The Darkest Pleasure CHAPTER ONE

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Dear Reader,

I'm thrilled to present The Darkest Pleasure, the third installment of my brand-new paranormal trilogy, Lords of the Underworld, which began with The Darkest Night and continued with The Darkest Kiss. In a remote fortress in Budapest, six immortal warriors - each more dangerously seductive than the last - are bound by an ancient curse none has been able to break. When a powerful enemy returns, they will travel the world in search of a sacred relic of the gods - one that threatens to destroy them all.

Join me on a journey through this darkly sensual world, where the line between good and evil blurs and true love is put to the ultimate test. And stay tuned for further adventures from the Lords of the Underworld as the stakes get higher, the quest more dangerous and the romance hotter!

Wishing you all the best,

Gena Showalter

This first Lords of the Underworld trilogy could not have been possible without the following amazing, wonderful, kick-ass people (whom I adore):

Donna Hayes

Loriana Sacilotto

Dianne Moggy

Randall Toye

Tracy Farrell

Margo Lipschultz

Keyren Gerlach

Kathleen Oudit

Juliana Kolesova

Diana Wong

Stacy Widdrington

Marianna Ricciuto

Pat Muir-Rand

Melissa Caraway

Kristin Foti

Kim Elliott

Vicki So

Josh Hilburt

Nancy Fischer

Sally Noonan

Brian McGroarty

The Harlequin Sales Group

Deidre Knight

Patricia Rouse

Susan Grimshaw

Kathy Baker

Max Showalter

Matt Showalter

Roy Showalter

Destinee Showalter

Sheila Fields

Jill Monroe

To Kemmie Tolbert, an amazing woman who loves books as much as I do

CHAPTER ONE

REYES STOOD on the roof of his Budapest fortress, five stories up, his feet balanced precariously on the highest ledge. Above him, moonlight seeped red and yellow from the sky, blood mixed with fickle gold, dark mixed with light, wounds freshly cut in the endless expanse of black velvet.

He gazed down at the gloomy, waiting void beneath him, the taunting ground opening its arms as if begging to embrace him. Thousands of years, and I'm still reduced to this.

Frigid wind blustered, ruffling his hair in every direction, tickling his bare chest, the hated butterfly etched up onto his neck and the remembered lifeblood splattered there. Not his blood, though. No, not his, but his friend's. Every stroke of hair against that phantom evidence of life and death was like kindling thrown into the fire of his blazing guilt.

So many times he'd come here, wishing for things that could never be. So many times he'd prayed for absolution, relief from his daily torment and the demon inside him responsible...relief from his utter dependence on self-mutilation.

His prayers had never been answered. Would never be answered. This was what he was, what he would always be. And his agony would only increase. Once an immortal warrior to the gods, he was now a Lord of the Underworld, possessed by one of the many spirits formerly locked inside dimOuniak. From favor to dishonor, beloved to despised. From happiness to constant misery.

He ground his teeth. Mortals knew dimOuniak as Pandora's box; he knew it as the source of his eternal downfall. He and his friends had defiantly opened it all those centuries ago; now he and his friends were the box, each holding a demon inside himself.

Jump, his demon beseeched.

His demon: Pain. His constant companion. The tempting whisper in the back of his mind, the dark entity that craved unspeakable evil. The supernatural force he battled every damned minute of every damned day.

Jump.

"Not yet." A few more seconds of anticipation, of knowing most of his bones would shatter on contact. He grinned at the thought. The razor-sharp bone shards would cut his injured, swollen organs and those organs would burst like water balloons; his skin would rip from the excess fluid and this time the lifeblood that drained would be his own. Agony, such blissful agony, would consume him.

For a little while, anyway.

Slowly his smile faded. Within days - hours, if he failed to hurt himself badly enough - his body would heal itself, totally and completely. He would wake up, whole again, Pain once more a commanding force inside his mind, too loud to be denied. But oh, for those few blessed ticks of the clock before his bones began to realign, before his organs began to weave back together and his skin to reconnect, before blood once more pumped through his veins, he would experience nirvana. The ultimate paradise. Rapture of the sweetest kind. He would writhe in the exquisite pleasure the pain brought with it - his only source of pleasure. The demon would purr with utter contentment, so drunk on the sensation it was unable to speak, and Reyes would experience such blissful peace.

