“This is remarkable,” Bacchus said around a mouthful of food. “What do you call it again?”
“Arroz con pollo,” Arianna replied.
“Well, I would’ve thought it was something much more complicated than chicken and rice.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gustafson.”
“Bach? Did your mother like classical music?”
“Not in the sense that you mean ‘classical.’” Bacchus smiled to himself.
“Excuse me for saying this, but you don’t look like a Bach.”
“I don’t? What do I look like to you?”
“I’m thinking not.”
“I’m afraid I’ve never been anyone’s savior.”
“You were mine tonight.” Her dark eyes, fringed with ebony lashes caught Bacchus’ pale blue gaze.
“Well, there’s a first for everything, right?” Still adjusting to human emotions, Bacchus picked up his goblet of wine and washed down the lump forming in his throat. Savior? If he ever got back into the Palace of Light, the Council would have a long hard laugh about that one. Bacchus—the playboy of deities—affable slacker and divine gigolo, yes. Savior, heavens no.
“I’m flattered that you think of me that way,” he said.
She leaned in and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. “Should I make a plate for Pan? He was nice enough to take me to the market earlier.”
“Yes, do make Panny a plate. He’d like that. I’m told my culinary talents leave something to be desired.”
“Well, you had nothing at all here to cook. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go tomorrow morning and stock up.”
“So kind of you to offer. I’ll send Pan with you to make sure no one bothers you.” Bacchus fished four hundred dollars from his wallet. “Will that cover it?”
“Uh, yeah. More than cover it. Unless you want me to pick up a months worth of caviar and filet mignon while I’m out.”
“Whatever you think is best.”
“And that was a waste of sarcasm.”
“Oh nothing.” Arianna shook her head. Once she’d stowed the leftovers in the refrigerator, she set to work on the dishes.
Bacchus watched her move around the kitchen. Something about her presence in his home made everything feel lighter. Had he grown so accustomed to the dark that it no longer plagued him? And just what about Arianna made his skin feel warm from the inside out?
“May I ask you a personal question?” Bacchus hoisted himself onto the kitchen counter.
“I suppose I owe you that much.”
“How did you wind up in the clutches of someone like Dezi?”
The very mention of the man’s name seemed to deflate the young woman. “I’m sure you wouldn’t agree with my choices, but I have my reasons.”
“I’d like to hear them, if I may. But if you’d rather not talk about it, that’s all right, too.”
“Well, basically to wipe out my father’s gambling debt, I became a prostitute with only one client—Dezi.”
“I’m so sorry. Your father put this choice to you?”
“Oh no. No. He was rarely sober enough to walk, much less to make an arrangement like this. Dezi and his crew have been fixtures at Eliseo since I started working there a few years ago. His boss, Sr. Santos, used to own the place, but I guess you know that.”
“Indeed I do. And Sr. Santos needs to learn never to draw to an inside straight.”
“Is that how you took over the club? In a poker game?”
Arianna rolled her eyes. “Figures. Anyway, Dezi started hitting on me the moment I showed up for an interview and once I started working there, he turned up the pressure, but I held my own. And then my father hit a bad losing streak. He liked to bet college football and the season didn’t go at all as he predicted. So when Papa couldn’t pay, Dezi came to me with an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“And what does your father think of your situation?”
“He doesn’t think anything about it. Papa passed away last year.”
“I’m sorry to hear your father is gone, but doesn’t that release you from his debt?”
“No. Not in Dezi’s mind. He’s made it very clear that if I ever break things off with him, he’ll reinstate my father’s debt and hold me accountable for it.”
“Can your mother help you with the money?”
“Mama died when I was twelve. Ovarian cancer.”
The fallen god’s heart broke for this young woman. She’d barely had a chance to live or experience any joy in her life. How she found the strength to weather so many trials in one short lifetime, Bacchus didn’t know.
“You know, I have a good deal of money myself. I’m happy to pay off your father’s debt, if it means that you’ll be free of this evil man.”
She wiped her soapy hands on a towel and turned to face him. Her full lips pursed, struggling against the tears that gathered at the corners of her eyes. “Thank you, but I don’t believe it’s about the money. It never was. And he’ll never let me go.”
Hopping to his feet he crossed the narrow kitchen and folded the petite woman in his arms. The floral scent of her shampoo reminded him of his own childhood, countless millennia ago. The Nymphs who cared for him bathed in lavender and rose water. His earliest memories flowed along on rivers of perfumed hair cascading around his cheeks just before he faded off to sleep. Bacchus planted a kiss on her forehead.
“I promise, if it’s the last thing I do on Earth, I’ll put this right for you,” he murmured.
“I don’t know why, but I believe you.”
“Good. Now, no more tears. I’ll finish up the dishes.” As if he had any idea how to wash dishes.
“You go relax in a hot bubble bath.”
Arianna shuffled off to the guest suite and Bacchus watched her with an unwavering stare. The depth of longing he felt for this mortal woman unnerved the former god. Other than Pan, he’d felt very little connection to another being.
The old goat had been like a father to him since Bacchus’s own father, Zeus, had been far too busy with his own divine politics to spend much time with his bastard son. Not to mention that Zeus’ wife had killed Bacchus’ mother and tried to kill him so as a baby, Bacchus had been placed with the Nymphs to grow up in their protective care.
The picturesque valleys and grottoes he’d grown up in provided an idyllic backdrop for most of his youth. Various Nymphae had taken turns caring for little Bacchus, nurturing him each day with flower petals and morning dew, then reading him Homer’s Odyssey at bedtime. The character of Penelope, waiting faithfully for the return of her true love, had captured the young god’s heart. Romantic tales and pixyish nannies had shaped his picture of ideal femininity. Until now, Bacchus had never met anyone who embodied the spirit of Penelope. Could a licentious, irresponsible, and irrelevant divinity be allowed a chance at pure love? He could but hope.