Authors: Michelle Howard
A World Beyond Novel
By Michelle Howard
Published by Michelle Howard
Copyright © 2015 by Michelle Howard
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This is a work of fiction and is not a reflection or representation of any person living or dead. Any similarity is of pure coincidence.
Books by Michelle
* Honor Bound (Book 1 Warlord Series)
* The Overlord’s Heir (Book 1.5 Warlord Series)
* A King’s Revenge (Book 2 Warlord Series)
* Rise of the Shadow Warriors (Book 3 Warlord Series)
* A Warlord’s Heart (Book 3.5 Warlord Series)
* Project Genesis (Alpha Squad)
* No Reason to Run (A Harmony Novel)
* Mating Urge (Love Without Boundaries anthology)
*Torkel’s Chosen (A World Beyond Book 1)
* Arak’s Love (A World Beyond Book 2)
Sylvia Forrester. Sylvia Forrester. If she said her name over and over she wouldn’t freak. Wouldn’t lose her thin thread of composure. Even as the mantra ran through her head, Sylvie wanted to scream. Cry. Hide. But she didn’t. Instead she kept her eyes on the alien pacing in front of the row of cells, cages more like, where she and the others had been thrown. He was in deep conversation with his partner but she couldn’t understand a word of the garbled language.
Sylvie couldn’t distinguish between the two aliens despite her efforts during the three days of her imprisonment. Both men were bald with bushy, brown eyebrows. Round orbs of gold protruded from sunken eye sockets and pudgy faces made ugly by the slender tubes extending from their ears to their noses.
They wore clothes reminiscent of sci-fi serials. The long sleeve one-piece, blue jumper appeared innocuous, something a maintenance person would wear save for the multitude of gadgets and buttons on the bulky belt around their waist. The brown leather held what appeared to be weapons and her recent experience warned that she didn’t want to be on the other end of the deadly devices.
During their conversation, the first alien kicked at the body lying on the floor. Sylvie swallowed and shifted her gaze further to the right to avoid the sight. The crumpled form of the shuttle pilot remained where he’d fallen after he’d been shot by a blaster as he made the foolish attempt to fight back against their captors. Yulee, as he’d told her to call him, had paid for the effort with his life. Poor man. He’d been an alien as well but one assigned to pilot the shuttle craft when it launched from the belly of the ship carrying them all to a new life.
Sylvie held in her snort. New life. The tiny five-by-five cell she’d been shoved in didn’t resemble in anyway the new life she’d wishfully planned for herself.
The aliens argued in a louder tone, drawing her gaze reluctantly back in their direction. They had the attention of the nine other women in her neighboring cages. Women who’d also signed up for the Singles Program with plans and dreams of a family. Finding that on Earth was no longer as easy as it used to be after a virus killed off most of the male population, leaving ten women to every one man in most countries around the planet.
For years, the news and results had a devastating effect on the very basic culture and civilization of their world. Many women accepted the new way of life, grateful if a man looked at them twice because choices were limited. Others refused to accept this was all they had left, refused to accept the new normal.
Sylvie was among the latter group until the government had released the results of a hidden study. It seemed humans on Earth were compatible with ninety percent of the known alien species on other planets. The public notice had given her hope and caused wide-spread media coverage so fast that Earth enacted protocols to prevent a mass exodus from taking place by all the of age women eager to jump at the opportunity to leave.
As a result, the Singles Program had been developed. Sylvie had signed up as soon as she could and qualified. The program was a blessing to those who could pass the application process. SP also required women to pay a small fee for the service.Small. Sylvie spent twenty-thousand dollars to chase a dream that looked like it might never come true now. Not small by any means in her books.
She and the others had been heading for the world Langora and its medieval-looking country, Bristo. They would have been granted automatic citizenship and a tentative job in hopes of finding love in their new home but mere hours into the journey the shuttle had developed electronic trouble. Something about power cells, she vaguely recalled. Yulee had hailed the SP mother ship they’d launched from and the captain had promised to send assistance. Assistance which never arrived. Instead space pirates of some sort in the form of these alien men boarded their ship.
Part of Sylvie’s horrified fascination stemmed from their appearance. These aliens wouldn’t be passing out colored candy and hoping to befriend any of them.
The door to the cargo room slid open and another alien entered. Sylvie stepped further back in her cage until her back bumped the bars. The air pulsed with violence from his arrival and her fellow prisoners obviously sensed the same because a few of the women began to cry. Sylvie shoved her trembling hands beneath her armpits, refusing to join them.
The large male wore navy pants that clung to massive thighs and a black collarless shirt that struggled to contain his broad chest. What unnerved her most were the black curved horns that extended from his temples. Horns! Like many on Earth she accepted the fact that life existed on other worlds. She’d studied her SP packet with the species who were compatible with Earth women and some of them met humanoid standards and some didn’t but none of them…none of them resonated evil like this beast of a man.
The newcomer grunted something to the two tube-faced men, which caused one to jump and run to Yulee. He grabbed the body by the pants legs and dragged the dead weight toward a cylinder connected to the side of the ship. Tube Face hauled Yulee’s limp body and tossed him in the clear container then slapped a red button on the wall near the panel. The lid closed and locked in place. A woosh and rustle filled the cargo area as Yulee’s lifeless body was sucked out and away.
Someone cried out to her left. Sylvie slapped a hand across her mouth to hold in her own dismay as terror slammed her heart into a double rhythm. When the horned alien turned toward her, she fell back against the bars
She lost her breath while in her head she chanted.No. Full lips twisted upward in his tanned face. Black hair fell in disarray about his shoulders.No. No. No. Heavy footsteps caused by his thick boots pounded in her direction. Sylvie gripped a single metallic bar behind her as a ball of dread knotted in the pit of her stomach. Sweat broke out on the flesh of her bare arms.
Curved Horns pointed at her when he spoke and the tube faces nodded as pleased grins stretched across their thick lips. All three aliens gathered in a circle mere feet away from her cage and fiddled with thick black watches on their wrists. The horned alien smacked one of the tube faces on the shoulder afterward and they laughed. The laughter was the last thing Sylvie remembered as Curved Horns aimed his weapon in her direction and everything faded in a haze of blurry images.
3 Months Later
“In position.” The words murmured in the communicator at Arak’s ear sent a fresh wave of excitement through him.
The Jutak warriors unit he belonged to had received intel about the Marenians’ plan to eliminate a group of sex slaves they’d been unable to sell. More than likely the bastards wanted to unload what they considered useless cargo before Arak and his fellow Jutak warriors caught up to them.
Over the last few months his three team unit had managed to close down more and more of these illegal sex auctions. Auctions that featured men and women who’d been snatched from their families and home worlds to be sold as exotic toys to others who thought nothing of enslaving innocent people.
“Arak, your point of entry will put you on the top level where we’ve confirmed the slaves are kept. Kyele can circle around and come up from the rear in case you meet any opposition. Faruk and I will provide cover for rapid exit if detected.” Jaron, his team leader, gave the orders in a calm voice.
The calm on a mission was directly opposite the man’s personality when they weren’t working. Jaron had a practical-joker side to him that often got the Enotian into trouble with the others.
“Affirmative.” Arak eased back from the crevice where he and Kyele, who’d also been selected for the rescue, hid. The tiled roof provided the perfect access point to the rickety building.
Kyele hefted his laser blaster in hand and nodded to Arak before fading away into the darkness. Now that was freaky but Arak could hardly complain. Kyele’s silence and love of knives scared any who ran into the Jutak warrior. A plus on these types of missions. Arak was sure the man would reappear right when needed during the op and that was all that mattered. Kyele was one of the best on any of their teams because of his nature. Dangerous and deadly.
The four of them were here on Aultare to rescue Lindsey Ferra, an Earth woman, assumed to be held prisoner in the dilapidated structure. Saving any other sex slaves present would be a bonus. The Marenians were spreading their home practice of keeping and abusing slaves beyond Marenia.
Thankfully, his Unit leader, Torkel, had received information from carefully placed, alliance spies. Critical information which pointed to Lindsey, wife of two important Senate Leaders from Garulax, being held here.
“Sixty seconds until rooftop sensors re-engage. Move it, Arak,” Jaron reminded.
Arak worked quietly but efficiently as he unscrewed the bolts in the steel panel mounted to the roof then slid the heavy weight to the side and eased through the narrow opening. He hooked his ankles for support on an overhead rail pipe mounted to the ceiling. A slight adjustment as he bent from the waist and Arak slid the panel back in place before flipping to land several feet below then crept down the hall, keeping his back to the wall.
According to the detailed plans they’d managed to steal, the building only had two floors and a sub terrain basement. There were four rooms in use on the top floor where the slaves were allegedly housed and an open concept room on the second floor for potential buyers to eye the merchandise. Arak and the others didn’t know what occurred in the basement but he wasn’t eager to find out. The Marenians weren’t known for their compassion or care.
Lights flickered above, adding a hazy gold to the world around him. Arak pulled on his animal senses and his vision heightened instantly. Sticking close to the walls in shadow, he eased down the corridor toward the first doorway. Enhanced vision, thanks to his Argoran half proved to be his advantage when the lights completely winked out seconds later, leaving him in total darkness.
Arak reached the first door and twisted the handle. His gloved hand smothered the slight creak when the jam separated from the wood frame. A muffled thump from the room had him stiffening. He dropped to a crouch, pushed the door open further and rolled inside, aiming for the wall to his left. A laser blast hit where his head had been seconds before, spewing chunks of rock over him.
The low order came from his right. Arak leaped to his feet, weapon aimed and only his core reflexes kept him from firing off a return shot at the two women across the room. He jerked the barrel of his laser toward the ceiling.
“I’m Jutak. I won’t harm you.” He knew he looked a sight in his all black combat gear with multiple weapons strapped to his body.
His nose twitched as the scent of their fear assaulted him. Heavy and cloying, the aroma masked any other details. They stood inches apart dressed in clothing meant to entice, matching blue sheaths of silk held up by a single strap across the shoulder. The garment skimmed their thighs leaving the length of their legs bare. Toes curled into the dirty floor to emphasize the lack of shoes. At the visible evidence of their status as Marenian slaves, Arak growled low in his throat. Anger surged fast and hard.
The woman with the laser glared at him. He thought her hair was brown or something close but it was hard to tell in its matted state. Arak ignored her for the moment. The woman next to her was the one to watch. Her eyes held a spark he’d seen before. A lit fuse waiting to blow. She held an elite Marenian hunting knife in each hand, the handles made of custom carved dark wood fitting her grip with ease. Blood coated the jagged teeth of the blades. At their feet lay the crumpled form of a Marenian, his distinctive black horns jutted from his brows. A pool of blood formed beneath the body. Clearly they’d managed to attack and kill their guard.
“We’re fine. We can rescue ourselves, Mr. Jutak.” The one with the knives made the declaration as she tossed stringy hair over her shoulders, its color indiscernible.
Arak grunted. There wasn’t time to argue the details of who rescued whom. Normally, he would admire the fire flashing in both of their gazes. It meant the Marenians hadn’t broken their spirits. But not in this instance. Right now, he had a time table to fit. He pushed back the hooded mask he wore, hoping that seeing his face would ease them a little. “I’m a Jutak warrior. Jutak’s not my name. Are either of you Lindsey Ferra?”
His team’s top concern on these rescue and run hits was to search for the missing Earth woman who’d been stolen from her husbands.
“No,” the knife wielder snapped before turning to her friend. “Let’s go Sylvie, we don’t need him.”
The brown-haired woman with the laser didn’t hesitate. Her thin shoulders braced as she nodded. “Right, Joni.”
Joni and Sylvie.
Keeping wary eyes on Arak, they walked in his direction and he realized he stood between them and the door. The only exit.
Again, pride at their courage in the face of their circumstances stirred within him. Unwilling to force the matter, Arak stepped to the side to clear the way. He had three more rooms to check and Jaron would take care of these women the moment they crossed the threshold to outside. “Use the stairs. My teammates are around so head straight out and they’ll help you both.”
They were almost passed him. Joni’s lips pinched tight. “We don’t need help.”
They crossed over to the doorway and the brown-haired woman tucked the snub nose mini-blaster behind her back as if he’d attempt to snatch it. She glanced over her shoulders and her gaze narrowed. Arak’s lips curved up—maybe not as vocal as her friend but prepared to back the other woman if needed. He followed them out to the hallway but before they could get too far, he asked, “Where are you from?”
The team would need to know in order to make arrangements for their return home.
Joni held the knives down at her side and didn’t bother to answer. Sylvie glared. “Earth.”
Arak bit back his chuckle. It figured.
Sylvie scuttled after Joni, conscious of the laser she carried in her grip. A laser she had no idea how to use but when she and Joni had attacked their guard it made sense to grab the weapons from him. Her fingers still trembled from almost shooting their potential rescuer when he’d rushed into the room startling her.
“Joni, do you know where we’re going?” Sylvie kept her voice soft as she stayed on the heels of the woman who’d fast become her best friend in this hell hole.
“N-no.” Though brave in front of the soldier who’d confronted them, Joni’s answer wobbled.
Shadows danced all around them, the eerie glow adding to the feeling of menace. The lights flickered on then off and repeated the pattern making it difficult to see. But Sylvie didn’t need to see. She’d traveled this path numerous times in the last few weeks she’d been held here. Weeks that blended together as she bounced from one auction to another.
She’d been sold twice. Sold. Even thinking the word raised the hair on her arms. Sylvie wished she could block those two times from her memory. Or the events which preceded it when her shuttle was taken and she’d been sold to a Marenian. Marenians, she’d later learned after an ear translator implant, were aliens who supported slavery on their planet Marenia and had taken to holding illegal auctions by selling living beings as sex toys to others who wanted rare alien companionship.
The last three months gave new meaning to the word eye-opener. As Sylvie stayed close to Joni’s back, she remembered the euphoria of the moment when she’d received her SP approval letter. Her dreams of family a reality at last. Dreams which were now put on hold thanks to alien lowlifes. Sylvie’s eyes burned with the need for revenge but she swallowed back the negative emotion and continued moving. No time for anger. Anger wouldn’t get her anywhere.
Joni’s words pulled her from her distracted thoughts and Sylvie realized they’d reached one set of stairs. How many times had she and Joni been dragged down these wooden steps to be presented on a stage for sale? Her stomach rolled with the memories. Too many times to count. Men bartering over living beings. She stumbled and had to grab onto the railing for balance.
“Sylvie?” Joni hesitated, concern darkening her amber eyes to sheets of gold as she paused beside her.
“I’m okay,” Sylvie mumbled as she pressed a hand to her middle. “Fine.”
Or would be as soon as they got the hell out of here.
“Are you sure?” Joni’s tone invited confession and highlighted why Sylvie got along so well with her. Joni was the most supportive person she knew. All they’d been through and Joni pushed them to hold on, promising over and over they’d find freedom. Now here they were. Sylvie leaned her weight into the banister and lowered the hand holding the laser.
Anger. Disappointment. Relief. She felt all of it. The Marenians had ruined everything for her. She’d never get back that hope. With no money and no idea how to return home to Earth, Sylvie was at a lost and released the railing to shove her dirt crusted fist into her mouth to stifle the scream of rage bubbling inside. The butt of the laser banged her chin as she choked back the animalistic sound wanting to escape. It wasn’t fair. Wasn’t fair. Sylvie fought back the urge to slide to her knees as all she’d gone through hit her at once.
Soft arms came around her back. Gentle hands pressed her face into the silk of the gowns they’d both been forced to wear. Tears rolled down her cheeks as Joni held her. The storm lasted a minute tops. They didn’t have time for her to lose it. Not if they wanted to get out of here.
Forcing back the horror that their freedom would be snatched away again, Sylvie tried to step away. Joni’s hold tightened around her. When Sylvie glanced up, she caught the sheen of tears glistening in the woman’s eyes as well. She wrapped her arms around her friend. “We’re going to make it. We’ll be fine.”
And they would be. Sylvie had to believe that. This was the closest they’d ever been to escaping and the tears represented relief.
Joni exhaled heavily. “Right. Earth girls one and sucky Marenians five.”
Sylvie snickered. “At least we’re on the score board.”
A small smile curved Joni’s lips as she tossed her matted hair over her shoulder. “Right. Let’s blow this joint.”
They turned, gazes going to the stairway, which led down to the second floor where they’d been paraded in front of buyers time and time again. Sylvie had been bought twice and returned twice. Once by a chamele, a lizard-like alien that changed colors with his mood. The first time he’d tried to have sex with her, Sylvie had kneed him in his exposed genitals as soon as it slid from the pouch below his groin area. He’d turned bright red, pale yellow then sickly green before collapsing on the floor with a groan.
When he’d recovered, Foro the Chamele had immediately taken her to the nearest Marenian base for a refund of the credits he’d paid. For her defiance, Sylvie had received twenty lashes on the bottom of her feet before a guard shoved her into a cell without food for several days.
Her second purchase had mirrored the first. Sylvie had no plans on making it easy for him either. That time, she’d been returned in less than three days and landed in the Marenians’ version of a hospital after being lashed on her feet so bad the split skin swelled and bled.
“That guy said he had people waiting outside.” Sylvie shivered but not in fear when she thought of the dark-haired man who’d burst into their room after they’d managed to kill the guard. Some things couldn’t be ignored despite the circumstances and her flare of attraction toward him was one of those things.
Joni held up one of the knives she’d taken from the guard. “We can’t trust anyone, Sylvie.”
Remembered pain and betrayal glittered in the other woman’s golden eyes. Joni had been returned five times and had the scars to prove it. Not physical scars anyone could see but scars on the inside that Sylvie worried had damaged her friend beyond saving.
“Alright,” Sylvie agreed, stiffening her spine. “Let’s go.”
They hurried down the stairs, both holding their stolen weapons at the ready in case they faced opposition. Sylvie’s bare toes curled on the cold floor but not once did she slow her pace. On the main floor, Joni detoured down the hall and away from the door leading outside.
“Joni,” Sylvie whispered harshly.
Joni cast a fearful look over her shoulder. “My grandmother’s necklace. The chain popped this morning when they brought me down for a private showing. I know where it fell.”
Sylvie hesitated. They could be caught any moment.
“Please,” Joni said, her gold eyes begging for understanding.
“Alright. Let’s hurry.”
As soon as they entered the room, Joni bee-lined for the platform at the center. Sylvie kept her gaze turned away, not wanting the memories of her own time in this room coming back.
“Found it!” Joni’s shout had a grin breaking out on Sylvie’s face.
A crack of thunder overhead had both of them freezing. Sylvie’s gaze flew to the ceiling where the sound had originated. Another boom followed.
“Shit,” Joni cursed. “What next?”
Sylvie thought of the soldier. Jutak warrior he’d called himself and he had a team. She bet good old American dollars that he had something to do with the explosive noises.
Sylvie jerked and even Joni let out a squeak. Dust drifted from above to sprinkle and mix with the grime coating her already. White flakes dotted her arm.
Her heart slammed against her ribs. Sylvie didn’t have a good feeling about this at all. “We really need to get out of here.”
Arak opened the door to two of the rooms, revealing their empty state, though the blankets and stench led him to believe they’d once been occupied. One more room to check. This was the last on the floor and if Lindsey Ferra wasn’t here they’d have to start from scratch to track her whereabouts.
He paused at the last door, waited a three count then thrust it open all of the way while entering in a crouch. Silence. Arak straightened to his full height and froze. His eyes narrowed to pinpoints and focused. Four men stood at the center of the room in various states of tattered clothing. Vesuvis by the look of their green skin and unkempt hair in lighter shades of green. Pants stained and ragged clung to thin legs. Only one wore the remains of a dark-colored shirt. The others were bare chested. Bruises marred all of them from head to toe.
“I’m a Jutak warrior. You’re being rescued.” It was easiest to get the statement out, making it clear who he was and why he was here.
One of the Vesuvis sagged into the arms of another. His condition was the worst and blood crusted his wide nose and narrow mouth. Each of them was tied together at the ankle with rough, knotted rope.
The tallest of the group pushed his way forward. “How do we know we can trust what you say?”
