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Authors: Ann Mayburn

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“I almost got trampled when everyone tried to get out of the
club.” She tried to keep her tone light, but Shan could hear the fear beneath
her words. “It was so dark, and then everyone started screaming. I was looking
for you, trying to find you in the dark. I couldn’t find you, Shan, no matter
how hard I looked.” She shivered, and Shan held her hand beneath the blanket.
“Then something roared. It sounded like it was right next to me. I tried to get
away, and I tripped over a table. Lucky for me, someone threw an illumination
spell up, and a Temple Guard grabbed me.”

Royce sat at the foot of the bed, the mattress sagging
beneath his heavy weight. He slowly rubbed his face with his hands and let out
a weary sigh. “I'm glad there were so many Temple Guards at the club. They
managed to stop it from becoming a complete slaughter. Someone took a big risk
to summon those wraiths, and they were sent after one person. I wonder who they
wanted and why.” He rubbed the dark shadow on his chin. Part Italian, he always
looked like he needed a shave. “What happened to you in there, Shan?”

“I was…um.” She blushed and looked at the stars on the
ceiling again. For sure she wasn't going to tell her dad that she had been
considering beating up another submissive for the chance to serve the
dark-haired Dom. The memory of his eyes locking with hers for a brief moment
filled her with longing.

Shifting uncomfortably on the bed, Royce said, “You don't
have to go into details. I know what kind of club that is, and I know that
Daisy, for all the trouble she's gotten you in, wouldn't have disrespected her
goddess by bringing you there unless there was a need. So we’ll just pretend
that you were at a social mixer to talk about metallurgy.”

Without a doubt she’d been blessed with two of the best
parents ever and Shan found herself able to look into his eyes again. Even
though most people considered her parents weird because they were gay men, it
didn't change the fact that they loved her unconditionally. Still, there were
some things she didn’t feel comfortable discussing with them no matter how cool
they were, like her desire to be chained up and flogged by some super gorgeous
man with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. The memory of his big muscles working
as he worked his submissive over made her breath catch.

Daisy nudged her and Shan flushed, pulled abruptly out of
her memories. “So, yeah, I was checking it out when I started to get this
weird, creeped-out feeling. I don’t know how to describe it, just that it was like…knowing
someone was watching me and not in a good way.” The memory of the panic made
her clear her throat past the sudden lump. “Then it started to smell bad, like
a toilet overflowing or something.”

Royce went still at the end of the bed. “Daisy, did you
notice any bad smell?”

The blonde dreads of Daisy's ponytail rasped against the
pillows. “No. But I think I was on the other side of the club from Shan. Do you
think they came out of the sewers or something?”

Royce shrugged, but he kept glancing at Shan and swallowing,
one of the things that her dad did when he was really scared. “No idea. Some
demons can only enter through a gateway, and others can enter through a
hair-thin crack in a wall. With as heavily warded as that club probably is—all
those Temple Guards wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t—I’m going to go with the
theory that someone opened a gateway for them inside the building.” He closed
his eyes and took a deep breath, resting his slightly shaking hand on Shan’s
foot beneath the covers and giving it a squeeze. “So what happened after you
smelled something bad?”

Watching Royce, Shan tried to figure out why the bad smell
should scare him so much. It seemed like an odd thing to focus on. “So, yeah, I
smelled something bad and started to feel freaked out. Then Alice came and
asked if I was all right. I told her about the feeling and the smell, then she
yelled, 'Destruction', and the lights went out.”

Royce moved off the bed and paced over to the window again.
He twitched aside the sparkly Hello Kitty curtains to stare out at the quiet
street. Shan waited for him to say something, and she and Daisy exchanged a
confused glance before he finally blew out a deep breath. “Well, I'm glad you
girls got out okay.”

Shan frowned at her father. “That's it? You're glad we're
okay?”

“Yep.” Royce continued to look out into the street, his
shoulders stiff with tension.

“Earth to Father, come in, Father,” Shan said in a teasing
voice. Royce often wandered into his own world when sculpting or thinking of a
project, but there was none of the dreamy quality in his eyes that he got while
working on his art. Instead every muscle in his body seemed tensed and he was
giving the street outside her window an entirely unfriendly look that wasn’t
helping her growing sense of unease. Something was going on here, but he seemed
in no hurry to inform her of exactly what.

“Father?”

“I'm here, honey,” he said in a distant voice. Clearing his
throat, he turned back to them with a bright smile, deepening the wrinkles
around his mouth. It was a big, false, cheery smile that did nothing to sooth
her nerves. “Spending the night, Daisy? It'll be like the old days.” He strode
back over to the bed and tugged at one of Daisy's dreads. “Except I won't have
to nag you to wear your headgear.”

