UNHOLY BURN

BOOK FOUR IN THE UNHOLY INC SERIES
AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLEKOBO | iBOOKS

He heats things up, and she burns’em down.

Proper English rogue, Spencer Jameson has walked the earth for 400 years. Way too bloody long to make amends for all his selfish choices, so it’s toodle-oo to this ridiculous Guardian of humanity business… Until a brains-in-blue-jeans, way-too-rational female mechanic gets cocked up in his business.

No-nonsense entrepreneur Sydney Ashby calls the shots in her life. But when a son of Lucifer uses her family in a bid to unleash Armageddon, she has no choice but to trust a smooth-talking British scoundrel who’s done things as terrible as the demons themselves. 

As the demons unleash unmitigated calamity, Sydney and Fire-Guardian Spencer not only have to out-maneuver the evil gob-shites…they also have to wend their way through their excessively untidy feelings for each other. And neither goes gently into that good night.

Print

 

 

LONG EXCERPT

ONE

Dumped on your birthday. This is definitely a new low, Syd.

Sydney Ashby sat on her second-hand, black sofa and blinked at the exquisite Waterford Crystal vase filled with three dozen roses. Thanks for three amazing months, Derek’s note on customized stationary started off. It’s not you, it’s me.

Blah, blah blah.

Sydney leaned forward to touch the velvety petals of one of the enormous yellow blooms. The arrangement exuded almost as much class and extravagance as Derek with his thick, sandy-gold hair, trust fund wardrobe, and celebrity dentist. 

Debonair Derek, her long-time best friend Laura Sellers had called him… Until two hours ago when said childhood conspirator had rechristened him Douchebag Derek. The label, along with several choice obscenities, had been avidly rebroadcast around Torque, Sydney’s auto mechanic shop where she, Laura, and five other employees worked, building a better life for themselves, one faulty transmission at a time. 

When Derek had brought his Mercedes to Torque, he’d asked her out on the spot. After two months of relentless pursuit, she’d finally said yes. He’d been so sweet—both in the bedroom and out of it. 

Three months of a story-book romance, then…the yellow rose kiss of death. 

Happy birthday to me.

Sydney slouched back, pulled a box of tissues onto her lap, and turned her attention back to the TV where Jack and Rose had just plunged into the Atlantic after the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic hit the iceberg.

Go home, have yourself a good cry, counseled sweet-natured Zuri, Sydney’s European car tech. Crying is cathartic. You’ll feel better afterwards.

After ten solid minutes of cinematic terror and heartbreak for the star-crossed lovers, this tear-jerker-movie-thing should be working by now, right? Especially after Jack made Rose promise to never let go. That was the ultimate expression of one’s undying love, for God’s sake. That kind of sentiment was such a sharp contrast to her birthday dumpage her damn sofa should be soaked with her tears by now.

But…

Nope. 

She sighed, looking around the room at all the cheap furniture she’d shoved here and there to fill up space. It was her home, yes, but she hardly ever spent time here. If she wasn’t at Torque, she was at Mom and Dad’s.  She only came here to crash. 

So now what? 

She tossed the unused tissue box back on the rickety end table. Uncrossed her legs and put her feet on the floor. Jiggled her legs, turned up the TV volume, then turned it right back down when the cranky old lady in the duplex next door pounded on their shared wall. 

Ugh. This was such a waste of time. She was going to make Zuri work overtime for a week for delivering such shitty advice. She rarely spent time dwelling on her feelings. Who had time for that? 

Apparently everyone else, if she were to judge by the concerned looks on all six faces of her Torque staff. 

FINE. So, she’d wallow for the next ten minutes, then she’d go back to work and tackle her expansion paperwork. If one of her team found out she’d gone back to the shop after-hours on her birthday, she could report in good conscience that she’d appropriately dealt with her Derek-drama and had fully recovered, thank you very much.

That would be Plan A.

If that didn’t work, Plan B would be telling them it was none of their damn business anyway.

She smiled for the first time that day. Everything was better when she had a plan in place.

Okay, so…feelings. She stopped jiggling her legs and leaned back into the sofa, letting her body go as lax as possible when she closed her eyes.

Dumped on my birthday makes me feel…

Embarrassed. Totally. To have been sucked in by Derek’s flatteries. He was masterful at all the pretty words. He’d seemed so sincere, too.

A little worried? Probably. That she’d never find…someone. Someone irreplaceable like mom was to dad and vice-versa. Theirs was a never-let-go kind of love, too. Even though she’d grown up seeing it in action, it seemed an impossible feat for herself. 

Aaaand that right there was a dark alley of crap she definitely wasn’t exploring today. So then, what else?

Relieved. 

Her eyes snapped opened, and she sat up to stare—unseeing—at the TV. Maybe that was what she felt most of all. She spent the majority her waking hours up to her elbows in engine grease. She loved her life, but what guy would find that alluring long-term? Besides, she barely had time to spend the money she was finally making, much less to nurture a relationship. Plus, she was always in motion. Derek had liked to be still and watch the ocean waves, speculating on what swam beneath. He wasn’t a bad guy.

They just didn’t suit.

So yeah, this was all for the best. 

It was.

Happy birthday, lovely Sydney. I hope you understand I need to move on.

The sudden prickling in her eyes made her heart start to pound as she remembered her twenty-six-year-old sister’s voice saying almost the same thing last month.

Girl, it’s time I move on. Start fresh. Find out who I am. 

Tiana was always trying to remake herself. Never thought she was enough. One of eight adopted siblings, Tiana was the only one who never felt like she really belonged with the Ashbys. 

Why you always so lost, lass? Right here’s your North Star, their father Alroy would holler, then pull her in for a huge bear hug that’d make her gorgeous mahogany skin glow with a radiance that Sydney—with her pale, I-burn-in-ten-minutes-flat skin—had forever envied.

Only days later, Tiana would lose her way once more. She’d begun running away from home at sixteen. Got pregnant and gave birth to a stillborn just before she turned eighteen. Their mother Clara had never quite gotten over the loss.

Sydney wondered if Tiana hadn’t either, because her behavior became even more reckless after that. High school dropout, drugs, rehab, bad company, inability to hold down a job. It was a spiral that no one in the family could stop. She’d go off-grid for months at a time, staying with friends or in shelters, never telling anyone where she was. Sydney didn’t know if her parents suffered worse when Tiana was in their lives or out.

But last month, Tiana had finally responded to Sydney’s weekly invitation to coffee. And when they met, she’d looked good. 

She was clean. 

Sydney thought maybe, just maybe, things might be looking up. They’d made arrangements the following week for Tiana to come to Torque and meet the team. Sydney wanted to put her to work. 

Keep an eye on me, you mean, Tiana had teased, her dark eyes crinkling behind her round, purple-lensed fashion glasses.

“That too,” Sydney said aloud in her tiny living room, heat flushing through her chest, her eyes blurring. Why didn’t you come, Tiana? You were supposed to come! She yanked the massive vase of roses into her lap, swishing water onto her natty sweatpants, and let the three hundred dollar bouquet soak up her stupid tears.

Thirty seconds in, she was winding up for the ugly cries when the doorbell rang. 

“Shit!” She scrambled off the sofa so fast she smacked her shin on the coffee table she’d scavenged from a second-hand store. She plunked the vase back on the end table and lugged herself toward the door, pausing to glance at her reflection in the microwave door. Jesus. She pulled off her ponytail holder, ripping out several long red strands in the process.

The doorbell rang again in time with a fist pounding on the door. “Hold on!” she called out, fluffing her hair and slapping her cheeks to make them look redder than her eyes. Please don’t let this be one of my brothers. Or, God forbid, Dad. His touchy Irish temper would blow the top off his already high blood pressure if he noticed she’d been crying.

One of these days, she was going to install one of those door-peep-thingies. 

No, one of these days I’m going to buy a tiny house pre-loaded with brand new furniture. 

She took a deep breath and yanked open the door.

“Oh my God, you look like Hell!” Laura Sellers shoved the door the rest of the way open and marched to the tiny, two-chair table to plunk down a large, rectangular, gift-wrapped box. When she flung her arms around Sydney, her vanilla, coriander, and tuberose perfume swirled around like a magic potion. “I’m so sorry, baby. Derek’s hot, yes, but he’s the human version of an Afghan Hound.” She pulled back but kept her hands on Sydney’s shoulders. “You’d eventually tire of his high maintenance grooming needs and inability to imagine starting from nothing like you have.”

Nice. “Yeah, but he was probably the last boyfriend I’ll have until the shop expansion is complete, and we’re where I want the business to be financially. So in other words, probably five years. Maybe ten. That’s a long dry spell.” Wow, said out loud like that, it was even more depressing.

Laura put her hands on her hips. “Oh, stop it!”

Sydney shrugged and rubbed her eyes. “Come on, Laura. I never leave the shop, and you, the rest of the team, and my family are the only social interaction I ever have.” It had never been an issue…before.

