I turned to where Roth waited by the elevators—elevators that only went down, and by down, I meant waaay down. He opened the door, and instead of going toward the upstairs, he headed to the steps leading down.
I halted in the stairwell. “Where does this go?”
“Remember how Gerald said that some covens have clubs where others of their kind can safely get together? We have the same thing.” He took the steps two at a time. “When we’re topside, we like to stick together in buildings like this and, in each of them, there’s always something extra special in the basement.”
As we went down a level, a set of bloodred doors appeared like a beacon of sin, waiting for us. Roth placed his hands on the center, flashed a quick grin, and then pushed the doors open wide.
I didn’t know what I was expecting to see beyond the doors, probably something along the lines of a creepy dive bar, but what I saw was something else entirely.
The place was surprisingly bright. No seedy red lighting, no neon beer signs. Plush couches lined the walls, sectioned off by black velvet ropes. People of various ages lounged on the couches. I didn’t need my wonky ability to know that I was surrounded by demons.
Heady music thrummed. The kind you could dance to, lose yourself in. The place was packed and, in the shadowy corners of the room, I could make out thicker shadows moving sinuously. It was the middle of the day, so I was surprised to see so many here, but then again, I doubted demons operated by human schedules.
Roth chuckled as he lowered his lips to my ear. “You should see the look on your face.”
I shook my head, feeling out of my element and then some. “It’s...different.”
There was an S-shaped stage in the middle of the bar, surrounded by round tables and chairs, but it was what was onstage that caught and held my attention.
Scantily clad women danced. Women so beautiful, they could’ve walked the runways of New York and Milan. One in particular swayed in the middle of the S. A tiny ruffled skirt covered her lower half and she wore a bra that glittered and dazzled in the light.
“Is she wearing diamonds as a bra?” I asked.
Roth shrugged as he kept his eyes on me, catching each of my reactions. “Probably. It wouldn’t surprise me. We demons do like shiny, sparkling things.”
The blonde with the diamond bra moved to the music, dipping down and slinking back up. She moved like a snake, or as if she was a part of the throbbing music. She went down on her knees, throwing her head back as she smiled faintly at the man in front of her. An odd light reflected from her eyes.
“She’s a demon,” I pointed out stupidly, as though I didn’t already know that.
“They like to be called succubi,” he explained nonchalantly. “I do believe that’s the politically correct term.”
I shot him a dirty look, but my gaze was immediately drawn back to the girl. I’d never seen a succubus in real life before. “How can they be here? The Alphas forbid them from coming topside.”
“I’m not telling. Are you?”
Before I could respond, a man stood and leaned against the stage. The succubus in the diamond getup smiled playfully as she slunk down and bestowed a chaste kiss on the man’s lips.
He immediately went stiff, hands spasming at his sides while the succubus’s skin glowed. My mouth dropped open. Those reactions could only mean one thing. The man—he was human.
“Hey!” I cried out. “She took his—”
Roth placed his finger on my lips. “Shortie, what you see in here stays in here. You promised.”
I did, but I hadn’t known what was happening. I knocked his hand away. “This is wrong.”
“Or it’s right. Look.” He turned me back to the stage. The man was sitting in his seat, a happy, sated smile on his lax face. “He’s not harmed. He just gave her a little energy booster. If anything, he thoroughly enjoyed the little kiss. Just as I’m sure most would enjoy a little kiss from you.”
I ignored the last part. “But how are humans in here? Do they know what’s around them?” I couldn’t imagine that they did, the rules and all, but I felt as if the world had been turned upside down the moment I stepped through those red doors.
“Some humans tend to find their way here, but do the humans truly know what they’re encountering? The demons here don’t expose what they are, but the humans here aren’t innocent. If you could see their souls, you’d know they aren’t.” His hand curved around my waist, pulling me closer to his hip as we walked around the stage. Bambi glided toward him in response to his touch. “So the ones who come here? Well, they get what they deserve.”
What could I say to that? As I searched for a condemning response, I caught sight of several gold-encrusted birdcages hanging behind the stage. There were girls in them. A busty redhead caught my eye and her red lips tipped up in a provocative smile. Her dress showed more than it covered. I looked away, feeling my cheeks burn.
In the darkest corners of the club, poker games were being played. A man in his thirties—so plain he had to be human—sweated profusely as the ungodly handsome man across from him glanced up, grinning. Light reflected off his irises, just like it had with the succubus girls on stage.
The demon showed his hand. “Flush. Yours?”
The man’s hands shook as he flipped his cards over. “A straight,” he replied hoarsely. He fell back in his seat, face paling.
“Are they playing for kittens?” I asked, thinking of an episode of Buffy I’d caught on the computer one sleepless night.
Roth looked puzzled. “What?”
I shook my head. “Never mind. What are they playing for?”
“I’m not sure I want to know.” Roth steered me away from the poker tables.
“Pretty little girl, wanna dance with me?”
My head snapped up. One of the cage dancers reached through the bars toward me. When she couldn’t reach me, she stood, closed her eyes and tipped her head back. Long brown hair fell down her back as she swayed her h*ps to the music. “Come on. Let loose. Live a little. You’ll love the freedom. The way the music catches your blood on fire. You’ll love the burn. We all do.”
“Harpy,” murmured Roth.
Her eyes opened into thin slits as she dipped, running her hands down the front of her barely clothed body. She smiled at Roth. “Mei Domina.”
The language she spoke sounded old. “What did she say to you?”
He grinned. “Don’t dance with any of the girls in here.”
“Wasn’t planning to,” I replied blandly. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“Wasn’t planning to,” he echoed as he guided me toward the bar, his hand on my back a somewhat steady presence in the crazy world I’d stepped into.
