“TOUCHED BY FIRE is a blazing hot romantic fantasy thriller that is impossible to put down. Catherine Spangler puts her readers into the twisted mind of a psychotic killer right along with her heroine. It is an experience that one won't soon forget . . . . Touched by Fire [is] a read I recommend highly for an edge of the seat adventure and brilliant characterization.” ~ Leslie Tramposch, Paranormal Romance Reviews
“I couldn't put the book down. I loved it! . . . . Each book is getting better and better. I can't wait to tell my customers about Touched by Fire.” ~ Ann Lorz, Best Sellers
“This series is totally awesome! I have always been fascinated with Atlantis and Catherine Spangler only feeds my addiction. She can't write her next Sentinel book fast enough for me!” ~ Kathy Boswell, The Best Reviews
“Author Catherine Spangler continues her Sentinel series with a super-sexy and exciting paranormal thriller. Spangler's alpha heroes can be annoying, but they're so damned sexy the women they deal with are forced to come to terms with it. Fortunately, Spangler's heroines are strong and capable women in their own right--the only women who could tame such men. Luke and Marla are both damaged--Marla by her sister's rape and Luke by his mother's death and having to be responsible for his family. Early on, their relationship magnifies this damage. But somehow they've got to get past this to have a chance at stopping the evil and at finding the growth that their damage has stunted.
Spangler starts off fast and keeps up a hard-charging blend of action and sensuality. Fans of the series will definitely want to grab TOUCHED BY FIRE. If you're new to the series, don't worry. Each of these novels can easily stand alone.” ~ Rob Preece, BooksForABuck.com
from Book Two of Catherine Spangler’s dark and
touched by fire
Coming from Berkley in October 2007
Sex. Desire, fueled by lust and pheromones. They coiled through the atmosphere of the Red Lion Pub, edged by forced gaiety, quiet desperation, drunkenness, and cigarette smoke. It was relatively early in the evening— six o’clock—but happy hour was in full swing, and the bar was packed with business professionals eager to celebrate the arrival of Friday night.
Some simply wanted to unwind from the week; some—the extroverts—to recharge their psyches. But many, like Marla’s friend Rebecca, wanted to roll the dice on the possibility of finding someone to scratch a sensual itch, to stave off the loneliness, and maybe extend that companionship through the weekend, or even longer.
Marla was: D)None of the above, but she was also Rebecca’s ride home, and had been unable to refuse her request for a happy hour stop. Rebecca was lonely and searching for a masculine fix, and it wasn’t Marla’s place to point out that no one could make you happy; that particular commodity had to come from within.
Like Marla was the poster girl for good mental health. She had her own personal demons, but at least she understood the source and was working on it. She should be able to pick up men in bars in, say . . . ten years or so.
With a sigh, she surveyed the smoky room. She wasn’t surprised that Rebecca, a Brit, had chosen a pub for her trolling. The Red Lion had beautiful, classy décor—dark wood and red leather upholstery on booths and bar stools, and even a fire place. The television discreetly placed in one corner was turned off, thank God.
If Marla saw one more news report on the tragic school bus explosion and ensuing fire that had taken the lives of twenty-two children, she was going to be sick. She’d already grieved her heart out for those children and their families. A good reason, in her opinion, why it was a bad idea to watch the news—too damned depressing. In lieu of television, there was background music playing in the pub, but it was low enough that it didn’t hinder conversation.
Rebecca was already across the crowded room, sliding into a booth with three guys, plying them with her British charm and knockout body. Resigned to the fact that it might be a while, Marla made her way to the bar. No one gave her a second glance, which wasn’t surprising. She knew she was dowdy, slightly plump, with unruly hair, and adorned with eyeglasses—although they were Vera Wang designer frames—and in her conservative cocoa-hued suit. Like the rest of the country, Houston business dress leaned towards a more casual look, but Marla had had a meeting with her company’s CFO earlier in the day, and had wanted to look professional.
She hitched herself onto a bar stool at the very end, sliding her purse into her lap. A burst of energy, like electricity, shot through her, and she jerked her hand from the counter. Strange . . . must have been static electricity, but the surface appeared to be laminated wood. And the electricity was still tingling through her. Baffled, she looked at the man to her left, just as he glanced at her.
