNESCO Unveiled Heritage Site. Naturally, as the Veil lifting had exposed the well-preserved city virtually intact in this desolate, unpopulated region of the Sultanate of Oman for all the world to see, archaeologists, anthropologists, mythologists, and scientists of a variety of disciplines as well as amateurs, curiosity seekers, and plain old tourists had all flocked to the site.
Ten years later, the site’s magnetic pull had diminished considerably, since the rest of the world offered far more exciting—and inhabited—locations for study into the mythical Unseen world. Still, there was an expedition staying at the site, and Philip Butler was one of the members of this international team of scientists.
Philip, or Pip, as he was called to his infinite dismay, was an archaeologist whose main influence for his choice of career had unfortunately been more Indiana Jones than Kathleen Kenyon or Sir Arthur Evans. Reality had been startlingly different than the glory movies had portrayed, but as he’d learned more and more about archaeology, mythology, and cultures, Philip had found he quite enjoyed digging around in the dirt looking for pieces of pottery in an ancient trash heap, or excavating bones from a burial site, or uncovering any proof of civilization at all.
In three days, their expedition would have been in Majlis al-Jinn for a full year, and less than coincidentally, it was time for their funding to be either renewed—or discontinued. This ancient nameless city of the formerly Unseen world had been a sight for sore eyes in its heyday, but now it lay in ruins, and even though during the first two years after the Great Unveiling there had been back-to-back discoveries made every day, nowadays they actually had to dig around to find anything of interest that would keep the money flowing in.
Having graduated from both Harvard in the US and Oxford in England and now working for the Harvard Semitic Museum, Philip Butler was doing well with his professional career. Sometimes, though, he felt like there was something missing in his life.
And Valdemar Velde, a successful academic and author from Norway by way of Great Britain, an Oxford graduate with three doctorates, gave Philip’s heart palpitations to the point of imminent heart failure. Philip couldn’t deny his intense instinctive attraction for the Viking god of a man, but to Philip’s utter disappointment, Valdemar showed zero interest in him, yet always treated him kindly. Like a friend.
But Philip wanted to get naked with his friend. Maybe he could coax the man into a friendship-with-benefits type of deal?
Going over the possibilities in his vivid imagination like a porno flick, Philip’s gaze lowered to the beautiful antique bronze oil lamp, painted electric blue with gold inlay. Even without inspecting the object more closely, Philip could tell it was much younger than the ruined city where it had been found. The age of the city had been estimated at around fifteen to sixteen thousand years.
Digging out a clean handkerchief from his khaki pants pocket, Philip carefully rubbed off the most obvious pieces of dirt and mud stuck on its engraved surface, and even grazed it a bit with his fingertips, relishing the luxury of holding in his hands a concrete piece of history—and mythical history to boot.
A whoosh of air knocked him backward so fast, so far, and so hard that his thick mess of blond hair landed in front of his hazel-brown eyes. Landing on the sandy ground on his ass with a heavy thud, Philip’s lungs emptied of precious air, and he had to gasp several times to regain his breath, but he finally managed to push himself up on his elbows.
A bright flash suddenly blinded him, and he had to cover his eyes from the burning hot stream of white light pulsating and roaring like a forest fire.
His senses on overload, Philip wanted to cover his eyes and ears, but with only two hands he failed, and the pain behind his eyelids, in his eardrums, and in his heaving chest increased, like pressure building inside a cooker.
Shadowy silence washed over him soothingly, and his inner relief mixed with it. Allowing himself to fall on his back on the sand-covered ground, Philip fought for calm and composure now that his senses had reclaimed their serenity.
Carefully sitting up, Philip brushed the thicket that was his unruly hair from his sleepy eyes—and then wished he hadn’t.
The man standing in front of him was stark naked.
All Philip could do was stare, wide-eyed, with his mouth hanging open in surprise.
