Nina S. Gooden | Ash and Diamonds
Romance, Author, Paranormal Romance, Steampunk Romance, Nina Gooden
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Ash and Diamonds

To burn for love or fury...

All Romance | Amazon

Smash Words | Barnes & Noble 

Heat Level: 3

Word Count: 96,769

Romance Sub-Genres: Paranormal, Greek Mythology, Awakened Powers

 

A past she doesn’t want…
All Charis Godwin has ever wanted is a career in the music industry and to burn the cursed shoes her sister keeps forcing her to wear. Instead, she finds herself thrust into a world of gods and magic where she hears the word “Erinyes” spoken as both a curse and a prayer–and she is the prodigal child returned. Just as she begins to wonder if there is a reason she can’t remember her life before her reincarnation, she is sent to track down a ruthless killer escaped from Tartarus.

A man she can’t resist…
Split into two, Charis hears the voice of the Erinyes battling for space in her mind. The one thing they agree on is the golden-haired, guitar-wielding, death-dealing hunk who serves as her guide into the Underworld. Something about him speaks to both her past and present self. Arsenios sold his soul to Hades and became one of the Archaeos in order to keep the killer imprisoned. At least, that’s the story he tells her. A web of lust and betrayal begins to spin and she knows he’s hiding something from her…something that could tear them apart.

A truth she can’t escape…
Erinyes; goddesses of justice, sworn to protect humankind at the behest of the dark god Hades. To be with Arsenios she will have to trust the life they have now and forgive the one they lost before. As her past unfurls, Charis will have to make the hard decision between burning for revenge or passion.

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Why, oh why, didn’t I just take the stairs? Charis shifted uncomfortably in the stylish charcoal heels her sister demanded she wear for this interview. Yeah, it would have been awkward and painful but at least I wouldn’t be trapped in this metal box of doom.
It’d been forty-five minutes and while the maintenance crew was steadily working on getting them out, Charis was convinced that she’d be stuck in the small, airless container until she passed out from hunger. Her stomach rumbled loudly and she bit back a groan. I’m going to starve to death and it’s entirely these shoes’s fault.
The shoes had a long history of sabotaging her best-laid plans. No matter what she wore them for, whether it was a night out or dinner with friends or a trip to one of her favorite jazz clubs, something went horribly wrong. One time, she’d grabbed them for a quick run to check the mail and ended up falling down a flight of stairs.
Eumelia always argued that that one had been her own fault. “Who checks the mail in heels, Char? Really.”
Charis waved a hand in the air as if she could expel her sister’s voice from her head. She knew better.
It was the shoes.
She should have known they weren’t going to work the moment she put them on. Nothing had gone right from the instant she’d slipped them over her feet. First off, her coffeemaker took one look at her in the evil shoes and released its last spewing breath. All over her.
Luckily, the contents of its death rattle had been lukewarm but she’d been forced to change into her backup interview outfit. She wouldn’t even have the horrible skirt-suit but her sister had demanded she keep the option, “just in case.”
“Just in case” my white tush, Charis thought darkly, glaring down at her feet. Eumelia is wrong about these suckers.
A thought struck her and she gasped. Maybe they’re working in cohoots with one another. She narrowed her eyes, fully believing her older sister was capable of somehow arranging the entire mishap.
Charis tapped her foot impatiently, wishing for the millionth time that she had a music player or that her phone wasn’t getting crap reception. At the very least, she could listen to something to calm her nerves. “You made me forget my iPod, too, didn’t you?”
She hissed it under her breath but was pretty sure if the other person in the elevator had been paying the slightest attention, he would have heard. Instead, he continued to snore lightly and Charis went back to glaring at the accursed items.
Eumelia was convinced that so many bad things happened while she wore the shoes, as a kind of cosmic balance. She was absolutely positive that Charis would be wearing them during a turning point in her life and that all of the negative would be suddenly worth it. That is why she refused to let Charis throw them away and pushed for her to wear them on big moments.
“It’s all about the great scale,” she would say, winking one of her muddy-green eyes. “All of these bad things have to amount to something amazing.”
And Charis believed her every time. Because she was an idiot.
It wasn’t as if it were just the coffeemaker today. Her wardrobe change had cost her precious time she could have used eating. Instead of pancakes, she’d been forced to turn to toast but then her toaster also committed suicide. At least this appliance knew how to go out in style. It shot sparks all over her tiny kitchen, completely freaking her out. She’d managed to get it unplugged before deciding it was definitely a fast-food breakfast kind of day.
At least it would have been, if her car had started the first time. Or the twelfth time.