“What happens if I do dance with one of them?” I asked after a few seconds.
He leaned in, whispering in my ear, “You’d never stop, shortie. You’re only part demon, so you’re susceptible to some of the demons’ charms. Some of those girls up there are humans. They danced. Look at where they are now.”
I shivered. From his words or his breath, I wasn’t sure. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“If you could see their souls, I’m sure you wouldn’t feel that way.”
My gaze flickered over them. The girls were all beautiful in their own way. Some were supermodel thin and some larger, pale skin and darker, brunettes and blondes. “Their souls are tainted?”
Roth nodded, looking pleased. “This is sort of a waiting room and a welcoming committee all in one.”
“No.” He laughed. “Purgatory is nowhere near as entertaining as this place is.”
I really wasn’t sure what to think of that or why he wanted to show me any of this. I let him walk me to the bar. It was surprisingly sparse. Only three or four patrons, all human, sat on the stools. Roth left me on the stool at the very end of the bar next to a bowl of beer nuts.
“I’m going to go score us something to eat that doesn’t involve a food that had about a hundred fingers in it. Just don’t dance with anyone or allow anyone to buy you a drink.”
“I’m trusting you not to get into any trouble,” he continued, his eyes meeting mine. “I know you can take care of yourself. I know you’re smart. I’m not going to lock you in a room to ensure that you make good decisions.”
I opened my mouth, but then it hit me. Roth did trust that I could take care of myself and stay out of trouble. There was a...a freedom in that I’d never really tasted before. My whole life had been inside a cage. Not like those of the dancing girls, but a gilded cage that all female Wardens were kept in, and although I’d been given more freedom than any of them had, the frustration was the same.
“Layla?” he queried softly.
Something else occurred to me then. Zayne would lock me in a room to keep me safe if he thought there was even a hint of danger in the air. Roth...yeah, he’d tried to get me out of the way, but he wouldn’t shelter me. He would...he would just let me be.
“Okay,” I said finally. “I’ll be here.”
“Good.” He smiled and then disappeared back into the crowd.
I swiveled around, frowning as I told myself I totally had this. I was cool. Totally cool.
I fidgeted with the edge of the bar, keeping my eyes down. I doubted making eye contact with anything in this bar would be a smart idea. If there were succubi in here, what else could there be? I thought of the handsome demon in the corner playing cards.
Was the demon a dealmaker—a special kind of Duke that could be summoned from Hell to make deals? Back in the day, they were commonplace topside from what I knew, but just like other dangerous demons, they’d been banished to Hell by the Alphas.
God, if the Wardens knew that this place existed, they’d have a field day down here.
“She says I need a better job. That if I can’t pay my own bills, then how can I pay hers?” said a man a few seats down from me. He was dressed in a drab gray suit. It looked like a knockoff you could buy at an outlet. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t lose her.”
My gaze shifted to the bartender, and my mouth dropped open. It was Cayman! He glanced at me and winked as he topped off the man’s glass from a clear bottle. His ice-blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and he wore a black dress shirt that was rolled up to the elbows.
So on top of being an infernal ruler and Roth’s wingman, Cayman was apparently also a bartender.
He set the bottle down between them and leaned his hip against the counter. “Women are such trouble, Ricky. That’s why I prefer a good, honest man.”
That he liked men wasn’t news to me, but I seriously doubted he preferred a good, honest man.
Ricky ran the back of his hand over his forehead, blinking. “You’d change your mind if you met Angela. She’s an angel, as angelic as her name. I love her.”
“An angel that wants you to pay her bills?” The gleam in his honey-colored eyes brightened. “Doesn’t sound like a heavenly creature to me.”
“She’s so beautiful. Heaven ain’t got nothing on her.” Ricky lowered his head to his hands, and, for a moment, I thought the dude would start crying. “She won’t return any of my phone calls or emails. Not until I can prove I’m financially stable.”
Cayman sighed. “What would you do for this gold-digging angel of yours?”
Ricky’s head lifted, his eyes wide and sort of glazed over. He was drunk. “I’d do anything.”
“Anything?” asked the demon. He leaned forward, eyes latched on to the mortal’s.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.
“Anything,” Ricky agreed vehemently.
“What do you think you need for this wonderful specimen of womanhood to stay with you?”
“Money,” answered Ricky. “I need to win the lottery.”
Cayman grinned wolfishly, topping off the man’s drink again. “Then one more drink for good luck, my friend.” He raised the bottle up.
My stomach sank even further.
Ricky tapped his glass off the bottle, then downed the glass. He slammed it down and the glass shone an unholy red for a brief second. A deal had just been struck.
Love in exchange for a soul.
Ricky stumbled from the bar after a few minutes, and I hoped he didn’t accidentally get on the wrong elevator or something. I turned an expectant look on Cayman.
He laughed as he made his way over to me. “Care to share your worries?” he asked smoothly.
I leaned back. “Yeah, no thank you.”
He slid the bottle in front of me and leaned against the bar. “Would you like a drink, then?”
My eyes narrowed. “I’m fine.”
“Smart girl,” he replied. “Then again, I doubt there is any deal you could make me.” He looked over my shoulder, scouring the bar. “You’re looking at me like I just murdered a baby, sugar. You know what I am. You know what you are.”
“You just let a guy trade his soul for love.”
“Part of his soul—just a teeny, tiny piece. That’s all.” His gaze moved back to mine. “What was Roth thinking by bringing you here?”
I shrugged. “I have no clue.”
“And where is he?”
“Headed off to get us food.”
He laughed. “Roth brought you here for food? That’s great. You look as comfortable as a kitten huddled in a pile of pit bulls.”