His voice lacked the lyrical notes used by his race. Each word grated as if spoken by a throat rubbed raw from screaming. The tone indicated they’d been tricked before. The question was valid based on their circumstances but Arak and his teammates didn’t carry ID for obvious reasons. “I can’t help you with that but if you trust me, my team is waiting outside to get you out of here.”
He waited, hoping they’d accept his word though he didn’t have a lot of time. As if on cue, Jaron’s voice came over his communicator. “Don’t know what you and Kyele are doing, Arak but you need to get out of there. Marenians spotted returning.”
“How many?” He might have to force the four men out at laser point.
“Two. I sent Faruk to scout the area for more.”
“Right.” Arak faced the Vesuvis. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to reassure you but the Marenians who’ve been holding you are coming back. We need to leave now. Can everyone walk? Run if needed?”
They must have sensed the urgency in his tone. The unofficial leader spoke again. “If you can get these bonds off of us, Jutak, we’ll get out of here even if we have to crawl.” He pointed to the coils around their ankles as if not bothered by the scabs crusted over from being rubbed by the abrasive material. Vesuvis prided themselves on their intelligence and higher standard of living. Their current condition must have been humiliating yet they stood as one, shoulders back. More respect rose in Arak.
He hurried over and popped his claws when he reached them. He pretended not to see their flinch and sliced through each rope, leaving the ends to trail on the floor. “Go,” he ordered.
They shuffled forward, the weakest half-carried by the others but they moved fast.
Arak tapped his mic. “Kyele, time to evac. Where are you?”
The response came instantly. “I’m in the clear. Making my way back to you.”
“Affirmative.” Arak hustled through the door and ran down the hall. The Vesuvis he’d freed were nowhere in sight.
Arak turned right toward a secondary staircase at the rear of the house. Hopefully Kyele would perform his magic and meet up with him before they had to fight their way out.
“Did either of you clear the basement? I’m getting activity there on my sensors,” Faruk asked.
Arak cursed and Kyele repeated the sentiment. They couldn’t leave without making sure they freed anyone held captive. “On it.”
“Right behind you,” Kyele declared.
Arak ran into Kyele on the second floor. One moment he stood alone and the next, his friend appeared at his side. By mutual agreement they double timed it down the next set of stairs until they reached the steel door to the basement. Steel in comparison to the wood doors on the upper level. Had to be something important down there. He and Kyele exchanged a dark glance full of meaning. Arak fired at the lock mechanism, then raised a booted foot and kicked. The door popped from the jamb and swung open.
The stench of blood hit him first, followed by the acrimonious scent of death. Arak growled, his inner cat roused by the odor.
“Marenian scum,” Kyele snarled, green eyes narrowed.
Arak silently agreed and moved to the left as Kyele stepped to the right. Their gazes met across the space. “On the count of three.”
The hair on the nape of Arak’s neck curled and his Argora half was going crazy. He hefted his laser, instincts buzzing. This mission had just rocketed from simple to complex in a matter of heartbeats.
“Are you picking up on anything?” Kyele murmured, shifting his attention to the open doorway.
Arak arched a brow at the question. The others trusted the animal DNA he’d inherited from his maman but this was the first time Kyele spoke of it. “If you mean do I want to go down there, then the answer is no. Something is way off which means we can’tnotgo down there.”
Kyele smirked and his green eyes misted with dark shadows. “I’m ready when you are, cat boy.”
Nothing could be seen through the inky darkness with the exception of the three steps leading downward. Steps which could lead to anything, including the horror he associated with the scents emanating from below.
Arak snorted. “Ready.”
Counting off in his head, Arak burst through the doorway at the same time as Kyele only for a coil to snag around Arak’s leg on the second step. He roared as jagged pain tore through him. Thousands of knives slashed through his right thigh as he fell over the last step and to his knees before rolling onto his back. He roared again as the pain lashed at him.
A loud thump behind him had Arak tensing as Kyele came crashing down. His friend was on his feet immediately and kneeling at his side.
“How bad?” Kyele asked.
Arak clenched his jaw, fighting back the pain as the spasms ripped through him. A quick check and for sure his leg was a mess. His combat pants bore a tear from the thigh down to his ankle where the material gapped around his black boots. Blood soaked onto the floor beneath him. “Bad enough.”
He cursed for good measure as Kyele pulled a micro medi-pak from one of his many pants’ pockets. His teammate worked quickly and efficiently as he cleaned the area with a spray and swabbed Arak with an antibiotic. The pressure bandage he slapped on the bleeding wound burned worst than the pain of the injury.
Arak’s fangs drew blood as he bit his bottom lip to force back snarls of rage. Kyele studied his expression then calmly asked, “Are you down for the count or good?”
All sorts of good natured insults were on the tip of his tongue. Kyele’s scar twitched, green eyes glinting. Arak knew he waited for the litany of curses. Unbelievably, Arak chuckled. He refused to let the Marenians get the best of him. “I’m good. Help me stand.”
The corner of Kyele’s mouth curved up as he leaned forward and wrapped an arm around Arak’s waist. With a heave, Kyele brought both of them to their feet. Arak’s muscles went taut with pain. Kyele waited long enough for Arak to attain his balance and stepped away. Surprisingly, Arak still held his laser in one hand. He tightened his grip and winced as he applied weight to his leg. It hurt like he’d been sliced open to the bone and probably had been. They’d have to wait to have Dr. Maku, their unit doctor, repair the damage when they returned to their home world of Enotia. It would make for a nasty transport ride back but Arak had been through worse.
“What did I hit?” And why would the Marenians feel the need to leave the trap behind for an empty room? His gaze took in the interior of a single large space with racks screwed upright into the scored surface of stone walls. Abandoned chains lay in heaps in the darkest corner, while a table covered with medical equipment and a smashed communicator was pushed along one wall. Various stains marred the floor beneath their feet and Arak didn’t need a second opinion or the drain on the floor to confirm this place had once been used to torture reluctant slaves. The lack of dust declared its frequency of use.
Kyele bent to pick up the remnants of awickiwheel attached to a chain link that extended from the wall. The device was used by illegal hunters on the wildest game. “Retractable. Motion activated.”
The rest of the trap lay shattered on the floor. In the midst of the pieces were several broken blades tipped with his blood. A dangerous toy to leave around. Arak eyed Kyele, who aside from a streak of dirt on his cheek next to his scar, looked fine.
Arak inhaled sharply to control the pain but flinched as he shifted his weight and the essence of blood on the air filled his nostrils. A lingering whiff of death had his claws releasing on his free hand.
“Do you see anything I’m missing?” Kyele asked, rising to his feet while waiting for Arak’s assessment.
Another visual sweep and his senses, though alert, remained calm. Arak shook his head. “Nothing. Grab the memory chip from the communicator. We’ll see if Jaron can salvage anything.”
Kyele nodded and tapped his mic. “Jaron, Faruk, the basement is clear. We’re heading up. Position on the returning Marenians?”
“They didn’t go in. Circled around the building,” Faruk spoke, heavy pants in between the words as if he stayed on the move. “They never tried to enter and left on the hover bikes they arrived on.”
There was an underlying tone in Faruk’s words. Arak tried to place it but couldn’t. He met Kyele’s eyes across the room. Confusion darkened the green orbs and for a moment Arak could swear they swirled like polished metal before returning to their normal state.
“Affirmative.” Kyele hurried toward the desktop communicator and pried the side panel off with his knife then slipped the small, data chip in his shirt pocket.
Faint rumbles suddenly shook the building from above. Arak stiffened, sending a shaft of pain shooting down his thigh.
“Explosives!” Jaron yelled in their ear comm. “Get out now!” The team leader’s voice had lost its calm rhythms and sent adrenaline spiking down Arak’s spine.
“Move,” Kyele snapped, rushing toward him and providing support with his shoulder as they reversed direction and fled back the way they’d come.
Arak’s jaw clenched with each step. No time to worry about his leg if they ended up stuck in this shit hole. Another rumble from above as soon as they reached the main floor and a section of the ceiling gave way.
“Arak, report! Kyele, where the fuck are you guys?”
The distant boom of bombs going off blurred the rest of Jaron’s shouts.
“Moving,” Arak snarled back. To Kyele. “Go! I’m slowing you down.”
To emphasize his point, Arak shoved his friend ahead. Clouds of dust and burning pieces of metal fell around them.
“You’re crazy,” Kyele argued, playing with that damn knife of his in one hand.
Arak might be crazy but the two of them wouldn’t make it in his current condition. “I’ll find another way out,” he lied.
Kyele returned to his side and lifted the bulk of Arak’s weight with one arm. “Can you shift?”
He referred to Arak’s secondary form. Arak reached for his cat and tested the idea. The response came without hesitation. “No, the shift will drain me.”
Another loud crack split the night around them and a long rafter above crashed down, blocking the way to the front door. Flames erupted from the ceiling and the acrid odor of smoke curled around them.
Kyele laughed. Freaking bastard.
“Looks like we have to find another way out together, Arak.”
A reluctant grin tugged at Arak’s lips. As if Kyele had even contemplated leaving him behind.
Arak froze and Kyele spun on his boot heels. Both of them fired at the same time but the approaching Marenians ducked and threw themselves to the floor as they returned fire. Arak dove to the side, continuing to blast his laser at the two slavers.
“Fetch, cat boy.” Kyele tossed his laser in Arak’s decision.
Reflex had him reaching up to snag the weapon flying through the air toward his face. Arak pushed off backward with his feet until he hit the wall, pain screaming up and down his leg. He jammed his own laser into his thigh holster and aimed the other around the room. Arak tried to pin down the location of the Marenians as Kyele disappeared.
“Can’t wait to kill me a Jutak.”
The words were all Arak needed to aim. The shot veered wide. The Marenian tossed his horned head and roared just feet away. Too close for another blast. Arak dropped Kyele’s laser as he pushed off his good leg and leaped across the space, claws out. A muffled curse followed when Arak’s weight slammed into the body. It was like hitting a hover car full on as they both went down. The Marenian struggled beneath Arak’s claws and landed a lucky punch. The blow rammed into Arak’s ribs and fire licked up his torso when they cracked.
Support beams and girders groaned around him. Grunting, Arak rolled to the side, his hand managing to grasp one of the Marenian’s flailing arms. Another wild punch swept the space between them but this one Arak caught and deflected. He tried to pin the arm down only to have the man buck hard enough for Arak’s grip to slip as pain seared up his side from the damaged ribs.
His opponent took advantage with a vicious head butt. Arak’s nose crunched and his eyes watered. Liquid sprayed his face and the metallic tang of blood filled his mouth. The edge of a horn scraped his temple. The Marenian used Arak’s momentary dizziness to spring to his feet and run. Weakness and blood loss had Arak falling back. His rear hit the floor followed by his back as he bounced on the scuffed wood.
Kyele came up behind the fleeing Marenian and lunged. Blood spurted from the slaver’s mouth as Kyele rammed his knife in the bulky mid-section. The slaver roared loudly, back arched as his harsh features froze in shock before going slack in death. Gasping, Arak rolled to the side and braced his arms on the floor. Kyele shoved the body away, letting it hit the ground with a thud. The remaining Marenian jumped to his feet and charged forward. Kyele never wavered, maintaining his protective stance between Arak and the threat.
Fuck! What was he doing? Arak never finished the thought as Kyele misted away into a dark mass of smoke. The whirlwind swept the room in a swirling ball of energy and surrounded the slaver within a powerful funnel.
High pitched shrieks filled the air. In an effort to preserve his sensitive hearing, Arak cupped his palms over his ears to block out the Marenian’s screams and the explosive sounds of destruction tearing apart the room. When the maelstrom settled, the cloud reformed into the solid shape of his teammate, who tossed the now dead Marenian to the floor. The body was an unrecognizable mass of broken bones, shredded skin and gore. Even Arak’s stout stomach heaved.
Kyele wasted no time on explanations and hurried over. Arak blinked away grit and dust from his eyes and allowed his friend to bear more of his weight as he was yanked to his feet.
“Don’t panic,” Kyele cautioned right before he bent at the waist and lifted Arak into his arms.
The change in position put pressure on Arak’s injuries and his entire leg seized with pain. Kyele moved quickly.
“Fuuuuck!!” Arak shouted but Kyele ignored him and ran, carrying him back up to the second level of the warehouse.
Explosions continued to rain stone, debris and parts of the building on them.
Kyele’s speed increased, leaving Arak little choice but to hold on to his friend’s shoulder with a tight grip. Fire crackled around them and edged along the floor in a zig zag trail as it devoured everything in its path with an insatiable appetite. Behind them one entire wall gave way to flames that crawled toward the ceiling in a maddening race. Before Arak could warn Kyele, everything around him misted away as smoke and clouds filled his vision, obscuring anything else.
Moments later, Kyele settled him back on his feet. Arak shoved his hair back from his face. They were in the room where he’d discovered the two women earlier. Kyele waited until Arak could stand, using the wall as his support then rushed toward one of the windows. Kyele punched a leather-covered fist through the pane until it cracked. Again and again he hammered until the glass gave way and he’d cleared the window.
“Extraction needed, Jaron,” Kyele ordered.
Arak listened and waited for their team leader’s response. Eyes open but strained, it required all of his concentration to keep from sinking into a puddle on the floor. Only the thought of embarrassing himself in front of Kyele kept him upright. The man would never let him hear the end of it.
“I don’t have any eyes on you. The place is lit like a star filled night. Where are you both?” came Jaron’s solid response.
“Upper floor, east side room. Count off third window over.” Kyele peered out the window, eyes scanning for hidden dangers.
There was no telling if the Marenians were the only two or if more had managed to sneak up on them.
“Sensors are going off all over the place. Not sure how long before company joins us. Faruk and I will make our way over in the transport and drop a line. Are you both able to climb?”
Arak gritted his teeth at the question; some dark-hearted god had it out for him.
Kyele sent a smirk his way and answered, “We can climb. That’s what cats do, right Arak?”
Arak gave him a humorless smile and flashed his fangs for added threat.
“Give us five,” Jaron requested.
“Affirmative.” Kyele tapped his ear piece and stayed by the window, studying the exterior.
Arak huffed out a breath and slouched against the half-destroyed wall to ease some of the pressure on his leg. “Out of curiosity, on a scale of one to ten…exactly how powerful are you?”
Kyele slanted him an annoyed glance. “Nine.”
Arak grinned and swiped at a stream of blood running from his damaged nose. The blue liquid stained his fingers. “Somehow I thought you’d say ten.”
Kyele grunted. “If I ramped up to a ten, cat, it means you need to get far, far away from me.” He shrugged. “For everyone’s safety and to keep Torkel from being mad at me for accidentally killing friends and teammates, I try to contain myself to nine.”
“Huh.” Well never let it be said the scary fuck wasn’t honest. Arak shifted his focus to getting out. “What’s the plan?” Because there was the strong possibility he might not have the strength to rappel a cable up to the shuttle.
Kyele’s green eyes glittered as he arched a dark brow. “We blow this suck hole.”
Arak laughed out loud and had to press a hand to his side to ease the pain of what he definitely confirmed as broken ribs. “What about the females? Did they get out before the explosives went off?”
Arak didn’t like the dark frown turned in his direction.
“What females? I only helped the four Vesuvis who raced out downstairs. Pointed them in the direction to go and Jaron confirmed he’d picked them up.”
Arak cursed under his breath. Worry for the females crowded out thoughts of pain. “We have to make sure they got out. Two human females. Sex slaves.”
Arak shook his head, rising to his feet. “No, but from Earth.”
Kyele groaned. “Faye will kill us if she finds out we lost two Earth women.”
Exactly. Faye was their unit leader’s Chosen from Earth and the love of his life.
Another blast went off and the building rocked. “We have to find them, Kyele.”
He gave his friend credit. Kyele didn’t hesitate. “On it. Stay here and wait for Jaron.”
Arak remembered the glare the woman with the laser had tossed over her shoulder. He cursed. No way Kyele got to have all the fun. Arak reached for the laser at his hip. “I lost your weapon. I’m coming with you.”
Kyele smiled. A smile that caused Arak to shiver and not from pain this time. “I’ve got my knife.” Then he vanished in a cloud of smoke.
“Torkel really should have a share day about everyone’s skill set,” Arak muttered and was almost down the hall when a section of the wall beside him blew and slammed into his back.
Sylvie and Joni faced the debris-covered door. Their way out and the only exit from hell was blocked by stone, a large chunk of ceiling and a huge ten-foot beam. Joni threw her hands in the air and let out a shaky chuckle.
“Perfect, Sylvie. Perfect.”
The hint of a sob escaped the brave woman. Sylvie straightened and braced her shoulders. “It’s perfect for us, Joni.”
The woman looked at her as if she was crazy. Dirt smudged most of her face. “Have you finally snapped, Sylvie?”
Sylvie grinned as a surge of adrenaline poured through her veins. She held up her stolen laser blaster. “It’s perfect because nothing’s been easy for us thus far, Joni. Why start now?”
Her friend cocked her head to the side and a length of matted hair fell into her eyes. The smile slow in coming nearly blinded. “Have I mentioned how much you rock, Sylvie?”
Sylvie placed a hand on her hip and pretended to admire her ragged nails. “Not in the last five minutes.”
Joni snickered then giggled. The giggles turned into all out laughter. “Shit, if we don’t die, promise me that when we’re settled we go to the first bar these aliens have and get drunk.”
“Done,” Sylvie agreed. “Now let’s go. That Jutak guy said he had friends around. We just need to get out of here.”
Joni nodded and came over to her side. A large cloud of smoke billowed around the ceiling. Sylvie coughed and edged away from the flames eating up one half of the building.
“Up?” Joni asked, red streaks marring the whites of her eyes.
They studied the stairs they’d used to come down. Half of the railing had been torn from the wall. Several treads were missing or had holes in them. None of that was as bad as the fire snapping down the middle and hissing every few seconds.
“Ideas?” Joni held her stolen knives waist high.
“All or nothing,” Sylvie muttered. “There’s another staircase on the other side.”
They changed direction and headed toward the back of the building. Coming upon the destroyed bodies caught both of them off guard.
“Holy!” Sylvie froze and her stomach heaved at what was left of the two Marenians lying in the center of the floor.
Joni whistled low. “Your man is wicked hot if he did this.”
Sylvie glanced over her shoulder and gaped. “What?”
Joni smirked. “I saw you looking at him and I definitely caught him checking out your ass.”
Sylvie flushed, not knowing what to say to that but managed to grumble, “He’s not my man. Come on, we need to get out of here before the rest of this place falls on our heads.”
Another boom interrupted as if to add emphasis to her statement. The stairs on this side weren’t much better. Broken slats from the railing hung over the sides. Lack of flames made it their best option. Sylvie gripped the laser with both hands and aimed it straight ahead. This was their only way out. She turned to Joni. “Hurry.”
They raced up the stairs together.
“Where to?” Joni asked, huffing and panting.
“Back to the room where they held us. We can climb out the window and try to make our way down from there.”
Joni rolled her eyes. “I hate that room. I hated it before and I didn’t think it possible but I hate it more now.”
Blood rushing, Sylvie pumped her knees harder only to come to an abrupt halt when they reached the top. One entire section of the wall had collapsed. The boots caught her eyes first. Fallen debris covered the prone figure. Sylvie edged closer.
“Get away from him,” Joni whispered harshly but Sylvie had already dropped to her knees.
She placed the laser at her side and pushed at white chunks of plaster, wood bits and a steel plank of some sort. “It’s him, Joni. The Jutak guy.”
Heart pounding, Sylvie desperately shoveled her hands until she had him clear of the mess. She couldn’t explain the panic at seeing him felled. His groan had her exhaling in relief. Joni came closer but far enough away he couldn’t reach out and grab her feet.
“We have to help him.” Compelled to touch, Sylvie brushed at the dark hair on his forehead. His warm skin left her fingers tingling. Blue stains speckled his face as if he’d been in a paint fight with someone. Her gaze drifted over him, noting the same blue on his leg beneath torn pants. A large gash leaked more blue fluid. Blood? “He’s injured. We have to help him.”
“Shit, Sylvie. Okay. Okay.” Joni chucked the knives to the floor and knelt beside her. “On three.”
Sylvie nodded and slid her arms under his broad shoulders. Joni grasped his other side.
“One, two, three!”
