Alex Wales: Promise
Alex Wales Quartet – 1, 2011
This is dedicated to strong
I want to thank my supportive family for their love, understanding, and for listening to my endless writerly chatter.
Also, a huge “thank you” to Andrea for being so awesome and patient, as well as Dawné for the kickass cover!
“You know you don’t have to leave, right?” The way those dark eyebrows tilted over his dark eyes filled the suggestion with temptation.
Usually, all it took to get Alex back into Ulric’s bed was a suggestive smile, and she would forget where she had to go or what she had to do. This time, she already had a job lined up. If she didn’t hurry, she’d be late, and she couldn’t afford any delays at the moment. Spending a mini-vacation on this space station might have saved her from spending any credits for a few weeks, but her funds were running low, out in the real world. She usually had just enough to scrape by, so forfeiting work was out of the question.
Alex smiled but continued to dress. She ignored the way her skin itched to feel his touch. Ignored all the things they’d just spent hours doing and wanted to do all over again.
If I don’t stop acting like this, I’m never going to leave this room. As tempting as Ulric was, she couldn’t afford to give in to his seduction right now.
“Alex, I reallydon’t want you to go,” he continued, an evocative smirk tempting her further. He lay naked on the bed, and his impressive physique stretched out in all its muscled glory. One hand smoothed down the red, silk sheets barely covering him, showing off what he was insinuating. “Maybe, I should rephrase that to, ‘I want you to stay, so I can make you scream some more.’ I like to make you scream.”
She bit down on her bottom lip. She shouldn’t be staring at his obvious show of arousal, but she couldn’t look away. He’s so darn tempting.
Alex hated to admit it-even to herself-but sometimes, she didn’t want to leave his side. When she spent time with Ulric, she didn’t have to struggle out there in the big, bad galaxy while trying to earn an honest, or dishonest, buck. Everything came easy to this man, and when she was with him, the same happened to her. Lying around naked and having every meal delivered to this room was a way of life any girl could get used to. Still, she’d never really taken the path of least resistance. Her life had been an uphill struggle for as long as she could remember.
As wonderful as it was to spend a couple of days-or even weeks-doing this, she had a life to get back to. There were places to go and jobs to do. Planets and space stations in this part of the galaxy were so far away from each other, she needed every second she could get to maximize her profit.
Today, she had to be strong and resist his gorgeous allure. Even if she couldn’t tear her eyes away from what the silk sheet revealed, now that it sat low enough to expose him completely. Oh, he knew how to tempt her.
“Well, what’s it going to be?”
She swallowed the words she really wanted to say. “Ulric,” Alex said with a sigh. “You know I can’t stay any longer.”
“Unlike you, I need to work if I want to eat.”
“You eat pretty well here, don’t you?” If he hadn’t followed it up by wiggling his dark eyebrows, she might have thought he was seriously talking about her actual nutrition and not what they did almost every waking moment they spent together. As much as she enjoyed the endless pleasure Ulric never failed to deliver, sometimes she wondered if there was more to his double entendres when he suggested she stay longer. Lately, whenever she stopped by, he insisted she add a couple of days to her stay. A few days usually ended up turning into an extra week or two of being lost in the luxury of his carefree lifestyle.
She rolled her eyes. “Grow up. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know you need to keep that piece of crap you call a ship going.” The tease in his brown eyes only made him more irresistible. “Are you choosing your ship over me?”
Alex buttoned her pants and paused to stare at him as he lounged on the bed, trying to reel her back in.
On this space station, in the middle of nowhere, it wouldn’t be hard to give in to someone else’s plea. In a harsh reality-where most of the time people had to engage in illegal activity to barely survive-most would jump at the chance of a partnership with so many obvious benefits. Yet, how long would he want her around if she gave in and dropped everything for him? How long would it take for himto be the one wishing she’d just leave, already?
Ulric wasn’t the type of guy who devoted his life to just one woman, and that suited her fine. In fact, it was why she kept coming back to him in-between deliveries. Ulric was an uncomplicated relationship to maintain-their quest for mutual pleasure united them.
She leaned forward and pressed her palms against the end of the bed, making sure the tops of her arms pressed her bare breasts together.
Predictably, he lowered his gaze. He was no doubt satisfied to have gotten a reaction out of her. She couldn’t hide her hardened nipples when he made her feel so horny all the time.
Alex lifted a knee onto the bed, crawling toward him very slowly. Almost moving like a lithe cat, ready to lap up some milk. When she reached him, she skimmed her lips over his and made a move to pull back quickly. She didn’t want to prolong or turn it into anything more meaningful than a goodbye kiss, but he covered the back of her hand with his, pinning her to the spot. The long fingers of his other hand entwined around her curls, massaging her scalp.
She couldn’t pull away, so she gave into the kiss. She opened her mouth to him, allowing his tongue to venture inside. She didn’t resist when he pulled her by the hand he’d just been covering and encouraged her to straddle him.
Ulric Cale was all wrong for her. Still, Alex couldn’t help but be drawn to him. One move, suggestion, or simple invitation was all it took to have her practically melt into his arms. She enjoyed the ease of getting lost in the ecstasy of sharing his bed and all the pleasures he provided.
Sometimes, she didn’t understand what hesaw in her. He lived and practically ran this space station, while she was nothing more than a courier who travelled the stars, delivering one item after another to earn enough credits to support herself. The pay wasn’t great, but it was enough to keep her ship in the air and her stomach full.
Alex pulled out of the kiss, but Ulric didn’t remove his hand from the back of her head. He actually tightened his grip on her hair, pulling it back enough to expose her neck. He licked her skin, rousing a shiver.
