Need to catch up?
- What is The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp?
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Prologue
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter One
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Two
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Three
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Four
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Five
- The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp: Chapter Six
The ceiling belonged to the villa they’d vacationed in at Montego Bay. White marble. Or maybe one of the endless crypts she’d visited throughout Europe on educational field trips in high school. No, that wouldn’t make sense. Unless she was dead.
Fiona closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Incense. Maybe she was dead in a tomb, after all.
“Chiron! She rouses!”
“I know you,” she rasped, choking on the strong herbal smoke.
“Be still.” That was a voice she didn’t recognize.
A strong arm slid beneath her back, helping her to sit up.
“Here,” a woman said, and cool metal pressed to Fiona’s lips, followed by cooler water.
“Mint,” she tried to say, but the water bubbled out of her mouth and over her chin.
“I don’t know if it can be removed,” someone else said, and for a moment, she wondered if they meant the cup.
More liquid flowed over her tongue, shocking her with a memory of water twining up her legs, jerking her down to the depths.
Had that happened?
Pain arced through her body from a throbbing wound in her skull to the very bottom of her feet. She gagged up the water; it had tried to kill her.
“Are you trying to kill her?” a familiar voice echoed her thoughts. Her boss! She was so fired.
“We have to remove the mark,” the other voice said, gruff and patient all at once.
“You’re tired. You want to sleep,” a gentle voice whispered, and that whisper wound its way into Fiona’s brain and the next thing she knew…
She woke up.
The sky above her seemed wrong; the clouds didn’t move, and there didn’t seem to be any light.
It was a mural.
Bracing herself against potential pain, she cautiously lifted her head. The last time she’d seen the sky, she’d been falling. She remembered the sound of her melon splitting when she hit the ground. But she’d been all wet. Had she fallen into a stream or a brook or—
Whatever she’d fallen on didn’t matter. Fiona sat up slowly, expecting to feel…anything. Bruised, sore, leaking gray matter from her shattered skull, but no. Nothing. She felt better than she’d felt in years. Her teeth didn’t even ache from grinding them.
She’d forgotten what that felt like.
The soft throw carefully tucked around her slipped down her back. Her clothes had been changed; though her memory remained fuzzy, she knew she hadn’t been dressed like a figure on a Grecian urn when she’d arrived.
A finger-snap sounded in her brain. She was in the Astral. Because her boss had brought her. After she…
Her stomach churned, and she lurched to her feet. The marble floor was cool against her soles as she paced the room. Golden marble columns raised the magnificent ceiling overhead, but no walls enclosed the space. Still, the air was the perfect temperature.
In fact, everything felt pretty damn perfect.
Had she accidentally done heroin?
Voices drifted in from outside; they became clearer as she crept closer, tentatively bracing herself behind a column. From her vantage point, she spied a courtyard surrounded by a curved collonade. In the center, a crescent-moon fountain poured shimmering silver water over patinaed metal. A young man in a golden toga lounged on the grass, his tan legs crossed at the ankles. Human-looking but not human, Fiona assumed. An imposing, bearded centaur sat beside him, while another centaur paced the border of the colonnade, occasionally kicking at the meticulously pruned plants and ornamental foliage.
It was Marcaeus.
She’d occasionally wondered what Astrals would have been like if they’d never intervened in the mess that humans had made of planet Earth. This view of her boss in his element gave her a hint. Instead of modern clothing, he wore nothing. Not a stitch of anything. His hair, usually neatly combed, was touseled; he raked it back from his forehead and turned a fierce scowl on the other two figures.
“I can’t take her back. Not with the mark still on her.” He paced, the thumb of one tight fist tapping his lips. “There must be another way.”
“She would be welcome here, Marcaeus,” the young man said, idly twirling the stem of a silver goblet in his fingers. “Unless you think a demon might reach her here. Which is absurd.”
“It’s not demons I’m worried about. Elysia isn’t made for mortals. Not living ones, at least. She nearly died on an uneventful walk here.”
Uneventful! Almost died! Those words did not belong together.
