PROLOGUE: ON THE PRECIPICE
Whoever said you see your life flash before you when you die was full of crap.
You don’t see your entire life. Just the most important parts.
Or, in my case, just the most recent parts.
As I die now, feeling strong arms holding me tight, hearing a voice whisper
that it’s okay, my mind plays back the events that set me on the road to
Hell, good intentions and all. Faces flash behind my closed eyes, almost too fast
to follow reptilian fury, the angel crying fat, salty tears. My love, my White
Knight, a name on his lips that isn’t mine.
Nice to know there’s a “rewind” button that comes with life.
If only there were an “erase” button for the really sucky parts…
Darkness pulls me down, my heart slows, stops...and once again, I’m in
CHAPTER 1: SPICE
from Death Valley.”
“Really?” I smiled as I poured champagne into two long-stemmed
flutes. Death Valley. Heh. People had such a sense of humor when it came to naming
things. Take Slaughterville, Oklahoma, or my personal favorite: Hell, Michigan.
There’s also Paradise, Pennsylvania, but I don’t hold that against
them; they also have the spiffy town of Intercourse.
Handing a glass to the dark-haired man seated across from me, I said, “I’ve
never heard of anyone actually being from Death Valley before. Scorpions and vultures,
sure. People, not so much.”
He grinned, and a blush crept up his cheeks until it stained his big ears.
Bless me, he was so endearing money. What more could a girl ask for?
“Actually,” he said, “I just work there. I’m a park
Ooh, a do-gooder. The last ranger I’d met had been of the bow-and-arrow
variety, many years ago. Different beastie altogether. That ranger, a Royal Forester
by trade, had been all too happy to bloody those he’d been sworn to protect
in between bouts of raping women. Charming fellow. Sexy, in a pond scum sort of
way. Remembering forest and frost and picking twigs out of his beard before our
last romp in the crisp snow, I sank back onto the black leather sofa, feeling
a smile stretch across my face.
Those had been good times.
“A ranger,” I said to my latest client, rolling the word on my
tongue. I tucked my legs beneath my body as I inclined on my left elbow, making
sure my boobs almost, but not quite, spilled out from my low-cut red gown. Why
give something away when Ranger here would be all too happy to pay me? I flashed
him my best Utterly Smitten smile. “I’d love to hear more about what
His blush deepened. “I guess that depends on what day it is. Sometimes
I’m a tour guide. Sometimes I’m a naturalist. And then there’s
times I have to be a cop.”
Ah. No wonder I’d taken a shine to him. Thinking of my own cop actually
be home tonight the same time I was, huzzah! really that much trouble in the desert?”
“Well, not so much as like in the cities. But we get our share.”
The redness faded from his ears and cheeks as he spoke, and something hard and
proud flickered in his brown eyes. Watching Ranger transform from a blushing boy
into a seasoned man sent a delicious tingle up my spine. Yum.
Stop that, Jesse. Don’t get all hot and bothered by the nice customer.
A friendly chat, a little drink in the mega-expensive Champagne Room, a private
dance or two, clothing optional. No more. “What kind of trouble?”
“We get our ravers, our smugglers, our scrappers. We even get our full-fledged
Ooh, really? How cool was that? “What sort of maniacs? Serial killers?”
Okay, nipples, that’s enough. Down, girls.
“Well, the Manson Family hid out in the Panamint Valley.”
“That part of Death Valley?”
“It’s part of the larger park, yeah.”
“Sounds like it can be dangerous,” I said, putting an extra purr
in my voice.
He shrugged, but the flush returned to his cheeks. My Ranger was modest. “I
patrol in a hummer, and I wear a bulletproof vest. That’s with the temperature
soaring well past a hundred degrees. And my M-16, of course. I wouldn’t
go anywhere without it.”
Broiling hot sun, combined with assault weapons. Sweet!
“Tell me more,” I said, taking a tiny sip of champagne. I hated
the stuff was so light and airy that even angels would have bitched about it current
Tall, Dark, and Handsome had ordered it as soon as we’d entered the Champagne
Room. Maybe he thought it was obligatory. “Why’d you become a ranger?”
“I’m third generation. My parents both were rangers, and my grandpa
before them. I love being part of the park service. And I love our mission.”
He took a deep breath, then said in a practiced sing song: “To conserve
the scenery, and the natural and historic objects, and the wild life therein,
and to provide for the enjoyment of the same, in such manner and by such means
as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
He grinned at me before taking a deep swig of champagne. “Congressional
Organic Act, 1916.”
