That’s right, my darlings! It’s that special time of year on Smashwords and that means it’s time for a SALE! You get grab all my Smashwords titles right now for 25% off, including 13 Days of Monster F#cking: Volume 1 and Volume 2 that I co-wrote with Mozzarus! My short story, Tentacle Hockey, is also on sale so go grab all the things now!
The Elite: Ace of Maids: Now Available!
LFM #1: Werewolves Hate Clogs: Now Available!
SFL #9: Love You Always, Suckers And All: 07/25/2023
Ruthless Daddies: Beast: Preorder Now! 08/11/2023
O Deadly Night: Volume 2: Preorder Now! 11/14/2023
Ruthless Daddies: Beast: 15/15 (editing!)
O Deadly Night: Volume 2: 14k (editing!)
13 Days Secret Monster Project: Preorder TBA
Demons: 6/20~ (writing!)
13 Days of Monster F#cking Volume 3: 2/13 (writing)
Future Projects 2023
Cold’s Brother Thing
Suckery Mystery Thing
Gay Murder Lobsters
Secret Card Thing
Happy July, darlings!
LETS GOOOOO WOOOO!
La Famiglia Mostro: Werewolves Hate Clogs is here! Thank you all so much for the love for Lou and Neil! This book was an absolute blast to write, and I am so freakin’ happy with how it turned out. I cannot say which couple is going to be next in the series just yet, but I hope to start on the second book later this year or early next year.
You know, once the ten million other things I have going on are done! xD
Speaking of new shiny things, I have a new shiny PREORDER to share! I am so thrilled to officially announce that I am participating in the second volume of O Deadly Night! This is a dark MM holiday themed anthology to benefit the Trevor Project, and I am being joined by some AMAZINGGGG authors! Go check it out! <333
Don’t forget about my other preorder, Ruthless Daddies: Beast! This is me and Mozz’s entry in the super sexy steamy Ruthless Daddies collab series, and I think you guys are reallyyyy gonna enjoy this one! Our sweet boy is a very naughty boy! Bwuhahaaa! >:D
And last but certainly not least, the FINAL book in the Sucker For Love Mystery series is up for preorder! Love You Always, Suckers And All is coming on July 25th! AHHHHH I CANT WAIT! I still can’t believe I finished a series and I am so happy. It’s done. I did it. AHHHHHHHHH xD xD xD
Whew so okayyyy what else am I doinggg
Oh right! I do have another magical collab coming up, but I can’t tell you anything yet except uhhh demons. That’s all you get. Mozz and I are writing this one too, and it might just be the most ridiculously hilarious thing ever. I mean, I think it’s funny but hey xD I’ll let you guys decide hahaha xD More info on that coming soon!
We have also started on 13 Days of Monster F#cking: Volume 3! We will continue to work on those in between visits to demon land, and the new volume will go to Smashwords this Halloween alongside a speciallll super secret squirrel release that will be going to Amazon that same dayyy bwuhaha. Don’t worry — there will be preorder info for the new secret release probably uh September ish I think. More on that laterererer.
In other words, we will have a DOUBLE monster release on Halloween. Not sure I made that that clear with my babbling lol. One on SW, one on Amazon, both on the same day. Halloween. Okay, there we go. Moving on!
Let’s talk conventions!
Sadly, Amanda Meuwissen and I will not be attending Galaxy Con: Raleigh. We were on the waitlist and waiting and waitingggggg and yeah no that didn’t work out. But never fear! We are both coming to GRL and Twin Cities Con!
I am coming back as a Spotlight Author along with Amanda to the Gay Romance Literature Retreat in Portsmouth VA from October 18th to the 22nd! My GRL 2023 Preorder is open so go check it out! Remember this form is to preorder books to physically pick up at the convention and not part of a sign/ship dealio. You have to actually come see my face to get these!
I will also be attending Twin Cities Con with Amanda in Minneapolis, MN from November 3rd to the 5th! I will be very, very cold. Yes and yes, I still plan to be wearing a giant parka the entire time I’m there. xD
Now! Uhhh let’s seeee SO Mozz and I are working on demons and 13 Days while I wrap up my short story for the O Deadly Night anthology. After that, I have one more collab to write for this year and all I can tell you is that it has tentacles and holiday shenanigans.
YES it is FINALLY time to return to Strassen Springs. Two more books to go woooo! SO CLOSE. SO VERY CLOSEE ahhhhhh I will start working on the final two books for the Cold Hard Cash universe. It’s comingggg sooon so soon okay yeah I think that about covers things.
As always, you can check out my Patreon to read my current WIP’s and see what I’m up to, feel free to stalk me on all my social media, and stay tuned for more exciting news!
Take care, darlings!
That’s right, darlings! The first in my new La Famiglia Mostro series is HERRRE! Werewolves Hate Clogs is LIVE! I am so excited for you guys to dive into this new shiny world and meet Lou and Neil and all the other very very veryyy nifty peeps! I hope you guys check it out and enjoy the mystery, the monsters, and of course the steamy smexy times!
Othniel “Neil” Ricci has a sweet new gig working at his uncle’s flower shop—good hourly pay, free room and board, and he has absolutely no idea that the city is apparently infested with monsters.
That is, until he does.
Louis Morénas-Mostro is a werewolf and an underboss in the monstrous crime family who rule over everything that goes bump in the night. When a prized magical artifact becomes inadvertently attached to Neil, Lou is determined to get it back at any cost.
…Even pretending to date him.
Neil finds himself at odds with an entire monster family, their rebellious enemies, and his own growing attraction to Lou. He hopes he lives long enough to find out if their explosive chemistry can lead to something real, but first he has to make sure he doesn’t end up as monster kibble.
Hello, darlings! It’s that time again where I gift you guys with a FREE novella! This one is a 25k sweet and fluffy story with a small splash of angst. It’s my MM take on a modern romance with Hades, God of the Dead. Check the content warnings just in case purdy please! xD
You can read it here on my website by clicking that big ol’ link below! If you want to download a free ebook copy, you must be a subscriber of my newsletter to get the Bookfunnel link. You can subscribe right HERE and you should get it in your welcome email! If not, just click here! Remember that you have to be subscribed to the newsletter first for it to work! <333
Joseph Abrams can’t believe he’s met the perfect guy through online dating. Zale Petropoulos is hot, charming, geeky, and just the right amount of mysterious. They finally meet for their first in-person date and sparks fly all the way through dinner and right into the bedroom. But Zale has a confession to make and finally reveals his big secret…
He’s the god of the Underworld.
And Joseph is now his new prince-consort.
WARNINGS: Mild body horror, temporary character death, and godly kiss trickery.
The final piece Joseph found was Zale’s left foot.
The last few weeks leading up to the discovery of the foot had been wonderful, and Joseph had never been happier. Between searches for Zale’s errant body parts, he and Zale spent every moment they could together. They binged their favorite shows, went out dancing at the club, had conversations that sometimes went all night long—and of course, they did many other things that could also last all night long.
Joseph learned gods were quite insatiable, but he didn’t mind, as some of that godly libido seemed to be rubbing off on him too.
When Zale had to handle his god of the dead business or any of his actual businesses, Joseph was more than content to hang out at the house and relax. They’d already moved Joseph’s things in and he knew he wasn’t ever going back to his cruddy apartment.
Here with Zale, he was finally home.
Jayden came by often to visit, share new products, and gossip, and he loved stealing Joseph away for shopping sprees and boozy brunches. Jayden offered Joseph a job as an official tester for Jayden Glamore, which basically just meant he gave Joseph free stuff and paid him an insane salary.
Not that Joseph needed it, but it was still a lot of fun and kept him busy while Zale was working.
It was actually while trying out some new foot scrubs that Joseph had an epiphany on how to help the other souls in the Pit of Despair—to let them be testers too.
Zale had thought it was ridiculous, but Joseph insisted that they try. Once the souls were back in their Heavens, Jayden helped Joseph put together gift baskets for them all. The souls were instructed to test the products and write reviews, and the prompting gave them something to do to distract themselves from their despair. Whenever Zale sensed one of them starting to slip again, they’d send a new basket.
It was still a work in progress and not every soul took to the idea, but it made Joseph feel good to see the Pit of Despair’s population decrease all the same. Zale was impressed and very proud, and he and Joseph talked about other ways they could keep the souls engaged so they wouldn’t wander back into the Pit, like cooking classes or even knitting.
Not only did Joseph have his happily ever after, but he felt like he was actually making a difference in the world.
Well, in the Underworld, anyway.
The day Joseph found Zale’s foot, they were going for a walk along one of the many underground rivers not far from the Pit of Despair and had been debating who would win in a fight, Darth Vader or Superman. As soon as the new body part appeared in Joseph’s hands, he proceeded to sing “Footloose” all the way back to the sacred altar.
Joseph hadn’t been able to complete a transference on his own since Zale’s head–though it hadn’t been for a lack of trying. Although entertaining, he had learned that throwing the body parts didn’t help and hadn’t been able to recreate the same magic as before.
Maybe next year, Joseph had said.
And Zale had just smiled.
Once the foot was placed, Joseph had almost expected confetti to drop down from the cavern ceiling, but it simply disappeared as before. It was magically transfixed back to Zale’s body and after a brief glow, there was nothing.
“No horns blowing? No blazing fire or anything?”
“I’m afraid not,” Zale said, stretching his arms and groaning lightly as if he had just woken up from a long nap. “Mmm… And in record time. It’s not even winter yet and look at you.”
“I’m already a champion body part scavenger hunter?” Joseph laughed.
“Precisely.” Zale reached for Joseph’s hand. He kissed his knuckles and then pulled him into a tight embrace.
“I’m sure it’ll get easier every year.” Joseph chuckled. “Maybe next time I’ll try to beat my record, huh?”
“Next time,” Zale repeated softly, almost as if he still couldn’t believe it.
“There’s going to be a next time,” Joseph confirmed with a bright smile. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Zale kissed him. “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me for loving you.”
“Mmm, well, I know that I don’t make it easy.”
“Nope,” Joseph said with a wink. “But it’s worth it.”
Zale nuzzled close, breathing Joseph in as he said, “Now that I am fully restored and spring is secured, I would very much like to show you how grateful I am.”
“You did promise me a puppy, you know.”
“But you did. Remember when I died a little? You told me I could have a puppy. And you have yet to give me a puppy.”
“I’m aware, but I had something else in mind.” Zale leaned in to nip at Joseph’s ear and very purposefully rolled his hips forward.
“Well, if you insist.” Joseph blushed, his hands sliding up Zale’s chest. “Take me home, Zale.”
“Gladly, my prince.” Zale whisked them away in a blink.
Joseph felt so safe and happy here, and he smiled as he kissed Zale. He wanted to touch every inch of him, just to make sure the divine process had truly worked and all of him was where it should be.
Zale snorted in laughter when Joseph grabbed his butt, breaking the kiss to tease, “Checking everything out?”
“Look,” Joseph huffed, “it’s not that having sex without all of your parts isn’t nice. In some ways, it’s weirdly hot. But! I’ve missed you. Having all of you.”
“I’m all yours,” Zale promised him, sweeping Joseph into his arms and carrying him toward the bed.
Joseph hugged Zale’s neck. “You know, you never did carry me over the threshold.”
“Oh? Should I have?” Zale smirked.
“Well, we did get married,” Joseph pointed out. “And maybe… maybe we could have a real wedding?”
“Whatever you want,” Zale promised as he placed Joseph down in their bed. He stretched out beside him, sliding his hands over his body and pulling him into a sweet kiss. “I will happily marry you again. And again. Forever.”
Joseph shivered, grinning wide as he said, “Just once will be good enough for me.”
“But we already got married—”
“One time when I actually know that we’re being married,” Joseph clarified with a short laugh. “That will be enough, I promise!”
Zale chuckled warmly, running his fingers through Joseph’s hair. “Whatever my prince wants, he will have.”
“Even if it’s to be married on board an exact replica of Serenity?” Joseph teased.
“If that’s what you want,” Zale promised with a wink. “I’ll even dress up like Captain Mal for you.”
“Oh? Am I to be your beautiful Companion then?” Joseph batted his eyes coyly.
“You do look rather ravishing in jewels.”
“Mmm, I may just have a little surprise for you then,” Zale said with a twinkle in his eye. He held out his hand and a large velvet box appeared in his palm.
“What is this?” Joseph hesitantly took the box, his mind distracted from getting physical for the moment.
“A gift.” Zale gestured for Joseph to open it. “It was going to be a farewell gift, but now that you’re not saying farewell, I thought you’d like to wear it for me to celebrate tonight.”
Joseph cracked it open, and he gasped when it revealed a thick diamond collar. It was absolutely stunning, and he grinned when he realized that Zale definitely intended for him to wear this and nothing else.
Joseph smiled. “Only if you put it on me.”
“Gladly.” Zale leaned in for a kiss and pulled Joseph against him. He slowly pulled off Joseph’s shirt, only breaking their kiss to get it over his head.
Joseph licked into Zale’s mouth and groaned as his strong hands continued to strip him down. The god was taking his time, caressing every inch of skin as he went.
The slow pace was beautiful and maddening, Joseph happily moving his hands to work at the buttons of Zale’s shirt. He took his time, just as Zale had, touching him everywhere. He loved that he could feel everything, no longer limited by missing body parts.
He rubbed Zale’s strong shoulders, caressed his chest and his stomach. He pushed his slacks down to get at his hips and thighs, their kiss growing more and more frantic as he went.
Joseph made sure to pay each part equal reverence and love, certain his jaw was aching from so much kissing. He tangled their legs together when they were both completely bare, grinding their cocks together as they kissed.