“ Promiseisn’t a piece of crap. I inherited her from my father. It was the best thing he ever gave me.” Well, the ship and her attitude.
She spent a lot of her childhood riding around with her father while he delivered his own cargo. Except noneof his business deals were ever legit, and he liked to keep a lot concealed from her. Mostly, Louis Wales made his dubious living as a smuggler, but she never let on that she knew. She enjoyed a life in space with him and knew he tried his best to support them.
After more than a decade’s absence, her mother decided to resurface one day, demanding Alex go and live with her. Her mother being the more politically powerful of the two, her father had no choice but to obey. Alex was sent to a planet she hated and was forced to live a life she despised. When she turned 15, her mother coerced her into an engagement with someone she didn’t even know. The guy was her age but still a stranger. Besides, Alex never liked to have others choose her path in life, and especially not her selfish mother.
“I can offer you a lot, if you’re willing to accept it,” Ulric said. He trailed his tongue up the side of her neck, followed it onto the underside of her chin, and back to her mouth. When he kissed her again, it was rough, hungrier. “I hate knowing that you’re out there in space on your own. Stay with me a while longer, and let’s see where this leads us.”
She tried to shake her head, but his grip was too tight to allow any movement. “As tempting and appealing as that sounds, I can’t.”
Alex sat back, Ulric’s erection caught beneath her. He groaned, closing his eyes for a second. The guy was a machine. He was always ready to go. He also happened to be the only man she’d encountered who was capable of matching her libido. They were perfect for each other on so many levels. Ulric could offer her so much-a life in a permanent place without the need to travel anywhere, countless hours of satisfying sex, and unlimited credits without the guilt of not earning a penny, because Ulric hadn’t even earned it himself. He’d inherited everything from his wealthy parents.
This is why he’s all wrong for me.
It was enough to keep her coming back, but she couldn’t stay.
Some people’s happiness was easier met than others, and Alex was happy with a ship and the attitude she carried in her genes. Ulric seemed to embrace the lazy, laid-back life he’d been handed on a platter, but he always looked bored, as if he was looking for the next big thing to get him off. Maybe that’s why he liked having her around.
Alex loved adventure, loved being out there. Travelling from one system to another was what made her feel alive. Nothing could match it. Well, nothing except a night of passion with Ulric.
“Why can’t you?” The tease in his eyes made her uneasy.
She shrugged. “I need to get the job done. Freelance is a huge responsibility.”
“Give it all up, then.” His mouth was only centimeters away from hers. “You don’t need to have so much responsibility resting on your shoulders.”
“What?” Alex backed away from him, and his fingers slid out of her hair.
“You heard me. Give it all up.”
Wide-eyed, she backed up until she could slide off the side of the bed to consider the insane suggestion she was positive she’d heard him make. Ulric was a lot of fun, a hell of a lover, and gorgeous, but she couldn’t quit her own life for him. Surely she hadn’t heard him right.
“Are you serious? You want me to give it all up, so I can sit on my ass all day with you?” She laughed at the thought.
“Your hot ass wouldn’t be sitting all day. I’m sure we could find a few things to keep us occupied.” He winked. “So, what do you say?”
“No. I can’t.” Alex shook her head to reinforce her decision. The curls bounced in front of her eyes as she made her way toward the armchair holding the rest of her discarded clothes. She grabbed her bra and slipped it on.
“No, don’t get dressed. I was enjoying the view.”
Alex’s pulse quickened. Why was this conversation having such a wild effect on her body? Why was he even suggesting such a thing?
“How long did you want me to stay?” She had to admit she was curious. A part of her might even want to accept. A tinypart she was determined to ignore.
“I don’t know…indefinitely.”
She couldn’t help but snort. “You’re not serious!?” She slipped her tank top on and could feel him watching her every move.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Alex adjusted the fitting top and turned to stare at him. “Ulric, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but we both know you’re not thattype of guy.”
“What type of guy am I, then?”
She sighed. “You’re the type of guy who likes to roam free and get it on with whoever happens to be there at the time.” Alex had seen him chasing skirts firsthand, and before that, his reputation had done most of the talking.
He shook his head. “Maybe you’re right, but when I’m with you, I don’t know…something changes, and I don’t want to let you go.”
“Oh.” She knew what this was. He hated the ‘goodbye’ side of things. She did too, but she’d be back sooner or later.
“What’s ‘oh’ supposed to mean?”
She made her way to the side of the bed, knowing this was a risky move. “I understand. I really do, because I hate leaving as well.” She might end up kicking herself for admitting this, but what did she have to lose? She always managed to leave emotion out of their encounters but had otherwise shared with him as much as one person could with another. Being naked and vulnerable, giving into someone else’s sexual fantasies, and allowing them to be a part of your own was heavy stuff. It allowed for a certain degree of vulnerability, but it was all on a physical level.
“Okay, that’s easily fixed. Stay with me indefinitely.” His brown eyes were twinkling, hopeful. This was certainly a side of him she hadn’t seen before.
“Ulric, I just told you I can’t!”
“Why can’t you?” he asked.
“I have a job to do,” she almost shouted. “Stop trying to make things harder than they-”
“What if I told you that I love you?”
Alex opened her mouth to snap at him for interrupting, but she stopped. What the hell? Had she woken up in some sort of alternate universe? A man like Ulric Cale would never blurt out these words to anyone. He was control incarnate. To throw such a statement out there opened him up to rejection.
No one rejected him.
Besides, she didn’t know what to say, had never heard those words from anyone her whole life. In her 25 years, not a single man had ever uttered those words to her and meant it. Not even her father. Now, here was Ulric-the rich, arrogant guy who chased her for months before she eventually succumbed to his flirting-saying them. She’d never imagined hewould be the one to say them.