“Well, we’re gonna fix that. Starting now.” Laura slid the brightly-colored birthday present toward Sydney. “Open it.”

“Can’t it wait? I’m not really in the mood.” 

Laura craned forward with a frown. “Wait, this isn’t just about the douchebag, is it?”

If she started talking about Tiana, all her big fears would come charging through the gate, and with Laura, there’d be no way to relock that shit up: Tiana blown on coke, laying in a gutter, vulnerable to all manner of degradation. The images were horrific. No. Stop.

Sydney closed her eyes and shook her head, realizing too late she’d answered Laura’s question honestly, but terribly.

Laura got right in her personal space, wrapping both arms around her neck, laying her temple against Sydney’s. “It’s Tiana, right?”

Sydney could only nod.

Laura turned her face toward Sydney’s ear. “Don’t ever give up on that girl, but don’t stop living your life either.” She kissed Sydney’s cheek, then pulled back, her eyes unmistakably misty. “You got me?”

“Okay,” Sydney whispered, her face warm with a twisty mix of good and uncomfortable feelings.

“Outstanding. Now that we got that ironed out…let’s hear it for your fucking birthday.” Laura swiped at her eyes, lifted the gift from the table, and shoved it into Sydney’s gut. “Open it.

Sydney pursed her lips. “Well, since you put it so nicely.” She tore into the fragile paper, grateful for some activity. Examining your feelings was exhausting and highly overrated. “You didn’t have to do this, you know.” 

Laura was practically vibrating with excitement. Sydney bit back a smile. They were opposites in many ways, Laura a brown-eyed blonde with the ability to hold a conversation with a rock, while she was…definitely not any of that. Red-hair from her dad, blue eyes from her mom, and a head for business, not social engagement. They’d had each other’s back through the ups and downs of life for the last twenty years, though, and some things just had a way of cementing two souls together. 

Laura was a certified tech, but preferred payroll, billing, and customer service, so she handled Torque’s front desk and administrative work like she was born to it. The way the company was growing, she’d probably need an assistant soon. 

A perfect job for Tiana. 

Sydney sighed, then removed the box top and blinked. This couldn’t be right. “Thigh-high boots?”

Laura clapped. “Aren’t they gorgeous?! They’re real leather, Syd. All of us chipped in. The most perfectly impractical gift for the most perfectly practical woman we know and love.”

Sydney’s lips curved. She’d never wear them, but just knowing they all wished for something fun and frivolous for her… Her eyes welled up again. What was with her today? “They’re really nice, Laura. Thank y—”

“Nice?” Laura’s eyebrows raised nearly to her hairline. “They’re not nice, Syd. They’re look-at-me-I’m-a-walking-fantasy-you-motherfuckers. Thaaaat’s what they are. And you know what else? You’re gonna wash your face, brush your Disney princess hair, put on your teensiest dress, slip into these boots, and make it a night to remember. First stop: Baker Beach where Esteban, Zuri, and the rest of the girls from the shop have a small cache of fireworks.” She threw her palms up in a universal halt gesture when Sydney opened her mouth. “Waaaaait, I already know what you’re gonna say, and no, we won’t get arrested because Esteban’s cousin is working the Beach beat tonight, and he supposedly ‘owes him one.’ So we’re golden. After fireworks, it’s on to SoMa’s classiest nightclub where you’re gonna dance your ass off with the rest of us. It’s Friday night, baby! IGNIS here we come!”

Oh, hell no. That place had a well-earned reputation for all manner of sophisticated debauchery. “Laura, there is no way you’re getting me out of these sweatpants any time in the next twelve hours.” Sydney was actually kind of proud of how her voice rang with conviction as Titanic’s end credits rolled on the TV screen.

But then Laura smiled with that one goddamned raised eyebrow that always made Sydney’s gut take a leap. “Wanna bet?” 

Twelve endless minutes later, Laura shoved a primped, painted, and thoroughly sexed-up version of her best friend into the passenger seat of her fifteen-year-old electric blue Jaguar. “I love you, Syd, even when your uber high-achiever side gets out of control. But every now and then you need to live a little.” She slammed the door and skipped around to her side of the car. She threw an impish smile Sydney’s way as she snapped her seatbelt into place. “And tonight, you’re gonna live a little harder than usual.”

“Paybacks are hell,” Sydney growled. “I have a vault of blackmail material on you, too. Just remember that.”

Laura winked at her as she backed out of the driveway. “Oh, believe me, I know. The difference between us is, I can’t wait until you want something bad enough to use mine against me.” Laura turned on the radio without waiting for Sydney’s response and sped off on the 101 toward Baker Beach and their night to remember.

Sydney pulled on the hem of her miniskirt and exhaled, her muscles relaxing as she mentally recited her guiding principle: My choices create my destiny.

What happened tonight was completely in her power. All would be well, and tomorrow, life would be back to normal.

TWO

The December moon cast a rippling white orb on the shifting waves in San Francisco Bay. Spencer Jameson strode across Baker Beach, ignoring the whip-snap cold and the grains of sand that chafed in his black Italian dress shoes. He had more critical concerns this evening. 

The despair creeping over his soul, for example. 

The powerfully-built demon lying face down in the surf, for another. 

Hell and damnation. It was such a pity the blighter turned up dead. As demons went, Nikolai had been exceedingly old, useful, and surprisingly wily—somehow he’d flown under the Guardian radar for centuries. He’d also nearly bested him, but when Spencer finally got the upper hand and was about to deliver the killing blow, Nikolai bartered information to leave him in peace. Something not entirely evil in the demon’s dark eyes had convinced Spencer to stay his hand. 

The old fiend’s intel about angel feathers turned out to be true, and tonight, they were supposed to have met so Nikolai could show Spencer how to apply the knowledge. 

If you could trust a demon’s word. 

Well, the crafty bugger had shown up, but someone higher up the demon hierarchy had obviously gotten wind of Nikolai’s plan to share secrets and hadn’t been keen on the idea.

It was said knowledge could be a weapon. Quite right. 

Spencer snuck his hand into his coat’s inside breast pocket to reassure himself that his new-found weapon was still there. His fingertips stroked the angel feather’s vibrating length.

Newly-made warrior angel Jessie Blaze’s feather to be exact. 

Nate Temple, owner of TERRA nightclub in Minneapolis, was going to execute him when he found out he’d plucked it right off his soulmate’s wings with a clumsy, manufactured stumble. Unless, of course, the archdemon who’d recently started raising hell in this city handled the job first.

He should have simply asked Jessie about her feather’s potential powers. But of course, he hadn’t taken the time to reflect on a proper course of action. He’d simply dropped Nikolai’s bloody body and, after warning the demon he’d better live up to his word, teleported straightaway to TERRA.

Spencer’s shoulders dropped, a familiar heaviness filling his chest. Earlier in the day, he’d experimented with Jessie’s feather on some new-to-Earth demons to make sure Nikolai wasn’t lying or setting up him up for an ambush tonight. He’d learned that the hollow shaft of an angel feather could be used like a dagger, which would incapacitate demons for several seconds. Long enough to decapitate them, sending their condemned spirits back to hell.

It was a good discovery, but in the broad picture, not a big enough advantage to overcome the ever-increasing demon hordes. For twenty-four hours, he’d been buoyed with the hope that Nikolai would share something more substantial to turn the tide.

Spencer stared down at Nikolai’s jean- and flannel shirt-clad body, push-pulled by the restless waves, wondering at the enigmatic, not-quite-evil entity that had possessed the human form. 

An agreement between gentlemen, the old demon had said.

Spencer had somehow believed him when he believed in so few. Now, his hope had fled the way the demon’s shade had obviously returned to hell. 

Nothing left to do but go back to IGNIS to meet with Jinx, one of his fellow Guardians in the Unholy Inc international network of nightclubs from which they based their demon eradication efforts. 

Eradication, yeah right. Now there was a bit of fiction.

Jinx didn’t know it yet, but she’d soon be guarding Spencer’s holy relic in addition to her own. After almost five hundred years and this last shattered hope, he was weary right down to his marrow. Tired of the fighting and the games he played with forces of evil in order to redeem himself. To somehow make up for the piss-poor choices he’d made while human. 

Demons were the same across the world. Across time. The Guardians weren’t winning this war. For every demon he vanquished, two more cropped up wanting to take the relic he guarded, or dement whichever vulnerable human appeared in its path. 

What was the point of it all? 

When he’d first made the deal with the Archangel Michael to return to life in service to humanity, he feared what awaited him if he refused the archangel’s proposal. Fire and brimstone. Gehenna. The Inferno. In the beginning, he imagined he’d eventually find a measure of peace amid the brokenness and horror of the duty he was undertaking. 

He should have known better. There was no peace for people like him.

Now, even the dread of Hell couldn’t motivate him. 

