Midnight Shifters, Book 3
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Renee George.
All rights reserved.
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream—William Shakespeare
The cry of the infant shook Othrus as he stared at the dead body of his lover. She hadn’t survived the birth, and he hated the yowling creature for killing the only woman he’d ever loved. He’d allowed Echidna to carry the child to term, his love for her skewing his judgment.
He waited for the midwife to bring him the infant. When the tiny two-headed beast was put into his hands, he looked down at his son. The abomination was born from death. A murderer before he drew his first breath.
Instead of taking a life for a life, he both blessed and cursed the child. The blessing was for Echidna, who had loved this babe from conception. The curse was for him because he would always despise this boy. “You, my son, shall be the keeper of doors. Of time. You shall live as both good and evil. And whichever side is nurtured will grow strong. Your existence will be lonely. If you find love, and the one who holds your heart leaves you, you shall die.”
He handed the child to the midwife. “Take him,” he said. “Leave me to grieve in peace.”
Emily Henley rubbed her arms to stem the rise of gooseflesh. The smell of lilacs in the summer heat took her back to her grandparents’ home in the Ozarks where she’d spent every summer after her mother died. The scent had nearly overwhelmed her as she’d dragged her two suitcases to the monstrous house three stories high and the width of her college’s gym. It looked more like an expansive mausoleum than a home. The bronze double doors before her stood at least twice her height if not more. Each side of the doors were inlaid with sculpted panels depicting scenes of grotesque figures reaching up in despair as they were swallowed by the ground. Their mouths wide, eyes pleading, Emily could almost hear their cries. At the top, where they all looked for mercy, hunched a two-headed beast. Its horrible maws open to show dangerously long teeth. Its eyes were cruel and hard.
She stared at the creature, mesmerized by its sheer size. When she felt its gaze settle on her, a red spark flashing in its eyes, she stumbled back with a terrified shriek. She blinked, and the creature was once again a lifeless work of art.
“Jesus.” Her quiet tone echoed off the door, amplifying the sound. The door was meant to scare visitors, she reminded herself. And it was really good at its job.
Until three days ago, Emily had been a B student at Boonville Community College working on her associate’s degree in education. She had friends, no one she was particularly close to, but several who she enjoyed going out with to the bars in Columbia when the occasion arose. She tended to be a bit introverted, which meant she dated very infrequently. Her mother’s long illness and subsequent death had put her and her father’s life into a tailspin. While her restless father lost himself in his vices, Emily had rented a small apartment near the college campus. She’d been content with her mediocre life.
When her father had lost their home, their life savings, and the small college fund created by her mother’s life insurance policy, she’d cut back on her classes and gotten a second job. Then her father accumulated another sixty-five thousand dollars of debt, giving her little choice but to accept Tsavaras’s bargain. Dad had once been a good man. She hoped somewhere deep inside he still had some decency left. After all, she’d signed away three months of her life in exchange for wiping clean his debt. Mr. Tsavaras claimed he wanted only her companionship, and he had reassured her that sex was not a component of their agreement.
Honestly, she’d never heard of Marcus Tsavaras, and considering Tsavaras was powerful, and the area they lived in was small, she had to wonder why she hadn’t.
Maybe because I’ve had my own shit to worry about.
Her internet searches on Tsavaras were a bust. In fact, the web offered little information about the mysterious businessman—certainly nothing before the 1980s.
Tsavaras was a casino owner in Missouri with boats in Kansas City, St. Louis, and her hometown of Boonville. He was a recluse in every sense of the word, never leaving his home, and never allowing his picture to be taken. His biography on his business website were two paragraphs and did not reveal when he was born, where he was born, or where he grew up.
His palatial home sat on a thousand acres of land outside of Boonville, encapsulated by dense woods. Despite its spectacular size, the mansion could not be seen from the rural road that led to his property. She’d taken a taxi to his place, and even in the sunlight, the mile-long driveway, choked by tall oaks and silver maples clawing their way toward the darkening sky, had been intimidating.
Emily gulped hard, steeling her nerve to knock on the massive doors. She had a feeling that once she entered Tsavaras’s domain, she might never see the light of day again.
The knockers were large monster heads, one on each side, both at least a foot long and a foot wide. The one on the right had a peaceful expression, a calmness in the way its lips turned down, its eyes open wide, its eyebrows slightly angled up on the inside while the one of the left had a narrowed brow, squinted eyes, and a snarling curl to its upper lip. The animals both had large brass rings in their mouths, with brass orbs the size of baseballs attached to the bottom of the rings.
