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The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp chapter 14

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Need to catch up?

“Hold on,” Marcaeus warned before he launched into a gallop. She lurched on his back, already in danger of falling, and threw her arms around him as they sped across the waving purple grasses of Elyssia.

A sight few living mortals had ever seen. Now, she’d walked in the astral twice.

Chiron’s villa gleamed in the twilight just ahead of them. She tucked her face against Marcaeus’s back to shield herself from the wind.

“There’s a storm coming,” Marcaeus said. “We’ll stay here for the night.”

Stay the night? In the Astral? Where her brother couldn’t reach her? Where the demon couldn’t?

She almost asked if they could stay forever, then remembered the trouble she’d already caused everyone she’d met there. How presumptuous it would be to ask them to protect her again. How human.

But it was human to panic in the face of mortality and pain, and she couldn’t shake the feeling of her bone crackling, the marrow sizzling under Scratch’s hand.

“Chiron!” Marcaeus shouted as he pulled up short in the courtyard. “Chiron, it’s urgent!”

“I should hope it is.” Chiron emerged from beneath a portico. “Since this is the second time you’ve come to my home shouting.”

“Have you heard from the council?”

How would he have heard? Fiona thought. In a sickening instant, she realized that Marcaeus wasn’t asking Chiron because he thought he would have already received news from the gala, but because he wanted to know that his mentor had nothing to do with the council folding to her brother.

She kept her head down.

“”The Council. Have you heard?” Marcaeus repeated.

“You’re the first visitor I’ve had tonight. Though judging from how you’ve arrived, you won’t be the last.” Chiron had barely finished the words when a sliver opened in the air and another centaur stepped out. He looked them over with his ice-blue eyes.

“Galerius,” Chiron greeted the centaur, whose face remained still and expressionless. “I assume you’re here for the same reason.”

The ginger-haired centaur barely shifted his head to nod. “Were you aware that the council was meeting?”

“I was not.” Chiron’s brow furrowed.

Galerius’s already grim expression grew harder. “Neither was Arcaeon. We don’t even know what the meeting was about, though something is afoot in the mortal realm tonight.”

“Infernals,” Marcaeus said. “They’ve made an alliance with the council.”

“An alliance to do what?” Chiron asked, before waving it off with a hand and moving o. “Do you think this is a coup?”

“If not a coup, at the very least, an attempt to keep us in the dark,” Marcaeus said. “The elves knew, that much was clear when they announced it.”

“If the elves knew, the fae knew.” Chiron paced. “How quickly can we convene the gods?”

Galerius and Marcaeus both made noises that roughly translated to, whoa, wait up.

I know what you both think about the gods and their leadership in this matter. But they will want to know if the Infernals are making a play for the mortal world.”

“How long do we have? The gods don’t respond to summons promptly, and I have this mortal to protect.” Marcaeus’s hand tightened around her wrist.

You can’t protect me, she thought, and suppressed the sob in her chest until it ached.

“We’ll keep the mortal here, for now.” Chiron looked toward the building. “You’ll stay with her. Be responsible for her.”

“She isn’t a pet, Chiron,” Marcaeus replied.

Galerius scraped a hoof impatiently on the stones. “I’ll go to the temple of Hermes. If I can get there before the storm, I’ll be back in the morning, hopefully with news.”

“And I’ll recall our brethren from Earth,” Chiron said. “I don’t believe any of them would have cooperated with council in these circumstances, but I wouldn’t have believed the elves would attempt to alter the pact, either.”

Galerius opened a portal and gave Chiron and Marcaeus grim nods. “Be well.”

When Galerius was gone, Chiron said, gentle but still gruff somehow, “Marcaeus. Tend to your wife. There’s something wrong.”

Marcaeus helped her down, and though she wanted to cling to him, she forced herself to let go. He studied her a moment. “Are you all right?”

No. I’m not. “Yes. Just tired.”

Marcaeus’s dark brows pulled down. “You’re upset.”

“That’s not important right now.” And it wasn’t. “I just need…”

“I’ll take you to a room.” Marcaeus looked to Chiron. “I’ll be in my own quarters. In case I’m needed before dawn.”

Don’t leave me alone. She couldn’t ask that of him, when the planet and humankind hung in the balance.

But the pain. The awful, haunting pain.

“They can’t come here, can they?” she whispered, and her voice sounded very far away to her own ears.

In an instant, Marcaeus stood beside her in his human form. He still had to look down to meet her eyes. “Fiona?”

