New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter returns with a sizzling Lords of the Underworld story about an iron-willed sovereign and the somber beauty who melts him with a glance…
Possessed by the demon of Misery, Cameo isn’t allowed to experience joy. If she dares, her memory is wiped clean. With no other recourse, she sneaks into a land more fantastical than any fairy tale, determined to find the one man with the key to her redemption.
Lazarus the Cruel and Unusual rules his kingdom with a single unwavering focus: to build his army and annihilate his enemies. Nothing distracts him—until Cameo. He is relentless in his quest to make her smile…and seduce her into his bed.
As dark forces conspire against them, threatening to destroy the fragile bond they’ve forged, the once-calm Lazarus grows crazed. Every heart-stopping kiss and wicked touch causes Cameo to teeter on the brink of happiness. But if she falls, she risks forgetting him forever…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Don't try to stay ten moves ahead of your opponent. Stay behind him with a knife."
— Excerpted from Becoming the King You Are Meant to Be, a work in progress by Lazarus the Cruel and Unusual
Like Alice on her way to Wonderland, Cameo, host to the demon of Misery, tumbled end over end down a long, dark cavern. When the bottom finally appeared, she braced for impact ... only to slip through a glistening portal. A second later, the cavern walls vanished, and she spilled from a midnight sky — straight into a new realm.
Never should have touched the Paring Rod. But noooo. She just had to ignore common sense and brush her fingertips against the pretty glass bulb that tipped its handle. The ancient artifact had then opened a door between the physical and spirit world, and voilà! In a blink, her descent had begun.
Now she plunged toward a flat clearing, and this time, there would be no reprieve ...
Like a missile that had finally reached its target, Cameo slammed into the ground, her insides exploding. A scream split her lips, her brain banging against her skull, her lungs emptying and multiple bones shattering all at once.
Agony seared her, black dots weaving through her vision. Warmth drained from her hands and feet, collecting in her torso. Her body was in shock.
Hours — days? — passed before she gained the strength to roll to her side. Her wrecked heart tap-danced a wild rhythm against broken ribs, and her head swam. Gradually, her pain ebbed. Able to breathe again, she noted the sweet scent of ambrosia hung heavy in the air. She almost laughed. Ambrosia was the drug of choice for immortals, the only substance capable of causing true intoxication. For once, lady luck had been on Cameo's side. If you had to crash-land, what better place than this?
She drifted in and out of consciousness, the passage of time evidenced by the healing of her injuries and the shift from dark to light. At some point, she became aware of a laser beam of heat blistering her pale skin, and finally woke for good.
Her nose crinkled as she inhaled. The scent of ambrosia had been replaced by burnt foliage. Where had she landed? Hell? The sun blazed so hot it had scorched sections of land.
Cameo crawled into a shadowed haven, exhaling with relief when her skin cooled. She scanned the lavender sky with its pale green clouds, then looked over an unfamiliar forest filled with towering pink trees and plots of azure grass.
Oookay. This is new. A forest fit for a storybook princess. Too bad Cameo was the villain of the tale. Browniebitch and the Twelve Immortals. For her and her family of demon-possessed warriors, nothing had ever been just right.
Cold fingers of dread crept down her spine as a butterfly the size of her fist fluttered past her. Over the centuries, the wretched insects had become an omen. Death and destruction await ...
The heavy weight of depression settled on her shoulders, and she wallowed about the travesty of her life.
Lost so much already. All because she'd made one teeny tiny mistake when she'd lived in Mount Olympus.
That mistake? Helping her friends steal and open Pandora's box. An appropriate punishment would have been a hand amputation or two. Maybe a few hundred years in the slammer. Instead, she was forced to play host to the demon of Misery for eternity, free will a thing of the past.
To commemorate the occasion, a butterfly tattoo had appeared on her lower back.
The beginning of the end.
Misery had quickly peeled away the layers of her humanity, hope and happiness. Again and again he'd wiped her mind of any joyous memories.
