Brimstone. How on earth did she know what brimstone smelled like?
Maybe she remembered it from that time she’d ended up in the outer catacombs of Hell, looking for the caverns where her parents had first met. She’d been twelve, and fascinated by the story of how Anna had hidden Jonah there when he was hurt and being pursued by Dark Ones. Of course, Lex hadn’t been thrilled to run smack into Lucifer while on her romantic quest. She’d been told in no uncertain terms she would not be swimming down into his realm again, not if she knew what was good for her. She was twenty-one now, but the memory still made her shudder.
God, she loved her parents, but they had such scary friends. The Lord of the Underworld was her father’s best friend, while Anna’s was the seawitch Mina, a creature whose name no merperson would speak above a whisper.
But whether or not Alexis was smelling brimstone, this had to be a dream. Mainly because that part of the mind that kept things from being too frightening in dreams said so, even though there was a tenuous note that made it more hopeful suggestion than sure fact.
She was floating in fire. While she felt its heat, she wasn’t burned. It was licking at the fronds of her tail, another curiosity. Usually, she appeared in dreams in her human form, not her birth form, which was merangel—half-mermaid, half-angel, with tail, fins and wings.
As she started to turn to see what was behind her, a hand touched her wings. Strong, male fingers penetrated the thick layers of feathers, curling to grip, knuckles stroking the fragile network of bones beneath.
Ah, it was going to be that kind of dream. This might be worth the nasty brimstone smell, though a funny, fluttery feeling in the pit of her belly recommended she run, even as her body refused to move. The hand teased the feathers where they were attached to flesh, the most sensitive area, and she drew in a breath. Tipping her head back, she found a broad shoulder waiting to support it. It was attached to a very male body pressing against her back, his bare thigh against her hip. The intriguing, muscular plane of a stomach brushed her wings. Another hand parted them as if opening a garment and slid down her spine, making her shiver.
As his breath caressed the side of her throat, because it was a dream, her hair conveniently tumbled over her right shoulder to give him access. His mouth closed over her skin. It wasn’t a kiss. It was as if she was about to be eaten, her flesh savored. The fire was advancing up her body, making her wonder if it came from him, a creature of fire and hunger.
A fang scraped her, and she yelped as he punctured her beneath her delicate gill slit, bringing pain but pleasure as well. Because of that, she remained still, willing to give him blood. His hands made their torturous way to her hip bones, stimulating the tight overlapping scales below them. One hand drifted to the silver and diamond piercing through the thin skin of her navel. Oh, Goddess. She was so responsive there, almost as much as her neck. His lips moved on her, suckling, and she could hear the rush of her blood, eager to nourish him.
Her father had frowned when she got the navel piercing, but Alexis was enchanted by the way it sparkled. If she touched it with light fingers as she lay in bed at night, it sent frissons of sensual energy rippling out like tropical waves, making her imagine a lover’s hands.
She’d never had a lover. It was hard enough to be an empath, but then to have an angel’s energy on top of that? Men were attracted to her like insects to a bug light, but they didn’t come close enough to be zapped. When Lex was in her teens, Anna had pointed out this trait saved lives. Jonah would have had little patience for the hormonal missteps of young males when it came to his only child.
Would have pinched their heads off like ticks on a hound.
Not her mother’s words, of course. Alexis had a human friend, Clara, who’d been born in Georgia and who described her own daddy’s attitude about boys that way. Since it seemed to apply to Jonah, Alexis couldn’t help thinking of it when the issue came up.
But she wasn’t a child anymore. And this was definitely a very grown-up dream. A little more than she’d ever experienced, actually. It was the last coherent thought she had as both of his hands slid up her abdomen, teasing the piercing again before they kept going. She arched back into his body, holding her breath, wanting him to go exactly where he was going, her flesh aching.