He was ready to accept what he’d sown in his life. He’d surely go down in flames when Michael found out he’d given Jinx his relic. The soldier archangel would view it as a repudiation of the vow Spencer had made. Michael might have wings, but they were as black as mortal sin and more apt to be a weapon of mass destruction than a source of comfort. 

At least by ensuring the relic’s safety, he’d be able to eliminate the threat to San Francisco. Because once the relic was gone, the archdemon would move on.

The archdemon who’d just appeared thirty feet away.

Spencer’s fire element crackled across his nerve endings as he approached the tall, handsome figure in a black trench coat. Baal. One of the five archdemons who’d been set free by a blood ritual during Halloween. 

All Guardians had a score to settle with this particular archdemon. It was only weeks ago that Baal had found Guardian Hector Alvarez’s compound, caught him by surprise, tore him apart, and stole his relic. The relic had then been purloined by another archdemon who’d used it to nearly destroy Katherine, a Guardian stationed in Hawaii. Though Katherine and her mate had ultimately recovered Hector’s relic, the Guardians were still reeling from the horrific series of events.

Baal stood with his hands clasped solemnly in front of him as he stared down at Nikolai as though in great reverence. Archdemon with a conscience? What a load of horseshit. Spencer laughed humorlessly, his breath feathering out into the frigid air blowing off the Pacific, his heart throbbing as he dug deep into his fire element’s hottest core. 

“Planning to make a stirring eulogy, old chap?”

Baal returned the Guardian’s smile, his straight, white teeth gleaming in the moonlight, his dark coat flapping in the wind. With his super-enhanced eyesight, Spencer could see faint vertical wrinkles between the archdemon’s dark eyes. Looked like Baal had appropriated the body of a fit, metrosexual male in his mid-forties. Thick, dark hair with only the slightest recession at the temples. Expressive eyebrows and sculptural nose and lip features that ladies would indeed find pleasing.

“Mr. Jameson, it’s my great pleasha to finally meet ya,” Baal said, in an East Coast accent that hurtled Spencer straight into memories of bygone servants with heavy Cockney articulations. “Stories of your cunning and ruthlessness have reached into the fa’ corners a’Hell. I do hope the stories match the man.” 

“No stories ever match the man,” Spencer retorted. If he’d learned anything in five hundred years, that was an irrefutable truth. He perceived movement behind the rocks near the parking lot and directed his senses outward, but detected nothing overtly malevolent. “However, I must confess I’m rather spikey over all the bodies that your bootlickers, the Nephilim, are dropping ‘round my city.”

Baal laughed, unbuttoning his coat to place well-manicured hands on his hips. Spencer frowned. The contrast between the archdemon’s high-maintenance appearance and his dockyard mafia manner of speaking was disconcerting. How entirely shallow of me.

“The Nephilim need no owdahs from me to tear into the minds of weak humans. They got rage issues to deal wit—‘specially after that bitch Leviathan turned the Rephaim against them. Used to be demons left other demons alone. Now it’s like every devil for hisself.” Baal glanced at the dead demon being push-pulled in the surf. “And this sorry bastahd had so much twisted up shit in his mind, he was probably gonna ice himself anyways, ya read me?”

Spencer wondered if any entity—human or otherwise—made it through its existence without a twisted consciousness. Unlikely. “On the contrary, most mental health sufferers do not commit suicide.” Until the Nephilim got to them. The powerful demons’ primary objective was breaking people from the inside—magnifying whatever darkness was already there to push them into complete despair. Unless a Guardian intervened in time, a human’s encounter with a Nephilim usually culminated in suicide. “You’ve had your fun. Now gather your…associates and find some realm other than Earth to terrorize. I’ll only ask once, Baal.”

The archdemon narrowed his eyes and opened his lips to retort, but seemed to think better of it. Unfortunately, Spencer wasn’t remotely reassured when the archdemon’s eyes renewed their twinkle and he began to tap his lip with his pointer finger. “I tell you what, Mistah I-talk-so-proper-you-can-kiss-my-ass, I’ll owdah all Nephilim in the state of California to move out…if ya hand over the Holy Coat.”

Spencer steeled his features to mask his surprise, pushing the eyeglasses he didn’t actually require (thank you Guardian-enhanced vision) further up the bridge of his nose. He expected the archdemon had already known he possessed a holy relic since it was no secret that most of the Guardians in the Unholy Inc network were charged with safekeeping them. But he wasn’t sure how Baal would’ve discovered which relic in particular IGNIS housed in its highly-warded reliquary. 

The Holy Coat had been in Spencer’s possession for four hundred years, give or take a few decades. Roman soldiers had cast lots on the robe that Christ had worn shortly before his crucifixion. The ancient relic had enormous power, for good or evil, depending on who wielded the object. High order demons like Nephilim, Rephaim, and archdemons couldn’t touch the relics, but they could command the possessed to do it for them.

No one knew for sure how many relics it would take to decipher the angelic code to set Baal’s father free from the cage in which Michael had imprisoned him before time began. But even one relic in the possession of demons was too many.

Lucifer. Satan. The Devil. No matter which name The Dark One chose to go by, if he got out, the horns of Armageddon would blow. 

Baal dropped his hands to his sides and took a step toward Spencer, which made the Guardian’s fire element flare through his chest and shoot down his fingertips. Steady on. 

Pick the proper moment for battle. A phrase he’d told his officers and crew during the summer of 1588 when their British fleet defended England against the Spanish Armada. Timing was so often the key to success. And until he knew what lurked beyond the rocks in that dimly-lit parking lot—perhaps that ambush he’d been concerned about? He still couldn’t sense anything out of the ordinary—it wasn’t the right time to skirmish with his enemy.

Spencer, I’m sensing high energy output from you. Is everything alright?

Ah, Pepper. Impeccable timing, as always. In addition to her remote sensing capabilities, she was a high-functioning psychic, so she’d been granted access to the telepathic frequency the Guardians used to communicate with each other. If he admitted he was prattling on with an archdemon, she’d warn him not to engage without assistance. She’d furthermore remind him that Nate and Katherine’s experiences had shown them that they couldn’t neutralize Lucifer’s sons and daughters alone.

The primary difference for Spencer was…the other Guardians wanted to emerge from combat with their lives intact. 

He was ready to go down with the ship. 

His glance raked over the dead demon in the surf once more. Why couldn’t you have survived just one more day, you crafty bastard?

Spencer, I’ll find you in three, two—

Calm down. Everything is aces, Pepper. 

Why don’t I believe you? she returned, that whip-crack authority in her tone sounding loud and clear through the Guardian frequency.

Perhaps you’re growing twitchy as your fortieth birthday draws nigh.

Predictably, his head of security severed their connection with the psychic equivalent of an eye roll. Jolly good. He wasn’t sure how much psychic energy Baal could sense, and therefore, didn’t want Pepper to remote-locate him. If the archdemon could somehow latch onto her energy signature, he could presumably manipulate it to hack security at IGNIS. That would be an abominable inconvenience he simply didn’t have the energy to deal with. And more people would probably die. Ones he actually appreciated, which was saying something.

So, fine. Pepper would have to deal with feeling left out this time.

Baal’s dark eyes seemed to miss nothing as his gaze tracked across Spencer’s face. Spencer exhaled quietly, shifting his shoulders to ease the kink at the back of his neck. 

“Well? I’m waiting for an answer, Gahdian. What’ll it be? The Coat or my continued presence?”

“It’s a marvel that you even ask.” 

The toe of Baal’s right boot dipped into the sand, the charm in his smile turned up full volume. “Aw, come on,” he whined good-naturedly. “It’s easy to see ya heart ain’t in this no more. You’re tired of watching over all the poor little humans, keeping them safe from monstas they don’t even believe in.”

Alas, he was quite right. “So, it makes perfect sense that I should hand over a key to your father’s cage, correct?” 

Baal put his palms up in front of his chest. “You don’t gotta be so passive aggressive, pal. I mean, ya’ goin’ to Hell either way, so why not make it interesting, eh? Don’t you want a front row seat to Armageddon? I bet it’ll be a showdown like no otha.”

“Michael— not to mention Alexios—might take issue with me colluding with the likes of you.”

Baal’s smile seemed so sincere. “Ah, yes, Alexios. Where is your feahless leader these days? My sources tell me he leaves his club unprotected for weeks at a time. And when he’s there, he’s not really there, ya know?” Baal raised his eyebrows and circled his index finger next to his right temple. “Sounds ‘ta me like eternity is starting ‘ta get to’em. Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch his mind unravel?”

It was a concern shared by all the Guardians who’d begun to notice Alexios’s growing agitation and frequent, unexplained absences. Their leader—the original Guardian—had always been private and solitary, but Katherine had been the first to postulate that his escalating anti-social behaviors might stem from not being able to find Sophia in this lifetime. 

Sophia had been the love of his life when they lived in ancient Sparta more than two millennia ago. When Alexios became a Guardian, he became nearly immortal while Sophia remained human. Part of Alexios’s agreement with Michael was that Sophia would always be part of his existence. So whenever Sophia died a natural death, she would be reincarnated—born somewhere in the world, growing up in different situations, and Alexios would have to find her…but only at a point in her life when she needed him.