The man was remarkably tall, maybe six nine or seven feet. If it were possible for a mountain to be reincarnated in male form, this colossal man would’ve fit the bill to a tee. He had dark tanned skin so silky smooth and hairless, that if it weren’t for the iron-black hair cascading down his back, Philip might’ve thought he’d been born without a hair on him. The man had a muscular athletic frame to die for, and Philip’s mouth went as dry as the desert around them as his eyes roamed the vast expanses of broad shoulders, taut belly, narrow hips, and strong long legs—and the thick shaft, perpendicular in its half-hardness before Philip. Chiseled masculine features conflicted with the full sensuous lips, half-parted. Closed heavy-lidded eyes opened slowly, and Philip gaped in amazement and adoration at the electric-blue eyes that shone eerily in the shade of the caves, despite the beams of sunlight above reflected on the yellowish stone walls.
“Oh… my… God….”
It being lunchtime, Philip hadn’t even noticed until now how quiet it was here down in the cavern until his voice reverberated and echoed all around.
The strange nude man turned his head, only a black leather collar around his neck, and looked at Philip lying on the ground in front of him, braced up only on his elbows. What an embarrassing spectacle he must’ve made to this curiosity of a man, Philip thought, and he blushed all over.
A distinct lightning-blue glow flashed in the man’s eyes as he studied Philip from head to toe, and his long lashes rimmed his eyes like black curtains. “English…. So, I didn’t imagine the endless British chitter-chatter throughout the years after all.”
Being half-British and half-American, Philip had a remnant of Oxford English in his accent—and this unknown man had it copied to a tee. That struck Philip silent.
“Who might you be?” the man asked, his head tilted so that his long black hair—so black that it absorbed sunlight—fell to his side as far down as his midsection.
In awe, Philip managed to stammer, “Um, Pip….” The man quirked an amused eyebrow, and Philip blushed again, shaking his head to clear his mind of the blood-red haze of arousal. “I mean… Philip Butler. I’m an archaeologist.” That statement earned another curious look from the drop-dead gorgeous man, whose lean frame shifted, and hard muscles moved beneath the dark skin like some kind of majestic beasts. “That’s the study of human society through evidence of the past, like artifacts, structures, cultural relics….” His voice fading, Philip tried to gain some insight into the man in front of him, at least to discern whether the man was actually listening or interested, but his look remained the same—a curious, amused detachment with warm glowing eyes and curved full lips. “Anyway… I’m here to study this ruin,” he added, waving his hand around in a general gesture, indicating the ruined state of affairs of the palatial string of structures at the bottom of the cavern at Majlis al-Jinn, extending far beyond what had once been solid rock.
This time the man’s look changed, turning darker and more dangerous for an instant as his inspective gaze traveled the archaeological site before it landed back on Philip. “You can see the city?”
That Philip had not expected. “Yes….”
“You must be special, then,” the man said, his voice smooth and seductive and his blue eyes striking in their appreciation as they wandered all over Philip’s body.
“I, uh…,” Philip muttered, fighting for comprehension and clarity but succeeding in neither pursuit, and all the while those shining eyes made their leisurely journey on his figure, giving him goose bumps and arousing his cock into a salute.
As if aware of the reaction he was causing, the man stepped forward—still butt naked—and extended his hand. “Here, allow me to help you get back on your feet—” A sharp clank stopped him, and the oil lamp he must’ve accidentally kicked jumped and glided on the sandy ground, landing in front of Philip’s feet. Leaning down to grasp the lamp, the man’s fingers brushed only air when the lamp moved away from his touch as if it had a mind of its own, bouncing into Philip’s lap.
“Oh… my… God…,” Philip mumbled, hugging the ancient oil lamp close to his chest and staring at the peculiar man all wide-eyed, like a surprised child watching Santa actually climb down a chimney.
The unusual man grinned. “Sadly, no. But I’m flattered.”
Philip frowned. “No, I mean….” The man’s grin widened, like the Cheshire cat, and as his cheeks flushed red, Philip stumbled to his feet, clutching the lamp tightly. “You… you’re a… a genie…. A lamp genie….”
