Candy? They had to be kidding. Was this David's idea of a joke? Helena's stage name would be Candy? Oh, someone was going to pay for that. Her directions would lead her to the infamous and otherwise nonexistent back room of Gothic City Lights, where they were expecting a new dancer named Candy.
She rolled her eyes, crumpled the list of instructions, and shoved them brutally into the car's ashtray that was really a miniature incinerator. She turned and looked at David. His smile was carefully subdued, but she could sense he wanted to laugh. She furrowed her brow, narrowed her eyes, and glared, and there it was. His mop of long black dreadlocks bounced as he burst into laughter.
"Find something funny?" she asked venomously.
"Not at all…Candy," he said with a hearty guffaw that transformed into another fit of laughter.
It was a good thing he was an angel, because if he were human her fist would've likely disconnected his head from his shoulders as she punched him. Pulling back her hand, she quickly inspected her fingers. The manicure had cost plenty, and the long, elegant but fake nails were part of her disguise. Nothing chipped or broke, but her knuckles flared in pain.
"Okay, I deserved that, I suppose." David chuckled and gingerly rubbed at his jaw.
"This whole mission is bad enough; don't make it worse for me."
"I'll say. What did you do to piss off Mother Superior to draw this assignment?" he asked, fighting a grin and still massaging his bruised jaw. An angry blue discoloration started to show through his dark mocha skin. She'd gotten him soundly.
"I don't know. She said it would be good for me, and there was no one else." Helena sucked on her knuckles to ease the burn of pain just beneath the skin.
"I don't know about that. Why didn't they get Gabriel's girl to do it? She'd be perfect."
"That's what I said, but Mother Superior said it was too soon to explore using the half-demon in operations. Gabriel would've thrown a fit anyway." If Helena knew anything about her leader's relationship with Lilith, she knew he'd wade through hell for her. There was no chance he'd put her in the line of fire against a demon this dangerous.
"Yeah, true that. I just wish I could be there."
"Oh no, don't even think it. It's bad enough, taking my clothes off for a bunch of sick, perverted mortals, but you are to stay clear of the club. Understand?" She fumed, grabbed his collar, and yanked him roughly toward her.
"I meant, you know. To cover you. Support op."
"Oh. Yeah, well, you'll be close enough if I need backup," she said with a sigh and let go of his thick leather coat.
"But are you?" he asked, lifting a hand between them defensively, and she glared at him.
"Am I what?"
"Going to take your clothes off?"
"I don't have any choice. If I don't, the mortal club owner will fire me long before I have a chance to mark our target," she said softly. And it was true, just as Lilith had explained. There was no way to fake stripping. Bartending or waitressing wouldn't work either. Neither would provide the lurid bait required to catch this demon's attention.
"Yeah. I guess so. If it's any consolation, you'll make one fine-looking stripper," he said with a bright smile. Her fist met his chin again, resounding a loud thud, and he laughed as his head was forced aside.
"Thanks." She couldn't help but smile. The compliment meant more to her than she felt it should. Now her knuckles really hurt and she rubbed them tenderly. David pulled around a corner and they drove past the infamous club's entrance.
There was a long line of mortals anxious to party away the night at the seedy club. It had a reputation. A bad one, in her opinion. A known meat market, and the illegal strip club in its hidden back room had made it a beacon for those who lived on the wrong side of the law.
But it wasn't mortal laws that concerned her. It was the sin the club embellished, embraced, and profited from. As an earthbound angel, it was her duty, her purpose, to counter sin. Not participate in it. And yet here she was, dressed as a slut, ready to enter the world of sin in hopes of baiting a particularly nasty demon out of hiding.
The war between demon and angel had been waged since the dawn of time. And it would continue for as long as man lived on this world and far beyond that as well. There was no end to it.
Helena had seven hundred and twelve years left to her sentence of earth service. Each soul she saved was a point in her favor when her duty was done. The collective good she spread among mankind during her time on earth would determine whether she was worthy to ascend to heaven or would have to serve another seven hundred and seventy-seven years among mortals.