“Marcaeus is right,” the bearded centaur said. “We have no idea what effects this realm will have on a mortal. Better to take her away sooner than later.”
Take her away? Visions of dank cells filled her head. At least it would be a dank cell back on her plane of existence. She hadn’t even been in the astral for a full day, and she’d already run into serious trouble.
“Ah, you’re awake.”
The musical voice startled Fiona. She turned to find a woman with skin the light blue of shimmering Caribbean waters. As she walked forward, she rippled like waves; her entire being, from the hair spilling down her back and the pristine white folds of her gown, consisted of sea.
“I am, Chariclo, wife of Chiron.” Her voice was the musical whisper of the ocean lapping on the shore.
“I’m Fiona.” Her throat went dry at the memory of the water she’d sipped when she’d been barely conscious. She hoped Chariclo hadn’t been the source. “Fiona Trasket.”
“I know who you are.” Chariclo never broke eye contact as she gestured toward a long, low table near the bed. “I usually inspire thirst in mortals. Please, help yourself to some water. I promise it will not attack you as my foolish sisters did.”
“Thank you.” The numb, surreal feeling to Fiona’s movements as she crossed the room reminded her of every yacht trip she’d ever disembarked. “And thank you for…whatever you had to do to save my life. If it was in danger. I’m not sure what happened.”
“Your life was very much in danger. It—” Chariclo stopped herself. “All gratitude belongs to my husband. And Asclepius.” Her gaze flicked past Fiona.
“Ms. Trasket.” Marcaeus’s hooves clicked on the marble as he passed beneath the colonnade and entered the room. “I’m glad to see you…vertical.”
Despite its cavernous dimensions, the room felt acutely small. Without his clothes, in his true form, Marcaeus seemed to somehow encroach on Fiona’s personal space from meters away.
His eyes met hers and held them for two heartbeats—she counted them without meaning to—before he looked away. “Chiron will speak with you now. If you are well enough.”
Fiona poured herself some water with trembling hands and lifted the goblet to her lips. She took a few steadying sips. “I can go now.”
He said nothing as she crossed the room to follow him. She cast a quick, stiff smile at Chariclo, the only way Fiona could think of to express her thanks for the moment of hospitality.
Her mind spun, likely from the concussion they’d been letting her sleep off like a bunch of geniuses.
Marcaeus didn’t speak as they walked the crescent colonnade. Fiona still clutched her goblet and against her own common sense, she watched the surface of the water, disconcertingly still despite the motion of her steps.
The Astral might resemble the Mortal Plane in some aspects, but it was an entirely different universe. The skewed perspective of the reflection on the surface of the water showed not the ceiling above them, but the sliver of a waxing crescent moon. A glittering comet crossed the sky and she gasped in wonder, stumbling into Marcaeus’s flank.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“That was Selene in her chariot,” he responded softly. “No living mortal has seen such a sight.”
“Except me.” She took another sip from her cup. “Unless Chiron is going to—”
“Why would he murder you?” Marcaeus snapped. “Why heal you when he could have let you die?”
“Sorry! I recently had a head injury.” Tears rose in Fiona’s eyes. They felt manipulative even though they were genuine. She blinked them away.
“And you were treated by the two finest physicians in the known universe. Chiron wishes only to protect you. Remember that when you meet with him.” Marcaeus had the gall to sound irritated.
She put her hand on his arm and halted her steps; the fact that he stopped walking shocked her. It took a few blinks to find her words. “You’re angry with me. I get it. But you’re acting like I chose any of this—”
He turned his body to block her path. “Do not speak to me of choice. Not before you hear what Chiron has to say.”
The anger in his eyes chilled her more than his words. She followed him again in silence.
Another round, domed space awaited them at the end of the colonnade, as did the centaur she’d seen in the garden. He paced, his tail flicking, face grim as they entered.
“Female Trasket,” the centaur boomed. “I am Chiron.”
“Unmarried human women prefer the honorific, ‘Ms.'” Marcaeus corrected the older centaur.
“Chiron.” For some reason, Fiona found herself curtseying. “Your wife says I have you to thank for my survival.”
“Then perhaps you should.” He tilted his head, waiting.
