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Gena Showalter

The Darkest Secret

Lords of the Underworld

I was writing this book when my cherished friend, Donnell Epperson, died. She was a woman of unwavering faith and deep love, who dreamed of being a published author. Tragically, she died before that dream could be realized. And that’s a shame (or a Glorious Misfortune, as she would have said with a beautiful and slightly wicked smile). She was truly gifted and utterly dedicated, and I like to think she was with me as I wrote this.

And so, this one is for you, my friend. And when Jill, Sheila and I get to heaven, I have a feeling we’ll be arguing about where our mansions are placed. I call dibs on the middle. Just sayin’. Until then, I continue to miss you with all my heart. Save me a hug, and maybe tell the Big Man I’m not so bad. Sometimes. Meanwhile, it’s no secret that I will always love you.

Chapter One

Strider, keeper of the demon of Defeat, burst through the towering front doors of the Budapest fortress he shared with a growing cast of friends — brothers and sisters by circumstance rather than blood, but all the closer for it — fighting a rush of undeniable pleasure.

He’d freaking done it, man. Done. It. After chasing his enemy cross-continent, bargaining away one of the four godly relics needed to find and destroy Pandora’s box — and yeah, he was gonna get spanked hard for that — then, after being eaten alive by insects and at one point (cough) walking into a chick’s knife (cough), he’d finally won. And damn if he wasn’t ready to celebrate.

«I’m king of the world, bitches. Come in here and bask in my glory.» His voice echoed through the foyer, expectant, eager.

No one returned the greeting.

Still. Grinning, he shifted the unconscious female draped over his shoulder into a more comfortable position. More comfortable for him. She was the enemy he’d been chasing, as well as the chick who’d oh, so impolitely introduced his pancreas to the freaking hilt of her blade. He could hardly wait to tell everyone that he’d done what they hadn’t. He’d bagged and tagged her, baby.

He called, «Daddy’s home. Somebody? Anybody?»

Again, there was no response. His grin dulled a bit.

Damn it. When he lost a single challenge, he battled crippling pain for days. When he won, though…gods, it was almost a sexual high, energy buzzing in his veins, heating him, priming him. That kind of enthusiasm called for a playmate. And, hell, twelve warriors and their menagerie of female companions lived here, yet no one had waited around to welcome him home? Even though the grounds were now gated, monitored and someone had had to punch him in, like, five minutes ago?

Didn’t that just figure.

But he deserved it, he supposed. Seven days had passed since he’d last texted or phoned. Technically, though, that wasn’t his fault. He’d been a wee bit preoccupied, what with subduing his bundle of anything but joy. And on his last update, he’d been told the danger here had passed and everyone could return, so he’d stopped the I-have-to-know-how-everyone’s-doing flurry of calls.

So, fine. No biggie. The fact that no one wanted to play actually did him a solid. Now he could take care of a little business. «Thanks, guys. You’re the best. Really.» And you can all suck it!

Strider surged forward. To console himself, he imagined his prisoner’s expression when she woke up and found herself trapped in a four-by-four cage. Now that’s the good stuff. Then his gaze snagged on his unfamiliar surroundings, and the last vestiges of his grin fell away. He stopped abruptly.

He’d been gone only a few weeks, and he’d thought most of the others had been, too, but in that time someone had managed to turn the run-down monstrosity they called home into a showpiece. Once comprised of crumbling stone and mortar, the floor was now brilliant white marble veined with amber. Equally deteriorated walls were now vividly polished rosewood.

Before, the winding staircase had been cracked; now it gleamed, not a flaw in sight, an unblemished gold railing climbing to the top. In the corner, a white velvet-lined chair was pushed against reflective paneling, and beyond that, priceless artifacts — colorful vases, bejeweled trinket boxes and aged spearheads — were perched behind glass cases.

None of which had been there before.

All these changes, in less than a month? Seemed impossible, even with Titan gods popping in and out at will. Maybe because those gods were more concerned with murder and mayhem than interior decorating. But maybe… maybe while Strider had been congratulating himself on a job well done, he’d entered the wrong house? It had happened before.

And talk about awkward. There was no way to explain the cut, bruised and soot-covered baggage he was hauling around. Not without a little jail time. Explaining the blood splatter on his clothing would be a real treat, too.

Nah, he decided a second later. This was the right place. Had to be. Along the staircase wall hung a portrait of Sabin, keeper of Doubt. Naked. Only one person had the balls to taunt badass Sabin with something like that. Anya, goddess of Anarchy and dealer of disorder, who just happened to be engaged to Lucien, keeper of Death. Odd pair, if you asked Strider, but no one had, so he’d kept the opinion to himself. Besides, better silence than the loss of a favorite appendage. Anya didn’t take kindly to anyone second-guessing her. About anything.

«Yo, Tor Tor,» he shouted now.

Torin, the keeper of the demon of Disease. Dude never left the fortress. He was always here, monitoring camera feed, ensuring the home remained invasion-free, as well as playing on his computers and making their miniature, by-invitation-only army a shitload of cha-ching.

At first, there was no reply, only another echo of his voice, and Strider began to worry. Had something catastrophic happened? A total demon wipeout? If so, why was he still here? Or had Kane, keeper of All Kinds of Bad Shit, had a crappy week and—

Footsteps pounded, closer and closer, and relief flooded him. He looked up the staircase, and there was Torin, standing on a zebra-print rug Strider also didn’t recall seeing before, his white hair shagging around his devil’s face, his green eyes bright as emeralds.

«Welcome home,» Torin said, adding, «You shithead.»

«Nice greeting.»

«You don’t call, you don’t write, and you want hearts and flowers?»

«Yeah, I do.»

«Figures.»

Torin wore black from neck to toe, his hands covered by soft leather gloves. Fashion-wise, those gloves were overkill. To save mankind, though, they were kinda necessary. A single touch of Torin’s skin against another’s, and hello plague. Guy’s demon pumped some kind of disease in his veins, that single touch all that was needed to spread it. Even to Strider. But immortal as he was, Strider wouldn’t die from a little cough/fever/vomiting of blood. Not like humans, who would be ravaged, perhaps worldwide, the infection becoming nearly unstoppable. Strider would give the illness to everyone he touched in turn, though, and as he moderately enjoyed seducing humans, he relied on skin-to-skin action.

«So, everything good here?» Strider asked. «Everyone fine?»

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