Groaning, Daisy swatted at his hand. “I think my mom made me
wear it to assure I would graduate a virgin.”

“Too bad that didn't work,” Shan muttered, and then yelped
when Daisy hit her with a pillow.

“Girls.” Royce laughed, and some of the worry lifted from
his gaze. “Shan, if I remember correctly, you're supposed to be at the bazaar
at the Egyptian Temple District tomorrow, right?”

Shan thumped her pillow with a sigh and lay back into its
comfort. For a moment she considered trying to question her father further, to figure
out what was really going on, but as her tension drained away exhaustion took
its place. She was beat. “Yeah. My luxurious penthouse doesn't pay for itself.”

Daisy snorted and got out of bed, heading for the bathroom.
“I don't think even a homeless person would consider your flat luxurious.” She
quickly shut the door before Shan could defend her dilapidated home's honor.

“You know,” Royce said as he leaned against the doorway,
“your father and I would love to have you move back in with us. We could fix up
the pool house into an apartment for you.”

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, she went over the
well-worn treads of the same argument they'd been having since she turned
eighteen five years before and moved out on her own. “Look, I appreciate the offer,
but I love having my own place. I'm not a kid anymore.”

Instead of smiling and joking with her about how mature she
was, his gaze filled with worry. “Please think about it. I don’t like how alone
you are out there. Anything could happen and there’s no one around to help you.
I worry.”

This unexpected turn in the conversation had her biting back
her usual sarcastic remarks. “Okay, I’ll think about it.” She watched him chew
on his lower lip, a sure sign that he was holding something back. “Is there
something you need to tell me?”

He dropped his gaze and fiddled with the antique cut-glass
doorknob of her bedroom door. “No. It’s just that your new place is on the
other side of the city and we miss you. That's all.”

Her heart softened at his words. Though there would always
be an empty space in her heart and spirit for her birth parents, Royce and
Aaron had raised her with endless love and compassion. “I miss you too. Who
knows, maybe my building will get condemned and I'll have to move back in.”

“Here's crossing my fingers,” Royce joked. “Love you.”

“Love you too.”

 

****

 

Shrieks cut through the nightmare Shan was having, forcing
her awake, and for a moment the dream and reality overlapped. In her nightmare,
Daisy was being pulled down into a thick black sludge that burned away her
skin. She was screaming and reaching for Shan, but Shan couldn't move quick
enough to save her. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as she struggled against her
invisible bonds and watched the sludge eat away Daisy's lower jaw, exposing her
tongue.

Her bedroom door banged open, and her bleary-eyed father
rushed in with his staff.

Turning to the screams, Shan grabbed Daisy and shouted in
her ear, “Wake up! Daisy, do you hear me! Wake up!”

The screams cut off like someone had thrown a switch. Daisy
opened her eyes and stared at Shan, then pushed at Shan’s hands on her
shoulders. “What are you doing?”

“Are you okay?” Aaron spun around the room with his staff in
a fighting position. Shan wondered why he was carrying around his battle staff
but returned her attention to Daisy. Her friend was trembling, but the fear was
fading from her gaze, replaced by confusion.

“Yeah, I'm fine. Other than drowning in your bad breath.”
She waved her hand in front of her face. “Jeez, Shan, did you eat cake of cat
shit before bed?”

“Ha ha,” Shan said, making sure to exhale in Daisy's face.

“And what's up with you, Little John?” Daisy said and arched
an eyebrow at Aaron standing in his pajamas with his battle staff.

Aaron actually looked guilty as he tried to hide the
six-foot staff behind his back. “I thought something was wrong.”

“You were screaming,” Shan said.

“Really?” Daisy sat up and pulled down the T-shirt she’d
borrowed from Shan.

“Yeah, you were having a nightmare.” Shan gave her a tired
smile. “At least it was you waking everyone up screaming for once, instead of
me.”

Shan had suffered from nightmares for as long as she could
remember. Sometimes she was lucky, and they only came once or twice a month.
Other times, they happened a couple of times a week, and she dreaded going to
sleep. It was part of the reason she’d moved out of her parents’ comfortable
home and into her own place above a warehouse on D.C.'s east side. She actually
owned the entire top floor above a spice warehouse and was slowly renovating it
as her funds allowed. It gave her room for her jewelry studio with enough space
left over to comfortably house ten families.