Fiona looked to Marcaeus, then back to Chiron. “Thank you?”
The centaur gave a gracious nod. “Unfortunately, I could not remove the demonic seal placed upon you. Was it your will to be sealed to this pact?” Chiron asked.
“No! Of course not.” Those visions she’d seen when Marcaeus had first questioned her tormented her now. Of course, she’d known her brother was capable of despicable misdeeds, but she’d thought—hoped—that he had a limit.
“I ask only because of the stronghold it has upon you. Usually, one must be willing to create such a bond.”
Marcaeus cut in. “She undertook her subterfuge in an effort to help one of our kind. She may have agreed to the seal without realizing it.”
Chiron frowned. “Yes, as you’ve been trying to convince me all evening.”
Fiona looked to Marcaeus, an unspoken question parting her lips. His dark gaze met hers, then jerked away.
“Since you support this theory, explain to Trasket, Ms., what you’ve proposed.” Chiron folded his arms across his broad chest.
A look passed between the two centaurs. Whatever it meant, it did not bode well.
“We couldn’t remove the demon mark your brother placed on you,” Marcaeus emphasized the last part of the sentence subtly. “You’re still under his control. Chiron believes that keeping you a prisoner here until your brother can be deal with by other means is the most obvious solution, while I believe it is the most obviously illegal solution.”
“Am I truly to follow to human laws here in my own realm?” Chiron demanded with a sudden fury that reminded her exactly how fearsome the Astrals could be.
“To compromise,” Marcaeus went on, ignoring the outburst, “Asclepius suggests that you do return to your plane—”
“Oh, thank god!” She pressed her hand to her chest and almost lost her balance, washed off her feet by a tide of relief.
This time, Marcaeus paused at the interruption. His jawline sharpened. “—but remain under my direct supervision.”
“Your…do you mean at work?” How would that look? Being dragged off the floor one minute and promoted to the head honcho’s office the next?
“I mean at all times,” Chiron answered, though she hadn’t directed the question to him. “As long as you have the demon’s mark upon you, our adversaries have the advantage.”
“So, I’m a prisoner of corporate warfare?” She chuckled sharply in disbelief.
“More like a weapon,” Marcaeus corrected her with an easy shrug. “You have access to your brother. We know now that he’s meddling with dangerous forces. We can use you to monitor his activities.”
“And take action against him, if necessary.” Chiron didn’t have to say more.
Fiona got the point.
What she didn’t understand was how they expected her to spy for them when she hadn’t yet come to grips with the entire concept of a “demon mark” in the first place. “I still have this mark on me that can apparently control me without my even knowing it. The demon removed memories from my mind. It doesn’t sound like something I can resist. I don’t know when it’s happening.”
The dark look that passed between the two centaurs did nothing to soothe her growing sense of dread.
Finally, Marcaeus admitted, “There is a solution to that problem. But you won’t like it.”
She sighed. Of course, she wouldn’t. “Fine.”
Chiron’s eyebrow arched. “Would you like to know what the solution is, first?”
She grimaced and shook her head. “Will it matter?”
They both stared at her, stunned.
“If I don’t do it, how will that help my friend?” She kept her chin up, though talking to creatures of such looming height was beginning to make her neck ache. “My brother sucks. He flat-out sucks. And while my feelings might be…complicated, I don’t want him to get away with whatever he’d need a demon to accomplish. Get me the goat I have to sacrifice or the magic amulet I have to destroy, and let’s do this.”
Marcaeus’s broad chest lifted with a slow, deep breath. He shifted on his feet, scraping the floor with one foot.
Chiron paced with his arms crossed as he spoke. “There is but one magic that can overpower the infernal. The will of a god. If you were to receive a blessing or a curse binding your loyalty to Marcaeus—”
“I could work with you to bring down my brother without him suspecting anything.” She licked her bottom lip and wished she hadn’t. Everything in her cringed. “He suggested I try to seduce you, Marcaeus. If I’m supposed to stay under your supervision, why not let him think I’ve done exactly that?”