Zale shifted forward, stretching Joseph out on his back. He reached for the collar, gently snapping it around his neck as he said, “I dug these gems out of the earth myself, just for you…”
“I love it,” Joseph gushed, the cool jewelry making goose bumps prick up along his skin. “And I love you.”
“I love you,” Zale said sincerely, bowing his head for a kiss.
Joseph eagerly returned it, trying to push Zale back onto his side. He had some very specific ideas about what he wanted to do next, but he might as well have been trying to move a truck.
Zale finally pulled back with a breathless laugh. “What are you doing?”
“If you’d please roll over on your side, I would show you,” Joseph said stubbornly.
“As you wish, your highness.” Zale chuckled, tilting over as requested.
Joseph scrambled to turn around, also on his side, pressing his head down between Zale’s legs. He licked a long stripe up his cock and pushed his hips up to Zale’s face.
“Ohhh, Joseph,” Zale purred, catching on quick and grabbing Joseph’s hips.
Joseph grinned, using his hand to grab the base of Zale’s dick and start sucking him down. He nearly choked when Zale effortlessly deep throated him, holding on to his ass firmly and forcing him to fuck his face. “Shit!”
Zale didn’t stop, happy to take all of Joseph at once, sucking hard and maintaining a ridiculous amount of pressure while still stuffing every inch down his throat.
Joseph tried to keep up, squeezing Zale’s cock as he sucked him. He started bobbing his head, using his tongue and every trick he knew to make Zale feel good. Hearing his soft groans was like music, and Joseph was determined to make him come first.
But that was pretty much impossible when you were competing with a god.
Zale was still sucking him hard, his hands sliding between Joseph’s thighs to spread them wide. Joseph wasn’t sure what Zale was up to, but he could feel himself getting wet and opened up wide.
Joseph moaned when he felt something hot, something hard, pressing against his hole. He had to pull off, gasping in shock, “That’s… that’s…? Your cock?”
“Mmhmm,” Zale hummed deeply.
Joseph cried out, stunned as he felt Zale’s cock pressing into him while he continued to blow him. It should have been impossible—Zale’s cock was slowly fucking him, but it was right here in front of his face.
He pulled him back into his mouth, amazed that the same cock tickling his throat was inside of him. It was dirty and wonderful and he knew he was going to come any second.
Being with a god was so awesome.
Joseph couldn’t keep any suction, moaning as he threw his head back and came down Zale’s throat. His orgasm went on and on, Zale’s magical cock was pressing deep and his mouth was too damn hot. It was beyond heavenly, certain he was about to pass out.
He went limp against the bed, groaning as the phantom cock pulled out of him and Zale finally released him. “Holy. Shit.”
Zale was beaming proudly, crawling on top of Joseph with a lusty growl. “Ohhh, I’m just getting started.”
Joseph wasn’t sure how much he could take, but Zale was ever so patient; slow when Joseph needed it, rough when he was ready for more. He made such sweet love to him that Joseph was left aching countless times.
He flipped Joseph over on his stomach, using the collar to hang on as he fucked him right before pulling him on top to sweetly thrust up into him. It was loving and savage, Zale using all of his godly prowess to push Joseph’s mortal flesh to every possible extreme of bliss.
Joseph took it all, his heart and hole overflowing by the time they were done. He collapsed in Zale’s arms, panting and laughing breathlessly. “Wow, Zale. You, uh, you really outdid yourself.”
Zale had barely broken a sweat, but he looked very pleased with himself. “Mmm. Anytime.”
“If I have a lifetime of that to look forward to, yeah, wow, count me in.” Joseph chuckled.
“Oh, that’s a promise, Joseph,” Zale assured him, sliding his fingers over the thick collar. “I’ll happily spend the rest of eternity worshiping you, my prince.”
“I love you, Zale.”
“And I love you, Joseph. Always.”
Winter was cold in the Underworld, but Joseph barely noticed. He spent every second he could with Zale and it was always hot in the absolute best way. He loved each moment, whether it was experiencing Zale’s bedroom magic or the simple joy of cuddling on the couch together talking about their favorite television shows.
He’d never been so happy.
Spring came and with it a wedding. Zale and Joseph kept things simple and the guest list was short. Though Joseph’s side of the family raised their brows at such a speedy union, they were all very happy for him. One look and they could see how in love Joseph was. Zale’s side of the family was much more exuberant, and thankfully they all behaved themselves.
Lance, however, was not invited.
Though Joseph and Zale didn’t get married on any spaceships, a tiny replica of Serenity served as their cake topper.
It was perfect.
Married life was wonderful, and Joseph balanced his life within the world outside of the Underworld and his new princely duties. He was promoted to the title of creative consultant for Jayden Glamore and continued to work with Zale to find new ways to coax the souls out of the Pit of Despair.
He never gave up, and Zale was right there to help him keep trying. Zale seemed to admire his tenacity, never questioning his seemingly impossible mission to save all of those souls.
Summer came, and Zale took Joseph all over the world to enjoy splendid tropical paradises and sandy beaches. Just when Joseph thought their happily ever after couldn’t get any more perfect, Zale surprised him with a mastiff puppy.
Naturally, they named him Cerberus.
When the first cool morning came later that fall, Joseph woke up in an empty bed. He wrapped himself up in the blankets to go find Zale.
He found Zale in the kitchen with Cerberus, making coffee and staring out the window above the sink. Joseph shuffled up to Zale, sleepily snuggling up to his side. “Mmm, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Zale wrapped his arm around Joseph’s shoulders.
“You know, I would have thought a god would be a better liar.”
“Worried about winter coming?”
“Sorry.” Zale sighed. “Old habits.”
“Have you deleted all your online dating profiles?”
“Your dating profiles,” Joseph said, hugging Zale’s waist with a smug smile. “You don’t need them any more. You don’t have to look for another bride ever again. Because when the seasons change, I’m going to be right here.”
Zale relaxed, one of his hands taking Joseph’s and giving it a squeeze. “And you’re going to stay.”
“Yes. I’m going to stay.” Joseph kissed his cheek.” And when you fall apart, hey, I’ll be right here.”
“Still gonna drop the pieces of my sacred vessel?” Zale asked dryly, though there was a smile in his voice.
“Probably!” Joseph laughed. “But hey, I’ll be here to pick up all the pieces again. Even if it’s off the floor.”
<– PREV | THE END
“What?” Joseph stared in shock, glancing between the two Zales until reality clicked into place. He had been tricked in the most awful way, and he was too stunned at first to react.
“Lance,” Zale, the real Zale, snarled furiously, and the entire building shook with his fury.
“You fucking bastard!” Joseph’s anger matched Zale’s and he finally knew just what to do. He reared back and socked Lance right in his mouth.
The blow made his face flicker, and Zale’s false face turned back into Lance’s true visage. He pouted, complaining, “Hey! We were just having fun!”
“Fun? This was your idea of fun?” Joseph growled, shoving at the god as hard as he could. “You’ve ruined everything, you son of a bitch!” His eyes turned to Zale as he pleaded, “Listen, please. I had no idea it was him! I thought it was you—”
“Not now,” Zale cut in coldly, snatching Lance up by the back of his neck. The building was still vibrating from his rage, and he dragged Lance off the bed like a rag doll.
“Brother, I’m sort of getting the impression that you’re mad at me!” Lance protested innocently.
“Shut up!” Zale barked.
Joseph pulled the covers around himself. “Please, Zale!” he cried out, still trying to explain. “I didn’t know! I wouldn’t have ever—”
“Silence!” Zale bellowed, the whole room shaking violently. “I’ll talk to you when I’m done with him!”
Joseph cowered, watching in horror as Zale disappeared with Lance. The last thing he saw was Zale’s hands wrapping around Lance’s neck, and his heart sank down into his gut.
This was it.
This was the end.
He’d told the wrong Zale that he was falling in love with him and he didn’t know how to fix this. He was torn between anger and regret, and he was mad most of all at himself for not having realized sooner that it wasn’t the real Zale.
Joseph wished he could run away, and he looked miserably at the door. He had no idea where it would lead, but he couldn’t stand being in this bed another second.
It felt soiled.
He got up to find clothes and get dressed. He headed to the door and then pulled it open, bracing himself for a crowd of screaming souls.
What Joseph found instead was an empty cavern, and he hesitated to leave.
He looked back at the suite and decided that a quick walk was exactly what he needed. He had to clear his head and he had no idea how long Zale would be gone.
Or what kind of mood he would be in.
Joseph shuddered as he recalled Zale’s rage, walking into the cavern with his head down. He didn’t know what would be involved with Zale’s talk upon his return, but he was fairly certain that he wasn’t going to like it.
Joseph berated himself again for not realizing Lance was an imposter sooner, and he couldn’t blame Zale for being upset.
He just wished he’d had a chance to explain.
Joseph vaguely noticed the door shutting behind him and disappearing, leaving him trapped in the dank caves. He was too upset to care. He thought this area looked familiar, and he found a large sea of glowing orbs floating above his head.
Heavens, he thought, looking over them in awe.
He wondered which one was Sally’s, the little girl he had met before, and he was tempted to try and visit her. He had no way of knowing which orb would lead to her, ultimately deciding it wasn’t worth the risk.
Joseph couldn’t be sure that he would be able to travel into those little worlds.
Ugh, or even if he could get back.
Not without Zale, he thought sadly. He couldn’t do anything without Zale. He was so damn helpless here.
Some great queen of the Underworld he was.
No, prince consort.
It didn’t matter now, did it?
As Joseph walked along, he stumbled across statues of men and women. They seemed to be coming out of the walls and the floor, all of them carved in strange positions. Some were curled up on their sides, others were holding their heads as if weeping, and a few were positioned as if they had simply collapsed.
They were eerily beautiful in spite of their sad expressions, and Joseph stopped to examine them more closely. The statues looked so lifelike, and the amount of detail was absolutely haunting.
Joseph couldn’t explain the sadness that was suddenly coming over him, and he dropped to his knees and held his face in his hands. He looked just like the forlorn statues as he cried softly to himself. He really had ruined everything, hadn’t he?
He loved Zale so much and none of this was fair.
Why couldn’t Lance have shown up as a goose or a bull, some sort of creature Joseph would have been able to refuse? A shower of gold? Something, anything other than the face of the man he loved.
Joseph didn’t think Zale was going to forgive him, and he sobbed harder. He would have to return home to his boring and lonely life without ever getting to experience the love he felt when he was with Zale ever again.
His tears were falling faster and faster, and he cried miserably, groaning in pain. He swore his heart was breaking, certain that he’d lost Zale forever.
The agony was horrible, his chest was too tight, and his legs…
His legs hurt.
Joseph looked down through his fingers, and he gasped when he realized his legs were turning to stone. His feet had melded with the cavern floor and he was becoming a statue like the others.
Joseph should have been terrified, but any will he had left to struggle was leaving him in a wave of despair.
What did it matter?
Zale didn’t love him and he didn’t want him any more.
Who would, after the awful things Joseph had done?
He groaned again, the strange transformation reaching his hips now. He was starting to feel numb, his mind clouding, and his lingering thoughts were of Zale.
Beautiful, funny, charming Zale.
“Joseph!” Zale’s booming voice echoed throughout the cave. “Where are you?”
Joseph thought he was hearing things. Zale could not possibly be looking for him. The stone was creeping up his chest, forcing his breath to catch as he sobbed quietly. He didn’t bother calling back.
It wouldn’t change anything, so why did it matter?
“Joseph!” Zale shouted, more desperate now.
Joseph fought to take another breath.
One more, maybe two, and everything was getting dark…
Wait, was that Zale running toward him?
Why was Zale here?
Joseph’s vision went black and he forgot all about… Whoever it was. His thoughts were curiously calm and blank now, and the pain was finally gone.
He was no longer in the cave. He could see warm light all around him, so bright that it blinded him at first. When it dimmed, he realized he was on board Serenity, the ship from Firefly.
Every detail was perfect, exactly as it was on the show, and Joseph was stunned. He hurried to the helm to check everything out, and he laughed in delight.
He was looking out into a sea of stars and he’d never seen anything so beautiful before. He didn’t understand how he was here, and he couldn’t remember why he had been so upset. He ran his hands over the controls and colorful buttons, but he paused when he heard a tiny yip.
Joseph looked down, laughing when he found a basket of puppies tucked away by his feet. “What in the world are you little guys doing here?”
His question was met with lots of little happy barks, and he kneeled down to cuddle with them. They were puppies of all kinds, shapes, and sizes, and he laughed as they wiggled out of the basket and into his lap.
They were all his favorite breeds, from mastiffs to Boston terriers, each one perfectly adorable in every way. He snuggled with each and every one before his legs began to fall asleep. He groaned as he finally got up to stretch, and he grinned at his new army of pups. “Ready to go explore?”
All the pups yipped at him happily, following right behind him as he went to check out of the rest of the ship.
There were some doors he knew weren’t part of the original Serenity. Everything else about the ship was so perfect, so they were very out of place to a super fan like himself.
Curious, he opened one to see what was going on.
Inside was a sauna room with a massage table, and Jonathan Frakes was standing there wearing his Commander Riker costume and a warm smile. The uniform was definitely not Starfleet issue, as the top portion had been split open to reveal Frakes’ very broad chest.
“In need of a massage, Master Abrams?” Frakes asked politely.
“Oh, fuck,” Joseph squeaked, blushing vividly. He’d had a crush on Riker ever since he was a teenager and here he was, chest bulging in all of his bearded glory.
“Oil’s all ready for you, sir,” Frakes urged. “Nice and warm.”
“Uh, uh, maybe later!” Joseph squeaked again.
“I’ll be here,” Frakes promised, giving Joseph a lusty wink.
Joseph shut the door with a dopey grin and then stared at the puppies. “Holy crap, that was Riker! Wow! This place is incredible!”
They barked in agreement.