“The proper term, I believe, is a jinn,” the man corrected, his sensuous lips curving into a sweet smile that made Philip’s knees buckle. “But in general, yes, that would be a fair and accurate assessment.”
While Philip was busy ogling the mythical apparition before him, standing there so very much in the flesh, he suddenly heard faint voices approaching from the distance. Someone was coming down toward the main palace from either the staircase or the elevator that had both been added to the site soon after the Great Unveiling, when it turned out that at the bottom of the site stood a palatial city stretching deep into what had formerly been solid rock.
“Oh my God…,” he mumbled in abject horror, staring in the direction lost in the shade of the palatial structures now lying in ruins.
“You do say that a lot,” the man noted from his side. “Any particular deity you’re trying to invoke or commune with?”
“Wha—” Philip’s fixed look held those electric-blue eyes that he was now close enough to see were filled with tiny lightning bursts of powers beyond his imagination. He had to shake his head to clear his vision and his mind of this bizarre man. “No. Don’t talk.”
“I do not take kindly to commands that aren’t presented as wishes.” A warning loomed beneath the surface, like a shark prowling the shallow waters of Philip’s pond.
“Wha—” In passing Philip realized he sounded like a broken record, and he blushed deeply. “No. That’s not what I meant.” The sounds of footsteps and voices came closer, and Philip froze. “Please, don’t speak. Let me handle this. Please…?” Philip’s hazel eyes pleaded with the… genie… for understanding.
Suddenly the man relaxed again and grinned with a wink. “As you wish… Pip.”
Blushing for the umpteenth time, Philip suddenly remembered that the man—the genie—was still completely nude. “Oh my God…,” he mumbled as his eyes traveled in shock and awe across the masculine apparition before him, and that action earned him an amused chuckle in response. Philip began to believe that spontaneous human combustion would be a preferable option to all this intense blushing.
Waving someone off, Valdemar appeared on the scene, with his usual laid-back grin and suggestive eyes. Philip thought that he’d seriously suffer a nervous breakdown when he came face to face with a naked lamp genie.
And sure enough, Valdemar’s sky-blue eyes lit up like a bonfire upon seeing Philip’s mysterious visitor. Even through the irrational and hopeless surge of jealousy and envy that coursed through his veins, Philip longed to speak, to try to explain the situation somehow—though he had no idea how, exactly. He ended up opening his mouth but saying nothing and finally closing it before flies swarmed in—not that there were any in the desert.
“Who might you be?” Valdemar asked, still smiling, and, scared out of his mind, Philip turned to look at the genie—who was wearing clothes…. They were similar to Philip’s own: simple brown khaki pants, white button-down shirt, and brown mountaineering boots. On the genie, however, the clothes didn’t hang unflatteringly as they did on Philip, who was slim to the point of thin and bony, but instead they fit him like a glove, showcasing that perfect masculine physique like a smooth second skin. As far as the colors were concerned, in essence, Philip—like the genie—would’ve been able to camouflage himself like a chameleon in his desert surroundings, if he so chose. Sometimes Philip felt invisible no matter what he was wearing.
Like right now, when the guy he’d lusted after for a year was lusting after his genie.
Now that was a strange thought, Philip considered in passing, and he glanced at the genie. Upon finding the genie smiling at him almost lewdly, he blushed.
“I’m a friend of Pip’s,” the genie replied smoothly.
“Pip, huh?” Valdemar said, his gaze shifting to Philip, who almost stated a wish for the earth to open up and swallow him whole.
But he didn’t get his wish. What he got instead…. “A close, personal friend,” the genie clarified, winking at Philip in a way that left little doubt in anyone’s mind about what he was referring to. The flash of heat that flooded Philip’s groin brought his cock into painful contact with the confines of his zipper, and he had to shift his stance to readjust and relieve the pressure.
