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Demon Can't Help It
By KATHY LOVE
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Are you sure you feel up to this?"
Jo finished draining the fettuccine and glanced over at her friends. Maggie leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting for an answer to her question. Erika sat at the small bistro-style table, concern drawing her finely arched brows together. Clearly she was waiting, too.
Jo smiled, knowing she probably appeared a little tired. "Of course. It's just pasta, not a five-course meal. Why wouldn't I feel up to making my friends dinner to celebrate my new place and my new job?"
"Well, I know you said that you were already working long hours. And you've looked a little ... pale recently," Maggie said.
Jo supposed the reflection that greeted her in the mirror these days was pale, drawn, and fatigued. But she'd made a huge move, found an apartment, and started a new job in the course of a month.
"I am a little tired," she did admit, but then gave them another smile. "But I like the work at the community center and I love being in a new city. And being with you two again, of course."
She gave the pasta a final shake, then dumped it into a pasta bowl. She turned to the simmering pot of white wine clam sauce, trying to ignore the wave of nausea as the garlicky scent wafted up to her in a billowing cloud of steam.
She hadn't been feeling well, and she knew that fact was evident on her face. But she would be fine. That had been her mantra now for the past couple months. And it would be true. She just needed to get her life back in order. She liked order.
She busied herself with pouring the creamy sauce over the pasta, then returned to the oven to take out the garlic bread, which, again, did nothing to steady her queasy stomach.
"Here we go," she said with a forced smile as she set the bowl of fettuccine and platter of bread on the table. "I know you two always loved this meal when I made it for you back in D.C."
"Mmm, it looks great," Erika said, staring at the pile of white steaming pasta as if it might turn into a multi-tentacled creature and attack.
"It does look good," Maggie agreed, giving it her own askance stare. "And it smells good, too," she added, when she realized that Jo was regarding her with skepticism. Maggie's forced smile still didn't convince Jo, but she accepted the praise and sat down.
"Then dig in." Jo took a sip of her ice water, waiting for her guests to get their servings first.
Erika chose a piece of bread, while Maggie took two small helpings of the pasta. They looked at each other as they did so.
Not for the first time since moving down to New Orleans, Jo felt as if her two friends were sharing some private, wordless communication.
Maggie took a bite of the food, actually more like a nibble. "Mmm, plenty of garlic." She nodded approvingly, but then her glance flicked back to Erika. Erika's lips were pressed together as if she was suppressing a chuckle.
Jo glanced back and forth between her friends, again feeling as if she'd been excluded from an inside joke. When she moved here, she'd expected her relationship with her longtime friends to be as it had always been. But it had changed.
Jo supposed it was natural for Maggie and Erika to have a special bond now that they were married to brothers. But sometimes, like now, Jo felt as if Maggie and Erika shared something more, something private. Jo supposed she couldn't say much about that. After all, it wasn't as if she wasn't hiding something from them as well.
She pushed that thought away, focusing on scooping up her own portion of the meal. She needed to think about first things first-wasn't that what her grandmother had always said? And her grandmother had been a wise woman, a woman Jo had always trusted, loved, and admired. First things first.
And Jo suspected she was being oversensitive about her friends anyway-another side effect of her big move and exhaustion. She just wanted to get her life back in order. She seemed to be a font of mantras and mottos at the moment.
And she was very pleased to be back with her friends. She'd been close to Maggie and Erika since freshmen year in college, and they'd always been like sisters. Adopted sisters who'd become so important to her.
"Is Vittorio playing with the Impalers tonight?" Jo asked Erika, feeling the need to steer her thoughts away from places she didn't want to go. And given how smitten her friends were with their new spouses, she felt certain this would be a topic the two women couldn't help but discuss. The two new hubbies and their Bourbon Street band, the Impalers.
"Yes," Erika said, nibbling her bread.
"He's playing for me tonight," Maggie said. "Although I think he's going to take over playing bass. Dave is talking about leaving."
"That's good, right?" Jo said.
Erika nodded, setting her bread aside and picking up her fork. "He loves being back, playing with his brother. And I'm enjoying it, too. I have a hot, sexy musician husband-but mostly it gives me time to work on my art."
"When you're not down there being a groupie," Maggie said with a wink.
"Like you can talk," Jo teased.
Maggie shrugged. "I never denied that I was Ren's biggest fan. But don't forget, I'm with the band."
"So you are still enjoying playing, too?" Jo asked, realizing this was actually the first time since she got here they'd had time to talk about day-to-day life. See, no wonder she looked so exhausted. She'd not stopped since moving out of her apartment in D.C.
"I do. It's like a dream," Maggie's smile was dreamy. "Who could have guessed how things would have changed for us with that first trip here?"