And so her current assignment was a sacrifice. The sin she had to participate in was for the greater good. Taking down Garmend, a notorious demon of the deadly sin of pride, would be far greater than the lust she might inspire in mortals who sat in witness to her disguise. But it was a jagged pill to swallow.
"You okay?" David asked calmly. His voice was subdued. Gone was the warm humor and ready wit. This was about as far out of her comfort zone as it could possibly be, and he wasn't foolish enough not to know that. It was almost as bad as when Gabriel had been sent here. He, formerly an angel of the virtue of chastity, had been thrown into this den of sin, and he fell. Lost to a succubus. Lost in love. Fallen. Would she?
"Yeah. Do as I must." She didn't bother trying to hide the somber tone to her voice as she uttered their motto. Do as she must. David nodded and offered a polite smile. Helena opened the door, stepped out, and slung her duffle bag over her shoulder.
The darn heels were a pain to get used to. She had to rely on her inhuman reflexes to balance on the five-inch needles that supported the heels of the tiny shoes. How Lilith managed to run around in these contraptions of torture like she was barefoot amazed her.
She smoothed her black leather trench coat and walked back down the alley while David parked. There was nothing to be gained from procrastination, so she headed straight in. Bypassing the line of mortals waiting to get in, she stopped before the two muscle-bound doormen.
Their eyes grazed over her as if she were a succulent dessert, and it took a good portion of her self-control not to kick their asses. Drawing deep into her resolve, she summoned a smile for them.
"I'm Candy. I'm expected," she said. God, Candy? She reminded herself to hit David again the next time she saw him.
"Yes, you certainly are," the one on the left said; his appraising gaze bored right through the thick leather coat.
Play along, she thought. With considerable effort, she managed to smile wider and added a wink at the flirtation.
"Candy. Right, come on in," said the bouncer on the right. He stepped back and pushed open the dull green double doors of the entrance.
A blast of warmth swept out and hit Helena's senses hard. Musk, sweat, drugs, and alcohol saturated the air that enveloped her as she stepped inside. It was dark, smoky despite the city's no-smoking ordinance, and her eyes had to adjust to the flickering flash of lights coming from every possible angle.
The pounding blare of music rattled her bones in time to the deep bass drum, and everywhere she looked, there was a significant lack of clothing on the club's patrons. In fact, with her overcoat on, she was the most overdressed person she could see. At least right then. Beneath, she was practically naked in the outfit Lilith had chosen for her.
"You Candy?" asked a tall, handsome man, whose biceps were nearly as big as her thighs. His smile was bright, beaming out through a thick but well-groomed goatee. His gaze was greedy as it swept up and down her. The men here had no sense of propriety. She nodded, realizing he knew who she was, because the bouncers all wore headsets and could communicate uninhibited by the loud music.
"Right, follow me," he said and led her around the dance floor. The bodies there were one huge tangle of flesh. In nearly every direction people rubbed against one another as the music set the tempo. While mostly clothed, it was far more lewd than the kind of dancing she was here to do. At least that was how she felt. She wouldn't be grinding herself up against someone.
The bouncer led her to the far side of the club, then down a hallway, past the restrooms, and turned a corner to an office door. There was another muscular guard there, and he opened the door for them. It took them down another corridor, passing a door on the right and one on the left, with a third down at the end. Through the last, and it opened into another club. The infamous and secret back room of Gothic City Lights.
"Check in with the DJ. He'll get you into the rotation. Drinks are on the house, but don't get too fucked up. The guys here are used to getting away with anything you let them. But you set the rules. Raise your hand, and we'll be there in a split second to bail you out if someone crosses a line you don't like. Got it?" the handsome bouncer said as he turned to her. She nodded.
"Good. I'm Tank. Anyone fucks with you, let me know," he added with a grin.
"What are the rules?" she asked, trying to present some semblance of professionalism. Lilith had warned her that the dancers weren't stereotypical. They were the top performers in the nation. They didn't get that way by being run-of-the-mill strippers.
"Like I said, you set the rules. This room doesn't exist. There are no laws, except those you want. We enforce whatever your rules are. Make sure you establish some with the other dancers too. Every girl has boundaries. Respect theirs and they will respect yours. Got it?" he said, and she nodded.
