New York City
JOSEPHINA AISLING PEERED down at the male splayed across the motel room bed. He was an immortal warrior, beautiful in a way no mortal could ever hope to be. Silky hair of jet, chestnut and flax spilled over the pillow, the multicolored strands forming a flawless tapestry, inviting the eye to linger a minute, then a minute more...sweet mercy, why not forever?
His name was Kane. He had long, boyish lashes, a strong nose and a stubborn chin. At six feet four, he was cut with the kind of muscle only earned on the bloodiest of battlefields. Though he wore stained and dirty pants, she knew a large butterfly tattoo dominated the right side of his hip, the ink thick and black, a little jagged. The tops of the wings stretched over the material and every so often tiny waves rippled through them, as though the insect struggled to lift from his skin-or burrow deeper.
Either was possible. The tattoo was a mark of absolute, utter evil, a visible sign of the demon contained inside Kane's body.
Demon...she shuddered. Rulers of hell. Liars, thieves. Murderers. They were darkness without any hint of light. They lured and tempted. They ruined, tortured and destroyed.
But Kane wasn't the demon.
Like all of her race, the mighty Fae, she had spent a good portion of her life studying Kane and his friends-the Lords of the Underworld. In fact, at the command of the Fae king, spies had spent countless centuries following the warriors, watching and reporting back. Scribes had then printed books with stories and pictures of what they'd witnessed. Mothers had bought those books and read them to their children. Then, when those children had grown up, they had made their own purchases, the need to know what happened next too strong to ignore.
The Lords of the Underworld had become the stars of the best and the worst soap opera in Séduire, the realm of the Fae.
Josephina always ate up every detail. Especially those about the ultra sexy Paris and the devastatingly lonely Torin. Kane, the beautiful tragedy, was a close third. She could probably recite his life history better than she could her own.
He was thousands of years old. He'd only had four serious girlfriends in his lifetime. Although, for a while, he'd had a string of meaningless one-night stands. He'd fought in bloody battle after bloody battle with his enemy, the Hunters. Three times, they'd managed to capture and torture him-and she'd waited, breathless, to hear of his escape.
Going back even further, to the beginning, he and his friends had stolen and opened Pandora's box, unleashing the demons from inside. The Greeks had been in power at the time, and they'd decided to punish the warriors by turning their bodies into receptacles for the very evil they'd freed. Kane carried Disaster. The others carried Promiscuity, Disease, Distrust, Violence, Death, Pain, Wrath, Doubt, Lies, Misery, Secrets and Defeat. Each creature came with a nearly debilitating curse.
Promiscuity had to sleep with a new woman every day or he weakened and died.
Disease couldn't touch another living creature without starting a plague.
Disaster caused catastrophes everywhere Kane went, a fact that sliced at Josephina's heart and resonated deep. Her entire life was a disaster.
"Don't touch me," he muttered, his voice a sharp, callous rasp. Powerful legs kicked the already battered sheets away. "Hands off. Stop. I said stop!"
Poor Kane. Another nightmare plagued him.
"No one's touching you," she assured him. "You're safe."
He calmed, and she released a relieved breath.
When she'd first stumbled upon him, he'd been chained to a dais in hell, his chest cavity split open, his ribs spread and exposed, his wrists and ankles hanging on by fraying tendons.
He'd looked like a slab of beef at the local butcher's.
I'll have a two-pound rump roast and a pound of ground chuck.
Gross. Just gross. I'm thoroughly disgusted with you. Over the years, she'd spent so much time alone, conversing with herself had become her only source of amusement...and sadly, companionship. I would have ordered four pounds of pork loin.
Despite his condition, finding him was the best thing to ever happen to her. He was her ticket to freedom. Or possibly...acceptance?
Princess Synda, her half sister and the Fae's most bestest female ever born, wasn't a Lord, but she carried the demon of Irresponsibility. Apparently, there had been more demons than naughty, box-stealing warriors, and the excess had been given to the inmates of Tartarus-an underground prison for immortals. Synda's first husband had been one of those inmates, and somehow, when the male had died, the demon had wormed its way inside her.