He hurried into the kitchen and discovered that the dining area had a steaming hot Chinese food buffet. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was, and he eagerly dove in to fix a plate. He sat down at the crew’s table to eat, sneakily passing some sesame chicken to the puppies still crowding around his feet.
Every time he scooped up a spoonful of food, the dish magically refilled itself. Joseph couldn’t believe it and laughed giddily. Everything here was so perfect and all of his unhappy memories had been forgotten.
This place was paradise.
Joseph found a bunk with a big plush bed and cuddled there with the puppies. He was so happy here, totally at peace. He wasn’t sure what he had been doing before, but this place was awesome.
He definitely needed to go see Riker about that massage.
Joseph could suddenly hear someone’s footsteps above him, and he looked up to see a man climbing down the ladder into his bunk.
He knew this man. He did. His name was…
Joseph laughed. “Zale? What in the world are you doing here?”
“I’m taking you back,” Zale said with a sad smile. “You don’t belong here. It isn’t your time, Joseph.”
“My time?” Joseph cocked his head. “What are you talking about?”
“Joseph.” Zale sighed, his hard expression cracked by a bittersweet smile. “Don’t you understand where you are? Do you even remember what happened? This is your Heaven.”
Joseph stiffened as realization crashed over him like a bucket of ice water. “Wait. This is… this is my Heaven?”
“I’m dead?” Joseph struggled to pull his fuzzy memories together. “I died in that cave?”
“Yes, but not for long,” Zale said earnestly, holding out his hand. “Come with me. Right now.”
“Come with you where?” Joseph frowned as he looked down at all the puppies. “I’m so happy here.”
“If you come with me now, I promise I’ll get you a puppy,” Zale swore. “But we need to go now.”
“You’ll really get me a puppy?”
“Any puppy I want?”
“Yes, I swear.”
“Okay,” Joseph finally agreed, reaching out to take Zale’s hand. The second Joseph touched him, the ship disappeared.
No more puppies or Riker or Chinese food.
He was back in the dank cavern, and he was definitely alive because he was in utter agony. The pain was horrible and he stared at his body with a strangled gasp. Most of it had turned to stone and he was unable to move.
“Zale!” Joseph cried, shrill and frantic. His lungs were horribly tight, and he struggled to inhale.
“Hang on,” Zale murmured, pulling Joseph against his shoulder and kissing his brow. “Oh, my sweet boy. Hold on.” He slid a hand over Joseph’s chest and the stone disappeared instantly. “I’ve got you.”
Joseph could finally breathe normally again. “Shit! What, what happened?” he said, wheezing a little.
“I’m sorry,” Zale said urgently. “I had no right to take out my anger on you. I never thought it would drive you here, I never—”
“I don’t understand!” Joseph panted. “Where did I go? I really died?”
“Hold on.” Zale moved faster, gliding his hands over Joseph’s legs.
The stone vanished away, and Joseph’s mind started to clear. The overwhelming sadness and confusion was finally fading, and he stared up at Zale in bewilderment. “What is this place?”
“This is the Pit of Despair,” Zale explained, gently petting Joseph’s hair. “Souls are drawn here when they’re in pain. The misery takes over and traps them forever. I don’t know how you got down here—”
“I wanted to go for a walk, I just, I just—!”
“It’s all right,” Zale soothed. “I’m not angry. I promise I’m not angry.”
“Is a disgusting excuse for an immortal and I tore him into pieces for touching you,” Zale said, a hint of a growl roughing up his smooth tone. “I’m sorry that I was so unkind to you. You didn’t deserve it. Please. Forgive me.”
“You really aren’t mad at me?” Joseph groaned as he stretched his legs, sore from being frozen.
“No,” Zale assured him. “I shouldn’t have left you without talking to you first, but I was distracted.”
“Too focused on kicking your brother’s ass?”
“What did you do?”
“Exactly what I said.” Zale stroked Joseph’s cheek with a smirk. “I tore him into pieces and threw them all down into the deepest part of the Underworld.”
“I’m not sure if I should be flattered or terrified.” Joseph laughed. “I mean… Is he dead?”
“No,” Zale grumbled, sounding vaguely disappointed. “He’s immortal. He’ll be able to drag his worthless carcass back together eventually.”
“The other gods can do that, but you can’t?”
“The other gods don’t have their very essence tied into the seasons.” Zale smiled. “Some of us drew short straws, I’m afraid.”
“Sorry. And I’m sorry for leaving. I wanted to get away for a little bit, that’s all. Definitely didn’t mean to go and die.”
“I’m just glad you’re all right,” Zale said, looking very relieved. He smirked. “Although this does mean you get to claim another first. I haven’t had any of my spouses die on me before.”
“Ha ha ha.” Joseph rolled his eyes.
Zale kissed his forehead, chuckling. “Too soon?”
“Hmm. Come on. Let’s get you home and I can tell you more terrible jokes.”
“Hey, Zale? I don’t think I can go back in that room.” Joseph hesitated. “Not after all of that.”
“No,” Zale said, shaking his head with a fond smile. “You misunderstand my intentions. I said we’re going home. To my home. Well, now I suppose it’s our home.”
“What?” Joseph blinked in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Zale swept Joseph up into his arms as he said, “Well, as it turns out… Joseph Abrams, I’m falling in love with you too.”
Joseph’s face flushed a lovely shade of red and he was left staring even more dumbly. “Uh, uh, uh, so, you… you heard that?”
“I did,” Zale said, kissing him deeply.
“Oh, Zale.” Joseph swore he was going to melt right in Zale’s arms—and just his arms, since he still didn’t have a chest yet—and he kissed him back passionately.
“Now, my dear groom, close your eyes,” Zale purred.
Joseph did so, clinging to Zale’s shoulders as he felt wind rush by him. Zale nudged him and he opened his eyes, taking in the interior of a small house.
It was hardly the grand mansion that Joseph was expecting, finding hardwood floors and hundreds of books, a few paintings, and worn furniture. It was warm and cozy, and he could smell cinnamon and sandalwood.
“This is your home?” Joseph asked, hoping Zale didn’t mistake his surprise for disappointment.
“Yes.” Zale set Joseph down. “Over the years, I’ve found I need very little in the way of material things.”
“Says the richest god ever,” Joseph teased, exploring the kitchen and fridge with a grin. He looked around with a big smile and laughed. “Seriously! This is perfect!”
“You like it?”
“I love it.” Joseph circled back to hug Zale’s shoulders and kiss him sweetly. “And I love you.”
“You’re going to stay,” Zale said quietly, his eyes shimmering with raw emotion. “That means you’re going to stay.”
“Yes. I want to see where this goes, okay? It’s still crazy, and what the hell, your family is really super insane, but…” Joseph took a deep breath. “I can’t imagine being with anyone else now.”
“And these humble accommodations are satisfactory?”
“Pffft! You should see my apartment. It’s a freakin’ closet compared to this, okay? Trust me, this is perfect.”
Zale smiled, pleased at that. “Mmm, would you like something to eat? Drink?”
“Honestly, bed sounds awesome,” Joseph confessed. “That whole being turned to stone and dying thing wore me out. Also, what the hell?”
“Those people! Are they just trapped there?”
“They’re souls who have refused their eternal resting place.” Zale sighed. “Whether a Heaven or Hell, their misery is too much and they’re lost there forever.”
“When I got trapped and died temporarily, I went to what? My Heaven?”
“Yes.” Zale nodded. “Living souls aren’t meant to go there. When you died, your soul passed on to your final resting place. Those other souls there died long ago and they’re trapped.”
“Can’t you wake them up?”
“Yes, but they always go back there.”
“There has to be a way,” Joseph said earnestly. “Maybe while we’re hunting body bits, we can try to think of something?”
“For you, my prince, I will try,” Zale promised.
“Come on,” Zale urged, taking Joseph’s hand. “Let’s go to bed.” He guided Joseph to the bedroom, scooping him up and playfully tossing him onto the plush bed.
Joseph giggled, watching his clothes transform into a pair of fleece pajamas. Being married to a god was pretty darn cool. He got under the covers and snuggled up to Zale’s shoulder as soon as he joined him.
“Mmm, this is nice,” Zale murmured contently.
“Be even nicer when you’re all back together. I swear, I’m not going to be able to keep my hands off of you.”
“Mmm, I look forward to it.” Zale laughed.
“Thank you,” Joseph said, quiet and sweet, his heart fluttering in his chest. “Thank you so much.”
“For saving me, for believing me, for… for loving me.”
“Loving you, Joseph Abrams, is the easiest thing in the world,” Zale said with a soft smile.
“Loving you is a challenge but totally worth the effort,” Joseph teased sweetly.
“Thank you for rising to the occasion.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Joseph said, nuzzling their noses together. “Also, I’ve gotta say, my Heaven looked pretty awesome, by the way. Riker as my personal masseuse? That was a nice touch.”
“It’s a work in progress, but I do try to create a worthy resting place for every soul.”
“It was pretty close to perfect,” Joseph said with a casual shrug. “It was missing one pretty important thing, though. I mean, like, crucial.”
“What?” Zale frowned. “There were nine breeds of puppies, I counted them all myself. What did I forget?”
“You,” Joseph said with a loving smile. “No way that place or any other could be my Heaven without you in it.”
Zale was stunned, actually blushing and apparently at a loss for words. He just kept staring at Joseph with the most adorable expression on his face.
“This would be a great time to say ‘I love you, Joseph,’” Joseph whispered loudly. “Just a thought.”
“Ah, of course.” Zale laughed, kissing Joseph with a grin. “Joseph Abrams, my beautiful prince? Light of my life? I love you.”
Joseph smiled. “I love you too.”
Gathering a Chinese food feast worthy of a king was apparently a simple task for a god. Zale had a full buffet waiting when they returned to his suite, and Joseph ate until he was totally stuffed.
They cuddled as much as they could in bed, watching—what else—a Firefly marathon. They never skipped the theme song and sang it together each time, and Joseph fell asleep with Zale’s fingers petting his hair before the second episode ended.
The next days were slow and sweet for Joseph, filled with Zale’s company, his laughter, and the touch of his hands.
Oh, those hands.
Those beautiful, absolutely magical hands.
Joseph couldn’t wait for the rest of Zale’s body to be restored so he could return the favor.
The next few pieces of Zale’s body came easily—hips, shoulders, and thighs. They gave Joseph something to hold on to when those lovely hands worked him over, and he was proud that he hadn’t dropped any more of them.
Zale was very appreciative of that, especially when they finally found his more delicate parts.
Joseph snickered the entire time he carried said organ, and he resisted the urge to swing it before laying it down on the altar.
Zale rolled his eyes, drawling, “It’s not funny.”
“It’s sort of funny.” Joseph grinned.
Zale quickly waved his hand to make the delicate organ disappear. “It’s a vital piece of my vessel. It’s sacred.”
“It’s your dick!” Joseph burst out laughing.
Zale sighed, a sound of prolonged suffering, as he patiently waited for Joseph to stop cackling.
“I mean, when they say every part?” Joseph was wheezing, nearly doubled over now. “They really meant every part!”
“How about—” Zale reached over to steady Joseph. “—instead of laughing about it, I take you somewhere to enjoy it?”
Joseph’s laughter died with a small squeak. “Wait, do you mean…”
Joseph flushed, licking his lips slowly as his brain fully caught on to what Zale was saying. Zale’s hands were quite skilled, but Joseph had certainly been craving something more. “Yeah, definitely. Please.”
“Come on.” Zale pulled Joseph close. “Let’s go.”
Joseph closed his eyes, and Zale whisked them away to a gorgeous underground waterfall. There was a large pool, and the water was steaming hot and calm despite the rushing falls above it. The blue glow that lit up the cavern was soothing and Joseph was already stripping the second his feet touched solid ground.
“Eager, are we?” Zale teased, watching Joseph hurl his pants aside with a smirk.
“I really need you to come tear all my clothes off,” Joseph demanded playfully, paraphrasing another favorite quote.
“Gladly,” Zale said as he ran his hands over Joseph’s body and helped him pull his clothes off.
Joseph watched as Zale’s clothing magically vanished, and he tried to slide his hands up his chest but only found empty air. He repositioned his hands on Zale’s broad shoulders, settling on solid flesh there. “That is still so weird.”
“Soon I’ll be fully restored,” Zale promised, guiding Joseph into the hot waters of the pool. “Then you can touch me as much as you like.”
“Oh, I definitely plan to,” Joseph confirmed. “I can’t wait to find your head. Or at least your lips. I just… I really want to kiss you. Does your mouth come with your head?”
“It does.” Zale snorted, wading out until the water was waist deep and pulling Joseph into his arms.
Well, at least against his shoulders anyway.
Joseph kept his hands anchored there, and he groaned as he rocked forward and felt the new heat of Zale’s hips and cock rubbing against him. “Wow. Missed those bits.”
Zale was already fully hard, and he smiled as he stroked the small of Joseph’s back and caressed between his cheeks. “They missed you too.”
Joseph leaned his head on Zale’s shoulder, kissing softly where he knew he could touch. He arched back into Zale’s fingers. “Come on. Don’t keep me waiting.”
“Turn around—” Zale gave Joseph’s hip a playful squeeze. “—and go grab the ledge.”
“Yes, Mister Bossy God, sir!” Joseph smooched Zale’s shoulder once more before getting in position. He moved to the ledge of the pool, grabbing on and offering himself with spread legs and a coy smile.
Zale smirked as he began to rub his cock up against Joseph’s hole. “I figured that my lacking body parts wouldn’t feel so strange like this.”
“Feels good,” Joseph agreed, moaning as he felt his body get magically slick and open with a snap of Zale’s fingers. “And damn, that godly prep is freakin’ awesome.”
“There are many perks to being a god.” Zale sounded very smug as he pressed inside. The first few inches slid in without protest, and both men shared a soft moan of pleasure.