Jo smiled, forcing herself to take a bite of the pasta, the clam sauce slimy on her tongue, the fettuccine turning to paste against the roof of her mouth.
There really wasn't any way to tell how one event could change the course of your life, Jo thought, but she was working very hard to get her life back in control. No more surprises for her.
They all ate silently for a few moments, or rather picked at their food, lost in thought.
"So," Erika asked slowly, poking at the pasta with her fork, "isn't the community center a lot of work compared to your job at Potomac Prep?"
Jo smiled, immediately knowing what her friend was really angling at. "Don't you mean, isn't a job at St. Ann Community Center a big step down from Potomac Prep?"
"That isn't ..."
"Yes, it is," Jo cut Erika off good-naturedly. "And yes, it's definitely a step down prestige- and money-wise, but it was still the right move for me."
Maggie set down her fork and reached out to capture Jo's fingers, squeezing them. "Why the change?"
Jo stared at their joined hands. This was the moment to tell them. To admit what had her running from Washington, D.C., but she couldn't. The words wouldn't come. Almost as if once she admitted it, it would be true. All true.
It is true, whether you like it or not. But then she pushed the thought away.
She set down her fork, and pushed the plate away from herself. Clearly no one at the table had an appetite. Her first dinner party in her new place, and it was less than a success. So much for just having a normal evening with her two best friends.
She hesitated still, trying to get the words to come, but they didn't. Instead she forced a smile.
"Isn't it enough that I was feeling left out? Missing my two best friends?"
Erika moved her plate aside, too, and shifted so she could join her hand to Jo and Maggie's. "It's definitely enough."
They stayed like that, her friends' fingers cool against her skin. A calming coolness that suppressed the nausea that seemed to be just at the back of her throat at all times.
Their kind, caring touch didn't hold back the tears that threatened to spill over at having them here. She pulled her hand away to sniff and grab her napkin, using the paper to wipe her eyes.
"I guess I really am overtired," Jo said with a watery laugh.
Both Maggie and Erika gave her sympathetic smiles that didn't really help the emotional overload. Jo swiped at her eyes again and swallowed back more tears.
"Let's get out of here," she said with strained brightness.
"Where?" Erika said, with a surprised laugh.
"Let's go see your boys," Jo suggested, needing to think about something besides herself for just a few moments. Loud rock and roll and other people seemed like just the thing.
"Really? You feel up to it?" Maggie asked with such concern that it made Jo pause. She glanced at Erika, seeing the same worry creasing her pale brow. Almost as if they sensed a problem.
"Of course," Jo said, already rising from her seat. "Don't you want to go see your boys?"
"If you want to, of course we do," Erika said also standing.
Jo was counting on that.
Maksim Kostova knew all about Hell. After all, he'd been a resident of the place for all of his existence. The eighth circle to be exact. But the real Hell had nothing on this bar on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse.
Sweat clung to his skin and the all-too-familiar strains of a Kansas song pounded around him, making his head ache. He mindlessly plucked a plastic cup from the tower of them and headed to the beer tap.
If this place, or rather the man currently playing keyboards on the stage across the room, wasn't the only link he had left to his missing sister, Maksim wouldn't be here.
But he was starting to lose hope. Every night, he waited, expecting that Vittorio, or someone affiliated with Vittorio, would give him another hint, or maybe even the answer to what happened to Ellina.
So far, that hadn't been the case. Vittorio knew nothing. Maksim was confident about that. He'd known when he'd found the scrap of paper with Vittorio's name written on it in Ellina's handwriting that any connection was a long shot. But it was his only tie to anyone, and he kept hoping that someone Vittorio knew would know something, anything. A half human/half demon didn't just disappear. Vittorio was Maksim's last thread, however, tenuous. He didn't have anywhere else to look.
He finished pouring a light beer for a man, who had been bellied up to the bar for hours. As Maksim slid the plastic cup toward the man, it was on the tip of his tongue to tell the barfly that light beer wasn't going to make an iota of difference to his enormous girth. Not when he'd already had nine or ten of them. But instead of sharing that dieting tip, he said, "Put it on your tab?"
The man nodded, but for the first time since he arrived, his attention was on something other than his beer. Maksim followed the man's stare toward the open doorway to his left.
Three women strolled in, all of whom he recognized immediately. The first two were Ren and Vittorio's wives. But it was the third woman who caught Maksim's attention.
Maksim had met Jo Burke a few times, although the woman always acted as if she only vaguely remembered him with each introduction. That rankled him. Women did not forget him. Just ask any of the moony-eyed chicks who came here night after night to watch him tend bar. He had as many groupies as the band did.
What needled him even more than her indifference was that he wasn't even that into mortal women. So where did she get off ignoring him? It should be vice versa.
