Authors: Monette Michaels
The Prime Chronicles, Book Two
Published by Liquid Silver Books, imprint of Atlantic Bridge Publishing, 10509
Sedgegrass Dr, Indianapolis, Indiana 46235. Copyright © Published 2012, Monette Michaels. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Liquid Silver Books
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
Commander Nadia Petrovich, Science Officer of the AllianceStarship Galanti, has a problem—which has nothing to do with science. Her problem is Commander Huw Caradoc, theGalanti’s Chief Engineer. She and the stubborn Prime male have a growing connection he refuses to acknowledge—a bond that could drive him mad.
They are connected psychically and the bond grows stronger every day. If Nadia didn’t know it was impossible, she would suspect they were mating in the Prime tradition—a biological imperative that locates and marks a Prime’s optimum mate. But she isn’t Prime, as Huw tells her and anybody who’ll listen.
Nadia’s emotional anguish couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Prime and Galactic Alliance merger is finally under way, and the all-male Prime crews are learning how to work with female Alliance crew members. The Antareans threaten the outer arms of the Milky Way, and Prime rebels wreak havoc on the Prime home planet and elsewhere.
Despite the conflict surrounding them, Nadia and Huw will not be able to avoid their fate or their growing love. Prime selection will make the decision for them whether the timing is right or not.Dedication
To Linnea Sinclair.Acknowledgements
Holly, Valy, and Michelle, thanks so much for commenting on early versions of this book. Georgia, thanks for talking me off the ledge when I was ready to chuck half the book away. Cherise, your critique of Huw was what I needed to make him worthy of Nadia’s love. And, finally, to Ezra, thank you for all the line-editing, critiquing, and just being there while I struggled to make this book a worthy successor to the first one. You are the best critique buddy ever. And a final thank you goes to Allie and Rory.
Adapted from The Official Prime History, Volume MMXX
A Short History of the Prime
In the Perseus arm of the Milky Way lay the Cejuru solar system, home to the Prime, the oldest known hominid species in the galaxy.
After millennia of galactic exploration and colonization, the Prime had become isolationist as other Milky Way populations initiated their own space explorations and migrated to uninhabited planets.
The Prime did not seek membership in the Galactic Alliance formed by the new explorers, but still felt duty-bound to protect the Milky Way from the Antareans, an ancient enemy from the Andromeda Galaxy. The Antareans were a militaristic, pseudo-reptilian species, and their all-consuming goal was to eliminate all hominid species.
The Antarean invasion of the Milky Way was held at bay for more than a thousand years. But this feat was accomplished at great cost to the Prime.
The female Prime population had been targeted by the Antareans, and many women were murdered or abducted during frequent enemy raids. The remaining Prime females on the chief planets of the Cejuru system suffered from low fertility. The women who did manage to become pregnant and carry to term produced a disproportionate number of male offspring. A girl child was a rarity and considered a great blessing.
Fearing the loss of even more of their women and female children, the Prime Council evacuated the majority of the female population during a fierce Antarean siege.
After the Prime dealt the Antareans a severe blow and forced them back to Andromeda, many ships carrying the evacuated women and children never returned.
The missing were referred to as the Lost Ones.
With the loss of the majority of the female population, many Prime males could not find and “mark” their optimal mate. This mating mark was an unusual genetic adaptation that allowed a Prime man and a Prime woman to find the mate with whom they would have the best chance of producing healthy children.
When this marking process first appeared in Prime culture is unknown, but the cultural significance of it could not be denied. Men and women who did not mark could not mate.
With the loss of so many women and children, the Prime Council faced the reality of extinction for their species within the next two generations.
They voted, by a narrow majority, to join the Galactic Alliance.
The Council’s reasons for abandoning the Prime’s isolationist policy were twofold: One, to join forces with the powerful Galactic Alliance Military to address the Antarean threat. The enemy had recovered from the last conflict and now ventured farther into the more populated arms of the Milky Way. And two, to locate compatible females with whom their males could mate.
Though the marking ritual was ingrained in the fabric of Prime society, biologically the Prime had mated with non-Prime hominids in the past during the time of space colonization. The theory was they could do so again.
But a small, vocal minority didn’t wish to pollute Prime bloodlines with the DNA of other hominids. This contentious rebel faction, calling themselves “Pure Blood,” caused discord on the Prime home planet—and in space.
Shortly after becoming a part of the Galactic Alliance, a miracle occurred. One of the Lost Ones was found.
Captain Melina Dmitros, the sole survivor of one of the ships bearing the lost women and children, was found to have agematemark. Hergematwas Captain Wulf Caradoc, the heir of the Prime Cejuru leader.
Adding to the miracle, Melina brought with her data on altered routes the Prime ships had taken to escape the pursuing Antareans, routes none of the Prime had known about.
The information gave hope to another Prime male with no mate—Huw Caradoc, Wulf’s brother. Huw now had a chance to find his Prime mate still alive.
As long as there was a chance Huw might discover her, his honor wouldn’t allow him to act on the attraction he had for Commander Nadia Petrovich, a Terran, with whom he had an unusual psychic connection.
And, thus, Huw and Nadia’s story begins…Chapter 1
Sunrise, Cejuru Tarn
Galactic Alliance Commander Nadia Petrovich, recently appointed science officer of theStarship Galanti,scanned the flat plain upon which the Prime Military had built their fortifications. She hunted for movement, for anything out of place, to clue her into the enemy’s position.
The “enemy” in this instance was the Prime Elite squadron that had been selected to challenge the battle-readiness of Gold Squadron and its newly merged Prime and Alliance soldiers. The real reason for the joint exercise was to test whether Prime soldiers could work effectively with the female soldiers of Gold, which was why Nadia was in charge of this particular session and her equal-in-rank Prime counterpart, Commander Aeron Ard, was not.
Nadia took in a deep breath of the thin, cool morning air, appreciating the fact Tarn had enough oxygen in its atmosphere that they could do away with head-to-toe survival gear. Then something in the air made her stiffen. She looked around and saw nothing to cause the uncomfortable feeling. Her skin prickled and the fine hairs on the nape of her neck stood on end. Her pulse increased as adrenaline flooded her bloodstream. Her body’s fight-or-flight response had kicked in big time—but over what?
Something wasn’t right on Tarn. This feeling of impending danger had been there in one way or another since her Gold Squad team had been dropped off on the planetoid two standard hours earlier. She’d written the feeling off as nerves for the upcoming training session, but now, with her scouting partner alongside, it forced its way to the forefront of her mind.
For the second time in as many minutes, she swept her gaze over the flat, dry land toward the octagon-shaped compound built of the gray limestone found on the planet. It was built for optimal defense with three of its sides abutting the foothills of Tarn’s main mountain range and the other five facing the stark, flat plains of what was once an ancient sea. The compound’s perimeter was fully lit, but the military facility inside looked abandoned. Her empathic senses told her that was a lie.
The buildings teemed with the emotional auras of sentient beings—a chaotic cloud of emotions that created the anxiety she felt.
But where were the perimeter guards? Where were the Prime scouts who should have been scouring the land and gaining intel on her team for the war games? Was this part of the Prime squad’s plan?
For over the last standard half hour, she and her scouting partner, Commander Joen Dakkin, Communications Officer for theGalanti, had made their way from the mountain cave system where their team had secured a base of operations. They’d seen no one.
Something was very wrong, and her heart rate elevated another notch or two.
“It’s been too easy,” she muttered. “Do they think we’re stupid? That we’ll just waltz in because it looks abandoned?”
“If it makes you feel any better, Aeron agrees. It’s wrong. All wrong. Has been since we landed without anyone attempting to score points on us.” Joen’s voice was flat, emotionless.
Nadia glanced at him and instinctively used her empathic ability to test his mood. He was boiling mad under the calm demeanor, a volcano ready to erupt at a moment’s notice.
“Shit. I knew something wasn’t right.” Mentally, she kicked her own ass for not going with her gut. “Our landing wasn’t challenged. When we secured the cave system as our headquarters, Aeron seemed happy, but as we set up base operations he grew more and more concerned. I should’ve confronted him then.”
She’d treated Aeron with titty fingers since she’d been given command of the op.
She hadn’t wanted to challenge him overly much, since that might damage his stupid Prime male machismo. All the Alliance female soldiers had been tiptoeing around the Prime males—and the Prime males, around the women. It had been like watching a nature video of skittish she-cats and a bunch of alpha-cats scenting each other out, testing each other’s limits.
Both races still had a long way to go before they understood the other. But then, this training session and others like it had been arranged for that very reason.
Lesson learned—next time her gut told her to challenge the big Prime male, she would.
Since Aeron wasn’t here, she only had the Prime male next to her to obtain the information she needed. Her sense of dread was increasing exponentially now— something bad was coming down. “What do you think is going on?”
Joen scowled and shook his head. “Not sure. But something’s awry. Our empathic feelings are connected to our fellow Prime during battle situations—and that would include the Prime stationed here. Aeron and I sensed nothing on landing. No excitement or anticipation of the war games to be played out. We should’ve sensedsomething.”
And wasn’t that odd? She sensed all sorts of emotions, so many she had a hard time singling out any other than Joen’s. But unlike the Prime, Nadia’s empathic abilities worked with all sentient beings—and there were sentient beings out there. She just didn’t see them—yet.
Joen stared at the empty plain. The only thing visible out there was scrubby foliage and dust devils as the heat of the early morning sun met the chilled air of the night. He turned to look at her. His eyes glowed with the intense emotions roiling within him.
“Aeron chalked the lack of emotional readings, other than our own Prime team members, up to the fact no other Prime were nearby when we landed and set up base camp.”
He scowled and rubbed a hand over his dark, close-cut hair. “But that read wrong also. Any Prime soldier worthy of the name would have, at the very least, established perimeter alarms on the cave system we chose and had spotters in the mountains.”
The caves had turned out to be a storage area for excess supplies and munitions for the military facility and would’ve been a coup for any invading force.
“Plus, why didn’t our opponents challenge our predawn landing?” Joen frowned.
“They knew we were coming sooner or later. Prime are always vigilant.”
“We’re on the same page. I had the same thoughts and feelings.” Nadia clenched her jaw. “And there are other intelligent beings on this planetoid—and the emotions I’m picking up aren’t particularly friendly. Call me overcautious, but we need to send our scouting teams back to base, regroup, and figure this out. It smells like a clusterfuck in the making.”
“That’s not overly cautious. It’s a very wise call.” Joen’s golden eyes darkened with his concern. “You’ll find Aeron has arrived at the same conclusions.”
Nadia didn’t particularly care if Aeron had or not. This was her op, her responsibility. If something bad happened, it was on her. There were too many science, engineering, and medical personnel and officers on this particular operation, crew members who normally didn’t get exposed to battle situations. This training was supposed to be not only a test of the newly merged crews, but also a refresher training for skills some hadn’t used since basic training. She refused to risk her people. The situation was feeling more and more explosive.
Nadia switched her com unit to team-wide communications. “All team members are ordered back to base. Code Foxtrot-Uniform-Bravo-Alpha-Romeo. Proceed with caution.
Commander Nadia out.”
If it wasn’t FUBAR yet, it soon would be. Her gut was doing backflips at the increasing sense of danger.
“Ard, here. Logistics officer is in total agreement.” Aeron sounded grim. “My teams are securing base camp. Suggest switching to alternate Com Code Tango-Tango-Two-Four.”
“Agreed. All team members switch to Com Code Tango-Tango-Two-Four.” Nadia sighed with relief. Aeron was thinking along the same line—regroup and defense.
Maybe, between the two of them, they could figure out what was wrong.
“Let’s pull back, Joen.”
Nadia rose to a crouch behind the boulder where they’d taken shelter. They’d gotten as close to the Prime facility as they could and were about thirty meters away from a side entrance to one of the buildings that did not back up to the foothills. She hadn’t been overly concerned about being seen since their uniform jackets and pants changed colors to blend with the desert and mountainous landscapes surrounding the military facility.
Even the laser target sensor vests, which registered the low impulse laser fire for war gaming, had the same ability to merge into the background.
Between their camo and the large rocks scattered on the flat land from some past tectonic activity, she and Joen should be able to retreat as easily as they’d infiltrated.
Once they made it into the foothills and the thick forests that grew there and up onto the mountains, they would be home free.
Empathic senses blaring and movement on their right had Nadia tackling Joen to the ground as a stream of laser fire streaked across where his torso had been. If Joen had been hit, it would have registered on his vest as a kill shot.
Instead, the stream hit her arm, and she hissed in pain. The searing burn of a fully powered laser blast shot up and down her dominant arm. Her eyes watered as she inhaled the smell of her burnt flesh and jacket sleeve. Her nerve endings screamed. She called upon every iota of her warrior forebears’ strength to stay alert and aware and not succumb to the bowel-burning pain.
One hundred Gold Squad members relied on her command decisions, and no laser burn would stop her. Only death could do that—and she didn’t intend to meet death today.
“Live fire! Live fire! Code Red. Code Red,” she screamed into her com unit as she shoved Joen behind a boulder.
While she listened for chatter in response to her call, she pulled her laser sidearm.
Thank God, her hand still worked. The laser hadn’t cut any major nerves, just all the little painful ones. She rearmed her laser for live fire.
Nadia glanced at Joen who’d rolled out from under her once they were behind cover.
He was dirty, but uninjured, and was arming his laser for live fire also.
“Nadia…” Joen’s voice was a low snarl. It reverberated over her skin like a swarm of stinging insects.
His aura glowered in her mind’s eye. The heat of his anger danced and burned its way along the edges of her empathic senses as if seeking a connection, warrior to warrior.
And isn’t that strange?The energy flowed from his body in churning waves.So, this iswhat a Prime male’s battle rage, hisbatel rabia, felt like.The man could power a transport shuttle on the energy coming off his body.
“Nadia…” Joen touched her hand.
She flinched and pulled her hand away. His touch had disrupted her ongoing sensory scan of him, of their surroundings. She focused on his grim face.
“We have no intrateam communications,” he said. “I can’t raise any of our squad.
We have no off-planet communications either.”
“Fuck!” she muttered, testing the air around them for any hint of a further attack.
“Can you fix the problem?” As Joen opened his mouth to answer, Nadia motioned for quiet.
The shooter approached their hiding place. He was very close. His eagerness for the kill was palpable; it tasted like day-old meat and copper.
She pointed one finger in the direction from which the would-be killer approached … no, wait … there were two of the fuckers. She added another finger. At this point, she could care less who the shooters were; they’d used live, full-stream laser fire and had attempted to kill Joen. They were the enemy. They needed to be eliminated.
Joen nodded, raised his weapon, and indicated with an angling of his head that he’d go right.
Nadia mouthed, “Go” and went left as Joen dove right; they let loose killing streams at the same time. She nailed her target in the torso and knocked him on his back. Joen’s man was down also.
Joen checked on the two assassins. He turned and sliced his hand across his neck.
Both were dead. He hurried to join her as she headed away from the Prime installation.
“Prime?” she asked in a low, noncarrying tone as they used boulders and dips in the land to hide their retreat.
From her quick glance, neither man had the look of a Prime male—who were almost uniformly tall, very muscular, dark-haired, and bronze-skinned with golden or amber eyes—even though they wore the Prime uniform. Some really bad juju was going on. She and her officers would try to make sense of it later—once all her people were safe and their base camp secure.
Nadia only hoped her order to return to base camp had been received. But in case it hadn’t, she headed south to where another scouting team would’ve set up for surveillance of the military facility. She wouldn’t head back to base until she was sure all her scouts were heading in and weren’t under attack. As she and Joen moved swiftly, she listened for the high whine of laser fire.
“Not Prime,” Joen finally answered. A sense of urgency poured off his aura.
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. His normally bronze skin was more of a pale gold. He was scared—almost sick with it. “What’s wrong?” She looked around searching for the enemy and saw and felt nothing. They were alone for the time being.
“Lia is out with one of the scouting teams.” Joen’s voice held more than concern for a fellow officer; it held gut-wrenching anguish. “She’s a doctor, a healer. She shouldn’t be here.”
“Lia’s a trained Alliance soldier. This is exactly where she should be. Give her some credit.” Nadia would question what was going on between Lia and Joen later. “Stay alert, soldier. We have to getallour people to safety.”
Joen’s lips firmed and his color returned—but underneath, his emotions stirred and reflected rage and determination.
Laser fire sounded ahead of them. They increased their speed. As they sprinted from the cover of one set of rocks to the next, Nadia shoved away the pain of her wound and her worry. This was war—and her soldiers needed her.Sunset, Cejuru Tarn
Whirling dust clouds danced along the valley floor. The setting sun’s rays created weird optical illusions through the haze, casting shadows over the arid land. Visibility was deteriorating at a time when the watchers on the cliff needed it most.
Nadia selected a different colored filter on her goggles and upped the magnification to get a clearer view of the wadi. Sorting through the wavering shadows among the large rocks that littered the dry creek bed, she located the two humanoid-shaped figures she’d lost for a few seconds in the glare of the day’s last gasp. The duo slunk from rock to rock in a furtive manner; they wore Prime military camouflage.
Jury was still out on whether they were actually Prime soldiers or not. Her vote was “not.”
“What do you think, Nadia? Friend or foe?” asked Commander A’tem, a Volusian member of her training team and the chief engineer on her former ship, theStarshipLeonidas. He was her partner for her third scouting mission of the day.
God, she was tired. The pain of her laser wound was a constant reminder of the potential of danger. There’d be no rest until she had a handle on this clusterfuck. Pushing her goggles up, she turned away from the scene below and focused on A’tem’s emotionless face.
His pale blue skin glowed in the lowering light. His demeanor was calm and alert.
But underneath the facade he was boiling mad; his anger had texture as it vibrated over her skin and made her itch.
Nadia snorted. “Foe until proven otherwise.” She replaced the goggles and focused on the scene below.
Her team had suffered numerous casualties during the surprise attack just after sunrise. Three of her injured were in critical condition and fighting for their lives back at base camp. Someone had to pay. But who? That was the sticky issue.
The action reports from the less severely wounded had been divided as to whether the ones who’d shot them were Prime or not. The bodies of the enemy dead—so far—had been non-Prime males dressed in Prime uniforms. That didn’t mean the enemy soldiers who’d gotten away weren’t Prime. She’d rather err on the side of caution.
“The only Prime I trust on this rock,” she added, “are the ones assigned to Gold Squadron. Mel and Wulf vetted them all and weeded out potential rebels. Any Prime soldier on this piece of shit planetoid not a member of a Gold ship’s crew is the enemy until proven otherwise.”
The culling of the Prime soldiers who’d been merged into the Gold Squadron had occurred as the result of several treacherous acts. The last such act had occurred a little over two weeks ago. Nadia along with Mel Dmitros-Caradoc, her longtime friend and theGalanti’s co-captain, had been the victims of a kidnapping from the home of the treacherous aunt of theGalanti’s other co-captain and Mel’s mate, Wulf Caradoc. The two women had been taken and roughed up by the Pure Blood rebels.
“I agree.” A’tem’s voice rang with certainty and his ire. His cousin was one of the severely injured being cared for by Lia.
Something in his voice had Nadia once again shoving her goggles up. She glanced at the Volusian with whom she’d served for many years in the Alliance Military. His normally silver-blue eyes were as dark as midnight, reflecting his tangible need for revenge. Volusians, like the Prime, were a warrior race. This sneaking around went against his nature and training. A’tem would much rather roar his family’s battle cry and take the enemy head on.
She could relate. Her Siberian ancestors were all warriors and had managed to survive the twenty-first century Armageddon on Earth. Later they had been instrumental in bringing back stability to the remaining inhabitants in lower Siberia, often having to use draconian methods to do so. Tough situations had called for tough methods until the order of civilization had once again reigned. Her nature, her nurture, had led her to the Alliance military. And while she was a science officer, a job she loved, and spent most of her time discovering and documenting the secrets of the galaxy, she had no problem taking the fight to the enemy when appropriate.
That time would come soon.
Laying a hand on A’tem’s tense shoulder, she squeezed. “Patience, my friend. We can’t go on the offense yet. We don’t know for sure who the enemy is and how many of them we might have to fight.”
Nadia pulled her goggles back down and turned to continue to track the two prowling along the valley floor. “We go by the book. When dropped into enemy territory, we evade. Establish and defend security perimeters. Gather information. Take out any enemy straying into our protected area. Survive until help arrives. Then we go on the offensive.”
“Agreed.” A’tem’s tone said he really didn’t.
He wanted to rush down into the valley and kill the enemy. But he’d hold the line, follow orders.
To her astonishment, so far the Prime under her command had done the same. Her decision to send the scouting teams back to base camp earlier had saved lives. Her risking her skin to make sure her soldiers made it safely back to camp had earned her respect.
She’d impressed the notoriously chauvinistic Prime—for now.
Prime warriors weren’t used to following orders issued by a woman. She had the feeling she’d have to continue to prove herself worthy of their deference. The meshing of the Prime military into the Alliance was still too new.
“Who do you think the enemy is?” A’tem’s piercing, navy-blue gaze focused on the valley. His Volusian vision was different than a Terran’s—he could see the two furtive shadows without the aid of specialized goggles. A trait she’d love to have; the goggles were heavy and bruised her nose and cheekbones when worn for too long.
Nadia remained silent for several seconds. “Not sure. I suspect the real soldiers are either captured or dead. The ones who attacked us are probably mercenaries hired by the Pure Blood fanatics. They would love to cause a galactic incident and damage the new treaty between the Prime and the Galactic Alliance.”God, I hate fanatics.
She angled her head toward the two men on the valley floor; they wandered up and down the dry riverbed in a standard search pattern. “Those two aren’t Prime military, that’s for damn sure. While they have some military training, they’re searching the low ground when any Prime soldier who’d trained on Tarn would look to the high ground and the caves hidden among the rocks. They aren’t familiar with this planetoid at all.”
“I concur.” A’tem turned away from the activity below and looked at her through narrowed eyes. “An Alliance or Prime-trained soldier also wouldn’t have tipped their hand so soon. Instead, they should’ve lured us into the war games and annihilated us during mock battle. By acting prematurely, they’ve allowed us to gain the better defensive and ultimately offensive position.”
“Exactly,” Nadia said. “They hurt us, but we’ve recovered quickly due to superior training. With our better knowledge of the terrain, thanks to our squad’s Prime soldiers, we’ll be able to hang on until Mel and Wulf realize we haven’t reported in.”
Unfortunately, Nadia still couldn’t radio for help. Whoever the enemy were, they had control of the military facility and had blocked all off-planet communications.
For a short, chaotic period after the surprise attack, Gold’s com units didn’t work.
But once back at base camp, Joen had managed to overcome the com unit block. He was currently working on fixing the off-planet communication issue.
“We’re lucky Commander Dakkin was scheduled for this joint training. If anyone can get the off-planet communications up and running, it will be him. Only Iolyn Caradoc could do better,” said A’tem.
“Luck is all well and good, but Lady Luck’s a fickle bitch. I’d rather rely on brains and training.” Deciding the two clueless mercs in the valley were no danger to her people sheltering in the caves, Nadia turned to A’tem. “Let’s finish setting up the perimeter alarms Aeron and I rigged. With any of that luck you mentioned, we might run across our missing team members.”
Renewed grief—and anger—streaked through her. Nadia was missing six soldiers— two Terran females from theRenardand four Prime newly assigned to that particular Gold Squadron battle cruiser. They hadn’t answered after the intrateam communications had been re-established. Nor had they made their way to base camp.
Remaining on her stomach so as not to skyline herself, Nadia wiggled her way off the cliff’s edge. “If the fuckers make a mistake and attempt to search the high ground, they’ll not leave alive. No more of our people will be harmed or go missing—we defend what’s ours.”
She and Aeron had incorporated some explosive surprises into their perimeter security. Aeron’s choice of caves had proven to be serendipitous with the Prime military base’s overstock of food, medical supplies, and explosives and other munitions. They could hold out for a very long time if they had to.
A’tem captured her narrowed gaze with his navy one. “No mercy to the traitors and their hired killers. It is a good policy—very Prime and Volusian.”
“And very, very Siberian.” Yeah, the Prime as a race underestimated Terrans and especially Terran women. This joint training should go part of the way toward dispelling that ignorance.
Nothing like getting dumped in head first, eh, Nadia?
Her arm throbbed as the local Lia had given her had begun to wear off. But she couldn’t stop and rest, couldn’t give in to the pain … she had her soldiers to protect. She also had a responsibility to represent all Terran female soldiers well. No pressure.Yeah,right.
Nadia let out a sigh and rubbed the back of her neck. Her head pounded so much she was forced to let go of the shields she’d built around a newfound psi ability; the energy she used to maintain the walls tapped into her reserves. She’d strengthened the mental walls two weeks ago when Huw Caradoc had held her naked against him after he and Wulf had come to her and Mel’s aid. She wasn’t only extremely sensitive to his emotions, but was also telepathic with him—and only him.
Since then, the stubborn ass, while always cordial and polite, ignored the psychic connection between them and the intense attraction they had for one another.
With Tarn at the outer edge of the habitability zone of the Cejuru solar system, Huw was over six standard hours away; he couldn’t sense her—and she couldn’t sense or feel him denying the bond between them.
Grow a thicker skin, Nadia Petrovich. The man has tunnel vision about mating aPrime female—and you ain’t Prime.
The relief from lowering her shields was immediate. Her headache lessened, and she obtained a second wind.
Yet, as soon as her shields were down, some deep-rooted urge had her seeking the connection she shared with Huw.
All she found was a bleak blackness. The resulting pain was soul deep.
What did you expect? The man is hundreds of thousands of kilometers away on themain planet. He’s at that party for Wulf and Mel—probably has some Prime sexsurrogate on his arm. Later, he’ll go home and have sex with her … she’s Prime. You’renot.
Jealousy. Anger. Grief. The emotions overwhelmed Nadia. She closed her eyes, well aware A’tem watched her curiously.
“Nadia…” A’tem’s soft voice and light touch on her back brought her outside of herself. “You okay? You looked deadly there for a moment. I sensed … more rage in you than before. Then sadness … you were so deeply sad.”
Dammit. I won’t let whatever in the hell this connection is turn me into a weepywoman pining for a man.
“Not rage … fighting mad. There’s a difference.” That the mad was not only aimed at the enemy, but also at Huw “stubborn as a jackass” Caradoc and the thought of him having sex with a woman who wasn’t her … well, A’tem didn’t need to know that.
Her lips twisted into a parody of a smile. “I’m fine. Let’s finish setting up the perimeter defenses. I could use some food, and my arm needs some further attention.”
Nadia was back in control again. She didn’t need to touch Huw’s mind to do her job, to protect her soldiers. She was a goddamn decorated Alliance officer.
And soon the enemy, the Prime, and Huw “blind as a fricking bat” Caradoc would learn there was nothing more deadly than a pissed off Siberian female who could trace her ancestry back to the early days of Terran history when Attila the Hun had ruled all of Asia and parts of Europe.Chapter 2
Cejuru Prime, Premier Caradoc’s Ballroom
The ivory, gold, and black circular-shaped Caradoc family ballroom was crowded, so crowded that the yellow-liveried servants had opened the doors to the terrace that lined the outside curve of the house.
Mel inhaled deeply; she could smell the flowers growing on the terraced gardens that bordered one small arc of the porch. The same gardens she and Wulf’s mother Beria had picked flowers from for tonight’s dinner tables now had armed guards hidden among the blooms in case any of the rebel faction decided to crash the party. The rest of the terrace was built for defense and faced a deep drop to a rock-strewn river that swept to the distant moonlit ocean. It was a breathtaking view and one she’d like to enjoy with Wulf, but that was not what they were there for. Their job was to mingle with the tall Prime males in their dark formal wear and the few ladies in their brightly colored gowns.
She hated mingling, hated crowds. Crowds provided too many chances for people to shove up against you and stab you in the back.
No one, however, had managed to make it close enough to her to do any sort of damage. Wulf, her overprotectivegemat, had scared most people off. He’d glared and growled more tonight than he had since he first pulled her out of his ship’s maintenance tunnel traps.
“Melina,” Wulf whispered against her ear, “let’s leave. I must see what you have on under that dress.”
Her Prime mate and the man she shared command with over the Gold Squadron, and the heir-apparent to the ruler of Cejuru solar system, slid his hand down her mostly naked back to cup her rear. His sharp inhalation made her smile. He now realized she wore nothing underneath the skintight creation.
“You are in so much trouble,gemate lubha.” Wulf patted her bottom and slid his arm around her waist, where he massaged her through the thin, silky fabric.
“You love this dress.” Mel turned into his big, warm, well-muscled body. He looked very handsome in his dark suit with a pristine white collarless shirt closed at the top with a jeweled pin featuring his family’s royal crest. She traced the wolf-like creature on the pin and brushed a kiss over his chiseled jaw. “And you especially like it when I’m naked under my clothing. Admit it.” She nipped his chin, then soothed the spot with her tongue, uncaring that others stared. “It took you all evening to figure it out, though. You’re slipping.”
Wulf eyed the room populated with Prime Elder Council members and their families and myriad members of the various branches of the Caradoc family. He growled low, in the back of his throat. She let out an exasperated breath. This was one of his kill-someone snarls, not one of the I-want-to-fuck-you growls. His aura read as jealous of male eyes on her—and of fear.
“Wulf?” She stroked the muscle pulsing in his jaw. “Are you sensing a danger I’m not?”
She opened her empathic abilities to the room and found no trace of a killing rage, just some low-level animosity, lots of curiosity, and a goodly amount of jealousy aimed in their direction. She shared her findings with him telepathically, but his tension remained. She attempted to access his thoughts through the psi connection that was a part of their unique battle-mate bond, but his prodigious mental shields were up. “Talk to me.”
Wulf took the hand stroking his face in his and kissed her fingertips and traced her palm with his tongue. “Even though there is no direct threat in the room, I’m worried about your safety. The mood could change in a nanosecond. There are too many people here—most of whom I do not even like. Some of them would kill you without blinking an eye. My father’s insistence on these fetes is insane.”
