The driving hip-hop beat made the fallen god want to take off his clothes and pulse around the nightclub. What about the music captured his fancy remained a mystery, but clearly the revelers around him felt the same way. They packed themselves into the cracker box of a nightclub known as Eliseo by the droves, just for the opportunity to flail around to the unsullied throbbing rhythm.
Bacchus displayed a toothy grin as he moved through the various levels and side rooms of the nightclub. The summer months in Miami yielded a vast array of guests from the main dance floor to the elite gatherings in the VIP room. He dug the energy all over, but something about the vigor with which the privileged few partied attracted him. He sauntered up to one of the counters serving the VIPs.
"How’s it going tonight, Fede?" Bacchus called to the young Cubano tending bar.
"Very good, Mr. Gustafson," the young man addressed him with his alias, Bach Gustafson.
Both of their gazes followed the stream of nubile cocktail waitresses who dropped off orders and ferried a rainbow of mixed drinks to their eminent clients.
"Hello there, Miss Arianna," Bacchus greeted one of his favorite employees.
"Hello, Mr. Gustafson." She avoided his gaze and focused her attention on loading glasses onto her tray.
"You’re looking lovely this evening."
She didn’t smile or return the compliment. "Thanks."
Bacchus leaned down to speak into her ear. "You all right this evening, love?"
Arianna skittered away from the sudden close proximity. Casting a shifty, uneasy look at him, she assured him everything was fine, then hurried away, drinks in tow.
His gaze followed her across the floor to a red velvet chaise where a predatory peacock of a man lounged. The man’s hands roamed all over the poor girl. Bacchus motioned to a member of the VIP security team, a glorified bouncer.
"What’s up, Mr. Gustafson?"
Bacchus made a subtle motion in the direction of chaise. "Cliff, warn our friend over there to keep his hands to himself, please."
"Right away, Sir."
The wall of muscle packed into a teal polo shirt strolled over to the man who had an arm hooked around Arianna’s thighs.
Though he couldn’t make out the words, Bacchus could tell the bouncer’s message had not been well received.
When the young man returned, he made a gesture of confusion. "He says she’s his girlfriend and she confirmed it so…"
"Really?" Bacchus replied, stunned. "How dreadful for her."
Cliff rubbed his fingers together in the sign for money.
"I’d never have taken Arianna for a ‘gold digger,’" Bacchus said, using a bit of slang he’d picked up.
"Not to be disrespectful, Sir, but all women that look like Arianna are gold diggers."
"And why do you think that is?"
Cliff smirked. "Because they can, Sir."
"You’re a wise man."
Bacchus took leave of the bouncer, entranced by the oblivious manner in which Arianna’s boyfriend conducted himself. Every expression on the woman’s face told Bacchus she didn’t want this man within fifty feet of her, much less slathering his hands all over her. But the self-centered fellow didn’t seem to notice. Bacchus knew as well as anyone could that souls united for a variety of reasons and he’d had more than his fair share of lovers. Even for a god he’d been a tad on the promiscuous side, but every body he’d ever touched quivered with longing beneath his fingertips. If Arianna responded to this man at all, her quaking would indicate revulsion. And something else—fear maybe?
Not that her boyfriend was without his own dark beauty: chiseled jaw, black waves of stylish hair, almond-shaped golden-green eyes. Singularly striking golden-green eyes. No doubt the man begun as an innocent baby boy, but life had decayed him. Bacchus could read the legacy of pain that marred the man’s soul, apart of his brain that twisted him into something grotesque that no amount of physical beauty could cloak. The ability to read souls was the singular talent he’d had as a god that remained with him in his human form. Perhaps a gift from The Council or a part of Bacchus they’d been unable to eradicate.
Arianna appeared again at the bar to collect another round of drinks for her section. Bacchus scooted next to her.
"Now, I know you told me you’re okay and I don’t mean to pester you," he spoke into her ear.
"But you don’t seem to be enjoying that man’s company."
She shook her head. "No, he’s fine. I’m sorry he’s all over me at work. I’ve told him he can’t do that here, but he doesn’t listen."
Bacchus placed his hand in the small of her back, but pulled it away when she stiffened. "I’m not scolding you, Arianna. I’m just concerned."
"Thanks, Mr. Gustafson."
He opened his mouth to say more, but she turned and walked away with her tray of drinks. An angry exchange passed between Arianna and the dark man. The entourage around him broke out in mocking laughter. Bacchus could feel distress coming off the young woman in waves. She placed a hand to her mouth and hurried toward the alley exit. The man took his time pulling his sleek form to his feet, then followed after her. In Bacchus’ not-so-humble opinion, this turn of events would not play out well. The former god sauntered after the pair.
The shouting resonated into the hallway that led to the back alley. Bacchus opened the door to find the weasel inches from Arianna’s face, spewing insults at her. With uncharacteristic reservation, the fallen deity leaned against the wall, arms folded, but ready to intervene at the right moment.
"You fucking little whore," the man spat.
