“Who would have the cojones to wage war with Fate? No offense, but that sounds about as smart as poking a badger in the butt with a sharp stick.”
Samuel smiled at that. “Charming comparison, but it’s not quite so simple.” He leaned against the wall, staring down at the high gloss on his shoes. He stood still as a statue for the longest time, either lost in thought or mentally debating what to say next. When he finally looked up, his expression was somewhere between resignation and dread. “Fate isn’t the only being of her kind. There are kindred. They work in concert, careful not to infringe on one another’s domain. It’s a carefully brokered balance, you see, one that has worked to everyone’s satisfaction for more than a millennium.”
“And you think someone’s stepping on Fate’s toes on purpose?” she asked, incredulous. “How could anyone possibly be that stupid?”
Samuel met her gaze, and his eyes seemed to bore right through her. “That’s your job to discern.” His voice hardened, resolute and unforgiving. “You have your orders, Miss Dawson. Find the person or persons responsible before the ship reaches its next port of call. Do not allow them to leave under any circumstances.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
He arched a brow. “You’re a resourceful woman. Use your imagination.”
The ship’s horn bellowed as it cruised away from St. Angelique, the island growing smaller until it disappeared from sight. Already, a party had kicked into high gear on the main deck, the passengers enjoying a luau-style feast while a reggae band jammed on the stage in front of the pool.
Drink in hand, Jack climbed the stairs to the perch overlooking the ship’s stern. During daylight hours the top deck was packed with sun worshippers, but now only a few scattered couples occupied the area, huddled close in intimate conversation. From where he stood he could watch the crowd filling the pool deck below, drinking, dancing, living it up without a care in the world.
Yes, he knew he sounded bitter, and quite frankly he was. So many years of searching, only to learn he had zero chance of escaping the curse—oh yeah, that’s right, demon—he’d been saddled with by that fucking bitch Keisha. No doubt about it, he was officially out of hope, out of options.
Shit out of luck.
He tossed back the double shot of Chivas, the alcohol making his eyes water but doing nothing to ease the throbbing at the base of his skull.
Already, he could feel the demon stirring inside, restless and hungry. Even though he’d just fed it the night before, the bastard never overlooked the opportunity for an easy meal. It urged him to join the party, to wallow in the sea of untapped sensuality, to seek out some warm, willing woman to slake its lust. To feast on her sexual energy.
Not tonight. Not any other night. He was finished playing host to this monster. One way or another, it ended now.
His grip tightened as he peered over the rail, watching the wake left behind by the ship’s engines. It wouldn’t take much effort to find a quiet spot, far away from prying eyes and security cameras. One quick jump and it would all be over. They’d never find his body in the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean. If he lucked out, the fall would kill him and spare him the horrors of drowning.
“I was wondering where you’d run off,” a feminine voice said from behind, her sultry Southern accent acting like a balm on his fractured nerves.
He turned toward the sound of her voice, his breath catching at the sight of Ruby in a sheer little number that hugged every curve and left very little to his overactive imagination. Tonight’s choker matched the pale, gauzy fabric of her dress, the color complementing the brilliant green of her eyes. The light of the rising moon gave her skin an ethereal glow, making her appear more ghostlike than reaper.
The demon noticed her as well, its focus locking on Ruby with a single-minded intensity. It railed against Jack’s control, demanding he take what she so freely offered.
“Good evening, Ruby.” His voice sounded tired to his own ears. The wind wreaked havoc on her hair as she stepped closer. She took a spot beside him at the rail, angling her head so her hair blew back from her face. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t we be heading south tonight?”
“Change of plans. Tropical Storm Georgina became a hurricane this morning, so the ship’s altered course. Didn’t you get the alert?” He’d found one in his cabin when he returned from shore that afternoon. To avoid the storm, they’d cruise east instead of south for a day. Once they were out of harm’s way, they’d double back and dock in St. Thomas.
“Maybe, but I haven’t been back to my cabin for a couple hours.” She frowned, her mouth fixed in a grim line.
Considering her strange dislike for boats, it was no wonder she looked so irritated by the prospect of an additional day at sea. Sooner or later, he’d learn the reason behind the bad attitude, but for the time being he’d let the matter slide. Changing the subject, he asked, “So, did you enjoy your time on St. Angelique?”
“It was all right,” she replied with a shrug. “Would have been more fun if you’d come along with me.” She made no effort to hide the disappointment in her voice. “How’d your little excursion go?”
He considered answering her question with something vague and noncommittal, but in the end he opted for the truth. What was the point in lying? “Pretty shitty.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?” Reaching out, her fingers curled around his wrist. Her touch was light, a tentative connection offering help if it was welcome.
The demon had plenty of suggestions to offer, but most of them revolved around her getting naked and on her knees. Jack closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, drawing on every ounce of inner strength to keep the beast under control.
