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Crystal Inman* Bestselling Author

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Fire Goddess-Prologue and Chapter 1

Prologue

 

The four Guardians looked down at Earth with hope in their eyes.

“We’re never going to find four women.” Kendra sighed. Her blue eyes were sad as she looked at her sisters. She shook her head slowly back and forth, and her blonde hair brushed against her sapphire gown.

“Nonsense,” Wilda protested. Her green eyes flashed determinedly in her face. “We only have to look a little harder. I’m tired of being stuck on this damn cloud. I want a promotion, and I’m getting one.”

“Calm down,” Eden said. The oldest sister’s voice soothed the other three. Her deep brown eyes held knowledge far beyond her years. She pinned her chestnut hair back and looked at each sister in turn. “No need to tie yourself in knots. We all know what is at stake. And I, for one, am ready to find our newest recruits.” She looked at Tempest. “What do you say?”

“I say it’s about time,” Tempest blew out a breath. Her crystal blue eyes missed nothing as she peered down at the mortals again. “Are we drawing straws or the usual order?”

“Usual,” Wilda said and shrugged. “I don’t mind being first.”

Silence fell over the four Guardians. They joined hands, waved the clouds away gently, and peered down intently at Earth. Billions of people went about their lives as if there were nothing monumental being planned for four of them. Men and women worked. Children played. Everyone was oblivious to the decisions being made far above them.

Their only hope of moving up in their power was to prove themselves worthy. Each Guardian selected a woman to mentor and mold into a success. The Guardians could gift the mortal woman twice and only use her powers to assist, never control. Each guardian would be judged on the mortal’s success with health, home, and heart. But the hardest part of being a Guardian was having to involve herself in the mortal’s life and influence decisions.

It was a lot harder than they had originally thought. The mortals had a mind of their own and didn’t care much for listening to a complete stranger tell them how to live their lives. But the Guardians had no choice. They were required to all pass the test before any of them could move into the higher levels with greater responsibilities.

For over one hundred years, they tried. And not once did all four achieve success together. One would succeed, but not the next. Three would succeed, but not the last. They were growing more agitated by the year. Patience had long since run out. They needed action. They needed a damn miracle.

Wilda examined the women on Earth closely. As the Guardian with the shortest patience and fiercest temper, she knew she could not stand an insipid student. Her twelfth pick was almost her undoing. It was all she could do not to torch the idiot. The stupid woman ran around wringing her hands and bemoaning her fate. Wilda had come back to the cloud and apologized for her blatant stupidity. She did better with her subsequent picks, but that was not the problem. It was all four of them finding a woman, not simply one. Each Guardian must do her part or none would be rewarded.

If they succeeded, they were gifted with a bracelet that strengthened their power. If all four met their tasks, then their collective power could never be denied or taken.

“How about that one?” Kendra pointed to a young woman in Seattle. She was struggling to open her house with her arms full of groceries.

Tempest snorted and tossed her long, ebony hair. “If she doesn’t know how to put down her groceries in order to obtain entry to her house, I wouldn’t want to deal with her.”

Eden rolled her eyes and sighed. “Maybe she’s in a hurry, Tempest. You’re always quick to judge. Sometimes things are not as they appear.” She pointed down to a small town in Michigan. “How about her?”

Wilda’s eyes narrowed. “The blonde with the plastic surgery frequent flyer miles? No thanks.” She scanned the rest of the state with a sigh. This was becoming extremely difficult. If she didn’t choose a suitable candidate she would doom the other women to another year before they could pick again.

She concentrated. She needed a woman with spirit. A fire to match her own. A love for life. Wilda touched her wild titian hair. A redhead. Her lips lifted into a smile. Those were always interesting. Her gaze narrowed and then sharpened.

“I’ve found her,” she announced.

The three other Guardians gathered around to look at their first hope.

Kendra put her hand over her mouth in shock. “You must be kidding! Wilda! Really. How in the world are you supposed to break through to a woman like that?”

Tempest snickered. “Get your gown out of a twist, Kendra. Wilda knows what she’s doing.” She gave her sister a measured look. “Don’t you?”

“Yes.” Wilda’s tone was certain and unyielding.

“You can pick again,” Kendra reminded her. “The bargain has not yet struck.”

“I like this one. She has spirit.” Wilda looked at her sisters and smiled reassuringly. “Do not fear. She will pass.”

