Desire can heal the coldest heart--or burn it to ashes.
Alrik Gunn knows from bitter experience that change isn't always for the better. From the woman who annihilated his Viking clan to the goddess who tricked him into centuries of slavery, betrayal has dogged his existence. The Goddess of Love is going to let him avenge his family, but for a price. As a Phoenix--a merchant of change--he must grant a human woman three chances to change her life.
When former Irish dancer Calleigh McCarthy tosses a carved-bird statue that belonged to her ex into a roaring bonfire, she unwittingly summons an honest-to-god Phoenix. A sexy, irresistible Viking who offers her an unbelievable bonus--three get-out-of-her-crappy-life-free cards. She'll take it, even if it means guarding her cautious heart against the dark pain behind Alrik's eyes.
Alrik has vowed never to let love sway him again, but Calleigh's innocence and kindness throw him off balance. Yet even as his need for revenge fades and his love for her grows, he is bound to let her make her choices without interfering.
One wrongly chosen word, and any chance for happiness--for either of them--will go up in flames.
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August 31, 2009
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Excerpt from All Fired Up by Kristen Painter
"Who...how...what..." She licked her lips. The little sense she had left wasn't coming out right. No more wine. She closed her eyes and tried to stop her spinning head. This is nothing to be afraid of. It's just some stress-induced hallucination, some trick my chardonnay-soaked brain is playing on me.
She opened one eye. The wings were gone, but he was still there. Every utterly, completely, jaw-droppingly naked inch of him. Wow. A giddy smile curved her lips. Brad wouldn't like this one bit.
Her hallucination stretched like a man waking up. His serious glacier-blue eyes focused on her. Was his burnished bronze skin as smooth as it looked? Her fingers itched to touch him. She reached for the breakfast bar instead and steadied herself.
A hammered band of gleaming metal encircled one thick biceps. Scars criss-crossed his chest. A spicy, cinnamon scent wafted through the air.
He closed his eyes and rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder. Dark gold locks brushed the top of his collarbone.
As far as hallucinations went, this one was grade A, even with the scars. Actually, the imperfections were a little sexy.
Definitely a hallucination. Men like this didn't exist in real life. He looked like the cover guy off some steamy romance novel, like pure, raw sex. This is what she got for drinking a whole bottle of wine by herself. She cleared her throat.
At the sound, his eyes opened and roved over her body before settling on her face. He made eye contact, the slightest hint of a smile curving his luscious mouth, then looked around the room.
Her hallucination had just checked her out. She snickered. "So are you some sort of angel? Am I in trouble because I haven't been to Mass in two years?"
"Nay, fair one, not an angel. A Phoenix." Low and throaty, the liquid heat of his voice spilled over her skin. Sean Connery had nothing on this guy. She fanned herself.
He leaned back against the mantel like he owned the place.
Get it together, Cal. "You're a what?" She clenched her fist, digging her nails into her skin in an attempt to sober herself up. "I've lost my mind, haven't I? Are there men in white coats outside?"
"I am a Phoenix," he repeated. "And I am here because you summoned me." He bowed slightly then crossed his arms, his muscled shoulders rising like two delicious loaves of man-bread.
She counted his ab muscles. Was it possible to have an eight-pack? Her gaze went lower. Oh my. If you're gonna dream, dream big.
Realizing her mouth hung open, she snapped her head up and her jaw shut. Instant heat flushed her cheeks. Where were her manners? Hallucination or not, staring wasn't polite. Unfortunately.
"I need to sit." She moved to the couch and sank into the cushions. It was hard not to gawk, considering the sad fact that, at twenty-six, she could sum up the number of naked men she'd seen on one hand, unless you counted National Geographic.
"I don't know what a Phoenix is and I don't remember summoning you but..." She snuck a sideways glance and exhaled, long and slow. "This is the best dream I've ever had."
He pushed off the mantel and glanced at the fireplace, his nose wrinkling as he sniffed the air. "Smoke. You cast the talisman into the flames?"
"If you mean that bird thing then yeah. There's a bunch more of Brad's junk I plan to burn too."
