Allyson James

Mortal Seductions

Mortal Seductions

Excerpt

by Allyson James
Berkley HEAT
September 2009
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Chapter One

“We need to help her, Demitri.”

Demitri had returned from his luncheon with his organization of hoteliers to find the Goddess of Love waiting in his office. Just what I need. Aphrodite wanting a favor. You couldn’t exactly say no to the gods, even if it meant destroying your life to help them.

Outside the dirt-streaked windows, Cairo seethed at a dizzying pace. Even in the heat of the day, the streets were packed with cars, trucks, buses, and tourists. Demitri’s hotel was a lush, cool oasis of calm in the huge city. His office reflected the luxury of the small hotel, with lattice screens, comfortable chairs, and a tiny whispering fountain.

Aphrodite had chosen to wear a bright blue Indian sari, because she had no idea what country she was in and didn’t much care. Her hair was neatly pulled back into a knot, and her nails gleamed with pale pink nail polish. Jewelry bedecked her fingers and bracelets whispered on her arms. She looked like a lovely upper-class Indian lady visiting exotic Egypt.

“If she isn’t made complete, I will be required to kill her,” Aphrodite finished without inflection. “The male gods of the pantheon, including your illustrious father, are annoyed with me for keeping her alive at all. I have one chance to save her or she will be put to death.”

Demitri adjusted the pen tray on his desk to keep Aphrodite from seeing the pain in his eyes.

“You had her in your prison for three millennia,” he said in a mild voice. “You couldn’t heal her in all that time?”

“She wasn’t in prison,” Aphrodite said tartly. “She served me and was glad to do it. She’s been obedient, dutiful, and calm. But she isn’t cured and they know it.”

“Why are you involving me?”

Aphrodite rose, straightening her sari with elegant fingers. “Because she’s never forgotten you. Whichever way she bends in the end, she’ll do it because of you.”

“You’re supposed to be the goddess of love, not cruelty.”

“It’s been three millennia, Demitri,” Aphrodite said, throwing his words back at him. “You couldn’t get over her in all that time?”

“You know time to gods and demigods is different. No comfort of memories fading, no dwindling to nostalgia.”

“I know that. What do people in this century say? Oh yes, ‘deal with it.’ The ultimate end is much more important than your feelings, wouldn’t you say?” She smiled at him, the dazzling smile that led so many to believe she was gentle and good. “Since your very existence may depend on it.”

She headed for the door, but Demitri stepped in front of it. “Don’t walk out through my hotel. Mortals can’t take you, you know. I don’t need my customers passing out in the lobby.”

Aphrodite preened. “Very well, Demitri dear.” She patted his cheek. “Do as I say, and you will live. So will she.” She turned toward the window, catching the sunlight and making it bright, brighter, then glaring incandescence. “The other is important to the plan. But she must not know. It is most important she doesn’t know what he’s really for . . .”

Demitri screwed up his eyes as Aphrodite vanished in a blinding flash. The light returned to normal, the office looking slightly dingy in contrast with her absolute beauty.

Demitri sighed and raked his hands through his hair. Aphrodite’s plan was twisted, but Demitri knew it would be effective. Val would live or die, succumb to temptation or resist. Either way, Demitri would be heartbroken all over again.

He’d normally turn to his friends Andreas and Nico to grumble about his problems and ask for their help, but the two men had gone. They’d fallen in love, completely and finally, and had returned to New York with their ladies, the lucky bastards. Demitri was happy for them and wished them well, but he missed them. They’d been best friends for eons, and now he felt utterly alone.

Aphrodite was returning Val to him, the woman he’d loved but could never have. He’d have to face her alone, without the loudmouthed support of his friends. And he’d have to let her go at the end, once more facing a world of hurt.

Perfect.

#

The man from the hotel was definitely following her. Val walked through Cairo’s darkened streets intent on a carpet shop she’d visited earlier that day. She heard his footsteps directly behind her now, the bulky male with his short haircut standing out among the native Egyptians. She smiled. He didn’t know much about stealth.

The man had tawny hair and green eyes and a great body, and he was Val’s assignment. The dossier on Leon Dupree had indicated that his perfect match would be found in Luxor, and Val had to get him there and together with the young woman.