When the king of the Fae had learned of it, he'd launched a hunt for details about the cause-and the solution. So far, everyone had come up empty.
I could bring Kane to a meeting of the Fae High Court, show him off, let him answer any questions the congregation has, and my father might see me, really see me, for the first time in my life.
Her shoulders drooped. No, I'm not ever going back.
Josephina had always been, and would always be the royal whipping girl, there to receive the punishments Synda the Beloved was due.
Synda was always due.
Last week, in a fit of temper, the princess had burned to the ground the royal stables, and all of the animals trapped inside. Josephina's sentence? A ticket to the Never-ending-a portal leading into hell.
There, a day was like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, so, for what had seemed like an endless eternity, she had fallen down, down, down a blackened pit. She had screamed, but no one had heard. Had begged for mercy, but no one had cared. Had cried, but had never found an anchor.
Then, she and another girl had landed in the center of hell.
How startling to realize she'd never actually been alone.
The girl had been a Phoenix, a race descended from the Greeks. Every full-blooded warrior possessed the ability to rise from the dead, time and time again, growing stronger after every resurrection-until the final death came, and there could be no more bodily restoration.
Kane began to thrash and moan again.
"I'm not going to let anything happen to you," she told him.
Again, he stilled.
If only the Phoenix had responded to her so well. When the girl had first seen her, hatred had lanced at her, hatred going far beyond what the children of the Titans-like Josephina-and the children of the Greeks usually felt for each other. But even still, the Phoenix hadn't tried to kill her, had instead allowed her to follow her through the cave, searching for the exit, without having to exert any of her own waning energy. Like Josephina, she'd just wanted out.
They had stumbled past crimson-splattered walls, inhaling the fetid stink of sulfur. Grunts and groans had reverberated in their ears, creating a terrible symphony their deprived senses hadn't been ready for. Then they'd stumbled upon the mutilated warrior. Josephina had recognized him, despite his condition, and stopped.
Awe had filled her. There, in front of her-her!-had been one of the infamous Lords of the Underworld. She hadn't known how she could help him, when she could barely help herself, but she'd been determined to try. Whatever proved necessary.
A lot had proven necessary.
She looked at him. "You were my first and only opportunity to achieve my new greatest desire," she admitted, "something I definitely couldn't do on my own. And as soon as you wake up, I'm going to need you to make good on your promise."
She sighed, quieted. She brushed her fingertips over his brow.
Even in his sleep, he flinched. "Don't," he snarled. "I'll destroy you, piece by piece. You and your entire family."
He wasn't bragging, wasn't issuing a hollow threat. He would ensure it happened, and he would probably smile the entire time.
Probably? Ha! He would. Typical Lord.
"Kane," she said, and again, he calmed. "I think maybe it's time to wake you up. My family is out there, and they want me back. While a thousand years passed for me inside that pit, only a day passed for them. Since I failed to return to Séduire, Fae soldiers are probably hunting me."
To add to her bowl of miserypuffs, the Phoenix was definitely hunting her, determined to enslave her and avenge the wrong Josephina had done her during their escape.
"Kane." She gently shook his shoulder. His skin was shockingly soft and exquisitely smooth, yet also feverishly hot, the muscles beneath as tight and firm as grenades. "I need you to open your eyes."
Long lashes flipped up, revealing gold-and-emerald irises glassed over and dulled. A second later, big masculine hands wrapped around her neck and tossed her to her back. The mattress bounced, even with her slight weight. She offered no resistance as Kane rolled on top of her, pinning her in place. He was heavy, his grip so tight she couldn't breathe in the rose scent she'd come to associate with him. An odd fragrance for a male, and one she didn't understand.
"Who are you?" he snarled. "Where are we?"
He's speaking directly to me. Me!
She tried to reply, couldn't.