Charis sighed and the tapping stopped abruptly. She was all stiff and rigid, afraid of what would go wrong next. She needed to relax a little or she was going to cramp up. She rolled her shoulders, finally letting herself lean back against one of the mirrored walls of the elevator. She’d been afraid to get her blazer wrinkled but after almost an hour of standing like a soldier, she didn’t care anymore.
This day is still salvageable. Anything is possible. I am a winner. I will not die in an elevator. Charis repeated. She figured if she said it often enough she might just start to believe.
The elevator in question jerked and she spread her feet to steady herself. At least, she would have, if the other occupant weren’t sprawled out along the carpeted floor. As it were, her heel caught in his baggy pants. Since she was leaning, she couldn’t maintain her balance and she slid to the side and landed in a heap on the ground.
“So sorry, Red,” the man slurred, moving to help her up. He reeked of alcohol and though he was carrying a briefcase, his suit was several sizes too big and wrinkled. He looked so disheveled that Charis wondered how he made it to the elevators without casino security stopping him. She’d jumped through several hoops to get clearance, proven by the spiffy ID badge now pinned to her chest.
She held up a hand. “Don’t worry about it, I’m fine.”
Except for the pending dooooom, came the dramatic voice in her head.
She could see the headlines now: Vegas local dies in casino elevator because of cursed shoes!
No, I can do this. I am a winner and people like me. The affirmations were supposed to boost her confidence…they weren’t really working.
She hung her head, only to straighten back up when several wisps of curly red hair escaped the donut contraption Eumelia twisted it into. She smoothed them back down, hoping the gallon of hair spray would keep the military bun in place just long enough for her to pretend to fit into the world of glamour and lights.
The Vegas Strip. It was a realm of erotic charm, breathtaking beauty, and terrible pleasures. It had the kind of feel of an extremely deep red lipstick. It was gorgeous and eye-catching but at the same time filled with wicked promises.
She’d loved the music and glitter of the town and all the secret sides of it that tourists rarely got to see. Vegas had a vein of culture and entertainment that went beyond the shows and casinos. She felt special for knowing about it and being a part of it.
As if on cue, her cell phone chirped to tell her she had a message. “Ugh, it went straight to voicemail again.”
Reception in the elevator was almost nonexistent but she had one bar. That was enough to listen to the recording. She navigated the voicemail menu with learned efficiency and waited for the automatic female voice to finish reading off a number she didn’t recognize.
An earnest male voice filled her ears. “Cherry, please. I just want to talk. This is all a big mi—”
A crack sounded in the small space and it took several seconds for Charis to realize the noise was the dying cry of her cell phone…which she managed to crush in her fist.
“Damnit,” she muttered, letting the pieces fall back into her bag. Her sister was going to flip when she found out she had destroyed another one.
“Holy crap,” the drunk was sitting up, backing as far away from her as the elevator would allow. “You smashed that thing like it was nothing. Like some kind of he-woman!”
Charis winced. She opened her mouth to explain what had happened but what could she really say? No amount of tests or specialists could figure it out. Sometimes she just got these spurts of what could only be described as “superhuman strength.” It usually happened when she was upset but it was something she always had to watch out for.
The last time she’d truly lost control, she’d just turned thirteen. She’d woken up in the hospital after being in a coma for two days. Eumelia had been at her bed, tear-stained and rumpled. With two sentences, two quietly uttered truths, her sister had destroyed every shred of control Charis had managed to scrape together in her short life.
“You almost died in a car crash. Mom and dad…didn’t make it.”
Charis gritted her teeth. It had been ten years ago but the pain was still there. At first, she’d refused to believe it, despite the fact that Eumelia never lied to her. Even though they were eight years apart, her sister always treated her like an equal.
When the truth had finally set in, Charis blacked out. When she woke up, she’d thrown her hospital bed through the glass window of her room. Furniture lay scattered around her in broken pieces and stonewalls had gigantic holes in them. No one had been hurt but Charis would never forget the way her sister looked at her.
Nurses and security stood shaking and poised, ready to tackle her. But Eumelia gathered her up, unafraid of her and completely understanding. As if, she would have done the same thing if she had the strength.
Charis shook her head to clear the memories away. She hadn’t been paying attention enough to realize the drunken man had inched back over to her and was on his knees, crowding into her personal space. He was also busily reading her badge out loud. “You’re here for an interview.” He blew out a breath of exaggerated relief. “Good thing. I thought you were just a crazy person who liked to talk to her feet.”
Charis winced. When an elevator drunk thought you were crazy, it was time to look at your life and reevaluated your choices.
“Your name is…Charess?”