Mortal woman just didn't know how to get their freak on. Not the way his demon appetites craved. Oh, he would use them for easy entertainment when there was wasn't someone better to do. But paranormal paramours were always more interesting.
Still for whatever reason, aloof Jo Burke had managed to capture his notice and curiosity, probably because she didn't seem interested in him. And Maksim did so love a challenge. Well, as long as he won in the end.
"Hi, Maksim," Maggie greeted, taking a barstool across from him. Ren's wife had to be the Pollyanna of the vampire world, but Maksim liked her despite it.
Erika wasn't as warm. Of course she had good reason. He had been inside her head, a neat little demon trick he had. Not that she knew that, exactly. She just knew she wasn't very comfortable around him. But then having someone inside your head didn't exactly make you feel comfortable. Not that it mattered to him whether Erika liked him or not. She didn't have any information about Ellina, which was the only reason he'd jumped into her mind.
Still Erika managed a tight smile and a mumbled hello. But by then, all his interest was focused on the third woman of the group.
When had she gotten into town again?
"Hi there, ladies. What can I get you?" His gaze stayed on Jo as he spoke. He breathed in and something about her, something he couldn't pinpoint, caused need to fire through his body like jet fuel ignited in his veins. The sensation literally took his breath away.
Unnerving, to say the least.
Jo's dark eyes locked with his, her expression steady and remarkably unaffected by him. Again, he was struck by the fact that she didn't seem to react to him in any way. No recognition, no happiness or dislike, nothing. Certainly no highly flammable substances shooting desire through her limbs.
"I'd love a club soda," she said dropping onto a stool beside her friends. She then turned to watch the band, dismissing him.
Maksim only half-heard what the other women ordered, irritated again by Jo's utter disinterest in him. Disinterest was a novelty, and he was discovering it was not one he particularly cared for.
He grabbed three cups and started filling one after the other, his glances going back to Jo every now and then.
She remained with her back toward him, her attention on the band. What was it about her that drew him? And damn, did it draw him. Right now, he wanted to just reach over the bar, grab her, pull her over to him, and lick her entire body.
Good Lord, he was a demon, not a mindless caveman.
"So, when did you get in?" he asked with casual politeness, forcing himself to keep the caveman out of his behavior. He set down the soda, then leaned forward on the bar, waiting for her to turn around. She did, but still didn't react to him, even with him bringing himself as close to her as he could with the long, wooden bar between them.
Instead she nonchalantly lifted her drink and took a lengthy swallow. She moaned with appreciation, the sound low and deep in her throat. She savored the soda water like it was a fine wine, her eyes closed, her lashes looking impossibly long and dark against her cheeks. Her lips parted once she'd swallowed, looking rosy pink and wet with moisture.
Maksim's already reacting body managed to react even more, an erection pressing against the unforgiving material of his jeans. His muscles clenched with pure need.
The response maddened him further, especially when she opened her eyes, set down her drink, and regarded him with her usual impassive stare. All bliss disappeared behind a no-nonsense gaze.
"I got in last week." She took another sip of her drink, again closing her eyes with appreciation.
For a moment, Maksim didn't understand her words, already forgetting that he'd asked her a question. Of course that was before his raging hard-on and the fantasies of making her look as blissful as the icy soda did.
God, he was actually feeling like he was in competition with a carbonated beverage. Pathetic.
Just then, Maggie's laugh drew their attention toward her. Ren, Vittorio, and the rest of the band were off the stage, and Ren had come up and captured his wife around the waist, catching her off guard.
"Come outside," Vittorio said to the women. "We can talk easier without the music." He gestured toward the speakers now playing recorded Top 40 pop tunes.
They all gathered their drinks and headed out to the sidewalk, where they could chat until the band was finished with their break. Jo followed them, not even looking back.
Maksim stared after her as she disappeared outside, confused and frustrated. What was it about that woman? And how was it she didn't seem to notice he existed? He was no fool. He knew he was attractive to the opposite sex-sometimes the same sex, too, although that kind of "getting his freak on" didn't appeal. The point being he knew he was good looking. He'd made that a fact when in the mortal realm.
As if to prove his point, a woman who'd been trying to get his attention all night approached him, blocking his view of the doorway where Jo had just exited.
"Hi," she greeted him with a wide smile and a flip of her long blond hair. "I was wondering what you are doing after you get off work."
He didn't react right away, still mystified by Jo's lack of reaction. Finally he focused on the woman. She was very pretty, curvy, and soft. And there was no question about the interest clear in her light blue eyes.
Excerpted from Demon Can't Help It by KATHY LOVE Copyright © 2009 by Kathy Love. Excerpted by permission.
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