There. She gasped, dream or not, as calloused palms closed over her bare breasts, for apparently that was the way her dream wanted them to be, and who was she to argue? She’d gone to sleep in an oversized nightshirt printed with a sardonic pink bunny over the caption It’s All About Me. It certainly wouldn’t have fit with this dream.
Raising her hands, she closed them on his forearms. He stilled, as if he hadn’t expected her to touch him. He was still drinking deep, making her dizzy, increasing the roar of her heartbeat. As she rocked with the motion of the fire, she brushed her backside against his groin. The hard evidence of his desire sent a thrill of apprehension and excitement through her. It was a little too real, a little intimidating.
“You will take the fear. Reach behind you and hold me in your hands.”
The voice was rough, as if scarred by searing clouds of smoke. It rumbled through her body like thunder, the kind that preceded heat lightning, not cooling draughts of rain. Perspiration gleamed on her skin now, heat increasing, and she looked down at his hands. The nails were long, almost like claws, the tips leaving thin red rivulets over her flesh, but the strength in his grip, the erotic kneading, balanced her apprehension. Plus, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the sight of those hands on her breasts, the way they cupped and held her, so sure and powerful, the glide of thumb and forefinger together to capture the nipples, squeeze and roll them in a way that had her swallowing, hard.
“Grip me, now. I command it.”
Reaching behind her pushed her breasts further into his palms, and gave her the quaking sense of being bound, her arms pulled behind her back. Her fingertips slid along a muscular thigh, then over, grazing shyly over a heavy testicle sac to find the base of his shaft. His tongue flicked against her neck, and she gasped, her hand closing over him in spasmodic reaction.
Oh, great Goddess. This might be a dream, but it was difficult to believe it wasn’t something more, because she’d never had her hand on a man’s cock before. How could she register in such detail not just the thickness and velvet length, but the hard heat, the remarkable smoothness of the skin stretched over it, the crease and flare over the head? Viscous fluid made her fingers slippery, instinct motivating her to rub them down his length.
He growled and pushed himself into her hands more urgently. It was so marvelous, so breathtaking, she had to smile at the joy of it, press her temple into his jaw, a thanks for giving her the gift of his passion, his need.
All those hard muscles tensed as if he’d become a marble statue behind her. Her dream was ending. Reality was pulling her away from the fire, from him. Panicked, she twisted around to look up into his face, see who or what he was. What had she done wrong? Could she get him to change his mind, let her stay?
Dark hair tangled over his forehead and around insanely beautiful features. Since she was the daughter of an angel, the most breathtaking species in existence, that was saying something. Then she met his eyes.
Red, gold, orange. The pupils were a tunnel of darkness in the midst of fire. She fell into them, his loneliness and despair, rage and violence closing around her as if he’d clamped a fist around her body to hold her in this stasis of yearning agony.
She’d learned early to stay away from hospitals, slaughterhouses, prisons—wherever suffering of such magnitude existed that she couldn’t adhere to the lesson she’d finally learned and let the Goddess’s cycles take their natural course for those inflicting or suffering pain. She had to fix it or go mad with the agony.
His pain was all those places and more. A suicide’s dead despair, a killer’s rage, a victim’s uncomprehending pain. His sensual lips were curved in a permanent cruel sneer, her blood on his mouth. If he could, he’d drink all of her blood, tear the flesh away and gnaw on her bones, trying to get to the very soul of her. That was what he had to have, what he wanted.
The flame began to burn her flesh. An urgent force pulled at her, trying to take her away from him. Instead, she lifted her hand and laid it on his mouth. Fire exploded through her, igniting all her nerve endings, contorting her mouth with an involuntary scream, but before it all swirled away, she registered the shock in his eyes at her willing touch. Then she was alone, burning alive, screaming for help in a world where everything had disappeared, sucked into that pitiless void in his eyes.
* * * * *
Alexis erupted from her bed, sending T into a squalling leap for safety. The cat knocked over her Victorian hurricane lamp, though the glass bulb shade fortunately tumbled into the mountainous pile of stuffed animals that overflowed from the corner. She spun around.