Joseph loved how full he was already, and Zale’s strong hands possessively grabbing his hips felt fantastic. He cried out as Zale pushed a little deeper, the ache in his loins now positively throbbing.
Zale went slowly at first, short little thrusts to work himself the rest of the way inside. “There,” he praised. “Look at you, Joseph. So beautiful stuffed full of my cock.”
“Feels good.” Joseph panted. “Fuck, it feels so damn good.”
Nothing had any right to feel this perfect. Joseph was left on the precipice of madness and utter euphoria as Zale’s girth stretched him out. There was never any pain, only the most intense sensation, and he threw his head back with a loud groan as Zale thrust.
Zale’s slams were deep, and he rolled his hips to hit that spectacular place inside of Joseph that made his vision white out. It was something magical, something only a god could reach, and Joseph’s frantic thoughts wondered if it was his soul.
The incredible sense of connection was right there where they’d left it from that first night together, and Joseph loved how intuitive Zale was. He knew exactly what angle to hit and where to touch to transform Joseph into a drooling mess.
“Oh, Zale,” Joseph moaned, his entire body awash in the heat of the water and the cock buried so deep inside of him. “It’s perfect… Fuck, you feel so goddamn perfect!”
“So do you,” Zale groaned as he rocked faster.
Joseph had to reach back, needing to hold on to something other than rock. He grabbed Zale’s hip and his fingers greedily slid down to grip his thigh.
Zale growled happily at his touch, grunting low as he pressed closer.
Joseph could feel Zale’s hips moving against his own, the hot press of his shoulders, and the iron grip of his long fingers. It was easy to focus on those and not the parts of Zale’s body that were lacking, and Joseph was thrilled by the new intimacy. He could hear the water softly splashing around them, the damp smack of their skin, his own labored breathing, and Zale’s growls of pleasure.
Then, there was a jingle.
“Fuck, fuck!” Joseph groaned.
“What is it?” Zale stopped immediately. “Too much? Did I hurt you?”
“No!” Joseph shook his head, groaning again as the chiming got louder. He wasn’t even moving but the volume kept increasing. It was almost as if the bells were coming to him.
“Do you want me to stop?” Zale gently rubbed Joseph’s back.
“I can hear… It’s happening right now.” Joseph reached into the air right in front of them. He felt something smooth and then fuzzy, soft and rough in different places. He had no idea what part of Zale he was holding, but it was making him shake.
Zale’s hand slipped up Joseph’s arm, holding him steady as the bells became more frantic.
Before Joseph’s eyes could focus on the part, there was a bright flicker of light and the screaming bells suddenly stopped. The part was gone and he heard Zale gasp behind him.
Joseph turned around to face Zale, grunting as it forced him to pull out. “Mmmph, what’s wrong. What happened?”
Zale was staring at Joseph in complete awe as his fingers slowly slid up his cheeks to cup his own face. “Joseph Abrams,” he murmured passionately, a breathless smile curling his lips, “you truly are amazing.”
“I don’t understand!” Joseph said urgently. “What happened? Did I do something wrong?”
“You did something incredible.” Zale reached for Joseph’s face to press a deep kiss to his lips.
Joseph initially pulled away, thinking his mouth was about to go right through Zale’s. Instead, he found Zale’s mouth, warm and real, kissing him fiercely. He couldn’t believe it, reaching up to find he could touch Zale’s cheeks, his hair, and he ran his hands down Zale’s strong neck to his shoulders.
He kissed Zale back passionately, not realizing how much he had missed those lips until he finally had a taste of them again.
Zale eagerly repositioned Joseph on the edge of the pool. Joseph wrapped his long legs around his hips, and then Zale was pushing back inside of him with renewed vigor, groaning softly as he gave Joseph every inch of himself once more.
Joseph kept his hands firmly on Zale’s face, tracing over the shell of his ear and his cheeks, and then he scratched his nails through his short hair. He didn’t understand how this was possible and in that moment, he didn’t care.
He surrendered over to Zale’s impossibly perfect thrusts, moaning when he felt his climax fast approaching. Zale kept pounding into him, magically stroking parts inside of him that no mortal man would ever be able to reach. He couldn’t stop crying out, though he tried to smother every sound in Zale’s hot mouth.
“There! There, right there!” Joseph pleaded when Zale’s ethereal touch hit something divine and he came instantly. His legs shook, his hips jerked, and the wonderful sensation didn’t seem to end.
Zale rocked him through every shudder, dragging out Joseph’s climax until he was shaking from head to toe. Only when he seemed sure that Joseph was totally satisfied did he come himself, groaning happily and plastering himself against Joseph’s lean body.
Joseph held on to all the parts of Zale that he could and simply ignored the ones he couldn’t. He was left gasping as he tried to keep their lips locked in a sweet kiss. “Oh, Zale… That was amazing.”
“You are amazing,” Zale said with a warm smile. “My little mortal lover has the makings of a god in him.”
“What are you talking about?” Joseph laughed incredulously.
“My head. You were able to complete the transference with me.”
“That’s good? Right? I think it’s a good thing?”
“The only person who could do that was Persephone,” Zale said urgently. “She’s a goddess, but you…”
“But I’m only mortal?” Joseph blinked, not sure what to make of that. “What does that mean exactly?”
“It means that you’re special, Joseph,” Zale assured him, kissing him gently. “That what we have… is special.”
“So, you definitely regret being a dick to me before?” Joseph teased.
“Yes.” Zale made a face. “I already told you that.”
“Just checking!” Joseph grinned, going in for another kiss. Zale was definitely the best kisser he had ever met in his entire life. “Mmph. Could definitely get used to this.”
“Does that mean you’ll stay?” Zale asked quietly.
Joseph had been referring to the lovely kisses and Zale’s question surprised him. He stared dumbly, repeating, “Stay?”
“After we bring back spring,” Zale said, his hands hesitantly cradling Joseph’s face. “Would you stay here with me?”
“Zale.” Joseph’s heart fluttered, and he tried to think his reply over very carefully.
Zale was still inside of him and holding him so very tenderly, but he didn’t know how to answer. He was just getting used to the idea that there were gods and goddesses in the world and the changing of the seasons was reliant upon an anatomical scavenger hunt.
What Zale was asking was much more than what they had originally agreed to.
“You’re what… uh…” Joseph laughed nervously. “Asking me to move in?”
“Yes.” Zale frowned, and there was something fearful in his expression, as if he had been expecting Joseph to respond differently.
“You don’t need to answer now,” Zale said quickly, offering a strained smile.
“Thank you.” Joseph’s responding smile was shy. “I’m sorry. It’s just, you know, kind of fast. I still feel like I’m getting to know you, the real you.”
Zale nodded, looking away and moving as if to separate from him.
“But—” Joseph reached out to touch Zale’s cheek and then drew him back in for a kiss. “—I really, really like the real you so far.”
Zale smiled, a genuine one this time, and he kissed Joseph back earnestly. “Thank you.”
With a wave of his hand, Zale had them both cleaned, dry, and swaddled in thick robes, standing outside the pool. Joseph hugged Zale’s hips, glancing back at the waterfall for a long moment and smiling. They didn’t say anything, simply holding each other close and enjoying the spectacular view.
Thinking over Zale’s question again, Joseph realized he had never been so happy.
Would it be so terrible living with a god? Staying here with him forever?
Joseph was still thinking it over when Zale brought them back to the suite and they cuddled up together in the warm bed. He’d be able to see his family and friends if he decided to stay with Zale. All of the gods had lives beyond their immortal existence and Joseph knew that Zale had a very legitimate job other than being in charge of the dead.
Things could work. They really could.
And yet, Joseph found himself hesitating. He couldn’t quite let go of how Zale had lied to him, and there was so much he didn’t know about this new world. It scared him, to be honest, and he tried to remind himself that Zale was also scared. It was for different reasons, of course, but maybe they could conquer all of those fears together.
Being prince consort of the Underworld didn’t sound so bad.
Joseph was about to tell Zale as much, but Zale was getting out of bed with a groan.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“Business,” Zale said with a grimace.
“Oh,” Joseph said quietly, readjusting himself in the bed now that he was alone. He stretched out and took all of the pillows, pouting a bit. “Will you be gone long? I was sort of hoping to talk more.”
“I’ll try to make it quick.”
“When you get called, is it, like, a phone call in your head?” Joseph grinned. “You just know to go?”
“Something like that,” Zale said with a chuckle. He gave Joseph a farewell kiss, promising, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Joseph watched Zale vanish, and he made up his mind to tell him that he wanted to stay with him as soon as he got back. They had already come so far on this incredible journey and he wasn’t ready for it to end. He tried to stay awake, hoping that Zale would be back before he fell asleep.
Before he knew it, he was already zonked out.
He was dreaming of exotic waterfalls and warm clouds, a beautiful hazy space where he could run around with puppies. It was so lovely that he fussed lightly when he sensed someone slipping into bed beside him. He knew from the touch of the hands that it was Zale, and he relaxed beneath his gentle caresses.
Zale carefully rolled Joseph over on his back, mouthing across his throat.
Joseph was definitely awake now and he grinned. “Mmm, did someone miss me?”
“Very much,” Zale replied as he moved lower, kissing across Joseph’s chest.
“I missed you, too.” Joseph took a deep breath as he tried to gather his courage. “And I… I need to tell you something.”
“Can’t it wait, my darling?” Zale peppered Joseph’s stomach with kisses, dragging the sheets out of his way. “Please. I’ve just missed you so much.”
“No.” Joseph sat up with a groan as he swatted Zale back. “Please, listen. This is important.” He reached for Zale’s hands. “What we were talking about earlier. About me staying here? I was thinking about it. A lot. I mean, as long as you were gone anyway. And I just… I think I want to—”
Zale kissed him firmly.
A little too firm, so much that Joseph pushed at Zale’s shoulder to stop him. “Hey! Be serious for a second. I’m trying to tell you something.”
“And I’m telling you that it can wait.” Zale tried to kiss him again.
“Well, I was about to tell you that I wanted to stay here with you.” Joseph snorted. “I really want to stay through spring, winter, fall, whatever. I want to—”
Zale went in for another kiss.
“Dammit, Zale!” Joseph snapped, getting frustrated now. “I’m trying to tell you that I’m falling in love with you, you fuckin’ asshole! Will you stop for two damn seconds, please?”
“Well, that’s very, very sweet.” Zale batted his eyes. “Almost as sweet as you taste.”
“What?” Joseph gawked.
Definitely not the response he had been expecting.
“When ol’ Zale shows back up, you be sure to tell him.” Zale chuckled, and there was something wrong about his laugh. He leaned in for another kiss, rougher than before, and he pushed his way on top of Joseph.
Joseph was too stunned to protest for a few moments as he racked his brain trying to place why that damn laugh sounded so familiar. He shoved Zale back, snapping, “What the crap are you talking about? You’re Zale! And I just told you that I’m falling in love with you, which is totally crazy, and you’re being a total weirdo!”
“Probably because I’m not Zale.”
Joseph jerked his head up when he heard someone else say his name from across the room, and he immediately noticed two things that were very wrong.
First of all, he could feel Zale’s chest pressed against his own, a part of the god’s body that he knew they hadn’t restored yet.
Additionally, he could see Zale—another Zale—glaring furiously at him from the side of the bed.
Oh, this wasn’t good.
“Persephone?” Joseph squeaked.
“I prefer Penelope now.”
“So, you’re… Zale’s ex-wife?” Joseph felt so stupid for stating the obvious, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“I am,” she confirmed. “I came to meet the new groom who was special enough to find his heart.”
“Why?” Joseph blinked, fidgeting anxiously in his seat.
“There aren’t many happy endings for mortals who fraternize with gods,” she said sternly. “What’s your game here? Are you trying to get at his money? His power?”
“What? No!” Joseph shook his head. “It’s not like that at all! I didn’t know who he really was when we first met! I just, I just thought he was some guy!”
“Some guy?” she pressed.
“Some incredible, dreamy, dorky guy.” Joseph sighed, sinking against the bar. “A guy who liked all the same television shows I did, who could quote my favorite movies, and who had all the same dreams I did. All I wanted was a chance at a happily ever after. Don’t you get it? I thought what we had… I know it wasn’t for very long, but I thought it was real.”
Penelope was quiet for a moment, apparently thinking over Joseph’s response. She leaned forward, asking, “During your internet courting, you really had no idea who he really was?”
“No,” Joseph insisted. “He was just a normal guy who wanted to take me in a manly fashion!”
Penelope looked confused.
“It’s a Firefly thing,” Joseph explained. “I mean, uh, we had a lot in common and he was sexy and kind and… I just… Well, you know, don’t you?”
“You were married to him for thousands of years,” Joseph said with a slow blink. “You must know what he’s like… uh…”
“Oh?” Penelope stared expectantly. “And how is he?”
“Kind, creative, generous, funny… um…” Joseph suddenly didn’t know what to do with his hands, fumbling for words. “Passionate, oh, yeah, so very passionate.”
“Passionate? Uh huh.” Penelope smirked. “Even at the bitter end, that was the one thing he and I could always get right.”
“He was, yeah, uh, wow.” Joseph ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, I’m going to go with wow.”
“Rocked your little mortal world, did he?”
“Oh, indeed he did.” Joseph grinned. “I mean, all freakin’ night long! And wow, is he a good kisser, and then he had my legs like way up here and, and…” He cleared his throat, adding awkwardly, “Sorry, I made this weird. Did I make it weird? I did.”
“It’s all right.” Penelope chuckled, her tense posture relaxing now. “I think it’s quite charming how clearly smitten you are. Explains why you found his heart. Tell me. Do you really want to stay here with Zale?”