“I’m fine. We’re fine.” She rubbed his chest over the area where the mark that made him hers could be found, soothing him in a way unique to bonded Prime mates. “The parties are necessary for political reasons.”
Her efforts weren’t working. “Stop growling. You’re giving me a headache—and scaring the natives.” She smiled at an Elder Council member who approached them. He eyed Wulf with fear and retreated.
The older man had good instincts. If the poor man had said one wrong word, Wulf would’ve exploded. Her mate’s temper had been on an extremely short leash since her kidnapping two weeks ago.
“Two more days and all the parties will be over.” Mel rubbed Wulf’s back under his black evening jacket until the buzz-saw-like rumbling ceased. Tomorrow evening, there’d be another ball to introduce her as Wulf’sgemate,and the first battle-mate since the Berean Wars, to the upper echelon of Prime society. And the day after, there would be a day-long, open-air festival to introduce her to any Prime citizen who wished to attend.
Her father-in-law Ilar Caradoc, the hereditary leader of the Cejuru solar system, was footing the bill for all the celebrations. He and Beria understood the potential for danger, but had felt the Prime as a people needed to see Wulf and Mel.
For many Prime citizens, Mel, one of the Lost Ones, was a miracle, and the people were elated to celebrate her return. There was now hope other Lost Ones would be found when Gold went on their first mission with Wulf’s Prime crews merged into the Alliance Gold crews.
The couple’s bonding was also touted as the hope for a Prime resurgence in galactic politics.
Those who weren’t happy with Mel’s resurrection—the Pure Blood faction and certain distaff Caradocs—wanted her dead. The Pure Bloods hadn’t wanted the closer ties to the Galactic Alliance. With her status as an Alliance officer and the new mate of the Prime heir-apparent, her appearance had made the situation worse in the fanatics’ warped minds. For those Caradocs who weren’t in the direct line of power, some wanted her dead before she could produce an heir.
“I hate parties,” Wulf grumbled, echoing her earlier thoughts. “I’d rather be crawling around in the dirt on Tarn playing war games with our Gold team.”
“So would I.” She resumed rubbing Wulf’s back with an occasional detour to pet his nice firm ass. She smiled at his low rumble of pleasure. She ached for privacy and their bed. But there was still a sense of worry underneath his desire and the worry wasn’t all for her safety.
Mel touched his mind, now open to her since he’d confessed his concerns for her safety. She frowned. “You’re upset because we haven’t heard from Nadia and Aeron.”
She withdrew her hand from his back and stepped around him to face him fully. Not caring about the shocked gasps from the people surrounding them and observing their every move, she placed her hand once more over thegematmarking above his heart. She sent him soothing warmth and all her love. The rest of the world could go hang. Wulf needed her and she could do no other than fill that demand.
“My mate. My heart. You give me such peace.” Wulf’s eyes blazed gold as he leaned over and sheltered her against his body. He circled her waist with his arms and pulled her closer. His breath whispered across her ear. “Yes,lubha,I am very concerned.
They should have checked in before this be-damned party started. It is unlike them to miss a checkin.” He kissed the tip of her ear and rubbed his cheek over the side of her face. “I had Iolyn attempt to contact Nadia after that interminable dinner. He couldn’t raise her or the military facility on Tarn.”
Mel laid her head on Wulf’s chest. His body vibrated against hers, revving for action.
She felt the increased energy flow along their mating bond. He’d restrained the need to fight … for now.
She tilted her face up. “Wulf?”
He must’ve read her concern, because his lips quirked slightly before he kissed the tip of her nose. “I’m fine,lubha. I won’t let loose in my parent’s ballroom. I promise. But I can’t deny my instincts … and my instincts tell me we will need to leave and fight soon.”
Someone had to be the voice of reason, and she guessed it would have to be her.
“Maybe communications are spotty because of Tarn’s extreme weather and electromagnetic interference.”
What made the planetoid inhabitable for common citizens made it great as a training ground for the Prime Elite military units. There were many planets in the galaxy with as harsh or far worse conditions. Soldiers needed to train for all potential dangers. In fact, several of the scientific experiments being conducted by the Prime military on Tarn were centered on how to predict the electromagnetic storms and create communications systems that could work during such events.
“The communication silence could be part of their war games,” Mel added. “There could be all sorts of reasons why they aren’t responding. We aren’t leaving this party and embarrassing your parents because Iolyn couldn’t touch base with anyone on Tarn.”
“Everything you mentioned has gone through my mind also and is highly probable.
But I would feel better if we knew exactly what was happening.” Wulf kissed her forehead. “I think we should approach Father and advise him to rearrange the other two events for some other time. I want to go to Tarn as soon as we leave this party.”
So much for her voice of reason.
She nuzzled his chest. “If it would ease your fears, then I’m in agreement … but only if your father says it’s all right. He must consider the fallout from canceling the public appearances. We can’t afford to alienate the general public. The rebels’ slogans about keeping Prime blood pure could easily impress naive minds. The people need to see we aren’t monsters.”Webeing not just her and Wulf with their unique bond, but the Alliance military as a whole.
Wulf started to reply and stopped. His brothers, Huw and Iolyn, approached them.
The few females in the room followed the two with greedy gazes. Mel had to admit, all of the Caradoc men were swoon-worthy; the fact they were dressed in formal wear just added to the effect.
Huw punched Wulf in the arm in lieu of a greeting. “Hey, you two, mingle. You are the guests of honor at this … this…” he waved an arm at the large room, “…whatever it is.” Wulf’s brother added under his breath, “Too many damn stuffed shirts if you ask me.”
“No one asked you.” Iolyn cuffed the back of Huw’s head.
Wulf shifted her to his side and held her there. “Iolyn, have you managed to contact Tarn?”
Sobering instantly, Iolyn’s lips thinned and his eyes held worry. “No. And no one at either Prime Military Command or the Alliance Military Command can get a response from anyone on the planet. It was as if no one was there. And there is no electromagnetic interference at the moment—I checked. Prime Command has also verified the climactic conditions through the long-range sensors. Something has happened to cut off all communications.”
It went unsaid, but the only way communications could be cut off was by sabotage.
Iolyn joined Wulf in snarling, raising the hairs on the back of Mel’s neck and probably scaring every civilian in the room.
Huw stiffened and looked from Mel to Wulf to Iolyn. “What’s going on? And why am I just hearing about it?”
“Because you’ve been an irrational idiot lately,” Iolyn said. “And Wulf asked me to check things out and keep it quiet until we figured out what was going on.”
When Huw bunched his fists and growled, Mel rushed to stop the escalating animosity among the brothers. “Behave. All of you.”
However, Iolyn was correct—Huw had been a proverbial ostrich since Mel and Nadia’s kidnapping. And if the truth were told, he’d had his head buried in the sand since he’d first met her attractive friend. But the Caradoc ballroom was no place for a fistfight.
Mel turned to look Huw in the eyes. “We haven’t heard from Nadia or Aeron since the Gold team was dropped off.”
Huw’s emotional response was immediate and strong. His anger, his fears buffeted her. She wondered if he even acknowledged the fears were for Nadia and her safety and not the team as a whole. She imagined not … Huw was in extreme denial concerning what, Mel suspected, was a serious attraction between him and Nadia.
“Balcon’s balls! I knew we should have gone with them.” Huw paced around her and his brothers. The partygoers around them cleared even more space between them and the obviously on-the-edge-of-control man. Finally, he stopped in front of Wulf and snarled.
“So? Why are we standing here in our fancy dress and not on our way to see what’s going on?” Huw’s hands were fisted at his sides.
“Because,” Wulf said, “we just realized something really was wrong. Melina and I had already decided to ask Father to postpone the next two days of celebrations and leave for Tarn tonight. So, calm down, little brother, before I put your ass on the floor.”
Wulf turned to Iolyn. “Ask the Alliance Military to send a drone from space dock to buzz Tarn. I want video intel of what is happening on the planet before we get there.
Contact Nowicki and the other Gold captains and have them cancel all leave for the crew members who did not go to Tarn. Tell them to prepare for departure. We’ll leave for the space dock as soon as Mel and I let Father and Mother know what is happening.”
The Caradoc brothers bristled with the early stages ofbatel rabia, Prime battle rage.
The energy they threw off affected all the males in the room. Their strong emotions had every Prime male in the ballroom rumbling in an instinctive need to join the battle. The low-level noise had everyone who wasn’t a Prime male looking around in fear.
Mel’s gut clenched, and her heart rate elevated as the Caradoc males’
subvocalization stimulated her fight-or-flight response. Wulf’s store of battle-ready energy now zipped from him to her and back, making her itchy and ready to kill someone—preferably the overreacting males in front of her. Instead, she used the excess energy to put some threat in her voice. “Don’t go into full-blown rage in this ballroom or…”
Hell, she didn’t know what she would do. The very air in the room heated from the energy pouring off every Prime male. Mel had never experiencedbatel rabiaen masse before. No wonder the Prime defeated the Antareans time and time again. It was the scariest thing she’d ever encountered—and as an Alliance officer she’d faced down some fairly frightening things.
Mel stroked a shaking hand down Wulf’s tensely muscled arm. “Wulf … please?”
“Sorry.” Wulf rubbed her waist and throttled back his rage. Then he glared at his brothers who managed to do the same.
The women in the room seemed to sigh all at once as the other men in the room took their cues from the Caradoc brothers and calmed down.
“That was potent.” She shuddered as the adrenaline-cortisol boost she’d gotten through the communal hormone surge pulsed in her bloodstream. She was pretty sure she could kick ass and take names against any two or three of the Prime males in the room.
And since no Prime male was less than six feet in height and most tended to be solid muscle that was saying a lot.
“You okay,lubha?” Wulf’s harsh whisper carried no farther than the four of them.
He stroked her chilled naked back.
“Other than needing to kill something right now, I’m fine.” The three males chuckled. She sensed the control they exercised for her—and for the safety of the people around them. But a small spark could easily set them off once more. “Let’s hurry and make our excuses to your parents before you boys let loose with the Caradoc battle cry and start a civil war in the Caradoc ballroom.”
“A very good idea, mygemate.” Wulf placed her arm on his and began walking. His brothers headed in the opposite direction toward the exit.
Wulf guided Melina toward the table where his parents sat with two other members of the extended Caradoc family. His mother and father glowered at him. Well, why not?
They had to have been affected by his and his brothers’ reaction, just as everyone else had. It was amazing his father hadn’t tracked them down and kicked their asses for ruining his mother’s party.
Then he caught sight of who sat with his parents. His rage threatened to escape the box in which he’d shoved it. Darga Caradoc! His father’s cousin. The man had serious balls to show up at this celebration of Wulf’s mating.
Melina rubbed her cheek against his arm.“What’s wrong? You blocked me again.
Stop it. Who’s that man sitting with your parents? I haven’t been introduced.”
“That’s … awkward. Is he the reason your mother is distressed? Your father,furious?”
“Partially. But their anger is more because me and my brothers almost started a warin the ballroom. Father feels he has Darga under control by setting spies on him.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I can’t believe theapayebohad the nerve to come here after his sons attempted tokill you.”
“Wulf, I read him as embarrassed, but not sorry.”
“He isn’t sorry. He is a viper in our family, just as my aunt and her husband were.”
“Do you really think he’s behind the rebellion?”
Wulf pulled Melina closer to his side. He wanted her anywhere but here.
“Nothing surprises me any longer. I never would’ve guessed the animosity Father’srelatives had toward him—and all for a matter of birth order. Darga’s father, Lemi, wasthe middle son, three years younger than my grandfather. Lemi died a hero during thelast major Antarean attack on the planet. Lemi’s wife also died. She’d refused to leavewith the other women and children. They would be shamed by their heir’s behavior.”
Melina hugged his arm closer.“Who’s the other man? He looks like your father.”
“That’s my Father’s youngest brother, Tenar. He never found agemateand devoteshimself to documenting and writing about Prime history. Your Terran parents would’vehad much in common with him.”
“Father. Mother.” Wulf inclined his head. “I apologize for earlier. We have lost contact with our people on Tarn and need to leave. Please cancel the next days’
celebrations until after we come back from Tarn.”
“I understand. We will definitely reschedule the celebrations. Our people are looking forward to meeting Melina.” His father’s stern face lightened as he smiled at Melina.
“But before you go, I wish to introduce Melina to more of her new relatives.”
Wulf grumbled under his breath, but a glare from his mother had him turning to the other two men at the table and inclining his head in greeting. “Tenar, thank you for leaving your mountain aerie to attend our celebration.” He gently brought Melina forward. “Lubha, this is my Uncle Tenar.”
Melina held out her hand, and Tenar gently encased it within his before releasing it.
“Pleased to meet you, Tenar. Wulf has told me you’re a historian of some note. I would love to sit and speak with you about the history of our people. Maybe after we come back from Tarn?”
Tenar smiled. “Any time, my dear. Wulf must bring you to my home. It has the most wonderful view of the capital city and the area surrounding it.”
A snort from the other male at the table drew everyone’s attention. “Ignoring me, Wulf? Have you no welcome for your cousin?”
Wulf gritted his teeth. “Uly and Donte attempted to kill mygemate. I think your presence here is inappropriate.”
Darga nodded, his forehead creased into a scowl. “Would you hold the father responsible for the actions of his adult sons? I don’t blame you for Uly’s death or Donte’s incarceration—”
“Donte will die for what he attempted to do on my ship.” Wulf snarled. Only his parents’ presence and Melina’s calming nearness stopped him from picking the man up and throwing him off the cliffside of the terrace to his death a hundred meters below.
“Why would you even think of blaming Wulf?” Melina’s voice was calm and yet authoritative. “Ikilled Uly after he’d drugged me and slaughtered a spa’s entire personnel to get to me—not Wulf. AndIspared Donte. I could’ve easily killed him and his friend when they entered our quarters and attempted to murder me.”
Darga’s emotions read as a wild mix of rage, embarrassment, and regret at his sons’
“This is our enemy,lubha.”
“He’s our people’s enemy,”Melina communicated. “But he doesn’t seem to knowwe can read him. Doesn’t he understand the connection between battle-mates?”
“Darga wouldn’t believe it. The man is hungry for power and wealth. He doesn’trespect the past glory of the Prime—I wonder if the fanatics even understand what he’sabout?”
“We’ll make sure they learn. But timing is everything, darling. Right now, he’s amember of your family and on the Elder Council, yes?”
“Then we will bide our time,gemat.”
His father broke the awkward silence which had Tenar glancing at them curiously, a glint of amusement in his sharp, dark amber eyes. “Wulf. Melina … take care on your journey. Keep me apprised of what is happening with your crew.”
“We will. Thank you.” Melina leaned over and kissed Ilar on the cheek and then turned to kiss and hug Wulf’s mother.
Wulf hugged his father and whispered against his ear. “Be careful of Darga.”
His father squeezed him back and whispered, “I am.” Ilar said more loudly, “Go with the One. May he protect and watch over you and your people.”
As Wulf and Melina made their way out of the room, he felt the dagger-like stare of his enemy aimed at his back. “Well, at least, we’ve confirmed who the real enemy is.”
“But we can do nothing until we can get to the root of the fanatics who follow him.”
Mel smiled at her uncle, Tor Maren, who’d come to stand with Wulf’s brothers as they waited by the ballroom’s main doors. “Cutting off the head does not necessarily kill the treasonous roots—there are always others who’ll step forward in the name of fanaticism.
Your greedy relatives might’ve used the Pure Blood faction to further their own ends, but my gut tells me the reactionaries have spread roots of their own.”
“I don’t doubt that, my Melina. The fight has just begun.”
Neither one of them mentioned they were afraid the next battle might’ve already begun on the planetoid Tarn.Chapter 3Cejuru Tarn
After finishing planting early warning alarms along the mountain pathways and cliffs leading to their sanctuary, Nadia and A’tem had also done some careful scouting around the military facility, gathering intel. They now entered the cave fortification. She was tired, hurting, and worried. They hadn’t come across the missing six crew members. She feared her missing people were captured or, worse, dead. She also had even bigger worries after what she and A’tem had seen on their information-gathering mission.
Whoever the enemy was, they had bigger plans than killing off her training team.
But she had a plan to stop them.
“There you are!” Dr. Lia Morgan accosted them. She was followed closely by Joen, who had appointed himself the comely doctor’s protector.
Yeah, something’s going on between those two.
“Nadia, your wound needs more attention. Now! No putting it off. Do you want an infection?”
The diminutive doctor didn’t let Nadia get a word in edgewise and took her arm and pulled her along the path toward the smaller cave Lia had appropriated for her patients.
Joen followed closely on their heels. A slight quirk to his lips indicated he found Lia’s take-charge attitude amusing.
Nadia entered the cave. The most seriously injured lay about the small room, lying quietly on blankets found in the stores in the cave. The less injured helped by feeding or providing liquids to their brethren. The air reeked of blood and sweat brought on by fevers. The emotional atmosphere was one of stoic fortitude.
Anger surged through Nadia’s tired body, giving her an extra boost of adrenaline.
She practically vibrated she was so mad. These people, her responsibility, were injured on her watch. Hell yeah, that plan she’d concocted was an absolute go in her book. No one would talk her out of it—or take it away from her. Her people needed more care than Lia could provide here, and she would see they got that help and sooner rather than later.
“Lia, I’m fine.” She shook off the strong emotions threatening to erupt. Shewouldmaintain her calm as an example to her soldiers. “Has the missing team checked in?”
“No.” Joen frowned. “We’ll continue to ping them over the emergency frequency.”
“Damn. A’tem and I didn’t see them either. We’ll send out another search team.”
She glanced at the still forms of the three most severely injured soldiers. “How are they, Lia?”
The doctor sighed and tears formed in her silver-colored eyes. “They aren’t doing well. I need three regen beds ASAP.”
Lia paused and glanced toward the doorway where Joen stood guard. Outwardly he appeared calm, but Nadia’s empathic abilities had grown stronger since meeting the Prime or more specifically since meeting Huw. She read Joen’s emotions as explosive.
Then Lia smiled at Joen, whose expression lightened somewhat, and continued, “Joen has done his best to get our off-planet communications back up and running as has Aeron. But they haven’t managed it yet. So, I’ll make do with what I have and keep the three severely injured men in an induced coma and alive for as long as I can.” She pointed to a stone seat built into the room’s perimeter. “Sit, Nadia—at least I can treat your laser burn. You don’t want it to scar.”
“Scarring is the least of my concerns.” Nadia sat where Lia indicated and sighed at the relief of getting off her feet. The gear she wore was heavy, and she and A’tem had covered a vast amount of territory on their last outing. Her feet needed a short break, as did the rest of her.
At six feet two inches tall, she was now at eye level with the much shorter Lia. The doctor ripped off the remnants of Nadia’s laser-shredded uniform top. The wound on her arm was raw and seeping. She winced when Lia tweezed some stubborn bandage remnants out of the burned skin and swabbed it with something that made Nadia’s eyes water.
“Dammit, Lia. That hurt.” Nadia blew at the wound in an attempt to calm the antiseptic down.
“Stop being a baby.” Lia applied a soothing ointment and then wrapped the wound with gauze.
Nadia snorted and looked down at her torso. Shit, she was showing way too much skin for her comfort level. Good thing she’d worn a tank top underneath her uniform top instead of a bra or the crew members in the makeshift sick bay would’ve seen more of her than she’d like.
Even with the mostly adequate covering, Joen and a couple of the less severely injured soldiers had zeroed in on her full breasts. The Prime males showed their appreciation by the golden glow in their gazes. The last Prime male whose eyes had heated at the sight of her 36-Cs had been Huw Caradoc—and he’d seen them totally naked.
Her nipples tightened at the memory of Huw’s arm touching the lower curve of her naked breasts as he’d held her nude body protectively against his. That had been two weeks ago, and she still felt the heat of his touch and his emotional aura. She’d relived the moments in his arms every night since then in torrid dreams. Unfortunately, Huw had treated her as just another crew member and with exaggerated courtesy ever since that day. He purposely kept her at arm’s length when they were in the same room, but more often than not, he avoided her. The man’s middle name had to be “denial” since whatever this connection was, the feelings between them were strong. And she knew he felt them also because the heat between them was as intense as a star going supernova.
No, she couldn’t think of him now. It made her heart hurt and was a distraction. She had her crew to protect—that was the only thing she should be thinking of.Good luckwith that.
Nadia raised a brow at Joen, whose gaze was still fixed on her breasts. He flushed slightly and shifted his focus to her face. “What is blocking our signals off planet, Joen?”
He entered the room more fully and took a seat beside her. “The jamming is definitely originating on the planetoid itself and not from any ship in orbit. Aeron and I can only conclude the enemy has taken over the communication control center at the Tarn military facility.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “This shouldn’t have happened. The communications center is manned at all times by highly trained Prime Elite soldiers. It is a secure, impregnable, and self-contained room within the facility. At the first signs of a breach, the men would’ve sealed themselves inside. It would take someone on the inside to let the enemy in and with the knowledge on how to shut off all communications. I can’t believe any of the soldiers stationed on this planet are in bed with the rebels.”
Nadia understood Joen’s shock and disbelief, but facts were facts. “It would only take one or two well-placed traitors to let in the mercenaries. Much like what happened when the pirates took over theGalanti.”
The previous treachery had occurred before the merger of Prime crews into Gold.
TheGalanti, then a Prime star ship under Wulf Caradoc’s command, had been escorting the new Prime ambassador and his party to finalize the Prime joining the Alliance. This had also been before Wulf had met and fully bonded with Mel, who hadn’t known she was a Lost One.
Nadia winced in pain as Lia wielded the cold laser to a laceration on her shoulder she must’ve gotten while climbing. “No matter how it happened, Joen, the enemy has taken over the military compound and is in control of the communications center and the weapons systems.”
“How do you know this?” Joen asked.
“A’tem and I did a little extra scouting while we were out.” Nadia winced at the low, rumbling snarl Joen emitted. “My call, soldier. My call.”
Joen nodded. “What did you see?” The resigned expression on his face indicated he was prepared for the worst.
“Lots of armed guards now surround the facility.” They hadn’t been there that morning, but that was because the enemy had been in the hills harrying her scouting teams. “Only a few wore Prime uniforms, but they didn’t look to be Prime. I spotted several Terrans and even an Erian. Definitely mercs. We concluded the facility’s soldiers, if they’re still alive, are being held prisoner in the underground barracks.”
“Yes, that makes sense. The underground barracks are completely defensible and an invader could easily hold a large number of hostages in them since there are few ways in and out.” Letting loose his anger and frustration, Joen snarled several ugly Prime epithets.
The emotional display shocked her and caused Lia’s usually steady hand to shake as she worked on treating all Nadia’s bruises and lacerations.
“Stand down, soldier,” Nadia said. “We’ll figure a way to get inside the military facility and see what’s happened. Besides needing to get off-planet communications back up, I don’t want the enemy shelling our position and forcing us to move. We have too many injured.” She turned toward the other side of the cave. “A’tem … please locate Commander Ard and bring him here.”
A’tem, who’d been sitting with his injured cousin and having some lacerations of his own attended to, stood and left the small cave room.
Joen’s rage continued to bubble and roil under the surface. Lia went to stand next to him, and with a touch, his anger cooled enough that Nadia didn’t feel like scratching the phantom itches on her skin.
When A’tem and Aeron entered the medical area, she could tell A’tem had briefed her second-in-command about their reconnaissance and their conclusions.
His first words confirmed it. “Your plan is sound, Nadia. But I will take a small team and infiltrate the facility, shut down whatever is blocking our communications signal and the weapons systems, and then free the loyal Prime soldiers imprisoned there.”
Nadia glared at A’tem who returned her look with a blank one of his own. She’d have a talk with the Volusian later about loyalty and his misplaced overprotectiveness.
“That isn’t your call, Commander Ard.” Nadia’s tone was harsh, but Aeron needed to understand—and trust—that she or any Alliance female, whether an officer or a soldier, could do this job. And he needed to back her decisions up or this clusterfuck would go even more tits up. “It’s mine.”
When Aeron opened his mouth, anger in every line of his face and body, Nadia slashed the air between them with her hand. “Not one more word.”
The atmosphere in the cave heated up, and every Prime male in the room who’d been conscious enough to overhear the loud confrontation growled. The sound reverberated off the stone walls. “All the growling, snarling, and rumbling will stop now. That’s an order.”
Lia gasped, and Nadia looked over her shoulder at her friend. The good doctor wore a frown and radiated concern. Lia knew her well and had been present the last time Nadia had lost her temper. It didn’t happen often, but when it did—well, heads rolled and careers had been lost. Nadia didn’t appreciate when a male attempted to undermine her authority even when they did it with the best of intentions.
When the men had quieted down, she continued, “I’ll take two men and lead them on this mission. Aeron…” she used his first name to soften her previous acerbity, “…as my second, you’ll remain here to defend our base and continue to direct the search for the missing team and to work on establishing off-planet communications from this end.”
Nadia looked first at Aeron and then at Joen who’d opened his mouth, probably to protest. “This is my responsibility, gentlemen—and, I repeat, my call.”
She silenced Aeron with an icy glare. “Don’t say what you’re thinking. You don’t want to piss me off right now. I’ll have your respect and your cooperation.” She swept a glance around the room at the avid observers. “That goes for every man and woman on this team.”
Aeron stood tall and inclined his head. “You have both. I have complete faith in your abilities.”
“Thank you.” Nadia gave him a weak smile. “And I trust that if my team and I don’t achieve our objectives and something happens that we don’t return, you’ll do what is needed to protect our people. You know the planet and can evade the enemy more easily than I.”
“I should be present on this mission,” Joen said. Lia’s pained gasp drew his gaze, and he shook his head slowly. “Lia, don’t. I’m the expert in communications. The enemy can block our off-planet communications for as long as they want. It’s crucial we get a message out to Alliance and Prime military commands.”
Yes, there was definitely something more than mere attraction going on with these two. Nadia wondered if it was anything like what she felt for Huw Caradoc when they were in the same vicinity. God, she hoped not for Lia’s sake. If Joen held the same attitude about non-Prime women as Huw, Lia was due for a severe disappointment.
Prime males talked a good game about finding a non-Prime mate, but had very little follow-through. Men! Passive-aggressive assholes—no matter the race or culture.
“No, Joen. If something happens and I fail to return, you and Aeron together have a better chance of rigging something to get an emergency call out.” Nadia looked at A’tem.
“I’ll take A’tem and one of the other Prime soldiers from our crew.”
She sent a sideways glance at Aeron. “Two big, strong men from warrior races should protect my little female ass, don’t you think?”
Aeron had the grace to look embarrassed. “My offer to lead the … I never meant to imply you are … weak.”
Nadia let out a snorting laugh. “Yes, you did. It’ll take a lot more than two weeks of team building for Prime males to accept that women can fight as well as a man.”
She stood and rotated her treated shoulder. It twinged but moved smoothly and wouldn’t impede her if she had to fight. “Those bastards attacked our crew on my watch.
They’ll learn that was a mistake.”
She turned to A’tem. “Go with Aeron and find me a volunteer among our Prime crew members.”
A’tem snorted, a smile in his startling blue eyes. “They’re standing in line, Nadia.”
He angled his head at the one critically injured Prime male who’d pulled two injured female crew members out of the line of fire. The Prime soldier sustained multiple direct laser hits but had still managed to get the women to safety before succumbing to his wounds. She’d already entered into her log he should be awarded the Alliance Medal of Valor.
“Every single Prime member of Gold is raging mad over what has happened. Prime turning on Prime is an act of treason,” A’tem said. “They want to find whoever perpetrated this atrocity—be they Prime traitors or hired killers—and kill them.”
“The killing will have to wait until we know what we’re dealing with. We have no clue how many enemies are on the planet and where they’re positioned. Pick me a soldier who has some familiarity with the Prime facility and in particular the underground area where the communications and weapons systems are located.”
Joen spoke up. “If I cannot go, then Crewman Bram Tilga is the one you want. He trained under me. We’ve manned the facilities here as a team for many war games.”
Aeron nodded. “I concur with Joen’s suggestion. I’ll take A’tem to Bram. He is a loyal and fierce fighter. When do you leave, Nadia?”
“Give A’tem and me a chance to eat something—and I need to find another uniform top, one that is a little less airy.” She picked up her shredded top. “Give us thirty standard minutes.”
Aeron inclined his head and left the room with A’tem on his heels. Nadia turned to Lia and angled her head toward the three most severely wounded. “Keep those soldiers alive.”
The doctor nodded. “That’s the plan.”
Nadia grinned at the insulted look on Lia’s face. “Once we gain control of Tarn’s communication system, Mel and Wulf will be here as soon as they can with all the medical facilities you require.”
“If they aren’t already on their way.” Joen moved to stand behind Lia and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I think our co-captains would be worried that they hadn’t heard from us since we landed.”
Joen’s manner toward Lia was possessive and protective. It struck her they had already begun an even more intimate relationship than she realized. Joen had fully embraced his attraction for Lia. Their auras meshed in the same way Mel and Wulf’s did.
How that was possible was a question for another time and place.
Nadia was happy for the couple. And for a split second, she was optimistic that maybe she and Huw could find the same oneness.
Wanting what her two friends had, she reached for the intimate mind-to-mind link she had with Huw, the one that had made itself known two weeks ago on a Cejuru Prime mountainside as Huw’s touch and scent awakened her deeply buried libido.
Unlike the last time she’d reached for Huw, the link was no longer buried in a deep well of blackness. But it was faint, still not strong enough to connect with him mind to mind or even read his emotions.
Either she was getting stronger or he was getting closer.
Why she reached for a man who continued to avoid her and deny this unique bond, she didn’t know. It seemed to be instinctive in times of stress or other strong emotions.
Not once had Huw tried to reach her.
What a glutton for punishment you are, Nadia. The man doesn’t want you. Youaren’t Prime.
Nadia barely managed to beat down the need to try again. She dragged her mind back to the situation at hand. “I agree. They could already be on their way here. We missed two checkins so far. Mel is probably having conniptions by now.”
