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Heedless of the blood spatters on her tunic, the goddess Cybele handed the ceremonial knife to a slave who took it away to be washed. Her newest disciple lay unconscious on the stone table, his face still twisted in a mask of pain and ecstasy.
She sighed. Around her the horde of celebrants engaged in orgiastic pleasures, some conventional, some depraved. Ordinarily she would be amongst them, sampling whatever form of gratification caught her fancy. The celebration would last as long as there were those still willing to exert themselves, yet while she was tempted to join in, she did not.
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the acolyte at the edge of the dais. Ah, yes. He had tried to gain her attention earlier, but she had wanted to complete the ritual first. Even now his body trembled with tension; his message was obviously important. She snapped her fingers at him and he leapt forward to prostrate himself at her feet.
"O Mistress, he is found!" The disciple's voice vibrated with the joy at bearing such propitious tidings.
Cybele froze, afraid to believe it. "Truly? You are certain?"
Cybele stormed into the man's mind, too impatient to endure even the few moments it would have taken for him to tell her what she needed to know.
Amarantus' issue had been found. She saw an image of the young man, strong and pleasurable to look upon, a fine physical specimen, of course, with dark hair and even darker eyes that she longed to see blaze with lust for her as they once had. Yes, the resemblance to her beloved was faint, but undeniably there, especially in the cocksure smile.
With a brief touch on hisshoulder, Cybele granted her disciple a physical reward.
"You have done well."
The slave shuddered as the pleasure washed over his body, but Cybele had already turned away from him.
At last, the waiting was over. She forced back the excitement that threatened to overwhelm her. Her loneliness would soon be at an end. They had found the one whose rightful place was at her side. One in whose veins flowed the fierce blood of her beloved Amarantus, dead these endless centuries.
Now all that remained was to show him what could be gained as her consort--the power, the pleasure. Once he realized what was within his grasp, he would be hers.
How could he choose otherwise?
When the package arrived, it appeared harmless. In fact, Nathan didn't even notice it among the pile of junk circulars and bills he tossed on his kitchen table. His attention was on the petite blonde he watched from his second-floor apartment window. She struggled to carry a heavy box. He wondered if she was moving in to the recently vacated apartment across the hall.
Always alert for chances to impress the fairer sex, Nathan opened his window and called out, "Hey, you look like you could use a hand!"
She peered up at him, and he waved.
"No, thanks. I can do it," she called back.
"Are you sure? I'd be glad to help."
She shook her head then, obviously concentrating on navigating the stairs at the entrance of the complex. From the look of it that box was heavier than she was, and if she was moving in across from him, she still had another flight of stairs to conquer. He doubted she'd make it.
When he opened his own door, she was just starting up the stairs.
"Come on, let me get that for you," he said as he trotted down.
She gave him a look of exasperation that quickly turned into something else. Her eyebrows shot up above her sunglasses and her cheeks flushed pink. Her mouth dropped open but she didn't say anything.
"Are you all right?" he asked, taking the box from her. It weighed a ton, but he attempted to make it look like it was light as a feather.
"Yes, yes, I'm fine. Thank you."
"I'm Nathan. Nathan Somerset."
She made a squeaking noise.
"You sure you're okay?"
"Are you moving in to 209? I'm in 208, across the way. We'll be sharing the landing there."
Nathan waited for her at the top of the stairs where the door to his apartment still stood open. She edged past him to open her own door. She had trouble with her keys, fumbling with them for a few moments before finding the right one. She pushed open the door and then turned to take the box from him.
"Well, thanks a lot," she said, darting inside her apartment. "I can handle it from here. See you around."
"Wait, I don't even know..." She shut the door. "...your name," he finished.
Nathan stared at the door for a moment and then, even though he'd only showered an hour ago, he checked his armpits. They smelled fine.
He decided he was losing his touch.
Annie Prescott lurched toward the kitchen and practically dropped the heavy box onto the table. She removed the detachable shaded lenses from her glasses and sank into a chair.
It wasn't fair. This was supposed to be a brand-new start for her with nothing but a bright future ahead. She should have known that Fate just couldn't resist throwing one wrench into her plans and bonking her on the head with it.
She went back to the door and peered out the peephole. The landing was empty. He was gone, thank God.