The both pulled at the same time until they had him in a sitting position. His weight slumped against Sylvie, bringing her breasts into full contact with his chest. Her nipples perked but she only had a moment to chastise herself. The man stiffened and growled low and long. Joni squeaked, jerked back and let him go. Sylvie hung on with grim determination. Blue eyes snapped open, spitting fire in her direction.
“Run,” he snarled.
“Not without you,” she returned, defiance giving her the strength to resist in the face of sharp fangs.
He planted a hand on the floor. Under his breath, she thought he muttered, “Earth females.”
Sylvie tightened her hold and pushed with her legs at the same time he leaped to his feet with animal grace. He wobbled for a second and regained his balance instantly. “Come on, foolish woman.”
Leaning on her shoulder, he directed Sylvie and Joni back into their former prison. Sylvie shivered as soon as she crossed the threshold of the dreaded room and turned away from the Marenian guard they’d killed.
Sylvie glanced up, wondering who he spoke with and noticed the black disc inserted in his ear and the small wire looped around the lobe of the pointed tip. Pointed? Right, alien. Sylvie shook her head as they made their way to a shattered window. The low hum of an engine revving came from outside and a shaft of white light flared. A silver shuttle hovered in the night sky.
Sylvie tried to jerk back but the man tightened his arm over her shoulder. “Easy. It’s my team leader.”
Joni stayed in one corner of the room, back to the wall. She had her stolen knives in her hands once more. “How do we know we can trust him, Sylvie?”
She spared Joni a glance. “Uh…because he’s trying to get out of here, too.”
Joni’s mouth flapped as if she couldn’t find the words then gave a sharp nod. “Right.”
The muscles of the man she held up flexed. Sylvie looked closer at his face and noted the strain he tried to hide. “Are you okay?”
He smiled down at her and this time the sight of his sharp fangs didn’t frighten her. A bubble of warmth fluttered in her belly and Sylvie fought the ridiculous urge to smile back.
“Fine.Sylvie.” When he said her name in his accented voice, she wanted to slide to the floor like melted butter.
The door behind them slammed open and hit the wall with a loud bang. A large man flew into the room on a current of cold air. Wind whipped around them rustling anything not nailed down. Pebbles dotted her flesh and Sylvie inched slightly in front of the weakened man in her arms.
As soon as the newcomer came to a halt in the center of the room, a knife whizzed by the side of his head and drilled into the wall. He shifted with a slight tilt of his chin and green eyes blazed toward the person who posed the threat. A nasty scar curved from his left cheek, down to his collarbone. Danger pulsed on the currents around him. A whistling breeze picked up in the room and drummed at her ears. Another knife hurled through the air.
Sylvie turned. “Joni!”
Joni stood legs spread, arms up and fists at the ready.
The man kept his gaze on her friend and raised a single hand, fingers spread. The hilts of the knives imbedded in the wall quivered then flew backward and smacked into his palm, blades up. “I like knives,” he drawled.
“Oh, shit,” Joni cursed, inching back along the wall.
“Kyele, stop. We don’t have time for games,” the man in her arms snapped.
Games? Insane laughter threatened to escape but Sylvie refused to give in for fear she wouldn’t stop.
“Jaron, we have extra cargo. Two females from Earth.”
The light outside beamed brighter and flashed twice.
“Communications are partly down, Arak,” the one named Kyele said. “They can hear us but we can’t hear them. Marenians are blocking the signal in some way. Couldn’t get you either to let you know I was heading back.”
Arak. Sylvie studied the bold features of the man next to her. It fit. Short and to the point. Muscles tensed as he limped toward the window and dragged her with him. A long cable dangled from the shuttle hovering outside. Glass crinkled beneath her feet and stung in tiny pricks as fragments cut her bare skin. Sylvie ignored the pain as she’d done in the past.
Arak’s actions became hurried as he eased his arm from Sylvie. “I’ll take this one up, Kyele and you grab the other.”
Arak reached through the opening and snagged the swinging, black rope to drag it inside. His fingers expertly worked the belts and harness. When he turned toward Sylvie, he dropped to one knee on a groan. Hands gentle, he twisted a thick loop over each of her legs and notched it at her waist. Sylvie blushed at how close he came to her thighs and the brush of those gloved hands on her sensitive flesh.
He rose, towering over her slight frame. The pad of his thumb brushed over her bottom lip, outlining the tender skin. “Hold on to me, Sylvie. I’m going to take you to our shuttle. You’ll be safe.”
Sylvie took in the belts, metal hooks and bits dangling about her waist. Some of it looked familiar from her indoor rock climbing days although way more complex. Still.
“We’re climbing out there?” She hiked a thumb over her shoulder at the silver craft waiting for them.
Sylvie checked with Joni. “We’re doing this?”
Joni nibbled on her lip, glanced at Kyele then back to Sylvie. “Can’t be worse. I hope.”
The man’s scar twitched as he approached Joni. He cupped her friends face in his palm. Joni flinched but the man moved in closer until his legs brushed hers. “I promise you will be safe with us.”
He held up his other hand and offered Joni the Marenian knives. Her fingers trembled as she accepted the blades.
Arak sighed. “Good. We’re all in agreement.”
Sylvie nodded. “Ready.”
Blue eyes softened. His arms curved around her. The silk of her dress was no protection against the heat of his touch. “Hold tight.”
Sylvie latched her arms to his shoulders and heat scored her cheeks as she entwined her legs around his hips. The erection bumping her center was hard to miss. Her gaze jumped to his.
His brow quirked. “Sorry?”
Sylvie tucked her face in his neck and didn’t answer. The truth was he was too handsome for his own good.
Arak couldn’t do anything about his arousal. Between the adrenaline pumping through him and her enticing frame, his body had a mind of its own. Full breasts pressed into his chest and even through his combat gear, her nipples stabbed at him. Her silk-covered ass filled his palms as he adjusted his hold. The scent of her filled his nostrils, taking away the odor of blood and death. He wanted to bury his face in the gentle curve of her shoulder but she beat him to it when she planted her face in his neck. Moisture dotted his skin from her panting breaths.
The sweet weight of her in his arms almost made him forget his pain. Almost. Blocking out the tempting thoughts, Arak focused on getting out of here. He made sure he had a firm grip on the female in his arms and bent low to climb through the window, the rope gripped tight in his gloved fist. He hissed out a breath at the agony of putting their combined weight on his injured leg as he straddled the sill.
Her thighs tightened around his waist and the added pressure brought to life the slicing pain from his protesting ribs. Black crowded his vision and spots danced in front of him.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
The sensuous sound of her voice in a purely innocent question dragged him back from the abyss. Arak attached the specialized clip from his belt to the cable as they prepared to swing in the air hundreds of feet from the ground. He’d probably survive a fall from this height but she definitely wouldn’t.
“I’m fine.” Contrary to Kyele’s claims, they didn’t have to actually climb the cable.
Arak depressed the red button on the clip and the whirl of the automatic winch as they were tugged through the air caused her to jerk. Arak hissed, clamping his free arm tight to her while the other maintained its brutal hold on the cable. “Still,” he wheezed, water welling in his eyes.
Her head lifted and she stared at him, their faces inches apart. “You’re hurt.”
Arak smiled grimly. Hurt was a mild word for the storm that held siege on his body. “I’ll be fine.”
They reached the transport in seconds and the doors slid open. His fist transferred his grip to the runner as he swung his legs in a rocking motion and managed to get both of them inside without letting her go. Hands immediately grasped him at the shoulders and pulled the both of them through. Pushing back the pain, Arak made quick work of undoing the belts and safety clasps keeping them together. He stood with a grimace and helped move Sylvie away from the entrance.
The automatic winch whined behind him and Kyele’s head appeared followed by the woman in his arms as he leaped with familiar agility into the shuttle and set his cargo on her feet.
The two women embraced one another as soon as they could reach out. When they parted, Arak directed Sylvie to the row of black leather jump seats bolted to the floor along one wall. Kyele helped Joni so the women sat next to one another. Further down, the Vesuvis huddled together in their seats, eyes taking everything in.
Arak’s hands fumbled a bit with the buckles, fingers trembling.
A soft touch brushed back hair made damp from his hood. Arak glanced up and got caught in the web of a steely blue gaze. “Thank you.”
He could only nod, unable to explain his unusual reaction to her but he continued to be thrown off by the visceral need to nuzzle into her touch as her fingers glided through the strands of his hair before dropping to her lap.
Arak stood after making sure the safety harness held tight across Sylvie’s chest and made his way to his seat directly across from the women. He slumped back with relief. Sweat dripped from his brow and his body was one mass of quaking muscles and pain. Kyele pushed at the other woman’s hands despite her complaints and did up her harness as well before taking his seat beside Arak. Faruk joined them and dropped into the chair with a grunt, while Jaron argued with the shuttle pilot.
“What happened out there?” Faruk asked, white-blond hair in spikes as if he’d run his fingers through it.
Kyele’s nose curled and he answered before Arak could. “There were two of them. You reported they’d left.”
Faruk paled, blue eyes wide. “Sensors didn’t pick up anything. They left on hover bikes. Jaron and I both saw the Marenians depart.”
“Then your eyes need checking,” Kyele snapped.
Arak closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat. His wound had moved from burning to throbbing and he had to grit his teeth to keep his cat from taking over and lashing out with pain. The heated conversation drew Jaron’s attention.
“Faruk’s right. Nothing indicated they’d circled back, let alone set explosives to the place.” The team leader used the overhead rail for balance as he made his way to the back.
“He was supposed to scout and add cover. Where was he?”
Kyele’s demand forced Arak’s eyes open. The leader for Team Two flinched. “I checked the back. Laid low once I realized there were Marenians inside. Then the communicators went down and there was no way to warn you.”
It happened. There were times on missions when everything imploded and there was nothing for it. Nothing anyone could do except shift to a secondary plan and hope your brethren had your back.
“Did you find the females in the basement?” Jaron asked, shooting an inquisitive glance in their direction once he took a seat on Arak’s other side and fastened his cross-chest harness.
Kyele’s green eyes darkened as he folded his arms over his chest. “There was nothing in the lower level except death. Those two are from Earth.” He nodded at the females. “Torkel needs to know.”
Jaron leaned toward Arak and whispered, “We’re stopping at a port to drop off the Vesuvians. They refused to go further with us and prefer to seek medical attention on their home world.”
Both females held hands, shoulders brushing and heads tilted together. Weariness dragged at their shoulders but their eyes remained alert. Arak shifted his head to face Jaron. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “And the women?”
“With us. The Vesuvians were just transferred here a day or so ago. They’ve been drugged the whole time. According to them, the women have been here longer. Until we can question them about their experience and what they know, we’re taking them to Enotia.”
Arak’s gaze drifted to the women or more specifically one woman. Sylvie. Their gazes clashed, hers deep with concern. A frown piercing her brow. Arak shifted in his seat, attempting to straighten his leg and regretted the action immediately. He cursed several times and clenched his jaw.
Jaron flipped through a medi-pak on the shelf behind their jump seats and withdrew an injector. Before Arak could protest, his team leader jammed the pain killer into his injured leg and depressed the plunger.
“You know I hate that shit.” Drugs messed with his Argoran half but already the meds worked and his lower leg went numb.
“Deal with it.”
Sylvie stayed close to Joni as the uniformed men escorted them into a large business complex after a short hover-car ride when they debarked the shuttle. Security codes used at each door hinted at the high level of security in this place. Once inside, another code opened the elevator doors.
“Where are we and why are we here?” Sylvie asked, glancing around. Conversation had been kept to a minimum during the flight followed by covert looks on the drive over.
The place had the innocent appearance of a corporate office building one would find on Earth but without the employees or furniture. Miniature cameras in the ceiling recorded their every move, the overall silence of the place unnerving her.
“You’re at a Jutak facility. We have a medical center where you’ll both be treated.”
This from the tall blond with dashing blue eyes. A friendly smile stretched across his attractive features. At one point in her past, he would have been the type of man to attract Sylvie back on Earth. Clean cut and smooth, his looks an excellent complement to the gentle manner he used toward her and Joni. He was a team lead but she wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Arak had called him Jaron and the other man Faruk. Faruk had blond hair too but more a white-blond and his gray eyes constantly scanned around them. The two could have been brothers with their similar coloring.
Neither of them entranced her as much as Arak though. He hobbled into the elevator with the help of the fourth man, Kyele. His friend propped him against the inner wall. Rivulets of blue ran down his leg and plopped on the tiled floor of the elevator. From the pain lines etched on his face and the tight press of his lips, Sylvie figured she was correct in assuming the blue liquid was alien blood. Huddled next to Joni in a far corner, she unobtrusively gazed around the elevator at the men dressed in black. Weapons covered a good portion of their body from knives with weirdly shaped handles strapped to their thighs and calves to the blue-black laser blasters holstered around their hips.
Aliens. Most of the humanoid species from other worlds bore a passing resemblance to human men on Earth and some were clearly far away from the realm of anything she could have imagined. Like the Chamele who’d owned her with his ever changing skin tones, the Marenians with the sharp thrust of horns from their temples and many others. Except these aliens, soldiers, she corrected, appeared human. If one discounted the blue blood.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened with a metallic hum. Sylvie stepped through keeping a wary eye on their little group but it was Jaron again who took the lead. “We have our own resident doctor. He’ll look you and your friend over.”
Sylvie nodded and from the corner of her eyes caught Arak using Kyele’s shoulder to help him down the hall behind them. White walls and gray carpet lined the narrow corridor. Joni kept her knives out, gaze darting around. Neither of them were doing a very good job of hiding their rising fear.
“I’m going to see Torkel. He asked for a personal update when we returned,” Faruk announced as he broke off and turned in the opposite direction down the hall.
Jaron nodded and waved him off. Sylvie slowed her steps and whispered to Joni, “You holding up?”
Joni rolled her eyes. “As well as can be expected.”
Sylvie managed a smile. They were a sight. Both dressed in skimpy, blue dresses of silk, no undergarments underneath which didn’t leave a lot to the imagination if one stared too long. Their hair hadn’t been washed in days and Sylvie knew they smelled worse.
They followed the blond soldier as he entered a room clearly used for medical purposes. Sylvie’s breath stalled in her chest and a sheen of sweat immediately broke out on her skin. The lights, the equipment and the beep of machines she recognized. Her steps froze and she couldn’t move further into the medical room. Joni touched her shoulder but Sylvie jerked away, stumbling into the wall behind her.
“Dr. Maku, these are the Earth females we mentioned.”
Sylvie’s gaze flew to the man in the white jumper. Despite his kind smile and blond good looks, a fine tremor shook her frame as he stepped in her direction. He held a small silver cylinder in his hands.
“Please allow me to help you.” He gestured at the narrow bed behind him.
Joni sensed her panic and stepped in front of her, blocking Sylvie’s view. “Stay back,” her friend warned, raising her stolen knives.
The arm Kyele had around Arak’s shoulder stiffened. He turned behind him and stilled. Sylvie stood behind Joni, pretty blue eyes darting around the medical center. He scented the air and her fear slammed into his guts like a powered hammer.
Arak cursed and blinked back the spots dotting his vision as he prepared to go to her side, his instinctive need to soothe her blocking his own pain. Kyele gripped his arm, fingers clenched tight before he could move.
“Allow me,” his friend muttered.
Arak’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped. “What?”
Kyele wasn’t exactly known for his friendly manner. Arak broke off the rest of his question as Kyele released him and headed toward the frightened females with measured steps. From the corner of his eyes, Arak noticed Jaron tense. Dr. Maku at least had the grace to stop and not get closer to the women.
Kyele eased to the side but stayed in front of Joni. “You need to trust us. Attacking each time one of us catches you off guard places you in danger.”
He leaned forward and added in a low voice. “I can’t allow that. Give the weapons to me.”
Arak held his breath and waited. Joni’s shoulders eased slightly. The hand holding the knives wavered before she finally passed them over. “I’m trusting you. Don’t make me regret it.”
Arak exhaled sharply as Kyele accepted the blades and nodded. Maku tipped his head to the side and introduced himself. “I’m sorry for what you have been through. I’m Dr. Maku and assigned to the Jutak warriors medical care at this facility.”
Sylvie came forward, arms wrapped around her middle. “I’m Sylvie Forrester from Earth and this is Joni Miller.”
Maku smiled and held up the neutralizer. “This will help with your injuries if you will allow me to see to you.”
It didn’t surprise Arak when Joni stepped forward first. “You can roll with me first, Doc. If nothing hinky happens then Sylvie will be next.”
Relief crashed across Sylvie’s features before she masked the expression. She searched the room until her gaze landed on him. A tentative smile started until one of the female medics came over staring at the line of blood running down his leg.
“You need attention now, Arak.”
Arak jerked from Laia’s delicate grasp on his elbow.
The smile fell from Sylvie’s face and she turned her back on him. His cat protested and struggled. Arak’s skin tightened and itched while he fought to hold back the animal within. For a moment, he worried he’d lose control for the first time since adolescence and shift. His cheeks heated when Laia frowned.
There was no explanation for why this Earthling had such an effect on his senses. Considering his past history with Laia, though brief, Arak felt like a completeebo. Instead of explaining his odd behavior, he hobbled over toward one of the beds and with a hitch managed to seat himself without passing out.
Maku led Joni over to the bed directly across from Arak and Sylvie stayed on his heels, watching the doctor’s every move. Jaron propped himself against the wall, arms folded over his chest and eyed Arak, his gaze silently questioning. Arak shrugged. He couldn’t explain his reactions and now wasn’t the time to speak with his team leader.
Laia worked quickly and with a gentle touch. She cleaned his face and tossed the blue streaked cloth into a bio container. Next she unbuttoned his ruined shirt and used the neutralizer on his middle. His Argoran half had already healed most of the superficial wounds but Arak appreciated when his ribs snapped into place.
Laia glanced up. “Deep breath.”
“Now release,” she coached.
Having gone through this before, he exhaled. No pain.
“I don’t know how you managed to function,” she murmured as she continued to run the neutralizer over his injuries. A slight press on the bridge of his nose and his face stopped throbbing as the break healed.
“You’ll need to unwind after this mission.” She cast a none too subtle look at the bulge between his legs.
His shaft twitched in agreement but Arak’s gaze returned to Sylvie and her friend. The high from assignments aroused him and he usually worked most of the heat off with a willing female sex server in the city but there were many times he’d just as soon work it off himself in the privacy of his quarters.
In order to keep from offending a friend and prior lover he said, “I’ll be fine. Torkel’s going to want to talk to the females about their time among the Marenian.”
Laia checked over her shoulder, blonde hair swishing about the white, medical jumper she wore. When she faced Arak there was a knowing glint in her blue eyes. “Hmm.”
Fortunately she didn’t voice her thoughts. She ran her hands over his injured leg, gasping at the extent of the brutal gash. “You’re very lucky.”
Arak wouldn’t exactly call having his leg shredded lucky but it was a minor difference in outlook. He knew what she meant and hewasdamn lucky.
Hands light, she eased the neutralizer up and down the bleeding wound. The damage healed in moments, the flesh knitting together with a slight burn. Laia straightened and patted his knee before pulling her hand back. “You should get cleaned up. You’re a mess.”
Arak nodded and slid off the table. He pretended to miss her look of regret.
Sylvie knew she didn’t look her best and having so many strangers crowded around discomforted her. She stayed close to Joni’s side as the doctor used a miracle instrument which left her friend’s skin bruised free. Even the odd bump on the back of Joni’s wrist was gone. He asked routine questions only pausing occasionally to jot notes on an electronic tablet which, he then handed to an assistant who stood at his back.
Sylvie glanced over at Arak, relieved as the tech handled his injuries with the same smooth ease as the doctor. Perhaps too much ease. She frowned as the woman leaned over his side, her breasts brushing against him with every move as she shifted around him. When the woman used a cloth to wipe his face clean, Sylvie had to resist the urge to demand the woman stand back while treating him.
Sylvie drew in a deep breath and braced herself. Joni stood and allowed Sylvie to take her place on the narrow bed.
“It’s alright, Sylvie.” Joni glared at the doctor for good measure.
True to his word, Dr. Maku worked quickly and the aches and pains in her battered body left as if they’d never been there.