The bastard still wiped her mind of any joyous memories. Every day he breathed his poison into her thoughts, hurt others through her voice and ruined whatever relationships she managed to forge. He'd reduced her life to one horror after another.
If only she could control him. But Misery was a separate entity with his own motivations and goals. A dark presence she'd never been able to drown out. A prison she had never been able to escape.
Right now, he's not my biggest problem. The butterfly ...
Disaster was imminent.
Cameo searched for a way out of the forest. At one side, a breathtaking river with rainbow-colored water trickled into a rocky crag. Some type of fish broke the surface. A water unicorn? A long, ivory horn stretched from between his eyes and —
She gasped. Another water unicorn had jumped up and thrust his horn into the belly of the first. Blood spurted, creating a crimson waterfall. Countless other fish converged on the injured one, sharp teeth ripping into scales and organs until not even bones remained.
Mental note: no baths in the wild, ever.
At her other side, a field of ambrosia flourished, unaffected by the over-hot sun. Thick emerald stalks dripped with countless violet flowers, the petals drawn together to avoid the worst of the heat.
The field might be her only viable —
A thorny limb snatched the jumbo-size butterfly from the air. Her ears twitched, the soft breeze carrying the faint sounds of screaming.
Viable path or not, it was time to go.
Cameo lumbered to shaky legs, wincing as twigs sliced her heel. Her brow wrinkled. Her feet were bare, her combat boots gone.
Someone had stolen her shoes?
A quick scan proved her tank top and battle leathers were torn and stained with dried blood, but still in place. However, the daggers she'd made over two hundred years ago were missing.
Someone had robbed her while she'd drifted out of consciousness.
Someone would pay!
This villain had come here to find a formidable immortal named Lazarus the Cruel and Unusual, and she would destroy anyone who hindered her.
According to her friends, she had interacted with Lazarus twice before. Thanks to Misery, she remembered nothing about either encounter. Or did she? On the fringe of her mind was a suggestive montage of images that might or might not have happened.
Flicker: Cameo performed a striptease for a faceless, muscled man, a sultry half smile playing at the corners of her mouth, her silvery eyes smoky with desire.
Flicker: Cameo crawled toward the same faceless, muscled man, clearly intent on his seduction.
Flicker: Cameo sprawled beneath the faceless, muscled man, one of his big, callused hands on her breast, the other between her legs as he drove her closer and closer to orgasm. Her spine was arched, her head thrown back, her expression taut with a sublime mix of agony and pleasure.
Was the faceless man Lazarus? How had he tempted her into his bed?
She wanted so badly to remember.
Sex wasn't something she enjoyed or usually even risked. Not anymore. She had a Sexually Transmitted Demon, and almost everyone she dated ended up depressed at some point.
Guilt flared, adding to her all-consuming misery. And yet ...
Every time she imagined her faceless lover, languid heat wrapped loving arms around her. Blood rushed through her veins with new purpose, molten shivers cascading through her, every inch of her tingling.
Did he miss her? Or did he rejoice, thinking he would never see her again?
Her heart seemed to crack open and seep acid. Memories were as necessary for survival as oxygen or water; without hers, she was incomplete. Weakened, even.
Would Lazarus tell her what had happened between them? If there was even a chance, she had to find him.
Problem was, she and the rest of the world knew very little about him. His past was shrouded in mystery. What she had managed to glean: her friend Strider, the keeper of Defeat, had beheaded him not too long ago. Lazarus's spirit had traveled through the Paring Rod and entered one of thousands of realms in the afterlife. Perhaps this one, a strange and predatory world.
Soon after Lazarus's death, her semi-friend Viola, the keeper of Narcissism, had accidentally followed him through — while still alive. Also alive, Cameo had followed her, intent on rescuing her.
Cue her adventures with the mysterious warrior.
If her brothers-by-circumstance hadn't launched a rescue mission of their own, would she have chosen to stay with Lazarus?
