USA Today bestselling author Nina Bangs once again tempts readers to enter the wickedly sensual Castle of Dark Dreams--a playground where private pleasures and devilish fantasies come true, where the men who breathe life into women's ultimate desires burn with their own supernatural fire...
As an angel, Passion prides herself on perfection. But some mischievous part of her always goes against the godly grain. After one too many attempts to enliven the heavenly halls, she's sent to earth to tame her naughty nature. While human, she has to bring goodness and light to the most sinful of places, the Castle of Dark Dreams. Once there, she finds herself in the role of a virgin used as bait to trap a marauding demon. Passion thinks the game is harmless until she sees the man playing the demon. His name is Edge, and Passion senses darkness in him beyond any she's ever dreamed.
Edge may play a demon, but he is something much worse. His past is littered with pain and destruction and that's the way he likes it. Now he must prove to himself and others that he is what he's always been cold and emotionless. But as danger threatens and his need for Passion heats up, he finds himself balanced on love's...
He’d needed this down time away from the Castle of Dark Dreams. Two weeks to just kick back, waste a few losers, and relax with a drink.
He leaned against the oak’s trunk and savored his scotch and water as he watched the dumbass crouched beside the reservoir. Edge had followed the guy’s progress from the moment he’d come up with the idea to poison the city’s water supply until now. Homegrown terrorists, had to love them.
Not that Edge didn’t sort of admire the guy. He’d whipped up a poison no amount of testing would detect until it was too late. The death toll could reach into the millions. Now the formula would die with him. Too bad. Another great scientific mind pissed away by an idiot.
There was a time when Edge would’ve applauded that kind of grand gesture. But then the Big Boss had reined him in, forced him to change his methods. Edge downed the rest of his drink.
Let’s hear it for the good old days. Nowadays he was reduced to one kill at a time. Hey, you took your fun where you could.
Edge narrowed his gaze as the man . . . No, as Mark—didn’t want to ever depersonalize his victims—pulled vials of the poison from his backpack and set them on the ground.
Now was the time to act. Edge chose an image from his mind, focused on the reservoir, and changed thought to reality.
A giant squid rose from the water’s depths, big enough to swallow Chicago if Chicago had been on the menu. It wasn’t, so the squid settled for Mark. One massive tentacle reached out to wrap around his body. It lifted the man into the air and then dragged him beneath the water. The squid disappeared, leaving only a few ripples on the surface. Mark’s body would be found, a victim of drowning. But they’d never find the squid. It was once more only an image in Edge’s mind.
Edge shook his head. He’d made it happen too fast. Mark didn’t even have a chance to scream. He’d just stood there bug-eyed. What fun was that? But at least the guy died in a unique and interesting way. See, death didn’t have to be boring.
Edge wandered down to collect the vials. He stashed them in Mark’s backpack. He’d dispose of them later. Then he headed back to his car.
That was his last kill for now. Vacation over. Time to return to his crappy role-playing-slash-managerial job.
He took a last look at the reservoir before driving away. How did he really feel about Mark’s death and all the ones that had come before his? The truth? Edge closed his eyes. He felt freaking tired.
“How ugly and horrible are they? Do they coat your skin with slime? Does their stench make you nauseous? Do you feel like you’re walking into the bowels of hell?”
Passion sighed. Of all the heavenly contacts they could’ve assigned to her, why Hope? Once a day she’d have to listen to this idiocy in her head.
She could picture Hope sitting in her little cubicle surrounded by the neutral colors Archangel Ted loved. Ted, along with everything else in heaven, was bland and boring. Okay, so Passion could include herself in the bland and boring category. She accepted the reality of her existence. But she’d looked into enough human minds to know their vision of heaven was a fantasy.
Humans. Sure, they could get sick and die. Fine, so they suffered heartbreak and other emotional traumas. But from Passion’s viewpoint, things were a lot more exciting on the mortal plane. Could anyone blame her for trying to spice up her own world? Guess that was a resounding yes.
She supposed the final straw for Ted was when she talked the other angels in her department into painting their cubicles lime green. In her opinion, Ted had some serious control issues.
So here she was, on the outside looking in.