"Don't worry, you'll do great," he said with a charming smile and let his gaze sweep up and down her before turning, and left back out the door they came through. She waited until the door shut behind him and then unleashed the acidic glare she had wanted to grill him with.
Helena took a deep breath, summoned a brilliant smile, and turned on her heel. The large room was layered with a thick blanket of smoke just above her head. The reeking smell of cigars, cigarettes, and what she was pretty sure was marijuana permeated everything. It was suffocating, but she managed not to retch.
With a powerful stride, she made her way across the room to the DJ's booth along the far wall. He looked up, grinned warmly, and ran a calloused-fingered hand through the scruffy tangles of his curly, shoulder-length hair.
"I'm Candy," she said loud enough to be heard over the deafening music.
"Right. You new?" he asked, and she was forced to lean into his booth to hear him. Her hearing was phenomenal, but the music distracted her. The rapid, pounding thump, thump of itsbass-driven core assaulted her senses, and she knew it would combine with the smoke to give her the worst headache she'd ever had.
"Yes. My first night here," she said, glibly giving the impression that although new here, she had danced at other clubs. Did Lilith's bedroom count?
"Well, you'll love it here. My cut is five percent, and I collect at the end of the night."
"Of your tips," he said and looked at her. She stared back blankly. That was right. They danced for tips. But why in the world should she give over a percentage to him?
"Or we could work something else out," he added, and his gaze drifted down to where her leather overcoat was hanging open. She felt her cheeks flush with blood. Both anger and embarrassment hit her, but she coughed up a smile instead of popping him right between the eyes.
"Five percent is good."
"Right. You'll follow Jamie in the rotation," he said, snickering, and swung his head side to side. Helena assumed it was her blush he found so darn amusing.
"Which one is Jamie?"
"There, the bondage babe," he said, pointing over to a topless girl wearing a tight and very short vinyl skirt and carrying a leather switch.
"Okay. Is there a dressing room?" Helena asked but then saw a door open by the bathrooms, and a girl wearing a minuscule pink bikini came out.
"Over there." He pointed to the door she had located. She nodded without another word and made her way to it. Sucking in a deep breath, she pushed open the door and stepped through.
It was a small room with three sinks and a huge mirror. There was a coatrack and a pile of duffel bags. She shrugged her bag off and added it to the pile. When in Rome, she thought. At least it didn't reek of smoke back here. There was an ashtray on the counter with butts in it, but the ventilation here seemed to work much better. Thank goodness.
Now what was she supposed to do? If she waited in here, she wouldn't know when the dancer Jamie went up on stage. But if she went out there, she would be expected to seek out personal dances from the customers. That, she was not in the least bit ready for. In fact, she subconsciously planned to find her target before ever having to do such a thing.
A drink. That was what she needed. A very stiff drink.
Helena slipped her overcoat off, hung it on the coat rack, and looked in the mirror. Her makeup was thick but in good shape. She looked the part. She'd never looked so trampy in her whole life. She adjusted the tight bra that kept threatening to squeeze her breasts right out into the open and took another deep breath.
She headed back into the main hall and made her way straight to the bar. Unfortunately the whip-bearing dancer was now on the small stage at the back wall's center, which meant her turn was coming soon.
A pretty redhead moved down the bar and smiled warmly. "What can I get you?" she asked, and Helena had to think. She wasn't much of a drinker, so her knowledge was vague.
"Something strong, but I don't want to taste the alcohol," Helena said, and bartender laughed with a nod.
"Fruity or chocolaty?"
"Fruit," Helena said, wondering what kind of drink might taste like chocolate.
"All right, how about a Cadillac margarita?"
"All right," Helena said with a shrug. Why not? She'd never had one, and she may as well trust the expert.
"Excellent. It'll kick your ass, but you said strong. I'm Gretchen, by the way," the pretty bartender said, and Helena summoned another smile.
"I'm Candy." God, how she hated saying that name.
"I heard through the grapevine that Lilith recommended you," Gretchen said, nodding as she poured from several bottles into a huge brandy snifter. Helena looked at her in alarm. Did they know what Lilith was?
"Yes," Helena said and decided not to elaborate.