“Huh?” Joseph stared. “You mean stay here after spring? But he told me that he’ll divorce me—”
“Do you want to stay with him or not?” Penelope asked firmly.
“I don’t know,.” Joseph’s insides twisted. He wanted that happy ending back so badly, a chance to be with the Zale he had been so crazy about. They’d had so much fun together. Joseph had treasured every email, and finally meeting Zale in person had been a dream come true.
Too bad none of it had been real.
“I don’t think I can,” Joseph said quickly. “I really just want to go home. I hope he meant it about the being rich stuff because I’ve probably already been fired by now and—”
“You’re already in love with him, aren’t you?” Penelope suddenly accused, peering at Joseph’s face with a knowing smile. “This wasn’t luck or some fluke. You really do love him.”
“What?” Joseph squeaked. “What? No! That’s crazy! We only had the one date and Zale told me that it was all bullshit—”
“And you believed him?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Joseph snapped, stung by the implication. “Who would say something like that just to screw around with someone?”
“Someone whose heart was broken and still hasn’t healed,” Penelope replied somberly.
Joseph wanted to say something—anything—but he was struggling to find the right words. It wasn’t his fault that Zale had been hurt. It was Penelope’s, so why did he have to suffer for it? Shouldn’t Penelope be the one feeling like utter crap right now?
Joseph stumbled off the barstool and then gathered himself up to his full height to give this goddess a piece of his alcohol-addled mind.
But then his barstool caught on fire.
“Shit!” he yelped, scrambling to get out of the way as the stool promptly combusted into smoldering ashes.
The entire club had erupted into chaos, and flames and lightning flashed all over the place. The music stopped, and the lights above the bar flickered and then turned off. It was suddenly very easy to tell mortals apart from the gods since only one small group of people were hiding and the rest were fighting.
A scattered few remained on the dance floor, gyrating away despite the lack of music and the destruction raging around them—Zale’s damned souls, still trapped in place by his power and unable to flee.
Not that they had anything to worry about, Joseph thought crazily. They were already dead.
“The bar!” Penelope shouted. “Get behind it!”
Joseph vaulted over as instructed, but his foot caught the edge of the counter and he ended up landing flat on his face. He groaned, dragging himself into a crouched position next to the ice chest, and hoped the fighting would end soon.
There was an explosion powerful enough to rock the very foundation. The bottles above Joseph shook, and one of them fell. It hit the counter and shattered, spilling a thick red liquid all over his hair and shirt.
A bit dripped into his mouth.
Joseph was starting to panic, wondering what he was thinking trying to hold his own with a bunch of gods.
“Enough!” someone roared, the sound echoing throughout the club and rattling the entire bar. The fighting ceased immediately, and a mouse fart could have been heard in the silence that followed.
Cautiously, Joseph poked his head out to see whose booming voice had such power.
It was Zale!
Zale was stalking his way through the club from the front door, looking around with a foul sneer. Everywhere his eyes landed, something happened—a burn mark was fixed, a broken table reassembled, and so on until the club was as flawless as before.
When his eyes found Joseph, there was an odd expression on his face.
Joseph couldn’t quite discern the emotion behind it, and he gasped as Zale suddenly appeared right beside him behind the bar. He was startled, but he still found himself standing up and trying to lean into Zale’s space.
“Are you all right?” Zale frowned and reached out as if to touch Joseph’s cheek. Apparently remembering that he couldn’t, he curled his fingers into a fist and dropped his hand at his side.
“I’m fine,” Joseph replied hastily. He adjusted his necklace, teasing, “Hell of a party.”
“I did warn you.” Zale snorted and then he smiled.
“That you did.”
Zale opened his mouth as if to say something, but his smile vanished when he noticed Penelope. He scowled, disappearing and reappearing in front of her.
“Hey, Zale,” she greeted him with a strained smile.
“Seph,” Zale murmured, his expression murky and impossible to read as he looked her over.
“It’s Penelope now,” she reminded him firmly. Her demeanor softened as she looked at him. “You look great,” she added in a more gentle tone.
“As do you.” Zale’s smile tightened. “How is Linda?”
“She’s wonderful. We’re moving to Paris in a few weeks. We’re going to renew our vows on top of the Eiffel Tower next summer.”
“How nice,” Zale said, his upper lip twitching. His expression remained completely calm otherwise. “So, what brings you all the way down here?” he casually asked.
“Personal business. I wanted to meet Joseph.”
“You’ve met him. Now you can leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Penelope countered fearlessly. “I wanted to see if this was real and it is. I’m going to make sure you don’t screw this up any more than you already have.”
“Penelope,” Zale began, a faint edge to his voice. “My personal life is none of your concern. It hasn’t been for quite some time—”
“It certainly is my damn concern when it affects the entire world,” Penelope retorted sharply.
The music started playing again, drowning out their argument. Joseph stayed behind the bar, unsure of what to do now. He scooted out of the way as the bartender returned to get back to work, but he didn’t dare advance any closer.
He didn’t see any sign of Jayden, and Penelope and Zale appeared intent on fighting with each other. He was surrounded by dancing dead people, gods, and goddesses, and he had never felt so out of place before.
Grenadine was dreadfully sticky.
“Awkward, right?” Lance teased, appearing right beside Joseph at the end of the bar and pouring him a drink.
“Understatement of the century,” Joseph mumbled.
Lance offered him what appeared to be a margarita.
Joseph hesitated, but he took it and then chugged it back.
Definitely a margarita and definitely too much tequila.
Joseph made a face, but he finished it anyway. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure. I’d be more than happy to get you out of here.” Lance grinned. “We could go somewhere nice and quiet, you could take your clothes off, get comfortable…”
“No thanks,” Joseph said hastily, turning his attention back to Penelope and Zale. They were loud enough now that he could hear them over the bass, and he cringed in sympathy.
“Haven’t you done enough already?” Zale roared furiously. “Do you have any idea what an insult this is to me?”
“Zale, I do care about you!” Penelope protested. “I’ve always cared about you—!”
“Ha!” Zale snarled in disgust. “You only cared about what you could get from me. You used me, Seph. Used me up and left me the very second you found another warm bed to your liking.”
“You pushed me away!” Penelope yelled back. “You shut me out! You can’t carry this kingdom by yourself and you wouldn’t let me help you!”
“I didn’t need your damn help! I didn’t need it then and I certainly don’t need it now!”
Cutting through the angry voices and thumping music, Joseph heard the bells again. The trilling was a beacon, urging him out from the bar and toward the dance floor.
“Joseph?” Lance called out. “What are you doing?”
Joseph barely heard him, every other sound vanishing as it did before. Through the crowd he went, and the sound got louder and louder. He reached out, drawn to something warm in the air that he couldn’t see. He could feel it.
There in his hands was a pair of hands. The hands were Zale’s, with his long elegant fingers and so warm to the touch and—Oh God, one of them twitched and Joseph shrieked, hurling them both to the floor.
The music screeched to a halt, and every single person in the club stared at Joseph.
Joseph grinned sheepishly as he kneeled to grab Zale’s hands. He tried to brush them off, stammering, “S-sorry! You know, uh, one of them moved, and it was a little freaky.”
Across the club, Zale hung his head.
Zale sighed loudly, snapping his fingers and whisking Joseph away to the altar cave in a blink. He massaged his temples as he drawled, “Could you please not make a habit of dropping the pieces of my sacred vessel?”
“It’s creepy!” Joseph complained, scrambling to place the hands on the altar. “I’m sorry, it freakin’ moved!”
Zale waved his fingers, and the hands vanished as the heart had before. He looked thoughtful, glancing over at Joseph as he noted, “No one’s ever found a piece so close to the edge of my kingdom.”
“What does that mean?”
“I honestly don’t know.” Zale pressed close, his hand gently touching Joseph’s cheek.
Joseph’s lashes fluttered as Zale was actually able to make physical contact now, and he leaned into Zale’s warm palm. He hated how much he’d missed this, but he didn’t pull away.
“But maybe it means…” Zale sighed. “That I made a mistake.”
“Gods make mistakes?”
Joseph instinctively reached for Zale’s arm, but the physical form ended just at his wrist despite what his eyes could see. “That’s so weird.”
Zale chuckled. “Motivation for you to find the rest more quickly.”
“Jerk.” Joseph snorted, loving the brush of Zale’s thumb over his ear. He sighed, not wanting to spoil the tender moment, but everything Penelope had said was starting to set in.
“Penelope, Persephone, whatever her name is.” Joseph frowned. “She left you for someone else?”
“Yes,” Zale said, his hand dropping away. “I’m sorry you had to witness all of that. I am not my best self when I’m around her.”
“It’s okay,” Joseph soothed. “You’re not the only one who’s been through a bad break up, you know.”
Silence fell between them, and Joseph swayed from a mix of alcohol and nerves, trying to think of something to say. He thought back to Penelope’s words, and he cleared his throat before he asked, “Did you really mean it? When you said what we had wasn’t real?”
Zale seemed troubled by the question, and he turned away from Joseph. He didn’t answer, only staring blankly at the altar.
Joseph reached out for the one piece of Zale he knew he could touch, his hand, and he squeezed earnestly. “Zale, please.”
Zale finally looked at Joseph, and there were deep lines creasing his face. He was ancient in that moment, all the centuries of pain clear as day when their eyes met. “What do you want from me, Joseph?”
“Another chance,” Joseph said firmly. “A chance to start over without the lies. I know you’re afraid… and I am too.”
“What could you possibly be afraid of?” Zale scoffed.
“You hurting me again,” Joseph replied honestly, his stomach twisting up into knots.
“You’re willing to risk it?” Zale was thoughtful now as he laced their fingers together.
“I have until spring to make up my mind, right?” Joseph tried to warm up his smile, and he reached over to take Zale’s other hand. “All I’m asking for is a chance to start fresh and see what happens. I know it’s crazy, but maybe this is where I’m supposed to be.”
“In the Underworld?” Zale quirked a brow.
“No.” Joseph laughed. “Here with you.”
Zale actually looked surprised, and his expression relaxed once more. He smirked, small and sweet, giving Joseph’s hands a squeeze in return. “Perhaps.”
“Everybody seems to think that me finding your heart was a pretty big deal,” Joseph went on. “And I’m starting to think it is too. Do you have any idea how excited I’d get when I opened up my email and saw I had a new message from you? I was checking it, like, twenty times a day. When we finally met? And what I felt? That was real. I know it was. And I think… I think it was for you too.”
Zale’s smile grew. “You really are insane.”
“Yeah,” Joseph agreed, grinning proudly. “But maybe you are too.”
“You’re also very beautiful.” Zale’s eyes flicked over Joseph in a hungry way that made him shiver. “My brother outdid himself dressing you. You look exquisite.”
“Thank you,” Joseph said, well aware his cheeks were heating up.
“Shame about the shirt.” Zale tilted his head, eyeing the stain. “Syrup?”
“I think it’s grenadine.” Joseph grimaced. “It’s in my hair too.”
“How about a nice bath to rinse off the filth of the evening?”
“That sounds great.”
The words had barely left his lips before Joseph found himself instantly transported to a large bathroom that was easily bigger than his entire apartment. The tub was a mammoth tiled pool built into the floor, and the glowing water within was steaming hot.
“May I?” Zale asked, his hands brushing over the front of Joseph’s shirt.
Joseph gulped as the blood in his circulatory system promptly dove south. “Uh, sure.”
Zale unbuttoned each button with the utmost care and then slid the stained garment off and let it hit the floor. He petted Joseph’s arms and chest, slowly moving down to his pants.
“Couldn’t you… uh… use your powers and just blink my clothes off?” Joseph asked, hoping Zale would somehow not notice how hard he was getting.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Zale winked as he dropped Joseph’s pants. He took his time, removing the last of his clothing except the necklace. “You look perfect like this. In nothing but jewels.”
Joseph gazed at Zale, his heart pounding as he whispered, “I wish I could kiss you right now.”
“Even though you’re still totally a jerk and haven’t actually apologized for any of it.”
“I have a lot to make up for.” Zale ran his fingers through Joseph’s hair, though he stopped when he found the grenadine. “Let’s fix this first, shall we?”
Joseph smiled as Zale took his hand to lead him into the bath. The water was waist high and there was a small bench running along the side where Joseph could sit. Joseph sank down with a happy groan, letting the hot water wash over him.
“Good?” Zale asked.
“Wonderful.” Joseph closed his eyes. “You never did tell me though.”
“Tell you what?”
Joseph peeked open one eye. “Why you lied to me.”
Zale didn’t respond for a moment. “To protect myself,” he said at last. “You were right. I am afraid… I’m afraid to get hurt again. This is not easy for me. Getting married, getting divorced, year after year.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way,” Joseph said carefully, looking up at him hopefully. “I mean, have you actually tried to date any of your other brides? Or do you just assume they’re going to hate you once they find out you’re a god, so you act like a jerk as soon as you’re married?”
“I think I used to try. To be kind, I mean. To make something of it.” Zale sighed. “But no one ever wanted to stay. Everyone runs screaming when they see the Underworld for the first time, and it’s usually downhill after that.”
“It’s not exactly Disney World.”
“True.” Zale smirked. “Although no one else ever dropped my pieces before…”
“Ha ha.” Joseph rolled his eyes. “Well, I cannot promise that I am going to stop dropping them, but—” He took a deep breath. “—maybe I could stay.”
“You’d stay,” Zale echoed, though it almost sounded like a question.
“I said ‘maybe.’” Joseph smiled cheekily. “The bath is a nice start, but you have a lot of making up to do. If you’re messing with me, I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.”
Zale chuckled. “Whatever you say, Captain Tightpants.”
Joseph loved how well Zale could quote their favorite show and he wanted to keep up the playful teasing, but his voice cracked when he said, “You really hurt me, Zale.”
