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Reborn in Fire…by Kasey Mackenzie
The investigation started out normally enough, but when masked men dressed like extras in a Bruce Lee movie burst into the warehouse, even an idiot could have predicted that someone was about to meet a Very Bad End. Unfortunately, that someone turned out to be me.
From outside, the building appeared no different from the dozens of others in this industrial neighborhood. But while all the nearby warehouses bustled with activity from sunup to sundown, this one remained empty for no good reason. Supposedly, the joint was haunted. I rolled my eyes, wondering for the thousandth time how otherwise sane people could buy into the whole paranormal schtick. Then again, that penchant for gullibility did keep me gainfully employed. Yeah, people actually paid me to search for things that went bump in the night; but so far, I’d turned up nothing more fearsome than a tomcat on the prowl.
“All set down here?”
I jumped, heart shifting into double time as I whirled and met the amused glance of my friend and business partner.
“Dammit, Keith. Do you have to sneak around like that?”
He grinned, rocking back on his heels. “No, love, I don’t have to; but seeing you jump like that is its own reward.” His gaze zeroed in on my chest.
Shaking my head, I switched the last video recorder on. “Don’t love me, Romeo. We broke up; remember?”
“How could I possibly forget?” He drawled the words, deliberately thickening his British accent because he knew it drove me insane; and not in a bad way. “After all, you did give me the let’s be friends kiss of death.”
I tossed a box at him. “Make yourself useful.”
Keith caught the box reflexively, wincing at my less-than-tender care of the electronics inside. “Bloody hell, Cass. Watch it.”
When he turned and headed up the metal stairs, I did just that: watched his rear while he climbed. Who said exes couldn’t admire the scenery?
Turning back to the basement corridor, I finished adjusting the camera concealed beneath the staircase. A quick squint into the viewfinder revealed the entire hallway in its darkened glory—and the door separating us from Payday.
I allowed a smug smile as I regarded the door leading to the not-so-fragrant recesses of the St. Louis Metropolitan sewers. Haunted warehouse, my ass.
A moment later and the video camera was adjusted to my satisfaction. One last check of the thermal cameras and I started up the stairs. Figures hurtled down them before I moved more than a few feet; figures dressed in black and shoving weapons in my face.
I stared down the barrel of a thug’s gun and froze.
“Hands behind your back, now!” the thug in question barked.
A second man, sans gun, forced my trembling hands painfully close together and secured them with something that dug into my flesh. Shock gave way to fear as they marched me upstairs and down the dimly-lit hallway. Sweat broke out on my forehead and my breath grew ragged. I’d always hated feeling powerless or out of control, and now I felt both. Thug 1 shoved me through a doorway into the dimly-lit room we’d been using as our temporary headquarters. I stumbled on the threshold but managed to avoid falling on my ass. The wild hope that Keith would come to the rescue crashed and burned when his fear-filled eyes met my own. There was just no way this could end well.
Someone pushed me against one of the two wooden chairs in the middle of the room. Keith huddled on the second, trussed to it with more zip ties than I’d seen outside of Hollywood. “Sit.” One of the men knocked me off my feet and onto the seat. He wrapped my arms around the back of the chair, bringing tears to my eyes as he manhandled them into place and secured them with still more zip ties. The other holstered his gun and strapped my feet to the legs of the chair. Only then did I notice the four men standing across the room.
One of the thugs who’d not yet spoken stepped forward, empty hands clasped in front of him; obviously the good (or at least not-so-vicious) cop. Pale blue eyes stared out of the black scrap of fabric masking his features. They seemed oddly familiar.
“Ms. Grant. I know that these are hardly the ideal circumstances for our first meeting, but we couldn’t take the chance of revealing ourselves to one of the Beholden.”
He said that word as if it should be capitalized; as if it should mean something to me. “To a whatsit?”
“Come now, Ms. Grant. You know why we’re here.” His cultured voice remained smooth and unemotional, its accent not dissimilar to Keith’s.
I struggled not to stutter like an idiot. “C—can’t say that I do.”
The man glanced behind me and nodded. Sharp bursts of pain blossomed in the back of my head, so intense I cried out.
“Leave her alone, you bastards!” At last, Keith spoke, not that it did much good. A loud crack echoed in the air, sounding even more painful than whatever they’d socked me with.
After an agonizing moment, the pain faded enough for speech. “I—I’ve never heard of the Beholden!”
The man leaned forward, an amused light in his eyes. “Of course, that is exactly what I would expect one of the Beholden to say to my kind.”
All amusement faded. “An organization dedicated to eradicating individuals like you from the face of the planet.”
Blood rushed in my ears and dizziness threatened to overwhelm me. That could not be good. “What do you mean, individuals like me?” I kept my voice excruciatingly polite.
“In general, those who call themselves the Beholden. In your specific case, Phoenixes.”
Another capitalized word that didn’t mean much to me. “You think I’m a fire-breathing bird from mythology?”
His eyes narrowed. “I have little patience for games, Ms. Grant. The word Phoenix is just a name. One given to people who possess the ability to work with fire.”
This just got weirder and weirder. I considered the possibility that I’d never woken up that morning and this whole fiasco was just a dream; would have made a whole hell of a lot more sense.
“I can see that being polite is getting us nowhere. Time we take more forceful measures. Maybe then you’ll be amenable to taking us seriously.”
“Believe me, I take you plenty seriously. I’m just confused.” Now, that was an understatement. I felt a lot like Alice floundering along in Wonderland.
“Maybe she truly is ignorant,” a voice interjected from behind my interrogator.
Yet another voice spoke up. “Then how do you explain the incident in her past, and the Dragon who’s been trailing her the past few days?”
A knot of tension tightened in my stomach. I knew exactly what they referred to. The incident that my adoptive parents had always insisted to be supernatural in origin; the one that had left my arms an ugly mess of scars and ruined my life as I then knew it.
“How do you know what happened to me?” My voice cracked mid-sentence. I licked my lips and managed to get the rest out more audibly.