Big brass balls. She would need to grow a pair to get through her months of servitude.
“I’ve made a deal with the devil, and he will be given his due.” She grabbed the knocker on the left as if to dare it to bite. If she was going to be brave, she was going to go all the way. The heavy brass clanged, creating a booming sound that chilled her blood. For a second, her heart seemed to freeze mid-beat. Marcus Tsavaras was a man, she reminded herself. Just a man…with a lot of money, and apparently, an old-world belief in indentured servitude.
The door didn’t make a sound, not even a creak or groan when it swung open. A man stood just inside with his face half-hidden by a shoulder-length cascade of dark chocolate curls. Emily stepped forward, her stride faltering when the light from fading sun caught his face. A white gnarly scar ran down the right side off his face and neck. It had twisted branches at the edges that appeared to be growing toward the unmarred skin on the left, threatening to overtake his entire appearance. Most startling were his eyes, the color of gold leaf. He had to be wearing contacts. Nobody was born with that eye color.
He had to be more than six and a half feet tall. He wore loose pants and a tunic shirt, obscuring his form. Was it an effort to hide his body?
“I’m Emily,” she said, her voice shaky.
He smiled for a fleeting second, the unscarred side of his face looking almost youthful. “Welcome, Emily. I’m Ky.”
“And I’m Zan,” she heard another man say from the darkness. He stepped from behind the right side of the door. His golden gaze, much like the man’s on the left, raked her from head to toe. His mouth quirked into a predatory grin. “You are quite lovely. This will be an interesting ninety days, don’t you agree?”
He bore a cruel immortal beauty usually reserved for the likes of Dorian Gray and Dracula—high sculpted cheekbones, deep-set eyes framed by thick dark lashes that brushed his skin when he blinked, plump lips, narrow, but berry ripe, and like the scarred man, he had gold leaf eyes. His red T-shirt clung to him like a second skin showing every cut of muscle and bulk beneath. His waist tapered to narrowed hips where the practically painted on slacks fight tightly over his thickly muscled thighs and a bulge at his groin that could only be described as daunting.
Emily licked her lips nervously. “Are you brothers?”
“Of a kind,” Ky said.
“Two sides of the same coin,” Zan added.
What did that mean? She clutched the handles of her suitcase, more nervous than ever.
“May I take your bags?” Emily noted Ky didn’t wait for her to answer as he stepped around to take the luggage. When he brushed against her, the fevered heat from his body invaded hers. Before she could take another step, Zan held up his hand. “Do you enter freely, Emily Henley, and pledge to serve Marcus Tsavaras for the term of three months from this day, no more, no less?
“Do you agree to keep all you see within this household private and in strict confidence during and after your service with Mr. Tsavaras?”
“Yes.” She’d already signed the scariest confidentiality agreement she’d ever seen when it had been messengered to her apartment.
“Do you understand that if you choose to leave before the ninety days is over, or if you reveal any details about your service to Mr. Tsavaras, your contract is forfeited, and your father’s debt will resume with interest?”
Jeez! Who would she tell? No one but Dad knew about her agreement with Tsavaras. For all his flaws, and since her mother’s death he’d exhibited many, she loved him more than any other soul on earth. He’d promised he would keep himself straight, and she hoped that was true. She didn’t know if she had the heart to get him out of any more jams.
“I agree. Threatening me isn’t necessary. I’ll take your boss’s secrets to the grave.” She crossed her chest. “Hope to die.”
Zan raised an eyebrow. “Good.” He made a flourishing gesture toward the interior. “You may enter.”
Emily followed him inside. Ky shut the door and walked behind her. The foyer’s floor was white marble, which offered a sharp contrast to the redwood wainscoting and vulgar aubergine color of the walls. Gold sconces lit the way to the opened tall doors at the other end, and a sudden gorge of fear rose in Emily. She turned, crashing into Ky’s chest.
His curls hid enough of his scars to make him almost handsome. “I’m sorry. Your contract has started.” She shrunk back at the intensity in his eyes. “Do you understand, Emily?”
“Yes,” Emily said, swallowing hard. “I can’t leave.”
