I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what draws us into a story. Sometimes we relate closely with a character, identifying with his or her plight, circumstances, or background. Sometimes the plot sweeps us away with nail biting tension and edge-of-your-seat action. Other times, we are drawn into the fictional world, the magic, or the escape the book provides. Personally, I love paranormal romance and urban fantasy for the dark mood, the mysterious connection between characters, and the unique take on the supernatural that genre promises.
I fell in love with my upcoming release, Wicked Seduction, for all of these reasons. Aria Tanglewood lives in a post apocalyptic world where the demon of lust has cast a curse upon the land. The residents of her city experience an ever increasing level of desire which makes them obsess about sex. If they deny this desire, the curse turns into lovesickness, a wasting disease that plagues its victims with the inability to eat or sleep and eventually results in death. If they give in to the lust curse, they risk catching the scourge, a disease similar to leprosy, which kills even faster.
As the last remaining witch in her city, Aria, along with her best friend, a half-vampire named Sebastian, has survived by using magic to counteract the curse. If discovered, both would be burned at the stake like the rest of their kind. Aria makes her living dancing with her whip at Sebastian’s cabaret, where she tries to fly under the radar, using her considerable tips to feed the crowd of orphans who live in the tunnels that used to be the subway system.
But when her erotic performance attracts the attention of a colonel in the demon army, Aria must go to extreme lengths to try to break the curse before her secret is revealed. Only, ending the reign of the demon of lust will require the muscle of the angel of light, and Aria is far from prepared for the feelings the angel evokes in her, feelings she’s spent a lifetime trying to avoid.
Please enjoy this excerpt from Wicked Seduction. This STAND ALONE novel is now available for pre-order at the following retailers.
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The Pleasure District
A whisper, soft and sweet, floated like dust in the air of the dimly lit nightclub. “Everything for a price.” In the pleasure district, the question was not who or what was for sale, but how much. Was it a waitress responding to a customer? One of the other dancers? It didn’t matter. I’d heard the expression often enough; it might as well be painted on the wall. I loathed it. The price had never been high enough for me, and I planned to keep it that way.
“Aria, you’re up next,” Sebastian, my boss and best friend said. “And make it good. This place is crawling with brownshirts.” Sebastian was a shrewd businessman. He had to be. Keeping our secret wasn’t cheap or easy.
I peeked around the red velvet curtain. Great. Brown uniforms, the calling cards of the demon army that ruled Vampire City. The triangular mark emblazoned on their red armbands was the symbol of Asmodeus, the demon lord. Aside from the uniforms, the three males almost looked human, the smoky candlelight hiding the slight red hue of their skin and their odd-colored eyes. Their wings were tucked away, concealed magically from view. Only when they laughed did their fangs and forked tongues reveal them for what they were. Demons rarely frequented human establishments, but when they did, they expected to be treated like kings.
“What do you think they’re doing here?” I whispered.
“Who knows. Rumor has it they’ve been making the rounds, looking for rebels. They think the pleasure district is a hot bed.” He sighed heavily. “Let’s pray their visit is short-lived.”
Rebels. I scoffed. How humans thought they stood a chance against the demons who ran this city, I’d never understand. Even discussing the state of things could mean being sentenced to burn at the stake in the town square. Often, the demons used the term rebel to describe anyone they wanted to kill, for any reason. No one invited the label. No business in the pleasure district would protect someone who’d earned it.
The dancer on stage finished her act and passed between Sebastian and me on her way to the dressing room. I couldn’t help but notice the sharp angles of her shoulders, how every rib was visible beneath the skin of her back. She was wasting away, hollowed out and vacant-eyed.
“She has it,” Sebastian said.
“She’ll be dead in three weeks if we don’t help her,” I whispered. There was no mystery behind what ailed her. Lovesickness turned people into ghosts. They stopped eating. Stopped sleeping. And if they didn’t bed the object of their desire, they stopped breathing. It was the curse of our circle. Lust hit people fast and hard. Give in to the temptation, and the sickness went away, an easy enough solution for the foolish. But in Vampire City, unrestrained fornicators risked catching the scourge, a horrific disease that rotted the flesh from your bones while you were still breathing.