The interrogator focused his attention on me once more. “We’ve been watching you for years, Ms. Grant; waiting to prove or disprove your adoptive parents’ claim of spontaneous combustion. Some of us became convinced they were simply trying to cover up wrongdoing on their own part—until the Dragon appeared.”
All the talk about creatures of myth and paranormal powers frayed my already strained patience. “What happened to me was just an accident!”
He turned to the three figures behind him and shrugged. “Only one way to be entirely sure. And with the Dragon’s presence, we cannot let her go without being certain.”
Oh god. That sounded bad. Very, very bad.
I craned my neck to get a glance at Keith. Blood flowed from a cut to his lip. Even though I hadn’t struck the blow, guilt still washed through me.
“Please, whatever you do to me, let Keith go. He hasn’t seen any of your faces.”
The interrogator pulled his mask off in one smooth motion, stunning me to silence. His face should have been as monstrous as his insanity, but it wasn’t. Instead, he had pleasant features that in other circumstances would have attracted me to him. When I looked into his eyes a sense of familiarity hit me again. Maybe I’d seen him before…
“I’m afraid we can’t do that, Ms. Grant. We need him for what’s to come.”
Oh shit. “Why did you do that? Keith isn’t part of this!”
“Oh, but he is now—thanks to your lack of cooperation.” He nodded to his conspirators. “Bring them.”
Rather than bothering with the zip ties, they simply lifted our chairs and carried us into the center of the warehouse’s cavernous main room. Once, tons of cargo had passed in and out of this room on a daily basis. Now, it stood empty except for a few abandoned crates, two chairs, and the eight of us. My goons set me down a good twenty feet away from Keith, increasing my already high level of anxiety. Helplessness flooded through me; an emotion I’d never liked and had once sworn I’d never feel again. Stupid me, making promises I couldn’t keep. Much like my adoptive parents.
“Last chance, Ms. Grant. Tell us what we want to know and maybe we can arrange for Mr. Hobart to walk out of here in one piece.”
Desperation pitched my voice much higher than usual. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Very well, then.” He nodded to the men surrounding Keith. “Do it.”
A loud snap heralded the uncorking of a bottle. The pungent scent of gasoline filled the air, causing my nose to wrinkle; then the sound of gurgling as one of the gunmen upended the bottle over Keith, soaking his clothing in a matter of seconds. My mouth dropped open when I realized what they were doing.
“You people are insane. Stop it!”
Their ringleader shook his head while the other men began dumping gasoline on the floor and crates nearest Keith. “We’ve passed that point, Ms. Grant. Only you can stop this now.”
“How?” I wailed, anguish clogging my throat as the gasoline fumes assaulted my nostrils.
A match appeared in his hand. He strolled to my chair, the picture of calm control, and leaned over me. “By using your ability to save your friend over there, and prove what we already know. That you are a Phoenix.”
“And if I can’t?”
A distinctly feral smile crossed his lips. “We’ll be sure to send flowers to the funeral home.”
His hand snaked out and struck the match against the arm of my chair. I cried out, struggling to break free and stop him. A quick flick over his shoulder and the match landed directly in front of Keith, smack-dab in the middle of a pool of gasoline. For a moment nothing happened, but then a loud whooshing filled the air. Hungry flames flared into life, racing along the gasoline and licking at Keith’s pants legs.
The whimpering noises I hadn’t noticed him making earlier became frantic shouts. He begged for mercy from our captors, and when that didn’t work screamed for me to tell them what they wanted to hear—but I couldn’t tell them what I didn’t know.
I averted my gaze, turning back to the man who’d so callously set another on fire. Hatred blazed from my eyes. “You bastard! I could kill you for this.”
“Oh, but you could; kill all of us with a single thought; just as you could save your friend by simply willing it so. Tell the fire to leave him alone, and it will.”
Keith’s screams grew louder and more frantic. I closed my eyes against the sound, tears beading at the corners of my eyes. I knew firsthand the agony washing through him. Mercifully, his screams choked off moments later. I opened my eyes but couldn’t force myself to look at what was left of him, so settled for glaring at the man in front of me.
“Well,” he said, disappointment coloring his voice. “I suppose your parents were lying after all. Pity.” He gestured to the flames heading our way. “Do accept our apologies for being wrong, Ms. Grant.”
At another motion, the goon squad hurried away from us. His hands moved to the long sleeves covering my arms, caressing them as one would a lover. I struggled to push away from him, but zip ties digging deeper into my flesh were my only reward. He inched one of my sleeves up slowly and smiled when I let out a curse. The jagged planes and ridges covering my arms slid into view, painful reminders of a day I tried very hard to forget; the ugly scars I always took care to cover now exposed for his viewing pleasure.
He trailed a finger along my arm, nodding to himself as if the scars confirmed something. “I truly am disappointed you’re not who I thought you were. You look so much like…” He shook his head and kissed my lips too quickly for me to do anything but gape. “Goodbye, Cassidy Marie,” he murmured—though I didn’t see his lips move—and then left me to burn.
Panic overcame my resolve not to give the bastard the satisfaction of hearing me scream. I shouted for help, pitching my voice as high and loud as I could and praying that someone would hear me. Morbid curiosity made me look over to Keith’s chair, or what was left of it. I retched, leaning forward and barely managing to avoid soiling my clothes. The flames bathed my body in a warm glow as fire leapt from the floor to my clothes.
“Somebody help me!” I screamed. “Please!”
God, I didn’t want to die; especially not like this. I thrashed back and forth, struggling to break free of my bindings but failing miserably. Pain danced along my legs as the fire ate through my clothing. For a moment peace overcame me, along with the sense that I had come home. I was meant to become one with the flames lapping at my body. I shook my head to clear it. No doubt that sensation came from oxygen deprivation, not to mention the ravings of the lunatic who had condemned me to this inferno. I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—believe there could be the slightest hint of truth to his words. That would mean admitting I had been wrong about my adoptive parents and had dedicated my entire life to a lie.
