Edge of the Amazon River, Brazil
Andrasta, Celtic goddess of victory, swallowed hard, her gaze transfixed by the man in the makeshift boxing ring. Was he that handsome when I tried to kill him? Or that brutal?
She honestly couldn’t remember. It had been more than two thousand years since she’d seen him last, and she barely recognized him. Dim spotlights gleamed off sweat-slicked muscles and highlighted the feral brutality with which he pounded his opponent. No gloves protected his big hands, just white fabric wrapped around knuckles. They were spotted with blood.
She swallowed hard again, unable to look away.
She’d known she would find him here when she’d strolled up to the Caipora’s Den, a little dive bar perched on the edge of the Amazon River. But she hadn’t expected the outdoor boxing ring surrounded by a horde of cheering Mytheans or that her prey would be inside it, pounding his opponent into a sack of broken bones.
She’d never before been to the bar, which catered only to the supernatural beings who lived secretly alongside mortals. The building itself was ramshackle, and she had a feeling that it was just as run-down on the inside. The outdoor lot in which she stood was pressed between the building and the river. It housed the boxing ring and nearly a hundred Mytheans, most of whom looked human even though they weren’t. They screamed and cheered as punches landed with fierce smacks.
“All right, that’s enough,” hollered the ref, a big ugly brute who stepped forward to end the fight. The man she’d come for stood over his collapsed opponent, his heavily muscled chest heaving. He was declared the winner—no surprise, considering his opponent didn’t look like he’d be getting off the floor anytime soon.
She sank back into the crowd when he turned to exit the ring. Though she wanted to watch him, to devour every hard inch with her eyes, she didn’t want him to see her before she could approach him on her terms.
Their past was a pit of snakes, so confusing that even she couldn’t figure head from tail though she’d lived through it. She wouldn’t be surprised if he was pissed as hell, considering the arrows she’d sent through his heart the last time she’d seen him. Not that he hadn’t wronged her. He had. He’d started the nightmare that had ended in her stealing his godhood for herself. Worse, they’d cared for each other. Until it had all gone to shit, at least.
And now she needed his help.
She turned and pushed her way through the crowd, toward the small bar pressed against the outside of the building. She needed to buy herself some time to recover from the sight of him but didn’t want to do it inside the bar where she might lose track of him. Seeing him again made her shaky, even though it had been so many years. She just needed a minute to catch her breath, that was all.
She squeezed between two Mytheans of indeterminate species and reached the bar—which was more of a table with some liquor bottles and a cooler, but it would do.
“A beer,” she said to the bartender, a beautiful brunette who had the slightly feral face of some kind of shifter. Ana had never been any good at identifying Mytheans since she rarely got away from her own kind.
The bartender handed over a sweating glass bottle and hissed, “On the house.”
Anaconda Incantada. The sound of her voice gave away what her features did not. She was a snake shifter.
And it had better be on the house. There had to be some perks to being a god, since everything else had been a disappointment. Although Ana never tired of Mytheans fearing or bowing to her. Some watched her warily even now, and she appreciated it all the more for not having had it when she’d been mortal.
“How often does this happen?” Ana asked the bartender, hiking a thumb at the ring.
The shifter shrugged. “Every night.”
“Know anything about the fighters?”
“Not the loser. But the winner, he’s never lost. Fights pretty often. Seems to like it. Keeps to himself otherwise.”
Ana nodded and turned to look for her prey. The beer slid refreshingly down her throat, and she sighed in pleasure at the smooth taste of the infrequently allowed delicacy. Focusing on the taste helped calm her nerves just a bit. She was raising the bottle to her lips a second time when she spotted him standing off to the side of the crowd near the jungle that crept up to the dirt lot.
It had been two thousand years since she’d seen him last, when she’d thought she’d killed him and taken his place as a Celtic god. Those years had been kind to him, considering that he was still alive. Almost as kind as the way-too-hot woman draped around him, sucking on his neck while he unwrapped the bloody cloth from his hands.
Ana stifled the strange little twinge in her chest. She’d cared for him once, and he for her, but that was so long ago the memories had gone to dust. Or so she told herself. She took one last swig of the beer to chase them away.
Now or never. If she wanted a permanent escape from Otherworld, the land of the Celtic gods and what felt like her eternal prison, there’d be no more dawdling, no matter how nervous she was about his reception or willingness to help her.
She needed him. Admitting to it scraped something raw inside her. But after two thousand years, she wanted out more than she wanted her pride.
Ana sucked in a deep breath and wound her way through the crowd. When a lobisomem got handsy as she passed, an elbow to the gut halted his straying paws, and a glare stopped another. Fancy Brazilian name or not, they were dogs like the rest of their werewolf brothers. Within moments, she’d reached the edge of the crowd and stood before the now-kissing pair.
