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By JACKIE KESSLER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Jacqueline H. Kessler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCaitlin's House (I)
On the night the Underworld put a contract out on me, a crescent moon dangled overhead like a celestial fishhook and stars bobbed in the sky. Just my luck. I'd been hoping for a raging thunderstorm, maybe some hail. You know, something dramatic. But no. I got picturesque.
Just another sign that Hell had gone to Heaven in a hand-basket.
I threw a nervous look over my shoulder, unable to relax even though I sensed only the thrumming energy of Salem, Massachusetts, in the predawn morning. Nothing infernal beeped on my psychic radar. For the moment, I was safe. Desperate and so terrified that I was pissing my metaphorical pants, but safe.
Okay. Deep breath, like the way the humans did it. There. Oh, right. Release it. Mental note: Humans breathe continuously.
Hmm. That was going to be a royal bitch to remember.
I rang the bell and waited, taking in the details of the plain wooden door. The only obvious detriments to the uninvited were a smattering of impressive-looking metal locks. The less obvious barriers included a few nasty hexes and one particularly inventive curse.
Excellent. Just the kind of help I needed.
After a few moments, I felt a presence behind the door-probably scanning me through the peephole. Putting on my game face, I grinned broadly, displaying sinfully perfect teeth.
The door inched open until the attached security chain pulled taut. A face peered through the crack. The one visible eye, very green and very wide, stared at me for a heartbeat. Then it widened even more and took on a glassy sheen. Fear wafted from her like perfume. Yummy.
Stop that, I scolded myself. You need her help. Don't scare her to death. Yet.
"Hi, Caitlin," I said, pouring on the charm.
I heard her swallow before she replied, "Hello, Jesse."
My grin faltered, and I quickly pasted it back on. I'd been banking on her saying my full name. Then she would have fallen sway to my glamour and I'd be inside already, with her dancing a jig to keep me entertained, instead of me still standing on her doorstep, biting back the urge to look over my shoulder again.
Caitlin waited to see what I wanted with her, like she had all the time in the world. Sure, she wasn't the one who had the Scourge of Hell sniffing her trail. That honor was reserved for me.
Okay, time for the mafia tactic. "You signed a contract with one of my associates. I'm here to collect."
I heard her breath catch in her throat, and I thought I had her. Then the one eye staring at me narrowed. "If this were an official visit," she said, "you wouldn't have bothered ringing the doorbell. You would've just materialized inside. Besides, since when does one of your kind do collections for the Hecate?"
Crap. "You want an answer, or was that rhetorical?"
"Good-bye, Jesse." She shut the door.
"Wait!" Hating myself, I said the magic word. "Please."
A pause, and then I heard the chain sliding free. Caitlin opened the door far enough to reveal her entire face, round and proud and framed with black curly hair. Let's hear it for insatiable curiosity. I flashed her my best Adorable Female grin.
She said, "Swear on your name that you mean me no harm, that you'll do me no harm, that you will bring me no harm."
I checked myself before I rolled my eyes. Friggin' witches and their oaths. "On my name, I so swear it." Of course, after tonight, my name didn't mean squat. But I didn't see any need to bring that up.
Caitlin opened her door wide. "Enter."
I sauntered through the doorway, my hips sashaying and breasts jiggling. It was part of my Farrah Fawcett look, circa 1978, complete with frosted, flipped blond hair.
"What're you supposed to be?" Caitlin asked as I pranced by, my boobs nearly hitting my chin with every bouncing step.
"A Charlie's Angel."
I heard a snort, and I glanced over my shoulder to see her hiding a smile behind her hand. Maybe she was terrified of me. Maybe she'd just invited me into her place of power, despite her better judgment. But she still had to admit I had a sense of humor.
Caitlin flipped on a light, and I blinked as my eyes adjusted, taking in the contents of the small living room off the entrance. On the pale walls hung pictures of mountains, pompous in their purples and browns. Candlesticks poked up from holders set on the windowsill to my right; the faint stench of jasmine still clung to the air. Two large sofas, overstuffed with pillows, dominated the space. Each propped against a wall, the couches squatted like bloated spiders. Well, minus the eyes, legs, and webs ... and overlooking the creamy white coloring.
Okay, so maybe they weren't exactly reminiscent of insects. But hey, I couldn't help but look for the dark in things. You could take the demon out of Hell, but taking the Hell out of the demon required a lot more work. And that's where Caitlin came in.
"Have a seat," she said.
Choosing the sofa nearer to the door, I plopped down, and my boobs followed. Crossing my long, tanned legs, I leaned back into the pillows and dazzled her with my Farrah smile.
She clearly wasn't impressed. Caitlin glanced outside before she shut and locked the door. A mutter under her breath told me that she'd reactivated her magic wards. Something in my chest loosened as I realized I was under the witch's protection. Not like she'd be much more than a nuisance to my pursuer, but still, it was comforting.
