Authors: Cherrie Lynn
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages)
For my wonderful editor, Linda Ingmanson.
Very special thanks to Inez Kelley for her input,
her enthusiasm for this story and her all-around awesomeness
No one could see the angel in the corner.
She wanted it that way, but Celeste knew they wouldn’t pay her attention even if she revealed herself. The entire backstage area of the arena was abuzz with post-concert excitement, the last reverberations of thunderous heavy metal echoing off the walls. Out on the floor, a hazy layer of smoke from the pyro drifted over the unruly audience. The sea of people churned, some reluctantly filing out, others chanting for an encore. Since she’d been standing there, she’d witnessed fights, drugs, nudity…and God only knew what she
Humans. So hasty, so in-the-now. Even as she sometimes cursed their hedonism and impulsiveness, her heart broke for the destructive, short-sighted decisions they often made.
They certainly liked to make her job difficult. No, impossible. This was impossible. Only one thing worked in her favor: if Damael had a weakness lurking in his charred black stump of a heart, it was her.
Even that hadn’t helped her of late, if it ever had. She didn’t want to think about her own weakness…the single reason her superiors should
want her to face that demon. There was nothing to be done for it. Telling the archangels why she really wasn’t the best person for this job would cause ripples she didn’t want to contend with.
Though dozens of the misguided mortals milled about her, some shouting, some running, there was only one she was interested in. They’d just escorted him from the stage, where he’d stomped and roared and demanded adulation from the thousands of feverish minions who’d gathered to pay him homage—just as his blood-signed contract dictated they would. To the eye that didn’t know any better, he was merely another of the frail yet seemingly invincible modern-day gods. Here today, gone tomorrow.
She knew better. She knew what he’d given up all those years ago to stand where he was today, a superstar. She knew what he was about to lose in a few precious hours if her intervention failed.
God, give me strength.
Peeling herself from her vantage point, Celeste slipped into the steady stream of roadies and set her sights on the crowd swiftly exiting the stage. She could only catch a glimpse of her charge, surrounded by two bodyguards and various other members of his entourage. Xavier Marx—born Adam Matthewson—freed his long black hair from the white towel someone had slung around his neck and allowed himself to be propelled down the steps toward his dressing room.
She followed, traversing the hallways beyond the backstage area, not letting him out of her sight. A difficult feat given the number of people trailing behind, many of them trying to get a peek themselves. It was best to try to avoid contact with them—lest she be accosted with their thoughts and feelings—but not possible given the density of the crowd. She glided through, catching flashes of elation, pain, desperation, some anger… By the time she reached her destination, she felt almost weighed down with the sludge of their emotions.
Adam entered his dressing room, tugged his girlfriend in with him and slammed the door in the faces of his bewildered handlers. Celeste braced herself for the various brushes of abstract emotion and plunged through the cluster of babbling people…and right through the solidity of the door beyond. She emerged on the other side to relative silence.
The girlfriend, Melody, sat on the couch with a sigh, perching on the very edge of the cushion. Adam pitched himself into a chair and scrubbed his face with the ends of the towel still draped around his neck. “
“What’s the matter?” Melody asked after watching him for a moment. “You sounded awesome. Everyone was great.”
He whipped the towel off and tossed it to the floor, leaning his head back. Suddenly, he seemed exhausted. “I sounded like Trey was standing on my nutsack.”
“I didn’t think so. Did that crowd look for one
like they weren’t getting off? It was crazy, babe.” Her tone was low and soothing, most likely from years of experience dealing with a rock star’s ego and insecurities.
Adam didn’t appear to be moved. He opened his mouth as if he meant to snap a retort, then promptly shut it again, staring up at the ceiling.
, Celeste thought. For twenty years, he’d tried to convince himself it wouldn’t really happen to him, that it had all been a crazy drug- and alcohol-induced dream and he hadn’t really sold his soul to a demon for fame. But the knowledge was always there in the back of his mind, haunting him. She didn’t even have to look into his thoughts; it was clear on his face. The agitation. The fear.
