Ashes by Sarah Gilman
Accidents happen for a reason...
Journalist Ambrosia Pellerin accepts an assignment involving the legendary phoenix, expecting, if nothing else, a little entertainment. Instead, she winds up pregnant—by a surprisingly human-looking firebird, Reece Bennu.
As the Phoenix prince, Reece is next in line to the throne and expected to marry a purebred royal. A common human such as Ambrosia is not in the cards. He swears, though, he'll never be an absentee father.
As Ambrosia's due date grows closer, so do the soon-to-be parents. But will their tentative love survive the prejudice of Reece's grandmother, who will stop at nothing to tear the two apart?
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About the Author
Sarah Gilman writes paranormal romance. Her fascination with all things winged extends back to childhood, when images of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis captured her imagination and never let go. She lives in Vermont with her supportive husband and two spoiled cats.
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By Sarah Gilman, Candace Havens and Marie Loggia-Kee
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Sarah Gilman
All rights reserved.
Ambrosia Pellerin limped for ages along a dirt road, cursing everything — she cursed the hot New Mexico landscape, she cursed her dipshit boss and his "this will make us rich" ideas, and she cursed herself for taking this ridiculous assignment. The sun blew flames across her pale skin. Dirt concealed her makeup. Her feet ached and bled — she'd abandoned her broken, hundred-dollar heels.
"I'm going to strangle my boss," she muttered. "It'll be worth the jail time."
A house came into view, if a tiny camp with cacti growing on the roof could be called a house. Ugly shrubs and trees grew close to the building as if the owner had tried to hide from the view of passersby. If not for the gleaming Audi parked under a tent constructed from metal poles and burlap, she'd have assumed no one occupied the dump.
An extraordinary song filled the air. The chirps and whistles reminded her of a songbird, but the volume and timbre were that of something much larger — a lyrical, undulating sound more beautiful than anything she'd ever heard. Granted, after surviving this long in the desert and finding possible salvation, everything around her seemed brighter and lovelier than ever.
She beat on the door, flakes of rust-colored paint raining down on her ruined pedicure. Licking her cracked lips, she waited, praying the owner would help her.
No one answered.
"Anyone home? I need help!"
The bird's song ceased.
"Coming," an irritated male voice called out.
Ambrosia bit her lip. For all she knew, she could be interrupting a serial killer or a drug deal. Either seemed likely, considering the decrepit shack. But she'd never make it all the way back to town without help, and this was her only available option for at least five more miles — she hadn't noticed any other buildings on her drive in. She couldn't continue without shoes and water at the very least. Sweat dripped down her neck.
"What?" The door flew open and a man wearing only black boxer shorts filled the entrance. No sooner had the snapped word left his mouth, his jaw slackened. His golden-brown eyes widened. "Shit. What happened to you?"
"I need some water, please," she said, her throat scratchy.
The man held the door open, and she inched her way inside, expecting a sty. The scent hit her with the force of a Yankee Candle store during the holidays — cinnamon, balsam, citrus, and spices. The room itself gleamed — sparse and furnished only with a sofa, a table with two chairs, and a kitchenette, but clean. Clutches of herbs and plants, the source of the fragrance, hung from the walls and ceiling. Dozens. Hundreds.
"You make potpourri for a living?"
He walked past her into a tiny adjacent bathroom and pulled on a pair of jeans.
"Please, sit." He pulled out a chair at the polished pine table. "What's your name?"
She sank into the chair, her body aching. "Ambrosia."
"I'm Reece Bennu." He went to the sink, filled a glass, and soaked a chocolate-colored hand towel. He handed her the water, which she gulped.
He knelt at her side with the towel and wiped dried blood and dirt from scrapes on her arm. "What happened to you, Ambrosia?"
She ground her teeth from the memory of being pulled out of her car by her hair and dragged across the ground. "I misjudged a man's character."
Reece's frown deepened and he looked up at her, his golden-brown eyes shaded by his dark lashes. "Someone beat you? It looks more like you've been in a car accident."
"I beat him worse. Broke the heel of my shoe kicking his ass."
Reece grinned. "You wore heels out here?"
"It was supposed to be an interview. I'm a journalist." She propped her elbow on the table and dropped her face into her hand. "He sounded pleasant on the phone, but I should have brought someone with me. So stupid. I just wanted the job done quickly."
He said nothing, neither reassuring her nor condemning her behavior. He rinsed the cloth and continued smoothing the warm cotton over her skin. When he finished, fresh blood ran from her cuts. He disappeared into the bathroom, returned, and wrapped her arm in a cotton bandage.
"He knocked me out." She rubbed the lump on her head. "Took my cell phone and rental car keys when he left. I need to get back to my motel." She stared down her body. "I need a doctor."
"Yes. Take a minute and rest, though." He brought the cloth to her neck.
The contact with her lacerated skin stung. She jerked.
"Sorry," he murmured. He rested his free hand over hers. Warm, comforting weight. "Where I come from, such treatment of a woman gets a man executed."
"Where do you come from?" His medium brown skin, several shades darker than her never-enough-sun pallor, suggested someplace exotic.