Katherine suggested that maybe Alexios could finally hear her in her time of need, but couldn’t locate her this time. A dastardly business, to be sure. Spencer wasn’t particularly close to their Guardian leader—no one was—but knowing the woman you loved was in trouble and you were helpless to even find her…. 

Intolerable.

The breeze blew Spencer’s tie up over his shoulder, and he smoothed it back down. His senses still provided no information about what had been moving in the rocks. Maybe it had only been a lusty couple spiriting away to resume their nocturnal faire boum boum. He half wished there’d be a Nephilim or Rephaim lurking there so he could practice his planned feather technique on a lesser adversary first. “Alexios isn’t my concern, nor should he be yours, or any of your ilk. I’m tired of this conversation. Even more tired of your butchered accent so, if you please, put an end to our mutual mortification.”

“Well, lah di dah! I don’t please, you stick-up-the-ass, pompous prick,” Baal snarled. 

That went over well, thought Spencer as he glanced again to where Nikolai’s body was…

Gone. 

He jolted and frowned, swiveling his torso to scan the area with his enhanced eyesight but the old demon’s body was nowhere to be found. 

How?

Baal’s sudden roar stabbed a dose of adrenaline up Spencer’s spine. “What have you done with him? Nikolai was mine!” he screamed.

Spencer met Baal’s lunge midair, his fire element surging in his blood, drowning out the fear at what this enemy had done, hungry to be let free to char and consume. They slammed against each other and crashed to the beach, launching sheets of sand into the ocean with a noise like a deafening waterfall. Baal’s expertly manicured nails turned into claws and tore into Spencer’s face and chest, his teeth gnashing, going for Spencer’s jugular. Spencer shoved his thumbs into Baal’s eyes, using the archdemon’s brief spasm of pain to lever up one side of his body and roll out from under him. Pushing to his feet, his left hand reached into his breast pocket for the feather while his right materialized his xiphos sword forged by Michael. Angel feather through the heart to stun while the sword takes off his head.

Then toodle-oo, pugnacious archdemon.

That was the plan anyway. This better wor—

Spencer’s head snapped hard to the right from the force of Baal’s powerful hook. He swung blindly with the sword, slicing into Baal’s torso twice before the archdemon launched up into the air and landed behind him. Spencer spun to face him, but the archdemon began circling him at Mach speed, encompassing him in the eye of a sand cyclone. Can’t see a bloody thing! Spencer covered his eyes with the crook of his elbow and shoved the feather back inside his breast pocket. He stoked his fire element higher, then released it in a pulse of combustion that blew the sand outward like a billion micro-bullets. With the sand wall down, his senses honed in on Baal. He hurled the xiphos, but knew the moment it left his palm it had been a false impression. Bleeding Hell!

Baal’s fist punched through his back to palm his heart. “Thought you were a worthier opponent, Gahdian.” 

Spencer was drowning in red. A hot, fiery scarlet that zipped through his veins and singed his nerve endings. His fingers grasped Baal’s forearm to dislodge his hand. Baal yelled as the skin on his arms began to melt. 

“SPENCER, YOU. STUPID. FUCK!” 

The bellowing rebuke was muffled through layers of cotton, but the words were crystal clear. Aww, damn. If Nate had found out about the feather-pilfering, Spencer was about to pay the piper. “You hear that?” Spencer gasped, staring into the awful eyes of Baal and wanting to laugh manically but lacking enough air and blood flow to make it happen. “Looks like we’re both in…a spot of trouble…bolshie.”

PAIN.

All-inclusive. Years of it, instantaneously. 

can’t

breathe

cold

help

Falling into darkness.

“Spencer, stay with us.” 

A soft, feminine voice. The voice of the one he’d wronged with his pillage of her feather. Hands probed his skin. Little spikes of torture. He snarled and swung out, despising and longing for the abuse simultaneously. What hath you wrought in me, Father? Whispers they thought he couldn’t hear. And heartbeats. Three. One of them out of step. 

Mine. 

Let me die.

“Spencer, we need to move you in case he comes back, okay?” The air molecules shifted, an exquisite softness against his cheek, a waft of coconuts and berries, then, “Now, Nate.”

A tilt-a-whirl, and he was upright. Staggering. Stomach curdling. Sick. Vomiting. If only the memories could be expelled as easily. Just let me die. More whispers from his past, layered with understory notes of his father’s lascivious laughter. Go away.

Goawaygoawaygoaway. 

His vision came back online in fits and starts. Asphalt and tires. Head spinning as he lifted his chin. Stout gray clouds pasted on a blue-black sky lit up by the city’s iconic bridge. Been around the world, but it’s never far enough.

Can’t outrun your sins.

More laughter from The Marquess of Northampton.

Go AWAY!

“Easy now. There you go, into the truck.” Jessie’s warm, competent tones. How long had she been there? She couldn’t have noticed her feather if she was talking to him this kindly. “You’ll be alright. We’ll get you to the club in no time.” 

She had a voice you could fall into. What would that be like? Falling into someone. One soul, in all the world. Yours.

His head pounded, his skin re-kniting, reaching for neighboring cells in a stretch-pull that made his jaw clench and sweat slide down his temples and pool at the base of his spine. Sorry for taking your feather, dear Jessica. His lips couldn’t form the words. He wished he knew if she knew. If she didn’t, he wouldn’t have to apologize. Or face Nate’s righteous anger.

I am no better than those I pledged to vanquish.

Still, the self-censure wasn’t enough to force his apology.

Another shift in the ether. He tensed for probing fingers. Waited, panting, and, when the touch didn’t come, his adrenaline fled. He sagged back in the seat for timeless moments, propped up by Jessica on the bench seat. More changes inside his body. A burning and knitting of the anatomy beneath the skin—muscles, nerves, tendons, bones. 

I deserve to die. But his body wouldn’t listen.

“Your healing’s coming along nicely. You’re safe now,” she paused and then, a smile in her voice, “even from Nate.”

A rough scoff from the driver’s seat, then silence as the truck sped recklessly through the busy streets.

Eight stoplights and his body was restored. Five more to collect the threads of his humiliation into a tidy bundle of shame and shove it down amid the other hidden savageries of his life. He straightened his tattered clothing the best he could as Nate stopped the truck at IGNIS’s service entrance. 

He put his hand on the door handle, anxious for them to return to Minneapolis. Anxious to be alone. There were many complexities to puzzle over. What happened to Nikolai? And why was Baal so furious over losing him if he was already dead? Was his body taken by some entity…or was he actually alive and managed to slip away unnoticed by both a Guardian and an archdemon? That would surely be a formidable feat. It made Spencer more curious than ever about the ancient demon. “Thank you for the deliverance. I shall have one of my staff return this conveyance to the place where you helped yourself to it on my behalf. Enjoy the rest of your evening and give my regards to your team at TERRA.”

“Not so fast, Jameson,” Nate growled, raising the hair on the back of Spencer’s neck.

“You sure you’re okay?” Jessie asked at the same time.

Spencer’s gaze dropped from Nate’s glare. Seeing concern in Jessie’s silvery blue eyes, he forced a lazy smile, though he felt anything but relaxed. What did they know? “All’s tickety boo, madam.” He looked at her winged shoulders, curious as to the extent of her angel powers when his experiment on yesterday’s demons proved a single feather was wildly potent. 

But of course, it would be ungentlemanly to enquire. “I…” His hand sought the iridescent plume in his shredded breast pocket. His heart stopped, then restarted on a terrible throb. It was gone! Bugger all! Where? Where could it have gone? Had it fallen out on the beach? In the parking lot? In the truck? He bent at the waist to frantically search the floorboards and down between the seat and the passenger door.

“Looking for the angel feather you filched, you scurvied gob- shite?” 

Spencer snapped upright, his face on fire as he met his fellow Englishman’s furious look over Jessie’s mane of corkscrew curls. Spencer’s stomach turned over. It took a lot to vex Nate—unless it was anything to do with his bonded compar. Right now he was squeezing the steering wheel like it was someone’s neck. Mine specifically. 

“When did you take it, Jameson? Did you pluck it right off her?” Nate’s low voice reverberated through the truck.

“Do you have it?” Spencer asked hoarsely. Please, please, say you have it. The alternatives were terrifying.

“You pillock, do you think I would be this irate if we did?”

“This method of questioning isn’t productive,” Jessie chided, her no-nonsense demeanor inanely reminding Spencer that she’d been a promising law student who moonlighted as a mixologist before she died in Nate’s arms and came back, restored by the Archangel Raphael as a soldier angel. She swiveled toward Spencer. “What can you tell us about using my feathers? Can they help us fight the three remaining archdemons?”