“No, but thanks,” he said once he fully reclaimed command of his faculties. He caught her gaze then, saw the unmasked concern creasing her brow, and felt his heart lurch. “Really, I’m okay.”
She made an unladylike sound, deep in her throat. “Now there’s a load of bull, and you and I both know it.” When she pulled her hand away, the severed connection left him with an unexpected sense of loss. “I think it’s about time you let me know what’s going on with you.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Sure it is.” She propped a hand on her hip and tipped up her chin. “You already know what I am.” One corner of her mouth curved up. “Suffice it to say, my mind’s open to the strange and unexpected.”
She had a point there.
Part of him yearned to share this secret part of himself with someone who could relate to his predicament, someone who wouldn’t assume he’d lost his mind. He’d lived with the loneliness for so damn long, careful to conceal his dirty little secret from everyone around him. It wore on a man, the endless isolation. Ruby walked a similar path, separated from humanity by forces stronger than nature. A kindred spirit.
He looked into her eyes—really looked—and saw warmth, and compassion, and something bordering dangerously close to affection. But still, what she wanted from him was no simple matter. It wasn’t every day he shared the fact he’d been cursed with an ancient demon, a parasite that feasted on the raw sensuality of others. How could he expect her to respond well to that?
“It’s Dawson, by the way,” she said on the heels of a long exhale.
“That first night, you wanted to know my last name.” Her chin hitched up a little higher, the pride fierce in her eyes. “It’s Dawson.”
“Oh.” It took him a few beats to comprehend the full value of the gift she was offering, this rare glimpse into the personal life she guarded so closely. “Ruby Dawson.” The name rolled off his tongue. “It suits you.”
The noise she made this time sounded like a cross between a laugh and a huff. “I’m pleased it meets your approval.” Her expression tightened a fraction, unnoticeable to anyone who didn’t know her well. “Ruby’s a nickname my momma gave me when I was a little girl.” Before he could say anything, she added, “For obvious reasons.”
Curiosity piqued, he inched closer. “And what name were you born with?”
In typical Ruby fashion, she gave him a level look and answered his question with a question of her own. “You want to clue me in as to what’s going on with you?”
“What is this, quid pro quo?”
She arched a brow. “Maybe. How does that work for you?”
Better than he expected. His pulse quickened with a sudden rush of exhilaration, coupled with the insistent need to share this piece of himself with someone who might truly understand.
Reaching out, he took her hand in his. “I’m cursed.”
Ruby’s eye’s widened for a split second, obviously surprised by his secret. Recovering quickly, she gave a curt nod and her face turned purposefully blank. She leaned in close, and the soft, sweet scent of her invaded his senses. Then her warm breath feathered across his ear as she whispered one solitary word:
o there’s no way to get rid of it?” Ruby asked as soon as Jack finished speaking, her chin propped on the heel of her hand.
She’d listened with undivided attention while he told her all about Keisha, the curse, his unfortunate wife, Victoria, and the decades spent searching for a way to break free from the demon. Once he’d started talking he hadn’t been able to stop, a cathartic rush spurring him on until he’d confided his darkest secrets.
“Nope.” Jack forced his voice to remain calm, but the underlying tension kept his muscles tight. Deep down he understood he was stuck with the demon, but a big part of him had yet to reconcile with the fact. How long that would take was anybody’s guess. “Jolie said my best bet is to find what the demon wants most and use that as leverage to master it.”
“Any idea what it wants?”
He gave her a level stare. “What do you think, Beulah?”
“Hey, I’m just asking.” Defensiveness crept into her voice. “No need to bite my head off.”
“I’m sorry.” Reaching across the table, he laid his hand over hers. “You have no idea how good it feels to share this with somebody.”
He’d never entrusted the full knowledge to anyone outside his immediate family. And after the last living member of his family had died, he’d largely kept it to himself. On rare occasions, he consulted with those who might possess the ability to break the curse, but he never gave them more than the essential information. The emotional isolation weighed heavily on his soul, because even though he was rarely alone, he often ached with loneliness.
Ruby didn’t say anything, only smiled, her hand giving his a light squeeze that said far more than words.
“Your turn,” he said, eyeing her with open speculation. “Tell me something about yourself. Something you haven’t already told me.” That left a lot on the table, since he’d hogged most of the conversation.
She sat quiet for a long moment, as if weighing her decision. “What do you want to know?”
“I don’t know. Surprise me.”
Ruby gave him a rueful look. “Be careful what you wish for.” Her eyes closed for almost a minute. When they finally opened, the green had darkened with memories from the past. “I was mortal, before all this. I lost my humanity on Tuesday, August 29th, 1967. You see, that’s the thing about reapers. We’re flesh and blood but no longer human, chained to this realm until the stains on our souls are completely erased.”