She started walking again, trudging between the brothers like a death-row inmate being escorted to the electric chair. They continued into a large ballroom with cream-colored walls, hand-sanded hardwood floors, and elaborately carved semi-circular staircases that led to the second floor. Where the foyer had been dark, almost sinister, this room was warm and inviting. The giant crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling twinkled diamond bright. Even though she saw no other servants, she noticed everything was spotless, including the chandelier. Not a speck of dust marred the beauty.
The walls were adorned with paintings reminiscent of Monet’s Water Lilies. It reminded her of when her mother took her to Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. They’d sat for hours in the Impressionist room staring at the beautiful paintings. Emily remembered her mom’s tears as she took her hand.
When Emily had asked her mom what was wrong, she’d smiled.
“Nothing, love,” her mother had said. “Being here with you, Em. Now. It makes me happy. That’s all.”
Emily briefly closed her eyes as the recollection of her mother’s touch faded. She couldn’t stop the sadness from ruining even the good memories.
“Come,” Ky said. “Your room is at the top of the stairs.”
Emily pulled her shoulders back. She was here for a reason. A purpose beyond herself. She would face it with courage. It was the only thing she had left. The polished wood of the banister felt like brushed silk against her fingertips as they ascended the left staircase. The eerie quiet as they walked up, Ky carrying her luggage while Zan led the way, made Emily’s uneasiness grow.
Again she had to ask herself: What kind of man bargains to keep a girl as a slave?
Zan laughed. “A lonely man, of course.”
Alarmed, Emily missed the next step and crashed down to her knee. The pain of the jolt made her cry out. Had she asked that question out loud?
Ky put the suitcases down and knelt beside her. He reached out as if to help her, but when she flinched, he withdrew his hand. “Are you okay?”
“She’s fine,” Zan said.
“I’m fine,” Emily repeated. She rubbed her knee vigorously, and the pain turned to a dull ache. She stood up, ignoring Zan, and turned to Ky. She forced her expression to remain neutral and willed herself not to stare at the hideous scar on the right side of his face. “Really. I’m okay.”
Soon, they stood outside a locked wooden door. Zan used a large skeleton key to open the room and ushered her inside. His seductive smile tapped into something primal in Emily. His eyes promised dark and terrible things, desires she both feared and longed for. He gripped the key tightly in his fist, demonstrating his complete control over how and when he could enter her room. The low chuckle that rumbled from his lips tightened parts low in her body, and she stifled a groan.
Ky put her bags next to an emperor-sized bed. Obviously exasperated, he held out his hand to Zan. His brother slapped the key into his palm.
“Narcissist.” Ky turned and smiled. “Emily, I hope you’ll be comfortable here.” He handed her the key. “The door can be locked on either side.” He must have seen her surprise because he added, “In this room, you will be allowed complete privacy. The key ensures no one is permitted in without your say-so.”
Zan raised his brow. “Which means, if you want to play out those hidden fantasies of yours, you’ll have to invite me in.”
Zan scared her, but she couldn’t deny his bad-boy charms. “I…I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emily said. The wet heat between her thighs said she was a liar, liar, pants on fire.
The brothers left, and she locked the door, heaving a sigh of relief. She crawled onto the massive bed and curled against the pillows.
How would she survive the next three months?
Emily’s sleep had been fraught with unpleasant nightmares of crying demons and cruel beasts throwing cannon balls at her with their mouths. The day had been worse. No one had come for her, and her stress levels were off the charts. She hadn’t left the safety of her bedchambers to do more than peek outside to the corridor. For such a large house, it was very quiet. Too quiet.
A sharp rap sounded on the door, and Emily jumped. Jeez. Calm down. Inhaling a steadying breath, she crossed the room and unlocked it. Ky and Zan stood in the doorway. Once again she was struck by their similarities and their differences. Zan caught her gaze and winked.
Ky cleared his throat, cutting the tension between them. “Dinner is in an hour.”
At lunchtime, a meal of fresh yeasty bread, smoked meats and cheeses, along with a large bunch of black grapes had been set outside her door.
“I’m still full from lunch.” She snacked when she was nervous, and she spent the entire afternoon working her way through the massive tray of food.
“Your presence is required.”
So, now her servitude would begin in earnest. She had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach and she couldn’t shake the deep sense of foreboding.
Zan narrowed his gaze. “Change into something more dinner appropriate.”
