Authors: Cyndi Friberg
Cycle 1 of the Great Conflict
E’Lanna dar Aune sank to her knees, a low groan torn from her throat. Her lover’s hands moved to steady her, but E’Lanna allowed nothing to distract her from her purpose. They had so little time. If they were detected, all was lost.
She fixed her gaze on the babies lying side by side in front of her. Identical in every way, their luminous eyes stared back with trust and adoration. Tears blinded her.
How would she live without them?
Stretching out her hands, she scanned the babies meticulously, making sure she had left nothing unbound. There must be no sign of their power, no hint to draw attention to them.
“It is time, Your Majesty,” her lover, also a Mystic, said, and gently squeezed her shoulder.
She nodded and tried to stand but her entire body trembled.Oh no!Her power could not fail her now.
She had yet to Summon the Storm. The binding ritual had drained her far more than she realized.
“Steady,” the Mystic said, helping her to her feet.
Two couples stepped forward, their costumes appropriate to the separate destinations awaiting them. E’Lanna caught her bottom lip between her teeth, holding back the protests raging within her.
This was the only way.
The Mystic gently picked up her babies and handed them to their guardians.
E’Lanna wrapped her arms around herself and choked back a sob. She couldn’t let this destroy her.
The safety of her daughters must come first.
Quickly turning to the grassy clearing, she summoned the metaphysical plane. Thunder shook the ground and lightning branched out across the violet sky. She opened a transport conduit and poured energy into the vortex. The grass danced with sizzling vibrations and her robe whipped around her body. Bracing her legs farther apart, she Summoned the Storm.
In a sudden, violent burst, six bolts of lightning struck the ground simultaneously, creating a visible circle of energy surrounding her. Reaching out through the vastness of space and time, she searched, guiding the conduit until she found the location she desired.
The Mystic stepped up beside her. His hand was gentle at the small of her back. “I will hold the vortex,” he offered.
He was allowing her time to say goodbye.
One of the guardians passed the first child to her and E’Lanna drank in the sight of her delicate features, memorized the softness of her skin and her scent. She pressed her lips to the baby’s temple and implanted her image, ensuring her daughter would remember her face.
“We will cherish her, Your Majesty, and protect her with our lives,” the guardian assured as E’Lanna returned the baby.
The tightness in her throat made it impossible to speak so she nodded and motioned toward the vortex. The couple stepped through as E’Lanna shook with anguish and loss.
The Mystic wrapped his arms around her, pressing himself against her back, supporting her, offering his energy.
E’Lanna ignored the tears streaming down her face. Her task was not yet complete. She must protect the other twin. Gathering her power into a more manageable stream, she merged with the Mystic, allowing him to augment her rapidly depleting strength.
Focusing again on the transport conduit, she accessed the power of the storm, channeling the energy into the vortex and guiding it in a new direction, to a separate destination.
“Quickly,” she urged, motioning the couple forward. E’Lanna kissed the other baby, gently caressing her face. With her lips pressed to her daughter’s temple, she implanted the memory. Her heart gave a sickening lurch as she raised her head and passed the child to one of the remaining guardians. “Go now. I am losing control.” They didn’t hesitate. Lightning punctuated their departure and the conduit closed behind them.
E’Lanna collapsed into her lover’s arms, releasing the shuddering sobs she could no longer contain. He held her tightly, rocking gently and whispering against her hair.
Crushing the fabric of his robe in her fists, E’Lanna looked up at him, her expression fierce. “You must promise me, no matter what happens, you will protect them.”
“With my life,” he said emphatically.
“You must trust no one.No one. Do you understand? I am torn asunder by my responsibilities, but you can offer your allegiance to them alone.”
“I offer it freely.”
Burying her face against the warmth of his throat, she clutched him tightly and abandoned herself to grief. She must be strong. So many depended on her.
She would be strong again tomorrow—but for now, she would mourn all this conflict had cost her.Chapter OneOntariese
Cycle 89 of the Great Conflict
“I’m not looking forward to this,” Tal muttered as he joined his brother in the vestibule of the Traditionalist Sect Council’s headquarters.
Trey chuckled. He sprawled in a chair, one brawny leg hooked over its arm, swinging negligently. He always appeared carefree and comfortable, but Tal knew better. Shrewd intelligence lurked beneath his reckless façade and his intense amber gaze missed nothing.
“If it were up to you, little brother, you’d never leave the Conservatory.” Trey chided. “The TSC
wants a quick report and then you can zap yourself back to your safe little fortress and practice your spells.”
Ignoring the semi-playful jibe, Tal folded his arms across his chest and tightened his hair until it lay in a neat, black coil down the center of his back. “We have nothing to report, so why are they wasting our time?”
“Vee still can’t figure out where Joon went?”
“We know when the portal opened and an approximate destination but…” Tal’s words trailed off as an argument broke out on the other side of the closed chamber door. “The TSC sounds as productive as ever.”
“You’d better change your clothes. If you stroll into the esteemed council chambers in the simple robes of a Mystic, Prefect Aune will not be pleased.” There were so many things that displeased their father. Tal had long since abandoned his efforts to remember them all. But he didn’t argue. He visualized a formal Ontarian uniform and felt the shift ripple across the surface of his body. Glancing down, he inspected the result. Crisp, pleated trousers and a formfitting jacket. A row of bright gold buttons and a wide belt, the only decorations distracting from the austere black fabric.
Trey stood and smacked him in the middle of the back. “You look damn good in black.” He laughed.
“Good thing you don’t wear it more often.” A similar black uniform offset Trey’s vivid coloring. He had tucked his multicolored hair behind his ears, but refused to bind the bright red, gold and orange strands at the nape of his neck as was proper.
Mischief danced in Trey’s amber gaze, and Tal smiled despite the tension wrapped around him like a rope.
It was hard to remain somber around Trey.
The chamber doors flew open, demanding the attention of both men. Tal could see into the room. He hated the pomp and formality in which the TSC
reveled, so as his brother said, he generally stayed away.
A massive U-shaped table dominated the room.
Any person wishing to make a presentation to the TSC was forced to stand in the middle, surrounded by the council’s haughty stares and aloof expressions.
The man standing there now did not appear cowed by their arrogance.Vee. Tal smiled. His mentor and closest friend, Vee refused to bow to the dictates of any man, society or government. His flowing dove-gray robes intentionally flouted convention and proclaimed his standing as a Master-level Mage, a designation Tal had only recently achieved.
Without turning from his face-off with the TSC, Vee motioned them forward. Tal glanced at Trey, who was grinning from ear to ear. No one stood near the doors so Vee must have thrown them open with the power of his mind.
“I was not ready for their reports, Vee,” Roe Aune thundered, rising out of his chair, his palms flat on the table.
“Ye shall address me with proper respect if ye expect the same from me,RoeAune,” Vee said in a cold, clipped tone.
Tal watched his father struggle for composure.
Only those who knew him well understood the effort needed to restrain his temper. His nostrils flared, his eyes narrowed, his lips compressed until they were invisible, but he managed to regain control and sit.
“Point taken,MasterVee. I was not yet ready for Commander Aune and Master Aune to join our assembly,” the prefect muttered.
“I have already explained all there is to know. We have exhausted our discourse,” Vee dismissed impatiently. “With each moment you spend berating our efforts, Dez dar Joon slips farther away.”
“How can it be that with all of the technology of our military and the combined power of the Mystics we cannot find one man?”
“Enough!” Vee’s voice rattled the intricately etched windows set at regular intervals within the sculpted walls of the chamber. It was not the volume but the intensity of his tone that vibrated the entire room. “I have explained our plan. If ye have no furtherquestions, we shall proceed.”
“Has the Symposium provided you with nothing useful?” Prefect Aune asked.
“The Symposium is still searching the Wisdom of the Ages for anything that might shed light on Joon’s motivation. I expect another transmission as soon as I return to the Conservatory.”
“Then go. Do whatever you must to capture Dez dar Joon. We have enjoyed a lull, an intermission in the hostilities, for nearly ten cycles. The House of Joon cannot be allowed to escalate this war again.” Vee’s only response was a stiff nod. He turned abruptly, his robes flaring out behind him, and strode from the council chambers. Tal and Trey fell in behind and the massive doors slammed shut the moment they cleared the threshold.
“If that man were my sire, I would have strangled him in his sleep. How hast thou endured the exasperation?” Vee’s angry stride kept him half a step ahead of the other two men.
“I came to the Conservatory when I was a child,” Tal reminded him.
“Boarding school,” Trey put in, and they all laughed.
Vee opened a transport conduit and took them to the wide, covered gallery surrounding the Conservatory. Trey stumbled as they exited the vortex but the two Mystics didn’t miss a beat.
“You mentioned a plan,” Tal said.
Heaving a long, ragged breath, Vee explained, “We shall Summon the Storm and follow Dez dar Joon in Trey’s ship.”
Tal skittered to a halt and stared at Vee. “Has ashipever been transported through the vortex before?”
“None of which I am aware,” Vee admitted.
Trey laughed. “This is precious. Why don’t you two just zap through the vortex and bring him back?”
“Since Dez dar Joon has begun emulating my energy pattern, I am no longer able to detect him,” Vee confessed. “Traditional scanners might be more effective, especially given this planet’s primitive state.”
“Fine by me, but can you two do it?” Trey asked.
“I shall guide the ship from within while Tal stabilizes the vortex from without.”
“That sounds easy enough.”
Tal glared at his brother. This was no time for Trey’s sarcasm.
“We’ll want a small ship, minimal crew. Something undetectable to their technology.” Trey grinned again.
“When do we leave?”
“Make whatever preparations ye find necessary.
We shall join ye as soon as I have heard from the Symposium.”
Trey nodded and Vee sent him back through the vortex.
“He hates that, you know,” Tal said.
“Not so much utilizing the vortex as being tossed through space like a leaf on the wind.”
Some of the tension eased from Vee’s expression. “I shall offer my apologies when next we meet.”
“Has the Symposium made any progress?” Tal changed the subject.
“I was in the midst of a link when thy father summonedmelike a disobedient child.” Tal managed not to laugh at the obvious affront in Vee’s tone, but a smile tugged the corners of his mouth. It was not often that anything could rile Vee.
Prefect Aune had certainly done so today.
They went to one of the meditation chambers.
When the Symposium sent him massive amounts of information in a short period of time, it was necessary for Vee to cast himself into a nearly catatonic trance.
Tal stood by silently as Vee arranged himself comfortably upon the padded floor. “I should not be long.”
With a shake of his head, Vee emerged a few moments later. “We were unable to pinpoint his destination, but we have successfully narrowed the search area to a manageable field.”
Never one to mince words, Vee continued without giving Tal the opportunity to question his decisions.
“I will infuse you with the needed languages and background information before we begin. The Symposium has given me the image of a woman. We believe she is involved, but we are not sure how. The other Mystics will supplement the Storm. This has never been attempted before.”
“I’m aware of that,” Tal said. He felt his senses stir with an uncomfortable combination of excitement and foreboding. He didn’t fear Dez dar Joon, but each time they chased after him, Tal couldn’t help but feel Joon was in control.
Vee glanced at him, apparently sensing the surge of emotions within him. Tal looked away. Vee knew all of the reasons Tal pursued Dez dar Joon. Perhaps this time it would finally end.
“As soon as Trey is ready,” Vee concluded, “the adventure will commence.”Chapter Two
Holidays were hell for Charlotte Layton, and New Year’s Eve was the worst of all. She was twenty-nine years old, financially secure, physically attractive—and utterly alone.
Knowing this night would hit hard, she’d retreated to her cabin near Aspen. Hidden in the majestic tranquility of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, this was the only place on Earth where she could find anything resembling peace.
After several hours of staring at the television in a sightless stupor, she decided to make a list. Lists helped her organize her thoughts and set priorities. She divided the notepad down the center and labeled the columns
“pros” and “cons”.
Taking a quick sip of coffee in between each entry, Charlotte quickly started to fill the page.
“Pros,” she began. Hearing the entries helped her analyze them. “Large, reputable law firm. Lots of opportunity to advance. Their program to prepare me for the bar.” With a chuckle, she added the wordexam. This past year had been more than enough to prepare her for the bar.
Forcing her attention back to the notepad, she continued the list. “Moving my life in a new direction.
Getting away from Victor’s family.”
The last one made her smile. It should be enough to solidify her decision, but she felt obligated to read the cons.
“Selling the house in Cherry Creek. Moving to a place where no one knows me.” She paused, tapping her pencil against the edge of the kitchen table. Was that really a con?
How would she ever get beyond this hopelessness when everything she did, everything she saw reminded her of Victor and Stephen?
Her wooden chair vibrated as the low rumble of thunder passed through the cabin. How bizarre. Didn’t it have to be warm for a thunderstorm? Tossing down the pencil but keeping the coffee mug, she walked to the window and glanced out into the darkness. All she could see through the clear winter night were trees and stars.
This cabin had always been her sanctuary. Even if she moved to Seattle, she intended to keep it. She returned to the kitchen table and the decision facing her. Picking up the pencil, she focused again on the cons. “Actually moving.” That was always a pain. Even with movers it could be a nightmare. “Exchanging sunshine for rain.” She tapped the pencil against the last entry, unable to speak the words.Not being able to visit their graves.
Grief slammed into her with physical force and her coffee mug shattered. Screaming, Charlotte jumped back to avoid the flying shards and splatters of hot liquid.
What the hell just happened?
She ran for a dishcloth, quickly sopping up the rivulets of coffee. Stepping back, she surveyed the mess and couldn’t believe her eyes. Pieces of ceramic lay scattered across the tabletop, but her gaze gravitated toward the notepad. Coffee had saturated the paper in a distinct pattern. A nearly perfect oval now accented the wordsnotbeing able to visit their graves.
Charlotte trembled. What was going on?
She’d been beyond tears for weeks. Part of her heart had been ripped from her chest with no warning, no anesthesia. Was madness setting in?
Grabbing the trashcan from under the sink, she swiped the table with the damp dishcloth. Ceramic fragments, notepad, even the pencil, went into the plastic bin.
Charlotte pulled on her leather jacket and hurried outside.Breathe. Just take slow, deep breaths. She stared out across her sloping yard toward the rock formation that marked the edge of her property.
You’re here to plan the future, not relive the past.
Moonlight glistened off patches of snow scattered across the hill beside the cabin. Tall pine trees cast long, spiky shadows, creating eerie shapes against the ground.
Relax. This is your haven. Nothing can hurt you here.
The crisp scent of pine mixed with chimney smoke. She inhaled again, comforted by the familiar smells. Cold mountain air stung her cheeks and made her nose tingle.
She drew up her hood and buried her hands in her pockets.
It was time. If she didn’t move on soon, the insidious cancer nibbling at her soul would consume her completely.
A loud explosion jarred Charlotte from her musing. She stumbled to the front of the porch, steadying herself against the railing. The earth shook and lightning branched across the sky.
“We don’t have thunderstorms in December,” she whispered.
Three more flashes followed in quick succession. The area glowed with eerie light.
She stood transfixed by the spectacle. How was this possible?
A sizzling bolt of lightning slashed in front of her face, driving her back a step. She screamed. The air vibrated with an electrical charge and thunder shook the earth.
What the hell is going on?
Smoke curled up into the moonlight beyond the ridge adjacent to her cabin. A moment later flames leapt into the night sky. She flew into the cabin and searched frantically for her cell phone. Houses were scattered all over this mountain.
The 911 operator asked the nature of her emergency.
“A tree was just struck by lightning. There’s a fire.” After a long pause, the operator said, “You’re calling from a cell phone. Please give me your exact location.” She relayed the information and glanced out the window. The fire had spread. “Hurry! It’s really taking off.”
“Are you sure it was lightning? It’s much too cold—”
“For a thunderstorm,” Charlotte finished for her. “I thought the same thing, but I saw it hit and the thunder shook my cabin.”
The dispatcher insisted Charlotte hold the line until she heard sirens. Ending the call, Charlotte tossed the phone onto the small kitchen table and headed back outside.
The rock formation separated her cabin from the fire, but flames leapt from tree to tree. The rhythmic flash of strobes assured her the firefighters were near. They would likely contain the blaze long before her cabin was in danger, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
She turned, intending to scrounge for a hose, when an odd flash caught her eye. Something glinted at the base of the rock formation. Was the underbrush on fire? It hadn’t snowed for several days but it shouldn’t bethatdry.
Fear tumbled through her abdomen. One quick gust in the right direction and her property could join this nightmare. Darting back into the cabin, she dumped the firewood out of its metal bucket and filled the bucket with water.
Smoke stung her eyes and made it difficult to see, but she moved as quickly as her sloppy burden would allow.
She reached the rock formation and waved her hand back and forth, trying to disperse the smoke.
A soft moan emanated from the shadows. Oh dear God, someone was out there. She set down the bucket, wishing she had grabbed a flashlight. Had someone been struck by lightning?
Or had they started the fire?
Suspicion drove her back a step. She couldn’t just abandon someone if they needed help. Taking a deep breath, she started to call out to the firefighters.
Before the cry could pass her lips, some unseen force pulled her forward and buckled her knees. A strong hand clamped around her wrist and Charlotte screamed. She scuttled backward, but the hand held tight to her wrist.
A man pulled himself from the bushes using her resistance as leverage. She cried out again as more and more of him was revealed. His chest was wide, hairless, and bare to the frigid night air. Moonlight gleamed off his smooth, pale skin. A long, loose garment hung open from his shoulders to tangle about his legs. The sculpted contours of his chest and arms were offered no protection by the garment.
The man’s other hand found Charlotte’s upper arm, pulling her forward. Long black hair streamed all around him, disappearing into the leafy debris. She couldn’t see his features, but it was obvious he had no intention of letting her go. She tugged against him frantically, her heart hammering in her chest.
He spoke rapidly but she couldn’t understand his words, could hardly hear him over the roaring in her ears.
His voice snapped with authority and urgency. Trembling uncontrollably, she continued to resist.
The intensity in his tone suddenly faltered. He collapsed against the ground, dragging her with him. An exotic, spicy scent filled her nose as she sprawled across his chest. She lay there helpless for a moment, inhaling the unusual scent. It made her dizzy and weak.
His hand grasped her hair painfully and pulled her face toward his. Charlotte tried to scream but his mouth managed to find hers through the tangle of their hair.
It wasn’t a kiss. She felt the cool pressure of his lips connecting with hers but the contact wasn’t tender or intimate. It was as if he were merely forming a seal between their bodies. For a long moment he just held her there, molding his mouth to hers. She couldn’t move. Was he paralyzing her somehow or had her fear rendered her motionless?
Her skin tingled. Her muscles vibrated with a subtle pulsation. His mouth moved and the tingling became painful. She arched away from him, struggling to separate their mouths. His hand tightened in her hair and his arm firmly encircled her back.
Charlotte panicked, writhing desperately to break his hold. He rolled over, dragging her beneath him and pinning her against the frozen ground. She felt heat gathering in the center of her abdomen, burning and building until her whole body shook with tension. Then he drew it out of her, like sucking soda through a straw.
He finally tore his mouth from hers and Charlotte screamed. She shoved against his chest but he was no longer solid. Her hands passed through him and she screamed again. He shimmered, wavering between substance and spirit for just a second and then disintegrated entirely.
Scrambling to her feet, Charlotte searched the shadows in stunned disbelief. What, in the name of God, had just happened? She leaned forward, resting her hands on her knees. She gasped and panted and lights danced before her eyes.
You’re breathing too fast. Slow it down. Think. You need tothink.
Someone was running toward her. She could hear their heavy footfall crashing and skidding across the uneven ground. Sucking in a shuddering breath, she scrambled for somewhere to hide, but her rescuer appeared too quickly.
He wore full firefighter regalia, complete with a masked helmet. The beam of his flashlight crossed her face.
Charlotte squinted and averted her gaze.
“Are you all right, miss?” he asked, laying his gloved hand lightly on her arm. “We heard someone screaming.” He flipped up the transparent plate protecting his face.
Still, she could barely make out his features in the shadows. He was well over six feet tall. She couldn’t decide if his obvious brawn comforted or intimidated her.
“Is everything all right?” he asked again. “Are you injured?” The beam of his flashlight made a cursory pass over her body.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a shaky voice. “I didn’t mean to distract you from the fire.”
He brought the flashlight up again, close to but not directly in her face. “What made you scream? Are you sure you’re not injured?”
His gaze searched her face and Charlotte had to look away. How could she begin to explain what had just happened? “There was this… I saw…” She shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest, shaking helplessly.
“What is it?” He moved closer. “What frightened you?
Why are you out here alone?”
“I’m not sure,” she whispered. “I thought I saw…” She suddenly realized how insane she would sound if she attempted to explain the truth. She forced herself to smile but drifted back a step.
He looked her over more carefully, ending his assessment with a chuckle. “You’re not even wearing shoes.” He shined the light on her wool-lined, leather slippers.
“I was trying to find my cat, but it got so smoky I couldn’t see.”
He didn’t seem entirely convinced. “The cat will find its own way home. They always do. And we’re here to deal with the fire. We’ve got a paramedic with our unit. I’d like him to take a look at you.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with me except a momentary lapse in judgment. You’ve got a fire to fight and I’m going back to my cabin.”
“We’ve got the fire contained. Thank God, everything is frozen or we could have had a real mess on our hands.
Which house is yours? I’ll walk you home.” He grinned, his white teeth a stark contrast to his sooty face. “Just in case you weren’t imagining things.”
“That’s not necessary.”
He pulled off his glove and extended his hand.
“Sanders. Rod Sanders.”
She shook his hand. “Charlotte Layton.”
“See, now we’re not strangers so I can walk you home.” Relenting with an anemic smile, Charlotte started down the hill. “It will be a very short walk.”
“Are you the one who called in the fire?” he asked, striding along beside her.
“Do you live here or did you come up for the ski season?”
That wasn’t a professional question. Still, he seemed to be nice enough. If she couldn’t trust a fireman, who could she trust? “The cabin is mine but I live in Cherry Creek.
And I’m not much of a skier.”
“You up here all alone?”
“That’s none of your business.”
As they rounded the rock formation, the lights from her cabin made his flashlight unnecessary. He flipped it off with a soft chuckle. “You’re right. I apologize.” He soundedmostlysincere. She motioned toward the cabin. “Well, that’s it. Thanks for seeing me home.”
“Would you like me to check out the cabin?” His persistent helpfulness had lost its charm. “No, thank you. I know my imagination just ran away with me.”
“All right then. Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year.” She forced the words past her dry lips and stepped onto the porch.
He turned to go then hesitated. “I’m on duty for the next four days. If you need anything, anything at all, just call the station.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sanders.” Was he flirting with her? It had been so long she’d forgotten the signs.
She just wanted him to go away. Between the painful memories and her bizarre hallucination, Valium tempted her more right now than a strapping firefighter.
He finally left and she rushed into the cabin. With a sigh of relief, she leaned against the door. It hadn’t happened. It couldn’t have happened. How could it have happened?
As much as Charlotte tried to dismiss the incident as a stress-related hallucination, sheknewit was real. She had touched the man, felt him press her into the ground, felt the pull of whatever he drained from her body.
A simple, rational explanation eluded her, dancing on the fringes of her consciousness like a mischievous sprite.
But one thing was certain—it hadn’t been her imagination.
Charlotte staggered across the room, her legs wobbling beneath her. Had someone gotten their holidays mixed up? This felt like Halloween not New Year’s Eve.