She paused while the waiter delivered a fresh round of drinks. Most of the tables at the Speakeasy were empty, so they’d chosen a quiet corner where they could talk without fear of anyone eavesdropping. She’d chosen the seat facing away from the window, ignoring the spectacular view of the nightly fireworks display. Flashes of color shot above the bow and illuminated the night, bathing the starless sky in reds, greens, and blues.
Once they were alone again she took a long sip from her tequila sunrise, a look of bliss crossing her face when she swallowed. “I bet you’re dying to know what I did to damn my soul.”
“The question crossed my mind.” Right along with how, where, when, and why?
She let out a low chuckle, her fingers skimming along the front of the choker circling her neck. “I’m sure it has. But now it’s your turn. Tell me about Victoria.”
“You need to be more specific.”
“Did you love her?”
“Yes, of course. Very much.” He frowned, the grief and guilt still stabbing at his soul after close to a century. It had diminished a bit over time, dulled around the edges, but he doubted the pain would ever completely disappear. Which was fine by him. He deserved to suffer for what he’d inflicted on his poor wife. “She loved me too. My arrogance killed her.”
“Wrong.” Ruby shook her head, her voice harder than steel. “You’re not responsible for what happened to Victoria. That lands squarely on Keisha.”
“No, I should have listened. I could have made Keisha remove the curse before my father had her deported. If I’d just—”
“Stop it,” she snapped, the words lashing out like the crack of a whip. “Now you listen to me, Jack Deverell, and you listen good. You are not to blame for what happened to your wife. You had no way of knowing what was going to happen. Playing the shoulda-coulda-woulda game isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
“I know. You’re right.” God knows he’d played that game enough times over the years. He set down his drink and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s just . . . well, sometimes I can’t help but think about what could have been if I hadn’t been so damn young and stupid.”
“Tell me about it.” Ruby settled back in her chair, a shadow clouding her features. She picked up her drink, downing half the glass in one long drag. Then her mouth curled into a lazy smile. “So. This curse of yours. It feeds on sexual energy, right?”
“Horny little devil. Wants it all the time?”
She braced her forearms on the table and leaned forward, giving him a spectacular view of her cleavage. When she spoke, her voice sounded huskier than usual, her smooth drawl wrapping around his libido and giving it a hearty squeeze. “Then why haven’t we bounced your bed springs, Jack? Am I not its type?”
Jack swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. “Anything with a pulse is its type.”
“Then why didn’t you accept my invitation last night?” She looked up at him, the heat in her eyes unmistakable. “You left me so keyed up I had to take matters into my own hands.”
The mental picture made the blood in his brain zip down to his groin. “Why do you have to say things like that?”
Her smile widened. “Because they elicit the desired response. Besides, I’d like to know the answer.”
The waiter approached their table again, granting Jack a temporary reprieve while he ordered another drink. He’d probably need another couple to get through this, a couple more to deal with the aftermath.
He turned his gaze back to Ruby and resisted the urge to lie his ass off. Over the past couple of days he’d come to care about her. Had trusted her with his deepest secret. He owed her an honest answer to the question, even if it meant pissing her off.
“I’ve slept with a lot of women over the years,” he said once the waiter moved out of earshot. “Sometimes because I want to, but often out of necessity.”
She stared at him, her expression unreadable, for what seemed like forever. “Are you trying to scare me off?”
“No. I’m just saying, in the interest of full disclosure.”
“Fair enough.” She picked up her drink, eyeing him over the rim of the glass. “How many are we talking?”
“You want an exact number?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary.” She watched him while she stirred the drink with her straw. “A general estimation will suffice.”
Easier said than done. He ran the numbers in his head—women per week times weeks in a year, times the number of years he’d been cursed. Then he factored in all of the times when the curse had taken over and gone on a binge . . .
“Christ Jesus.” A cold knot formed in the pit of his stomach. He dragged a hand through his hair, mortified by the number at the end of the equation.
He nodded, and mentally cringed.
Ruby gave a little huff of amusement as she raised her glass in salute. “Oh Jack, I pegged you for a player. I had no idea you were such a man whore.”
Jack scowled. “This isn’t funny.”
“Yeah, it is.” Her eyes sparkled with humor when she met his troubled gaze. “Don’t worry, I’m a big girl. I can handle it. Besides, it’s not like I’m pure as the driven snow.”
“How many?” The question popped out of his mouth before he had the good sense to stop himself.
Ruby arched one eyebrow. “Do you really want to know?”
No, not really. The thought of another man touching her damn near set his blood to boil. He did
want to multiply that feeling by however many men she’d slept with over the years.
She laughed, low and husky, when he remained silent. “Let me guess. You want to know, but you don’t want to know. Am I right?”