“Impressive.” Me, I preferred the Orgasmic Act of the here and
now. “It’s good that you’re doing something you really believe
“What about you, Jezebel? Why’d you become a stripper?”
“Oh, I needed a career change,” I said, toying with my drink. “I
love dancing on stage, feeling the music moving through me. And I like taking
off my clothes,” I added with a wink. “So I decided to become an exotic
He said nothing for a moment as he stared at my face, a goofy smile on his
lips. Based on how he was making with the soulful looks, Ranger seemed more turned
on by my large green eyes than by my breasts doing their own rendition of “June
is Busting Out All Over.” Crap, I’d guessed wrong been sure he was
a boob man. There’d been a time when I automatically knew what Hook worked
for each client you name it. Now all I had to go by was a gut call. Clearly, that
dandy “hunch” factor wasn’t as fine-tuned as my sex drive.
note: Work on the whole women’s intuition thing.
Finally Ranger said, “You’re about the most beautiful woman I’ve
Ooh. Flattery. Right up there with chocolate. “You’re a sweetie.”
“No, I mean it. Your eyes, your smileSGod, your titsS”
Hah, I’d been right. Smiling, I took another sip of champagne.
He broke away from my eyes to slowly look me over, eating me with his gaze.
He ogled the swells of my breasts, the curve of my hip, the V of my crotch. As
he feasted on the image of my flesh, I swallowed my drink, knowing that all I
was to him was eye-candy, a snapshot of sexual gratification. Nothing more.
I grinned at him, my lipstick shining in the softly lit room advertising the
things I could do to him with my mouth. That’s right. You want to taste
the alcohol on my lips, want to pepper my flesh with your kissesS
As Chris Rock once said, there’s no sex in the Champagne Room. But that
didn’t mean I couldn’t think about there being sex in the Champagne
In the background, the music from the hidden speakers switched to Patti LaBelle’s
“Lady Marmalade.” Excellent tune, sultry vocals. I let my shoulders
move with the beat, felt my skin humming from the piano keys.
“Say,” Ranger said, his voice husky, “would you mind dancing
for me now?”
“Love to.” I placed my glass on the side table, then rose to my
feet. With my stiletto-clad foot, I nudged his legs apart. Stepping forward so
that I stood between his knees, I leaned forward, shoulders back, until my rack
was inches away from his sweating face. I ran my hands over my twin mounds until
they nipped out, straining against the material of my gown.
He groaned, then parted his lips as if he were dying to give suck. “Oh,
JezebelSyou’re killing meS”
Heh. Not even close, sweetie. I don’t do that anymore.
“I’m supposed to start in the middle of the song, charge you for
a full. But I like you.” I raised my arms high and shimmied, getting all
jiggly and wiggly. “I’ll just consider this a warm up. No extra charge.”
Ranger said something like “Argghluh” and proceeded to drool.
Winking, I teased him with a teeny nip slip. Peek-a-boob.
“Jezebel,” he breathed, “would you mind if ISumStouched myself
while you dance?”
“Sweetie,” I said, lowering myself into his lap, “I’d
# # #
One thing about a guy coming while you’re giving him a lap dance: it’s
I dashed to the Women’s Room as fast as my five-inch heels would allow
me. It was one thing to give the nod to Ranger doing the hand-over-fist thing
with his salami; getting his jizz on my gown was something else entirely. I’d
assumed he’d have enough control to hold back until I’d stripped down
to my G-string. But no Blech.
Not that I particularly minded being covered in bodily fluids. But I drew the
line at cum dripping off my work clothes. A gal’s got to have some standards.
And technically, it’s a no-no for customers to touch themselves, or us,
even in the privacy of the Champagne Room. If any of the bouncers gah, the floor
manager banned from the club. Forcibly. Premature ejaculation aside, Ranger was
a decent guy; I didn’t want him to get roughed up.
Besides, the poor dear had been so embarrassed that he’d emptied his
billfold to make up for it. A five-hundred-dollar tip goes a long way to forgiving
such a faux pas.
I rounded the corner and saw the Women’s Room at the end of the hall.
One of the other dancers kept a supply of oxi-something in one of the bathroom
cabinets for just such a stainage emergency. If I had another gown in my locker,
I simply would have shucked the dress off, poured another one over my body, and
not looked back. Problem was, all my clean gowns were currently balled up in the
hamper at Paul’s apartment, doing their dirty clothing impersonation. Mental
note: Do laundry.