“Am I missing anything?” Dr. Maku asked with a pleasant enough expression for a medical professional.
All of the ones Sylvie had come in contact during her time with the Marenians were brutal and cold. She raised her leg and pointed at her feet where glass had cut her during their mad dash. Pieces were still imbedded in her skin.
The doctor extended her leg to get a close up look at the damage. Sylvie pressed a hand down on the edge of her dress to preserve her dignity. Someone cursed, drawing her gaze. Arak came over, eyes darkened to a deep navy. His hand grasped her ankle below the doctor’s as he lowered his gaze.
Lips pressed tight, he demanded. “Why didn’t you say something?”
Sylvie craned her neck to the side and winced when she got a good look. Not only had the glass shredded her feet, leaving fresh blood trails, but the deep scarring from the lashing she’d taken from her last escape had turned the bottom of her feet into ugly lumps of mottled flesh. Several of the others came near to see. The press of so many bodies gathered close caused Sylvie to flinch.
Arak growled, jerking his head up. “Stay back.”
When Jaron whistled low under his breath, Sylvie’s face heated. Women were supposed to have pretty hands and pretty feet. Her feet had been destroyed thanks to the Marenians.
Kyele met her stare. “How did you manage?”
There were several ways she could answer but Arak started a rhythmic rubbing on the side of her foot which distracted. His other fingers brushed over the unmarred skin of her ankle as he stared into her eyes, awaiting her response. The warmth in her face spread down her chest and pooled in her middle. No one had touched her in kindness in months. The strumming motion soothed her fear and Sylvie found herself drawn into the depths of his blue gaze.
Only when her loins clenched and the slight stirrings of arousal coiled in her belly, did Sylvie clear her throat and tug lightly, hoping he’d get the hint and release her foot. He didn’t.
“Enough. Let me finish my job.” Dr. Maku’s voice dispelled the moment and everyone stepped back.
Arak released her but only after one lingering stroke on the ball of her ankle that sent shivers down her spine.
Sylvie exhaled and squeezed her legs together. Arak’s nostrils flared and he took another step back. “Um…the glass during the escape cut my feet but I would have done anything to get away.”
“And the rest?” Kyele persisted, peering at the damage to her feet.
“Lashings because I escaped. To teach me a lesson when I was returned.”
Arak snarled and lunged toward her. Sylvie squealed and pushed back on the bed but Kyele and Jaron both grabbed his arms to hold him back.
“Arak, get yourself together,” Jaron snapped, struggling to hold on.
Straining and heaving against the arms that sought to restrain him, Arak’s savage demeanor caught Sylvie off guard. His unbuttoned shirt parted and muscles flexed and rippled. Blue streaks marred the tanned skin.
Kyele slid behind Arak and wrapped an arm around his neck. Whatever he whispered in his friend’s ear did the trick. Chest heaving, Arak ceased to fight the arms pulling him back.
“Out,” the doctor ordered, pointing his finger at the door.
Heart racing, Sylvie placed her hand on her chest to still the building pressure in the face of his unexplained rage. Joni crammed into the corner, her hip bumping Sylvie as she too watched the spectacle.
“Don’t hurt her.” Arak’s voice grated as he spit out the three words to the doctor.
Sylvie’s breath sawed in and out at the display. All for her as there was no mistaking the threatening stance he took. She hated the fact that it turned her on. Men should be the last thing on her mind. But Arak wasn’t any man. He was something more. Something she couldn’t describe. With a last glare, he departed with Jaron and Kyele at his side.
Dr. Maku squatted before her as if nothing unusual had happened. Joni brushed back the hair from her forehead. “Well, that was interesting.”
The doctor held Sylvie’s ankle and terror tried to take hold again. Sylvie forced the emotion away as he used a careful touch to run his instrument over her feet. “There’s a lot of scar tissue. This will take a minute but I promise I can rid you of it.”
Her thigh twitched in reflex and her heart thumped hard in her chest. “Really?”
Sylvie thought she’d have those scars forever. The welts dug deep into her flesh and crossed over one another in raised purple ropes that had the bottom of her feet numb to all but the hardest pressure.
He looked up to smile, blue eyes twinkling. He grasped her other foot and worked. “Absolutely.”
Her feet tingled moments later and the doctor stretched as he stood. “All done. It might feel a little tender for the next day but no lingering damage.”
Amazing and by far more advanced than where Earth stood in terms of medicine.
Joni held up her hand for a high-five, the broad grin on her face full of relief. “Another score for Earth women. Marenians still down late in the quarter.”
Sylvie laughed as they slapped hands. The doctor’s brows crinkled in confusion but neither bothered trying to explain.
The good doctor cleared his throat and made another notation in his handheld device before speaking. “Well, that is good.” Red blotches bloomed on his cheeks as he continued, “My scanner also revealed no internal damage or bruises from sexual excess. I know what the Marenians and their clients are capable of and sexual abuse can be in many forms. Is there anything else either of you would have me check or do for you?”
Sylvie quickly rose to her feet. She hadn’t been raped but not from lack of effort from those who’d ‘purchased’ her. There had been plenty of groping and some of the threats made to her would likely give Sylvie nightmares at some point. “I’m fine, Dr. Maku.”
Both their gazes went to Joni who’d remained silent. When she lifted her eyes, such fire burned in their golden depths that Sylvie almost took a step back. Instead she clasped her fingers with Joni’s and squeezed.
“Broken bones, bruises, taunts, being caged. I suffered all of it during my five months. I only count myself lucky because of my first owner.” She grimaced. “He wanted a companion. Someone to read and talk gardening with him. I didn’t know shit about flowers but he taught me. I was returned after he died and heard the other prisoners talk about things done to them. Not sure if anyone else would say I was lucky or unlucky but I survived and I’m grateful for it.”
Sylvie exhaled in relief.
Dr. Maku’s blue eyes glinted with sympathy then in a voice that held nothing but care he added, “You botharesurvivors.”
“They’ve been nice to us thus far. Should we be worried?” Joni asked when they were alone.
Sylvie glanced around the room they’d been led to by a medical tech after their injuries were healed. Comfortable sofas with no legs and high backs in a soft, dark brown material. She ran her hands along the seat, the soft texture tickling her palms.
“If they were going to hurt us, they would have already done so.”
Joni nodded and tapped her foot. They’d been given clothing and offered the opportunity to shower in a cleansing room. After three months of captivity, most of the advanced technology was familiar to her. Sylvie sighed and leaned back in her chair, grateful to be clean and in something that covered her body. Dr. Maku had offered the spare clothing to them. Sylvie didn’t mind the bland brown pants and white top.
Joni shoved a hand through the deep red-gold waves that fell down her back. Sylvie hadn’t even known her friend was a redhead. Somehow it fit with her bright amber eyes. She tunneled a hand through her own blonde locks. The length had reached her lower back but a pair of shears borrowed from a medic took care of that. It now fell about her shoulders, the new length allowing Sylvie a semblance of who she was before all this started.
“What do you think they want to talk about?” Joni asked, rising to her feet.
“I’m not sure,” Sylvie admitted.
Sylvie’s nerves crawled as well but instead of pacing as Joni now did, she clenched her hands together in her lap and wondered what they’d do now. Clearly, SP wasn’t an option for her. The thought of taking her chances again with the government program had her swaying in the comfortable chair.
“I am sorry for your wait.”
Sylvie’s head snapped toward the door and the huge man who entered. Arak, Jaron, Faruk and Kyele followed him but Sylvie slowly rose to her feet, muscles tense at the sight of the brawny stranger.
“Dr. Maku says you have translators implanted, which makes things easier though we all speak standard, a language similar to the English of your Earth.”
Joni walked over to stand beside her. “Who are you?”
The stranger smiled but the gesture didn’t do much to change the rough hewn angles of his features. Brown eyes glowed with patience. Dark brown hair touched broad shoulders stretched into a black uniform shirt. Matching black pants encased legs of steel, ending in black sturdy boots. “I’m Torkel Alonson, Unit leader for the Jutak warriors at this facility.”
Okay that didn’t tell her much. Sylvie swallowed as her heart rate picked up.
“These are my team members,” he continued with a wave of his hand. “I believe you know Jaron, Arak, Faruk and Kyele. Jaron and Faruk are the team leads who were in charge of the rescue mission at the Marenian slave holding where you were held.”
Arak and the others shifted their stance, arms folded behind their backs. Dressed in the same black uniform down to the boots, they resembled a military sect. Or a cult. Arak had cleaned up and blood no longer covered him, Sylvie noted with relief. Could she and Joni trust that these were the good guys?
“Is there anything we can get you? Drinks or food perhaps?” Torkel asked.
Sylvie shook her head and Joni mirrored the gesture. They’d both nibbled on the strange servings provided in the medical center. Sylvie had long grown used to eating food she had no clue about although much of what she’d eaten tonight had been rather tasty.
Gaze narrowed, Torkel lips firmed. “Please sit. We’d like to ask a few questions about your time with the Marenians. Our hope is that you females can help us.”
Sylvie resumed her seat on the sofa, noticing when Joni chose to sit beside her instead of her former seat. “We can try but I’m not sure how much help we can be. We were sl…” She pushed the horrible word past the lump in her throat and spit out. “Slaves.”
The men chose individual chairs and arranged them in a semi-circle in front of the low sofa. Kyele slouched in his seat, long legs stretched out and icy-green gaze on Joni. Faruk smiled warmly and sat on the edge of his seat. Jaron braced a hand over the back of his chair, hips to the side and allowed one leg to dangle over the arm. The pose reminded her of a jungle cat at rest. A half-smile played about his full mouth but Sylvie bet he fooled many with the lax poise. Torkel crossed his arms over his massive chest, legs spread.
Her eyes were reluctantly drawn to Arak. Coiled to pounce, he chose to sit forward in his chair, elbows planted on his knees and hands dangling between parted thighs. The intense heat from his blue eyes seared her to the spot. When he caught her staring a low growl rumbled from his chest, startling Sylvie enough to jump.
Torkel shot him a chastising glare but Jaron smirked.
Torkel cleared his throat. “We understand you were kept against your will. Anything either of you can share with us would be appreciated.”
Sylvie licked her lips and tucked her hands under her thighs to hide their trembling. “Like what?”
His response came instant. “Names, conversations.”
“I was sold to a Chamele.” She wouldn’t call him her owner. “His name was Foro.”
A snick filled the silence after her announcement.
Sylvie lowered her gaze and flinched at the long white claws extending from Arak’s fingers on both hands. What the hell was he?
Torkel shot him a glance before facing Sylvie again. “If you don’t mind my asking, how did you end up back at a sex auction if you had been sold?”
Sylvie flushed but met Torkel’s gaze. The brown eyes had darkened with sympathy. “I was returned after I kneed Faro in the balls.”
The men shared a puzzled look. It was Jaron who asked, “Chamele’s do not have…balls on them.”
Joni snickered. “She means his junk. His dick.”
Jaron’s foot dropped to the floor, losing his relaxed slump and Faruk choked, cupping himself. Surprisingly, Arak flashed his fangs at her in approval. Torkel ran a hand over his mouth and she had a feeling he too battled a smile.
Torkel rubbed his brow. “Yes. You kneed him in his…balls. Then what?”
Sylvie shrugged. “I was returned. Apparently, it’s a very sensitive area for Chamele men.”
“All men,” Jaron muttered with a roll of his blue eyes.
Did everyone here have blue eyes?
“Did they speak of any others? A leader perhaps?” Torkel probed.
Sylvie pursed her lips and concentrated. She couldn’t think of anything important spoken in her presence. Sick jokes, sexual taunts and plenty of leers. The translator also allowed her to understand their every thought about women from Earth. Apparently they prized humans highly.
“There was one man that seemed to scare all of them,” Joni said, drawing their eyes to her.
She had everyone’s attention with the one statement. The air around them vibrated with taut expectancy. Kyele unsheathed a knife from his thigh and twirled the blade in his hand.
Joni took a deep breath, gold eyes somber. “Someone named Lothar came through often. I was moved around a lot and at each place the Marenians spoke of Lothar and his anger if they didn’t bring in a large sum from the sales.”
Torkel rose to his feet, gaze intent. Sylvie’s heart battered her chest in increased rhythm. “Tell me what he looked like.”
Joni’s mouth curled down. “Like the rest of them. A big bastard with black horns, dark hair and dark eyes. Really, really tall.” Her bright eyes dimmed as memories plagued her. “He’s evil. One buyer complained about a set of twins he’d purchased. The women died within days of each other because of the condition they were in and this Lothar snapped the guy’s neck then tossed him to the floor. No one else complained that day.”
Arak cursed and slammed to his feet. The others shifted, making no secret of their anger.
Torkel ran a hand through his hair. “Thank you for sharing with us. I’ll let you both get rest now. My Chosen is from Earth and would like to meet in the morning.” He added a small grin. “She misses her home and is excited tohangas she calls it.
To know this intimidating man lived with a woman from Earth definitely eased some of Sylvie’s trepidation about staying here. But worry over her future and plans wouldn’t let her completely relax. “Are you and your Jutak men going to stop this? The Marenians can’t be allowed to do what they’re doing.”
Torkel sighed. “Ms…?”
“Forrester. Sylvia Forrester. But call me Sylvie.”
“Thank you. Sylvie, the Marenians come from a world where enslaving people is the norm. Legal. My fellow Jutaks and I work hard to keep them from expanding their trade but there is only so much we can do. I promise that the planetary alliance is making every effort to stop them and that starts with Lothar, the current leader of the fastest growing branch of the illegal trade.”
It wasn’t much but it had to be enough. After a few more questions, she and Joni were led to a miniature-sized apartment on the same floor. Not large by any means but a lot bigger than the rooms and cages she’d been imprisoned in over the last three months. Sleek and simple leather furnishings created a calm ambiance that Sylvie appreciated. Her feet sunk into rich thick carpet in a cream shade. Abstract paintings hung on three of the walls, splashes of yellow across the odd background. Too tired to give the place more than an absent glance beyond that, she nodded whenever Faruk spoke. After showing them a small kitchenette and bathroom, he guided them through the small space until they reached two bedrooms located in the back.
A quick check and Sylvie knew it was better than anywhere she and Joni had slept. On his way out, Faruk stopped in the living area at a silver box similar to a laptop but without a lid and with a multitude of buttons and lights. A communicator. “Torkel says if you need anything to contact him at star two.”
He pointed at another button that glowed blue. “If you need to order food, press here. The last pre-programmed button is for the Comm Center and Jaron is usually available there.”
Joni remained silent, taking in their surroundings. Sylvie nodded. “Thank you.”
Faruk paused at the door. Sincerity blazed from his gray eyes. “We’re glad we were able to get you out of there. Every rescue, every save means a lot to us.”
As soon as the door closed behind him, Joni fanned her face. “Mmm. He’s hotness.”
Sylvie arched a brow. “Really, Joni? We’re not here to ogle their alien version of the military.”
Her words did nothing to hinder Joni’s humor. “You can say that when tall, dark and yummy growls if you so much as frown.”
Arak. She meant Arak who’d left without so much as a backward look at Sylvie. “Well, rather him than the scary one who scorches you with those green eyes every time he looks in your direction.”
Red stained Joni’s cheek and her amber gaze went dark. “I’m not looking for a man now, Sylvie. Maybe never.”
And at once her humor vanished. Sylvie wondered if Joni would ever share her experience with the Marenians. Joni knew about her lashings but the woman had been surprisingly tightlipped about her own time in captivity. Hopefully, they’d both come out on top and stronger than ever.
Arak paced in his quarters in an effort to settle. His cat clawed at his insides, wanting out and wanting to look for his woman. He flinched at the thought and paused in the middle of his living room space.His woman?Sylvie didn’t belong to him. She was a mission. Someone he’d rescued as he’d done a number of times in his past. But the thought that she belonged to him niggled at the back of his mind and he blamed his shifter half for that.
Argorans settled on mates within moments of scenting them. It’s what had happened to his maman and ended his papan’s chance at happiness. Alora had come to Enotia to attend a presentation for a Chosen. She’d selected the gentle Enotian, Garis, and become pregnant during their first year together. Ten years later Alora had traveled alone to Argora for a visit and found her true mate. An Argoran male.
Alora returned to Enotia weeks later with her new mate in tow and requested severance from her Chosen. The Commission which oversaw the presentation ceremony had been appalled. Arak snorted. The circumstance had been one they’d never encountered but they’d granted her wishes, leaving Garis without the woman of his heart. His maman was the reason for the law banning Argorans from participation in any Enotian presentations, including himself. An Argoran’smuatacould not be denied.
The only good thing to come of his maman’s defection was the fact his father refused to relinquish his rights to a young Arak. His maman agreed in exchange for changing Arak’s surname to hers to give him a piece of his Argoran heritage. But that had been years ago and Arak hadn’t spoken to his maman since she helped him via the communicator when he went through his first shift as a teen. She was well content with her mate and their three daughters, while Arak’s papan remained alone and true to the female who still owned his heart.
The urge to go to Sylvie beat at him once more until sweat beaded his brow. Arak paced toward his front door. Most times he could fall back on his Enotian genetics and maintain his calm but moments like tonight when the heat of a mission edged him toward his baser nature, Arak found it hard to not let his inner animal take over. And right now, his cat wanted Sylvie. Wanted to check on her and make sure everything was alright with her. The memory of her reaction in the medical center with Dr. Maku had a deep rumble rising from his chest.
Arak clenched his teeth to stop the sound. No one could mistake the fear that exuded from her pores. Eyes wide and frantic, it had been easy to discern her discomfort with being seen by a medical professional. Something else to blame the Marenians for. The menacing aliens terrorized any held within their sex-slave auctions and the condition of those rescued often mirrored Joni and Sylvie. Sometimes worse. His Unit leader’s Chosen was a prime example. Not long ago Faye had been held by the Marenians for six weeks and tortured during her time there.
Sylvie’s reaction made Arak wish he could return to the destroyed building and kill her captors all over again. Unfortunately, the enemy had chosen to blow the place sky high and they were lucky to be alive. What a mess.
His thoughts of Sylvie and how she’d looked once she cleaned up aroused him further. Her hair matched the bright gold glow of Enotians, eyes the same shade of light blue. She could easily pass for one of the natives of his home world. Her body was delicately built but her strength and courage practically flowed from her pores.
Her small stature reminded Arak of the condition of her feet before Maku had healed the damage. How could she have withstood the pain? And to not complain during the rescue made him admire her all the more. A low growl escaped. He couldn’t go to her. She needed time to recover. With a slump to his shoulders, Arak sat on one of the many pillows throughout his living area.
His idle gaze traveled around the space he’d made his own. This facility was larger than the one the Jutaks lived in before, which meant each member of the team had their own decent size living quarters. Here, Arak indulged his senses. Body-sized pillows on the floor, rugs piled on top of rugs creating cushion soft spots over every inch of floor space to ease him in cat form. Vibrant colors. Red, green, and splashes of deep purple were everywhere. His cat loved to lounge and his nature demanded space for others to relax with him. Argorans were social and each member of the Unit knew they were welcomed. Would Sylvie like it?
Arak mentally groaned and grabbed the back of his neck. He had to stop thinking of the female, yet the primal part of him wouldn’t let it go. Maybe if he checked on her he could settle for the night and sleep. His cat purred in agreement and Arak knew he would do it.
A simple thought and he shifted into his secondary form. As a large, white cat, his senses took on the predatory nature of his kind. He stretched out taut muscles with only a minor twinge in his side. Arak pawed at the door release he’d had customized to let him in and out of his quarters in this body. The door slid closed quietly behind him as he padded through the halls.
Fortunately, he didn’t run into any of his teammates, though they’d all seen him in this form enough times to recognize him and not shoot first. Using his head, Arak butted the door to the stair way and made his way up the stairs toward the floor where the women had been assigned a place.
When he reached their floor, he followed Sylvie’s lingering aroma to a room three doors down from the end of the hall. Arak stretched to his hind legs and pawed at the sensor. Nothing. He growled and contemplated shifting when he scented Jaron. Arak stiffened at his team lead’s presence, expecting resistance but Jaron merely glanced at him then the door.
Blond brows creased. “Not a good idea friend but no one listens to me.”