She blinked, confused for a moment. Wasn’t he afraid of her? He’d seen what she can do. When he didn’t seem to be interested in backing away, she continued. “Close. Think of the CH as more of a hard K.”
The man scrunched up his face and worked his lips around the syllables. Finally, he exploded with a very proud, “Kariss.”
“Close enough.”
The man nodded before slumping back onto his butt. “What are you interviewing for?”
She adjusted her bag. “I’m hoping to fill the open A&R Coordinator role for Mr. Davis.” Saying it out loud made butterflies flutter in her stomach. Okay, so maybe they were bats. Huge, razor-taloned bats.
Being in the music industry had been her dream for years. With it being just the two of them, Eumelia had worked hard to build up her business and look after Charis. Char hadn’t made it easy for her and after a couple months, it became apparent that she couldn’t be trusted on her own.
At the ripe age of thirteen, Charis had objected—violently, if necessary—to having a babysitter. So Eumelia had let her tag along to Kick and Squish, the bar she opened the moment she was old enough to get the license.
The nights Charis had spent in the backrooms of Eumelia’s bar—dodging CPS and the cops—had given her the chance to brush shoulders with up and coming singer-songwriters. It had given her something to focus on and a reason to curb her explosive temper.
“You know, Char. You’re not going to be able to work on the Strip if you have a criminal record.” Eumelia had said it softly one day she’d come home from school covered in bruises and dirt.
Those were the harshest words Eumelia had ever said to her. Afterwards, her big sister had cleaned her up and fed her pancakes for dinner.
“You listening to me?”
Charis blinked. She needed to stop spacing out. “No. Sorry. What did you say?”
The drunk tilted his head, which threw him off balance and sent him back to the carpet. He laughed. “That old dodger is always getting the pretty subordinates. You know he already has a bunch of coordinators, right? He even has that pretty secretary. Chamomile or whatever her name is.”
Charis bristled. “Camille. And she’s not a secretary, she’s his right-hand woman. And she’s an A&R Manager.”
“You know her, then? This A&R Manager?”
“I’ve known her since college. She’s the reason I’m applying for the job.”
“Lame. But I guess that’s what they say about Vegas: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Charis bristled. She didn’t know why she was bothering to argue with this guy. What he thought didn’t matter. But she put a lot of her hopes into this job. It was her chance to get out of the hustle and bustle of waitressing and retail management. This could be a new beginning for her.
She fought to keep her tone even, remembering to count to ten—or some such nonsense—before responding. “I’ll have you know, she didn’t get me this interview. All she did was tell me about the job. I have experience, a solid internship, and a degree in—”
He burped. Loudly. “Why do you want to work for Sin Stations, anyway?”
“Lots of reasons. I like the fact that the company finds gigs for lesser-known groups, as well as ones with established fan bases. Besides that, it’s a company you can take roots in. You know, grow with. Even if you start out as an intern, chances are good for…future…advancement…”
She trailed off when the drunk shrugged as if he didn’t care anymore. He rolled over and after an impossibly short amount of time, his snores echoed in the small space. Charis huffed, looking down at her feet. Somehow this was all their fault, she just knew it.
Stupid cursed shoes!
The metal box of death rumbled, causing Charis to lean again. She immediately straightened, keeping her knees bent this time. When the movement stopped, she held her breath, refusing to hope against hope.
There was a whining noise before the intercom above them clicked back on. “Almost there. Sorry about the scare, folks. We’ll have you out of there in just a moment.”
She wasn’t sure, if they could hear her or if the intercom was only one-way. But she tried anyway. “Could someone please let Mr. Davis that I’m trapped in here? I had an appointment with him fifteen minutes ago.”
A strangely pregnant silence followed and Charis had given up on a response when the intercom started up again. “Mr. Davis? Isn’t he in there with you?”
Charis looked down at the snoring drunk. You’ve got to be kidding. She kicked off the heels and fished her flats out of her bag. I’m burning those as soon as I get out of here.
* * * * *
“Fuck,” Arsenios hissed as the enraged giant lumbered toward him, leaping in the air in an effort to crush him in a massive belly flop. Instead of dodging the attack, he rushed forward, his boots sliding against the icy surface of the ground. He ducked his head as he landed, grimacing when his back connected with the packed snow.
The hot breath of the giant hit him like a wave but momentum kept both of them traveling in opposite directions. Arsenios brought his sword up and it sank into the soft flesh of the creature’s belly. He continued sliding, even as the giant landed. The impact from the weight pushed the breath out of his lungs but he held his weapon steady, creating a tent of flesh that prevented him from being crushed completely.