“And this line of enquiry is irrelevant.” Nate’s right hand slammed on the steering wheel. “Your feathers need to stay on your body, Jess. You’re not some grotty fowl we can pluck for dinner.”

Spencer rubbed a hand over his recently repaired chest wall. He remembered putting the feather in his pocket. It had obviously fallen out during the fight. “We need to go back and search the area. Now.

Jessie shook her head. “We were distracted and in a hurry to get you out of there, but I’m pretty sure Nate or I would have noticed one of my feathers lying around. They’re pretty conspicuous.”

Spencer wanted to flee from the pressure cooker the truck had become. His own guilt, Nate’s temper, and Jessie’s mystifying calm—it was too much. Plus it was damnably cold outside, two of his human bouncers were watching from their stations next to the door, and Jinx was probably waiting for him in his office. So…

Poppycock. He should run.

The sooner he unloaded his relic on Jinx, the sooner he could be alone. Alone so he could contemplate all the ways he was going to be screwed and how long it would take for angelic retribution to visit him. 

Most probably, Baal was now in possession of the feather. 

Maybe Michael would send Jessie herself to eviscerate him. That had a sort of poetic justice to it. 

Hell’s bells. He raked a hand impatiently through his hair and lowered his voice because only one of the bouncers watching by the door was clued into their supernatural Guardian world. “A single feather can immobilize a demon long enough to decapitate it. I find it incomprehensible that you weren’t aware of this.” 

Nate moved as though to lunge across the seat at him, but Jessie waylaid his advance, whispering softly to her mate before turning back to Spencer. “What were you doing on the beach with Baal? You have to know after our experience in Minneapolis with Asmodeus, Katherine and Ari’s fight with Leviathan, and especially after what happened to Hector that we can’t take these archdemons on alone.” 

“I’m not dull-witted. I was on the beach this evening to meet with…an informant who, I believed, was going to share more information on how angel feathers can be used as weapons. I wasn’t planning on Baal showing up, but when he did, I hoped the feather would come to my aid. Instead, you did. How did you manage to dispatch the blighter?”

“I think he was so preoccupied when you two were rolling around on the sand that we had the element of surprise,” Jessie said. “Nate and I both came at him, but at the last moment, he felt our approach and de-molecularized. Did he give you any clues as to where he might have gone next?”

“No, he merely demanded my relic. Which I should go check on straight away.”

“Who was this informant who supposedly knows about angel feathers? Human or Guardian?” Nate demanded. 

Neither. Spencer hesitated to say more. If they knew he was planning to collude with a demon, they’d think he was off his trolley. “I know next to nothing about him. For all I know he was working with Baal and this was an elaborate entrapment.”

“That doesn’t answer my question, Jameson. Human or Guardian?”

Jessie’s brows drew together. “And how did this all come about?”

Spencer felt like he was suffocating. He reached for the truck door handle. “It’s been a long day. I assure you, I’ll answer all your questions tomorrow. For now, I believe we need to pour our mental energies into coming up with a plan to recover the feather. Let’s discuss it in the morning, shall we?” Exhaustion made his legs feel encased in concrete. He glanced over his shoulder, trying but failing to lift his lips in a conciliatory smile. “I offer my most heartfelt apologies, Jessica. I hope I did you no lasting harm.

Nate leaned across Jessie to point in Spencer’s face. “We rushed here to save your ass, and all you can say is I’ll answer your questions later? You are a selfish bastard.”

The barb stung, but he merely adjusted his glasses. “As true as your insult may be, pointing is uncouth, chap. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that? Oh, right. She was too busy on her back to be imparting proper etiquette lesso—”

Nate swore viciously and lurched out of the truck. Spencer exited the vehicle with considerably less vehemence and met Nate by the truck’s front quarter panel, shaking his head and holding up his hand so his bouncers would stand down. Perhaps a good bout of fisticuffs resulting in a brutal pummeling was just the thing to assuage his guilt. 

Jessie wedged herself between them. “More violence is not the answer.” She pressed her bum against her mate, her arms spread wide, her eyes direct on Spencer’s. “I found you across two thousand miles because I sensed the feather in a way I never have before. It was being asked to do something. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. I’m hoping it will call out to me again so we can find it. Tell us exactly what you planned back there when Baal jumped you.”

He sighed. All this talking. “From my experiments yesterday, I’ve discovered that your feathers do not bend and are more potent on demons than a chrism-oil-tipped dagger. They can be very effective as puncturing weapons. I hoped to impale one in Baal’s heart to stun him, then lop off his head with my sword. It knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it was worth a shot.” Never having fought an archdemon before, he’d grossly underestimated Baal’s speed and strength. He was light years faster than the run-of-the-mill demons Spencer had tested Jessie’s feather on.

Nate shook his head and rubbed his temples. “You know, you’re so much dumber than you look, mate. Say Baal does have the feather. What happens when he figures out how to use it as his own weapon? Can it immobilize Guardians too? These goddamn demons don’t need any extra advantages. Alexios is going to go nuclear. And who knows what Michael will do. Fuck!

Ah, hindsight, thou villainous baggage.

Spencer had considered the feather falling into demon possession, but he’d thought meeting with Nikolai to learn more about the angel feather’s true powers outweighed the potential risks.

“Watch your backs with increased vigilance until the feather can be located. Since Baal fled immediately upon your arrival, perhaps it’s still there. The good news is, since humans can’t perceive Jessica’s angel wings, I’d infer the same applies to her individual feathers. So fortunately, we don’t have to worry about Baal hunting some unlucky human finder. I’ll return to the beach with backup after briefing my security team.” He bowed slightly to Jessie. “I do apologize, my lady. I shan’t liberate another.”

Liberate? You sorry sod—”

Spencer’s head snapped back with Nate’s solid right jab. Blood filled his mouth, the tang metallic and suffused with unsavory remembrances. Roguish past. What was with today?

Nate!” Jessie scolded. “Enough with the Neanderthal responses!” 

Spencer waved off his bouncers who had murder on their faces. He extracted a handkerchief from his trousers, shaking out the sand before wiping the blood dripping from his nose. “It’s quite alright. I had that one coming. Now, I hope you’ll excuse me. I’ve a meeting with my staff.” Pepper would be all over him with her incessant questions once he went inside.

Jessie stepped up to him and gave him a hug while Nate silently watched. Spencer returned her hug, then backed up and bent over her hand with a bow. “I shall endeavor to redeem myself because of your gracious rescue.” A lie. He was long past redemption. “Now, I bid you both good night.”

He felt Nate’s gaze heavy on his back as he approached the rear entrance to his nightclub.  

“Something about you has changed since you stayed on with us at TERRA,” Nate called. “I hope you remember the consequences to all of us if you fail in your duty.”

Spencer greeted his bouncers with a slight dip of his chin, then paused in the doorway after the bigger of the two men opened it. He turned his head to the side, watching the air turn to steam from the clash of disparate temperatures. “I remember everything,” he whispered.

And that was heart of the problem.

THREE

Sydney turned off the water faucet with her elbow and swiveled to the high-powered hand dryer, careful to keep her purse from being bumped in the crowded ladies’ room at IGNIS. She had a headache from the oozing bass, she was worried about not being able to reach Tiana for the fourth straight week, and her cheeks hurt from plastering on a fake smile for the benefit of her all-around amazing shop crew. But the one thing that would keep her going with this I’m-having-a-great-time-on-my-birthday charade was the gorgeous feather carefully nestled at the bottom of her purse. 

Laura’s first stop tonight had taken them to Baker Beach. In the parking lot, they’d slipped off their impractical party footwear and made their way to the breezy shoreline where the entire Torque crew had assembled around a small celebratory fire. They’d sang a rousing happy birthday to her, and on their way back to their cars an hour later, she’d have missed the feather peeking out beneath the weeds if not for all the camera flashes lighting up the trail leading to the parking lot.

Her fifteen-year-old brother Joaquin was going to love it. It would truly be the crown jewel of his feather collection. She wasn’t sure what bird species it came from, but it was obviously huge. She would’ve guessed condor, but it was a stunning white instead of black. 

Maybe an albino condor? That would really be something.

She’d bring it to Joaquin first thing in the morning. He always felt crappy the day after an infusion, and it would cheer him up immensely. 

She exited the nightclub bathroom and turned the corner with her first real smile since setting foot in this swanky joint. With its dark brick walls, curved wood-paneled ceilings, and Edison-bulb chandeliers, the place was like a wine cellar cocoon. She stopped to take in a massive photograph of a woman wrapped in gossamer-thin silk kissing the nose of a muscular black stallion. Provocative. And uncomfortably sensual. 

Stop staring, Sydney. People were going to think she had a weird animal fetish or something.

Her face flushed and she rubbed her bare arms, though the place was anything but cold. She passed by another wall that consisted of die-cut, metal letters of the alphabet piled up to the ceiling in a sort of artistic experiment. Delicate, claw-toed tables and soft mahogany leather benches in various configurations and sizes sprawled atop a two-toned, chevron-patterned wood floor that had to have cost a fortune. And that curious logo in the middle of the dancefloor—a star inside a circle with other symbols she didn’t understand—was, in itself, a work of art. 

