She shook her head. "I want you, Acheron."
He kissed his way slowly up her body while he continued to tease her with his hand.
Artemis clutched him as another orgasm tore through her. The moment it started, Acheron slid himself deep inside her body. He moved so quickly and smoothly that instead of hurting her, it increased her orgasm to a blinding level.
Her head lolled back and forth on the pillow as she tried to make sense of this. But there was no sense to it. And when Acheron started to slowly and deeply thrust against her, she moaned in ecstasy.
Acheron lost himself to the contented sighs Artemis made that matched his strokes. She held him in a way no one ever had before . . .
As if he meant something to her.
Tears pricked at the back of his eyes as he drove himself even deeper into her. No longer drunk, he was in bliss. All he could see was her beautiful face.
Her eyes darkened an instant before she brushed the hair back from his neck and sank her teeth into him. The moment she did, she came again.
The sensation of her drinking from him while her body clutched his drove him over the edge. Unable to stand it, he too came in a blinding wave of ecstasy.
He collapsed on top of her while she fed. Between his orgasm and blood loss, he was weak and sated. She rolled him over onto his back so that she could drink even more.
At the moment Acheron would have given her anything she asked of him. Even his life.
Artemis pulled back as her leg touched something wet on the bed. Glancing down, she saw her blood mixed with his seed on her mattress. The reality of what she’d just done slammed into her with a force so sharp it shattered all her happiness.
She was virgin no more.
If Apollo or the others found out . . .
She’d be ruined. Ridiculed. Humiliated.
What had she done?
You’ve been defiled by a human whore . . .
His eyes half-hooded, Acheron reached for her. She pulled back as her heart slammed against her breast. This was terrible. Awful. Terrified over what she’d allowed him to do, she left the bed, feeling sick.
Acheron followed her. "Artemis?"
"Don’t touch me!" she snarled as he tried to hold her. She pushed him back.
"Did I hurt you?"
The concern in his voice left a ragged hole in her heart. But it was nothing compared to the shame and fear she felt. "You’ve ruined me."
In that moment she hated him for what they’d done. How dare he make her want him like this. Make her forget who she was and why her virginity was so important.
Dear gods, what had she done?
She wanted to kill him and yet she couldn’t. How could she hate him so badly and still crave him?
"Why did you touch me?"
He looked stunned by her question. "You asked me to."
"I didn’t ask you to kiss me in my temple," she accused. "I’d never known a kiss before. And then you touched me . . ." She slapped him hard for the affront.
Acheron staggered back in shock as his cheek burned. Before he could recover himself, Artemis attacked him, slapping and punching. When that didn’t seem to satisfy her, she flung him against the far wall and held him there with her god’s powers.
I will protect you . . .
Her words rang in his ears as he stared down at her, waiting for her to finally kill him. Truthfully he’d rather be dead than feel the splintering in his heart over what she was doing.
Suddenly, he slammed to the floor. That same invisible force rolled him over and held him against the marble as Artemis approached him with a feral glare. "So help me, you ever breathe a word of this to a single soul and I will see you killed so painfully that your screams for mercy will resonate throughout eternity."
Those words brought tears to his eyes as they reminded him of so many others who’d hated him because they craved being with him. How many dignitaries and nobles had come to him and then cursed him the moment after he’d pleasured them?
They lived in fear of a whore ruining their precious reputations. They’d kicked him from their beds or knocked him to the ground, cursing him for their own lust as if he’d wanted it.
Why had he ever thought for one moment that Artemis would be any different?
In the end, he was what he was.
"Do you hear me?" Artemis snarled in his face.
"I hear you."
"I’ll rip your tongue out."
He had to force himself not to laugh at a threat he’d cut his teeth on. But he knew the truth. His tongue had more value than anything else since it gave them the most pleasure. "Your will is my will, akra."
She grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head up to force him to look at her. "I am the goddess Artemis."
And he was Acheron Parthenopaeus. Cursed whore. Despised slave. Incapable of being loved by anyone.
How stupid of him to fall for her lies. To think for one minute that something like him could ever have had value to a goddess.
Artemis saw the hurt in his eyes and it ripped through her own heart. She didn’t want to do this to him, but what choice did she have? He would be dead in a few decades, but her shame would be eternal if word of this ever reached the other gods.
Humans couldn’t be trusted. Ever.
"Remember my wrath will be legion." She wrenched his hair in warning before she sent him back to his world.
Shattered, Acheron sat on the floor of his room. Numb by the rejection and attack, he crawled out to the balcony that overlooked the sea and laid his head against the stone railing. He heard the voices of the Atlanteans calling to him.
More than ever before he was tempted to go. What would it matter if they did kill him?
If he could make sure they wouldn’t abuse him more, he’d go to them. But deep in his heart was the fear that they only summoned him so that they could torture him too. Bowing his head, he wept and as every tear fell he hated Artemis for it.
No one had made him cry like this in years. Not since the day Estes had sold his virginity to the highest bidder and then held a party for everyone to watch the brutal violation that had made him ache and bleed for days afterward. Even now the laughter and jeers haunted him.
Break the whore in for the rest of us . . .
Acheron pounded his fist against the stone, wanting the pain to erase the shame inside him. But there was no relief. No mercy. Nothing could take it away.
The whore was tired now. He was finally broken. And it wasn’t by the hand of his master or a client.
It’d been by the hand of the only person he’d ever loved. Defeated and lost, Acheron lay down on the cold balcony and closed his eyes, praying for death to finally come and end this nightmare that was his life.