She walked to the doorway, paused, and looked back. Joen nuzzled Lia’s nape. Lia reached back with one arm to pull his head closer. A pang of envy hit her hard. Damn Huw’s stubborn Prime hide. They could have what Lia and Joen had found—she knew it deep in her soul.
Nadia cleared her throat, but Joen didn’t let go of Lia. His blazing golden eyes dared her to call him out on the intimacy. She wasn’t that petty. If shit happened, this might be the last time the two would ever spend together. “If Wulf and Mel are on their way, I don’t want them rushing in unprepared for the extent of the perfidy. Those guards I mentioned at the Prime military compound?”
“Yes?” Joen’s arms went around Lia as he sheltered her against him as if to protect her from an attack.
“They were manning the super-laser artillery.”
Joen swore. Lia gasped and clutched at his arm. Every soldier who flew the galaxy had seen what super-lasers, part of most planets’ defense systems, could do to space vehicles. No soldier ever wanted to be on a ship struck by the giant weapons.
“I don’t want our people running into ship killers. Our people don’t know the military facility has been compromised. They’d be sitting ducks. If I need backup, I’ll communicate my needs to Aeron.”
So many things could go wrong, but she had to do this because those were her peers and soldiers on theGalantiand the other Gold ships that would come to their aid. They could be killed. She’d doanythingto keep them alive—even if it meant going on a suicide mission into the depths of enemy-held territory, even if it meant contacting the man who denied the bond between them, the bond which was her only means of warning them about the danger.
Deliberately, she reached for the psychic connection with Huw. He was closer—theGalantiwas on its way to Tarn.
This time she blasted her message with everything in her and hoped he’d be receptive for once.
Careful, it’s a trap!On the Galanti, four standard hours away from TarnHuw stiffened at his post on the Command Deck. “Mel?”
His sister-kin turned. “Yes, Huw?”
“Did you just send me a mental message?”
“No.” Mel frowned and looked at Wulf. “Wulf?”
Wulf shrugged and turned toward his brother. “You know such a communication is impossible, Huw. Melina can sense your moods, your emotions, but she can only speak telepathically with me. Why do you ask?”
Huw wished he’d kept his mouth shut. Everyone on the Command Deck stared at him. As much as he wanted to deny he’d heard a female voice he’d hoped was Mel’s and not Nadia’s, the warning could be important. “I received a warning. Tarn is a trap. To be careful.”
Wulf approached Huw and leaned over to whisper next to his ear. “Was the warning from Nadia?”
Huw nodded, and his brother’s expression turned pensive.
The One knew Huw hadn’t asked for this preternatural connection with Nadia. He was far too attracted to her the way it was; there were times when he’d dream of her and expect her to be in his bed when he awoke.
Beyond the lust for her beautiful body, he liked and admired her. She was a strong, intelligent woman. But if he succumbed to this intense attraction and courted her … what would happen later if he found his truegemateon their mission to seek the Lost Ones? If he found and marked hisgemate, then he would hurt not only Nadia but also thegemate.
He would dishonor the Prime woman who was destined to be his mate and the Terran woman he’d prematurely wooed.
Honor and fair play demanded he wait until after the search for the Lost Ones before he made any overt attempt to court Nadia. He’d made a decision after the rescue of Nadia and Mel two weeks ago to keep Nadia at arm’s length until the mission was complete.
But it grew harder and harder to maintain such a distance. The mental link between them, whatever it was, grew stronger each time he was near her. He’d begun avoiding her—and it had still grown stronger.
Maybe Nadia was a Terran witch or a psychic? He’d read about such anomalies when studying the cultures with which the Prime would come into contact once they’d joined the Galactic Alliance. This link between them could not be a sign of a Prime mating—Nadia was Terran, not Prime.
Mercenaries. Super-lasers. Danger.Mercenaries. Super-lasers. Danger.
Mercenaries. Super-lasers. Danger.
Huw gasped and shot out of his chair.
“What is it, brother?” Wulf placed a hand on his shoulder, steadying him when he would have fallen.
“Nothing … no, not nothing.” He couldn’t deny the voice. The message was crucial to their safety. Nadia—and he had no doubt now it was her voice and mental touch—was trying to warn them. There was more than just a communication issue on Tarn. “I, um, keep hearing the same words over and over.”
He lied. There was more than just the words, but he couldn’t admit to his brother Nadia had drawn on him somehow for strength and energy. She was injured, exhausted, and in pain—and how in Balcon’s depths had he sensed those things? And he definitely couldn’t explain how he knew Nadia was leading herself and two others into what could be a suicide mission.
Fear struck him in the chest and he gasped for breath. He was too far away to help— to stop Nadia from walking into danger.
“Diew!We need to hurry.” Huw looked at his brothers, Iolyn having come to stand by Wulf. Both of them sheltered him from the gazes of the command deck crew. “And we need to be careful. The training facility is in the hands of mercenaries—and they have activated the super-lasers.”
Wulf grunted. “I believe your source.” He mumbled so only his brothers could hear.
“The telepathy must be of the same kind that occurs between me and Melina.”
Huw shook his head. “No! This is different.” It had to be. Nadia wasn’t hisgemateand that meant she couldn’t be a battle-mate either. Nadia had to be a strong telepath.
Huw thumped the area over his heart with his fisted hand. “I have no marking. This isn’t what you and Mel have.”
Mel had come to join them. She covered Huw’s fist with her hand and squeezed gently. “Whatever this is, Huw, we’ll trust it. The situation on the planet was suspect to begin with…” she stroked a comforting hand down his arm, “…we’ll deal with whatever is happening between you and Nadia … later. Once we have her and our fellow soldiers back.”
“There is nothing to deal with. She isn’t Prime.” Huw turned back to his station.
“She’s not mygemate.”
“Stubborn ass,” Iolyn muttered as he passed by.
“Shut up,bak.” Huw snarled the epithet for a motherless son of a fucked bovine.
“It’s none of your business.”
“Ansu bhau!” Wulf said. “We will discuss this later as a family and not on the Command Deck as we head into danger.” Wulf stared at him until he had to look away from the anger and dominance in his older brother’s eyes. “You and Nadia will have medical tests done. We’ll send them to the Alliance Astrobiology lab on Tau Ceti for evaluation.”
When Huw opened his mouth to protest, Wulf cut him off. “That is an order from your commanding officer. Right now,” Wulf turned to glare at the fascinated command deck crew, “we are going to Red Alert. Maximum speed, Mr. J’ar.”
“Aye, sir.” J’ar programmed the helm and the resulting surge from accelerating from cruising speed to maximum vibrated the deck.
The alert was sounded. The Command Deck became a beehive of activity as systems were monitored and decks reported in. TheGalantiand its crew were preparing for battle.
Wulf turned away from Huw and toward Mel. “Contact Nowicki on theLeonidasand bring him up to speed, tell him we’ll have an intership com-conference with all section officers in five standard minutes. We have less than four standard hours to come up with a plan to land on the planet without being seen or shot out of the skies, locate and rescue our people, and take back control of Tarn’s military facility.”
Mel nodded and hurried to her command chair to begin relaying the orders.
“Iolyn,” Wulf said, “notify Prime Command, Father, and Alliance Military Command of the situation as we know it.” Iolyn shifted to the communication console.
Wulf took Huw by the upper arms and shook him. “Tell me the instant the message from Nadia changes. She’s trying to warn us and using the only way she can. Donotbe a stubborn ass! Open yourself up. Tell her we’re coming. Understand?”
“Yes, sir!” Huw closed his eyes and concentrated on the fragile thread in his mind and found it not as fragile as it had been a mere week ago.
Diew, when had it strengthened? He’d avoided Nadia, blocked her attempts to communicate with him in this way, in the hopes distance and denial would make whateverthiswas go away. Obviously, he’d been unsuccessful.
“Hang on, Nadia. We received your warning. We’re coming.”
What he could only describe as relief came back at him. She’d received his message.
His brothers and Mel might think this was evidence of a mating of some sort, but he remained unconvinced. The connection could have no basis in biology. The medical tests would prove his case.
Still, even though Nadia couldn’t be his mate, he didn’t want anything bad to happen to her and would do all he could to avoid her injury or death.
“Don’t die, Nadia. Stay alive.”
“Hurry, Huw!”The feminine mind touch raised the hairs on the back of his neck.
She was afraid for not just herself, but for the ships coming to her team’s rescue.
“Wulf!” His brother paused at the open door to the Captain’s Board Room. “We need to hurry.”
Wulf, grim-faced, nodded, and gave the order to the helmsman. “Red-line it, Mr.
“Aye, Captain.” The Volusian programmed the helm to circumvent all engine safety measures to get the most speed from the ship. TheGalantisurged forward even faster until the stars passed the bridge window like so many silver streaks. “Our ETA is now two point five standard hours.”
“We’re coming, Nadia.”
Huw left the Command Deck at a run and headed for Engineering where he would keep theGalantirunning at red-line and beyond until they reached Tarn. He’d get everything out of his engines and his engineering techs or die trying.Chapter 4
Night, Cejuru Tarn
With no moon, the only light illuminating the flat, arid landscape upon which the military compound sat were the stars and the perimeter security lights on the compound walls. Shadows upon shadows covered the scene below her team’s vantage point. They’d taken a position near the back of the facility about one hundred meters away, hidden in the rocks that had tumbled from the foothills during one of the infrequent periods of tectonic behavior of the planetoid.
Nadia used the magnification in her night-vision goggles to zero in on the door that led to the subterranean communications room and from it to the weaponry control room.
The target building was near the back of the military compound. Between them and the entrance was open space; they’d be seen by the mercenary guards before they’d made it five meters from their hiding place.
“Bram?” She turned to look at Crewman Bram Tilga, who like most Prime was huge, well muscled, and extraordinarily handsome despite his somber demeanor. “Where are these maintenance tunnels you were telling me about?”
Bram pointed to a small, gray stone building that abutted the woods not too far from where they were hidden. “We can access one of the utility maintenance tunnels from that equipment shed. This tunnel will allow us to cross the open space without being seen.
There is an exit onto the surface closest to the door we need.” Bram’s golden gaze was calm, and his voice even and emotionless.
But underneath his purposely blank exterior, she sensed he constantly evaluated her, testing her for weakness. Well, she hadn’t expected complete trust from her new Prime crew members. They didn’t know her yet.
“How close?” she asked as she turned back to the building and looked through her goggles to see if she could spot a trap door on the hard surface.
“Less than five meters from the back of our target. You cannot see it from here, Commander.” Bram’s voice held gentle amusement. “But the door is behind the stack of palettes near the building entrance.”
Nadia slid down the rock upon which she’d perched to reconnoiter the situation and turned to face her team. “We’ll make our way to the storage shed using the cover of the trees and rocks, take out any guards stationed there, and then enter and use the tunnel.
Will you know which exit from the tunnel we’ll need, Bram?”
Bram nodded. “They are marked.”
“Excellent. Once we get to the appropriate exit, I’ll go first and distract the guards.
You two will take them out. Since A’tem and I have determined the guards change every hour on the hour,” she checked her chronometer, “we have less than a standard hour window from now to get into that building.”
“Not an issue, Commander.” Bram’s lips quirked into what might have been a smile.
“I have the backdoor codes Commander Dakkin and I created when we trained here. I can have us inside in less than a standard minute.”
Nadia grinned at the Prime. “Very good. Once we’re inside, Bram since you know the facility and the tunnel systems connecting the buildings, you will be on point. I want us in and out with communications and weapons under our control and not theirs as quickly as possible. If we manage not to alert the enemy upon accomplishment of those goals, then and only then we will scout to see if we can free the Prime prisoners.” If they couldn’t, the prisoners would be freed quickly enough once the rest of Gold arrived.
“Yes, Commander,” A’tem said. “What is the contingency plan in case we are discovered while trapped underground?”
Nadia hadn’t created one. Her main goal had always been to get off-planet communications up and running so Joen and Aeron could contact Wulf and Mel and then fix it so no one could use the laser weaponry against the rescue ships. Without a lot of luck on their side, which she’d never counted on, she’d fully expected this to be a suicide mission. Both Aeron and Joen had understood that and that was why they had wanted to come in her stead.
Before Nadia could come up with an explanation as to her initial reasoning, Bram spoke up, “We will not be trapped, Commander A’tem. There are other ways out of the subterranean complex known only by certain Elite-trained soldiers with specific security clearances.”
Bram looked from A’tem to her and back as if deciding whether they were worthy of what had to be Prime military secrets. He smiled. “I am one of those soldiers.”
“And what are these other ways out?” Nadia asked.
“Once we are in the subterranean complex, I will point out a door closest to the communications secure room, leading to an escape tunnel into the mountains and the cave systems.”
Bram’s revelations sent a chill down her spine. “The enemy can get into the mountain caves from these escape tunnels?”
“Not the specific caves where our people are located, but into other similar cave systems,” Bram said. “Commander Ard suggested the cave system we occupy for its defensive capabilities and for the fact that not many know of the system outside of the certain Elite team members. Commander Ard told me to reveal facility security measures to you as needed. I have.”
“Thank you, Bram. A’tem and I won’t share the location of the escape tunnels with anyone else in Gold.”
“Commander,” Bram said almost gently, “I am sure Captain Wulf will reveal such secrets to his senior crew when he has the time. But you need to know all of your Prime crew members know of these tunnels and others like them in similar Prime military fortifications all across this part of the galaxy.”
And from Bram’s last statement, Nadia deduced every single Prime crew member in Gold was Elite-trained with the highest security clearance and the best the Prime had to offer. Wulf must’ve taken that into consideration when he and Mel vetted the Prime soldiers to be merged into Gold. She’d remember to thank him for that foresight later.
Her confidence level on surviving their particular mission had now gone from under five percent up to fifty. The fact A’tem had served in the Volusian military’s elite squads before joining the Alliance military bumped the fifty percent chances of mission success and survival up to maybe sixty-five.
Another thought struck her. “Then why aren’t we using these secret tunnels in the mountains to get into the compound?” Nadia scowled at Bram.
“Because the escape tunnels are meant to be exit only. They are booby-trapped against entry into the compound, but not against exit from it.” Bram’s tone was very dry and along the lines of “did you think Prime were stupid?”
Ignoring his sarcastic tone, Nadia let out a breath. “Bram, once we accomplish our primary missions, you remain on point to lead us out of the compound.”
“Gladly, Commander.” Bram inclined his head.
Of course, completion of their goals still wouldn’t be that easy, which was why she’d only bumped up the chances of success to sixty-five percent. Once they were in the military compound’s underground rooms and tunnels, they’d be like rats in a maze. And rather than trying to find their way to a piece of cheese, they’d be avoiding the entrenched enemy.
Plans in place, the trip to the storage shed and into the maintenance tunnel was accomplished easily and without trouble in under ten standard minutes.
She shoved open the lid of the tunnel, climbed out onto the dirt-packed surface, and then ran to the cover of the large pallets of boxes. A’tem and Bram, after replacing the lid over the tunnel opening, followed her quickly and quietly. She peered around the edge of their hiding place and spied the two large humanoid males who’d come on duty approximately fifteen standard minutes ago. They were alert and heavily armed with knives, laser pistols, and automatic laser rifles. They stood guard, one on either side of the only entrance to the building under which the communications room was located.
Nadia spoke, keeping her voice low and atonal so as not to carry to the guards. “We clear on the plan?”
The two men nodded.
She handed her goggles and laser weapons to A’tem. “Hold these for me. I have some men to distract. As soon as they are focused on me make your move. I’ll attempt to lure them closer to you and away from the door.” She stripped off her borrowed uniform top under which she wore another garment—a lacy, sheer bra she’d borrowed from one of her female crew members who had a sexy lingerie fetish.
At Bram’s sharp inhalation, she glared at him. “You never saw me like this, soldier.”
Bram shut his mouth, which had dropped open, and nodded, but his fiery gaze did not budge. A’tem was unfazed since he was used to working with female soldiers who’d been trained to use whatever weapons they had at hand to defeat the enemy.
She coughed and the Prime had the grace to flush along his high cheekbones and shift his gaze back to her face.
A’tem chuckled quietly.
Nadia snorted. She’d have to remember to tell Wulf they needed to run some simulations with the Prime crew members to get them used to female soldiers using their wiles and attributes to defeat the enemy. Sex was a powerful drive, and when used appropriately had taken down many an enemy soldier. The strategy wouldn’t be effective if their crew members were distracted right along with the enemy.
As ready as she’d ever be, she muttered, “Let’s get these bastards.”
She stood and stretched to her full height. Taking a deep breath in preparation to confront the enemy, she realized her breasts threatened to spill over the top of the low-cut bra. The cool night air had puckered her nipples, and they showed darkly through the translucent ivory lace.
Both A’tem and Bram stifled low groans and she shot them a narrow-eyed glance.
Bram’s lust felt like fur brushing over her skin and her mind; the emotion had a taste—wine and chocolate. She shivered from a combination of the cool night air and the waves of feelings coming from her Prime teammate.
But she couldn’t fault either man for their reaction. She wanted the enemy guards to react in exactly the same way—it was much easier to lead a man thinking with his dick instead of his brain. If this weren’t a life and death matter, she wouldn’t be caught dead in the bra that barely contained her full breasts—she looked like a Terran whore. Men, all men, no matter the race or culture, could always be distracted by a nearly naked set of breasts.
“Head in the game, soldiers.” Her voice was harsh and cold.
A’tem recovered first and elbowed Bram. “Go, Nadia. We have you covered.”
She ran fingers through her short, curly, blonde hair. The paleness of her hair and her cerulean blue eyes when set off against the golden skin of her Siberian ancestors gave her an exotic look. Licking her full lips, she slid around the protection of the stacked boxes and began the walk toward the soon-to-be dead enemy. She made an effort to put some sway into her hips, knowing her breasts would follow the laws of physics and move also.
She stifled a laugh when she heard Bram say to A’tem, “Diew, she is a goddess.”
Yeah, she was a goddess. A goddess of war.
As she made her catlike approach, one guard noticed her almost immediately. His body stiffened as his gaze stripped her of her remaining clothing. She chanced a glance at his crotch. Oh yeah, he was alert all right. She sent him a sultry smile and then turned another on his buddy who’d moved to stand next to him. Both men concentrated on her breasts.
Nadia stopped about three meters away from the men. Chill bumps covered her exposed skin and she hugged her waist with both arms for warmth. This thrust her 36-Cs further up until her perked nipples threatened to spill over the top of the demibra.
She spoke haltingly in Prime, her two plus weeks of intensive language lessons being put to the test big-time. “You guys have an extra blanket or coat I could borrow? I’m cold.” She fluttered her lashes and rubbed her hands up and down her arms, calling even more attention to her breasts.
Both men glanced at her face for a split second before turning their leering gazes back to her chest. After several seconds, one guy recovered enough to jab an elbow in his pal’s gut and mumble something she couldn’t hear.
The jabber walked toward her, his side arm at ready, and his eyes now focused on her hands. Looking for a weapon she didn’t have. “Who are you? And where did you come from?” He spoke in standard Galactic.
She dropped her arms and waved a hand toward him. “Oh, I guess you aren’t Prime.
I thought everyone on this desolate rock was Prime.” She replied in the same language, allowing her native accent to appear. “I asked if you had a blanket or a coat. It’s cold out here.”
“And I asked who you are and where you came from. Answer me, bitch.” The man, with his comrade following closely behind, stalked toward her, narrowing the gap to less than one and a half meters. Close enough that she could smell the liquor they’d drank wafting on the now brisk night breeze. They also stank of sweat and dirt.
“I’m … um … well it’s embarrassing … I’m really not the sort of girl who runs around in her underwear … but this Prime soldier brought me here in a shuttle from Jump Station Ursa II and we’ve been…” she waved a hand over her exposed upper torso, “…um, you can probably guess what we’ve been doing.”
Nadia backed away from them, slowly leading them toward the palette stack where her men waited. The minutes on her internal mission clock ticked away in her head. She needed to close the deal and get these two out of the way.
“The bastard was gone when I woke up. He’d taken my shirt and coat … I couldn’t find anyone…” She allowed her words to trail off and looked at them with what she hoped was a pleading look. “I could give you both a blowjob if you’d find me a coat.”
The man who’d done all the talking closed the distance between them in several large steps. The brute grabbed her arm, jerking her up against him. She gasped at his action. Big mistake since it meant she also inhaled. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and breathed through her mouth. It didn’t help. He smelled worse than a garbage scow.
The man muttered against her ear. His touch, his breath, made her skin crawl. He also continued to shove her closer to the palettes. “Oh hell yeah, a blowjob and anything else we want, you beautiful bitch. I’ve got dozens of friends on this rock who’d like that and more. You won’t be needing a coat—we’ll keep you warm.”
Dozens of friends? She wanted to ask how many, specifically, but that would blow the plan. She sensed her men’s rage at her being manhandled and their wavering patience.
They couldn’t attack while the man held her so closely with a laser pistol to her side.
His friend closed the distance and now flanked the man holding her so tightly. The other male’s greedy stare never left her exposed skin. This was the best chance she and her men would get.
“I don’t think so,kozyol yobanniy.” She muttered the Russian for “fucked goat.”
Letting her knees go weak, she threw the bastard off-balance. Using his momentum against him, she twisted to throw him over her hip. He crashed into his buddy and both men fell to the ground.
A’tem and Bram burst from their cover and broke the guards’ necks with a strength and skill she admired.
Before his victim hit the dirt, Bram dashed toward the door to get them inside. A’tem dragged first one and then the second guard to the doorway Bram had opened within seconds. No alarms sounded.
Nadia picked up the guards’ weapons and followed her men into the building, keeping an eye out for the enemy.
All was quiet. She wondered where everyone was. They’d seen one or two enemy scouts in the foothills who were easily avoided, but nothing like the dozens mentioned by the lecherous guard. They’d need to keep a sharp eye out; three against a dozen enemy soldiers weren’t good odds.
Once all were inside the building, Bram closed the door and then did something to the locking mechanism, which began to flash orange and kept blinking.
“What did you do to the door?” she asked as he led the way deeper into the building and down a set of emergency stairs that paralleled an elevator tube.
“It is another one of those Elite safety features I was to tell you about.” He flashed a grin over his shoulder. “I thought I’d just show you instead.”
Nadia glared. “What safety feature?”
Bram stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned. “I recoded every lock in the facility. Any of the enemy in a room with a door code is now trapped. And any Elite-trained Prime in such a room now knows he can get out at any time or stay safely inside until help has arrived.” He smiled. “This will be a big help in eliminating some of those dozens of mercenaries the guard mentioned.”
“How will the Elite soldiers know the door codes have been changed?” A’tem asked.
“The orange light blinks in every room where there is a door that can be sealed.”
Nadia frowned. “But if there were traitors on the inside, they’ll know we’re here also.”
“Agreed.” Bram scowled. “But they do not know from where the alarm was set off.
The alarm has disabled all the security monitors. Plus one must know the override codes to get camera visuals. Only certain Elite soldiers would know of these measures and if they have turned, well, we will deal with them as they come.”
Bram turned to the door at the bottom of the stairwell and entered a code. A monitor popped up from the door pad. “It is clear on the other side.”
Bram keyed in yet another code. A metallic-soundingsnickechoed loudly in the stairwell. The light on the door turned green, and he opened the door. “Remember these codes.” He repeated two alpha and numeric strings of numbers. “The first is the door code, and the second is the monitor code. You both are now in control of any door to a locked room in this facility.”
Bram led the way into the hallway beyond and turned right. He walked briskly and kept scanning from left to right as he moved along the corridor. “The communications center is this way.”
“I will bring up the rear, Nadia.” Taking the enemy’s weapons from her, A’tem handed Nadia her goggles, jacket, and weapons.
Following Bram, she shrugged into her cold-weather jacket, but left the garment unbuttoned. Who knew when she might have to use her secret weapons to distract the enemy again? After fastening on her side arm, hooking her goggles onto her belt, and slinging her laser rifle over a shoulder, she took one of the extra weapons from A’tem.
Bram waited patiently for them farther down the corridor. With Bram as a guide and the little fail-safes built into the Prime security systems, they might breeze through this mission and come out the other side alive. She mentally shifted mission success odds up from sixty-five percent to seventy-five—the other twenty-five was up to fate, luck, karma, or whatever you wanted to call it. The unexpected shit was what always got you killed.Chapter 5
Nadia and A’Tem crouched in the shadows while Bram scouted ahead. Bram’s anger reached her before he did. His raging emotions scraped over her empathic sense like fingernails on slate. She choked back a hiss of pain and raised the psychic shields she’d perfected since her first encounter with Huw. She let out a relieved breath as Bram’s ire now merely brushed across her shielded mind like a cobweb floating on a breeze.
“Nadia?” A’tem looked at her with concern. “What is it?”
“Did you feel it too?” Maybe the Prime’s emotions affected everyone. Volusians were not known to be psychic, but their other senses and their skills at observation were sharper than most hominid species.
“Feel what?” A’tem frowned, a puzzled look in his eyes.
“I felt Bram coming. He’s very … very angry.” A’tem looked as if he might’ve probed for more information, but Bram turned into the small side hallway in which they waited. “What’s wrong, Bram?” she asked.
The Prime soldier appeared shocked at her question. With him only inches away, she bolstered her shields to protect her senses from the volcanic flow of emotions coming from him. It was like a pyroclastic blast against her shields. She wasn’t sure she could keep his emotions at bay.
A’tem touched her arm. “Nadia, what is it? You went ashen all of a sudden.”
Nadia jerked her arm away from A’tem. His touch threatened what little control she had over her sensory intake. A’tem’s eyes narrowed and worry lines formed on his forehead, but he gave her more space.
“Bram’s anger is trying to breach my shields.” Nadia ran shaky fingers through her hair. “My mental shields are weakening. It hurts.”
A’tem nodded, his forehead smoothing out; he’d seen her empathic abilities in play before during battle.Not like these new, improved abilities, he hasn’t.
Bram jerked in surprise. His eyes glowed with something akin to amazement. The anger beating on her psi senses dropped back to bearable levels. “Sorry, Commander. I didn’t realize you were a sensitive. I slipped into the early stages ofbatel rabia, Prime battle rage. I will shield you as much as possible.”
She’d experienced Joen’s battle rage, but Bram’s seemed stronger—or she had become more sensitive.
“Thank you.” She took a few cleansing breaths and found she could think without pain. “What made you so angry?”
Bram growled under his breath, the sound vibrating the walls around them. “I checked the communications command center. It is manned by two Prime soldiers … two men I recognized.” He clenched his hands into fists so tightly Nadia could see whiteness appear around his knuckles. “They laughed and joked. The traitors.”
“We knew someone on the inside had to have helped the mercenaries.” Nadia’s voice was gentle; even through her shields, she sensed his disappointment, his hurt, mixed in with his rage. She could taste the acridity of his emotions on the air. She would have to monitor her empathic skills and the sensory side effects carefully. If she needed to learn to construct stronger mental shields, she would. She couldn’t allow the extreme emotions of any Prime soldier—friend or foe—to affect her in battle.
Bram scowled and nodded. “Yes, Commander. But one of them is my cousin. That makes it worse.”
Yes, it would. Nadia’s heart ached for the honorable man.
A’tem swore under his breath in Volusian and squeezed Bram’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, my friend.”
Bram clasped the Volusian’s other arm and squeezed, a warrior’s acknowledgment.
“Thank you.” He took a deep breath; his emotions disappeared as if encased in ice. He turned toward Nadia and inclined his head. “Commander, I will take the traitors out.
They are Prime, and they should die as Prime traitors die.”
Nadia made a mental note to find out what that was from Wulf. Whatever the method of killing traitors was, it wouldn’t happen now. Bram didn’t need that on his conscience and she needed to question the bastards.
Bram continued, “Once the room is secure, we can fix the off-planet communications and contact Captain Wulf and Prime Command.”
“Bram…” Nadia reached for his shoulder and clasped it as A’tem had done. “We’re in this together. You risk too much going in alone. I need you on this op.”
Nadia let go of Bram and shrugged off her jacket. “I’ll distract them. Same plan as before. We need to question them, soldier. They can stand before the Prime Military for their punishment later. Understood?”
Even in the throes of misery and anger, Bram couldn’t avoid looking at her breasts.
His lust lightened his despair for a brief moment before the acrid taste of his anger buried the wine and chocolate.
Bram took her jacket. “Commander, I will try. But if they make a move to harm you, I will kill them. They are not honorable.”
“Bram is correct. One wrong move, the traitors will die.” A’tem picked up her laser rifle. “Go. We’ll be right behind you.”
When she started to remove her laser pistol, A’tem said, “Keep that. You might need it.”
“Who’s the boss here?” Nadia was amused despite the mini-rebellion ensuing on her team. A’tem was her equal in rank; she was only his superior because of her command deck position as science officer and her position as head of the team on Tarn.
“I believe this is what is called a team consensus,” A’tem said in a dry tone.
Nadia snorted. “Well, thatwasthe underlying reason for the joint maneuvers.”
She brushed past Bram. His low rumble and muttered words in Prime which she roughly translated as warrior-female-who-rules-as-a-goddess made her smile. She caught herself wondering what Huw would say if he knew another Prime male lusted after her.
Now wasn’t the time to be thinking of Huw. She had a job to do.
Nadia led her team down the hall. When she reached the door, she motioned for her men to stay back. “Let me get into the room about halfway before following me.”
She entered the door code Bram had provided; the lights on the security panel went from red to green and the door slid silently into the walls. She strode into the room as if she owned it. The two men who lounged in front of the main communications control panel jerked upright in their chairs and swore in Prime.
“You two need to get away from the controls and surrender your weapons. The Alliance is taking over this facility.” She spoke in Prime and hoped she hadn’t asked for directions to the nearest restaurant.
The man to her left stood as the other reached for a control on the panel. She pulled her laser and stunned the man who’d reached for what she suspected was an alarm. She couldn’t have that, even if Bram’s changing door codes had secured part of the enemy in locked rooms, there would still be roaming guards who could respond.