Pain became agony, radiating along every nerve of my body until the only thing I could do was scream. I prayed for the end to come quickly, taking one last look around me before slipping into unconsciousness.
And then I died.
I snuggled closer to the heat bathing me in its intoxicating glow. Tongues of fire lapped against my skin, prompting murmurs of pleasure. Opening my eyes took a Herculean amount of effort. Flames of orange and red danced about me as if they wanted to play. For a moment, it seemed natural to lie in a pile of ash, stark naked, white-hot fire raging all around. I tried to remember what had happened and encountered only blankness. The warmth felt so good that panic didn’t immediately flare. Then the shriek of sirens broke into the air. Confusion washed over me, along with a sense of wrongness. My eyes fluttered shut while the wails grew closer.
Sirens…sirens meant protection and safety. At least, I thought they did.
“If I wait for them, they will come for me,” I said out loud, fighting back a wave of dizziness.
“Oh, they’ll come all right. But you won’t like what they do to you.”
The voice cut through the air as surely as the flames caressed my skin; deep, smooth, and as steady as the earth below. I forced my eyes open once more, searching for the source of the compelling voice. At first I couldn’t see him through the haze, but then my eyes adjusted and everything else paled to insignificance. He stepped through the flames as if they didn’t exist. Vivid green eyes stared down at me from a very tall height, slightly tilted eyes that reminded me of lush green grass. They seemed at odds with his bronzed skin and jet-black hair.
“Are you an angel?”
Generous lips curved upward. “I’m no angel, sweetheart.” He knelt beside me, cupping his hands beneath my bare back and legs. “But you can think of me as a dragon if you’d like.”
I shivered at the touch of his skin against mine. If possible, it felt hotter than the flames by several degrees. His words penetrated the sensual fog caused by the contact. Dragon. Why does that sound so familiar? My teeth clenched as tension coiled in my stomach. Who was this man, and why did he have such a powerful effect on me?
“If you’re not an angel, maybe you should leave.”
He ignored my advice, scooping me into his arms and rising in a fluid motion. I squeaked in protest, hands darting around his neck to find purchase. He ignored that, too. The shrill cry of sirens became so loud they sounded like they were in the next room. His eyes grew more alert and his arms tightened around me.
“We’re both leaving. Now.”
I should have objected; should have told the strange man whose caress affected me more deeply than the touch of fire to mind his own business. Instead, I asked, “Why?”
It could have meant any one of a dozen things. Why were he and I able to stand inside a burning building without being consumed? Why should I trust him when I didn’t know who he was? Perhaps most importantly, why was he doing this?
“Because,” he murmured, cradling me close. “They’ll kill you if I don’t take you. This time forever.”
I sighed, closing my eyes and snuggling closer to the warmth of his chest. That seemed a good enough reason to me. “Then take me, dragon.”
His voice sounded amused when he replied. “That’s what I planned all along, little one.”
* * *
Trouble struck before we made it five steps outside the burning building. I fought against the confusion and nausea threatening to pull me under, wanting to see where exactly the dragon was taking me. A sleek convertible purred quietly in front of us, doors hanging open.
“Nice wheels,” I whispered.
A grin flashed across his face and he regarded the car with pride, which distracted him from the danger behind. One small scuff was the only warning before something sent us flying in different directions. I managed to get my arms down quickly enough to break my fall. My breath exhaled forcefully and needles of pain broke out along naked flesh. The dragon fared better. He scarcely hit the ground before bouncing back to his feet, hands raised in an aggressive gesture. A black-clad figure raised an automatic weapon toward my would-be rescuer’s face.
“No!” I screamed, pushing to my feet, oblivious to my nakedness.
Someone grabbed my hair and jerked back. Cold metal settled against my neck, drawing beads of blood.
“Don’t move,” a harsh voice warned, “or I’ll slice your throat.”
I froze. I had no idea if my newfound immunity to fire extended to other miraculous feats. In the brief seconds my attacker took to pacify me, the gunman aimed and opened fire. I whimpered, but the bullets stopped in mid-air.
“Fuck!” the gunman swore, spraying another round of bullets—all of which hit an invisible wall. The lethal cylinders shook and shivered but otherwise remained still.
The dragon smiled without the slightest ounce of humor. “Fuck’s right,” he drawled, gesturing toward his adversary with both hands. Most of the bullets dropped to the asphalt in a rain of metal, but some of them shook more violently—and then turned straight toward the gunman.
“Don’t—” My captor growled, but it was too late. Bullets flew, striking his partner in the chest and arms. Blood blossomed, soaking black fabric even darker. Instinct warned I was in the worst position possible. The dragon turned to face his adversary’s partner, but he was going to be too late.
“Ohhhhh,” I moaned, allowing myself to go completely slack. My captor lowered the knife, forced to bear my weight with both arms or fall to the ground beneath me. I gritted my teeth, drummed up my resolve, and bashed my head back against his face. The impact brought tears to my eyes, but it affected him even more. Bone crunched and he howled in pain. His arms released me and I stumbled away.
The dragon grabbed my arms and swung me toward the nearest car door. “Get in!” The sirens grew even louder. I scrambled into the passenger seat and slammed the door. Something rumbled, pulling my attention away from the wail of sirens. My head snapped around to my rescuer and his two assailants, only to find he was alone. The asphalt in front of him writhed like something out of a horror movie, shimmering and shaking before growing still once more. He jumped into the driver’s seat next to me and jerked the car into gear. “Buckle up,” he snapped, and then pulled away in the opposite direction from the sirens.
I would have insisted we should go toward the police and paramedics, but for the simple fact that both attackers—one of whom had been most definitely dead—had vanished into thin air.
* * *
Reality reared its ugly head moments later when disorientation and adrenaline faded, only to be replaced by suspicion. What insanity made me think I’d be any safer with a maniac who could stop bullets with the flick of a hand than the maniacs shooting the bullets to begin with?