“I wanted something to keep my mind off the past,” she whispered to the shadows. “I just didn’t expect the distraction to be so bizarre.”
She shrugged out of her coat and kicked off her much-abused slippers. Grasping the back of the small sofa, she closed her eyes. A shadowy image of the man formed within her mind. She hadn’t been able to see him clearly.
Even the memory sent little shivers through her body.
He’d been strong yet utterly vulnerable. Whatever he’d drawn from her body left her weak and tired.
Where had he gone?
Where had he come from?
Why was he here?
Shaking away the useless speculation, she turned toward the bathroom. More than enough excitement for one night. She was going to take a shower and go to bed.
Warm water cascaded down her body, melting the tension from her muscles if not her mind. What was happening to her? First the coffee cup and then the man.
She couldn’t rationally explain either one and her analytical mind demanded understanding.
Ceramic could crack after a period of time, but that mug had spontaneously shattered.
She turned toward the spray, rubbing her face as the water slicked her hair back.
This was the anniversary of that horrible night.
Everyone had advised her to stay busy, keep her mind occupied and not to be alone. She chuckled. She had never been good at taking advice. She was far more adept at giving it.
Scrubbing her hair with shampoo, she continued to analyze the bizarre events. The thunderstorm was strange but Colorado was known for rapidly changing weather.
But the man…how could she explain the man?
With a frustrated jerk, Charlotte turned off the water and snatched back the shower curtain. Steam rolled out, instantly fogging the mirror hanging over the sink. She grabbed a towel and dried off then donned the terrycloth robe hanging on the back of the door.
She dragged a wide-tooth comb through her hair and wiped the mirror with her towel. Her gaze lifted to the mirror and she dropped the comb. Paralyzed by fear and disbelief, she couldn’t even make a sound. The woman in the mirror had strange, swirling eyes. Her features were the same but her eyes…
Charlotte snapped her eyes shut and a shuddering gasp left her lungs. She was hallucinating! None of this was real.
She needed to call her grief counselor or—Ghostbusters?
She managed a shaky laugh. Okay, that was better.
Very slowly, she raised her face and found her own frightened blue gaze reflected back from the mirror. She opened the door and wiped the mirror more thoroughly.
It had been a trick of the mist. Smoke still clouded her vision. There were any number of explanations for…
But how did she explain the man?
Hurling the towel into the bathtub, she walked from the room less relaxed than she had been before the shower.
She stepped into her bedroom and the door slammed shut behind her. A scream caught in her throat, sounding more like a strangled yelp. Tugging and twisting did nothing.
The doorknob wouldn’t budge.
Sparks danced across the floor and encompassed the shapeless mound lying at the foot of her bed. Turning slowly to face it, she pressed her back against the door. The mound undulated and expanded. Small flashes, like arcs of electricity, broke out all over its surface.
An arm suddenly thrust out, the fist tightly clenched.
She gasped, her gaze desperately searching for options.
What in God’s name was that thing? The mass lay between her and the window. She was trapped. Other shapes formed and rippled. A head, a leg, a torso, but the shapes soon shifted, becoming part of the mass again.
A crack of thunder echoed in the room. Charlotte covered her ears with her hands, bracing her feet against the shaking floor. The mound began to glow, illuminated from the inside until the entire room pulsed with light and energy.
There was no way she was waiting around to see what emerged from this cocoon!
She dove for the bed. Scrambling across the mattress, she bound to her feet on the other side. She kept the mass in her peripheral vision but focused on the window.
In one sustained motion, a tall, broad-shouldered body arose from the mound. Or more accurately, the moundbecamethe body.
Charlotte gasped and yanked the curtains aside. She tried to move the latch, but her hands shook so badly she couldn’t work the lock.
She could see his reflection in the glass. Long black hair cascaded all around him as he stalked toward her.
Moonlight offered a glimpse of his features before he stepped into her shadow.
Warm fingers curved around her upper arms. She cried out. The contact produced a subtle shock like static only hot. She clung to the wooden frame as he dragged her away from the window. He turned her to face him but she immediately backed away.
She bumped against the wall. “Take whatever you want. Just don’t hurt me.”
His hands still circled her arms and she raised her gaze.
Moonlight from the window allowed her to study his face for the first time. Silky black hair framed features so perfect she could hardly breathe. A strong, straight nose divided the lean, angular plane of his face. Hard, hollow cheekbones and ink-black brows drew attention to his strangely beautiful eyes.
A startling combination of gray, blue and black, the entire surface of his eyes swirled behind his lashes like smoke. There were no pupils, no rings of color, only an ever-changing blending of hues.
She had seen eyes like his before. Staring back at her from the mirror!
He said several words in a slow, even tone. Charlotte tried to calm herself, to control her breathing, to accept that this was real.
Something soft and warm brushed against her arms and sneaked under the edge of her bathrobe to touch the bare skin of her upper chest. She glanced down and screamed. Like long, silky tentacles—he could control the movement of his hair!
His hands framed her face and he spoke again. She pushed against his chest, desperate to free herself. Terror burned away the fragile remnants of her rationality.
“Don’t touch me.What are you?Let me go!” Feeling a gentle penetration into her mind, she yelled for help. She thrashed and kicked, pounding her fists against his chest. The subtle tingling intensified. She arched away from him, throwing her head back and squeezing her eyes shut against the invasion. He was in her mind. He was inside her! He was…
Tal Aune barely caught the woman before she hit the floor. Lifting her into his arms, he groaned. His entire body protested the exertion. Curse the ghosts of the night moon, he was weak as a babe. What had interrupted the spatial transmission? He must have a complete energy transference or what little ground he’d gained with their liplink would be lost.
He moved to the sleeping station and laid the female down. He hadn’t really looked at her before. She wasn’t as distasteful as some Earthlings he’d seen. Her skin appeared healthy and smooth. The arrangement of her features was acceptable but her hair… He lifted a lock and shook his head. The color was a nice warm brown with a touch of gold, but the strands would barely reach her shoulders. Was she being punished for some offense?
Surely this abomination was not intentional.
The most efficient way of replenishing his energy was to join his body to hers, but if she happened to rouse while he was inside her, he knew she wouldn’t be pleased. He chuckled at the galactic understatement. Judging from the struggle she launched when he caressed her with his hair, he could imagine the resistance he’d encounter should he join with her. Besides, he had never joined with an Earthling. It was possible that energy transference couldn’t be accomplished in such a manner.
She would have to be naked. There was no avoiding that. He couldn’t absorb energy with any sort of barrier between his skin and hers—and he was in desperate need of energy.
He hadn’t meant to overload her senses but Earthlings were so fragile. And her irrational resistance had only complicated the matter. She’d reacted as if he meant to erase her mind, not perform a simple scan.
He leaned forward and his hand brushed across her foot. Her toes were ice-cold. Again he chuckled, amazed by the helplessness of Earthlings. They couldn’t even control their body temperature.
Unknotting the belt at her waist, he parted her garment and paused, surprised by her appeal. She had beautiful breasts, high and round. They would easily fill his palms.
Without her clothing, the female was downright interesting.
Tal felt his hair flutter and swirl around his torso. This was ridiculous. He must garner energy from this woman and then figure out what had gone wrong.
Shifting out of his clothing, he crawled onto the sleeping station and pulled the little Earthling into his arms.
Charlotte snuggled into the warmth enveloping her.
She splayed her fingers to better absorb the heat and curled her toes. Her skin tingled and her mind swam within a sensual haze. She was aware of the sensations, yet coherent thought was just beyond her grasp. Her face was buried against something warm and solid. Long arms encircled her back, molding her body against another body—a hard, heated body. Her legs tangled with other legs—muscular, masculine legs. Pressing her breasts more firmly against the solid wall of muscle in front of her, she arched into the heat. It felt strange. It felt wonderful. But it felt wrong.
There was no man in her life. No lover to keep her warm.
She had just begun to sort through the confusion when his mouth touched hers. Gently, he pressed his lips over hers, caressing her, luring her. She parted her lips, responding instinctively to the velvety slide of his mouth against hers. The tip of his tongue touched hers and she groaned. It had been so long since she reveled in the intimacy of a deep, passionate kiss. She offered her mouth and accepted his tongue.
Her hands clutched his broad back and her legs moved against his until her sex made contact with one thick thigh.
Aching heat flared within her, making her wild. She arched and undulated, her hands tangling in his long hair—impossibly long hair.
Charlotte dragged her mouth away from his and forced her eyes to open. His hot, seeking mouth moved to her throat. She didn’t need to see his face to know who held her. His embrace was strong, demanding, and his silky hair was stroking her entire body all at once. It was the most erotic thing she’d ever felt. Like silk fringe or the fur of a Persian cat, the strands moved over her skin, circling her limbs and caressing her flesh.
She couldn’t think, couldn’t struggle. Heat and liquid desire rolled through her body. She tried to disentangle herself from the silken web, but he only rolled with her, dragging her beneath him.
His weight pressed her into the bed and his face hovered above hers. She stared up into his otherworldly eyes, panting and rigid. He was a stranger to her. She didn’t even know his name.
He wasn’t human!
He spoke in a hushed, tender tone, but his words were as alien as his eyes. She could still feel his hair wrapped around her, clinging to her, caressing her. “What do you want from me?” Her voice broke and tears gathered behind her lashes.
He spoke again and she closed her eyes. He was trying to soothe her but his eyes, combined with their sexual position, terrified her. His warm palms skimmed up and down along the sides of her body and his hair continued to slide against her skin. Charlotte fought against the stimulation. She couldn’t let herself be seduced. But, boy, did it feel good!
This couldn’t be happening. Why was this happening?
“I will not hurt you.”
She gasped and opened her eyes. An odd accent flavored his words but they were clearly English. “Who are you?” she asked. “Why were you kissing me?”
“I must have more of what I took from you on the mountain.” He spoke slowly, as if searching for each word.
“This will not harm you but it will restore me to health. Do you understand? My levels are low—no, not just low. I am dangerously weak. If I do not have more energy, my essence will disperse.”
“What you were doing a minute ago is different than what you did on the mountain. On the mountain you only…” She gasped and squirmed as she realized just how much of his warm skin was rubbing against hers. “Why the hell am I naked?”
“Do you have a mate?”
“If this exchange involves something I would ordinarily do with my mate, forget about it.”
He shifted his weight, touching her face with his fingertips. “A full-body joining would afford me the highest concentration of energy but it is not necessary.”
“Glad to hear it because I’m not doingthatwith you.” He chuckled and nuzzled the side of her neck. Charlotte tried to push him away. He moved again, rolling them onto their sides, facing each other.
“May I touch you?” he whispered near her ear.
Charlotte’s head began to spin. “Touch me how? What exactly is necessary for this exchange?”
“I must give you pleasure.”
Did he mean…surely, he didn’t mean she had to have an… “If I refuse to allow this? Will you simply take what you need?”
“The exchange is tainted when it is forced. As weak as I am, it would do me no good. I need this desperately and it must be soon or it will be too late.”
She trembled. Purple smudges shadowed his eyes and deep lines bracketed his mouth. His breathing grew labored and her heart lurched into her throat. He meant every word. If she didn’t allow him to touch her, he would die. Could she really be so selfish?
“I have so many questions. Once you’re restored, will you answer my—”
Taking her phrasing as consent, he cut off her words with a quick, urgent kiss. One arm slipped beneath her neck and his hand moved to her hip, pulling her more tightly against him.
This isn’t sexual. It’s medicinal.
She tried to relax, to accept the warm pressure of his mouth. Fear kept her stiff and unresponsive. He deepened the contact, coaxing her lips apart, but he refused to penetrate her mouth. He seemed to want her to come to him. Tentatively, Charlotte touched his tongue with hers.
He groaned, the desperation returning full force.
Slanting his mouth over hers, he took possession. His lips molded and moved, his tongue traced and stroked and finally delved deep. She arched into his embrace and returned his kiss with an eagerness she didn’t fully understand. She wanted to taste him and wanted him to taste her. She needed to touch him, needed to feel his hands moving across her skin.
Tingling sensations erupted all over her body. She could feel it happening again as it had on the mountain.
He was gathering something within her only it was different this time, more acute, more powerful. She was trapped by his arms and tangled in his hair. Her breasts swelled and her nipples tightened painfully while the sensations focused and coalesced. Scalding heat radiated out from her feminine core until even her toes felt hot.
Consumed by the heat, she surrendered to the storm.
He reared up onto his knees, dragging her with him.
His hands were everywhere, sliding under the tantalizing curtain of his hair. He cupped her breast. Heat seared her sensitive nipple. Sliding along her spine, skimming her hip and belly, his touch tantalized and built the pressure. He molded her to his chest and slipped one hand between her thighs.
Charlotte cried out sharply, frightened by the intensity of her feelings. Demanding need pulsed through her, electrifying her senses. He parted her feminine folds and stroked her, his touch gentle yet sure. She trembled, clinging to his arms. Circling her ultrasensitive nub, he commanded her body’s surrender.
Pleasure burst within her, sizzling along every nerve ending and triggering the powerful pulsation of her muscles.
A draining, sucking sensation siphoned her strength in one violent withdrawal.
She screamed, fighting just to remain conscious. His arms tightened and his body shook. A low, ragged groan escaped him as he collapsed onto his side.
His arms released her but his hair was still tangled around her. She trembled, her lungs desperate for air, her muscles burning. Her body ached, her mind reeled and she collapsed across his chest.
“You said it wouldn’t harm me,” she whispered, and slipped into the void.Chapter Three
Charlotte awoke slowly, feeling muddled and abused. Why was she so weak and why… Her fingers encountered something warm and smooth and her thoughts trailed away.
Awareness crashed over her with shocking clarity.
She lay entwined with the alien, naked, tangled in his hair. Her shoulder was tucked under his arm and her leg was bent, nearly circling his waist. His hand held her knee, lightly securing her leg in its intimate position.
“I know you’re awake,” he said softly. “I can feel the tension in your body.”
She started to sit but thought better of it. Her bathrobe was spread beneath them. His hair caressed her naked body, leaving tingles in the wake of each silky strand. “Are you…healed?”
He chuckled. “Very much so and I thank you. It’s quite likely you saved my life last night.” He rolled, reversing their position. She stared up at him silently as she took mental inventory of the situation. She had to get out of here. Which meant she had to get dressed and to her car. Would he let her drive away with a friendly wave goodbye? Somehow, she didn’t think so.
“Will you please let me up?” She didn’t trust the way her body reacted to this man.
“If you like.”
“I’d like it best if you’d just leave. If you’re honestly grateful for what I did, that’s how you can repay me.”
His smile caught her by surprise. The flash of white teeth and intensity of his extraordinary eyes made her stomach clench and her breath catch in her throat. He ran his fingertip down her nose, tapping it against the tip. “Is life ever that simple?”
“Certainly not mine.”
“I’ll turn my back so you may dress. You seem uncomfortable with your nudity.”
“I’m uncomfortable with…” She started an indignant explanation then bit back the harsh words.
Caution was a wiser course until she knew more about this…person. “Thank you.”
She scurried off the bed and yanked the top drawer of her dresser open. Tugging on the first pair of panties her fingers touched, she found the matching bra and ventured a glance in the mirror. He stood on the other side of her bed, fully dressed, watching her.
“You said you’d turn your back,” she reminded, struggling to work the front clasp on her bra.
“I did turn my back.”
He smiled—no, that uneven curving of his lips could only be described as a smirk. His hair flowed over his shoulders and wound itself into a neat coil.
He wore the same elongated vest that bared his arms and chest, serving no apparent purpose. His pants were loose, nearly shapeless, bound by a wide band at his waist and tucked into fawn-colored boots.
“Are you finished dressing?” he asked.
Glancing down, she realized she hadn’t even finished fastening her bra. “Hardly.” She returned her attention to the task, refusing to ask how he’d managed to dress completely in the time it took her to pull on her panties. “How are you able to speak my language?” Before he could answer, she turned around and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Talon? Like the claw of a bird?”
His hair tightened in response to something in the question and he turned to the window. “Tal, second son of the House of Aune. How shall I address you?” She slid the closet open and pulled on a pair of jeans. “My name is Charlotte Layton. Where did you come from?” Finding a soft, baggy sweater, she wiggled into it as she waited for his explanation.
“I don’t know if I can make you understand. Much of my world can’t be explained in your language.” Charlotte didn’t believe him. How could the answer be that complicated? His attention stayed focused out the window.
She glanced at the door. Last night, she hadn’t been able to open it. Would it open now? Could she grab her coat, her boots, and make it to her car before he stopped her? Probably not. Still she wasn’t going to follow him around like an obedient puppy.
“Who are you?” she asked softly as she sidestepped toward the door. He didn’t answer. She took another step. “Where’s your world?” No answer.
“How did you get here? Do you have a ship or something?”
Reaching out as quietly as she could, Charlotte tried the knob. It remained immobile within her grasp. The knob itself had no locking mechanism.
What had he done to it?
“The handle is fused. I will release it in a moment.” Had he read her thoughts or simply realized what she was doing? “What do you want?”
“I want your promise that you will not attempt to escape until I am able to determine what went wrong with the spatial transportation.”
That got her attention. She turned toward him, struck again by how…interesting she found his appearance. His face held no real expression and the swirling of his eyes nearly stopped. She buried her hands in the pockets of her jeans and continued to study him.
In the sunlight, his skin had a subtle pearlescence the moon hadn’t revealed and she could see thin blue streaks scattered through his hair. Not highlights—
individual strands of his hair were cobalt blue.
“Spatial transportation?” she echoed. “Like wormholes or something?”
“Wormholes are a naturally occurring phenomena, unpredictable and generally unstable. The portals I mentioned are intentionally created and controlled.”
“I see,” she muttered, though she didn’t see at all.
“And you can create one of these portals?” He crossed his arms over his chest. The muscular ripple of his torso made Charlotte itch to touch.
“The portal is incidental. I must determine what happened to my companions. That will be impossible if I spend all my time chasing after you.”
“So your proposal is that I trust everything you tell me and—what? Twiddle my thumbs until you—” A sharp gasp cut her argument short. He suddenly stood in front of her though she hadn’t seen him move. His hands pressed against the wall on either side of her shoulders. As he leaned in, his spicy scent surrounded her, filled her head and made her almost giddy.
“I understand sarcasm, Charlotte,” he whispered into her ear. “I don’t have time to entertain your temper. People I care about are on that ship. Your choice is simple. Offer me whatever vow an Earthling will honor or I will put you in stasis so you no longer hinder me.”
She wasn’t sure how stasis was accomplished in his world but it didn’t sound good. Her mind reeled from the things she’d seen him do so far. Was it wise to test him? “That isn’t a choice. It’s a threat. How long do you anticipate this…investigation taking and what does it entail?”
He stepped back, his gaze moving over her features. “How is information communicated on this world? If something of significance happens, how is the general populous notified?”
She was almost afraid to ask. “You mean like the crash of a spaceship?”
“There was more than one ship? Was it your ship that started the fire on the mountain? Were you the only person in your—”
“I’m a Master-level Mage. I don’t require a vessel for interdimensional transportation. I was stabilizing the conduit for the others.”
He sounded affronted but Charlotte was still confused. “You created the portal for them? Weretheyin some sort of ship?”
“Yes. If Trey’s ship is in orbit as it should be, your world will never know. If there was a serious malfunction—”
“Who is Trey?”
“Don’t you have some sort of communicator?” She bit her lip to keep from laughing. She suddenly felt like an escapee from a Star Trek convention.
“I am a Master-level Mage.”
“And I have a law degree.” She sighed. “Look, I didn’t ask for your résumé. If Trey’s ship crashed in or around Aspen, it would definitely make the news.
Unless of course, the government managed to cover it up.”
“And how is this news accessed?”
Tal watched her walk to the door and gesture expectantly toward the latch. He commanded the metal to reshape and waited for the acrid smell, confirming its compliance, before he nodded for her to try again.
She pulled her fingers back with a sharp gasp and shook her hand. “That’s hot.”
“My apologies.” Reaching around her, he opened the door. “I forget the limitations of Earthlings.” Indignation pulsed from her in little bursts as he followed her into the outer room. Her shoulders squared and she impatiently shoved her hair off her brow. He shouldn’t provoke her. It wasn’t wise. But her reactions fascinated him. Her odd, sky-colored eyes blazed and the skin above her sculpted cheekbones blossomed with color.
“Your flesh is impervious to heat, I suppose?”
“I can adjust my body temperature to compensate.”
“Like a reptile.” She shot back.
“No, reptiles are susceptible to their environment even more so than…” He took a deep breath and smiled. “Why are we arguing?”
“Because you said the wordEarthlinglike it was a disease.”
He really did have more important things to do than goad the female. She might even be able to assist him, if he stopped antagonizing her. “Would you please access the news and see if anything of significance has been reported?”
“Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change,” she muttered, and moved to the small table beside a cushioned bench covered in tanned animal hide. How barbaric. She picked up a small, thin box and pushed a button, which activated a much larger box. As the picture came into focus, he realized it was some sort of audio-video monitor. The design had been so unusual he hadn’t recognized its purpose. She continued pushing buttons on the controller, changing the picture on the screen.
What should he tell her?
How much did she really need to know?
If Trey were lost and Vee… The thought was too painful to complete. Dez dar Joon had cost him so much already. Tal would surrender nothing more!
His gaze moved back to the woman. She was completely unaware, innocent—helpless. Could she even comprehend an evil such as Joon?
Joon had traveled through space and time to find her. The thought sent chills down Tal’s back. He could imagine how this little Earthling would react to such a revelation.
Apparently, she found what she desired for she stopped changing the image on the screen. Tal took advantage of her distraction and sent out a seeker pulse. If she noticed what he was doing, he had no doubt she’d try to escape. He had to decrease the efficiency of his other senses to power a long-range pulse. Hopefully, her search for information would keep her occupied. The doors were fused and he had immobilized her conveyance so she wouldn’t get far.
Still, he didn’t trust her.
No one responded to his mental call. He reached farther, intensifying the power level again and again.
He felt nothing. Awareness faded as he poured more energy into each pulse. The room grew hazy, out of focus. Sound became an indistinguishable rumble.
Still he pushed on, reaching farther, desperately searching for the people he loved.
Charlotte flipped off the television and tossed the remote on the couch. Nothing. There was nothing on the news about an alien spaceship crashing in Colorado or anywhere else. Had good old Uncle Sam pulled another Roswell?
“How far away should we be considering?” When he didn’t answer, she glanced over her shoulder, and whispered, “This just gets better and better.” He hung suspended in the air about six inches off the floor. His arms extended away from his sides and his hair fanned out like a cape. Bursts of light pulsed from his body, expanding until they disappeared. His eyes remained open but they now glowed with colorless light.
Shocked and fascinated, Charlotte wasted precious moments staring at him. Clearly he was unaware of his surroundings. She couldn’t just stand there and wait for him to emerge from…whatever this was.
He’d demanded her vow, but she hadn’t actually promised a thing. It wouldn’t be dishonorable for her to take advantage of this opportunity. His powers were obviously restored. He could take care of himself. Quickly tugging on her boots, she snatched her coat from the back of the chair and tiptoed to the front door. It didn’t surprise her to find the handle
“fused” but she groaned all the same.