His fellow Jutak used his palm to release the door locks and shoved the door open. He waited for Arak to ease through the gap then let it close behind him. Jaron’s footsteps faded down the hall.
Arak’s ears pricked forward as he sorted through the various smells in the living space. Sylvie’s rich flavor filled his nostrils and Arak followed the enticing trail down the hall and to the opened door on the left. The door on the right was firmly closed and Joni’s essence lay heavy in the air in that direction.
Arak slowed his steps and entered the darkened room. To his surprise someone slept in each of the narrow beds set directly across from one another. Joni had obviously chosen to share rooms with Sylvie. He didn’t need to wonder why. The courageous females had gone through something together that had forged their friendship in the strongest alloy. Arak walked toward the sheet covered mound closest to him, knowing instinctively who he sought. Light snuffles reached his ears and he would have smiled if on two feet. Sylvie snored.
Like most females, she probably didn’t know. Now that he was near, contentment erased the anxiety of earlier. Arak stretched out on the floor beside Sylvie’s bed and allowed the soft sound to lull him to sleep.
Sylvie awakened slowly. A low rumble reverberated around the room. Her lids lifted as she raised her head from the soft pillow to track the sound and froze. Stretched out on the floor on its side rested the largest jungle cat of some sort she’d ever seen. The all white animal’s chest rose and fell with the deep sounds which had pulled her from her deep sleep. Short tuft ears tipped in black flicked forward and giant paws twitched occasionally while she stared part in awe and part in fear.
Afraid to move and trigger the animal into a deadly attack, Sylvie glanced across the room at the other bed where Joni slept, only to come eye to eye with her friend’s amused gaze. Joni placed a finger over her mouth as if to hush Sylvie even as the redhead battled a grin. Confusion added to her fuzzy sleep brain and it took a few seconds of concentration for Sylvie to place why the sight of a dangerous animal in their room would be cause for muted laughter.
“I think your Jutak came to watch over you,” Joni whispered, gold eyes alight.
And apparently whispers didn’t work on large cats with paws the size of her head and a tail with spiked barbs on the end. The subject of their interest rolled over to his stomach with a chuff and rose to all four in a slumberous motion. His mouth opened wide in a toddler’s version of a yawn. If a toddler had sharp, pointy teeth that looked like they could crush your skull. The cat performed an all out stretch with a low groan that only felines around the world and apparently the universe could manage. Joni snickered but Sylvie refused to take her eyes off the predator as he stalked toward the side of her bed.
Sylvie leaned up, keeping the covers to her chest. Could Joni be right? She stared into eyes as blue as the sky back home on Earth but darker. “Arak?”
She hoped this was Arak and not some creature who snuck into their room with the intent to rest before devouring them for breakfast. Fur, soft and thick, grazed the hand she braced on the bed as a large head rubbed against her fingers. Sylvie curled them in reflex and received a lick on the back of her knuckles from a rough, scratchy tongue. She snatched her hand away despite the relief of not losing any body parts. Blue eyes stared into hers and his wide flat nose twitched. His upper lip curled and Sylvie had the distinct feeling he laughed at her. After another head nudge, he turned and lumbered through the doorway.
“Quick,” Joni said, jumping from the bed to reveal the blue tee strap tank and matching boy shorts she’d slept in.
Joni hurried to the bedroom door and glanced back over her shoulder, waving. “Come on.”
Sylvie climbed from the bed and followed Joni as she dashed into the living area. Their visitor sat on his haunches by the front door. Joni beat her to the punch and opened the door for him and their cat visitor casually sauntered through. When the door closed behind him, Joni leaned against the frame and met Sylvie’s gaze across the room. They shared a moment of silence before Joni announced with a smirk. “If that wasn’t your Jutak, I’ll eat their nasty version of alien chocolate.”
Sylvie groaned and tugged at the hem of her own black boy shorts and matching tank. Exactly what she wanted to hear. The man who rescued her happened to shift into an all white deadly tiger who might be interested in her. She pursed her lips. Okay, definitely showed signs of interest and much to her embarrassment, Sylvie returned the interest. None of it explained what could have possessed him to come into their room during the night but she admitted knowing he’d watched over them gave her a modicum of security.
Arak made it to his room before shifting to his human form. Perspiration dotted his skin and his shaft pulsed against his thigh with each step he took toward the cleansing room. The scent of Sylvie taunted him as he adjusted the temperature to icy and stepped into the glass enclosure beneath the spray. He immediately fisted his aching length as he remembered the tempting sight she’d made standing feet away in the skimpy undergarments worn by Enotian females.
Her lithe figure enticed even as the fear in her blue gaze warned that she wouldn’t be receptive to him if he shifted to explain his presence in their quarters. Add in the fact he would have been nude and Arak knew he’d made the right decision when he left after being discovered. His intent had not been to stay the night. Just reassure himself of Sylvie’s safety. Except the events of the night had caught up with him and he’d allowed his exhaustion and her warm scent to lull him into oblivion.
Arak gave himself a firm squeeze before removing his hand from temptation. He washed in a hurry, letting the cold water cool his mounting desire. By the time he was dressed in his standard uniform, Arak had managed to get his raging libido under control. He ran a towel over his wet hair then tossed it on the cleansing room counter.
The communicator on his bed side table blinked and buzzed. Arak slid his boots on then answered. “O’Tir.”
“Torkel wants everyone involved in the last mission to meet in the Comm Center.”
At Jaron’s words, Arak tensed. If their Unit Leader called a meeting this early, it meant there was new information from the Commander or the Jutak governing council to be shared.
“I’m on my way.” Arak hesitated then asked the question on his mind because he couldn’t stop thinking of Sylvie. “Will the Earth females be there?”
A knowing tone entered Jaron’s voice. “Torkel’s Chosen, Faye, took them down for breakfast. I’ll see you when you arrive.”
The comm blinked out as Jaron disconnected without further conversation. Arak cursed under his breath and left his quarters to take the elevator to the lower level. As soon as he exited on the appropriate floor for the Comm Center, he spotted Faruk coming from the stairwell at the opposite end of the hall.
“Any idea what’s going on?” Faruk asked, stepping in line with him.
“Jaron hinted that Torkel wants to go over the mission details again.”
Faruk nodded his blond head. “I was on my way to talk with Torkel this morning but he wasn’t in his quarters and Faye said he’d called a meeting so I came on down.”
“How is Faye?” Many of the Jutak warriors had grown close to the female from Earth and all could appreciate the love she bore for their Unit leader, Torkel Alonson.
Faruk grinned. “Excited to have women from her world to talk to. She left when I did, racing to have breakfast with them.”
Arak snorted. He could imagine. The women had a lot in common. All came from Earth through the Singles Program in search of male life partners. All had been held prisoner by the Marenians to be sold as sex slaves. In Faye’s case, she’d been snatched by an Enotian with revenge in mind but his plan failed and she’d been rescued by the teams.
When they reached the Comm Center, the door opened to reveal a laughing Jaron. Arak tensed since the team leader’s humor was often misplaced. In fact, Jaron’s smile broadened when he and Arak’s gazes met. Inwardly, Arak sighed and tried to prepare himself.
“How did you sleep, Arak?”
A flash of his teeth only made Jaron laugh harder. The team leader closed the door and waited until Arak and Faruk joined Torkel and Kyele at the small table in the center of the room. Computers hummed in the background and alarms beeped in a steady rhythm. The Comm Center served as the communication hub for the facility as well as the Jutaks. Jaron controlled everything at the tips of his fingers. For all his joking ways, Arak trusted his team leader for Team One implicitly.
As soon as they sat, Torkel launched into the reason for their presence. “As we all know, yesterday’s mission did not result in the rescue of the Earth female Lindsey Ferra. While it is never a loss when we save anyone from the cruelty of the Marenians, it has placed us in the unique position of being the center of attention with the Jutak governing council.”
When he said the last, Torkel grimaced.
Jaron drummed his fingers on the table top, slouched back in his seat. “The council knows about our efforts. Lindsey isn’t just an assignment. She’s Faye’s friend.”
“Agreed,” Torkel stated. “Her husbands, however, are adding pressure for any knowledge of her whereabouts.”
Arak frowned. Not good. “They could make things worse instead of better if they’re not careful.”
“Exactly,” Jaron chimed in with a firm nod as he rocked back in his chair.
Torkel sighed and shoved a hand through his shoulder-length brown hair. His dark eyes narrowed. “We all know that but it doesn’t change the facts. She must be found and I’m curious as to why we haven’t tracked her down as of yet. There are alerts all over for her. Keeping such a high profile female hostage can only bring trouble to whoever has her.”
“It doesn’t make sense. Did Sylvia Forrester and Joni Miller say anything else? Remember anything about another Earth woman?”
Faruk’s question was a good one and everyone waited for Torkel’s response.
Torkel shook his head. “They’re pretty adamant about never crossing paths with a female fitting her description. I spoke with them again briefly when Faye introduced herself to them this morning.”
Torkel opened a file on his electronic tablet and tapped the screen. “I’m sending you all the notes I have after speaking with the Commander. He’s also spoken to the members of the Commission and the rescued females will be welcome to participate in the next presentation for a Chosen if they’re interested. It’s understandable if both of them preferred to remain single. If they decide to reside on Enotia, they’ll be granted citizenship because of their negative experience through the Singles Program. An asylum should they wish it.”
Arak straightened in his seat at this bit of important news. “What if they decide not to stay?”
Torkel raised a brow and laid his tablet on the table. “They’ll be given passage to any planet of their choice, including a return home to Earth if they request.”
A generous offer. Another growl slipped from his control. Return to Earth? Arak didn’t want Sylvie to return to Earth and didn’t want to observe too closely his reasons why the very idea sent panic surging through his veins. His fellow Jutaks cast curious glances in his direction and Arak’s face heated. He forced himself to lean back in his chair and pretended a lack of concern, which was far from the truth.
Torkel cleared his throat. “At any rate, the return of Lindsey Ferra is priority one. Anyone have any questions?”
Kyele, who’d been silent during the conversation, grunted. “One. There’s still the issue of a traitor somewhere along the line. Have we considered sending another Jutak under cover as we did before when Rydak infiltrated their folds? Members of Team Three have maintained their identities better than any of the rest of us.”
Jaron chuckled. “Because they’re the team no one wants to meet in the dark.”
Arak agreed. The men on Team Three had a dangerous skill set unmatched by any others on the teams under Torkel’s unit. His gaze strayed to Kyele. With the exception of Kyele and Arak still didn’t have any idea exactly what his friend was.
A slight grin curled Torkel’s mouth upward. “This has also been a topic of discussion with the Commander. V’Hor has volunteered.”
Arak winced and from the corner of his eye noticed Jaron’s wide eyes and Faruk’s pale features. Kyele remained stoic save for the twitch of his lips. Their reactions were warranted. V’Hor was serpine. A deadly race with little room for mercy in their hearts. Rumors claimed serpine parents killed inferior children at birth.
Not allowing their stunned silence to deter him, Torkel continued. “I’ve spoken to Rydak and he’ll work with Vee to share everything he was able to discern during his own time undercover as a merchant for sex slaves.”
“Anything on the chip we discovered from the site,” Arak asked in follow up.
Torkel cupped the back of his neck. “It’s encrypted. Jaron tried without success but I’ve passed it to Bane.”
Which was saying something because Jaron had mastered cracking computer code as a child. However, Bane’s skill on breaking passwords and electronic security walls surpassed many. Torkel used him if there was something Jaron couldn’t hack, which was rare.
Torkel wrapped up the meeting with a few final words and dismissed them. Jaron immediately reached Arak’s side when he left the Comm Center.
“Don’t you need to stay here and monitor everything?” Arak asked.
Jaron clapped an arm around his shoulder, a smug smile in place, as he tapped the black disc in his ear. “I have my comm. I’m free to tag behind my favorite friend all day.”
Arak groaned and tried to shrug off the touch. Jaron held tight and the two of them ended up wrestling in the hall much to Faruk’s amusement. Torkel took a wide berth around them and continued down the hall without comment. Arak pinned his team leader to the ground and flashed his fangs. Jaron, theebo, merely chuckled and shoved Arak off of him.
Arak allowed the move and rose to his feet while offering Jaron a hand up. “One of these days I’m going to claw you when we wrestle to teach you not to challenge me.”
Jaron snorted but it was Kyele leaning against the wall during the scuffle who spoke. “The Enotian would still risk it.”
He probably would. “I’m heading down to the rec room and snagging something to eat. Are you both going?”
Jaron’s shoulder rose. “I’m in.”
Faruk waved them off. “I’m on schedule to spar in the training room. You all have at it.”
Arak waited until he left before facing the elusive Kyele but Jaron spoke first, eyes lit with laughter. “And you? We might see the Earth female, Joni, who you can’t take your eyes off.”
Kyele snarled but Arak noted he stepped in stride with them.
Sylvie stopped mid-laugh at something Faye said to Joni when the three men entered the room. Her gaze unerringly landed on Arak and the two men walking on either side of him.
“Jaron,” Faye squealed and ran to hug the blond, who smiled and opened his arms wide.
The short, dark haired woman had gone out of her way to make them comfortable. Faye welcomed them warmly and had spent the last hour explaining things about life on Enotia and her own experience finding love with the Jutak warrior, Torkel Alonson.
Sylvie lowered the spoon in the hot cereal Faye had recommended as her gaze landed on the man who entered behind Jaron. His blue eyes scanned the large area until coming to rest on her. Joni muttered under breath but Sylvie ignored her friend to concentrate on the handsome dark-haired soldier striding briskly toward them.
Arak paused when he reached their table. “I hope both of you are finding everything meets your needs.”
While he posed the question to both of them, his blue eyes never left Sylvie’s face. She clamped her thighs together as the attraction she felt in his presence bloomed. Her treacherous nipples hardened and it was a good thing she’d put her silverware down or the tremble in her hands would have been noticeable.
“We’re fine,” Joni chirped with a wink at Sylvie.
Sylvie glanced over at her and growled. She’d kill her supposed friend.
“Did you just growl?” Arak’s voice deepened when he asked the question and the blue of his eyes darkened until they almost overshadowed the white. His hands clenched into fists on the table beside her plate as he leaned his imposing form close enough to brush against Sylvie.
He rubbed his nose along the angle of her jaw then across her cheekbones, ending by her ear where he whispered in a thickly accented voice, “You shouldn’t do that in public around me.”
Sylvie shivered at the blatant desire humming on the air between them. Before she could offer a protest at his high handed statement, Arak straightened and left them alone to join the men he’d entered with. The three sat on a low-slung couch and soon a small group formed around them. They spoke animatedly with one another and it was clear by the camaraderie displayed that they knew and respected each other well.
“My girl, if you don’t take him for a ride, I’ll think you lost your mind.”
Joni’s jest broke Sylvie from her stupor. Once more she glared at the redhead. “That was totally your fault.”
“And it was hot as hell.” Joni offered an unrepentant grin and leaned across the narrow, wood table separating them. “I couldn’t see everything with the angle of his head but it looked like he nuzzled you. F-ing sexy.”
Sylvie flushed and picked up her spoon, finding the lumpy, hot cereal fascinating as she shoveled it in her mouth.
“He did!” Joni crowed with a gleeful laugh, drawing stares their way.
One blue stare in particular caught and held her attention then one lid lowered and he winked at her. Sylvie slumped in her seat. “God. You kill me, Joni.”
Her friend sobered and reached across the table to grasp her free hand. “I like seeing you like this. For so long we had to pretend we weren’t scared. Had to stay strong in that hell hole never knowing if we’d make it out. I’m glad you like him.”
“I didn’t say I liked him,” Sylvie cut in, though her heart pounded in his presence.
Joni squeezed her fingers and let go. “But you’re attracted to him and it’s not wrong, no matter what you tell yourself.”
Her heart shifted into an unsteady rhythm as Sylvie remembered being held in a cage, the burn of the whip on her feet. “Joni, it’s too soon.”
“No,” Joni snapped, amber eyes narrowed. “No, it’s not. You deserve every bit of happiness available. I would have lost my mind without you there.”
Sylvie took a deep breath and leaned back in her seat. Joni was right about that. They’d kept each other sane but Joni deserved happiness just as much. Sylvie shook away the thoughts. She forced her lips into a semblance of a smile and snuck a look over her shoulder.
“If we’re match making…” Sylvie let the sentence trail off.
“Don’t you dare,” Joni whispered, her eyes wide, as she followed Sylvie’s gaze to the tall Jutak leaning against the back of the sofa. The black uniform pants they all wore cupped a firm butt and molded to long legs. His dark head tipped down as he listened to his teammates while between his fingers he twirled a knife.
As if sensing their stares, Kyele’s head turned and green eyes studied them closely. He cocked his head to the side then stiffened. Sylvie faced her friend to see how she was taking the attention only to see fiery red blotches on Joni’s cheeks. She started to speak but Joni choked and Sylvie jerked her head back around to see Kyele straighten as if to approach. The scar on his cheek twitched and then one of the men, another blond, called his name and Kyele reluctantly went back to the conversation.
“I’m not sure what’s between the two of you but be careful with that one,” Sylvie warned. Her attraction to Arak didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as the dark looks that one gave her friend.
“Ditto,” Joni said, returning to her toasted bread and what looked like fake bacon but thicker in texture.
Still wearing a broad smile, Faye returned to their table. The curvy brunette amazed Sylvie. She claimed to have only been on Enotia for a few months but Sylvie saw how comfortable the woman was living here. Happiness fairly glowed from her skin.
“Sorry,” Faye said and resumed her seat. “Jaron’s like a brother and I hadn’t seen him since he left for the mission. Torkel told me there’d been a slightbumpas he called it and that the Marenians chose to blow up the facility where you both were held.”
Sylvie waved away the apology. “We’re grateful for all the effort in getting us out of there and I’m sorry we don’t know anything about your friend.”
She remembered someone mentioning Faye’s determined search for another woman from Earth by the name of Lindsey.
Faye’s eyes darkened. “Lindsey and I were taken by those horned filth mongers. I promised her we’d get out together but…she was sold the same day I was rescued by Team One.”
Sylvie understood that Torkel was a Unit Leader and that he led three teams of five elite soldiers who worked to maintain peace in their part of the world.
“Anyway,” Faye added, bracing her elbows on the table and leaning forward. “Torkel told me the Enotian government has offered asylum and if you still want husbands the presentation ceremony is an option.”
Joni already shook her head. “I’m not interesting in looking, finding or settling for a man.”
Faye’s mouth tipped down and her eyes, a dark brown, hinted at familiar sadness. “I can understand. If not for Torkel, I’m not sure what I would have done in similar circumstances.”
A loud burst of laughter drew all of their stares. Many of the heads gathered in the circle were blond with a few dark haired men thrown in to the mix. One man had another in a headlock though his victim snickered as he attempted to free himself.
“Geile and Gregir are brothers.” Faye smiled softly. “I’m sure Jaron is behind whatever they’re doing.”
Sylvie swallowed and asked, “What happens to Joni and I now?”
Where would they go?
What would they do?
Joni perked up in her seat, amber eyes alight.
“There’s an apartment building in the city. My Chosen has made arrangements for Joni and you to have your own place. An account has been set up with a small balance from the SP organization in recognition for the small part they played in your captivity. Your pilot’s distress call should have been a priority but instead the captain chose to return in his own time. He never even notified any other vessels, which could have been in the vicinity to render aid.”
Sylvie’s breath eased out on a sigh, the tension in her shoulders at her fate easing. Money and a place. It was a starting point. “Thank you, Faye.”
“No. Thanks aren’t necessary. We Earth women have to stick together.”
All of them exchanged glances then giggled. Women on Earth werenotknown for sticking together since men were a limited commodity.
Faye continued. “Clothes have been ordered and delivered to the apartments. Anything you don’t like can be returned. I just wish they had underwear and bras. I had to place an order from Earth but it won’t arrive for a few weeks.”
“Why don’t you wear the Enotian undergarments,” Joni asked, finishing her food and pushing her plate away.
Faye’s eyes widened. “They don’t have any.”
A frown pierced Joni’s brow. “Sure they do. Boy shorts that I hope don’t rise after washing and tanks with built in padding. Not exactly bra and panties but its something.”