He nodded. “I . . . I don’t like the thought of—” He stopped himself mid-sentence. Talk about hypocritical. Here he was getting overly possessive, less than twenty-four hours after bedding another woman. Still, he couldn’t deny the feeling, and that pushed him even closer to the edge of despair.
She took another sip from her drink and set the glass on the table. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m not exactly keen on the idea of you knocking boots with some other woman.”
A fresh round of guilt ripped through him, a harsh reminder that he ranked somewhere between dog shit and pond scum. He felt as if the walls were closing in around him, and he couldn’t find a way out. “I hate this. I hate being a slave to this thing.” He lifted his gaze and found her watching him with a look of such compassion it made his chest tight. “It wants you, you know.”
“Really?” A smug smile warmed her lips. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Don’t. The things it wants to do to you—” He stopped himself before he ventured into the land of Too Much Information.
“Oooh, like what?” Her voice lowered to a throaty purr. “I hope it involves almond oil and feathers.”
The curse sent out a ripple of power, which translated into a resounding yes.
“You don’t understand.” The words snapped out more harshly than he intended, causing Ruby to flinch and pull back. God, how much more could he possibly fuck this up? “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bark at you.”
“It’s okay.” She sounded calm, but her brow creased with worry. “Explain it to me, Jack. I can’t help if I don’t understand.”
He reached across the table and took her hand. The contact grounded him while he struggled for a way to explain the dynamics of his relationship with the curse. “You have no idea how much I wanted to spend the night in your cabin.” All the things he wanted to do with her flashed through his mind, and he felt a fresh burst of arousal from both himself and the demon. “You do things to me, Ruby. Things I haven’t felt for a woman in a very long time.”
She smiled, her features softening. “And why is that such a terrible thing?”
“Because strong emotions cloud my thoughts and make it damn near impossible to contain the curse’s power.” He let go of her hand and wiped his palms against his pants, wishing the waiter would hurry back with his drink. “I got so caught up in you last night, I hardly noticed when the demon tried to take over. I managed to keep it locked down, but I had to get out of there before it made another attempt.”
“Ah, so that’s why you ran off like a scalded cat.”
He nodded. “I would have had a better shot at maintaining control if I hadn’t waited so long to feed it.”
“You seem to be controlling it pretty well now.” Something must have clicked in Ruby’s mind, because her eyes thinned to slits and her mouth dropped open. “Who?”
Too ashamed to make eye contact, Jack stared down at his shoes.
“Okay, let me get this straight.” She leaned back in her chair, folded her arms beneath her breasts. “You left me twisting in the wind so you could run off and bang some other woman?” Before he could answer, she said, “I hope you enjoyed yourself. Did you come?”
The question left him momentarily stunned. “Excuse me?” “You heard me.” The soft, Southern drawl in her voice had vanished, making way for the sharpened edge of an interrogator. “Did you come? Orgasm? Ejaculate?”
“Yes.” Twice, but he wasn’t stupid enough to ante up that information.
Ruby’s face flushed red. Her eyes hardened, anger mingling with something else he’d never expected.
He would have preferred it if she’d just hauled off and belted him one. It probably would have hurt less.
“I know you won’t believe me, but I was trying to protect you.” Stone-faced, she stared at him for what had to be one of the most uncomfortable minutes of his entire life. “That has got to be the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. I’m nobody’s fool, Jack Deverell, and I refuse to become one of yours.” Without another word, she rose from her chair and stalked toward the exit.
“Ruby, wait!” Jack bolted after her, catching up with her in the corridor leading to the elevators. He darted ahead, blocking her avenue of escape. “Look, I’m sorry I hurt you, and I understand your anger, but I’m not going to apologize for my actions. You have no idea how dangerous this thing is. The curse has no conscience or sense of remorse. It wants to use your body to satisfy its cravings while sucking out your life force until there’s nothing left to take. If I’d stayed with you last night, there’s no way I could have stopped that from happening.”
“I’m serious. Leaving you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I would have given anything to wake up with you this morning.”
Ruby cocked a hand on her hip. The angry line of her mouth softened, but her eyes remained harder than steel. “You could have tried.”
“I would have failed, and I won’t allow you to suffer the consequences.” He stepped closer and reached for her hand. When she didn’t jerk back or slap the shit out of him, he proceeded with cautious optimism. “Sooner or later, I’m taking you to bed. And when that happens, I want the freedom to lose myself in the moment without worrying about the curse staging a revolt. Know why?”
The crease between her eyebrows faded, but her voice still sounded skeptical. “No. Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Because I want more than a fast tumble with you. I want to take my time, get to know every inch of that beautiful body of yours.” His voice dropped to a murmur. “Find all the spots that make you gasp, and moan, and call my name. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
She gave a noncommittal shrug, her mouth tipping up a little at the corners. “Maybe. Maybe you’ve already blown your chance.”