She squashed her nerves as she gazed at the strong profile of the man she’d never been able to forget—whose mouth was glued to the woman’s. He was a bruiser, even from the side, a contrast of hard features and short ginger hair. He looked rougher than she remembered. Bigger, too.
“Camulos,” Ana said. She glanced dismissively at the sultry woman now trying to swallow his tongue.
“Cam,” he said absentmindedly as he drew his face away from the woman’s to look at Ana. His brows shot up, his gray eyes widening the barest fraction. A scar sliced through one of the brows.
“Recognize me?” she asked, absorbing the fact that he no longer went by Camulos.
“Andrasta,” he rasped, shock plain on his face.
Did she hear his breath catch?
Hers certainly did. He looked every inch the god he’d once been—strong and powerful, with broad shoulders and big arms that looked like they’d been cut from steel. A man comfortable with the mantle of worship, even if he no longer carried it.
Ana shot a pointed glance at the other woman.
“Luciana,” he said, drawing the woman’s mouth away from where it had suctioned onto his neck.
Ana’s eyes zeroed in on the huge hand that cupped the back of Luciana’s neck, then looked back to realize that he’d kept his gaze trained on her own face.
“You need to go,” Camulos said to Luciana.
Luciana pouted at him, then turned to look at Ana.
“A goddess?” Her brows shot high. She no doubt noticed the small glow emitting from Ana’s skin and marked her as one from Otherworld. Her lips twisted in a sneer. “I thought you Celtic gods never left your cold realm.”
She’d be right, Ana thought bitterly. Cold and emotionless, that was Otherworld, and she was trapped there except for a few times a year when she could sneak out without the other gods noticing. But that’s what she wanted to change.
“Beat it, sister,” she said, trying out some earth slang she’d seen on a TV show. Sneaking a laptop into Otherworld and firing up movies with her magic was one of the few ways she stayed sane.
The woman pouted, gave one last longing glance at Camulos, and then moved off into the crowd.
Camulos gave her a hard, searching look, his shock now masked. He didn’t make a move to kill her—which was good. Not that she’d let him. But still, it was promising. He might have cared for her once, but after what had happened at the end, she wouldn’t be surprised if that had been pushed out by anger.
“Come on. Let’s get a seat inside.” He jerked his chin toward the ramshackle bar.
Ana nodded and turned to lead the way. This time, with the huge male of indeterminate species following closely behind her, the crowd parted in waves to let her pass. Camulos was so close on her heels she swore she could feel the heat of him. It made the fine hairs on her arms stand on end. She tried to ignore it.
The smell of sweat and stale beer assaulted her nose when she walked into the bar. It was even more crowded than the outside, with dozens of volatile Mytheans partying and fighting in the dark, smoky space lit only by bare, dangling light bulbs.
She blinked. Wow. This was so different from Otherworld. Gross, definitely, from the smell to the cleanliness of the occupants.
But it was great. It was nothing like Otherworld, and she loved it. There was one small unoccupied table in the corner, but it was far enough from the main crowd to suit her.
They hadn’t so much as settled at the table when a beer appeared in front of Camulos, carried by a smiling waitress whose eyes didn’t stray from him. He ignored it and spared her only a curt nod.
“How the hell did you find me?” he asked when the waitress slunk away.
His rough voice sent a shiver down her spine. That first tingle of attraction hadn’t been a fluke, after all. Damn it. This was what had gotten her in trouble so many years ago. Insane attraction that had blinded her to the danger she’d stepped into.
She dragged her mind back to the present. “More importantly, how the hell are you still alive? I thought I killed you.”
His big hand clenched on the table. Scars sliced across his knuckles.
She tried not to squirm in her seat as his eyes roamed from her face down to the hint of cleavage she knew peeped above the top of her leather breastplate. She always wore it, but then she spent most of her time in temperate Otherworld or Scotland. It was damn hot in the jungle.
Finally, his gaze dragged back to hers. The sight hit her straight in the solar plexus. Damn, he looked good, no matter how wary or how harsh his gaze. His short reddish-blond hair glinted in the dim light that struggled to illuminate the seedy bar with its sticky seats. He still looked like a damn god, no matter what he’d turned into.
“You didn’t kill me,” he said, one corner of his mouth hiked up.
“Then what the hell are you? How are you immortal?”
“Why would I tell you that?”
So it was going to be this way? A game of chance where neither showed their cards? But it suited her too, since she had no idea how she felt about him. She glared at him as a Jurassic-sized fly buzzed around her head, as annoying as the questions hanging in the air between them. She still didn’t fully understand everything that had happened those many years ago when she’d taken his place as a god by sending an arrow through his heart. Twice. She flinched at the mental image that came with the thought—him dying in the snow, his blood soaking through the knees of her dress.