"Greece on my father's side. Egypt on my mother's."
She tsked. "They do not execute men in either of those countries for — "
"Shhh." He pressed the clean corner of the cloth to her lips. With gentle contact from his fingertips, he tilted her head to the side. Strands of hair fell into her face. He brushed them away and smoothed the warm cloth over her throat.
He tended to her wounds with the care of a lover, not a stranger. The heat and exhaustion had gone to her head. She half expected him to follow the path of the cloth with his lips. A tiny muscle in his tense jaw ticked, but the apparent anger — what was he thinking about, her idiocy, or the man who'd left her stranded? Hopefully the latter — stayed clear of his hands and his eyes. That golden-brown gaze met hers. "Something wrong?"
She swallowed. "How bad is my face?"
"Hmm." His breath whispered over her cheek. "Some scrapes. A bad bruise. Nothing that will scar."
Some tension eased from her shoulders.
He rinsed the cloth and returned to her side, standing, putting her eye level with the V of muscles that disappeared under the waist of his jeans. He lifted her chin with one hand. She stared up the expanse of his flat belly and wide chest — a wall of smooth skin over curves of muscles — to his face. With an even gentler touch than before, he cleaned her forehead and cheeks.
Ambrosia's mind blanked to everything but the sensation of the contact.
"There." He stepped back. "Do you feel better?"
Feel better? She might as well have just stepped out of a spa. Deep aches still filled her body — she feared she had bruised ribs — but still, the man had a gift.
"Yes, thank you," she whispered. "Nurse?"
"I asked you earlier what you did for a living." She pointed at the herbs hanging from the ceiling. "You have a great bedside manner and a setup here a witch would be jealous of, so, are you a nurse who specializes in alternative medicine? An herbalist?" She paused, grinned. "A witch?"
"None of the above." Reece tossed the towel in the sink and settled in the chair opposite her. He leaned back and stretched his legs forward. "Why were the two of you in the desert? There's nothing out here besides me for miles."
"He was camping. A stakeout, of sorts." She pointed roughly in the direction she'd come from. "He travels around, searching for proof of aliens and Bigfoot and other crazy things. I was assigned to write a story on him because my boss has a source who says he's actually on to something legit." She flicked her hand. "Which I doubt. He's nuts. He threw me on the ground, screaming about being there first and how I had no right to intrude on his discovery. I lost consciousness after he hit me and I woke up alone this morning."
Reece traced a finger along his jawline. "Short, bald guy, kind of looks like a miniature Bruce Willis?"
"Yeah, that's Lucas Wade." A grin pulled on her lips. "But, please don't insult Bruce Willis by comparing them."
"Apologies." Reece smiled for a second before sobering and staring out the window. "Wade has been around here for weeks. I've reported him for trespassing, but he disappears like a rat when the authorities come." He leaned toward her again. "What, exactly, was his supposed legit find?"
She flicked her hand again. "A phoenix," she said, making her voice dramatic. "A mythical bird that lives for hundreds of years and, after death, arises anew from its own ashes."
Reece's eyes widened. "Seriously?"
"I know, it's crazy. But I figured it'd be an entertaining assignment, if nothing else." She stared at her bruised hands and sighed.
Reece tapped his fingers on the tabletop and went back to staring out the window. A long moment went by in silence. He got to his feet — as he rose to his full height, the kitchen seemed to shrink. "Well, we should —"
He stumbled and clutched his chest as if someone had sucker punched him.
"Are you all right?" What was happening? She got to her feet, not that she'd be able to hold up someone his size if he collapsed.
He turned slowly and faced her, sweat beading on his forehead. "Do you think you can drive yourself?"
"Huh?" Certainly he didn't mean for her to take his Audi. Her injuries aside, no one let a stranger drive off with their car. He'd be stranded out here.
He went to the sink and splashed water on his face. "Unfortunately, the car is the only further help I can offer you at the moment."
"I can't take your car! I'm sorry to barge in on you, but under the circumstances — "
"It's not that. A lady in distress is never an inconvenience except, unfortunately, right this moment. Don't misunderstand. The timing is no fault of yours." He cursed and splashed more water on his arms and the back of his neck. "You need to take the car and go. Here." He went to the fridge and took out a couple water bottles. "Take these."
Lips parted, she stared at him. "If you have a phone, I can call for a ride."
"Don't worry about the car. I'll find it later. Feel free to take the cash in the glove box if you need. There's also a gun, in case you run into Wade."
"You can't be serious."
"I'm absolutely serious when I say you have to leave right now." A flush spread across his cheeks and down his neck. He led her by the arm to the door — his hand burning hot to the touch — and pulled a set of keys off a shelf. He handed them to her and slumped onto the sofa. "Go."
"Um, maybe you should come with me to the hospital."
"Get out." His voice thinned. "I thought I had another day or two, but there's no more time."
"Out! Now!" He curled into a fetal position and grasped the edge of the mattress with a white-knuckled grip.