Truly, IGNIS was a nightclub masterpiece for those who wanted to pretend they were as elegant, mysterious, and hedonistic as the place itself.

On her way back to her friends’ table, Sydney pushed her purse strap higher on her shoulder and tugged—for the dozenth time—on the hem of her ridiculous miniskirt. These things were utterly impractical, not to mention confining. I respect you, stylish people, but I’d never trade your threads for my grease-stained jeans and Star Wars t-shirts, thank you very—

WHOA.

Sydney stopped in her thigh-high boot tracks to see a well-dressed man slip his very large erection from his slacks and proceed to hoist a tiny blonde in a spaghetti-strapped, red dress onto a table, spread her legs, and have his wicked way with her. And wow, Red Dress was enjoying herself. Eyes closed, mouth open, neck arched back, hair trailing into the various drinks that had managed to stay put on the debauched table…

Holy crap. Was this actually happening? People did this kind of thing right there in front of everyone? She tore her gaze away to look around. Men and women on both sides of the copulating pair were coming together in all gender combinations. So primitive in their passions. Lewd in their finery. 

Jesus. As though in a trance, Sydney felt every thrust echo through her own body, a detonation of energy that made goosebumps race up her arms, her nipples pebble, and a terrible heat flood throughout her large muscle groups. One-night stands. She could suddenly see how they happened. Apparently, some people didn’t even make it out of the club. Who knew? 

Her chest rose and fell with the appalling throb of her pulse, the fingers of her right hand skimming over the front of her blouse. 

She shivered violently. Something’s not right. 

Red Dress screamed, Sydney’s body quaked, and a flurry of activity exploded around them as beefy men with black IGNIS sportcoats infiltrated the orgy. Warm hands gripped Sydney’s upper arms to move her aside, but the contact broke down her final firewall. Her muscles relaxed in delicious surrender as she turned toward the body radiating such intense heat behind her.

Her hands reached out to steady herself and touched the broad chest that appeared before her in a three-piece suit. But the man released her, moving beyond her, snapping out orders to the bouncers in a low British accent that belonged on London’s biggest stage.

Until his gaze dropped to her face and the words died on his tongue. 

Breathless moments when the noise and flurry around them faded into the background, and it was simply one man and one woman. 

Exquisite.

She heard the British-enunciated word inside her head as though the stranger had a direct line to her subconscious. Like he was the one who’d said it.

Oh my God, he knew. Could sense how aroused she was. She could see it in the way his penetrating blue eyes darkened before zeroing in on her open mouth, flushed chest, and rapid breathing. Felt like she’d run for miles the way her pulse was carrying on. 

No, Syd, it’s the near-orgasm you had watching live porn.

This was not her. Jeeez. He was staring at her like she’d emerged naked from the ocean a la Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. 

Yeeeeah right. She had the long red hair, but that was where the similarities ended. Even though she’d just outted herself as a pervert-slash-nymphomaniac, according to her ex, she was anything but sultry or desirable.

But hey, British Man’s smoldering stare was a nice, temporary delusion. Because Look. At. Him. Short, dark hair with the slightest curl; strong cheekbones and a nose not entirely straight; full, sensual lips bracketed by much more than a 5 o’clock shadow; and dark eyebrows that were decidedly un-manscaped. She liked that little detail very much. Actually, she liked everything about his face. Especially his eyes with their deep blue lagoon ringing the lighter, stormy slate of the irises.

And he smelled so good.

One side of his mouth tilted up. Then an eyebrow raised. Like he was amused by her thoughts? Of course he knew her thoughts. What woman or gay man in their right mind wouldn’t have these thoughts?

Time to freakin’ vamoose.

Face on fire, clutching her purse strap with both hands, she tried to move around the impeccably dressed man, but stumbled.

British Man’s hands shot out to cradle her hips. “Steady on, goddess.”

Goddess. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus came instantly to mind again. Had she ever heard anyone call their lover ‘goddess’? Even her embarrassingly-in-love, never-let-go father hadn’t ever called her mother a goddess.

She should probably marry British Man immediately. 

A breathy giggle slipped out before she could squelch it.

She’d only had one drink and one shot. Way less alcohol than most of the others at her table. But still more than you usually indulge in, lightweight. She pinched her cheeks to get control of her uncharacteristic thoughts and behaviors, but the warm pressure of the stranger’s palms on her hips felt more intimate than any touch she’d shared with Derek, even when they made love. A very tepid sort of love-making, by the way British Man’s thick, black-lashed, blue eyes were compelling her to want to touch, taste, and rub herself over every square inch of his tight body.

Someone must’ve slipped me some Ecstasy. 

If not, she was probably going to hell on account of all these dirty thoughts crowding out her reason. Reason which motivated women to do intelligent things like tell men to remove their hands from her person. Or remove them herself. 

Or knee him in the family jewels.

Unfortunately, there was something about this fella that made her wanna do just the opposite. Be someone else. Only for tonight.

“Hey Syd, there you are! What took you so lo—oh. Okaaaay.

Sydney blanched. She didn’t have to turn around to know Laura was now sporting a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. Fabulous. Sydney glanced up at the man who had yet to release her, disgusted with herself for letting his looks influence her values. How shallow. And a one-night stand? How stupid. It would only make her feel guilty in the morning. 

She dipped her chin and stepped back, his hands falling from her hips, though she knew she’d remember the pressure of his thumbs for the rest of the night. Probably longer. “Excuse me. I was startled by the…commotion, but I’m fine now. Thank you.”

He threw a hand signal to the bouncers who, by the look of order to the space around them, must have efficiently dispatched the entire orgy without mass chaos. He must be the manager or something. Everything was seemingly back to normal with the DJ going on with the show as though nothing had happened. Weird, but impressive nonetheless.

“You should have a seat and allow me to fetch you some tea or coffee,” he smiled, devilishly. “Or perhaps another drink?” 

Yeah, that sounded dreamy as hell coming from that mouth and those vocal chords, but she’d been dumped in the last twenty-four hours. Rebounds were as much of a no-no as one-night stands. My choices create my destiny. “I appreciate the offer, but—” 

“She’d love to.” Laura eased forward to thread her arm through Sydney’s, pinching her hard in the waist with her other hand to silence further protest. “Her favorite drink is a Jameson Ginger and Lime, so that would be perfect. And just so you know, it’s her birthday.” 

Tiana’s birthday was in five days. Surely she’ll get in touch by then.

British Man’s eyes warmed to a smokier brownish-blue. “Is that so? If you’ll indulge me, I simply must know the name of such a ravishing and clever lady.”

How could you not smile at such fanciful speech? The guy really knew how to lay it on thick. 

“I’m Sydney.” She extended her hand, and as he took it to bow over it, the warm contact of his lips on her skin made her heart trip like a school girl’s.

“I hope all your most fervent dreams come true, sensational Sydney.” He signaled a passing server and then gave her a devastating smile. “I am Spencer Jameson.”

Just like the whiskey. Except Jameson whiskey was Irish, not English. “Jameson is a Scottish or northern Irish surname. I know because my father’s as Irish as they get. Yet you sound like you come from somewhere else in the British Isles.”

“Your ears have not deceived you. I originally hail from Northamptonshire in what is now the East Midlands of England, though I left long ago.” He paused and Sydney watched a shadow pass over his features. “I am honored that you chose IGNIS to celebrate your special day. Tell me, what do you do when you’re not breaking men’s hearts?”

Sydney’s lips parted momentarily. She was definitely not used to flirting. How did people do this night after night? She turned helplessly to Laura.

Her best friend wrapped an arm around her waist. “She owns Torque, an auto repair shop in the Marina District. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you will soon. It was voted one of the up and coming businesses by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. So you see, she’s got beauty and brains.”

Sydney’s face heated. “Laura.

Laura leaned in to whisper in Sydney’s ear. “It’s a vetting process. Either he can handle the fact that you’re an intelligent entrepreneur who happens to look sexy as fuck in a skirt, or he’ll split at the first opportunity. We’re going to weed this shit out earlier than last time, let me tell you.” She smiled wider as she stuck out her hand for Spencer. “I’m Laura Sellers, her best friend since she rescued me from a bunch of mean girls in the third grade. I also happen to be the office manager at Torque. She’s single, in case you were wondering.”

Oh my God, Laura. Sydney took a steadying breath and lifted her gaze to Spencer’s amused one. “Well, it was nice to meet you. I’ll think we’ll head back to our table now.” Her head swiveled to pin her best friend with a your-ass-is-grass look. “Or had you forgotten that there are five other people here with us, Laura?”

Spencer inclined his head, stepping back with a flourish and a slight bow so she could be on her way. As she walked by him, the air grew overly warm and humid. Or maybe it was her hormones on overdrive. 

Or she was massively drunk. Or high.