Mental note, part two: Learn how to do laundry.
Yanking open the door to the bathroom, I was greeted with a stink foul enough
to curl my hair. Yow, someone recently visited the fudge factory. Waving a hand
in front of my nose, I beelined it to the sink farthest from the rows of toilet
stalls when I heard a soft groan.
Breathing through my nose, I saw Circe seated in the far corner of the room,
at the end of the huge vanity table. The raven-haired beauty was staring intently
at her reflection in the wall mirror, clutching something to her chest. I glimpsed
her pale face and dark eyes in the mirror, but it was the hugely muscled man looming
behind her that grabbed my attention.
Dressed in a sleeveless tank and biker shorts that left nothing to the imagination,
he stood behind her, massaging her shoulders. Leonardo Da Vinci would have creamed
his pants to have this guy model for him; his body was perfectly proportioned,
perfectly sculpted, and he radiated confidence almost to the point of arrogance.
Slurp! Score one for Circe. After her shift was over, I’d have to corner
her and get all the juicy details about her latest love. Last I’d heard,
she’d fallen hard for some skinny blond guy. Guess that was yesterday’s
Mister Gorgeous bent over and whispered something in Circe’s ear. She
sucked in a hitching breath, then let out a soft moan, closed her eyes.
Humph. Maybe there was no sex in the Champagne Room, but it looked like the
Ladies’ Room was up for grabs. I must have missed that memo.
I opened my mouth to ask Circe how she could even think about foreplay with
the smell in the bathroom as overpowering as it was, when I realized three things.
One, Circe was crying. Two, Mister Gorgeous cast no reflection. And three, there
was a dull-red glow around Circe. This wasn’t a freshly fucked glow, either;
it pulsed around her like a dying heart Shit.
I didn’t know which was worse perilously close to dying, or that there
was a demon giving my pal a backrub. Of course, the latter explained the former.
Okay, Jesse. Play dumb. Most mortals can’t see the nefarious. Ignore
the obscenely huge there was one place where he wasn’t so huge. Must be
the infernal equivalent of steroids.
Sweetie, you okay?”
“Ignore her,” Mister Gorgeous said, casting me a long look. “She
couldn’t possibly understand the pain he’s caused you. He doesn’t
Circe said, “He doesn’t love me.” Her voice cracked, shattered
into a thousand pieces.
“Who doesn’t?” Right, keep your voice steady. Don’t
look at Mister Gorgeous. You don’t see him, la la laS
“Larry.” Circe said his name with a sob.
Pasting a smile on my face, I did something very brave, and completely stupid.
I walked over to her, sat in the chair next to her, within spitting distance of
the hulking demon. Pay no attention to the evil creature behind the curtain. The
stench emanating from him was strong enough to make my eyes water. Now I recognized
it for what it was: Brimstone.
I said, “Larry? You mean the skinny blond guy? Sweetie, you can do better
“You gave him your heart,” the demon said. “He chewed it
up and spat it at your feet. Show him how much he hurt you, how you can’t
live without his love.”
Circe’s breath was coming in hitches. I reached over to pat her hand,
and that’s when I saw the bottle of prescription pills she was holding in
a death grip by her chest. “Whatcha got there, sweetie?”
“He doesn’t love me,” she said again. “I gave him my
heart, and he chewed it up and spat it at my feet.”
Uh oh. Cyrano de Bergerac, infernal style. Very bad news. “Sweetie, there
are other guys out there.”
“I can’t live without his love.” Her voice faded as if someone
had turned the volume way down, and something went dead in her eyes. She unscrewed
the bottle cap. In a tiny voice, she said, “I’ll show him.”
I grabbed her arm, but she wrenched it away. Fuck, she was strong. Massaging
my sore hand, I darted a glance over her shoulder. Yup, the demon still had his
hands clamped onto her shoulders. Not quite possession, but definitely influencing
The cheating bastard.
“Show him you still have your pride,” Mister Gorgeous said. “Swallow
the pills. All of them.”
“I still have my pride,” she said, her voice a monotone. She opened
I touched her elbow. “Circe, listen to me. Unrequited love is a bitch,
but it’s not worth dying over. Come on, girl, this is stupid.”
She spilled some blue pills into her palm.
Fuck. Okay, let’s try some shock therapy. I slapped her, hard. The crack
echoed in the room.