“I know,” Zale said quietly. “And for that I am sorry.” He reached over to touch Joseph’s face, feathery and light. “I am very, very sorry. After being hurt so many times, I simply stopped trying. It was easier that way instead of letting myself be vulnerable only to be rejected. I never thought to give anyone my heart again.”
“And then I found it in a dirty cave, huh?”
“Joseph.” Zale smiled sweetly. “You had my heart long before I brought you here.”
“Our letters,” Zale explained with a twinkle in his eye. “Our electronic mail? I knew from your very first one that I had found someone very special. I suppose that is why I made such an effort to push you away. I was afraid of my feelings for you before we’d even met.”
“Oh, Zale.” Joseph sighed, his eyes hot and his heart aching in the most wonderful way. “That’s very sweet. You’re still an asshole, but okay, I’ll give you that one. Ten points for being smooth.”
“Close your eyes.”
“So I can start making up to you.”
Joseph wasn’t sure what Zale had in mind, but he closed his eyes as asked. He gasped when he suddenly felt Zale’s hands on his body, stroking his sides and hips. It was as if Zale was sitting right behind him, but the only thing Joseph could feel other than his hands was the warm tile against his body.
Zale’s strong hands moved over his thighs, dipping in toward his groin and stroking lightly over his cock. Joseph instinctively reached down to touch his arm but found nothing. All he could feel were those hands all over his dick and it was feeling good.
Zale kept stroking Joseph’s cock, his long fingers twisting around him in the most delightful way. His other hand was caressing Joseph’s balls, dipping below to teasingly pet his hole.
Joseph couldn’t help but gasp, bracing himself at the side of the pool. He’d never had a handjob this intense, scrambling to keep himself from coming too soon. “Zale…. I…. fuck…”
“Come on,” Zale urged.
Intense heat was building up inside Joseph’s body, from his balls to deep inside his loins. The pressure was amazing and impossible to resist. He had no idea how Zale’s mere hands could bring him such intense bliss and his skin was soon buzzing all over. His mortal brain couldn’t take so much pleasure, groaning as he suddenly came.
It was intense enough to leave him breathless with stars dancing in front of his eyes. “Zale!” he groaned “Fuck! Yes!”
Zale kept his fingers moving, driving Joseph to the point of near agony from so much stimulation. He finally released him with a soft whisper, “Open your eyes.”
Joseph found Zale in the bath next to him, naked as he was, and how he longed to hold him. He wanted to kiss him so terribly, but he settled for bringing Zale’s hand up to his lips instead. “Wow.”
Zale hummed in agreement, sliding his thumb over Joseph’s lower lip. “Very wow.”
Joseph grinned. “So, dinner?”
“Right now?” Zale laughed.
“If the offer is still standing,” Joseph said, playfully splashing at Zale. “Because now I’m starving.”
Even though the water went right through him, Zale acted offended and splashed back. “And what is it that my groom desires?”
“Pretty sure a god can handle some Chinese takeout, right?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The rest of Joseph’s tour was brief and honestly a bit uncomfortable. Whatever good mood Zale was in before had apparently been tainted by his brother’s party planning, and now it seemed like he just wanted to get all of this over with.
Joseph saw flowing rivers and luminescent springs, glittering forests and quiet clearings, and he was surprised by how much beauty there was to be found in the land of the dead. Though they didn’t linger at any one location, Joseph hoped they could go back to them sometime. They visited countless caverns filled with souls, basking in the warm glow from all the little Heavens.
Or were some of these Hells?
Joseph couldn’t tell the difference since they all looked the same.
They eventually came to the cave Joseph had seen that first night, the one filled with wailing spirits toiling away. The noise was awful, and Joseph really didn’t want to stay here long.
“Who are these people?” he asked. “Is this… is this like Purgatory?”
“No,” Zale replied. “These are souls that have wronged the gods.”
“Fuck,” Joseph hissed under his breath. “You just keep them here? Forever?”
“Or until the offended god forgets about their transgressions and I’m able to help them move on to a final resting place.”
“That’s nice, I guess.” Joseph made a face. “Do all the gods do this? Are some of these yours?”
“I keep mine in my club. Instead of digging away here in the earth, they have to dance forever in complete agony until I’m bored of them.”
“Why… why would you do that?” Joseph demanded, his stomach twisting up tightly.
“You need to remember who and what I am,” Zale replied coldly. “I have to set an example to the other gods and their mortal followers. I will not tolerate disrespect. I keep those who have wronged me on full display as a reminder.”
“That’s horrible!” Joseph gasped. “How can you be that cruel?”
“Joseph,” Zale warned. “This is exactly why I don’t want my brother filling your head with any ideas.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The party. Nothing good can come from consorting with the gods. We are not warm and fluffy, all right? We are not always kind.”
“Oh, yeah,” Joseph griped. “I got that part.”
“And while finding my heart first is unique, it means nothing,” Zale went on, his words carrying a bite. “Whatever lingering fantasy you may still have, all of this is just a means to an end, do you understand?”
“Fine,” Joseph snapped back. “Message received. You’re an asshole, all the gods are assholes, got it. Don’t worry. You make it impossible to forget.”
They were staring at each other so intently that Joseph struggled not to think about kissing Zale. No, that was stupid. Zale was an epic jerk and didn’t deserve any damn kisses.
Even so, it was difficult to deny the attraction and the hungry way Zale was staring at him.
“What else?” Joseph asked quickly, eager to break the boiling tension. “What else is there to see?”
“I think you’ve seen enough. Unless you sense any more pieces?”
“No, I haven’t felt anything since I found the first one.”
“It takes time.”
“Trust me, I’ll let you know as soon as I do.” Joseph looked away, silently fuming and fighting inside his head. “I want to go home as soon as possible.”
Zale took them back to the suite, acting as if he was in a big hurry. “I’ll have lunch sent up for you. The phone on that desk will reach me personally if you sense any more pieces.”
“Can’t wait,” Joseph said, flopping into bed face down. He grumbled into the pillows for a moment before he lifted his head, surprised to see Zale still standing there. “What?”
“Do you need anything else?” Zale asked.
“No.” Joseph frowned. “Unless… What if I still wanted to go to the party?”
“I won’t stop you. You’re more than welcome to—” Zale shrugged with disinterest. “—but I will not be joining you.”
“Ah, too busy brooding and doing depressing god of the dead things?” Joseph guessed dryly.
“Cute.” Zale snorted. He turned to leave but then paused. “If you’d like… When I’m done with my errands, you could dine with me,” he offered casually.
“Huh?” Joseph rolled over and sat up.
That certainly didn’t sound like something the brooding god of the dead would say.
“Dinner,” Zale said. “With me.”
“You want me to come eat with you?” Joseph stared. “Is this your very lame way of trying to apologize for being such a jerk?”
“It’s dinner.” Zale shrugged. “That’s all.”
“Not another date?”
“Dinner.” Zale sighed, turning his head away to add, “There’s no need to complicate this. My other brides weren’t so difficult—”
“Well, maybe your other brides weren’t so sure they’d found someone really special!” Joseph snarled, any pretense of being cordial lost. He felt insulted, and his anger bubbled right over.
“Special?” Zale didn’t seem to know what to even make of the word.
“For fuck’s sake!” Joseph bolted to his feet, wishing he could grab Zale and shake him. He knew his hands would pass right through him, but he still swatted at him to vent some of his anger.
“What?” Zale raised an unimpressed brow.
“Yes! This is a fertile land!” Joseph suddenly declared. “We will thrive! We will rule over all this land! And we will call it…” He paused for effect. “This land!”
Zale looked away, but he grumpily chimed in, “I think we should call it your grave.”
“See?” Joseph gestured helplessly. “Special. Like, who else is gonna know Firefly that well and quote it with me? I thought we really had a connection. And you keep sending all of these mixed signals.”
“What are you talking about?” Zale demanded, genuinely confused.
“Make up your mind!” Joseph groaned. “Do you want to be my husband or my friend? Because right now, you sort of suck at both. You can’t be a total dill hole, tell me this is all just a means to an end, and then turn around and ask me to dinner.”
“I was trying to apologize.”
“Then just say it!”
“Ugh!” Joseph groaned in exasperation. “I’m not going to eat with you unless you tell me it means something or you actually apologize.”
“As you wish.” Zale grunted. “Enjoy the party. I’m sure it will be lovely.”
“See, that. That right there. You ever hear that one song by Katy Perry? ‘Hot And Then Total Douche’? That’s you.”
Zale didn’t even crack a smile. “I will have a special place waiting for Miss Perry,” he growled in a dangerously low tone.
“What the hell!” Joseph snapped. “Are you serious? Just, ugh, just go. Go do your weird dead things and leave me alone.”
Zale gave one last departing glare and vanished without another word.
Joseph stood up and then stomped towards the door. He was frustrated and hoped to drown some of his anger in a drink from the bar downstairs.
He opened the door to a horde of screaming souls.
“Oh, shut up!” Joseph groaned as he slammed the door shut.
He retreated back to bed to make a nest of pillows and pout.
So much for getting a damn drink.
Joseph didn’t know what to make of his increasingly confusing situation. It made his heart and his head hurt, and he wished spring was here already. He knew that spring wouldn’t come without having to, ulgh, handle more body parts…
But the heart.
Finding Zale’s heart first had to mean something. In spite of Zale’s protests, Joseph found himself still hopeful. There had to be something here. Maybe Zale really wasn’t that perfect guy he had gone to bed with, but some part of it had to be real.
All Joseph had ever wanted was someone to understand him, to enjoy life with him, and damn, did he want that person to be Zale.
Stupid, he silently chastised himself, to think otherwise.
Regular mortal men never seemed to want him, so why would a god?
Joseph heard a crinkle, and he looked up from his nest. There was a large shopping bag resting at the foot of the bed with a golden JG imprinted on the side. He recognized the logo as Jayden Glamore’s immediately.
He dragged the bag toward himself to peek inside, and he flinched when he heard Jayden’s sweet voice teasing, “You really do love this stuff, huh?”
Joseph found him sitting on the bed beside him, and he tried not to be freaked out by Jayden’s magical appearance as he replied, “Yeah, but it’s normally a birthday splurge, you know?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Jayden winked. “There is a family discount, you know.”
“I’m only gonna be family until spring,” Joseph reminded him as he pulled out a jar of face mask cream. He opened the jar to smell it, basking in his favorite cucumber melon scent.
“Are you really sure about that?” Jayden asked casually.
“Pretty sure,” Joseph muttered as he put the lid back on. “Your brother is making it very clear that I shouldn’t get my hopes up, okay? I’m just another groom or whatever for the season.”
“He’s a stubborn idiot,” Jayden declared, clapping his hands. In a blink, they were both swaddled in thick robes and had the face mask smeared all over their faces. He offered Joseph a glass of wine. “You have to understand he’s made himself believe that he’ll never be happy again.”
Joseph accepted the wine and nearly chugged the whole thing. The glass began to fill back up on its own.
Huh, all this godly power stuff was kinda nifty.
“Why?” Joseph asked. “Is it because of Persephone?”
“Yup,” Jayden said with a click of his tongue. “When she left him, it really fucked him up. He wouldn’t speak to anyone for decades.”
“I don’t wanna be that guy, but, eh, didn’t he kidnap Persephone? I don’t see kidnapping as a very good way to start a long-term relationship.”
“Kidnapped her willingly.” Jayden laughed. “They had fallen in love but Persephone’s family didn’t want her marrying the dreary old god of the dead. So, he came up and grabbed her so they could be married in secret.”
“Aw, that’s actually really sweet. I like that version of the story so much better.”
“It’s the truth!” Jayden insisted. “And they were so happy, for thousands of years.”
“Sometimes, I think it’s as simple as some people fall out of love.” Jayden smiled sadly. “Persephone just didn’t love him anymore. So, she left.”
“That sucks.” Joseph swigged back a big mouthful of wine. “You know, your brother told me not to listen to you. He said that you’re just filling my head with nonsense.”
“It’s only nonsense because he’s a big jerk and he’s not over Persephone.” Jayden snorted. “He can’t see what’s obviously right in front of him.”
“You!” Jayden giggled. “Finding his heart first is a big deal.”
“I don’t know.” Joseph fidgeted, picking at the edge of the mask where it was starting to dry. “He’s already so confusing. I don’t want to get hurt again or get my hopes up.”
“Oh, shush.” Jayden waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Just leave everything to me! I’m a love god, remember?”
“You’re going to play matchmaker with me and your brother?” Joseph frowned. “You don’t even know me!”
“I don’t have to. You found the heart!”
“What’s the big deal about the heart?”
“The brides always find what they love most about my brother,” Jayden explained with a sweet smile. “Whatever it is that they most desire. Usually it’s his hands, for the wealth he can give them. Sometimes, his arms because of the protection they offer. And well, ahem, other bits for the other stuff, okay?”
“Got it!” Joseph blushed, realizing now he would have to find those pieces eventually.
“But you found his heart,” Jayden went on, taking Joseph’s hand and giving it a squeeze. “You want him. Not the riches or the dick, you really want to be with him. And once he pulls his head out of his ass, he’ll realize he’s wasting a big fuckin’ chance at happily ever after.”
“We’ll see,” Joseph said softly, his chest full of flutters at the very thought. He had the god of love on his side—certainly that had to help?
“Damn right!” Jayden cheered. “Now, finish your wine! We’ve gotta get ready for the party!”
Spending the day with a capricious god made the time fly right by. After their face masks and wine, Jayden brought in countless racks of fancy designer clothes for them to try on. They chatted about movies and celebrities, bitched about men and life in general. Joseph couldn’t believe how much he and Jayden had in common, secretly hoping this budding friendship would survive whatever happened when spring came.