He gave a brief, polite nod, looked away, then stiffened and snapped back around. His eyes widened, fixed on her face. He appeared to be studying her. “Well,” he said in a deep, rich voice. “Hello.”
She twisted to look behind her and see who he was talking to in such a come on tone. No one was there. She turned back around, saw he was still staring at her. “Are you talking to me?”
He arched dark-blond brows. “To the best of my knowledge.” He extended his hand. “I’m Luke Paxton.” It could have been just a friendly introduction, but the intense, predatory look in his deep-sea eyes warned her otherwise.
Disbelief and confusion rolled through her. This striking male specimen couldn’t possibly be coming on to her. He had a strong, interesting face with sensual lips that practically moaned I’m a great kisser, those incredible eyes, and thick sun streaked hair that swept back past his shoulders—very broad shoulders attached to a large, well-muscled body. He wore a black long sleeved pullover, jeans, and boots; a black leather jacket was slung over the back of his chair. Everything about him screamed sexy—and dangerous. No way was he interested in her. She was obviously delusional.
“Uh . . . ” Ingrained southern manners insisted she respond civilly. She placed her hand in his. “I’m Marla Rey—.” She didn’t get any further, because another jolt of electricity shot up her arm. She instinctively jerked back, but he wrapped his long fingers around her hand.
“Oh. Sorry I shocked you.” She stared at her trapped hand, wondering how to retrieve it gracefully. Unfortunately, her skills at verbally sparring with sophisticated, gorgeous men were abysmal. “I seem to have a build up of static electricity.”
A smile teased his sensuous mouth. “I like being shocked. Especially by an attractive woman.”
Now she knew he was giving her a line. Great. Why not pick on any number of females in the Red Lion—women who were not only willing, but really were attractive?
She wormed her hand free. “That’s very nice of you to say, Mr. Paxton, but—”
“Luke. Mr. Paxton sounds old and decrepit, and hopefully, I’m not over the hill yet.”
Oh, man, he was anything but. Suddenly warm, Marla wished someone would turn up the air conditioning a few notches. There were too many bodies in here. And way too many pheromones, because her own body was tingling with energy, and there was an ache between her legs, like she felt when she watched a sultry scene on Sex in the City.
For the past eleven years, she’d been unusually sensitive to the emotions of people around her; apparently the combined barrage of the guys with wet dream mentalities and the women with desperate sexual appetites was strongly affecting her. She wasn’t sure she could handle much more of it.
“Luke,” she conceded, grasping her purse. “Very nice talking to you, but I’ve got to go.”
“Not exactly, but—”
“Stay. Have a drink with me.” When she just sat there, too surprised to react, he added, “Please.”
His steady gaze was as alluring as his dark magic voice. Disconcerted, she felt as if she were falling into those Caribbean eyes. “Well, I don’t know.”
“Just one drink. You sat at the bar, and you’re not meeting anyone, so I have to assume you were planning to have . . . something.”
The way he said something sent the words, hot sex, tangled sheets, ricocheting through her mind. Whoa! Down, girl. What was the matter with her? She hadn’t been interested in men since . . . that night. She shoved back the memories before they could surface and ruin the evening, and possibly the weekend. Time to get new batteries for her trusty bedside companion.
“What do you want?” he asked.
That was a loaded question. She struggled to force her thoughts back to something—anything—away from disturbing memories. “What do I want?” she parroted, still trying to get her brain back in gear.
Humor and sensual knowledge gleamed in his eyes. “To drink. What do you want to drink?”
“Oh, I—” Am an idiot. She realized the bartender was standing there expectantly, a knowing smirk on her twenty-something face. “A glass of merlot, please,” she told the young woman.
Luke tapped his mug. “Another beer.”
The woman nodded and left. Marla drew a deep breath, still feeling the strange energy in the air, despite her attempts to ignore it. “Well,” she said lamely.
“You didn’t finish telling me your name,” he prompted.
“I didn’t, did I?” She managed a shaky smile. “Maybe we should try this without the handshake. I think one shock is enough, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.” He rested one arm indolently on the bar, turning his body towards her. His full, charismatic attention was focused on her. “Some shocks are very . . . stimulating.”