He loosened his hold.
There. Better. Deep breath in. Out. "For starters, I'm your amazing and wonderful rescuer." Since receiving compliments had died with her mother, she'd decided to give them to herself at every opportunity. "Release me, and we'll work out the particulars."
"Who," he demanded, squeezing her tighter.
Black winked through her line of sight. Her lungs burned, desperate for air, but still she offered no resistance.
"Female." The pressure eased again. "Answer. Now."
"Caveman. Free. Now," she retorted as she sucked in oxygen.
Could you watch your mouth, please? You don't want to scare him away.
He jerked away from her to crouch at the end of the bed. His gaze remained on her, watching intently as she slowly sat up. A red flush colored his cheeks, and she wondered if he was embarrassed by his actions or simply struggling to hide the weakness still pumping through him.
"You have five seconds, female."
"Or what, warrior? You'll hurt me?"
"Yes." Determined. Assured.
Silly man. Would it be totally gauche of her to ask him to sign her T-shirt? "Don't you remember what you promised me?"
"I didn't promise you anything," he said, and though his tone was confident, his features darkened with confusion.
"You did. Think back to your last day in hell. It was you, me and a couple thousand of your worst enemies."
His brows drew together, and his eyes glazed with remembrance, comprehension...then horror. He shook his head, as though desperate to dislodge the thoughts now swirling through his mind. "You weren't serious. You couldn't have been serious."
He popped his jaw, an action of frustrated aggression. "What's your name?"
"I think it's better if you don't know. That way, there's no emotional attachment and you can more easily do what I require."
"I never actually said I'd do it," he gritted out. "And why are you looking at me like that?"
"Like I'm...a giant box of chocolates."
"I've heard of you," she said, and left it at that. Truth, without explanation.
"Hardly. If you'd heard anything about me, you'd be running away in fear."
Oh, really? "I know that during the many wars you've fought, your friends often left you behind, afraid you'd cause some kind of travesty for them. I know you often keep yourself shut away from the world, terrified of the same. And yet, still you've managed to slay thousands. Dare I say bazillions?"
He ran his tongue over perfect white teeth. "How do you know that?"
"Why don't we call it...gossip."
"Gossip isn't always right," he muttered. In seconds, he had swept his gaze through the small room and refocused on her.
She also happened to know that visual caress was a habit he'd developed through the years, one meant to take everything in. Entrances, exits, weapons that could be used against him-weapons he could use.
This time, all he would have seen was the peeling yellow wallpaper, the scarred nightstand with the chipped lamp. The sputtering air-conditioning unit. The brown shag carpet. The trash bin filled with bloody rags and emptied tubes of medicine she'd used on his abrasions.
"That day in hell," he began. "You told me what you wanted, and then you made the mistake of assuming I agreed."
That sounded like a refusal. But...he can't refuse me. Not now. "You gurgled your assent. Afterward, I did my part. Now you will do yours."
"No. I never asked for your help." His voice lashed like the sharpest of whips, striking at her, leaving an undeniable sting. "Never wanted it."
"You did, too! Your eyes begged me, and you can't deny it. You couldn't see your eyes, so you have no idea what they were doing."
A protracted pause. Then, quite calmly, he said, "I think that's the most illogical argument I've ever heard."
"No, it's the smartest, but your puny brain simply can't compute it."
"My eyes did not beg," he said, "and that's final."
"They did, too," she insisted. "And I did a terrible thing to get you out." Sadly, sending the Phoenix a note of apology wouldn't fix the problem.
As weak as Josephina had been in hell, she'd required help with Kane. Only, once she'd caught up to the Phoenix, still hacking her way to freedom, there'd been a slight problem. The girl had refused so vehemently-rot in hell, Fae whore-that Josephina had known there would be no hope of changing her mind. So, Josephina had used the ability she alone carried. A blessing in the right circumstances. A curse that had kept her locked in a world without physical contact. With only a touch, she'd stolen the strength right out of the Phoenix's body, reducing the girl to a boneless heap.
