“When in doubt, be bad. It’s so much fun.”
-Life (and Death) Lessons from Xavier Hollow
“You have to be good,” Micah Gray delivered the dreaded words to his king and then held his breath because he knew what would happen next. I hope I don’t get blisters. I hope—
Fire flew from Xavier Hollow’s fingers and slammed into the floor at Micah’s feet. “You know how I hate that word. It gives me hives.”
The flames had missed Micah. This time. He let his breath out and ran a hand across his sweaty brow. “Yes, I do know. But I’m afraid it’s necessary.” And the grand king of destruction was right. The “g” word was known to make red streaks slide over the powerful king’s body. When he actually committed a “good” act, he suffered excruciating pain. Not that Xavier committed any particularly good acts. Not in centuries…More like millennia?
Sacrifice and kindness were just literally not part of his genetic makeup.
Darkness, evil, and mayhem? They were the king’s bread and butter. But desperate times could call for some, uh, good measures. “The curse is going to kick in.” A warning that the king should not need. But someone had to possess the courage to remind his wretched evilness of the problem at hand.
“Fuck the curse.” Xavier twirled a ball of fire over his fingers.
Please do not throw that fire at me. There was a reason no one else had been brave enough to enter the throne room. The king always tossed fire when he got news he didn’t like. He will not like this. “I’m afraid the, uh…” Micah took a step back. “Curse is going to fuck you, my lord.”
Xavier’s dark eyes narrowed. The ball of fire got brighter. Hotter.
“That is…” Micah yanked at his collar. It was way, way too tight. “The curse will take away your power. You’ve known about this for a long time—”
“Curses bore me. I’m too strong for them. Witches can cast whatever spells they want. But I am the king of destruction. I burn cities to the ground. I incinerate my enemies. I lay waste to—”
“This particular curse was put on you by your father, not some weak witch. You know that.” He’d had to interrupt because once Xavier got going about his evil deeds, the king did tend to roll on and on. And on. “He, um, wanted you to prove yourself, remember?”
The flames came at him. Micah screamed and jumped out of the way. But he didn’t jump fast enough or far enough and the fire caught his shirt. He slapped at the flames. Blisters. I’ll have them on my fingers—
“I remember everything,” Xavier growled.
The flames winked out. His shirt smoked. His fingers stung. Dammit. “You, ah, remember that you can break the curse, right? Break the curse. Prove yourself to your father.”
“My father is long dead.”
Yes. Maybe. Hard to say for sure. “The curse isn’t.”
More flames began to dance over Xavier’s hand. The flames were reflected in his eyes, turning the darkness to a deep red.
Oh, no. Micah spoke, again, fast. He burst out, “You just have to find someone good.” There. Done. Said.
Mocking laughter spilled from Xavier. “Have you taken a look at the human world lately?”
“You have three days, my lord. Three. When the clock strikes midnight tonight, the countdown officially begins.” If time hadn’t been running out, he never would have dared to face the king this way. But, there was a bright spot… “You have to find a woman with a soul of goodness and get her to sacrifice herself for you. She has to give you her soul, her life…or else you’ll be power—”
“Do not fucking finish that sentence.” Xavier leapt to his feet. The throne room trembled with his fury.
Powerless. Micah licked his lips. “I have good news.” His voice cracked.
Another growl from Xavier. Micah winced. Sure, he was using the “good” word a lot, but it was necessary. Hurriedly, he added, “I’ve located the descendant of an angel.”
In a blink, Xavier was in front of him. He grabbed Micah by his shirtfront and hauled him into the air. Since the king of destruction stood at around six-foot-four—when he was in human form, anyway—Xavier usually towered over Micah. Thus, the hauling him up to eye-level business.
“There are no angels on earth,” Xavier told him flatly.
“Yes, you are correct. As you so often are.” Xavier loved praise. “Wise. Ever so wise.”
“But this is the descendant of an angel. And that’s close enough, don’t you think?” He sure hoped it would be. “Didn’t even know she was out there, but one of your, ah, crew saw her on the street. He could see the shine in her.”
Xavier’s eyes widened.