She looked up, wishing she’d already had a chance to put her light-weight jacket on. Goosebumps rose along her skin. All of a sudden, she felt so darn cold. Not exactly the reaction she’d expected to feel when a man eventually said, “I love you.”
“You don’t mean it,” she whispered, meeting his eyes.
“Ah, yeah. I do.”
She released a shaky breath. “Ulric, don’t try to conquer me like you do your business ventures.” She twisted her hands over and over, until he forcibly took them in his. Did he honestly see her as just another challenge to be conquered, or was the accusation simply her defense mechanism to his unexpected admission?
She didn’t know. Not yet.
“That’s not what I’m trying to do, Alex.” He looked away, his eyes downcast. His fingertips toyed with hers. “This isn’t the reaction I expected the first time I managed to get those words out of my mouth.” He turned his gaze back to meet hers. She’d never seen vulnerability on his face, nor was it an emotion she’d ever expected to see on this over-confident individual.
Was he serious? Maybe Alex had become so cynical, she couldn’t wrap her mind around this.
“Then what areyou trying to do?” Alex narrowed her eyes at the naked man lounged on the round bed in front of her. His body was utter perfection-muscles in all the right places and smooth, mostly hairless skin. If she didn’t know any better, she’d assume he was genetically engineered at birth or some sort of android, made to resemble a human.
That’s a creepy thought.After all, this was her lover.
Alex wasn’t usually a one-man kind of girl, but after the start of her affair with Ulric, that all changed. She’d lost interest in all the other possibilities she encountered on foreign planets. Maybe they’d somehow managed to change each other. She hadn’t admitted it to him-and never would-but she hadn’t taken a lover in years, because he kept her cravings sated.
“I’m trying to convince you to stay with me.” His fingers chased lazy circles around her palms, while he kept his intense eyes pinned on hers, his lips pouty. “I want this thing between us to be a little more permanent. Alex, I don’t want to spend hours getting interrogated, or see doubt in your eyes. I just want you to stay with me. Will you do that?”
She shook her head. “I can’t.”
“You can’t, or you won’t?” The suspicion in his eyes made them twinkle in the darkness engulfing them inside his bedroom. Ulric had the top section of the space station all to himself. No one disturbed him, unless he wanted them to.
She turned away and looked out the large window on the other side of the room. Stars shimmered in the blackness of space. It had been a long time since she’d actually enjoyed living in one place. After her mother’s attempt at imprisoning and marrying her off for her own gain, Alex found it hard to stay in one place for too long. The only home she could see herself in for any period of time was her ship, but even that was mobile.
As tempting as this offer was, and as much as she’d love to spend countless hours naked with this man, Alex couldn’t say “yes”. She didn’t want to be tied down or feel suffocated. No, that wasn’t the problem. I can’t lie to myself. I just don’t feel the same way about him , do I?
She shook her head, turning back to face him. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”
“Forget I said anything.” He released her hands. His chiseled jaw went rigid, darkened by the stubble. “Go on. Take that piece of crap out into space, and return to my bed whenever you’re in need of a good fuck, since that’s all you seem to want me for.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off.
“Don’t look so shocked. It’s the truth, and you’ve just proven it.”
“Ulric, I thought you and I were looking for the same thing.”
“We were, but somewhere along the way, something changed for me. I guess it didn’t for you.” He looked away. “That’s okay. You’ll learn to feel the same way soon enough. I’m sure of it.”
Alex didn’t particularly appreciate the comment. Did he hope to manipulate her into falling in love with him, or was he just hoping it would happen eventually? Either way, she didn’t respond well to manipulation. It always reminded her of her scheming mother.
“Well, as long as you’re still open to being lovers, you know I’ll be back.”
His eyes darkened with desire. “Babe, with a body like yours, and the things you’re able to pull off in bed, you’re more than welcome to return whenever you want. No matter what, I’ll always be ready to get into your pants. Or get you outof your pants.”
She laughed. “You know I’ll be back.” She might not appreciate bold attempts of manipulation, but she had no problem being easily led into his bed.
“I’m hoping you will.”
Alex offered Ulric a smile. She looked at him, and for a few silent moments, they gazed into each other’s eyes. Maybe he was challenging her to read his mind, or was trying to figure out what she was thinking. Either way, she felt a little saddened by what had just happened. She was pretty sure things had changed forever between them, and she wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not.
“This delivery shouldn’t take too long. I should be back in a few days, so keep the bed warm.” Was she suggesting he take up another lover in her absence? She didn’t know what she meant, but she also didn’t want to waste any time analyzing it. The thought of him being with someone else never roused any jealousy in her. Whatever he did when she wasn’t around didn’t concern her, as long as she didn’t have to see any of it.
She made her way across the room, picked up the blaster still in its holster, and strapped it around the top of her right thigh, before grabbing her bag and jacket from the armchair. She slung both over her shoulder, now more eager than ever to get out of this room.
Alex took one last look at Ulric’s stunning face, the shiny brown hair he kept short, and his luscious body, before turning toward the door. She always liked to remember what he looked like just before she left for a delivery. Actually, stopping by between jobs had become a habit. Now, she wondered if it was a good idea.
“See ya next time,” she said with a wink over her shoulder. A feeling of foreboding washed over her, causing her gut to tighten.
“Yeah, next time.” Ulric ran a fingertip over his exposed abdomen suggestively. “If you change your mind, I’ll be right here, all alone, with no one else to satisfy me.”
Alex turned away, wondering if he was telling the truth.
What’s it matter to me?It was none of her business. She’d just turned down a once-in-a-lifetime offer from the richest and most powerful playboy this side of the galaxy. She knew not many women, if any, could boast about something this big.
