Hey, everyone! Yesterday I shared the first chapter of The Phoenix Codex, my supernatural romance that’s the first in a series. The ebook is up for pre-order now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble.com, iBooks, and Kobo (and it’s already available in print on Amazon.)

Here’s the next chapter! This is from Jonathan’s point of view, after he’s gone into Cassie’s psyche.

Fair warning: this book isn’t suitable for children or for anyone who dislikes R-rated content. So if it’s not for you, just skip it! Come back to the blog after Tuesday for the usual talk about writing, books, and living a positive life. 🙂


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Jonathan stood facing Cassandra Rios. The scents of creosote and ozone, smoky and fresh, startled him. He was in her psyche, and she was a murderer. He’d been prepared for the smell of blood or rotting flesh, not the desert after rain.

Every person had a unique inner world that reflected their character and their experiences, their pain and their dreams. He looked around him at Cassandra Rios’s psyche. Many-armed ocotillo cacti, fuzzy teddy bear cholla, and rough shrubs dotted a rolling plain. No roads, telephone poles, or other signs of human habitation marred the landscape. No sound intruded upon the silence. Cobalt blue and bright pink streaked the sky, and near the horizon, the clouds glowed orange. Near his feet on a prickly pear cactus, pink-red fruits ripened. They reminded him of hearts.

Doubt coiled in his gut. This wasn’t the soulscape of a killer. At least, it wasn’t like any he’d ever seen. He’d expected ugliness inside her, even if it didn’t show on her outside.

In her photograph in her file, she’d struck Jonathan as more attractive than the usual target. She had big brown eyes, a prominent nose, and long, dark hair, and in the picture, she was laughing and full of life. A pretty woman is just as likely to be evil as anyone else. He’d reminded his younger brother of that on the drive from the middle of New Mexico to Phoenix.

Of course, it had been an imagined conversation, the only kind he could have with Michael now. His brain kept playing tricks on him, though, making him think he would see his brother again, as if he were merely posted in Manila or D.C.

Her soulscape wasn’t perfect. Scarred black trunks of trees covered one mountain. A wildfire had blazed through. But even that looked like damage, clean and simple, more than anything else. What had hurt her?

Wrong question. He had to find out how she’d caused the animal attacks. They couldn’t be a coincidence.

Far in the other direction, about a dozen horses grazed. No saddles, no bridles, some of them tawny, others extravagantly spotted. They threatened no one.

She’s a bruja. This is a trick. He’d never heard of anyone being able to conceal the truth of their own psyche before…but after hundreds of years’ worth of carefully documented missions and the study of ancient and obscure lore, Manus Sancti still occasionally encountered something new.

“You killed me?” Cassandra demanded. “This is heaven?”

“If this were the afterlife, I wouldn’t be here. I’d still be alive.”

“True. And I’m pretty sure serial killers go somewhere worse than this.” If she’d been innocent, he would’ve admired her spirit. “How did you get me out here?”

“It’s not out anywhere. We’re inside you.”

“What?” She closed her eyes as though willing reality to return.

“This is your psyche. It feels familiar, doesn’t it?”

Her brow creased. “You drugged me.”

“You know I didn’t.” This conversation was pointless. With most targets, simply asking them a few questions while inside their psyche proved their guilt. In her case, he’d been assigned to go through her memories first to understand exactly how she was doing the spells.

One of the horses spooked and ran away, and the others followed him in a panic, rumbling toward the far hills. The saturated colors in the clouds tumbled and shifted in a rhythm like music: sapphire, tangerine, fuchsia. A dark hawk cut across the swath of color, not hunting, just flying. He couldn’t remember when he’d been in a more beautiful place.

She said, “You have no right to be here.”

Maybe she was right. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trespassing on sacred ground. “It isn’t what I expected.”

“What did you expect? Oh yeah, you thought I was a witch. Did you think I’d be in some kind of cave? Or some, like, scary castle with flying monkeys?”