Red stained Faye’s cheeks. “That slick Chosen of mine. Torkel never gave me under clothes so I assumed the women here didn’t wear any.”
Faye’s head lifted as her eyes scanned the room and it was unfortunate that Torkel chose that moment to enter the recreation room with a warm smile when he spotted Faye.
“Excuse me ladies,” Faye growled and rose to her feet to confront him.
“He’s in the alien dog house if I’m not mistaken,” Joni said, not taking her eyes off the drama about to play out.
Sylvie and the men watched as well. Faye leaned in close to her man and stabbed her finger at his uniform covered broad chest. Torkel’s cheeks flamed. With anger or outrage Sylvie couldn’t tell. His dark brows pulled down in a V formation and he whispered something back to Faye before grasping her finger and lowering it.
Sylvie half-rose out of her seat and the scrape of the chair across from her signaled Joni mirroring the move. Too many times they’d watched women, fellow prisoners, beaten by angry males. Aliens with two times their strength. The Jutak was twice Faye’s size.
Faye arched up on her toes and jerked on his shoulder-length, brown hair. Torkel grabbed her by the waist and half-lifted her in the air. Sylvie took one step toward them before a band of steel clamped around her waist.
Instinct governed her next action as she cocked back her elbow, prepared to deliver a sharp blow when soft accented words caressed the lobe of her ear. “Shh. Watch.”
Her eyes focused on the arguing couple but Sylvie couldn’t ignore the fluttery sensation around her middle from the warm weight of Arak’s arm holding her against a rock-solid chest. The hard bulge between his legs nudged against her lower back.
Torkel leaned down and kissed Faye gently. Her fingers tangled in the strands of his hair as he lowered her to her feet. When they parted, Torkel grinned and murmured something in Faye’s ear. She chuckled and slapped at his shoulders.
Now to deal with the man at her back.
“He would never harm a hair on her head,” Arak continued.
Conflicting emotions converged on her. Sylvie wanted to lean back into the security of his embrace but her recent experiences made her leery of trusting contact with any stranger.
“You can trust me, you know.” His husky murmur against the side of her face curled the hair at her nape. His accent was like none she’d ever heard before. Flavored with a European tint and the clipped edges of something else, his voice caressed her in ways Sylvie hadn’t expected.
Before she could respond to his claim, his arm slid away from her waist and he stepped back. Sylvie mourned the loss and the warmth of his touch. She turned to face him but he moved away before she could reprimand him for the intimate way he’d held her. Faye flounced over, keeping Sylvie from speaking to Arak. He raised a brow and smiled before leaving them alone.
The little Earthling was a fighter. When the aroma of Sylvie’s fear and worry reached him, Arak’s senses had lit up. One glance at her expression as she watched the scene unfold between Faye and Torkel had told him all he needed to know. Memories of her experience with the slavers played across her features and it would have taken someone stronger than him to resist the need to ease her concern.
After her initial stiffening, she’d melted into his embrace as his arms held her. Soft and warm, Sylvie aroused him without effort and Arak had left her vicinity as fast as his legs could carry him. Her scent, her arousal wove around him, creating a layer of desire so thick he’d almost taken her to the floor regardless of those present. A grin ticked up the side of his mouth. He was sure she’d have appreciated that.
Faruk called his name, preventing his escape. Arak paused outside the recreation room and waited for the leader of Team Two to reach him. Sweat covered his friend’s bare chest and his damp blond hair was slicked back.
“Torkel wants to know if you and Bane can take the Earth females to the apartment that’s been secured for them in the morning.”
Arak stiffened and tried to mask the reaction an instant later when Faruk gazed at him quizzically. Sylvie and her friend would be moving away from the Jutak facility. His feelings about the move tore him in two. Part of him wanted to avoid her because of his unexplained attraction but his cat clawed his inside at her being out of his reach. The mixed feelings didn’t stop his agreement. “Of course. Have you already spoken with Bane?”
Faruk sighed. “No. I hoped Rydak could pass on that particular message but he’s with Lissi and their kids. You know how he is about family time.”
Arak hid his wince. He wouldn’t want to bother the Team Three leader either. Rydak Jaard guarded his time with his Chosen fiercely and he was not a man to get on the wrong side of.
Still, Faruk could speak directly with Bane himself. “I’ll be ready whenever the females are ready to leave.”
Faruk hesitated, causing Arak to stall in his attempts to return to his room and deal with the arousal throbbing in his pants from holding Sylvie in his arms. If he didn’t find release soon he’d snap for certain. “What else, Faruk?”
The team lead wasn’t one to not spit out what he wanted.
“Well, I…hoped you’d convey the message to Bane.” Faruk gripped the back of his neck and tipped his head toward the ceiling before exhaling. “Come on, Arak. You’re the only one outside Torkel and Rydak who’s not afraid of the guys on Team Three.”
Arak rolled his eyes. Team One and Two handled the majority of the missions from the Commander. The governing council reserved Team Three for black assignments where no trace would be left behind. Torkel sent them out for anything that required the ability to leave your conscious at home. Arak could never do what his fellow Jutaks on that team did.
“Fine. Where is he?”
The relieved grin on Faruk’s face spoke volumes. “Training room. He stayed behind after knocking me down twice.”
Arak chuckled, not surprised. Bane handled hand-to-hand combat as if he’d been born fighting and practice was something he did like it was a real life or death situation. The Ceraton reminded Arak of Kyele in some ways. “Alright.”
“Thanks, Arak.” Faruk gripped his shoulder tight and squeezed then jogged down the corridor free from having to deliver the message.
Arak shook his head and took the elevator to the gym the Unit used for exercise and sparring purposes. Grunts and thuds reached his enhanced hearing before he reached the double doors. Curious to know who else used the room since most of the team had been in the rec room while the Earth women ate, Arak slid in silently and took up position against a back wall. The session taking place was too intense to interrupt.
V’hor and Bane fought with the long sticks Arak had mastered his first year out of training to be a Jutak. The clack of wood striking wood bounced off the walls. Bane swiveled to the side to avoid a sharp blow to the head and kicked out with his right leg, intent on V’hor’s mid-section. The serpine rolled his torso in a move no one but his race could duplicate and slivered out of the way of the large black boot. Arak shook off a shiver at the eerie sight.
Bane never paused and followed the failed kick with two steps forward, arms swinging his weapon in a back and forth arc before him. V’hor dodged the blows and blocked each attempt, body shifting sinuously. Bane cursed and shifted his grip on the weapon to free a hand which he jabbed to V’hor’s face. The serpine leaned back, almost bending his body in half then snapped back up and tagged Bane twice on the shoulder with his stick while grinning madly.
Bane tossed the stick aside to launch himself at the leaner figure of his opponent. V’hor’s back hit the floor with a loud thud as the two men grappled and V’hor’s stick rolled across the floor with a clatter. Bane gained the upper hand and pinned the serpine on his back against the blue mats.
V’hor reared back and trilled. The sound made the hair at Arak’s nape curl and his cat paced inside, hissing in fear. Lighthearted sparring became something else. The mood in the room shifted and the temperature dropped several degrees. Arak straightened. Both had to have sensed his presence and knew he watched but neither spared him a glance.
V’hor punched Bane repeatedly in the face and the larger man fell to the side, freeing V’hor. Instead of ending it, the serpine crawled atop Bane in a quick roll of his limbs. V’hor’s hand lashed out, grabbing Bane’s throat in a vice-like grip. V’hor swayed and even from where he stood, Arak saw the diamond pupils narrow and glaze over as he leaned close to Bane’s face.
“Match,” Bane said clearly, arms spread wide.
V’hor hissed, muscles tense.
“He’s done, Vee,” Arak called out, entering the room further and crossing to them in case he had to pull V’hor away. If Vee entered a tranced state Bane would be fucked.
Both men froze. Harsh, raspy breaths escaped Vee’s mouth. Finally, his shoulders slumped as he heaved to his feet and offered a hand to Bane. Vee shook his head as if clearing his thoughts and mumbled. “Sorry.”
“That’s what you’ve been saying,” Bane snarled, rising to his feet without help. “When pushed you zone. Get it together before Rydak and Torkel notice you’re losing control.”
This was news to Arak. He studied his fellow Jutak closely. Vee dug his fingers into his hair at the admonishment. The blond fuzz was cropped close to his head. His oddly-shaped green eyes didn’t look any different when he shifted his gaze in Arak’s direction.
“Thank you, Arak.” Vee walked toward a side bench along the wall and wiped at the sweat gathered on his chest with a white towel.
“You good?” Arak asked Bane, who had his hands braced on his hips as he continued to glower at Vee.
“Yes,” Bane snapped without facing him.
Arak approached carefully, not liking the crackling energy in the room. Neither looked interested in sharing. Both men belonged on Team Three and kept to themselves unless Torkel required a team swap. Arak eyed Bane. The Ceraton could be extremely ruthless to others if he lost a match. His brutality was part of what made him such a valuable Jutak warrior. Each man on Team Three possessed deadly skills and Rydak paid particularly close attention to who he assigned on training rosters to prevent fatal accidents among them.
In fact, Vee wasn’t anywhere on the wall mounted schedule for this week, which didn’t explain why the two were here sparring. When Arak reached Bane’s side, he had to look up to the taller man in order to speak in a low voice not wanting Vee to hear. “What’s going on?”
Bane refused to answer for a moment then shook his head, dispelling whatever thoughts darkened his midnight colored eyes. He glanced at Arak. “Nothing. Yet.”
His glare dared Arak to question him further. A low grumble rose from Arak’s chest at the challenge but he tamped down the feelings of ire and his cat’s need to swipe at his friend. “Faruk says Torkel wants us to take the two Earth women to a place in the city he’s secured for them. Will you be available?”
Bane shrugged and leaned down to grab a discarded, black uniform shirt from the gleaming tiled floor, which he slid his arms in and left unbuttoned. “First thing in the morning works and I’ll meet you out front.”
Arak nodded and turned to leave.
“Don’t mention this, Argoran.”
Arak spun on his heels and met the glare in Bane’s black gaze. White lines spread from the pupils. Another might have backed down from the brawny Ceraton but Arak had earned his spot on the teams and wasn’t afraid to give back measure for measure. “Is there something to mention?”
Bane hesitated and Arak pushed further. “Vee leaves on a solo mission shortly. Does Torkel need a heads up?”
Their job did not allow for slip ups nor for any of them to be off their game. If Vee’s head wasn’t in a good place, then he didn’t need to go undercover where he’d have no back up if things went ass up.
Bane exhaled and clenched meaty fists at his side. “Nothing to worry over. I’d report him myself if I thought this was an issue.”
Arak hoped this was the truth. A Jutak warrior had to remain sharp. Mistakes for them meant life or death.
Sylvie had relaxed after Faye explained that Torkel never provided her with underclothes when she first arrived to Enotia. Apparently, the formidable leader had said the right thing to fluster her because Faye blushed each time Torkel glanced her way and winked. After their meal, Torkel informed Sylvie two of his men would accompany her and Joni to an apartment located further in the city until they decided if they wanted to stay on Enotia or return to Earth.
The next morning found Sylvie sitting next to Joni as they rode in the back of a hover car. She’d slept peacefully for the second night in a row and ignored the twinge of disappointment when she’d awakened and no cat stretched out on her floor. Obviously Arak had only wanted to assure himself of their well being the first night. Why would he need to repeat the exercise?
Looking for a distraction from her disturbing thoughts, Sylvie ran her hands over the seat. The plush gray interior had her sinking into the cushions while Arak drove and another Jutak who’d introduced himself as Bane sat in the front with him. Bane’s appearance startled her. Or maybe it was his demeanor. The soldier gave off an intense vibe that made her want to curl in a corner far, far away from him. Every time she looked up, his black eyes held her in place and sent her heart tripping over its beat.
Compared to Arak, Sylvie considered Bane a giant. The perception was enhanced by the brawny arm propped on the edge of the window of the hover car. He wore a black uniform similar to Arak’s but on his large frame the official shirt and pants looked as if they strained to contain bulging muscles while Arak’s physique leaned toward tightly ripped. Adding to Sylvie’s discomfort, Bane’s blond hair refused to stir in the mild breeze drifting through the window and the one glance from his black eyes dared Sylvie to comment.
Her nerves jumped from excitement to fear and back again. Freedom as much as she desired it came with an overwhelming sense of unbalance after being caged without the ability to so much as choose when or what you ate.
Beside her, Joni’s legs bounced in time to her bobbing head as she gazed out of the window. They were traveling through the capitol city, everything passing in a blur. If the rest of the planet was anything like what she’d seen after viewing the vid logs, Enotia was indeed a beautiful place. The architecture alone had Sylvie staring. Tall buildings in white stone topped by conical roofs dotted the landscape. Plentiful trees with twisting branches full of bright colored buds lined the streets.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Sylvie grinned. “Earth doesn’t coin pennies any more.”
Joni rubbed a hand over her cloth covered thigh. New clothing courtesy of Faye. “I keep telling myself this is real but a part of me is afraid to believe.”
Sylvie understood the thought because she felt the same way. “It might take us a while to adjust. I’m afraid I’ll wake up and we’ll be back in that horrible room.”
Truthfully it was a big fear. What if the Marenians wanted them back? How important were she and Joni in the grand scheme of things? How much money had they cost the slavers?
The hover car slowed and came to a complete stop. A glance out the window revealed a four story steel and glass building on a perfectly ordinary street, though the trees were plentiful. The greenery towered taller and thicker than what one would find on Earth. Crisp leaves in gold and purple made up the foliage with thick black branches acting as framework. Oddly enough the trunk of the tree had thin veins of brown enmeshed in the black wood.
Enotian men and women strolled along a bronze colored walkway and a few younger folks glided by on skids which reminded her of a motorized version of ancient skateboards found on Earth. All very ordinary and yet far from it, since the early morning sky of Enotia had a lavender haze and its citizens were eerie in their mirror image blond hair and light-colored eyes.
“Creepy, right?” Joni whispered.
Sylvie snorted as she stepped from the hover craft. “Only in the fact that I fit in while you stand out.”
Joni glanced around and stiffened at the increased attention. Whether it was the bright red hair or the two men coming around to escort them into the building, Sylvie couldn’t say.
Bane stood slightly apart from them and his deep voice rumbled when he spoke. “We need to get inside quickly. Standing around with Jutaks will make them more curious.”
Arak came up on the side of her and cupped Sylvie’s elbow. Instead of the warm seductive expression he usually wore, his features were cast in stone and his blue eyes glared at any who stared too long. Bane didn’t have the chance to touch Joni because she sidled next to Sylvie’s other side and they made an odd quartet entering the lavish apartment. And lavish was an understatement.
Sylvie tried not to gawk at the beautiful interior. Uniformed staff smiled at every patron entering or departing. They stood ramrod straight behind a long sleek metal counter. Dark blue dresses for the women and dark blue high collared suits for the men. When Sylvie made eye contact, she received a nod and a widening of the complimentary smile. One smile per visitor coming right up. She held back a giggle at the inane thought.
Automatic doors opened and closed for patrons coming in and out. The black tiled floor gleamed as sunlight shot beams of light through the front wall made entirely of glass.
“It’s one way glass,” Arak commented when her steps slowed. “You can see out but no one can see in.”
His words calmed the worry Sylvie hadn’t noticed niggling at the back of her mind until he spoke. She tugged on her arm for him to release it. His fingers tightened for an instant as their gazes met. Blue orbs smoldered and her skin tingled where his hand stroked the tender skin of her inner arm before he let go. Sylvie could have drowned in his blue depths except Joni cleared her throat. Sylvie jerked away and flushed. They’d come to a complete stop in the lobby.
Bane’s lips lifted in what she assumed to be a grin. The sight frightened her enough to cringe. Arak growled at his teammate and Bane’s black eyes glittered with humor.
Joni eased up beside her. “You’re playing with fire.
Sylvie’s heart stuttered. “Me?”
“We’re drawing attention,” Bane said and hustled them forward.
Her face burned brighter as they followed Bane toward an electronic stairway located at the center of the lobby with Arak closing in the rear.
The glide stopped on each floor to let people off. No one pushed or jostled surprising Sylvie. Enotians apparently lived by their good manners. They continued on until they reached the fourteenth floor where their apartment was located. A nudge from Arak moved Sylvie forward. The hallway split to the left and right with small digital placards on the wall detailing apartment numbers followed by a discrete blinking, red arrow beneath. Arak headed toward the right, keeping a proprietary hand at Sylvie’s lower back.
Her lips parted to protest but when she glanced up, his blue eyes stared down at her with greed. Greed and hunger he made no effort to hide. Sylvie couldn’t deny she probably watched him with the same level of intensity. Both men wore identical black uniforms minus weapons but it was Arak her eyes refused to leave. His dark hair was clipped short and he had a way of tipping his head to the side when he spoke to her or waited for her to answer a question. The blue of his eyes had the honest ability to rob her of speech. Like now.
“I need your hand, Sylvia.”
Sylvie blinked. “What?”
They all stared and Arak had his hand extended toward her, palms up. “The door lock is based on a scan print of your hand.”
“Oh.” Heat flooded her cheeks as she held her hand aloft and he pressed it to the door.
A beep sounded. Arak released her with an almost absent caress and keyed in shapes on the pad below. The latch clicked. He pushed the door open and glanced at her. “It’s now set to open for you only.”
With his arm stretched out to hold the door wide for her, Arak’s uniform shirt went taut over his muscular chest. Sylvie swallowed as her gaze traveled over his flat stomach and stopped on the bulge at the apex of his thighs. The black cloth pulsed and her lower region tingled in response.
“You’re a few doors down,” Bane interrupted, guiding Joni down the hall.
Sylvie pulled her gaze from Arak’s crotch. When Bane stopped at the third door down, Sylvie released a relieved breath. Joni checked over her shoulder at Sylvie to confirm and she nodded. Neither wanted to be far from one another yet.
“Come on.” Arak entered the fully furnished space, leaving Sylvie no choice but to follow.
As soon as she crossed the threshold, the door closed, sealing them in together. Sylvie jumped but Arak crowded her and cupped her face in the rough cradle of his hand. Her breath hitched and her heart immediately began a discordant beat. “Arak?”
“I smell your fear,” he murmured, lids half lowered to blue slits. “Don’t be afraid of me, Sylvia Forrester.”
“Sylvie,” she countered, shivering as his hand trailed over her cheekbone. His thumb brushed over the curve before sinking into her hair.
“Sylvie,” he rasped, massaging her scalp. Soft, tender strokes.
She should move. Pull away. But his gentle touch held her immobile with nothing more than the power of his caress. When his head lowered toward her, Sylvie closed her eyes. The first touch of his lips was anticlimactic. He pulled back and Sylvie’s eyes flickered open, his face close enough that each breath wisped over her mouth.
Her head moved up and down of its own accord, which Arak must have taken as a sign to continue. When his lips met hers this time, they weren’t soft. Or gentle. His mouth slid across hers, tongue demanding entry. Her lips parted on a gasp and his tongue delved inside, stroking against hers. Then again in a taunting motion that teased. Sylvie tightened her hands on the shirt tucked at his waist and moaned, her hips tilting up against the hard length pressed into her mid-section.
One of his hands glided up her torso and the other sunk deeper into her loose hair, using her neck to pin her in place while his mouth moved over hers in obvious possession. Then he growled. The animal sound had her freezing in an instant.
“Don’t be afraid. Please,” he breathed again against her neck.
“I’m not,” Sylvie gasped.
Arak pulled back slightly and studied her expression. Determination glared back from her narrowed gaze. The corner of his mouth ticked up. “Right. You’re not afraid of me but you’re afraid of this.” He stroked his hand up the curve of her spine, feeling the fine tremors. “The way I make you feel.”
She regarded him without flinching, the hidden core of strength in her lulling him toward her. What grew between them is what frightened Sylvie.
Sylvie pushed at him, attempting to break away while she fought to catch her breath. Arak released her instantly, his hands cupping her shoulders to hold her steady.
After assuring himself that she was fine, Arak tapped her chin and repeated his earlier question. “Alright?”
She licked her lips, the tiny gesture hardening him to the point of pain. “I’m fine.”
