VOWED IN SHADOWS (Marked Souls 3)

Two lost souls
One last battle
None will walk away
Untouched

Vowed in Shadows, Book 3 of the Marked Souls

 

Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Borders
BooksAMillion ~ Powells Books ~ Indigo ~ Indiebound

The war between good and evil has raged for millennia,
with the Marked Souls caught in the middle.
Now two lost souls will tip the precarious balance…

Possession by a demon cost Jonah Walker his faith, his humanity, and his wife. Once a righteous missionary man, he endures immortality with nothing but a body for battle and a bent for retribution. But his last devastating fight left him wounded beyond healing and his only chance to redeem his soul lies with a fallen woman.

Thrust into a wicked underworld of shadows and sin, Nim Hamlin can’t believe her wanton ways as “the Naughty Nymphette” enthralled a demon…and a damned saint. The world she knows doesn’t deserve deliverance. But the touch of this good man’s hand holds an unholy allure–and she’s never been any good at resisting temptation.

As darkness gathers in the sweltering Chicago summer, Jonah and Nim must conquer the demons of their past to face even fiercer monsters in one last assault.  But first they must put aside their doubts and disbeliefs and let their passion for each other burn through the shadows to ignite their furious power…

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“Hot as hell in here tonight.” Nim unzipped the oversized rifle case. “Just the way we like it.” She set aside the ammo box, and from the padded case, she lifted the sleek weight. “Ready to knock ’em dead?”

The boa spiraled up her arm and across her shoulders as she settled in front of the mirror. The fine mosaic of scales ran smooth and cool as water against her sweaty nape, and Nim sighed with pleasure. “Yeah, Mobi. We need them live and squirming.”

The thump of music coming from the stage made talking in the dressing room a chore, and the dancers rarely bothered. Which suited Nim fine. So she recoiled when Amber tottered over on her platform heels, bare breasts arriving easily a full second before the rest of her, and thrust her scarlet lips toward Nim’s ear.

“He’s here again.”

Nim unlocked the ammo box and rummaged through her makeup. “Who’s here?”

“That same guy.” Amber snapped her gum impatiently. “Captain Hook.”

“Oh. Him.” Nim’s hand shook. She reached past the Viva Las Showgirls semifinals invitation ticket and grabbed a fat eye pencil to give her traitorous fingers something to do. When she stared into the mirror, her pupils were wide with adrenaline.

She wasn’t fooling Amber either. “Yeah, him,” the girl sneered. “Everybody knows Captain Hook had a thing for cold-blooded reptiles. Didn’t end so well for him, though. Wonder if he knows what he’s getting this time.”

Nim spun in her chair to face the other dancer. The boa lifted his head, and his forked tongue stroked the stagnant air.

Amber retreated a step. “Did you get colored contacts? That’s a wicked purple.”

When Nim simply stared at her, Amber scowled again and teetered away.

Nim turned to the mirror. After a moment’s hesitation, she looked up. Her irises were the same muddy blue-green as always. Swamp-water eyes, her last ex-admirer had called them, to go with her dishwater-brown dreadlocks.

How weird that Amber’s description echoed the dream she’d had a couple nights ago. The violet eyes had belonged to a man, though. Mesmerized by his beauty, like something that should be in a museum behind glass, not exposed to a careless touch, she’d half fallen in love.

Then his irises had turned all eerie white, except for hundreds of swirling black specks, and he fucked her, his hand fisted in her dreads, until she screamed and woke herself up.

Very weird. Quitting her tranqs cold turkey had probably been against medical advice for exactly such a reason, but she didn’t want the antidepressants making her fuzzy for the final round next week. She needed to be sharp if she was going to ditch this hellhole for the lights of the Vegas Strip.

She outlined her swamp-water eyes in pitch-dark kohl. Almost right . . . She layered on purple shadow, thick and disturbing as a day-old bruise. Perfect.

When she finished her prep, she waited behind the blackout curtain, where the glaring stage lights failed to reach. Her gaze shot unerringly to the first table just beyond the stools drawn up to the counter at stage left.