Aphrodite, for reasons known only to herself, had suggested Val stay in Demitri’s lovely little hotel in Cairo while carrying out her task. Leon Dupree would end up there, and it would be more convenient, the goddess said. Aphrodite’s “suggestions” were more like direct commands, and Val obeyed, as she always did.

Demitri had blatantly avoided Val since her arrival, which was fine with Val. She’d thought she’d be able to face him with the numbness she’d grown used to, but when she saw him two days ago—for the first time in millennia—pain had pierced her heart. The feeling surprised her, the first that had broken through her emotionless state in a long time. She’d never forgotten the beauty of Demitri’s big body and his coffee brown eyes, and he hadn’t changed one bit.

Val adjusted the scarf she’d thrown loosely around her red black curls as she stopped in front of the carpet shop. Demitri didn’t need to worry. He’d broken her all those years ago on Mount Olympus, and then Aphrodite had crushed anything that was left of Valenarian the demonness. Now Val served Aphrodite, and her errand here was to help her goddess, nothing more. If Val repeated that often enough, she thought, she might even believe it.

The man behind her stopped when she did, and she smiled again. Not stealthy at all. She went inside, but her stalker didn’t follow.

The shopkeeper who came out of the back was not the assistant who’d waited on her earlier that day. He was Egyptian, not very tall, in a dark, well-made business suit, but he wasn’t human. Val saw his god-aura superimposed on his human body, not one of the higher gods, but strong enough to hurt her if he chose to.

He took one look at Val and hissed. “Demonness.”

“Not demonness,” she corrected. “Customer. Your assistant put aside one of the cashmere rugs earlier for me.”

“Which one are you?” the small god went on. “What do you want from me?”

“To buy a carpet. So,why are you here selling them instead of attending banquets with the gods?”

For some reason people liked to tell their troubles to Val. Perhaps it was the way she smiled that made them soften and spill their guts. She’d done this with wronged women when she’d been a vengeance demon, and the ability came in handy now that her job was to coax lovers together.

The little god’s stance relaxed, and he sighed. “There isn’t much else for me to do. For ages I guarded a tomb on the banks of the Nile, but a Greek goddess, she destroyed it. Some archaeologists took away the mummy, and no one has summoned me in a long time.”

“So you decided to set up shop in Cairo?”

“From here I can help guard families and homes, as I did of old. No one has statues of Bes anymore, but they buy carpets.”

Val nodded sagely. “And you put your protective magic on the rug. Interesting.”

He stiffened again. “You are a vengeance demon. That’s what I smell.”

“Used to be a vengeance demon. That part of me is dead. Now I’m sort of an assistant.” Aphrodite had told Val that her job of bringing together those in love would cure her, but Val didn’t feel cured. She felt empty, drained, unfulfilled.

She touched a carpet, feeling through the wool a frisson of benign magic, warm and comforting. Strong. Bes would never be on the same level as Isis, but he had steadfast strength.

Bes gave her a look of horror and lunged at her. “No, don’t touch it!”

The hangings at the door burst apart, and the square-shouldered man came barreling in. “Keep your hands off her.”

Leon Dupree spoke English with a curious accent, all long vowels and slurred consonants. His face was red with fury, fists bunched in violence barely contained.

He rushed in to protect me. The thought astonished Val, and she felt a stirring through her numbness. He’s not for you, remember.

Bes backed away, his eyes wide. “My hands are not on her.”

“It’s all right,” Val said quickly. “He was afraid I’d damage the rug. That’s all.”

Leon glared at Bes in deep suspicion. “You sure?”

The man was wound up, his adrenaline high. Val felt a touch of the otherworld about him, though he was nothing like Bes or even Demitri. But there was something wild about him, something primal. His body was solid muscle, his hair wheat blond. His dark green eyes had seen hardship, had feared and fought and lived as he’d watched others die.

Bes was a god and could kill this mortal with the flick of his finger, but under Leon’s hard stare, Bes did his best to look innocent and harmless. “A misunderstanding,” he said.

“Keep the carpet for me,” Val told him. “I’ll return and fetch it tomorrow. Good night.”