The front wall of the living room housed a massive picture window but functional windows were situated to either side. She tried the lock on the nearest window and nearly cried when she was able to rotate the latch. She pushed the pane up and reached for the screen.
Glancing once at Tal, Charlotte pulled on her coat and grabbed her purse. This wasn’t a betrayal. He could use the cabin for as long as he liked as long as it took for him to… She wouldn’t say anything about what she’d seen. This wasn’t a betrayal.
Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God. She repeated the words in a silent litany as she stepped through the tall, narrow window and ran across the yard toward her car.
* * * * *
A faint, Mystic signal responded to Tal’s seeker pulse and his entire being exhaled with relief. Vee. If Vee still existed, then likely the ship had survived as well. He formed Trey’s image and transmitted it to Vee. Soothing warmth and a sense of wellbeing responded to the inquiry. Trey was alive. All was well.
Tal nearly ended the link when he sensed one final image approaching. He saw a mountain peak with a distinct shape. Why Vee wanted him to go to this place, Tal didn’t know. Their tenuous connection only allowed them to communicate basic impressions not specific thoughts.
Transmitting his understanding of the request, he felt Vee add a sense of urgency. Something was wrong. Tal responded again and then severed the psychic connection. He came out of the trance with a grunt. His legs buckled and his palms met the floorboards with a painful slap. Panting and shaking his head, he struggled to clear the last of the psychic haze.
They were alive. Joon had failed to collapse the vortex entirely. Hopefully the effort was costing him dearly. Tal lifted his head and coiled his hair. Rolling his shoulders, he hefted himself to his feet and felt a cold draft brush his back. He turned and cursed. His hair snapped like a whip, expressing his frustration.
The female had crawled out the window.
With an impatient wave of his hand, Tal reshaped the latch and yanked the door open. Her conveyance hadn’t moved but she was nowhere in sight.
Curse the ghosts of the night moon, why was she being so difficult? Everything he did on this world drained his energy. How was he ever going to Summon the Storm? He sent out another seeker pulse and located his wayward companion. The moment he had her back in the cabin, he would tell her in explicit detail what was at stake and the sort of fate awaiting should Joon find her.
Shifting his shape to her location, he firmly closed his arms around her as she crashed into his chest. She cried out but Tal conjured a gag and swept her up in his arms. Wiggling and kicking, she struggled against his hold and protested frantically behind the gag. Tal ignored it all. He was finished indulging her useless antics. He opened a transport conduit and emerged in the main room of her cabin.
Halfway through the spinning vortex, Charlotte stopped struggling. Fear shouldered aside her indignation and she wrapped her arms around his neck. Every imaginable color twirled and spun in dizzying patterns. A roar like gale-force winds drowned out every thought and all she could do was hang on and experience the awesome spectacle.
He stepped out into her living room and Charlotte released her pent-up breath. Could he do that any time he wanted?
I’m a Master-level Mage. I don’t require a vessel forinterdimensional transportation. His words echoed back to her. No wonder he had been insulted by her assumption.
As he lowered her to the couch, her purse slid off her shoulder and landed on the cushion beside her.
He snapped out several words she didn’t understand.
Suddenly, her entire body felt weighted. She struggled merely to keep her head up.
“Has it not occurred to you to wonder what broughtaliensto Earth?”
Seething behind the gag, she glared at him. Shehadwondered. She hadaskedhim, but he refused to answer any of her questions!
“My companions and I are pursuing a man named Dez dar Joon.”
She shook her head and tried to form words, making it as obvious as she could that she wanted him to remove the gag. The show of defiance exhausted her. She stopped fighting the invisible pull and her head sagged against the back of the couch.
Slowly, the gag disintegrated and the pressure lessened. She took a deep breath and sat up.
“What…did he do?”
“He has yet to do anything on this world.” He paused ominously.
“What do you expect him to do?”
“No, Charlotte. The question is, why did Dez dar Joon come to Earth?”
Her eyes narrowed at his patronizing tone, but she resisted sarcasm’s familiar call. “Why did Dez dar Joon come to Earth?”
“He is searching for a woman.”
“There aren’t any women on… I’m sorry. Please, don’t put the gag back on. Why is Dez der Joon searching—”
“DezdarJoon. Dez, head of the House of Joon. And again, that is not the correct question. The question is, who is this woman?”
“Who is DezdarJoon searching for?”
“Why would the head of the House of Joon be searching for me?”
He released her entirely and crossed his arms over his chest. “Joon is a Master-level Mage in everything but name.”
“I don’t know what that means and it doesn’t explain why you believe he’s looking for me.”
“He has not earned the title but he has a skill-set similar to my own.”
“Is he dangerous?”
Tal laughed harsh and scornful. “Am I?”
“You didn’t answer my question.” She bit out each word, clenching her fists to keep from shaking him.
He just stared at her, nostrils flared, lips compressed. “I need your assistance. I will exchange the information you want for the information I need.”
“What information do you need?”
“Give me your hand.” He held out his own expectantly.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
She was not as certain of that as she had been earlier but she extended her arm and placed her hand in his.
“Close your eyes.”
“Because this will be less startling if your eyes are closed,” he answered impatiently.
Hesitantly, she closed her eyes.
“Where is this place?”
The image of a mountain peak gradually formed within Charlotte’s mind. “That looks like Pyramid Peak. It could be Maroon Bells… No, it’s definitely Pyramid Peak.” She opened her eyes and pulled her hand out of his light grasp.
“Take me to Pyramid Peak.”
Charlotte laughed, moving farther away from him.
“I can’t create one of those vortex things. Pyramid Peak is over fourteen thousand feet up and this is January.”
“We will not stay long.”
“I don’t think you understand. I have a friend who’s an avid climber but I can’t—”
“Can you take me to a place where Pyramid Peak is visible?”
He had threatened to put her in some sort of stasis.
She had no doubt now he could do that and a lot worse. It really did make more sense to cooperate with him. “Why is Dez dar Joon looking for me?”
“We aren’t certain.”
“Oh, what a stinking cop-out,” she flared. “This is supposed to be an exchange. Knock me out—I don’t care. Find Pyramid Peak on your own. Go walking around Aspen looking like that and see how far you get.”
One corner of his mouth curved in a mischievous smile and a ripple passed from his toes to the top of his head. His appearance was swept away, replaced by the exact likeness of James Miller, a local business owner.
Charlotte gasped softly and walked around him in a wide circle. An advertisement for Miller’s Bistro had been on TV right before she switched it off.
“You’re a shape-shifter,” she murmured, feeling foolish stating the obvious.
“No, I am an Ontarian. Being able to change my natural shape is a Mystic ability, not the definition of who I am.”
The cocoon. He must have gotten stuck in between forms. She shuddered, remembering the undulating mass.
“How far will I get in Aspen in this shape?” he asked when she continued to stare at him.
Shaking away her shock, she pointed out, “James Miller would know where Pyramid Peak is.”
“Then I will shift to another form.” He exhaled impatiently and stalked toward her. “Something is wrong, Charlotte. I don’t know what, but I must get to Pyramid Peak. If I can see it, I can transport myself to the location. Will you help me or not?” Swallowing awkwardly, Charlotte pushed her fingers through her hair. “What did you do to my car? I couldn’t turn the ignition.”
“I can reshape it. Is your conveyance necessary to reach this place?”
“Yes. Is everyone on your world able to do this?”
“Does everyone on Earth have the same abilities?” he sneered.
“It was a reasonable question, you arrogant jerk.”
“Something is wrong. I cannot make myself any clearer. Will you help me?”
Her heart fluttered as she debated her options.
“Will you let me go after I take you there?”
“It depends what I learn once we reach our destination.”
All that nonsense about her being Joon’s target was doubtless to gain her cooperation. Still, what choice did she have? If she refused to help Tal, he’d put her in stasis and set out on his own.
“People will probably see us. Can you keep that basic shape but change the hair, maybe make it darker and a little longer?” He shifted effortlessly and Charlotte shivered. “You’re good at that. Sharpen up your cheekbones. Make them more like your own.” He quickly complied. “May we go?”
“You need a coat.”
“I can adjust—”
“You will draw attention to yourself if you aren’t wearing a coat and gloves.”
He formed a jacket identical to hers. “No. This is a woman’s coat. Make it shorter and gathered at the waist. Now, lose the hood. Most men wear knitted caps that conform to their heads. Wait, I have one.” She rummaged through the box on the top shelf of the coat closet and found a stocking cap. He pulled it on and she folded it up to form a small cuff. Tucking his hair behind his ears and his ears under the hat, she decided Tal made one handsome Earthling. Trying to disguise her laughter, Charlotte found her gloves.
“Why are you laughing?”
“I just thought you looked nice as an Earthling but didn’t think you’d appreciate the observation.”
“This is not my appearance. It is a minor variation of the man on the monitor,” he said stiffly.
“Good point. Make yourself some of these and let’s go.”
Tal looked at the hand protectors she held and shaped similar coverings over his hands. Her brow furrowed and she asked, “Can you take them off or are they actually part of your hands?”
“All of my garments are part of me. I cannot remove them as you do. I simply reshape myself without them. I can give you a more in-depth demonstration later if you like.”
The provocation snapped her back to attention as he had intended. She shoved her hands into her coverings but turned toward the padded bench.
“Are we departing?”
She rolled her eyes in an odd expression he had no trouble interpreting as impatience. “I need my keys.” He had no idea what keys were but didn’t bother asking. If he attentively watched, he often learned more than demanding information. She rummaged through her bag and retrieved a ring bearing several small, jagged pieces of metal. After swinging the pouch onto her shoulder, she motioned toward the door.
This was the complication with the rapid infusion of languages. All of the words were in his brain. It just took time to connect the words with their meanings.
She led him to the conveyance and he shifted through the nearest door. Her eyes widened and she emitted a soft gasp. She was not used to someone with his abilities. He must attempt to curtail their use until she had time to adjust. She opened the door and slid in behind the navigation controls. Lowering the shoulder bag to the floor behind her seat by its long strap, she inserted one of the pieces of metal.Keys, he corrected.
When she attempted to rotate the mechanism with no success, Tal realized he had not reshaped the device. “My apologies,” he muttered. “Proceed.” The conveyance made a mechanical growl and she shifted several levers, one deactivating a cacophony of sound he suspected had been Earthling music.
“How close do I need to get you?” she asked while she maneuvered the vehicle away from her dwelling.
“If the vehicle is meant to travel in that direction, why are the seats orientated to…”
She paused to readjust the levers and the conveyance began to travel in the opposite direction.
“It’s either back out or back in. My drive is too narrow to turn around in. I find it easier to back out.
Have no fear, Tal of the House of Aune. The vehicle operates the majority of the time in the same direction the seats face.”
He suspected her levity covered discomfort or fear.
He hadn’t earned her trust as she had yet to earn his.
This was bound to be a strained partnership for some time to come.
“How close do you need to be?” she asked again.
“I just need to see it. If I have never been to a location, I must compile visual coordinates.”
“Well, then we can probably avoid the resorts.
There’s a scenic overlook where I can park long enough for you to transport yourself. Can you do it from inside the car or will you need to get out?” He didn’t comment. She wouldn’t like his answer and he didn’t relish another argument. She pulled the vehicle into the midst of other vehicles on a wider roadway. If he made her promise to wait until he returned, she’d drive off in the conveyance one instant after his form disappeared. He wasn’t a fool.
They hadn’t gone far when she pulled the conveyance onto a wide space at the roadside.
Crystals of frozen moisture danced on currents of air.
Tal watched their lazy descent while she rearranged the levers yet again. Ah, the crystals accumulated to form the mounds of white.
“It’s called snow,” she said.
“It’s beautiful,” he admitted.
She made a noncommittal sound and leaned forward toward the transparent plate in front of them.
“That group of points is called Maroon Bells. The sharper one, more by itself is Pyramid Peak. The image you put in my head looked more like Pyramid Peak to me.”
“I agree. Please turn off the conveyance. Let’s make the final determination from out there.”
She searched his face with obvious suspicion but she did as he asked. He remembered to open the door instead of shifting his shape through it. She lifted her hood, casting her features in shadow, and joined him in front of the vehicle. As she repeated the explanation, gesturing with her glove-covered hand, he suddenly turned and wrapped her firmly in his arms.Chapter Four
Charlotte arched away from Tal, shoving against his chest with all her strength. The low rumble surrounding her rapidly escalated to a deafening roar.
She covered her ears with her hands and screamed every obscenity she knew directly into his face.
A kaleidoscope of colors twirled and streaked, pulling them through the fabric of space. Charlotte felt his arms slip and then she was falling. She panicked, grasping at air as she frantically searched for him. The colors blinded her, their intensity nauseating.
Don’t leave me! Tal…
Stinging bits of snow pelted Charlotte’s face as she stumbled out of the transport conduit. She cried out, pulled her hood forward and retreated into the protection of her coat.
In a quick, smooth series of movements, Tal released his borrowed shape and formed a thick cloak large enough to wrap around them both. She encircled his torso with her arms and pressed her cold face into the hollow of his throat. His hair covered her exposed skin, protecting her everywhere the cloak did not. Violent shivers shook her and she moved closer, molding herself more tightly to his heat.
She felt him shudder and fidget, and then he began to speak rapidly in his musical native language. Why did she need to be here for this? He didn’t trust her enough to leave her alone and she didn’t blame him.
If fate presented another opportunity, she’d most likely run.
Tal continued to talk.
She clutched his back, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. His chest expanded sharply and he rose to his feet. Pulling her tightly against his chest, he stepped back into the vortex. She cried out. Even knowing what to expect, the spinning sensation disconcerted her.
When they emerged next to the car, he crawled into the backseat, cradling her in his arms. Head spinning, stomach tight, she waited for the vertigo to abate.
His fingers brushed her forehead. Soothing warmth penetrated her skin. She sighed and let her head loll against his shoulder. “What was that about?” Her cheek rested against warm, smooth skin.
He had shifted away the cloak and wore the long, open vest again. “Was it really necessary for you to take me…never mind. Why was it so important that you go there?”
“One of my companions, Vee, is ill. We communicated briefly in your dwelling but then we lost contact. Trey’s ship sustained damage when Joon attempted to collapse the vortex. Trey was able to transmit a signal but only to a specific location and only strong enough to reach the top of that mountain peak. He should be able to send down assistance soon.”
“What sort of assistance?” The warm cradle of his arms was way too comfortable. She should get up and sit beside him at least.
“Two members of Trey’s crew can pass as Earthlings. That was one of the reasons he chose them for this mission.”
“No. Their skin tone and hair color are acceptable variations of those found on Earth. Vee is a shape-shifter, but as I said, he is too weak to…” She heard the worry in his tone and pushed away from his chest so she could see his face. “Can you help Vee?”
“Vee’s illness has to do with energy. The malady I suffered when you first found me is the same ailment afflicting Vee.”
“Can’t anyone on the ship give Vee energy?”
“They’ve done what they can. Apprehending Joon must take priority over Vee’s weakness. Now it’s even more important that I capture Joon quickly.” Was this Vee Tal’s lover? She couldn’t remember if anything Tal said indicated Vee’s gender. Charlotte’s chest tightened and she returned her head to his shoulder. “Do you need to join your body with Vee’s?”
Tal chuckled. “Vee is my mentor. He is ancient and he is male. I am not attracted to other men. There are many ways of transferring energy. Sexual release is just one of them.”
She sat up again and glared at him. “Why didn’t you explain that to me last night?”
“It is theonlyway that does not require some skill on the part of the donor.” He paused. “Was it really so traumatic? I know I gave you pleasure.” Her hand trembled as she tucked a lock of tousled hair behind her ear. How could she hope to make him understand? She might find him fascinating and exciting and undeniably attractive, but he terrified her too.
“It wouldn’t matter if you came from another city instead of another planet, I don’t know you,” she whispered. “That sort of intimacy is generally shared with someone you know very well and care about.”
“All Earthlings abide by this restrictive standard?” She squirmed in his lap, obviously uncomfortable with the topic. “No. But I do.”
“I’m grateful you allowed me to touch you. I don’t take your sacrifice lightly.”
If there had been any hint of mockery in his tone or expression, she might have slapped him, but she heard only gratitude. “Will it be necessary for you to…touch me again?” A heated tingle crept along her spine. She was such a hypocrite.
The corner of his mouth twitched. “That depends on how long it takes me to find Joon.”
“How do you intend to look?” she asked, more than ready for a new subject. “Where do you start?” His stormy gazed captivated Charlotte. Her pulse leaped and his spicy scent filled her head.
“Has no man ever touched you as I touched you?” Apparently, he found the other topic more interesting.
“Only one. My husband.” She focused on the pain, forcing away her body’s ready response to his nearness.
He immediately pushed her off his lap and onto the seat beside him. “I was told…evenyoutold me you have no mate.” His tone snapped with accusation.
She relaxed a little, relieved by his reaction. “I no longer have a mate. My husband died last year.”
“I’m sorry. I know well the pain of losing a loved one.” Slowly, he extended his hand and splayed it against her chest, over her heart. He shuddered and gasped. “The pain is still strong. You loved this man deeply. Or was the loss more devastating than just a mate?”
“You can feel my pain?” The thought of sharing the burden, of knowing that someone understood the bone-deep ache, the ever-present desolation, made her tremble.
She wanted to shove him away, but she needed to tell him more. “They died in a car accident a year ago last night.”
“They? Your mate and who else?”
“Stephen, our son.” Tears clogged her throat, choking her. Grief squeezed her chest like the ruthless fist of a giant. “They were my whole world,” she whispered.
He slipped his hand inside her coat and somehow found bare skin. She automatically grabbed his wrist but he pressed his palm directly over her heart.
The rest came rushing out. “Victor’s family didn’t want us together. He was too old for me, he was…he was too good for me, but he loved me. He loved me.
And I was a good wife. I made him happy. We made each other happy.”
Tal pulled her against him, sandwiching his hand between their bodies.
“Release it to me,” he coaxed. “Turn loose of your pain and I will disperse it.”
Was it possible?
She let go of his wrist and wrapped her arms around his back, pressing herself against him. His intoxicating scent enveloped her and his hair brushed softly against her cheek.
“Let go. Let me help you.”
Squeezing her eyes shut, Charlotte concentrated on the ravaged emptiness deep within her being. She pictured it, separating it from the rest of her soul.
Then she cast it toward Tal with a nervous laugh.
He whispered softly, words she couldn’t understand, didn’t need to understand. His hair surrounded her, stroking her gently, soothing her.
Prickly sensations shot through her chest, concentrating beneath his palm. Charlotte moved restlessly. What was he doing? She hadn’t expected a physical reaction for emotional pain.
“Tal,” she whispered, trying to push him away.
“Relax. We’re almost there.”
His hand moved in a circular motion and he bent his head nearer to her chest. He said one phrase over and over, like an incantation or a mantra. Light radiated from his hand, sending warmth spiraling through her body.
Sweet, soothing heat pervaded her entire being and she sagged against his chest. Her head dropped back and she felt…peaceful.
She snuggled into his embrace, letting the last of her tension flow out of her tingling body. He brushed her hair away from her face and she rubbed her cheek against his fingers, smiling sleepily. She was completely relaxed for the first time in months. His smoke-colored eyes swirled and he returned her smile.
He is so beautiful. She didn’t speak the words out loud and prayed he couldn’t read them in her mind.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and closed her eyes.
Tal looked down at the woman curled against his chest and shook his head. He didn’t know how to operate the vehicle. He had no choice but to rouse her. But she looked so peaceful.
How could he find an Earthling beautiful?
His wandering gaze focused on her lips. He knew their texture, their soft resilience as his mouth moved over and against them. He wanted to taste them again, to kiss her until they were both breathless and needy.
Closing his eyes, he tried to push away the inappropriate desire, but his mind wouldn’t cooperate with his will. He saw himself lowering the device securing the front of her coat. He pictured his hand shifting into a blade, slitting her sweater and the straps binding her breasts. He would capture her startled gasp with his open mouth and lay her back across the seat.
Would she struggle or would she welcome his embrace? She had responded without hesitation during the energy transfer. The image wavered. The cramped confines of her vehicle wouldn’t suffice for what he wanted for them. He needed room to stretch and arch and thrust.
It was hopeless.
He hadn’t allowed himself to join their bodies during the energy exchange. He trembled with the need to sink into her feminine heat, to watch her surrender to the passion carefully banked within her being.
If he woke her gently, caressed and kissed—
Now was not the time!
His tardy conscious finally barged into his fantasy.
He focused his befuddled mind on Vee and Joon. He had no time to seduce a stranger. Regardless of how tempting he found her.
“Charlotte.” He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers. “You must awaken. I can’t operate this conveyance.” She stroked her hand across his chest and squeezed his shoulder. Tal groaned. “Charlotte, please wake up.”
Her thick lashes fluttered before her eyes opened.
Tal wanted to touch them with his tongue. He wanted to touch all sorts of places with his tongue.
“You are more effective than…” Her words trailed away as she noticed his hair. “Why is your hair all flighty? Static electricity?”
“Something like that.” He pictured her naked on her sleeping station with his “flighty” hair caressing her entire body. “Are you awake enough to operate the vehicle?”
Apparently fascinated, she tugged off the covering and raised her hand. His hair curled around it, sliding between her fingers in a silken caress. Tal shivered.
Impatiently, he took the entire misbehaving length and tossed it over his shoulders. Finally, he was able to command it into a coil.
“You can’t control it when you’re—distracted, can you?” she asked, her smile warm and inviting.
“Obviously, you are awake enough for our departure.” He shifted into the front seat, not bothering with the door.
Charlotte laughed. He was seriously turned-on.
What had he been doing while she snoozed? Her coat was still zipped. Her bra still fastened. Surely, he hadn’t gotten…like that just looking at her face. Her features were pretty on a good day, ordinary without makeup. She had nice eyes and a curvy figure. What had gotten him all revved up?
She opened the driver’s door and slipped in behind the wheel. His posture was tense, his expression positively arctic. Uncertainty tingled down her spine.
He’d located his friends and there was nothing she could do to help him find Joon.
Unless she really was Joon’s target.
Yeah, right. Aliens traveled here from another planetlooking for you.With a frustrated sigh, she started the car. “What now?”
“Return us to your dwelling,” he ground out.
“Am I free to go once I do?”
“No. I might have need of you.”
Images erupted in her mind, naked skin and long strands of silky black hair. Heat pulsed through her apprehension. “Look. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“I’m not embarrassed.”
“I didn’t mean to make you angry.” She tried again.
Without warning, he pounced on her. His hands found her upper arms and dragged her across the console and back into his lap. She yelped as her hip hit the molded plastic, but she landed safely, her legs draped over her own seat.
“I haven’t been with a woman for a very long time,” he said, his voice rough and urgent. “Holding you, feeling your soft body pressed against me, stimulates my senses. I have been trying to keep my hands off you, to stop myself from doing this.” His mouth claimed hers. He shoved his fingers into her hair, guiding her head to a more comfortable angle. The initial aggression gave way to persuasion and—seduction. He teased the seam of her lips with slow sweeps of his tongue. She groaned and opened for him, inviting a deeper exploration.
She raised her arms to circle his neck and felt his hair curl around her fingers. She tugged off her other glove. Strands of his silky hair encircled those fingers too and she shivered. The subtle clicking of her coat’s zipper warned of his intent, but she couldn’t stop kissing him.
Did she really want to stop him?
