He heard her voice, but he couldn’t respond to it.
Artemis licked the blood from her lips as she saw the bluish tint to his skin. His breathing was so shallow that she half expected him to die. "Acheron?"
His eyes were half open. There was no recognition in his gaze that he saw or heard her.
Afraid she might have hurt him, she transported him to her bed and laid him down gently. She took his hand into hers and rubbed it. "Acheron, please say something."
He whispered something in Atlantean, but she couldn’t understand it. With one last expulsion of breath, he passed out. Artemis jerked back as his entire body flashed to a vibrant blue while his lips, nails and hair turned black. An instant later, he appeared normal.
What on Olympus? Never had she seen such. Had her feeding caused it?
Swallowing, she crawled closer to him and poked him with one finger. He was completely unconscious.
Manifesting a warm fur, she covered him and watched as he drew shallow breaths. While he slept, she traced the shape of his lips, the length of his nose. His features were sharp and flawless. Like his body. She didn’t understand why he compelled her so. Afraid of being dominated, she’d asked her father when she was a child to make her immune to love and to give her eternal virginity. Zeus had granted that request. Yet as she looked at Acheron resting, she wondered at the emotions she felt for him. They were unlike anything she’d ever felt before.
She liked the way he talked to her. The way he held her and made her scream in pleasure with his touches and licks. Most of all, she loved the way he tasted when she fed from him.
He’s just a pet.
Yes, that was it. She didn’t have any real feelings for him. He was merely like the deer that lived in her forest. Beautiful to watch and to touch. They licked and brushed up against her, too. And like them she was sure he’d come to bore her in time. Everything did.
But for now she intended to enjoy her pet for as long as possible.
Acheron woke up starving. The hunger pain was so fierce that at first he thought he was again in the dark hole underneath his father’s palace. But as he opened his eyes and saw the gold ceiling above him, he remembered being with Artemis.
He sat up slowly to find himself alone in her bed. There were voices outside. He started to get up and head toward them, then thought better of it. Artemis had left him here for a reason. No good could come of his opening those doors.
So he sat in bed, his stomach aching while he listened to words that had no real form. They were muffled through the gold and stone. He had no idea what time it was or how long he’d slept.
It seemed like forever before Artemis appeared. She drew up short and smiled. "You’re awake."
He nodded. "I didn’t want to disturb you. You sounded busy."
She closed the distance between them to cup his cheek. "Are you hungry?"
She spread her arm out and a table covered with food appeared beside the bed.
Acheron gaped at the feast.
"If you’d like something else, tell me."
"No, this is wonderful." He left the bed to tear into a loaf of bread. His eyes widened at the taste of it. Coated in honey and warm, it was the best he’d ever had.
Artemis poured him a cup of wine. "Goodness, you were hungry."
He took the cup gratefully then drank deep of the rich flavor. "Thank you, Artie."
She arched a brow at his unintended nickname. "Artie?"
Acheron cringed as he realized his slip of the tongue. "Artemis. I meant to say Artemis."
She nuzzled him. "I think I like Artie. No one’s ever called me that before."
Acheron leaned his head down to kiss her hand.
Artemis couldn’t breathe as that simple touch electrified her. What was it about this man that set fire to her entire being? She wanted to hold and protect him. More than that, she wanted to devour every inch of his lush body.
Closing her eyes, she leaned into him and inhaled that intoxicating scent that was all male and all him. "Eat, Acheron," she whispered. "I don’t want you to be hungry."
He stepped away from her and she felt the sudden cold left in the wake of his heat like a punch against her stomach. She watched as he dipped the bread in a small dish of honey before he took a bite and smiled a smile so handsome it made her heart lift.
He dipped another piece, then turned toward her. "Would you like some?"
She nodded. He held it for her to take a bite. Artemis opened her mouth. As he set the bread on her tongue, she licked his fingers that were delicious. Salty and sweet, they whetted her appetite for more.
His eyes darkened, causing a wave of desire to flare deep inside her. He dipped his fingertip in the honey, then outlined her lips before he pulled her close for a blistering kiss. The taste of him combined with honey was more than she could stand.
Pulling him toward the bed, she lay down and tugged his hand until he was on top of her.
Acheron growled at the sight of Artemis underneath him. "You are so incredibly beautiful."
Artemis couldn’t respond verbally. She was completely captivated by the look of tenderness on his face. No one had ever looked at her like this. And when he buried his lips against her throat all rational thought was lost to the fire inside her.
She’d never been completely nak*d with anyone. But as he unfastened her gown, she didn’t protest. With an excruciating slowness, he slid the cloth down her body until she was bare to him. He made no move to remove his own clothes.
Instead, he lifted her foot to nibble her instep. Biting her lip at the exquisite torture, she watched him as he worked his way up her body.
He paused as he gently licked the inside of her thigh. "Do you want me to stop?"
Artemis shook her head. "I love for you to touch me."
His look scorched her before he nudged her thighs farther apart and touched the part of her that ached the most for him. She sank her fingers in his hair and fisted her hands.
Acheron pulled back with a hiss as if she’d hurt him.
She frowned. "Is something wrong?"
"Please don’t grab and pull my hair. I hate it when people do that."
"It makes me feel like I’m garbage."
There was no missing the raw pain in his voice. "I don’t understand."
"People snatch at my hair to control me or to hold me down at their feet. They yank it while they violate and humiliate me. I don’t like it."
Artemis stroked his cheek, wanting to soothe him. "I’m sorry, Acheron. I didn’t know. Is there anything else you don’t like?"