He reached into the flames and withdrew the eagle carving, turning it over in his hands. His brows knit together. "So you did summon me, but not with the inscription."
Whoa. Naked and fireproof. "Summoned, conjured, what's the difference?" She waved her hand through the air. "At least you're not a pink elephant. Love the accent. What is that, Scotch? I mean, Scotchish?" She giggled at her intoxicated verbiage, leaned her elbow on the arm of the couch and rested her head on her hand. Maybe wine wasn't such a bad drink after all and maybe a little touching wouldn't hurt. He was just a hallucination, after all.
He frowned as though he were looking at a naughty child. "I am not a Scot."
"Okay, Not-A-Scot, do you have a name? Or do I get to give you one? I should be able to name you since I dreamed you up. How about Hunky McHunkerto--"
"I am called Alrik the Iron."
"The Iron?" Calleigh giggled again. "You do laundry? A naked man who irons. Wow. I should drink more often. Where have you been all my life?"
He smiled. A dazzling, light-up-the-room kind of smile. Toothpaste companies would love this guy. Heat pooled in her core. Heaven help her but she was getting turned on by a figment of her imagination.
"You were free to summon me as soon as you had the talisman." He set the carving on the mantel. "But I am here now, ready to do as you wish."
"Really? Well, then maybe you should put some clothes on, Mr. Iron. You might be a product of my imagination, but I'm not really used to the naked thing. I won't look." She yawned and put her hand over her eyes but peeked between her fingers.
"My name is Alrik." He smirked and bent his head to catch her gaze. "Do you not like me this way?"
"Yesh." Her tongue wasn't working. She snapped her fingers shut to block her view. "I mean no. Well, yes, but it's not polite."
She moved her hand and glanced at him again, but there was no safe place to focus. He came closer, stopping at the end of the coffee table. She forced her gaze up from the now eye-level parts of him and stared into his icy blue eyes. So beautiful. He stood still, seemingly content to let her look.
Shifting her gaze only inches lower this time, she studied his chest. Ragged scars marred his tawny skin. The worst one ran directly over his heart. How did you survive a wound like that?
He smiled gently and knelt on the red Persian carpet that covered most of her living room floor. Close enough to touch.
She reached out and smoothed her fingers over the scar. The heat of the pebbled skin made her shiver. She pulled her hand back. He felt amazingly real. "You should really put some clothes on," she mumbled.
He shrugged, the muscles cording in his arms. "I have nothing to put on."
Of course he didn't. But that was her fault, wasn't it? "Okay, well you should probably poof out of here. I'm really sleepy and, I think, a little thrunk. I mean drunk. Or maybe I'm already asleep. Or a lot drunk." She rubbed her eyes and yawned.
"Poof?" His forehead wrinkled. "What does this mean?"
"Disappear." She waved her hand. "Make some more smoke and go away."
He nodded in understanding, but then shook his head, a new frown on his face. "Nay, you summoned me. I must stay until your three changes are granted."
"Three changes? I don't get it. Wait, don't answer that yet." She stood up. The room tilted. She made it to the wall and steadied herself before shuffling to the linen closet. She grabbed a blue plaid flannel sheet and headed back to the couch, trailing one hand along the chair rail for support.
"Here." She tossed the sheet in his direction. "Wrap that around yourself so I can look at you without needing to go to confession." She plopped back down on the couch, this time on the farthest side from him.
He caught the sheet as he stood up. He shook it out, stared at it, then folded the fabric in half and pleated it around his waist like a kilt. Not a bad look.
She yawned again. The wine was knocking her out. What had they been talking about? Chances? Changes? Changes. That was it. "Okay, explain these three changes."
"I am a Phoenix. Those who summon me desire their life to be reborn. I offer you three chances to do that."
"I get three wishes?" She grinned. "You're a genie?" She peered behind him. "Where's your bottle?"
He scowled. "Nay, I am not a genie. The Jinn are deceitful tricksters. I am a Phoenix. We are honorable."
"We?" She looked behind him again. There was no one else in the room. "Um, okay. Isn't a phoenix some sort of bird that burns up every couple of hundred years, only to be reborn out of its own ashes?"
A grin lit his face. "Very good."