The other man ran toward her, yelling a battle cry. He had a knife in his hand. Before she could stun him, the whine of a fully charged laser sounded loudly in the room. Her would-be attacker dropped to the floor; his body convulsed for a few seconds as his nervous system shut down—and then nothing. He was dead, every neuron in his body fried.
A’tem moved quickly toward the control panel. He secured the stunned man who writhed in pain on the floor with flex cuffs. “This one will live to talk.”
“Good.” She went back to the door and shut it, locking them inside. In her peripheral vision, she observed Bram move to stand over the man he’d killed. He spat on the dead Prime before going to the control panel. He sat and entered several commands.
After a few seconds, Bram grunted. “It’s done.”
Nadia wasn’t sure whether he was referring to the death or the re-establishment of communications.
Bram turned away from the controls. He looked at her, a blank expression on his face, but the mixture of emotions underneath his skin threatened to overwhelm her once more.
“Bram, could you shield more, please?” She looked at the dead Prime. His battle blade was still clasped in his lifeless hand. “I’m sorry about your cousin.”
“He would have killed you.” A pained expression appeared briefly in Bram’s golden eyes, and then his control strengthened, easing her discomfort. But not before she discovered grief tasted like ashes and felt like a gelid wind.
“I know. Thank you for acting so quickly.” Nadia approached the communications array. “My jacket?”
A’tem handed it over.
Nadia shrugged it on and looked at Bram. “So? We’re in control now?”
“Yes, Commander. All communications going in and out of the facility are under our control. With a little effort, I will be able to block the mercenaries’ internal communications. I have programmed a search for their frequency.” Bram’s tone was brisk and all business. “What messages do you want sent and to whom?” He sat in the seat his cousin had used, awaiting her orders.
“Advise both Prime and Alliance commands of the current situation. Tell them we’re in control of Tarn’s communications now. Advise them any Alliance ships approaching Tarn to assist us should hold outside the laser cannons’ range. We’ll verify when we’ve shut them down.”
Nadia looked at A’tem. “A’tem, can you handle the flow of communications and question thisapayebo,” she pointed to the bound man on the floor, “to get us a head count on the enemy and find out where they imprisoned the Prime military contingent?
Then inform Alliance and Prime military commands of such.”
“Easily, Nadia. Youaretaking Bram with you to shut down the laser cannons.” It wasn’t a question. A’tem took a seat at the control panel.
“Of course. Bram knows the facility the best. We’ll let you know where to meet us.”
Nadia turned back to Bram. “Messages sent?”
“Yes, Commander. I also informed Commander Ard we’re safe and that he can now contact Captains Wulf and Melina.”
“Excellent. Let’s go shut down some ship killers.” Nadia retrieved her laser rifle from beside the doorway where A’tem had leaned it. Bram was on her heels. “A’tem, if you don’t hear from us,” she looked at her chronometer, “in twenty standard minutes, get the hell out of here.”
Twenty minutes might be pushing it. But she figured the enemy had already realized something was wrong. With any luck, the majority of them had been trapped behind the coded locks. Those who weren't trapped behind secured doors would need some time to regroup and begin a floor-by-floor search.
Bram called out. “A’tem, if we do not make it back, the door to the escape tunnel for this section is at the end of this hallway and down a level. It is marked as AA567. Use the door codes I provided. The mercenaries should not know about the tunnel…” he scowled at the bound Prime soldier, “…unless one of the other traitors told them. My cousin,” he spat the word, “and this one did not have the clearance to know of such. But I cannot guarantee there aren’t other traitors who might have.”
A’tem nodded. “I’ll be fine. Now … go.”
Nadia led the way out of the room and then allowed Bram to take the lead once more. “Where’s the control room for the weaponry systems?”
“Three levels down, directly under the communications room. We go this way.”
Bram entered a door code into a key pad by a red door which led into a stairwell. “Allow me to clear the way, Commander.”
“On your heels, Bram.” She followed him down the stairs. When he stopped at another red door, she made a note that stairwell doors were all red in this facility. She hung back a second as he went through the door and followed at his hand motion.
“Bram.” She whispered subvocally into her headset so as not to be overheard in an area probably rife with pissed-off mercenaries and traitors.
“Yes, Commander?” He replied in the same manner.
“If something happens to me, you get A’tem and get the hell out of here. That’s an order.”
Her reasoning was the mercenaries would be less likely to kill a woman. They could sell her and make a profit. She wouldn’t think about what they’d do to her before they sold her.
“Sorry, Commander. Both Commander Ard and Commander A’tem told me you would say such at some point. They ordered me not to leave you or they would remove my reproductive organs. I am choosing to follow their instructions.” Bram reached back and stopped her with a hand to her arm. “There are men ahead.” His voice was a mere whisper across her headset. He signaled to retreat.
They drew back several meters and took refuge in a short side hallway dead-ending at a green door.
Nadia lowered her shields. Bram’s emotions while simmering along the edges of her empathic senses weren’t painful. She then sought outward and gasped. “Yes. Five of them. One is Prime. His emotions are the strongest. You sensed them … how?”
“My Prime battle senses are elevated for battle. I am trying to shield you and that has worked to our advantage since it has kept the traitorous Prime from reading my approach.” He looked over his shoulder. “Are you in pain?”
“What you’re doing is working. I sense you as a low boil and the enemy ahead as fearful, angry, and frustrated.” This whole situation had already taught her to be more in control while working on a team with Prime, probably the best thing to come out of this clusterfuck.
She also suspected and couldn’t admit to Bram that her stronger shields were also a result of drawing on Huw’s strength as theGalanticame closer to Tarn.
“Huw! Don’t get too close to Tarn. Tell Wulf and Mel—we haven’t shut down theship killers. Don’t approach.”
Bram gasped. “You are in communication with another Prime warrior. I feel the telepathic energy. It is very strong. You are agemate… a battle-mate?”
So much for keeping her ability to contact Huw a secret. She’d forgotten Prime warriors could sense not only emotions but other psi energy when in close quarters.
Dumb, Nadia, really dumb. The Prime traitors will sense you also.She tested the men ahead and found their emotions were holding steady. She let out the breath she’d been holding and shielded herself even more.
“No … no … just empathic and telepathic,”or so it seemed, “I’m not Prime. I have nogemat.”
“As you say, Commander.” He didn’t sound or looked convinced. “How shall we proceed?”
Nadia sighed in relief. Bram was back to the business at hand. But she knew the topic wasn’t closed. If they survived the next few minutes, the word of her abilities would get around. She’d deal with the fallout later. She handed him her rifle and then took off her jacket, tying it around her waist.
Sex as a distraction had worked the last couple of times; it would work again.
“We stroll in there arm in arm with our laser pistols hidden behind each other’s backs. And in the short time they’re in shock from our sudden appearance, we move apart and take them all out. Kill, not stun. We don’t have time to mess with prisoners.”
Bram smiled, a wicked twist of his lips. “My thoughts exactly. And since the entry to weapons control is what they are guarding, we are right on your schedule.”
He came to her side, his laser pistol in his hand. He pulled her to him with one strong arm around her waist and waited until she had her pistol in hand and hidden it behind his back. “I hope yourgematnever finds out I touched his woman’s naked waist and back— or saw your breasts, uncovered as they are. I would bedheu mete.”
Even though Bram had the wrong idea about her connection to Huw, Nadia had to smile as she translated his words as “dead sustenance” or “dead meat.”
“It’ll be our secret,” she reassured him. Bram’s snort had her choking back a laugh.
“Let’s do this. I want to get back to our people.”
“Yes, Commander.” He squeezed her waist. “Let me take out the traitorous Prime.”
“So ordered.” Nadia understood his need for vengeance was mixed in with his sense of honor. She’d grant him that boon.
Bottom line, none of the five men would leave the hallway alive.
They walked into the main corridor and moved down the hallway in tandem. Bram’s touch irritated her skin, but wasn’t painful for which she was thankful. She didn’t need the distraction. When they turned the corner leading toward weapons control, she spotted the group of five blocking a huge door.
The large Prime noticed them first; he seemed puzzled as he tried to place Bram. His gaze when it swept over her narrowed.
Nadia nudged Bram. He dove to the right as she went left. They both fired. The enemy hadn’t had time to react. Five laser blasts, all kill shots, and it was over.
Well, not quite. Bram, trained as an Elite soldier, walked over and fired another lethal blast first into the Prime’s brain and then into the other four’s.
Nadia stepped over the dead Prime. She shuddered, suddenly so cold she clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering. She’d killed before and would again. No soldiers, if they were honest with themselves, ever got used to taking lives. She hadn’t and had the nightmares to prove it. She and Bram were alive and that was what counted in the long run. Time enough later to deal with the emotions she’d buried deep inside her and encased in ice. There was still a job to do—and possibly even more lives to take before the night was over.
She approached the door and used the code to activate the monitor attached to the door code entry pad. The room appeared to be empty. She dropped her psychic shields a bit and found no emotions inside the room. The mercenaries had placed the guard only on the outside. Mistake on their parts. She entered the unlocking code and walked in as the door slid into the walls.
She ran toward what looked to be the main control panel. The monitor showed ships holding just beyond the ship killers range. Gold was here! Relief made her weak at the knees, and she held onto the control panel array to keep from falling.
The door swooshed shut behind her. “Bram. Our help is in a holding pattern. We need to get this system shut down, but I’m not familiar with all the Prime symbols yet.
Which are the ship killers?” She waved a hand over the glowing symbols on the board’s touch pads.
“Allow me, Commander.” Bram came to her side, touched a sequence of pads, and keyed in several lines of code, which streamed over the monitors.
The facility went dark and silent. For a very long second, she stood frozen. Fear niggled in the primitive part of her brain and icy fingers walked up and down her spine.
Her limbic system told her to run, but her higher brain told her the infinite darkness was momentary, that she was safe. Still, she breathed a sigh of relief when the emergency lights came on with a low whir.
“What did you do?” she asked the hulking shadow outlined in the orange glow of the dimly lit room. His eyes gleamed like a bonfire in the shadowy near-darkness.
“Shut down the power to the entire planet’s weaponry system as you asked.” Bram leaned over and looked into her eyes. “That is what you wished, is it not?”
Nadia laughed. “Yeah, that’ll do. Let’s get the hell out of here and meet A’tem at the escape tunnel.”
“Gladly, Commander. Follow me.” Bram walked back to the door, checked the corridor on the monitor, and then entered the door code.
Obviously, whatever power he’d cut off hadn’t affected the security of the facilities’
doors. The trapped enemy would still be trapped, but those wandering about would be more dangerous than ever. She, A’tem, and Bram were still not home free.
Nadia hit a combo of codes on her headset and connected directly to A’tem.
“Weapons shut down. Notify theGalanti.They’re currently in a holding orbit outside the range of the cannon. Bram and I will meet you at the escape tunnel he told us about.”
A second or two passed before A’tem responded. “TheGalantiis notified. I took the liberty of advising Commander Ard of the situation. He’s sending a three-man team to the other end of the escape tunnel we’re taking. He feared there might be enemy soldiers hiding in the caves. I’ll see you soon.”
“Good luck, A’tem. Watch your ass. Out.”
“Same to you. Out.”
Nadia switched her headset to monitor only. Any slight noise might apprise the enemy of their position once they were out of the security of the weapons center.
The path between their current position and the escape tunnel could possibly be filled with mercenaries hunting the saboteurs who’d plunged the facility into relative darkness, lit only by the low-level emergency lights.
Laser pistol in hand and set on kill levels, she put on her night-vision goggles and followed Bram down the corridor as he hugged the shadows along the edges of the corridor.Chapter 6
On the Galanti on approach to Tarn
Huw sat in his chair on the Command Deck and fumed. He’d pushed his engines into the danger zone and beyond to get them to Tarn as quickly as possible. But just as they were about an hour away, Wulf had slowed the ship to sub-light speed to make a cautious approach to the planet.
Yes, the planet had ship killers. Yes, Nadia had warned them about a trap … but she—and the others—were down there with who knew how many enemy.
He looked up and found Mel standing by his chair. “Are you okay, Huw?” She stroked his arm. “You’re whiter than Earth’s ice caps. And your eyes have gone dark amber. I feel the emotions pouring out of you. Is it Nadia? Is she safe?”
“I can’t contact Nadia, Mel.”Liar.“Sometimes she connects with me. And the last telepathic thoughts I had were the ones about the ship killers. What has Ard said? Has he heard from Nadia’s team?”
When the communications with the planet had been restored, Wulf had demanded a situation report. Ard gave a brief one on injuries, the safety measures taken to protect the Gold crew members in the caves, and, finally, relayed that Nadia planned to take Crewman Tilga and shut down the weapon systems.
Huw had wanted to rage and scream at the idiocy of the woman.Ansu bhau.She could’ve sent any of the men to do the job and stayed safely behind in the caves. She was an officer, not battle fodder.
Somehow, he’d managed to control his emotions and kept his mouth shut. He had already called enough attention to the unusual psychic connection between him and Nadia.
“Captains!” the soldier monitoring communications shouted. “Commander A’tem has sent a message. Commander Nadia and Crewman Tilga have shut down the weapons systems. We can move in.”
The Command Deck erupted with shouts and battle cries. Something in Huw’s gut eased—but not entirely.
“Where is Commander Nadia’s team now?” Huw asked the communications officer.
“They are moving toward the escape tunnels into the mountains. Commander Ard has sent a team to meet them on the other end and aid them in getting back to their secured area.”
Huw nodded his acknowledgment. He’d war-gamed many a time on Tarn as had all of Gold’s Prime crew members. Tilga was following an infiltrate-sabotage-get-out scenario that all Elite-trained soldiers practiced many times. Huw would owe Tilga a drink or two for taking care of Nadia—and the other team member, of course.
Mel tugged on Huw’s sleeve. She glared at him and Wulf who’d come to join them.
“What escape tunnels? They weren’t marked on the facility plans Nadia and I reviewed for the joint maneuvers. You Prime are still holding out on the Alliance, aren’t you?”
His sister-kin was pissed.
Wulf pulled hisgemateaway from Huw and up against his side. He brushed a kiss over her hair.
Huw envied his brother such closeness. He thought of Nadia and wondered how soft her hair would feel against his lips—and then felt searing guilt. Until he’d proven there were no women who could be his destined mate among any Lost Ones they might find, he was not free to think of Nadia as anything other than a colleague.
“YouarePrime,lubha. The information on these things is on a need-to-know basis.”
Wulf scolded Mel gently. “And now, you, Nadia, and A’tem know. The tunnels are extra lines of defense Prime have against internal and external enemies.”
“Okay, fine.” Mel huffed. “But once we’re down there. I want to see them so I can compare them to the tunnel systems I’ve seen in other ancient Prime ruins.”
Mel rubbed her cheek against his brother’s chest. Huw sensed Wulf’s love reaching for Mel; it surrounded her and calmed her ruffled feathers.
“I will give you a personal tour, Melina mine—once I am assured we are in complete control of the facility.” Wulf turned his gaze away from Mel and looked Huw in the eyes.
“I assume you’ll want to be on one of the teams that go to the surface.”
“Yes.” Huw’s tone was abrupt. He didn’t appreciate the knowing look his brother gave him in return. His big brother paid far too much heed to the fact he and Nadia had some telepathic ability with each other. “I will contact Nowicki and coordinate the away teams from both ships. Security teams first, followed by medical and other support teams, correct?”
“Exactly. I’ll let Iolyn know he has command of the squadron while we are on the planet. He can deal with anyone attempting to leave Tarn.” Wulf walked toward his command chair, taking Mel with him.
As Huw rose from his seat, a feeling of fear and rage swamped him. His body reacted immediately. He reached for a weapon that wasn’t there and looked around the Command Deck searching for someone to fight. Then he realized—they weren’t his emotions, but were Nadia’s.
“Wulf!” His brother turned, a question in his eyes. “We need to hurry. Nadia and her team are in danger.”
Wulf barked out an order to the communications officer. “Call down to Ard and see what in the hell is going on! Huw, get those security teams down there … now.”On Tarn in the military facility
Nadia and Bram had managed to avoid several men running toward the weapons command center. So far the path to the escape tunnel had been too easy. But they had yet to get to their destination. So she wouldn’t count her chickens, as her farmer grandmother had always said, just yet.
She’d thought too soon. Anger. Fear. Pain. The strong emotions rode the air currents of the subterranean corridor. She upped her shields against the emotions coming from the direction of their ultimate destination.
Nadia pulled on Bram’s belt, staying his movement. He turned and mouthed, “What is wrong?”
She signaled four men ahead and mouthed, “A’tem. Danger.”
Bram’s ramping up to battle readiness was evident in his aura—and oddly enough seemed to supplement her fight readiness. And then it hit her—Huw! She’d drawn on him without realizing it, using him to help her utilize the Prime battle rage Bram emitted.
Nadia moved to the corner and peeked around it. Her control over her emotions at the sight was tested. Bram touched her arm, holding her back. He whispered over her ear, “Steady. Plan.”
She nodded and Bram let go of her.
A’tem was bleeding and down on the ground. His eyes were closed and his skin, pale, its normal blue now bluish white. For a split second, she’d thought him dead, but a frisson of his emotions brushed up against her. He was alive and pissed. He was waiting—he knew they would come and he played opossum until they did.
She turned to look at Bram and mouthed, “Not dead.”
Bram’s fiery gaze lightened. He pointed at her open jacket and the expanse of skin it revealed, a question in his eyes. Bram had learned quickly her female attributes were a boon in distracting the enemy.
Nadia thought for a second and shook her head. There were only three of the enemy, and A’tem was on the ground out of the line of fire. It would be quicker to take the bastards out all at once with a wide blast from the laser rifles. She slipped her rifle off her shoulder and set it for a wide blast.
Bram must’ve agreed with her strategy, because he mimicked her motions.
She hand-signaled one, two, and on three both of them surged around the corner with lasers blasting. The three mercenaries had no time to react—just die. This time she gave no additional thought to the dead men she stepped over. They’d hurt her friend.
Nadia went to help A’tem as Bram fired insurance kill shots into the heads of the three. “A’tem? How badly are you hurt?”
The Volusian allowed her to help him stand. He stumbled slightly before gaining control of his stance. He heaved a sigh and eyed the most serious wound on his upper left chest. He applied pressure to the wound with his hand. “I’m fine, Nadia. I’m thankful the enemy didn’t have a rudimentary understanding of Volusian anatomy—or I would be dead.”
Nadia was thankful also. The stab wound looked deep and was bleeding sluggishly, but was nowhere near A’tem’s heart. The Volusian heart’s major chamber was centrally located behind a solid carapace of bone. The enemy had aimed for a Terran heart location. All the Volusians had in that position was muscle, bone, and fat. The wound would hurt like a bitch, but it wasn’t life-threatening.
Bram joined them with the enemies’ weapons in his arms. He looked A’tem up and down and smiled in grim satisfaction. “Well met, warrior. Are we ready to move? I will dump these weapons in the escape tunnel.”
“How far are we from the entrance?” Nadia followed Bram as he took the lead. She stayed by A’tem in case he needed her assistance. But he moved just fine.
A’tem answered before Bram could. “Not far. I was at the door when the enemy attacked me. They attempted to drag me away, and I resisted. I knew you’d be coming along the corridor soon and figured I had a better chance of escaping if they didn’t attempt to take me to their leaders.”
“Did they call in your capture?” Nadia looked over her shoulder and found only empty corridor.
“Yes.” A’tem chuckled and shook his head. “But Bram’s trick with the door codes had locked up the closest backup which was why they started to drag me away. The enemy is now very shorthanded from what I overheard.”
“That’s good.” Nadia would make sure the Alliance Command knew Bram deserved a commendation for his efforts. A’tem would get a medal also for being injured while engaging the enemy.
As a team-building exercise, this had been trial by fire. So far, Gold’s crew members had proven they were the best of the best. She was proud to call these men her peers.
“We are here, Commander.” Bram indicated the door that looked like every other door but was gray.
Nadia frowned. “Aren’t gray doors waste disposal access doors?” She was sure that was what she’d learned while poring over building plans with Mel. But she now knew not everything about this facility was reflected on the plans, so the gray doors might’ve been a red herring also.
“Yes.” Bram smirked. “No one likes to deal with what is behind them. This one leads into the caves and not the waste recycling system.” He turned to the door and accessed the control pad and monitor hidden in the wall.
Bram’s snarl of rage set the hairs on Nadia’s body on end. A’tem stiffened at her side and emitted an answering low-level growl.
“What is it, Bram?” she asked. “What do you see?” But she knew. She could feel and almost see the rage. Red. Heat. Pain. Fear. Battle rage.
“The enemy had a unit,” a unit meaning nine soldiers, “guarding the exit into the cave. Our people are under fire.”
“Get us in there, Bram.” Nadia signaled Aeron. “Aeron, the team you sent us is under attack. We’re engaging the enemy.”
Aeron’s voice came back instantly. “Will send additional help.”
When the door opened, the sounds of laser fire, yells, and screams blasted Nadia’s ears. Yelling a Hunnic war cry handed down through the ages, she leapt into the fray. A berserker’s rage swept through her, supplemented by thebatel rabiafrom Bram and, through their link, from Huw. She fought her way into the mass of large male bodies fighting hand to hand and with knives.
With a Prime battle cry, Bram leapt into the battle. A’tem followed with a Volusian battle cry, his wound obviously not a problem.
For a fraction of a second, even though Nadia knew the two men were on her side, their cries and those of the three Prime Aeron had sent struck fear in her heart. Shaking it off, she let instincts as old as the galaxy and her training take over—and she fought, knowing in the back of her mind that Huw was connected and doing what he could to keep her alive by sharing his strength and knowledge.God, what is this connection wehave?Chapter 7
With Nadia and her team attacking the enemy from the facility side, the all-Prime team of three Aeron had sent surged forward from the cover they’d sought when first engaging the enemy. Fast and furious moments of fighting tipped the former standoff in favor of the Gold soldiers.
With four of the enemy on the ground, dead or dying, Nadia’s crew surrounded the four still standing, who threw down their weapons in surrender. None of the eight were Prime, but were a mix of Terran, Antareans, and some who looked to be from the Umbraxi system. The Antareans were the most dangerous and she didn’t have a damn dart gun. She kept her battle blade in her hand, just in case.
“Bram, shut the door behind us,” Nadia ordered. He hurried to do so while she and A’tem kept the four remaining enemy under guard. The men Aeron had sent collected weapons.
“Secure them at wrists and ankles.” Nadia threw one of the men her extra set of restraints as did A’tem. “We’ll leave them for the Prime military to deal with.” She counted heads and frowned. “I thought there were nine mercenaries.”
“Commander.” One of the three Prime crewmen, all of whom she recognized asGalanticrew members, spoke. She hadn’t learned all the new crew members’ names yet.
“One of the mercenaries got past us and headed into the main tunnel which leads to the surface. He will bring others.”
“If he attempts to make it back to the military compound, I’m fairly certain he’ll run into the Gold rescue teams.” The teams should’ve landed and begun to secure the facility not long after she and Bram had shut down the weapons system.
The three men bellowed their approval. Prime tended to be a noisy bunch when their battle hormones were elevated.
Nadia should talk; she’d yelled just as loudly during the attack. She clicked her com unit. “Aeron?”
His concern came over the headset clearly—and it was more than concern for the general welfare of the men. Aeron had feelings for her. Too bad her emotions and heart were already tied to another man—one who was too stubborn to give up a pipe dream and accept what was in front of him.
“We’re fine. The men you sent held their position and we trapped the enemy between us. One got away and is probably heading for the surface.” She looked over the three-man team. “All wounds, but for A’tem’s, are superficial.”
A’tem protested. “And I’m also fine, Aeron. It’s a minor chest wound for a Volusian.”
Aeron came back. “Good. Make your way back. Gold has sent teams to the surface from theGalantiand theLeonidas.They are taking the battle to the enemy. They should make short work of it.”
Nadia chuckled. “Should be like shooting fish in a barrel.”
The trussed up enemy glared. But when her team eyed her as if she were crazy, she laughed and explained, “An old Terran saying which means the battle would be easy.”
“Very colorful,” Aeron said. “And true. Be alert. There could be isolated groups of the enemy on and in the mountains.”
“We’ll be fine.” She looked at the three Prime standing over the downed enemy and then at Bram and A’tem. “I think the team-building aspect of the maneuvers has been very successful. I’m proud to serve with such brave and quick-thinking soldiers. We’ll see you soon.”
After she signed off, Bram came to her side. “Commander, you neglected to tell Commander Ard you are among the wounded.”
“No, I’m not.” She took a mental inventory and concluded she had no pain, thus she wasn’t wounded. “It must be the enemy’s blood.”
“It’s your blood.” A’tem came to her other side. “A laser cut along your waist. Your uniform top is shredded and singed. Doesn’t it pain you? It looks very deep.”
Nadia looked down. “Well, damn. I don’t feel it. Must be the adrenaline.” Or Huw’s extra-strength adrenaline coming over their connection. He was very close now—and raging mad.
A’tem pulled a small med kit from his waist pack. “Let’s just make sure it continues to be painless, Nadia.”
Before she could protest, A’tem injected a bolus of painkiller and then applied a smaller version of the healing cold laser to the deep laser tear at her waist. She shuddered as the icy numbness swept over her side.
“That should hold until Dr. Morgan can look at it.” A’tem repacked his field medical kit and stowed it in the pack attached to his utility belt.
“Nadia! You are hurt! I am coming.”
“I’m fine. Pay attention to your surroundings. No need to come. See you at thecave.”
Huw didn’t need to be distracted by her minor injuries while he was fighting off mercenaries, especially the Antarean ones. He could get himself or his men killed.
Gritting her teeth, she cut off the pathway to Huw. Cutting the connection, with him so close and his battle rage so strong, felt as if a piece of her soul had been torn from her body. Every one of her instincts demanded that she stay in touch, lend him her strength, monitor his health.
Also, with the mental connection now blocked from her side, the pain from her wound and her general exhaustion almost took her breath away. She barely managed to stay upright. Only the painkiller and ice laser treatment kept her from whimpering in pain. All she wanted was a warm meal, a good, stiff drink, and eight solid hours of sleep—but she knew she wouldn’t see that particular combination of luxuries anytime soon.
Glancing at the concerned faces of her team, she shrugged. “I must’ve zigged instead of zagged. I’m fine.” She waved a hand toward the exit from the small cavern in which they’d battled. “Let’s get back to our people. Oh, and keep a look out for our missing team. They might’ve sheltered in this cave system.”
The six entered the tunnel and used LED lights to illuminate their way. The Prime on point spoke up. His voice while low carried easily as it echoed off the stone walls of the narrow, roughly hewn tunnel. “Commander, the missing team came into the secured perimeter after you and your team left on your mission. They are all well. Just tired and dehydrated.”
Thank God, they were safe. It had been a constant worry niggling at the back of her mind even as she’d dealt with all the other issues of keeping her people alive. No matter how successful she’d been—if she had lost those six, she would’ve failed.
“Thank you, Crewman…” She needed to stop thinking of them as Prime crewman one, two, and three. Plus, she was fairly sure the one who’d spoken was under her direct command in the science lab. He was her exogeologist. The merger had occurred so quickly, she was still attempting to put names and faces together.
“Science Technician Jod … Bre Jod.” He continued to walk, shining his light from side to side. “And, Commander, we heard what you said to Commander Ard—and we are equally proud to serve with you. You fight like a Prime.”
And coming from a Prime male—that was an extreme compliment.
“Thank you, Tech Jod.” Nadia looked over her shoulder at the other two; the movement pulled her wound and made her hiss.Dumb move, Nadia.The two crewmen trailing looked a lot like Bre. Well, all Prime looked a lot alike, but these three more so than others. She suspected they were kin and using last names would become confusing quickly. “And your teammates, Bre? Would you introduce them, please?”
Bre looked over his shoulder. “Gladly. The one your left is my youngest brother, Cred Jod. And the one on your right is the middle brother, Cas Jod. We entered the military and trained as Elite at the same time. Our mother has worried ever since.”
Bre’s brothers looked slightly embarrassed by their brother’s words. She chuckled.
Mothers, got to love them. They even embarrass the most alpha of males.
“Nadia?” A’tem touched her elbow. “What’s so funny?”
“Sorry, but Bre’s words and his brothers’ obvious embarrassment brought up a memory. I thought my mother would have a heart attack when she heard I’d entered the Alliance Military rather than go into research or teach at the university. Mothers never want their children in danger. But I bet Bre’s mother is proud of her sons all the same.”
“Yes, sir,” Cas said from behind her. “She is.”
Bre held up a hand. “We must be quiet now. The tunnel to the surface is near and it intersects with several other escape tunnels in this particular cave system. Theapayebowho escaped could be lurking anywhere. I suggest you all stay here while I scout ahead.”
The men circled around Nadia, awaiting her orders. The mood was one of confidence in her leadership, and for the first time since the Alliance had merged Wulf’s crews into Gold Squad, she felt optimistic about a woman’s role managing a mostly Prime crew.
“Do it, Bre. Click your com unit if you see the enemy, and we’ll come to back you up,” Nadia said.
The Jod brothers looked at her, the trio’s eyes glittering like bonfires in the relative darkness of the cave tunnel. She read them as being somewhat in shock and wondered what she’d said to cause them to feel so strongly.
“Thank you for your trust in my judgment,” Bre finally said. “I won’t be long.”
Turning off the light he carried, he slipped into the darkness and disappeared.
“How does he see?” Nadia asked his brothers.
Cred grinned. “He doesn’t. He uses his spatial sense. For some reason, our brother has one of the early traits of a Prime warrior. His abilities are similar to the Terran creature that flies and sends out signals. It is why he went into exogeology. He is in his element underground.”
“The Terran creature is called a bat.” Nadia couldn’t stand any longer. Her knees were shaking and her body trembled with adrenaline drop. Plus, she kept fighting the instinct to drop her mental shields and check on Huw. She sat on the cold rough ground of the cave tunnel and rested her head against the rock wall. She took a drink from her water bottle and allowed herself a small sigh of relief. “Just before Bre left, you all seemed shocked by something? What was it? Did I misstep?”