She pressed the button on the side wall, and the metallic door opened wide in front of her.
“Alex,” he called.
She looked at him over her shoulder, curls falling over her eyes. “Yeah?”
“Be careful out there, okay?”
“I’m always careful…out there and in here,” she returned. No sense leaving him to think she was a vulnerable idiot, ready to answer his every whim. Though, her insides quivered at the thought of leaving him alone with an erection. Maybe he’d choose to relieve himself. The imagery caused a flush of heat to crawl up her cheeks. Even if it wouldn’t be the first time she’ d watched him do that to himself, it never failed to make her hot. Her physical reaction to this man was always so intense, so raw. No wonder she kept coming back for more.
She closed her hands into fists. Keep moving.
As Alex stepped out into another large, open area in the Cale quarters, she ignored the tiny part of her begging for her to reconsider. She kept moving, willing her legs forward. The nagging feeling might be making it that much harder to walk away from him, but she knew this was the right decision.
No, it’s the only decision, a smarter side of her added. Don’t look back, don’t think about him, and I’ll see him again soon enough.
First, she needed to sort through her own feelings. What did she want from Ulric? Would a collection of convenient trysts really be enough to satisfy her in the long run? It had worked out so far, but now that he’d changed things between them, she couldn’t help but wonder how it would affect her.
Before returning to his bed, she had some things to figure out.
“Where’s the cargo?”
“Waiting for you at Loading Dock E,” Sackor replied with a seedy smile, which wasn’t a small feat for a crustacean. “Now that we’ve dealt with business, what do you say we enjoy a nice drink together?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on, Alex Wales. Surely you can spare a few moments for a drink with an old friend?”
She nearly choked on the suggestion . Old friend?She couldn’t stand this asshole, and his intentions weren’t in her best interest. This guy only cared about himself and the credits he accumulated at the expense of others.
Alex looked around the crowded bar, anything to prolong having to look at him. Sackor always made her cringe.
The smoky haze, tinted red by a machine behind the bar, gave this place an even seedier feel than it already exuded. An alien band stood on the small, triangular stage on the far side of the vast room. Three little Greys were performing a haunting lullaby through their tiny mouths. Rather than using instruments, each produced a different soothing sound resulting in a disturbing, yet tender, song. Personally, she didn’t like the somberness of their music, but it seemed to fit the misery and desperation surrounding this particularly sleazy hangout.
Those who dared venture in here were usually looking for cheap thrills: easy ways of earning a living, some poor sucker to hook up with, or were simply trying to drown out whatever problems hounded them. This shithole was frequented by the desperate and the degenerate.
Just because it was located inside the same space station Ulric owned, didn’t make it more respectable. This level was a long way from his private, lavish hideaway. There were more than enough pristine and fashionable establishments in the higher levels for the majority of the population.
The lower regions of the Anteris Space Station, just above the garbage dump, were home to those without an ounce of class. The refined population hardly cared about these regions, unless they wanted to slum it for the buzz or were curious about how the other half lived. She’d served as a tour guide for such a group once, as a favor to Ulric.
When he first spotted her on one of her many stops here, he offered her a large amount of credits to escort a group of rich folk to this very bar. At the time, she hadn’t realized Ulric had other intentions for her, but Alex hadn’t shied away from a paying job. The perks of eventually becoming his lover had extended to a free stay in his private quarters starting the day she accepted his persistent advances, but he never hired her, again.
Still, the few hours she’d spent chaperoning a group of wide-eyed, wealthy people-as they experienced an atmosphere very different from their own-had probably been the easiest job she’d ever taken. Of course, it had come with a few problems. Like the stupid man who’d brought his impressionable teenage daughter with him. She’d behaved during the tour, but Alex hadn’t missed the way Michaela’s eyes lit up when some of the sleazy patrons checked her out.
The girl had been lost to this seedy underbelly shortly thereafter. The teenager’s father hired Alex to search for her during her last stay, when Michaela had been missing for over a year.
She managed to locate the girl, but Michaela had refused to return home. Her pimp shot at Alex, and she’d decided it just wasn’t worth the risk. She’d told the father she couldn’t find his daughter. Lying had secured her payment, but she’d handed the credits to a small family starving in this squalor. She couldn’t bring herself to accept payment for a lie.
“We’re not old friends,” she finally said to Sackor, who she found staring at her with an amused look on his crusty face.
Alex looked away again, and spotted Michaela across the room. The young girl was so high, she probably didn’t even notice the guy pimping her out to whoever was willing to pay for her, was planning to sell her to the brute busily squeezing her breasts as if he were checking for ripe fruit.
Damn that stupid little girl. Now, I’m going to have to do something about it before I get out of here.
In spite of feeling more at home in the slums of the desperate and criminally inclined, she still despised wrongdoings to the innocent or stupid.
All kinds of alien and humanoid races frequented this joint. It was the best way to score work. Most of the time, the pay wasn’t great, but it was enough to accrue the credits she needed to survive on her ship. One of these days, Alex needed to take some time off to visit one of those tropical planets advertised in almost every space station across the galaxy.
Stopping by Anteris for a little loving wasn’t as relaxing as it used to be. Especially when her lover had suddenly developed expectations.
A vacation would have to wait. Promisewas in good shape for an old ship, but time could be very cruel to spaceships. The older they got, the harder and more costly maintenance became.
Her father owned it for 20 years before she inherited it from him, and he kept it in great shape. She was determined to do the same.
“Alex Wales, I hope you’re daydreaming about me,” Sackor said, interrupting her reverie.