She shrugged. "I read Harry Potter."
"You read? That is impressive." He raised his eyebrows before continuing. "I do not know this Harry you speak of but you are right. The phoenix is a bird, but I am a Phoenix as well."
Did he just say he was a bird? "I'm definitely integrated. Intoxicated." She shook her head.
"Alrik," he corrected, a frustrated frown on his face.
"Alrik, phoenix guy, hallucination thingy, could you get out of my head now?" She sighed. "I mean, you're really cute but I've had a crappy week and I really need some sleep that doesn't involve dreams about men. Of any kind."
"I cannot leave until the three changes are granted." By the serious set of his jaw, she assumed he meant what he said. Pretty convincing for a hallucination.
"Hey, it's all good. You can go. Or shift me into a dream about chocolate being calorie-free. That would work, too. Whatever. I'm going to dream myself into bed now." Yawning, she got up, wobbling as the floor shifted beneath her. She grabbed the arm of the couch, straightened herself then tightened her robe.
He moved around the coffee table and came toward her. "Please, sit. I will explain. I am here to help."
She backed up. "I don't see how a drunken fantasy is going to change my life. Unless I start telling people about you...that would do it."
"I am real." He took another step.
She edged around the couch to put distance between herself and the impossibly sexy apparition coming toward her.
Her thigh connected with the sharp corner of the end table. "Ow!" A lamp crashed onto the sofa, and she pitched backward. Two strong arms and a warm lap cushioned her fall. She looked up into blue eyes filled with concern.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
"How did you...you were just over there." She pointed lamely in the direction of the coffee table. What was that scent? She sniffed him. "You smell like red-hots."
His warmth seeped through her chenille robe and she couldn't help but think again how real he felt. Were hallucinations warm?
He lifted her to her feet, one thick, muscled arm behind her back and one rough hand holding hers.
Her thigh throbbed where she'd run into the edge of the table. No doubt a nasty bruise in the making. She hiked up her robe to see if she'd broken the skin. A big red welt marked her flesh. "That's not going to be pretty."
A low throaty sigh filled her ears. She glanced at him. His gaze was anchored on her bare legs, his mouth slightly parted. She dropped her robe. He had to be a hallucination if the sight of her bare legs got that kind of response out of him. Real men reacted to her like she was tuna surprise, not filet mignon.
"Let me explain. This will be easier if you understand," he said.
Yawning again, she nodded. Her head swam with the need for sleep. Must be the dream was about to end. "'Kay. You're cute. Too bad you're not real."
He snatched her hand, and planted it on the thick scar across his chest. "Does my heart not beat? Am I not warm with the blood that runs through my veins? I am real, fair eyes. I am most definitely real."
The winsome lass kept her hand on his chest for only a moment before tugging it back. Her beautiful bronze eyes filled with confusion. Color spread across her cheeks. Maybe she had not summoned him on purpose after all. Well, it mattered not. He was here now.
"You can't be real." She tumbled down onto the couch, settled onto the cushions, and tucked her feet beneath her.
The sight of her long legs, pale as new silk, heated his blood. Dark red curls spilled over her shoulders and into her eyes. She brushed them back, succeeding only in loosening a few more. His hands yearned to tangle in those curls.
By Odin's good eye, she was a lovely creature, as curved and shapely as any woman he'd known. How long had it been since a woman's scent had perfumed his skin?
Dagny's image flickered in his mind.
Beautiful, deceitful betrayer.
A bitter taste filled his mouth. The scar over his heart burned. No woman would ever sway him that way again.
The lass stared at him, her sleepy bronze eyes focused on his chest. He realized his hand rested on the fatal scar. He eased his hand away, but her gaze stayed fixed.
"Tha' musta hurt." Her words slurred, her lids fluttered downward.
"Aye." He had a feeling he was not going to explain much tonight. "What is your name, lass?"
"Calleigh," she mumbled. "Calleigh Siobhan McCarthy." Her head bobbed. "You're just a dream, aren't you?" she whispered.
"Aye. Go to sleep now." Perhaps it was best she thought that until he truly knew he was supposed to be here.