She shook her head silently, numb. They hadn’t spoken since the gala, which felt like a lifetime ago. She’d wanted to tell him everything the moment he’d come to her rescue, felt like she’d burst if she didn’t. Somehow, she’d held it all in. But now that she could speak freely…

She couldn’t.

What would she say? Please help me, even though I’ve deceived and betrayed you? Fucked up your life? Should she ask him to move all the realms to protect her?

“It’s nothing.”

Marcaeus nodded to Chiron, who left them to the courtyard and their privacy.

“What happened in the gallery?” Marcaeus asked quietly and without enough tone to indicate what he really asked her.

Did he think she’d gone with Scratch willingly? That she’d been conspiring with her brother all along? Scratch had been standing so close to her. Of course, it would have looked like she’d been…

She didn’t know what she would say when she opened her mouth, but what came out was, “He hurt me.”

Marcaeus’s brow grew heavier. “What did he do?”

“My arm.” She lifted the trembling limb.

“There’s nothing there.” So calm, it was impossible to tell what conversation he was having with her. Did he doubt her story? Or was he reassuring her? 

She rubbed the spot where Scratch had grabbed her. “It burned. When he touched me, it… I thought he’d burned my arm down to the bone.”

The tears she’d been fighting back since the gallery won then, spilling down her cheeks, the way the trauma and fear poured from her lips. “My brother sold me. Blayde sold me to Damon Scratch. He’s the one who put the mark on me. When my brother gets what he wants, Scratch gets me. He’s going to torture me. He promised there’s going to be pain. An eternity of pain, just because he can. And then he grabbed me and let me feel…”

Marcaeus said nothing. He might as well have been his portrait, he was so vacant.

She was exhausted. Terrified. She couldn’t keep waiting to be shouted at. “Do you believe me?”

The words seemed to jolt him from a place she hadn’t even noticed he’d gone, and she realized that the anger on his face wasn’t for her.

“Of course I do.” He reached out and she moved into his arms, keenly aware that this moment was a fulcrum. If he believed her, they would tip one way. If he didn’t believe her, they would tip back into animosity. She supposed he could have been faking his concern, but it felt real. She let it be so. One large hand cupped her skull and held her cheek against his beating heart. “Yes, I believe you.”

The relief she felt scared her almost as much as Scratch’s depraved promises.

“Damon Scratch will never touch you again. And he’s not going to hurt you. I give you my vow.” Marcaeus’s comforting words only increased her heartache and guilt over the way she’d deceived him before. She sobbed against him, let him take all of her weight. 

“Fiona.” He lifted her chin and caught her gaze. “He won’t hurt you. And he can’t take you. We’ve been sealed by Hera herself. You belong to me.”

The words came out hoarse, as if scorched by the flame that slithered to life in the space between them. They meant nothing; their union was built on falsehoods. But they meant everything as he held her and promised to keep her safe from the monsters.

Safe.

She’d only ever felt that near Marcaeus.

“You’re mine,” he whispered again, and the flame grew hotter, bolder.

“Then make me yours,” she whispered, swaying in his arms. His gaze dropped to her lips, parted in anticipation. His arm tightened around her waist.

He straightened. Gently let her go. Stepped away…

Distance smothered the flame. Awareness stamped out the embers.

“You need to rest,” he said, and put a hand on her back to prompt her toward the house. He walked her to the room she’d stayed in last time, as overwhelming now as it was then, and didn’t stray across the threshold.

“Don’t give anything Scratch said another thought, tonight. You’re safe. I’ll be in the next room, if you need me. Will you be all right on your own?”

No, I won’t. I need you.

“Of course. Good night.”

They stood for another awkward second, then gave another “good night” in strained unison before he walked away.

Reeling, she stayed frozen in place. It felt like Damon Scratch could pounce from any corner, and the feeling intensified the longer Marcaeus was gone. He’d done enough, though. He’d provided her with safety. He had less of an obligation to her than her brother did. Less reason to honor any vow. Yet, he did, as if it were nothing.

Her own family couldn’t go to the effort of not selling her to a demon.

She went to the bed and sat down on the crisp sheets. She knew she should wipe off her makeup, but she couldn’t face the mirrored vanity. She couldn’t stand seeing another woman’s face in the place of her own. She wondered what it might be like to live Flicka Star’s charmed life. To be the woman Marcaeus proudly displayed on his arm. To be envied because she, Flicka Star, a woman who didn’t exist, had ensnared an Astral so beautiful and so powerful.

It would be a shallow life. Boring. But easy.