I huddled under the flannel blanket he’d tossed me moments earlier. “What the hell just happened?”
Yeah. Politeness had never been my strong suit.
He flicked a glance in my direction, then focused his attention on the maze of downtown streets he was navigating. I’d long since given up trying to figure out where he was going, since I didn’t think he was actually going anywhere. He chose streets at random, doubling back in jagged loops over and over again. If his goal was to shake any would-be pursuers, he’d long since succeeded. I don’t think I could have found my way back to where we’d started.
“This wasn’t exactly the way I’d planned our first meeting.” His lips twisted in a self-deprecating smile.
I tightened my arms on the blanket, hunching closer to the car door and wondering how much it would hurt to throw myself out the next time he slowed down. “You’ve been planning to meet me?” The words emerged much more panicked than I’d intended. I cleared my throat and hoped he hadn’t noticed.
“Well.” He tapped fingers against the steering wheel, making a sudden wild turn across three fortunately-empty lanes onto I-55. So much for tossing myself out the car when it slowed down. “Sounds rather stalker-ish when you say it. I swear it’s nothing like that, though.”
“How did you know where I was just now, if you weren’t stalking me? And how did we walk through a burning building, for God’s sake?” I slashed a hand through the air. “Not to mention your Man of Steel routine with the bullets back there.”
“Well, as for your first question, I was waiting for the opportune moment to introduce myself.” He shook his head. “Should have just bit the bullet—so to speak—weeks ago.”
Weeks ago? Dragon Guy wasn’t exactly making me feel any better.
“Question number two’s a lot more complicated.” He zoomed in and out of the fast lane, speedometer never falling lower than 70. Reminded me of Keith; although unlike my former lover, his high-speed handling of the vehicle didn’t leave my hands clenched on the armrests and feet braced against the floorboard while I wondered if he’d forgotten which side of the Atlantic he was on.
“I’m a scientist. I do complicated pretty damned well.”
He nodded. “Fair enough. I wasn’t exaggerating back there when I said you could call me a dragon. I am one, after all.”
The smile he tossed made my heartbeat quicken, but the absurdity of his words acted like a cold shower. “Funny, your breath doesn’t smell of sulfur.”
“Cute. Dragon’s just a turn of phrase. A title, if you will. Now you; you’re a Phoenix, which explains your fiery resurrection and walk through flames.”
I shifted uncomfortably as his words paralleled Mr. Psycho’s. “I’m supposed to believe that we’re creatures of legend who—what? Dash through burning buildings in a single bound and make inconvenient bodies conveniently disappear?”
When he zipped across four lanes of busy traffic to hit the Germania exit, I bit back a shriek. Luckily we rolled to a stop at the end of the off-ramp, unscathed. I loosened my death grip on the blanket and focused on him when he replied.
“Maybe we’d do better if we start from ground zero.” He held his hand out. “My name’s Jacob Zi, but feel free to call me Jake. Everyone but my mother does. I’m a Taurus who enjoys pizza, baseball, and movies. And you?”
The way his bottom lip curled crookedly made it damned near impossible to resist his boyish charm. I’d always been a sucker for an imperfect smile.
“Oh hell,” I mumbled, grabbing his hand and shaking. “I’m starting to believe this whole night has been some screwed-up dream. Cassidy Grant, but most people call me Cass. I’m an Aries who also loves pizza, baseball, and movies. Though I suspect you already knew that.”
His smile widened but he struggled to keep his expression innocent. Well, as innocent as a man with the world’s ultimate bedroom eyes could ever appear to be. A horn blared behind us, and he pulled into traffic once more. He turned into a fast food parking lot seconds later and took his place in the drive-through line. I arched a brow. “Attack of the munchies?”
Jake grinned. “Not me. But you’ll have them big-time any second now.”
“I doubt it. Had plenty for supper a couple hours ago.” I threw him my best schoolmarm look. “You were about to explain what the hell’s going on?”
He rolled his window down and tantalizing odors struck my nose. I scowled. Tantalizing? I’d always avoided fast food like the plague. Yet now the eau’d’burger set my stomach growling worse than my neighbor’s crazy dog.
“See. Right on schedule.”
I covered my stomach, cheeks reddening. “How did you know…”
“That you’d be hungrier than a linebacker? Comes with the territory, sweetheart. Dying takes a lot out of a person; especially Phoenixes.”
There was that damned word again. I was really starting to hate it.
“Dying?” I wiggled my body underneath the flannel blanket. “Funny, I don’t feel dead.”
Our turn at the speaker came and he raised an eyebrow. I scanned the menu hurriedly, searching for the least fattening item I could find. “Uh, I’ll take the grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce and tomato only. And an ice water.”
He snickered. “Newbies.” Rolling his eyes, he turned to the speaker. “We’ll have four cheeseburgers with the works, four grilled chickens with lettuce and tomato only, four large French fries, two large colas, and two large ice waters.”
The worker repeated the order, gave him a total, and told him to pull around. “Sheesh, you’re going to eat four burgers, three chicken sandwiches, and four French fries?”
“Not exactly. Everything but the colas is for you.”
My back stiffened. “Okay, I know I could stand to lose a few pounds, but I couldn’t eat all that if my life depended on it.”
“Funny you should say that,” he drawled. “Because in moments, you’re going to feel like your life does depend on it.”
Denial lasted exactly long enough for him to pay, hand the grease-soaked bags to me, and zip along the city streets once more. I shoveled the first chicken sandwich down my throat in sixty seconds flat. As if that first taste of food served as some sort of signal, hunger pangs reverberated through my body in waves of agony. He just glanced at me when I ripped into the second sandwich, alternating bites of chicken with handfuls of fries. The next thirty minutes passed in silence, save for the sound of rustling wrappers and me chomping my way through a family’s worth of food. By the time I recognized where we were, the hunger had faded enough for me to eat the last sandwich and box of fries with something approaching decorum.
“Hey. We’re near St. Louis University.”
