Thursday, 6:55 p.m.
Knock, knock, knock.
“Miranda! Open up, would you?”
When the full brunt of her name hit her ears, Mir snapped out of the fog she’d been in and pulled herself up to a sitting position on her bed.
“Come in,” she said.
The door creaked open and a moment later her sister, Bry, stood staring at her, framed in the doorway of the small bedroom on the second floor of Club Bacchus. She was dressed in an old flannel shirt and a pair of jeans, waves of long, light hair hanging over the left side of her face as usual.
“What’s going on with you?” Bry asked. “You look a thousand miles away, and apparently you can no longer hear a fist hitting wood.”
“Right about now, I wish I were a thousand miles from here,” Mir replied, her tone expressionless. “And you with me. I wish we could find a way…”
“Are you all right?” Bry asked, stepping into the room. She strode over to crouch in front of her older sibling, who pulled her gaze away to avoid eye contact. “What’s going on?”
Mir swallowed hard. “Sometimes it hits me that these are really our lives. We literally spend twenty-four hours a day in a club designed purely for the pleasure of men. I’m expected to parade around in front of them, displaying my body like I’m a bloody show dog. I can’t leave, and neither can you, and…and it’s all my fault.” She wanted to cry, but instead she somehow summoned the courage to look into Bry’s eyes. So blue, so bright. Despite the angry scar that covered her left cheek, her eyes remained perfect. Untouched by violence.
Mir thanked God for it every day. For the fact that Barton’s men hadn’t entirely managed to steal away her sister’s lovely face.
“It’s not your fault that we’re stuck here, Mir. We’ve been over this a million times,” said Bry, pulling herself up to sit on the bed. Mir pressed her head into her sister’s shoulder and did her best not to break down. “We’re victims. We’re not perpetrators of this life. It was inflicted on us.”
“I know. You keep saying it, so I should believe you.” Mir pulled away and looked at Bry once again. She reached out and pulled the hair away from her sister’s left cheek, eyeing the now healed wound. “You’re not bitter, not even about this. How on earth are you not bitter?”
Bry shrugged. “I guess one of us has to remain calm in the face of this fresh hell,” she said, mustering a smile. “Otherwise we’ll go mad, won’t we?”
“We will,” Mir replied, letting out a hard sigh. “I can’t believe how selfish a thought it is, but I’m really glad you’re here with me.”
Mir let out a bitter chuckle. “You know what I mean,” she said. “I’m glad I have you. Is that better?”
“Much.” Bry slapped a hand onto Mir’s thigh. “Listen, it’s almost seven. You’ve got to haul your pretty arse downstairs or Barton will lose his mind.”
“Right,” said Mir. “It’s time to go sell my soul to the devil.” She looked at Bry’s clothes and then at her own: an emerald green silk dress that barely covered her thighs or her chest. “I envy you for getting to wear jeans,” she said. “It’s cold downstairs.”
“Yes, well, my frumpy clothing is the one perk of being the ugly lady,” Bry replied.
“You’re not ugly,” Mir protested. “You’re the prettiest woman I know.”
“You’re just saying that because you have to.”
“I’m saying it because it’s true.”
Bry rose to her feet. “Well, whatever. I’ve got to get down to the kitchen; I’m meant to be preparing stew for tomorrow evening.”
“I don’t suppose you’d lend me one of your sharpest knives for tonight, would you? Preferably the stabby kind.”
Bry laughed. “I would, but I don’t want a dead sister, so no.” She glanced over at the clock on the dresser. “It’s six fifty-five. Get your arse in gear, Mir. I’m serious.”
“Right, yes, I’m on my way. You go ahead. I’m just going to throw on some lipstick.”
“Fine. Later, love.”
When Bry had dashed out of the room, Mir rose to her feet and glanced briefly in the mirror, tidying her long red hair. She applied a thin layer of crimson lipstick then looked at the clock.
Shite, she really was going to be late. She should have been downstairs by now.
Like a lithe dancer she darted out of her room, down the hall, springing down the stairs to the large chamber where fifty or so men sat about at small, round tables, joking and laughing about their rich-people lives as they slowly grew intoxicated on alcohol and beautiful, charming young ladies.