She leaned against the door and glanced at all the unpacked boxes cluttering the floor. No, it was too late to find another apartment, especially in Santa Monica. She'd been darn lucky to find this one. Even more importantly, moving back home would mean enduring pats on the back and the sympathetic looks of her parents. Her mother would murmur something like, "Oh, Annie, I'm sorry it didn't work out," but she would also be relieved that her baby was home again, safe and sound where she could be watched over like an invalid.
Annie realized that she was faced with humiliation either way, but if she stayed here, at least the humiliation wasn't a certainty. Nathan didn't remember her. She hadn't seen even a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.
Annie delved into the box that held her high school memorabilia. After finding her freshman yearbook, she found Nathan's senior photo. He'd looked more mature just now, or maybe that was because of his sexy five o'clock shadow. His thick dark hair was a little shorter, styled with a little gel, his voice deeper than she remembered. He seemed more solid too. She supposed that daily swim team practice had kept him really lean. Not that he was out of shape now, not by a long shot. He just seemed like a grown man, that was all. Not a kid anymore.
Sighing, she flipped to her own picture and studied it. She hadn't really changed that much in seven years. She still wore her long blonde hair up in a ponytail more days than not. She still wore glasses, and she'd never been much of a fashion maven, so her wardrobe remained plain and traditional.
No, Nathan hadn't recognized her because she had never really registered on his radar. What happened with Nathan had been the most embarrassing event in her life, but obviously he didn't remember it at all.
She wasn't sure whether she should be grateful or insulted.
A knock at the door startled her.
"Who is it?" she called, praying it wasn't Nathan.
"It's Deb Cochran and my best friends, Ben and Jerry!"
Annie peered out the peephole and this time saw a smiling face flanked by two pints of ice cream. She opened the door.
"Hi. I'm Deb. I live downstairs in 109. Welcome to the building."
Deb wore torn jeans with decorative silk cuffs and a tight black T-shirt that said, "I LEAVE BITE MARKS." Her auburn hair was cut boyishly short with spiky sideburns that echoed her sharp features. Annie liked her immediately.
As she walked in, Deb said, "I know neighbors are supposed to bring cookies or a casserole or something like that, but I don't cook."
"Me either, but I love ice cream. I don't know where my spoons are just now, though." Annie gestured to the numerous unpacked boxes.
"That's okay. I brought some just in case." Deb pulled two plastic spoons from her jeans pocket while Annie cleared some boxes off the hand-me-down couch her brother had given her.
Deb held up the pints. "Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia?"
The lids came off and they dug in.
"So, tell me all the important stuff about you. Like, do you throw parties?"
"I've never thrown a party in my life, but if I do, I promise to keep it quiet."
Deb made a face. "Oh, I wasn't worried about that. See this?" She pointed to her T-shirt. "Party girl. You can have all the loud parties you want, as long as I'm invited. I'm a great bartender, indispensable at a party. Where do you work?"
"The Book Mark."
"I work at Kiki's Closet on Third Street. Do you know it?"
Annie took a bite of her ice cream and shook her head.
"Well, you'll have to come by. They have the cutest stuff, all the latest style. I get an employee discount, and I'm sure you do too. We can share! How's that?"
"That sounds great," Annie replied, uncertain as to whether she'd find anything to suit her at Kiki's. Her taste ran more toward L.L. Bean, but she didn't want to rebuff Deb when she was being so friendly.
Two days later Nathan finished his swimming workout and slumped onto a chaise lounge to catch some California sunshine. It was pure coincidence that in order to face the sun he also faced Annie's window. If his new neighbor happened to look out said window she might catch a glimpse of his muscled torso. Not that he was trying to get her attention or anything.
As luck would have it, she came down the stairs only a few minutes later. She hopped down the steps, whistling something cheery. Nathan sat up with a grin.
"Hey," he called, "remember me? I'm Nathan from across the hall." He flashed a smile at her and wondered if his skin looked sweaty.
The moment she saw him, the whistling ceased, her shoulders hunched over, and she averted her head like a celebrity who'd just been busted for possession. She put a hand to her sunglasses nervously and walked faster toward the stairs leading to the garage.
"Yes, I remember," she said. "Love to chat, but I have to go." Again, she seemed to be in a hurry to get away.
"Well, then maybe we could have coffee sometime?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Bye." Then she practically leapt into the darkness of the stairwell leading to the underground parking.
Nathan flopped back on the chaise and cursed aloud when the back of the lounge collapsed, causing him to bang his head on the metal frame. He sat up and fixed the chair, testing it before reclining again.