His warm fingers played against her ribs, hovering there, waiting to see if she would protest. When she didn’t, he cupped her breast. Charlotte moaned into his mouth and he returned the sound with his spicy breath.
The heat of his palm sank right through the lacy material of her bra. It wasn’t enough. She wanted to be naked. She wanted to feel his hands and his mouth and his hair all over her tingling skin. Squirming against his palm, she felt her nipple tighten and ache.
Oh, she wanted his mouth there, suckling, firm and hot.
A distinct throb erupted deep in her body. She pressed her thighs together, wishing they had more room. Was that spicy scent an aphrodisiac? Some sort of alien pheromone?
He pushed her sweater up and captured her nipple through the fabric of her bra. It still wasn’t enough!
Impatiently, she snapped open the clasp with one hand and he gladly did the rest. His fingers stroked her breast while his mouth feasted upon its sensitive crest.
Her head bumped against the window. They needed a bed—badly. He continued to suckle while his hand danced down across her tummy to cup her sex through her jeans. Charlotte cried out. Why hadn’t he started this while they were still in the backseat?
He drew firmly on her nipple. She arched her back, pressing him against her, lost in the urgency consuming both of them.
Suddenly his head snapped up, his eyes wide, his features contorted with pain.
“Tal,” she cried.
He shook, his head falling back against the seat.
“He—is—here.” He forced each word out with great effort.
She framed his face with her hands, fear clawing through the remains of her passion. “Who? Joon?
What should we do?”
For several terrifying moments, he just shook, his jaw clenched, his eyes squeezed shut. “He’s not trying to mask his presence,” he finally said, his voice hoarse and strained. “He’s either very weak or he thinks I am.”
She waited until he relaxed and opened his eyes before she crawled back into her seat. Reaching under her sweater to fasten her bra, she tugged her clothing back into place. “What just happened? Is it always so painful to sense him?”
“No. He often goes to great lengths to change his energy pattern, making it difficult to detect him.” He released a deep, shaky breath. “I felt as if his pattern slammed into me. I don’t think he did it intentionally.”
“What would cause his signal to intensify like that?” Turning the car around, she headed back toward her cabin. Okay, so there really was a Joon.
That didn’t mean his presence here had anything to do with her.
She continued to watch him out of the corner of her eye. The experience had clearly left him shaken. Well, she felt a little shaken too. Was lust a valid reason for getting involved in an interplanetary manhunt?
“Any number of things can cause a mage to lose control.” He offered her a smile and a sidelong glance.
Now that their desire had cooled, she felt foolish.
She was nearly thirty years old and she’d been making out in the front seat of a car. Adults didn’t do things like that. Certainly not rational adults with law degrees!
“So why areyouchasing Dez dar Joon? Are you a law enforcement officer?”
“I am a Master-level Mage.”
“I know that.” She rephrased the question. “What gives you the authority to apprehend him? Or is this personal?”
“Code regulator,” he said offhandedly.
“I believe the Ontarian equivalent of law enforcement officer is code regulator.”
Even the sudden shock of Joon’s signal hadn’t dispersed Tal’s desire completely. If she’d pull this infernal contraption over, he’d be willing to rut with her in the snow. It didn’t make sense. Why did he respond to her so powerfully?
“I’m not a code regulator,” he went on, forcing himself to think about something other than her lush, responsive breasts. “Trey has that authority, but only a shape-shifter can sense another shape-shifter. I’m assisting my brother.” The situation was far more complicated than that. Still everything he said was true.
“Ontarian. Is that the name of your planet?”
“I have not told you the name of my homeworld?” She laughed. “You haven’t told me much of anything.”
“That is clearly an exaggeration.” He smiled.
“Ontariese is the name of my homeworld. I am Ontarian.”
“But you are not a code regulator. Your brother Trey is and he also commands the ship you were concerned about. So how do Master-level Mages spend their time when they’re not helping code regulators sense shape-shifters?”
“That depends on the mage.”
She made a growling sound and hit the navigation wheel with her open palm. “You are the most exasperating man on this—or any—planet. Can you ever just give a straight answer to a simple question?” His smile broadened. Why did he find her frustration charming? “Yours are not simple questions.”
“What do you do when you’re not chasing Joon all over the galaxy? Simple enough?”
“Many Ontarians have abilities Earthlings would find extraordinary. When these abilities first manifest, it is reported to the Conservatory. It is my responsibility to visit the homes of these children and assess their potential. The ones I deem worthy are invited to the Choosing.”
“You’re like a football scout, a recruiter,” she said.
He didn’t understand the reference, but she seemed pleased with the comparison.
“What happens at the Choosing?”
“The mages who are available and willing choose an apprentice.”
“Do you have an apprentice?”
His body tensed and he looked beyond the transparent plate in front of him. “My search for Joon has kept me from many things.”
“You said you didn’t know why this guy is looking for me. Why do you believe I’m his target?” They had arrived at her dwelling. Tal pivoted to face her as she tucked the keys into the small pouch concealed in the front of her coat.
“That is definitely not a simple question.”
“I’m capable of comprehending fairly complicated concepts, but you have to start answering my questions. I’m really very smart—for an Earthling.” He chuckled. “Shall we enter your dwelling before I begin?”
“And have you change your mind between here and the door? No way.” She reached beneath her and pulled on something that allowed her to move the seat back away from the navigation wheel. “Do you know why he’s searching for me—ifI am this woman?”
“We are unsure of his motivation.”
“Vee and I. Vee is my mentor.”
She nodded. “And he is the one suffering from energy deprivation. What is his role in the search for Dez dar Joon?”
“Vee oversees the entire Conservatory. He is also a member of the Symposium.”
“The Symposium,” she murmured.
Tal sighed. “My world is complicated.”
“The Conservatory is the training facility for people with paranormal abilities. You haven’t actually said so, but it sounds like Master-level Mage is the highest level of training attainable. Dez dar Joon must have dropped out of the training program somewhere along the line because you said he hasn’t earned the title. If Vee is head master, I presume he is a Master-level Mage and more. You’ve never mentioned Trey as having any paranormal abilities. Is he a plain-Jane Ontarian?”
She displayed her ability to comprehend Ontarian complexities
acknowledging her accuracy. “Trey has no Mystic abilities, but he is the first son of the Royal House of Aune.”
“RoyalHouse of Aune?” The words burst from her and she made a soft, nervous sound. “You never mentioned the royal part before. Are you an Ontarian prince?”
“Prince is an Earth term and my family is only acknowledged as royal by one of the two sects.” He sighed. “I suppose the simple answer is yes.”
“Kiss a toad and find yourself…” She dissolved into laughter.
He watched her regain composure, annoyed by her amusement.
“I’m freezing. Let’s go inside and you can tell me about the two sects and the Symposium.”
Tal couldn’t help but feel she was amusing herself at his expense. She would explain about kissing toads before he offered any more information.
He reached the elevated platform spanning the front of her dwelling before he realized she had lagged behind. He heard the mechanical growl of a conveyance. It sounded like Charlotte’s vehicle only deeper.
She stood beside her vehicle, clutching her shoulder bag to her chest with both hands. Her gaze was fixed on the transport making its way up the narrow roadway. Tal shifted back into his Earth form, uncertain what she would do. Surely she wouldn’t attempt escape after all he had told her.
Her head turned toward him and their gazes locked. Tal slowly shook his head. He saw her decision in her eyes an instant before she set her body in motion.
Revealing his presence would endanger his mission. It was a risk he would not take—and she knew it.
I’m sorry. She mouthed the words then got in the vehicle with the intruder.Chapter Five
Sunlight gleamed off Rod Sanders’ wavy blond hair and his wide blue eyes stared back at her curiously. He looked like the all-American boy next door but Charlotte was far too anxious to fully appreciate his virile appeal.
“Hi there,” she said with an overly friendly smile while she climbed into the truck. “Get me the hell away from him!”
Rod glanced in Tal’s direction, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Who is he? What has he done?”
Slamming the truck into reverse, Rod backed down the driveway without another word.
Her heart thudded wildly. Wasn’t Tal going to make any attempt to stop her?
He couldn’t risk further exposure to Earthlings.
She answered her own question. He had no choice but to let her go.
“Has he harmed you?”
Why did Rod suddenly sound so formal? She looked at him but his eyes were fixed on the road ahead.
Hanging around with an alien is making you paranoid.
She took a deep breath and tried to ease the tension coiling in her belly but she couldn’t make herself relax.
What was she going to do? Would Tal just watch her until she was alone and then transport her back to the cabin? Could she really get away from someone with his power? She would just have to make sure she was never alone.
“Do you need medical treatment?” Rod asked.
There was that formality again. “Who was that man?”
“No medical treatment is necessary,” she teased, exaggerating his tense tone, but he didn’t respond to her humor. “He’s an ex-boyfriend. He heard about the fire and drove up to make sure I was okay. Then he proceeded to remind me why he is myex-
boyfriend.” Plausible, shouldn’t lead to too many more questions.
“Are your parents still alive?”
Her head snapped toward him.What?She certainly hadn’t expected that one. “Why would you care?”
He still didn’t look at her and fear knotted Charlotte’s abdomen. “What were you doing at my cabin just now? I’m thankful for the ride, mind you, but what brought you by?”
“I was looking for you.”
The corner of his mouth quirked and Charlotte went cold. It couldn’t be… But she’d seen Tal take on someone else’s form. This wasn’t Rod!
“Do your parents yet live?”
“What difference could that possibly make to you?” Could he sense her fear? How long would it take him to realize she knew? “Look, Rod, just drop me at Sardy Field. I’m not in the mood for anyone’s games.”
“I must verify my information,” he said tersely.
“Just answer a few questions and you will come to no harm.”
They came to a fork in the road and he slowed the truck to a stop. She released her seat belt and frantically pulled on the door handle. Nothing happened. With a little yelp, she tried the window button. Useless!
“I have disabled the controls,” he said casually.
Rubbing her sweaty palms against her jeans, Charlotte tried to think.Don’t panic. You have to remaincalm.
He turned off Highway 82 and drove deeper into the mountains.
“What do you want with me?” Everything Tal told her surged through her memory, mocking her and terrifying her.
“Answer my question.”
“No, my parents aren’t alive.” She offered no more information.
“When did they die? How did they die?”
How should she answer? What did he want to hear? What did he intend to do to her? Fear choked her. She could hardly breathe much less speak.
“I’ll make this even easier. Were they your natural parents or were you adopted?”
He couldn’t know. How could he possibly know?
“What difference does it make? They are all dead now.”
“This is not about them. It’s about you.” He looked at her and Charlotte gasped. His eyes were now a swirling mass of green and blue. “You’re one of them,” she cried, yanking on the handle again.
Jerking the truck to the side of the road, he jammed it into park and grabbed her arm. “That was Tal Aune, was it not? I cannot believe he is still alive.” Charlotte’s mind reeled. This had to be Joon and the only way out of the truck was over or through him. She shuddered, fighting back tears. There was no way that would work. She had to think of something else.
What did her parents have to do with Tal? None of it made sense. She had to get away from these creatures. She had to get away!
“You better open this door,” she said urgently.
“We will speak first.”
“Open the door.”
“When did you—”
“I’m going to throw up, vomit, be sick. Open the damn door!” She covered her mouth with her hand and began to gag.
* * * * *
Tal stormed about Charlotte’s dwelling in impotent fury. He had to gain control of his emotions or he would be no use to anyone.
Welcome back, little brother. Trey’s voice sounded inside his head.Vee told me to try the comlink again. Hesaid he was sensing some very strong emotions that mightnot bode well for your companion.
The Earthling has fled—again, Tal admitted begrudgingly.
If you need advice on how to hold on to a woman—
Don’t start with me. Tal cut him off.I will findCharlotte but others are involved now. Can you dispatchDro Tar Nex and Al Varellien? I seem to have my handsfull just dealing with Charlotte.
Trey’s laughter made Tal clench his fists. He could have at least closed the audiocom before he indulged his amusement.
Al is already on the ground, securing a headquarters incase this takes longer than we anticipated. I’ve locked ontoyour signal. I’ll send Dro Tar directly to you.
The link closed and Tal took a deep breath. The little Earthling was in danger whether she acknowledged the fact or not. They had been charged with her safety. And he intended to keep her safe—
with or without her cooperation!
* * * * *
The lock popped up with a distinct click and Charlotte threw the truck door wide. Her boots hit ice and she cried out, skidding toward the ditch beside the road. She quickly grabbed the slender trunk of an aspen to prevent herself from skidding over the edge.
Glancing over her shoulder, she fought the need to run. Rod watched every move she made. She bent from the waist, coughing and spitting as loudly as she could. After a moment, she looked under the truck, waiting for his feet to lower to the pavement.
He slammed the driver’s door and walked around the truck. Patience. She counted each step, forcing herself to wait until he reached the tailgate then she spun and dove for the cab. His hand closed around her ankle and Charlotte screamed.
Landing on her stomach half in and half out of the truck, she kicked wildly, clawing at the leather seat, trying to get inside.
He flipped her onto her back and pinned her down with the weight of his body. She thrashed and bucked but her feet dangled off the ground and he was too close to kick. He easily caught her flying fists, securing them above her head.
“Look at me,” he ordered.
She turned her face away.
He held both her hands in one hurtful fist and dragged her face toward his. “Open your eyes.”
“Get away from me!”
“If you are not who I think you are, I will let you go.”
“I’m not. I promise. I’m no one important.” She hated the terror revealed by her shrill tone.
“Just look at me,” he coaxed.
She stubbornly scrunched her eyes even tighter.
They could read minds. They could control… They could…
Her mind spun off into chaos and she renewed her struggles. Thrashing wildly, she reared up and bit his shoulder until she tasted blood. He howled, shoving away from her. She immediately brought up her knee hard between his legs.
His raw, angry wail echoed in her ears, but she didn’t pause. She ran along the road, her arms and legs pumping frantically. Tears cooled her heated cheeks. Each sobbing breath made her head spin.
She couldn’t stop but she had nowhere to go!
A scream, part frustration and part fear, built within her. Where could she hide? Why were they looking for her?
Where the hell was Tal?
She slammed into him so forcefully it knocked her backward. He’d materialized out of nowhere. His hands caught her upper arms, steadying her for a second before he stepped in front of her.
Get a grip. She forced her chaotic mind to focus.Thecavalry is here. You led him right to Joon. Now Tal willarrest him and they’ll both get their butts off your planet.
Hope and fear chased each other through her body, drying her mouth, making her tremble. Moving half a step to the side, Charlotte studied the other man. Had he taken over the identity of a firefighter? Had there ever been a firefighter or had it been Joon all along?
The men began to argue as they faced off like gunfighters. She wished she could understand what they were saying. What had Joon done? What did he want with her?
She felt a sharp ping deep inside her brain and suddenly she could understand their words. The language still sounded alien to her ears but somewhere between her inner ear and her brain, their words were being translated into English.
“You had no authorization to Summon the Storm,” Tal said. She could only see his back but the charge sounded serious. “I have been sanctioned by the Mystics to return you to Ontariese by whatever means necessary.”
Joon laughed. “And what ‘means’ do you believe will give you power over me? Vee himself cannot control me. Do you really believe you can?” Tal’s body stiffened and the coil of his hair tightened. She wanted to help him, to support him, but she knew anything she did would only distract him. This was way out of her league.
Joon’s shape rippled, such a subtle movement, she wondered if she’d imagined it. But Tal dove for him, toppling the other man to the pavement.
The men rolled across the snowy asphalt, landing in the dirty ridge left behind by the plows. Inches beyond the insubstantial mound lay a deep ravine.
She started toward them but stopped herself.How areyou going to help him, you fool?
She could see no trace of the firefighter now. Long white hair tangled with black and she couldn’t distinguish between their flailing limbs. Tal pinned Joon to the ground, his forearm across Joon’s throat.
Joon began to sink into the pavement and Charlotte gasped. He looked as if he were melting. Quickly encircling his wrists with Joon’s white hair, Tal tugged him back to the surface.
A siren wailed in the distance but she couldn’t take her eyes off the men. Tal dragged Joon to his feet and spun a web around him, a transparent, gently fluxing grid. She watched Tal’s movements, spellbound by his grace and speed.
Joon struggled against the grid for a moment then stood perfectly still.
She had her first unobstructed view of Dez dar Joon. Like Tal, his skin was pale and smooth, but unlike Tal, hatred and malice twisted his angular features, making them appear sharp and harsh. Dirt and debris now decorated his long white hair. The color of his tunic and loose-legged trousers perfectly matched his turquoise eyes.
“If I did not know better, I would think you planned this,seyati,” Joon muttered, putting special emphasis on the word. Why hadn’t her mysterious auto-translator provided the English equivalent?
“You lost the right to speak that word when you were banished,” Tal panted. The bright winter sun harshly accented his ashen pallor.
Joon turned his turquoise gaze toward Charlotte and she felt a sharp stab in her brain. She yelped and staggered back, closing her eyes as his mocking laughter filled her head.
“Protect her if you can,seyati. You have won only this round.”
Even through her closed lids, she could see the fluctuating light. The ground beneath her trembled and the wind roared in her ears. A sharp crack of thunder swallowed Tal’s shout. She rubbed her eyes, trying to focus.
Dez dar Joon was gone.
She barely had time to register that fact when she noticed the squad car speeding toward them.
“Shit!” She ran for the opposite side of the road.
The embankment was not as steep here. Hopefully, they could lose the cops in the trees. Glancing back, she skittered to a halt. Tal stood in the middle of the street, calmly watching the car approach.
“We have to go,” she called out. “There is no way I can explain you!”
“There is no need.”
“Why is that?”
“This code regulator is a member of Trey’s crew.” She stayed at the edge of the pavement, ready to bolt if he was mistaken.
“Come on, you guys, get a move on,” the female driver called from the open window without bothering to get out of the car. “There’s big trouble brewing. We’ve got to get you out of here.” She certainly didn’t sound Ontarian. The faux officer spoke English without a trace of Tal’s accent.
“Girls in front, boy in back,” she suggested cheerfully.
They piled into the vehicle and the driver took off at breakneck speed. She pulled the emergency brake and spun the car around before Charlotte could fasten her seat belt.
“Are you sure you’re Ontarian?” Charlotte cried.
“Dro Tar Nex. Glad to meet ya,” she introduced. “I love this planet!”
Dro Tar floored it, slamming Charlotte back in her seat.
“How long have you been on Earth? You sound like a native.” The woman looked entirely human, including her bright blue eyes.
“Contacts,” she explained, wiggling her highly arched brows. “My language infusion came directly from the Symposium so it was a little more in-depth than Master Aune’s. Besides, Vee infused him and Vee likes to sound all staunch and ancient. Even when he speaks Ontarian, Vee uses phrases that were retired centuries ago.”
“Is Vee your mentor also?” Charlotte asked, fascinated by the contrast between Dro Tar and Tal.
“I’m not a Mystic. I work with Commander Aune—that’s Tal’s brother. He even lets us call him Trey when no one else is around, but Mystics like to keep things formal. Don’t you, Master Aune?”
“You mentioned there being a problem, a need for our immediate departure,” he prompted.
Her demeanor changed immediately. She held the steering wheel with both hands and forced her mobile mouth into a stoic line. “Yes, sir. They found Rod Sanders’ body a couple hours ago. I just heard an air unit report the location of his truck so my fellow men in blue are going to be crawling all over this area in nothing flat.”
“Then there really was a Rod Sanders? I thought maybe Dez dar Joon just created an alter ego.” Charlotte glanced out the window. They were almost back to Highway 82.
“No such luck. One of his guys found his body in the dumpster behind the station. Joon must not have expected to need the shape very long. He did little to cover his tracks.”
“Are we going into Aspen?” Charlotte asked.
“Yeah, but it would sure help if…” She paused and then rephrased. “Master Aune, if you could please emulate my uniform, it would decrease the danger of discovery.”
“Stop the conveyance so I can study your shape.” Charlotte chuckled. “Men get slapped for saying things like that on Earth.”
Dro Tar shot her a conspirator’s smile.
Tal and Dro Tar got out and walked to the passenger side of the car. Charlotte felt as if she had front row seats to a special-effects demonstration. Dro Tar turned around in a slow pirouette.
She could barely hear what they were saying but Tal’s abilities fascinated her. His basic shape remained the same but his clothing transformed into a neatly pressed uniform. He tried three hairstyles before Dro Tar approved his appearance.
He pulled her door open and she got out. “Does this mean I get to be the bad guy—Officer Aune?” His jet-black hair gleamed in the sunlight, the top slightly longer than the neatly clipped sides and back.
The angular arrangement of his features hadn’t changed all that much but his skin now held a warm, golden glow. His eyes appeared human, the irises the same smoky mixture of gray, blue and black.
He smiled and she felt her stomach somersault. He was gorgeous. She wasn’t sure if it was the more conventional hairstyle or the perfectly fitted uniform, but Tal made one devastating cop.
“Only if I get to choose when and how to use the handcuffs,” he responded to her nearly forgotten question.
She felt her skin burn and knew she was blushing to the roots of her hair.
His soft chuckle played across her senses like sun-warmed fingers.
“Why did you go with him?” he asked, catching her off guard.
Charlotte postponed her answer while he opened the back door and helped her into the backseat of the car. He started to get in after her but Dro Tar made a small noise.
“Up here, Officer Aune,” she said lightly. “That would be a breach of protocol.”
He took the seat Charlotte had just vacated.
“Why did you depart with Dez dar Joon?” Tal asked again. He turned nearly sideways on the front seat, his gaze boring into hers.
The meet and greet was over, back to business.
“Obviously, I didn’t realize it was Joon,” she snapped. “I just needed to…”
“Needed to what?” he persisted.
“Rod Sanders was one of the firefighters who responded the night you arrived. I thought I could trust him. I thought… I promised I wouldn’t do anything to endanger you and I didn’t. I was just going to have Rod take me to the airport so I could book a flight to Denver, but Rod— Oh dear God,mypurse. My purse is in that truck. They’ll think I… At the very least they’ll think I stole the truck.”
“Can we go back for it?” Tal asked.
Dro Tar listened to the radio for a minute and then shook her head. “Too late. They’re already on-site.”
“What are we going to do? This is terrible. This connects me with a murder and I can’t explain the truth.” Charlotte shook with foreboding.
“I told you that you didn’t comprehend what was going on. I told you the danger would—”
“When did you realize he was an imposter?” Dro Tar cut in, saving Charlotte the trouble of strangling Tal. The last thing she needed right now was a sanctimonious lecture.
“Almost immediately. Once I got in the truck, he started asking me questions about my family. He wanted to know if I was adopted.”
“Were you?” Tal asked.
Charlotte took a deep breath. He didn’t mean to be rude and annoying but apparently tact was not taught on Ontariese. “I was, but what the hell does that have to do with any of this? I’ve had it with you—people.
Are you going to tell me what this is about?Whyis Dez dar Joon looking for me?”
Tal had to look away from her lovely face. Her wide blue eyes stirred feelings in him he wasn’t willing to consider. Anger painted the crest of her cheeks with rosy color but vulnerability shone in the depths of her gaze.
He had to protect her from Joon, but he also needed to understand what Joon wanted with her.
Would ignorance keep her safe or would it simply leave her unprepared as she had been at her dwelling?
Before Tal could decide what he deemed best, Dro Tar answered her question.
“We don’t know why he’s looking for you. Even the Symposium couldn’t give us a definitive answer.”