"Makes sense. How's she doing? She hasn't been in since she got that boyfriend," Gretchen said. Her eyes were a gentle green and looked at Helena with genuine interest. But the one thing she knew of Lilith's past was the half-demon didn't have friends she didn't sleep with. Knowing the bartender might have been one of the half-demon's lovers made Helena nervous. The redhead might assume Helena was as promiscuous.
"Yes. She doesn't get out much anymore." Helena managed to smile as the reasons why flooded her mind. The succubus hadn't let Gabriel out of her bedroom for more than a few hours since they hooked up two months ago. It took zero imagination to guess why.
"I miss her," Gretchen said with a subtle downturn to her lips, and Helena cocked her head to one side, using her angelic powers of empathy. The girl felt very strongly for Lilith, but it was more than sexual lust. Interesting.
"Me too." Helena couldn't think of anything else to say.
"I'll hold your drink," Gretchen said, taking the huge glass and setting it down behind the bar, and nodded behind Helena. "You're up."
Great. She really wanted that drink, especially now. A part of her tried to ignore how she had felt dancing for Lilith. Another tried to rationalize it was just the natural pheromonal effect a succubus radiated. But she knew inside, a darker part of her had enjoyed it. Would it be the same, here in front of mortal strangers?
She'd crashed a Harley into a biker bar full of demons and fought them off while Gabriel and the troops stormed in. Weathered countless firefights against hellfire round-using thugs. Even squared off against Bregor's right-hand man to a bloody draw. Fear had never sunk its claws into her as deeply as it did now.
Get a grip, girl. Do as I must.
She took a long, deep breath as the song ended and then headed past the stage to the little stairwell leading up to the back. The dancer Jamie gave her a weird smile as they passed one another, but Helena couldn't read it without drawing on her powers. Something told her she didn't want to know what the dancer was thinking.
The thick haze of smoke was shot through with colored beams of light, and all eyes fell to her. In a million years, this was the last place she ever thought she would end up. Now here shewas, an earthbound angel about to take the stage and perform a striptease.
The heavy music kicked back in after some crude commentary and introduction from the DJ, and panic found its way onto the battlefield. Her throat constricted, her pulse went wild, pushing adrenaline through her body. Helena locked her legs at the knees to keep them from trembling.
A hundred times she had gone into battle with demons, and never had she been this afraid. But the exhilaration was undeniable, and it swept her into its dark, warm, and sinful shadow. She moved onto the stage's center. The music guided her hips, her feet, and she began to sway.
And just as suddenly, there was her mark. Passing by the bar, not ten feet from her. Dressed in a thick black leather duster hanging two inches from the ground at the heels of his boots. His black hair was combed back tight against his skull, tied behind his head in a flowing ponytail. He was gigantic. Broader than any man she'd ever seen and stood easily six-two, maybe six-three. Had she not known better, she would've guessed him for a wraith instead of a warlock.
The demon was far too obvious. Arrogant swagger, dark deadly eyes. Perhaps even ruggedly handsome, if you could look past the callous indifference and myriad of scars etched on the hard angles of his face. His stout jaw was shaded with a five-o'clock shadow. He was a man of action, and there was no time for shaving and other frivolous novelties.
A part of her was awed by him and realized she was not so different. Hard, tough, and determined. She could tell that, although they fought for opposite ends of the spectrum, they were born warriors. He was not going to be easy to take down. Dead or alive was Mother Superior's call. The demon had crossed too many lines and had fled into Portland from Los Angeles. Now he was Mother Superior's headache, and she didn't screw around.
* * * * *
Helena nearly forgot she was half naked on a stage with a bunch of lust-stricken people to entertain. Still, now she knew what he looked like. It was a two-song stint, and then she could begin the setup.
She twirled around, averting her eyes from his direction, and managed to remember to smile at those frothing at the mouth for her. The men arrayed before the stage disgusted her, and without even tapping her powers of emotional empathy, she could tell quite easily what they were thinking.
Drawing herself up tight against the pole, she readied herself for the pinnacle of this test. Sucking in a deep breath, she then reached behind her back, found the clasp to her bra, and unsnapped it. The music pounded, the crowd cheered, all waiting for this moment, and her blood was on fire. It terrified her—it excited her.