The blue flames that leapt from his blade cauterized the gaping hole but that didn’t stop the gore that rained down on him. Arsenios twisted his head to the side to keep the worst of it out of his mouth but he forced his eyes to remain open, even though the smoke and smell made him want to gag.
He waited one second…two seconds…three seconds for the ground to stop rumbling from the impact. As soon as all was still, he pushed harder. The sword sliced through the giant’s spinal cord and burned away enough flesh and organs for Arsenios to crawl out of the corpse.
When he was free, he was steaming in the frigid air. The heat from the corpse quickly dissipated, swept away by the unforgiving cold Hades was known for. A blizzard was moving through the kingdom, limiting his visibility and dropping the temperature below zero. But Arsenios was used to the bite of cold and barely registered it.
He remained on guard as he moved around the twenty-foot behemoth. He stopped near its head and wiped his blade clean in the hair he found there. It was the only thing in the ash-infused snow that wasn’t covered in gunk.
For several minutes, Arsenios remained poised, ready for any attack that could come from the snowy terrain that was the Underworld. When nothing happened, the glowing blue geometric shapes on his hands faded into nothing, leaving dusky olive skin. The blue streaks in his hair vanished with a hot steam until all that was left was the shocking white-blond he’d had since he sold his soul to the dark god Hades.
“Too bad you don’t have a soul to add to my collection.” He spoke to the dead giant. His grin flashed in the low light, a grim display of teeth from a dominating predator. “But my master needs a giant’s heart.”
He sheathed his blade and pulled his hair back into a hasty ponytail before he bent his knee to retrieve a wicked black-bladed dagger from his boot. “Let’s get started.”
Several hours and one bloody trek later, Arsenios paced angrily, the clip of his boots resounding in the great marble hall. He was still covered layers of snow, blood, and carnage but he couldn’t ignore the summoning ringing in his ears. The angry clip of his boots grew louder with every step. Frustration bled off of him.
The large double doors behind him swung open and he entered the room. Hades was adorned in just as many jewels and precious stones as the shimmering walls that surrounded them. He moved with the slow grace only someone inevitable could afford—his movements always seeming to float on an invisible current.
Arsenios reached back over his shoulder and tapped the empty sheath at his back. “If you’re going to pin me to the wall like a bug, the least you could do is leave my weapons where they are.”
All around the dark deity, the whispers of the dead churned and cried like screams bubbling up to the surface from under water. Shadowy hands stretched out from unseen depths reaching for an impossible goal. The god towered before his servant, at once damned and anointed.
When Hades spoke, those hummings died away as if they were listening to every word he had to say. “You know that the barriers in my personal chambers don’t work that way. No one can wield a weapon here, be it physical or magical.”
“Hmph.” Arsenios folded his arms over his chest. “We both know that’s not true.”
Hades didn’t smile but there was a sense of smug superiority in the way he lifted on dark-clad shoulder. “No one but me, then.”
Arsenios looked down at his hands. They were still caked with blood. “There are other ways to do damage, you know.”
Another shrug. “Maybe. But not to me.”
“That’s right.” Arsenios brushed his hands together, watching as the dried blood fell to the ground. “There are many different shades of immortality and yours is the darkest.”
Hades tilted his head to the side, unfazed by his belligerent tone. Straight black strands of wispy hair fell in his face with the movement but he didn’t seem to notice. “Are you complaining about your everlasting life, dear servant of death? Perhaps you would like to reverse the trade we made.”
Arsenios grit his teeth so hard he felt them crack. His jaw jerked out of alignment then immediately corrected itself, thanks to his regenerative powers. The taste of wet iron filled his mouth and vanished as his blood evaporated into nothing.
“Nah, that’s ‘kay.” He said it dismissively, with a casual tone he didn’t feel. Hades would never really take such a deal—the god never welched on his contracts—but even thinking about the possibility made Arsenios want to hit something until it couldn’t get up again.
Hades nodded knowingly. “I thought so. Your sister is a precious gift, you should be more grateful to the one who bestowed her to you.”
There was nothing to say in response to that, so Arsenios simply walked to one of the opulent end tables in the room and pulled a pomegranate from the bowl of fruit there. He cracked it open with an easy twist and began eating the ripe, red seeds.
Hades moved around the room, his feet silent against the gleaming floors. “You know why I called you here.”
“Oh, are we done with the pleasantries?” Arsenios lazily spit the shell of a seed into the empty bowl provided for just that reason. “I thought we were going to sit and talk about our special times together.”
He knew exactly what the god wanted but that didn’t make him feel any better. Normally a good hunt could calm even the worst of his foul moods but Arsenios didn’t feel any of the peace he usually welcomed after he vanquished evil. Not even slaying the giant had loosened the knots of desperation that gripped his sides like a vice.
