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West Hollywood, Los Angeles
Devil's Paradise was the hottest place to party on a Saturday night in the City of Angels. The perfect venue for temptation. The ideal setting for sin. And it was all his.
Julian Ascher surveyed his nightclub from a glassedin observation tower two stories above the dance floor. Below, a sea of nubile bodies writhed to the booming bass of the music. Sweat and pheromones mingled in the air. A legion of bartenders worked behind the bars of polished white terrazzo marble, pouring rivers of cocktails, beer and shots.
Most nights, Julian was content to stand up here, watching. But tonight, he was restless. Deep in his gut, a tension was building. He needed something to relieve that tension.
Preferably something soft and feminine.
He swung open the tower door. A blast of music and the heat from hundreds of bodies hit him, blaring into his pores as he descended the metal staircase to the main floor. The crowd parted, sensing his power as he strode through the club, past upturned, admiring faces.
Regulars reached out to shake his handa drunken football hero here, an underage starlet there.
A few women tried to engage him in conversation; he disengaged them easily and continued on his path. It was a hobby of his to destroy beautiful women. He found a great deal of gratification in ruining the sublime. But he had very particular tastes, and none of the females here tonight suited him. Disappointed, he wandered onward.
"Julian, over here!" the club's general manager shouted, trying to flag him down.
"Not now," he called back without stopping. He roamed through the mass of beautiful people who flocked here like butterflies drawn to a pool of nectar. As an Archdemon, Julian had been responsible for the corruption of thousands of souls. His chain of nightclubs stretched across the country. It had come to fruition after two hundred years of studying humans in their greatest moments of weakness and desperation, of fantasy and desire. And Julian, the owner of this empire of iniquity, had become a connoisseur of pleasure.
At the beginning, it wasn't so simple. As a fledgling demon, he'd had his share of battles over souls that he frequently lost. But now, after these two centuries, it was all becoming a little bit too easy. These days, when Julian fought for a soul, he always won.
His latest venture, Devil's Ecstasy, would open in Vegas at the end of the month. Housed in fellow Archdemon Corbin Ranulfson's spectacular Hotel Lussuria, the newest nightclub would be Julian's piece de resistance. A guaranteed success.
So why wasn't he satisfied?
He swept his way through the crowd and into the VIP lounge. On the white leather furniture, couples necked and threesomes groped in plain sight. In one corner, a popular young Hollywood actor was snorting lines of coke off a call girl's exposed ass. Around him, clubgoers stared.
"Keep him happy," Julian said to one of his staff members. "Make sure he's well supplied tonight."
Julian's jaded gaze surveyed the scene, utterly indifferent to the lascivious behavior he saw around him. The same lecherous acts he saw every night that the club was open for business. Nothing here remotely excited him.
Sunk in utter apathy, Julian turned, ready to head back toward his observation post. Then he saw her.
In the periphery of his vision, she shimmered like gold in a muddy riverbank. He blinked, unsure if what he'd seen was a trick of the light. When he turned his head to look again, there she stood.
She was dressed for a day at the beach, not for a night at the temple of sin. Her simple yellow sundress showcased toned arms and lithe curves. Blond hair curled in waves down her back. The structure of her face was classical perfection, her beauty so striking that it caught his eye even from a distance. Other men saw her, too. They circled like sharks scenting blood in the water. Was she searching for a lost friend? A lover?
As he stared, salivating, she looked up, as though she could read his thoughts across the noise and the crush of the VIP lounge. She gazed straight into his eyes.
From thirty feet away, it was a direct challenge. Then she turned and disappeared.
Somewhere deep inside him, the hunter's instinct engaged.
He tracked her through the crowd, glimpsing her blond hair, the exposed flesh of her shoulder as she wove deeper into the throng. The beat of the music pounded through his veins like an amphetamine high, spurring him on. He pushed his way toward her, oblivious to manners.
When she was within reaching distance, he closed his fingers around her arm. It was like stroking a newborn's cheek, her skin was so soft. The silkcovered steel of her biceps flexed beneath his tightening grip. Desire surged through his fingertips and landed straight in his groin. She stopped dead at his touch, swung to face him. From a distance, she was beautiful. Up close, she was divine.