Emily blushed. She’d put on yoga pants and a loose yoga top after she’d showered. She’d pulled back her hair into a messy bun and hadn’t applied a stitch of make-up. Basically, this was her normal everyday look. “I don’t believe Mr. Tsavaras put any clause in my contract stipulating that I had to dress a certain way to eat a meal.”
“Ah. But dearest Emily, don’t you want to look your best when meeting your employer?”
It galled her that Zan’s chastisement had merit. All the same, her lower lip trembled, and she clenched her fists as she fought back angry tears.
Ky nodded to Zan, who shrugged at the dismissal. He gave her one last wicked grin before he departed.
“Mr. Tsavaras is looking forward to meeting you.”
Emily reached out and touched Ky’s arm. The muscle beneath the loose shift bunched beneath her fingertips. The well-developed bicep surprised her. She’d assumed since Zan wore tight clothes to show off his body that Ky wore baggy clothes to hide his.
He straightened his shoulders at her touch, and she could see he was as tall as Zan. “Did you need something before I leave you?”
“Will it be only Mr. Tsavaras and I for dinner?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. Someone will come for you.” He glanced at her hand still on his arm. He put his hand on hers. His touch electrified her. Emily snatched back her fingers as if she’d been burned. The look on Ky’s face, the sadness and disappointment, made her heart ache. “I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s all right.” He refused to meet her eyes. Instead, he turned and left the room.
Emily went to the closed door and quickly locked it. She clutched the key to her heart and allowed the first tears to fall.
“Oh God,” she whispered. It was only day two of a ninety-day contract. She hadn’t realized how long three months would actually be until now. She had barely handled one night in the hellish mansion.
She walked to the enormous bed and sat on the edge. “One minute at a time,” she told herself.
* * * *
Marcus Tsavaras felt a mixture of anger and joy, apathy and empathy, lust and love, and possessiveness and protectiveness. As he always did. The duality of his nature when taking human form caused his conflicting emotions. In the human and the other worlders world, he was a powerful man. He owned many businesses, not just riverboat casinos. He was connected to organized crime in the human world, which made him a valuable asset to Myron Gray and his shadow warriors, and his ability to create portals through space and time made him very important to the rulers of Caledon, the other worlders’ royal family. The newest queen, Benoica Dilian had taken two shape-shifting men as her husbands to create her Triune. An unusual choice for a woman born into what most people would consider faery royalty.
Not everyone in his world was happy about the Truine. Marcus had been contacted recently by a determined group who called themselves the Children of Caledon—loyal followers of the previous king. An unimaginative name for an unimaginative group of other worlders who feared Benoica Dilian. They’d wanted Marcus to open the door to Caledon. He had refused to do so, of course, and informed the queen, but he doubted this group could cause any real problems for he royals. Especially with Gray and his shadow warriors keeping watch.
Marcus held out his hands, clasping both sides of himself and merged his two halves into his true form: a single body with two heads. He could feel the way Emily had been drawn to his darker half, the side of him that acted on pure selfish instinct and would satisfy its every desire without thought to consequence. She’d shied from his gentler side, judging him on appearance alone, immediately deeming him a monster. He was unsure about his decision to take Emily into service in exchange for her father’s debt.
After she’d first tried to contact him, he’d researched the mahogany-haired beauty. Her social media contained one photo of her with a half-dozen other college students. She’d stood out to him, not because of her beauty, though she was definitely the kind of woman who appealed to him with her curvy hips, full-figured body, sun-kissed skin, dewy lips, and large blue eyes, so clear and bright they rivaled sapphires. However, the main reason he’d agreed to talk to Emily was because her eyes held a soul-deep melancholy he recognized. The dichotomy of this woman, with her bright smile and sad gaze, had called to his own dual nature.
Now that he’d met her, he knew he was both right and wrong in choosing Emily Henley. She would prove a most interesting diversion for a while. She had her own darkness, and he would relish the exploration. But he’d met many women like her over his long life, and her reaction to Ky had been enough to tell him she wouldn’t be the one.
“She wants me,” his cruel side said.
“Only because she doesn’t know me,” he gentler side reminded. “Tonight will be a real test of her commitment to the contract,” he said.
“Yes, but I could feel her resolve when she agreed.”
“I guess dinner will tell the tale.”
Emily believed that she’d made a deal with the devil. She didn’t know how close to the truth her statement had been, but tonight she would find out.