Only strong magic could stave off the curse, but magic was illegal, under the penalty of death. Witches, if found, were burned at the stake, their accomplices imprisoned or enslaved. No witch survived within the city limits for long.
No witch but my mother and me.
“We can’t help her.” Sebastian met my gaze and shook his head. “It’s too risky.”
He was right. The amulets that kept the curse at bay for Sebastian and me had a complex magical origin. I could only produce one more with the materials I had on hand, and using them on a human would put us at risk of exposure. If I were a better person, I’d have put her needs above my own and helped her anyway. But selflessness was not a quality that kept close relations with self-preservation. Sebastian and I were still alive precisely because we could be selfish bastards when we needed to be.
I nodded my agreement. The girl was on her own.
“Good luck tonight.” Sebastian hooked his pinky into mine, an act of solidarity we’d been practicing for over a decade. He kissed me on the cheek before taking the stage.
Arms spread wide, awash in the spotlight, Sebastian’s skin glowed stark white against his red coat, his sharp features and spiky blond hair giving him a chiseled-from-stone appearance. The women in the audience swooned. He smiled at them, careful to hide his fangs, and leaned his full lips toward the big metal microphone. In a low, smooth croon, he said, “Sebastian’s Nightclub is pleased to welcome the enchanting and mystical stylings of Aria Tanglewood!”
To the sound of whistles and applause, I strode onto the stage, my whip coiled and strapped to my low-slung belt. It bounced against my thigh with each sashay, my waist cinched tight, breasts swelling above a black leather bustier. Although my costume was the most conservative in the cabaret, in a world where most women looked like they were starving to death, my fuller figure made it almost obscene. I took my mark at the center of the stage and prepared to begin.
“Take it off!” a man yelled. He’d leaned forward in his chair. The woman next to him was no less interested, her legs crossing and uncrossing beneath the table as she lifted a monocle to one eye. Her hand skimmed down her torso and disappeared beneath the table. The man behind her squirmed in his seat, staring at me with brazen longing.
Sebastian excused the accompanist and sat down at the piano. I preferred when he played for me. Vampires, even the half-human variety, made very few mistakes when it came to music. I popped my hip, raised the heel of one thigh-high boot, and gripped the brim of my top hat. I was ready.
Sebastian lowered his fingers to the keys and began to play—smooth jazz, bright but sultry. I swayed my hips in an exaggerated way and fanned my top hat from head to hip in a wide arc. Spinning on the ball of one foot, I grabbed both sides of the brim and covered my chest, before tossing the tall black accessory to the stage. Then I started to dance.
It was funny what turned people on. A tight corset might do it for one, a pretty face for another. In our world, where the clientele was in a state of perpetual hunger, longing was a common language. As I removed my bullwhip from my belt, I danced the language of desire with contorted limbs and arched back. I stretched and folded like I hadn’t any bones.
I danced for a lover I had never known, a ghost of a lover who lived only in my imagination. The leather against my skin became his hands. The striking angles of his face gave off their own music in my mind. I was a virgin. I’d never even met a man who made me feel like my imaginary dance partner did. But the dream of him was enough. I lost myself in it.
Wrapping the whip around the middle of my palms, I snapped the length of folded leather straight above my head. Whistles of appreciation filled the club. A moan rose from the front row.
Any of the other performers would be naked by now. I didn’t judge their tactics or hold myself above them. Everyone in Vampire City did what it took to survive. But as a witch, I had a choice. Although my dance with my imaginary lover was sensual, I chose to keep my clothes on. This city might rob the humans of their free will, but I guarded mine, along with my virtue, with singular focus, which meant I needed another talent to pry the credits from our patrons’ hot hands.
With a twist of my hips, I released my grip on the center of the whip, swung the handle around and caught it in front of my torso. I swiveled my wrist, the length moving to the beat in a figure eight around my body. The soft undulation of leather turned into a lash that cracked loud and close to my ear. To my left, then to my right, the popper flicked the air, the bullwhip dancing with me, becoming my partner. Pivot. Crack! Pivot. Crack! I pirouetted the length of the stage.
The audience responded, flipping credits into my hat or sliding them into my boot, their fingers stroking along the leather hugging my calf in the process. Their show of appreciation was less than usual, their reaction tempered. I needed to take things to the next level.