For a little while. Always, only, a little while.

"I do not need another reminder about how fleeting my peace is," he muttered to drown the depressing thought. He knew how quickly time passed. A year sometimes felt like nothing more than a day. A day sometimes felt like nothing more than a minute.

"The Darkest Pleasure"

And yet, both were sometimes infinite to him. Just one of the many contradictions of life as a Lord of the Underworld.

Jump, Pain said. Then, more insistently, Jump! Jump!

"I told you. Just a few seconds more." Once again Reyes glanced at the ground. Jagged rocks winked in that bleeding moonlight, the clear puddles surrounding them rippling in the wind. Mist rose like ghostly fingers, summoning him closer, wonderfully closer. "Plunging a blade into your enemy's throat kills him, yes," he told the demon, "but then it's over, done, and you have nothing left to anticipate."

Jump! A snarled command, impatient and needy, a child throwing a tantrum.

"Soon."

Jumpjumpjump!

Yes, sometimes demons really were like whiny human children. Reyes shoved a hand through his tangled hair, a few strands ripping from his scalp. He knew of only one way to shut his other half up. Obedience. Why he'd even tried to resist and savor the moment, he didn't know.

Jump!

"Maybe this time you'll be sent back to hell," he muttered. A man could wish, anyway. Finally, he splayed his arms. Closed his eyes. Leaned..."Come down from there," he heard a voice say from behind him.

Reyes's eyelids popped open at the unwelcome intrusion, and he stiffened. He rebalanced but didn't turn. He knew why Lucien was here, and he was too ashamed to face his friend. While the warrior understood what he dealt with because of his demon, there would be no understanding what he'd done.

"That's the plan, coming down. Leave and I'll see that it gets done."

"You know what I meant." There was no hint of laughter in Lucien's voice. "I need to talk to you."

The dewy scent of roses suddenly saturated the air, thick and lush and so unexpected in the late-winter night that Reyes would have sworn he'd been transported to a spring meadow. A human would have found the aroma hypnotic, lulling, almost drugging, and would have done anything the warrior asked. Reyes merely found it annoying. After thousands of years together, Lucien should have known the fragrance held no power over him.

"We'll talk tomorrow," he said tightly.

Jump!

"We'll talk now. Afterward, you may do whatever you please."

After Reyes admitted his newest crime? No, thanks. Guilt, shame and grief might bring emotional pain, but none would soothe his demon in any way. Only physical suffering offered relief, which was why Reyes had always guarded his emotional well-being so diligently.

Yes, and you've done such a great job at it.

He ran his tongue over his teeth, unsure who had whispered that sarcastic little gem. Himself or Pain. "I'm in a bad place right now, Lucien."

"As are the others. As am I."

"You, at least, have a woman to comfort you."

"You have friends. You have me." Lucien, keeper of the demon of Death, was tasked with escorting human souls to the hereafter, whether the hereafter was heaven or the deepest fires of hell. He was stoic, ever calm - most of the time. He'd become their leader, the man every warrior residing in this Budapest fortress turned to for guidance and aid. "Talk to me."

Reyes didn't like to deny his friend, but he told himself it was better that Lucien did not learn the terrible thing he'd done.

Even as Reyes thought it, he recognized the lie for what it was: a shameful lack of courage on his part. "Lucien," he began, only to stop. Growl.

"The tracking dye has worn off and no one knows where Aeron is," Lucien said. "No one knows what he's doing, if he's the one who slaughtered those humans in the States. Maddox said he called you right after Aeron escaped the dungeon. Then Sabin told me you left Rome and the Temple of the Unspoken Ones in a hurry. Want to tell me where you went?"

"No." Truth. He didn't. "But you may rest assured Aeron is no longer able to slaughter humans."