His twenty years was up tomorrow at 5:03:47 p.m., Pacific Standard Time, exactly two decades after an eager seventeen-year-old with a dream dipped a quill into his own blood and signed away his soul.
How Damael must have grinned as the youth essentially gave him everything he had, everything he was. Celeste could see that beautiful, deadly, inherently evil smile in her mind even now. Soon, she would see it for real. He’d be here to collect the soul owed him.
“I need a shower,” Adam grumbled, leaping to his feet as if he couldn’t tolerate sitting still one moment longer.
Melody gave him a smile and started to get up. “Want me to join you?”
The girl deflated into her seat, crestfallen. Adam watched her stare at the floor, his jaw tight. “I’m wiped out, Mel. Let me get cleaned up and we’ll go to the bus. I had food sent out there.” He walked over and dropped a kiss on the top of her blonde head before heading into the next room. Melody picked up a paperback that had been lying facedown on the heavy trunk next to the couch, her expression still troubled as she curled up and began to read.
“Well, damn,” a low, lazy voice drawled from behind Celeste. “I was hoping to see some action.”
She whirled to find Damael standing behind her, lounging against the wall. He was getting better at shielding his aura. Ordinarily his mere presence caused the hairs to prickle at her nape. Melody went on reading, oblivious to the demon in her midst.
If only Celeste could be so ignorant of his presence.
As usual, he was immaculately dressed for modern times, something she’d always found quite curious for all the centuries she’d known him. Earthly fashions had never interested her much, certainly not enough to eschew her traditional white robes. He wore a black suit, crisp black shirt, silky blood-red tie. His hair matched the midnight-hued material just like those unsettling eyes, though she knew the latter could flash the same hot crimson red as his tie.
And they rarely blinked. Rather, they stared while she felt as if layers of her very being were being stripped away, one by one, until her naked core lay exposed and at his mercy. It had always been this way.
He straightened and then smiled at her, a gesture she always found disconcerting. “Hello, sweet angel.”
She gave him a curt nod and her usual greeting. “Hello, foul minion of Hell.”
He laughed and, while the sound was musical, it carried a bitter edge. “Ah, your happiness to see me never fails to flatter. What brings you this time?”
As if he didn’t know. “What do you think?”
Every movement casual, he strolled over to sit at the end of the couch Melody wasn’t occupying. “They actually sent you to salvage that waste of flesh?”
a—” Catching herself, she pushed the outrage back down where it belonged and bit her bottom lip before she let any more of it fly. He loved to bait her. He lived for it.
Don’t let him win.
She repeated it like a mantra.
Adam took that moment to walk in with a white towel wrapped around his waist, his color not much better than that of the terrycloth. Against the vividness of his tattoos and his wet black hair, he was deathly pale. Celeste frowned at his jerky movements as he knocked off the lid of the cooler and plowed through the ice until he brought out a bottle of water.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked, watching the way Adam’s hands were trembling as he wrenched off the lid and lifted the bottle to his lips. Melody let her book fall to her chest and stared at him with concern.
“Oh, that.” Damael waved his hand. “I’ve been having a little sport. He saw horrific faces looking up at him from the crowd all night. And just now, in the mirror. He’s seeing strange things everywhere.”
“You’re lovely as always.”
Ignoring the comment, she held out her hand. “Let me see it.”
Gaze steady upon her own, Damael reached into the breast pocket of his satiny jacket and pulled out a scroll tied with a black ribbon. The corner of his mouth tugged up with smug triumph as he handed it over. “The wording hasn’t changed since last time. You lost that one too, if I recall.”
Indeed, it was rare to find a loophole. Damael straightened his blood-red tie and lapels as she unfurled the thick parchment and read. The text grew smaller and smaller, and to human eyes would have disappeared altogether before the signature line. There was no way Adam had been able to read what he was signing, yet there was his hastily scribbled signature amid splatters of blood like obscene teardrops on the pale background.
Her heart fell and cracked. So young. So desperate.