Yeah, there he was again, just as he’d been all week, angled to keep the whole of the club in view, one knee drawn up with his boot heel hooked on the base of the bar stool. Like a cop. Or a thug.

He faced the stage. Staring at her? Her pulse quickened pointlessly. No way could he see her past the glare. Out in the audience, the club was too crappily lit for her to make out his features. Usually she didn’t give a rat’s ass—and, thanks to Mobi, she knew a lot about rats—who was out there, staring.

So his face was in shadow, and the garish gels washed out the color of his hair, but his body . . . that was on display for every girl in the place to assess.

Not too tall, judging by the length of thigh in his close-fitting jeans. Good jeans too; no rips in the knees. Nice to see some guys still bothered to dress up before going out. No one had gotten a long look at the bulge in his pants, so maybe he rolled with a fat wallet; maybe not. Certainly he hadn’t spent any of it for one-on-one attention. The other girls had bitched about that all week while they tried—and failed—to poach him.

Of course, nobody bitched where he might hear. Nim studied the imposing breadth of his shoulders filling up a dark gray T-shirt. His biceps bunched across his chest where he’d folded his arms, blatantly displaying the reason no one bitched aloud.

Nim clicked her tongue. A cripple with any manners would wear a long-sleeve shirt, never mind the sticky heat of a Chicago August. But no, Captain Hook sat there with the honest-to-fuck metal hook instead of his right hand shining front and center for the whole world to flinch from. Nice. She didn’t know much about prosthetics, but considering that the Russians had ways to make fake diamonds even bling experts couldn’t ID in a lineup, he might have found something less gruesome. Maybe he was hoping for a mercy dance.

Or maybe he liked gruesome.

She narrowed her eyes until her fake lashes crisscrossed like daggers in front of her. Sure, he didn’t watch the other girls, but he hadn’t tipped her out either. Even though he always came in just after she started her shift—obviously he was stalking her; maybe he’d watched her ace the qualifying rounds of the Viva competition and fallen secretly, madly in love—he always left before she could get out onto the floor after her set.

Well, that was going to end tonight. She could do gruesome like nobody’s business, no one had ever accused her of being merciful, and she knew exactly where guys like him kept their love.

His congregation would have died—again—seeing him in a place like this.

Jonah Sterling Walker kept his arms crossed tight so he wouldn’t inadvertently touch anything. He’d learned that lesson the first night at the Shimmy Shack when his elbow stuck to the tabletop. Presumably the tacky substance had been the congealed spill of some previous customer’s, but whether the spill was a beverage . . . If he could’ve kept both feet off the floor, he would’ve done that too.

Unfortunately, the repentant demon seeking redemption that had hijacked his body in return for inhuman fighting skills hadn’t gifted him with the power of levitation. It had stolen his life and replaced it with immortality, and shattered his soul in its battle against evil, but it failed to help him here.

From the gloom beyond the stage curtain, the woman’s gaze weighed on him like lead anchors. Violet-tinted lead anchors—a sure sign that her demon, which had been circling her without her awareness for more than a week and finally settled in three nights ago, was on the verge of its virgin ascension.

The only thing virginal about her.

The volume of the unrelenting din they called music dropped. The deejay exhorted them, “Put your hands together . . . Scratch that, put ’em in your pocket—not your front pockets, you filthy jag-offs, your back pocket—and start pulling out those Lincolns for . . . our Naughty Nymphette!”

A few men hooted as told; a half-dozen others sucked at their drinks as if suddenly very thirsty.

She stepped onto the stage, bare as the day she was born. Barer, since even newborns slid into the world with more body hair than that.

Jonah snapped his eyes closed. Too late. Under the harsh lights, her dusky skin glowed, sleek as the snake threaded across her outstretched arms. The shine off her shoulders, the snake’s coils, and—ah, dear God in heaven—the fullness of her breasts burned on the inside of his eyelids. Unfair that she could invade his defenses with nothing more than . . . nothing.