“Oh, Wilda.” Eden sighed. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

They watched as Wilda changed her appearance to match her task. Her beautiful red hair pulled back into a chignon. Her red silk gown transformed into a modern day pantsuit. Her emerald eyes lit from within as the total conversion took place. No longer did Wilda resemble the immortal she was. She appeared to be no different than her charge.

Tempest grinned at her sister. “You are still too lovely by far to be on Earth. What happens if things backfire?”

Wilda smoothed down her hair. “I will place a small spell. None will be interested in me. I will appear normal by their standards.” She looked at each of her sisters in turn. “Do not worry so. I will be back. And then it will be your turn, Kendra.” She kissed each on the cheek in turn and nodded briefly. Wilda disappeared.

Tempest shook her head, and her blue eyes were worried. “I hope she’s not bitten off more than she can chew. Did you see that woman?”

“Yes,” Eden smiled. “I saw her. But as I like to say, ‘Things are not always as they appear’.”

 

 


Chapter 1

 

“You miserable, worthless man! How dare you come over here and try to speak to me?” The woman’s emerald eyes snapped. She looked down her slim nose at the man in front of her. It wasn’t easy as the man was at least six inches taller than she was. But her haughty pose managed it. His dark blue eyes met her gaze without flinching, and she barked out a laugh.

“You are nothing,” she spat out. Several of the partygoers turned to watch Felicia Hawthorne decimate another man. Many men shook their head in sympathy. Most women looked at the young man with pity. The venom simply poured out of the wealthy woman’s crimson-painted mouth. She circled the interloper slowly, sneering.

He met her gaze unflinchingly. “You’ve lived this decadent life far too long.” His voice was calm and matter-of-fact. The young, olive-skinned man gestured to the costly paintings and elaborate furniture. He looked into the faces of the elite crowd. “You’ve forgotten the simple things. I know there’s more to you than this.” He gestured at her expensive dress and jewelry. “Let me help you.”

“This is a private party.” The woman trembled in outrage. “Take your backwoods ass out of my sight. James!” She snapped her fingers, and a large man in a gray suit stepped forward. “Take this trash to the curb. I have no use for him.” She whirled around, dismissing him.

Sloan watched the scene in silence. Bob came over, grinning. “Isn’t she great?”

Sloan arched an eyebrow. “My balls are bruised from over here.”

Bob chuckled and nodded. “Felicia can put the screws to any guy. It’s a gift.” Both men watched as the man she verbally shredded was helped outside. He struggled the entire time.

“Cut!” the producer yelled. “That’s a wrap. Same time tomorrow, kids.”

Everybody began milling around, and Sloan glanced at the actress out of the corner of his eye. The turquoise dress she wore for the scene probably cost more than his work truck. Her auburn hair, more red than brown, was pulled up to accent the huge, blue stone nestled between her beautiful breasts. She was a magnificent picture until she opened her mouth.

Bob walked toward the actress with his hands out. “Come here, darling. Meet the man who’s building your castle.”

Kelly inwardly sighed but managed a small smile for Bob. The production designer was pure genius. Their sets were the talk of the soap opera world. Besides, she liked the lively little man. He was constantly on the move and always smiling. Just a little chit-chat, and I can take these damn heels off.

Bob led her over to Sloan, grinning like a proud papa. “Sloan Davenport, meet Kelly Marshall.”

Sloan smiled and held out his hand. Kelly moved a foot forward and winced. The smile faded from the man’s face as he looked at his hand covered in sawdust. His eyes narrowed, and then he dropped the hand and simply nodded.

Kelly watched him and nearly groaned. He thinks I don’t want to shake hands with him? All because of a little sawdust? Hell. Spare me. Where she came from, she stepped in cow crap on a regular basis. She didn’t bother to correct him. If she did not get these shoes off in the next five minutes, it wouldn’t be pretty. Kelly learned long ago to not complain. So she bit back her pain and nodded politely.

She studied the construction man discreetly beneath her lids. Tall. His shoulders were broad and muscular. The blue shirt he had on stretched across his upper body, and his jeans had wood stains and rips in them. Those hazel eyes looked at her blandly.

Bob was too busy thumbing through the sketchpad to notice any tension. He looked up at Kelly and frowned. There were dark circles under her eyes, and she looked pale. He softly patted her shoulder. “Another time, darlin’. Go change clothes, and go home.” She hugged him gratefully and retreated to her dressing room.