It wasn't as if she was the first woman who'd ever rebuffed him. Far from it. But damned if it didn't bother him that she treated him like a pariah. What had he done to make her so skittish? Maybe she'd been relocated as a federal witness and was wary of all strangers.
No. Nathan quickly dismissed that outlandish idea. Yesterday he'd seen Annie chatting it up with Deb from downstairs and Leo who lived in 102, but when Nathan approached, Annie had made excuses and fled. No, it was him, all right.
Women had never been frightened of him before. On the contrary, he usually had no trouble making female friends. So what was the problem with Annie? He thought about it a few moments more before deciding he was being ridiculous. So one woman didn't find him interesting. Big deal. He was certainly confident enough in himself to blow this off. It wasn't like she was anything spectacular anyway.
When Annie returned half an hour later, Nathan buried his nose in his book about gladiators. He resisted the impulse to ask her if she needed help with the groceries she toted. He wasn't going to give her a fourth chance to reject him. Good thing too, because from behind his sunglasses he saw her glance over at him and hustle up the stairs to her apartment like he was a bum waiting to ask her for a handout.
"Nathan, I baked cookies this morning. Would you like me to bring some by later?"
Mrs. Waller, the building manager, scuffled toward him in her house slippers, pushing her trusty custodial broom ahead of her. She was a mother hen who watched over her tenants like they were her chicks. Unfortunately her cookies could pass for petrified wood.
Nathan grinned. "I can never say no to your cookies, Mrs. W. What kind this time?"
"Oatmeal chocolate chip. Did you meet your new neighbor, Annie?"
"Yes, we met the other day when she was moving in."
"I think she'll make an excellent addition to our little family here at Sunset Gardens. Much better than that hell-raiser, Craig. Thank goodness he moved out. Took me a week to air out the place." Mrs. Waller leaned close and whispered, "Marijuana! Took six doses of carpet deodorizer to get rid of the stench."
"From the looks of things," Nathan commented, "she'll certainly be quieter. Or course, anyone would be quieter than Craig."
"Oh, yes. She seems like the model tenant ... what's this?"
Mrs. Waller looked past the pool toward the entry where a woman and a man had been buzzed in. The woman repeatedly checked a small scrap of paper in her hands as she strode past the apartments toward the pool. The man followed, weighed down with four grocery bags.
"Can I help you?" Mrs. Waller asked.
"Yes," replied the woman. "We're looking for apartment 209. My daughter just moved in there."
Mrs. Waller beamed. "You must be Mrs. Prescott."
"I'm Tina Waller, the building manager. May I say that your daughter is just delightful. I'm so glad she moved in."
Nathan watched as Mrs. Waller chatted it up with Annie's mother like they were old friends. Mrs. Prescott introduced her husband, and in no time they'd arranged an impromptu potluck to which Mrs. Waller was going to bring cookies, probably the very cookies she'd just offered Nathan.
Then, without another word to Nathan, the building manager took her broom and went to her apartment. Annie's parents went right up to her place. And Nathan sat there feeling like a bench-warmer at a Little League game. That sensation was as unfamiliar as it was unwelcome.
Later that night after a dinner by himself in front of the TV, Nathan eyed the mountain of mail that had piled up over the last week. The day had been warm, so he had his windows open to the evening breeze. His ears pricked up when he heard voices on the landing. So the party was breaking up now. Feeling petty and looking for an excuse to avoid opening the mail, he went to his front door and listened. The landing at the top of the stairs echoed like a cave, and Nathan heard them pretty clearly.
"You be sure to call if you need anything at all," a female voice said.
"I will, Mom."
"And you have Dr. Baumgartner's pager number just in case."
"Yes, Mom. I'll be fine. I know what to do."
"Well now, remember you've never been away from home before except for vacations. And don't think I didn't notice your apartment is directly across from the stairwell to the garage. God knows what kind of pollutants are going to funnel right up to your place. Daniel, you make sure you come and change those filters for her every month."
"I said I would, dear."
"Thanks for coming, Mom. Thanks for all the food."
"I know how much you like my chicken and dumplings, Annie. Now you have enough in your freezer to last you a while."
"Come on, Marta. We've stayed long enough."
Nathan heard Annie's door shut and then her mother's voice again.
"I should never have let you talk me into allowing her to go. Did you see how small that bathroom is? She can barely turn around in there. And the carpeting! Twenty years old if it's a day..."