Without a word, she handed it back to him. He watched her, his expression unreadable, as he rolled it up and returned it to his pocket.
“Why do they send you
?” he asked, surprising her with his sudden intensity. “Why don’t they send you to talk some sense into these idiots before they destroy themselves? Perhaps then you could be somewhat useful.”
Secretly, she agreed. “It has to do with free will, choosing one’s own destiny—”
“Blah, blah, blah. If that’s the case, then he’s chosen it. It’s done. Let him suffer the consequences.”
She sighed, folding her hands in front of her as she met his dark gaze squarely. His irises were a starless oblivion. Black and bottomless. She feared they would pull her right into their void and stretch her into nothing if she stared for too long. Yet she would not allow herself to look away. Those eyes were far less frightening now than when he was caught in the throes of lust—whether for a fresh soul or for her.
“What would it take for you to release him from his contract?” The oft-asked question sounded hollow even to her ears. She already knew the answer.
Flashing that singularly gorgeous smile, he stretched his long legs in front of him and laced his fingers across his stomach. Faint tendrils of smoke curled from his broad shoulders—he must be fresh from the flames. Amazing that a creature so beguilingly beautiful could be capable of such cruelty, but she was reminded of where he came from with every wisp that rose from his body and every smolder in his eyes. She’d witnessed his cruelty firsthand. She’d lost to him so many times. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d won.
The question that came from his lips then stunned her. “How desperate are you to win him?”
Celeste’s brows drew together. “Desperate? That’s hardly the word I’d use.”
“So then…you don’t care that much?”
I care. I’d like nothing more than to see him continue his life, and then to bring him safely home when his time is up.”
“Even though he essentially renounced all that is holy when he gave himself to me. And he’s lived a life of nothing but debauchery since, hurting everyone who loves him.”
“He’s no more lost than the others who eventually find their way.”
“Oh, I’d say he is,” Damael said. “I’d say he’s quite off the path, and a monster is eyeing him from the bushes, ready to pounce. It’ll strike in about twenty hours. That monster is me.” He had never looked away from her once and, while she still found that unsettling, she began to relax somewhat. Damael was no threat to
whatsoever; she was off limits to him.
“You will, of course, give him all of his allotted time, less only that needed to—”
“To sufficiently extricate the essence from its mortal husk and lay eternal possession upon it,” he quoted easily. “I will, to the last second. It’s in his contract.”
The cold nonchalance of his words made her seethe. “You make murder and damnation sound almost pretty. Certainly easy. Just another day on the job for you, right?”
“Yes, well, don’t you get tired of watching it?” he asked. “You’re the only one of your kind who stays, you know. The rest of them flee in the final minutes. Why do you not?”
She dropped her gaze to the floor. “To punish myself, I suppose.”
“Because I lost.”
?” He unfolded his tall frame from the couch then walked over to stand in front of her. She knew because his shiny black shoes came into her field of vision, a startling contrast to the pristine white of her robes brushing the floor. His voice was sardonic and cold, nothing at all like those she was accustomed to hearing in her realm. “He lost when` he signed himself to Hell. Just because you can’t undo his stupidity doesn’t mean
did anything wrong.” Two fingers slid under her chin, exerting enough firm pressure to tilt her chin up until she was looking into those fathomless eyes.
Inhaling sharply, she couldn’t lend voice to her indignation. She should have backed away immediately and exhorted him to
touch her again. She should have, but she couldn’t. No dark magic he possessed could bewitch her as completely as the feel of his skin on hers. She’d always assumed it would burn, or pain her in some other way, or at the very least, disgust her. It only called forth a desperate longing for the forbidden. For something beyond her realm of experience.
“You stay and subject yourself to the terror of those you’re trying to protect. Why?”
“Because…” She couldn’t find any more words, lost in the roiling black sea of his eyes. Usually flat and glassy, just now they were turbulent.
“Because in that moment you rip their soul from their bodies and take them down, I don’t want you to be the only thing they see. I want them to see me, and feel my love for them, and know they
loved. That they didn’t have to choose this path.”