The breeze stirred the curtains at the corner of her eye and she startled.

She couldn’t be alone. 

Her gown swished against her legs as she walked, then sprinted, outside and down the portico to the next room. Heart braced for rejection, she pushed the curtains aside and stepped in.

Marcaeus was in his true form, towering bare-chested in the doorway.

“What do you need?” he asked, his brow furrowed.

“I—” I need to be near you constantly. You’re my safety. I’ve never been safe before, and now I crave it. I’m addicted to it. 

Instead, she said, “I need you.”

* * * *

Marcaeus had never seen Fiona so diminished. So helpless. Not even when she lay limp in his arms after her fall. He lifted her up, just like he had then, and she melted against him. Despite the panic she radiated, she tilted her face up in anticipation, as she had in the courtyard. There was no passion in her. Just fear, so deep and terrible it threatened to invade his senses, too. 

“Then make me yours.”

It wasn’t what she needed. And it wasn’t the way he wanted to take her.

The way you want to?

He lifted his head. “You’re trying to make a trade.”

She blinked at him. “I don’t understand.”

“You think you need to give me something to seek comfort from me.” The tears that filled her eyes told him the truth. “I don’t take advantage of the helpless.”

“I’m not—” she began.

“It’s all you know. I don’t fault you. But my care and friendship don’t come at a price.” He swallowed a lump in his throat. “We are bound. And my care for you, whatever form it may come in, is given freely.”

“I’m sorry.” Tears flowed down her cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologize for.” He set her on her feet and used his human guise to bring himself down to her level and hoped his nudity wouldn’t offend her. “I hope that in time, you will learn that the world is much kinder than it has been to you thus far.”

She shook her head and a tiny sob escaped her. “It has been kind to me. I’ve never wanted for anything. Never struggled. I’ve always had food and shelter and—”

“Material comforts aren’t safeguards from trauma. Your family has used and neglected you your entire life. You can’t accept kindness that isn’t transactional.” He cupped her jaw in his palm and brushed his thumb over the tear-streaked makeup beneath her eye. “Let me be kind to you now. As your husband. With no cost or expectation.”

She nodded and whispered, “All right.”

Though he was cognizant of human shyness, she still wore the tight dress from the gala, and shoes that didn’t appear terribly comfortable. Her body had felt like stone in his arms, she was so tense. All of that, he could fix, though he couldn’t erase the terror of whatever it was that Damon Scratch had done to her. 

“Come with me,” he said, and led her by the hand into the room, past the bed, through another door and outside again. A high, curved wall surrounded the bubbling cauldron of a hot spring for bathing.

“You’ll feel better, once you’ve soaked in this,” he promised, but she stiffened.

“This isn’t a bargain,” he reminded her. “I don’t expect you pay me. Let me care for you.”

She wriggled her bare toes on the grass, and he stepped behind her, saw her shoulders shudder as he reached for the zipper of her dress.

His human glamour had the unfortunate effect of putting his body—most notably, a crucial part of it—in close proximity to hers, and his hands trembled as the emerald velvet of her grown opened and fell away, baring her back to the waist. There were two dimples at the base of her spine. His thumbs longed to press into them.

His intentions to tend to her were pure. His thoughts, however, could not be dissuaded from the carnal.

She glanced over her shoulder at him. “Can you remove the glamour?”

“Mine? Or yours?”

“Both,” she whispered, and his entire being lurched. What did it mean, that she wanted to stand here with him, in their true forms, naked and vulnerable? If she still had it in her mind that she needed to seduce him, he wouldn’t hear of it.

“Please,” said softly. “I’m tired of looking like someone I’m not. I want us to see each other as we truly are.”

He found the edges of their magic and slowly peeled them away, as she peeled away her gown. The copper tumble of her hair darkened to mahogany silk, and when she turned to face him, lifted her eyes to meet his far above her, the icy blue penetrated his spirit.

And though he knew it was wrong to, though he feared she would misinterpret it, he couldn’t stop himself from drinking in her long legs, her thick thighs, the roundness of her belly and the fullness of her breasts.

He looked away to bring himself under control.

“I know,” she said with a said, self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t look quite as good without the glamour.”

He reached down, bent his forelegs to bring them eye-to-eye, and tilted her chin up. “I didn’t look away because you’re not beautiful. I looked away because you’re too beautiful.”

Gentle steam rose from the surface of the water. He held her hand as she stepped over the rock ledge and into the pool, sinking down without hesitation into a temperature he usually needed time to adjust to. Slipping in up to her shoulders, she tipped her head back and let out a soft moan of relief as her hair turned to a deep black curtain down her back.