Isolated and with a view of an industrial park, it was very
different from the luxury of her parents’ townhouse, but it was hers. At least
she didn't have to worry about neighbors calling the cops on her, thinking she
was being murdered during a nightmare. Then again, her father did have a point
about no one being there to help her, something that had never bothered her
before but now she couldn’t help but wonder what she would do if something
happened to her at her home. Might be time to take up her parents’ way too
generous offer of upgrading her security system.

“Weird. I don't remember dreaming anything.” Sighing, Daisy
pulled her pillow over her head and mumbled out, “I'm going back to sleep.”

Aaron edged toward the door. “Want me to make you some
breakfast?” He knew that once Shan woke up, she couldn't go back to sleep, and
they’d often shared plates of pancakes in the middle of the night.

“Yeah.” Glancing at the clock, she said, “Hey, can you give
me a ride to my place?”

“No can do, honey. Your father and I have to be at a meeting
in an hour.” He hesitated then said, “You can take my car.”

“Really?” She tried to keep from sounding overeager, but she
loved her dad's car. A 1987 black Corvette, it was sex on wheels. Normally he
didn’t allow her to drive it, but it he was offering she was taking.

“Yes, but no speeding. Wear your seatbelt, don't race
against anyone, watch double parking, don't pick up any hitchhikers—”

“Dad, there aren't any hitchhikers in downtown D.C.”

His thin lips twitched in a grin, and he looked around the
drowning-in-pink room. “I'm surprised you were able to sleep in your Hello
Kitty shrine.”

Wrinkling her nose at him, she said in a frosty voice, “This
coming from the man who has Superman sheets.”

“Touché.” Aaron's smile faded and was replaced by deep
concern. “Be careful today, Shan. Stay in populated areas and don't talk to
anyone that makes you uncomfortable. If you weren't going to be in the Temple
District, I'd tell you to stay home.”

“What's going on?”

A door opened farther down the hall, and water rushed
through the old pipes of the townhouse as the shower turned on. “It's…it's
nothing. Have fun today and remember, we love you.”

“Thank you, oh wise and cryptic one. I love you too.”

Picking out her outfit for the day from the small stash of
clothes she kept at her parents, Shan found her mind turning to the dark-haired
man at the club last night. The curve of his lips, the flash of his neon-blue
eyes, just the memory made her nipples hard. Sighing softly, she cursed herself
for being too cowardly to approach him. And now that the club was a crime
scene, she doubted she would ever find him again.

Chapter Four

 

 

Shan lugged her backpack full of carefully sorted jewelry
out of the trunk of the Corvette. Leaning against the bumper, she zipped her
worn black leather jacket and pulled her hair out of the collar. The early
morning air held on to the chill of the night, and her breath curled out in
misty plumes. With the weight of the backpack already cutting into her
shoulders, she tromped through a puddle on the curb with her sparkly black
combat boots.

On either side of the street, the shop workers were getting
ready for the crowds to come. Merchants raised the metal gates on their stores,
and two men argued in a foreign language while they cleaned the hookahs at an
outdoor cafe. The third Saturday of every month was bazaar day at the Egyptian
Temple District, and it attracted loads of locals and tourists alike.

This was the first bazar she was attending as a vendor. The
permits to get a booth were highly sought after, and she had been on the
waiting list for over a year. She needed to have good sales today. While the
private commissions she did more than paid the bills, she really wanted to put
additional walls in her loft and redo the heating system. So far, the only real
rooms were her bedroom, bathroom, and the kitchen/living room. While the empty
twelve thousand square feet was great for hosting parties, she needed a guest
bathroom to keep people from going through her bedroom to use the toilet.

Ahead of her, a pair of Temple Guards watched the street.
Dressed from head to toe in black, the tall man and short woman scrutinized the
sidewalks with curved swords sheathed at their hip. Pausing to let a delivery
guy wheel some boxes into the clothing shop next to her, Shan took a moment to
study them.

The Celtic Temple Guards that she was familiar with wore the
same black outfit, but the sword they used was of a different design. Her dad
actually made a good deal of their weapons, so Shan was familiar with the broad
and flat blades. The curved ones the Egyptian Guards wore intrigued her, and
she tried to theorize how they were made. Sharpening along the edge must be
difficult, but she really liked the embellishments on the pommel.

The small woman with shaggy light brown hair looked up and
caught her staring. Her silver eyes narrowed, and she mumbled something to the man
standing next to her. Shan flushed and ducked her head as she plodded past them
with her heavy backpack. Glancing back, she found them still watching her
closely, and she tried to not look suspicious. Most people who saw a girl with
blue-streaked hair, wearing leather and pale violet lipstick automatically
assumed she was trouble. While that was kind of flattering considering her
diminutive stature, after last night, she didn’t want to attract any negative
attention.