Hades ignored him and continued speaking as if he hadn’t interrupted. “Sethos has left the realm of my domain.”
The news shocked Arsenios to his core. He’d served death for thousands of years and he could count on one hand how many people had made it back to the Overworld. And of those few, none of them had first broken out of the pit-like prison that was Tartarus. Arsenios was one of the reasons for that track record.
“I expect my punishment will be severe.” Arsenios kept his voice even but he had learned early in his servitude that the god did not take kindly to failures.
Hades moved silently toward Arsenios. “You are one of my oldest and most powerful Archaeos. I put you, especially, in command as a keeper of the gates of Tartarus. Tell me how this came about.”
“I cannot.”
No sooner had the words left his lips than pain slammed into his torso. Hades never moved, never raised his voice but he had no need to. The very air moved to do his bidding and turned on Arsenios, driving stakes of agony into his stomach. “You will have to do better than that.”
“I do not know!” Arsenios was lifted several feet into the air, the spikes driving into his stomach and moving along his chest. They shredded his skin and drove him into a fog of pain. “He shouldn’t have the juice it takes to dangle that kind of bait.”
“Explain.” The spikes lessened just enough that Arsenios could breathe without pain.
“He…had Adelpha’s body.” The words physically hurt him to say. “I was proud, I thought he was broken.”
“Explain better.” Hades shook his head. It was the most jarring movement Arsenios had seen him make in several years.
“He asked to see light, just a drop of moonlight. That is all. He has been in the darkest hole I could dig for centuries and I didn’t think it was that strange a request.” Arsenios panted past the words, clenching his teeth when the pain was too much. “In exchange, he promised to restore my sister’s body. He claimed to have stored it after…the incident and why would I doubt him? He’s the one who orchestrated her murder, after all. He would be the one in the best position to recover her form.”
Hades thought for a moment. “He was powerless. Even if he had stored her body, there is no way he could repair it.”
Arsenios fisted his hands. Hatred burned in his belly. It was a raw, savage emotion that threaded through his body like venom. He did not even try to stop the poison. “I know. Gods damnit, I know that.”
“But he was able to show you a projection of where it was kept?”
He pushed the rage down deep and forced himself to give his answer calmly. Despite the situation he was in, his admiration for Hades knew no limits. The god might punish him for his failure but he would still get to the bottom of what happened. “Yes.”
Hades dropped him to the ground unceremonially. “You will go to the Overworld and retrieve him.”
Arsenios wanted to protest but he knew what that would bring him. He didn’t want any more pain. He’d known enough of that. He stood, refusing to cow down to the god, no matter how much more powerful Hades was. “You know I have priorities. There are other archaios already positioned to do this task.”
“And yet none of them have failed me.”
Blood pooled in the palms of Arsenios’ clenched fists. He inclined his head. Hades was unrelenting but he was fair. This was his mess, his burden. “How will I know where to look? My talents are in punishment and detainment, not tracking.”
“I’ve already spoken to the Moirai. Cerberus knows where to let you out.”
“And where are they sending me?”
Hades’ eyes seemed to distance as if he were listening to something only he could hear. When his attention fell back to Arsenios, the dim glow of light in the room flickered softly.
A ghostly hand shot from Hades’ robes and threw a dark green pouch into the air. The coins hidden by the material sang out joyously as they hit one another.
“Obolus. Give one to Charon to take you across the river Styx. There are plenty there. Should you need more, simply come to me.”
Arsenios snatched the purse up before it hit the ground. He obviously wasn’t getting an answer to his crime but that didn’t matter. His mind was already working furiously on his plan of action. He needed to find his prey quickly, eliminate him, and get back to the Underworld as soon as possible.
He had to find Sethos but more than that, he wanted to make him suffer. If he could end the threat of him completely, it would be all the better. He immediately thought to his sword and a slow smile stretched over his face. What better punishment for his wayward charge could there be?
The hunter was so deep in thought he almost missed his last order. “You will keep me informed.”
Without thinking, he gave the customary response. “Yes, I am but a servant of death.”
“Arsenios, you will do nothing to upset the balance of order upheld in my kingdom.”
That got his attention. Hades valued every soul in his possession. He guarded them jealously and he knew what Arsenios could do. Essentially, he would be stealing a soul from the god of the damned.
Arsenios had no doubt that if he had used that tone on one of the younger Archaeos they would have obeyed him immediately, without hesitation. Someone wiser may have learned from the lesson he’d been given not five minutes ago.
