The Darkest CravingBy: Gena Showalter
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.
“I never asked you to do terrible things.” His voice contained the darkest of warnings.
One she did not heed. “Maybe not audibly, but even still, I nearly broke my back saving you.” She settled to her knees, shaking the mattress and nearly bouncing the weakened Kane to the floor. “You weigh, like, ten thousand pounds. But they’re glorious pounds,” she rushed to add. Stop insulting the man!
His slitted gaze tripped over every inch of her. The action lacked the stealth he’d used for the room, and yet, it was almost tactile, as if he’d touched her, too. Could he see the goose bumps now breaking over her skin?
“How did a girl like you manage such a feat?”
A girl like her. Did he sense her inferiority? She lifted her chin, saying, “An information exchange wasn’t part of our bargain.”
“For the last time, woman, there was no bargain.”
Tremors of dread rocked her, overshadowing...whatever he’d previously made her feel. “If you don’t do what you promised, I’ll...I’ll...”
Suffer for the rest of my life. “What would it take to change your mind and make you do the right thing?”
His expression shuttered, hiding all of his thoughts. “What species are you?”
A question totally off topic, but okay, she could roll. Since the Fae were not a well-liked race, the men best known for their lack of honor in battle, as well as their insatiable need to sleep with anything that moved, and the women known for backstabbing and scandal—and okay, fine, their ability to sew a killer wardrobe—the knowledge might spur him into action.
“I’m half human, half Fae. See?” She pulled back the sides of her hair, drawing his attention to her ears and the points at the end.
His gaze locked on those points and narrowed. “Fae are descendants of Titans. Titans are children of fallen angels and humans. They are the current rulers of the lowest level of the skies.” He shot out each fact as if it were a bullet.
Can’t roll my eyes at a star. “Thank you for the history lesson.”
He frowned. “That makes you...”
Evil in his eyes? An enemy?
He shook his head, refusing to finish the thought. Then, his nose wrinkled, as if he’d just smelled something...not unpleasant, but not welcome, either. He inhaled sharply, and his frown deepened. “You look nothing like the girl who rescued me...girls who rescued me...no, just one,” he said with another shake of his head, as if he were trying to make sense of things that had happened. “Her face and hair kept changing, and I recall each countenance, yet what I see now I didn’t see then. But your scent...”
Was the same, yes. “I possessed the ability to switch my appearance.”
One of his brows arched. “Possessed. Past tense.”
Even in his compromised state, he’d caught her meaning. “Correct. I no longer have the ability.” The strength—and capabilities—she borrowed from others could remain with her for as little time as an hour to as long as a few weeks. She had no control over the time frame. What she’d taken from the Phoenix had faded yesterday.
“You’re lying. No one has an ability one day, but not the next.”
“I never lie—except for the few times I do, in fact, lie, but it’s never intentional, and I’m totally telling the truth right now.” She raised her right hand. “Promise.”
He pursed his lips. “How long have I been here?”
“Seven days,” he gasped out.
“Yes. We spent most of our time playing incompetent doctor and ungrateful patient.”
A dark scowl contorted his features, and oh, it was a scary thing to behold. The books hadn’t done him justice. “Seven days,” he repeated.
“I didn’t miscount, I assure you. I’ve been crossing off the seconds in the calendar in my heart.”
He gave her the stink eye. “You have a smart mouth, don’t you?”
She brightened. “You think so? Really?” It was the first compliment she’d received from someone other than herself since her mother had died, and she would cherish it. “Thank you. Would you say my mouth is extremely intelligent or just slightly above average?”
His jaw fell, as if he meant to reply, but no sound emerged from him. His eyelids were closing...opening...closing again, and his big body was swaying from side to side. He was about to go down, and if he hit the floor, she would never be able to lift him onto the bed.
Josephina surged forward, reaching for him with gloved hands. Though he teetered backward, he slapped her arms away, wanting no contact between them. Smart man. (As smart as he thought she was?) Down he fell, slamming into the carpet with a loud thud.
As she scrambled to her feet to rush to his side—and do what, she didn’t know—the motel door burst open, shards of wood raining in every direction. A tall, thickly muscled warrior with dark hair stood in the center of the gaping hole, his features bathed in shadows. Menace lanced from him. Maybe because he gripped two daggers—and they were already stained with blood.
Another warrior moved in behind him, this one blond, with...oh, someone save me. Guts hung from his hair.
Her father’s men had found her.