The shine. Angels were so bright that you couldn’t stare directly at them for very long. But the descendants of angels? The rare humans who’d been created by forbidden trysts with the creatures from heaven?
The descendants carried a faint shine. A glow that seemed to shine from within them. Only other paranormals could see that tell-tale glow.
“Where.” Not a question, but a demand from Xavier.
“New Orleans.” Plenty of sin lived in that city, so Xavier’s minions had been well entrenched in the area. When one had spotted the descendant…
Oh, no. I can see his fangs. Usually when you saw Xavier’s fangs, it was a very, very bad sign. Micah braced for pain.
But Xavier just put Micah onto his feet.
The scary smile remained on the king of destruction’s face.
I pity the descendant.
“Name,” Xavier snapped.
“Her name is M-Mercy—”
More laughter spilled from Xavier.
“Mercy Josephine,” Micah finished with a gulp. “And, she’s going to be at a charity ball tonight—”
The laughter became louder. Then… “Of course, she is.”
“It’s…ah, a costume ball…you can…sneak in…get close to her…charm her…” Because the king could be charming, when he wanted to be.
All part of his power. Xavier Hollow could seduce anyone with barely an effort. Humans—and paranormals—fell at his feet. He was a master charmer and an epic destroyer. He could kill you even as you begged him to love you.
Through and through.
Xavier opened his hand. The flames danced. “I’ll have her in my palm. She’ll gladly die for me.” His hand closed, and he extinguished the fire. Smoke drifted from his fingers.
Micah swallowed. “Y-you’ll have to act good…”
A muscle jerked along Xavier’s square jaw.
“To fool her. To convince her to fall for you. You’ll need to pretend to be like her.” Because angels—or humans with a bit of angel blood—were always drawn to goodness.
And repelled by evil.
So Xavier’s normal tricks wouldn’t work. Mercy Josephine would feel uncomfortable around him, wary, so he’d have to work at convincing her that she could trust him.
That she could love him.
That she should give up her soul for him.
Three days. He hated to say it, but Micah whispered, “My king, time is ticking.”
The king snapped his fingers. Poof. The king of destruction vanished.
Micah glanced around the throne room. Gone. Xavier could transport through dimensions in little more than a blink. Micah knew the king would be on his way to New Orleans. Off on the biggest hunt of his life.
“Good luck,” Micah whispered.
Then he winced. There wasn’t gonna be anything at all good about this endeavor.
For a moment, he almost felt sorry for Mercy Josephine.
“‘No good deed goes unpunished.’
Don’t know who originally said that shit, but I want to punch him in the face.”
-Life (and Death) Lessons from Xavier Hollow
An angel stood at the top of the staircase.
Xavier stiffened when he saw her. A picture of grace, beauty, and elegance…with giant, white wings springing from her back. Feathered wings. The wings matched the long, body-hugging, white dress that the angel wore. Sinful when she should have been going for virtuous. The angel must have missed a memo somewhere.
She stood up there, and her gaze swept the ballroom below her. She bit her lower lip. Ran a shaking hand over her perfectly straight, brown hair. Hair that fell just long enough to skim her delicate shoulders.
He couldn’t see the color of her eyes. Mostly because she hadn’t looked his way. She was too busy being all nervous and scared at the top of the stairs.
Then she started to descend. Little feathers trailed in her wake as they worked free of the wings and drifted in the air. She lifted one hand to tug up the too long hem of her dress, revealing shoes that were, again, sinful not virtuous. Three-inch heels. Spikes. Sexy.
He was already smiling even when the angel began to fall. One of those spiky heels caught on the back of her dress. Her mouth dropped open in surprise. And he knew she was about to take a serious header down those stairs. Down, down, she would go.
A broken angel.
She didn’t even have time to scream.
One moment she began the tumble.
And in the next…
Xavier snapped his fingers.
He appeared right in front of her. He caught the angel, sparing her from savage embarrassment and brutally broken bones even as pain knifed through his gut.
No good deed ever goes unpunished. Fucking words that he had to live by.
Xavier hissed out a breath.
And her eyes locked on him.
Amber. Something he hadn’t expected. A battered gold. Oddly enthralling.