Arsenios couldn’t do that. He’d seen the death dweller shed tears. Hades couldn’t pretend to be the immoveable mountain he tried to portray.
He slowly turned back to the god. “You cannot expect me to bring him back unscathed.”
“I expect you to do your job, which is to see to my bidding. Do you say that you plan to disobey me?”
“I plan to do as I feel I must. I plan to do what is right.” Arsenios kept his voice low out of the respect he had for the god.
The whispering from beneath his robe grew into a silent roar though the dark man himself said nothing for several moments. Topaz eyes glittered with uncharacteristic anger for he was not used to being openly disobeyed.
Time crawled as Arsenios waited to see if the god would take his pouch back. He decided then and there that without the pouch he would simply find another way. Hades could burn his soul for eternity but that pain would be nothing compared to what would eat at him if he did nothing.
The air calmed the moment the god made his choice. A flicker of understanding crossed his hard face only to be quickly chased away. Of course, he would understand needing something so badly he’d be willing to brave damnation for it.
Hades left the room rather than dismissing him, his displeasure was so great. Arsenios stood only after he lost feeling in the bottom of his feet.
He felt the burn of eyes dancing over him carelessly as he stalked through the hall.
“Are you watching out of pity or spite?” He snapped at the open air. Some of the attention eased as his less powerful viewers scurried away. But not all.
There were thousands upon thousands of souls sworn to stand by Hades. They followed under his special kind of employment under different kinds of contracts, working different jobs. Most of them had come willingly, sacrificing themselves to the death god out of love and foolishness.
Not him.
He was an archaios, one of Hades’ soul bound. While the others who served him had spilt blood and begged to see the ruler of the underworld after crossing the Acheron, he had been carried into the Underworld by great black horses.
He was a favored pet, a slave not because of his love and devotion but because of what the god could offer him in return. That made him less in the eyes of the others who shunned his kind.
It was only during the rare seasons Hades was in a festive mood that Arsenios was able to interact with other archaios. He would never admit that he lived for those days.
He smirked. Well…technically he didn’t live for anything.
Pushing through the invisible doors that blocked off his chambers, he headed straight for the chest that held his clothing for the Overworld and the four-stringed laouto he’d always kept on hand. As soon as he touched his fingers to the instrument, it shimmered out of existence. The blade at his back warmed and Arsenios nodded. His sword came with as many perks as it did responsibilities.
The air vibrated with a soft squeaking, seconds before a long, sleek polecat darted from under his bed and wrapped itself around his body, stopping on his shoulder.
“Hello to you too, little sister.” Again, the air vibrated with a purr of pleasure and he wasn’t sure if it came from him of her. She nudged his cheek with her tiny head.
“Have you been lonely here while I was with Hades?” There was a squeaky answer and he smiled, removing a twig of dried cinnamon from his satchel and handing it to her. For a moment, she ignored him and he let loose a sigh that may have been forced.
“You don’t have to dislike him so much. After all, he did allow you to remain here with me.” When she seemed unmoved he continued, “Not to mention he made certain that I could feed you. Do you know how hard it is to come by cinnamon in the Underworld?”
As always, appealing to her stomach did the trick. She climbed off of him after snatching up the treat, turning in huffy circles while she ate with gluttonous pleasure. He figured now was as good a time as any. “I have to go away for a time and I cannot take you along with me.”
For such a meek, sweet little creature, she had a temper and knew exactly how to show it. She stopped mid-bite and tossed the browned stick away from her body. If she hadn’t been so small, he would have sworn the look she gave him would have mirrored a haughty flick of the hair before she swung around promptly ignoring him.
“I’ll be back soon, Adelpha. Soon.”
She didn’t answer. In fact, she gave another displeased huff.
It was the first time in a long time that Arsenios threw his head back in laughter. His shoulders shook at the sight of her obvious displeasure and it was all he could do to keep from scooping her up and pressing her to his cheek.
His laughter only caused her to be more irritated and she scurried off back under his bed as a child would stomp off, slamming the door behind her. He laughed harder.
It wasn’t until much later as he stood at the gate between the world of the living and the world of the dead that the true wonder of it all hit him. Even after lifetimes within the Underworld he still had his laughter.
Chapter Two

It felt like an eternity had passed by the time Charis finally got out of the elevator. As soon as those sliding doors opened, she hauled ass out of there. Several people tried to stop her, to see if she needed anything or more likely, to ensure that she wouldn’t raise a stink about the malfunction. She ignored their calls, her one and only goal to make it out of the building before it was set on fire or a bomb threat was called in.
She made it to the casino floor in record time, avoiding elevators the entire way. Looking around to find a clock was a waste of time, since all casinos on the Strip were vortexes of “No, no, you want to stay for another five minutes…and another…and another.”
