Burning Alive cover

The Sentinel Wars, Book One

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There are worse ways to die…

They are the Sentinels. Three races descended from ancient guardians of mankind, each possessing unique abilities in their battle to protect humanity against their eternal foes–the Synestryn. Now, one warrior must fight his own desire if he is to discover the power that lies within his one true love…

For too long, Helen Day has been haunted by visions of her own death, surrounded by flames as a dark-haired man watches her burn. So when she sees the man of her nightmares staring at her across a diner, she attempts to flee–and ends up in the man’s arms. There, she awakens a force more powerful and enticing than she could ever imagine.

The instant the Theronai warrior Drake touches Helen, the anguish he has borne for years fades away. He is determined to know why this beautiful, fearful woman has such power over him. The answer lies in his very blood–and in Helen’s as well. For together, they may become more than lovers–they may become a weapon of light that could tip the balance of the war–and save Drake’s people…

‘Til death…

Helen shivered and heard a small moan lift from her mouth. Every cell in her body stood at attention from that one little touch. Her skin grew warm and her abdomen tightened against a jolt of heat. She wanted something she couldn’t name. Needed it. It wasn’t just desire. It went deeper than that. Bone deep. Soul deep. He had something that belonged to her and she wanted it. Even if it killed her.

His lips slid over her cheek, barely touching. Maybe not even touching, just stirring the fine hairs along her skin. Whatever he was doing, it was wonderful, fear or not. She felt like she was being filled up with energy. She felt more alive than she ever had before.

All from a barely-there touch from the man who would watch her die…

BURNING ALIVE was chosen as a PNR Staff Top Pick in June 2009.

Sample Chapter

Chapter 1

The Sentinel Wars in Chronological Order

Burning Alive (May 2009)
Finding the Lost (November 2009)
Running Scared (May 2010)
On the Hunt – “The Collector” (February 2011)
Living Nightmare (November 2010)
Blood Hunt (August 2011)
Bound by Vengeance (February 2012)
Dying Wish (March 2012)
Falling Blind (April 2013)
Willing Sacrifice (March 2014)
Binding Ties (March 2015)

Reviews

Chapter 1

June 27, Olathe, KS

The man who was going to stand by and watch while Helen burned to death liked his coffee black.

Helen looked up from her menu and, across the little diner, she saw him sitting there, not twenty feet away. He was the man of her dreams-or more accurately, of her visions. Technically it was just one vision. Over and over. She was going up in flames while he watched. Smiling at her.

“See something you like?” asked Lexi, the diner’s only waitress on duty. She’d been working at Gertie’s Diner for only a couple of months now, but there was something about her that made Helen trust her enough to share things no other living person knew, including Helen’s vision of her own death. “Cook’s gone for the day, so all we have left is meat loaf, baked chicken, and pot roast. Pick your poison.”

Across from Helen, her dinner companion, Miss Mabel, sat low in the red vinyl booth. Her age-hunched shoulders barely cleared the table. Her gnarled hands gripped the laminated menu, which wavered so much Helen wasn’t sure how she could read it without getting motion sickness.

“How’s the meat loaf?” asked Miss Mabel.

Lexi was a petite twenty-something with a killer body and a brain to match. What she was doing waiting tables in Olathe, Kansas, living in her car, was a total mystery to Helen-one Lexi refused to solve no matter how many times Helen asked. She’d offered to let Lexi stay with her until she found a place, but Lexi said she wouldn’t bring trouble to Helen’s doorstep when she clearly had enough of her own.

Lexi leaned down until her short, white-blond spikes threatened to poke Miss Mabel in the eye. “You’d be safer eating two-day-old roadkill, which is what I’m guessing Paulo used to make the meat loaf. He left early when I started asking questions about it. Smart man.”

Miss Mabel blanched a little. “Definitely no meat loaf. I’ll take the pot roast.”

Lexi winked and wrote it down on her pad of order slips. “How ’bout you, Helen? What can I get you today?”

Helen tried to focus on her menu as she held it up to shield her face so Vision Man couldn’t see her. Her hands trembled, making the words blur. She was already on the verge of panic. If he caught her watching him, she was sure she’d lose it completely.