She grabbed him. Her fingers curled along his arms as she held him tightly. “Thank you!” A gasp of relieved breath burst from her. “You saved my life!”
He shrugged. “Doubtful. Just might have spared you from a broken leg or arm.” His nostrils flared. What was that scent? It came from her. Sweet and heady at the same time. He brought his head closer to hers. Sniffed her. Delicious.
“Well, I am grateful.” A shaking laugh spilled from her. “I didn’t even see you there.”
There. On the stairs? She hadn’t seen him because he hadn’t been there. He’d been all the way across the ballroom. Oh, but magic could be a glorious thing.
Her head tilted back as she beamed at him. “Please know that you are my hero.”
He stiffened. “How dare you.”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
Shit. Fuck. He was supposed to be the hero. “How daring of you…” What was he supposed to say? “To wear such a…bold costume.” The wings were massive. Truly. They took up most of the width of the stairs as they spread behind her.
She grimaced. “It’s too much, isn’t it?” She craned to look over her shoulder and sighed. “I did not ask for this. I wanted to be a witch. I ordered a witch costume. I was going to be dark and spooky.” Her head turned back toward him. “Instead, when I unzipped the costume bag, this is what was waiting inside for me. Angel wings, a dress that is way too tight…”
He rather thought the dress fit perfectly, at least in certain places. Places like her high, full breasts, her flaring hips, her—
“And the shoes? I am going to break my neck in them.” She hesitated. Then nodded. “Hold on.” Her right hand left him, but her left clamped even more tightly around him. “No one but you has to know...”
Intrigued, he crooked a brow.
She took off her shoes. And sighed in relief. She also immediately dropped three inches and became even more fragile. At least, fragile to him.
“So much better.” A bright smile lifted her full lips and made her amber eyes sparkle. “The dress is so long that no one has to know I’m not wearing shoes. It will just…well, I’ll pretend the dress is supposed to be this way. Some sort of daring, dragging fashion.” She let go of him. “And maybe I can get through this nightmare of a night after all.”
She looked out at the throng of people. The band had started to play again. “I don’t like crowds,” she confessed. “I tend to prefer quieter scenes.”
He studied her profile as she stared at all the people. A good profile. Lovely. Not necessarily beautiful, but perfection had always bored him. A cute nose. Curving cheek. Her lips were truly intriguing. Full. A little naughty. And those eyes of hers…
She sent him a quick glance and blushed. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to trap you with me.” She angled her body to the side. The wings did not angle well. They went right on taking up all the space. “Thank you for saving me.”
With her shoes in one hand and with the other hand holding up the hem of her dress, she headed down the stairs.
Darling, if you’re lifting your skirt, everyone will see your bare feet. Didn’t she get that? “Wait.”
She looked back.
“Don’t I get a name?”
Her laughter came again. As did her blush. Her laughter caught him off guard because it was strangely beautiful. Musical laughter.
“Mercy,” she told him. “I’m Mercy Josephine.”
“And I’m Xavier Hollow.” He moved down a step so that he could be closer to her. His hand extended. “Pleasure to meet you.”
Fuck. Even as the polite words rolled from his lips, he felt an itch on his back. Hives. His nostrils flared. He hated being good.
Her fingers curled with his, and warmth seemed to spread from her touch—spread from his hand all the way through his body. Xavier forgot about the hives. “It’s not every day that I meet a real angel.”
This time, she sent him a half-smile. “And it’s not every day that I meet a vampire.”
His tongue slid along one fang. He’d almost forgotten about the fangs.
“Those are quite impressive,” she told him. “They look real.”
Because they are. “Um. I can make them retract, too.” And he did. The fangs could appear and disappear at will.
She gave a little gasp. “That’s incredible.”
Of all his talents, that one was the least incredible.
Her gaze darted over his attire.
“All black,” she murmured. “How dark and foreboding. Totally what a vampire would wear.”
Black to match his soul. Oh, wait. I don’t have one of those. “Black is my favorite color.”
Her smile came again. “Mine, too.”
“Nice mask, by the way.”
