It sucks to die screaming in fire. Trust me. The last thing I expected was to wake up amid flames that no longer burn or be rescued by a sexy stranger right before my would-be murderers return.
Sexy – AKA Jake – forces my skeptical butt to admit what I’d rather deny. Death has unleashed my Elemental power to manipulate fire magic. Now I’ve got to master my Phoenix powers before I’m killed again.
Jake’s touch ignites me like flames no longer can, and he claims the same wildness that killed my mother will drive him insane if I don’t bind myself to him for life. Can I trust that Jake’s feelings won’t flash and fade? If I don’t, he’s going to lose his mind—and we both could lose our unnatural lives.
Read on for an excerpt.
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 overdrive as I whirled, meeting the amused glance of my friend and business partner.
“Dammit, Keith. Do you have to sneak around like that?”
He grinned and rocked back on his heels. “No, love, I don’t have to; but seeing you jump like that is its own reward.”
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 saw the camera adjusted to my satisfaction. After one last check of the thermal cameras, I started up the stairs. Figures dressed in black hurtled down them before I moved more than a few feet. 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 secured my hands with something that dug into my flesh. Shock gave way to fear as the intruders marched me upstairs. 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.
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. 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. “What do you mean, individuals like me?”
“In general, those who call themselves the Beholden. In your specific case, Phoenixes.”
Another capitalized word that meant nothing 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 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 at the mention of the worst moment of my childhood. 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 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 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.”
“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 twenty feet away from Keith, increasing my already high level of anxiety. Helplessness flooded through me; an emotion I’d 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 clothes 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, but when that failed he screamed for me to tell them what they wanted to hear. Panic overwhelmed me, because 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. His hands moved to the long sleeves covering my arms, caressing them as one would a lover. I struggled to push away, 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.
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.