I shoved another fry in my mouth. “Do you have a destination in mind or are we just driving aimlessly all night?”
He sobered. “Not all night, but I had to be sure they weren’t following us.”
“Who?” I struggled to get the bite past the lump in my throat.
“Funny. That’s what I called you not too long ago. I suppose you mean the men who jumped me earlier.” Nausea settled in my stomach, this time unrelated to the mutant hunger pangs. “The ones who killed Keith.”
He tightened his hands on the steering wheel. “I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.”
“Yeah, well, life’s a bitch and then you die. Some of us sooner than others.” I stared down at the green and black fabric covering me.
“Unfortunately not everyone can bounce back from death like you did.”
This time I was too tired to point out that bouncing back from death was impossible. Visions of Keith’s last moments kept replaying in my head. His screams as the fire ate away at first clothes, and then flesh. His begging me to tell his killers what they wanted to know; my absolute helplessness to do a damned thing about it.
Jake pulled into the driveway of a stately-looking Victorian, activated a garage opener, and stopped the car next to a black scooter etched with hot pink flames.
I couldn’t hold back a smile. “Pink’s your color.”
Shooting the scooter a cursory glance, he climbed out of the convertible and stretched. My eyes zeroed in on the ripple of muscles beneath his tight t-shirt. His body appealed to me even more than Keith’s did—than Keith’s had. God, how could I just keep on going on after what had happened? His death really was all my fault; somehow.
Jake’s voice drew my attention off the bout of self-pity. “That’s my sister’s. She goes to SLU and crashes in the basement apartment. Takes care of most of the housework in exchange for room and board.”
I grew brave enough to wriggle out of the seat, performing a comical dance to keep myself fully covered. My skin stung slightly when I peeled it off the leather upholstery. Small change compared to what I’d gone through earlier.
He waited for me to pad around the car in bare feet, then held the side door while I stepped into a small tunnel that led to another door opening into the house itself. Not wanting my makeshift sari to slip, I let him open that door as well. I murmured my thanks and walked past him into the kitchen, straight into an ambush.
“Jacob Shan Zi, what in bloody blazes do you think you’re doing bringing a whore home when your sister’s downstairs?”
A petite woman stood on the far side of the room, hands perched on hips and fire snapping in intense green eyes. Bright red hair—true red, not that orange shade most people liken to carrots—fell down her back in soft waves. That softness was not mirrored in her face. She might have appeared pretty if not for the pinched lips, screwed-up eyes, and pulsing veins in her neck. Oh, and that whole whore thing.
“Who you calling a whore?” I braced my feet on the floor and narrowed my eyes. “I’m not screwing your husband here, so don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
“Ah, Cassidy,” Jake ventured from behind. “I’m not her husband.”
“Fine then, boyfriend. Whatever.”
Red crossed her arms over her chest and looked at me more closely, but remained silent.
“Not her boyfriend either. She’s my mother.”
That took the wind right out of my sails. “Your—mother? But she’s not much older than you.”
Her anger cooled by a degree or two at that; until my next comment set off another eruption of Mt. St. Redhead. “If anyone looks like the human embodiment of a phoenix, it would be her.”
“Holy Mary Mother of God,” she muttered, stalking several steps forward. Her voice lilted slightly, straight from the shores of Ireland, and enough like Keith’s accent that my teeth clenched. “Have you lost what little wits you had left? Telling one of them what we are?”
Jake raked a hand through his hair. “She’s not one of them Mother. She’s one of us.”
His words only served to anger her further. “Of all the stupid, thickheaded things to do. You went and tracked the wildling down after we agreed you wouldn’t!”
“I never agreed to any such thing. The clan did, right before they practically disowned me. I can’t tell you just how little their wishes matter to me right now, Mother.”
Clan? Sounded like something straight out of the Middle Ages. Or the Deep South.
“They’re—we’re—doing what’s best for you, Jacob.”
“Not what’s best for me. What you think is best for the clan. Not the same thing at all.”
Exhaustion slammed through my body, hitting just as hard as the insane hunger. I could have cheerfully plopped down on the kitchen floor and gone to sleep right then and there. Then I caught a whiff of the smoke that coated my body and thought longingly of hot water.
I placed one hand over the other. “Whoa. Time out here. Maybe you can finish your family feud after I get a shower and some clothes.”
Red glared at Jake. “You’re not letting her stay here, are you?”
“Of course he is, Mother. She’s the fire to his earth.”
A second woman, this one a smaller, more feminine version of Jake, leaned in the doorway. Black hair cut in silky spikes framed yet another pair of vivid green eyes. No denying the relationship between these three.
“Jake’s sister, I presume.”
She nodded at me with a smile. “Yes, and I apologize for the manners of my mother—her name is Breena, by the way—and brother; or lack thereof. Come on, I’ve got pajamas and a spare bedroom you can use. We’ll just let these two get back to their bickering.”
“Rhianne—” Breena protested, falling silent when her daughter beckoned to me.
“Sleep well,” Jake murmured. “We’ll talk more in the morning.
I nodded as I walked toward Rhianne. My feet moved more slowly than they should have, but I refused to give in to weakness in front of Breena. I’d never had someone take such an instant dislike to me; not without reason, anyway.
Rhianne went to her brother and planted a kiss on his cheek. She gave her mother a quick, hard hug. “No blood this time.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.
A half-hour later I fell onto the guest bed, clean and clothed in black pajamas swarming with hot pink Hello Kitties, and decided I didn’t care.
* * *
“I suppose there’s worse things than being called a whore by your future mother-in-law.”
I froze halfway up the basement steps and stared at the partially open door a few feet in front of me. The scent of bacon frying inspired hunger pangs only slightly less frenzied than the night before. I barely noticed, however, too busy straining to hear the conversation overhead.
“…know why I expected that to go any better than it did. After the fiasco at the warehouse, I should have known things would only get worse.” Footsteps thumped back and forth.