His gaze drifted over her high cheekbones, her lush lips, her wide and trusting eyes. The innocence he saw in those eyes had nothing to do with guilelessness, and everything to do with faith. Faith in the untainted goodness of humankind. He wanted to devour her. To sink into her, to make himself a part of her and never let her go.
As he gripped her arm, time hung suspended. All noise stopped. Into that silence broke the rustling of feathers, the flare of a wingspan unfolding. The realization sent a jolt of energy reeling through his bodyshe was an angel. A Guardian, the lowest rank of celestial beings, responsible for the earthly care of humanity.
Why he was so surprised, he didn't know. He'd encountered angels many times before, had battled with them often. But never were they foolish enough to set foot in his nightclubs. What was she doing here, in his domain?
He blinked. Around them, the club whirled back into action, the pounding bass of the dance music flooded back into his bones. She twisted, trying to disengage herself. He tightened his grip, unwilling to let go.
Whatever her reasons, she, in her innocent little sundress, with her laughable belief in the goodness of the human race, had entered Devil's Paradise.
And she was on his territory now.
What stopped Serena St. Clair was a mere brush of fingertips against her bare upper arm. The touch of a lover. A caress so gentle, so reverent and yet so sensual that it sent pleasure skimming over the surface of her skin. It washed over her entirely and set the most secret places of her body singing. Even in the hot crush of the nightclub, the sensation was so intense it stopped her cold.
When she turned, she found herself looking into the face of a god. Angular planes chiseled to a perfect symmetry that only a divine hand could have wrought. But his eyes were pure sin. There was no goodness in that gaze, only naked desire. He towered over her, his athlete's build draped in a perfectly cut suit, a dress shirt open at the throat. Armani, if she had to guess. His dark hair was artfully tousled, a casualness that contradicted the intensity of his gaze.
"Welcome to Devil's Paradise. I'm Julian Ascher."
His voice, low and deep, seemed to vibrate in her bones.
For a moment, she stood stunned. Then she reminded herself to breathe. Squeezing her eyes shut, she directed a burst of energy into his mind, a bright light that would override his willpower and wipe his memory clean of her. She waited for him to stumble away and release her, leaving her free to complete her assignment.
To find the human she was assigned to guard. And get the hell out of here.
Except Julian Ascher didn't move. A flicker of annoyance rippled across the surface of his casual facade. Then his perfect composure smoothed back into place. A single word reverberated in her mind and swirled in her gut.
Somewhere deep inside her, a voice whispered: Run.
Arielle, her supervisor, had hammered an elementary principle into every trainee at the Company of Angels. If you encounter a demon more powerful than you, get out immediately.
Serena had completed her Company training with flying colors. But now she stood rooted to the spot, unable to move. Julian's fingers still curled around her upper arm. Yet, it wasn't the physical contact that held her immobilized. Panic flooded into her bloodstream, its chemical flush paralyzing her.
"Don't try that little trick again," he said mildly. "It may work on humans, but it won't work on me. Come, I'd like to speak with you in private."
"Sorry. I'm meeting a friend here," she said.
Nick Ramirez. Her Assignee, not exactly a friend. Nick was in here somewhere, so close she could sense him. She had to find him, to stop his path of selfdestruction.
The Company was counting on her. The task was simple enough. An assignment fit for a fledgling angel like herself. Or it should have been. But this demon was in her way. This dangerously handsome demon, with the promise of pleasure glinting in his eyes.
"It wasn't a question," Julian said.
"I said I didn't want to."
Angels aren't supposed to lie, she knew. In truth, she wanted him. Like she'd never wanted a man before. With a desire that came up from the depths of her, rising through her body to set her skin on fire. She wanted to feel the drag of those fingertips over every heated curve of her. Wanted his molten voice to flow over her and melt her.
Incarnated in a physical body, she still felt all the sensations and emotions that came along with being a part of the material world. And right now, she felt those feelings so strongly that they threatened to sweep her away. In his grasp, she trembled. She knew instinctively that if she let him, this man would destroy her.
She squirmed; his fingers tightened.
"Any further attempts at resistance will only serve to annoy me and put you in danger," he told her. "When you crossed over the threshold of that front door, you came into my nightclub. Here, you'll abide by my rules."