The mask was a bit of carnival fun that had seemed to fit with the vibe of New Orleans. It covered the upper portion of his face. Plenty of other guests at the ball wore similar masks. There were humans in all sorts of costumes in the ballroom. Lots of sexy female demons. A glamorous ghoul or two. He’d caught sight of a mummy shortly after arriving. Had thought about stomping on the loose material hanging from the back of the costume and tripping the guy but…
But then I saw the angel at the top of the stairs. And he’d been spellbound.
She tugged on her hand and Xavier realized he was still holding it. Was, in fact, lightly stroking the back of her hand with his fingers.
“I…am supposed to go downstairs,” Mercy told him. “My stepfather is sponsoring the ball, and I have strict orders to mix and mingle.”
“We are mingling. Fuck mixing with anyone else.”
Her incredible eyes widened.
Oh, had that not been polite? Xavier huffed out a breath. “Perhaps you will agree to dance with me. I did save you from a vicious fall, after all.” In case she needed the reminder.
“I would love to dance with you.”
The eagerness in her voice caught him by surprise. He hadn’t even been using his charm power yet. Oh, this is going to be so easy. “Then let’s go.”
She started to practically bounce down the stairs. Since he couldn’t have her dying—yet—he caught her arm and helped her in a more sedate fashion. Only when they were at the landing did he let her go. She took a few quick steps away and then turned back to him and—
A faint light seemed to fill the air around her. A glow. No, a shine. A sure sign of a descendant. The shine had, no doubt, been there all along. Only he’d gotten distracted by her wings. Her curves. Her smile. Her eyes.
What is my problem?
He’d missed the shine. There was no missing it now. Not when it seemed to push back against the darkness of the ballroom and fill all the space around her.
Mercy glanced around quickly, then she ditched her shoes behind a potted plant. Xavier felt something odd tugging at his lips.
A smile? A real one?
“I should warn you,” Mercy said, voice serious but low, “I’m not a very good dancer.”
“I don’t care.”
Her brows climbed. “Really?”
Absolutely. So low on his list of priorities. “Your dancing ability is the least important thing in the world to me right now.” He began to pull her toward him and then—
Another man was in his way. A man with dark hair, intent, blue eyes, and wearing a black tux. No mask. Xavier could easily view his rather weak features.
“Mercy, we need you to go on stage,” the man huffed. “You have to fill in and be the first auction participant.”
Mercy’s mouth dropped. “No, no, Thomas, I’m not supposed to be in the auction—”
The guy sighed and put his hand on Mercy’s shoulder.
Xavier stiffened. Someone should have told the man not to touch things that did not belong to him.
“Katie couldn’t make it. There was an emergency at the hospital and she wasn’t able to leave. Your stepdad needs someone to fill in for her.” He sent her a jerky nod. “It’s for charity. Look. Just go up there. Smile for the audience, and someone will bid on a date with you. The whole thing will be over in five minutes.” Then he frowned at her. “Are you shorter? I swear, you were taller earlier—”
“She’s missing shoes,” Xavier told him helpfully. “And if you don’t move the hand off her, you’ll be missing it.”
Now he had the jerk’s attention. The man swung toward him. “What?”
Xavier smiled. “Your hand is still on her.”
The guy lifted his hand, but only so he could point at Xavier. “Who are you?”
“Ah, isn’t the point of a costume ball that my identity should be kept secret?” Better question…who the fuck are you? He believed that Mercy had called the man Thomas. They spoke with far too much familiarity.
Hmmm…I may have to kill him.
“I don’t have time for this,” the man hissed. “Mercy, get your shoes. Get on the stage. Your stepdad has done so much for you. Do this one thing for him, okay?” Then he stormed away, as if certain his orders would be followed.
Xavier’s fingers twitched with the urge to throw a ball of fire after his arrogant ass.
“I’m sorry,” Mercy said softly. “I need to go.”
Of course, she didn’t. “You don’t need to do a damn thing.”
A little exhale as her shoulders sagged. “You don’t understand my life.”
No, he didn’t. And he wasn’t there to understand her. He was there to get her to put her soul in the palm of his hand so he could crush it. But he should probably be acting like he wanted to understand her. So he attempted to seem patient and concerned.