“No, sir. We couldn’t believe you accepted Bre’s suggestion on how to proceed.
Prime officers tend not to appreciate rank-and-file soldiers making suggestions,” Cred replied.
Cas and Bram mumbled their agreement.
Cred sat by her side and placed his light on the ground. The way the light reflected around the tunnel reminded her of sitting by a campfire on the Steppes of Russia on hunting trips during her early childhood.
Bram and Cas sat on her other side and A’tem sat in front of her. Her men had surrounded her with the protection of their bodies, and she wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or insulted. She decided to be neither; she was too tired.
“Then why did Bre take the chance of making the suggestion?” Nadia asked. “Is it because I’m a woman?”
“No, no, though any Prime male would wish to protect a female in their midst,” Cas said. “Commander Ard informed us that in the Alliance military there is no ‘I’ in team.
He said we must learn to work as units, big and small. That serving in Gold would be more along the lines of what we as Elite soldiers do on secret missions. Everyone’s ideas and suggestions are important. Did he misinform us?”
“No. That’s exactly what you’re to do. The Alliance while we have chain of command has found team-building allows for more productive crews. Commander Ard was one hundred percent correct.” Nadia paused and felt the need to add, “But an order from a superior officer is still an order.”
“We understand the difference, Commander. We may have input, but we must follow orders,” Bram said.
“Good. I wouldn’t want you to get into trouble.” Nadia patted Bram’s arm and removed her hand quickly. It felt wrong to touch him, more wrong than a few hours ago.
She had a suspicion it had to do with Huw being on planet. “Bram, you saved us precious time and lowered our risk of being captured or worse with your ideas and actions. I’ll take your input anytime.”
“Thank you, Commander.” Bram closed his eyes. “I sense Bre’s calmness.”
Bram stood and offered an arm to Nadia. She took it, not wanting to offend him, but quickly let go. His touch resulted in an effect similar to spiders crawling on her skin.
Man, I’m in deep shit. Huw will never accept this connection. Will I ever be able totouch another man casually? Sexually?
“Thank you, Bram.” She turned to look at Bre as he came into the light provided by Cas and Cred’s LEDs. “We all clear?”
“Yes, Commander. At least to the surface exit. I suggest we stick closely together.
The enemy has to be fleeing. They could choose to head to the caves, hoping to escape.”
“I agree. You take point again, Bre. Cas and Cred, would you take the rear again, please?” The brothers inclined their heads and took up their positions.
Nadia moved out behind Bram with A’tem at her side. Soon they’d be safe and she would be alone to think over all the sensory and psi changes she’d experienced since she’d landed on Tarn. She needed to make a decision as to whether she should tell Mel, and maybe Lia, about what was happening to her. She was concerned the changes taking over her mind and body could affect her work.
Huw was one person she’d never approach on the topic. He’d made it clear she was a colleague and he wanted nothing to do with whatever was happening between them.
God, it hurt.A raging urgency pounding through his body and mind, Huw had left his transport and led his team of five into the mountains. His team’s primary mission was to check on the safety and condition of the Gold crews that had come to Tarn for military maneuvers and add to their security. While he’d much rather be in the thick of the fighting, his gut drove him to seek out Nadia and make sure she was safe. Not that he’d ever acknowledge that fact to anyone; though he was sure his brother’s smirk indicated Wulf knew the real reason Huw had chosen securing the caves over fighting for control of the facility.
His team had met with one or two groups of fleeing mercenaries and had dealt with them easily. His bigger concern was where and what Nadia was doing now. Driven by a need stronger than his will, he attempted to link with Nadia along the path shining like a beacon in his mind. He found nothing. It was as if he’d hit a rock wall.
The mental pathway was there, but had been shut on her end after one short exchange assuring him she was fine. Nadia’s strong shields went even further to convince him that she was merely a talented telepath and nothing more.
Just keep fooling yourself.
“Ard? This is Huw. I’m approaching your coordinates with a security team. What’s your status?” He really wanted to ask if Nadia was safely inside the caves, but refused to expose his interest in her any more than he already had. It wasn’t time yet.
Soon. Not much longer. After the mission to search for Lost Ones.
“A security team?” Ard’s voice was calm, but Huw read sarcasm in his tone. “I don’t need security. We have that under control. I need regen beds. Dr. Morgan has three severely injured patients who need more care than we can provide.”
“Understood. But we can’t risk the medical response teams until Gold contains the enemy. Medical teams are ready to hit the dirt as soon as Wulf gives the go-ahead.” Huw gazed at the mountain where the entrance to the cave system Gold’s training team had taken over was located. It was a rough climb about thirty meters or so above the canyon floor. “Any perimeter security I need to know about before coming up?”
“Yeah, Nadia and I whipped up some explosive surprises. I have a man on guard at the base. He’ll show you the safest way through the security perimeter.” Ard chuckled.
“Don’t want to blow up our crew members.”
Huw snarled under his breath. He hadn’t appreciated the way Ard had coupled his name with Nadia’s. TheLeonidas’s science officer had set his sights on Nadia since the first merger meeting on the space station. Huw had practically killed theapayebolast week in a training session when Ard had shared his plans to ask Nadia to spend leave with him on the resort planet of Tooh 2.
But you haven’t claimed her … so why shouldn’t Ard have a chance with her?
Because … before he could remind himself of his justification for postponing his courtship of Nadia, a Prime soldier dressed in an Alliance uniform stepped out from behind an outcropping of rocks and scrub and gestured his team forward.
Huw waved his men ahead and was about to follow when Nadia’s shields slipped.
Her anger, her fighting rage, her fear consumed him, almost driving him to his knees. She was in danger again. He sought her mind and found the red haze of battle hormones. But underneath the fighting spirit, she was exhausted, in pain. Her energy reserves were low and that was probably the only reason her shields had dropped, she needed all her energy to stay alive. Huw instinctively supplemented her strength.
“Ard, have you heard from Nadia’s team?” Huw barked out the question as he turned in a circle in an attempt to hone in on Nadia’s exact location. He wasn’t sure how this psychic connection they had worked, but he knew he could find her if necessary.
It was necessary.
“About a quarter standard hour ago. She and her team met up with the team I sent to back them up. After a short, but successful, skirmish with a small band of mercenaries, they were heading in. Why?”
“What’s the alternating com frequency you’re using for intrateam surface communications?” Huw repeated the com codes for his team’s benefit over the general Gold frequency. His team waited for his orders at the base of the mountain along with the guide. He keyed in the emergency frequency on his unit. “Nadia? This is Huw. What’s going on? Answer me!” He waited a few seconds and got no response. “Ard, what was their last position?”
He tried the link they had once more.“Nadia! Nadia!”Still no answer, but he knew she was alive; he could feel her drawing on his energy.
“They were getting ready to exit the cave system that’s connected to the facility’s underground escape tunnels.” Ard paused. “I can’t reach them either. They might have run into the enemy fleeing our forces. The guide has the coordinates and will take you to their last known position.”
“Good.” Huw signaled to his team and the guide to head out and that he’d bring up the rear. “I’ll let you know when we find them. Until then, I am going on monitor only.”
“Understood,” said Ard. “She has A’tem and four Elite-trained crew members with her. She’ll be fine. The team I sent her has instructions to protect her.”
Fear and dread ate at Huw’s gut. The rebel faction’s mercenaries would like nothing more than to capture a female Alliance officer and turn her over to the rebels to be used as a hostage to get concessions for their cause.
“I’ll make sure of her safety myself. Out.” Huw checked on Nadia again. Her emotions seemed caught up in the battle rage of her Prime team members; it was as if she rode the wave as any Prime warrior would. But she was not a Prime warrior; she was a fragile Terran woman no matter her training. Icy fear swept over him, chilling him to the bone.
Nadia was in deadly danger, and he was too far away to protect her. And yes, he was acting irrationally, but there was nothing rational about his feelings for Nadia.Chapter 8Outside the cave
As Nadia’s team, with Bre still on point, exited the cave, the atmosphere seemed heavy, laden with the scent of ozone and charged with waves of pressure like an impending thunderstorm. But the night sky was clear, and it was the dry season on Tarn.
Then she recognized the sensory impressions were the accumulation of the menacing emotions of mercenaries lying in wait.
“Down, down! Get down, Bre!” Nadia dashed forward and tackled Bre as intense laser fire strafed the area outside the cave entrance. Rolling off Bre, she found his alert, but pain-filled gaze on her. Behind them, the team laid down cover fire, forcing the enemy to take cover. “Come on, let’s move.”
Bre nodded, his breathing labored. He was wheezing ominously.
“Can you move on your own, or do I need to help you?” In less than a second, Nadia rolled him over and checked him out. His entire front torso had laser singes from multiple hits. She worried he might have taken a direct hit to a vital area of his chest or abdomen.
Moving him could make it worse, but moving was their only option.
Another barrage of laser fire streamed over them. Nadia flattened over Bre’s body, front to front, his breaths hot and moist against her neck. A burning pain streaked across her already injured shoulder. Her shields dropped, something in her forcing them down.
Immediately, Huw’s searing hot mental touch swept through her mind like a solar wind, alleviating her pain, taking it down to bearable levels. She also managed to absorb a much-needed burst of energy; she had a feeling she’d need it before she got Bre to safety.
“Go, Commander! I will make it.” Bre wiggled out from under her, rolled onto his lacerated and burned front, and turned toward the safety of the cave entrance. Then he stopped and waited for her to precede him.
“Unh uh, doesn’t work that way. You go first. I’ll cover.” She shoved his ass with a hand. “Move, dammit!”
Nadia got up into a crouch and covered his retreat, placing her body between his and the enemy positions. Her team was doing a good job of keeping the enemy pinned, but she couldn’t count on that much longer. She and Bre were sitting ducks, and she hadn’t planned on dying now that the rest of Gold was here to back them up.
After less than a meter, Bre collapsed and buried his face in his arms. She snarled, “Move! That’s an order, soldier. Move that ass! Or I swear we’ll die out here together.”
His face as white as Tarn’s limestone rock faces, Bre grunted and once again pulled himself arm over arm along the rocky ground toward the cave entrance. His pain rolled off his aura in tumultuous waves and threatened to topple her control over her own exhaustion and stinging aches.
Bre’s agony was horrific, even felt secondhand. Only Huw’s constant stream of energy and support kept her going.
How Bre kept going Nadia would never know. But he did, and she’d do whatever it took to protect him. No Alliance soldier ever left a man behind.
One audacious mercenary stood and fired wildly at her and Bre. Nadia dove to cover Bre’s exposed body. She was hit in the side by a chunk of rock sheared off by the laser fire.
Damn!The projectile hit the laser wound she’d received in the firefight in the cave.
The added pain was excruciating.
Once again Huw responded, a seemingly endless reservoir of strength, encouragement, and faith, a surprising confidence in her ability to save Bre and stay alive. Greedily, she drew on his energy like a black hole sucking everything around it into its core. The surge of adrenaline and power across the psychic thread connecting them was astonishing.
“Go, Nadia. Go. Get to safety. We are close. We’ll get theapayebote.”
Using the extra spurt of energy while she could, she tossed her rifle toward the cave and moved to Bre. She screamed at her team. “Cover me, guys!”
Nadia dragged the injured soldier up by his shoulders, lowered her shoulder into his laser-lacerated chest and abdomen, and lifted him in a fireman’s carry. She ran for the cave, propelled by fear, instincts, rage—and the strength of a bond that shouldn’t have existed.
The other two Jod brothers came to meet her. Cred took his brother from her. Cas picked her up and followed the others into the shelter of the cave. Bram and A’tem fired their laser rifles to cover their retreat.
“I’m fine, Cas.” She reassured the Prime soldier as he set her on her feet. He kept a hand on her arm, steadying her while the cave swirled around her and her knees threatened to give way. After several deep breaths, she adapted to the buzz of adrenaline and energy Huw shoved at her across the link.
“Ease off, Huw. You’re giving me too much. I’m safe now.”
Soothing warmth came over the connection; she classified the emotion attached to it as satisfaction. Then the energy decreased in amount, but wasn’t cut off; Huw’s energy now felt more like a warm massage of her senses, a healing heat.
“Cas.” A’tem came to their side. “Help Bram keep the enemy pinned down. I’ll take care of Commander Nadia.”
“Huw and his security team are already on their way.” Nadia realized she’d spoken too soon when both Cas and A’tem stared. Cas’s eyes lit with interest and A’tem’s, with questions she had no answers for. “I’m telepathic, remember?”
“Yes, sir.” Cas bowed his head to Nadia and placed his fist over his heart. “I honor you, Commander. You saved my brother.”
“We’re a team … shipmates. He would’ve done the same for me. No thanks are necessary. Plus, it wasn’t our day to die.” Nadia reached to balance herself on the cave wall and winced at the pull on her wound. While her pain was not as bad as it could be due to Huw’s psychic assistance, it still nauseated her. A small wave of dizziness swept over her again as the extra adrenaline continued to dissipate. She allowed A’tem to lower her to the ground. Cas assisted him before turning to help Bram.
“I add my thanks, Commander Nadia,” Cred said as he worked over Bre’s wounds with the healing cold laser.
“How is …dermo, shit, A’tem. That hurt!” She glared at the Volusian who’d torn away her borrowed, now-tattered uniform top and proceeded to clean the side wound, the most serious of her injuries. She examined the deep gouge, which had jagged edges from the rock that had torn through the seal A’tem had placed on the earlier laser laceration.
“Any grit in that?”
Laser fire blared in the background. She sought Cas and Bram’s emotional auras and found them immersed in the battle. Calm. No fear. They didn’t need help. She touched Huw’s mind and found him even closer to their location, fighting through small groups of fleeing mercenaries to get to them. He was immersed inbatel rabiawhich, she now realized, started out as a fiery-hot, explosive buildup and then progressed into a collective icy heat of determination shared by his fellow Prime. Their common goal? To win at all costs.
“Much grit.” A’tem’s tones were clipped; his lips thinned with anger and concern.
“That was very foolish, Nadia. You should’ve had one of us retrieve Bre.”
“There wasn’t time. I sensed the enemy before they fired. I was the closest. I wasn’t leaving a man down to save my own butt.” She shot him an icy glare. “I did what I had to do. You would’ve done the same.”
“Yes.” A’tem’s touch became gentler. “Are you in pain?”
“Hell, yeah, but it’s bearable.” She glanced at Bre whose skin was ashy under his normal bronzed skin tone; he was unconscious.Probably a blessing.His front torso was a mass of laser burns and torn skin from pulling himself along the rocky ground. “My injuries are mild compared to his. Then I plowed my shoulder into him. God! That must’ve hurt. He made no sound—none at all. Cred?”
“Yes, sir?” Cred looked up from tending his brother. Worry and anger glittered within his golden eyes.
“How is he?” She winced in sympathy as Cred continued to tweeze grit from the deep lacerations marring Bre’s sculpted abs. She ignored the fact A’tem was doing the same to her; she’d consigned her pain to the deep, cavernous well of Huw’s borrowed strength. The constant pulse along their connection hummed in the back of her mind and tingled along every nerve in her body.
“He will live. I have given him a strong anesthetic and two boluses of the strongest painkiller we carry. He is not in pain.”
“You’re lying through your teeth, Cred.” Nadia snorted which quickly turned into a gasp as A’tem turned the ice laser on her wound. “I sense his pain and so do you.”
“Yes, Commander.” Cred didn’t express any surprise at her statement; the Jod brothers, like Bram had, accepted her preternatural abilities.
What they actually thought about her psychic talent was anyone’s guess. She was pretty sure Bram had shared his theories concerning her and Huw.Shit.
“But pain is a sign he is alive,” Cred continued. “This is a good thing.”
“Yes, it is,” Nadia agreed.
Still at their posts at the cave entrance, Bram and Cas were no longer shooting. But a massive increase in the sound of the laser battle could be heard outside.
“About time Huw and his security team arrived,” Nadia said. She knew the battles Huw and his team had fought to get to them, but declined to share them with the others.
They’d hear about them soon enough when all reports were filed. She’d already overexposed her ability to communicate with Huw. She refused to fan the flames of her men’s curiosity even more.
Cred spoke up. “How soon will they get a medical team to my brother?”
“Protocol is to contain the enemy combatants before risking medical teams in a war zone.” A’tem had chosen to answer and Nadia let him. “We should remain here and let Huw and the others take care of the remaining enemy. Captain Wulf will send a medical team as soon as he can. I sent a coded message to him and requested one regen bed for your brother.”
A’tem removed his jacket and placed it around Nadia’s shoulders. “Take my jacket.
She stifled the totally inappropriate laugh threatening to erupt. Of course she was chilled. She was practically naked from the waist up with the mere scrap of lace covering her breasts. None of the men had mentioned her near nudity and made Herculean efforts to ignore her exposure—after their first heated glances, of course. She appreciated their courtesy.
“Thanks.” Nadia pulled the jacket, warm from A’tem’s body, closer around her body, and shivered convulsively for several seconds. She hadn’t realized how cold she’d been until he mentioned it.
“It is interesting Huw is leading the security team that relieved us,” A’tem said.
Nadia almost groaned and made a note to kick A’tem’s ass later. His curiosity was aroused—a dangerous mental state for a Volusian since they were known to dig until they received answers; it might be a great trait for an engineer, but not when it was used in idle conversation.
“Why interesting, Commander A’tem?” Cred asked, a frown marring his forehead.
“When I first alerted Ard about the surprise attack, Ard said Huw had already switched from his original mission to add to the security of our base of operations to come to us. That Huw knew about our danger before Ard did. Strange, yes?” A’tem shrugged, but didn’t wait for a response or for her to kill him. “For some reason, Ard sounded … displeased with Huw. But then Ard and Huw haven’t gotten along well during this period of merger. My conclusion? Ard is allowing his dislike of Huw to color his opinion of Huw’s current actions.”
A’tem looked pointedly at Nadia. “I think you should be aware of this friction between them, Nadia.” His “do with it what you will” implication was left unsaid.
“Ah, I didn’t know they weren’t mixing well.” How could she? She rarely saw Huw.
When she did see him, he treated her with all the respect and courtesy due to her as a colleague and left the room as soon as he could. He sure didn’t chitchat about his interactions with other crew members. And during meetings of all Gold officers, Huw and Ard never sat together; she had no firsthand observations of the two men’s dealings.
Until today’s action, Huw hadn’t bothered to acknowledge the psychic connection they had and blocked her mental touch time and time again—so she couldn’t have gleaned his feelings that way either.
“Then it’s a good thing Ard will be stationed on theLeonidas.” Nadia turned and caught her Prime teammates’ gazes on her. “What? You guys have something to add to this conversation?”
From his position at the cave entrance, Bram cleared his throat. “Commander Ard was particularly insistent you be protected at all costs.”
Nadia winced.Lord, save me from overprotective Prime males.
Cred nodded. “We think he is jealous of Commander Huw. Commander Huw has been very vocal about Ard staying away from you.”
Oh, hell!Nadia’s cheeks burned. How had her private life become such a topic of interest? She didn’t understand why Huw acted the way he did, and her crew was already speculating on a love triangle.
“I’ll cut you some slack.” She glared at A’tem. “Well, maybe not A’tem…” the Volusian had the audacity to grin, “…but the rest of you, because you’re new to the Alliance. But it’s not appropriate to talk about private matters on an op.”
“We realize this and do not mean to be impolite or disrespectful, Commander Nadia,” Bram said. “But we have few women on Prime and none in the military, so it is hard not to speculate. Many of us are very interested in how we will … what is the word you use when a man wishes to impress a woman and enter into a relationship? We have no such word since we mate by a genetic demand.”
The man had a valid point, but she still intended to kick A’tem’s ass for opening the whole can of worms. Since the sound of laser fire was still loud outside the cave and the enemy was well occupied by Huw and the other Gold forces, Nadia and her men were stuck here for a while longer. She decided to allow the conversation to continue. She might as well sound Bram and the others out about their views on the Prime male-non-Prime female dynamic. Mel and Wulf would want to know the crew’s feelings on the matter.
Before she could answer Bram’s question, A’tem chuckled and replied, “Bram, I believe the word you want is ‘court’ although ‘dating’ usually precedes courting.”
“This dating means the man approaches the woman, indicates his interest, and then they have sex, yes?” Cas asked.
Nadia choked and started coughing. A’tem handed her his water, she took a drink, and then a deep breath. “Um, it’s not that straightforward.” Every man’s intent gaze was fixed on her. “In that instance, the man might get kneed in his testicles.”
The Prime soldiers muttered under their breath. Their pained expressions and confusion were almost comical. A’tem began to laugh.
“Shut up, A’tem. It’s not funny.” She sighed and looked at the Volusian whose eyes glistened with the tears of his attempt to stop laughing. “I told Mel we needed a fricking class on dating dos-and-don’ts for our Prime crew. Now, I know we do.”
Nadia beat back the increased pain throbbing in her side and shoulder; she now had a headache to go along with it. The stream of Huw’s soothing warmth had slowed to a trickle. Worried that he and his team might have been overwhelmed and needed her and her team’s help, she touched his mind. She shivered at the ice-cold rage she discovered as he fought furiously to protect her and her team. She sighed with relief. He was unharmed and had things under control. He didn’t need her pain or exhaustion to distract him. She quickly withdrew her mental scan and slammed up her shields. The drugs A’tem had given her would eventually handle her pain; Huw needed his own reserves for the fight.
She attempted to smile at the curious, relationship-naive Prime. Well, naive as to dating and courting. She imagined they all had the same sex education Wulf and his brothers had had. Though, she refused to even think about the sex-surrogate thing. She saw red each and every time she imagined Huw going to one of the women Prime society provided to meet their males’ sexual education and needs. She had no reason to be jealous. Huw had been politely scrupulous about not encouraging this … whatever-in-the-hell attraction they had between them, but hearts weren’t rational most days. Hers sure wasn’t.
Taking a deep breath, she plunged into what would be for her a very uncomfortable, but needed discussion. “I can see how speculation about who is courting whom would be a hot topic. So, until you attend the dating lecture, I’ll be insisting Gold provide for its Prime crew members, let me state—it isn’t proper to guess about relationships not publicly acknowledged by the couple in question. That’s calledgossip, and it is frowned upon.”
Every Prime male there, including Bre, who had roused from unconsciousness, pinned her with a golden stare. She bet every word she uttered would be shared with their fellow Prime as soon as the men returned to their ships.
She continued, “Spreading such speculations could lead to hurt feelings, especially where the relationship doesn’t even exist. When in doubt about whether a female crew member is seeing someone or not, it is appropriate to ask ‘Are you dating someone?’ As for dating protocols, sex is always something the woman can say no to, and the man must respect that or be considered a sexual predator. Understood?”
“Yes,” Bram said. “Does this mean you and Commander Huw are not a couple?”
She had to choke back a laugh. Well, she had told them to ask. If she refused to answer, they’d think about this and talk it to death—and possibly draw conclusions that would be embarrassing to her and Huw—and hurtful. She needed to nip any further assumptions in the bud. Hopefully, these men would pass her answer along with tales of her actions and leadership in battle to the other Prime of Gold.
So, she answered, “No, we arenota couple.” It was the truth. Huw didn’t want a relationship with her. She wanted one with him—and it hurt.
“How about you and Commander Ard?” asked Bre, barely awake, but enough so to follow the topic of conversation. His voice was raspy with pain.
The tension in the cave escalated. The heat of it pulsed against her psi senses.God,save me.They were all attracted to her. Well, not A’tem, he was merely amused.
Nadia trembled at the intensity of the Prime soldiers’ collective emotions and pulled A’tem’s jacket more closely over her breasts, which felt even more exposed than before.
She tasted chocolate and wine and felt fur brushing along her senses as the lust in the air grew thicker. “Commander Ard and I arenota couple either. We are colleagues. The time we spend together has to do with our job exchange and training.”
But if she were truthful with herself, she had noted a romantic interest in Aeron’s voice and attentions. What a mess!
She liked Aeron. But with the increase in strength of the unusual bond she had with Huw making itself known more and more each day, she could never be with Aeron or any other man. It wouldn’t feel right—emotionally or physically. Because of this connection to Huw, she’d be forced to live as chastely as a nun unless the man gave up seeking a Prime female who might not even exist.
Nadia wasn’t holding her breath on that last part happening.There’s always thevibrator in the bedside drawer and the simulation rooms.So not the same.
At her denial of all dating relationships, the tension in the room left as quickly as it had built.
Bram smiled. “Thank you for clearing this up, Commander. Maybe you should let the two men in question know so they don’t kill each other in training.”
His suggestion was made in a gentle tone, but she sensed amusement underlying it.
She would’ve called him out on his attitude except what he’d said had come as a shock.
A’tem had alluded to mere friction between the two men; how had friction escalated to killing attempts?
“They tried to kill each other?” Nadia forced herself not to seek answers from Huw since the battle still raged outside. He couldn’t afford the distraction; from the amount of laser fire and battle cries, it sounded as if the enemy had dug in fairly well.
A’tem coughed. “Bram exaggerates, Nadia. I was present. Aeron and Huw merely fought hard as warriors do during a training session. Neither was hurt.” He narrowed his dark blue gaze at Bram who still guarded the entrance with Cas. “Bram should not have intimated such.”
Cas snorted. “I beg to differ, Commander A’tem. I was also present. Prime warriors do not use some of the moves the commanders used during mere training. It took Commander Iolyn and Captain Wulf to pull the two men apart when time was called.
Theirs was not typical training behavior.”
When A’tem opened his mouth, Nadia cut him off. “Leave it, A’tem. Cas and Bram are Elite-trained. They should recognize what is and isn’t Prime training behavior.” She swept a stern glance over the men surrounding her. “I couldn’t be the cause of their enmity, since I’m not involved with either man. This topic of conversation is at an end and won’t be mentioned again. Clear?”
A chorus of “yes, sirs” came from her Prime team members. A’tem snorted.
Cas coughed. “Commanders? It has quieted outside. I see Commander Huw directing his team to check the bodies. It is safe to leave the cave now.”
Nadia looked at A’tem. “Please check to make sure, A’tem.” She couldn’t talk to Huw right now to save her life; her voice would betray her chaotic feelings.
A’tem raised a brow in question, but nodded and spoke in low tones into his com unit. “Huw confirms all enemies are dead or subdued. Aeron also reports Wulf, Mel, and Royce’s teams have retaken the military facility and released the Prime soldiers held prisoner. Gold teams are combing the area and the other caves for any lingering mercenaries. Medical teams are landing and one will be here soon.”
“Good.” Nadia stood and almost fell. A’tem steadied her with a hand to her elbow.
“Thanks. I’m okay, just a little stiff from sitting on cold stone.” The males’ gazes were skeptical to a man, but no one called her out on the obvious lie. “Let’s move into the light. This cave is cool and damp. It can’t be good for Bre’s condition.”
Cas and Cred shouldered their weapons, lifted their brother to his feet, and then carried him between them.
A’tem and Bram stuck by Nadia’s side. “I’m fine, guys. Don’t hover.”
“Please let us be assured of that, Nadia.” A’tem kept his hand on her elbow and led her around a dead enemy lying right outside the entrance. “That was the slime-creature’s ass who attempted to kill you as you carried Bre. Bram shot him as Cas and Cred came out to assist and I covered them.”
Nadia shuddered. She’d been so concerned with getting Bre to shelter she hadn’t realized how closely she’d cut it.
“Thank you all.” She took a deep breath and forced herself to remain strong. She could deal with the mission’s aftermath later in the privacy of her quarters with a glass of scotch and maybe Lia and Mel for emotional support. “I’m recommending you all for commendations and the appropriate medals.”
Before any of her men could say a word, Huw stormed into view. “Nadia! You are hurt! Why are you standing? What happened?”
A’tem and Bram moved closer and braced her; each man placed an arm around her, taking care not to jar her wounds. She was happy to have their help. Huw’s anger—and was that jealousy?—had hit her hard; it felt like an emotional punch to her gut. She sagged between A’tem and Bram.
“Back off, Huw!” A’tem snarled.
Nadia stared at her colleague in amazement. She’d never heard that sound from the normally calm—well, except in battle, that is—Volusian. “She’s injured and doesn’t need your attitude.”
Huw stopped as if he’d run into a wall. Shock, hurt, anger, resentment, and some emotion he refused to name flickered through his mind. Then he truly looked at Nadia and felt all the color go out of his face. Why wasn’t she unconscious?
His gaze burned across her body, categorizing her numerous wounds—two severe ones, one at the shoulder and an even more severe one at her waist, among a multitude of laser burns, bruises, and abrasions. His already chaotic emotional cocktail intensified. But it was the moment he realized her breasts could be seen by anyone looking hard enough that tipped him over the edge of any control he might have had.
The unnamed emotion, irrational jealousy, won out.
“You are practically naked under that jacket. A man’s jacket.” Huw’s growl started low in his chest and increased in volume and power. He fisted his hands, clenching and unclenching them. He would kill the man or men who had touched her, looked upon her beautiful breasts.
“Stop the growling and tone down the emotional tantrum.” Nadia shrugged away from the A’tem and Bram, who’d pay for touching her, later in the training room. She started to approach him. “I was shot. My jacket was shredded.” Glaring, she stopped less than an arm’s length away and jabbed her finger into his chest as if to punctuate every word. “A’tem gave me his. End of story.”
Her explanation and obvious anger directed solely at him did nothing to halt his rumbling. In fact, it became worse. So much so, the other Prime in the area stiffened and began to match him growl for growl.
“I order you all to stop growling.” Nadia shouted the order in a voice that clearly said do-not-mess-with-me.
It was all Huw could do not to laugh and growl at the same time. She sounded like a furious she-cat. He’d always liked she-cats.
Huw attempted to use the psychic connection with Nadia to see what she really felt, but all he touched was blackness. The same blackness he’d felt near the end of the battle with the entrenched mercenaries that had caused him to panic and fight harder to get to her. He’d needed to see she was okay.