The relentless taunting of the Fates forced him to imagine that sound falling from her lips as he sank into the wet heat of her.

Do you not understand? he cursed the crones silently. If they meant for Fiona to be his destiny, he would move with caution. He refused to treat her as she had been treated thus far.

He took up a cake of soap and kneeled at the edge of the basin, cognizant that his hooves were muted by the grass. “I’m behind you,” he said, but she still startled slightly when he placed his hand on her shoulders. She relaxed into his touch, though, and it seemed safe enough to slide his soaped fingers into her hair. He touched her with cautious gentleness, working the lather into her scalp, and she made another one of her tantalizing noises.

How many times in her life had she been cared for? Had anyone ever met more than her basic needs?

The thought turned his arousal to concern, and that concern to a deep, sexless need to provide her comfort, even just one second to let her guard down and feel peace.

He collected water in his cupped hands and sluiced it over her head and down her back. He’d had his doubts before, but he could no longer see her as someone dangerous, a betrayer. She was a true victim of her brother’s scheme.

It was so easy to trust her.

It was impossible to believe it would be a mistake.

He soaped her back and her shoulders and passed her the bar to finish, turning away. “I’m going to get you some towels.”

When he returned with a fluffy white stack of them, she was already stepping out of the spring. She looked at him, water dripping from the ends of her hair to cascade down her body, and seemed to wear the face of someone else, no glamour required. It was, he realized, that she had been anxious and fearful the entire time he’d known her, and for the first time, he’d seen her without a cautiously arranged expression.

The mark on his arm fizzled with energy.

“What?” She asked, moving to cover herself. And her own mark shimmered.

“You’re beautiful.” It wasn’t flattery, but fact. “You’ve always been beautiful, but you’re more so right now.”

She hugged herself, arms arranged over her breasts, and shivered.

“Because you’re not frightened,” he went on. “Are you?”

She thought for a moment, while he shook out one of the towels and wrapped it around her shoulders. But the entire time, she kept her gaze trained on his face, until their eyes finally met again and she answered, “No. For the first time I can remember… I’m not afraid.”

He kneeled to gently dry her, and she held onto his arms to steady herself. When her body was dry and her hair wrapped up, he lifted her in his arms and brought her to his bed.

“You can sleep here. Every night, if you need to.” He set her on her feet. “What would make it more comfortable for you?”

“A blanket?” she suggested. “But you don’t have to. I can manage without it.”

“You’re my wife—”

“Stop.” She clutched her towel closed at her ches. All of the peace and ease she’d displayed just a few seconds before tightened and hardened into the distrust and sadness he’d hoped he’d washed away.

“I’ve offended you.”

“You can’t keep saying that I’m your wife,” she snapped. “You married me because of my brother’s scheme.”

“That doesn’t make you less of a wife to me, in the mind of the Fates.” His arm burned.

Her hand strayed to her own mark.

He swallowed thickly. “You feel it, too.”

“I—”

“Hera and the Fates work closely some times,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching with a bemused smile. “Maybe she’s teaching me a lesson.”

“She shouldn’t use me as her instrument of revenge.” Fiona rubbed her arm stubbornly, as though she could erase the goddess’s rope binding them.

“That may be,” he said with a wry chuckle. “In the meantime, can you just let me care for you? You came to me tonight because you said you needed me. You were afraid. And now, it seems you’re afraid of needing me.

“Don’t forget how this began,” he went on, an ache slowly building in his chest. “You wanted to protect your friend. You were willing to go to great lengths to do so. Allow someone else to go to very simple lengths to protect you.”

She looked down, wriggled her toes on the sheets. “A blanket would be nice.”

“A blanket. I can do that,” he said, and without a second thought about it, kissed her forehead.

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4 Comments

  1. Lenka
    Lenka

    This was such a tender chapter! If all of the leading men were like Marcaeus… well the Jealous Hater Book Club would be a little less entertaining.

    March 4, 2024
    |Reply
  2. Mara
    Mara

    Yeah this was really sweet!

    March 5, 2024
    |Reply
  3. Leslie
    Leslie

    I so look forward to each new chapter of this (surprisingly touching) book. Thank you for continuing to write it!

    March 8, 2024
    |Reply
  4. Ana
    Ana

    I get back to this every couple of days. It’s really wonderful and tender, and it’s tugging on my heartstrings! 🙂
    I’m excited for every chapter!

    March 24, 2024
    |Reply

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