The costumes earlier in the week had been bad enough. Layers of vinyl and gauze, links of chain, strings of white lace from another century adding insult to injury. And he’d suffered injury aplenty, with every knock of his cock against the backside of his zipper.

At least the ridiculousness of the schoolgirl kneesocks, the maid’s apron, and a kimono, of all things, had allowed him to steel himself—in more ways than one—against the inevitable flesh display.

He might as well see his oncoming destruction. He opened his eyes.

She glided across the floor toward him, her bare feet silent on the parquet. But she timed each footfall for every other beat of the music, so even though her approach was slow, his heartbeat quickened against his will to echo the incessant bass.

Exactly how repentant was his demon?

She moved with a liquid grace that ignored gravity and time and entropy, as if she had no care for the rules of the universe. Sweat glistened across the skin of her chest, but her arms spread, unfaltering, under the forty pounds of reptile. Only her rounded hips marked the cadence.

After the gyrations and jiggling of the others and the gleeful flinging of G-strings, her prolonged tension tightened every nerve in the room. Where was the teasing smile? The bustier and the stockings? Here were the tits and ass they had come for, and yet this was not their fantasy. This was too raw, too wild.

Jonah stiffened against the sharp twist inside him of the demon reacting to the first whiff of menace.

Her dreads slid across her breasts, hiding, then revealing her dark areolas, and the blunt ropes lashed the high upper curve of her buttocks. Achingly slowly, she raised her arms, and the snake eased from her shoulders to spiral across her torso. The scales in shades from chocolate to sand rippled down her body. Its blunt diamond head poised for a moment like an earthy jewel centered above her navel, then continued lower.

Her hands tracked its descent, easing over her breasts, lingering at the flare of her hips. She tipped her head back, throat exposed, and her dreads swung loose as the snake coiled down her thighs.

It pooled at her feet like a shed skin. Unfettered, she stood exposed, her taut curves the same tawny brown as the middling tones of the scales, an illusion of snake to woman. Hell on the herpetological half shell.

Jonah’s pulse ricocheted through his body, tearing ragged holes in his calm, and he realized he hadn’t taken a breath in too long. When he finally did, it sounded like a gasp.

In the middle of the stage, the lights were aimed at her with such salacious focus that not a single shadow remained, not the faintest female mystery was left to the imagination. And yet he knew he wasn’t seeing all of her. The purple smudges around her eyes seemed to suck down the light, but her gaze fixed on him, still and predatory behind the unnatural thicket of her lashes.

The demon was rising in her, and it called to him, teased him to reach out.

His fingers twitched in anticipation, and he clenched his fists.

Fist. His missing hand burned as if he held it out toward open flame. Rather like he was doing with the remains of his soul by coming to her now.

The djinni that had taken his hand six months ago had taken with it his belief that their fight for good would prevail. To tip the balance in favor of his shaken faith, he was willing to do anything.

He stared at the Nymphette.

Anything.

The beat of the music stumbled from one song to the next, and she knelt to retrieve the snake, but instead of beginning her next dance, she crossed toward him and stepped out onto the bar that surrounded the stage. Another step and she was standing on a bar stool. The gawkers rumbled, a sound somewhere between approval and consternation at the break in their routine.

The three-legged stool wobbled. At his table, Jonah planted both feet on the floor, half rising to catch her, and rocked his own chair with his haste. But she crouched, one hand steady on the bar, the other on the snake, and slipped to the floor to continue toward him, as if she hadn’t noticed the near fall.

Dimly, he heard the deejay squawk for the next dancer, the Nymphette having naughtily abandoned the stage. Though her hands busily rearranged the snake across her shoulders, her violet-tinged gaze never left his.

He’d been stalked before, but this made every hair on his body prickle in alarm.

She glided up to him, right between his legs. He leaned back, arms still crossed, thankful the height of the stool gave him a vantage point to look down at her.

She didn’t touch him, but the heat of her naked body radiated through his jeans and sank into his thighs. “You want a dance, Cap’n?”

Her low voice hummed through his bones. The scent of the snake—a sharp, loamy tang—made him shudder.