Philip shot a glance from the genie’s electric-blue eyes to Valdemar’s sky-blue eyes. What an odd triangle they made, Philip pondered, as he stared at Valdemar, who stared at the genie, who stared at Philip, who stared at….
Suddenly the genie said something, but Philip couldn’t understand a word. But Valdemar’s eyes grew wide, and he grinned happily. Realizing that the genie had spoken in Norwegian only increased Philip’s disappointment at again being left out of the equation. Valdemar laughed and playfully slapped the genie’s muscular arm, holding the touch just long enough for it not to be accidental but almost a sensual message. While the two of them kept talking, Philip felt as he always did with Val—unimportant, unattractive, disappointed, and jealous.
“It’s so wonderful to be able to converse in my native tongue,” Valdemar finally said, glancing at Philip from under his long blond lashes and including him in the conversation—but as far as Philip was concerned, it was a little too late. As usual, he was the third wheel. “So, lunch anyone?” Valdemar added with exaggerated enthusiasm, his gaze moving between the two men as he clapped his hands together.
Philip refused with a curt shake of his head, and the genie said only, “Alas, I must regretfully decline. My appetites require adherence to strict dietary requirements.”
“Another time, then,” Valdemar replied courteously, bowing his head slightly in a very gentlemanly manner that Philip found charming—and irritating. Turning to Philip, Valdemar raised his eyebrows. “Did you catalog that lamp yet, Pip?” He nodded at the oil lamp Philip was still holding against his chest—and instinctively Philip clutched it tighter, as if Valdemar were attempting to snatch it from him then and there.
“I’ll add it to the site inventory soon, but I’m going to check out the exact recovery location first,” Philip said, hoping his tone was as level as he was attempting to keep it.
Valdemar’s eyes flashed, and he opened his mouth as if to ask something but then just shrugged, as if thinking better of it. “All right, then. Don’t forget, though,” he reminded him. Then he flashed an amazing smile at the genie and walked away toward the elevator.
Philip let out a long sigh, as if he’d been holding his breath the entire time, but even that wasn’t enough to completely relax him. He suspected that only magically turning back time to the point when the oil lamp was discovered—and then not finding the damn thing—would do the trick and put him at ease.
But as it was, the sexy genie in front of him was all too real to pretend otherwise.
“Is he to be your first wish, then?” the genie asked all of a sudden, startling Philip out of his reverie. “I can see that you desire him.”
“Wha—” Philip was dumbfounded. “Wish…?” And then the reality of the situation finally dawned on him. He had a genie at his beck and call, and he could wish for anything—even for Valdemar Velde in his bed. The possibility of that dream coming true shook him to the core, which surprised him since he’d never thought of himself as the possessive type. “Oh God… I need a chair or something…,” he mumbled, feeling his legs shaking and knees buckling.
The genie chuckled low. “Is a chair to be your first wish, Pip?”
That husky, seductive amusement was like a bucket of ice-cold water on his back, and it was exactly what he needed to cool down. “Ha ha, very funny.” Checking the genie out as calmly as he could, he asked, “What’s your name? What can I call you?”
The genie grinned teasingly. “Anything you wish, Pip.”
“Funny guy,” Philip said, exasperated, but then he took a breath to mellow himself out again. “Please?”
The full, kissable lips of the genie curved into a curious smile. “You’re a queer little mortal, aren’t you?” Oh, you have no idea. “I am no longer allowed to use my true name, so you can call me Jinn.”
“Why aren’t you allowed to say your own name?”
“Why do you think, Pip?”
“Does it have anything to do with why you were trapped inside the lamp?”
“Very good,” Jinn complimented Philip with a lascivious grin. “My name was added to the list of the accursed ones, same as the others. A punishment for my wicked ways of life.”
Philip frowned. “What did you do?”
“That, I think, is a discussion best shared at another time,” Jinn said vaguely.
“Um, okay…,” Philip stated, unsure of himself. He’d become an archaeologist because he fared better with things long dead and gone than with people in the here and now. “How can you speak English, or Norwegian, for that matter?”