This guy was definitely out of her league. Where the hell was Rebecca? Marla cast a quick glance to the corner, saw Rebecca practically wrapped around the man next to her, laughing at something he was saying. Maybe she’d decide to go home with him, and then Marla could leave. The sooner, the better.
Luke’s gaze followed hers to the corner booth. “Someone you know?”
“The blonde in the red. Her car’s in the shop—again—and she’s riding with me.”
“So you’re only here because of her.” He said it as a statement rather than a question.
“Well . . . yes.”
“Then her mechanical misfortune is my gain.” He was giving her that look again—pure, masculine appreciation.
She didn’t understand it. But then his gaze swept down her legs. Her awkward position on the stool had forced her skirt to ride up, and a generous expanse of thigh was exposed. Ah. He was a leg man, which might explain some of the attraction. Her legs were her best physical feature.
All the Reynolds women had great legs, which was a good thing, since they tended to be plain and brainy otherwise. Plus Marla had on her bronze Prada pumps, which she’d gotten in a great close out deal because they were from last season. They extended the leg line nicely.
With apparent reluctance, Luke returned his gaze to her face. “Nice shoes.”
Yeah, right. “Thank you.”
The bartender returned with their drinks, and she fumbled in her purse for money to pay for her wine.
“I’ve got it.” Luke handed the young woman a credit card and she whisked it away.
“Thank you again.” Bemused, Marla picked up her wine and took a healthy sip. She wished this damned energy buzzing around and setting her nerves on edge would ease off. If this was the usual ethereal pattern at the Red Lion Pub, she wasn’t coming back—no matter how much Rebecca tried to strong arm her into it.
“So back to your name,” Luke said.
“Oh, I guess I never got to that.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“I’m Marla Reynolds.” She felt foolish, as if she were introducing herself at a self-help conference.
“Pleased to meet you, Marla Reynolds.” His hand slid over to cover hers, sending another jolt through her.
“What is it with this place?” she muttered. “They need to invest in some serious antistatic measures.”
He murmured something, but she barely heard him. Her attention was on the acute awareness of the fact he was touching her, and the incredible warmth of his hand over hers. Not to mention the sexual energy that swirled between them, causing her nipples to pucker and the ensuing dampness between her legs. Pure, raw chemistry. She’d heard of it happening, but never experienced it. This guy was potent, especially since he appeared capable of stirring to life her sexual desires, which up until now, had been nonexistent around men.
She gently extricated her hand, pretended she needed it to straighten her napkin beneath her wine glass. “What do you do for a living, Luke?”
Those blue eyes watched her with an intensity that was both flattering and unnerving. “I’m a private investigator. How about you?”
That explained the aura of power and danger he exuded. She’d be willing to bet he was ex-military or ex-police. “Nothing even remotely exciting. I’m the head accountant for a large manufacturing firm. Very ordinary.”
He actually looked interested. “What does your company manufacture?”
“Building tools and equipment. Hydraulic shearing machines for metal roofing and siding, power saws, that sort of thing.”
“Accounting, huh?” He smiled, and she felt the force of his charm all the way down to her toes.
She willed her racing heart to slow. “Guilty.”
“I like smart women. Especially when they’re also pretty.”
She resisted the urge look over her shoulder again. Maybe he just needed eyeglasses. Or maybe he was desperate, but she simply couldn’t imagine a man who looked like him having difficulty getting any woman he wanted. She took another sip of wine. “How do you like being a private investigator?”
He shrugged, turning toward the bar to drink his beer. Muscles rippled beneath his shirt, and she inwardly sighed. He was definitely built. “I like the independence and flexibility, being able to pick and choose my jobs, set my own hours. But man, I see some nasty stuff. People can be so . . .” he paused, shook his head.
“Inhuman?” she supplied. A chill went through her, as the nightmare memories that were rarely far away finally succeeded in sliding into her mind.
She must have shivered outwardly, because he leaned close, putting his arm around her. “Hey, you okay?”
His scent drifted to her, woodsy, like sandalwood, and clean, primal male. Another jolt of electricity went through her. His hand rested lightly over the nape of her neck, a possessive gesture dating back to prehistoric man. She couldn’t find the strength to protest. Her senses seemed heightened, excruciatingly aware of this man on a visceral level; every look, every touch, every nuance.