Helen wanted to scream at Lexi to throw the pot of scalding coffee into his lap and run away. Instead, she fought her rising panic for a chance to learn something about him in the hope of escaping the vision. She sank lower in her seat and tried to pretend that everything was fine, which she did with flying colors. Helen had a lot of practice at pretending everything was fine.

“I’m not sure,” said Helen to stall for more time, hoping her hands would stop shaking so hard she could read the menu. Against her better judgment, she eased the menu aside so she could take a quick peek. Maybe she’d imagined it was him.

Nope. It was Vision Man. In the flesh.

He listened to what one of the men sitting across from him was saying while he sipped his coffee. One thick arm was sprawled out across the back of the booth and she could see some sort of tattoo peeking out from under Vision Man’s T-shirt sleeve. Strands of hair, maybe? Vines? She couldn’t be sure at this distance and she didn’t think staring long enough to figure it out was a smart move. She did not want him to notice her staring. She didn’t want him to notice her, period.

He had thick brown hair that was just getting long enough to show off a bit of curl. And that was the only thing about him that looked soft. He had high, almost sharp cheekbones with deep hollows beneath. His mouth was pressed into a hard, flat line as he listened to his friend, his expression grim, almost angry. The muscles in his jaw bunched as if he was grinding his teeth, and Helen had the distinct impression that he was in pain. Lots of pain.

Good. It served him right for watching her die. Not that he’d committed that particular crime yet, but he would. She knew it like she knew the sun would set in a few minutes. There was nothing fake or distorted about her vision. She’d tried for years to find some flaw, some speck of doubt that what she saw was real. Tried and failed. And now she knew that her time was nearly up. The man in her vision was this man, not an older version of him.

Helen was going to die soon. Maybe tonight.

Grief and fear swelled up in her chest and she fought them down. Focused on her breathing and relaxing each little muscle starting at her fingertips. She’d learned the technique from her therapist, who was convinced she was suffering from some sort of delusion. All she had to do was face it and it would go away. Well, she was facing it now and it wasn’t going anywhere. Fifty thousand dollars and many years later, she was still just as deluded, but at least she could keep the fear at bay. Breathing and relaxing was the only way she knew to control the panic. The only way to keep herself from screaming in terror.

Burning alive. What a fucking gruesome fate.

She’d tried to prepare herself for this, but she’d obviously failed. It was too soon. She wasn’t ready to die yet. There was still so much work left to be done. So many people who needed her help.

“You okay?” asked Lexi, her pale forehead puckering with a frown. She glanced over her shoulder to where Helen kept trying not to look. Vision Man and two others sat drinking coffee and eating pie as though they had all the time in the world. Man, wouldn’t that be nice.

“Those guys bothering you?” asked Lexi, sounding more worried from Helen’s lack of response.

“Uh, no.” Just breathe. That’s all she had to do. Breathe in. Breathe out. “I’ll have the pot roast, too.”

Lexi turned back around. “Now I know something’s wrong. You never eat red meat.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t live forever,” said Helen.

Lexi’s petite body stilled and Helen could almost hear the wheels in her head turn. “Holy shit! That’s him, isn’t it?” asked Lexi in a near whisper.

Helen wished for the millionth time that she’d just kept her mouth shut, or that Lexi wasn’t quite so intuitive. Lexi should have been a bartender or an interrogator instead of a waitress, the way she was able to get a woman to spill her guts.

Miss Mabel’s scarlet lips turned down in a disapproving frown. “I thought I’d quit hearing talk like that when I retired from teaching high school.”

“Sorry, Miss Mabel,” said Lexi, patting the older woman’s hand. “Pie’s on me tonight as payment for my potty mouth.”

“Forget the pie, tell me about the man.” Miss Mabel twisted her bent body around in her seat so she could see where Lexi had been looking. Not that the men were hard to spot, seeing as how they were the only other customers in the diner tonight at nearly nine-well after the dinner rush.

Helen felt a frantic bubble of fear rise up inside her. “Don’t look!”

“You never told me you had a boyfriend,” said Miss Mabel as if it was the crime of the century-a huge betrayal of their friendship that she’d kept a secret.

“He’s not my boyfriend. Stop looking!” She was begging, on the verge of panic. What if he noticed them looking? What if he walked over here right now and looked at her with that half smile on his face-the one he wore when he watched her die? This could be her last few minutes on earth and the only solace she could find was that her will was updated and all the money she’d inherited from her mother would go to help pediatric burn victims.