Yes, Josephina had draped the warrior woman over one shoulder and carried her out of hell, the same as she'd done for Kane, fighting demons along the way-a miracle considering she'd never fought a day in her life-eventually finding a way outside, but that wouldn't matter to the Phoenix. A crime had been committed, and a price had to be paid.
Sabin understood his question, but not his inner plea. "There was a story in a tabloid about a superwoman in New York carrying a hulk over her shoulder. Torin worked his magic and hacked into security cameras in the area, and boom. We had you."
From her trapped position on the floor, the girl looked over at him. Panting, she said to Sabin, "Hey, can't you tell he's not liking the physical contact? Let him go."
How had she known, when one of his best friends hadn't noticed?
"He's fine," Strider said. "Why are you wearing gloves, female?"
Ignoring the question, she closed her eyes and asked, "Are you going to kill me now?"
"No!" Kane roared. MINE! MINE!
Strider sheathed his blades and stood. Immediately the girl climbed to her feet. Long strands of hair had fallen over her brow, onto her cheeks; she pushed the locks behind the pointed ears that had so startled him.
Most of the Fae preferred to remain in their realm. They weren't the most beloved of races, and immortals tended to attack first and ask questions later. Still, Kane had run into a few throughout the centuries. Each Fae had possessed curling white hair and skin as pale as milk. This one had a slick fall of jet-black silk, with no hint of a wave, and skin the most luscious shade of bronze. Marks of her humanity?
Her eyes belonged to the Fae, though. Large and blue, like the rarest of jewels, the color lightened and darkened with her moods. Right now they were crystalline, almost lacking any color at all. Was she frightened?
The demon of Disaster liked the thought and purred his approval.
Shut up, Kane snarled. I'll kill you. Kill you so dead.
The purrs became chuckles, and Kane had to force himself to breathe, in and out, in and out, slow and measured. He wanted to cut off his ears in the hopes of silencing all that sickening amusement. He wanted to tear the room apart, destroy every piece of furniture, take down every wall, rip up every inch of carpet. He wanted to...grab the girl and carry her away from this awful place.
His gaze met hers, and she offered the sweetest of smiles. A smile that said, It's going to be okay, I promise.
The rage dialed down to a simmer.
How had she done that?
Of all the faces she had flashed, this was by far the prettiest. She had the longest lashes he'd ever seen. Her cheekbones were high and sharp, her nose perfectly sloped and her lips heart-shaped. There was a slight point in her chin.
She was like a little girl's doll come to dazzling life, and she smelled of rosemary and spearmint-a fresh-baked bread paired with an after-dinner mint. In other words, home.
Never, the demon snipped, and the ground began to shake.
Stupid demon. Like any other living creature, Disaster experienced hunger. Unlike others, fear and upset were his favorite foods. So when he yearned for a meal-or just wanted dessert-he caused some sort of catastrophe for Kane, as well as those around him.
Sometimes, those catastrophes were small. A light bulb would short out, or the floor would crack at his feet. Too many times, those catastrophes were large. A limb would fall from a tree. Cars would crash. Buildings would crumble.
Hatred scraped at his chest. One day, I'll be free of you. One day, I'll destroy you.
The shaking stopped as the demon laughed with glee. I'm a part of you. There'll be no getting rid of me. Ever.
Kane pounded a fist into the floor. Long ago, the Greeks had told him only death would separate him from the demon-his death-but that Disaster would live on forevermore. Perhaps that was true. Perhaps not. The Greeks were famous for their lies. But either way, Kane wouldn't risk death. He was twisted enough to want to witness Disaster's defeat, and just cold enough to want to be the one to deliver the final blow.
There had to be a way to have both.
"-right? Yes?" the girl was saying.
Her lilting voice brought him back to the present.
"Uh, Kane," Sabin prompted. "Did you promise to do that?"