“Good night,” Bes said uncertainly.

Leon gave Bes a gruff nod, then parted the curtains so that Val could walk out ahead of him.

Val ducked past Leon’s body, liking the hum of his aura and the warmth of his skin. He smelled like sweat and a hint of soap and aftershave.

The evening was still warm after the hot November day but had begun to cool. Leon walked protectively next to Val, silent, solid, and gorgeous as hell.

“You’re the one going on an archaeological dig, is that right?” Val asked as they walked along together. “Are you an archaeologist?”

“My brother is.” Leon’s green eyes fixed on her for a moment then returned to scan the streets. He walked next to her like a bodyguard, alert for danger. His blatant protectiveness made her warm. “He asked me to come out and help him if I wanted. ’Scuse my manners. My name’s Leon Dupree.”

“Val.” She hesitated. “Valerie Stevenson.” That was the neutral name Demitri had come up with for her, one that could fit several nationalities. “Your name is French, but you’re not from France, are you?”

“It’s Cajun.”

Val mentally ran through the studies she’d done of twenty-first-century culture before she’d come on this assignment, but drew a blank. The word hadn’t been in his dossier, either; it listed his nationality as “American.”

“What country is Cajun?”

He gave a short laugh. “Louisiana, in the States. New Orleans and the bayous. The French settled the area a couple hundred years ago, and we’re the result.”

“How very interesting.” Val slid her hand through his arm, trying not to reflect on the strength beneath her fingers. “Why were you following me?”

Leon shrugged, muscles on his wide shoulders rippling. “You left the hotel by yourself, and I worried for you, walking the streets alone.”

“How gallant.”

Another shrug, another fascinating play of muscles. “It’s the way I am.”

Val wished she’d stop admiring his body. He was tall, with tight abs and biceps you could bounce a coin off of. He wasn’t for her; she needed to remember that. The penalty for Aphrodite’s assistants falling for either party of their assignment was death. Besides, Aphrodite insisted her assistants take vows of celibacy, so even if Leon hadn’t been her assignment, Val would have to keep her hands off. A vestige of Valenarian the demon stirred inside her. Not fair for Aphrodite to send Val to a hard-bodied man who had just enough of the supernatural to tempt her.

Do your job, Val chided herself. Don’t give Demitri an excuse to report you.

Thinking of Demitri helped. The confusion and pain she still felt about him blurred her rising lust for Leon.

The shop hadn’t been far, and they reached the hotel in a disappointingly short time. Demitri’s inn was a small, almost Parisian-looking building left over from the nineteenth century. It was a “boutique” hotel, offering luxury for the traveler tired of the commercial chains.

Of course Demitri would own the best hotel in the city. In his human guise, he wore expensive suits and looked like a respectable, prosperous businessman. He’d tamed his silken hair into a ponytail, but Val knew what his hair looked like mussed from sex. She also knew how wild and how masterful he could be, and she didn’t think all the centuries could have changed him. He’d simply grown good at hiding his true nature. He’d saved her life all those years ago, she understood that, but he’d tricked Valenarian into falling in love with him to do it.

“Do you want coffee?” she asked Leon as they paused in the lobby. Her usual modus on assignment was to befriend one of the parties involved and introduce him or her to the other, or act as mediator if they already knew each other.

Leon gave her a quick smile. “Sure.”

“In your suite?”

The glance turned to one of surprise, but he didn’t miss a beat. “Sure.”

Val told the concierge to have coffee sent to Mr. Dupree’s room, and they rode up silently in the elevator. Demitri had given Leon one of the largest rooms, at the top of the hotel, a suite with four bedrooms and four bathrooms and a central sitting room with a fountain in the middle of it.

“The suite’s too damn big for just me,” Leon said when he opened it with a key. “But it was all Demitri had. I expected he’d stick me in the basement somewhere when my brother asked him to put me up. I’m getting it gratis, though, so I’m not complaining.”

Val unwound her scarf and shook out her hair. “Demitri can be generous.”

“Hospitable, we’d call him where I come from. I keep meaning to thank him, but I never get the chance. He seems real busy.”

“Oh, yes, Demitri is always busy.”