And you have only yourself to blame. If Passion had been a better angel, she wouldn’t have drawn this punishment—a still-to-be-determined amount of time spent living on earth as a human. No powers, no friends, forced to check in once a day with Hope-the-heavenly-drama-queen. The only good thing? The Council of Justice had at least given her some privacy. Hope couldn’t read her thoughts; she could only hear what Passion spoke out loud.
“They’re . . .” Way too beautiful. Evil should appear in shades of muddy brown or black. But no, just look at them. The Seven Deadly Sins shimmered and flowed around the Castle of Dark Dreams in vibrant jewel tones. Totally gorgeous. Totally tempting.
Oops. Wrong reaction. “They’re . . . awful, disgusting, but sort of exciting.” Hmm, maybe she should explain that last word just in case Hope got the wrong impression. “I mean, it’s exciting to think about all the peace, harmony, and massive heavenly vibes I’m going to bring to this place.” There, that was better. Didn’t want anyone taking away the only thing she had left, her ability to see the colors of sin.
“Oh.” Hope sounded disappointed. “Well, keep in touch.” She broke the connection.
“Absolutely.” Passion knew her smile wasn’t kind. Note to self: work on sweet and sincere smile. Hope and the other angels had gotten used to her supplying their daily entertainment. Too bad. Passion wouldn’t be there to amuse them for a while because she’d be busy earning her way back into heaven.
She had to be the perfect angel. Sure, she’d always longed for more . . . variety in her existence, but she sure hadn’t planned on getting that variety as a powerless and frighteningly vulnerable mortal. She could actually die, like in never-coming-back die. She shuddered.
Passion crossed the drawbridge, avoiding glancing down at the moat’s black water in favor of staring up at the castle—a keep with four square towers complete with a curtain wall. The whole thing gleamed white, a color symbolizing goodness and light. Fake. Goodness and light didn’t live here.
She’d take care of that by the time she left. She narrowed her eyes as she strode through the open gate and across the courtyard, headed for the doors leading into the great hall. Spotlights lit up the night around the castle. No threatening shadows warned the innocent about what waited inside. Righteous anger drove her as she reached for the door. She’d smite the wicked and save all those poor souls inside who . . .
She paused. No powers, so no smiting. Damn. Passion closed her eyes. No cursing. Ted hated cursing. So many things to remember. But she could do this. Opening her eyes, she pulled the door open and stepped inside.
Someone spoke. “Ah, another person who didn’t bother to check the schedule and has chosen instead to annoy the hell out of me by showing up at the last moment.” Dramatic sigh. “But I live to serve, so I’ll probably be able to stick you in somewhere. All the choice parts are gone. How do you feel about playing the lowly maiden who serves the queen? Not a virgin. The virgin part was taken by a woman who obviously has only a faint memory of that particular condition.”
“Virgin?” Startled, she looked at the speaker. A wizard? A short one. Gold-trimmed blue robe, tall conical hat that added at least a foot, and all of it decorated with gold suns, moons, and stars. He’d topped everything off with a long, pointy gray beard that matched his narrowed gray eyes.
“Yes. The part is gone.” The wizard looked down his nose at her, which was tough to do when she was taller than he was. “If it’s any comfort, you’d fit the part better. Pale hair, pale skin, pale eyes, and uninspired pale clothing. You, my dear, are the definition of unawakened. Avoid Sparkle Stardust at all cost. Now, do you want the lowly maiden part?”
“No.” What was he talking about? She glanced around. People in medieval-type costumes wandered the large hall. Too bad the Council of Justice had kicked her down here without full disclosure. All they’d said was that the castle needed help. This place was her ticket back home.
“You look confused.” The wizard glanced at his watch. “As much as I’d love to waste more time explaining the obvious, I have a fantasy to direct. Feel free to gawk. If you care to wait until this fantasy concludes, you may buy a ticket to the next one over there.” He pointed to a small table by the door with a TICKETS sign taped to the front of it. “And you might want to read that.” He gestured toward a sign on the wall above the ticket table.
Bemused, she watched him turn to walk away. Violet, the color of pride, swirled around him. No kidding. Too bad there wasn’t a color for bad-tempered old farts. She took a deep breath. Get rid of unkind thoughts.
Passion didn’t know how other angels did it. They wore their perfection like a pair of comfortable old shoes. Her shoes pinched her toes and left blisters on her heels. She constantly wanted to kick them off. Well, she’d kicked them off a few times too many.