“I tried to tell you she was here, but you didn’t answer your cell.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t expect them to jump Cass like that before I had a chance to get her away.”
Plates and silverware clattered and Rhianne spoke again. “What exactly happened?”
Disgust laced Jake’s voice. “They made me. Fifty years I’ve been rescuing wildlings, and this time they made me.”
“Well, your sanity was never on the line before—not to mention your heart. Like our dear brother always says, emotions make you sloppy.”
My hands clenched to each side as I tried to process the conversation. I was pretty sure they were talking about me, but little of what I’d overheard made sense. Future mother-in-law? Wildlings? The thought that Jake had been doing anything for 50 years was laughable. He couldn’t be more than 30, tops.
His sanity’s on the line? Sounds like he already crossed it to me.
Jake mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out. I tiptoed up a few more stairs.
“…her away from Liam. You know he’d tear her heart out if he got the chance.”
I scowled and filed that tidbit of information away. Avoid men named Liam, check.
“This is a bloody nightmare. I still can’t figure out how they tracked her down or how they knew I was following her. Or why they pretended to leave her for dead but had guards waiting outside.”
Bacon popped, obscuring Rhianne’s next question.
“Some bigwig, I think. A limo pulled away just as I got there.” Another murmur I couldn’t make out, and then Rhianne spoke again.
“And what does she think about all this?”
“She thinks we’re all insane, I’m sure.” Wryness touched his voice and the floorboards grew silent. “She’s dedicated her life to disproving claims of paranormal activity. She doesn’t believe she really died back there. Probably thinks she bumped her head and I saved her before the fire reached her.”
“Well, there is one thing we can do if she refuses to believe us.”
Wariness crept into his voice. “What’s that?”
“Kill her again.”
My back stiffened and I was at the bottom of the stairs before conscious thought caught up with subconscious. No time to change, since they’d probably come for me once breakfast was ready. The PJs would have to do. Shoes, though; had to have shoes. I hustled into Rhianne’s room and scrounged up a pair of flip flops only one size too small. On my way out of the room something caught my eye: a black-fringed purse hanging on a hook near the door. Guilt warred with practicality, but I’d arrived here naked, with no money or credit cards. Maybe Rhianne kept enough change for the bus.
Practicality soon won and I thrust my hand inside her purse. Metal clinked at the bottom of the bag, but peering inside showed that it wasn’t change. A set of keys met my eyes, attached to a black leather keyring engraved with Vespa in stylized letters. I bit my lip and pondered the morality of stealing her ride. Helping myself to a little loose change was one thing: grand theft Vespa was another thing entirely.
It’s not like they’ll call the cops. He killed two men last night and you overheard them talk about killing you.
Footsteps started overhead, making my decision for me. I took five seconds to turn on the bathroom shower on my way to the sliding glass door that opened out onto the backyard. The security alarm’s keypad next to the door indicated the system was currently inactive. Floorboards on the basement stairs squeaked. Mouthing a curse, I yanked open the doors and flew outside. Halfway to the garage I realized the flaw in my plan. The garage connected to the house via a tunnel, which meant the only other entrance was the main door in front. The door for which I did not have a key.
“Shit,” I muttered, scurrying around to the side of the building farthest from the house. Fortune smiled and two windows glinted in the morning sun, just low and wide enough for me to slither through. Guilt pricked again at the sound of shattering glass, but I didn’t let it slow me down. I used a flip flop to wipe all the glass away from the opening and then shoved it back on my foot before crawling inside.
I had to suck in my gut and squeeze to push through, but finally my two feet settled on solid ground. I crunched through broken glass and activated the door opener. The helmet hanging over the scooter’s handlebars took some prodding, but I managed to jam it on my head. I wheeled it to face the right direction before hopping on. The Vespa started with a low purr. Murmuring a prayer, I shot out of the garage in a burst of speed.
“Stop!” Jake’s voice called from my right. I spared only a moment’s glance, deliberately increased my speed, and zipped out into the street. “Cassidy, please wait!”
My heart pounded double-time as wind whipped through my hair. I zig-zagged through the nearby streets and alleys in an attempt to keep Jake from following; ironic considering I’d learned the routine from him the night before. Once satisfied he wasn’t tailing me, I pointed the scooter southwest and kept it within the speed limit. Getting pulled over on a stolen vehicle would not be a good way to continue an already bad day.
Hell, let’s just be honest: an already bad life.
* * *
I slammed the dryer door shut, juggling the spare clothes I kept inside before putting the jeans on. Slipping out of the Hello Kitty top, my eyes ran along the smooth expanse of my arms and I tossed the pajama shirt on the floor; and then froze when I realized something was wrong. The scars on my arms had vanished. Just like the men Jake had—disposed of. In the madness of the previous night and my rush to reach safety this morning, I hadn’t even noticed the scars’ absence, despite wearing atypical short sleeves. That said a lot for just how insane things had been. I always kept my arms covered.
“Dio mio, you’re alive!”
I shoved the long-sleeved t-shirt over my head and spun. A tiny woman with blue-gray curls framing dark eyes stood halfway inside the enclosed back porch. She broke into a spate of Italian too rapid for me to follow.
“Good morning, Mrs. Castanelli.” I kept my voice calm, knowing the elderly drama queen would wind down once she’d finished praising her favorite saints for my safekeeping and not a moment sooner. She paused for breath, and I took advantage of the second’s worth of silence. “Please, come inside. I just brewed the Italian blend you gave me.”
Her eyes lit with pleasure and she allowed me to usher her inside. I locked the backdoor behind me—something I normally didn’t bother doing—and urged her to the room’s single rickety chair.
“Cassidy, bella, I am so glad to see you safe and sound! When I saw your face this morning, my heart nearly burst!”
I set a chipped ceramic mug in front of her and took a sip from my own. The coffee did little to assuage the hunger raging through my body, but it would have to do. There was nothing else even remotely edible inside the little bungalow that was currently my home away from home. “Back up, Mrs. Castanelli. Why are you so surprised to see me?”