Lexi-bless her-shifted her slim hips so that they were between the men and Miss Mabel’s wide, obvious gaze. Helen knew that if the men did bother to look over here, one glance at Lexi’s ass would be enough distraction for any red-blooded man to forget what he’d just been thinking.

Miss Mabel struggled to get her frail spine to cooperate, but couldn’t manage to out-maneuver Lexi-not with her waitress reflexes. The old woman gave a frustrated sigh. “You either tell me what’s going on or I get my walker and go over there and find out for myself.”

Lexi gave Helen an apologetic grimace. “I should have kept my mouth shut. If you want, I’ll kick them out.”

“That wouldn’t really help the whole trying-not-to-get-noticed thing I’m working on here,” said Helen.

“Why don’t you want those men to notice you? Are they stalkers? Should I call the police?” asked Miss Mabel. “I knew I should have bought one of those cell phones.”

“No,” said Helen, trying to think fast enough to outwit a woman who had taught public school for thirty years. “He’s just a guy I have a crush on. I don’t want him to know.”

“Why not? You’re a lovely girl and you should just go right over there and ask him out. That is how it’s done these days, and if I’m not too old to know that, then neither are you.”

“I can’t do that.” Helen slid down deeper in the booth seat and lifted the menu up to shield her face again.

“Well, then, I will. You need a man, Helen. I’m not going to let you end up old and childless like me.” And with that declaration, Miss Mabel reached for her walker at the end of the booth, positioning it so she could stand.

Helen had to get Miss Mabel to stop before Vision Man saw her. Maybe if Helen got out of here unnoticed, there would still be time before she died. Even if it was only a few more days, or even hours, Helen wanted every one of them.

“You can’t. He’s married.” The lie slipped out so smoothly it surprised Helen. It was the first time in her life she’d ever lied to a teacher, and already her stomach was turning sour.

Miss Mabel’s head whipped around faster than Helen would have thought possible, considering her frail neck and the weight of the giant bun she wore held up by a single yellow number-two pencil. “You’re lusting after a married man?” She whispered it as if just saying the words was a sin. “Oh, honey, don’t you know that can only end badly?”

Thank you, God. Miss Mabel swallowed the lie. “I know,” said Helen, hanging her head, still strategically placed behind the menu. “That’s why I’m staying away from him. I can’t help the way I feel about him, but I can keep my distance.”

“See that you do,” said Miss Mabel, slipping into her lecturing voice. “Maybe we should just go now and have dinner elsewhere.”

Hallelujah! “Good idea. We can go anywhere you like,” Helen told Miss Mabel. They always went out to eat on Tuesday night, and Helen couldn’t stand to disappoint her, not even if her world was spiraling toward its end. She’d spent the past ten years trying to do something meaningful with her life. She wasn’t smart enough to find a cure for cancer and she wasn’t strong enough to join the military or brave enough to join the police or firefighters, but she made a difference to a few dozen shut-ins, bringing them food and company or just getting them out of the house for a few hours. It wasn’t much to her, but it was to them. She saw it in their eyes every time she showed up at their front doors and every time she left. For some of those people, she was all they had and that was enough for her. It had to be.

“I think it’s too late to escape,” said Lexi. “He’s looking this way.”

Helen lowered the menu enough to peek over it and sure enough, Lexi was right. Vision Man was looking right at her.

***

Drake saw the pretty young woman trying to hide from him. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have looked twice at a human-pretty or not-but something about her tugged at his attention. Every time he looked at her, some of the grinding pressure inside him eased. The fact that she was trying not to get noticed only added to his curiosity.

“Have either of you ever seen the woman with the braids before?” he asked his buddies, Thomas and Zach.

Thomas swiveled his head around, leaning so he could see past Zach. He shrugged one massive shoulder. “Not that I can remember.”

“Sorry, man,” said Zach, an appreciative grin on his dark face.

“You’re looking at the waitress,” scolded Drake.

“Yes, I am.”

Unapologetic as ever, Zach rubbed a hand over his jaw and watched the waitress with the nametag that read LEXI wiggle her behind.