“Assuming you can swing it.” Her gaze angled down to his crotch. “The price, I mean.”

She had no idea what this was costing him. “In private, if you’d oblige.” His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears.

The league’s leader had explained what would happen, in a conversation as excruciatingly embarrassing as that heard by any bride on her wedding night. Not that Jonah wanted to compare this moment in any way to his wedding night.

The sacrilege tightened his fist another notch, and the rage-curdled tension brought his demon screaming from his depths. The demon’s power rebounded through his body, but it recoiled from the brimstone-scorched scar tissue that had been his weapon hand. Surely even her nascent demon would sense the danger, the thwarted violence, and she would withdraw.

Instead, she canted her head forward, a dare. “VIP lap dance? Well, look at you, coming on strong now.”

He stood abruptly. “Yes, that’s me. Coming strong.” He took her arm.

The long-forgotten sensation of soft flesh beneath his fingers swept him in a hot tide, and his pulse raced ahead of the demon’s seething temper like spindrift on the crest of a killer wave. His breath tumbled through his chest.

She jerked away. “Don’t touch,” she hissed.

“It’s a strip club.” But when the snake hissed too, he let her go—the better to restrain the rampant wickedness inside him.

“And I’m stripped, in case you hadn’t noticed. No touching.”

“Ludicrous,” he muttered. He waved her toward the hall that led to the private rooms he’d scouted earlier.

She eased around him. “You paid eight bucks for a Power Slug. You’d know ludicrous.” She nodded to the bartender, who popped the tab on a small aluminum can and slid it across the countertop toward them. “Have another. I get a percentage of the bar.”

Jonah took the energy drink as they passed. In the hallway, the pounding music dulled to a merely irritating headache. The AC pushed the stale odors of cigarettes and damp cardboard boxes, but did little in the way of cooling. “Are you always so . . . honest with your patrons?”

“Not on the first date. But you and me, we’ve been dancing around this thing for a week now. Time for flattering lies is long past.”

“A week is a long time?”

“You owe me for all those hungry stares. All that looking and no paying is giving Mobi a complex.”

“Moby? Ah, the snake. Curious choice of names. The obsession angle works, but I can’t picture you dancing with a white whale around your shoulders.”

In the gloomy hall, her eyes glimmered with only human reflections. “Mobi as in Möbius strip, going round and around, always ending up back in the same place.”

The brooding tenor of her words struck him deep.

Before he could speak, she ducked behind a curtain. He followed her into the closet. The VIP lounge lacked any features that might have identified it as important or a lounge. A wooden chair faced into the corner, as if it had been pushed hastily awry. He yanked the shabby red curtain closed.

She spun the chair toward him. “The only Mopey Dick I expect to see here is yours. And I can make that all better.”

Jonah took a pull off the Slug. The sweeteners and caffeine buzzed through him as his demon-boosted metabolism dealt with the chemical brew. At least the task distracted the creature of evil inside him from its impotent seething.

He wished he hadn’t thought “impotent” just now.

Nim plucked the can from his hand and tossed it aside. The spilled liquid fizzed. Under the lone lightbulb, her small smile was hard enough to dash hearts upon, were any careless enough to somehow find their way to this place. “So, tell me what you want, Cap’n.”

Jonah sat and crossed his arms. He needed her demon ascendant before he made his move. She wouldn’t believe his story otherwise. “Dance for me, Nymphette.”

Physical stress triggered the demon’s rise. Dangerous, but necessary, since the newly possessed needed to find a way to balance the demon within them. Males traditionally drank and fought their way through the other-realm emanations coursing through their bodies. He’d been told it worked differently with the females. Just as well, since his balance was shot.

“Call me Nim.” Her voice turned husky, not with the demon, just a generic come-on. She swayed closer. “Nymphette is such a mouthful. And maybe you want me to save my mouth for . . . other things. Right, Cap’n?”

“Don’t call me Captain.”