“She’s real interested, Bob,” Sloan’s voice broke in.

“She’s had a long day, Sloan. We’ll catch her another time.”

“Playing dress-up and verbally abusing men must just wear her smooth out.”

Bob looked at him oddly. “It’s a character. You don’t actually think she’s like that, do you?”

Sloan shrugged, unconcerned. “I really don’t care either way. I’m only here to build sets.”

“I thought you were a better judge of character.” Bob rolled his eyes. “Your sister is the one who has questionable tastes.”

The other man threw back his head and laughed. “I tried to talk her out of marrying you, but she just wouldn’t listen.”

“Just goes to prove my point.” Bob grinned.

* * * *

Felicia Hawthorne, bitch of Montgomery, was done for the day. Kelly changed out of her costume as quickly as possible. She briefly thought about setting fire to the damned heels, but refrained, as she couldn’t think of a plausible explanation to give the costume designer. Marge would strangle her. It was almost worth it. That woman continually brought in shoes that made Kelly’s five foot four inch body seem taller.

But the price was sore feet. Crying feet. Feet that wondered what in the hell they had done to deserve this kind of treatment. She grinned as she buried the offensive shoes deeply in her closet.

Kelly hummed as she pulled on jeans, a T-shirt, and her flip-flops. She slapped a ball cap on her head and pulled her ponytail through the back. She slipped on her dark sunglasses and grinned at herself in the mirror. Free at last.

 Kelly strolled out of her dressing room and walked briskly toward the exit when she saw him. The construction man was flipping through the sketches and making notes. She really should go and apologize for the misunderstanding, but she was so tired. Tomorrow. I’ll make nice tomorrow.

Kelly left the soundstage and hopped into her red king cab truck and rolled down the windows. The guard on the lot waved to her as she pulled out of the drive. She waved back with a grin. The music she’d been dying to listen to poured out of her many speakers, and she drove herself home.

Palm trees flew by her window, and she could smell the orange groves. People on skates and bikes used the bike trails on the side of the road. She swore once when a small, blue mustang cut out in front of her. He waved briefly, and she considered flattening him and his toy car against the pavement for fun but thought better of it. The tabloids would have a field day.

The drive gave her time to unwind and leave work at work. Some days she took more of Felicia home than she wanted. Her feet were mildly throbbing. Guess this was one of those days. She pulled into her driveway and opened the electronic gate.

The sight of her home brought a smile to her face. It was a large, four-bedroom, brick house. There were two full baths, and she had a spa in her room. She employed a gardener to come and spruce things up once a week. He planted gladiolas and irises this time. They were beginning to bloom.

Her gate closed automatically behind her, and she smiled. One of the best buys she ever made. It kept her safe. There were too many people who wanted to be close to Felicia Hawthorne. Those people didn’t quite understand that Kelly wasn’t Felicia.

There had been a time about four months ago when she would have laughed at the notion of anyone wanting to hurt her. Never again. She had come home to find a fan actually waiting at her front door to warn her never to sleep with one of the characters on the soap again. It had been a nightmare.

Kelly drove her truck into the double garage and killed the engine. She eyed the six steps from the garage to inside the house with disdain. Some insensitive bastard of an architect obviously never walked in killer heels for eight hours.

Kelly cursed roundly as she walked up the half a dozen steps and opened the door. But the curses turned to smiles as she kicked off her sandals and let her feet plunge into her thick, off-white carpet. Her eyes closed in bliss. Home at last.

Okay. Sometimes Felicia was useful. Kelly remembered all too well living in a beaten-down house without carpeting not so very long ago. She looked around her gorgeous home, pleased. She hired an interior decorator and asked them to use her favorite colors. The walls were eggshell blue. Two of the bedrooms were decorated in shades of green. The other two, including hers, were shades of yellow.

Pictures of flowers and ladies of luxury dotted her walls. Several garden scenes reminded her of home, and she put those opposite the garage door so they were the first things she saw.

Kelly shuffled into her country kitchen and threw some leftover egg rolls and Hawaiian chicken into the microwave. Cooking was a luxury. A luxury left to weekends, usually. And not workdays.

Kelly looked around at her shiny appliances. A new stove, microwave, and sink were practically unused. She felt a small bit of guilt, but reality reared its head. Maybe she’d have the folks out and cook. Lord knows she never invited anyone else here.

