Trade witch Mallory West is a heartbeat from losing her rent-controlled apartment, susses spells for a living, and can’t afford a decent familiar. In an effort to ease her financial hardship, she works part-time waiting tables. Late one night after working an unexpected shift, she receives an invitation from her boss to take a rest upstairs n the exclusive Lounge. Drawn to a mysterious black door, she enters and takes a well deserved nap.
But the world to which she wakes is nothing like the one she left. The large, incredibly sexy gray-skinned warrior she meets could be her boss’s twin, but he’s the war leader of the Talians–a fierce race fighting desperately to survive a crushing enemy. Mallory’s sudden appearance stuns the wary Talians.
And they don’t tolerate surprises or those they think might be enemy spies well…at all.
Four hours and a pair of throbbing feet later, Mal reminded herself how fortunate she’d been that Rattler needed help. The bills, remember the bills. Maybe with tonight’s take she could give herself a day off tomorrow. The tray on her arm wobbled, so she righted it and carried out another order, complete with a too friendly hand over her ass. She shot a subtle glance toward Rattler. Seeing him occupied, she mumbled a curse under her breath at Mr. Grabby Hands. The jerk would feel it tomorrow when he couldn’t stop scratching his balls. Considering his type, she thought it more than probable he’d pick up a disease from any skank willing to do him anyway.
She’d done her best to resist using her magic, but enough was enough. The human octopus didn’t seem to understand the word no. She returned to the bar to place her order.
“Everything okay?” Rattler asked. His fathomless black eyes narrowed on her.
She did her best to appear innocent of any wrongdoing. God forbid he caught her doing magic in his place. She couldn’t afford to alienate Rattler—literally.
Sighing and trying to appear pathetic, she didn’t have to fake her yawn. “Sorry, but it’s been a long day. I wasn’t prepared for tonight.” She glanced down at her stained jeans, cropped t-shirt and beer-covered mocs. Normally when she waitressed, she wore her snakeskin boots, waterproofed and comfort-lined.
“Damn. I hadn’t though beyond replacing Becky. I’m sorry, Mal. Your feet are probably killing you. Why don’t you head upstairs and rest a few minutes?”
She gaped at him, she couldn’t help it, and automatically glanced at the imposing, guarded entrance to the Lounge’s stairwell. She’d only once before served drinks in the modern loft area, accompanied by Palace security. No one knew what was up there except Rattler and a few select guests. From what little she’d seen, the Lounge sat between the low wall visible to the downstairs and three black doors spaced evenly against the inner wall.
A black floor, hot pink walls, neon lights and a disco ball made the place garishly attractive when active, a rare occurrence in itself. The lights and hot pink paint made the three ominous black doors even more arresting.
She’d been dying of curiosity about those mysterious doors since she’d first seen them, but damn if she’d ever had a chance to investigate. Exposed to the familiar within her, her feline senses ached to see, to know. But she’d have to use magic to work around Rattler, and she respected him too much to violate his trust. A harmless spell here or there hurt no one. But she’d never violate his one rule to working at The Python Palace—never, ever go upstairs without Rattler’s express permission.
“Go upstairs? Sure.” She paused, waiting for him to say more. He didn’t, and the look on his face made her uneasy. “What?”
“Nothing.” But he was smiling. “Go on up. Don’t worry about it, Mallory. You need some time to regroup, even the ‘slave master’ that I am can see that.”
She flushed. “You heard that, hmm?”
He raised a brow. “You said it loud enough to be heard three blocks down.”
“Yeah, but that was a week ago and to Becky.” She turned and headed eagerly toward the stairwell and muttered under her breath, “You have ears like a bat.”
“I heard that too,” he shouted and laughed. “See you when I see you.” And with that, he turned to help another customer.
The massive bouncers positioned at the stairway entrance nodded her through. As Mal climbed the steps to the second floor of The Palace by herself for the first time, she wondered why she suddenly had a feeling that facing those three black doors might be a huge mistake.
She paused at the landing and took a deep breath then let it out. Her imagination ran rampant when she grew tired. The Lounge was empty, unless Rattler had a secret passageway through which he smuggled privileged customers. Walking through the entrance, she noted the cleanliness and order in the oversized loft. Magazines tidied, vids scrubbed free of smoke, the black lacquered floor a study in clean. But those three doors captured her eyes like magnets.
Her nose twitched as she stared at them. What the hell lay beyond those doors?