She gestured to the tiny TV perched on the counter. “The morning news, Cassidy. They said you and your partner were killed in a fire last night. I just knew it couldn’t be true, so when I saw that scooter out front I had to come and see for myself.”
I resisted the urge to switch the TV on and see if my face was still being broadcast.
“I hope that nice man who stopped by wasn’t the partner who died in the fire.”
My hand froze and the mug trembled mid-air. Nice man was often code on the Hill for one having Italian ancestry. I didn’t have any friends who fit that description. Hell, it had taken me months to earn Mrs. Castanelli’s trust enough that she’d been willing to become partners with me, someone of questionable ancestry. I’m sure she consoled herself with the fact that, as an orphan, I could have Italian heritage. If I’d had any friends who could have sped up that process I would have used them.
“The one who stopped by looking for you two days ago. Said he must have missed you at your condo, so he decided to check out your latest project. And how naughty of you that you didn’t tell me you were seeing such a nice man.”
“I’m not—” I choked out. “—not seeing anyone. Nice or otherwise. What exactly did this man say?”
Craggy eyes narrowed and she stiffened her back. “Do you mean to say that man lied to me? Was he the competition?”
Her change of tack confused me. “Competition?”
She waved her hand. “Yes, in the flopping business.”
“Flipping,” I corrected weakly. “It’s called flipping.”
“Whatever.” Her mouth widened. “Dio mio! Tell me he didn’t set the fire last night! I’ll never live with myself for telling that man anything about you if he’s the one who…”
I reached out and squeezed her arm. She fell silent. “Mrs. Castanelli, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on myself, but it’s true that the fire last night was no accident. Someone killed my partner and left me for dead. The fact I survived is most definitely a—”
“Miracle!” She bobbed her head emphatically.
I hurried on before she could invoke her saints again. “Yes, a miracle.” I definitely preferred thinking that God had intervened on my behalf to believing Jake had been right. Just his name brought a wave of longing. I scowled. I barely knew the man and wasn’t sure I could trust him. Why on earth would I be missing him? “I need to ask you a favor. A big favor.”
She drew herself up even straighter. “Anything, bella mia. You saved me when you asked me to find houses in this neighborhood to flop.” I didn’t bother to correct her again. Sometimes I thought she made the mistake on purpose. “Tell me what you need.”
I sagged, gratitude bringing tears to my eyes. Forcing them back, I turned and emptied the dregs out of the coffee pot. “I need—I need to borrow some money. I hate to ask—”
“Done, Cassidy, and not another word. Everything I have now is thanks to you. What else can I do to help?”
“If anyone—even the police—show up to ask if you’ve seen me, please tell them you haven’t. Until I figure out who I can trust, nobody can know where I am. Or where I’ve been.”
Her eyes grew troubled when I mentioned the police, but she simply nodded. “Done again. Where are you going to go, bella? What are you going to do?”
I took a deep breath. “I wish I knew.”
* * *
I hadn’t exaggerated when I told Mrs. Castanelli that I wasn’t sure who I could trust. Scenario one: Jake was trustworthy and had been right to keep me from waiting for the authorities to arrive. Scenario two: Jake was somehow involved and would be waiting for me to go to the authorities so he could rescue me again. Either way, I needed more information. Fortunately I made my living gathering information; well, part of my living. Paranormal investigation didn’t exactly pay a whole lot—thus the flopping.
I ditched Rhianne’s scooter several blocks away from Saint Louis University, figuring it was far too distinctive to go unrecognized on campus. Pushing the bill of my red Cardinals cap as low as it would go, I shoved hands in my pockets and hiked the rest of the way to the library. True that I had precious few friends, but one of them couldn’t have been more perfect for the goal I had in mind. She had Master’s degrees in both library and computer science, and a PhD in the latter. I called her Queen of Geeks, a title she bore proudly.
I drew up short at the gate barring entrance to the library. Damn. I’d forgotten I didn’t have any ID on me. Patting my pockets as if looking for my courtesy card, I made a frustrated sound and looked at the nearest worker. He smiled at my own rueful grin. “Forget your wallet?”
I nodded. “Yeah, and I parked about a mile away. I just came by to talk to Si Si. Could you buzz her and let her know…her lab partner’s here?”
He raised a brow, smile broadening. “Her lab partner?”
“Yeah. Her much smarter lab partner. I got her through Advanced Bio and Chem.”
“Dr. Cruz actually needed—and accepted—help?”
My former lab partner had a bit of a reputation for being a dragon lady, and I didn’t mean that in a literal sense. “Yeah, scary thought, isn’t it?”
He lowered his voice. “She’s in her office. Just go on up. In return, next time you stop by I want some dirt—I mean information—on how you saved Dr. Cruz’s ass.”
We shared smirks and he buzzed me in. I jogged up to Si Si’s office, doing my best to look like any one of the dozens of other students milling about. Dressed in jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, that wasn’t too hard to pull off. I jogged the last few steps to Si Si’s office. No doubt she’d seen the same reports Mrs. Castanelli had and would be happy to see me alive. A student stood in her doorway, chattering on about some computer program the library had recently installed. I waited as politely as I could, but at the third mention of RAM something or other, I cleared my throat rather unsubtly.
The girl turned, looked me up and down, and tossed over her shoulder, “I’ll run the diagnostics you suggested and see if that clears things up.”
“Call me if it doesn’t and I’ll take a look myself.”
The student—grad student I amended when I noticed she looked closer to my age than Rhianne’s—brushed past me with a small smile. I must have tipped my face upward, because she stopped and stared.
“Hey, aren’t you—”
“Marie, how good to see you!” Si Si broke in with false cheer. “Come on in, I’ve been waiting.”
I forced myself not to sneer when she used my middle name. She knew I hated it. “Sierra, darling!” I squealed, fighting fire with fire. Her eyes twitched but she kept the sugary sweet smile plastered across her face.