Her fake tarantula lashes narrowed at his brusque tone, but she didn’t speak. She sidled toward his chair and slowly sank to her knees between his legs. Her gaze rested straight ahead, and his flesh, already strung tight, lifted like a marionette. Her mouth—that wide, generous mouth—was such a short distance from his zipper. He ached all over at her closeness, his erection straining toward her, his jaw locked hard against giving in.

She unwrapped the snake from her shoulders and laid it over his feet. The weight of the beast as it wound around his ankles was surprisingly heavy and hot through the leather of his boots. He couldn’t stifle a grunt of dismay.

Nim grinned, a crooked chink in her seductress armor that revealed the first hint of honest emotion he’d seen: amusement, at his expense. “Don’t want you sneaking away early, like you’ve been doing all week.”

“Hadn’t planned on it.” Anyway, not until her demon was firmly anchored in her soul and she’d been drawn into the league as its newest possessed fighter.

She rose, so close between his thighs he felt the passage of air, faintly scented with patchouli. But she never touched him. The way she used her body was sinful, but he had to admit, she kept it as brutally honed as any warrior maintained his weapons. A demon could choose worse than to take such a dwelling.

Within the confines of his spread knees, she turned and set her back to him. She ran her hands up her torso, over her shoulders, and through her dreadlocks. With a single twist, she bound her hair into a thick knot at her crown.

She leaned to one side, and he couldn’t stop his gaze from following the sinuous curve of her spine, down between the points of her shoulder blades to the twin dimples framing her tailbone. His hand twitched to test whether his spread fingers would span the distance.

Just as well it was the missing hand.

She glanced over her shoulder. “No touching.”

“So you said.” He hadn’t given himself away. Couldn’t, considering his maiming. But she obviously didn’t think that would stop him.

Her fog-on-the-water gaze traced him. “You aren’t here with flesh on the mind. No lusting man could have lasted that whole week. Definitely couldn’t last now.” She straddled his knee, again without touching him, and dipped low in a slow-motion grind that never quite brushed his jeans. “You’re so strong. Crazy strong.” Her voice was a purr. “Is that because of the ring?”

His left hand, tucked against his ribs, clenched against his will, but the gold band on his third finger was too worn to bite into his flesh. “No. Not because of the ring.”

She tilted her hips and smoothed one hand over her haunch to ride above the shadowed cleft between her buttocks. Where he’d wanted to put his hand. “Because of the hook?”

The metal tip drove into his bicep as he drew even tighter into himself. How could she ask so casually? “Aren’t you supposed to be dancing?”

She bent backward, an impossible contortion without making contact. And yet she managed to keep even her hair suspended above his lap, teasing but not touching. She stared at him from her inverted pose. “You’re supposed to be pulling something out.”

“You said no touching. Presumably that also means myself.”

“Your wallet is exempt from the no-touching rule.”

He sighed, aggrieved, and uncrossed his arm to shift to one hip and reach for his back pocket. “At least this is on an expense account.”

“All business. I like that in a man. We’re practically soul mates.”

Anger, cold and jagged, wrenched like the hook through his chest, dragging the demon to the surface. “Don’t say that.”

“Bosom buddies, then.” She turned again to straddle his other leg, facing him. Her arms, crossed in a low X across her belly, pushed her breasts into tempting handfuls. Another supple writhe brought her down low, so low and close her nipples would’ve grazed his lips. If not for her oft-stated no-touching rule, of course.

“You have no idea how close we’ll be,” he said.

He’d meant to sound as flirtatious as any of her customers, but a faint hint of alarm crinkled her brow. When he opened his billfold, though, the wary look in her eyes evaporated with a spark of simple avarice. He wouldn’t bother making mental bets about the weakness in her soul that had made her vulnerable to possession.

“Let’s see, then. Shall we?” She edged closer and propped her foot on the chair seat between his legs. “I bet that big, shiny hook scares the good girls away, doesn’t it? Well, not me. I don’t easily scare.”

“Because you’re a bad girl.”

“Just like you wanted.” Her bare toes grazed his crotch, such a glancing touch it might have been an accident, except he suspected she didn’t make such mistakes. She fancied herself fully in control of the situation. Of him.