“Whoa, whoa.” Clara danced back, holding up both hands. “Easy there, Lex. It’s me. You left your door unlocked again, you trusting idiot. I’ve been trying to wake you for five minutes. Goddess, you’re strobing like a disco ball.”
Clara was a clairvoyant. While Clara didn’t know that Alexis was a merangel, Lex was happy to have the closest thing possible to a normal friendship with her, because Clara could get past the vibrating light of Alexis’s aura to the girl beneath.
As she swayed, getting her bearings, Clara proved it by rubbing her hands along Lex’s arms, grounding her further. “Easy now. You’re here. You’re with us. That must have been one hell of a dream.”
Alexis choked on a wild chuckle. At Clara’s alarmed look, she panicked, thinking she might have shifted some portion of her anatomy. A glance toward the dresser mirror told her she looked like any human woman, with her curling brown hair to her waist, blue eyes—though right now they were giant marbles bugging out of her head—and completely human body. No wings materializing, no fins or tail dropping her like a clumsy trout on the carpet.
“I’m okay.” She sank down as Clara shoved her desk chair beneath her. “Just talk to me while I get it together.”
“Okay, hon, okay.” Clara pressed against the back of the chair, her hand in Lex’s hair, stroking. “I had about an hour before classes, and thought I’d stop in to see if you want to audit Greek Mythology with me. It’s being taught by a visiting Greek professor, and holy Gawd, is he hot. Talks with the accent and everything.”
“You want me to bait him for you.” Alexis tilted her head into Clara’s abdomen, gazing up the valley between two high, rounded breasts, probably sculpted by the latest in underwear engineering to show them off to best advantage. Her friend’s humor brought her feet back down to earth. Only she wasn’t sure if “up” wasn’t more accurate. The dream had seemed deep inside some strange planet, far from sky or water, or anything she’d ever known.
“Well, you are my friend, and what are friends for?” Clara curled a lock of Lex’s hair around her ring-bedecked fingers and tugged, though her eyes still showed worry. “We can do our usual thing. You spin the web that catches him and I’ll nail his cute, tight ass. Unless you want the honors for once?”
You will not let him touch you.
Alexis yelped, bolting out of the chair. She tripped, tumbling on her backside into the cushiony paws of an oversized teddy bear, nothing like the embrace of her dreams. Clara was still standing at the chair, staring at her. “What the hell was that?”
“I’m sorry, I guess I’m still spooked. I just—”
“No, not that.” Clara knelt by her side, tentatively reached out and closed a hand on her forearm. “Okay, I’m losing my mind, but for a second there your skin got so hot I had to let you go. You okay?”
Alexis tried a nod and pulled off a circular motion that didn’t reassure Clara or herself. Clara sat down beside her, squashing an Eeyore and Pooh pairing, but clasped the Tigger that fell in her lap as she drew up her knees.
“If you drank, I’d say you’d had one too many last night at that Mexican place we tried. But other than your usual high-on-the-nectar-of-life great time, you didn’t drink.”
“Yeah. Great time. Every man in the place noticed me, but not one wanted to do anything more than dance. They even did that way outside my personal space perimeter.”
During adolescence, before she’d fully understood her powers—such that they were—she’d suspected Jonah had cast a magical chastity aura over his daughter at birth. In time, she’d realized all daughters of Arianne were born with special gifts, and this was hers. An exceptional intuition for emotional pain, combined with the tranquil angel power that emanated from her.
Initially, she’d followed her heart instead of her head, wanting to ease pain wherever it happened. She’d resisted her father’s warnings, and made some terrible mistakes. As was often the case, her mother’s words provided the gentle balm to accept Jonah’s painful wisdom.
Suffering is one of the important ways we grow, Lex. You must allow others to suffer. Use your understanding wisely, when it is truly needed, or when it will not derail someone from the path they need to walk. If you do not have that wisdom, it is best not to interfere.