Going by the tidbits she'd revealed before Misery had cleaned her mind with mental Windex, she and Lazarus had partnered up to find Viola and Pandora's box — aka dimOuniak — both supposedly hidden inside one of the realms.
Why he'd agreed to partner with her when he had no stake in the outcome, she wasn't sure.
Unless he wanted the box? DimOuniak was just as powerful as the Paring Rod — no, more so — and could be used to instantly kill anyone, everyone, who was demon possessed. Or so rumors claimed.
Had Lazarus planned to harm her all along?
See? Loss of memory left her vulnerable in the worst of ways.
So. She would find Lazarus. Hopefully he liked her and wanted only to help her. After he filled in her mental blanks, maybe they could renew their quest for the box and he could make her happy? At least for a little while. What good was a life without happiness?
Going to forget him again. Why bother?
Because ... just because! A girl without hope might as well curl up and die.
Maybe he was her faceless lover. Maybe he would help her find Viola as well as the box. The goddess of the Afterlife had been rescued, yes, but she'd purposely used the Paring Rod a second time. No one knew why, and no one had heard from her since.
Resolute, Cameo motored forward. Twigs sliced her feet, but she maintained a steady pace, maneuvering through the thicket of trees. At least the temperature had cooled.
Seventy-two percent of men have cheated on their significant other. The demon's voice whispered through her mind in an attempt to immobilize her. Twenty-four percent are actively cheating right this second. Forty- eight percent are smug rather than remorseful. How long do you think you'll intrigue Lazarus? If you ever intrigued him at all.
Horrid demon! Always lobbing H-bombs of gloom. Was Lazarus her faceless lover or not?
Misery smoothly added, If he is, you should run. Considering what happened with Alex ...
"Shut up," she muttered, but the damage was done. He'd hit his target, reopening internal wounds.
Alex, a human who had lived in ancient Greece, had been her first and only love.
At the age of eight, a terrible sickness had rendered him deaf and, apparently, unworthy of his wealthy family's love. He was cast out of the only home he'd ever known. After months of starvation, a "protector" saved him from the slums. A blacksmith with a sickening taste for children.
Apprentice by day, slave by night. A heartbreaking existence.
When Alex reached his teens, the blacksmith dubbed him too old and kicked him out. Alex snapped, introducing the blacksmith's heart to his handmade dagger. Then he claimed the business as his due.
He poured his time and energy into metalwork, his talent indisputable. He'd been the only person Cameo trusted to make her weapons. The only male unaffected by the sorrow in her voice.
They fell in love, and for just a little while, she had verged on the edge of happiness. She'd craved more ... but all the while, a shadow of foreboding had cloaked her like a second skin.
With every new dawn, she'd wondered why she remembered him. Why the demon hadn't yet stolen her memory of him.
The answer had proved more atrocious than she'd ever dreamed.
In a vulnerable moment, she'd told Alex about her demonic companion. He'd decided she was worse than the blacksmith and arranged for Hunters, a cult of self-appointed slayers of immortals, to capture and torture her in the worst of ways.
Razor-winged butterflies took flight in her stomach. Did Lazarus know the truth about her? Did he care?
He must know. He was an immortal living among other immortal spirits. And he shouldn't care. He was called cruel and unusual. He had a dark side of his own. Very dark. Pitch-black without any hint of light.
A sequence of high-pitched squawks rang out as a flock of birds leaped from treetops and scattered across the skyline, soon vanishing behind a wall of clouds.
The ground shook. Cameo tumbled to her knees. Wheezing, fighting for oxygen, she reached for her daggers. Her missing daggers.
Cursing, she darted behind one of the bigger pink trees, shadows enveloping her. Adrenaline surged, strong and sure, but it couldn't mask the sting of bark scraping through her shirt.
Another whoosh. Another thud. The shaking only worsened, trees toppling, the surrounding shrubs falling like dominoes.
