West Hollywood, Los Angeles
Devil’s Paradise was the hottest place to party on a Saturday night in the City of Angels. The perfect venue for temptation. The ideal setting for sin. And it was all his.
Julian Ascher surveyed his nightclub from a glassed-in observation tower two stories above the dance floor. Below, a sea of nubile bodies writhed to the booming bass of the music. Sweat and pheromones mingled in the air. A legion of bartenders worked behind the bars of polished white Terrazzo marble, pouring rivers of cocktails, beer and shots.
Most nights, Julian was content to stand up here, watching. But tonight, he was restless. Deep in his gut, a tension was building. He needed something to relieve that tension.
Preferably something soft and feminine.
He swung open the tower door. A blast of music and the heat from hundreds of bodies hit him, blaring into his pores as he descended the metal staircase to the main floor. The crowd parted, sensing his power as he strode through the club, past upturned, admiring faces. Regulars reached out to shake his hand—a drunken football hero here, an underage starlet there.
A few women tried to engage him in conversation; he disengaged them easily and continued on his path. It was a hobby of his to destroy beautiful women. He found a great deal of gratification in ruining the sublime. But he had very particular tastes, and none of the females here tonight suited him. Disappointed, he wandered onward.
“Julian, over here!” the club’s general manager shouted, trying to flag him down.
“Not now,” he called back without stopping. He roamed through the mass of beautiful people who flocked here like butterflies drawn to a pool of nectar. As an Archdemon, Julian had been responsible for the corruption of thousands of souls. His chain of nightclubs stretched across the country. It had come to fruition after two hundred years of studying humans in their greatest moments of weakness and desperation, of fantasy and desire. And Julian, the owner of this empire of iniquity, had become a connoisseur of pleasure.
At the beginning, it wasn’t so simple. As a fledgling demon, he’d had his share of battles over souls that he frequently lost. But now, after these two centuries, it was all becoming a little bit too easy. These days, when Julian fought for a soul, he always won.
His latest venture, Devil’s Ecstasy, would open in Vegas at the end of the month. Housed in fellow Archdemon Corbin Ranulfson’s spectacular Hotel Lussuria, the newest nightclub would be Julian’s pièce de résistance. A guaranteed success.
So why wasn’t he satisfied?
He swept his way through the crowd and into the VIP lounge. On the white leather furniture, couples necked and threesomes groped in plain sight. In one corner, a popular young Hollywood actor was snorting lines of coke off a call girl’s exposed ass. Around him, clubgoers stared.
“Keep him happy,” Julian said to one of his staff members. “Make sure he’s well supplied tonight.”
Julian’s jaded gaze surveyed the scene, utterly indifferent to the lascivious behavior he saw around him. The same lecherous acts he saw every night that the club was open for business. Nothing here remotely excited him.
Sunk in utter apathy, Julian turned, ready to head back toward his observation post.
Then he saw her.
In the periphery of his vision, she shimmered like gold in a muddy riverbank. He blinked, unsure if what he’d seen was a trick of the light. When he turned his head to look again, there she stood.
She was dressed for a day at the beach, not for a night at the temple of sin. Her simple yellow sundress showcased toned arms and lithe curves. Blond hair curled in waves down her back. The structure of her face was classical perfection, her beauty so striking that it caught his eye even from a distance. Other men saw her, too. They circled like sharks scenting blood in the water. Was she searching for a lost friend? A lover?
As he stared, salivating, she looked up, as though she could read his thoughts across the noise and the crush of the VIP lounge. She gazed straight into his eyes. From thirty feet away, it was a direct challenge. Then she turned and disappeared.
Somewhere deep inside him, the hunter’s instinct engaged.
He tracked her through the crowd, glimpsing her blond hair, the exposed flesh of her shoulder as she wove deeper into the throng. The beat of the music pounded through his veins like an amphetamine high, spurring him on. He pushed his way toward her, oblivious to manners.
When she was within reaching distance, he closed his fingers around her arm. It was like stroking a newborn’s cheek, her skin was so soft. The silk-covered steel of her biceps flexed beneath his tightening grip. Desire surged through his fingertips and landed straight in his groin. She stopped dead at his touch, swung to face him. From a distance, she was beautiful. Up close, she was divine.
His gaze drifted over her high cheekbones, her lush lips, her wide and trusting eyes. The innocence he saw in those eyes had nothing to do with guilelessness, and everything to do with faith. Faith in the untainted goodness of humankind. He wanted to devour her. To sink into her, to make himself a part of her and never let her go.
As he gripped her arm, time hung suspended. All noise stopped. Into that silence broke the rustling of feathers, the flare of a wingspan unfolding. The realization sent a jolt of energy reeling through his body—she was an angel. A Guardian, the lowest rank of celestial beings, responsible for the earthly care of humanity.
Why he was so surprised, he didn’t know. He’d encountered angels many times before, had battled with them often. But never were they foolish enough to set foot in his nightclubs. What was she doing here, in his domain?
He blinked. Around them, the club whirled back into action, the pounding bass of the dance music flooded back into his bones. She twisted, trying to disengage herself. He tightened his grip, unwilling to let go.
Whatever her reasons, she, in her innocent little sundress, with her laughable belief in the goodness of the human race, had entered Devil’s Paradise. And she was on his territory now.
What stopped Serena St. Clair was a mere brush of fingertips against her bare upper arm. The touch of a lover. A caress so gentle, so reverent and yet so sensual that it sent pleasure skimming over the surface of her skin. It washed over her entirely and set the most secret places of her body singing. Even in the hot crush of the nightclub, the sensation was so intense it stopped her cold.
When she turned, she found herself looking into the face of a god. Angular planes chiseled to a perfect symmetry that only a divine hand could have wrought. But his eyes were pure sin. There was no goodness in that gaze, only naked desire. He towered over her, his athlete’s build draped in a perfectly cut suit, a dress shirt open at the throat. Armani, if she had to guess. His dark hair was artfully tousled, a casualness that contradicted the intensity of his gaze.
“Welcome to Devil’s Paradise. I’m Julian Ascher.”
His voice, low and deep, seemed to vibrate in her bones.
For a moment, she stood stunned. Then she reminded herself to breathe. Squeezing her eyes shut, she directed a burst of energy into his mind, a bright light that would override his willpower and wipe his memory clean of her. She waited for him to stumble away and release her, leaving her free to complete her assignment.
To find the human she was assigned to guard. And get the hell out of here.
Except, Julian Ascher didn’t move. A flicker of annoyance rippled across the surface of his casual facade. Then his perfect composure smoothed back into place. A single word reverberated in her mind and swirled in her gut.
Somewhere deep inside her, a voice whispered: Run.