Acheron froze at her question. No lover had ever asked him that question before. He still couldn’t believe he’d told her that he didn’t like having his hair touched. It wasn’t something he’d normally do, but since she’d asked, he felt compelled to tell her. "I don’t like anyone breathing on the back of my neck. It reminds me of being a slave with no will of my own and it makes my skin crawl."
"Then I shall never do that to you."
Those words touched him so deep inside that it brought tears to his eyes. He swallowed the lump in his throat before he nuzzled her. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to please his goddess. Artemis was all that was kind. He couldn’t imagine why she wanted to befriend something as low as an ex-slave, but he was grateful to be with her.
Wanting to please her not because he had to but because he wanted it, he took his time teasing her body until she screamed out his name. True to her words, she didn’t grab his hair as she came. She sank her nails into his shoulders.
Grateful that she’d kept her word, he crawled up her body and pulled her into his arms.
Artemis sighed as she lay against him. He was still fully clothed. "Why do you never take anything for yourself?"
"I don’t find real pleasure in sex."
She frowned at him. "How can you not enjoy it?"
He couldn’t even begin to explain to her that nothing about sex made him feel good. He liked to touch her, but he didn’t have the same reaction to her touch that she had to his. Orgasms were pleasurable no doubt. He just didn’t care whether or not he had one.
"I enjoy it," he lied. It would make her feel good to hear that. He would keep the truth of it buried inside him. Honestly he loved being with her. When they were together he felt like a man with no past. She saw him as her friend and if a goddess liked him he couldn’t be as repugnant as his father and brother made him out to be.
She rubbed herself against his body.
Acheron closed his eyes and savored the sensation of her warm body next to his. "I wish I could stay here with you forever."
"If you were female you could, but only my brother is allowed in my temple. No other male."
"But I’m here now."
"I know and it’s our secret. You can never tell anyone."
She lifted herself up to give him a stern frown. "I mean it, Acheron. Not even in your sleep are you to breathe a word about me."
"Trust me, Artie, keeping secrets is the one thing I learned early in my life. I know when to keep my mouth shut. Besides no one really talks to me anyway."
"Good. Now it’s time for you to go home."
One minute he was in her temple beside her, the next he was in his bed nak*d again. He realized too late that he hadn’t really eaten anything. Damn. But at least it was dark outside. He’d missed most of the day. So long as his father hadn’t sent guards to beat him no one would know of his visit to Olympus.
Sighing, Acheron draped one arm over his eyes. Maybe he could just sleep until Artemis came for him again.
But even as the thought occurred to him he knew this couldn’t last. A whore didn’t befriend a goddess. It was impossible. Sooner or later Artemis would be like everyone else.
Yet deep in his heart was a tiny splash of hope that maybe, just maybe, Artemis because of her godhood would be different.
"I would sell my soul to keep and protect you, Artie," he breathed, wondering if she could hear him. If only he were born of the gods too . . .
He shook his head at the harsh reality he knew all too well. "And if wishes were horses, I’d have been run over in childhood."
No, this was all they could ever have. All he could do was make sure that no one learned the truth. May the gods help him if anyone ever did.
January 12, 9528 BC
Acheron sat on the railing of his balcony, missing Artemis. She was off at a festival that was being held in her honor and she wanted to spy on the people there in person. She was odd that way and liked to see people worshiping her while she pretended to be mortal.
He found it strangely endearing and had to admit that these last few weeks had been the best of his life.
Artemis was the only person who’d ever allowed him to be himself. If he didn’t like something, he could tell her and she’d promise not to let it happen again.
She never broke her word to him. That more than anything was a dream come true. And because they spent so much time together, and Acheron wasn’t causing trouble or sneaking out through his guards, his father had left him alone. He couldn’t remember a time in his life, except for the months with Ryssa, when he’d gone this long without being hit or beaten.
The reprieve was divine.
Suddenly the doors to his room were shoved open.
His gut tightened. Afraid it was his father coming for him, he gripped the stone beneath him.
It wasn’t. Ryssa strode into the room with the brightest smile he’d ever seen on her face. "Good day, little brother."
"Good day," he greeted hesitantly in return, wondering at her mood and the fact that she’d left the doors behind her wide open. "Is something wrong?"
Maybe his father had finally died. It was the best he could hope for. Stopping just before him, she pulled a small purse out from behind her back and held it out toward him. "You’re free."
His father must be dead!
Acheron swung his legs down. "What do you mean?"
"I’ve discovered one of the benefits to sleeping with Apollo. Father listens to me now. Your guards are gone and you’ll have a monthly stipend to spend however you wish." She placed the purse in his hand. "I’ve also procured for you a reserved spot at the stadium for any and all plays. No one but you will be allowed to sit there. Ever."
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. "What are the conditions?"
Her smile faded so that she could grind her teeth in aggravation. "Typical comment of Father’s. You’re not allowed to shame him or the family. He wouldn’t elaborate, but so long as you don’t cavort with anyone I think you’ll be fine."
Acheron scoffed at the mere idea. "I have no plans to cavort with anyone." At least not publicly. He’d grown tired of that long ago. He didn’t like being a spectacle.
She leaned forward. "Would you like to go to a play with me?"
"What about Apollo?"
"He’s off with his sister. I have most of the day to myself." She held her hand out to him. "What say you, little brother? Shall we celebrate your freedom?"
Acheron gave her a real smile-something he almost never did. "Thank you, Ryssa. You’ve no idea how much this means to me."
"I think I have an idea."