“You okay?” he repeated, concern in his voice.
She gave herself a mental shake, managed a smile. “Oh, I’m fine,” she lied. “I just drank my wine too fast. I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol. A really cheap date.” What on earth had possessed her to say that?
He laughed, the sound low and sexy. “Really? In that case, how about having dinner with me tomorrow night?” He massaged her neck gently, persuasively, and tingling sparks jumped down her spine.
This whole thing was surreal, and his touch, not to mention the uncomfortable energy throbbing through the pub was making it hard for her to think straight. Even so, she was certain there could be no legitimate reason for this Chippendales candidate to be interested in her. It just didn’t make any sense. Unless, of course, he was one of those men who thrived on challenge, and was able to ferret out the women who just weren’t interested. How insulting that would be.
Regardless of his motives, Marla didn’t date anyone, gorgeous stud or otherwise. She hitched her shoulder, trying to shrug his arm away without being rude. “Thank you, but no.”
He took the hint and dropped his arm, but his gaze remained locked with hers. “Why not?” He sounded disappointed, which was very strange.
Even stranger, she felt a . . . link, almost, with him. She told herself it was just the stunning chemistry between them—and she wasn’t biting. “I’m sorry,” she said with real regret. “But I don’t know you.”
“I don’t know you either. I’d like to learn more about you. What harm could there be in us having dinner together?”
He certainly was persistent. She drew a deep breath, decided to be blunt. “You’re not my type.”
His brows rose again. “And what is your type?”
No man was her type. None, nada. Damn. If she had more experience, maybe she could better deal with this. But she’d never had to deflect regular men, much less one with the looks and stature of an Adonis. “I don’t make it a habit of picking up men in bars,” she said. “Nor do I go out with strangers.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” He leaned towards her, his hand trapping hers again. More energy buzzed through her. This pub had a serious static problem.
“So we’re basically strangers,” he said. “And you’re cautious about going anywhere with a man you don’t know. That’s understandable, and smart. But if we let it go at that, we won’t get a chance to learn more about each other. Let’s do this: Let’s meet somewhere tomorrow night—any restaurant you want. You don’t have to give me your phone number or address. We’ll just meet, have dinner, and see where it goes from there.”
His touch had her distracted again. His thumb stroking over her skin was sending little waves of sensation up her arm. Yet at the same time, she was starting to feel comfortable, very relaxed, almost lightheaded, as if she’d had several drinks. “Well . . .”
“Where do you want to meet?” His voice was low, hypnotic.
Wow. That wine must have been extra strong. She was actually considering having dinner with this guy. What harm could it do? she asked herself. Maybe this was a good sign. Maybe she was finally ready to put what had happened to Julia behind her, to let go of the terror and the guilt. God only knew she had normal biological urges, which for some reason, hadn’t yet fizzled out with Luke, as they had with others.
“Just name the place and time,” he said in that deep bedroom voice.
Her body tightened, and she felt a renewed rush of dampness between her legs. Maybe it was time. Surely it couldn’t hurt to meet him in a public place, to do a little socializing. She was so damn tired of being wounded. Here was a chance to test the waters. Although why he wanted to have dinner with her remained utterly mystifying. Still, she found the opportunity intriguing, even . . . exciting.
“Marla.” His voice rolled over her in a warm rush. “Say yes.”
“I—oh . . . yes.” She let out her breath, felt as if she’d just reached the top of Mt. Everest.
He smiled again, and she almost melted then and there. “That’s great. Where do you want to meet?
“Um, what do you like to eat?”
His eyes gleamed. “Oh, I eat everything.”
Code red, code red, there’s a fire here. Marla resisted the urge to fan herself, instead focused on a restaurant choice. “Do you like Italian?”
“One of my favorites.”
“How about Damian’s Cucina Italiana? It’s on Smith Street, not too far from here. They have wonderful food.”
“Damian’s. Smith Street.” He turned, extracted a heavy gold pen from his inside jacket pocket, and wrote the information on a cocktail napkin. His writing was bold and sure, like him. “I’ll find it. What time?”