“Something like that.” He took a step closer to her. “You’re not able to lie to me now. You can’t even avoid answering me. Let’s watch the coyote attack. You saw that one.” He raised his hand in a slight, beckoning gesture. A huge image appeared on the sky above the mountains, like a giant movie screen. The company picnic at Arroyo Park. Dozens of employees wearing bright blue T-shirts with the corporate motto.

Cassandra said, “I don’t want to watch.” She shouldn’t be able to feign emotions in here, but misery clouded her features.

“You have to.” His voice came out hard. He knew from having his own memories reviewed, perhaps a hundred times in the past, that she could feel herself in the recollection, even as she watched it.

The coyote ran toward the group. A middle-aged man looked up and asked, “Hey, whose dog is that?” Its silver-bronze fur glinted in the sun as it rushed them.

“Run!” a young woman screamed, vacating her spot at the picnic table—Ana, Cassandra’s friend. Jonathan recalled the name and face from the briefing. Others scattered, including Tiffany Daly, but the coyote went right after her, ignoring everyone else. His jaw clamped down on the woman’s calf, and she fell flat on the ground.

Next to Jonathan, Cassandra cringed at the scene. Tiffany’s leg soaked in blood, and her awful, high-pitched screams. She tried to push the coyote away, and it bit her hand, its gory teeth sinking into the flesh. In the memory, Cassandra ran toward Tiffany and the enraged beast. Jonathan straightened. No one had told him she’d done that. Why would she? A show of trying to rescue the other woman so no one would suspect her as a witch?

Cassandra yelled at him, “Make it stop!”

He lifted a finger and the screen abruptly disappeared, leaving only sky.

“What the hell is happening?”

“Not sure.” He folded his arms across his chest in a pretense of detachment, as if he didn’t have a growing sense of dread telling him that he’d made an unpardonable mistake. “Let’s talk about your ex. Why did you two split up?”

The screen materialized again. Richard Belton was driving, and she was in the passenger seat, wearing a red sequined dress that revealed a lot of smooth, golden skin. It was a contrast to the plaid shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots she wore tonight, though that looked great on her, too.

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“Not this.” Her voice had taken on a pleading tone that cut through his defenses.

Not trusting himself to look at her or reply, he shook his head, touching a finger to his lips.

On the screen, she kicked off her stiletto sandals and flexed her feet. As the SUV passed a trio of saguaros with upraised arms wrapped in twinkling colored lights, she said, “That was so much fun.” Glowering at the road, Richard Belton didn’t answer. “What’s wrong?”

“How many beers did you have?” he asked her.

“Three.” He said nothing, and she spread her hands. “What?”

“I thought you had more than that, with the argument you got into.”

“It wasn’t an argument,” she protested. “Your friend’s wife kept telling me how much she loved Mexico and how she’s been to Cancun five times. All I did was tell her I’ve never been to Mexico in my life.”

“It was your tone. You made her uncomfortable.”

Jonathan had to stop himself from shooting Cassandra a look of sympathy.

In the memory, Cassandra said, “That’s not my fault!” She turned the heater down.

Richard Belton dialed it back up. “Don’t you get it? He’s not a friend, he’s a colleague. I have to present a certain image every single day, and it’s like you’re trying to ruin it.”

“All you told me was not to use the f-word. And not to argue with his political views, which, by the way, are completely fucked up.”

Jonathan started to smile at that and caught himself.

“You rolled your eyes at him!”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “You knew when you married me I wasn’t this perfect, polite lady.”

“I thought you would change.”

She threw her hands in the air. “You don’t marry people and then try to change them. I’m just being myself!”

“Well, could you not?” He almost missed the exit, swerved into the right lane, and clipped the car behind them in his blind spot. “Damn it! Look what you made me do!”

The memory wasn’t showing Jonathan anything helpful, and he cut it off. The image flickered and faded to blue sky. He needed to ask more specific questions, like he usually did, instead of indulging his desire to know more about her.

“He was nice to me when we were dating,” Cassandra said. “Just the way he’s nice to his coworkers. But it was all fake. And he wanted me to be fake. And meanwhile, I kept thinking maybe he’d get used to me and—love me for who I was.” She looked away. “Shit. Nothing like a good therapy session with a guy who’s going to blow your head off.”