Drake thought about calling Zach on how easily he was distracted, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. Besides, nothing important ever got by Zach. He could look at all the women he wanted and if things went to hell, he’d still have his sword in his hand faster than any of the three men at the table. Which was good, considering their mission.

He, Zach, and Thomas were hot on the trail of the Synestryn demons that had taken Kevin’s sword after they’d slaughtered him, and the last thing he needed right now was a distraction. This suburban Kansas town was crawling with demons. Literally. Or at least it would be once the sun set.

Drake checked his watch. Eight thirty-two. Nine minutes to sunset. Then Logan would show up and they all could get back to work. That left him eight minutes to figure out who this woman was and why she was hiding from him.

Drake got up and went to do just that.

The waitress stepped in his path as if she could actually stop him. How cute. He doubted there was whole five feet of her unless he included those ridiculous blond spikes sticking out from her head.

“Can I get you some more coffee?” she asked with a cheerful, fake smile.

“No. My friends could use a refill, though.” Zach had been eyeing the waitress all night, and as far as Drake was concerned, he could have her. She was just a little scrap of a woman-too fragile for any of the really fun stuff.

The shy brunette on the other hand…she had potential. He’d seen her come into the diner with the old lady, being so careful to help her walk without damaging the older woman’s pride. She was all soft curves and glowing warmth. Her light brown hair fell forward over her shoulders in twin braids, drawing his eye right to her breasts. As if he needed any help finding those. She filled out her tank top and then some, which he dutifully noticed. She was a couple of inches taller than average, and all that extra height was in her legs-long, curvy, bare under the cuffs of her khaki shorts. All of her was curvy and soft and feminine and Drake hated that he’d noticed.

He had more important things to think about-like killing off a slew of demons-and it was hard enough to keep his focus on his work when the pain was getting worse every day. He sure as hell didn’t need some soft, curvy distraction.

The waitress hadn’t taken the hint and she was still barring his path. Not a good idea considering he never let anything get in the way of something he wanted-certainly not something that weighed about as much as a week’s worth of laundry.

“How ’bout some more pie?” she asked.

“No, thanks.” He picked her up under her arms, like a child, and set her aside.

“Hey!” he heard her sputter behind him, and almost expected her to jump on his back.

“I got her,” said Zach, his voice deep and satisfied with the task of keeping Lexi at bay.

Drake glanced over his shoulder and saw the waitress staring at Zach as if he were about to eat her whole. Maybe he was. Zach was into human women. As often as possible.

Drake felt a half smile tug at his mouth. “I just bet you do.”

The brunette had given up hiding behind the menu and had started to gather her purse and sunglasses to leave. Not bloody likely. At least not until he was ready to let her leave.

Drake covered the distance between them and placed one hand on the back of the booth and the other on the table, caging her in. She’d scooted to the edge of the seat, but with Drake standing in her path, she had nowhere to go. He leaned down, letting her know with his body language that she was trapped.

He liked her face, the smooth curve of her cheek, the fullness of her mouth. She’d stayed out in the sun too long today and her nose and the top of her cheeks were pink. She wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but she was lovely. From here, it was easy to see fear brighten her hazel eyes, bringing out chips of gold and green.

She was afraid of him. He had no idea why, and he sure as hell didn’t like it.

“Please let me go,” she said. Her voice was quiet. Soft, like the rest of her, and it stroked over his senses like a caress.

A weightless warmth shimmered through him, washing away decades of tension and torment. For the first time in more than a century, Drake was no longer in agonizing pain. He let out a slow breath of relief. The ever-expanding pressure of the power he housed no longer beat at his insides, seeking an exit, trying to pound its way through flesh and bone. Every rioting bit of energy inside him quieted at the sound of her voice as if listening.

Without the pain that had been his constant companion for more years than most people lived, a wave of dizzying relief threatened to buckle his knees. He gripped the seat and table to keep himself upright, but he couldn’t keep his eyes from closing, just for a moment. The joy of simply not hurting was so intense it was nearly its own kind of pain. He wasn’t sure how long it took him to regain his senses, but when he did, she was staring at him, wide eyed and trembling.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

She blinked twice as if shocked by the question. “Please. Just let me go. I don’t want to die.”

