She glared. “You are proposing a compromise? A bargain?”
This was highly dangerous territory, but he could see no other way. His nod of agreement was rigid. A roll of parchment appeared in one of Venus’s hands, an inked quill in the other. A slow smile crept onto her face as she brushed the feather across her delicate chin. “There will be rules, of course.”
“I have no doubt there will be.” He had seen his mother strike bargains with others and it was never in their favor.
“You will have a time limit of two human weeks to make her love you.”
He schooled his face. “Make it two human months.”
“One,” she compromised.
He gave a stiff nod, and she wrote the rule on the parchment.
“She must declare her love verbally within one month. Agreed?”
With gritted teeth, he nodded, and she wrote.
“She will not lay eyes on you or place her hands on you.”
That gave him pause. “But I can touch her?”
“Agreed. Let us sign.” He reached for the quill.
Venus laughed and turned away, tucking the scroll to her chest. “Oh, my boy, I am only getting started.” She paced, enjoying herself far too much. “You cannot tell Psyche your identity or mine. She, her family, and all those pathetic townspeople must believe you are a monster. Even your voice shall be altered.”
She giggled when she spotted the terse frown on his face. “Do you doubt your abilities to woo a woman with a few small restrictions?”
“She will be terrified.”
His mother lifted an eyebrow, grinning wickedly.
“Is that all?” he ground out.
“I think not.” She went on to outline the many things he could and could not say or do. No comforting her with words like, “I will not hurt you,” or, “You are safe.” So many details. This would not be the simple mission he had had in mind, but he was the god of love. His true intentions would shine through and speak to her soul; he had to believe that.
“If you fail after one month’s time or any of these rules are broken, she becomes mine to punish as I please.”
Cupid stood ramrod straight. “I will never allow you to kill her, even if I fail.”
“I never said I would kill her,” she admonished. “You know that is not my style. My punishment of the mortal will only happen if, and when, one of you breaks the heart of the other because that is what is in store for this cursed match. At that point, you might not care quite as much.”
“I will care!” he all but snarled. “Amend your words.”
Venus spun a hand in the air, thinking. “Then I will give her a journey. A series of tasks to complete. Something to push her to her mortal limits.” When Cupid attempted to argue, Venus held up a finger. “This is perfectly reasonable.”
The god pressed his lips together, discerning, tunneling his way through his mother’s proposition to find all the possible ways he could fail and put Psyche at risk. Venus would never make a deal unless she believed she could win. He could not pretend it did not hurt that she thought Psyche would never love him, and that heartache was inevitable, even though logic told him it was the mortal girl who his mother doubted, not him. It still stung. Venus had always been his greatest ally. Now, in his first venture of love, she was to be his greatest foe.
“Do you agree to these terms?” she asked.
“You are not to come to my lands during the month or send anyone.”
“I agree,” she said.
Cupid stood before her at full height, unsmiling, more apprehensive than he had ever felt. “I agree, as well.”
They both signed, then clasped one another at the forearm. An invisible band of godly magic warmed their joined limbs, sealing the deal. Both would have to honor their end of the bargain, and he hoped to the skies beyond that his mother would not find a loophole to cause trouble. Venus wore a mixture of expressions that her son couldn’t quite read. Worry for him, perhaps? But it warred with her utter contempt for Psyche. Cupid would prove her wrong, and when he did, she would come around to accepting the woman he loved. She had to.
He gave a curt nod and turned to leave.
“Oh, and Cupid?” He peered over his shoulder at her motherly smile. “When she proves to be a mere mortal, incapable of what you desire, I will accept your apology.”
Cupid huffed through his nose like a bull and charged away from the infuriating goddess. He opened his wings in a snap to spray water from the fountain in every direction as he headed to prepare his home. As he flew, he wondered how he would earn the love of a mortal woman, who thought him a monster, and then he remembered this was Psyche. The girl who took in mountain lion cubs. She wasn’t as easily frightened as most.
At least he hoped she wasn’t, because love could not grow where fear and distrust had lodged. He could only hope her instincts were strong.
The task of wooing Psyche was the most difficult undertaking of his immortal life. For the first time in history, Cupid found himself surprised over and over again and ultimately humbled. Was this what it felt like to be human? Impossible time limitations looming every minute of every day? Lacking the charm of a mesmerizing voice and perfect physical prowess?
On day one, the way her bright eyes had flickered around his being with sheer terror—that had gutted him and caused his first moment of self-doubt. Then, to add the stabbing fact that she fancied herself in love with the fake human version of himself, Leodes? The cruel paradox! Especially as time wore on and her body gave itself away, softening to him even as her mind begged her to keep him at arm’s length. He had nearly been driven mad by the succulent berry scent of her arousal, winding itself around him like a flowering vine that would strike with thorns if you dared a caress.
It had been one mishap after the next, a learning curve to be sure. He had attempted to show her how nice his affections could be. Let me kiss you, hold you, bring you to the apex of pleasure, but no! His ministrations were felt as forced and unwanted, riddling him with guilt. Let me bring you the bugs and animals you miss so much, but no! Without specifying what creatures to secure, the dim-witted Zephyr had brought flesh burning ants and cats that could eat his wife whole.
But he had no time to learn and try again. Each mistake cost him precious time. And Cupid was not accustomed to making mistakes. Indeed, he was not accustomed to consequences of any kind, causing his patience for the process of falling in love to be weak at best. However, at no stage did his feelings for her lessen. Often, to calm himself while she gave off fumes of anger and fear, he would rub the mountain cub bauble in his pocket, reminding himself what was at stake, and to be patient.
His chest ached thinking about that first time she sought his mouth, wanting to kiss him. How his heart had become a radiant starburst within his chest at the small act.
Cupid knew love. Love was his job. He knew Psyche loved him two days before she had realized it herself. They were down to mere days until the month would be over. Days! He was desperate to ease her mind, so she would voice those feelings. That was all she had to do. Say the words. If only he could tell her!
But it did not work that way with humans. They had to be shown. One had to prove oneself beyond measure, and even then, they doubted.
He was at this state of desperation when Psyche admitted how horribly homesick she was. To be honest, in all the time he had studied her, Cupid had never taken much notice of her sisters. He did not know their personalities. The fact that Psyche missed them made him believe they must be similar to her.
It went against his every instinct to allow them passage. Venus had not given a rule against visitors, and Cupid knew why. Visitors would make his wife miss home and could possibly fill her mind with doubts and fears. Visitors would complicate their delicate arrangement. He had purposely limited the amount of his staff she could speak with for this very reason. But those limitations had backfired. He believed her extreme loneliness was the one thing standing between them, so he made a rash decision.
One hour was all it took. Psyche did what no other being, mortal or immortal, had ever done.
She broke Cupid’s heart.
He would never forget how gorgeous she was, leaning toward him, long hair falling around her, awash in the dim candlelight, her eyes vivid with awe. Cupid had not realized at first what was happening until her expression changed to horror, and her bright soul took on a dulled haze of regret.
Her eyes looking directly into his.
The panic Cupid had felt as he jumped out of bed had been monumental. If he had extracted that pure emotion and shot it down from Olympus, an earthly city would have crumbled to ruin. So he had carefully hidden it within himself as he took his wife’s arms.
“Quickly,” he had said. “Tell me how you feel, Psyche.”
“Not an apology! Your feelings!”
“I feel horrible,” she’d shouted.
“Your feelings about me!”
“I love you!”
Yes. His chest had filled with heat as his immortal heart expanded. Glorious Olympus and all that was eternal! Hearing those words had made him want to cry. Could he cry? He never had before, but his eyes burned in the strangest manner.