The coffee arrived, and Leon took the tray from the waiter and arranged the cups on a table. The waiter looked curious, but Leon ushered him out and shut the door in his eager face.

“How do you like it?” Leon asked.

“You mean my coffee?” Val slid off her shoes, sank into a big chair, and tucked her feet under her. “No sugar.”

“No sugar it is.”

He poured a cup for her and ladled hunks of sugar into his. He handed her the coffee, his deep green eyes lingering on her lips, then her breasts. He didn’t leer, didn’t demand. He was simply a man enjoying a look at a woman.

When Leon turned away, Val let out her breath. His sweatshirt was tight against his broad shoulders and biceps, and his jeans cupped his ass in a satisfying way. The old Val wanted to rub up against him and purr.

“Tell me about this Louisiana place,” she said as he sat down.

Leon rolled his coffee cup in his hands and started spilling his story, just like Bes had. Val liked Leon’s voice, deep and slow, his accent so different from anything she’d heard before. She could imagine it whispering his lady’s name in the dark, telling her how he wanted to pleasure her. Valenarian would have been on this man in a heartbeat. Valerie could only sit back and let him talk.

Leon told her how he and his three brothers had grown up in a small house in a small town called Fontaine, which was south of a place called New Orleans. His father had died when they were all little boys, and his mother had raised them alone.

As he talked, Leon relaxed, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles. He told her about driving swamp boats in the bayous and wrecking one on an alligator, he and his dog paddling like hell for shore; his teenage years tinkering with boats for a guy and loving it—until the guy got drunk and started whaling on Leon.

“Why did he do that?” Val asked indignantly.

Leon shrugged. “He was a drunk. He’d done that kind of thing before, but he’d never attacked me until then. At least I was big enough that I could take him, but I worried because I sometimes brought my younger brother Remy to help. We didn’t go back after that.”

“Did you take vengeance on him for hurting you?”

“Vengeance? Nah, he didn’t know what he was doing. We felt sorry for him. He died a couple years later.”

Valerie knew that some people did feel compassion toward those who hurt them. She always found it odd, this forgiveness, and she strove to understand it.

“Tell me more,” Val encouraged.

Leon went on about how he’d graduated from high school and joined the army so his mother wouldn’t have to keep feeding him. He’d trained as a medic, gone to Afghanistan twice, and come home the second time to find the damage Katrina had done to his old stomping grounds, people having to leave their lifelong homes, their lives forever altered.

“Who is this Katrina?” Valerie asked. “She sounds terrible.”

Leon laughed. “A hurricane. Flooded my mama’s house and tore down so many in my little town. Our house is still standing, but we had to rebuild it from the ground up.” He paused. “I guess we get so caught up in our own troubles we forget other people don’t know everything about them.”

“You have so many troubles.”

“Everyone does. But I got my three brothers and my mom.”

His brother Remy, was the smart one, and they’d all worked to send him off to a good school. He’d won scholarship after scholarship, and now was a postdoc at the University of Chicago, becoming an expert in Egyptology. Val heard the pride in his voice.

“He’s out here on a grant now,” Leon went on. “Digging up stuff in the Valley of Kings down by Luxor. He said they could always use a trained medic, and I don’t have anything to do anymore, so I figured why not? Also he wants me to—” He broke off suddenly, clamping his lips shut.

“Wants you to what?”

Leon looked at his empty coffee cup. Val felt his reluctance, which meant that they’d come to the most interesting part of the conversation.

Leon looked up at her, his mouth still closed. He was strong, resistant, which only intrigued her more. Val continued to smile at him. She wanted to know everything about this man, wanted to wrap her arms around him and slide her hands into his conveniently placed back pockets.

Leon got up, poured himself a little more coffee, then sat down on the floor next to her chair. He put his back against the chair and stretched out his legs, his warm bulk oddly comforting.

“Wants you to what?” Valerie repeated. “I won’t tell.”

Leon studied his coffee some more, then gave up. “He’s worried about some things going on at the dig. He says it might be nothing, but sometimes tools disappear, or pieces of pottery, or other little things. And then people walk away and never come back. Nothing happens to them or anything, they just decide they don’t want to stay. Remy thinks it’s weird, and he wants me to keep an eye on things.”