A’tem, however, did laugh and received a glare that could cut stone from Nadia.
“You aren’t helping,” she muttered to the Volusian.
“Nadia,” A’tem shrugged, “I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to help.”
“Commander Nadia.” Bram spoke in a low, raspy voice.
Huw turned to stare at Bram and didn’t like the look in the crewman’s eyes. Well, he didn’t like any of the other Prime males’ gazes. The men, all of them, wanted Nadia.
Well, who wouldn’t? She was a woman to be admired and treasured—and Huw would be happy to court her, claim her, as soon as the mission for the Lost Ones was complete. He refused to dishonor either his destined Prime mate, if she existed, or Nadia by moving too soon.
What if Nadia’s unavailable after the mission?That was something he refused to address.
Huw snarled at Bram who ignored him and continued to address Nadia. “You obviously need my and A’tem’s support, but Huw is losing control. His loss of control is inciting the rest of us. Are you sure you are not a couple? He is acting territorial. My father does this around my mother when he feels she is threatened by the presence of other males.”
“Nadia, do you want me to stun Huw?” A’tem asked.
Huw recognized that the Volusian looked forward to doing just that. Why were all these men mad at him and acting as Nadia’s champions? What had happened during the mission?
“No, I’ll handle it.” Nada looked up at him while the A’tem and Bram remained close enough to catch her.
Ansu bhau!He wouldn’t let Nadia fall. If anyone held her up, it would be him.
He hissed, snarled, and growled at A'tem and Bram. His warnings worked; they backed off.
“Huw. Behave.” Nadia touched his chest and patted him in the area over his heart, the exact spot he’d had an ache since he’d landed on Tarn. Her touch was gentle and soothing, lessening the throbbing. “Calm down. I’m fine. We did our job—and we were successful. My team protected me.”
His full-throated buzz-saw growl subsided to a low rumble deep in his chest. Huw took the hand on his chest and looked at it. He frowned and wiped a thumb over the dirt and bloody scratches marring her fingers and the back of her hand. His rumble threatened to escalate.
“I’m fine.” Nadia continued to talk to him, her soothing voice the only thing keeping him from losing control. “A’tem took care of my wounds.”
Huw swept a finger over the bandages at her shoulder and her waist. “Lia needs to check these out as soon as possible.”
“I’m not the one who’s seriously hurt.” Nadia touched his face, swiping at something along his jaw.
He focused on the feeling of her finger on his skin—it elicited a warm and tingling sensation where she touched him. It made him want to smile.
“Huw?” Nadia’s voice sharpened.
She was ticked off at him—again. He didn’t like it. He began to growl again.
“What?” He wiped a smudge of dirt off her chin. She needed a nice long bath and her bed.
“Pay attention. Bre needs a regen bed.” Nadia looked tired. “Did you make sure one would be sent our way?”
Huw’s wildly erratic emotions settled at the exhaustion and pain in her voice. “Yes.
Two are on their way. I knew you were in pain. I ordered two.”
He couldn’t handle even the smallest distance between them any longer. He pulled her into his body and held her gently against him. Her head nestled on his chest, her disheveled hair tickling his chin. He rubbed her back from the point where her shoulders met her neck to the top of her sweet bottom and back. “I am pleased you are okay.”
Nadia felt too good in his arms, was too tempting. He could not with any honor court her properly at this time. So he didn’t attempt to stop her when she shoved at his chest.
He let her go. She stepped away. He watched her clench her jaw. She was in pain, but refused to let anyone know. He felt it sweep over her body; she might have shut off her end of their telepathic link, but her pain pounded his skin like thousands of fists.
“Nadia … you need to lie down,” he chided gently.
“Later. I need to make my report to Mel and Wulf.” Nadia straightened to her full height; no sign of weakness betrayed her to the men. Huw’s admiration for her grew. She was a warrior. She added, “I’m sure you can handle things here … right, Huw? A’tem and Bram can help me to the field headquarters.”
The warrior-woman needed a keeper; if she could walk more than two meters without collapsing, he’d be surprised. Courage and pride was one thing, but refusal to accept help was another. “Nadia, Wulf and Mel can wait on the report. You must have medical attention.” Huw reached for her, but she stepped away. A look in her eyes pleaded that he not shame her in front of her team.
He grunted and inclined his head, honoring her unspoken request.
Nadia turned to A’tem and Bram. “Gentlemen, might I ask you for your escort?”
“Gladly, Nadia.” A’tem came to her injured side and took her arm.
“It would be an honor, Commander Nadia.” Bram took her other arm.
Huw fought the urge to tear her away from the men who touched her. He didn’t have that right—might never have that right. The sooner the Lost Ones mission started, the sooner his questions, his honor would be resolved. And then, maybe, he could punch out A’tem and Bram for touching her. The thought gave him a small amount of pleasure.
“See you on the ship, Huw.” She walked past him with A’tem and Bram assisting her. She paused by the Jod brothers and spoke, “I’ll see you all later. Maybe once Bre is feeling up to it, we can dine together and discuss concerned mothers.”
Huw couldn’t help it—he snarled. Dinner? With the Jods?
The Jod brothers smiled and saluted her. Cas spoke for them. “We will be honored, Commander Nadia. Our mother will want to meet the woman who saved her eldest from sure death.”
Nadia smiled at the three brothers with more than a hint of fondness. “I would love to meet your mother. We’ll arrange it.”
Huw clenched his fists as Nadia moved away. He’d just added the Jod brothers to his tentative must-kill list.Chapter 9
Two Standard Days Later, Alliance Training Facility on Cejuru PrimeThe large gymnasium was filled with the sounds of bodies slapping on mats, the squeaking of bare feet on highly polished wood floors, and the grunts, groans, shouts, and taunts of men and women training in various forms of hand-to-hand combat.
Today, a select group of female soldiers were paired with Gold’s Prime soldiers. So far the hand-to-hand fighting had been a lesson in futility. None of the men wanted to hurt the women and had been holding back.
Nadia had paired up with Bre to fight against Bre’s brother Cas and Aeron. Even after their experience with her on Tarn, the men still held back with her also. She was pissed and gaining on going ballistic.
“Time out!” Nadia shouted.
Cas obviously hadn’t heard her in time and his forward momentum took her out at the knees. She landed hard on her back and hit her head. For several seconds the huge fitness room spun around her.
As Bre and the other two went to their knees by her prone body, a roar of rage echoed around the cavernous room.Huw!Before she could sit up and assure everyone she was fine and merely had the air knocked out of her, Huw raced across the room from where he had been monitoring several groups, tore Cas away, and began to pummel him.
“Dermo! Shit! Help me up!” Nadia reached for Aeron and Bre who pulled her to her feet. She leaned against Aeron’s supporting arm for a split second before shrugging him off. “I have to stop Huw. He’ll kill Cas.”
“My brother can hold his own,” Bre assured her. After a day in the regen bed, the Prime was healthy again. He stood with his arms crossed on his chest and a grim smile on his face. “Huw has been asking for someone to put him on the ground all day. Let Cas have his fun.”
She couldn’t disagree with Bre’s sentiment: Huw had been difficult most of the day, especially toward Aeron and the Jod brothers, but still…“Cas did nothing wrong. Huw’s being an ass.” Nadia added, “As usual” under her breath.
Aeron snorted. He’d heard her. Damn good hearing the Prime had. She’d have to remember that.
She approached the combatants with caution; all she needed was a wild elbow or foot to catch her. The men were on the ground and wrestling for superior position.
Everyone in the training room had crowded around, yelling encouragement to their chosen warrior. But the fight went far beyond training as defined by the Alliance. A soldier didn’t put choke holds on one of their peers.
Huw was trying to kill Cas.
“Huw! Stop it!” Forgetting all about her resolve to avoid getting clocked by a stray punch, Nadia straddled Huw’s back; he was on top of Cas. She pinched a nerve on the side of Huw’s neck until he released Cas from the oxygen-depriving hold.
When Huw turned and attempted to dislodge her, Nadia barely avoided the punch he threw at her throat. His fist hit her shoulder instead and spun her around, throwing her off-balance. She landed on her butt this time.
“Nadia! I didn’t mean … I never would … are you hurt?”
Both ends of their psychic pathway had been selectively open since Tarn. It was as if he had to monitor her well being, and she had to let him. Yet, he also hadn’t physically approached or spoken to her in the two days since she’d walked away from him outside the cave. Which was why she chose to ignore the mental voice now; she wasn’t sure her answer would be civil.
Aeron was at her side immediately. “That was one way to stop them. A Volusian nerve hold. Well done.” He pulled her up and surrounded her from behind with his arms.
She wasn’t sure why Aeron felt the need to protect her, but that was how she read the attractive science officer’s emotions.Shit.Hedidhave feelings for her. But his touch was wrong and made her skin itch.
“You okay, Nadia?” Aeron whispered against her ear. The sensation was like flicks of a whip and had her pulling away.
Conscious of Huw’s narrow-eyed gaze of molten gold, she patted Aeron’s arms.
“I’m fine. Let go, or he’ll attack you next.” When Aeron didn’t release her, she added, “Please.”
Aeron let her go slowly as if to taunt the beast seething inside Huw who had risen from the floor. He stood less than an arm’s length away from them, his hands clenching and unclenching and his lips twisted into a snarl. Damn, just what she didn’t need— Aeron and Huw going all ape-shit territorial on her, especially when the first man, the wrong one, wanted her and the other just played at it.
“I’m not afraid of him,” Aeron told her. “None of the men here are.” He paused and came to her side and whispered, “Why do you think he attacked Cas? It was clearly an accident.”
“Not sure,”liar, “he must not have seen the whole thing.” Nadia glanced at Cas who’d gotten up also. “Cas? Are you okay?”
“Yes, Commander Nadia. Did I hurt you?”
“I’m fine, Cas.” Ignoring Huw, she addressed the soldiers who’d surrounded them.
“In fact, I was stopping the fight to tell you men to cease holding back with us women.
The Antareans, the Erians, the mercenaries, and the Prime rebels won’t hold back. We women have to be able to go toe-to-toe with bigger males. We need to learn all the dirty tricks to take a bigger opponent down. That is why we’re here today—help us learn!
The men in the room shouted, “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” She turned to Huw who’d moved closer and stood in front of her. He snarled subvocally, but she could hear and feel it scratching over the psychic link with him. His dark gold gaze was focused on Aeron who’d remained close to her side.
Goddammit, she didn’t have the time or the patience for this chest-thumping shit.
Nadia nudged the science officer away. Thank God, Aeron took the hint. Huw’s raspy snarling subsided and his breathing slowed.
“As for you, Huw.” Nadia turned her muddled emotions on him; after all she was an emotional basket case because of his hot and cold treatment of her. “What in the hell were you thinking? You don’t attack one of my teammates. Cas didn’t hurt me. We were training. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We need to get you Prime males used to working and fighting alongside women. We aren’t fragile flowers here. We’re goddamned highly trained Alliance soldiers. Understood?”
“You were hurt.”His concern was real, and it swept through her like the leading winds of a thunderstorm.
“Huw. I’m fine. The dizziness was due to the air being knocked out of me. My head isfine.”
Huw looked her in the eye, nodded once, and then turned and walked away. His emotions, their link, locked down behind a frigid black wall.
Nadia’s breath hitched, but she refused to let the watery sob emerge. He’d walked away … again.
“Nadia, what’s going on?” Aeron whispered against her ear, his body as close as he could get without touching. “Are you in telepathic contact with Huw?”
She angled her head to look at Aeron. She read anger and jealousy mixed with envy in his voice and aura, saw those mixed emotions reflected in his glittering gold gaze.
“I’ve always been empathic.” It seemed Bram and the Jod brothers hadn’t spread the word about her telepathy, or if they had, Aeron hadn’t heard about it. He was genuinely shocked. “And now it seems with some Prime I’m telepathic—and that’s all I’ll say on the matter.”
Aeron’s nostrils flared. Before she realized what he was about to do, he spun her around, tucked his fingers into the waistband of her pants, and pulled it down far enough to view her lower abdomen. His sigh of relief was audible in the oh-so-quiet room.
Nadia blushed when she noticed all the Prime males with a view looked and promptly began to spread the word. Her hearing was also good enough to hear the gist of the comments. “Commander Nadia is still available. No mark.”
She punched Aeron’s gut with a stiff-armed jab and shoved him away from her.
“Don’t ever touch me that way again.” Her voice was low and ragged with her anger and shock. She felt feral.
She tugged her pants back into place. In a louder voice, she announced so all around could hear, “Terrans don’t mark. I’m not Prime. Also, it is never, I repeat, never appropriate to stick your hands down a woman’s pants in public. It is also not appropriate to do so in private without the woman’s consent. Is that understood?”
A chorus of “yes, sirs” came from the males present and “damn rights” from the females.
“Now that the side show’s over.” She swept the assembled soldiers with a stern glare. “Let’s get back to work. Pair up. And if I see any Prime male not giving his best effort when paired with a female, those men will be on tunnel maintenance for a standard month on their respective ships.”
Mel had instituted tunnel maintenance as a punishment since she’d crawled and walked through some dirty ones on theGalantiback when she’d first met Wulf. No Prime male worth the name wanted housekeeping duty.
Her soldiers went back to work and soon the fitness room rang with the shouts and thuds of fighting pairs.
Nadia approached the two Jod brothers with Aeron following her. “Aeron, you’re seriously pissing me off. I don’t need protection.”
“I think you do. Huw is still within earshot. He’s outside the training room, watching us.” Aeron placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward the side entry to the room.
Yep, there he was skulking in the shadows like some demented ghost in a gothic novel.
“Get his hands off you, Nadia. Now.”
So, now he lowered his shields. She ignored him for the moment.
“Aeron, I consider you a friend, but please don’t touch me again. It sets a bad example for the men.” Nadia stepped out from under Aeron’s hands and looked toward the sky. “God, what have I done to deserve this?”
“Dammit, Huw. You’ve caused enough disruption today. Go away. Find some otherfemale to glare at. Hey? I’ve got an idea—why don’t you go find yourgemate?”
Huw’s answering snarl traveled across their mental connection and made her shudder. He was furious.Fine.Let him be. She was mad also. He’d all but ignored her for two days and then he went all primitive on her as she did her job, which happened to entail working with men. If he didn’t get his act together, she’d report him to his brother.
Let Wulf handle him.
When she looked again, he was gone.
“Okay, that was fun.” Nadia pinned the Jod brothers and Aeron with a narrowed glance. They’d surrounded her like the coastal mountains of Cejuru Prime hugged the capital city’s bay, isolating her from the rest of the room. “Let’s get back to training. I’m not holding back. You are not to, either. I’ll use every dirty fighting technique I’ve learned in my years in the military and from my pre-military days in some of the seedier neighborhoods on Mars Colony—and I expect the same from you. We can share the techniques and decide which ones our female soldiers can use to their best advantage.
Bre nodded, an impish grin twisting his lips. “Will you teach us the Volusian nerve hold you used on Commander Huw?”
Nadia grinned back. “Sure. Let’s do this.”
Huw slammed his way out of the training facility. Damn Nadia! She made him crazy. He was defending her and she turned it around so he looked like the bad guy. In front of the crew.
Adding insult to injury, she’d easily defeated him with one fragile, female hand.
And he was a sick man because he found that sexy.
Her touch. Her smell. Her beautifully muscled, long body. Her mental touch. All of those things had him stiffer than the titanium barrels on the ship’s laser cannon. But he couldn’t approach her—not until after the Lost Ones mission, and maybe not even then if he found hisgemate.
Ansu bhau. He needed sex. Now. Nadia was a temptress, created by the One to lead him off the honorable path he’d set for himself.
Requisitioning a surface vehicle, he drove to the house of the sex surrogate his family had always used to teach the younger Caradoc males about how to make love to a woman and later ease all of the Caradoc males’ sexual needs until they mated.
Susa would take away the gnawing pain in his balls and cock.
After parking in front of Susa’s villa, he ran up the steps. Her door panel indicated she was home and receiving clients. He entered his code and waited for her to let him in.
“Huw!” Susa greeted him at the doorway, wearing only a sheer floating garment.
Every line of her curvy, long body was visible. Her dusky rose nipples showed clearly as did her dark curls over her sex. “It’s been so long. With Wulf mated, I have one less of my favorite Caradoc men to take care of.”
She stood on her tiptoes and nibbled at his lower lip before kissing him fully. Her soft hands petted his chest, paying particular attention to his nipples.
He grimaced with discomfort when her hand brushed over a particularly sensitive part of his chest. He stopped her caresses by covering her hands with his and pulled away from the kiss. “Susa? Do you have time to give me a massage and ease my erection?”
“Always, darling Huw.” She pulled on his arm. “Come to my bedroom. I will get you a Valerian whiskey and then undress you.” She rubbed her cheek along the arm she held. “You do seem tense, warrior.”
“Yes.” He kissed the top of her head. “But you have always eased me well in the past. I expect no less of you now.”
“It is nice to be wanted, needed. Many of my peers are afraid that if our men can procreate with other hominid females in the galaxy that we will no longer be needed to care for their needs.”
Huw had never thought of that consequence before and was embarrassed that no one on the Elder Council had thought of how the merger into the Alliance and seeking compatible females from other planets would affect the women who had nogematsand had taken care of unmated Prime males’ needs for several centuries.
“You will always be needed.” Even to Huw his assurance sounded lame.
“Ah, Huw. None of us wish the men who find mates to be unfaithful to their chosen females. That would be immoral—such a bond, even though it is an emotional bonding and not a full mind-body-spiritual one, should be inviolate.”
She went to fix him a drink. “We are thinking to ask Premier Caradoc if the Alliance Astrobiology Research scientists would look into the possibility of us sex surrogates mating with non-Prime males. Maybe what stops us from mating with our own kind would not be a barrier to let’s say a Terran or Volusian male. What do you think?”
“I think that is an excellent idea.” Also one that would make the Pure Blood faction crazier than they already were. “I will mention it to my father myself.” He took the drink from Susa. “But tell your peers this needs to be kept secret for now. There are some…”
“Stop, Huw.” Susa unzipped his uniform top and placed biting kisses down his chest onto his abdomen. Kneeling, she opened his uniform pants and looked up at him as she grasped his rock-hard cock. “We know the rebels would target us and any male we approached or who approached us. We can wait until the rebels are subdued. We’ve waited this long.”
Susa licked the purpled head of his cock then took it into her mouth and suckled it before letting it out with a pop. “What first? Massage? Or me swallowing your seed?”
Huw wanted to say swallowing his seed, but her tongue and lips, which usually had him impatient to come in her mouth now made him cringe. Her touch was wrong, and he roared inside to realize that sex with Susa wouldn’t help his dire need, but only make his sexual tension worse.
“Massage. A long one. I’m so tired. Tense.” He would suffer through the emotional, almost physical, discomfort her touch brought him. He wouldn’t insult her by leaving prematurely after he’d sought her out.
Susa nodded and stood up. “Whatever you need, Huw. I will try to provide. Just tell me.” She stroked the side of his face with gentle fingers. “So many worries I see on your face. Let them go. Susa will soothe you.”
Huw closed his eyes and nodded—but it wasn’t Susa’s face he envisioned or her hands touching him—but Nadia’s.
The mental pathway between them was shut down for now—from both ends. Nadia was mad at him, and he was afraid she’d discover he’d left her and come to another woman. And why he felt as if he’d betrayed her, he would never know. Nadia was not Prime. She was not hisgemate, chosen by the One. And why those facts made his head hurt, his heart ache, and his body cry out in need—he didn’t want to touch with a meter-long battle blade.Chapter 10
Later the same day, Premier Caradoc’s Meeting RoomFiling into the meeting room were the leaders of this part of the Milky Way Galaxy: Admiral Nelson, the Alliance military commander for the outer spiral of the Milky Way Galaxy; General Arnat of Prime Military Command; and two representatives from the Prime Elder Council responsible for military and civilian security. Joining these leaders were Drs. Lia Morgan and Kerr Lenke, Chief Medical Officers of the newly merged Gold Squadron.
The meeting had been called to address issues which had arisen from the merger of Wulf’s Prime squadron into Gold Squadron, the mission Gold would embark upon once joint training was completed, and the continued unrest caused by the Pure Blood faction and its hirelings.
Wulf had other things on his mind as he fondled Melina’s thigh under the table, far more enjoyable things for a newly bonded couple to do than decide the fate of this small sector of the universe.
“Wulf,” Melina whispered against his ear, “stop touching me, or I’ll retaliate in front of all these important people. And you’d be very embarrassed.”
He leaned over and kissed the hair above her ear. “No, I would be very proud—and all these important people would be very jealous. You’d be the one to blush.”
His preciousgemategrowled, a cute little female version of his own snarl. They were a perfect match. Thinking about perfect matches had him frowning. “Lubha, have you noticed that since Tarn Huw has gone out of his way to avoid Nadia? Kerr told me Huw even avoided looking at her during the blood tests I ordered. What’s wrong? It is clear to me there’s an attraction between the two of them.”
“Your brother is a stubborn idiot. This is their personal business and we need to stay out of it.”
“If it begins to affect their work, I will have to get involved. Until then, I will do as you suggest,gemate lubha.” Wulf kissed her cheek. “Iolyn and I might have to beat our brother to a pulp for his actions, though.Diew, even Aeron went out of his way to mention Huw’s behavior. There was an incident in the training room this morning. Huw attacked one of the Jod brothers and then stormed out. No one has seen him since.”
“I heard.” Melina sighed. “Unfortunately, someone spotted him. I was eating lunch with Nadia in the crew’s mess on planet, and the whole room was filled with talk of the training incident. Then some loud mouth said Huw had gone to Susa’s. The men in the room snickered.” Hisgemate’s eyes flashed with anger. “Nadia asked me point-blank who Susa was. I told her the truth. Nadia paled, excused herself, and left the room. The Jod brothers were present at the time. Bre told the men who’d spread the gossip they were asses and that such private matters weren’t for public consumption. I was ready to give him an additional commendation for his loyalty to Nadia.”
Wulf sighed and hugged Melina. “It will be a rough period of adjustment for my Prime soldiers. They aren’t used to male-female interactions in their workplace and will fixate on the relationships that do develop. It is a good thing the doctors planned so quickly to have the lecture on dating and social interactions with non-Prime women this evening. I am ordering Huw to attend.”
“What if Huw doesn’t?” Melina’s brow wrinkled with concern.
“Iolyn will drag Huw’s ass to it even if we have to beat on him a bit.” Wulf wouldn’t allow Nadia to be hurt by his brother. She was an excellent officer and a good friend to hisgemate. His brother needed to get over his fixation on mating with a Prime woman and take the obviously compatible and lovely woman right in front of him.
And if he and Iolyn had to kick his brother every day until he woke up and realized the fact—they would do it. Their father was also on board; he had adored Nadia since the kidnapping. His father recognized a strong woman when he saw one—too bad Huw didn’t seem to be as astute.
“I’ll help beat on him if you need me.” Melina rubbed her cheek against his arm.
“That is very generous of you,lubha. We’ll let you know.” He patted her thigh and left his hand there. The connection soothed him.
“The meeting will come to order.” Ilar Caradoc looked around the table, a solemn look on his face.
Wulf sensed anger in his parent and wondered what else had happened since he’d last spoken with his father that morning.
“Thank you for taking time out of your very busy schedules to attend this hastily arranged meeting.” His father made eye contact with every person at the table. His gaze lingered on Wulf and Melina for a split second longer than the others, and Wulf felt his father’s pride and pleasure in their bonding. “Matters have come to my attention which concern Gold’s upcoming mission to find any remaining Lost Ones. Another layer of duties will be added to that mission.”
Wulf stiffened and unconsciously gripped Melina’s thigh tighter. This was news to him. Melina covered his hand with hers and stroked until he loosened his grip.
“Wulf, I know this comes as a surprise … and I’ll get to the additional duties in a minute. But, first, we need to address a more immediate concern.” Ilar looked down the table. “General Arnat, please share your findings gleaned from the intelligence elicited during interrogations of the mercenaries and Prime traitors and your suggestion on how to handle what you’ve learned.”
“Thank you, Premier Caradoc.” The General stood and strode to the head of the table. “My adjutant is handing out the transcripts of the interrogations. Briefly, the mercenaries and the few traitors working with the rebels planned to use the joint training as a way to get their hands on female Alliance soldiers. The rebels would then have used some of these women as hostages to leverage their demands upon the Prime government.
The women not so used would have been sold to the Antareans as sex slaves.”
Lia and Melina gasped and the men rumbled angrily. Wulf wanted to kill someone; preferably the man he suspected had given the orders to the hirelings—his second cousin, Darga Caradoc.
“Therefore, I have advised Premier Caradoc it would be unwise while Gold is in space dock and the soldiers are on planet for training to allow the female crew members to walk about without extra protection. He has agreed. Thus, we wish to request the Alliance Military Command make it a requirement the women of Gold Squadron have at least one male Gold soldier with them while out in public on planet at all times. The Prime Military Command will do what is needed to keep the peace on the planet and protect the Alliance soldiers, but we cannot be everywhere. Thank you.” The General returned to his seat and sat.
Wulf’s father turned to Admiral Nelson. “Admiral, would you like to address this concern and our request?”
The Admiral stood, but remained at his seat. “After reading the transcripts and having sat in on some of the interrogations, I’m very concerned over the rabid tenor of the orders given to these thugs and traitors. I don’t want any of my personnel, male or female, in the hands of these animals. I’ve been in touch with Alliance Command and my superiors have concurred. An order will go out at the end of this meeting. It requiresallGold Squadron soldiers to stay in pairs while on the planet. My order also further requires that our women will always have at least one male soldier with them. My soldiers will also be armed at all times with their hand weapons set on the highest stun levels. Do you have an issue with that last order, General?”
“No, I do not. I will make sure my people know this is authorized … with your permission, Premier Caradoc?”
“Granted. The female soldiers do not have the physical strength to take on even the weakest Prime male…”
Wulf had to smother a smile when Melina snorted.
Ilar paused and smiled at Melina. “Maybe with the exception of my daughter-kin, but, Melina, you are a Prime battle-mate and thus have an advantage.”
“Acknowledged, Father-kin.” Melina inclined her head in respect. “But I have several female soldiers whom I know could take down a Prime male—and have in training. But I agree with the Admiral, pairing the women with another male soldier and the addition of the lasers set on high stun should be a deterrent—and that is, after all, what we want to do, isn’t it? Send a message?”
“Exactly, Captain Melina,” the Admiral said. “And I’ve observed the women in question and am proud their Alliance training has stood them well. Keep up the good work. I witnessed a lot of respect from the Prime males who were put on their asses earlier today as I passed through the training center. And the sense of teamwork is coming across very well in the short two weeks since the merger.”
“The Tarn situation was the turning point, Admiral.” Wulf swept a glance around the table. “I have not had a chance to read the transcripts from the interrogations, but did any of the traitors provide us any leads as to whom they worked for?”
“No, Wulf.” Ilar scowled. “They all had the same story. They joined a small cell and the instructions were provided in written messages, left in pre-arranged spots. And they burned the messages.” His father snarled and shook his head. “There were never any direct voice communications that could be traced. The mercenaries were hired by the small cell leaders per instructions spelled out in the messages. We are at a dead end unless we can get someone undercover in one of the cells or the rebel leaders make a mistake and become more visible to their followers.”
“They have made mistakes in the past, Father. They will again.” Wulf hoped it would happen before anyone he loved was captured or killed. “How are you distributing the new orders to our crews?”
“A text message has been sent to all Gold crew members. And a scrolling notice is on the monitors in all barracks. And I will also ask that the good doctors mention the new orders this evening at the mandatory program on social interactions among Prime Gold crew members and non-Prime females.” Ilar looked at the two doctors and inclined his head. “I applaud the doctors for coming up with this program so quickly. We do not want any misunderstandings during this crucial period of adjustment.”
Wulf nodded. “Now, Father, what has happened that Gold’s first mission’s objectives have been altered?”
“I will turn that over to Admiral Nelson.” Ilar sat.
“Thank you, Premier Caradoc.” The Admiral walked to the front of the room, speaking as he moved. “The Alliance has had a request from two scientific outposts in the Iota Persei system.” The Admiral stopped by an audio-visual panel and called up a galaxy map. He zeroed in on the part of the galaxy between the Perseus and Cygnus-Orion arms that was affected. “Mercenaries and pirates are raiding the outposts and the scientists need assistance. So far they’ve only lost supplies and no lives, but the head scientists feel they’ve just been lucky.”
Melina’s breath hitched and the hand she’d placed on top of his trembled.
“Melina mine, are you all right?”
“Yes, just remembering how helpless I felt when the Antareans attacked Obam IV—and killed my parents and their scientific team. We have to help these people.”
Ilar must have sensed their telepathic communication, because his eyes gleamed with sympathy as his gaze singled her out. “My daughter-kin can testify to the helplessness of the scientists who are not soldiers and are at the mercy of these marauders.”
Admiral Nelson also turned a sympathetic eye on Melina. “This situation is very reminiscent of what happened with your parents’ expedition. We hope to avoid another tragic outcome. Thus, Gold shall visit each expedition so threatened, resupply them, assess, and then bolster their defenses. Gold will also leave one battle cruiser per colony to remain on patrol and present a defensive posture to any would-be raiders.”
“Will this be a permanent assignment?” asked Melina. “While I’m sure Gold can handle anything tossed at it, battle cruisers are the only large ships we have that can make a dirt landing. This might hurt us in a battle to protect other colonies.”
“I agree, Melina,” said Admiral Nelson. “Once you’re back from the Lost Ones mission, we’ll assign two more battle cruisers to your squadron. You’ll then be able to rotate the duty to protect the scientific expeditions. The permanency of the assignment will be dictated by the expeditions’ durations.” He looked first at Wulf and then Melina.
“Do you have any concerns about the Lost Ones mission and being down two cruisers?”