“It can’t be that bad,” she muttered. “Five minutes and it will be done.” She nibbled on her lower lip. “Save a dance for me, will you?”
Not like he was going to waste his time dancing with anyone else.
Mercy turned away.
His hand flew out and wrapped around her shoulder. In the exact place the jerk had been touching moments before. Her skin felt warm and soft. Delicate. “If you don’t like crowds…” She’d told him that before. “Then I think you probably will hate being the center of attention for everyone here.”
“Talk about a nightmare,” she returned.
Oh, do tell me all about nightmares. He loved hearing those tales.
“But sometimes, we have to do things that we hate.”
At those soft words from her, something twisted in his gut. He let go of her. He watched as she hurried toward the stage.
The man who’d ordered her up there—he was already reaching for a microphone. The band stopped playing as a spotlight fell onto him. Thomas.
Mercy stood on the edge of the stage, near other costumed people who Xavier supposed were also participating in this auction.
Mercy had no spotlight on her. Not yet. She didn’t need one. Her shine lit her up.
So much goodness.
Odd, though. She’d shown no signs of being repelled by him. She should have. She should have been afraid to let him close. And when he touched her, she should have shivered in revulsion. She hadn’t.
What an interesting puzzle his Mercy was turning out to be.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming out to the costume ball tonight!”
Oh, fabulous. The dick was talking.
“On behalf of Theodore Carlisle, I want to welcome you all to our celebration.” The spotlight briefly flickered off the speaker and drifted into the crowd. It paused on an older man, no mask, with a broad grin. He wore a cape and had a sword strapped to his side.
“I’m Thomas Durant, and I’ll be the MC for the evening.” The spotlight returned to the dick. Ah, to Thomas. “We’ve got some great volunteers up here who are auctioning off their time. Bid high enough, and you will be spending the evening with some of the best and brightest. A full dinner will be included with your bid. Lawyers, doctors, even a supermodel…you don’t want to miss out, so get ready.” He clapped his hands together. “Our first bid is actually Theodore’s accomplished daughter Mercy.” He gestured for her to come forward.
Slowly, she did.
She hadn’t put her shoes back on.
Xavier smiled when she lifted up the hem of her dress a wee bit to walk, and he caught sight of her bare feet.
“Mercy is a Ph.D. candidate at Tulane. She knows more about ancient myths and legends than anyone I know.” A rumbling burst of laughter poured from him. “Monsters fascinate her.”
Xavier’s lips parted in surprise. Do they? Well, he could certainly be fascinating…
And terrifying. Whatever the case needed to be.
“Bid on an outing with Mercy and you’ll dine on a steamboat and enjoy a delicious New Orleans meal…”
Okay, enough of this. Mercy was shining extra brightly, and he could see her fingers trembling as she pushed back her hair. More feathers drifted around her as they fell from her fake wings. “Ten thousand dollars!” Xavier’s voice thundered across the room.
“I—” Thomas stopped. He’d been rambling about something. “I-I hadn’t started the bidding.”
Xavier marched his way through the crowd. Get the fuck out of my way. They did. A little boost of magic helped to get them to back up. “I just finished it. Ten thousand dollars.” He stopped at the bottom of the stage. “Now, sweetheart, how about that dance?”
Her amber eyes lit up. Her shine burned hotter. She hurried to the edge of the stage as if she’d just jump right down into his arms.
Fair enough. So damn easy. He opened his arms to her.
And that was when the screaming started.
Because he was staring at Mercy’s face, he saw the shock that swept over her expression. Shock, horror. Terror.
The screams came from behind Xavier. So did the…growls? He whirled away from Mercy and the stage and gaped at the sight before him. Three fully shifted werewolves had burst into the ballroom. They were knocking into humans. Slashing with their claws as they raced for their target.
And their target…
Fuck. Are they coming straight at me?
Bad mistake. The worst mistake those mangy fools had ever made. He would—
One wolf jumped over him. Jumped up toward the stage. Toward Mercy. And understanding dawned too late.
The beasts are here for her.
Screw that shit. “I found her first,” Xavier roared, and he caught the jumping wolf by the tail.