Bless me, I really was getting soft.
Caitlin hid a yawn behind her hand as she approached the other couch. I'd obviously woken her; she was decked out in a green flannel nightshirt, and her curly black hair was so sleep-tousled that it looked like she'd used an entire can of hairspray to get it to stand up that high. Too bad it wasn't the 1980s-she'd have been incredibly stylish.
She sat, folding her legs beneath her and nearly disappearing into the cushions. Because she radiated such power, I tended to forget how small she was physically-maybe she reached five-foot-four. Strong witches really should be taller. She asked, "What brings you here, Jesse?"
I tried to think of something witty to say, but what popped out of my red-lipsticked mouth was, "I need your help."
Mental note: When bargaining with mortals who have something you need, don't tell them how much you need it.
She tapped her chin as she looked at me, her large green eyes thoughtful. Her face had a surprisingly sharp nose and chin, offsetting her full cheeks and cupid-bow lips. Attractive, in a second-glance sort of way. A little makeup, and introducing her hair to a brush, would do wonders. "What would you ask of me?"
Licking my lips, I said, "Can you turn me into a mortal?"
She blinked. Then she blinked again. Finally she asked, "Why?"
"I'm sort of AWOL."
"And some lower-downs aren't too pleased about that." Actually, that was putting it mildly. If I got caught, the very best I could hope for was a millennium in the Lake of Fire. I didn't want to think about what the worst would be.
Staring at me, she said, "What on Earth could make a demon run away from Hell?"
I shook my head. "Sorry. That's the bonus round."
"Look," I said, catching her gaze with my own. "It's like this, okay? I ran away from Hell, just like you said. And now something's after me, ready to drag me back, kicking and screaming. So I need to get off the demon radar and blend with the flesh puppets. That's all you get, Caitlin. Now, can you turn me into a mortal or not?"
Her face darkened as her mouth pulled down into a deep frown. "If you want my help, you have to answer my questions."
"And you have to understand that there are some things too dangerous for you to know. Unless," I added lightly, "you want Hell to come after you too."
She blanched, and I caught the intoxicating scent of terror. My nostrils flared as I inhaled deeply. Maybe the whole breathing thing had its perks.
"If I help you, what do I get out of it?"
"You mean, besides the pleasure of a job well done?"
She didn't even blink. Bless me, these so-called white witches weren't as altruistic as they claimed. At least, not Caitlin.
I said, "What about that whole 'Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you' thing?"
Her eyes gleamed, and I knew I'd made a mistake. "So you'd be in my debt? If I help you now, then you need to help me when I need it?"
Crap. "Sure-assuming it's within my power. I mean, I can't go and make you immortal, or grant you three wishes, or anything like that. And it's a one-time offer. No coming back to me, demanding more and more help. You help me now, and I help you once, when you need it."
"Deal." She spat into her palm, then leaned forward, sticking out her hand.
I followed suit. Our palms touched, and my flesh itched where our saliva mingled. Some people think you need blood to make agreements like this. While blood's nice, any bodily fluid would make the contract just as binding.
"Now," she said, wiping her hand on her nightshirt, "let's make you a mortal."
I thumbed through a magazine while I waited for Caitlin's potion to brew. The cover story promised to teach me "ten tantalizing tips" guaranteed to drive my partner wild. I had to see what passed for "tantalizing" these days. I was willing to bet it didn't include snakes and honey.
"Here we go."
I glanced up to see Caitlin gliding up to me, mopping back her unruly black curls, looking incredibly proud. In her hand, steam wafted from a large mug. About time. It had taken her a half hour to gather and mix all the ingredients, and nearly two hours for it to do the fire-burn-and-cauldron-bubble thing. I didn't know how long slumming in Salem, hidden in a witch's house, would disguise my presence from my hunter; with every passing moment, my unease had grown. But now it looked like the waiting was about to pay off.
Setting the magazine aside, I frowned at the cup as she thrust it at me. "What's that smell?"
"Number of things. Moth's cocoon, egg, milk, powdered ivory. Blood, of course. Mercury, but there's no smell to that. Water, a tampon-"
"It's the milk," I said, wrinkling my nose. "Ick. How do you people stand that?"
She looked affronted, as if I'd pointed out a pile of fresh dog turds on her area rug. "Dairy's an important food group. You need milk."
"Sure, if you're a baby cow. Ugh, revolting stuff." Making a face, I peered inside the mug. The potion stank to high Heaven, and it looked just as appetizing. Brown with white funguslike flecks, the liquid was just thick enough for me to make out the congealing blood, but still watery overall. "And this looks like it came out from the baby cow's other end."
"It's Gala Tea."
I shook my frosted, flipped mane of hair. "Never heard of it."