Tomorrow was Saturday, and they’d have a long wait if they got there too late. “How about seven?”
“Great.” He wrote that down. “Do they take reservations?”
“I think so.”
“Then I’ll reserve us the best table available. How does that sound?”
Terrifying. Exhilarating. Stomach twisting. Go for it, she told herself. It’s time to get on with your life. She knew Julia would approve. “Sounds good.” She looked up as Rebecca strode towards them, managing to look both elegant and efficient at the same time.
“There you are.” Rebecca’s gaze was as sharp as her British accent was crisp. She took in Luke, couldn’t possibly miss how he was turned towards Marla, or his body language proclaiming—amazingly—his interest. “Hello.” She extended a perfectly manicured hand. “I’m Rebecca Smithson. I work with Marla. And you are?”
“Luke Paxton.” He shook her hand.
“Watch out for static,” Marla muttered.
Rebecca shifted her blue eyed stare to Marla. “What?”
“Didn’t you feel anything?” At Rebecca’s confused look, Marla said, “Never mind.”
“Right, then. Stephen over there has offered to take me to my flat, so I’m heading out with him. Thanks for the transport today.”
Relieved that she could also go home, Marla said, “Will you have your car in time for your trip next week?”
Rebecca had resumed staring at Luke; with apparent reluctance, she turned her attention to Marla. “Don’t know yet. I’ll ring the garage tomorrow and see if my roadster is ready. And I’d like to pay you for petrol.”
“We can settle up later.” Marla slid off the bar stool. “Good night, Luke.”
His gaze locked with hers, intense, hot. “Don’t forget. Tomorrow at seven.”
As if he was remotely forgettable. She managed a smile. “I won’t. Thanks for the drink.” She walked away, acutely aware of him watching her.
Rebecca followed. “You’re actually going out with him?”
Marla paused just inside the entry. The strange energy wasn’t present here, and her head felt clearer. A twinge of doubt snaked through her. “I was planning on it. Why? Did you sense anything wrong with him?”
“Oh, no. He’s bloody gorgeous. Probably incredible when he’s starkers.” Rebecca sneaked another peek his way. “Makes me wonder if I even want to bother with Stephen. Poor comparison, and all that.”
More doubt crowded in. “I’m wondering now if I should do it,” Marla murmured.
“Oh, don’t be barmy. I haven’t seen you with a single bloke the whole time I’ve known you, and that’s—” Rebecca considered a moment. “Over three years. I was beginning to wonder if you might be a homosexual—mind, not that you acted like one.”
Marla suspected many people thought something was wrong with her, and they were right, since post traumatic stress syndrome was a definite problem. But it was something she didn’t want to share. “I just haven’t found the right man,” she hedged.
“You’d be barking mad not to go for him.”
“I guess.” But away from the strange electrical charges and the sexual energy inundating the pub, Marla had more clarity; common sense told her this might not be a good idea.
Rebecca glanced towards the corner booth. “Oh, Stephen is signaling. Listen, I want to hear all about this hot date. I don’t leave for Mexico until Monday—assuming my roadster is ready—so we’ll chat before then. Cheerio.” She was gone with a flash of red and a whiff of the Burberry perfume she favored.
And Marla was left with growing doubts. Digging out her keys, she stepped into the night air. It was early April and already warm, which, along with the ever-present humidity, was normal for Houston. Looking around, Marla walked quickly to her car, beeping it unlocked as she approached. Since that night, she’d taken self defense classes, learned all she could about staying safe—even if it was belated.
She was about to slide in her car, lock the doors, and drive away without delay, when a movement caught her attention. She looked over to see Luke striding through the parking lot. He had on the black leather coat, which made him look even more dangerous. He glanced her way and she took an involuntary step backward, but he didn’t appear to see her.
He strode on to a huge black and chrome motorcycle—a Harley, if she wasn’t mistaken. She watched as he straddled the large bike with surprising grace. The motor started with a deep, smooth rumble, and he wheeled the bike out of the parking lot and down the street, accelerating rapidly.
Marla stood there, her heart pounding, until the sound of the motorcycle faded away. Are you crazy? she asked herself.