Approaching them, she studied each one. Of average height and width, black with gold knobs, they looked standard. Normal. The same. So why did the familiar within her guide her to the middle door?
Almost as if in a dream, she watched her hand grasp the knob, felt the cool glide of metal under her palm, and listened to the quiet click as the catch released. She entered the room. A dim overhead light illuminated the space.
Huh. A plain, average bedroom. Same lacquered floor as the lounge, white walls. A king-sized bed with black sheets and a white downy duvet. No other doors or windows, and no furniture. Hell, not even a mirror. The door closed with a soft click, and she couldn’t help turning back to Rattler’s suggestion. The duvet looked soft, inviting.
The bed seemed as close to heaven as she might ever get. Without another thought, she lay down and sighed at the feel of silk under her tired and aching muscles. She closed her eyes, and in seconds sank deep into the comfort of sleep.
Minutes or hours might have passed when a noise interrupted her rest. Shouts and moans, what sounded like fighting and impossibly, sex, increased in volume until she couldn’t stand it. That curiosity again. But at least she felt refreshed. She mentally thanked Rattler for her small nap.
A loud thunk rapped the wall outside the door, and she heard what she imagined to be cursing and threats in a foreign language. Opening the door, she came face to face with a man who could have been Rattler’s twin. He had shoulder length black hair, gray skin, and a snake tattoo curled around his muscular body. A leather kilt wrapped around his waist, over which a thick belt rested. Straps crossed over his chest and attached to the belt. She could make out the hilts of crossed swords behind him, caged in a back harness, she guessed.
All in all, this guy looked like a hunky hero from the historical romances she liked so much. But none of them had ever featured gray-skinned warriors.
She had to clear her throat. Unlike his twin Rattler, nothing about this guy felt comfortable or safe. He easily could have passed for security, as big as an ox and wearing a mantle of menace over those brawny shoulders. Her blood heated and her heart raced, in fear and surprising arousal, and worried her more than she liked. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even fantasized about sex.
“Um, Rattler said it was okay to be up here.”
His eyes widened and he stared down at her—way down—his gaze first suspicious, then bolder. His study moved from her face, lingering over her lips, to her breasts and the slim expanse of abdomen showcased by her cropped shirt. She had an urge to cross her arms over her chest, doubly so when her nipples peaked under his regard.
“Cuwenicu,” murmured throughout the crowd, and she was momentarily distracted by the foreign word.
Without warning, he latched onto her wrists and pulled her from the room. The minute the door closed behind her, he let her go, and the Lounge fell into complete and utter silence.
“Hey buddy, what the hell is your prob…lem?” She trailed off as she watched his eyes turn into something she’d never before seen. As a witch, Mallory knew all about the otherworldly creatures in existence—the vampires, ghouls, shifters and mages that wandered her neighborhood. But this guy… He didn’t fit into any category she knew.
She glanced nervously around her and couldn’t help gaping at what looked like a Rattler family reunion. Every single male in the place had height, muscles, and gray skin. Several had hair, but none sported any body piercing that she could see. She turned back to the one responsible for pulling her out of her safe haven. Good night, but his eyes! Moonlight and fairy dust, this guy wasn’t human. Wasn’t otherworldly, either. But what he was, she didn’t yet know.
His eyes, at first a vibrant gray-green, changed, the pupils thinning and elongating as the irises took over the whites of his eyes. His teeth lengthened, not just his incisors like the fangs of a vampire, but his entire mouth, and his skin started hardening, resembling iridescent scales more than flesh. He didn’t transform into a snake. And no shifter that she knew of could remain between forms. You were either human or animal, but not both. His teeth didn’t look like they belonged to any vampire she’d ever met. Besides, this guy was gray and now shiny, but not white. The language he’d been speaking hadn’t been anything she recognized.
He hissed at her, and the rumbling all around her returned to normal.
“Look, I’m not sure what all this is about.” She paused, listening to herself, and frowned. She understood the meaning of what she said, but the words themselves were completely foreign. She sounded like him.
“Cuwenicu.” He scoffed. “I didn’t think so. The Phrellian spy regains her tongue, eh? Perfect, we’ll have so much fun together now.” He smiled, his teeth still wickedly sharp.
Phrellian spy? By the look on his face, fun might mean something entirely different in this place.
This really was the Friday from hell.
Copyright © 2011 Marie Harte
All rights reserved — MH Publishing