His body didn’t exactly disabuse her of the notion. The surge in his jeans kindled a flare of victory in her eyes. As if this was a battle she planned to win.

No way for her to know she’d already lost.

Pity chewed at his defensive anger. “Ah, Nim. Was there no one who cared to turn you from this path?”

Her eyes widened, and a streak of violet shot across the whites. “Shit. You’re one of those? Come to save me from myself?”

“No.” His voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “I couldn’t dream of saving you.” Maybe once he’d believed himself the man for such a task. Not anymore.

“Good, because I like what I do.” Her lashes fluttered like a Venus flytrap closing on unsuspecting prey. “And I can tell you like it too.”

The league had no idea what it was getting. But demons—even the repentant teshuva that fought against the darkness—never cared much for harmony. Their quest for redemption would be found through obliteration. “I still don’t condone selling your soul for money.”

“Very good money.” She bent her knee, lowering herself toward him, the V of her breasts one deep breath away from swallowing his wallet. “And it’s just a body. Don’t you think it’s worth that wad?”

He twitched the wallet away. “You don’t even care that much about the money.”

“Not true,” she protested.

“You do it because you like when men ache.”

“Oh yeah, I ache all over. For you.” She flexed so that her shin hovered above his chest, her naked body stretched nearly parallel to his. “Just returning the favor, lover.”

“Did you ache when you marked yourself with these?” He touched his fingertip to the first in a row of circular scars marching up the inside of her thigh.

She recoiled with a snarl. “Don’t. Touch.”

Behind her back, he reached up, and with his hook flattened between her shoulder blades, he dragged her down to his chest.

She squawked as she sprawled over him in a tangle of long limbs and a thrust of bare breast. Her first ungraceful move of the week.

He cupped his palm to her cheek, fingers against the curve of her skull, thumb pressed under her jaw, firm but not unnecessarily cruel. “You put too much faith in your body.” He was relieved at his casually conversational tone. “Control the head and you control the body.” Control was good, yes.

Unable to regain her balance without testing his grip on her pressure point, she glared into his eyes from inches away. The purple flare spiraled from her irises into the blacks of her pupils, bright enough to dazzle him. He knew her vision was shifting into hunter mode.

An irate breath flared her nostrils. “Which head?”

She slammed her fist toward the fly of his jeans.

If she hadn’t all but announced her intentions—and if he hadn’t already been thinking about that part of his anatomy—she might have landed the punch. But he was already twisting away, so her knuckles caught the point of his hip instead.

She yelped, not loud enough to carry over the bump-and-grind music. He’d already confirmed that the security cameras covered only the doors and the cash register, and the bouncer had willingly taken two hundred-dollar bills with nothing more than a wink and a man-to-man nod.

More importantly, the isolation that had made her susceptible to the demon and now her unconscious reliance on its powers would keep her from calling out for help.

However, the rising demon also made her harder to handle. He twisted again when she braced one foot between them on the chair seat and reared back, nearly overturning them. He stood, still clasping her close. With the weight of his body, he pinned her to the wall while he awkwardly adjusted his one-handed grip.

Since the hook, he hadn’t held anyone he didn’t want to hurt.

And this wasn’t exactly a grappling hold he could practice on his fellow fighters. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said aloud, but the demonic growl in his voice made that hard even for him to believe.

Nim’s irises flared more violently purple in response, and she jackknifed against the wall, angling and weakening his hold. Obviously she wasn’t interested in what he had to say.

Come to think of it, neither was he.

“Dance for me, Nim.” This time, he let the demonic double-lows ripple through his voice. He let her go and dropped into the chair. “Make me want it.”

She landed in a crouch, one hand braced on the ground between her feet. But she didn’t run.

She could no more escape than he could. No matter how much he hated the wicked thrill flowing through him, the pulsing, stiff flesh behind his fly pointing the way.

His long, slow descent into hell had brought him here. But the dark twist inside him promised that now he might actually enjoy it…

Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Borders
BooksAMillion ~ Powells Books ~ Indigo ~ Indiebound

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