Marcaeus tilted his head and stroked his chin. “I would have to carry on with using your ridiculous alias—”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Johnson.” She huffed.
Was that a suppressed smile that ticked the corner of his mouth?
“—and pretend you’ve beguiled me with your machinations—”
“And the mark,” she added, tapping her forehead.
“—and your brother will never know you’re helping me.” He paused. “Provided that we can trust you not to doublecross us?”
“There is nothing my brother can hold over me now.” She squared her shoulders.
“Not even your friend’s reputation?” Marcaeus asked. “Be certain. If you cross us again, we will not be so lenient. Your alliance must rest with us, alone.”
“Larkin would never expect me to sacrifice my soul for her. I would. But she wouldn’t want me to. And what Blayde has done to me is unforgivable.”
Shame crumpled something deep in her chest. What else had she done or said—what had been done to her?—under the demon’s control?
“Fiona.” Marcaeus’s voice took on a low, gentle tone she’d never heard before. “We will get the mark removed. And we will help your friend.”
“Then that’s all the convincing I need.” She spread her hands. “Bring out the goat.”
“It’s not that simple,” Chiron warned her. “You’ll travel with Marcaeus to the temple of Aphrodite. There, she will bind your spirits with a blessing that will unite you.”
Red flag. “That sounds like a marriage.”
“No. It’s far more serious than that.” Marcaeus quickly added, “When the union is real, of course. For us, the blessing will be a tool.”
“Once the mark is removed, the bond can be broken. If Hera is in a good mood when I ask,” Chiron grumbled.
“And after my brother is ruined,” Fiona stressed. Unless Blayde’s power was taken from him—the money, the prestige, the friends—, nothing would stop him from doing this to her again.
Or doing worse.
“It seems there is more merit in Marcaeus’s idea than in mine,” Chiron graciously admitted. “Though it required a human’s opportunistic nature to help me see it.”
“Thank you?” She’d never thought of herself as particularly opportunistic, but she’d take the compliment.
“Bed down here tonight,” Chiron offered. “The two of you will leave for Aphrodite’s temple in the morning.”
Fiona shook her head. “I thought it was too dangerous for a mortal to be here for long.”
“You overheard that?” Marcaeus tilted his head. “You are a good spy.”
She shrugged. “Maybe you’re just a loud talker. And there are no walls here.”
“You will be safe with Marcaeus.” Chiron’s statement sounded more like a decision than a vote of confidence. “I’ll have something brought for the mortal to eat.”
“Thanks,” Fiona said, but Chiron had already turned and left. “You’re a brusk culture, I see.”
“No. Just him.” Marcaeus looked as though he’d swallowed something bitter.
His earlier words came back to her. “You said I shouldn’t say anything about choice until I’d spoken to Chiron. He gave me a choice. Not a great one. Maybe not couched in the nicest terms—”
“So it would appear.”
Did Marcaeus mean that it only appeared to be a choice? “Are you saying he manipulated all of this?”
“Not at all. I simply thought you’d fight harder against turning on your own flesh and blood.” Marcaeus turned and walked the way they’d come in.
Fiona followed. “If that was supposed to be an insult—”
“It was. But not the way I assume you’ve interpreted it.” He kept walking ahead of her, forcing her to lengthen her strides to keep up.
“How else am I supposed to interpret it?” she demanded.
He turned so fast she nearly collided with him. “Mortals have no loyalty to each other. Look at your brother, willing to make you into a weapon. A demon-controlled weapon which was already more than willing to attack my kind—”
“To protect your kind!”
“We didn’t ask you to! We’ve never asked mortals for anything more than aid in their own rescue. And you stand in Elysia, in the home of Chiron, and you dare to criticize his demeanor toward you?” Marcaeus snorted derisively. “Your short lives make you selfish, and you waste them in cruelty and selfishness.”
“What have I done that’s so selfish?” Fiona demanded.
Marcaeus opened his mouth to answer, then closed it as if he already regretted his decision to speak. That simple expression unsettled something in Fiona; what had she done that was so horrible he couldn’t speak of it?
But before she could ask or apologize, he turned and cantered away, leaving her no hope of catching up.