“You don’t know what he wants?” she muttered.
“That’s just great. No, that’s perfect.”
“Do you know anything about your biological parents?” Dro Tar went on.
Charlotte sulked back in the seat, folding her arms across her chest. “Not much. My whole life, I’ve had dreams of a woman. I like to think she’s my mother but I’ve never been able to see her clearly. Dad was never in the picture as far as I know, and Mom relinquished all rights to me shortly after my birth.
Probably a teen pregnancy.”
“You know this as fact or this is what you’ve been told?” Tal asked.
She glared at him. He feared that would end her cooperation, but after a pause, she inundated him with information.
“Okay, you want a biography. I’ll just spell it out. I had everything I wanted as a child, but by the time I reached my teens, Mom more or less lost interest in her pet project. See, no deep, dark secrets, and the trauma came long after childhood.”
The pain he’d dispersed was building within her again. How could he learn about her background, figure out what might be drawing Joon to her, without upsetting her further? There was no help for it. He needed answers.
“How did you meet your life mate?” Tal asked.
“Was your joining arranged or are Earthlings allowed to choose their own partners?”
“Arranged marriages haven’t existed in America for years. Victor’s father and my adopted father are business partners so our families spent a lot of time together. Victor was almost ten years older than I am and my pedigree is questionable at best, so neither set of parents was thrilled with the romance.” Pain radiated from her like heat off a firestone and nothing she said made Joon’s motivation any clearer.
Tal sighed. “I apologize for delving into issues you find unpleasant.”
“Whatever,” she muttered, and looked out the window.
She lapsed into sullen silence and Tal fought the urge to comfort her. He had no idea how to go about soothing her, even if he were so inclined, but his need to embrace her, to touch her, irritated him.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” Dro Tar said lightly in Ontarian. She tapped her thumbs against the wheel that controlled the vehicle’s direction.
“What, pray tell, does that mean?” Tal muttered.
“We’ve got Joon’s target. All we need to do is wait for him to come after her again.”
There was wisdom in Dro Tar’s suggestion. There was alsodangerin Dro Tar’s suggestion.
“If we fully understood his purpose, we could better anticipate his actions,” Tal mused. “Does he want her alive or is his intent murder? There are so many variables.”
With her open palm, Charlotte smacked the metal grill separating the seats. “I know you’re talking about me but I can’t understand you anymore. What happened to my translator?”
“Translator?” he asked in her language.
“When you were arguing with Joon, I could understand you.”
He looked at Dro Tar and they said in unison,
“Vee must have been translating for you.”
“Why did he stop?”
“He is extremely weak,” Tal reminded her. “It is probable his levels dropped too low for him to continue the transmission.”
“Joon was shocked that you were still alive,” Charlotte said. “Did he cause your crash?”
“He attempted to collapse the vortex. How did you get away from him?”
She smiled, proud of her ingenuity. “I pretended to be sick to my stomach so he let me out of the truck.” Dro Tar laughed. “Good thinking.”
“He wanted me to look at him. He said if I wasn’t who he thought I was, he’d let me go. Any idea what that means?”
“Is it possible she’s Ontarian?” Dro Tar asked. “Did you sense anything when you scanned her?”
“I haven’t scanned her.” His eyes focused on Charlotte’s face and she began to squirm. “She seems to have an aversion to such things.”
“I don’t want you in my head,” she confirmed.
“Don’t even think about it.”
Tal turned back to Dro Tar with a shrug. If there was no other choice, he could always scan her while she slept. “Has Al secured the dwelling?”
“Yeah. He had one last errand to run then he’ll meet us there.” Dro Tar switched to Ontarian. “If we take her to the ship, she’d be safe from Joon. The scanners would detect him no matter what shape he used.”
Charlotte was excluded from the conversation again, Tal realized. “We need to draw him out, but I will not allow her to be used without her knowledge.”
“So tell her. It’s not like she hasn’t realized the bad guy is after her.”
Tal knew Dro Tar was right, but he debated how best to approach Charlotte. He didn’t want to overwhelm her with how embroiled she truly was in Ontarian complications. Still she needed to understand the true scope of her peril.
Charlotte looked around to see where they were.
Highway 82 became Hallam Street right after it crossed Castle Creek. They were approaching the elevated bridge that would take them into Aspen.
Their language was odd yet musical. She had already pointed out the rudeness of using it in front of her. They didn’t seem to care.
Depression closed in like a thundercloud. At least fear had given her energy. All she wanted to do right now was curl up in a ball and sleep, escaping the pain and uncertainty that had become her life.
They exchanged several short volleys of conversation before the woman pulled the car into the driveway of a small A-framed house. It looked like a gingerbread house with its steep roof and shingled gables.
Tal opened her door and Charlotte stepped out of the car. A brisk wind blew her hood back from her face but she didn’t bother raising it again.
“I have to return the car before shift change so they don’t realize I borrowed it,” Dro Tar said after letting them in. “Help yourself to whatever you need.” The house had a rustic charm but it was small and sparsely furnished. Charlotte crossed to the burgundy leather loveseat and sat. Tal watched her silently. She suspected whatever he had to say wasn’t going to please her.
In one elegant movement, he shifted back to his natural shape and sat in the matching recliner.
Charlotte smiled despite her sullen mood. He thought nothing of his abilities.
She no longer found his appearance shocking. The long coil of his hair hung over the chair’s arm and brushed the floor. A hint of blue threaded through the raven-black strands. His skin reverted to a smooth alabaster that any princess would envy and dark, slashing brows accented his unusual eyes.
“What are you thinking when you look at me?” he asked softly.
“How very different we are and yet how similar.” She held his gaze for a silent moment, feeling like a child who had stayed too long on a merry-go-round.
“What am I going to do? I don’t even know who’s more dangerous to me—the police, Joon or you.”
“I can transport you to Trey’s ship,” he said softly.
“You would be safe there.”
“But that’s not what you want me to do.”
“That is not what Ineedyou to do. Dez dar Joon is a very dangerous man. We don’t yet understand his interest in you, but he has gone to a great deal of trouble to find you.”
“You want to use me as bait to catch Joon.” He rested his hands on the arms of the chair and inclined his head in a regal nod. “Yes. Here, you are a challenge to him. The fact that I guard you will heighten his enjoyment.”
“Why? Who is Joon to you? He called youseyati.
What does that mean?”
The question set him in motion. He crossed his legs then uncrossed them, scooted forward then back again. “It is not easily explained. How much do you really want to know?”
Charlotte kicked off her boots and pulled her legs up in front of her. Resting her heels on the edge of the loveseat, she wrapped her arms around her knees. “I want to know everything.”
He nodded again and leaned forward, his forearms on his thighs. “For thousands of cycles, Ontariese honored a social structure nearly backward from yours. Female Ontarians have abilities males do not.
One of the most significant is the ability to recognize potential and latent powers in a prospective mate.
This allowed them to choose mates who complemented and enhanced their own abilities, making us stronger as a people. For this reason, females led each of the great houses.”
The wistful catch in his tone tugged at Charlotte’s heart. “You saidled. Is Ontariese no longer matriarchal?”
“E’Lanna dar Aune was the last High Queen of Ontariese. She chose Frim dar Joon as her mate.”
“Ah, a family feud,” Charlotte said.
“A family feud that rapidly escalated into devastating civil war,” he corrected. “After giving her two daughters, Frim decided he no long wished to bow to the dictates of a woman. He left her and reverted to his family name. He took a second mate, which is against the Ontarian Code of Ethics. When E’Lanna confronted him with his crimes, he swore to destroy the House of Aune, to wipe it from the face of Ontariese. The High Queen was forced to protect her children from their own father. Some believe he was mad. I believe he was evil. All of his descendants took on the name of Joon from that day forth.”
“The House of Aune and the House of Joon,” Charlotte said thoughtfully. “Are there otherhouses?”
“There are a total of six. When Frim dar Joon launched his campaign to reorder life on Ontariese, each of the six great houses was forced to choose sides. The House of Joon rules the Reformation Sect and the House of Aune heads the Traditionalist Sect.”
“And the two sects have been at war ever since?” No wonder he hated Dez dar Joon.
“For many cycles—which is roughly equivalent to your years—the Traditionalist Sect was much more powerful than the Reformation Sect. We did our best to ignore their radical views and continue on as we had always lived.”
He paused and his gaze drifted off into the distance. Whatever happened next had affected him personally and painfully. Charlotte knew the expression all too well. She didn’t rush him. She knew how that felt too.
“Twenty-five cycles after the Great Conflict began, Fro dar Joon, Frim’s son, declared war on the Traditionalist Sect. Frim had terrorized E’Lanna, but his focused aggression was nothing compared to the chaos his son unleashed.” He swallowed, and when he spoke again, his voice was deeper, softer. “Life was changed in ways you cannot imagine. The peaceful Ontariese that had flourished for eight millennia ceased to exist. The evil ambition of one man…”
“How long has the conflict been going on?” she asked.
“This is cycle eighty-nine of the Great Conflict. Six cycles ago, Shadow Assassins killed my mother and two sisters. In the past fifty cycles, no female bearing the name of Aune has been allowed to live.” Pity and compassion gripped her heart. She went to him. Kneeling in front of his chair, she captured his hands in hers. He allowed her touch and his gaze caressed her face.
“Do they only target women?” she asked gently, feeling sick inside.
“Women? My sisters were six and nine, hardly women. They kept my mother alive for three weeks before theyallowedher to die. But yes, the vast majority of their victims are female.”
He took a deep breath. Charlotte felt his fingers tighten against hers and then he rushed on.
“Because the House of Aune is matriarchal, Fro dar Joon knew that slaughtering our women would force us to conform to their reformations. Many joined the Reformation Sect out of fear or some hope that they could end the Great Conflict. Still bowing to their insanity is abandoning everything Ontariese was and could be again. The Traditionalist Sect must defend the ancient ways and the sacred codes.”
He spread his legs and Charlotte moved closer.
“How can you defend yourselves against such ruthlessness?” she whispered. The spicy scent that always surrounded him grew stronger. Was it released by emotion?
“Since the onset of the Great Conflict, every female Aune has been hidden, born in secret and forced to use whatever means necessary to conceal their identities.”
“But the House of Joon finds them?”
“It does not seem to matter what we do, Reformation spies are everywhere. And their Shadow Assassins… They’re Mystics recruited because of their skill-set and conditioned to be ruthless, nearly mindless murderers.” He could not speak for a time.
“My mother and sisters were the last females with even the faintest of blood ties to the High Queen.
With their deaths, we thought the Reformation Sect had finally accomplished their objective, yet Joon did not seem satisfied.”
She sat back on her heels, stunned as she realized what he was implying. “You think I’m one of these…descendants?”
“What I think is not important.” His hands closed around her upper arms and he drew her back to her knees, bringing her close against his chest. “This must be what Dez dar Joon believes. It is the only reason he would seek you out. The only reason he would question your parentage.”
She licked her lips and stared up into his eyes. “But it isn’t possible. How could it be possible? It would mean that I’m—not human.”
“You said you had dreams of a woman you believe to be your mother. Can you form her image within your mind?”
“I’ll try.” She closed her eyes and pictured the woman who had haunted her dreams for as long as she could remember.
His fingers brushed against her temple. “Can you clarify her face?”
Shaking her head, she opened her eyes. “Her face is always in shadow. I’ve never seen her clearly.” His hand returned to her arm, his thumbs lightly rubbing. “I need to scan you, Charlotte. We need to know.”
She stiffened, knowing he was right but dreading the invasion. “I… The night I found you on the mountain, the strangest thing happened. I wiped the mirror and when I looked at my reflection, my eyes were swirling like yours.”
“Has it happened since?”
“No. I thought I was seeing things. You had me just a little stressed out.”
He smiled and traced the curve of her cheek with his fingertip. “Let me scan you. I’ll only touch what you allow me to touch. It shouldn’t take me long to determine if you have any spark of Ontarian energy.
That’s all we need to know.”
His hands moved to frame her face and she trembled. She grabbed his wrists and arched away from him. “But you took energy from me. Weren’t you able to tell if it was human or Ontarian?”
“Charlotte,” he said softly. “I won’t hurt you. This is different than what I did before, much easier. When I took energy from you, I was nearly dead. I was too weak to scan you. Just try to relax.”
She closed her eyes, waiting for the push, the alien penetration of his mind into hers. His thumbs brushed across her cheeks and his fingers sank into her hair. Her breathing shuddered and she pressed her lips tightly together.
“Relax,” he whispered. His lips brushed against the corner of her mouth as he whispered the word again.
“Kiss me,” she said, needing a distraction from her fear.
He touched the other corner of her mouth with a light, teasing kiss then gently rubbed his lips across hers. Charlotte tilted her head to the side and parted her lips. His mouth pressed, moved and caressed. She didn’t understand the sudden urgency that expanded within her but she wrapped her arms around him and stroked him with her tongue.
She captured his throaty groan in her open mouth and became bolder. Arching into him, she tasted him, fascinated by the texture and the heat of his mouth.
One of his hands moved to splay across the back of her head and his arm circled her waist, pulling her more tightly against him. He kissed her deeply with slow, sensual sweeps of his tongue.
She couldn’t think. Her head spun and her senses filled with Tal. She wanted more. She wanted him.
His hand found the hem of her sweater and bunched the material until he found bare skin.
Clutching his back, she met each thrust of his tongue eagerly with her own. His hand stroked her back, his kiss devoured her mouth and gradually she felt his touch within her mind.
He was careful, tender, and she opened to him, letting him explore. They continued kissing long after the scan had finished. The intimacy soothed her, feeding her basic need for affection.
Tal drew away, his lips lingering against her skin.
“What did you find?” she asked, breathless and tingly.
“I am not sure,” he confessed. He rested back in the chair but took her hands in a loose grip, preventing her from retreating entirely. “You seem human and yet there is something different as well. I cannot explain it but there were gaps, areas that were inaccessible to me.”
“Is that unusual? I wasn’t blocking you intentionally.”
“I know. And yes, it is highly unusual.”
“Then could he be right? Am I Ontarian?”
His gaze searched her face before he relented with a frustrated shrug. “I do not know.”
She pulled her hands from his and stood. “But Joon must. He knows something we don’t or he wouldn’t be here.”
“That would seem likely.”
Her heart pounded and she pushed her fingers through her hair. “If he thinks I’m a descendent, it can only mean one thing. Dez dar Joon means to kill me.”Chapter Six
Standing at the kitchen window, Charlotte enjoyed the extraordinary view. Beyond the rows of charming Victorian cottages rose Aspen Mountain, ski runs streaking its face like undulating stripes. A sky so blue it seemed to glow provided a backdrop for fluffy white clouds.
She glanced over her shoulder. Tal stood in the archway and her pulse picked up speed. She felt his gaze travel over every inch of her exposed skin. Did he do it intentionally? Was he able to stimulate her nerve endings with just a look?
“Dro Tar will bring you food when she returns. She suggested you enjoy the bathing facilities within her chamber.”
Charlotte hadn’t heard a phone ring. “How did she contact you?”
“She contacted Trey and he contacted me. My telepathic abilities require an initial linking. I’m not linked with Dro Tar.”
“I see,” she said, setting down her glass. She didn’t understand half of what he said. Or she understood his meaning, she just had no idea how such things were possible.
A long, hot bubble bath suddenly sounded very appealing.
The “bathing facilities” proved to be a large, jetted tub. She carefully locked the bathroom door and turned on the water. A spa-style bathrobe was folded neatly on a shelf in the walk-in closet. She set it beside the tub.
She poured liquid bubble bath under the running water and the soothing scent of lavender filled the air.
A glass of wine would have elevated the scenario from pleasant to perfect but she wasn’t complaining.
She quickly shed her clothes and sank into the sudsy water’s warm embrace.
Relaxing against the sloped contour of the tub, she waited for the water to cover the intake valve so she could activate the jets. She pushed her thumb against the stiff button, listened to the rumbling hum then groaned as the water pulsed rhythmically all around her.
She closed her eyes and let the tension seep from every muscle in her body. How could so much stress be packed into less than two days? It felt like a lifetime since the first crash of thunder disrupted her solitude.
Images rolled though her mind as she lazily reviewed the events. She’d felt only fear and pity when she first saw Tal’s gaunt face, but his touch sent her senses reeling and tempted her with possibilities.
He emanated power and mystery. Yet he could be kind and protective. She wanted to understand him.
She wanted to… She didn’t know what she wanted. A shape-shifting alien had no place in her well-ordered life.
As if to mock that conclusion, his face solidified within her mind. He smiled and her lips parted of their own volition. She felt the feathery brush of his fingertips against her cheek and gasped. His touch had been tangible, distinct.
She tried to open her eyes but felt disoriented, as if she floated in an endless sea, not a bathtub. The sensations pulled her, drew her deeper into the sensual spell. Her head lolled against the tub, her arms floating at her sides. Lethargy stole her strength and curiosity overcame her fear.
This wasn’t real. It was a vivid fantasy, a continuation of the feelings he had unleashed with his kisses. She felt secure within the illusion, free to explore her own desires.
She concentrated and focused until she saw him clearly. He stood beside the tub, smiling down at her.
Without a word, he tugged off his boots and shifted out of his long vest, leaving his chest bare.
He knelt, his smoky gaze boring into hers. Her heartbeat accelerated and she slowly licked her lips.
Muscles bunched across his shoulders. His chest and abdomen rippled with intriguing definition. She wanted to touch him, to stroke her hands over each contour of his torso. Still she couldn’t move.
“Relax,” he whispered. “Let me touch you.” She heard his words, but like the images, his voice was inside her head. His fingers stroked along her jaw and her tongue darted out nervously. This wasn’t real. So why could she feel his fingers?
His thumb traced her lower lip and she touched it with the tip of her tongue. She tasted the faint salt of his skin.
This wasn’t real.
Leaning over her, he squeezed her shoulders and ran his hands down her arms. She heard a faint splash as his hands sank beneath the surface of the water and felt his knuckles brush the outer swell of her breasts. A shiver racked her body and she felt her nipples gather beneath the bubbles.
This wasn’t real.
Fear speared through the sensual lassitude and Charlotte tried to struggle. She couldn’t move. She could feel his hands sliding across her flesh but she couldn’t move. Panic welled up within her. This wasn’t right.
“Stop it,” she whispered. “Please, stop.” His features fluctuated subtly. A flash of turquoise flickered through his eyes.
This wasn’t Tal!
This couldn’t be real!
But she could still feel his hands. He caressed her neck and dipped again to cup her breast. “Oh yes,” he murmured.
Charlotte battled the illusion. She fought the images, screaming and screaming, but she knew the sound was only in her mind.
“I know who you are,” she shouted. “I know what you’re doing!”
“Do you?” The voice changed and then the image.
His features sharpened, his face narrowed. The long strands of his hair faded to white and his eyes turned turquoise. His hands slowly circled her neck and he grinned. “It’s really very simple. You come to me tonight or you die here and now. I would prefer to be your mentor, but I cannot allow you to fall into the hands of the Mystics. They have done too much damage already.”
His hands tightened around her throat and Charlotte gasped for breath. She felt her airway compress and close.
She couldn’t breathe!
In terrified waves of panic, she broadcast her peril.
She reached out with every fiber of her being for Tal, for Dro Tar, for any creature in the universe capable of hearing.
The pressure on her throat loosened and Joon brushed her brow with a mocking kiss. “I’ll make this even easier. Show me where you are. I’ll come to you.
Surely that’s better than death. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Someone pounded on the door.
“Show me now!” Joon demanded. “Make your choice.”
She felt hands shaking her. And still the illusion remained. She could see Joon, could feel his hands choking her, but in reality, someone shook her body and frantically called her name.
Her body was dragged from the tub and clutched against something warm and solid. Tal’s voice called to her from very far away.
“Don’t fighthim. Fight theillusion. He can only hurt you if you believe it’s real.”
She focused on Tal’s voice, clung to the hope triggered by his words.
“This isn’t real,” she whispered, staring directly into Joon’s turquoise eyes. “Youare not real.” The pressure around her throat lessened and she quickly drew in a deep breath.
“I’m real enough to snap your neck,” he sneered then his expression softened. “But that’s not what I want for us. Show me where you are and I’ll protect you forever—or defy me and pay the price.” His eyes narrowed and the pressure increased again.
“Charlotte, let me in,” Tal insisted. “Accept me into your mind.”
She felt the push of Tal’s entry but she didn’t fight it. She welcomed him, opened eagerly, and he materialized within the illusion.
Tal wrapped his arm around Joon’s throat and ordered, “Let her go!”
Joon struggled, rocking forward and jerking back.
He twisted his hands but lacked the leverage to snap her neck. Tal plunged his thumb and forefinger into Joon’s eyes and Joon screamed.
Joon butted the back of his head against Tal’s chest.
She heard the crack of bone on bone. Tal continued the pressure against Joon’s eyes, but Joon’s hands remained locked around her throat.
This isn’t real!She repeated the words in her mind, forcing herself to accept their truth. Her senses rejected the fact. She could see him. She could feel him—and she couldn’t breathe.
Rage threatened Tal’s control. He wanted to rip Dez dar Joon’s head from his body but that wouldn’t help Charlotte.Shehad to force Joon from her mind or she would die.
“Charlotte,” Tal said urgently. “Stop fighting him.
Relax and your throat will open. He is not really choking you. He has made you believe an illusion.” Her terror-glazed eyes stared up at Joon. She was not listening.
“Charlotte, look at me. Look only at me.” She dragged her gaze away from Joon and looked at Tal directly. He immediately intensified their link.
He filled her mind with images, confusing the illusion, weakening its hold. She gasped and sucked in a ragged breath.
“He’s not real. He’s not here.” Tal commanded her attention with his voice. “Look at me, Charlotte.
Come back to me.”
Tal felt the illusion slipping.
“You’re not real,” she croaked out, her gaze moving back to Joon.
Tal blocked Joon’s sudden mental lunge. He absorbed the energy before it reached her, pain ricocheting through his being. He recoiled from the mental assault, momentarily losing focus. Joon’s presence intensified and his smug laughter rang through the illusion.
“You’re not real,” she said more forcefully. She raised her arms and peeled Joon’s hands away from her throat. “Get out of my mind.”
Joon muttered a curse and turned on Tal. “You cannot protect her forever,seyati. If she steps beyond your grasp for even a moment, Iwillfind her.” Tal didn’t respond to Joon. The illusion disintegrated, taking Joon’s image with it.
Tal sat on the bathroom floor, cradling Charlotte’s trembling body against his chest. He stroked her back and rocked her gently. She clung to him, dragging air into her lungs in long, ragged gasps.
Not again! Never again would a Joon harm an Aune. Not while Tal lived and breathed. His body shook with determination and he buried his face in her hair. He had to get her to Vee. Vee would know how to unlock the hidden spaces within her mind.
Vee had access to knowledge even Tal didn’t understand.
He shifted restlessly, trying to ease her away from him, but her arms clutched his back. He held her for a long time, waiting for her fear to recede and his anger to cool.
“You’re safe,” he murmured. Her warm body clung to him and Tal groaned. His hair uncoiled and desire sizzled through his blood. “There’s nothing to fear.”
Her muffled laugh vibrated her breasts against his chest, torturing Tal with their softness. She had apparently forgotten she was warm and naked, fresh from her bath.