Trying to keep from hunching beneath the imagined weight of
their gaze, Shan rounded the corner into the Temple Square.

The open space was size of a football field and then some,
and the square was surrounded by dozens of temples dedicated to different
Egyptian gods and goddesses. Osiris, Isis, and Ra had the biggest and most
elaborate temples, but the smaller ones were as beautiful, if a little less
grand.

The space buzzed with activity as people of every
description and nationality set up their booths. Pulling the folded permit out
of her pocket, Shan checked her number and began to weave through the stalls,
looking for the space that was hers.

A heavenly smell promising caffeine tickled her nose, and
she veered off her path to follow it. A couple rows over, beneath the shadow of
the sandstone columns of the Temple of Isis, a lovely salt-and-pepper-haired
woman with dark skin was in the process of setting up her coffee stand. She
wore a gold circlet over her hair, and a long, green wool jacket that reached
her sneaker clad feet barely visible beneath the hem of her white skirt.

Unable to resist, Shan ordered a cup and sighed in delight
as the rich taste exploded on her tongue. A few Temple Guards stood behind the
woman, watching the crowd through dark sunglasses as the sun rose over the
temples across the square and warmed her back. Taking another sip, she let the
taste roll over her tongue, imaging the caffeine soaking into her system.

“I'm glad you like it.” The dark-haired woman laughed and
handed her a napkin. She had a faint accent that Shan didn't recognize but
found almost musical.

“This is divine.” Shan shifted the pack on her back. “And
perfect for a cold morning. What kind of coffee is it?”

“It's actually a Turkish blend.” The woman studied her and
took a deep breath. “Is this your first bazaar?”

“As a vendor it is.” Shan glanced around and noticed the
stalls filling up quickly and a few early shoppers examining wares. “Thanks for
the coffee.”

“You're most welcome,” the woman said in a soft voice. She
gestured to one of the guards, and when he moved closer, she began to whisper
to him. Shan felt a twinge of paranoia that they were talking about her but
then shook it off.

After wandering through the booths, and trying to keep from
being distracted by all the awesome stuff the other vendors were displaying,
Shan found her space between an older man selling hand-woven carpets and a tall
and stick-thin man selling wooden children's toys. After exchanging
pleasantries with her neighbors, Shan got to work setting up her space. While
she’d been selling her jewelry for years, this was the first time she was going
to be dealing with such a big crowd and as nervous energy filled her she
wondered if that cup of coffee had been a good idea.

She pulled a black velvet sheet out of her backpack and
smoothed it over the surface of her rented table, carefully plucking any stray
bits of fuzz from its dark surface. A few stalls down, a woman in a long
tie-dye dress sold incense and the sweet scent carried on the breeze. The air
began to warm as the sun rose in the sky and Shan turned her face to it,
letting the warmth sooth her. Taking a deep breath, she turned back to her
work. Good weather meant good crowds and she set out extra cards in the pretty
silver business card holder that she’d made years ago. After draining the last
of her coffee, Shan dug through her backpack and began to take out the
carefully labeled bags containing her work.

Having majored in art history in college and apprenticed
with her father, her creations were delicate yet bold with heavy Celtic
influences. One of her favorite pieces at the moment was a line of expensive
gold mood rings commissioned by a local storeowner. She liked the idea of the
rich gold settings surrounding something as frivolous as a stone that was
supposed to read your emotions. She carefully put out her sample pieces, making
small adjustments in the layout here and there so her work would capture the
sunlight to its best advantage. These display models were made of cheap metal
with a thin overlay of silver and gold along with fake stones. If someone with
sticky fingers stole them, it wouldn't be too big of a loss.

The sun quickly warmed the beige sandstone blocks of her
section of the bazaar, and she unzipped her jacket. A couple booths down, a
Temple Guard moved through the growing crowd, checking permits and displays.
The guard’s back was turned to her, but she sucked in a breath through her
teeth. Whoever he was, he had the broadest shoulders she had ever seen tapering
down to a rock-solid butt and a pair of well-muscled legs that made her
hormones wake up and take note.

Not wanting to start out on a bad foot, she quickly moved
behind her display and nervously put out the folded metal sign of her store,
The Silver Rose. Digging through her backpack, she took out three roses made of
silver polished until they gleamed like liquid metal and placed them beneath
the sign. Each piece had taken hours of intricate work to construct the folds
and curves of the petals. The silver rose was her master project to pass her
journeyman's test for smithing, and she was proud of the result.