“It won’t be a problem, Admiral,” said Wulf. “My bigger concern would be a battle cruiser per expedition might not be enough if the Antareans chose to attack. Pirates are more easily handled. But Gold will be within twelve-to-twenty-four standard hours of the planets you’ve noted. So, I don’t see a big problem. Our battle cruiser captains have the heavy air experience to go dirt-side and defend the scientists on the ground until we get there. Don’t you agree, Melina?”
“Yes. I’d like to suggest theRenardand thePicarusas the two battle cruisers.”
Melina leaned into Wulf’s body. “The captains of those two cruisers have the most experience at dirt-side defense.”
“I concur. My Melina knows her captains well.”
“Good. Inform your captains,” Admiral Nelson said. “I’ll request two new battle cruisers and crews from Alliance Military Command. They’ll be here, ready for crew mergers with the Prime when you return from your mission. Good luck and God speed.”Chapter 11
That evening, an ocean-side bar, Cejuru Prime“How do we know Prime males can mate with other hominids?”
“What do you mean by mate, Huw?” Lia eyed him curiously.
Dr. Kerr Lenke, her Prime colleague, nodded his agreement with Lia’s clarifying question. “Be specific, Huw. Do you mean actual procreation? Because we know we can have offspring with Terrans—we did so in the distant past. There are family lines on our planet with Terran DNA, although it’s recessive. I also don’t expect too much of an issue with other hominids especially in light of Dr. Brianna Martin’s successful gene-splicing work with the Volusians. Or, do you meanactualproduction of agemat-gematebonding?”
And wasn’t that the million-credit question.
Nadia leaned back against the plush booth and surveyed her dinner companions, all of whom were focused on Kerr’s comments. To her right were Huw and then Iolyn. To their right was Royce Nowicki. On Royce’s right were Aeron, Kerr, and Lia. Sitting to Nadia’s immediate left was Joen Dakkin.
The current topic of debate had begun during the required lecture for all Gold Squadron crews members: “Dating Dos and Don’ts.” The early evening lecture had carried over post-class to this ocean-side bar. While the lecture had been aimed at educating the Prime males about non-Prime social interactions, Huw had broached the topic that had been the ten-megaton pachyderm in the room: would all this interaction produce what the Prime male desired the most—the mind-body-spirit trinity?
Nadia hadn’t needed to attend the lecture or its aftermath to hear how Huw felt about the topic. From the heated discussion during and after the doctors’ lecture, he seemed to be the only Prime male who cared about the bonding aspect all Prime had sought in the past.
Which sucked because she was attracted to the obstinate male. More than attracted.
Each time she saw or heard or scented him, her clit throbbed and her pussy flooded with her arousal. Since Tarn, she’d experienced a recurring, sharp pain on her lower right side, above her ovary. Of course, since Huw had made it his goal to avoid her as much as possible over the past two days, the physical reactions were bearable. It was her heart and head that hurt the most.
Sitting next to Huw, his scent overwhelmed her. She rubbed her lower abdomen where the phantom ache viciously stabbed at her womb. Though she was one hundred percent Terran on both sides of the family, she realized she was bonding with him in some manner. What that manner was? Was anybody’s guess.
After the incident on Tarn, Kerr, and Lia had taken blood and tissue samples from both her and Huw on Wulf’s orders. Since the blood draw, Huw had become even more scarce than usual. The fact he was sitting next to her at all was after a sneaky move by Iolyn. After one short “hello,” he’d studiously ignored her.
And dumb her, her heart ached for him even more. Whatever in the hell was going on in her body, she wished it would stop. If the strained relations continued, it could affect their working relationship. If that happened, she’d have to transfer away from Mel’s crew, because she refused to endanger her crew members. Nowicki would take her back on theLeonidasin a flash. Aeron could go back to theGalanti.
While Nadia wasn’t afraid of learning the truth about what was happening between them, Huw was.
If the results of the testing on their blood and tissue samples were positive for some sort of Prime-like mating and Huw denied the biological evidence, it would crush her, especially in light of their psychic connection and physical attraction.
A gal could only take so much rejection from the man she desired and, yes, had begun to love despite his stubbornness. Huw was exactly the kind of man she’d always been attracted to—big, strong, intelligent—and the sexual attraction between them was off the charts. When he wasn’t ignoring her or denying the tie between them, he was fun to be with. They shared a lot of the same interests. Over the weeks she’d known him, he’d shown himself to be honorable, courteous, and very caring and protective of her well-being. His actions on Tarn had underlined some of those more admirable traits. She could envision them being partners in every aspect of their lives.
From the corner of her eye, she noted Huw’s handsome face was flushed from the heat of arguing with the other Prime males at the table, all of whom were actively looking for a companion among the Terran and Volusian females in Gold. It was a good thing Mel and Wulf had responded so quickly to her suggestion about addressing dating and sexual etiquette before someone’s feelings were hurt or a woman was approached sexually in an inappropriate manner. No one wanted the first foray into uniting the two fleets to be sabotaged by cultural misunderstandings over male-female relations.
Prime males tended to be autocratic and one hundred percent alpha. Terran, Volusian, and other hominid females in the Alliance military were strong-willed and used to kicking such high-handed approaches in the teeth. The potential for cultural misunderstanding—and bloodshed—would’ve been high.
Huw’s low rumbling tones cut through her chaotic thoughts. “I still seek agemat-gematebonding.”
Nadia mentally swore and bit her lip to keep from vocalizing angry words.Damn hishide!But he’d accept sex from a woman who wasn’t hisgemate.His visit to the sex surrogate Susa had proven that.
After hearing about Huw’s visit to the sex surrogate, Nadia had toyed with the idea of going to another man in order to salvage her pride, but she wouldn’t be able to endure his touch. And she wouldn’t hurt another man’s feelings or pride by rejecting him in an intimate moment.
A shard of pain sliced through her gut. Nadia gasped and quickly took a sip of her wine to keep from crying out like a wounded animal. She understood Huw’s current words were a knee-jerk reaction to the other men’s more logical arguments. But his lack of concern for her—and Lia’s—feelings was inconsiderate to the point of being callous.
His every word denying that a non-Prime female was a viable substitute as a life partner for a Prime male was like a knife to the heart.
Huw had made up his mind. Their dining companions were wasting their breath, attempting to convince him otherwise. If the existence of their unique psychic bond hadn’t convinced him, why would mere words? It would take a major shift in his life view to allow him to date or court a non-Prime female.
Despite the pain he’d caused and continued to cause in the deepest levels of her being, she had the urge to soothe him, calm his anger.
She needed her fucking head examined.
“Brother, you are nuts.” Iolyn shook his head and shot Huw a look filled with disgust. “Wulf finding Mel was a one in, well, a whole hell of a lot of chances. Face the facts. There are no unmarked Prime females of mating age left in the Cejuru system or even the galaxy—and fewer females are born each year and those tend to be mostly infertile.”
Iolyn rubbed at his chest where Nadia knew he had a quiescentgematmarking; his mate was one of the Lost Ones. Hope was minuscule that the lost women or their grown daughters would ever be found—or, at least, found alive.
“I don’t want to spend my life alone,” Iolyn continued. “If I can have children with a Terran or another compatible female … well, I want that.”
“But we still have a chance to find others like Mel.” Huw’s sculpted cheekbones were highlighted red with his righteous anger.
Is that what he really thought? He was gambling that he might find the one perfect Prime woman during their upcoming mission? Nadia shook her head. Iolyn was correct— Huw was nuts. The odds were so small they were negligible.
Huw smacked the table with the flat of his hand, making the tableware jump. “It is possible some of the women and the female children survived and were assimilated into local populations just as Mel was. We could still find yourgemate, brother.”
Iolyn shook his head, sadness in his eyes, but said nothing. Huw wasn’t in a receptive frame of mind and his brother was in a better position to know that than most.
Just her luck, Nadia was attracted to the wrong brother, the one who had pipe dreams and believed in fairy tales.
“It’s also possible they all died.” Royce Nowicki took a sip of his Valerian whiskey.
“The destinations are located in some of the most isolated and dangerous sectors of the galaxy between the Perseus and Cygnus-Orion spiral arms. The fact the planets had at one time held Prime fortifications doesn’t mean the planets were habitable at the time of the Lost Ones evacuation.”
He gestured with his glass. “Hell, the ships probably didn’t make it to their final destinations. Keep in mind, they were being actively pursued by the Antareans and taking on laser fire and torpedoes. Face it, Huw. Iolyn and the others are correct—find a lovely woman, court her, marry or mate or whatever you want to call it, and get a chance to have a family. It’s a no-brainer to me.”
Huw scowled into his whiskey. “The others can do what they want. There’s still a chance some might live—and they are waiting for theirgematsto find them. It should be a matter of honor and conscience that a Prime male eliminate that possibility before seeking a life partner among non-Prime women.”
Nadia’s heart stuttered. The fervor in his voice demonstrated Huw would never be happy with second-best—and she would always be second-best. The anguish was all consuming. She barely managed to stifle the cry erupting from her very soul. She inhaled sharply and grabbed at the knifelike pain in her lower abdomen.
“Nadia?” From her left, Lia leaned around Joen, her voice low. “You okay?”
Thank God, only Lia and Joen had noticed Nadia’s pain. In the background, the others continued to dissect why Huw was crazy and why mating with non-Prime females would be good for the Prime people as a whole.
Nadia turned toward Lia and Joen. She wouldn’t be surprised if her pain was etched on her face. “I … I ache, Lia.”
Joen murmured something low; it sounded like “stupid Huw.” He patted Nadia’s shoulder. Sending the concerned Prime a tortured smile, she shrugged away from his uncomfortable touch. His nostrils flared and he glared past her at Huw whose back was to them. “Very stupid Huw,” muttered the communications officer.
Dermo.She needed to regain her composure; this was so unlike her to lose command of her emotions in front of peers. The calm, cool science officer of theGalanti, the “Iceberg,” never showed emotion. She’d learned a long time ago to hide the tender, feminine part of herself in order to survive in the male-dominated Alliance fleet. She could almost hate Huw for what his careless words had done to her self-control.
Lia frowned. “Do you want to leave?”
Lia had doctored Nadia’s wounds for many years as they’d served together in the Alliance and would know she was normally a stoic about pain.
Nadia nodded, afraid to speak for fear she’d start weeping convulsively. The emotional roller coaster she’d ridden since her feelings for Huw had first appeared were as devastating as the physical side effects.
Lia’s full lips thinned, and then she turned to the others at the table. The men had gone silent at Lia’s question. Huw’s narrowed amber gaze was fixed on Nadia; he radiated concern. Too little, too late. She needed to leave.
“Nadia’s ill,” Lia said in her best I’m-a-doctor-don’t-mess-with-me voice. “We’ll head back to crew’s quarters.”
Rising from her seat, Nadia looked away from Huw’s piercing stare. The other men stood; some voiced their concerns since she’d been injured during the Tarn attack and had sustained some bruises during fight training earlier that day.
Huw opened his mouth and immediately shut it. Instead of speaking, he took a sip of his drink. His gaze was now anywhere but on her.
The public sign of rejection even as he nudged her shields gently sent a chill down her spine. The courteous, caring Huw versus the uncaring, single-minded, I-want-a-gemate Huw were going to drive her over the edge of sanity. God, she might really have to switch ships. She couldn’t work, live, like this.
Nadia trembled, cold to her core. Dizziness struck as she forgot to breathe. She staggered slightly and braced herself on the table to keep from losing her balance.
The much smaller Lia took hold of her arm, steadying her. “Nadia? Do we need to get ground transportation?”
“Move, Lia. I’ve got her.” Joen had his arm around Nadia’s waist and supported her easily until she regained control. She moved away from him and he released her immediately.
Did he suspect his touch felt wrong? Probably. Joen, she’d noticed, was very observant.
“No … no ground transportation! Lia, I’m fine. I can walk. The fresh air will help.”
She stiffened her spine and stood tall, willing her knees not to give out at least until she and Lia were out of sight. “Let’s get out of here. Please?”
“I will accompany you, ladies.” Joen tucked Lia’s arm in his and left it up to Nadia as to whether she would take the other arm he offered. “No female Alliance soldier is to be out alone on the planet.”
Ignoring the icky feeling touching his arm sent through her, she placed her fingers on his forearm. She refused to show a hint of discomfort in front of Huw. She’d keep her pride if nothing else.
“Nadia?” Lia whispered. “Do you want one of the others to come also? Mel and Wulf want every woman to have a male escort.”
“It’s okay, Lia. I think one Prime male for the two of us should suffice.” Nadia attempted to smile at the darkly handsome Joen who towered over both women.
“I am a very lucky man to be allowed to accompany two such beautiful women.”
Joen winked at Nadia before leading them away from the table toward the exit.
As they moved farther and farther away from Huw, the formerly piercing ache in her womb lessened to a phantom ache such as when a person had lost a vital limb. If she looked back, she knew she’d find Huw glaring at them. He might not want her as she wanted him, but he noticeably fumed whenever she spoke to or interacted with a male crew member. The man had feelings for her; he was just too stubborn to give up his dream and admit it.
God, what am I going to do? She stumbled and only Joen’s strong arm kept her from falling.
“I could carry you, Nadia.” Joen’s sincere offer brought tears to her eyes. “You are very pale. You are shaking.”
“That’s not necessary … I’m … just … um, sore from the hand-to-hand training earlier today … and tired and…” She’d let him fill in the rest of it however he wished.
“Don’t believe her, Joen. Nadia’s normally as strong as a Volusian ox-steer. She bounced back from the injuries she incurred on Tarn with barely a standard hour in the regen bed. Huw’s bullshit hurt her. He made me so mad I wanted to spit.”
Lia was very empathic, had always been so. It was part of what made her an excellent doctor. Nadia suspected the woman had the same psychic abilities as Mel—and as Nadia herself.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Nadia prayed both of them would take the hint.
Dissecting Huw’s feelings and actions would make it harder for her to sublimate the pain.
Joen released their arms long enough to open the bar’s heavy exterior door and allow her and Lia to pass through the exit before him. Once outside, he offered his arm to Lia with a sympathetic smile to Nadia.
Yeah, he knew his touch bothered her.
Joen was perfect for Lia. He was intelligent, even-tempered for a Prime, and a complete gentleman. The couple’s emotional auras meshed even more now than a couple of days ago.
And, no, Nadia wasn’t green-eyed with jealousy at her good friend’s luck; she merely desired the same luck.
Huw kept an eye on the trio as they left the bar. He fought the urge to run after them and escort Nadia to her quarters himself, to make sure she had no lingering injury from Cas Jod’s barreling into her earlier that day.
It was getting harder and harder to avoid showing his feelings for Nadia in public.
But the mission loomed, and his words to the others about honor and conscience were what he had promised himself to abide by until it was proven one way or another whether any Lost Ones survived.
The others didn’t understand his position; but then had they really thought it through? He had—and he could not openly court Nadia until he was sure he wouldn’t hurt either an undiscoveredgemateor Nadia.
After the door closed on the three, Iolyn hit him on the arm—hard. “You, my brother, are a fool!”
Rubbing the place his brother had punched, he turned and glared. “What was that for? What did I do?”
Royce snorted and leaned back in his chair, cradling his drink. His light blue eyes glittered angrily. “You insulted all women other than Prime ones, asswipe. And, if you hadn’t noticed, we had two non-Prime women sitting at the table. Mel would’ve wiped the floor with your face if she’d heard the crap you were shoveling.”
Huw frowned. “I told the truth.”
Iolyn muttered under his breath.
Huw winced at his brother’s furious, vulgar words.
“Joen likes Lia, you imbecile.” Iolyn punched him on the arm again. “If you hadn’t noticed, he’s been courting the little Terran doctor for weeks. How do you think Lia felt hearing she wasn’t good enough to mate with a Prime male?”
“That’s not what I said or meant. Joen and Lia?” Huw opened his mouth and then shut it. “I didn’t realize. I will, of course, apologize if that is how my words sounded.”
“They sounded all right. Better apologize to Nadia while you’re at it,” Ard interjected, “on your knees.”
“Why on my knees?” He didn’t like Ard speaking so familiarly of Nadia. The science officer had displayed far too much interest in her.
“Because Nadia likes you, dick wad,” Royce said.
At Huw’s huff of disbelief, the captain of theLeonidasadded, “A lot. She likes you a whole hell of a lot.” Royce sighed. “Listen up, dumb ass. I’ve known and served with Nadia for over five standard years. I’ve never seen the Iceberg so emotional over a man in all that time—and that includes the anger she felt toward the guy who attempted to rape her.”
At the mention of rape and Nadia in the same sentence, a chill swept down Huw’s back. It was as if Royce’s words conjured up an ill wind, a portent of things to come, rather than a memory from the past. Huw shook it off and rubbed the ache over his heart.
He wasn’t precognitive. In fact, other than the usual empathy Prime warriors displayed for strong emotions during battle, he’d never been particularly psychically sensitive at all.
Well, that is, not until the Tarn incident when Nadia had somehow projected her thoughts to him and vice-versa. But he could explain the unusual occurrence as her being telepathic and him being a sensitive receiver.
“Mel shared some information about the incident in Nadia’s past.” Iolyn broke the long and uncomfortable silence Royce’s words had spawned. “Prime males do not rape or abuse women.”
Choking on his drink, Royce coughed. “Um, what about those fanatics who took Mel and Nadia? The women were beaten, bruised … naked from what I read in the report. Are you telling me those filthy bastards hadn’t planned on sexually assaulting them? Hell, Wulf’s swearing fucking blistered the paint on the conference room wall when Mel made her oral report to the Admiral about the incident.”
Royce gestured wildly, some of his drink sloshing over the edge of the glass. “And what about Tarn? The Prime who’d hired those mercs had given them carte blanche to torture our crew members—especially the women. You don’t think the rebel leader didn’t know the mercs he hired had been slavers in the past and would’ve raped our female crew members before they sold them to the Antareans?”
Rage burned anew within Huw at what could have happened to Nadia if she’d been captured on Tarn. He’d seen the room in the military facility the mercenary force had prepared for torture. While it had been intended for all the Gold Squad members, the women would have been particularly vulnerable to some of the devices they’d found. He and the other rescuers had taken great pleasure in smashing the torture devices to bits.
“Stop growling, brother, or you’ll have me starting.” Iolyn’s anger had turned his tanned skin dark red. “Royce, those Primeapayeboteare not indicative of the majority of Prime men. Women are cherished for the creators of life they are.”
“Yeah, sure,” Royce drawled. “I’ve read some Prime histories, including one by your Uncle, Tenar Caradoc. Prime have prided themselves on their ability to fight and survive.
Well, war is hell—and often, in the drive to win, acts are committed which violate all rules of decency. The Prime’s history in the galaxy has been one of imperialism and subjugation of the native people much as England did on Earth during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”
Royce turned to Iolyn and then Huw, raising one sandy-colored brow. “So, you two keep telling yourself that little lie about the all-so-noble-when-it-comes to-women Prime male. But from what I’ve heard and later read in the interrogation transcripts, the Prime fanatics have threatened to rape, torture, and then kill any non-Prime female caught consorting with a Prime male.”
The Prime males emitted low, angry sounds, scaring the other diners around them.
Royce’s lips twisted in what Huw discerned as scorn. “Didn’t read your communiqués today or listen when Kerr made the announcement at the end of the lecture, did you? I’m thinking Joen did, because he made sure the ladies had an escort. If he hadn’t offered, I would’ve. None of our female military personnel is to be out alone while we’re dirt-side. Those orders come from not only the Alliance Military Headquarters, but also from Premier Caradoc.”
He took a drink and swept the table with a glance, his stern gaze finally settling on Huw. “But I digress. Bottom line, Huw, will you apologize to both women or not?”
“Yes.” Huw took a drink of his Valerian whiskey, needing the heated jolt it gave his suddenly icy body.
The voiced threat to the women of Gold Squadron—to Nadia—chilled him to the bone. The announcement and orders must have gone out while he’d attempted to have sex with Susa; his anger at being forced to attend this evening’s lecture had caused him to shut Kerr and Lia out. Shame and guilt had him kicking himself mentally.
Then something scratched and thudded against the wall of denial he’d built around the mental bond he had with Nadia. The skin above his heart burned. And over it all, a deep foreboding—much akin to what he felt when a battle had reached a critical point— swept over his body and roiled in his gut.
Huw glanced around the bar, but didn’t see anything to warrant such battle feelings—and none of the other Prime at the table seemed overly concerned. But then they were too busy being mad at him.
He shook his head in an attempt to throw off the sensations and turned his thoughts back to the current topic of discussion. “I will apologize, because I was rude and inconsiderate. But you’re wrong, Royce. Nadia doesn’t like me. She hates me. She turned her back on me, both on Tarn and again this morning.” He strove hard to keep the petulance out of his tone.
“God give me strength. Am I the only one who has noticed you’ve been avoiding and turning your back on her whenever she’s around?” Royce’s voice was filled with antipathy.
“He’s correct, Huw,” said Kerr. The others nodded in agreement. “You are the one who does those things and have been for over two weeks. Nadia must have understood your message and decided not to engage with you any longer. If you want my opinion, you have driven her away.”
“Kerr’s correct. Nadia was open to you in a way she’s never been with any Alliance soldier,” Royce said. “But then you started spouting off the Prime women are supreme bullshit all the time and treating her as if she had a contagious disease. She probably got tired of your crap.”
Ard smiled, a sly look in his eyes. “If you don’t want her, Huw, I would like to date her. Court her like the good doctors suggested in class. Nadia is strong and beautiful. Her skin and hair glow like starlight off the Cejuru Prime seas. She would give a man handsome, strong sons and beautiful daughters.”
Huw turned to snarl at his soon-to-be former friend’s provoking words when the door to the bar was thrust open with a crash.
A disheveled, bloody Lia stumbled into the room and collapsed to the floor. “Help them,” she cried out weakly.
Kerr ran to Lia’s side to check over her wounds. The other men raced for the door.
Huw beat them to it and was the first through. He dropped the thick wall he’d constructed around the connection to Nadia. Images bombarded his mind.
Fighting. Knives. Thuds. Groans. Heavy breathing. Fear … cold, icy fear. Nadia’s pain. Her increasing weakness.
Everything that made him a dominant, protective Prime male roared to the surface.
Without conscious thought, he sent his strength across the connection he’d never verbally acknowledged, willing her to hold on, to survive until he arrived.
And his soul screamed“Nadia!”in a looping crescendo.Chapter 12
Minutes earlier, outside the bar
The heat of the day had vanished with sunset. A fog bank hung low over the breakwater protecting the capital city’s wharf area. Fishing boats and pleasure craft bobbed gently in their berths.
The night air was refreshing after the too-warm bar. Nadia took a deep breath, allowing the salty smelling air and the sound of the surf hitting rocks to wash over her.
Unfortunately, not even the peaceful beauty of Cejuru Prime’s ocean could calm her inner turmoil.
“Nice night.” Joen’s voice was whiskey-smooth and filled with concern. His body was a solid warmth next to her, close but not quite touching. She shoulder-bumped him, a silent gesture of thanks for his attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy. She was lucky to have him as a friend.
“Yes, it is,” said Lia, following Joen’s lead. “I love this temperate equatorial climate.
Hot during the day and cool at night. The fog bank reminds me of San Francisco Bay on Earth. Looks like it might rain tomorrow, though. The sunset was really rosy.”
Joen chuckled. “This is not Earth, Lia. The rain will come tonight, but tomorrow will be another clear day. Would you ladies like to go deep-sea fishing with me? It will be a perfect day for it. We could catch some fish and have a … what do you Terrans call it when you cook and eat outside?”
“A barbeque or picnic,” Lia said. “I’d love that. We have the day off before we find out what the change in mission orders entails. Nadia, please say you’ll come.”
“No, you two go.” She appreciated the fact they wanted to include her, but she refused to be an awkward third. Lia and Joen needed the opportunity to connect. Being a couple on a ship populated with mostly Prime males would be challenging. Private time would be limited. “Anyway, I’d promised Mel I’d prepare what the landing parties could expect to find on the target planets we’ll visit during our upcoming mission. Some of the planets aren’t geologically stable and others have had changes in atmosphere.”
The Prime had searched for years and found no trace of the missing ships. But Mel’s survival and changes in original routes noted on the data disks she’d brought with her had been the impetus for the mission. Nadia put the chances of finding any of the missing Prime women and children at less than point two percent. Mel’s survival had been a miracle according to her adoptive parents’ diary.
Yet, the Alliance felt the effort should be made as a goodwill gesture for their new signatory, the Prime. Plus, it would be a good way to shake down the merged Prime and Alliance crews, a test before taking on more deadly and dangerous missions.
Lia opened her mouth to say something when Nadia stiffened.
“Shh.” Nadia touched Joen’s arm as she reached for her side arm with her right hand.
“Someone’s out there. Stalking us.”
Joen stiffened, his formerly relaxed mood gone in an instant. He hissed under his breath, “Yes-s-s-s, I sense them now.”
Leaning into Joen, she used her peripheral vision and detected four hulking shapes hugging the shadows of the buildings opposite the shoreline. Their stalkers had begun trailing them a few meters back. She’d thought nothing of their presence at the time, but as the group had begun to close the gap between them, their violent emotions had assaulted her senses.
“Of course, Nadia, we’ll go back and get your jacket.” Joen spoke loudly, his words echoing off the buildings in the quiet night air.
She admired Joen’s quick thinking. He gently herded her and Lia back toward the brightly lit bar. They hadn’t come far, maybe three hundred meters or less. The bar was the closest place of safety and reinforcement; all the other businesses were closed for the night.
Nadia flicked off the safety on her weapon and rested her fingers around the grip, ready to pull and fire at a moment’s notice. She slipped her left hand down her thigh and prepared to go for her knife in its sheath.
Swearing under his breath, Joen subtlety maneuvered away from her and Lia’s bodies, giving him room to fight. All the while, they retraced their steps.
“If they attack before we get back inside the bar…” Joen’s voice was low and monotonic, “…I want you both to run. Let me handle theseapayebote.” He surreptitiously pulled his weapon and held it along his thigh between his and Nadia’s body.
“Like hell,” Nadia muttered. “Lia can run and get our crew members. You saw what I could do on Tarn—don’t go all protective Prime male on me now.”
“You are unwell—and in training this morning you were hurt…”
“Dermo!” Nadia hissed in her native Russian, cutting him off. “I’m fine. I won’t leave you. Deal with it.”
The four men stalking them were closer now. They appeared to be large Prime males. Joen was a decent fighter, but he wasn’t the kind of warrior to take down four bigger men.
“Nadia’s correct. You need her.” Lia released Joen’s arm. “What a day to leave the com-devices in our quarters.”
“Be ready to run, Lialubha.” Joen’s free hand swept down the doctor’s back, a tender, loving gesture. “Nadia, don’t hold back.”
“Didn’t plan on it. Get ready, Lia.” Nadia echoed Joen’s order. “They’re coming.”
The chilly calm Nadia was known for swept over her conscious mind, shoving all other worries aside. The primitive part of her brain was on full alert and in survival mode.
Adrenaline flooded her veins, preparing her for the coming fight. The piercing ache over her right ovary, always bothersome, subsided as if it realized now wasn’t the time to distract her. She needed all her energy, strength, and concentration for battle.
In the back of her mind, the connection with Huw unshielded and began to seek him out as it had on Tarn. All she found was blackness. Again, he denied her. She shoved the feelings of hurt aside; she had no time for such useless emotions with a fight to survive.
The black-clothed stalkers went on attack and flowed across the narrow street like a living malevolent fog rolling over the land. Their angle of approach cut Nadia and her friends off from the bar. The men were armed with laser weapons, but didn’t fire them.
They obviously weren’t out to kill but to capture.
The repercussions of Alliance officers using deadly force on planet, even on men who meant them harm, swept rapidly through her mind. The diplomatic nightmare and the potential for destroying the new alliance had Nadia leaving her sidearm in her holster.
“No lasers until they use theirs.”
“Smart call, Nadia.” Joen mimicked her move.
His immediate agreement meant his mind had worked along the same channels as hers—this attack could be a set up to see how Alliance crews would react to civilian threats. The Alliance military couldn’t be perceived as easily resorting to deadly force for every potential threat. The fact that several Prime—traitors though they were—had died on Tarn, and even earlier on theGalantiand on Tooh 2 at the hands of Alliance officers, had created a furor in the Prime Elder Council.
Until these four Prime used deadly force, she and Joen would meet the threat level on an equivalent level.
When she spotted the glint of knives in two of the men’s hands, she pulled her serrated battle knife. “Knives, Joen. They have knives.” Joen’s battle knife made a swishing sound in the quiet night as he drew it from his thigh sheath.
As the four men circled the three of them, one of them made the mistake of leaving an opening big enough for Lia, freeing a path toward the bar.
“Run, Lia. Get the others!” Nadia shoved Lia through the gap and leapt toward the man who attempted to follow the doctor.
Joen beat her to her target, shouting, “Lia,gemate! Behind you!” He roared a battle cry similar to one she’d heard the Caradoc brothers use and threw his body at the man who’d threatened Lia’s escape.
Gemate? Joen and Lia were bonded? Joen’s concentration would be to protect his mate at all costs. The other three attackers had heard Joen’s words. They bellowed and turned to attack Joen and Lia; the bonded status of the couple made them the primary target.
Nadia shouted the battle cry of her family and engaged the enemy. Her job would be to keep the other three off Joen’s back as he battled like a demon to kill the man who would’ve harmed Lia and prevented her from obtaining help.
Calling upon years of training and experience, Nadia rushed into the fray. She swept her knife in wide arcs. As she made initial contact with the three men, drawing blood, they turned to face her.
One man jumped toward her, leading with his knife, testing her mettle. She slashed him across his knife-wielding arm with a backhanded move and danced away from him.
Thank God, she had long arms and legs; they made hand-to-hand fighting easier.
A sweeping side kick kept his two buddies away.
The attackers now realized they had a real fight on their hands. She continued to use her knife and legs to block them from going to the aid of their friend who wasn’t faring well at Joen’s hands.