"Actually, the full name is 'Potion of Pygmalion.' The nickname's just some witching humor. You know, Pygmalion the sculptor? From the myth? Prayed to Aphrodite for a wife just like the statue he carved, and Aphrodite brought the sculpture to life? He named the statue Galatea." Her full lips twitched into a smile. "Get it? Galatea, Gala Tea?"
"Sweetie," I said after a long pause, "don't quit your day job."
"You don't have to be mean about it," she mumbled.
I blew out a sigh, lifting my bangs away from my eyes. "What, you expect me to be nice? I'm a demon."
"Not after you drink this, you're not. Now look, here's the thing: this will transform you into whatever your outer image is. So unless you want to be stuck looking like a one-time star of jiggle television, you should probably rethink your appearance."
I raised my arms high and let a ripple of power wash over me. My hair curled and darkened until it was a thick, tangled mass framing a round face with wide green eyes, a sharp nose, and a mouth with cupid-bow lips. My breasts diminished a cup size, and my frame shrank until I was a petite woman of five-foot-four, small and lean instead of tall and curvy. When I grinned, my teeth clamped down in a slight overbite. Sayonara, Farrah. Hello, Caitlin.
The look on her face was priceless. I didn't know if it was because I was wearing her form or because I was naked. She yelled, "Stop that!"
I blew her a kiss. "First give me the potion."
"Fine," she said, shoving the cup into my hands. "Here. Now would you please change into something else? And put on some clothes?"
"In a moment." The nauseating stench of sweet milk emanating from the mug made me want to gag. "How's this work? I drink it, and poof, I'm mortal?"
Frowning at me, she seemed lost between answering my question and being annoyed at my temporary appearance. Her pride in her abilities won out. Seven deadly sins-got to love them. "Well, not exactly." She ran her fingers through her hair, brushing thick curls away from her face. "It will lock you into mortal form. No soul, of course. But still human. So you'll have to take care of all your human needs."
"Like sex?" I perked up. "I can do that."
"That's procreation, which you can't do. No soul, remember? No little demonites for you."
I pouted. Sex was important, even if it wasn't to make babies. It was ... exercise. Right, exercise. And I had to exercise my new human body. Oooh. This had possibilities.
"Listen," Caitlin said, dragging me away from lascivious thoughts. "This is important. If you use any infernal abilities, it will cancel the spell."
Crap. Why did these things always have a catch? "Meaning?"
"Meaning that if you use any of your powers, the jig is up, and whatever's chasing you will be able to track you again."
"So on top of remembering to breathe, I have to restrain myself from seducing men and sucking out their souls? Isn't there a learning curve or something?"
She tapped her chin as she thought. "Well, if you had an item like a Shield Against Evil, that would do double duty. It would cut you off from your own power, and it'd hide your power from ... well, your former associates."
"Perfect! I'll take one of those."
A smile played across her round face. "If you want another favor, Jesse, then you need to give me something in addition."
Ooh, wasn't she the confident little witch? Getting greedy with a creature of the Pit, eh? Sure, I was in her place of power, and I was there to beg a favor. But that didn't mean she should forget who I was ... and what I could do.
"You're right," I said, giving her a tiny, helpless smile, setting her at ease. "I'll give you something." Then I pushed, just a little-nothing to set off any of her wards, just a tickle of desire. Hetero was way more my thing, but I'd done the Sapphic route in my time. Caitlin was one of those free-spirited mortals who saw the inherent beauty in all living things, blah blah. In other words, she pitched for both teams. A whisper of power, blowing her way, settling over her like dander. She sneezed ...
... and looked into my face, and I watched her eyes darken and heard her heartbeat quicken. I licked my lips slowly, suggestively, and her lips parted in return. A sound escaped from her mouth, the softest of ohhhs, as her eyes lost their focus. I caught the spice of her sex as her body responded to my invisible touch, saw her nipples harden beneath her flannel nightshirt, watched her undo first one button, then the next ...
My voice soft so I wouldn't pull her out of her trance, I purred, "Say my name."
Her fingers opened the third button, and her right breast poked out from the opening in her clothing. In a breathy whisper, she said, "Jezebel."
"Caitlin, you mentioned a Shield Against Evil." I kept my voice pitched low; even though calling my name while under my power bound her to me, she was still a ridiculously strong witch. The wrong tone, or pushing her too hard to do something against her nature, could break my control over her. "Do you have one of those shields here, lying around?"
"Mmmm." Now her shirt was completely unfastened, and her hand was moving down between her legs. "Yes ..."
"Sweetie, I need you to get it. Wrap it up in a towel and bring it to me. Don't touch it directly with your skin."
Excerpted from HELL'S BELLES by JACKIE KESSLER Copyright © 2007 by Jacqueline H. Kessler. Excerpted by permission.
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