She had been speaking to Kane, then, and he could imagine what she'd said. He shook his head, his neck almost too weak to support the action. "No. I didn't."
"But...but...his memory must be impaired." Her gaze swung to Strider, cerulean flooding her irises, becoming an ocean of anger. "What about you? Will you carry out his end of the bargain?"
"Me?" Strider thumped his chest.
"And just how do you want me to proceed, hmm?"
A violent tremor swept through her, but she said, "I want...I want you to take your dagger and...stab me in the heart."
The warrior blinked, shook his head. "You're serious, aren't you? You actually want to die."
"I don't want to, no, but I need to," she whispered, the anger giving way to defeat.
Kane swallowed a roar, remembering her words in the cave.
I will take you to the human world-and in return, you will kill me. I'll have your vow first.
Maybe he hadn't believed her then. Maybe he'd been too lost to his own pain to care. But now, the fact that she wanted to die...not just no, but hell no. He would die first.
"Why did you dodge my blows?" Strider demanded of the girl.
"I told you. Instinct. But I'll do better next time, I promise."
Mine, Kane heard again, a deep, rumbling growl rising...rising...escaping. "Mine! Touch her and I'll kill you."
Both Sabin and Strider stared at him with astonishment. Kane had always been the calm one, and had never before raised his voice to his friends. But he wasn't the man he used to be-wouldn't ever be that man again.
"Please," she begged the warrior, those eyes swirling with flecks of baby blue. How desperate she sounded.
How much more hotly his rage burned.
Something terrible had to have happened to her to make her feel death was the only option available. Had someone...had she been forced-he couldn't finish the thought. He would erupt. Or bury his head in the hollow of her neck and sob.
He peered up at Strider. Big, blond Strider, with his navy eyes and warped sense of humor. "Bind her. Gently. Bring her with us." He would help her.
"What?" She held up her hands, palms up, and backed away from the warrior. "No way. Just no way. Unless you're planning to take me to an undisclosed location, so no one will see the blood."
He could have lied. Instead, he remained quiet as Sabin assisted him to his feet. Broken bones that had only recently been reset screamed in protest, and his knees nearly buckled, but he held steady. He wouldn't allow himself to go down. Not again. Not in front of his min-the girl.
"Sorry, honey cakes," Strider said, "but you don't get a say in what happens next. You're gonna live and not die, and that's that."
"But...but..." Her gaze found Kane and pleaded. "I've wasted so much time with you. I have no one else to ask for help."
"Good." Any man who thought to give her what she asked for would die the worst of deaths.
"Good? Good! Oh!" Anger overshadowed everything else, and she stomped her foot. "You heartless, overgrown lout!"
"Because he won't hurt you? That's a first." Strider reached out, intending to grab her.
In a snap, she kicked out her leg, nailing the male between the legs. As Strider hunched over, gasping for breath, she bolted for the door, tossing over her shoulder, "I'm so disappointed in you, Lord Kane!"
She vanished into the night.
He tried to follow after her, but curse his weakness, his knees buckled. "Come back, female! Now!"
She never reappeared.
Kane experienced a tidal wave of rage that made a mockery of what had come before. He would get her back. He would stalk through the night, grab everyone he spotted, and, if they couldn't point him in the right direction, rip their spines out of their mouths. He would leave an ocean of blood in his wake, and she would have only herself to blame. He would-
Do nothing, Disaster finished with a laugh.
It stung all the worse because Kane could only remain crumpled on the floor.
"Bring her back to me," he shouted to Strider.
Moaning in agony, the warrior toppled to the floor. He'd just been bested by a puny little girl; his demon would be throwing out pain for the next several days.
"Go!" Kane commanded Sabin.
"No. I'm not letting you out of my sight."
"Go!" he insisted. "Bring her back."
"Yelling at me isn't going to change my mind."
Kane tried to crawl to the door, but dizziness crowded into his mind, stopping him. He spit out a mouthful of curses.
Could nothing go right for him? Not even once?
Disaster started laughing all over again.