The man she’d sliced initially charged her as she maneuvered to reposition and find her balance after a series of kicks. Reflexively, she arched away, backhanding him across the face with the fist clutching her knife. He bellowed his pain and managed to slice her shoulder as she twisted away. She forced the pain of the shallow wound into the back of her mind, imagining it sinking into a deep well of soothing water. The pain now blunted; she fought back even harder.
“Forget the other two. The leader wants this one!” one of the three said in Prime.
“She is a friend of Wulf’s woman and is worth much.”
Not gonna happen, bastard.
Nadia parried and thrust at the trio who taunted her with jabs of their knives and their talk of what they’d do once she was in their power. Her agility and superior training were the only things keeping her alive.
She could feel the blood soaking the back of her uniform as the slice was unable to coagulate due to the movement of the fight. Not a good sign. The loss of blood would weaken her eventually, and the predators would swarm and overpower her.
Definitely not gonna happen.
Ignoring the bleeding and the dull, throbbing pain, she fought with a furious concentration, doing as much damage as she could. The sounds of Joen’s grunts and swearing punctuated the background as did the sound of Lia’s feet hitting the pavement fading into the distance.
Joen was still standing and her friend had gotten away. Help would arrive soon.
At the thought of reinforcements, she dug deeper into the little bit of extra strength all warriors held back to close out a battle. She let loose with another battle cry. A new surge of adrenaline infused her blood and she went on the attack.
Nadia slashed at the closest man, slicing him across the thigh and adding to the wounds she’d already inflicted. He glared and spat Prime curses. She smiled and gave him a vulgar Prime gesture Wulf had inadvertently used with his brothers during training.
The assailant’s look of shock had her chuckling, which served momentarily to throw her three attackers off their game plan.
One of the thugs yelled. “You dare laugh?Sued-seuater! Karote!”
Anger ate at her gut. Fear threatened as she grew weaker. She encased both emotions within a box of ice in her mind. Soldiers didn’t allow their emotions dictate whether they won or lost a fight. At times like this, training took over.
Her attacker wanted her to react crazily at the egregious insults; she’d refuse. Little did these men realize her crew members didn’t call her the Iceberg for nothing. Better men than these bastards had tried to get a rise out of her.
Only Huw’s continued rejection had the power to touch her; nothing these cowards said could unnerve her.
“You are mistaken,apayebo—bastard!” She ducked as a fist headed for her face.
“I’m not a seed sucker or a whore.” She shoved the fist-bearing arm up and away using a forearm block. She followed with a front kick to the man’s crotch, missing his groin and getting him instead in his lower abdomen.
Then, the three backed away; their gazes aimed over her shoulder.
Nadia sensed Joen’s presence behind her before she heard him. The aura of his anger was like a column of flaming heat washing over her back. Now she realized how the Prime worked so well together in battle—they could sense one another’sbatel rabia.
“Nadia … at your back.” Joen’s rumbling voice sounded loud in the sudden break in the fight.
The night air was chilly, and the rain Joen had predicted had begun to fall in a light drizzle. Nadia’s ragged breaths became little puffy clouds as they hit the cool mist. Joen’s breathing didn’t sound much smoother.
The only good thing was the three Prime labored also. They’d probably expected an easy victory against one Prime and two women. The rebels would soon learn—the Alliance fought until the last man was standing.
“Why aren’t they using their lasers?” Nadia muttered.
“Too noisy. They don’t want to call attention to themselves,” Joen muttered back.
“Plus, pride. Your reasoning for not using our weapons was sound. One man is down. Lia made it away. Help will be here soon.”
While it seemed as if they’d fought for hours, it had only been a few minutes. In five standard minutes more or less, help would arrive. She and Joen could handle these three for that length of time—and if not, they didn’t belong in the Alliance.
As the enemy circled them, she and Joen worked in concert, keeping the three men away with effective sweeps of their knives. A quick glance confirmed the man Joen had fought was down and unmoving; the rapidly spreading blood pool under the body glistened black against the wet cobbled street.
Happier with the odds, Nadia went on the attack. The man who’d cursed her had come too close, so she shoved him back with a vicious forward kick to his diaphragm.
Gagging, he fell sideways onto the rough, uneven pavement, his leg slipping awkwardly on the mist-slickened surface. The sharp crack of a bone breaking sounded loudly amidst the groans and curses of the fighting. The downed man’s litany of filth testified to his pain and frustration.
Good. The odds were better now—one attacker each.
“Good job, Nadia. Left one’s mine.” Following his words, Joen charged the man to his left and quickly forced the fight away from her, giving her room to use her legs, her strongest weapon when fighting a man larger and stronger than her.
“Ready for me, you coward?” She waved him on. “Come get me, asswipe.” She purposely goaded him; she didn’t want him running away now that help would be here any minute.
Stalking her next victim, movement from the man with the broken leg had her glancing his way.Shit, shit, shit.
He fired his laser pistol.
Guess he doesn’t care about keeping things quiet now.Reflex had her moving to her right.Should’ve broken his arm or at the very least disarmed him. Her mistake could cost both her and Joen’s lives.
His shot cut a line of fire across her left upper arm. If she hadn’t moved, she would’ve taken a hit to her heart.
As if being stupid and getting shot by a downed enemy wasn’t bad enough, the bastard she’d been about to attack took advantage of her momentary distraction and rushed her. He took her to the ground. It was akin to being run over by a laser tank. The fall jarred her wounded shoulder and arm.
Madder than hell and in pain, she roared and rolled away from the man who pummeled her with forceful body blows. Like an eel, she twisted and slithered until she was out from under him. When he attempted to grab her by the shoulders, she thrust the heel of her hand into his nose. A nasty-sounding crunch and a gratifying amount of blood told her she’d broken the fucker’s nose.
Wiping away the blood, her Prime attacker swore and threw all of his body weight on top of her, his forearm braced against her throat. She grabbed his arm to move it, but the combination of his strength and the leverage he had proved to be too much.
But she refused to quit. As long as she had breath, she’d fight him. She wiggled and bucked to dislodge him, but he was too heavy. If she didn’t get him off her soon, she’d pass out from lack of oxygen.
In the background, Joen swore and grunted. He had his hands full. No help from that quarter. She was on her own until the others arrived.
Nadia took as deep a breath as she could through her constricted airway and calmed her mind and body. She needed to conserve energy and find a way to get the hulking bastard off her.
Brains won over brawn in most fights. The key was to eliminate the fear. Lessons she’d learned through hard-won experience.
The brute breathed heavily as he leered down at her. He was aroused, and his erection shoved against her lower body.
Her mind and body froze, remembering the past, the feelings of helplessness.
No, no, Nadia. Brain in the now. Not the past.
She’d found a way to survive then—she would this time also.
The man felt her up with the rough, cruel fingers of his free hand. “Terran slut.” His spittle hit her face, but she forced herself not to flinch or display one iota of fear. “You want a Prime male so much? Let’s see how you like me, eh?”
Without moving the forearm he held against her throat, her assailant shifted his lower body to the side slightly and shoved one fat finger of his roaming hand along the notch between her legs.
She gritted her teeth and resolutely shoved away the persistent image of the last guy who’d attempted to rape her—and had almost succeeded.
Not gonna happen, buster.I won that round and am even stronger now.
Her attacker moved his arm off her neck and shifted to grasp her throat one-handed.
His hand was big and easily spanned the column of her neck, one finger placed against her carotid. He laughed. “Just a little more pressure, Terran whore, and I can make you unconscious and do whatever I like to you. But I won’t—I like my women to scream.
You’ll scream for me, won’t you,karote?”
He straightened to sit more upright. His knees straddled her torso, his powerful thighs acting like a vise to hold her in place. His ass settled on her thighs. In this position, his free hand had more access to her body. And he used it. He ripped her thin, long-sleeved T-shirt and proceeded to pinch and knead her breasts through the sheer camisole she wore underneath.
His movement off her diaphragm now allowed her to breathe more easily. She took in more oxygen as the hand he’d had at her throat now joined the other in poking and prodding her nearly naked upper torso.
Confident he had her subdued and absorbed in his lust, he’d forgotten Nadia was a trained soldier. To him she was just another weak piece of ass.
Big mistake on his part.
Head cleared now, thanks to being able to breathe, Nadia snaked her hand up her side and gripped his balls through the thin stretch fabric of his pants. As she twisted his nuts, she thrust the stiffened fingers of her other hand into his trachea.
The bastard’s eyes widened with shock. He grunted and choked as his hands reached to cup his abused testicles and his damaged windpipe at the same time.
Using his pain and distraction and the better leverage with his body more upright, she bucked him off her using her strong core. She rolled away. Then using her elbows and feet, she scuttled backward along the pavement like a fleeing crab.
Her attacker had murder in his eyes now.
Too weak to stand, too dizzy to run even if she could get upright, Nadia continued to scrabble away. Fighting back the pain from her shoulder and arm wounds, she struggled to pull in more oxygen and dig deep for another life-saving shot of adrenaline.
Her attacker stalked her. His eyes glittered with menace as he rubbed his balls. “You will pray for death.” He eyed her body. “It will be enjoyable to see how many ways I can make you beg.”
Dermo! She’d hurt him, but hadn’t disabled him. Most men would still be on the ground, retching up their guts from the shot to the balls alone.
Note to self, Prime males have tough packages.
He easily caught up with her as she backed into a curb.
Shoot him, dummy!
Damn! She’d forgotten all about her weapon as she’d fought the man. Lack of oxygen must’ve affected her brain.
Her gaze holding the man’s leering stare, she slid her hand down her side and prayed the gun hadn’t become dislodged during the fight.
“No, you don’t!” The Prime’s meaty fist connected with her jaw. Her head bounced cruelly off the rough edge of the curb, stunning her.
Dazed and unable to move, she lay at his feet, gasping for breath and seeing stars. He pulled her laser pistol out of her holster and tossed it to the side.
At the same moment, Joen shouted something. The sound of an Alliance laser pistol and another laser returning the fire registered in her scrambled brain. She struggled to get up. The world whirled. She turned her head and vomited into the gutter.
Coughing, she sought to crawl away from the grate in the street, but her attacker’s legs stopped her. She turned to lie flat on her back as she attempted to breathe through the pain and nausea. She had a concussion for sure, maybe a skull fracture.
“Nadia!” This time she registered Joen’s shout, but couldn’t answer.
Another round of laser fire. Joen’s cry of pain chilled her.
God, she had to get up. Had to help her shipmate. She struggled to sit, but fell back.
She retched once again into the grate covering a storm drain. Definitely, a concussion.
Jury was still out on the fracture. She closed her eyes against the swirling world.
“Joen?” Her voice was weak and so unlike her.
There was no answer. God, was he dead? Pain and despair swamped her.
“He’s out of it,karote.” The Prime’s raspy voice held a sound of triumph. The legs connected to the harsh voice straddled her body once more.
She slitted her eyes and watched as he ripped her uniform trousers open. He raised onto his knees just enough to shove her pants and underwear down to her calves before setting his ass on her naked thighs.
Underneath her mostly naked torso, the wet, cold stones of the street set her body to shivering.
“Pretty sex. Never seen light-colored hair before.” Her attacker shoved two thick fingers into her dry opening. She made an effort to move away from the intrusion, but couldn’t. With his other hand, he twisted a nipple through the camisole. She gasped in pain.
He ripped the camisole away. “Very firm. Nice breasts.” He grunted, a sound of satisfaction. Pulling his fingers from her vaginal opening, he slapped her across the face.
“Let’s see how you suck seed, slut. I want to be good and hard before I take you.”
Nadia closed her eyes. She didn’t need the world spinning around her to distract her from the fight she’d have to mount to avoid being violated.
The only good news was that help had to arrive soon. All she had to do was survive.
Using the last of her reserves, she bucked against the man atop her in an attempt to dislodge him. It had worked before, why not this time?
But she was too weak. He didn’t budge.
“Stop it!” He squeezed her jaw cruelly with one large hand.
The pain shot through her head into her neck and spine. She moaned weakly. The brute let go of her jaw and knee-walked up her body until his knees met her shoulders.
Stripping open his pants, he grabbed her jaw and yanked her head up so she had a direct view of his erect penis and the purpled head with precum leaking from the slit.
“Open your mouth,karote!” He dug his nails into her face as he shoved the wet head of his penis against her lips.
She shook her head wildly, whimpering through another wave of teeth-chattering vertigo, and tightened her jaw even more. He cursed and grabbed her hair with his free hand and tilted her head back onto the ground at such an extreme angle that taking a breath was painful.
She mentally screamed for Huw. He had to open for her—she needed him. The strange instinct which had gained strength over the past two weeks urged her not to give up. She continued to beat at the black wall blocking her from Huw’s raw energy—and suddenly Huw was there. A sense of rightness settled into her very soul.This is the wayit’s supposed to be.
“Nadia … Nadia…”
The sound of her name screamed in Huw’s mental voice sparked her to fight anew.
Huw was coming.
Nadia reached for the connection with all that was in her and found a deep well of pure power unlike anything she’d ever encountered. This was stronger than what she’d drawn from him on Tarn.
Using Huw’s strong energy, she threw her attacker off to the side long enough to get her right arm free from his imprisoning thigh. Her head pounded like a bitch of a marching band. So, she closed her eyes and lay quiescent.
Even with Huw and the deep-rooted instincts urging her to get up and fight, she couldn’t stand, let alone outrun the man. But she could defend in other ways. Slowly, so as not to call attention to her actions, she reached with her right hand for the laser pistol the bastard had tossed aside.
“Nice try, but you will not succeed,karote. Prime males are superior in all ways to females of any race.” The bastard was immediately back on top of her. He was far too sure of himself and ignored her grasping right hand.
It would be what killed him.
“You are one surprise after another.” He cruelly twisted a nipple.
Nadia moaned, pandering to his ego, and moved her hand another inch. She’d spied the pistol just before she’d closed her eyes against the crazy kaleidoscope the world had become. Her fingers scrabbled along the damp paving stones. God, maybe she’d just thought she’d seen the pistol.
“Arch into me. I like mykarotevigorous.”
The Prime attacker was damn proficient speaking Standard. She’d bet her next pay he was a member of the Prime military—and a fanatic.
Huw’s strength continued to flood her, saturating every pore of her being. The seemingly infinite well of pure energy cleared her mind and dulled her pain, allowing her to plot, plan, and observe as if she were looking at the scene from outside herself.
The Prime’s alcohol-laden breath wafted over her face, nauseating her. She swallowed the sickness threatening to take her over.
Once more, he held her jaw still, his fingernails biting into her tender skin. The tip of his cock touched her closed lips. “Take me in your mouth. Suck me off good, and maybe I’ll keep you for a pet rather than kill you.”
A man yelled something. It was Joen’s voice. Another voice yelled something back.
Joen was still alive and fighting.Thank you, God.
Then she realized the sounds of fighting had been going on all the while like white noise. It wasn’t until now with her heart not pounding loudly in her ears that she could hear the low grunts and curses as Joen fought the other man.
Joen’s war cry echoed off the buildings. He was fighting for his life. The only one who could help Nadia at this moment would be Nadia. She couldn’t wait for the rescue.
She sensed Huw nearing, sensed his desperation to save her—but knew he wouldn’t make it in time.
So be it.
Her eyes closed. She lay quietly as if she were defeated, as if she were totally helpless. Her right hand was free and moving at a snail’s pace in the search for the weapon that had to be there. All the while, she plotted and planned what to do if she couldn’t shoot the bastard.
The man slapped her. “Open your eyes—watch as I take your mouth.”
He hit her twice more. Her head protested the abuse, but her mind remained clear and focused. Her hand edged its way over another millimeter of ground.
“Unconscious. Weak Terran woman.” He grumbled, muttered, and raged under his breath. Releasing her jaw, he moved down her torso. His intent was obvious—if he couldn’t have her mouth…
So not going to happen.
Fighting the need to tear off his dick with her bare hands, she forced her body to remain motionless. Then she found the butt of her laser pistol. She grasped the sidearm and felt for the safety. The man was too busy fumbling to notice. He leaned over. His foul breath touched her face.
She clutched the gun, getting her fingers around it more firmly. Safety was off.
Power was on the lethal level.
Nadia moaned and fluttered her eyelashes. Through the curtain of her lashes, she found his attention was fully on her face.
He leered. “Ready for a real man,karote?” He grabbed her face to hold her for a biting kiss.
She brought the gun closer and fired the weapon into his thick upper body. The angle wasn’t perfect for a heart shot, but it blasted him in the torso hard enough to roll him off her.
Nadia rolled onto her left side. She brought her weapon up and located him through blurred vision. He’d fallen only a few feet away. Somehow, he still moved. He lay on his side, facing her. He glared. He’d kill her if he could.
“Die,apayebo.” She smiled grimly as she fired a full stream into his head. He fell onto his back. This time there was no movement, not even a fricking twitch.
Pain and nausea drove her to the ground. Breathing in gasps and moans, she curled into a ball, her laser pistol still clutched in one hand and clasped against her stomach. The cut on her shoulder, the laser gouge on her arm, and the damage to her head sent waves of pain throughout her body. She gritted her teeth against the need to scream and scream and scream. She could smell her blood mixing with the rain on the wet streets. She was cold and miserable and all she wanted to do was black out.
But she couldn’t let down her guard until she knew all of the attackers were dead or contained. She wasn’t sure she had the strength or the vision to hit anything else, but she’d damn sure try if someone else attempted to assault her.
Nadia groaned low in her throat, an animallike sound, and hot tears streamed down her icy face. She’d survived; her attacker hadn’t. At the end of the day that was all that counted. Anything he’d done to her body could be healed with time and a regen bed.
All sounds of fighting had died away. The sounds of the rain on the street, the surf hitting the breakfront, and some waterfowl calling to one another were the only things she heard. Then a thudding sound startled her. After a few seconds, she identified it as the sound of running footsteps coming closer and closer. Was it the last Prime attacker coming to finish her off? Had Joen fallen?
Nadia dug for the strength to uncurl and prepare to fight yet again. Huw’s masculine energy was still there—a strong, beautiful, vital tunnel in her mind—waiting for her to call upon it.
“Nadia … Nadia … hold on…”
And then she knew, the sound of feet was Huw and the others.
Nadia smiled at the knowledge this would be all over soon and was shocked at how much energy it took to curve her lips. She was weaker than a newborn and wasn’t sure even Huw’s energy supplement would help if a halfway determined predator came upon her.
“Joen?” Her voice was weak, a mere croak, practically soundless. She turned her blurred gaze toward the sky, obscured by the rain clouds. Had it only been minutes ago Joen had predicted the rain?
A roar came from somewhere beyond her body. She recognized the sound as the Caradoc battle cry. Huw and Iolyn were near.
Joen’s answering cry was music to her ears. He was alive.
Assured she was now safe and rescue and medical attention were close at hand, she curled back into her ball. They’d done it. They’d survived. Finally she allowed the laser pistol to drop to the ground.
“Nadia?” Joen grasped her hand and massaged it with gentle, trembling, and very hot fingers.
She swallowed once then twice before she managed to croak out, “You okay?”
“Yes, thanks to you. You Terran women sure are lethal.” He chuckled as he gently checked her head with his other hand. She winced and hissed. “Sorry. You have a nasty bump back there.”
She laughed weakly and regretted it as nausea swirled within. “I know. Concussion.”
Running feet came ever closer. “Cover me up. Don’t let H—uh, him see me like this. I don’t…”
“Shh, Nadia.” Joen alternately growled and swore as he carefully, almost tenderly, checked her for other wounds. When he reached her exposed lower torso, his whole body stiffened and his growling crescendoed. He let loose a roar. Yet, his anger didn’t affect the gentleness with which he pulled up her trousers and fastened them.
Something warm covered her trembling body and she realized he’d given her his jacket. Men always seemed to be giving her their clothing. She tried to say thank you, but her teeth chattered too much.
“Huw’s a fool.” Joen paused and looked over his shoulder. “But he sure looks as if he would like to kill somebody—possibly me or his brother.”
“Why?” Nadia scrunched her forehead and wished immediately she hadn’t. Even that small effort set her head to hammering.
“Iolyn is visibly restraining Huw from coming over here. Lia just pointed her finger at all of them. She is warning them all off.” Joen chuckled. “My woman wants us all to herself before the crowd descends upon you and me.”
His face lit up as Lia approached. “Lubha, you are all right?”
“I’m fine, love. Move aside.” Lia looked Joen over carefully.
Nadia could tell Joen wasn’t hurt too badly by the relieved look in the doctor’s eyes.
“You’ll do for now.” Lia stroked a finger over his bruised and bloody face. “I’ll take care of your wounds later. Now go and help the others hold onto Huw for a while. We gals need some privacy.”
“Yes, Lia love.” Joen got up.
Lia took his place next to Nadia and began checking her over with gentle probing fingers. She swore upon discovering the lump on the back of Nadia’s head. “Joen, tell them we’ll need transport for Nadia. I want to get her to the Prime medica, stat.”
“I’ll see to it, mygemate lubha. Thanks for covering my ass, Nadia.” Joen patted her good shoulder.
“It’s what … what we do.” She ventured to lift her head to seek out Huw whose voice still called along their connection. She gave up when white dots and sickening waves of heat forced her to lie back and remain still.
Carefully, she turned her head to the side and watched Joen approach the other men.
Even that small movement proved to be too much. “Dizzy, Lia. Sick to my stomach.”
“You took a good knock to the head and look as if you’ve gone ten rounds with an Antarean. So, yeah, I’d say you have every right to feel like crap.”
Nadia laughed weakly—well, it sounded more like the croak of an anemic frog.
“Such a genteel bedside manner.”
“You want genteel, become a civilian.” Lia grimaced and muttered as she probed Nadia’s jawline. The doctor’s fingers were warm as they traced the places where her attacker had gripped her face. “Finger marks. Nail marks. The fucking lowlife, scum-sucking amoeba.”
Nadia snickered and groaned. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts.”
Lia got into Nadia’s direct line of sight, concern etched in every line and angle of her face. “Iolyn and the others are losing the battle to contain Huw. So, before he comes storming over here, did theapayeborape you?” The doctor’s tone was worried and angry.
“Just fingers for a second or two—his lust … I used it as a distraction … had to get my weapon back. I killed him.”
“Good. But we’ll give you something in case any semen entered you.”
Nadia whispered, “Just fingers. No need.” She needed to close her eyes. Her vision went in and out and the pounding in her head was deafening.
Lia stroked the bruises on Nadia’s jaw and shined a light in her eyes. “Regen bed for you, sweetie. Your pupils are constricted. You definitely have a concussion. And I want to make sure it’s not anything worse than that. So we’ll be scanning your brain. You also lost a lot of blood from the knife cut to your shoulder. How in the hell you stayed conscious to kill the son of a bitch I’ll never understand.”
“Let me in.” Huw’s demanding voice held concern and something more. His energy preceded him like a warm, wooly blanket, enveloping her. It felt and smelled and tasted familiar.
“Dakkin, you asshole.” Huw growled. “What were you doing while Nadia was getting beaten to a pulp?”
Nadia gasped. Her eyes flared open to glare at the man whose connection undoubtedly had saved her life. But right now, she wanted to punch him. “Joen took out two men. I broke the leg of one, disabling him—and killed another. Two each.”
She paused and gasped for breath. Lia grasped her hand and squeezed gently and shot Huw a nasty look.
“Teamwork. We did our jobs. We covered Lia. Took out the enemy. So, shut the fuck up, Huw. You weren’t here. You know nothing.” Nadia closed her eyes and turned her sore head to the side. Her teeth chattered from anger and cold.
“Jesus, Nadia.” Lia re-examined the lump on her skull; it felt as big as theGalantiunder Lia’s small fingers. “It’s swollen worse than a few seconds ago. Where’s the medical transport? They coming by way of fricking Mars? I need a portable regen bed now! She’s got a possible skull fracture.”
Huw knelt by her head. “Diew. Nadia … I’m sorry. I wish I’d been here.” He stroked a trembling finger over her bruised jaw.
And a miracle occurred.
His touch soothed her, more so than it had on Tarn just forty-eight standard hours ago. Her aches subsided as if they’d whirled down a preternatural drain.
All of a sudden, she was sleepy. A warm, dark cloud of protective energy swaddled her within its strong masculine confines.
As she lost consciousness, she had an epiphany—this last battle and Huw’s response to it fully confirmed her bond with him, mentally and emotionally. Only the physical connection remained to seal the trinity of mind-heart-body. But this bonding was an ass-backward Prime mating without the mark. In reality, it should’ve been impossible, but wasn’t.
One thing she’d learned this evening—Huw cared, but he didn’t understand why; maybe he was afraid of his feelings. The bond was there, waiting to be completed—but Huw might never accept it.
God, I’m so fucked.
“She’s unconscious! Do something, Lia.” Huw rubbed his thumb gingerly over Nadia’s bruised face and swollen lips. His anxious gaze checked out each and every mark, cut, and laser burn he could see under the dim light of the street lamp. “Did the bastard … was she … raped?” He choked at the thought.
No one answered.
Huw stroked a shaky hand down her body and noted the jacket covering her was not hers and her pants were not fastened properly. He’d never felt such anger before. If he could resurrect theapayeboand kill him again, he would. “Ansu bhau, Joen. Where were you when Nadia was being assaulted?”
“Shut up, brother.” Iolyn’s voice came from behind him. “Nadia told you. They each took out two. She held up her end of the battle. Don’t take her battle pride from her.”
“So help me, Huw,” Joen said. “If you make her out to be a victim, I will beat you until you are a bloody heaping pile of flesh. Nadia is a true warrior. I am proud to have her as a fellow crew member.”
Joen’s words struck Huw, shaming him.
Diew,what was wrong with him? He didn’t want to hurt or insult Nadia, but it seemed that’s all he had been doing lately.
Nadia had proven herself time and time again. She was a soldier—he knew that, respected that. So, why did he want to shield her from all harm? Why did he want to plant his fist in Joen’s face for touching her? And why did he want to carry her away and care for her himself?
His gut gave him the answer.You care for her.He did, but there still might be a Prime female waiting for hergemat—and thatgematmight be him. His honor demanded patience for a little while longer.
Royce approached and knelt behind Huw and looked over his shoulder. “Shit, the bastard really did a number on her. Nadia’s a scrapper though. She regularly hands me my butt in hand-to-hand, but taking down two Prime hulking assholes … well, I’m damn proud of her.”
“She should not have had to.” Huw couldn’t keep the words from escaping. His voice rumbled low, a growling tone he’d heard Wulf use around Mel when she was in danger or hurt. He controlled the sound, but couldn’t keep from adding, “She could have been killed.”
“She wasn’t. So get over it.” Royce squeezed Huw’s shoulder, a painful grip that had him ready to lash out at the blunt Terran captain. “Besides, the only reason she left the restaurant was you. Nadia couldn’t stand listening to your dumbass arguments any longer so she left before we could leave as a group.”
Huw winced. The truth hurt.
Iolyn added, “Royce is correct. These four would never have attacked if we had left as a group. The attack proves the warning issued by the Alliance Military Command was accurate—the fanatics are targeting Terran women seen with Prime males. We’ll have to take additional precautions to protect our female soldiers.”
Huw stroked Nadia’s cold, damp forehead. Touching her soothed him, and at some level he knew his touch soothed her. Whatever the psychic connection between them was, it was stronger each time they touched. It would be hard, but for honor’s sake, he would have to keep his distance from her until after the final destination on the Lost Ones’ mission. If there were no Lost One survivors, he’d begin his courtship of Nadia on the trip back to Cejuru Prime.
If someone else doesn’t take her first.
A primal snarl reverberated inside his head; the more primitive part of his brain didn’t like the idea of anyone touching Nadia but him.
Diew, he was fucked as the Terrans said.
“Mel and Wulf are on their way with the transport,” Joen said. “Lia, Kerr, and I will stay with Nadia. Someone needs to deal with the Home Guard. They’re here demanding answers. They’d probably take the report better from a Caradoc united front.”
“Come on, brother. Let’s keep the locals away from Joen and Nadia. Mel and Wulf need to hear their report before the Guard. With two dead Prime soldiers in civilian clothes and two badly injured ones, there will be damage control to be done before the Elder Council hears about this incident.”
Reluctantly, Huw left Nadia’s side. She moaned and grimaced as he stood and walked away.
Why did it feel as if he’d had his heart torn from his chest? He rubbed the aching spot above the organ in question.
Without looking back, he strode toward his brother who’d engaged the very angry local police. Each step tore the gaping wound in his soul wider.Chapter 13
One standard hour later, on the Galanti in space dockHuw stalked into the reception area ofGalanti’sSick Bay and took a quick glance around. Mel sat along the wall, staring with some concern at Wulf who stood at the viewing window to the triage room. Anger and frustration poured off his brother in violent waves.
“Why was Nadia brought here?” Huw asked Mel.
“Wulf and I felt it necessary—safer.” Her demeanor radiated Wulf’s anger but was tinged with worry; the combination poured off her in crashing waves. “All Gold Squadron crews have been ordered back to the space station and their ships until further notice.”
“Understood.” He left his sister-kin and joined his brother.
Through the window, Huw observed Lia and Kerr working over Nadia’s pale, motionless body lying on the regen bed. Joen sat on a nearby treatment table, his wounds being seen to by a tech.
Joen’s gaze never left Lia as she worked on Nadia with fierce concentration. Yeah, he could see it now. The others had read the Communications Officer correctly—Joen was involved with the little Terran doctor.
“Why is Nadia so still? Why are both doctors still working on her?Diew!Lia told me Nadia would be fine.” Huw aimed an angry glance at his brother before heading toward the triage room’s door.
Huw had only taken two steps when Wulf grabbed his arm and held him back. “Just stay put. Nadia has a skull fracture, deep knife wounds on her upper back and shoulder, a second-degree laser burn on her arm, a couple of broken ribs, and various internal injuries. The doctors are stabilizing her injuries and prepping her for several days of healing sleep in a regen bed.”