Arak fought for control. The urge to claim her shoved at his senses but Sylvie’s fear lingered on the air and Arak took a second step back, hoping distance would help. He resisted the need to smooth out the crease at her brow, to run his fingers over the plump lips she worried her teeth over.
“If you need anything use the communicator. The same numbers are programmed in it to reach Faye and Torkel’s quarters, Jaron if you require assistance and mine. You can call me any time.”
“Call me anytime, Sylvie,” he repeated, knowing she’d ignore it as she did her best to ignore him and the sizzling attraction between them.
Sylvie leaned against the counter as Faye whizzed around the small kitchen. She fiddled with the food unit and returned with a plate then set the alleged dessert in front of Sylvie.
Her brown eyes danced. “Try it.”
Sylvie picked up her fork and gazed at the doughy, crust circles. “Am I going to regret this?”
Faye’s light chuckle rang out. “No. It’s an Enotian treat. The guys love it and I’ve been making it for Torkel since I discovered it.”
Sylvie poked at the sand-colored disc. “Looks like cookies.” She raised a brow at Faye. “Or flat cupcakes.”
Faye slapped a hand over her mouth and snickered. “Stop! I’m serious. Enotian parents make it for their children but apparently not for adults.” Her eyes turned teasing. “Arak steals them whenever he visits.”
Sylvie aimed her fork for Faye’s fingers pressed on the counter but the woman moved out of reach. “Dirty pool.”
She broke off a small piece and tasted. Cinnamon. Sylvie closed her eyes and savored the flavor as the taste burst on her tongue. “It reminds me of snicker doodles.”
“Ha!” Triumph filled Faye’s face. “Told you.”
Sylvie laughed and broke off another piece of the cookie to pop into her mouth.
“Crimps!” Arak exclaimed, coming into the kitchen.
His large frame shrunk the size of the small space. He wore a black short-sleeve shirt and black, drawstring pants that swayed about his ankles. His damp hair curled on the ends and Sylvie chewed hard on her cookie to keep from sighing aloud in appreciation. Torkel appeared behind him. Faye’s Chosen didn’t attempt to squeeze his large frame in, preferring to lean against the wall at the arched entry between the living room and kitchen.
“Torkel.” A bright grin spread over Faye’s mouth.
“Come to me, my Chosen.” An intimate look accompanied the obvious command.
Faye didn’t hesitate and closed the distance with a leap that landed her in the big man’s arms. He returned Faye’s smile and kissed her forehead.
Sylvie diverted her gaze to allow them a moment of privacy and met Arak’s curious, blue stare. She shifted from one foot to the other. Blunt fingers reached passed her as Arak snagged a cookie and ate it in one bite.
When she glared at him, he winked and turned toward Torkel. “Faye, if I could have chosen you, I would have.”
Torkel lowered Faye to her feet and aimed a dark look at Arak. “I will be sure to send you on the next mission to the outer realms.”
Arak winced but Faye’s chuckle soon had him grinning again. “Faye loves you, Torkel.”
Faye shook her head. “Enough, you two. Torkel, I promised Lissi we would take Boid and Aya to your maman for the day while she spends time with Rydak. Lock up, Sylvie.”
Torkel groaned but allowed Faye to drag him from the room and a moment later, the door closed with a click.
Arak leaned back onto the counter, ankles crossed and ate another cookie. “You’re looking well, Sylvie.”
She had to admit her adjustment to Enotia was coming along smoother than she expected. In part due to this man. Granted it was only a few days but his sporadic calls on the comm to talk to her, the unplanned visits where he prowled her apartment to search for intruders all aided in the transition. Who was she kidding? His kisses also helped. Arak always kissed her before leaving. Sometimes on the forehead or the cheek and other times on the mouth where their tongues would tangle briefly. “I’m doing fine.”
“Hmm.” He reached for his third cookie.
Sylvie smiled and slid the plate closer to him. Only two remained. “You might as well have those. Faye said everyone loves them.”
Arak’s bowed his head and picked up the two cookies but not before Sylvie caught his guilty grin.
Sylvie smirked, comfortable in his presence. “I take it this is something your mom made a lot when you were younger too?”
Arak couldn’t control his flinch. His easy smile dropped. He pushed off the counter, taking himself away from her scent, the softness of her body. “I don’t have a maman.”
Her mouth fell open. “I’m sorry, Arak.”
“Why? I’m not. She chose her life and it wasn’t with me and my papan.”
Whoa, Arak cautioned himself, unable to believe he’d blurted one of his biggest secrets out to this female. Maybe not a secret, he corrected but not exactly something he shouted from the rooftops. A shared confidence like that at least required plenty of alcohol, although his body metabolized liquor so fast it probably wouldn’t have don’t the trick either.
Sylvie cleaned up the dish from the snacks and led him to the living area where she sat on the sofa. “Does your mother live close?”
Sympathy glinted from her blue eyes, drawing him to reveal, “My maman lives on Argora with her mate.”
Her creased brow spoke of her confusion. “Your parents don’t live on Enotia?”
Arak had no choice but to discuss a topic he rarely shared with others. “They aren’t together. My maman fell in love with an Argoran male during his heat cycle. There’s was…is a love match and what she felt as my papan’s Chosen paled in comparison.”
“I don’t understand. A heat cycle?” She stared at him with sincere curiosity.
“My maman is an Argoran shifter. The males go through a heat cycle calledmuata. This allows them to find their one true mate. During his muata, Wayn bit and claimed her in his shifted form.”
A light dawned in her gaze. “You’re a shifter? That explains the cat.”
Hearing the evident disbelief in her voice, Arak corrected her. “I’m half-Argoran shifter and half-Enotian.”
Her tongue licked her bottom lip slowly. The gesture tempted Arak to forget his plans to accustom her to him and instead lean forward to take her mouth in a kiss that would allow him to do all the licking.
“Shift for me.”
Sylvie’s demand brought him back from the fantasy. “What?”
Her cheeks turned red but she met his gaze evenly. “C-can you shift now?”
Arak ran a hand through his hair, nervous about something he’d been doing for years now. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Sylvie.”
She sat up straighter on the sofa, blonde brows lifted in pique. “Why not?”
Impossibly, Arak found himself smiling. “It might startle you.
Her denial was instant. “I didn’t run when you were in our other place while we slept.”
Embarrassment heated his body. The night he’d snuck into their room. “Are you sure?”
Her blue eyes stayed determined. “Yes.”
Arak studied her a moment longer before rising to his feet and removing his shirt. The hitch in her breathing was telling as he shrugged the material from his shoulders. He tossed it on the sofa beside her and unfastened his pants with one last glance to see if she appeared afraid. He had every intention of stopping if Sylvie looked like she’d bolt. Her eyes glazed over, heat blaring.
No, she wasn’t afraid. Far from it. Her scent rose between them. A slow warmth built up from his middle. With every fiber of his being, Arak battled the erection trying to spring forth. Sylvie leaned forward from her seat, avid gaze on his chest. Arousal surged. Arak muffled a groan and removed the rest of his clothes and boots. A simple thought and his cat leaped through, eager for the chance to be close to the female he lusted for. His.
The transition from man to animal took seconds. Arak’s feet padded over the floor toward her. Despite her earlier claim, Sylvie rose from the sofa and made to run, her scent a luscious bouquet to his senses.
Chase. Catch. His Argoran half roared to the forefront. Energized after his shift, Arak gave his cat free rein and pounced on Sylvie before she could take more than two steps. He kept his claws sheathed as his front paws thumped her hip. She stumbled but regained her footing and backed into the arm of the sofa.
Arak butted his head against her leg carefully. He wanted her to run so he could chase. The very thought thrilled. Instead Sylvie dropped onto the sofa cushion, arms out in front of her. Arak nudged her knee.Run, run, run. His cat wanted to play.
Her widened eyes narrowed and the scent of honey swirled around him. Fear faded, leaving behind sweet notes of amazement and pure Sylvie.
Full lips ticked up. Her ragged laugh sent shivers down his spine. “Ah, hell no. And no again.”
Arak tipped his head to the side and Sylvie snorted. “You can’t exactly pull off innocent when your teeth are the size of my fingers and your feet are the size of my head.”
Humor and delight rolled through him. Arak wanted to laugh but since he couldn’t, he rested his head on her lap, inhaling her succulent aroma. Sylvie. His Sylvie.
After a moment her hand came down to touch his ears, fingers kneading along the way. She ran her hand through his fur, causing the inevitable reaction.
Sylvie snatched her hand back and he almost whined. After a moment, her hand returned.
“You, sir, are a slick one,” she murmured.
Since her touch started to arouse, Arak decided it best to shift before he gave her more than she wanted to see.
Sylvie pushed at the large head on her lap, his playful side unexpected. Every day a little more of Sylvie’s concerns dimmed. Her trust for the Jutak warriors, who’d rescued her and Joni, grew in increments as well as her attraction for the man leaning against her legs. His presence more than the others warmed and reassured her that maybe she didn’t have to worry about the Marenians any longer.
Fur receded to skin and paws gave way to arms and legs. Her cheeks heated as he rose to his feet completely bare leaving the man, the Jutak warrior, standing before her. Her breath stalled. Tightly compacted muscles flowed from his chest to a taut abdomen that flexed beneath her stare. Slim hips continued to rippling thighs, a thin trail of hair arrowed downward toward his groin. Sylvie tried to tell herself to lift her eyes. Instead, she licked her lips in appreciation. His shaft stiffened and rose toward his belly button, twitching the longer she stared.
Arak cleared his throat and leaned passed her to reach for his shirt. His musky male scent encompassed her and Sylvie closed her eyes to fully take it in. She opened them again when he groaned.
“Your eyes speak for you. You must stop.”
Her? Sylvie reached out to caress the growing erection. He was the one parading temptation in front of her by not having any clothes on.
Arak moved back and his curse rang out. “You make it difficult to do what’s right, Sylvie.”
He was dressed and out the door before she could satisfy her curiosity and see if he was as hard and soft as he looked all over.
Jaron bypassed the other members of their unit to approach Arak during his second round of reps on the weight machine. The Team One leader stopped at Arak’s side. Initially, when Arak began his workout the room had been empty. Soon after, a few of the guys had joined him, eager for the opportunity to squeeze in a free work out when possible. All of them liked to stay prepared in case Torkel needed them to leave at a moments notice.
The solitude of earlier had faded to be replaced with occasional grunts and a few chuckles but the familiar noises appeased Arak’s other half, enjoying the presence of others.
Up close, Jaron’s blue eyes gleamed with pleasure. Sitting up and patting his face dry with a towel, Arak waited until Jaron spoke.
“Good news. Bane cracked the coding on the chip you and Kyele brought back. Not sure of everything on there but so far its detailed logs of shipments of slaves and dates and times of auctions. Torkel’s with him now confirming everything before he reports to the governing council.”
Arak sat up and swung his legs around the side of the bench. It had taken a week for this bit of news. A week in which anything could have happened to the female they searched for. “Lindsey?”
Jaron sighed. “We know she didn’t reach Tulu after being sold to the mining colony. She’s never been sold anywhere else for that matter. There’s a line in there showing a loss of profit from her disappearance since the miners demanded their payment back. Then there’s an odd notation stating Lindsey was seen in the company of a Chamele named Smiki during a bar fight.”
Arak choked back his surprise. Smiki’s reputation was well earned. “The smuggler with thirty outstanding warrants?”
Jaron blew out another breath and ruffled his blond hair. “Doesn’t make any more sense than the rest because that particular file contained witness statements saying the Earthling looked as if she was with him of her own free will and once the bar fight started they escaped together.”
Arak pushed back his suspicion. None of it could be true. Too farfetched since according to Faye her friend would be desperate to escape. Chasing rumors wouldn’t get them any closer.
“That’s not the only reason why I’m here though.” Jaron straddled the bench invading Arak’s personal space. “We’ve got a call to raid the Avida moon station. There’s evidence that some of the tech workers have taken up manufacturingblisson the side.”
Arak grimaced. Avida was established as a microchip processing plant not a drug hub. Raids on such places usually consisted of chasing criminals who had no fear of reprisal. Many of them preferred death to imprisonment, making the missions some of the most dangerous to go on. Bliss hubs were worse because the wildly popular hallucinogenic left the workers unbalanced from the residual high. Long term exposure caused convulsions and death, same as those who used in a lot of cases. “Who’s Torkel pulling together?”
“All of Team One. In hard and out fast.”
Arak rose to his feet, starting to feel the familiar adrenaline rush from the thought of a new assignment. “How soon do we leave?”
Jaron stood with a hop and slapped Arak on the shoulder. “Two days.”
Two days. It left him with plenty of time to see Sylvie before he left. “I’ll be ready. I need to check on Sylvie.”
Jaron stopped him with a hand on the upper part of his arm. “What’s with you and the Earth female?”
A surge of emotion flooded Arak’s veins and his senses heightened to the point his cat sat up and noticed. “What do you mean?”
Jaron snorted. “No one missed your display in medical when they were brought in. You couldn’t keep your eyes off of her. Even now you’re always visiting or speaking with her on the comm. It’s only been two weeks since they arrived and you’re possessive of anyone that comes within feet of her.”
Shoulders knotting, Arak pulled away. Everything his team leader said was true. “And?”
Jaron raised his hands in surrender, blue eyes questioning. “Nothing. Just trying to find out where your head is.”
“Where it’s always been,” Arak countered, annoyed that one of the people who knew him so well would question him.
Jaron cocked his head to the side and planted his hands on his hips. “I get the fascination with Earth females. They’re not only beautiful but easy to care for and loving. Still, we don’t really know anything about these two other than what they’ve shared, Arak.”
He stiffened, not liking the direction of the conversation. Muscles tense, Arak asked, “Does Torkel believe we need to be concerned?”
His friend’s shoulders rose up and down. “Torkel’s blinded by his feelings for Faye. We both know she wasn’t the only one leaking information about the teams. It’s someone closer.”
Arak’s gut twitched and he hated when that happened. He didn’t want to doubt his growing feelings for Sylvia Forrester. Something about her drew him to her presence and he wanted her. On that, the man and cat were in total agreement. “You can’t suspect Joni and Sylvie of having anything to do with what happened.”
Arak tried to imagine the petite blonde and her red-haired friend plotting against the very men who’d rescued them from such a horrible fate. It was inconceivable.
Jaron dropped his arms to his side and exhaled. “Of course not. We need to be cautious of those close to us. That’s all I’m saying. Someone betrayed us and using two Earthlings who have reason to hate everything about what happened to them wouldn’t be hard. If you develop feelings for Sylvie, it could put you in the same position as Torkel if she ends up being more than what she seems.”
The seeds Jaron planted couldn’t be ignored. Not what Arak wanted to hear. He was making headway with his interest in the Earthling female. She didn’t always respond in fear when he moved suddenly or touched her. Resolution firmed his decision. “I will be with Sylvie if you need to reach me on my comm.”
His Team Leader’s gaze darkened. Sympathy glinted from their depths, angering Arak. “Be careful. At least until we pinpoint who’s giving away intel.”
Arak tipped his head down, hands clasping the back of his neck and stared at the floor, thoughts whirling.
“Remember Kersa,” Jaron added, stoking Arak’s anger.
Kersa. His cat snarled. She had been a lesson for all of them. Especially Arak. But this was different.
“You’re wrong about Sylvie.” Arak turned to stride from the training room before the Enotian could anger him further. In all honesty, his continued reaction to Sylvie did border on obsessive but the feeling wasn’t going away any time soon.
As Arak cleared his schedule for the rest of the day, Jaron’s words played on repeat in his head. Kersa had fooled their entire Unit. The young female they had rescued a few years ago had won them over with her large, gray eyes and curly, brown hair. None of them wanted her returned home more than Arak. She’d cried tears of relief, explaining how space pirates killed her parents and took her hostage. Torkel had contacted the governing council on Enotia with plans to find any living relatives to send for her.
During that time, Arak had grown close to her and Kersa had played on his obvious feelings with flirty winks and half smiles. When they’d reached a nearby space station, Kersa fled several credits richer after she stole a couple of their stored weapons from the transport. Probably back to the pirates she’d bonded with. As hard as it seemed to believe, some people didn’t want to be rescued and not everyone was who they appeared.
The hover car ride to Sylvie’s didn’t take long and Arak arrived at the building where she and her friend lived long before his mind settled. He had a moment to doubt the black drawstring pants and white short sleeve shirt he’d worn to work out in. Then he shook off the thought as he rode the glide up to the fourteenth floor. Arak knocked on Sylvie’s door, heart thumping madly in his chest while he waited for her to answer. Anticipation clawed at his gut.
“Arak!” Her eyes widened as she opened the door and stepped back.
Her scent reached him first, wrapped him in her sweet fragrance as he entered the apartment. “Hello, Sylvie.”
“What are you doing here?” She closed and locked the door behind him.
Arak checked the windows and the small balcony before tracing his steps back. He paused in the living area and slouched on the arm of the sofa to take in her surroundings. The government had furnished the place for both women with standard necessities. Two matching sofas in black, a small circular table in the center of the room of the same color and a communicator for entertainment or communication purposes. Everything remained exactly the same as it had the day he’d dropped her and Joni off.
Sylvie hadn’t done anything to personalize the space. Worry took hold. What if she wanted to return to Earth? What if what he felt was all one sided? Nerves already tight, Arak instantly denied the possibility.
Gentle hands plucked at his shirt sleeve. “Arak?”
He focused on her beautiful face, way too close to resist. Arak cupped her rounded cheeks and drew her in slowly, giving her enough time to pull away if she chose. Memories of the last kiss they shared assailed him. Her lashes fluttered and lids lowered in a sign he couldn’t ignore. Arak kissed her as he’d longed to do when she first opened the door to him.
His tongue glided across her soft lips, sucking at the plump flesh. Her hands landed on his shoulders for balance. Still slouched on the edge of the sofa, Arak parted his legs and tugged gently until she stood between them. His hands stroked across her jaw line, down the knobby bones of her collar and grasped her shoulders. Sylvie moaned and pressed closer. The sound of her pleasure took his shaft from half-mast to full prominence.
Her mouth opened and her tongue teased along his. Arak responded with a firmer touch, locking their hips together as he devoured. Her hips began a hesitant rock against him, enflaming his passion. Fingers twined in the strands of his hair and pulled sharply. Arak couldn’t control his primitive reaction. A growl slipped free and Sylvie tensed in his arms. The sharp waft of fear following the sound filled his nostrils and snapped him from his fierce arousal. He never wanted this female to fear him.
“Sylvie,” he murmured and nipped at her bottom lip before easing back from a kiss that devastated him.
Her dazed eyes opened, fingers clenched on the material of his shirt. Blue eyes blinked up at him, filling Arak with a moment of pride. Getting her to admit to the attraction between them would be difficult but nothing about being around Sylvie thus far was easy.
“What was that for?” Her voice held a breathless quality.
A smile spread across Arak’s lips and he reluctantly released her. The kiss had served its purpose and blocked out Jaron’s suspicions. Sylvie was an innocent. “Because I needed it.”
Because Jaron and his stupid words had added to Arak’s rioting emotions.
Because thinking that she would ever do something to harm anyone had to be the farthest from the truth. He didn’t know much about Sylvie, gleaming what he could from her visits to the Jutak facility to see Faye and the short talks he’d had with her but Sylvie was exactly what she seemed. A nice female with a giving spirit not even the Marenians could crush.
Blue eyes glared at him for his blithe answer then Sylvie pushed at his chest before stepping aside. His cat howled in protest but Arak restrained the animal with effort.
“You shouldn’t keep kissing me.” She tossed out over her shoulder as she strolled into the kitchen nook.
Curious, he followed as she pressed buttons and set the timer on the food unit for a meal. The short skirt and fitted top hugged the lean lines of her tempting figure. “But you like my kisses.”
Sylvie turned around and leaned her hips on the counter, arms folded over a thin shirt in blue that made her eyes sparkle. The position also pushed her breasts close together, the visible evidence of her puckered nipples pressing against the material. She’d blossomed. No longer the wary female to everyone she came in contact. “I was caught off guard.”