Die? What the hell? “I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her, his tone a little more gruff than he’d intended. He’d spent his too-long life defending humans from the Synestryn at great personal cost. There was no way she could have known that, but it still pissed him off that she would jump to the conclusion that he was here to hurt her.

What he really wanted was to touch her and see if she felt as soft as she looked. All those smooth, womanly curves were driving him a little crazy. And crazy was the only explanation for what he was feeling-this uncontrollable need to touch a woman he didn’t even know. A human woman. Maybe she was blooded-a descendant of the Solarc-and that’s why his reaction to her was so strong. He’d never experienced anything like it before even with a blooded human, and he wasn’t entirely sure he liked it. The pain-free part was nice, really nice, but nothing that good came without a price.

“I need to get Miss Mabel home. It’s getting late.” Her mouth quivered a bit and damn if he didn’t want to bend down and kiss her to make it stop.

This was insane. Drake pulled in a deep, steadying breath, but only managed to fill his lungs with her scent. Lilacs. She smelled like lilacs.

Drake didn’t have a freaking chance of resisting her. He was a goner, completely over-the-edge insane. He leaned down until his nose was tucked into the curve of her neck, and breathed her in. There was nothing he could have done to stop himself, and the fact that she didn’t flinch away only made him that much crazier.

The silky strands of her braid teased his nose and the supple band of the luceria around his neck hummed happily, sending a shiver shooting down his back. He felt something shift inside him. Deep and hard, almost painful. This woman had changed him somehow, with her mere presence, and he would never be the same again.

Whoever she was, he was keeping her.

***

Helen didn’t dare move. Not with Vision Man standing so close, nearly touching her. She felt his warm breath spread out over her neck, swirl up around her ear.

He was purring-a low, deep sound of satisfaction-and that purr resonated inside her.

All she could see was the side of his thick neck where it joined his shoulder, the curl of his dark hair, and a section of the necklace he wore-some sort of iridescent choker about a quarter inch wide. Every color imaginable swirled inside the supple band as the lights of the diner played off its surface. She felt the urge to touch it to see if it was as slippery as it looked, if it was warm from his skin.

Instead, she hugged her purse more tightly against her chest, holding still, praying he’d move away from her before she lost her head and stroked her finger over the band.

She was breathing too fast, making herself dizzy. She closed her eyes to block out the sight of him so she could calm herself, but instead the vision flashed in her head, driving everything else away.

He was standing a few feet away. It was dark all around them and the only reason she could even see his face was that the fire that consumed her body reflected off the sharp angles of his cheeks, the shadowed ledge of his jaw, the strong tendons in his neck, the wide span of his shoulders. Mirrored flames danced in his golden brown eyes and a proud half smile tilted his mouth. She could smell her flesh burning, could feel the heat consume her. The pain of her blistered skin as it blackened was too much to bear. She screamed, begging death to come claim her.

Reality snapped back into place, washing the vision away. Helen sucked in a desperate breath. She wasn’t dead. At least not yet. The bright lights of the diner seared her retinas, and the smell of burning flesh was replaced by that of onions and french fries. A draft from the air vent overhead cooled her skin, making her shiver.

She forced her body to relax, to remember where she was. Just breathe.

Her lungs expanded, pulling in the scent of the man who had her trapped. Soap. Coffee. Clean male skin. He smelled nice. Safe. And if that wasn’t the most ridiculous thing she’d ever thought, then she didn’t know what was. If there was one person on the planet who wasn’t safe for her to be near, it was him, no matter how he smelled.

He was still only a scant inch away, giving off that low purr that resonated in her chest. Helen wasn’t sure if she wanted to push him away or stroke her finger over the intriguing curve of that choker he wore. Something about it tugged at her memories, though she was sure she’d never seen anything like it before.

He hadn’t been wearing it in her vision. The realization dawned on her. His throat had been bare. His shirt had been different-not the black cotton he wore now, but lighter. Tan. With some kind of tree printed on it.

The details of her vision didn’t match what was happening right now, which meant she was safe, at least for the moment.

Some of the panic drained out of her, making her feel weak, boneless. She knew she should push him away or scream or do something. Even if he wasn’t here to watch her die tonight, he was still too damn close.