“Wait, miss. Security wants to talk to…”
His voice faded away under the onslaught of chips being clicked and machines singing. It wouldn’t have mattered, though. She was already on the move. “I’ve got twenty minutes. I can catch Eumelia while she’s at lunch.”
She dashed across the parking lot, found her car and prayed it would actually start now that the shoes were tucked away in her bag. When the engine turned over, she grinned, taking it as a sign that her theory was correct.
One flat tire later, she made it to the café. There wasn’t much hope that her sister would still be there but Charis dragged herself through the door and scanned the little eatery anyway.
There were only nine tables in the establishment, each covered with a crisp white tablecloth. Little vases of brightly colored daisies sat in the center of each table, offering a sweet floral scent to the dusty desert air.
It was officially after lunch, so the usual line at the pastry counter was already gone.
Charis looked to the big glass display case with sandwiches and fresh bread that always seemed to be stocked, as if by magic. A variety of adorable desserts winked their shiny little eyes at her. Her stomach grumbled again but she was suddenly too exhausted to eat. Instead, she just stood there, staring at the foods while her mind replayed everything that had happened in the last couple of hours.
“Hey, Char! Over here.” Eumelia’s familiar voice cut through her thoughts.
Her sister was tucked into one of the tables on the far side of the café. Eumelia always took the tables nearest to the window. The woman loved to soak up the sun. It was one of those familiar things that Charis never had to ask. It made her breathe a sigh of relief, even with all of the disappointment crashing around in her head.
She hadn’t really realized how dazed she was until she was standing next to her sister’s table like a doofus. She just stood there, feeling as if she wanted to cry but not wanting to spare the energy. Eumelia looked up at her with carefully contained concern etched on her face.
“So, how did it go?”
It wasn’t until her sister gestured that Charis collapsed into a chair with a heavy sigh. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That bad?”
Before she could answer, the waiter stepped out of the back room and made his way over to where they were seated. He addressed Eumelia with easy familiarity. “You still doing okay, Eumelia?”
“Perfect, thanks.”
Charis tried to smile at the guy but she could tell the result was less than stellar. She’d seen him a couple of times before, when she came with her sister but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember his name.
The café was a small, family-owned place and they only had seven or eight people on rotation. If she remembered correctly, this was the second born son. He was tall, well-built, and had warm brown eyes. Brown eyes that were currently lapping her up like she was a melting ice cream cone.
“Welcome back, Charis. You know the drill. What can I get you to drink while you decide on your lunch?”
Charis glanced at the menu he offered before putting her head down on the table. “No food, just Long Island Ice Teas. Lots of them.”
He laughed. “All right, you got it. My name’s Logan, if you’ve forgotten. If there’s anything you need, anything at all….give me a holler and I’ll do my best to get it for you.”
When he left, Eumelia fanned herself. “Damn, he was all over you.”
Charis shrugged, not bothering to look up. “Eh.”
“Eh? Seriously? He’s ridiculously hot and practically begging you to snatch him up.”
She shrugged again. “He’s…meh. Did you hear how much emphasis he put on the word ‘drill?’ He sounds like a porno delivery guy. ‘If you need anything, and I do mean anything, little lady…give me a call.’” She mustered enough energy to give her sister a cheesy little wink and to click her tongue.
Eumelia made her “I’m not impressed” face. “All right, so how long are you going to be cold to attractive men who show interest in you?”
Charis groaned. “Not this, again. Eumelia, I really don’t have time right now.”
That wasn’t necessarily a lie. She was really trying to focus on getting a career established now. She’d spent too much of her time, floating from one dead end job to the next and she wanted something she could build a career on. Of course, this morning had been all about doing that…which reminded her.
“Look, while we’re on the subject…” she dug around in her bag until she had all of the pieces of her smashed phone. She didn’t want to say anything but she’d never gotten into the habit of lying to her sister. “Scott called.”
“Oh.” That was all there was to say really. No one knew better than Eumelia how hard Scott’s betrayal had hit and she’d had years to witness Charis’ bursts of subhuman strength. “Char, I’m worried about you. You’re giving him too much power by moping around like a wounded animal.”
The younger sister prickled. “Well, what do you suggest I do? It’s not like he used kid gloves while he was busy breaking my heart.”
“You’re such a romantic. It’s been months, when are you going to attempt to heal?”
Charis frowned. It couldn’t have been that long. “Look who’s talking. I’m the romantic when you and Peter can’t go two hours without calling each other?”