There was a pause, the rose scent intensifying.

"How do you know for sure?" The question possessed a bite.

Reyes shrugged.

"Why don't I tell you what I think happened?" Where Lucien's tone had been sharp before, it was now threaded with expectation. And fear? "You went after Aeron, hoping to protect the girl."

The girl. Aeron had kidnapped the girl. Aeron had been ordered by the new gods, the Titans, to murder the girl. Reyes had taken one look at the girl and allowed her to invade his most private thoughts, color his every action and reduce him to a lovesick fool.

With only a glance she had changed his life, and not for the better. And yet, the fact that Lucien refused to say her name pissed Reyes off royally. Reyes desired that girl more than he desired a hammer to the skull. For Pain, that was saying something.

"Well?" Lucien prompted.

"You're right," Reyes said through tight lips. Why not admit it? he suddenly thought. His emotions were in turmoil and remaining quiet had only roused them further. More than that, his friends could not hate him any more than he hated himself. "I went after Aeron."

The admission hung in the air, as heavy as shackles, and he paused.

"The Darkest Pleasure"

"You found him."

"I found him." Reyes squared his shoulders. "I also...destroyed him."

Rocks crumbled under Lucien's boots as he stalked forward. "You killed him?"

"Worse." Still, Reyes did not turn. He peered down longingly at the still-waiting ground. "I buried him."

The pounding of footsteps ceased abruptly. "You buried him but did not kill him?" Confusion drifted from Lucien's voice. "I do not understand."

"He was about to kill Danika. I could see the torment in his eyes and knew he did not want to do it. I cut him down to slow him and he thanked me, Lucien. Thanked me. He begged me to stop him permanently. He begged me to take his head. But I couldn't do it. I raised my sword, but I just couldn't do it. So I had Kane collect Maddox's chains and bring them to me. Since Maddox no longer needs them, I used them to lock Aeron underground."

Reyes had once been forced to shackle Maddox to a bed every night, cursed to stab his friend in the stomach six hated times, knowing the warrior would awaken in the morning and Reyes would have to kill him all over again. Some friend I am.

After hundreds of years, Maddox had come to accept the curse. Restraining him, however, had been a necessity. As the keeper of Violence, Maddox tended to attack without warning. Even his friends. And as strong as the warrior was, he would have rent man-made metal in seconds. So they'd commandeered links forged by the gods, links no one, not even an immortal, could open without the proper key.

Like Maddox, Aeron had been - was - helpless against them. In the beginning, Reyes had resisted using them on his friend, not wanting to take even more of the warrior's freedom. Sadly, as with Maddox, employing them had become a necessity.

"Where is Aeron, Reyes?" Underneath the question was a command laced with the authority of a man used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted. A man who ensured there were severe consequences for any type of delay.

Reyes wasn't frightened. He simply hated to disappoint this warrior he loved like a brother. "That, I will not tell you. Aeron doesn't wish to be freed." And even if he did, I do not think I would free him.

There lay the crux of Reyes's guilt.

Another pause slithered between them, this one strained and expectant. "I can find him on my own. You know I can."

"You have already tried and failed or you would not be here." Reyes knew that Lucien could flash into the spirit world and follow a person's unique psychic trail. Sometimes, though, the trail faded or became tainted.

Reyes suspected Aeron's was tainted, as the warrior was not the man he used to be.

"You're right. His trail ends in New York," Lucien admitted darkly. "I could continue my search, but that would take time. And time is something none of us can spare right now. Already two weeks have passed."

How well Reyes knew that, for he'd felt every day of those weeks like a noose tightening around his neck, one worry stacking upon another. Hunters, their greatest enemy, were even now searching for Pandora's box, hoping to use it to suck the demons out of each and every warrior, destroying man and locking away beast.

If the warriors wished to survive, they had to find the box first.

Chaotic as life now was, Reyes was not ready to end his permanently.

"Tell me where he is," Lucien said, "and I'll bring him to the fortress. I'll bolt him inside the dungeon."