He leaned a fraction of an inch closer and wrapped his long fingers around one of her braids. On his finger he wore a ring that matched his necklace and it flashed in an intriguing pattern of swirling colors that made her want to stare. An insistent tug on her braid tipped her head back and she was sure she’d felt his lips brush along her neck, her cheek.

Helen shivered and heard a small moan lift from her mouth. Every cell in her body stood at attention from that one little touch. Her skin grew warm and her abdomen tightened against a jolt of heat. She wanted something she couldn’t name. Needed it. It wasn’t just desire. It went deeper than that. Bone deep. Soul deep. He had something that belonged to her and she wanted it. Even if it killed her.

His lips slid over her cheek, barely touching. Maybe not even touching, just stirring the fine hairs along her skin. Whatever he was doing, it was wonderful, fear or not. She felt as if she was being filled up with energy. She felt more alive than she ever had before. All from a barely there touch from the man who would watch her die.

Freaking irony.

***

From somewhere far off, Drake heard the old woman gasp in shock and he struggled to pull himself back to reality. By the time he’d made the long, long journey to the here-and-now, his fingers had wrapped themselves around one of the brunette’s braids so that her head was tilted back to the optimum angle for a slow, deep kiss. Perfect.

He would have done just that if it hadn’t been for the way she was clutching her purse against her chest like a shield. She was still afraid of him. Shit.

“Give me your name,” he ordered her, not caring how rough his voice sounded. He needed her name. Hell, he needed a lot more of her than just that, but with the audience they had, he was going to have to settle for that small piece.

“Helen Day.”

God, he loved the sound of her voice, so soft and sweet. He closed his eyes again, letting the sound of her, the smell of her, sink into him. He could spend half a year just listening to her talk, letting the gentle sweep of her voice soothe him.

He was way too wrapped up in how he could make the small space between them even smaller when he heard a warning shout from Thomas half a second too late. Miss Mabel’s walker slammed down over his head, sending pain screaming over his skull.

“Go back to your wife, you…you man-whore!” shouted the old woman, raising her walker for another strike.

Whore? Wife? Drake had no idea what she was talking about, but he didn’t stand there long enough to ask. He could already feel a lump swelling up on the back of his skull. The old woman might look frail, but she packed one heck of a wallop.

Drake reached for Miss Mabel intending to carefully take the aluminum weapon from her hands before she hurt herself. Or him.

He was too late. Thomas was already on the case and had taken the old lady into his burly arms, holding her carefully despite her struggles.

Helen stood up, pushing her way around Drake to get to the old lady. “Let her go!”

Thomas ignored her, still holding on to the old woman, trying to calm her down with soothing words. “I’m not going to hurt you, ma’am. None of us are going to hurt any of you. Isn’t that right, Zach?”

Five feet away, Zach had Lexi pinned against the countertop by the cash register, nearly bent over backward. She was fighting him, pounding and clawing at him, but Zach accepted her blows, grinning like they tickled.

“Hey, she’s the one trying to hurt me. I just want to talk.” Zach’s voice dipped lower and his grin widened. “But I’m willing to play if you want, honey. I don’t mind if you like it rough.”

Lexi growled and lashed out at Zach with her fists.

From the corner of his eye, Drake saw Helen start to make a dash toward Thomas and the old woman, but Drake was faster. He snagged her by looping an arm around her waist and pulling her up against his chest. It was a mistake. As soon as he had her soft, curvy body against his, his brain started to shut down. From a vague, fuzzy distance, he could feel her fighting to free herself, pushing and pulling at his arm. He could hear her frightened voice calling her friends’ names. He could sense the panic inside her, the frantic strength that increased with every swift beat of her heart. He just couldn’t seem to figure out what it all meant or what he should do. All he knew was he couldn’t let her go. He needed her.

This whole situation had gone completely out of control, but he just didn’t care. He had Helen in his arms, reluctant as she was, and he didn’t hurt anymore. For the first time in decades, he felt good. It was such a shock that it left him reeling, staring stupidly at the part between her silky, dark braids. He wanted to bend down and kiss the smooth skin at the nape of her neck so bad it made him shake.

Drake had bent to do just that when his grip failed and Helen slipped out of his grasp.