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” he asked.
“Nope.” If she was going to be afraid of anyone, it would be him—with his huge body, scowling face, and potentially deadly grudge against her. But she wasn’t. She could take care of herself, damn it. Being afraid was a thing of the past.
“Yep.” She wasn’t the same girl he’d once cared for, however briefly. After they’d gotten caught in the crosshairs of the gods and her whole life had gone to hell, she’d changed.
“Anyway, it worked out for the best.” He raised his smudged glass in toast to her.
“Really?” Her brows shot up. He truly thought their past—trading places so that she became a god and he went to earth—had worked out for the best?
He nodded, but she had a hard time believing him.
“Why? You should have loved Otherworld. You’re a god,” she said.
“Yeah, but you get what I mean,” she said. “Otherworld, the coldness there, shouldn’t have bothered you since you were born a god. The power, the perfection. It was all yours. Without all the downsides.”
Like the soul-sucking loneliness of a place with no emotion. No one could care about anyone else. She was a fluke, a god with the ability to feel because she’d once been mortal. But there was nothing to feel there. No joy, no love, no fun. No way to distract herself from the misery of being trapped. All the other gods, they were perfect for it. Automatons in their impeccable world. But not her.
“So why would it be better for you on earth?” she asked when he didn’t respond. He had less power here and had to hide from the other gods. And earth was messy and miserable compared to Otherworld. But it was that ability to be miserable, and alternately joyful, which made her want to return. “There’s nothing for you here.”
His gray eyes darkened, his expression effectively closing the subject. “That’s my business, not yours. Why the hell are you here?”
“I want out.”
“Are you kidding? Do you know what will happen to you when the other gods figure out you’ve tried to run?”
What was it about his voice that made her want to squirm in her seat? The mixed accent from his long life sounded exotic somehow and a hint of roughness dragged across her skin.
She shivered. “I’ve snuck out before.”
“For a few hours maybe, and not with the intent to flee.” He nodded smugly and she knew he must see acknowledgment in her eyes. “When they figure out that you’re gone and don’t intend to come back, you’ll end up chained to the most desolate tor in Blackmoor for a thousand years while ravens circle for dinner.”
Ana swallowed hard. The knowledge of the great rock formations where lawbreakers were punished was something she’d tried not to focus on when she’d decided to run. Blackmoor was the most desolate place in Otherworld, all scrubby ground punched through with granite tors and howling wind and rain. She had about a day before the other gods figured out she was gone. At that point, she’d be considered a deserter and they’d hunt her down.
“I’m aware of the risks.” She tried to make her voice hard. “I want out.”
“What the hell do you expect me to do about it?”
“You cared for me once.” She didn’t want to play that card—not after how it had ended between them—but she was desperate.
Truth flashed in his eyes, then his jaw hardened. “It was a long time ago.”
It had been. But seeing him was dredging up emotions she’d forgotten she’d ever had. She tried to force them to the back of her mind and focus on her goal. “I want to know how you became mortal.”
“Damn it, you know what I mean. I just don’t want to be a god anymore. You stole my life when your obsession with me attracted the attention of the other gods. I want my life back.”
“I don’t owe you a thing.” He raised his glass and his strong throat worked as he swallowed, drawing her eyes to it. She couldn’t help but notice the way his worn shirt stretched over his broad chest. She scowled at her own interest. Long ago, that same interest had gotten her into trouble.
“Fine. I’ll just have to convince you,” she said.
He didn’t respond, just smiled and folded his muscled arms over his chest. She sighed, then tensed when he swung his feet up onto the chair next to her.
Her breath caught in her throat. She could almost feel the heat of his thighs close to hers. Her leg tingled, her skin prickling. Something low in her stomach tightened, and it reminded her that this was one of the reasons she wanted to be back on earth.
Fates, her nerves were on edge, and he wasn’t helping matters. She’d spent nearly every day of the last two millennia in Otherworld—the dullest, loneliest place in all of creation. As much as she loved the hustle and bustle of the Mytheans and mortals on earth, there was way too much of it in this bar. Her senses were on overdrive, and the air fairly buzzed with emotion from the dozens of volatile Mytheans carousing around her.
She swallowed hard and met his eyes. His smile reappeared, as if he knew what was going on inside her head. Inside her body.
“I need some air.” She jumped to her feet. “Come on.”
As soon as he stood, she spun and headed for the front door of the bar, hoping it would be quieter than the fighting ring out back. She had to cool down or things were going to get out of control.
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