Well, no, probably not high. If she was high, she wouldn’t feel embarrassed. Right?

“Happy birthday, sweet Sydney.”

She shouldn’t have been able to hear his whisper in this noisy club. Maybe high after all? Ecstasy often contained hallucinogens which acted on the mind and caused you to see or feel things that weren’t really there. 

Or so she’d read. 

She glanced to the side and up into his eyes. A metaphysical caress. Her conscience toyed with the idea of a one-night stand once again. More alcohol would help things along. Did anyone ever do a one-night stand without some sort of impairment? It seemed hard to fathom, but then, she was the least impulsive person she knew. 

My choices create my destiny. And one-night stands, by nature, didn’t involve people who never let go.

Case closed.

She cracked her first truly authentic smile, causing the one on Spencer’s face to die away. In fact, his expression melded into bewilderment. He appeared lost. Almost…stricken. What had happened? It’s none of your business. You run in different circles, you’ll never see him again. “Thank you again, Mr. Jameson.”

She turned away, and instead of heading to her table, she pushed her way through the crowded dance floor to re-enter the bathroom. She struggled to calm her still-racing pulse while Laura stood outside her stall and read her the riot act for passing up the chance of lifetime. Yield to the rant. Yield, yield, yield. Laura had enough on her plate with her pending divorce. She probably needed someone to rage against.

So Sydney remained in the stall and let her best friend get it all out. When Laura’s words were spent, Sydney came out, washed her hands, and the two of them returned to the table where Zuri and her transmission specialist hubby Esteban and the other ladies from the shop were popping new bottles of champagne.

Right in the middle of everything sat a bottle of triple distilled Jameson, tied with a silky, red bow as well as a pub glass filled with ice, lime, and the familiar amber colored whiskey.

Delilah, the best diesel mechanic Sydney had ever worked with and whom she’d finally had the money to hire, knocked back an entire glass of bubbly and patted the sapphire blue leather seat beside her. “Wow, Syd, com’ere. You got somethin-somethin’ going on with one of the bartenders here? ‘Cause not one, but three servers came over here with all this,” her arm indicated the spread on the table. “They said the tab for the rest of the night is covered, too.”

Liv, exhaust specialist and shop jokester, shook her head. “Naw, this has gotta be some other Nob Hill boy she’s diddling. Derek musta found out, that’s why he dumped you, eh? Where’s this new guy? I’d like to thank him.” 

Sydney slid onto the seat next to Delilah. 

“If you tontas took sixty seconds to think about what you just said, you’d realize your theories are ridiculous.” Esteban took a quick sip of beer. “You know Sydney’s not the diddling type.” 

“Exactly. Thank you, Esteban.” Except there was one man who might tempt her to change her mind. Someone whose name just happened to be her favorite drink.

Jameson.

Wow, karma, you sneaky bugger.

Wait. What if he was lying? Guys that looked like him must be born knowing how to lie-charm their way through life.

Besides, she didn’t believe in karma, right? There was only hard work and good decision making. Be the change you want to see in the world. Smooth-talking men who had won the genetic lottery weren’t included anywhere in her personal mission statement. Stay focused, Syd. That’s how she’d come this far.

Laura finished sending a text to her ex and looked up, her frown melting as she slid into the booth next to Reese, the youngest of their group. “Guess who met Henry Cavill’s body-double in the fucking hallway, people!” Her shouting drew the attention of the bachelorette party at the next table. “Syd blew this guy over. You shoulda seen his expression when she finally smiled one of her ‘real’ smiles and batted her big blue, Irish eyes at him. He became a damn puddle.” She waved a hand and compressed her lips. “Sickest goddamn thing I ever saw.” Her palms slammed against the tabletop on the last word. “Just kidding, it was awesome!”

Sydney’s face heated. Her belly, too, dammit. Everyone started talking over each other. Sydney put her hands in the air. “Laura, you have a filthier mouth than any mechanic I’ve ever met. And that’s saying something. And for the record, I never bat my eyelashes.” Women entrepreneurs did no such thing. The very idea was demeaning.

Laura raised her eyebrows with a sly smile. “Yeah, yeah. Go ahead and delude yourself if it makes you feel better, but I think you outta fuck him. I bet he’s epic in the sack.”

Everyone instantly shushed and looked over Sydney’s shoulder with wide eyes and poorly concealed smirks. 

Sydney’s gut dropped, her pulse kicked up, and the air seemed to heat twenty degrees. It had to be him. Pleeeease don’t let him have heard Laura’s randy recommendation. Jesus, just breathe. 

The lights dimmed further, and the music tempo suddenly slowed.

“Good evening, ladies.” Spencer nodded toward Esteban. “And gentleman. I hope you’re enjoying your celebratory evening out.” He had to pause for all the school-girl greetings and assurances from her tablemates. “Would you mind if I steal the birthday goddess for a dance? This is the song I requested.”

The Torque ladies erupted with their assent, literally shoving her off the seat toward him. She glared at Delilah and the rest in turn because flat-out panicking would add to her humiliation. “I don’t dance.” She had as much rhythm as a tin man without the oil can.

“A woman strong enough to not only start her own business, but do it in a male-dominated field isn’t afraid of a little old turn about the floor, is she?” Spencer’s voice wove around her as Delilah elbowed her the rest of the way out of the booth. 

Oh, this was going to be awful. After one revolution around the dance floor in which she abused Spencer’s expensive shoes, whatever fascination he might have for her would vanish. He’d drop her back at the table and be gone. Hopefully it would get everyone off her back about relationships for at least a good six months. Make the best of it. It’ll last less than four minutes. Five tops. 

She felt a moment’s panic when he placed a hand at the hollow of her back. Pairs of dancers parted to make room for them as he led her to the center of the dance floor over the beautifully intricate star and circle emblem. John Mayer was crooning in his oh-so-sexy vocals about slow dancing in a burning room. A kaleidoscope of butterflies took flight in her belly. “This is one of my sisters’ favorite songs,” she said, desperate for conversation that would distract her from how awkward this was in front of her staff.

Spencer said nothing as he turned her toward him, smiling into her eyes. His free hand took one of hers into a gentle cradle next to their shoulders. The hold felt old-fashioned compared to other dancers who’d plastered themselves against one another, but also incredibly purposeful in a way she couldn’t explain.

The music throbbed, sensual and smooth, as he guided her expertly around the floor with subtle pressure against her back and the slightest push-pull of his hand against hers. She’d never felt so light on her feet.

Or beautiful. 

It was the way he looked at her. God, he could make her feel. Be careful, Sydney. She broke eye contact to give herself some breathing room.

“You mentioned your sister likes this song. Younger, older?”

“Younger by a year. I also have another sister and five brothers.” She prayed for the third time today that Tiana was okay. “I’m the oldest.”

His eyebrows raised. “A large family by today’s standards.”

“When I was a baby, my mom was in a car accident and was unable to have any more children, so she filled our house with as many adopted kids as social services would allow her and my dad to have.”

“Uncommonly good.” 

“She’s a born nurturer. My grandmother tells stories of the legion of stray animals she took in from the time she was old enough to be outside alone. How about you? Any siblings?”

“I’m likewise the eldest of four sisters and numerous bastard brothers.”

She laughed. “You mean, step-brothers.”

“No, they were bastards in the true sense of the word. My father stayed married to my mother for the duration of his life. He was a notorious rake who got away with murder. And having sex with just about any woman he selected for his evening entertainment. Several children resulted from his unfortunate carelessness.”

Well hell. What to say to something like that? “My mother would be happiest if my siblings and I were co-dependent. Are you close to your sisters?”

“My sisters all died long ago.”

She misstepped, a wave of sorrow filling her as he smoothly brought her frame back into position. The thought of losing any of her siblings made her break out into a cold sweat. And with Joaquin’s health so precarious, she could empathize. Emphatically so. “I’m so sorry. Did they pass in infancy?” By long ago, that must be what he meant. No way he was any older than mid-thirties. 

His hand pressed firmer into her lower back, the thumb of his other hand stroking the skin on the back of her hand. “Tell me why auto repair, Sydney.”

Her lips parted, the change of subject so abrupt. Then blood poured into her face. 

What an idiot. Even the most dating-challenged had to know you don’t discuss deceased siblings on a first, second, or even fifth date. Gah.

She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, that was insensitive of me. I come from a family of wrench-heads,” she managed. “I knew all the names of NASCAR royalty before I memorized the American presidents. My dad and his brother spend all their free time working on cars. I idolized my father, so I’d spend every moment I could propped up on a tall stool next to where they puttered with and rebuilt engines. I rebuilt my own 67 Chevy engine when I was fifteen. I love the challenge of a good puzzle, and cars with all their parts are an endless source of fascination.”

Swinging from dead relatives to self-aggrandizement. Real smooth. 

She looked around the room at the all the women comfortable in their pretty clothes, desperate now for the song to end so she could retrieve her purse, say goodnight to her friends, and go home to lick her wounds. What a strange night.