January 28, 9528 BC
Ryssa was in her father’s throne room while he, Styxx and Apollo laughed together, ignoring her. Which was normal. But what she hated was the fact that Apollo wanted her by him any time he came here. He treated her like a possession whose only purpose was to smile and fawn over his presence. And it made her wonder if this was how Acheron had felt in Estes home.
So what if the god was exceptionally handsome? She despised the way he dismissed her as if she were insignificant. The only thing worse than his treatment of her was her father’s insistence that she was blessed to be in the god’s presence.
If this was blessed, she’d hate to see cursed.
She turned her head as she caught a glimpse of a servant hesitating in the doorway. Pretty and timid, the girl was a year or two younger than Styxx. "Is something wrong, Hestia?" she asked the maid.
Hestia looked at the men fearfully before she made her way to Ryssa’s side so that she could speak to her in a soft tone. "His Majesty wanted me to report if . . ." Hestia’s gaze returned to the king before she finished the statement, "the royal prisoner stopped eating."
The royal prisoner. Acheron. Ryssa’s heart pounded in fear. "Is he ill?"
She cleared her throat. "I know not, Your Highness. I haven’t seen him in days. I leave food and when I return it’s untouched. No one’s slept in his bed."
"What?" her father’s roar made both of them jump. "Guards! Follow me." He stormed from the room in the direction of her wing.
Terrified for her brother, Ryssa ran after him.
"What’s going on?" Apollo asked Styxx as the two of them followed in her wake.
Styxx made a sound of disgust deep in the hollow of his throat. "It’s Acheron. He’s a worthless slave who used to be a tsoulus. Unfortunately his life is tied to mine so we have to keep him healthy. Although I feel fine so I’m sure he’s only doing this for attention. May the gods forbid we ever be allowed to forget his presence here for one single day."
Ryssa ground her teeth. The last thing Acheron wanted was any attention from either Styxx or their father. But in Styxx’s selfish mind he couldn’t fathom Acheron wanting to hide from their glorious presences.
Her father stormed into Acheron’s room, then drew up short. She entered behind him and paused to scan the empty interior. There was no sign of Acheron.
Her father turned on her with a furious glower. "I told you he couldn’t be trusted."
Ryssa ignored him as she went to the one place her brother frequented. The balcony.
At first she didn’t see him, but as she stepped forward under the awning that shielded her from the passing storm, she saw a figure out of her peripheral vision. It was Acheron sitting to the side with his knees bent and his arms folded over them. Completely nak*d, he stared into space as if unaware of the frigid cold and the rain that poured down on him. His hair was plastered to his head and at least two days’ growth of beard dusted his cheeks.
Careful to stay out of the rain, she approached him slowly. "Acheron?"
He didn’t respond. There was something about him that wasn’t quite right. It was as if he’d died, but his soul hadn’t left his body yet.
She knelt beside him. "Little brother?"
He turned those eyes on her with a fury she hadn’t seen since the morning he’d thrown her out of his brothel. "Leave me," he growled in a tone so ferocious it honestly scared her.
From the corner of her eye, she saw her father’s anger. "Don’t you dare speak to her that way."
"Fuck you, you bastard."
Styxx growled low in his throat as he rushed Acheron.
Ryssa fell back as Acheron came to his feet and ran at Styxx with the same fury. She covered her mouth as the two of them clashed in the pouring rain. Never once had she seen Acheron strike another living soul. But he fought Styxx with everything he had.
Apollo snatched her back so that they didn’t accidentally hit her.
Styxx had been trained to fight from the age of five by the best instructors her father could hire. And he beat Acheron down in the rain. Even so, Acheron fought as hard as he could.
But in the end he was no match for his twin. Styxx kicked him in the ribs. "You’re pathetic."
Acheron rolled in the water and pushed himself up. As he went for Styxx again, Styxx knocked him back. The rain ran down his face, mixing with the blood that ran from his eye, nose and mouth. Still he ran at Styxx, over and over again as if he thought his sheer will alone would be enough to defeat his twin brother.
"Guards, take him," her father ordered.
Acheron tried to fight them as they came forward to subdue him, but he was already weakened by Styxx. They hauled him back into his room where her father waited.
Her father buried his hand in Acheron’s wet hair and snatched his head back so that Acheron could see the full contempt the king bore his eldest son. "Beat him until there’s no skin left on his back. If he passes out, wake him and beat him again."
Acheron laughed coldly. "I love you, too, Father."
Her father backhanded him. "Take him out of here."
"Father?" Apollo asked with an arch stare.
Her father scoffed. "He calls me that, but he’s no son of mine. My former queen whored herself and begat that abomination."
Ryssa felt her tears fall at her father’s condemnation. "He’s human, Father."
They all laughed at her. Unable to stand their ridicule, she followed the guards to offer comfort to Acheron.
By the time she reached the courtyard where they beat him, he was already bloodied. But unlike the other times they’d punished him, he fought against his restraints.
"Hit me again!" he shrieked at the guard. "Harder!"
The unbridled rage in him shocked her completely. He was actually laughing at the guards as if he took pleasure in what they were doing.
Had he gone mad?
What had happened to him?
Acheron taunted them until he passed out from the beating. The guards exchanged a wary look between each other before the taller one reached for a bucket of water to revive him.
Ryssa placed her hand on his arm. "Please don’t," she begged.
"Highness . . . your father will be angry if he learns we didn’t carry out his orders."
"I won’t tell if you don’t. Please. He’s been through enough."
The guard nodded, then went to cut him down. She saw the pity in both their eyes as they carried Acheron back to his room and, under her direction, placed him face down on his bed. They turned and left her alone with her brother who looked so pathetically vulnerable lying on the bed, bleeding.
Ryssa had no idea where Apollo and her brother and father had gone off to. Honestly, she didn’t care. They could all rot for their cruelty.