Eumelia got all misty eyed, which made Charis want to point an “ah-ha!” finger. “That’s different. Peter and I have been together since high school and we’re engaged. That’s what an established relationship is like.”
Charis snorted. “Maybe, if you’re codependent.”
Eumelia was too used to the argument to rise for the bait. She clicked her tongue. “We’re not talking about Peter and I. We’re talking about you and your aversion to the healing process.”
“I am healed. Completely over it.”
“Yes, I can see that,” a manicured hand waved towards the remains of what used to be a cell phone.
Charis blushed heatedly. “Fine, I’m almost over it.”
Logan appeared again, carrying a tall, frosted glass. The pretty, decorative fruits danced along with the ice when he set it down. “I know you said you weren’t hungry but I saw the way you were looking at the dessert display, so this is on me. Egg-free, no bake. Just the way you like it.” He set down a slice of chocolate cheesecake.
Charis stared down at the dessert after Logan left. It was such a sweet and simple gesture. Attentive. Kind. But she was still so twisted up over Scott that all she could think of was how he would turn that kindness into something else. How he would twist it into something she owed him. She shuddered, trying to suppress the knee-jerk reaction.
Just eat it, she told herself. Eumelia is right, you’re giving him too much power.
“Maybe just a bite…” She sank her fork into the raspberry on top of the cake and pushed it between her lips. It popped on the tip of her tongue, a little explosion of lush tart fruit sugar, misted with the hint of mint that it’d been dressed up with. She tasted the thick, creamy chocolate it had been resting on and every single sensation felt like a tiny victory.
It was a victory over Scott’s systematic breakdown of her already flimsy sense of self. A victory over all of the promises he broke.
She realized her sister was staring at her intently and swallowed. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Eumelia seemed to consider for a moment before deciding she would let the topic go. For now. “Do you feel better now?”
Charis nodded before taking another bite. “You know me. I bounce back quick.”
“Quick after you’ve got something to shovel into your face.”
They both laughed when Charis flipped her off. She reached for her drink and took a bracing sip.
Her sister snorted when she shuddered. “You know that’s not going to help anything, right?”
“After the morning I’ve had, I’m willing to give it a try.” She took another sip. She’s never been much of a drinker. The taste was a deterrent enough but she’d always had such a high tolerance on top of that. She could drink for hours but the truth was she never got drunk. Just horribly sick. “Today is going to be the day I get absolutely plastered.”
“Come on, it couldn’t have been that bad. I see you ended up wearing the skirt instead of those awful slacks.”
“Hey, I like my slacks.”
“They’re terrible. We should burn them.”
“No, what we should burn are those damn shoes.” Charis told her what happened, ignoring her when she started laughing. “I’m serious, Melia. Open flame. We should scatter the ashes over some hallowed land.”
Eumelia wiped tears out of her eyes. “I can’t believe all the trouble you go through. It’s just too hilarious. Come on, you had to be making some of that up.”
“Nope, not a bit.” She finished off her cake and took another sip of the tea. “Now I have to start my search from scratch.”
“After you get a new phone.”
She groaned. The phone company just loved her. She went through them like hotcakes. Luckily, she got a discount for being an employee. Her latest dead end job—which she had hoped to get rid of. “I’ll go in after lunch but before that, could I use yours? I want to check my email.”
Eumelia hefted her heavy purse onto the table with a thunk. “Are you still getting updates from that temp agency?”
Charis took the phone with a nod of her head. “I haven’t taken a job with them in a while but yeah, they still send me…”
She read and reread the email with her mouth hanging open.
Eumelia poked her from across the table. “What? Tell me so I can look like a fish out of water too.”
Charis jerked her gaze away from the phone. “I got it.”
“What? You got what?”
Shaking off the last of her melancholy, Charis got up and did a jig. “I got it! The job, I got the job!”
Eumelia hopped up and started dancing with her. They locked hands and jumped up and down like a couple of crazy people, laughing all the whole time. “How?”
Charis shook her head. “I don’t know and I don’t care. Gift horse. Mouth.”
Eumelia laughed. “When do you start?”
“Three weeks! Oh my gosh, I have to put in my notice.”
“After you order a new phone.”
Charis looked down at her bag. “Yeah, I guess I’d better snag a few spares while I’m at it.”
“Are you going to be working with Camille?”
She smoothed down the strays in her bun. “I doubt it. If anything, she’ll be my supervisor. I’ll get assigned a group or artist and report to a manager, though I don’t know if it will be here.”
Eumelia grinned. “This is so exciting. And you know what?”
Charis stopped jumping. She knew that look on Eumelia’s face and it always meant the same thing.
“I told you the shoes would bring you luck in the end.”
An “I told you so.”