"Please, Dezi, just calm down. I didn’t do anything. Mr. Gustafson didn’t do anything. He was just checking on me."
"You think I’m fucking stupid? I saw him touch you. I swear if you’re fucking that faggot, so help me—" He grabbed her throat.
"Don’t," she gasped.
Time to intervene.
"Why don’t you let her go and throttle me?" Bacchus asked.
Dezi turned to see who spoke. "Isn’t that cute, your little maricon boyfriend is here to protect you."
Bacchus pulled himself up to his full height of six feet five inches, caught the hand about to crash into Arianna’s cheek and glowered down at the despicable man. "I take exception to the word ‘little.’ And in case you’re too stupid to understand what I meant, I’ll make it simple for you. Let the young lady be and leave my establishment."
With a vicious shove, Dezi pushed Arianna away from him and turned on Bacchus. "You sure you want to get mixed up in this?"
"You don’t know who you’re messing with, pretty boy."
"Nor do you. I’ve sat at the same dinner table with Darkness and dined with demons. I assure
you, there’s nothing about you that inspires fear."
"What the fuck are you talking about? You mental or something?"
The slime ball tried to wrest his hand free of Bacchus’ grasp, but the former god held tight. At least The Council had blessed him with a strong, capable human body.
Pan appeared in the doorway. "Everything all right, Sire—uh Sir?"
"This man and his friends were just leaving," Bacchus replied.
"Of course, Sir."
The old goat, in full human form, grabbed Dezi by the neck and pushed him toward the door. "Let’s get your friends and walk them out, too."
Judging from the glazed look on the greasy man’s face, Bacchus could tell Pan had taken control of Dezi’s mind. How the god missed pulling tricks like that on his adversaries. With a sigh he turned to the frightened woman.
"Are you all right, love?"
All the blood had drained from Arianna’s face and she trembled. "You don’t know what you’ve done."
Bacchus walked over and took her by the hand. "There’s nothing to worry about now."
He led her into the club and to his office. After he settled her in on the black leather sofa, he poured a glass of Sandeman for him and two fingers of rum for her.
"Thanks." She took the drink but didn’t taste it.
The fallen god knelt in front of her. "Drink that. It’ll calm you."
She took a small sip, then sputtered and coughed. "Strong."
"It’s one-fifty-one rum. I find it an efficient libation."
Tears welled up in Arianna’s eyes and her lower lip shook.
"Don’t cry." Bacchus stroked her hair. "Please don’t cry. I’m not very good with crying women. I don’t have much experience with them."
A reluctant chuckle escaped Arianna’s lips. "No one’s ever stood up for me like that before. Of course you’re a dead man now."
"There are worse things than death, love."
"No, I mean it. He’s part of the Cuban mafia."
"What’s that?"Bacchus asked.
"Some very bad people. How can you not know that?"
"I’m lacking in current events."
Her faced blanched again. "What am I going to do?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh my God." Her voice rose an octave. "I can’t go home. He’ll be waiting for me."
"Hush now. You can come home with me."
"It’s not that simple."
"It is that simple. If this man is so dangerous, you need to be rid of him. Make a clean break."
"I can’t—I can’t." Arianna got to her feet and started to pace.
Bacchus stepped in front of her and cupped her face in his hands. "You have to. You’re too good a soul to be trapped by someone like that. You’re coming home with me and that’s final."
"And just what is it you think you know about my soul?"
A gentle expression overtook the former god’s face. "I can see you as a very little girl, with a sunburned nose, missing a front tooth, but you smile anyway. You liked to curl up on your mother’s lap and she would sing you songs about Cuba. Songs her mother used to sing. The fuzzy dandelions in your front yard were your favorite feature of your new home. That little girl is still inside you and she tells me you are a good person. Perhaps one who’s made some ill-advised choices, but still good."
She searched Bacchus’ eyes for something, but clearly failed to find it. "What kind of devil are you? Why do you want to help me so much?"
"I’m no devil, I assure you. Quite the contrary. It makes me happy to lend you a hand…it reminds me of someone I used to be."
"I can’t repay you and I won’t—"
"I’m not looking for payment in any form. I’ll send Pan to get your stuff from your locker and take you to my place."
"What if Dezi shows up there, too?"she asked.
"Then I’ll kick his ass like I wanted to just now."
"He has friends—lots of nasty, dangerous friends."
"I have a few friends of my own. Don’t worry, Arianna. You’re safe with me."
Arianna huffed, wiping away tears and snot. "You’re really not afraid of him."
"Not a bit."
She leaned in and planted a kiss on Bacchus’ cheek. "You were very brave. Muy macho."
The ex-god brightened at the praise. "Was I?"
"Oh yeah." She nodded. "Well, except that part about having dinner with demons. That sounded a little gay."
"Really?" Bacchus furrowed his brow. "Because that’s actually true. I have. Nasty sons-a-bitches, that lot."
Arianna shook her head. "You’re so strange."
He swilled a mouthful of port. "You don’t know the half of it."