The words made him wince. “You can’t help but say what you’re thinking in here.”

“I’m not good at that anyway—not saying what I think. That’s why he didn’t love me.”

“He was a jerk,” Jonathan acknowledged. “That didn’t give you the right to murder him.”

“I didn’t!” Her beautiful brown eyes filled with despair.

Jonathan’s heart twisted in his chest. There’s no way that’s an act. They’d been sure she was a murdering witch. Verifying her guilt had been not much more than a formality. Now he didn’t know what to think.

She swallowed. “You said yourself I couldn’t lie here.”

“You shouldn’t be able to. Unless it’s some kind of psychic defense I don’t know about.”

“The only thing I did the day he died was get mad at him.”

Focus. Do your job. “Why?”

“I was mad at him pretty much every day.” That definitely sounded like honesty. “But that day I was especially pissed.”

He lifted a finger to draw another memory out of her. The screen over the mountains showed a picture of Richard Belton, wearing a suit, with his new fiancée, in a fancy courtyard. “This is a photograph?” he asked. “When did you see it?”

“Facebook,” she muttered. “We still had friends in common.” The photo receded, showing the caption beneath. I asked the beautiful, amazing woman of my dreams to marry me and she said YES!! I’ve finally found “the one”!! It had gotten over two hundred likes.

“Ouch,” he said.

“It’s worse than that. Look at the date.” She pointed. “That’s the date we got married. On our last anniversary, I said we could go there. Milagro—it’s the fanciest restaurant in Scottsdale. I didn’t really want to. But we’d been fighting a lot, and I wanted to make things better. He liked fancy places.” She gave a bitter laugh. “And I thought maybe our marriage could use a miracle.” Her file had said she only spoke English, but most people in Phoenix knew some Spanish words here and there, like milagro for miracle.

Cassandra wrapped her arms around herself despite the desert warmth, as though she needed a hug and she was the only one who would give it to her. “He said he was too busy at work to go out on a weeknight, and we could figure out what to do that weekend. But then we had another fight. We never did anything for that last anniversary.”

“But he took his new girlfriend there on your anniversary and proposed to her.”

“On a Tuesday night.” Her cheeks darkened in a humiliated blush. “I found out later from his sister that he had, uh—he started seeing her while we were still married.”

Jonathan’s blood boiled. “I can’t stand cheaters.”

Her eyebrows rose, as if he’d said something crazy. “Me neither.” Of course she was confused. A few minutes ago, he’d been declaring his plans to execute her, and now he was angry on her behalf.

“Were there any incidents with animals while you were still married to him? Things that he knew about?”

“No,” she said. “Nothing like that.”

“And you didn’t send a jaguar after him?” He lifted two fingers with a harder psychic tug. The screen in the sky fuzzed, but nothing appeared. He stared at her, sure now of what he’d suspected ever since he’d entered her soulscape. “You’re not causing the attacks on purpose.”

She threw her hands in the air. “That’s what I’ve been telling you, you fucking psycho!”

“But you are doing it,” he said, more to himself than to her. The stricken look on her face made it clear that she believed him.

Christ help me. This mission was a mess. He’d taken it too soon after the last, disastrous one—to distract himself from it and to begin to atone for it with a job well done. Not that he would ever be able to atone for it, as long as he lived…

And now he’d attacked an innocent woman. She was courageous, with the most breathtaking soulscape he’d ever visited— pure, wild, and free. Life hadn’t treated her well lately, and then he’d come along to make everything truly terrible. He’d tied her up, threatened to kill her, and crashed into her psyche. Yes, he’d done what he’d been sent to do, but that didn’t matter. She’d needed his help.

The best thing he could do for her was stay calm and solve the problem. Even if it wasn’t her fault, they could hardly allow animals to keep attacking anyone who crossed her. If it wasn’t fixed soon, who knew what Capitán Renaud would suggest as a solution, but it might not be good. Jonathan wasn’t sure how he’d convince her to work with him, but he had to try.

“Cassandra,” he said. “I’m sorry.”


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Thanks for reading–I appreciate it so much! I’ll put up the third chapter tomorrow!