As the hour grew late, Jayden helped Joseph narrow down an outfit to wear to the party. They eventually settled on slim-fitting black slacks and a dark blue dress shirt. Jayden made sure he left the top few buttons of the shirt undone, leaving his chest bare and giving him a black necklace dripping with sapphires.
The metal was thick, twisted into long vines that curled around each gem.
“Holy crap,” Joseph breathed, touching the cool metal as Jayden snapped it into place. “This is awesome. Thank you.”
“Perfect,” Jayden gushed with a triumphant snap of his fingers. “Still masculine, but oh, so delicate and gorgeous. Beautiful and powerful and yes, blue is Zale’s favorite color. He’s gonna love it.”
“But he isn’t coming to the party.” Joseph blinked.
“Pffft. You clearly don’t know my brother as well as I thought you did. He’s gonna pout for a while and then show up later like nothing ever happened.”
“You really think so?”
“Oh, yes.” Jayden smiled smugly. “Trust me.”
Joseph wasn’t sure how wise it was to trust a god, especially since he knew all too well how trusting an immortal being turned out for him last time. He tried desperately to cling to hope, no matter how silly it seemed.
He could still remember how excited he was to get every single one of Zale’s emails and how he’d daydreamed about putting together the perfect Star Wars themed nursery for their future adopted children. Yes, it was a little extreme, but Zale was just…
Well, he was perfect.
Jayden magically transported them down into the club, and the gloomy atmosphere had changed completely. The dreary souls were now obscured by a thick crowd of vibrant dancers. Everyone was beautiful, dressed impeccably, and Joseph realized he was in the presence of more immortals.
No normal human beings could be this fantastic.
“Come on, Joseph!” Jayden took Joseph’s hand. “It’s time to meet your in-laws!”
Joseph had no choice but to follow Jayden’s lead and chug shots along the way, shaking hands and hugging, doing his best to keep up with the rush of people. Some proudly introduced themselves by the godly names the world had previously worshiped them as, others simply gave their modern moniker.
Montu-Ares was a suave man with a dangerous smile who coached professional football.
Lauren was an aerospace engineer who seemed particularly obsessed with the moon.
Loki-Hermes went by the mortal name of Taylor and judging by the way he and Jayden greeted each other with a swap of tongue, he was very close to the love god.
Joseph wished everyone was wearing name tags, but despite not being able to remember their names he was having a great time. They all had so many questions for him, they wanted to have drinks, and many promised him lovely gifts.
Joseph leaned in close to Jayden, whispering loudly, “That one guy just offered me a plane!”
“Who?” Jayden followed where Joseph pointed and giggled. “Barney? He’s a record producer. He can afford it!”
“Why is everyone being so nice to me?!”
“Because they know you’re gonna be super chummy with my brother, and he is very, very powerful.”
“Is it like the stories? The three brothers who divided all the kingdoms between them? Hades, Poseidon, and—”
“You’ve already met Poseidon! She’s over there!” Jayden pointed. “She prefers to be called Paula now, just so you know.”
“Oh. Got it.”
Taylor approached with a tray full of shots. “An offering for my god of love.”
“Thank you, darling.” Jayden winked as he took a shot and passed one over to Joseph.
“Thanks.” Joseph paused, watching Jayden and Taylor exchange another heated kiss. “Okay, I gotta know. Is everyone all super related or uh, no?”
“It’s probably better if you don’t know.” Taylor snickered. “But not all of the gods were born gods, if that helps. Some of us were chosen to ascend.”
“Yeah.” Taylor nodded. “As in, we were mortal and got our godhood membership card. Usually happens with marriage. Helps the family tree get some branches and stay out of straight line territory.”
“Oh, okay,” Joseph said, too tipsy to even think on the prospect of immortality without squealing like a child. “So, okay, okay, I know Hades. And oh, Poseidon is a chick named Paula. That still leaves one brother.”
Jayden made a face. “You mean King of the Douches himself?”
“The Emperor of Man Slutdom?” Taylor chimed in.
“The Vicar of Venereal Diseases?”
“Zeus!” Joseph laughed, blushing at the ridiculous titles. “I’m talking about Zeus!”
“Someone calling for me?” a gorgeous man teased as he magically appeared in between Jayden and Joseph, gazing over Joseph ravenously. His beauty rivaled even Zale’s, boasting a strong jaw and lusty green eyes that made Joseph’s loins clench.
“Uh… uh…” Joseph stammered, taking a step back.
“I go by Lance now,” he said, “but you can call me Zeus if you’d prefer. Whatever you decide to moan out later is fine by me. I’m not picky.”
Jayden quickly intervened, snapping, “Lance, no! He’s Zale’s groom for the season!”
“Oh, so I’ve heard.” Lance leaned around Jayden, smiling and eyeing Joseph still. “Found his heart after a steamy night of passion. Tell me, Joseph. How does making love to a god compare to mortal men?”
“It’s, uh, it was fine,” Joseph squeaked anxiously.
“Just fine?” Lance laughed. “How would you like to experience the pleasures that a real god can show you, hmm?”
“Ugh, you’re disgusting!” Jayden groaned as he pushed Lance away. “Go find someone else to harass!”
Lance vanished away and reappeared in front of Joseph. He traced Joseph’s necklace, brushing his fingers over Joseph’s chest. “I think I’ve already made up my mind. I like this one.”
Joseph curled up his lip and smacked Lance’s hand away, snapping, “Get your hands off me!”
“Oh-ho-ho!” Lance was absolutely delighted. “I really like him!”
“Lance.” Jayden raised his hand and summoned a ball of golden sparks. “I’m not kidding. He’s Zale’s and I’m not going to—”
“Please,” Lance scoffed, waving his hand as lightning casually danced over his fingertips. “What’s Zale gonna do? We all know he only gets laid once a year and he drops his brides off as fast as he can—”
“But Joseph found his heart!” Jayden growled. “This time is different! I’m not letting you mess this up—”
“Mess what up? There’s nothing to ruin, dear sweet brother! Now, let me have a little fun.”
“No!” Jayden narrowed his eyes and golden light enveloped his body. “You’re not touching him!”
Joseph backed away, and he turned to stumble toward the bar. He did not want to get in between two battling immortals, and he’d had way too much to drink. His head was swimming and he found an empty barstool, plopping down and hanging his head.
Lightning shot down from the ceiling and there was an explosion of golden glitter raining over everything. Most of the guests were laughing, cheering for either Jayden or Lance, and the music continued to pump throughout their battle.
Maybe Zale was right.
Joseph wasn’t ready to party with gods.
He flinched as a glass slid in front of him, looking up to see a blonde woman perched on the stool beside him.
She was very beautiful, but definitely dangerous. Joseph could tell immediately from the wicked sparkle in her eyes. Despite her small frame, he could feel the strength oozing off of her.
A goddess, had to be.
Joseph hesitantly accepted the drink, mumbling, “Th-thank you… uh… Have we met?”’
“No,” she said, offering her hand out with an all too friendly smile. “Hi. It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m Persephone.”
“What’s so funny?” Zale asked grumpily.
“You. This. All of this. Especially the you being the god of the dead part. And, and you need me to do what exactly?” Joseph shook his head. “You said I have to find your body to bring back spring or something? I don’t understand what’s going on!”
Zale sighed. “I promise that I will explain everything. Come here and sit with me. This is much easier if you cooperate.”
“I don’t want to sit down! I want answers now!” Joseph snapped, crossing his arms and moving away from the door. He couldn’t stand to see those spirits any longer, and he was grateful when Zale shut it.
Yes, it was weird that Zale shut the door without touching it, but at least Joseph didn’t have to hear the undead wailing now.
“Ask away.” Zale snorted briskly.
“Okay, bringing back spring, all that.” Joseph took a deep breath. “I help you and then I can go home? No more crazy Underworld full of dead people?”
“Why bother with the date?” Joseph frowned. “Why do all of this romantic crap, huh? Why… why make me think that you liked me?” He buried the sting in his heart and cruelly snarked, “As I recall, Persephone is kinda the jealous type.”
“Ah, you don’t understand.” Zale smirked. “For the next six months, you are my Persephone.”
“This task can only be fulfilled by my bride.”
“I’m very pretty, but I think I’m more of a groom.”
“Bride or groom, it matters not. You accepted a gift from me, an engagement gift, and then we shared a meal and a bed together. According to the old ways, we are now wed. Until spring arrives, you’re prince-consort of the Underworld, Joseph Abrams.”
“Oh…” Joseph gulped. “Isn’t that… neat.”
“You will want for nothing,” Zale went on with a flourish of his hand. “You will be given luxuries appropriate to your new station and treasures beyond your wildest dreams. Think of it as compensation for the time you will be spending here with me. As long as you are able to successfully reconstruct my vessel and allow me to summon spring, I will grant you a divorce and you’ll leave here a rich man. Do you understand?”
“Yes?” Joseph blushed. “And my other, eh, husbandly duties?”
“I will not touch you again,” Zale assured him. “Even if I wanted to, my physical form has been lost and you need not worry about me taking you to bed again.”
“Ha! As if I’d let you!” Joseph sneered. “You tricked me! You did all of this and just, just… You used me!”
“For what it’s worth, I apologize for the inconvenience this is causing,” Zale said smoothly.
“Screw your apology!” Joseph barked, his burst of anger taking him by surprise but refusing to let it fade out. “You could have just told me the truth instead of lying to me!”
“Right.” Zale scoffed. “Tell you that I’m the god of the dead and I need you to find the broken pieces of my corpse to resurrect myself and ensure the changing of the seasons?”
“Well…” Joseph paused. “You still shouldn’t have lied to me! I really thought, you know, that you might have…” He dared to meet Zale’s eyes. “Was any of this real?”
“No,” Zale said softly. “I’m sorry, but the deception was necessary to bring you here. I’m sure you’ll find your compensation more than enough. The others all did.”
“You do this every year?” Joseph realized out loud.
“Yes,” Zale replied, a strange sadness softening his cold expression. “I have to find a new bride every fall. No one ever stays.”
“Hard to believe with that charming personality of yours.” Joseph snorted. “You’re such a catch.”
Zale actually cracked a small smile. “You would think I’d be impossible to resist.”
“Right?” Joseph laughed, catching Zale’s eyes, which were twinkling with a playful mischief. He could feel that familiar surge of chemistry bubbling between them, but it was over all too quickly.
Zale was walking away and leaving Joseph alone.
Zale paused to bow, saying, “We start tomorrow.” When he opened the door, it was a normal hallway once more. “Sleep now. I’ll come to you at breakfast.”
“Yup.” Joseph scowled. “Can’t wait to learn all about tracking down body parts. Should be super fun.”
Zale rolled his eyes. “Good night, Joseph.”
“Good night,” Joseph replied, sighing wistfully as the door shut. He flopped back on the bed and scrubbed his hands over his face.
He wished he had never bothered with internet dating.
Being harassed by creeps and perverts was bad enough, but he couldn’t have ever imagined getting himself married to an ancient god being a potential risk. Really should have canceled the damn subscription when he had the chance.
But being prince-consort of the underworld for the next six months…
Could be worse, right?
When Joseph woke up, there was a brief moment where he thought everything had been a terrible and weird dream. He would be able to go home, cancel that stupid dating website subscription, and his life was going to go back to normal. Finding himself in Zale’s bed was a stark reminder that last night had been exceptionally real.
And full of wailing corpses and caves and…
Joseph rolled over and saw the watch Zale had given him resting on the bedside table. Immediately, his stomach twisted. He threw it as hard as he could and then scowled when it made a less than satisfying tink against the wall.
If he had a hammer, he would have smashed it into pieces.
There was a tray of food at the foot of the bed he hadn’t seen before, having appeared as if by magic. It was pancakes with strawberry syrup and whipped cream, his favorite. He couldn’t recall if he had told Zale that or not, but it didn’t matter.
He wasn’t hungry.
Joseph got out of bed to find the bathroom, but he stopped when he spotted a set of clothes hanging up by the desk. It was a pair of dark jeans and a red dress shirt. He didn’t see his own clothes anywhere, and he sighed, taking the new clothes with him to a door that he hoped was the bathroom and not another cave full of dead people.
It was a bathroom, thankfully, and he shut the door behind him to use the toilet and get changed. He was half tempted to refuse the gift and walk around naked out of spite, but he didn’t want to give Zale any ideas.
“Better not,” Joseph mumbled to himself as he left the bathroom. “He’d probably like it… Jerk.”
“Probably like what?” Zale’s voice purred out of nowhere, startling Joseph.
“Jesus!” Joseph clutched his chest and glared at Zale furiously.
The handsome god of the dead was wearing a trim black suit that he had no right to look so gorgeous in. It was painful how attractive he was and the agony was compounded by how much Joseph wanted to hate him and couldn’t quite bring himself to.
“Don’t you knock?” Joseph raged on, trying to hide his gawking and ignore his conflicted feelings.
“You didn’t eat your breakfast.” Zale frowned.
“Wow. Those are some amazing powers of observation.” Joseph pretended to gasp. “You must be a god!”
“Does it not please you?”
“No!” Joseph reached out to jab Zale in the chest. His finger passed right through him as before, and he groaned. “No! None of this is pleasing!”
“I’m sorry. The sooner we begin, the better,” Zale said curtly.
“Okay.” Joseph crossed his arms over his chest. “How do we start?”
“I follow your lead into the realms of the Underworld,” Zale explained. “The pieces of my vessel are always scattered there. I’ll show you around and you will seek them out.”
“How long is this gonna take?”
“That’s up to you,” Zale said simply. “You’re the only one who can find them.”
“And how am I doing that again?”
Zale motioned towards the door, magically opening it up and revealing a dark staircase. “You’ll know.”
“Right.” Joseph grunted, hesitantly following him down the steps. “So, is this Hell?”