Sometimes, she wondered why the Goddess had given her the gift at all, because the only way it seemed useful was to make people feel happy-fuzzy being around her. In short, she could give a moment’s breather to a girlfriend experiencing the blinding agony of being jilted by a guy, or stop someone from jumping off a building. Everything in between needed to be hands-off. Since she couldn’t switch off either ability, they drew people to her.
She didn’t really mind that. What was frustrating was that the same light that sent out a “come hither” feeling also had a “too good to touch” vibe when it came to males. Unconsciously, they remained at arm’s length, keeping their hands off.
Alexis scrubbed her face. “At least the guy in my dream was different, even if he was sort of a hellspawn, scary demon-vampire type.”
Clara slid an arm around her, a reassurance Alexis gratefully accepted, along with her friend’s cautious but teasing smile. “Tell all, girlfriend. Was he hung like a moose?”
“Oh, Goddess.” Alexis rolled her eyes. “Is that all a guy needs?”
“No, of course not. I expect intelligence, a sense of humor, an enormous bank account and a great body coupled with a decent but manly fashion sense. The well-hung component only becomes requisite if we get that far. But in dreams you can assume those things are given and jump ahead to the good parts. Literally.”
Alexis tried to laugh and instead drew a deep, shuddering breath, thinking of the man in her dream again. While she could feel his emotions, for the first time in her life, they’d been so overwhelming they were mostly incomprehensible. Maybe because it was a dream. Just a dream. When she pressed her face against Clara’s shoulder to stop the spinning, the girl closed both arms around her, rocking her.
“Take it easy, now,” she murmured. “I got you. You’re such a strange friend, Lex. I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone more, because you love back like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and you have enough for everyone. But you also worry me. Sometimes you’re way too alone, even though everyone adores you. It’s as if you’re pulling away, toward a destiny that’s kind of scary. I don’t want to lose you.”
Okay, here was one of the reasons having a clairvoyant friend was not fun. Clara’s observations always held truth. Since Alexis had the same lingering feeling, her anxiety swelled, tempting her to tell Clara everything. But that was one of the rules that couldn’t be broken.
Over twenty years ago, a huge apocalyptic battle had happened. Humans had briefly seen angels in the sky, even fought beside some of them to push back the tide of Dark Ones unleashed through a rift. After that, for reasons known only to the Goddess, the angels had been commanded to disappear from human sight again, leaving humans to wonder whether they’d experienced a spiritual revelation, a visit from outer space, or some mass hallucinatory trip brought on by sunspots. Budgets to investigate extraterrestrial life had tripled in all developed nations. As accounts varied, life returned to normal again, angels and other paranormal creatures remaining speculative fantasy to all but the select few humans ready to handle truth.
So Alexis hugged her, straightened and pushed Clara’s straight red hair away from her forehead, touching the delicate diamond and gold ring she wore in the right nostril. “I already told you, you’re going to lose me one day. I’m going to run away with the circus. I’ll free all the lions, tigers and elephants, and take them back to Africa on a raft I make out of wishes.”
The shadows cleared from Clara’s gaze. “There you are. Doing that thing you do.”
“Talking like a kindergarten teacher, while all of us eat it up like five-year-olds.”
Alexis made a face. “By the way, he was well-hung. I didn’t see it. I felt it.”
“Yuck.” Clara giggled and shoved her away, throwing the Tigger so it bounced off Alexis’s shoulder. “I never imagined my kindergarten teacher wrapping her fingers around anything except a piece of chalk. Was he someone we know?”
“No.” Alexis sobered, picking up the stuffed animal and considering the foolish face, the broad nose, while her fingers flexed in the soft fur. “I don’t think so. It was kind of a crazy dream. Lots of fire, darkness.”
She raised her gaze to Clara. “He needed me, more than I think anyone has ever needed another. So strong, he’d shatter the universe to get me.”
“God, that’s romantic.”
Actually, it was pretty frightening. Because Alexis knew just how fragile the universe was.