The microwave dinged, and she pulled the food out and forked it onto a paper plate. No dishes, either. She grinned as she walked down her carpeted steps into the sunken living room. Kelly balanced the food on her lap and ate while she watched the local and national news.

When she finished eating, she tossed the paper plate and utensils in the trash. Maybe she’d call Mom. Glancing at the clock, she grimaced. It would be ten o’clock there. Her mom would already be in bed. Kelly made a little mental note to call this weekend and see how her parents were doing. Ask about the farm.

Her fingers plucked on the threads of one of her table napkins. Sometimes she wished she had brought an animal back from there. A kitten. A puppy. Something to keep her company.

She looked around the large house and sighed. The poor creature would be terribly lonely. She was gone all day long most days. And it wouldn’t have anyone to keep it company. Better for her to wait. Not every creature liked a life of solitude. Maybe she’d opt for goldfish. Low-maintenance. Flushable. Kelly shook her head, grinning. Something to think about at a later time.

A hot shower was exactly what she needed right now. She walked into her room and turned on the light. The master bedroom was adorned in everything from a creamy butter to a sunny yellow. A large four-poster bed was decorated with pillows of every shape and size. Kelly opened her window and let the breeze flow through her chiffon curtains. She quickly stripped out of her clothes and walked into the bathroom. Her spa tub called to her, and she smiled. Maybe a soak.

Kelly turned on the water and let the tub fill up. She added her bath salts and lit some candles. She put her hair up and walked back into the bedroom. Too quiet. She put on some classical music and swayed softly to the beat. Perfect.

She dipped her finger into the water and smiled. It was ready. She climbed inside the tub and eased her body down. The day’s tension melted away as she let her mind drift.

Good day at work. Her character was setting the groundwork for sweeps week. The producers weren’t telling her all the details, but they were teasing her with words like “awards” and “recognition.” For the last four years, she worked her ass off to make a name for herself. The award was nice, but a job doing that she loved was even better.

She remembered the early years on the farm and trying to explain her dreams to her family. They were supportive, but they were also scared for her. What hope did a small-town Oklahoma girl with a farming background have landing a part on any television show? They were sure she would be hurt. And rejected. And scorned. And she was. But she never gave up.

An open call for a new character on a soap opera changed her life. One minute she was Kelly Renee Marshall, farm girl. The next she was Felicia Hawthorne, ingénue. That evolved quickly into a character that took on a life of its own. Felicia promptly slept her way to the top of the heap and used her conniving ways to stay there. Each new storyline the writers gave her only broadened her spectrum as an actress.

And now they were touting her chances of winning a major award. The Sparks was an enormous soap opera event. Fans from all over the world voted on their favorite actors and scenes. The whole soap opera world waited breathlessly to see the results. It was great fun but so nerve-wracking.

Kelly had been nominated for the past three years but never won. It was to the point now of simply dressing up nicely and drinking water while her cast mates inhaled bottle after bottle of champagne as they danced with people she didn’t remember. Alcohol was something she didn’t indulge in at all. She had seen too many people act like fools when they were in their cups. But her writers pushed her presence every year at the awards, and she obliged. All part of the job.

Part of the job. The words flitted across her brain, and she sank lower into the tub. Sometimes, just sometimes, this job was a rather large pain in her ass. She stuck one foot up out of the water and grimaced. But tomorrow was an early day. And she needed to make nice with the set guy.

Bob brought him in especially for the sweeps and to build the castle where Felicia would be held prisoner by the love of her life. She would be taught a lesson in the finer points of love, and her fans would eat up every second of it.

The set guy had nice eyes. They were either brown or hazel, with green flecks shot through them. His brown hair was cut short and cropped close to his head. His face was angular, and he had ridiculously high cheekbones. They seemed improbable for a man. What did Bob say his name was? Sam? Shawn? It escaped her. She should probably pay more attention. Perhaps next time she would when she wasn’t dying a slow, painful death in heels.

But his hands…her thoughts trailed back to their meeting. His hands were strong. Capable. She noticed a man’s hands first. Her fascination stemmed from growing up around men who worked with their hands for a living. What they would feel like on my skin? Kelly involuntarily shivered in the tub. What is wrong with me? Daydreaming about the set man. God, she was in a bad way.

She saw his hands in her mind again. His nails were cut short, and his fingertips were blunt and obviously used to hard work. There were several scratches and marks across the top and bottom of both. She would find out his name tomorrow. He was, after all, going to build her castle.

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