“Yes, but it’s also Heaven and everything in between. Souls are energy and this is where they gather when they pass on.”
“They’re gathered for judgment?”
“Not exactly,” Zale said with a small tilt of his head. “We judge, but not to reward or punish, not quite in the way that you’re thinking.”
“Well? What is it then?”
“I’ll show you.”
The stairs varied between raw rock and polished marble, as if the architecture couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. They led down to a big gate and through that into a large chamber, miserably cold and grim. Opposite the gates was a tall mirror mounted on the wall, the massive frame extending from the floor to the ceiling. The shining glass reflected the room and Joseph, but not Zale. The image of the incorporeal god next to him being absent made Joseph shiver.
From the stone walls around them, thick elaborate pillars were peeking out and there was an ornate altar rising up from the floor. There was a faint outline of a human figure on top, and rotten offerings of fruit and flowers were strewn around the base.
Zale raised his hand, and all the mess magically cleared away. He gestured toward the altar, saying, “This is where you’ll bring the pieces of my vessel as you gather them.”
“Very cheerful,” Joseph said sarcastically. “Maybe you could add some cobwebs and a skeleton to really set the mood?”
Zale snorted, and the ends of his mouth twitched in a small smile. “I’ll talk to my decorator, see what he can do.”
“Yeah, get right on that. Tell him to pick out some new curtains too.” Joseph laughed, hating how easy it was to find their playful banter again. He found himself smiling awkwardly, clearing his throat as he asked, “Right, so, what now?”
“Well, you wanted to know what happens to souls when they pass on.” Zale nodded toward the mirror. The surface of the glass rippled like water, resonating with Zale’s voice as he said, “Step through.”
“And where does this go?”
“Where you want to go.”
“Home?” Joseph asked wistfully.
“No,” Zale replied flatly. “Trust me, step through the mirror.”
“Trust you?” Joseph scowled. “Trust you and just waltz through the weird, jiggly mirror? Ha! Maybe you’ve already forgotten how you lied to me? Remember all the lying? And how you used me? For all of this crazy crap? And you… you…”
You said it wasn’t real.
“Trust that I mean you no harm,” Zale soothed. “I want my body back and the seasons to change, all right? And you want to go home. Neither of our goals can be accomplished without a little faith.”
“Fine.” Joseph growled, his heart aching as he stalked towards the mirror. He wished there had been some part of Zale that really cared, but maybe it would be easier this way. He willed away the urge to cry and focused on getting this over with.
Which meant having to go through the weird, jiggly mirror.
Touching the mirror reminded him of cold silly putty, slick and wet and slimy, but his hand could pass right through as if it were made of air. He stepped forward, finding himself in—surprise—another cave.
But this one was different.
It was warm and lit with glowing torches, their amber light filling every crevice. It felt inviting and almost cozy. The atmosphere was completely different from the other part of the underground kingdom Joseph had seen so far.
There were thousands of spheres of light floating through the air, pink and orange and yellow, begging to be touched. Joseph couldn’t explain why he wanted to reach out to them, and he tried to keep his hands down by his sides.
Zale materialized beside him, urging softly, “Go on. It’s all right.”
“What are they?” Joseph asked.
“A little piece of Heaven,” Zale said with a tender smile, reaching over as if to guide Joseph’s hand. He couldn’t make physical contact, but Joseph felt the warmth of his skin nonetheless and followed his lead.
The moment Joseph’s fingers made contact with the sphere, he and Zale were taken from the cave into a giant field of flowers. There was a large pink castle in front of them with stuffed unicorn guards peeking down at them from the towers above.
A little girl was running out from the castle gates, waving excitedly as she shouted, “Hey, Mr. Pluto!”
“Hi, Sally.” Zale dropped to a knee to intercept her as she tackled him with a giant hug.
“This is… Oh!” Joseph grimaced, not sure how to react when he realized Zale was able to touch her.
“Sally, this is Joseph,” Zale said, giving her a small pat. “Joseph, meet Sally.”
“Uh, hi,” Joseph greeted. “I really like your castle!”
“Thanks!” Sally beamed with pride. “Mr. Pluto made it for me. It was my design, of course.”
“Of course,” Zale echoed with a little wink.
“You made all of this for her?” Joseph found himself smiling. “Her very own little Heaven?”
“I make them for every soul that passes through my kingdom,” Zale replied. “An afterlife suited to their needs, their desires, all according to the nature of the person they were while they were alive. I make sure these places are here waiting for them. Although not all are as pleasant as this one.”
Joseph understood what he meant immediately.
“Is he new here?” Sally asked in a loud whisper.
“He’s my groom for the season,” Zale said. “I’m showing him around.”
“Okay!” Sally studied Joseph carefully and then whispered again, “Maybe try to keep this one. He’s really cute!”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Zale chuckled while Joseph blushed.
“Well, I’m gonna go make cookies for my unicorns,” Sally announced, waving as she headed back into her castle. “Bye, Mr. Pluto! Bye, Joseph!”
“Bye, Sally!” Joseph waved back, and then he looked to Zale with a curious smirk. “Mr. Pluto, huh?”
“I’m different things to different people,” Zale said with a shrug. “An angel for some, a demon for others.”
“Did you…” Joseph narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “Did you just paraphrase Hellraiser?”
“Guilty.” Zale grinned. He waved his hand and transported them back into the warm cave. “Good source of inspiration for creating Hells, you know. Pretty much anything Clive Barker did, really.”
“I can imagine.” Joseph laughed nervously, his mind reeling with the horrific possibilities. He got lost in Zale’s smile before he remembered how mad he was at him. He cleared his throat as he asked hastily, “So, is my Heaven ready? Like, how far in advance do you make them?”
“Yours isn’t ready yet. And generally speaking, there’s always a place waiting for a soul. I just have to add a few special touches to make it theirs.”
“And you do this for everyone? That’s gotta be, like, thousands of souls every day!”
“Good thing I’m a god. I’m a pretty talented multitasker.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Joseph snorted. “Rub it in for us puny mortals who can’t even walk and chew gum. How do you even know who gets what? You said you don’t judge them.”
“It’s not as black and white as you might think.” Zale paused. “Evil and good comes in many different shades and the afterlife that’s awarded to someone reflects that. It may not be all fire and brimstone, but perhaps an eternity trapped behind a computer in a tiny cubicle.”
“Yeah, see, that definitely sounds like Hell to me.”
“But it could be Heaven for someone else,” Zale pointed out. “I do my best to tailor every afterlife to what a person deserves. Or, in some cases, what a person thinks they deserve.”
“Still seems like you’re judging them.” Joseph shook his head, suddenly feeling an odd pull.
And there, wait, he could hear a bell.
Joseph turned toward the sound.
“Joseph?” Zale sounded concerned.
“Something weird… I just…” Joseph frowned as the sound got louder, and he followed it.
Zale didn’t move, standing back and allowing Joseph to wander away.
Joseph couldn’t explain the sound, but it reminded him of a wind chime being teased by a light breeze. In between the tinkling notes, he tried to stay focused on the pulling sensation he felt in his gut. Maybe this was what Zale had been talking about, how he would know where to find the pieces.
Unless he’d lied about that too.
Joseph couldn’t help how bitter his thoughts turned, but the sting of Zale’s betrayal was much too fresh. He didn’t care that he was going to leave this place a rich man. He would have much rather been able to keep the sweet man whose bed he had shared.
His feet brought him to a stop, and his hands unconsciously rose into the air. The chiming was louder, almost shrill, and the tips of his fingers brushed over something warm and wet. He grabbed on to it and then pulled the object close to his chest with a gasp.
It appeared in his palms in a blink—a vibrant red human heart. It was glowing, warm and alive, the flesh seeming to shimmer all over as it pulsed.
Joseph promptly shrieked and dropped it on the floor.
“Hey!” Zale protested.
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry!” Joseph cried, kneeling to pick it up. “My bad.”
“You just dropped my heart on the floor! My ancient, timeless, immortal heart—”
“Okay, I said I was sorry.” Joseph hissed. “It’s fucking slimy! Come on. Give me a break.”
Zale rolled his eyes, waving his hand and taking them back into the cave with the altar. “In the thousands of years that I’ve been performing this sacred ritual, no one has ever dropped my organs—”
“How many more times do I have to apologize?” Joseph growled, setting the heart down in a huff on the stone altar. “I didn’t think it was actually going to be, you know, an actual heart!”
“What did you think it would be? A cartoon drawn on a piece of paper?”
“Would be a lot less fucking gross.”
Zale curled his lip up, sighing in frustration. “The first task is done, but there are still more ahead.”
“Are there going to be more literal nasty body parts?” Joseph grumbled as he wiped his hands off on his jeans.
“Didn’t think my parts were nasty last night,” Zale quickly reminded him with a smug smile.
“That’s before I knew they were all attached to the world’s biggest asshole,” Joseph shot back, his cheeks heating up.
Zale flicked his hand at the altar, and the heart suddenly dissolved away into the stone. “Mm. You’re still angry with me.”
“Yes! I’m still angry.” Joseph struggled to keep from shouting. “I thought I’d met the perfect guy and nope, you turned out to be a prick of godly proportions!”
“Prick of godly proportions,” a male voice said with a giggle. “That’s a new one.”
Joseph looked all around to find the owner of the new voice, groaning, “Ugh, now what?”
A beautiful young man with long blond hair appeared in front of him, wearing a crop-top blouse and high-waisted jeans. His makeup was glittering, his hair flawlessly curled, and he was just as stunning as Zale, though he looked much younger. He wiggled his fingers at Joseph, greeting, “Hi there, sweetie. I’m your new brother-in-law!”
“Another god?” Joseph asked weakly, backing away a few steps. He was never going to get used to all of this magical weirdness.
“Yes!” the god said, planting his hands on his hips. “You can call me Jayden! It’s so lovely to meet you! So, you’re the lucky one my brother managed to catch, huh?”
“What are you the god of? Awkward comments?”
“No, silly!” Jayden laughed. “Love, beauty, fertility, and unfortunate accidents.”
“What? Love, like Aphrodite?”
“And Eros, Cliodhna, Frigg, Ishtar, and so on,” Jayden said, flipping his long hair. “With a small splash of poor ol’ Hyacinth because oops, crap happens.”
“Huh?” Joseph really wished he had read more.
“Stick with Aphrodite and add the irony of being hit by a car after surviving open heart surgery,” Zale drawled.
Jayden approached the altar, running his long nails along the edge. He seemed to be able to sense something, gasping and whirling around to face his brother as he demanded, “He found your heart? Already?”
“Yes,” Zale replied calmly, his expression blank.
“Do you have any idea how amazing that is?” Jayden now asked Joseph. “Only one other person has ever found his heart first, and she—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Zale cut in quickly.
“We have to celebrate!”
“No, we don’t,” Zale retorted.
“We can have the party in your depressing little club!” Jayden went on, ignoring his brother’s refusal. “With some actual living people and not all those creepy damned souls—”
“Wait, those people were dead people?” Joseph cut in.
“Yes! He hasn’t finished showing you around yet?” Jayden rolled his eyes. “Slacker.”
“Today is only the first day,” Zale growled, clearly frustrated with his brother, but Jayden showed no signs of stopping.
“I’ll invite the whole family!” Jayden exclaimed. “This is going to be incredible!” He playfully swatted Joseph’s arm, laughing. “And you have no idea what you’ve even done, huh?”
“I have the feeling that you’re about to tell me.”
“The only other person to find Zale’s heart first was his very first bride,” Jayden said with a wink. “Persephone herself.”
Joseph had no idea what to make of that, but he could tell that Zale was extremely uncomfortable.
“Maybe there’s hope for you yet,” Jayden declared, although it wasn’t clear if he was referring to Joseph or Zale. “I’ll handle the party, you two just have to remember to show up. Say, eight o’clock?”
“No,” was Zale’s flat response.
“I think it sounds fantastic,” Joseph said, pleased that his enthusiasm made Zale’s eye twitch. “Hanging out with a bunch of gods and goddesses and dead people? Count me in. It’ll be great.”
“Wonderful!” Jayden cheered. “I have a board meeting this afternoon, but after that I’m free.”
“A god has a board meeting?” Joseph asked curiously.
“When the god is the CEO of a very popular boutique cosmetics company, yes, he does.”
“Wait, you’re Jayden Glamore!” Joseph suddenly put it all together, staring at him in awe. “You’re the CEO of Glamore Bath and Beauty, right? I love your cucumber melon body lotion. I swear, it’s life changing for sensitive skin.”
“Thank you.” Jayden beamed. “Always nice to meet a fan.”
“I’m literally the god of the dead, responsible for all living souls and the changing of the seasons, and you’re impressed by some lotion?” Zale actually looked offended.
“It’s really good lotion,” Joseph protested.
“I’ll have a special little gift basket delivered for you,” Jayden said. “Think of it as a late wedding present.”
“Wow!” Joseph gushed. “Thank you.”
“Aw, it’s nothing.” Jayden batted his eyes. “Now, I have to run, but you boys have fun with your little scavenger hunt and I’ll see you tonight.”
“No,” Zale said stiffly, still clearly not pleased.
“Oh, shush.” Jayden blew kisses as he faded away. “Tonight. Eight o’clock.”
Joseph waved farewell, smirking at Zale’s sour face. “What’s wrong? Sounds like it’ll be a lot of fun.”
“Your participation isn’t necessary,” Zale said with a little sneer. “My brother gets carried away.”
“Does he do this with all your brides and grooms?”
Zale tilted his head, seeming to think over his response before finally sighing. “No, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“It’s just a party,” Joseph said. “What’s the big deal?”
“Do you know what happens when you get immortals together and get them drunk?”
Zale gave another fiercely dramatic eye roll. “Well, you’re going to find out tonight.”