She looked at the sign. Fine, so she was in an adult theme park called Live the Fantasy. The Castle of Dark Dreams was one of the park’s attractions. It was a hotel as well as a place where nightly fantasies were played out. The first fantasy began at seven P.M. That would be right about now. She should get out of here and find the registration desk for the hotel part of the castle, but she couldn’t resist taking a peek at the fantasy.
A long table with people in costumes seated around it rested on a raised platform at one end of the great hall. Passion assumed the major parts like the queen were played by the castle staff. They’d guide the fantasy. The public could buy tickets to play lesser parts. Made sense.
It only took moments for the fantasy to capture her. What could she say, heaven didn’t get cable, and she was easily amused.
Mesmerized, she followed the tale. A demon was killing the castle’s people. The queen’s greatest hunters couldn’t catch him. So the virgin offered to sacrifice herself for the good of all. She’d lure him into their clutches with her virginal beauty and purity. Hah. Passion was seeing lots of blue swirling around Ms. Untouched. Lust. Passion couldn’t read her mind, but she’d bet there weren’t a lot of chaste thoughts bouncing around in that head.
The wizard had been right about the virgin. If the demon was smart, he’d run like crazy. She’d eat him alive.
Of course, the dumb demon fell for the trick. She heard the virgin’s not-overly-convincing screams coming from one of the darkened hallways along with the demon’s snarls and the shouts of the hunters. A few minutes later the virgin led the parade back into the great hall followed by the triumphant hunters surrounding the cage of the captured demon. The queen called the virgin and her hunters forward to praise them, and Passion got her first look at the demon.
A voluminous cape and hood covered him from head to toe. All she could see of him were his hands clenched around the cage’s bars. Well, that was disappointing. She was all ready to be awed by the pure evil carved into his face, the demonic gleam in his eyes. Passion felt cheated.
Then he turned his head toward her. She sucked in her breath. Wow, just wow. The hood shadowed his face, but that didn’t lessen the impact. Nothing said savage predator like strong slashing brows, a full mobile mouth drawn into a snarl, and amber eyes that shone with every wickedness she’d ever imagined and some she hadn’t dared.
And he’d fixed his gaze on her. Passion looked away first. She realized her hands were shaking as she pushed a strand of hair from her face. Time to get out of here.
But even as she started to move toward the door, Passion realized something. She’d been so focused on his eyes that she’d barely noticed the color swirling around him.
Oh, no. It spread horror in a slick coat of ice over her soul. Black. Not one of the Deadly Sins. This went beyond those. It was rage, greed, and all the others taken to the final act. Death. This man was beyond redemption. She shuddered. What could she do to yank the castle from the brink with him dragging it down? Passion didn’t know.
She pushed the door open but couldn’t resist one look back. A thin band of blue had joined the black. Lust. Males thought about sex a lot. She wondered if he had a specific target for all that hunger, or if it was simply his normal state of being. Passion had no experience with lust. Didn’t want any experience. She sighed. Yeah, lying was a sin too.
Once outside, she drew in a deep breath of clean night air. She’d escaped. And that’s exactly how she felt even though he was the one in the cage. She’d have to toughen up if she wanted to do any good here.
But she would need some time to get used to everything. The only experience she had of the mortal plane was what she’d seen and heard in the minds of the souls she’d visited. Even though she’d been focused on easing their worries and nudging them down the path of goodness and light, she’d absorbed enough knowledge to blend in.
Blending wasn’t the problem, though. Heaven didn’t generate much emotion, nothing even close to what she’d felt as she stared at the demon. She’d better get a handle on her feelings fast. Ted always said that logic was what made angels superior beings, and that humans were beneath them because they were slaves to their emotions. So, no more out-of-control emotions.
Passion scanned the courtyard. People who must be arriving for the next fantasy stepped around her to reach the door. She moved out of their way. She was sure if she went back into the great hall she could find a door leading to the hotel lobby. Did she want to do that? And take the chance of locking eyes with the demon again?
She walked around the outside of the castle. And as she walked, she worked on her story. No luggage because the airline had lost it all. Passion was glad that at least the Council had given her a credit card and some cash. She’d have to go shopping tomorrow. Maybe buy some clothes in brighter colors. Not that she was letting the fake wizard get to her. What she looked like didn’t matter as long as she did her job.