“Nothing to fear,” she whispered. “If he can strangle me without even touching me, how will I ever be safe?”
Tal knew she was still frightened and he wanted to comfort her, but her heated skin played havoc with his good intentions. She sat up, still on his lap, and spread her fingers against his chest. His heart thumped against her palm and Tal couldn’t suppress his need to touch her. He cupped her cheek with his palm and traced her full, lower lip with his thumb.
“I will not leave your side,” he promised. “I will link my mind to yours so that—”
“No.” She pushed his hand away, her eyes flashing. “I will not be a prisoner in my own life. I don’t want anyone in my mind, even to protect me.
We have to find him before he tries again.” Tal knew it wasn’t that simple but he didn’t argue with her. He rested his hand lightly on her shoulder and stubbornly kept his gaze on her flushed face. “We will find him. But I will link with you as well.” A shuddering breath escaped her, drawing his attention to her quivering breasts. Didn’t she realize what she was doing to him?
Charlotte noticed the direction of his gaze and the sudden tension in his expression. She scrambled from his lap and snatched up the folded bathrobe.
Jamming her arms into the sleeves, she quickly covered her nudity.
“I don’t want you in my mind,” she said in a hushed, urgent voice. She glanced over her shoulder and found him directly behind her. “I don’t want anyone invading…”
He reached for her but she twisted away.
“He cannot hurt you now. You understand what he was doing. That will render him powerless.”
“Powerless?” She yanked the belt tight and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m the one who’s powerless.”
“But I am not. I can protect you but you must let me.”
She bit back a sarcastic retort. It was her willingness to let him do all sorts of things that had allowed Joon into her mind.
“Why didn’t you warn me?” she asked, her voice shaky and hoarse.
“You have been so resistant to mind links of any sort that it didn’t occur to me that you would let him in.”
His words stung like a slap, echoing her self-recrimination. Clutching the front of her robe, she fought back tears. “Let him in? Iallowedthis to happen?”
He approached her slowly. “I’m not saying you’re to blame. I’m simply confused about how he constructed the illusion.”
She turned away and snatched a towel from the rack. Dropping it to the floor, she used her foot to move it about, soaking up the water.
“Tell me what happened. I need to understand how he did this.”
She didn’t want to admit she had been entertaining lustful thoughts about him. He had made his feelings about “Earthlings” all too clear. She was beneath him, a necessary nuisance.
His warm hand touched her arm and she started, stubbornly keeping her face averted.
“Why will you not look at me?”
Charlotte took a deep breath and raised her gaze to his face. “He tricked me,” she admitted. He continued to stare at her curiously so she rushed on. “I thought he was you. All right? By the time I realized that it was Joon, he had taken control and I couldn’t fight him.”
She glanced away but his fingers gently curved around her chin, tilting her head until her gaze returned to his. “Why did you allow my image into your mind? Each time I have tried to touch you in that way, you have fought me.”
Swallowing past the awkward lump in her throat, she said, “I thought it was a daydream, a…fantasy.” Realization dawned in his expression and she wanted the floor to swallow her whole. Heat spread up her neck to blossom across her cheeks.
“Don’t worry. It won’t happen again.” She shrugged off his touch and rushed from the bathroom.
Cool air washed over her body and she welcomed the violent shiver. Not bothering with the light, she passed through the bedroom and stepped out into the main room of the house.
A striking, red-haired man stood near the recliner and two in dark-blue uniforms flanked the front door.
She spun on the ball of her foot, meaning to run back into the bedroom. She collided with Tal.
His arm slipped around her waist and he said,
“Apparently, Al was unable to cancel the alert. Come, I will introduce you.”
Charlotte stiffened against him, clutching his vest with both hands. She didn’t want to be introduced to more aliens. She didn’t want to be stalked by a killer.
She wanted to close her eyes and make it all go away.
She wanted to move to Seattle and study for the bar exam. She wanted…
“Make them leave,” she whispered, refusing to turn around.
“They won’t hurt you. This is my brother Trey and two of his men.”
“Make them leave.”
He stroked her hair and pressed her face into the warm hollow where his shoulder met his neck. She made no protest when he swept her up in his arms and carried her back into the bedroom. She was utterly drained.
Tal laid her on the bed and covered her with a quilt. She turned onto her side, facing away from him.
“Trey brought you clothing from the ship,” he said softly. “Just in case you change your mind. If not, I will return when the others have departed.” She waited until she heard the door click before she gave in to her tears.
Tal paused on the other side of the closed door and wove a web of protection, dense and dangerous. If Dez dar Joon came anywhere near her, physically or mentally, Tal would know.
“I can feel her turmoil and my Mystic levels are pathetic,” Al Varellien said, concern clear in his tense tone.
Tal turned and joined the others. “In the short time since we arrived, Charlotte has learned she may not be an Earthling, she’s been exposed to beings from another planet and Joon has attempted to take her life.”
“That’s bound to upset anyone,” Trey agreed.
“How’s Vee?” Tal asked.
“We’re sustaining him but he’s basically bedridden. None of us can provide energy in a form concentrated enough to do more than prevent further damage,” Trey explained. “The Symposium contacted me when his link blinked out. Needless to say, they’re concerned. Dear old Dad hasstrongly suggestedwe return to Ontariese immediately.”
“And abandon Charlotte to Dez dar Joon?” Tal snapped. “I’ll not hear of it.”
“That’s not what he meant.” Trey interrupted. “He thinks we should bring her with us. Joon will have no choice but to follow, which alleviates the risk to Earth.
Once we’re back on Ontariese, the TSC and the Mystics can assist you.”
“Their assistance has been so valuable up to this point,” Tal said. “Curse the ghosts of the night moon.
It will start all over again. Once Dez is ensconced in Fortress Joon, we will have no hope of drawing him out.”
“Not true.” Trey nodded toward the bedroom door. “You’ve got something he wants. Do you really think he’ll rest while you’ve got the upper hand?”
“She will not want to go,” Tal said thoughtfully.
“She has yet to accept much of what I’ve told her and I’m far from earning her trust.”
“It’s always easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” Trey said with a rakish grin.
Closing his eyes, Tal rubbed them with his fingertips. Trey’s reckless attitude had led them into trouble more times than Tal cared to remember. He opened his eyes and asked, “Have you been able to track Joon at all?”
“Not a flicker, not a flash. He’s invisible to us.” Trey moved to the loveseat and sat. Al and the other two crewmembers were nowhere in sight. Too anxious to sit, Tal paced the room, hands clasped behind his back.
“Do you guys have any idea how he’s scrambling his signal?” Trey asked.
“He’s shifting the shape of his energy just as he manipulates his physical form. How he acquired this level of control, we don’t know. Such a thing has never been done before.” Tal shook his head, needing todosomething. “His power is growing. The illusion he constructed around Charlotte was unbelievably strong.”
“What he did was that unusual?” Trey asked. “I’ve heard of illusionists before.”
“This was different. His image resonated with something tainted, something evil.”
Trey crossed his legs, tapping the air rhythmically with his foot. “Why do you sound surprised? You’ve known for years that Joon is evil.”
“He has always been ambitious and ruthless, but what I felt in the illusion was darker, somehow twisted.”
“More twisted than murder?” Trey challenged.
“There are things more evil than murder,” Tal said.
“And fates worse than death.”
“While we’re being morbid,” Trey began, flashing a challenging grin. “You do realize the only way we’re getting off this planet is if we kill Charlotte Layton?”
Tal started to warn Trey that he was in no mood for his twisted sense of humor but his brother’s amber gaze had never looked more serious.
* * * * *
Argumentative voices jarred Charlotte from sleep.
The past two days had been a blur of surreal activities, so waking up in a strange bed didn’t surprise her at all. Light streamed in under the door but the bedroom was dark.
She sat up and swung her legs to the floor. The spa robe bunched about her hips and a groan made it no farther than her dry, swollen throat. Why did she feel as if she’d wrestled an alligator when Joon had never actually touched her?
Where was Tal? Were the others still here?
What should she do now? Whatcouldshe do?
The police had evidence connecting her with Rod Sanders’ murder and she would never be able to explain the truth. They would lock her up and throw away the key. What a mess.
One painful swallow quickly reminded her that she had bigger problems than the police. Dez dar Joon had been a step ahead of the other Ontarians all along and she was his target. Despite Tal’s gallant promises, Joon seemed to have the upper hand.
She flipped on the lamp and glanced around for the clothes Tal mentioned earlier. The design of the underpants was obvious, but the Ontarian equivalent of a bra made no sense so she retrieved her own from the bathroom. The outfit resembled pajamas or hospital scrubs, complete with slip-on, flexible shoes, but fashion was the farthest thing from her mind.
Creeping toward the door, she inched it open, trying to see who was still in the room. She recognized Dro Tar’s voice, but she couldn’t see anyone in her limited field of vision.
“There’s big trouble in Little China. We’re really in for a squall,” Dro Tar said urgently. “The jig is up.
“I know you’re enjoying your language infusion,” Tal responded impatiently. “But make yourself understood or I’ll stop indulging you.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Owner-of-this-house are en route even as we speak. We’ve got to vamoose, make a trail, hit the highway, pack up the Winnebago, take the money and—”
“I understand the concept.” Tal interrupted. “Trey isn’t finished yet.”
“It doesn’t matter, Master Aune,” she said more seriously. “We can’t stay here.”
“All right.” He was silent for a moment. “I’ll send you back to Trey and then I will take Charlotte to the ship. Tell my brother time is of the essence. We must finish up and be on our way.”
Finish up and be on our way?
The breath froze in Charlotte’s lungs. If they were leaving, did that mean Joon had been apprehended?
Was she out of danger? She released the breath in a slow, controlled hiss. Then why would Tal take her to the ship?
I’m not going to any spaceship. I’ve got plans for my lifeand they don’t include alien abduction!
Even in her mind, the thoughts sounded hysterical.
Charlotte needed to think. No, she needed to act.
If Trey was still on Earth, that had to be better than going to his ship. She couldn’t figure out her options from outer space. She wasn’t without resources. If she lay low for a while, forensic evidence would prove she didn’t kill the fireman and she would have her life back.
She wasnotleaving this planet!
Tal opened some sort of portal and Dro Tar moved toward it.Now or never. Charlotte threw open the door, sprinted across the room and jumped into the spinning vortex.
Her previous experience should have prepared her for the deafening roar and the ever-changing colors but a scream tore from her throat. She flailed madly, helpless to suppress the instinct. There was no substance, no sense of direction—and no Tal to cling to.
The vortex spat her out onto the frozen earth, but she was too stunned to feel cold. She landed on her hands and knees. Smoke obscured her vision and burned her eyes.
A rock dug into her shin, tearing through the material of her pants and making her flesh bleed. The rough ground scraped her palms but she only glanced at the wounds, feeling nothing. She scrambled to her feet, numb and confused.
Her beloved cabin was on fire. As she looked on in horror, the Ontarians worked to escalate the flames.
Had they started this? Had theyintentionallyset her cabin on fire?
Black smoke curled into the twilight sky. Flames, alive and hungry, destroyed her sanctuary, her refuge—the only place she had ever felt truly at home.
A hand touched her shoulder and she jerked away.
“What… Why are they burning down my cabin?” Her voice sounded harsh and raspy.
“It had to be done,” Tal said, stepping up beside her. “It was the only way.”
She couldn’t look at him.
She couldn’t look at any of them.
She couldn’t drag her gaze away from the destruction. The antique lace curtains framing the front windows disintegrated. Long, jagged flames consumed the walls and spread across the roof, encouraged by the brisk night wind. The interior glowed, an obscene bonfire, mocking the precious moments of peace she had found within those walls.
Charlotte sank to her knees, covering her mouth with her hand. A picture hung on the bedroom wall—
a portrait of Victor and Stephen, dressed in identical suits. She could almost see heat bubbling the image, flames singeing and curling the edges, devouring the last of her dreams.
A low, mournful wail filled the air. She didn’t realize she’d made the sound until Tal tried to pull her to her feet. She twisted and shoved him away.
“Don’t touch me. Don’t you dare touch me!” She crawled trancelike toward the inferno. “It’s all I have.
Everything I have left is…”
Tal caught her around her waist.
“It’s all gone,” she cried, her fingers clawing at his arm.
He pulled her up against him and held her tightly, ignoring her continual tugging and twisting. She didn’t realize what she was doing. Grief and rage radiated off her with staggering intensity. He shielded himself against her anguish and focused on the task at hand.
He hadn’t meant for her to see this. That had never been his intention, but she’d come shooting out of the chamber like a sonic shuttle.
She lunged forward. He pulled her back. She spun and swung at him. He caught her fist.
“Quickly, people!” he called.
It would be tricky to maintain control of Charlotte as well as a transport conduit powerful enough to accommodate all of them. An extremely annoying sound, accompanied by rhythmically flashing lights, reinforced their need for haste.
“Let me take her,” Trey said. “You’ve got to manage the vortex.”
“Watch her hands,” Tal warned. “And her feet,” he added for good measure.
Trey handed a supply pack to Al as they prepared to depart and Charlotte turned on Trey.
“You bastard!” she screamed, throwing herself toward him. Tal captured her arms before she slashed his brother’s face with her nails.
“How could you do this?” she shouted. “How could you—”
“Trey only acted on my order,” Tal lied. There would be time to make her understand, but right now, they had to get out of here.
“I hate you,” she wailed. “I hate all of you.” She finally dissolved into tears and Tal took full advantage of the lull. He opened the vortex and motioned the others inside. Sweeping her into his arms, he followed behind them and emerged in the lounge on Trey’s ship.
“Let me get her settled and I’ll come to you,” Tal told his brother. His voice sounded as weary as he felt.
Trey nodded. He started for the bridge but glanced over his shoulder at Tal. “Can we even get back without Vee? I didn’t think you could stabilize the portal without him.”
Tal took a deep breath and shifted Charlotte against his chest. “One calamity at a time”Chapter Seven
Tal sat beside Vee’s sleeping station and felt his hair twist painfully. The angular arrangement of Vee’s features looked gaunt, his pallor deathly. Vee’s snow-white hair spread all around him, disorderly and unbound, a sure sign of his weakness.
“I shall be no aide to thee, Tal Aune,” he said softly without opening his eyes. “I fear we may all pay for my recklessness with our lives.”
Tal respected this man more than any other. He was glad Vee couldn’t see how badly his hands shook as he gathered Vee’s ankle-length hair and worked it into a simple braid. “The woman is on board. Our mission was successful.” He tried to sound optimistic.
“I do not sense her. Is she already in stasis?”
“Yes.” When Vee was stronger, he would explain the details.
“The mission will not be completed until we return and discover the reason Joon pursued her in the first place,” Vee reminded him.
Tal tucked the braid under Vee’s blanket, hating his helplessness. “You’ve taught me to be resourceful.
You’ll see Ontariese again.”
Vee opened his eyes, one corner of his mouth curving in a weak smile. “Ye have a plan?”
“There are only three people in this dimension capable of Summoning the Storm. You are too weak at the moment so that leaves two.”
“But how will ye get him to…” Vee’s eyes drifted shut, too exhausted to go on.
Tal could sense Vee’s faint heartbeat but tension still gripped his soul. Vee was far more of a father to him than Roe Aune had ever been. Tal’s devotion to his mentor never wavered. He simply refused to lose Vee now.
“My spirit is yet in my body, Tal Aune.” Tal detected amusement in Vee’s tone and tried to relax.
“Ye must not let my condition distract thee. How do ye expect to get Joon to assist thee? Why would he not kill thee instead?”
“This isn’t as simple as wanting me dead. His ambitions are more complex. He wants me bested.
Until he’s proven that he is the better man, this depraved competition must continue. So I will convince him the next round of the competitionmusttake place on Ontariese.”
Vee made a nondescript sound, assuring Tal he understood.
“With your permission, sir, I’d like to put you in stasis as well. You need to be strong enough to accept the Mystic transfusion once we return to the Conservatory.”
“And if your plan fails, ye wish me a peaceful death?”
Tal didn’t argue. Vee deserved that much at least.
“I will see thee once we reach Ontariese.” Stubborn authority rang through the directive and Tal smiled.
After casting Vee into stasis, Tal searched for his brother. Trey wasn’t on the bridge and he wasn’t in the lounge. Tal needed to know if the repairs to Trey’s ship had been completed. What he had in mind would need to be set in motion quickly.
Much to his annoyance, he found Trey in Charlotte’s room, standing beside her sleeping station.
“She is in stasis and will remain so until I release her,” Tal said. “How did you get in here?” Trey’s coppery brows drew together over his expressive amber eyes. “It’s my ship.”
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“How can she be a descendant?” Trey stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his interest apparently less licentious than Tal had first thought.
“She doesn’t even look Ontarian.”
“I have just as many questions as do you, but the answers await us on Ontariese.”
Trey turned from the sleeping station and followed Tal from the room. “How is Vee?”
Nodding in silent understanding, Trey asked, “So, little brother, without Vee, how do we get home?”
“Simple,” Tal said, and smiled. “I go pick a fight.”
* * * * *
Everything was ready. Tal had rehearsed what he would say a hundred times but still his heart pounded and his blood boiled. He had to calm down.
Even Dro Tar’s best “poker face” wouldn’t fool Dez dar Joon.
Emotion can work to thy advantage, Vee was fond of saying,but only if ye control it.
“All coms are open, little brother.” Trey’s disembodied voice encouraged. “Just give the word.” Tal stood in the middle of the lounge, every viewport open, dreading what he must do. Drawing Mystic energy into the center of his being, Tal sent out a com pulse. Nothing happened. Digging deeper, he strengthened the pulse and tried again.
Joon’s image gradually came into focus. His surroundings remained obscured. His turquoise eyes revealed his anxiety.
What do you want?Joon sneered.I wouldn’t botherresponding to your call but I’m dumbfounded by yourstupidity.
Tal emulated his brother’s nonchalance, suddenly thankful for a quality that had annoyed him for cycles. He leaned his hip against the edge of a table and crossed his arms over his chest.That sounds farmore interesting than what I intended to say. Pleaseexplain my dumbfounding stupidity.
Was the fire an accident?Joon’s face rippled, his fury so acute it nearly caused him to shift.
Drawing strength from his enemy’s weakness, Tal smiled.The simple answer is no. The fire was intentional,but it was not what you think.
Joon’s turquoise eyes narrowed.And the detailedanswer?
Charlotte Layton committed suicide.
Joon moved so suddenly his image blurred.Whywould she do that? I don’t believe you.
Tal laughed. Time to change tactics. Coil the spring and let him go.I don’t care what you believe. Youobviously didn’t know as much about your quarry as youthought you did.
I know more about Charlotte Layton than you will everknow, thanks to her suicide, Joon sneered.What drove herto it,seyati? Did you try to comfort her after I joined herin the bath?
Turning, Tal leaned against the edge of the table and stared out the viewport indifferently.Oh, Icomforted her, all right. She allowed me a full-body joiningand restored my energy levels. The problem was, she playedme for a fool. While I slept away the night, she snuck outthe window and returned to her cabin. Apparently, youheard about the fire.
Joon’s nostrils flared and his eyes spun.Why wouldshe let you take her body? Why would she—
Don’t I always get them first,seyati?Tal mocked, sneering the title with obvious loathing.
She let you or you took her?Joon demanded.
I’venever had to rape a woman, Dez. Tal let the insult sink in for a moment.This is all beside the point. All Iwanted to say is, I have a sample of her DNA. Once theSymposium has analyzed it, I might be interested inexchanging what I learn for what you know.
The Symposium! They are required to remain neutral inall matters of politics, Joon shouted.They are required toshare the Wisdom of the Ages freely. You cannot…
Joon’s image blinked out and Tal cried, “Now!” Thunder violently shook the ship as Joon Summoned the Storm. Tal flew across the room, his body slamming into the wall. Pain forked down his arm and across his shoulders. He tuned it out.
Searching, frantically searching, he found the pattern of Joon’s energy. Six simultaneous lightning strikes showed him the way. He turned the ship as the interdimensional portal yawned. Trey engaged the thrusters, propelling the ship into the portal before Joon could guess their purpose.
Very clever, Aune!
Tal didn’t let Joon’s angry words distract him. He poured energy into the portal, maintaining its stability, keeping it intact. His muscles strained, his brain ached, but he had to continue. He had to find the strength. Unable to stand, he slid down along the wall, focusing entirely on the metaphysical exchange.
“There it is.” He heard Trey cry. “We’re almost out.”
Collapsing, Tal released his link with the portal and felt the world spin out of control. Colors swirled before his eyes. His body rolled across the floor. His head hit something especially hard and lights exploded within his vision then he saw nothing at all.
* * * * *
Charlotte awoke in darkness. A rush of adrenaline swallowed the comfortable silence of sleep. Her entire body came alive, humming with warnings and fear.
Something was wrong!
She held perfectly still, assessing her surroundings.
Not a shape or shadow interrupted the velvety blackness spread before her eyes. Blinking repeatedly, she raised a hand before her face. She could discern no movement, nothing.
Don’t panic. Not yet. Slowly she sat up and felt for the edge of the bed. Her hand sank wrist-deep into the mattress. She gasped as the surface conformed to the shape of her hand and then gently provided resistance.
She moved her leg and the mattress immediately accommodated her new position. As she swung her legs over the edge of the bed, light flooded the room.
Too stunned to move and not quite afraid enough to scream, Charlotte sat there, trying to accept the reality of her surroundings. She was on Trey Aune’s spaceship.
The room was small, the arrangement utilitarian.
The adjust-o-bed protruded from one wall and the light source was recessed within the ceiling. Smooth, perhaps metallic, the walls gleamed with an iridescent cast that subtly changed color as she moved.
With one final poke at the changeable surface of the bed, she stood and took a tentative step. The floor, though iridescent like the walls, had a distinct texture.
“You wouldn’t want to go slipping and sliding as you zoom through outer space,” she muttered.
Her mind was muddled, a jumbled mixture of memories and imagination. But one fact remained inescapable. She’d been kidnapped. The Ontarians had burned her cabin to the ground and Tal had carried her into the portal, indifferent to her pleas.
She moved to one of two doors. The portal slid open silently as she approached, revealing a tiny bathroom. She turned to the other door but it didn’t move. There was no button or lever to activate it. The other one had opened automatically, probably triggered by some sort of motion sensor. She waved her arms and moved forward and back but nothing happened.
“Hello,” she called out. “Is anyone out there?” The door slid open and Tal stood in the corridor, looking calm and—at home.
Charlotte stared at him, waiting for a surge of anger. This was the man who had destroyed her life.
Why wasn’t she contemplating violence? She leaned forward and glanced down the hallway. All she could see was iridescent walls.
“May I enter?” Tal asked.
“May I exit?” she countered. “The door wouldn’t open for me.”
“Privacy panels are activated by voice command and your voice has yet to be imprinted. It would be best if we speak before you go wandering about the ship.”
She continued to stare at him.
“May I come in?” he asked again.
She stepped out of his way and his tall form absorbed the limited space. The door slid closed behind him. She suddenly realized the only place to sit was on the bed. She decided to stand. Tal moved to the bed and uttered an Ontarian phrase. The bed slid into the wall and two chairs slid out.
“Oh, an entire adjust-o-room,” she said as he sat.
“Flexibility is crucial on the smaller spacecraft. Dro Tar is programming English phrases into the computer so the ship will recognize your commands.” Charlotte nodded but remained standing.