What the hell was she doing, agreeing to go out with a man who was drop dead handsome, unbelievably sexy, and wore black leather and drove a Harley? He was definitely not the ideal ‘starter’ date for a woman who’d avoided all non-platonic encounters with men since she was eighteen.
She was playing with fire—the gasoline and blowtorch kind of inferno—with this one. And she knew then—knew with absolute certainty and considerable disappointment—that she wouldn’t be meeting this man at the restaurant tomorrow night.
Her instinct for survival was too great for her to take such a high stakes risk with a guy like Luke Paxton.
* * * * * *
“She had absolutely no idea what I am. She thought the energy reaction was static electricity.” Luke leaned back in his chair and drummed his fingers restlessly on the cheap Formica table. “So it’s probably safe to say she doesn’t realize what she is, either.”
“You know that’s not uncommon,” Adam Masters responded in his gravely voice. “Conductors can be born into any family. There are no cultural, racial or socio-economic barriers. And no instruction manual explaining their purpose on earth. When the time is right, they are guided where they need to be.”
Luke had never much concerned himself with the process of locating conductors. He left that up to the Sanctioned. His job was to track unimaginable evil and administer karmic justice. But he had to admit Marla’s crossing his path could only be divine intervention. “No doubt she was guided to me.”
“Is she a good match? Responsive to your energy?”
Oh, yeah. Luke thought about how Marla’s breasts had tightened beneath her silk blouse; of the sweet scent of arousal she’d exuded. “She responded to me, all right. She just had no idea why. It’s a very precise match—maybe the best I’ve ever experienced.”
“Excellent.” Adam released a raspy breath. “We’ll have to educate her, give her time to adjust and accept.”
“There’s not much time for niceties. This Belian just blew up a bus full of children, damn it.” Luke gritted his teeth against the surge of pure fury. “May its black soul burn on Saturn for eternity.”
“Those children’s souls have departed the earth plane,” Adam said with the unwavering calmness of a Sanctioned. “You can’t bring them back. A matched conductor is a rare find, and Ms. Reynolds must be treated with great care, until she fully understands and gives her consent to work with you. Do you think she’ll be receptive to your overtures?”
Luke thought about how reluctant Marla had been to go out with him. “Maybe not at first. She was pretty skittish.”
“Then you will have to handle her very carefully. I again remind you that she must willingly agree.” Steel edged Adam’s quiet voice.
As always, it came down to the Sentinel bottom line, to which Luke was honor bound. Yet sometimes those lines had to be blurred; there were ways to accelerate reaching a goal. “You know I’ve never forced a conductor’s cooperation, Adam. I can convince the lady to help me.”
“I’m sure you’ll be your usual persuasive and captivating self,” Adam said dryly.
Luke had no trouble charming women. Even when he was trying to keep a low profile, he had plenty of ladies willing to scratch any itch he might have. He wasn’t in the habit of notching bedposts when he was between Belian trackings, but he wasn’t celibate, either. He had a healthy libido that didn’t require conductor inducement to kick into high gear.
He could handle Marla Reynolds. “I’ll take good care of her,” he told Adam.
“See that you do. And keep me updated on every development.”
“You know I will.”
“Walk in light.” Adam disconnected.
Luke snapped his cell phone shut, tossed it onto the table. He studied the information on his laptop screen. Thanks to modern technology and portable satellite service, he had access to the Internet, even in this rural area. And thanks to the skills he’d cultivated as a private investigator, he knew how to find to all kinds of information.
While it was true most women responded readily to him, Marla had not fit that mold. She had been wary and reluctant, despite his best efforts to charm her, and despite the sizzling Sentinel/conductor chemistry between them. It had taken mild mental inducement for her to capitulate on having dinner with him, and his intuition told him she wasn’t a sure thing.
Fortunately he had her name and her license tag number. When he left the Red Lion Pub, he’d spotted her getting into her car and had memorized the tag with a quick glance. She probably didn’t even realize he’d seen her. So now, he had her home address. If she decided to brush him off, he knew where to find her.
If he couldn’t woo her over dinner, couldn’t convince her to help him via conventional ways, then he would have to resort to his alternate plan.
He hoped it wouldn’t come down to that.