Blinking, she turned away from the mirror to look at me. My handprint stained
her cheek an angry red. “JesseS?”
“Forget about the skinny blond asshole,” I said. “He’s
not worth it.”
“She doesn’t understand how he hurt you,” Mister Gorgeous
Circe echoed, “He hurt meS”
“Sweetie, he has no idea what he’s missing out on. You’re
a sexy, funny, wonderful girl. And if he doesn’t want a part of that, he’s
She looked down at the bottle, at the pills in her hand. “You think so?”
“Probably impotent too.”
That brought a faint smile to her lips. “Yeah?”
I said, “I read it somewhere, in one of those business magazines, that
it’s been proven that the higher the level of imbecileness, the higher the
likelihood of impotence.”
“What, it’s a word.”
Her smile slipped. “I really love him. Why doesn’t he want me?”
“Because he’s an imbecile. I thought we covered this. It’s
not even his fault. Imbecileness runs rampant in the male sex. Comes with all
“Yup.” I held out my hand. “Care if I hold your pharmaceuticals
In her ear, the demon roared: “Swallow the pills!”
Circe frowned, turned her head. “You hear something?”
“Just the hum of the fluorescents. Know what you need?”
She shook her head.
“A glass of wine and a good vibrator.”
Circe barked out a surprised laugh. “Jesse!”
“I’m telling you, it’s a surefire cure-all to everything
that ails you, from a broken heart to the common cold.”
“I thought that was chicken soup.”
“I have never heard of pleasuring yourself with chicken soup,”
I said. “But I’m willing to give it a shot.” I made a gimme
gesture. “Fork it over.”
With a sigh, she plopped the bottle into my hand, then the loose pills.
Behind her, Mister Gorgeous said nothing, radiated pure rage. Gleep.
“Come on, sweetie,” I said, doing my best not to eye the invisible
demon. “Let’s cut out early. First round’s on me.”
Circe stood, looking vulnerable and beautiful, like a sculpture of flowers.
“Absolutely. Let’s tell Jerry to move us off the stage lineup,
then we’ll tip out.” The D.J. was a real prick about dancers missing
their rotation; I’d have to slip him an extra twenty to mollify him.
“Okay.” She smiled at me. “Thanks, Jesse. ISJesus, I don’t
know what I was thinking. Suicide’s a sin.”
“I keep forgetting you’re so damn religious.”
“I’ll find Joey, tell him we’re cutting out. Meet you back
here to change?”
No freaking way was I staying in a bathroom with an angry demon. I started
to get up when I felt a crushing weight press down on my shoulder, my neck. The
demon squeezed, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe.
I wanted to shriek at the top of my lungs. What I said in a hoarse whisper
was, “You bet.”
Circe took a deep breath, straightened her spine, and sauntered out of the
As soon as the door closed, something tangled in my hair and yanked my head
back. I dropped the bottle, and the pills spilled from my hand, bounced on the
tile floor. Over the nauseating odor of sulfur, the ripe stink of my fear clung
to my nostrils. Blood roared in my ears, pounded in my head, and my heart jackhammered
like it wanted to break free from my chest. My arms were leaden, dead things;
my feet were rooted on the floor. I couldn’t run, even if the demon released
But as I stared up into his face, I had a sinking suspicion that the last thing
Mister Gorgeous wanted to do was let me go.
“I know you,” he said, his face twisting into a leer. “You’re
the slut from the Courtyard.”
Even through my overwhelming fear, I heard the capital C in CourtyardSand I
Tell us, is it true that all Seducers are pox-infested carriers of disease?
Oh boy. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Mister Gorgeous was a demon of Pride had a
personal grudge against me. Granted, most creatures of Arrogance had a chip on
their shoulders when it came to one of my kindSformer kind. Pride and Lust rarely
work well together, unless there’s seriously strong drink involved. But
he had a reason to despise me: I’d embarrassed him in front of his buddies.
To one of the Arrogant, there’s no worse crime.
Licking my lips, I tried for the Dumb Blonde approach, ignoring the fact that
my hair was a curly brunette. “Never saw you before.” I even spoke
with the right balance of Pants-Pissing Terror and Indignant New Yorker. Maybe
he’d think I was just one of those rare mortals who were able to see the
supernatural. “Let me go.”
“You’re lying. You smell of sex, slut.”
“Last customer got too happy, got his splooge on me.”