She thought again about the demon with his amber eyes and his lust and . . . Maybe she’d buy herself a few sexy things. She had to fit in here, not draw attention to herself. And she couldn’t change evil if she couldn’t get near it. Those who embraced all that was wicked would be more willing to accept her message if she dressed like them. Not that she’d enjoy dressing like a slut. Hello, your conscience here. Run that thought past me again. Okay, so maybe she’d enjoy it a little. There were times when Passion despaired of ever living up to heavenly standards.
Edge went up in flames for about the five hundredth time this year, or at least it felt that way. As the fake flames rose around him, he thought about the woman.
He’d felt her stare, different from the others in the hall—tentative, intrigued, with no sexual response at all. Amazing. Edge had no illusions about his effect on women. They might not know what he was, but they all reacted to the power they sensed. They always claimed his face or body or—God forbid—his mind attracted them, but it went beyond that. No matter what humans wanted to believe about themselves, the promise of violence drew them. Just look at the top-rated TV shows. Lots of blood and death. Not that he was complaining.
The women never stayed long, though. Eventually their primal instincts kicked in, the ones that recognized him as a predator. And they ran. Smart ladies.
The flames roared around him, hiding him from the celebrating queen, virgin, and assorted other idiots. With a casual flick of power, he dematerialized.
He reappeared in the dressing room. Stripping off his cape and hood, he returned to thinking about the woman. Colorless, but with the promise of beauty if someone took the time to nurture it—tall and slender with long, pale blond hair that would flow over his body like cool spring water. And she’d gazed at him from light green eyes that hid nothing. Those incredible eyes said that he was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen. How could any man resist that message?
She wasn’t taking part in a fantasy. Was she staying at the hotel? He hoped she wasn’t just making the rounds of the park’s attractions and then going home. Time to talk with Holgarth.
Edge found the wizard being his usual snarky self with customers waiting for the next fantasy to begin. “Have a minute, Holgarth?”
The wizard turned to glare at him. Edge didn’t miss the customers’ relieved expressions.
“Why wouldn’t I have a minute? I have nothing to do but make sure the lifeblood of this castle, its fantasies, keeps running like the well-oiled machine I’ve made it after years of endless toil, sacrifice, and—”
“Oh, shit.” Edge started to turn away.
“But I suppose a minute won’t disturb my schedule too much. What do you need?”
Edge thought about the giant squid, even now peeking over the edge of his consciousness. Nah. If he offed the wizard, they’d try to kick him out of the castle, and he wasn’t ready to leave. Bad stuff would happen.
“There was a woman watching the fantasy. Tall, long blond hair—”
“I offered her the part of the lowly maiden, but she wasn’t interested.” Holgarth’s expression turned sly. “It was too far beneath her, I think. She’s more than she appears.”
“Explain.” Edge never underestimated the wizard’s shrewdness.
“Just a feeling.” He shrugged. “She seemed confused by everything that was going on, but I sensed a purpose in her. I don’t think she was a casual visitor to the castle.” Holgarth looked thoughtful. “There was something about the way she looked at you, as though she’d never seen anything like you in her life.” The tiny twitch of his lips was his version of a wide grin. “And of course she hadn’t.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“No.” Holgarth was already turning back to his cowed customers. “You’ve had your minute. I now have to choose the shining hero who will slay the dragon in the next fantasy.” He swept his possible hero candidates with a contemptuous stare. “Where is St. George, or even Harry Potter when you need them?”
Edge snorted his disgust at Holgarth’s lack of helpful information and headed for the door leading to the hotel lobby. Once in the lobby, he glanced around. She wasn’t there, so he walked to the registration desk.
“Who checked in today?” This was a long shot. If she was a guest, she could’ve checked in days ago. The only thing he had going for him was the size of the hotel. The castle didn’t have as many rooms as a normal hotel, so there wouldn’t be that many guests arriving on any given day. But she might not even be staying in the hotel, in which case he was screwed.
And when did she become so important? Not important, just an interesting side trip. He needed something to break up his routine, and women didn’t usually catch his interest. It had been so many years . . . He shook the thought away to concentrate on Bill’s answer.
“Only a few new guests. A middle-aged couple, a guy here for the fishing tournament, and a woman who checked in a little while ago.”
“The woman. How old?”
“Twenties, long blond hair—”
“What room?” The hunter in him stirred.
“One-ten. No luggage. She said the airline lost her bags.”