Relieved not to see Barton’s angry face staring at her from across the room, Mir flitted from table to table, her emerald-green silk dress slipping over her skin like ebbing water. In another life she would have loved the garment to pieces. It was elegant, beautifully cut and no doubt very expensive.
But with every step in this godforsaken place, it served only to remind her that she’d somehow become an indentured servant in pretty frocks. A moveable work of art who pranced about, expectantly welcoming the eyes of strange, horny men—most of whom were married, and none of whom appealed to her in the least.
This was her world now. The inside of Club Bacchus was her prison.
The day that Barton’s men had snatched her and Bry away from their lives of freedom and joy, the two young women’s lives had ended.
All for the sake of a room full of rich bastards.
As she moved about, the room’s chilliness made her shiver, though she tried her best to hide her discomfort. It was March, for God’s sake, and she longed for another outfit tonight. One that was warmer, less revealing. Something that didn’t let the oglers see every curve of her body.
Her fantasy ensemble would have been the one that Bry was wearing. Jeans and a long-sleeved, comfy shirt. But even if she’d asked nicely, she’d never have been granted the pleasure of wearing such clothes, at least not in front of clients. Barton preferred that his women wear as little as possible when they were on the floor.
Not only that, but his strictest rule: Club Bacchus’s women must go commando.
That meant no bras, no knickers. Not even a thong, unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. Less clothing was more, as far as their arse of a boss was concerned. More skin meant more men spending more money buying drinks, gambling their cash away and pleasuring themselves with long stares and jaunts to secret hideaways to take in the pleasures of the flesh.
The women often joked that Barton kept the temperature low on purpose. He didn’t believe in being titillating, they said; he only believed in tits. He had no patience for those annoying lined undergarments that hid a woman’s most sensitive parts from male eyes. Erect nipples were a must in his damned club.
The job description was simple, at least. The ladies were to wander in and out between the club’s patrons, to draw their eyes, occasionally to flirt, to turn the men’s heads and to arouse them.
But one special rule applied to Mir alone: she wasn’t to touch the clients. Not publicly, at least. The only man she could touch in front of the others was Barton himself.
Not that she ever wanted to.
Barton didn’t handle all the girls. Mir was his special flower, he’d always said. He’d claimed her as his own the first day his men had brought her and Bry into his establishment. He’d made it clear from day one that she was his to do with as he pleased, and she’d resigned herself to that fact the first time he’d threatened physical violence.
Of course, there were exceptions to every rule.
There was one thing Barton enjoyed even more than Mir:
If a patron offered a good sum of money for a few hours of her company, he never turned them down. Preferred patrons—VIPs, she called them, or Very Important Pricks—could take her to a certain den of iniquity known as the Blue Room for a night. It was one of several dark, candle-lit chambers where the club’s most sought after females would bring the wealthiest men to show them a good time.
The good news was that the club’s patrons usually didn’t want to fork out a good deal of coin for the pleasure of Mir’s company; not when there were quite a few other young ladies to choose from. So most of her nights were spent either in the tiny room she often shared with Bry, or in the boss’s chambers.
The latter were the nights she despised.
Barton wasn’t an unattractive man. Not physically, at least. He was tall, handsome, with thick salt and pepper hair. His eyes were piercing blue. Had Mir seen him on the street, dressed as he always was in expensive suits, she would probably even have smiled at him. Perhaps, in another life, were he a different man, she could even have learned to find him exciting.
But the truth was that she hated him.
She’d heard him deny repeatedly that he had turned his so-called “gentlemen’s club” into a brothel filled with unwilling victims. He denied that he held women like Mir against their will. No doubt it injured his narcissistic pride to think that she wasn’t in fact here of her own volition, so he simply convinced himself that it couldn’t be true.
Little did he know that she would happily have slit his throat, if she had the means to get away with it.
The simple truth was that the man was a sociopath. A demon in human form. He was pure evil, and she was…
She was his.
So, she often wondered, what did that make her?