Reyes snorted. "He escaped once. He could escape again. Even from Maddox's chains, I'm thinking. His bloodlust gives him a strength I've never encountered before. Better he stay where he is."

"He's your friend. He's one of us."

"He's warped now, and you know it. Most of the time, he is not aware of his own actions. He would kill you if given the chance."

"Reyes - "

"He'll destroy her, Lucien."

Her. Danika Ford. The girl. Reyes had seen her only a few times, talked to her even less, but still, he craved her with every ounce of his being. Something he didn't understand. He was dark, she was light. He was anguish, she was innocence. He was wrong for her in every way, and yet, when she looked at him, his entire world felt right.

He knew beyond any doubt that the next time Aeron reached her, the warrior would savagely murder her. There would be no stopping him. Not again. Aeron had been ordered to kill Danika - and her mother and her sister and her grandmother - and was as helpless against the gods and their powers as everyone else. He would do it.

Reyes's temper flared and he had to glance at the rocks below to calm himself. Aeron had resisted the gods' dark task at first. He was - No. He had been a good man. But with every day that had passed, his demon had grown stronger, louder inside his head, until finally it overtook his mind. Now Aeron was the demon inside him. He was Wrath. He obeyed. He slew. Until those four women were destroyed, he would live only to hunt and kill.

Except, inside Danika's temporary apartment those fourteen days, four hours and fifty-six minutes ago, there had been a small part of Aeron that had known the crimes he committed. A small part that hated who and what he had become and desired death above all things. Desired an end to the torment. Why else would Aeron have asked Reyes to kill him?

"The Darkest Pleasure"

And I refused him. Reyes couldn't bring himself to hurt another warrior. Not again. Still. What kind of monster left his friend to suffer? A friend who had fought for him, killed for him? Loved him?

There had to be a way to save both Aeron and Danika, he thought for what, the thousandth time? He'd spent countless hours pondering, but still did not see a solution.

"Do you know where the girl is?" Lucien demanded, cutting into his musings.

"No, I do not." Truth. "Aeron found her, I found Aeron, and that's when we fought. She ran. I didn't follow her afterward. She could be anywhere by now." Best that way. He knew it, but he was still desperate to know her location, what she was doing...if she lived.

"Lucien, man, what's taking so damn long?"

At the second intrusion, Reyes finally turned. Paris, keeper of Promiscuity, now stood beside Lucien. Both men were facing him, eyes narrowed. Beams of crimson moonlight fell around them but not on them, as if those colored rays were afraid to touch the evil that even hell itself had been unable to contain.

Immortal that he was, Reyes saw them clearly, gaze cutting expertly through the darkness.

Paris was tall, the tallest of the group, with multicolored hair, pale otherworldly skin and eyes so pure a blue not even the most fanciful poetry would do them justice. Human women found him mesmerizing, irresistible, constantly throwing themselves at him and begging for a single touch. A heated kiss.

Lucien, though mated now, was not so lucky. Human women stayed far away from him. His face was hideously scarred, grotesque even, giving him the appearance of a bedtime monster found only in fairy tales. Didn't help that he had mismatched eyes - a brown one that saw the natural world and a blue one that saw the spiritual world - and both promised death would soon come knocking.

Both men were corded with the kind of muscle mass only hours of daily physical exertion could provide. They were loaded down with weapons and ready to fight at any moment of any day. They had to be.

"I don't recall deciding to throw a party up here," Reyes said.

"Well, old age will wipe your memory like that," Paris replied. "Remember, we need to discuss our next plan of action? Among other things."

He sighed. The warriors did what they wanted, when they wanted, and no biting remark would stop them. He knew that firsthand, because he was the exact same way. "Why aren't you out researching Hydra's hiding places?"

Lush lips better suited for a woman thinned into a mulish line. Paris's eyes flashed the kind of agony Reyes usually saw staring back at him from his own mirror, replaced all too soon by the warrior's usual irreverence.

"Well?" Reyes prompted when there was no answer.

Finally his friend said, "Even immortals need coffee breaks."