The sound of men's conversation came from the booth next to
hers, and she dug through her bag for her permit. A little twinge of nerves
moved through her body as she emptied the entire bag onto the ground and
frantically looked for the little piece of pink paper. The nerves became full
out panic as she searched for her permit, her fumbling fingers managing to
spill a bag full of pendants into her backpack.

“Shit, fuck shit,” she muttered to herself as the thin
chains of the pendants got tangled up with her car keys.

“Good morning,” a deep voice drawled from over her shoulder.
Warm and rich, his voice was darker than the coffee she’d just drunk, and
washed over her body in a caress. A tingle raced from the top of her head all
the way down to her toes, leaving her body buzzing.

Glancing up from her crouch, she bit back a gasp at the
sight of the Temple Guard that had been checking permits standing on the other
side of her table. Up close, he was even bigger than she’d imagined. Broad
chest, impossibly wide shoulders, and muscled forearms chorded with veins. His
flawless skin was a lovely, deep tan and she had to drag her eyes away from his
body and up to his face. He had a nice, square jaw with solid cheek-bones and a
hawkish nose that gave him an imposing look. Then their gaze met and she found
herself drowning in the prettiest eyes she’d ever seen on a man or woman. His
eyes were a lovely blue-green framed with lashes so thick and long, they almost
looked fake. Her heart skipped a beat then pounded as she stared at him.

“Permit please.” His eyes scanned her from head to toe, then
a slight grimace turned his lips as if he wasn’t impressed by what he saw. His
unflattering judgment of her stung more than it should. She was used to people
thinking negative things about her due to her hair and clothes, and she’d
thought she was immune to their reaction by now.

“One second,” she said and dug through her pockets. “I have
it right here.” He crossed his arms and watched her, his expression becoming
colder by the second. “Really, I have it...” She fumbled with her pockets,
tugging out the silk lining. Nothing more than an old, lint-covered cough drop
and a used tissue fell to the ground.

“If you can't find your permit, you have to leave.” The cold
indifference in his words at once chilled her and made her mad. “After
yesterday's incidents, we aren't taking any chances with our security.”

“Look, I really do have one.” She crossed her arms, copying
his gesture. Though he outweighed her by at least a hundred and fifty pounds,
she wasn't about to let him intimidate her—too much. Trying to keep her voice
firm, she tilted her chin. “I'm sure there is some kind of master list you can
check.”

Those amazing eyes narrowed at her. “My job isn't to go
running around on fool’s errands for little Emo girls who can't keep track of
their papers. Why don’t you go run along and write some sad poetry about the
mall being out of your favorite brand of lip balm.”

“Little Emo girls? Lip balm?” His words slapped at her, and
for a moment, all she could do was stare at him. “I don't know who the hell you
think you are—”

“My name is Captain King, and I’m the man who is about to
kick you out of here.”

“What?” She gripped her hands into fists, trying to ignore
the people in the adjoining booths who were now openly watching the unfolding
drama. “Listen, Captain King, I waited over a year to get this permit. It's
legal, and I lost it, but I am not leaving. So you can stand there and be a
dick all you want and clench your butt up tight enough to crack walnuts, but
I'm not leaving.”

A shocked gasp drew her attention and she turned to see her
neighbors stared at her with their mouths hanging open. Reality tried to push
past her anger to tell her she was making a big mistake, but she was full of
righteous fury. If this gorgeous asshole would just check the ledger, he would
see she was supposed to be here.

“Oh, really?” He planted his fists on her table and leaned
toward her. “This is my territory and people to protect, and I don't allow
anyone onto it without a permit.” His full lips twitched into a small smirk.
“Especially little girls trying to sneak in and sell their junk.”

“Junk? Junk?” With a growl, she had the front of his shirt
gripped in her fists before she was even aware of moving. “I am not a little
girl. I do have a permit. If you would stop being such an asshole for—”

His big hands tightened on her arms, and he picked her up
over her table in a dizzying display of strength and held her before his face.
“Let go of my shirt.”

His growl made her nipples grow hard. Cursing the perverse
nature of her libido, she answered in her own snarl. “Make me.”

Surprise flickered through his eyes, and she wriggled in his
hold. He pulled her closer until their noses were almost touching. “You're
lucky I don't take you over my knee and spank you until you can't walk.”

The savage imagery of his words combined with his punishing
grip brought a liquid heat to her body. She went pliant in his embrace, her
body softening against him. The blue of his eyes deepened to a dark teal as his
pupils expanded.

It must have been her overactive hormones, but she swore she
could feel his desire move against her like a hand stroking her body. She
loosened her hold on his shirt and pressed her palms to his chest. Solid and
firm, she had never felt anything as deliciously male as his body.

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