* * *
After a minute, Mir caught herself staring into space, her eyes fixed on nothing at all as she stood at the centre of the room.
The other women in the club sometimes expressed worry when she entered these trance-states, but Mir had explained more than once that it was nothing more than a survival mechanism, one that that kept her from falling over the brink into a state of utter despair. It was her one escape from the reality that was her life.
However, it was a very bad idea to let herself drift away while she was supposed to be working. Get with the program, she muttered internally, forcing herself to keep moving. If Barton sees you slacking off…
“You, in the green dress! Get over here!” a voice called out, and she swung her head around to look, dread swelling in her belly at the thought of being summoned by any of the club’s denizens.
A man she’d never seen before was signalling her over. He was seated next to another patron, a regular whom Mir recognized. Both of them were on the older side—sixty, at least.
The man who’d yelled for her held a vile cigar in one hand, a glass of whisky in the other. When Mir approached, a fake smile plastered on her face, the man set his drink down and extended his hand towards her. Realizing what he was about to do, she leapt backwards, pulling herself out of reach of his fingers in a movement so swift that his eyes went wide. He yanked the cigar away from his lips and laughed.
“You’re quick,” he said. “Impressive.” He eyed her up and down, extending his hand again and beckoning her with his index finger. “Come on, lass, let’s have a look at you. I want to feel that round arse of yours.”
The man sitting to his right leaned in and whispered something in his ear. Almost immediately, the first man’s face went pale.
“Ah,” he said, “I see. Right.” He called one of Barton’s men over. “Send me another one,” he said, eyeing Mir angrily. “One who isn’t so…frigid.”
Mir walked away, a sigh of relief escaping from between her lips like a slow leak. No doubt the wanker’s friend had told him that there would be dire consequences if he touched her without consulting Barton first.
As she made her way towards the front of the room, a set of red velvet curtains near the entrance flew open, drawing her gaze.
A young, dark-haired man, tall and broad-shouldered, stepped inside, a set of fierce blue eyes scanning the place with all the alertness of a lion on a hunt. Mir froze in place, stunned into paralysis by his presence. Something about him was awe-inspiring.
For one thing, he was absolutely gorgeous, his perfect face accented by those intense eyes, dark stubble, perfect cheekbones and a head of almost black, thick hair that she immediately wanted to touch. Like the rest of the club’s patrons, he wore a tuxedo. The difference was that the garment fit his body perfectly, accenting muscular shoulders and a tapered waist. His legs were powerful-looking and long, as were his arms.
Dear God, she thought. He’s amazing. One of a kind. Unique. A god.
But when he stepped forward she gasped again, because somehow, another, even larger guest was pushing through the curtain behind him.
“Holy bollocks,” Mir murmured, looking from one man to the other. The second was built like a delicious, dangerous freight train. His face was intelligent and serious, his eyes dark and brooding. His left eyebrow was scarred as though he’d suffered a wound years earlier. But the slight asymmetry only rendered him even sexier.
The two of them together looked like they could tear the club apart with little more than a glance, and a sudden desire pulsed through Mir to run up to them both and ask them to spend the evening by her side.
She didn’t have to guess what they were; she’d known the moment she set eyes on them.
They were shifters.
But after a few seconds of fascination, fear began to wend its way through her bloodstream. Men like these didn’t belong here, and the sooner they left, the better things would be for everyone.
She eyed them nervously. Fuck, what were they even doing here? Barton hated shifters, and these men must have known it. Hell, everyone in London seemed to know it. By coming through the front door, they risked starting a damned war. To walk in, dressed to the nines like they owned the place—that would look like an affront.
Mir slipped over towards the wall, pressing into it so that she could stay away from the inevitable fray to come.
But to her utter shock, when Barton came charging in from the corridor at the back of the room, he didn’t shout for his army of thugs to attack the intruders. Instead, he strode right up to the two men and reached a hand out in greeting.
“Mr. Fairfax, Mr. Cadman,” he said, gesturing towards the club’s interior when they’d shaken hands. “Do come in, please. Make yourselves right at home.”