“Please sit,” Tal coaxed.
“You’re not going to be here that long.”
He stood. “I thought you would be interested in our present location, our destination and your options once we reach Ontariese, but apparently I was wrong.”
She glared at him but sat. “Once we reach Ontariese? Then returning to Earth isn’t an option?”
“Do you understand why we started the fire?” He reached for her. She leaned back so he returned to his seat.
“It’s not hard to figure out. You wanted everyone to think I was dead. Where did you get the body? Did you switch dental records, maybe even plant some DNA? I wasn’t asleep that long. How did you accomplish all of that in—”
“Dro Tar has been monitoring your entertainment broadcast programming so we knew what your society would require. My abilities made it possible to facilitate the arrangements in a short period of time.”
“You didn’t kill someone to—”
“No!” he objected, clearly appalled. “The woman was indigent and her life force had already left her body.”
“I still don’t care.” She crossed her legs, kicking him in the process. “You had no right to do this tome.
I worked hard for my law degree. I had plans for my life. Everything and everyone I care about is back on Earth. I demand that you take me back.”
He leaned forward and his hair coiled, brushing across her calf. Retribution? She shivered.
“It’s not that simple. The interdimensional portal that brought us to Earth is extremely hard to control.
Even if I attempted to return you, the chances of our arriving anywhere near the same period in time would be—”
She shot to her feet. “The portal allows you to travel through time?” Could he take her to before Victor and Stephen had died? Snippets of every time-travel movie she’d ever seen were suddenly flashing through her mind.
He stood as well. “Using the portal to visit the same geographic location is relatively simple. It is the position in time that presents a challenge.” His hand cupped her cheek and she didn’t pull away. Somehow she knew what he would say.
“Temporal adjustments can only be made into the future. No one can change what has already been.”
“And if you’re dissatisfied with what has already been, it’s just too damn bad.” She shook her head, too drained to cry but too angry to let it go. “A drunk driver took my husband and son last New Year’s Eve.
Is this how I get to start every New Year from now on?”
“Charlotte,” he started.
“Don’t! I’m not interested in anything you have to say right now.”
“Joon wouldn’t have stopped. He would have hunted you down until he found you. I couldn’t protect you on Earth. I couldn’t—”
“You did thisforme?” She laughed, a harsh scathing sound. “You reduced my life to ashes and I’m supposed to thank you?”
“No, Charlotte, I don’t expect your thanks. But I want you to believe that there was no other way.
What we did was done to protect you.” He paused for a long, frustrated breath before he went on. “Joon was in contact with you so I know he imprinted your energy pattern. I had to put you in stasis so your pattern became undetectable.”
“Can he detect me now? Will he continue to hunt me once we reach… Wait a minute. How long was I in stasis?”
“Twelve cycles of—days. And I’m shielding your pattern now so Joon still believes you’re dead.” Leaning against the wall, Charlotte fiddled with her sleeve. “Why didn’t you just shield me from him before? Why all the subterfuge?”
“It’s a long story. Suffice it to say, Joon is back within his fortress. He has elaborate shields that prevent us from detecting his activities but they also limit his ability to detect ours. If he were not within Fortress Joon, I would have left you in stasis until we reached the Conservatory.”
Her anger fizzled, leaving her weak and restless.
So much had happened so quickly, she just wanted to catch her breath.
“I’m truly sorry you were hurt by all of this. I wish there had been some other way.”
He took her hand and pressed something into her palm before he turned and left the room.
Confused by his earnest, almost pained tone, she opened her hand and examined the object. Disk-shaped and slightly larger than a quarter, the pendant was solid, yet translucent. A braided chain ran through the intricate eye at the top of the disk and a subtle etching decorated the outer edge.
Charlotte thought it was a sweet gesture until she held it up to loop the chain over her head. Light passed through the disk and her heart slammed against her ribs. Captured within the disk, in three-dimensional detail, was the exact image of Victor and Stephen in their identical suits. She could see the pride in Victor’s dark eyes and the mischief in Stephen’s expression.
Darting for the door, she remembered too late that she couldn’t open it. How had he known? How had…he’s a Master-level Mage, she thought for the hundredth time. When would she realize what that really meant?
Her hands shook as she put on the pendant, slipping it under her shirt. The disk came to rest over her heart and absorbed her body heat.
Just when she thought she had Tal figured out, he did something unexpected.
“Thank you,” she whispered, hoping he would sense her gratitude.
* * * * *
Dro Tar Nex arrived a short time later to give Charlotte an orientation of the ship.
“Nothing is really too wacky,” the other woman said. “The bathroom works like you would expect a bathroom to work, but the mist that comes out of the showerhead is shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer and deodorant all in one. I can’t believe you guys have put up with so many separate personal hygiene products for so long.”
“You’re serious? The shower mist does it all?” Dro Tar laughed. “No, darlin’, you’ll need a man for some things but the mist will get you ready for one.”
Charlotte scrunched up her face. “That’s not a problem. I’m not interested.”
“Sure you’re not,” Dro Tar said airily. “Now, how about makeup? Do you wear cosmetics?”
“When I’m going somewhere. If I’m just lazing around the house, I don’t see the point.” Charlotte had done an awful lot of homebound activities in the past year. In fact, she preferred avoiding crowds altogether.
“Well, you’re going to love this. Have a seat.” Dro Tar pulled a case out of a compartment in the utility room wall and motioned toward the tiny table in Charlotte’s cabin with her chin.
“What’s in the case?” Dro Tar seemed nice enough but she was still an Ontarian.
“These cosmetics only have to be applied once every lunar cycle. There are parlors in Frontine where they have tints that last a full cycle, but these are pretty cool. Do you trust me?”
Charlotte looked at the assortment of applicators, powders and pastes and shook her head. “No way.”
“Look at me,” Dro Tar objected. “Do I look like a clown?” Dro Tar’s cosmetics were tastefully applied Charlotte had to admit. “Besides, there’s a built-in safety period. If you hate it, scrub it off before it sets.” Dro Tar went to work on Charlotte’s face, talking all the while. “So if we hadn’t rudely interrupted your life, what would you be doing?”
The casual question caught her off guard. She had been doing everything she could not to think about what she had left behind. “I’d been offered a job in a place called Seattle.”
“Home of rain and Starbucks?” Dro Tar supplied without taking her gently swirling hazel gaze off Charlotte’s face.
“That’s the one.”
“You just graduated from university. Does this job have something to do with—”
Charlotte grabbed her wrist and pulled the brush away from the crest of her cheek. “How do you know that? Why does everyone on this ship seem to know so much about me?”
“It was our assignment to find out. Once the Symposium confirmed that you were Joon’s target, we did extensive intel. Don’t you realize how important you are?” Dro Tar nibbled on the handle of the brush for a second, and then said, “You’re the Duchess of York,” she tried. “No. Princess Diana.” Charlotte sadly shook her head. “Bad example, Dro Tar, really bad example.”
* * * * *
Charlotte reached a tentative hand out and touched the iridescent wall. She cleared her throat and said, “Red.” The wall became the brilliant candy-apple color of high-priced sports cars and she laughed. She changed the wall to blue then green, amazed that such a simple discovery could be so amusing.
Dro Tar’s orientation five days before had unlocked many of the ship’s secrets for Charlotte but this was her first opportunity to explore on her own.
She glanced around the lounge to make sure it was empty and then turned the wall into a full-length mirror.
Her brown hair looked sleek and shiny, grazing her shoulders in a smooth bob. Subtle shading accented her bright blue eyes and her lashes appeared thick and long. Her cheeks and lips bore a soft rose hue.
“Makeup’s not such a bother if you only have to do it once a month,” she mumbled as she returned the wall to its iridescent state.
She turned and stopped short, a silly grin frozen on her face. Trey Aune stood barely a step away. She had seen him several times in the past few days but they had never spoken directly. The entire crew seemed to be giving her time to adjust.
“Hello.” She forced the word past her tight, dry throat.
He smiled and inclined his head, drawing her attention to his great height and bizarre hair. Al Varellien was nearer to seven feet tall, but Trey’s muscular build made him more daunting. He laughed often and his crew seemed anything but intimidated by him. Still Charlotte felt fear tighten within her, compressing her chest.
Disconcerted by his gently swirling amber eyes, Charlotte looked instead at his hair. Combining countless strands of individual colors—red, gold, copper and even orange—his hair flowed to his shoulders in gleaming waves.
“I find your language confusing,” he said.
His voice accurately represented his appearance—
deep, commanding, masculine. She swallowed. “I’m sorry,” she said, not knowing how else to respond.
He smiled again and his eyes brightened, flashing gold like a cat’s. “I say this only to warn you that I may sound ass-ish.”
Charlotte laughed. His disclaimer was just a bit too eloquent. “I will forgive your ass-ishness and do my best to clear up any confusion.”
He motioned toward a messy cluster of chairs.
They sat and she crossed her legs. As the tension within her relaxed, she saw the family resemblance in Trey Aune’s features. “Who’s older?”
“I thought Earth women were sensitive about their age, but I will reveal mine if you reveal yours.”
“I was referring to you and Tal. Are you older than your brother?”
“Older, wiser and better-looking,” he boasted playfully.
Charlotte smiled, allowing his charm to soothe her.
The last week had been part fantasy vacation and part nightmare. She mourned her own death, even as she rose from the ashes like a phoenix. The pain of her past had never seemed so far away and yet her future had never been more uncertain.
“Your ship is amazing. I’m anxious to see what wonders await me on Ontariese.”
He said nothing for a moment while his amber eyes assessed her face. “Ontariese is very different from Earth. There are some things you may find upsetting.”
The tension within her returned. “Such as?” Again he hesitated. “Have you given yourself to my brother?”
Shrinking back into the chair, Charlotte felt her skin burn. “That’s none of your business.”
“On Ontariese, there are nearly a hundred men for every woman. To make matters worse, more of the women belong to the Reformation Sect. Within the Traditionalist Sect, there are closer to two hundred men for every woman.”
She stood and moved behind the chair, feeling somehow protected by the obstacle. “What does this have to do with my relationship with Tal?”
“If you have not chosen Tal, then you will need to choose a companion quickly once we reach Ontariese.
It is unwise, even dangerous, for a female to be unclaimed.”
“Unclaimed? That sounds rather barbaric.” He used his charismatic smile to take the sting from his words. “The claiming can be barbaric or it can be slow and tender. Which do you prefer?”
“I prefer…” She couldn’t think of a glib response so she returned to his earlier comments. “Why are there so few females on Ontariese?”
“What has my brother told you about the House of Joon?”
The door to the lounge slid open and Tal strode into the lounge. His gaze moved from Charlotte’s face to his brother and back. What must he think of this cozy scene? And why should she care what he thought?
“Am I interrupting?” he asked stiffly.
“Yes, please leave,” Trey responded without pause.
Charlotte coughed to hide her laugh. Trey had an ornery streak, no doubt about it. “No,” she countered,
“please join us. Your brother was trying to explain why I should ‘claim’ a man as soon as possible.” Tal crossed the room and Charlotte couldn’t take her eyes off him. She loved the inherent grace in his movements. The long coil of his hair swayed and his clothing fanned out behind him. She had purposely avoided him for the past five days, using every excuse imaginable to keep them apart.
He made her feel things she didn’t want to, had never felt before, not even with her husband. With Victor, life had been orderly and comfortable. Tal made her want things she didn’t understand. Even after everything he’d done, he attracted her, fascinated her.
“I was hoping to speak with Charlotte for a moment.” Tal paused beside her chair.
“No, little brother, you were hoping to find her alone so you could kiss her. But you’re not the only one with carnal aspirations. There are fourteen other men hoping for a moment alone with our guest.”
“You include yourself among that number?” Tal demanded.
“Why are there so few women on Ontariese?” Charlotte asked firmly, interrupting their budding argument.
“Because of Fro dar Joon,” Tal said impatiently.
“The man who started the war,” she murmured, not understanding the significance.
“Fro dar Joon tried to annihilate every female in the Traditionalist Sect,” Tal reminded her.
“She obviously doesn’t understand what that means, Tal,” his brother said. Trey looked at her and explained. “Charlotte, the great houses are like Earth’s ethnic races. Four stayed true to the old ways, but the House of Roumi joined the House of Joon. If all Earth cultures divided until there were only two, then you would have the Ontarian sects.”
“Every person on Ontariese belongs to one sect or the other? There are no other social or governmental divisions, only the two sects?” She felt like a schoolgirl failing to grasp what was obvious to the rest of the class.
“Yes,” Trey confirmed.
Charlotte grasped the back of the chair, dreading the conclusion looming before her. “Fro dar Joon tried to kill half of the females on theentire planet?”
“Fro dar Joon unleashed a virus that wiped out two thirds of all Ontarian females,” Tal explained. His hair coiled tightly, revealing his anger. “The vaccination with which he thought to protect Reformation females was only partially effective.”
“That is so irrational,” Charlotte whispered. Who would end a political conflict by— Flashing images of the Holocaust reminded Charlotte that genocide was not an alien strategy.
“It is ruthless and evil, but it is not without rationality,” Trey disagreed. “He originally targeted only the House of Aune, but he knew we were hiding our women so he expanded his target to the entire Traditionalist Sect.”
Charlotte stepped in front of the chair and sank onto its seat. Nervously tucking her hair behind her ear, she looked at Tal and said, “When you told me he murdered the descendants of the House of Aune, I thought you meant your family members, your sisters and cousins. I had no idea his evil was so far-reaching.”
“I should have made sure you understood the scope of his crime,” Tal said softly. “Our worlds are very different. It’s hard for me to remember you don’t know our ways.”
Trey leaned back in his chair, rocking subtly.
“That’s what we were discussing when you arrived.” She felt sick inside. Who was she to draw the attention of such evil? If The House of Joon had already sacrificed so many, why had they focused their attention on her? Held up against the backdrop of the massacre, her life seemed trivial, insignificant.
“Which particular Ontarian custom were you discussing?” Tal asked, drawing her away from her distressing thoughts.
“The claiming,” Trey supplied.
“Declaring a social alliance,” Tal suggested. “You make it sound like an uncivilized act.”
“It can be uncivilized or it can be—”
“Oh, stop it.” Charlotte cut in. “What exactly does declaring a social alliance entail? Trey said it could be dangerous for me to remain—”
“Unclaimed.” Trey put in dramatically.
Tal chuckled. “It simply means that you are unavailable to other men.”
Something in Tal’s expression and the knowing look that passed between the brothers made her ask,
“Is a female allowed more than one social alliance?” Trey grinned. He folded his hands behind his head, displaying his brawny arms to advantage. “You want to explain it or shall I?”
“You will make it sound licentious, regardless of the necessity driving the custom.”
“Then you explain it to me.” The easy banter between them fascinated her. They obviously cared for each other deeply, but their differing perspectives were just as obvious.
“There’s a difference between a life mate and a social alliance. Since the massacre, it has been counterproductive to encourage monogamy.”
“Women are encouraged to have more than one husband?” she asked, shocked and yet intrigued. Her mind filled with titillating images of the male version of a harem.
“No.Husbandis the same aslife mateand that denotes a permanent joining. A social alliance is temporary. Most last for several months and often result in children. In fact, children are encouraged but—”
“Children are out of the question right now. There is just no way.” Both men stared at her silently.
Apparently her adamancy was either unusual or insulting. “Can’t your planet import females to balance out the ratio? In Earth’s history, there were times when the male-to-female ratio in certain regions became out of balance. We found ways of encouraging females from other regions to relocate to the affected areas.” Interplanetary mail-order brides?
She had to pinch herself to keep from laughing.
“Such programs have been discussed, but the war between the sects must be our first priority,” Tal said.
They dodged the question before so she tried again. “Can a woman have a social alliance with more than one man at the same time?”
The brothers glared at each other and even the pinching couldn’t keep her from laughing. “I was not contemplating…that,”
Imagining…but not seriously contemplating.
“If all the parties involved are agreeable to the arrangement, such things are allowed,” Tal admitted.
“But generally a woman will end her alliance with one man when she becomes interested in another. For this reason, some alliances last only a matter of days.”
“Or as long as it takes this ship to arrive on Ontariese,” Trey suggested with a cheeky grin.
Talking about the concept was one thing but she felt uncomfortable with the obvious expectation.
“You want me to agree to have sex with one of the men on this ship until we arrive on Ontariese?” Trey rocked farther back in the chair, balancing on the two back legs. “The men have kept their distance because they thought you’d been claimed by Tal. You haven’t gone near him in several days so the crew wants to know if your social alliance with Tal has ended. It has been noted that no man shares your cabin. They want to court you. I have considered the possibility myself.”
“Why must I choose anyone? I don’t want a lover right now.”
“Declaring a social alliance is not the same as agreeing to be a lover,” Trey said. “The social alliance only gives the man exclusive right to…persuade you to become his lover.”
“I would be inviting him to seduce me.”
“Basically,” he agreed.
“Just tell them our social alliance has not ended,” Tal told his brother.
“This is not your decision to make.” Trey looked at her and offered her a teasing smile. “Do you declare a social alliance with Tal Aune?”
“What exactly does it mean if I do?”
“You will have to stop avoiding me,” Tal said with a smile nearly as compelling as his brother’s.
These Ontarian men knew how to use their charm.
Charlotte had never seen Tal flirt before. Her stomach fluttered and her lips tingled.
“Or you could accept my protection.” Trey drew her attention to him. “I am infinitely more amusing than my little brother.”
This was too much. It had been years since she thought of herself as anything but a safely married woman. Now she was headed for a planet where men outnumbered women two hundred to one. What had she gotten herself into?
She looked at Tal and felt her heart leap at his determined expression. He didn’t want Trey near her.
He wanted her for himself.
Trey said a social alliance didn’t guarantee the man sex, just allowed him topersuadeher. She could choose whomever she wanted and just make sure they were never alone. Charlotte swallowed hard and anxiously crossed her legs.
“I declare a social alliance with Tal Aune,” she said finally.
Trey’s chair hit the floor with a sharp snap. “I’ll spread the word.”
Charlotte waited for Trey to leave before she spoke again. “What happens now?” She felt foolish asking but she could no longer read Tal’s expression.
He pulled her to her feet and wrapped her in his arms. His mouth claimed hers. There was no other word for the possessive demand in his kiss. She clung to his back, shocked by the ardor her decision had unleashed.
Panting harshly, he pushed her to arm’s length and caressed her face with his smoky gaze. “Tonight, I will show you,” he promised. He kissed her forehead and turned toward the door.
“Wait. Where are you going?” she asked in a breathless rush.
“To move my things to your cabin.”Chapter Eight
Amused by his anxiety, Tal paced the small cabin, waiting for Charlotte to appear. Tal reached out, keeping his presence light to avoid detection, and found her. His gentle probe slammed into a barrier so solid he staggered back a step and shook his head.
The cabin door slid open and she entered, her face twisted with anger.
“Stay the hell out of my mind!” She marched across the cabin and sat on the bed. “We’ve got to get some things straight before this goes any further.”
“I know it’s not your intention to allow me a full-body joining. My presence here is for the benefit of the crew. Is that why you’re upset?”
“My upset goes far beyond whether or not I willeverhave sex with you,” she said, but the shrill urgency had left her voice. “First and foremost, I don’t believe it was impossible for you to include me in the decision to stage my death. Youchosenot to.” He started to object but she rushed on. “I don’t want to argue the point. I know you feel you were justified, but what it cost you is my trust. You had precious little of it to begin with but you’re back to square one.”
“‘First and foremost’ indicates a list of contentions.
Is it your intention to present them all tonight?” She laughed and Tal’s hair uncoiled, spinning around his arms in a telling flurry.
“Could be a long night. I want your promise that you won’t make a decision directly affecting me without asking for my input first.”
He hesitated for only a moment. Input did not necessarily sway a decision. He could allow her that much. “Agreed.”
She paused. “I never thanked you for the necklace.
It’s amazing and I appreciate it.”
He inclined his head.
“The mind-scan thing works both ways, right? Like when you showed me Pyramid Peak?”
Tal studied her face. Her wide eyes stared back at him expectantly and her chin tilted, hinting at her stubbornness. “Why do you ask?”
“I want to know everything you know about Dez dar Joon.”
She had no idea what she suggested. “You know all you need to know. He believes you’re a threat and wants you dead. Why would you want to know more?”
“I want to understand my enemy.”
He summoned a chair from the floor and tried not to reveal his anxiety. If he were to guide her through his memories, show her what she wanted to see, he would expose far more of himself than he was ready to share. “Your mind is untrained. I don’t know if I could control the—”
“I don’t believe you. You’re aMaster-level Mage.
You can control whatever you choose to control.”
“I will tell you anything you wish to know. What do you not understand?”
“You’ve been in my mind. Don’t you trust me to wander through yours?”
He couldn’t mistake the challenge flashing in her bright blue eyes. If he hoped to earn her trust, this was where he must start. “It will not be a pleasant journey,” he warned.
She scooted to the edge of the bed, bringing her knees almost even with his. “I can handle it.”
“Let’s hope that’s not an idle boast.”
Charlotte swallowed hard and tried not to fidget.
“I must enter your mind to establish the link. Then I will guide you into mine.”
She folded her hands in her lap and pressed her lips together. This was supposed to be about him opening himself to her. “Can’t I just come to you?” He smiled and she felt her stomach flutter. If he smiled more often, she’d be in serious trouble.
“Do you know how?” he challenged.
“All right, but just establish the link and then—”
“Why are you so afraid of mental connections?” The question made her pause. “I don’t know.”
“Another mystery for Vee to investigate. I’ll remain in your mind only as long as I must. If you relax and accept my presence, the link can be established more easily.”
He reached for her face and she closed her eyes.
“No, look at me. Look into my eyes.”
The warmth of his palms framed her face. She met his smoky gaze. The motion sped and she felt the gentle penetration of his mind into hers. She tried to relax, to allow him in, but some instinctual warning made her resist.
“Charlotte,” he whispered. “I cannot show you my memories without this link.”
She took several deep breaths, but the harder she concentrated, the more her mind rebelled.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Shall I kiss you? That seemed to work before.”
The hint of smugness in his tone made her stiffen.
“That is not why I asked you to do this.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
Before she could protest, he eased her legs apart and knelt on the floor between her thighs. They were fully dressed but she trembled at the intimacy. His arms circled her, drawing her close against him.
“You started this.” His warm breath fanned her lips. “If you want more, take it.”
His spicy scent filled her nose and his mouth was less than a handsbreadth away. Her tongue darted out to wet her lower lip. Why was she afraid? It wasn’t as if this were the first time they’d ever kissed.
You care for him already. She didn’t want to accept the thought but she couldn’t deny it.You’re attracted tohim. You want the kiss to be more than a distraction.
Slipping her hands inside his vest, she spread her fingers across his warm shoulders. His eyes narrowed while she moved in. She brushed her lips across his, enjoying the tingle resulting from the brief contact.
She felt his fingers rake through her hair and she tilted her head to the side. He didn’t rush her, didn’t encourage her, just allowed her to take what she wanted. Tension built between them yet he seemed content to let her play.
Pressing her mouth to his, she deepened the kiss.
She touched his lips with her tongue and he opened to her. She stroked his tongue with hers and he groaned. His mouth moved, his tongue slid and she lost herself in the spinning haze.
She didn’t want to stop kissing him, didn’t want to lose the comfort of his embrace. He said her name again and she opened her eyes. He moved to sit beside her on the bed.