Across the distance, a path cleared, and two flying beasts appeared. Some sort of dragon hybrid, maybe? They had red eyes, elongated snouts and teeth better qualified as short swords. Their bodies were long and coiled, but without arms or legs while their tails were thrice barbed. Resplendent scales reflected in the sunlight.
So ... the two were flying snakes? Dragon snakes?
They soared above the remaining canopy of trees, their multipointed wings clipping branches and slicing through bark as if it were butter. One creature pursued the other. When he caught his prey, the two wrestled ... playfully?
"Does the pretty miss require aid?"
The unfamiliar voice somehow turned the innocent question into a sexual promise. She glanced up — and had to swallow a yelp. A two-hundred-plus pound leopard perched on the limb directly above her, his neon-green eyes steady on her. His mangled tail wagged back and forth. One of his ears looked as if it had been chewed off, and his matted fur sported several bald patches.
Misery took an instant dislike to the animal and snarled.
The cat offered her a slow, toothy grin and batted a meaty paw at a fly. He actually speared the insect on the end of a claw. "I'm Rathbone, and I'm at your service ... for a small fee."
He could talk. He was a cat, and he could talk. And with that voice, he could make millions as a phone sex operator.
Had the Paring Rod transported her into a fairy tale, after all? The porn version? Browniebitch Does Twelve Immortals.
Was Rathbone a shape-shifter? No, impossible. Shape-shifters didn't retain the ability to speak while in animal form. Although there were exceptions to every rule, right?
"I can save myself, but thanks for the offer." Having lived over four millennia, she'd waged world wars, fought countless battles against immortal predators, humans with a grudge and monsters of myth and legend. Sometimes she'd lost, but mostly she'd won.
The leopard flinched. Hardly a surprise. Everyone always flinched. Some even cried.
She could have used sign language. She'd had to learn in order to communicate with her friend Amun, who hosted the demon of Secrets. But the majority of immortals — and uh, animals — she encountered could not understand ASL. Besides, she had a voice, and deep down she wanted to be heard.
The dragon-snakes resumed their chase, nearly causing a full-blown earthquake this time, and she grabbed a branch to steady herself. Nope, not a branch, but Rathbone's tail.
He wiggled his brows. "I've got something firmer you can hold on to."
Surely he wasn't referring to his ...
He contorted to lick a massive set of balls.
You've got to be kidding me.
She released him and peeked around the trunk. The creatures approached at breakneck speed ... only to pass her. She began to relax. A mistake. Of course. When had anything ever gone her way? Both dragon-snakes came to an abrupt stop before slowly pivoting.
Two sets of red eyes locked on her. Long, thin tongues swiped over saber-teeth, and drool dripped from the corners of their mouths. Drool ... or accelerant? The pungent stench of something akin to gasoline stung her nostrils.
Well. She'd just been placed on the day's menu.
In unison, the "chefs" hissed and bowed their spines, the scales around their necks flaring.
You have an eighty-seven percent chance of being deep-fried, never seeing your friends again and never finding Lazarus or the box.
No. She would fight, and she would win. If she died, Misery would be loosed upon an unsuspecting world; he would find new prey, devour sweet dreams, beloved hopes and any glimmer of happiness. He —
Had merely distracted her, the bastard.
Dual streams of fire spewed in her direction. Attuned to battle now, Cameo dived out of the way. Upon landing, she rolled and swiped up two petrified branches. As she stood, she swung at the nearer beast.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Rathbone began, reminding her of his presence. The pointed tips moved across her opponent's chest, and the cat sighed. "Congrats. You just made everything worse."
Argh! The branches hadn't penetrated a single scale. In fact, the branches hadn't scratched a single scale.
Enraged now, the dragon-snake roared.
All right. Their scales were impenetrable. Got it. Only two other options remained. Go for the eyes or go for the mouth. Easy, not a problem, if she could hop aboard the dragon-snake express and hitch a ride.
Excerpted from "The Darkest Promise"
Copyright © 2017 Gena Showalter.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE DARKEST PROMISE, 7,
LORDS OF THE UNDERWORLD, 443,