Her advisee’s excitement faded. “Oh, guess not. See you later, Doc!”
Si Si closed the door behind me, dropping all pretense of happiness and turning on me as if I were the Chihuahua who delighted in eating her very expensive, very pointy high heels. “What the hell are you doing here? And what the fuck’s going on, Cass? I’ve been going out of my mind worrying about you, and here you are safe and sound and—might I add—without a single scratch? If you had third-degree burns or broken hands that might explain your inability to pick up the phone and put me out of my misery!”
Her curly black hair bounced more vigorously with each word and jab of her fist. Normally she drove me crazy when she talked—or, in this case, shouted—with her hands. This time, though, the sight soothed my emotions. Her anger only manifested white-hot when she really cared; the rest of the time she could freeze Eskimos with her ice queen routine.
“Seece, calm down. You look like your mother right now.”
She immediately smoothed the wrinkles marring her face and took several deep breaths. “I do not.”
I grinned. “Okay, you don’t. Steam wasn’t coming out of your ears.”
She smiled, grudgingly, then gave me a hard hug. “Sit your skinny ass down, gringa, and tell me why I shouldn’t kick it myself.” Skinny ass—only when compared to her gorgeous curves. Next to anyone else mine looked huge.
“Someone killed me last night, Seece.”
Her mouth opened and closed several times: the nearest I’d seen her to speechless in a long, long time. Finally she managed, “You mean tried to kill you.”
“That’s what I originally thought.” I hesitated, then pushed the sleeves of my t-shirt up. “But now I’m not so sure.”
Si Si’s eyes zeroed in on my bare arms and she swallowed. “My God, Cass. Your scars. They’re…gone.”
“My sentiment exactly. It’s like someone plucked me up and threw me inside my worst nightmare. Only I don’t think I’m dreaming.”
She reached out and pinched my arm lightly. “Nope, you’re not dreaming.”
“Hardy har, Sherlock.”
“Hey, you walked right into that.” Humor faded, replaced by growing concern. “Does this have anything to do with that woman asking questions about you last week?”
“What the—” I straightened in my chair. “What woman?”
Si Si frowned, biting her lip. “Said she was doing a background check on you for a security clearance you applied for. Knew everything about you, Cass. Your educational background, the specifics of your job with MSPI. Hell, she knew what brand of toilet paper you preferred.”
“Only problem is I haven’t applied for any security clearances. Fuck. How many people do they have following me around, anyway?”
I shrugged each shoulder, palms raised upward. “I don’t know who they are, or I’d tell you. Last night they broke into our investigation at the warehouse, armed with enough firepower to make a Navy SEAL drool. They started talking a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo magic shit, accused me of being some fire-breathing bird out of mythology, and proceeded to set the place on fire.”
She blinked. “They called you a Phoenix?”
She verbally capitalized the word, just like good ole Mr. Psycho.
“Yeah; called me a Phoenix and said something about a Dragon following me around.” I narrowed my eyes. “Any of this ringing a bell?”
She pushed to her feet and stalked across the space next to her desk. “Well hell, Cass, this is even worse than I thought.”
I refrained from asking how things could possibly be worse than when she thought I might have been dead.
“Sounds like the Society’s after you.” She scowled. “Guess my Lopez cousins aren’t complete locos after all.”
“You mean the cousins your mother forbids anyone to speak about?”
Si Si blew out a breath, leaning back against the wall. “The one and only.”
“The cousins who belong to the fruit loopy cult?” My eyes widened. “The Society?”
She nodded. “Also known as the Society of the Sacred Star. A nondenominational group of fanatics whose sole mission in life is to wipe out anyone they suspect of using magic. Real magic, that is. They believe certain people have the ability to work with the four elements.”
I licked my lips. “Phoenixes working Fire and Dragons working Earth?”
That cleared up what happened to the dead men the night before. They hadn’t vanished into thin air—they’d been swallowed whole by the earth. I shivered, remembering how grimly matter-of-fact Jake had been during the crisis; right before he killed two men. Get over it, Cass. They weren’t exactly innocents, and they tried to kill him first! But somehow, the fact they’d attacked him with guns rather than—whatever he used—disturbed me so much less.
“So you think these people hunting me belong to the same cult as your cousins?”
“It fits.” She gestured to my arms. “And obviously there must be something to the whole elemental magic thing. Scars that bad don’t just…disappear.”
“Good point.” I rubbed both hands along my arms. “There’s something else I didn’t tell you. The Dragon they mentioned was following me. He waltzed into the fire, whisked me into his arms like Fabio on a romance cover, and saved me. He killed two men doing it.”
She frowned. “Does that mean the authorities will be after him for murder?”
I shook my head. “No. I doubt they find the bodies any time soon.”
“Oh. So where is this knight in shining armor, anyway?”
“You mean Dragon?” I made a face. “He took me back to his house after doing enough loop-de-loops through downtown to make a fighter pilot dizzy. Introduced me to his mother and sister. The mother’s a bear, but the sister seemed nice enough. Anyway, heard them talking about me this morning and I…well…they scared me so I—stole her scooter and ran.”
Amusement flashed through Si Si’s eyes. “You’re kidding. You, little miss perfect, actually stole someone’s ride? And you ran away from the guy who saved your life?” She shook her head. “Only you, Cass. Any time things get the slightest bit interesting—or some sexy man enters your life—you run right the other way.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets. “How would you know whether he’s sexy or not?”
“By the look in your eyes when you talk about him.” She smirked, crossing back to the desk and cuffing me on the shoulder. “Listen, I’ve got someone special in my life I haven’t told anyone about.” She held up a hand when I opened my mouth. “Not even my sister, so hush. I think he might be able to help you decide whether or not you can trust your Dragon.”
“He’s not my Dragon!”
“You know what they say about the lady protesting too much.” She waved her hand. “That’s not important. Do you want help or not?”
I bit my lip. “What makes you so sure this new flame of yours can help me?”
“Because—he’s a Dragon, too.”