She whirled in place, the bra flew from her breasts, and the darkest brown eyes she had ever seen instantly ensnared her. Her mark had made his way right up to the edge of her stage and was two feet from her.
Their eyes locked, and the rest of the world fell away. Time slowed to a halt, and her heart leaped into her throat. His hand, already rising, moved in slow motion, tossing a five-dollar bill, but his mouth slowly dropped open. Her heart pounded so loudly she was sure everyone could hear it over the loud, booming music.
He was…savagely perfect. His deep, dark eyes smoldered with an exotic urge. Primal, sinful, but there was no evil intention. He stared at her, his hand outstretched, and the ventilation fans caught the bill and tugged it from his fingers. Drifting slowly, it fell toward the hardwood framing of the stage's edge, where it landed.
Time resumed, and Helena managed to tear her gaze from his, shifting into another spin to turn away. Her breath came in deep, ragged gulps. What in the world was that?
Desire shot through her veins, demanding she turn around again. To swim once more in the sinful warmth of those chocolate pools. To lose herself in him. Why? She had never felt such need, such want. Why now? And a demon? No, it was terrible.
Too afraid to turn back around, she recalled every move Lilith had taught her that would appease the crowd yet allow her to face the pole. Sweeping her ass side to side and prancing slowly in place with the music seemed to please her audience, but was the demon still watching?
Would he like what he saw? Why did she care? Growling under her breath, she forced the vision of those eyes from her mind. Finish the song, then the next. Don't make eye contact, she told herself.
The minutes seemed to pass like hours as she danced with the sensual grace she felt and never once looked to her demon fan. Her peripheral vision told her he was still standing at the rack, watching her.
She could feel the burn of his gaze. It caressed and teased her naked flesh everywhere, and she couldn't help herself. Her body moved in rhythm to the beat, undulating, gyrating, and twisting erotically, knowing his dark gaze drank all of it hungrily. It was a strange pleasure to know.
The second song ended, and without a glance to the audience, including the onlooking demon, she snagged her bra off the floor and marched back into the dressing room. She realized then she hadn't taken off her panties and was thankful.
There was the thin little punk rock dancer there, but Helena ignored her and went to the sink. Splashing cold water on her face helped, but she couldn't banish the image of those eyes seeping across her naked body. That she'd enjoyed it.
She was here to kill this demon, and now everything had gone insane. She had lost her mind. All she could think about was how it would feel if it were his hands caressing her instead of his gaze. Blast, girl, get your head on straight, she thought.
The other dancer left, and Helena broke out her cell phone and called David.
"I made contact. He's here now. Set up in the alley behind. I'll lure him there."
She hung up, tossed the phone into her bag, and looked to the mirror. Her eyeliner had smeared a little from the splash of water, and she fixed it. Seduction was not her talent, but dressed like a slut, it shouldn't be too hard. Demons had an appetite for sin. Just get him into the alley, and then it'll all be over.
Taking the thousandth deep breath of the night, she replaced her bra with only a little struggle with its tight fit. Looking her best, she turned and headed back out to find her mark.
The endless smoke left a haze across the entire room, and she had to squint against its sting and cloud. He wasn't by the rack, so she moved to the bar. Gretchen gave her a bright smile and placed her drink on the counter. Oh yes. She needed that and grabbed it thankfully, taking a deep sip.
Just keep cool. She turned around casually, landing one cheek of her butt on the round stool, and gave a casual glance up and down the back room's length. He was easy to spot. Tall, broad-shouldered, and completely shrouded in the Australian leather duster. But he was leaving. And out the back. Whoa, not good.
She had to be with him, distracting him, while David and the team set up. Scrambling, she headed out after him.
The cool, rainy night reminded her she was wearing very skimpy lingerie and not a scrap more. She looked down the dark alley, and he was there. Somewhere. She couldn't see him, but she could feel his presence.
Three steps down the stairs, her heels clacked loudly on the alley's dented asphalt, and she cursed under her breath. The gentle rain wasn't loud enough to drown out her stilettos. Not for a demon.