She had no choice but to turn away from the stupid teenage girl and focus on her latest customer. As far as her clientele went, this guy was one of the scummiest breeds. On the other hand, he always managed to come through with both cargo and credits. She suspected Sackor had some sort of sick fascination with her, but she did her best to ignore his advances.
Sackor was also a piece of crap and would screw anyone over to get a better deal.
Alex met his glossy eyes. Creepy.
His four long, spiky fingers were lined with cheap, silver jewelry. On top of his head sat a fake crown, with two thin antennas sticking up from the inside. He even wore a red cape to fuel his delusion of having royalty in his blood. The only thing in his blood was filth. Everyone knew that only humanoid races had any sort of established monarchy.
Given the chance, she would love to squash this giant insect, but not while he still provided a steady stream of cargo. She didn’t know what he moved from this space station to nearby planets, but it had to be some sort of liquid, because it was always inside barrels.
She must have already moved more than a hundred for him.
Besides, it wasn’t her business to ask questions. Just deliver the cargo, receive her credits, and move onto the next job. Or back here for a little physical action.
Ah, Ulric. Stop thinking about him! The bizarre offer still bugged her more than she wanted to admit. They’d been playing this game of pleasurable sex for several years, and he’d never shown any desire to have it turn into more. Most of the time, when she returned, Alex had to pry some other hussy’s hands off him so she could have her turn at some fun. Ulric had even suggested having company in their bed several times, but Alex didn’t swing that way.
She was only into men, humanoidmen.
So, what had changed, or was Ulric trying to manipulate her into something she wasn’t aware of yet?
“How about that drink, huh?” Sackor asked. His thin lips spread into a grin, making him look downright scary.
Alex plastered a tight smile on her face. “I don’t think so. I really have to get going. There’s someone else waiting for me after I get your cargo across.” Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try and play the charm game with insect-man every now and then. Her female charm got her pretty far in this business. A low-cut top and tight pants mixed with a seductive smile had scored her more than one repeat customer. This guy, ugh. Just being this close to him made her skin crawl, even with a small table between them.
“Oh, come on. I’m a king, you know?”
“So you’ve mentioned a thousand times before.”
“That doesn’t impress you?” Those big, black eyes looked like oversized goggles on his dark and shiny face.
She shrugged. “Not into royalty.”
“No, you’re into scum like Ulric Cale.”
She lifted an eyebrow. Now, this was interesting-a lowlife like Sackor was calling Ulricscum? “What makes you call him that?”
A raspy sound, vaguely resembling a sigh filled the air between them. She caught a sniff of his rancid breath. It smelled like a corpse permanently resided inside his stomach. Maybe one did.
Alex shook her head and exhaled to clear his stench.
“Everyone knows the guy’s into some very bad things. It’s why he can afford to sit on his ass all day and still be one of the richest pricks in the galaxy!” Sackor said every word with obvious dislike. Hell, it sounded more like hate.
“He inherited this space station and everything else-”
“Spoken like someone who’s fucking him.”
“How dare you!”
“What? You don’t think your affair’s a secret, do you?” Sackor laughed, making her skin crawl, again. His tiny teeth were all spikes inside that big, rigid mouth of his.
She wasn’t stupid, knowing a lot of people were aware of her on-again-off-again thing with Ulric never bothered her. Yet, she suddenly didn’t like the idea of every scumbag in the galaxy judging her because of it. Did they laugh behind her back or just assume she was an easy lay who’d eventually weaken and let them in, too? It sounded disgusting to even think about it, but sex and love could make or break a person’s entire life. Reputations were made and ruined after one-night stands with the wrong people or if the performance didn’t live up to the expectations.
What the hell was she thinking? Sackor would say just about anything to try and snare her into his web. It’s never going to happen.
Alex took a deep breath. “It’s not meant to be a secret.”
“Of course not. Fucking the owner of a space station can only work for your rep. It doesn’t mean you have to stay exclusive to him, does it? I’m more than equipped to deal with satisfying a humanoid female.” Sackor licked his lips and slowly extended his spiked tongue to insinuate exactly what he was offering, if she chose to accept the challenge.
The gesture had the reverse effect on her. Alex cringed at the thought of his putrid tongue anywhere near her body. “I’m a one-guy-at-a-time kinda girl,” she lied.
She had to stop this exclusive arrangement she’d set up for herself with Ulric, especially now that she knew he was getting confused. If something came up on-or off-this space station, Alex would take advantage of the situation. She couldn’t continue to mull over his offer and risk eventually taking him up on it.
A distraction’s what I need.
“You’re lying. I know all about your other lovers.”
“I don’t have other lovers,” she snapped back.
“I’m growing tired of your resistance, Alex Wales.” Those black eyes peered into hers. “One of these days, you’re going to have no other choice but to accept at least one encounter with me.”
She doubted thatday would ever come but chose to keep her mouth shut by biting down on her tongue. Just because she didn’t want to have sex with Sackor didn’t mean she had to jeopardize their working arrangement. “Who knows? Stranger things have happened.” She offered him a wink.
A smile teased the edges of those very thin, hard lips as his eyes shone. “Yes, they have…but for now, I’m going to have to be happy with keeping this strictly business.” He patted her left hand with his.
It took all of her willpower to keep from dragging her hand away from his grasp. The feel of his harsh insect skin made her want to vomit.
“The cargo’s ready to load and needs to be delivered within 24 hours.” Sackor held her hand steady under his. “As soon as it’s signed for, the credits will be automatically deposited into your personal account.”
“I know the procedure.” Alex pushed the tall stool back and stood up. His skin against hers made her itch all over. Insects had this effect on her, no matter how big or small they were.
He didn’t budge when she made a move to pull her hand away.
“Alex, I may even be able to add a little extra to the usual fee, if you meet me back here in 48 hours to fulfill your promise of intimacy.” The excitement made his shell glossy with moisture.