Jinn chuckled in response. “I am a genie. With your friend Val, I could sense his unspoken dreams. As a wish-granting genie, I’m privy to the deepest desires and hushed wishes of the mortal breed.” Jinn winked at him. “Just like I can sense your hopes and dreams, Pip. How you want Val, for instance.”
Philip blushed and bit his lip angrily. “That’s private. And none of your business.”
Jinn shrugged, but then his eyes flashed intently. “Your friend—”
“Colleague,” Philip corrected, since Valdemar was nothing personal to him at all.
“He could see this place as well. One person—a coincidence. Two—not so much. Has something… happened?”
Letting out a deep breath, Philip nodded carefully. “The Great Unveiling. Ten years ago, the Veil between the Unseen world and the mundane world was lifted. We still don’t know why, and we may never know.” Sighing ruefully and plopping down on the ground on his ass, Philip said quietly, “So… I’m not special.”
Jinn kneeled in front of him with a curiously tender smile tugging a corner of his lips. “I disagree with that assessment—but that’s beside the point. The whole world knows, then? Well, that’s something new to get used to….”
“A wish…,” Philip muttered under his breath, inspecting the genie in front him, Jinn’s long black hair brushing against his hands on his bent knees. “So, you really are a genie….”
“Indeed I am, dear boy,” Jinn replied, chuckling. Apparently he found Philip too amusing to be regarded as anything else.
“So….” Philip pensively followed the train of thought to its conclusion, tilting the lamp in his hands. “Even though you’re standing—or kneeling—in front of me, you’re actually trapped in this oil lamp. Hell, you can’t even touch it.” He looked up into the genie’s eyes, which sparkled like lightning showers, mystified by the way the day had turned out—but still himself, regardless of how many miracles a day held. “Can I wish for your freedom?”
Those piercing blue eyes glimmered dangerously. “You would waste a perfectly good wish on poor little old me, would you, Pip?” Jinn’s neutral tone remained undecipherable, but for some reason the lowness of it gave Philip goose bumps.
Frowning and puckering his lips, Pip shook his head, infuriated. “I don’t consider it a waste. But yes, I would. So, can I?”
Suddenly Jinn chuckled contentedly. “Your reply speaks to a high degree of personality and a kind, giving soul. You honor me, Pip.” Jinn bowed his head slowly, placing his hand over his heart, before he continued coolly, “You’re sweet, to be sure, Pip. But alas, it is not necessary on your part to make such a sacrifice on my behalf, I assure you.” Jinn offered his hand to Philip, who took it gratefully and got up again. “So, what is your first wish to be, master?”
Philip shook his head emphatically, chagrined. “Please don’t call me that.”
Jinn chuckled. “As you wish.”
Actually feeling the blood drain from his paling face, Philip stammered, “No, no, that wasn’t a—”
“A mere joke, Pip,” Jinn interjected, winking—and giving Philip a rush of feeling somewhere between annoyance and arousal.
“With that flippant tongue of yours, I’m not surprised in the least that you got yourself imprisoned in that lamp,” Philip huffed, exasperated. But upon seeing Jinn’s sensuous smile the emotion vanished, and all he felt was a kind of mellow satisfaction. Then worry washed over him, and he looked down at the lamp he was still holding. “What do I do with the lamp?”
Jinn’s fiery gaze landed on the lamp as well, and the curve of his voluptuous lips drew serious. “Keep it hidden until you’ve made all three wishes.”
Fear made Philip panic, and he knew that he sounded like a scared kid, but even though he could die or kill for someone he loved, in essence Philip was a devout pacifist. As such, fear always seemed to be his first reaction—and it annoyed him to no end. “You mean someone could—”
Jinn’s expression was grave. “Yes. You must safeguard the lamp from anyone who might seek to take it—and me—from you.” Quickly, however, his face relaxed and reacquired that sultry look that turned Philip’s knees all rubbery. “If all goes well, you will be my last master, Pip. With that in mind, please, ask for something wild and imaginative.”