There was obviously more to the story than that, but Reyes didn't press. I am not the only man with secrets. Several weeks ago the warriors had split up to search for Hydra, a cranky half snake, half woman...thing who was guarding some of King Titan's favorite "toys." Those toys - weapons, really - were supposed to lead them to Pandora's box. So far, they'd only managed to snag one. The Cage of Compulsion. They had only the barest of clues about the locations of the others.

"Yes, but when faced with extinction, coffee breaks lose their importance. And yes, I realize I need to do more for our cause. I will. After."

Paris shrugged. "I'm doing what I can. The U.S. is a huge damn place and studying it from afar is almost as difficult as navigating its lands amidst all those people." Each of the warriors had traveled to different countries to ferret out clues about the box, had no success and had quickly returned to learn what they could from here. Without switching his attention from Reyes, Paris asked Lucien, "Did he tell you where Aeron is or what?"

One of Lucien's black brows arched toward his hairline. "No. He didn't."

"Told you he'd be difficult." Paris frowned. "He hasn't been himself for weeks."

Reyes could say the same about Paris, he realized as he noticed lines of fatigue and stress around the usually optimistic man's eyes. Perhaps he should press Paris for answers. Clearly, something had happened to his friend. Something major.

"We're running out of time, Reyes." Accusation coated Paris's words. "Cooperate. Help us."

"Hunters are more determined than ever to end us," Lucien added. "Humans have discovered the Unspoken Ones' temple, limiting our access yet increasing that of the Hunters. We've only found one artifact out of four, but all are supposedly needed to locate the box."

Reyes arched a brow, mimicking Lucien's earlier expression. "You think Aeron can help with any of that?"

"No, but we do not need discord among us. Nor do we need the distraction of worrying about him."

"You can stop worrying," Reyes said. "He doesn't want to be found. He hates who and what he is and he hates us seeing him like that. I swear to you, he's content where he is or I would not have left him."

"The Darkest Pleasure"

The door to the roof burst open and Sabin, keeper of Doubt himself, stalked through, dark hair dancing in the breeze.

"For fuck's sake," the man said, throwing up his arms. "What the hell's going on?" He spotted Reyes and comprehension instantly dawned. He rolled his eyes. "Damn, Pain, you sure know how to spoil a meeting."

"Why aren't you researching Rome?" Reyes asked him. Had everyone stopped working in the half hour he'd been on the roof?

Gideon, keeper of Lies, was close at Sabin's heels and prevented the warrior from answering with a sober, "My, my, how fun this looks."

In Gideon speak, "fun" meant boring. The man couldn't utter a single truth without experiencing debilitating pain. Pain, exactly what I need. If only Reyes simply had to lie to receive it, how easy life would have been.

"Shouldn't you be helping Paris research the States?" Reyes demanded. He didn't bother waiting for an answer. "This is starting to feel like a damned circus. Can't a man do a little sulking and self-mutilation in private?"

"No," Paris said, "he can't. Stop stalling, and stop changing the subject. Give us the answers we want or, I swear to the gods, I'm coming up there and laying a big wet one right on your mouth. My boy is hungry and looking to feed. He thinks you'll do just fine."

Reyes didn't doubt Promiscuity wanted to bed him, but he knew Paris, and knew the warrior preferred women.

Get rid of them. Reyes studied his newest guests. Gideon was dressed entirely in black, with hair dyed electric blue, eyebrows pierced in several places, the silver studs gleaming, and charcoal-rimmed eyelashes. Humans found him cut-your-heart-out scary.

Sabin wore all black, as well, but his brown hair, brown eyes and square, guileless face didn't make him look as if he would kill anyone who approached him - and laugh while doing it.

Both men were stubborn to their very cores.

"I need time to think," Reyes said, hoping to play on their sympathy.

"There's nothing to think about," Sabin replied. "You will do what's right because you're an honorable warrior."

Aren't you? Perhaps you are as weak as the human girl you desire. Why else would you hurt those who love you like this?

Ouch, he thought, cringing. He was weak. He was - "Sabin," Reyes growled as realization set in. "Stop sending doubts into my mind. I have enough of my own."