She glared at him for a moment. How dare he? I might be a little impulsive with sex and get involved with men a little too quickly, but I’ve never accepted payment in exchange. She wasn’t about to start now.
“Sure, whatever.” Alex managed to pull her hand out from under his, but not without cutting the skin between her thumb and index finger on the spiked edges. Damn!It stung like hell.
Sackor looked down at his fingers, noticed a few drops of her blood, and lapped them up with his long tongue. “Delicious. I can’t wait to taste your other liquids.”
Alex didn’t even acknowledge the disgusting comment. She hadn’t realized a sexual encounter with this thing could sound even worse, but it did. She would no doubt have nightmares about the insane imagery, but for now, she had a new job to focus on. With some luck, she wouldn’t need to sleep again for several days and could forget this encounter.
She lifted her left wrist and set the countdown on her digital timepiece. Every planet and space station in this galaxy still used the 24-hour system of telling time. No matter what race, the humans were able to entice everyone into using it. Wasn’t bad, either-especially for someone who had deadlines for every single delivery she accepted.
“You don’t have to worry. I’ll meet the delivery time,” she said.
His eyes were shiny and creepy. “I’ve no doubt you will.”
As Alex stepped away from Sackor, she veered to the other side of the room, ignoring the burning pain from her hand.
She stopped in front of the booth where Michaela still seemed out of it. Then again, on closer inspection, the idiot might actually be enjoying this. The brute now had her on his lap-her back pressed against the wall and her legs dangled over the edge of the seat. He had an arm around her waist, and his other hand keyed in numbers into the handheld device sitting on the table.
The sleazy pimp sat across from them, leaning forward as he stared hungrily at the digits he’d soon receive as payment for something he didn’t own. He was also the first one to notice Alex standing there. He lifted his greasy head, taking his time to start at her legs, before pausing on her chest for a few seconds too long. When his beady eyes finally reached her face, he said, “What the hell do youwant, bitch? Are you looking for a job?”
“Charming,” she spat. “The only thing I’m here to do is take the girl back where she belongs.”
The pimp had the nerve to laugh. “I don’t think so. She belongs to me-”
“No, she belongs to me, now. I just completed the transaction,” the brute said with a laugh. “So, like he said. What the hell do you want?”
Alex crossed her arms. Her fingers itched to grab her blaster. Soon.
The pimp slid out of the booth. “I’m outta here. If you’ve got a problem, you gotta deal with Robbo now. This has nothing to do with me.”
Alex kept her ground, refusing to budge. Even when the sleazy bastard went out of his way to rub up against her as he tried to make his escape, she didn’t give him enough room to leave just yet. Then, she leaned over, her hands pressed against the table. “Okay, then, Robbo. I’m taking the girl with me.”
He turned his head toward her, but Alex couldn’t see if he was looking directly at her or not. The brute’s eyes were covered by rectangular glasses, wrapped around his face and screwed to both sides of his head. She assumed he was either a cyborg or an enhanced human. Either way, her blaster would take him out. She didn’t even have to aim to kill. Just put him out of commission long enough to get the hell out of this dump.
She wrapped her fingers around the blaster on her thigh before he had a chance to respond. Alex blasted Robbo between the eyes. His heavy frame slumped back against the wall. The shell of his glasses ripped off his face, dangling from one end of his head to reveal a mess of wires spilling from eyeless sockets.
Michaela screamed and jumped off Robbo’s lap.
“Oh, shit!” The pimp stared at Alex with fear in his eyes, before swiping the handheld the cyborg had been using, and running off into the stunned crowd, shouting, “You can keep her!”
Alex was glad to see him go as she holstered her blaster and caught the girl by the wrist when she made a move to run. “I don’t think so. You’re coming with me.” If she let Michaela get away now, someone else would snap her up, and she’d once again find herself in a similar situation. I’m not going to let that happen. Not today.
“Who are you?” The petite brunette asked, tears dripping from her eyes. Her makeup ran in matching black lines down her cheeks. She was dressed in some sort of cheesy school uniform-a white shirt and a tiny blue skirt.
“If you weren’t so high, you’d remember me. Now, come on. I’m taking you home.” She stood there for a moment, eyeing the cyborg as his body trembled.
“I. Will. Get. You.” His voice sounded mechanical, artificial, but he appeared to be repairing himself.
They had to get out, now.
“Come on.” As Alex led the girl out of the bar, the patrons they passed gave her plenty of space. No one would interfere in other people’s problems. It wasn’t as if a shoot-out or two didn’t happen in here every now and then. This bunch was used to trouble and knew when to leave it alone. Besides, she hadn’t actually killed anybody.
She spotted Sackor staring at her from across the room and looked away.
After stepping into the elevator with the stunned teenager, she hit the button to reach the top levels. Well, she would be able to reach neutral level before having to use her access card to get any higher. The loading dock would have to wait for now.
“Damn,” she whispered when she caught sight of the droplets of blood still seeping from her skin. Sackor had cut her good. Her hand stung like crazy, and the bleeding refused to stop.
“What are you going to do to me?” Michaela asked, sobbing.
“I’m not going to do anything to you,” she replied. “Your father will probably have a thing or two in mind, though.”
Alex tucked her injured hand into her pocket and tightened her other around the girl’s wrist. She couldn’t wait to get on her ship. Then, she could take care of her injury.
I really have to get out of here, before someone else decides to screw around with me today.
The troubled teenager was now safely home with a very relieved and grateful father. He’d insisted on compensating Alex for saving his daughter’s life and returning her where she belonged. This time, Alex had gladly accepted the credits. Though she doubted Michaela agreed that home was where her father was. She had no doubt the teenager would run away again the first chance she got.