The statement jerked his gaze up to meet hers. His lips parted, ready to argue that she did indeed enjoy his kisses, almost as much as he enjoyed them but her mouth twitched. Tease. He decided not to tell her he could scent her arousal when they kissed. Arak bit back his second smile. Whenever he spent time with the Earthling he wanted to smile or drag her against the nearest surface and fuck her hard. Today he was hard pressed to decide which he preferred.
The thought spurred Arak’s imagination and he envisioned her blonde hair splayed across the table, mouth parted as she cried out in passion for him. He’d push her black skirt up to reveal the pink flesh between her thighs and feast on her honey as he drove her up toward a powerful climax, all the while listening to her beg him for more.
The vision appeared so clear, his pants tightened as his shaft lengthened. No wonder Jaron had voiced his concern. Sylvie had him tied up in knots without trying. Arak pushed away the erotic thoughts of thrusting his tongue deep into her moist entrance to make her scream and controlled the urge to touch her again. “Come out with me. I wish to spend time with you.”
Arak prepared for the familiar rejections. Sylvie chatted with him freely if he kept the conversation light. If he probed her captivity or plans for her future she shut down. Sylvie made it very clear the topic of her time with the slavers was off limits and going out with him in public ranked up there as well. Arak knew the denials stemmed from her experience with the Singles Program and her fear that something would happen again if she left the safety of the apartment without several of his teammates around her.
They both jumped when the door slammed open and Joni breezed in.
Sylvie grinned in response not the least bit bothered by her friend barging into her place. In fact, she looked relieved by the interruption. “Joni Miller!”
Arak shifted his stance and studied the two women as they exchanged hugs. Standing next to her friend, Sylvie didn’t appear as vibrant. Her slim lines leaned toward athletic in contrast to the voluptuous curves of her friend. Joni was drop dead gorgeous. No one could doubt that. Red hair cascaded wildly about her shoulders and her amber eyes lit with humor. He understood why a man would crave a female with her looks.
She’d taken advantage of the various merchants providing clothing online from other planets and wore a sleeveless, sheer gold Vesuvis top with mesh across the middle, revealing a green, beaded piercing in her belly button. Black shorts in a silky cloth hugged her butt cheeks, revealing her upper thighs and toned, long legs in black boots that almost reached the edges of the shorts.
Any man would want a woman who looked like her but the female’s jovial manner hid dark secrets. Secrets easily discernible to him by the way her eyes twitched whenever her gaze passed over him. Right now, her full lips coated in a glossy substance tightened before breaking out into a wide smile as fake as the jewels on the large bangles that clacked about both wrists.
“Hello, Officer Arak,” Joni drawled, sucking on the tip of her pinky as she eyed him from head to toe.
Arak smirked, not bothered in the least by her sexual appraisal. Joni employed warfare tactics he had to admire. Attack first. He also knew she had no physical interest in him what so ever despite the taunting look. “It’s not officer.” The military drones used those terms but not the Jutaks. “I’m a Jutak warrior. You can call me Jutak O’Tir if you want to be official but I prefer just Arak.”
“Hmm.” She winked. “Just Arak, what brings you here today to see my friend?”
Sylvie’s elbow tagged Joni’s mid-section and the woman feigned a groan and wrapped both arms around her middle, all pretense dropped. “Jesus, Sylvie.”
Sylvie faced Arak and rolled her eyes at the dramatics. “My answer’s yes.”
Arak stumbled from his relaxed pose and caught himself by bracing a hand on the counter behind him. She couldn’t mean what he thought. “What?”
Sylvie’s smug grin sent a burst of heat to his loins. She looked proud of herself for getting one over on him. “I’ll go out with you. I have to go out eventually so it’s a date.”
Date?The translation didn’t match the context of her words. He didn’t know what a date meant but she’d accepted. She didn’t request he call for several of his teammates to escort them as she’d done for visits to Faye. Before Sylvie could change her mind, Arak hit the buttons to deactivate the food unit. “We will leave now.”
Her voice rose behind him. “Joni’s coming, too.”
“What!” Joni’s clear outrage gave him a spurt of humor.
Sylvie gathered a few things. “Arak’s taking us out. You love new places so you’re going too.”
Joni shot Arak a glare as if he was to blame for the events. Instead of complaining and risking Sylvie changing her mind, Arak snapped to attention. “I have a hover car. Faye enjoys the marketplace and says it reminds her of shopping on Earth.”
“Shopping?” Sylvie hurried to keep up with Arak. Now that she’d agreed to one of his numerous requests to go out, he seemed in a rush.
“I need money…credits,” she corrected, ignoring the harsh stares from Joni who stood by the door and tapped her foot, amber eyes narrowed on Sylvie. She refused to feel guilty for trapping her friend.
Arak stopped at her door and reached for her wrist. Sylvie’s skin sizzled from the contact. Their eyes clashed and no way could she deny the hunger reflected there. Arak made no secret of his desire for her. His broad finger lingered over the black watch she’d been issued. Back and forth he rubbed, causing moisture to dampen her thighs. “Your credits are here. Transactions are processed electronically for any purchases.”
The low murmured words took a moment to sink in because of the evocative images his accent always created. Sylvie remembered Faye explaining something similar when she and Joni received the clunky watches. “Alright.”
At least she didn’t stutter her response. It shouldn’t be easy for his every touch to arouse her. Considering her experience with the slavers, Sylvie thought it would take forever to think about a man in that way but Arak’s solid presence pushed back any anxiety about being around him.
“This should be fun,” Joni muttered, oblivious to the fire coursing through Sylvie’s veins as Arak walked ahead of them. “I love being a fifth wheel or seventh wheel even.”
“Quiet,” Sylvie whispered as they both skipped to keep up with Arak’s long strides down the hall and to the glide.
“What exactly are you doing, Sylvie?”
Joni’s question gave her pause. They stepped onto the steel foot pads of the descending glide, a few steps behind Arak. The view from the back didn’t compete with the view from the front but her position enabled Sylvie to ogle to her heart’s content the way his dark pants enhanced the flex and shift of muscular buttocks. The white shirt molded to a body that was dang near perfect in her eyes. Short, dark hair curled over the edge of his collar tempting her to play with the strands.
“Earth to Sylvie. Or should I say Enotia to Sylvie.”
Sylvie’s lips curled and she glanced at her friend. “You’re always going on about how I should go out and learn more about this place.”
Joni huffed. “Yeah, but I didn’t mean drag me with you on your…date.”
Sylvie froze. “I was kidding about that part. It’s not really a date.”
Joni rolled her eyes. “Not with me tagging along.”
Frustration ate at Sylvie. She wanted to get to know the charming soldier better but her mind constantly buzzed with the fear of being kidnapped or snatched again by the Marenians if she ventured too far. Forcing away the wariness attempting to overcome her, Sylvie focused her attention on her friend. “We could always see if Kyele can join us to make you feel better.”
The pink tint of color added on Joni’s cheeks couldn’t hide the way her face paled. “You wouldn’t be that cruel.”
Sylvie tapped a finger against her chin as if in thought. “Maybe Arak, oh wait. Maybe Officer Arak,” she mocked, “could call him and invite the green-eyed wonder. I have to admit his scar is kinda hot, yet scary.”
Joni lunged and Sylvie squealed as her friend wrapped her fingers around her throat and shook her. Sylvie laughed and cried out as the glide reached the bottom and they stumbled off, bodies entangled.
“Let go!” Sylvie begged in between laughing.
“Take it back,” Joni threatened, freeing one hand to yank on Sylvie’s hair.
“Arak, I have a quest—” Sylvie didn’t get to finish speaking.
Joni let her go with a scream and slapped both hands over Sylvie’s mouth. She leaned close. “You suck, Sylvie Forrester. I’ll go.”
Heart pumping and sporadic snickers escaping, Sylvie managed to mumble, “And you’ll have fun?”
Joni uncovered Sylvie’s mouth and glared. “Don’t push it, little shit.”
Arak watched the both of them, a curious light in his eyes. Standing to the side with his arms folded, he hadn’t interfered in their minor scuffle. Sylvie cleared her throat, face hot. She hoped he hadn’t heard their conversation. “Sorry. Joni needed cheering up.”
A dark brow lifted and his mouth curved up at the side. His twinkling eyes had her wondering if he’d caught everything despite his casual pose. “Is she in need of assistance? I can contact Dr. Maku…or Kyele.”
Joni groaned beside her.
“I think she’s fine now,” Sylvie said as they made their way outside, adrenaline pulsing through her veins from the small tussle but heart truly light for the first time in months.
Onlookers of the Enotian variety stared at their small group but Sylvie managed to squash down the feelings of embarrassment. Excitement replaced the dread she’d initially experienced when Arak invited her to go out. Now she looked forward to the trip.
The market place resembled an outside bazaar. Vendors set up an array of rainbow-colored tent-like structures feet apart from one another. They featured everything one could possibly imagine. Tables displayed food, clothing, jewelry and other artistic creations on both sides of the streets. Women, men and children strolled along in open camaraderie.
A smell reminiscent of a greasy burger wafted toward Sylvie and she moaned in delight. Joni caught her eye and they both grinned. Excitement and the rush of potential sales drummed on the air. Sylvie exchanged another smile with Joni, noting the glitter in the other woman’s eyes.
“Cool, right?” Sylvie asked.
“Very cool,” Joni agreed, gaze darting from one stall to the next as they walked down the busy street.
Arak walked in the middle, his arm brushing Sylvie’s with every step they took. Goose pimples broke out along her flesh and her heart rate sped up.
“What does cool mean?” he asked, his accent adding an exotic quality to the question.
Joni spared him a glance. “You’re kidding right?”
His brow crinkled. “Kidding?”
“These translators are for shit,” Joni grumbled then looped her arm through Arak’s and fluttered her lashes at him. “Don’t worry. It’s all Earth slang.”
Arak’s blue eyes deepened and his smile almost caused Sylvie to trip over her feet. The jealous monster reared its ugly head at his ease with Joni. The redhead had an air of sexy Sylvie couldn’t match if she tried. As if reading her thoughts, Arak untangled his arm from Joni and tucked a loose strand of hair behind Sylvie’s ear. All of it seamless and unhurried.
“Faye says we’ll get used to it if she talks enough.”
Sylvie laughed with him, envy falling to the side. She liked Faye. “She’s probably right.”
Sylvie’s steps slowed as they neared a purple tent with cages and crates set up on a long cloth covered table out front. Baby animals chirped from the wire frames, tiny furred faces pressed upward. A pair of large brown eyes with gold rings caused her to stop. The blond man behind the table waved when he caught her staring.
“Welcome. Please come and find something for your entertainment and pleasure,” he called out.
A low growl rumbled from Arak’s chest. The sound surprised Sylvie, causing her to glance up only to freeze. Hate bled from blue eyes narrowed in concentration, full lips twisted into a snarl.
“Arak?” She tentatively reached out to touch his arm. Joni reacted to the deadly sound as well, the glitter of fear reflected in her gold gaze.
“They sell animals,” he bit out.
Sylvie looked from the cages back to Arak, not understanding. “Pets?”
“Explain pets,” Arak snapped and his head tipped in her direction.
The demand had her responding instantly. “On Earth we keep pets. Dogs, birds…” The reason for his anger suddenly became apparent as Sylvie finished weakly. “Cats.”
Joni cursed under her breath.
Sylvie ran her hand down Arak’s arm. The corded muscles tensed beneath her touch. “We can leave.”
As if sensing the undercurrents, the vendor kept quiet. Arak shook his head and though his lips lifted, the smile held none of the pleasure his previous smiles had. “We can look atpets. You can’t buy any though. On Enotia it is illegal to own non-farm animals of any kind.”
The vendor flushed and rushed to pull out a silver disc from the pocket of his wide-legged pants. “I have a valid license. I don’t make any trouble and never sell to Enotians. Off worlders purchase my animals and some like to look.” His brown eyes darted to Sylvie. “You’re welcome to look.”
Her pleasure at the animals spoiled, Sylvie started to refuse but Joni squealed from her left. “They have baby monkeys!”
Sylvie turned. At the end of the table in a cage without a top sat a cream and brown monkey the size of a rabbit with a pushed in face like a pug. Long arms curled around its waist and brown ears perked up at their attention. Sylvie couldn’t resist and joined Joni.
Arak came up behind them. “This is amosimio.They come from Alua. Very rare and dangerous when provoked.”
The creature actually smiled up at them as it bounced around on the straw at the bottom of the cage. Large, brown eyes stared at them and it mewled. Sylvie’s heart melted. “It’s too pretty to be dangerous.”
“My papan showed me a vid on how to feed them once.” Dark thoughts gone, Arak seemed interested in the little animal. “They’re deadly in the wild.”
The vendor noted the change in his manner as well and grabbed a yellow container from beneath the table and handed it to Arak, eagerness in the gesture. “Be my guest.”
Arak accepted and shook what looked like a pile of baby lizards and bugs into the cage. The monkey roared. Razor sharp teeth flashed as it grabbed the scurrying creatures and shoved them into his mouth. Sylvie jumped back screaming and knocked Joni aside in her haste.
“Cute right. Like an Earth pet?” Arak asked, dark brow arched. Was that humor glinting in his gaze?
Joni made gagging sounds behind her.
“Not quite,” Sylvie mumbled, swallowing the saliva in her mouth as she pressed a hand to her suddenly queasy belly. “Let’s look at something else.”
They looked at cloth, soft and sheer enough Sylvie could see her hands beneath the fabric but in every color imaginable. Shoes tended to be flats or sandals but she picked a pair in bronze with straps across the top and over her calf. The vendor scanned her watch and as simple as that Sylvie ended up with a bag containing her purchase. At another stall, clear balls similar to snow globes lined the table. Joni shook a few, smiling at whatever holo images came up on the inside and purchased two.
When they walked away, Arak handed Sylvie a small carved box similar to Joni’s. With a bemused smile, she opened it and snickered at the glass ball containing a mosimio swinging from a tree while birds fled in fright. Arak smirked and dodged the fist she aimed for his mid-section.
“Thank you. I’ll treasure it.” Her smile may have contained more teeth than usual.
With a roll of his eyes, Arak nudged her forward. Sylvie skipped to catch up with Joni. They were laughing at a street performer when a humanoid creature who’d clearly consumed too much to drink stumbled into them. He had to be at least seven feet tall with bluish-green skin and seven or eight of those inches came from his neck.
“Watch where you’re going.” His stumbling steps caused Sylvie to fall back. The large flap covering his nostrils flared and his green eyes narrowed. “Earth female. Well, well.”
Arak’s growl warned her before he stepped between Sylvie and the drunk. “Move behind me, Joni.”
Her friend was no fool and scurried behind Arak to stand beside Sylvie.
“What’s your problem?” The tall drunk slurred, swinging his arms in a wide arc. The move drew attention to ill-fitting clothes and bare feet.
Several passerby ducked and another backed up before heading in the opposite direction. The snick of Arak’s sharp claws reached her ears. A quick glance down revealed the razor sharp tips on the ends of his fingers.
“You should leave now.” Arak’s weight shifted in preparation.
“Don’t want to share your bounty, heh.” The alien’s nose did the ugly flap thing again. “Mmm. Argoran.”
Tall and green stared at Arak and leaned forward. When the creature grinned, jagged teeth flashed from his wide jaw. “I’m having fun.” He belched and smacked his fist into the flat of his chest. “Make me.”
Sylvie tapped the back of Arak’s shirt and whispered, “Let’s just go, Arak.”
The muscles beneath his shirt coiled. “Public behavior is monitored. You should leave, Tarton.”
The Tarton, or whatever he was, threw back his bald head. Ropey veins popped from the side of his scary neck as he laughed. “What gives you the right to demand I leave?”
Sylvie held her breath. Arak didn’t have any weapons with him to her knowledge. She also knew he and the others weren’t big on revealing their identities in public.
“Stand back, Sylvie,” Arak murmured without taking his gaze from the green giant.
She released his shirt, fingers opening slowly. Arak moved like lightning toward the large man. One fist plowed into the belly of the Tarton man. As soon as he bent over from the blow, Arak followed with a powerful punch to the face. The creature dropped to his knees, blood spewing from his mouth and a few teeth if she wasn’t mistaken. Arak ducked behind him, one arm curving around the long neck as he leaned low to whisper in the Tarton’s flickering ears.
Sylvie couldn’t hear what was said as a crowd formed around them. The Tarton darted a look in her direction and his skin paled if that was possible, leaving him more blue than green as he nodded in a jerky motion. Arak released him and moving faster than she would have expected, the giant fled the marketplace. The gathering onlookers dispersed after a few well-meaning whistles.
As soon as Arak approached, Joni demanded, “What the hell was that?”
Arak frowned. “Hell?”
Joni waved her hands in the air, gold eyes intent. “Never mind. What was it or he?”
Arak sighed and eased close to Sylvie. Her arms went around his back as he buried his head in her hair and inhaled before speaking. “Tarton. Very aggressive. They hunt and eat Argorans in our cat form on Argora.”
When he straightened, she and Joni stared at him. Joni sputtered but Sylvie smacked Arak’s chest. “Are you kidding? And you attacked him.”
Arak shook his head. “We should have Dr. Maku spend time with each of you and program the translators with updated Earth English.”
Joni snorted but Sylvie found it hard to be amused. “That…Tarton eats people like you?”
His dark head nodded. “But they’re scared of birds. I told him you had one in the box with the mosimio cube.”
It took a long time for Sylvie to speak to him again. Every few minutes Joni would look at her mutinous expression and burst into laughter again, muttering, “Birds. Can you imagine?”
The rest of the day passed in a blur but Sylvie counted it as one of the best days in a long time for her. Arak proved to be an excellent guide, never once complaining when she and Joni stopped every few feet. They stuffed themselves on alien sausage smothered in red sauce, which Sylvie refused to observe too closely and ended the afternoon with chilled fruit buried in cups of colored ice. The melted syrup left at the bottom had her sucking her spoon in ecstasy.
Beside her, Arak groaned roughly. “I’ve never seen anyone enjoytopamore.”
Joni stopped further ahead and Arak took advantage of the Earthling’s distraction at the jewelry stall to close the distance between him and Sylvie. He’d resisted more than light touches throughout the afternoon but the bright glow of happiness on her face pulled at him.
“It reminds me of snowballs at home but with real fruit.” Her eyes lit with pleasure at the memory.
Sylvie’s lips puckered as she scooped another sliver of ice into her mouth. Stained red from the flavor she’d selected, her mouth taunted him. Arak succumbed to the enticement and kissed her. Not as deep as he wanted but a quick, soft press of his mouth to hers. When he pulled back, his tongue licked at the fruit on his lips and he could almost swear he tasted Sylvie’s unique essence beneath the sweet treat.
“Very good,” he growled, his cat rising to the surface.
Finished with thetopa, she looked up and stiffened. Her scent darkened with the rich notes of arousal. The heady aroma enveloped Arak as he leaned down for the deeper kiss he’d forgone. The minute their mouths touched, she moaned and pressed into him, arms going around his neck as the cup clattered to the ground. Arak slid his hands down the curve of her spine bunching the fabric of her top but didn’t stop until he reached the full slant of her butt.
Fingers molded, squeezing the round flesh. Spicy hints of surprise mingled with her aroma almost driving him beyond reason. His tongue delved between her parted lips, stroking. Tasting.
One thing Arak had learned during their kisses was that he loved Sylvie’s taste. Even blindfolded he’d recognize her flavor and not because of the fruitytopashe’d taken such pleasure in. Sylvie’s unique taste reminded him of honey.
Her fingers played with the ends of his hair sending sparks shooting down his spine until his erection bordered on pain. Pressing lightly with his hands at her lower back to bring her closer, Arak rubbed against her. His hard length notched between her trembling thighs and another moan reached him.
As well as a throat clearing. Arak jerked and tried to regain control of himself. Laughter and conversation flowed around them. Other sounds filtered in, eliminating the razor sharp focus he’d turned on Sylvie.
He eased away from her moist lips. She cried out in protest, hands tightening on his back. Arak groaned, wanting to appease her need but they were in full view of others. “Sylvie.”
Her eyes flew up and she jerked from his arms, cheeks flushing. Her embarrassment angered Arak and he resisted the urge to curl his body back around her as she’d wanted.