“I’ll start slowly until you become accustomed to the exchange.”
“You established a link?” She hadn’t felt him in her mind. Apparently, kissing was even more distracting than being kissed.
“Yes. Are you ready?”
She chuckled. “Probably not.”
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and the room fell away. She gasped and clutched his vest.
“Relax. I’ve got you.”
She could still feel the bed beneath her but she could see only darkness. His arm squeezed her in silent reassurance. She moved closer to him, snuggling against his side.
Light flickered in the distance and Charlotte focused on the spot. The blackness parted, folded back like theater curtains.
“Where are we?” she whispered, fighting the nausea rolling through her belly. Concentrating on the light helped but she was glad for his supporting arm.
Tal laughed softly. “We’re in your cabin.”
“You know what I mean.”
“We’re nearly there. This is the day I first met Dez dar Joon.”
A cavernous chamber appeared within the light.
She was drawn into the scene, becoming part of it.
High, decorative arches supported the ceiling thirty feet above her head. Beneath her feet spread massive squares of ivory marble. A neat row of boys stood along one wall, shoulder-to-shoulder, arms clasped behind their backs, gazes fixed straight ahead. She saw the scene from the perspective of one of the boys.
“You were children,” she said softly. “You were only a boy.”
“Look to your right. He’s the fourth one down the row.”
How could this be Dez dar Joon? The boy Tal indicated looked scared to death. His hair shone softly in the firelight, the rich gold of antique coins, and his wide turquoise eyes were brimming with tears.
“What is this place? Why were you here?”
“This is the Choosing. The Mystics invited us here to be scanned.”
“And now you’re the one who issues the invitations.” That had to make him proud, but he often spoke of his accomplishments with a sad sort of indifference. Had his war with Joon eclipsed everything else in his life?
She turned back to the scene and focused on the frightened blond boy. “You and Dez are both here.
Don’t the Mystics hold allegiance to one sect or the other?”
“The Conservatory is neutral ground. To violate its neutrality would invite the wrath of all the Mystics.” Reverence filled his tone and Charlotte felt intrusive. This place meant the world to him. She glimpsed his very soul. Still, she wanted to understand, needed to know what she’d be facing.
“You’re a Master-level Mage, so I know you were chosen. Was Dez dar Joon?”
“Yes. Vee selected both of us to train personally.” The scene flashed off. She shook her head, surprised by the abrupt change. They sat on her bed again. “Why did he look so frightened? Isn’t it an honor to be chosen for apprenticeship?”
“It’s a great honor and Vee hadn’t chosen an apprentice for many years.” His lips compressed for a moment and he glanced away. “Dez had lost his mother five days before. Pell was the only softness he would ever know. I only met her once, but there was such kindness in her eyes. Vee often wondered if we might have saved Dez had Pell dar Joon survived.”
“Saved him from what?” she asked.
Memories of the man quickly eroded her pity for the frightened child. Tal offered no more of an explanation, so she asked, “When did he change?
Why did he change?”
He pivoted toward her and raised his hands to her face. “Ready for more?” She nodded and he said, “I’ll go a bit faster this time so prepare yourself.” She closed her eyes and opened her mind, ignoring the now-familiar urge to resist him. Images inundated her brain, flashes of scenes spanning years. They trained together. They tested each other’s skill. They laughed and encouraged one another. They were friends.
Tal stood half hidden in a thick, leafy copse of trees. The clearing he observed lay just beyond some sort of psychic boundary. Joon stood in the clearing, flouting the regulation with his presence.
Charlotte tried to guess his age. Tall and lanky, his golden hair now reached the middle of his back and his features had greatly matured.
“We had passed fourteen Ontarian cycles,” Tal answered her unspoken question. “Ontarian cycles are slightly longer than Earth years. Each Ontarian day lasts approximately thirty-six Earth hours.” Tal refocused the transmission and Charlotte felt herself drawn more deeply into his perspective. A sleek, turquoise spaceship landed in the middle of the clearing. Dez stood straight, squaring his shoulders, as a man exited the ship.
Hate burned so brightly in the man’s turquoise gaze that she couldn’t make out his features. Evil and hostility radiated from him. She felt Tal erect a mental shield.
“Tell me the reports are not true,” the man said calmly, his voice terrifying with its soft command.
“Tell me my son has not disgraced the House of Joon.
Tell me my faith in you has not been misplaced. Tell me I may still call you son.”
“Father, I can explain.”
She could only see Dez’s back, but she felt Tal’s heart hammer in reaction to his friend’s fear.
“If you must offer an explanation, then there is nothing left to say.”
The man turned and Dez grabbed his arm. “But, Father—”
An abrupt backhand ended his sentence. “You wretched weakling.” He hit Dez again. “You shame me!” His closed fist knocked Dez to the ground. “You shame us all.”
Each ruthless blow made her cringe. Each vicious kick tightened her stomach. The beating hadn’t ended when Tal stopped transmitting the memory.
“Dez wouldn’t let me interfere. He warned me that to do so would only make it worse for him. I tried to move toward him, but he shot a mental pulse that rendered me unconscious.”
“What had he done? Why was his father so angry?”
The muscles in Tal’s throat worked as he swallowed awkwardly. “For the first time in our apprenticeship, I had performed better than Dez.”
“What? His father beat him because he—”
“Had allowed an Aune to best a Joon. Every failure, regardless of how insignificant was punished…” His voice trailed away. “Seyatiis similar to brother,” Tal explained. “It is a bond only Mystics can truly understand, an affinity of spirit that goes deeper than biological ties.”
He didn’t give her the opportunity to comment. He touched her face again, resuming the memory transmission. The images passed even more quickly now, making her dizzy, making her shake.
Something dark stirred within Dez dar Joon’s turquoise eyes. Camaraderie turned to competition.
Friendship to rivalry. Dez manipulated situations, he lied and deceived, he no longer cared about the means, only the victory. Tal mourned their friendship and the innocence left behind.
Light appeared again and Charlotte moved toward it hesitantly. She could sense Tal’s pain, the grief and fury surrounding this memory. She stepped into a bedchamber. Her heart pounded in her breast. She heard a breathless moan and expected infidelity.
Echoes of Tal’s fear amplified her reaction to the scene. She moved as he moved. Saw what he had seen.
Tal snatched back the curtains enclosing the bed.
Joon stood across from him, smirking with evil satisfaction. The bruised and broken body of Tal’s lover—Flur—sprawled across the bed.
“You’re early. But I was finished anyway.” He laughed and Tal lunged for him. Joon vanished and Tal collided with the wall.
Charlotte panted harshly and hugged Tal as he released her from the memory. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“She was still alive,” Tal said in a soft, throaty voice. “He had lured her to my bed using my form.
He raped and tortured her, experimenting with the extent of his powers in ways you don’t want to imagine. Vee came to me but her injuries were even beyond his ability to mend so we dispersed her energy.”
Tal pushed her to arm’s length as he went on.
“That was when we realized Joon can manipulate energy patterns. You see, he had imprinted the room with my pattern so when the code regulators arrived, they believed I had murdered Flur. I spent four weeks in a detention center before Vee could prove what Joon had done.”
“Can they keep you in a cell? Can’t you just transport yourself to a different location?”
“There are cages that can contain even a Master-level Mage. Vee will not admit whether or not he can escape the cell, but I suspect he can.”
“Joon was never apprehended for what he did to Flur?”
“Punishment is still pending, but he has become a wraith, a phantom. Even Vee cannot isolate his energy pattern anymore.”
“How long ago did all this happen? How long have you been chasing him?”
“Those are two different questions. Eight cycles have passed since he murdered Flur and I spent nearly two working with Trey to locate him. It takes twenty cycles to complete an apprenticeship. Vee convinced me that the skills I would learn in the final phase of training might well enable me to find him so I returned to the Conservatory. I completed my training three cycles ago but Joon has yet to pay for his crime.”
Charlotte wanted to weep. In her arrogance, she had believed that Tal’s only motivation for finding Joon was to prevent him from harming her. “Had you been with Flur long?”
“Not really. We shared affection but Joon knew I didn’t love her. He chose to destroy her, even knowing that our alliance was nearly over. The senselessness of what he did is part of why I can’t let go.” He shook his head. “At least that’s what Vee says.”
“You admire him very much.”
“Vee is part parent, part teacher and part deity.” He managed to smile. “There is no one like him in the universe.”
Charlotte shifted on the bed, wanting very much to touch Tal. He’d opened himself to her, trusted her.
But she’d made her expectations clear. It wouldn’t be fair to start something she wasn’t ready to finish.
“I know you lost your mother but is your father still alive?” she asked.
He exhaled a long, ragged breath as if to purge himself of the memories. “My father is Prefect Roe Aune, head of the Traditionalist Sect Council. He lives in Frontine, Ontarian’s capital city. You will meet him once we know it is safe for you to travel.”
“And when will I meet Vee?”
“As soon as the Mystics have seen to his recovery.
The Conservatory is our destination.”
* * * * *
Charlotte’s heart fluttered within her breast and she could no longer hold back a grin. She was about to set foot on an alien planet! A hatch opened directly in front of her and she felt the floor rumble as the exit ramp extended toward the ground.
Grasping the smooth metal rail, Charlotte started down the ramp. Tall, leafy trees surrounded the ship, but the leaves were more turquoise than green.
An exotic bird soared into the lavender sky and she laughed, unable to contain her exuberance.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing to the round object clearly visible through the trees.
“The day moon,” Tal explained as they stepped away from the ship. “Ontariese has two moons. The larger is visible during the day, the smaller at night.”
“Are either of them able to sustain life?”
“Yes. The day moon is used as a training facility for our armed forces.”
“Where is the Conservatory?” she asked, dragging her gaze back to the small clearing.
“Just over the rise,” Trey informed her as he joined them on the ground. “Transports aren’t allowed within sight of the complex. They disrupt the balance of energy or something.”
“Most Mystics can transport themselves at least a short distance so conventional conveyances are seldom necessary,” Tal said.
His arrogance made her feisty. She turned to Trey with a blinding smile. “Are you coming with us?” she asked, enjoying the tension generated by her casual question.
Tal had been a perfect gentleman in the six days it took to complete their journey, not attempting so much as a kiss. Now she understood the old adageBecareful what you wish for…
Tal’s posture stiffened and his hair coiled.
Charlotte’s enjoyment increased with each outward sign of his jealousy. At least he hadn’t lost interest.
“Would you like me to?” Trey returned her smile.
“No. She would not,” Tal responded.
“I didn’t ask you.”
“Won’t your crew miss you?” Charlotte flirted.
“Do you really think I care?”
He stepped toward her but Tal slipped between them, preventing Trey from touching her. “Get back on your ship. Charlotte means nothing by her banter.”
Trey crossed his arms over his chest, amber eyes narrowed, legs wide apart. “The conclusion of our flight is a logical transition point. If you had satisfied her, she would not be flirting with me.”
Causing a fistfight within minutes of her arrival wasn’t the best way to introduce herself to the Mystics. She placed her hands lightly on Tal’s shoulders and leaned around him. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I didn’t mean anything by my banter. I enjoyed meeting you, Commander Aune.”
Trey’s expression remained strained but he inclined his head. “We will meet again,” he said, and marched back on to his ship.
They started toward the Conservatory but they didn’t get far before Tal turned on her. “There are no harmless flirtations on Ontariese. Men have fought to the death to secure a mate. Women frequently employ armed guards to ensure their safety. Didn’t I make it clear—?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, touching his upper arm.
“You just sounded so smug. I felt you needed to be brought down a notch or two.”
“About what did I sound smug?” He shrugged off her hand and started walking.
“Mystics don’t need conventional conveyances,” she mimicked, exaggerating his superior tone.
He paused and looked at her. “We don’t. Why does that make me smug?”
“It wasn’t what you said so much ashowyou said it.”
Shaking his head, Tal continued walking.
Charlotte paused by a flowering bush. “The colors are so bright. They don’t look real.” She gingerly touched a florescent pink bloom.
“What’s your hurry?” Putting her hands on her hips, she glared at him. “Excuse me if I find an alien world interesting. Unlike you, I’ve never seen one before.”
“The Conservatory is neutral ground. You will be safe there.”
She fell into step beside him, the excitement of their arrival diminished by the subtle reminder of Dez dar Joon. The image of his cruel face, twisted with sadistic pleasure as Flur lay dying, flickered to life within her mind.
“You will be safe,” Tal repeated.
She must be broadcasting again. Maybe Vee could teach her how to keep her feelings to herself. They came to the crest of a hill and she paused again. A wide valley spread before them, sharper hills providing a backdrop against the lavender sky. A crystal-blue stream dissected the valley, lined by the Ontarian equivalent of weeping willow trees. Their long, slender branches trailed in the water, providing shade and privacy beneath a leafy canopy.
In the middle of the valley, straddling the stream, rested a stately building. A high, domed center rose from the lower sections that formed a perfect square.
She could only see two sides, but the wide-railed gallery appeared to encircle the structure. The thick columns and elaborate sculpting brought to mind the Parthenon or Greek revival mansions of the Deep South.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
Tal only nodded and headed down the grassy hill.
“I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Yes, you did.” He turned to face her at the bottom of the slope. “Do you realize the restraint it has taken not to pressure you to share your body with me?” How was she supposed to answer that? A painful knot formed low in her belly, the same unyielding tension that had gripped her each night as they lay in the same bed, facing in opposite directions.
“I haven’t been with a woman since Flur. Eight cycles, Charlotte. I could have taken you during the energy transfer that first night in your dwelling. Do you realize how badly I wanted you—needed you? I could have convinced you I needed another transfer. I could have seduced you gradually—”
“Why didn’t you?”
His jaw clenched and his hair uncoiled, spreading around her and drawing her gently toward him. “Is that an invitation?”
“Do you want me to come back later?”
She heard the amusement in Dro Tar’s question and felt her face burn. She stepped away from Tal and smothered a groan as his hair stroked across her skin in silken farewell.
“Trey asked me to remind you that your father is waiting for a report,” Dro Tar said.
Tal’s eyes never left Charlotte’s face but a smile curved one corner of his mouth. “I haven’t forgotten, and I’m sure my brother knows it. I’ll see Charlotte safely protected within the Mystic shields and send others back for Vee. Then I’ll report to Prefect Aune.”
* * * * *
Pausing outside his father’s office, Tal transformed his clothing into a formal black suit with a wide belt and gold buttons. Prefect Aune expected every tradition to be observed and Mystic robes were only acceptable at the Conservatory.
Knocking twice upon the door, Tal waited for the correct verbal response.
His father’s deep, authoritative voice made Tal smile. Half the world snapped to attention at the sound of that voice. Sitting straight and tall behind his massive desk, Prefect Aune waited for his son’s report.
“Trey’s transmission indicated the objective was not met,” Roe Aune said without preamble.
Tal didn’t expect a salutation. His father had been autocratic before the murder of his wife and daughters, but the atrocity had hardened him, destroying all traces of warmth.
Meeting his father’s gaze, Tal admitted, “We were unable to apprehend Dez dar Joon but we have the woman.”
“Who is she? What’s Joon’s interest?”
“We just arrived, Father. We were all nearly killed when Joon attempted to collapse the vortex. Vee is still recovering. He has yet to meet her.” Roe’s posture relaxed a bit and he folded his hands on the desktop. “Does she have any idea why Joon is looking for her?”
“None whatsoever. She’s an enigma.”
“Will the Mystic shields conceal her presence?
What does Joon know?”
Tal summoned a chair before his father’s desk, knowing he would never think to offer one. Courtesy was not his father’s concern. He had a well-trained staff to see to such things. “He’s back on Ontariese, but what Joon actually knows, I can only guess. It will not take him long to figure out that she’s still alive—if he hasn’t done so already.”
“Is she Ontarian? Could she be a descendant? And if so, why don’t we have record of her?”
“Her appearance is entirely Earthling and I was not able to determine otherwise when I scanned her.” His father nodded and pushed back from the desk.
“Let me know what you discover.”
Tal stood. “Of course.”
He had reached the door when his father surprised him by saying, “Be careful, Tal. Knowing what Joon risked to find this woman can only mean she is either important or dangerous.”
* * * * *
Tal stalked toward the row of meditation chambers, intending to check on Vee before he finished the conversation Dro Tar had interrupted. He ached for Charlotte with every fiber of his being. Even his well-trained discipline had its limits.
Why haven’t you?
With those three words she sealed her fate. Why hadn’t he seduced her? Why hadn’t he pressured her?
Why hadn’t he overwhelmed her? Why hadn’t hetakenher?
The answer to each was the same. Because he was a fool. She wanted him. His patience hadn’t endeared him to her, it had frustrated her. Well, his foolishness ended today. He would know every curve and hollow of her silken flesh before the sun banished the night moon from the sky.
Rubbing his face briskly with his hands, Tal forced his thoughts away from the exasperating little Earthling one last time. He nearly collided with Vee as he exited one of the meditation chambers. Quickly stepping back, Tal said, “You appear much improved.”
“I feel much improved.”
“Good. I’m anxious for you to meet Charlotte.”
“You were able to learn nothing new while I was in stasis?” Vee asked.
“No,” Tal admitted. They walked out into the training room. “We followed Joon through the vortex but he was able to fling the ship off course as we emerged into Ontarian space. I’m sure that pleased him greatly.”
“He has returned to Fortress Joon?”
“Then your plan was successful.” Vee offered him a rare smile. “We will not be able to hide her presence indefinitely, but we now have time to determine who she is and why Joon risked interdimensional transportation to locate her.”
“My father doesn’t see it so,” Tal grumbled. “Our mission was a failure in his estimation.”
“Prefect Aune can see no shade of gray. But this should be a challenge to thee, not a discouragement.” Tal nodded, acknowledging the wisdom in Vee’s words. “Are you strong enough to scan Charlotte?”
“Yes. I already summoned her.”
Vee motioned toward the arched entrance to the Training Hall.
Charlotte stood there with Mage Gerr. Tal watched the color drain from her face and her mouth gape. He waited for a smile to replace her stunned expression but instead she started screaming.Chapter Nine
Charlotte spun on the ball of her foot and ran. Had they been working together all along? If Tal intended to deliver her to Dez dar Joon, why pretend to—
A hand closed around her arm, ending her abrupt departure, and Charlotte screamed again. She tugged frantically against Tal’s hold but his fingers wouldn’t budge.
“That isnotDez dar Joon,” he insisted.
Her muddled brain wouldn’t accept the simple explanation. She dug her fingernails into his arm and jerked against his grasp. “Let go!”
“Charlotte, look at me.” Tal brought her face up and captured her gaze. “That is not Dez dar Joon.
Look at him. See for yourself.”
Her breath froze in her lungs and the rapid passing of blood roared through her ears. Tal promised to protect her! It wasn’t supposed to end like this. His fingers gently guided her face to the side and she looked at the other man.
His long white hair and the sharp arrangement of his features were identical to Joon, but kindness and concern shone from his bright green eyes. Unlike the other Ontarians Charlotte had encountered, his eyes were one solid color, reflective and intense, like precious emeralds.
Gliding slowly toward her, his dove-gray robe rippled around his legs. He was tall and lithe, moving with the same inherent grace she found so fascinating in Tal. He extended the most elegant hand Charlotte had ever seen and waited for her to grasp it before he spoke in softly accented English.
“May Ontariese make thee welcome, Shar Lott. I am Vee.”
Heat spread up her arm and tension melted from her muscles until she could hardly stand. Tal’s arm wrapped around her, a much-needed support at the small of her back.
“I’m honored to meet you.” She managed to croak out the words despite the tears burning the back of her throat. She thought Tal had betrayed her. She thought… Shaking away the last of her fear, Charlotte squared her shoulders. “I apologize for my reaction, but except for your eyes, you look just like Dez dar Joon.”
Vee released her hand and smiled. “Actually, Dez dar Joon hath taken on my appearance but I understand your confusion.”
“If someone had warned me,” she glared meaningfully at Tal, “myconfusioncould have been avoided.”
Vee motioned toward the pillows lining the massive room. “Come.”
Charlotte took a step into the training hall and stopped. Though the large squares looked like marble, the floor was springy, like dense foam or rubber. She took another step, testing the resistance with a forward lunge.
“Come,” Tal echoed.
“Yes, sir.” She mocked him with a smart salute.
Seeing his father certainly hadn’t improved Tal’s mood.
They reached the cushions and she followed their example as she sat. “If someone hacks off your hair, do you lose your powers?” she asked, making a bland gesture toward Vee’s ankle-length braid. She wasn’t going to sit here passively while they examined her like a science project.
Tal looked confounded but the older man laughed.
“Our abilities are not linked to our hair as it was with Samson,” Vee said.
“Who is Samson?” Tal asked.
“A story recorded in an Earth text called the Bible tells of a man who had unmatched strength so long as he did not sever his hair.” He turned back to Charlotte. “As an Ontarian shape-shifter learns to control the movement of their hair, sensation is created within the strands.”
“Your hair can feel?” she asked doubtfully.
“Yes,” Tal affirmed. “Cutting it causes pain, like injuring a finger or toe. It’s also a means of identification.”
“If the shape-shifter wishes to be identified,” Vee added.
Humility must not be part of a Mystic’s training, Charlotte thought with an inward smile.
Vee’s hair moved of its own volition to loosely circle his neck. It was not braided in the usual sense.
At least twelve partitions had been woven into an intricate pattern. Charlotte had never seen anything like it, so complex and beautiful.
She dragged her gaze back to his glittering eyes.
“How many shape-shifters are there on Ontariese?”
“Forty-seven have been invited to the Choosing.
Forty-one were chosen.”
“Why were the others turned away?” she asked.
“Especially if the ability is so rare?”
“Shape-shifting, as with any ability, is bestowed differently upon each person. Some are able to transform only one body part and hold the shift for an instant. For others, the change is effortless and they are able to manifest any shape they choose.” Vee’s voice flowed over her, relaxing her muscles, easing her anxiety. Was he doing it intentionally?
Could this man affect others with just the sound of his voice?
“Why has Joon chosen to emulate your appearance?” she asked.
“I should have forbade it when he first began, but he seemed only to amuse himself.” His lips pressed into a grim line. “I had no idea how violent his ambition would become or how he intended to use his ability.”
“Like what he did to Tal after he murdered Flur?” She cringed at how callous the words sounded. She hadn’t meant to be so insensitive.
Vee’s startled gaze shot to Tal. He seemed surprised Tal had told her.
“Precisely,” Vee said, turning back to Charlotte.
“Do ye know why I have summoned thee?”
“Yes. You want to scan me and see if you can figure out why he wants to kill me.”
“Murder may not be his intention,” Vee said.
“Only after he failed to abduct thee did he attempt to harm thee. Do ye know any reason for his actions?”
“I had no idea he existed until Tal crashed into my life.” She restlessly shifted on the cushion. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I know what you’re going to do and I’d just as soon get it over with.”
“Tal Aune explained that thy mind resists any telepathic connection. Do ye understand the necessity of our learning his motivation?”
Pulling her knees up almost to her chest, Charlotte nodded. “I understand, but I can’t seem to get my brain to accept the understanding.”
Vee moved off his cushion, kneeling in front of Charlotte. “May I touch thee?”
She nodded and he extended his hand. His fingers hovered above her skin, moving from her face to the crown of her head in slow, even strokes.