Between cracks of my whip, my gaze fell on the three brownshirts at a table near the front. Two lesser demons flanked an oversized brute with stripes on his sleeve consistent with a higher rank. He leaned forward to light his cigar in the table’s small candle. No wonder the humans were so uptight tonight. One wrong move and trouble was inevitable. It pissed me off. I needed the credits. I’d be damned if a few demons were going to cost me a night’s tips.
Without thinking, I swiveled my wrist and snapped the whip in the demons’ direction, snagging the cigar straight from the biggest one’s mouth. There was a sharp intake of breath from the human audience as I caught it in my opposite hand. The demon narrowed his purple eyes at me, his lip curling. I wrapped my tongue around the cigar, then held it seductively between my teeth, sending the demon an exaggerated wink.
Sebastian’s mouth dropped open as if I was out of my ever-loving mind. Maybe I was. But that night, I was lucky. The brown-shirt licked his lips and tossed ten credits on stage. The act immediately prompted a shower of credits from the human guests.
Another crack of my whip delivered the cigar back to the demon’s lips. The move was risky. Had I not been a witch, and my whip not been enchanted, the feat wouldn’t have been possible. But I was sure, considering the dark and the drink, no one would question it. They’d assume it was part of the act.
The demon flashed a wicked grin and nodded in my direction. The crowd went wild, credits sprinkling like rose petals at my feet. I swept them off the floor and tossed them into my hat.
With one more crack of my whip, I flipped the hat off the stage and back onto my head, the credits mysteriously contained within its belly to the delight of my audience. Sebastian ended my song. Relieved my act was over, I sashayed backstage to deafening applause, my boots heavy with newfound riches.
It was time for intermission, but it wasn’t Sebastian’s smooth voice I heard next as I expected. Instead, beyond the red curtain, a deep raspy baritone called out, “More.”
Sebastian cleared his throat. “Our dancers are due for a break. We’ll have more for you in ten minutes. See your server to top off your refreshments.”
“More Aria. Now,” the voice demanded.
I peeked around the curtain. The demon, the one with the cigar, clenched his fist on the table, his gaze boring into Sebastian. How could I be so stupid? It was one thing to tease a human, quite another to attract the attention of a demon.
“Of course,” Sebastian said. “Anything for our honored guests.” His panicked eyes searched mine out. “Please welcome, once again, Aria!”
I took a deep breath and stepped back onto the stage, my heart heavy with dread. This would not be easy, but with demons involved, there was no other way. Sebastian’s pained expression told me what I needed to do. We had to distract and redirect the demon and hope his interest in me was a passing fancy. I gave Sebastian a nod. He lowered his fingers to the piano keys again, only this time, he played a slow and haunting tune, one I knew well but had only sung twice before.
The words I sang had no translation. They were from an ancient language taught to me by my mother whose meaning was lost to time. But the song’s magic was true; its power flowed through me as I swayed to the melody. Its effect was immediate. The air became the consistency of pea soup. Everything and everyone slowed. Although the waitresses still served drinks, the humans still drank them, the demon still smoked his cigar, and Sebastian still played the piano, the minutes ticked by unnoticed, rendered insignificant by my voice. This magic, this spell, it didn’t stop time; it stopped the perception of it.
By the time I finished my last verse, the sun was rising. To the audience, I’d sung for fifteen minutes, but three hours had passed in the greater world. Faces looked up from their drinks in confusion. Waitresses collected their tabs. Sebastian, fingers bleeding, announced the club was closing.
The demons hurried for the door, no doubt called to their daily slumber by the rising sun. The humans stumbled after them, exhausted and befuddled. And Sebastian offered no explanation. He simply wished them a good day, dismissed the staff, and locked the door after the last straggler spilled into the street.
Once everyone was gone, he turned on his heel and fixed me with a harsh stare. “What were you thinking, teasing a demon like that?” he snapped. “One of these days, someone is going to catch on, Aria. We have to be more careful, or you are going to be invited to a barbecue where you’re the main course!”
I wanted to yell at him that I’d done the best I could. But I was too weak. I’d sang myself empty, the last of my power flowing out of me on an exhausted breath. I collapsed on the stage, surrounded by abandoned credits.
And slipped into unconsciousness like a gasping fish into cool water.