She kicked them off and left them where they lay. She took to the left wall and skirted along its cold, wet brick, searching the darkness. A clang of steel against steel drifted down to her, and she realized the battle had begun. David must have rushed to get into place that quickly. It would be three on one, but this one was known to be more than a handful, and she didn't want anyone on her team to get hurt.
Her bare feet protested the quick parade down the dark alley through mud puddles and across sharp rocks sticking out from the ground. The alley turned a corner before emptying out to a main street, and she edged her way as silently as she could. Peering around it, she was floored.
Her mark was swinging a long katana at another man. She moved quickly but already knew it wasn't David. It wasn't Matthew either. The blade hit the other man's hand but clanged as if it had struck concrete.
Her eyes had adjusted, and the silhouette he was fighting became clearer. It was a demon. Its savage mouth was drawn open in a snarl, eyes glowing red with rage, and it moved with strength and speed the other didn't possess. Her mark wasn't immortal, and therefore not a demon. And then, of course, that meant he was a human. And now he was fighting a demon. The tiny hairs on her nape stood on end as a chill shivered up her spine.
The human's skill at arms was superior to the demon's and the only thing keeping the fight fairly even. But she knew the human would fall. His endurance would give, his strength would fail, long before the demon's. The fiery blaze of anger flooded her veins, killing the eerie chill. She charged in, outraged at the thought of a human being slaughtered by a demon.
But she had no weapon. She grabbed the demon's fist just in time to stop it from crushing into the human's shoulder. Her strength was near its equal, and the human seized the advantage she provided. Trying to save him, she side kicked, pulling the full brunt of her attack so as not to injure the man, and sent him flying out of harm's way.
"Get out of here," she cried as she dodged a backhand from the demon.
A crash of garbage cans clattered behind her told her he had landed softly. Well, at least enough to break his fall. He would live, if he got out of there now.
"Are you crazy?" the human yelled back, and she knew he was reentering the battle.
She dared a glance and saw him taking position on her flank. A sting across her forearm brought her attention back to the fight. Three gaping wounds had been carved into her arm by demon claws. She bit her lip against the pain and fell back, moving her body between the human and the demon.
"Get out of here now!"
"What the… Get out of the way. You're gonna get yourself killed," he said as he swung his blade over her shoulder, drawing blackish blood from the demon's fist.
The demon snarled and then darted away. It leaped onto the building's side, its claws allowing it to climb right up the slippery bricks. Helena had a split second to act, but if she used her strength to give chase, the human would know she wasn't mortal. And then the demon was gone.
Several silent, intended footsteps came down the alley. Helena whirled in place as David and Matthew arrived in the shadows, looking confused. They looked to the human, who was staring up at the demon's escape route, unaware of the angels. Helena quickly waved them off, and they disappeared back down the alley.
"Son of a…" The man cursed. "He got away." He turned around in a huff. A long scratch across his cheek bled freely, trickling down his powerful jawline, and Helena was struck once more by his savage beauty. The way his broad chest heaved in breaths, the cold-as-steel look in his eyes, all of him conspired against her once more. He was pure warrior.
"Are you okay?" she asked. She was supposed to be a dancer after all, not a demon-hunting angel.
"Me? I was worried about you," he said, advancing on her with a long, sturdy gait. He closed his hands around her shoulders. Bold, tough, and his fingers calloused, he gripped her firmly, inspecting her with his intense gaze. Her stomach twisted in a knot, and fire swept through her cheeks.
"You could've been killed. Have you any idea just what in the hell that was?"
This was her opportunity to put on the naive-dancer-stumbles-into-a-demon-fight-in-an-alley routine. She needed to find out who in the world this guy was and why he was fighting a demon. And worse, if he knew what it really was.
"You looked like you were in trouble," she said, turning away from those savage eyes.
"I can handle myself. You, on the other hand, got very lucky."
"Yeah, you're lucky he didn't crush your skull."
"I saved your butt," she protested. His knight-in-shining-armor routine needed a lot more spit and polish. Clearly he was out of practice. She curled her hands into fists and propped them on her hips. The skin contact reminded her she was standing in a dark alley, glaring at a man, wearing nothing but black satin and lace.