Pain slammed into him with a tangible force that drove him to his knees right there on the chipped tile floor. Power flooded him and ripped through his veins, hammering his bones with pounding agony. He was sure every one of them had been broken, that his organs had been pulverized. Nothing else could explain so much pain. He couldn’t stand. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t breathe.

The power he housed inside his body had grown slowly, steadily, over the course of years. The pressure had increased over decades, giving him a chance to get used to the pain it caused. But now it all came flooding back inside him in the space of an instant and his brain couldn’t adjust. His body couldn’t function. At the gray edges of his mind, he heard himself scream, a terrible, high-pitched noise. He knew he was dying, but right now that was a good thing. It would all be over soon, but it couldn’t be soon enough.

***

Helen wasn’t sure what she’d done to Vision Man to send him to his knees, but she didn’t stop to worry about it. Miss Mabel was still trying to get away from the big bruiser who held her and it looked as though she was running out of steam.

Lexi, on the other hand, was holding her own against the third man. He’d pushed her down so that she was almost lying on the counter near the cash registers. “Stop fighting me before you hurt yourself,” he told her.

Lexi knocked the toothpick dispenser to the floor, making it spew toothpicks everywhere. She got one knee between them and pushed, but it didn’t work.

The man simply pressed his body down harder onto hers until she had no room to maneuver. “Are you done yet?”

Her hand fumbled over the counter until she found the metal stand used to collect order tickets and jammed the sharp spike into her captor’s arm.

He looked down at the metal sticking out of his skin and smiled. Actually smiled. “Good shot, woman.” He sounded as if he was proud of Lexi, which was completely insane, but at least Lexi was still able to fight.

Miss Mabel wasn’t, and Helen wasn’t sure how she was going to get her free. The man who held her was huge. Tall, wide, muscular. He probably outweighed her and Miss Mabel put together.

“Let her go,” demanded Helen, racking her brain for what to do now. Pick up a chair and hit him? No, she might hit Miss Mabel. Throw a sugar shaker at his head? She might be able to hit him without hitting her friend.

Helen was out of ideas, so she went with the best one she had. She grabbed for the closest sugar shaker, but before she could throw it, the giant stepped forward and simply handed Miss Mabel to Helen. She wasn’t sure what had changed his mind, but she didn’t question her good fortune. She gladly took over the job of supporting Miss Mabel. He was careful with her frail body, gentle. He took his time making the transfer and then when she was clear, he shot to the floor where Vision Man was writhing.

“Zach!” he shouted. “Need a little help here with Drake when you’re done playing with the girl.”

The man who had pinned Lexi-Zach-let her go, ripped the spike out of his arm, and set it back on the counter, bloody tickets still in place. Lexi had barely regained her feet before he was also at Vision Man’s side. Zach turned to Helen, glaring at her. His pale green eyes stood out in stark contrast against his brown skin, almost looking as if they were lit from within. “What did you do to Drake?”

Helen held Miss Mabel a little tighter, turning her toward the exit. They were getting out of here as fast as possible. “Nothing. He was the one attacking me.”

“He didn’t do anything more than try to talk to you. You were the one who freaked out. What did you do to him?” he demanded.

Vision Man-Drake, they’d called him-was still convulsing on the floor, his body bowing in a powerful arc. He’d been screaming a moment ago, but now he made these horrible choking sounds, as though he couldn’t breathe. The veins in his neck and temples stood out and something odd was happening to the shimmery choker he wore. The colors in it were seething, swirling in a mix of reds, oranges, and yellows. Thin tendrils of smoke drifted up from the necklace and a matching ring on his left hand. Helen could smell the scent of burning flesh-just like in her vision.

The man who had held Miss Mabel checked his watch, his expression grim. “Three minutes until sunset. Logan isn’t going to make it in time to save him.”

Zach stood up and took a step toward Helen. Lexi had recovered her mobility and found a giant knife somewhere behind the counter. And she held it like she knew what she was doing.

Could this night get any weirder?

Zach must have seen Lexi moving toward him, because he turned and pointed a thick finger in her direction. “Stay out of this. It doesn’t concern you.”

“The hell it doesn’t. They’re my friends.”

“And Drake is mine.” Zach turned to Helen. “Let the old woman go and come here.” It wasn’t a request and Helen was certain that if she didn’t do as he said, someone was going to get hurt when he made her do it, probably Miss Mabel.