Her eyes closed, and her head tipped back against the cushions. Soft, sighing breaths slipped from her rose-colored lips.
He looked at the goblet on the table and grinned. How much wine had she drunk? More than she aught.
Calleigh Siobhan McCarthy. A daughter of Eire, yet she claimed not to have summoned him. Another of Freya's tricks perhaps? The goddess's strange and oft cruel sense of humor was well known among the Brotherhood. Either she or Eros would know if this woman was really meant to be his next charge.
Alrik scooped the slumbering lass into his arms. She smelled so sweet his mouth watered. Did all the women of this time smell like confections? She nuzzled against him. Her robe shifted, revealing the creamy swell of her breast. He looked away too late. His groin tightened. The goddess of love had a hand in this, that much he was sure. Foolish Freya, always amusing herself with the lives of mortals.
Once Calleigh was tucked into her bed, Alrik shut the door to her bedchamber. Time to confront Freya and see what game the goddess played.
He went back to the room he had first entered and stood before the fireplace. He spoke to the air, his lips quirked in a knowing smile. "How kind of you, Freya, to give me such a beautiful charge, perhaps even more beautiful than you--"
In a soundless flash of light, the room around him disappeared, replaced by the glorious halls of Valhalla.
"You would not dare speak such a thing, Viking. Not if you ever wish to fulfill your service to me." Freya reclined on a chaise in her throne room. Thick waves of rose-gold hair spilled over her alabaster shoulders. Jeweled brooches fastened the slip of pleated white silk she was almost not wearing. So sheer was the fabric of her gown, the blush of her nipples showed through. She was more Venus today than Freya. Despite her blatant display, he felt nothing. The goddess's charms came at too high a price.
Behind her, on a perch of gold and jasper, roosted the Phoenix bird. Feathers the color of a sunset adorned the hawk-sized creature. He knew well the powerful magic in those feathers.
"Goddess, I did not mean to imply--"
"You most certainly did." She tipped her face up, the brilliant lazuline of her irises as startling as every other shade her changeable blue eyes were capable of. "You sought my company. Now you have it. Do not waste my time, Phoenix. I am busy."
Propped on pillows on the marble floor alongside Freya's chaise, a naked Eros scowled, obviously less than pleased at being seen in such a subservient position. He yanked a silk coverlet over his hips.
Alrik nodded to the demi-god and averted his eyes in what he hoped Eros would understand as respect. Under no circumstance did he wish to invoke the lesser god's wrath.
His chieftain blood revolted at her haughty tone, but he thought of the day he would have his vengeance on Dagny. The day when Freya would grant him his freedom and his own second chance. The promise of that day calmed him but not enough to unclench his jaw.
"Aye, goddess," he ground the words out, fists tamped against his thighs. "I would ask a question of you."
She leaned back on her chaise and trailed one delicate foot across Eros's tanned hip, dragging the coverlet off. He yanked the silk back, but Freya seemed not to notice. She dropped her hand to his head and lazily combed her fingers through the demi-god's blond curls. "So ask."
"My charge claims not to have summoned me, and I think she speaks the truth. Perhaps there has been some mistake?"
"Are you implying I make mistakes, Viking?" Her hand fisted in Eros's flaxen locks, causing him to grimace.
"Nay. Never. But it has been almost a century and a half since my talisman was stolen and I was summoned. I think it came to this new charge accidentally." As much as he wanted time away from the goddess, he did not want to burden a mortal unnecessarily.
She relaxed, again petting Eros. "So the talisman has shown up." She shrugged. "Your duty remains the same, no matter who summons you. Three changes must be granted before you may leave."
He nodded. He would do his job, as he always did, without question, without issue, always focused on the day he would be free. This time would be no different.
The goddess spread her fingers possessively over Eros's chest and gazed at the god of love like he was a sweet to be savored. Completely occupied, Freya waved her hand. "You are dismissed."
Alrik again stood in front of Calleigh's fireplace.
The goddess was doing this on purpose. He knew it with every bit of warrior's intuition in his bones. She would not forgive his rejecting her and most likely, would continue to make earning his freedom a most difficult task. He clenched his hands. No one would stop him from getting his revenge.
Especially not a woman.