The warrior shrugged sheepishly, not even trying to deny it. "Sorry."

"Since our meeting is clearly not canceled," Gideon said, "I'm not heading into the city, not visiting Club Destiny, and not screwing a few screams of pleasure out of a human female." He disappeared behind the door a second later, shaking his head in exasperation.

"Don't cancel the meeting," Reyes told the others. "Just...start without me." He glanced over his shoulder, his gaze starting in the sky and falling slowly. Night's sinister canvas still waited, beckoning him to finally leap. "I'll be down in a few."

Paris's lips twitched. "Down. Funny. Maybe I'll meet you down there and we can play Hide-the-Pancreas again. Forcing you to completely regenerate rather than simply heal always amuses me."

Even Lucien grinned at that.

"Oh, oh, I wanna play! Can I hide his liver this time?"

At the sound of Anya's sultry voice, Reyes stifled a groan.

The white-haired goddess of Anarchy rushed through the doorway and threw herself into Lucien's now-open arms, her strawberry fragrance drifting on the ever-increasing wind. The pair cooed and cuddled like lovesick idiots for an eternity, lost in each other, the world around them forgotten.

It had taken Reyes a while to warm to the woman. She belonged in Olympus, home to the very beings he reviled - strike one. She left chaos in her wake, something as natural to her as breathing - strike two. But in the end, she had aided every warrior here, and had blessed Lucien with a happiness Reyes could only imagine.

Sabin coughed.

Paris whistled, though the sound of it was strained.

A pang of envy tightened Reyes's chest, squeezing at the heart that would soon stop beating. The heart he wished he did not possess. Without one, he would not have wanted Danika even though he knew he couldn't have her.

Didn't matter, he supposed. She would never want him in return. Most women did not appreciate his particular brand of pleasure and sweet, angelic Danika would hate it more than most. Even being near him had terrified her.

Perhaps, though, he could have won her over, seduced her, softened her toward him. Perhaps...but he refused to even try. The women he bedded always succumbed to his demon, became drunk on it, addicted to its predilections. They developed their own need for pain, lashing out and hurting everyone around them.

"Someone gather the others," Reyes said, sarcasm dripping from the words and hopefully hiding his inner agony. "We'll make this a reunion." What was Danika doing right this second? Who was she with? A man? Was she cuddling against him as Anya was cuddling against Lucien? Was she dead, buried as Aeron was buried? His hands curled into fists, his nails elongating into claws, slicing skin and stinging beautifully.

"The Darkest Pleasure"

"You can shut it, Painie," Anya said, facing him. She burrowed her head in the hollow of Lucien's neck, blue eyes peeking through thick strands of pale hair. "You're wasting Lucien's time, and that seriously irritates me."

Bad things happened when Anya was irritated. Wars, natural disasters. Reyes's weapons left in the rain to rust. "He and I have already spoken. He has the information he desired."

"Not all of it," Lucien said.

"Tell him or I'll push you," Anya said. "And then I swear to the gods - bastards that they are! - that while you're recovering and unable to stop me I'll find your little girlfriend and mail you one of her fingers."

Just the thought caused a red haze to curtain his eyes. Danika...hurting...Do not react. Do not allow fury to swamp you. "You will not touch her."

"Watch your tone," Lucien told him, tightening his grip on his woman.

"You don't even know where she is," Reyes said more calmly, marveling at how protective the once stolid Lucien was.

Anya smiled a secret smile.

"Anya," he warned.

"What?" she asked, all innocence.

"Aeron needs to be with us," Lucien said.

"Aeron is no longer up for discussion," Reyes growled. "You weren't there. You didn't see the torment in his eyes. You didn't hear the pleading in his tone. I did what I had to do, and I'd do it again." He spun away from his friends. Glanced down. The puddles were now undulating fiercely against the jagged rocks lining the ground. They were still beckoning.

Deliverance, they whispered.

Just for a little while....

"Reyes," Lucien called.

Reyes jumped.
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