“That’s not a lie.” His grip on my scalp tightened, and I
felt clumps of hair tearing at the roots. Between the shriek of agony atop my
head and the flare of pain from me biting my lip to keep from screaming, I was
one raw nerve. “But you do know me,” he said. “Oh yes, slut.
And I know you.”
He grinned, and my breath strangled in my throat. Icy fingers tripped up my
spine, reached out to grip my heart. The demon bent down until his mouth was inches
away from mine. “Once a fifth-level succubus, now a flesh puppet with a
soul. How appropriate. The only thing lower than your type of trash is humans.”
“My soul,” I said through clenched teeth. “It’s clean.”
“You entice humans with thoughts of Lust. Your work is in the name of
Yeah, well, old habits die hard. After four thousand years as a Seducer, what
was I going to do, be a telemarketer? “Not Sin. Entertainment.”
“Maybe. Still a line. You can’t claim me.”
He growled, deep and low in his chest. “You talk tough for a mortal slut.
You don’t have your Fury friend with you keep you safe this time.”
My throat constricted as I remembered the softest brush of lips on my own.
Just thinking of Meg brought angry tears to my eyes. “Don’t need her
“You think not?”
“You can’t claim me for Hell. My soul’s clean.” Benefit
of being only thirty days old in mortal years: that’s not a lot of time
to wreak havoc.
His eyes narrowed, and for a moment I glimpsed his true form swimming beneath
his false human shell maw crammed with razor-blade teeth. Then he pulled my head
up until I was sitting up straight in the chair. He spun me around to face him,
his hand still tangled in my hair.
“Old rules are bending, breaking.”
“I got that,” I said, far calmer than I had any right to be. “Seems
the nefarious are encouraging mortals to kill themselves. What, business is too
“Business is booming.” His dark gaze held me, explored me. “You
mortals make excuses for your sins, think you can talk your way out of damnation.
As if understanding why you commit certain actions, you forgive the action itself.”
A demonic therapy session. Spare me. “The ends doesn’t exactly
justify the means. I know that.”
“The mortal coil is steeped in Evil. Murder because of disrespect. Genocide
because of disgust.” He leered. “Lust because of entertainment.”
My heart, already careening at marathon speed, started rocketing at a pace
just short of cardiac arrest. Bless me, I hated being afraid. I really preferred
causing fear human. Maybe I should start carrying a big gun. “You know what
they say. The world’s going to Hell in a handbasket.”
“The trip is taking too long. No more sitting back, waiting for humans
to die before collecting their souls for the Pit. We’re encouraging them
I pushed aside my fear to sniff my disdain. Even an ex-demon has Sin standards.
“You assholes are cheating.”
“Times are changing, slut.” For a moment, his eyes closed in on
themselves, faded to something old, worn. He released my hair. “We can’t
let the world be more Evil than the Abyss.”
I heard the implication behind his words, and I shivered. People think that
the King of Hell is the Devil. They’re wrong. The Devil antithesis of the
Almighty celestials or the nefarious. The only thing keeping It from destroying
all of humanity, and the world itself, is Hell. Torturing souls amuses the fuck
out of the Devil.
At least, it used to.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I said, “So your King is changing the
rules. Keeping things lively.”
“You have no idea just how much has changed.” He shook himself
like a dog, regained his malefic ire as he smiled a shark’s grin, all teeth
and appetite. “And that means, slut, we can influence your actions more
so than ever before. To put it in language even you could understand, we can seduce
Arrogant prick. “You really have to work on your pick-up lines.”
“What’s that pithy saying the mortals like to throw around? Oh,
yes. The devil made me do it.’ Quaint.” His eyes gleamed. “And
now, rather accurate.”
I swallowed thickly. If the infernal really were going to be actively influencing
people, encouraging them to live fast and die young, life was about to get much
more interesting. Mental note: Start thinking pure thoughts.
Oh, puke, who was I kidding?
“I say with supreme confidence that I’ll see you in Hell, slut.
But you know,” he added, “the Pit is a better place without you and
your Fury friend.”
I frowned, wondering what he meant by that. Of course Meg was in Hell. That’s
where the Furies hung their hats, like most creatures who weren’t inherently
Good. If not in Hell, where else could she be?
Stop. Don’t think about her. She betrayed you, left you to die.
Her voice, like a kiss, in my mind: We all do what we must.
“Until next time, slut.” Grinning like he’d eaten all the
kids in a candy shop, the Arrogant disappeared in a puff of sulfur.
There’s nothing worse than a demon with a grudge. And a little dick.