His tone was so banal he might have been inviting her to tea. But as his fingers flexed on her arm, she did not doubt the power behind his words.
Julian led her through the crowd, keeping his grip on her. She resisted yet again, hauling her weight backward and grabbing on to a carved railing as an anchor. But her flimsy sandals had no traction on the hardwood floor, and he overpowered her with a single tug.
Through a set of doors, the noise receded as they passed into the bowels of the club. He guided her down a hallway and into his office. It was a slick, modern space, the clean lines of the dark red leather and polished wood furnishings she would have expected in an upscale advertising agency rather than a demon's lair. He shut the door and clicked the lock shut before he released her arm.
"Champagne?" He motioned to a bottle chilling in an elaborate silver bucket. Then he gestured toward a collection of wine bottles that lined half a wall. "Or perhaps you'd prefer a glass of something else?"
"I'm not exactly here to socialize."
In this light, she could see the color of his eyes. Deep blue, shot through with green and gold. Lucid and beautiful, but their intensity sent a shiver through her. She forced herself to breathe slowly, trying to calm her wild heartbeat.
"Spoilsport. How about an apple, then?" he said, picking one out of a bowl that sat on his desk. He held the shiny red orb an inch away from her lips. "Have a bite."
She turned her head away slightly. The beating of her heart was so intense she wondered if he could hear it. If he could see its tremor shaking her body. "No, thanks."
"Suit yourself, if you want to be superstitious. You don't believe that old wives' tale, do you? Eve and that business about the tree
it's all just a product of an overactive imagination. What could be more innocent than a piece of fruit? "
He bit into the apple, his teeth sinking into its flesh with a crisp sound of tearing. His eyes closed, and a look of pure bliss settled over his perfect features as he swallowed. He set the fruit down on his desk.
"Now, why don't you tell me what a girl like you is doing in a place like this? "
"I told you," she said stubbornly, "I'm meeting a friend."
"Fine, if you want to play that game. He must be a good friend, this man you're looking for. What did you say his name was?"
"Too bad. If I knew who he was, perhaps I could help you. Otherwise, I guess we'll just have to wait here all night. Your friend will wonder what happened to you."
He picked up the apple, took another bite out of it. She watched as he licked its juice from his lips. "And you and I will have to find some way to amuse ourselves," he said, leaning toward her.
She took a little step backward. Hesitated.
I could keep you here forever, his eyes told her. Just give me an excuse.
She swallowed, glanced toward the door. After a long pause, she said, "It's Nick Ramirez."
Recognition sparked in those beautiful eyes of his. "Ah, yes, Nick. Hollywood's flavor of the week. I just saw him a moment ago, but I don't think he needs your help. He seems to have made other friends here. Female friends, if you catch my drift."
One corner of Julian's beautiful mouth quirked upward.
Serena's lips pressed into a flat line.
She knew exactly what he meant. Nick's fondness for female companionshippaid female companionshipwas no secret. Under Serena's guidance as his yoga teacher and Guardian, he'd begun to show some improvement. It had only been three weeks, but he had already started to curtail the illegal substances, had tamed the wild partying. She hadn't anticipated a setback like this.
"Jealous, are we? Is he your lover?" Julian asked.
Heat rushed into her face. "That's none of your business."
He leaned back against his desk, crossed his arms. "So he's not. I'd wager you don't have a lover. An assignment then, I'd guess. How badly do you want to get him out of here? "
"What do you mean?"
"Perhaps we could arrange a trade. What do you think you could offer me? " His eyes scanned her body.
With trembling fingers, she fished her wallet out of her purse, began to leaf through its contents. "I have fifty dollars. I know it's not much, but
He chuckled. "Refreshing. I'm genuinely amused." He drew closer. "Sweetheart, it's not money I was thinking of."
"I don't have anything else to offer. I'm just a yoga teacher." She remained still as he circled around her.
"You may be trying to pass yourself off as such. I think we both know better. Let's discuss that in a moment. But since you insist that you're just a yoga teacher." She could feel his hot gaze running the length of her. He completed his turn in front of her. "Would you say your body is your temple?"
She nodded once, almost imperceptibly, afraid to move.
"Then let me come in and worship."