“How long have you been in business?” 

She glanced back at him, startled he could be this interested to learn about her passions. Maybe he was simply being polite. English manners and all that. “I opened Torque two years ago today.”

“Two important birthdays, then. I’m honored you chose IGNIS to celebrate such a notable day.” His smile was so arresting, she actually felt faint. Plus, he was pulling her closer. Head descending, eyes burning into hers, lips so close…

At the first touch of his mouth on hers, her toes curled in her boots. Her body softened into his hold, her hands moving to grasp his suit lapels. Caged in by his arms, her frame shivered as his lips moved against hers. A soft restraint that shimmered with deeper passions held at bay. She could feel it churning inside him. A turbulence so at odds with his formality and precise grooming.

Her fingers released his lapels, sliding under his sport coat to flatten her palms against his richly-spun, white dress shirt. How could anyone’s skin radiate so much heat? He curled into her, arms tightening, breath heavy against her cheek for a moment before his lips trailed down to the base of her jaw, then kissed the sensitive hollow below her ear. One of his hands raked down her side to grasp the underside of her knee, bringing her leg up so she could press more intimately against him. 

Oh Lord, why had no one ever told her how much better erections felt through a man’s dress pants instead of denim? She began to grind against him. Yessss. It whispered through her mind. But his voice, not hers. Disorienting in its presence. She tilted her head back to blink up at the gorgeous, spinning crystal balls and massive barrel chandeliers flickering with their warm, Edison-bulb glow. His lips followed the trajectory of her neck, murmuring a beautiful, unintelligible string of words in a language she’d never heard. 

Floating. Hungry. Tingly.

Achy.

More.

She wanted to sink down into him. Lose herself. Here, there, anywhere. This is what losing control feels like, she thought fleetingly, absurdly. His fingers curled into her ass, lifting her up, against him and…

Oooo. No more thoughts. 

Up and down he ground her. Up and around he circled her against his pulsing cock until she couldn’t stop the moans spilling from her lips. 

“Where have you been all these endless years?” he rasped.

Can’t speak. Don’t understand.

But momentary confusion fragmented as another wave of pain-tipped pleasure washed over her. Silky edges of his hair curled around her fingertips as her thumbs framed his jawbone to force his mouth back to hers. He groaned deep in his chest. His arms banded around her like he was going to absorb her. 

Let go of your restraint.” His heart was beating as fast as hers. Breath coming as hard as his hands worked her hips, her ass, guiding her pleasure. “Ussse me,” he commanded, and she broke.

Hard. Loud. FIRE. In her vision. In her veins.

Blue-tipped flames. Orange, yellow, crackling. Acrid in her nostrils.

Six feet under. Down, down,

Down. 

Bury me in fire.

Yesssss, he whispered, satisfied. A serpent in her head.

Burning pulses that went on and on. Gasping for breath. Cheek against his chest.

Strong. Solid. Burning.

Branding. 

God.

Oooooh, God.

“My goddess,” he whispered into her hair, wrapping her in that incomprehensible heat, swaying her in the protective circle of his arms. “I’ve got you.

I know, she thought, looking into the deep blue of his eyes. Her hands stole around his waist to slide up his back as the flames smoldered, and they swayed in place like fine sea-grass at low tide.

Sounds muffled as though underwater. Then louder. Spencer stilled, the warmth seeping from his eyes. Consonants and vowels slowly clarifying as a strident voice struck Sydney’s temporal lobe like a locomotive.

“Holy hell, boss, snap out of it!”

Sydney blinked at the striking woman glaring at Spencer, and the world tumbled in. 

Laughter. Spilled drinks. Spinning crystal lights flickering against bodies bouncing to the relentless beat of the music—the sultry ballad Spencer had requested a distant memory. Mostly, though, it was this tall, thin, brown-eyed woman with flowing, two-toned platinum and black hair, layers of smoky eyeshadow, and long, black, pointy fingernails. Dressed in black from her sleeveless turtleneck to the tips of her boots, she could pass as any movie’s female assassin.

Sydney started trembling, the pit of her stomach twisting, her neck growing itchy as the memory of what she’d just done—in front of this lovely, appalling woman! In public!—crashed in on her.

“Spencer, you must come,” lady assassin said in a voice that expected compliance.

Spencer shifted Sydney under the shelter of his arm and turned his head to converse with the lady assassin in low tones Sydney couldn’t hear. She swallowed hard, her gaze lasering through the crowd to find her friends staring at her with gaping mouths.

Every last one of them.

Oh.

Oh, shit.

What had she done?

Orgasmed with a stranger on a crowded dancefloor in front of her people, that’s what. A helpless laugh spilled out, her residual buzz extinguishing in a crush of sobriety. 

What had she been thinking? Besides the unbelievable sexual hedonism, she’d actually entertained thoughts of a connection with this elegant man. Stupid! She was overalls and ponytails six days a week. He was three-piece suits and designer dress shoes. 

He wasn’t just the club’s manager, he was the freakin’ boss.

He was Derek all over again.

Her throat tightened painfully. How could you fall for this again?

She tried to disengage and return to the table, but Spencer turned her to face him.

“I regret that I have to attend to some business that cannot wait. Please stay until my task is completed.” He stroked her cheek, whispered manent—whatever that meant— and then melted into the crowd, three or four bouncers following close behind. 

Well, huh. Sydney slowly walked toward her table, trying to figure out how to explain her uncharacteristic exhibitionism on the dance floor. 

Liv was bouncing in her seat. “Do you have any idea whose face you were just sucking? Oh my God, Spencer Jameson, real estate billionaire!” she gushed without pause or volume control. “I finally realized why he looked so familiar when he first walked up to the table. He’s been on every most-eligible bachelor list for the last decade, bruh. He owns this place, plus several restaurants and hotels up and down the California coast. All the entertainment mags have shown him with tons of female dates, but no one’s ever been able to pin him down for more than one night. And never, and I mean never, has he been as lost in the moment as he was with you.” 

“Shut. The Hell. Up!” Laura crowed, spilling some of her drink on Reese.

“Aww, man.” Daphne grabbed a wad of napkins and helped Zuri blot Reese’s fuzzy-navel-drenched shoulder. “Lookit what you did, dumbass. Calm that shit down.”  

Liv shook her head. “No chill from this corner, Daph. I’m not even joking this time. You mark my words, Syd, someone will have sold their cell-phone picture of you guys all but changing his oil to one of the social rags by morning!” She turned to the rest of the gang. “We’d best be ready for a flood of new business, bitches. Our fearless leader has sprung herself a hot new social profile!”

Esteban and Zuri high fived while Laura and Reese whooped.

Nonononono. The thought of her dad waking up and opening the paper to find his responsible, eldest daughter dry humping a billionaire in public like a common hussy filled her with more shame than when she’d overheard her ex, Jarvis, telling another shop technician that she was a terrible lay.

She leaned over Laura to reach for her purse. Grab and go. Talking fast usually worked for her loud-mouthed best friend. “You guys are the best. Thanks for dragging my butt out tonight. It was a blast, but I’m gonna head home now. Pounding headache, you know. Need to sleep it off. I’ll arrange five Ubers to get you home—no exceptions! Also, do not leave your drinks unattended. There might be Ecstasy on the loose around here. I’ll be in tomorrow a little late, so don’t think something’s wrong.” How early would she have to be to beat the paper delivery boy at mom and dad’s? “See you!”

Delilah grabbed her arm, frowning. “Hold up. You think you were drugged?”

She didn’t feel drugged. At least not anymore. God, was she, though? She felt a pang of fear. No. Neither of her drinks had been out of her sight. She was just overwhelmed by her reaction to him. She’d never felt a connection like that to anyone. “I don’t think so. I just want you guys to be careful.”

“You’re going to his place, aren’t you, you little sneak?” Liv smirked. “You’re even slicker than me. Bravo, babe!”

“Did you hear what she said? She might have been given a date rape drug,” Daphne insisted.

“Syd?” Laura’s smile had vanished, only to be replaced by that probing look that usually led to way too much self-disclosure. 

Not tonight. She wanted to pick these events apart in her own mind first. And she needed to scoot before Spencer came back looking for her. If he came back. 

Whatever. Getting rid of the social section in mom and dad’s morning paper was priority number one. “I spoke too soon. I’m fine. Really. Let’s have one last toast. Torque happened because of all of you. Here’s to charting our own destinies!”

Two endless minutes of convincing them of her sobriety later, she was in the parking lot and could breathe again. She stared up at the sophisticated blue sign of the nightclub, wondering about the man who’d made her forget her own sense of propriety so easily.

Spencer Jameson. 

What a night. She wouldn’t forget her twenty-seventh birthday for a long time to come. She’d lost a measure of her dignity tonight, but it was a good lesson. She’d never let something like this happen again.

Thank God the night was over.

AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLEKOBO | iBOOKS