Alex understood what it was like to live in a place where you didn’t belong. After all, she also ran away at a young age, but not to a pimp. Not to someone who would keep her drugged, and then sell her to the highest bidder when he tired of her. If Michaela wanted to be on her own and take charge of her own life, she had to do it right, not by falling into a life of drugs and prostitution.
I hope she learns something from what almost happened to her.Who knows why a cyborg had wanted to buy her.
Thinking about what Robbo had promised he’d do to Alex should have worried her, but it didn’t. Not half as much as Ulric’s proposition. She just couldn’t shake the fact that he actually wanted her to give up everything so she could stay with him. Somehow, she couldn’t accept that’s what he really wanted.
I wonder what he’s doing, now.She’d almost gone back to his quarters to see him, after returning Michaela, but decided if she did, she probably wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. She couldn’t let his admission affect her own feelings. Besides, she had a shipment to deliver.
She glanced at her disinfected and now bandaged left hand. By the time she’d reached Promise, a rash had spread from the cut. So, she cleaned it up as well as she could, injected a little healing serum, and could only hope for the best. Though judging by the constant burn, she doubted it would heal quickly.
Alex sighed, set the co-ordinates, and sat back in her pilot chair.
This time, she’d decided to take a different route. One she hadn’t taken before but would cut a lot of travel time, so she could reach her destination with plenty of time to spare.
There were easier ways to get to planets and space stations, but it required a hyperspace function. Something Promise didn’t have. She couldn’t space-jump from one side of the galaxy to the other, and instead had to settle for getting there the old-fashioned way.
Alex turned her attention to the circular window in front of her.
Maybe some of Sackor’s accusations about Ulric were accurate. He indeed sat in his vertical, metal shell like it was his castle. On the other hand, why shouldn’t he?
Alex wondered what she would’ve done if she had as many credits as Ulric in heraccount, as well as the power to rule over others. The fact that such an opportunity was practically handed to her by her mother once upon a time didn’t escape her. Though, there’d been too many strings attached-a marriage of convenience and a life with nothing but strict rules at every turn. Not to mention being stranded on her mother’s planet. No thanks.
What price did Ulric have to pay for the easy life he led? Were there secrets he kept from others? Things he’d rather no one else knew about? It didn’t matter, because it didn’t change anything. Alex couldn’t accept his proposal, no matter what. She belonged in the darkness of space, free to roam and explore.
Anteris was now nothing more than a gray dot in the rearview monitor to her left. No bigger than the multitude of shiny stars surrounding her in the dark edge of space.
As she absently reached for the bronze key dangling from her leather choker, she cursed herself. Damn!It wasn’t where it was supposed to be. She’d probably forgotten the choker in Ulric’s bedroom. Her good luck charm was sitting in someone else’s home. No wonder everything had been going wrong since she left Ulric’s side.
She took a deep breath. Calm down, there’s no need to worry. I’m sure Ulric has already found it and is keeping it safe for me.Besides, she would return to Anteris soon enough.
The emergency lights suddenly flashed on the dashboard in front of her. Out of nowhere, everything seemed to be flashing red and green-mingling together. To have so many lights from several components blink rapidly was bad news. Alex had overhauled her ship only weeks ago, even splurged on paying a professional cleaner to make the exterior gleam. Now, everything seemed to be failing.
That wasn’t technically possible.
The ship was old, but mostly reliable.
Alex secured the seatbelt over her shoulders and around her hips. She swiveled in her seat, rolling it forward to take manual control of Promise. Most of the time, cruising on automatic did the job after she programmed the destination codes, but not with everything blinking. It had been a while since she’d completely taken over the wheel.
“Damn this!” she cursed as the colors burned into her nerves more than her eyes. What the hell was wrong? She couldn’t even get a reading on her location or what the problem with the ship was. According to the controls, everything was failing.
She switched from auto to manual control, and wrapped her right hand tightly around the lever.
Anteris was too far to try and make it back, now. There weren’t any planets nearby, but Alex decided to press the communication button, anyway. “Hello, can anybody hear me?”
The response was nothing but static.
“Hello, I need help. This is Promisecalling for help.” She hoped someone would at least hear her call. Her system might be too fried to receive any signals, but if someone heard and took note of her location, there was the slight chance they would come out and search for her.
Yet, with no planets or moons nearby, she could be left circling in space for a long time. That’s if anyone bothered to come out to search for her at all. She was just a courier. There were plenty more around. No one would care enough to save her.
Well, no one but Ulric. Suddenly, she saw an advantage to his newfound affection for her.
Promisejolted. The control panels were all buzzing like annoying insects.
As she put all of her strength into trying to keep the ship steady, the rounded edge of a moon appeared from out of nowhere, right in front of her. So close that it threatened to consume her. What the hell was going on? How could a moon magically pop up?
She checked the map. It showed nothing but clear space in this area. The closest habitable places listed were Anteris and the planet Lark, which is where she was headed.
Steering to the right, she managed to swerve enough to avoid being dragged by the gravitational pull of the moon.
Alex sighed in relief, her pulse beating a tattoo inside her head. Her relief was short-lived, though. As soon as she’d cleared the bluish tinge of the moon, a planet appeared before her. It had been hiding behind the moon. No matter how hard she tried to manually steer her way around, she wasn’t heading anywhere but straight for it.
The steering lever was jammed in the one position-forward.
The engine droned out, and the ship took a nose-dive.
“My ship is failing, and I’m going down. I repeat, I’m going down!” she yelled into her comm-unit.
She was falling into the planet, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do to stop it. She peered out the window. What the hell?There it was-a green and brown globe.