Their voices trailed off as they went down the stairs and Nathan went back to his kitchen table. He stared at the pile of mail and sighed. It wasn't getting any smaller. He made a pile of junk and bills, opening the bills just enough so he could see how much he owed. With any luck he'd have enough left over to...
Something in the pile caught his eye. A bubble envelope? Suddenly he remembered the silly thing he'd ordered off the Internet two weeks ago.
Even now he was amazed at how easily he'd been sucked in by the slick advertisement. His screen had gone completely black. Not even the menu bar had remained. Then, one word at a time slowly faded in as if written by an invisible hand. The letters glowed red in a script that seemed foreign but wasn't.
Explore your wildest fantasies.
Then he'd gotten a glimpse of a dark corridor, but the image had faded away before he could register more details.
Delve into the exciting world of your own mind.
The corridor showed again, this time for longer. A flickering light seemed to be getting stronger at the end of the passage, as if someone with a torch was approaching the corner and would soon come into view.
Experience pleasure as never before.
Finally, a stunningly beautiful woman emerged from the shadows to crook her finger at Nathan. It looked like she was nude, but no matter how hard he stared, the shadows made it impossible to see anything clearly.
In a husky voice she said, "Natanaél, I have been waiting for you."
Nathan was surprised that technology had come so far that they could personalize a pop-up ad like that, even if she did pronounce his name strangely ... Na-tahn-EL. The way she stared directly into his eyes was eerie yet titillating, but by that time, he'd been ready to buy whatever she was selling.
Now, the item had arrived.
Gripped with a strange excitement, he tore open the envelope. Inside a second protective layer of bubble wrap he found a circlet of polished stone, maybe an inch and a half in diameter. The inside of the circlet had raised bumps on it, and something was written, perhaps in Latin, on the outer perimeter between some inset crystals or jewels.
A note had fluttered to the floor. He picked it up.
In your hand you hold the key to erotic pleasure such as you have never known. The pursuit of physical delight should not be fettered by common inhibitions and obsolete notions of goodness. Wear My ring. Escape society's constraints and claim what you have been denied. Discover My world, where no discipline or rules exist, no superficial judgment or frivolous values. Fantasy can be real. I can be real. Join with Me, if you dare. Cybele.
Nathan chuckled. Whoever this Cybele chick was, she made fantasizing sound positively admirable.
He examined the ring again. It was far too big for any of his fingers, or even his big toe, and too small for a bracelet. He then realized with chagrin exactly which part of his anatomy it had been designed for.
He twirled it around on his index finger, laughing to himself. Twenty nine bucks for a friggin' cock ring. He hoped he wasn't the only horny sucker out there who had fallen for this. His first impulse was to dump it in the garbage, yet part of him was still bewitched. He remembered the eyes of that woman in the ad--enthralling, challenging.
Nathan read the note again.
If you dare...
He smiled, tossed the note on the kitchen table, and reached for his belt. He could never resist a dare.
Although the ring felt strange, like having a shoe on the wrong foot, he settled it in the brown nest of hair. When he realized it was loose, he tried not to be affronted. Maybe he was supposed to be hard first.
With a shrug, he tucked his genitals back inside his pants, grabbed himself a Coke, and flopped onto the couch to channel surf.
When he got to MTV, Johnny Paloma was twitching his hips to his current hit, "The Sex Bomb." Nathan watched, fascinated when the cameras swept across the audience of screaming women. Even if the guy was gay, he was adored by millions of women, some of whom ripped off their panties and threw them on the stage.
Nathan's groin tingled, and a strange buzzing sound hummed in his head. Too much caffeine, he thought, setting his Coke on the table.
On TV, Paloma flipped his hair back and gyrated like he was channeling Elvis and one of the Backstreet Boys at the same time. The women loved it. In fact, Nathan supposed the guy could have his pick of women every night. Ah, the endless variety.
As the song came to an end, Nathan realized the buzzing was getting louder. He also began to feel lightheaded.
Wiggling a finger in his ear, he stood up and then sat back down. Whoa. Definitely dizzy. The periphery of his vision went alternately blurry and sharp, and the background of his apartment shimmered like a mirage. He smelled something burning and thought it might be his pants, because now his balls felt like they were on fire. He squinted, trying to focus, but his vision flickered.
And then, just like that, his apartment disappeared.