The clerk grinned. “Passion McBride.”
Edge returned his grin before moving away. More and more fascinating. Who named their kid Passion? No luggage. He checked his watch. Still early enough for her to be up. He stopped in the lobby store that carried clothing and bought a few things. Then he headed for the elevator, faster but not as authentic as the winding stone staircase in the great hall.
Once in front of her door, he knocked and waited.
She opened the door and began speaking before she even looked at him. “I didn’t call for . . .” Then she saw him.
Edge watched her eyes widen and her lips part as she stared. Shock became her. She looked beautiful, vulnerable, and tempting all at once. If he leaned forward and put his mouth over those full lips, she’d really have something to be stunned about.
He controlled himself. First he’d slip into her mind to see if there was anything he needed to know. But as he reached for her thoughts, he slammed into a solid wall of no. What the . . . ? Humans couldn’t deny him, even when they tried. And she was human.
Edge narrowed his gaze on her face. Nothing in her expression hinted she was actively trying to keep him out. Strange.
“You’re . . .” She spoke the word on a soft exhalation of wonder and maybe a little fear.
“Not a demon.” I’m much, much worse. He smiled his most reassuring smile.
She didn’t look reassured. “I know that.” Her gaze dropped to the bag he held.
“I’m Edge. I help manage the Castle of Dark Dreams when I’m not bringing death and destruction to the locals.” Truer than she’d ever know.
“Oh.” She looked surprised.
“When I checked in at the registration desk, Bill told me you’d lost your luggage. We always want our guests to have a comfortable stay, so I picked up a few things you might need tonight.” He held out the bag.
“Thank you.” She smiled as she accepted his offering.
There were smiles, and then there were smiles. Edge had seen some of the best over thousands of years—sexy, innocent, calculating, and his very favorite, the you’ll-die-happy ones. Passion McBride’s smile was the best. It was innocence wedded to knowing, sensuality wrapped in unlimited possibilities.
He wanted everything that went with that smile. Just for a night. Because that’s how long his interest usually lasted. Besides, the few times he had hung around for more than a night, things had ended badly. He’d learned his lesson.
She glanced into the bag. “A nightgown, robe, slippers, and toiletries. You’re a lifesaver.”
When she looked up, her smile had warmed and some of the shock had left her eyes. But not all of it.
“I have about an hour before I do my second fantasy. I’m hungry. Bet you are too. Let’s go down to the restaurant, and I’ll buy us dinner.” He tried to look nonthreatening, a lot tougher than looking demonic.
Now would be when she’d say she was married, or that she didn’t go anywhere with men who scared her witless. Because he was frightening her. He could see the fear resting right beneath the shock. Interesting. Women never sensed his threat until further into a relationship. Not that a marriage or her terror meant anything to him. Nothing much had mattered to him for a very long time.
“Why?” Her question was straightforward.
He studied her before answering. No guile in her eyes. She wasn’t fishing for a compliment. Edge thought about lying, but for whatever reason told her the truth. “You interested me when I saw you watching the fantasy. There was something different about you. I like different.”
She looked horrified. “No, I’m not different. I’m just like everyone else. Do you really think I look different?”
Okay, this was weird. “Hey, if you say you’re ordinary, then you’re ordinary. I’d still like to buy you dinner.”
She seemed to relax a little. “I guess I could eat something.” She nodded. “I’m Passion. You can tell me about your job at the castle over dinner.”
He’d rather impress her with his real job, but he had a feeling her “ordinary” human mind would explode from that particular disclosure. He didn’t want to lose her that quickly.
A few minutes later, they were seated in the restaurant. He waited impatiently while the waitress took their orders before asking his first question. “So what brings you to Galveston and the Castle of Dark Dreams?”
She glanced past him out the window with its view of the Gulf of Mexico. “I’ve had lots of stress in my life lately. I wanted to spend a few weeks relaxing someplace with a water view. And castles fascinate me. So this is perfect.” She offered him a quick smile before looking away again.
A lie. She really needed to work on her technique. Avoiding eye contact was a dead giveaway. He was immediately intrigued again. Why would she want to keep her real reason for being here secret? Cheating on her husband? Somehow he didn’t think so.
As though she knew what he was thinking, she looked directly at him. “My turn to ask a question. Why have you allowed darkness to take you?”
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