“What do you mean by… last master?” Philip asked, curious.
“The Unveiling. Jinns are powerful beings, and mortals can only have a hold over us as long as the world remains unaware of our true nature. As it stands, the world now knows about my kind. Enslaving me will not be easy for any mortal ever again, as the rules binding our demure, slavish conduct are long since passed, what with the Unveiling and all.”
“Oh, I see,” Philip said with obvious relief. “That’s what you meant when you told me I don’t need to wish for your freedom.” Jinn merely bowed his head in acknowledgement of Philip’s realization. A sudden burst of exciting possibilities overcame Philip’s fear and weakness and caused his face to flush with heat. “Can you really do… anything… I wish?”
Stepping closer until their chests were all but touching, Jinn grinned. “Anything your little mortal heart desires, Pip. We the Jinn are very powerful beings. We can change the world with a snap of our fingers, travel through time, give a breath of life to each and every one of your fantasies. In a word, yes, anything. But bear in mind you only have three wishes. No wishing for a hundred more, understand? That kind of silly stunt would only irk me.”
Knowing in his heart he needed time to reflect on all that he’d heard, Philip also knew that keeping the lamp hidden would be next to impossible. Above ground, the expedition site was composed of no more than nine tents, and had zero security other than the poorly constructed aluminum fence that anyone could climb over and the weekly patrol of less-than-efficient local law enforcement. It was in no way sufficient to protect the lamp—if he told anyone about it in the first place. And if he didn’t, he’d have to hide it among his belongings—in open tents with no locks, and if someone did find it, he’d be charged with attempted larceny, and his career would be over and done with.
Biting his lower lip nervously, Philip realized he had only two options. One, to confide in someone he trusted—and despite his strong amorous feelings toward Valdemar, he wasn’t sure if the man was trustworthy, as he was a consummate professional and ethically honorable to a fault. And that wasn’t much of a choice anyway, because even if Valdemar was willing to help, Philip would be putting his career, and maybe his life too, in danger—and that was unacceptable.
Sighing, he looked up at Jinn, resigned. “Can you make the lamp small enough so I can hide it on my person, for example like a… a toy dangling on a key chain, or something?”
Those full, sensual lips curved into a curious smile, as if the genie were trying to decipher the riddle that was Philip—only he felt too boring and uninteresting to be considered any kind of mystery. He was the complete opposite of Valdemar, who had it all—good looks, charismatic presence, magnetic sex appeal, witty charm, sophisticated manners, smart and funny personality…. Philip was depressing himself more by the minute. Jinn’s reply tore him out of his glum reverie. “I can do anything you wish, Pip. I told you that.”
Slowly, Philip nodded. “But… only as long as it’s presented as a wish, right?”
Jinn bowed his head slightly. “Exactly right, master. I can only use my powers freely when I am finally free. No sooner. As long as I’m tied to the lamp, my powers are limited to wishes requested.” The mesmerizing eyes of the genie in front of Philip shifted between his gaze and the magical lamp he was holding against his fast-beating heart.
Exhaling slowly, Philip nodded in acceptance of his decision. “I suppose wording is the key here, huh? Never mind. Don’t answer. All right, then, here we go.” Taking several deep breaths, as if preparing for a physical exertion, Philip said firmly, “I wish for you to reduce this magical oil lamp of yours to a more manageable size so that I can fit it on this—” Philip dug out his key chain from his pocket. “—on this key chain.”
A bright flash shot out from those piercing blue eyes, like lightning striking, but even blinded, Philip distinctly heard the snap of Jinn’s powerful fingers. “Your wish is my command.”
Blinking to regain his temporarily lost sight, Philip felt more than saw the magic lamp shrinking in his hands until he could detect only a cute little toy resting on his right palm. Quickly, he set out to attach the toylike magic lamp onto