More startled from the shout than convinced, she hurried out the door. Clearly, the man required help. Perhaps she'd find a cell phone in the car? To hell with his protests; she was going to call an ambulance when she found a phone. She reached the Audi and fumbled with the door handle.
A male scream filled the air.
What the hell was happening to him? She rummaged through the car's interior but found no cell. She stared at the keys in her hand. He'd clearly refused her help, but damn it, she couldn't leave someone in that much pain. She headed back to the house.
An explosion knocked her backward to the ground.
Fresh pain shot through her body, but she struggled into a sitting position, the dry, sandy soil rough against her skin. Smoke and flames streamed out the windows of the little house. Ash filled the air and drifted to the ground like a light snowfall, covering her and the car. She coughed on the stuff and wiped her eyes.
Holy shit, no one could have survived that. She covered her mouth.
What the hell happened?
The shrubs and trees that grew along the foundation caught fire. An overwhelming scent of the burning spices filled the air. Choking, her lungs burning, she scrambled farther from the blaze until her back hit the car door.
An earsplitting screech joined the noise of the burning structure. It sounded like a hawk, if a hawk grew to the size of a bus. The wail persisted and she covered her ears, her own scream joining the din.
The noise died down a moment later. Flames poured out the windows. The roof collapsed. In contrast to the destruction, the beautiful bird song she'd heard earlier carried over the roar of the fire.
An eerie requiem.
Face wet with tears, she scrambled into the Audi, started the engine, and pressed the pedal to the floor.
* * *
One month later
Reece Bennu grasped the porch railing on the second floor of a grand old manse in Charleston, South Carolina. The wood creaked beneath his tense grip. Just yesterday, a young, recently married phoenix couple who'd spent the summer in the city had spotted Lucas Wade, and Reece had flown in overnight. However, the slimy human had already disappeared again. Reece had been hunting him since New Mexico, and the search was growing tiresome.
Wind whipped across the porch, carrying with it the scent of the flowering bushes below, and Reece shivered. He owned the house — his mother built it in the late eighteenth century — but he rarely visited the property where so many good memories of his family haunted the grounds. Remembering made his chest hurt.
Instead, he had staff maintain the home for traveling phoenix to use, such as the honeymooners currently sleeping within. Lucky devils. Every moment within the gates left Reece sleepless. But it mattered little. If Wade had moved on again, so would Reece. There was no way the human had given up his quest to prove the existence of phoenix. He had to be found and silenced.
Reece glanced up as the young man, dressed in heavy, black-striped flannel pajamas, joined him in the lamplight. He fidgeted with the hem of his shirt as if embarrassed.
"Uh, forgive me, sire —"
"There's nothing to forgive, Jonah." Reece couldn't have cared less. If anything, it was being treated as if he expected everyone to revere him as they would the Queen of England that annoyed him. "It's late and it's cold."
The late-summer night had dipped into the fifties and a steady wind blew. Not horribly chilly for most humans, but downright cold, almost dangerous, for phoenix.
"Right." Jonah kept smoothing his sleeves and adjusting his collar. "I'm sorry we couldn't be more helpful."
"You have nothing to be sorry for. I'm closer to finding Wade now than I was two days ago." Reece paused. "You have a human mother, don't you?"
Jonah's eyebrows shot up at the question. "Um, yes, sire."
Reece regretted bringing up that subject. He couldn't share the reason for his train of thought. He didn't know Jonah well, and Reece hadn't confided with anyone yet, not even his best friend who knew everything about him — even his ridiculous, paralyzing fear of snakes.
Jonah had been helpful in a second essential goal of Reece's: finding Ambrosia. She hadn't told Reece her last name, and her first name turned out to be more common than he'd expected. He'd been prepared to research every Ambrosia in the country until he found the journalist, but thanks to Jonah, and arguably Wade, that wouldn't be necessary.
The phoenix and his new wife had spotted Wade in a library, and it turned out the human's Internet search focused on one Ambrosia Pellerin.
Like Reece, the human had been searching for her home address.
Reece's next stop in his search for both Wade and Ms. Pellerin would be Sandwich, Massachusetts.
What did Wade want with Ambrosia? Unfortunately, that wasn't hard to guess. Wade had attacked Ambrosia in New Mexico as if he thought she was stealing his discovery, his fame, his spot in the history books. Now he'd lost track of Reece, perhaps he thought Ambrosia might have her own information he could steal.
He'd likely become violent again when she denied having any such information.
"My mother? Is something wrong?"
"No, nothing's wrong." Reece turned around and leaned back against the porch railing. He had to find Ambrosia, not only because Wade was going after her, but because she'd witnessed him complete a phoenix life cycle. Witnessed the burning of the nest. Witnessed his rebirth.
Worse, she'd been exposed to the ashes and might have conceived a phoenix. For their race, that's all it took.
Ambrosia might be pregnant.
Reece sighed. He could tell Jonah half the truth. "There was a woman with Wade — involuntarily — who knows too much about us. I'm trying to decide what to do about that."
Jonah's eyes widened.
Excerpted from Ashes by Sarah Gilman, Candace Havens and Marie Loggia-Kee. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Gilman. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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