“A long way to travel to help out a brother.”

Leon shrugged. She liked his shrugs, especially when his shoulders brushed against her knees. If she dared, she could stroke her fingers through his hair, find out how rough or smooth it was.

“I did two tours in Afghanistan, kind of got used to the Middle East. I like it, actually, and I wanted to see part of it that wasn’t a war zone. So I came.”

“It was good of you.”

“Haven’t done anything for him yet, except stay in a posh hotel. A friend of his knew Demitri and got me put up here until it’s time to go to Luxor.”

“Which is when?”

“A couple of days. I came a little ahead of schedule to do some sightseeing.”

“I might go to Luxor, myself,” Val said. “It’s been a long time since I saw the skies above the temples of Karnak.”

Leon smiled at her. “I think I’d like that.”

When he smiled, his whole face warmed and his eyes went dark. His lips turned up, the lower the slightest bit fuller than the upper, a man’s lips, which she hadn’t touched in centuries.

Leon slowly pushed himself up until he sat on the edge of her chair. He studied her in silence a moment, then he slid his hand behind the nape of her neck, leaned down, and kissed her.

Val knew she should jerk away, put herself across the room from him. He wasn’t for her. He was for the woman down in Luxor Val had to lead him to.

But Val couldn’t make herself push him from her. The tiny part of her that was still Valenarian whispered, Have this. Just a taste. When he meets the woman and falls in love, he’ll forget you.

Leon’s lips were like silk. Smooth and warm, they parted hers, his tongue dipping inside her mouth. His hand was firm on the back of her neck, fingers teasing her curls. Valerie leaned back and ran her hands along his hard shoulders, loving the feel of man beneath the shirt.

Warmth flushed her body, her nipples hardening to little points inside her blouse. She felt loose, watery, hot. His body was heavy against hers, his arms strong, his lips gentle but not leaving any doubt what he intended. He wanted to have sex with her, the friendly sex of two people far from home finding themselves alone together in a hotel.

His fingers slid down her blouse to undo the first button. She closed her eyes as hard fingertips touched her bare breast.

“No,” she groaned. “I can’t.”

“Why not?” His breath was hot on her lips. “You got a boyfriend? Husband?”

“It’s not that.”

“What then? Do I smell bad?”

Val wanted to laugh. “No. That is, you smell good.” She put her nose to his bare neck and inhaled. He was all kinds of good, and for fun she put out her tongue and licked him.

Mistake. He tasted salty and nice, and she wanted to lick him from head to toe.

“I won’t push you,” Leon said in her ear. “We’ll take it slow if you want. Get to know each other better.”

Val put her hands on his chest, tears flooding her eyes. “We can’t. I can’t—ever. I’m sorry.”

Leon’s eyes flickered strangely, a flash of that otherworldly thing she’d sensed in him. “Well, since my mama raised me to be a gentleman . . .”

He slowly unwound himself from her and stood up. Tension thrummed through his body, a virile male who’d been about to let loose tightening up again.

Valerie got up with him but couldn’t resist running her hands along his chest. She wanted him, and not like Valenarian would. Valenarian the demonness would have him on the floor, extending claws to shred his clothes. No talking, no getting to know each other, just straightforward, fulfilling sex.

But Valenarian was gone, suppressed behind too many layers of Aphrodite’s brainwashing. The woman Valerie wanted Leon naked, but she wanted to slide her arms gently around him, to get to know his body and let him get to know hers. She wanted it slow, nice, memorable. She wanted him to want to see her again when it was over.

Valerie rose on her tiptoes and kissed Leon on the mouth. He moved his lips in response but didn’t hold her.

“I’m sorry,” Val said. “I should have told you right away, but I so enjoyed talking to you.”

He put his hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her away. “You didn’t have to pretend you’d have sex with me to get me to talk to you.”

“I didn’t pretend. I really do want to have sex with you. But I can’t. It’s forbidden.” Val ran her fingertips down his chest again, feeling his heart beating beneath his skin. She couldn’t tell him the whole truth, because that, too, was forbidden, but she could tell him part of it. “I’m a celibate, you see. I took a vow never to have sex with any man, no matter how much I might want to.”