This was it. Helen was fairly certain that she’d reached the end of the line. She wasn’t about to take Miss Mabel with her, so she settled the frail woman down on a seat and gave her what she hoped was a brave smile.

Miss Mabel clutched Helen’s arm with weak, gnarled fingers. “Don’t go, honey.”

“I’ll be fine,” she lied. Helen turned back toward Zach and took a step forward.

The big guy was holding Drake down so he didn’t hurt himself thrashing around, but it didn’t look like an easy job. Drake was strong-his arms and legs thick with muscle. She could see all that strength tighten his body against the convulsions. The big guy took an elbow in the stomach for his effort, letting out a pained grunt. Zach had a hold on Drake’s legs, but he didn’t take his eyes off Helen. She was sure that if she didn’t keep moving toward him he’d come for her.

Man, she didn’t want to be here right now. She didn’t want to be in the middle of this mess, completely confused as to what was happening and totally freaked out to be getting closer to a man who made her feel better with an almost touch than all the real touches from all the other men in her life put together.

“He’s going to be fine,” she told them, taking another half step forward.

“How do you know?” asked Zach.

Great. Now she’d gone and backed herself in a corner. She couldn’t exactly tell them that she knew he’d be fine because he had to live long enough to watch her die. “I just do.”

Another half step and she was close enough that Zach reached out his long arm and grabbed her by the wrist. “Whatever you did, undo it.”

“I didn’t do anything! I swear. All I did was push his arm away and he fell over.”

Zach’s heavy brow wrinkled for a second, then those pale green eyes of his went wide as if he’d just figured out what had gone wrong. “Come here,” he demanded, tugging her down to the floor until her hand was pressed flat against Drake’s stomach-his bare, hard, warm stomach that should have been completely covered by his T-shirt, but wasn’t. All that writhing had worked it up over his ribs and she could see half of a large tattoo running up over his left side. It was a tree, inked in lifelike colors and perfect detail. Every swirled knothole, every twist of the tree’s roots was so realistic she was sure she could almost feel the rough texture of the bark beneath her fingertips. Fine tendrils of roots spread down over his stomach and disappeared beneath the belt on his jeans. She refused to think about where they led.

Her fingers touched his skin, and it didn’t take two full seconds for Drake to relax. Both men looked at her in shock, then looked at each other, sharing some secret guy-speak. She had no clue what was going on, and at this point she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. All she wanted was to take Miss Mabel back home and crawl into a deep, hot bath for about a week. She was fairly certain she couldn’t burn alive in a bathtub and it was the only time she ever truly relaxed.

“You’re coming with us,” said the big guy. His bright blue eyes scanned Drake’s body, concern pulling at his brows.

“No, I’m not,” said Helen.

Zach let go of Helen’s wrist and stood up. She should have pulled away and headed for the door, but something stopped her. Something was happening beneath her hand. Drake’s skin heated and she was flooded with that odd rush of energy she’d felt before. It filled her up inside, like a warm light, finding all the cold, dark little cracks and holes inside her. There was a faint buzzing sensation and the taste of honey in her mouth, the smell of rain in her nose. She felt light. Buoyant.

This wasn’t right. It felt incredibly good, but it wasn’t right. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Couldn’t be real.

She started to pull her fingers away, but Drake’s hand caught hers before she finished lifting them from his skin. His fingers wrapped around her wrist and she could feel that disturbing hum of energy sinking into her where each of his lean fingers met her skin.

He sat up, looking alert and coherent, and she felt the soft knit of his shirt pool against her wrist. He held her hand in place and leaned forward until there was barely two inches between them. “I’m not letting you get away again. Not until we figure out what this thing between us is.”

It was a vow. She could feel the power of it settle around the two of them, shutting out the rest of the world.

This wasn’t real. This wasn’t happening. A lot of strange things had happened to her throughout her life, but this was way off the weird chart. “There is no thing between us.”

He gave her that half smile from her vision. “There is now.”

Behind him, just inside the window that led to the diner’s kitchen, orange flames erupted, spewing up like a geyser.

Fire. The smell of burning skin.

Helen’s world collapsed down to a pinpoint of panic she couldn’t escape. It sucked her in and robbed her of oxygen. She couldn’t even remember how to breathe.

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