I’m plunging into a planet that doesn’t show up on my navigation charts.
Alex tried to adjust the steering lever, but her effort was in vain. The ship continued its downward trajectory. She wasn’t sure how she’d managed to get herself into this situation, but this unfamiliar planet was sucking Promisein.
The dash in front of her sparked. All the competing noises suddenly stopped as smoke and flames ignited simultaneously. The emergency siren echoed around her, adding to the panic already gripping her.
She reached forward and pressed the extinguisher button. At least that worked. The white spray killed the flames but probably ruined every control panel on her dash.
Her grip on the manual control lever slipped from her clammy hands. Her heart beat so rapidly, she thought she might be having a heart attack.
She tightened the belt around her stomach and chest. There was nothing else she could do. Flames shone brightly outside the window in front of her, indicating Promisehad entered the foreign planet’s atmosphere.
I hope I make it alive.
Alex managed to wrap her shaky fingers around the oxygen mask she kept above her and pulled it over her face seconds before darkness washed over her vision.
Ulric intended to surprise her.
There was no way Alex would ever expect him to do something this crazy. He never left the space station. There was no need to. Until now, he hadn’t seen any reason for doing so. Why would he? He had everything he needed within reach, and if it wasn’t there, he could order someone to get it for him. Everything was delivered, given to him. He could afford all of life’s desires, and sometimes people even gave them away to impress him.
After the way things had ended inside his room with Alex, he hadn’t seen any other choice but to follow her. Make her realize he meant what he’d said.
When he eventually showed himself, and they were too far out in space for her to return to Anteris, she’d have to spend more time alone with him. That’s all he wanted-to be with her.
Just when he’d stripped off every stitch of clothing and was about to make his entrance, the ship tilted dangerously forward. He lost his balance and smacked his forehead hard against some of the metal framing.
“Fuck!” It was almost impossible to find a safe spot in this blasted ship, without adding this stroke of bad luck. Some of the barrels around him shook, but none moved an inch. They were strapped in with chains. Where the hell was she delivering these?
His bare spine pressed painfully against the metal wall, scalding his skin.
He wrapped his right hand tighter around the only token he’d ever given her. The one she’d called her good luck charm. She didn’t think he took notice, but he always heard everything she said and knew she carried twogood luck charms wherever she went. The one he’d given her and what he clutched in his left hand.
One way or another, he would give both back to her. Just as he would make sure she eventually saw things his way. He wanted Alex more than he’d ever wanted anything else in his life, and he wasn’t about to let her slip from his grasp. No other woman could satisfy him physically or intellectually, anymore. He’d tried to amuse himself when she was gone, just as he’d done at the beginning of their casual relationship, but something had changed.
Sex didn’t mean anything anymore, unless it was with her.
Alex Wales had gotten under his skin, deep enough to make him nuts when she wasn’t around. He started to worry about her. So much that he’d sent his most trusted bodyguard to follow her on several occasions, to ensure she returned to him safely. This time, he’d decided he would be the best man for the job.
She’s going to be mine. No other man would ever lay a hand on her again. The thought of someone else touching her made his blood boil with jealousy.
As the ship’s temperature rose around him and oxygen failed his lungs, every bit of him burned, as if his skin was literally seeping from his body. Almost as if something was shifting beneath his skin. Something hidden so deep, he hadn’t even known it was there.
Alex. I hope Alex is okay.
He made a move toward the cockpit but collapsed on his hands and knees. Ignoring the cramping of his fingers, as he curled them around the two tokens belonging to the one woman he hadn’t been able to shake since the day they’d met, was bearable. Yet, what struck next wasn’t.
Ulric roared as his skin rippled, and a world of pain tore through his body.
Alex lifted her head slowly. A kink of pain shot through the back of her neck. How long had she been out? At least she hoped she’d just been unconscious and was now waking up, instead of dead and soon to be facing the afterlife.
She turned her face to one side, then the other. She appeared to still be strapped inside the safety of her ship. There wasn’t a single light left blinking on the dashboard. It was dark, with some places melted from the fire that had ignited before everything went black. Most of the damage on the actual dash looked cosmetic. She prayed she was right.
As her eyes adjusted and focused on the large window in front of her, she noticed the tangle of shrubbery the ship rested on. She took a small breath and released it. It hurt to do so. Her ribs felt achy, maybe bruised, but she was sure they weren’t broken. She patted herself down. Nothingseemed to be broken.
Okay, so she wasstill alive. Surely, she wouldn’t take Promisewith her into the afterlife. Then again, it was the only constant in her life.
She pulled the oxygen mask off her face and let it bounce back into its holder above her head, where it dangled uselessly.
Alex pressed the button on the seatbelt still strapped tightly around her, but it refused to come undone. This meant that every single circuit controlling every facet of the ship had fried, and now she was trapped inside her own ship.
“Great,” she whispered. Not only had she crash-landed somewhere she didn’t recognize and wasn’t on any map, but the cargo Sackor hired her to deliver wouldn’t make it in time.
Alex pulled her left wrist up near her eyes. Her heart was hammering like crazy. According to her watch, there were only three hours left until the scheduled delivery. So much for making it early!
The bandage around her hand felt moist, but she chose not to concentrate on it. It’s best to tackle one problem at a time.
The gods weren’t smiling on her, today. Hell, what was she thinking? Alex didn’t believe in any damn gods. There were planets, space stations, and whole sectors dedicated to ancient deities and even made-up ones. She tried to stay clear of those places, though she did accept jobs distributing religious memorabilia every once in a while. Only a few months before, she’d delivered a multitude of gold-plated Aphrodite statues to Zeal-a planet filled with people who worshipped everything about the goddess of love. Those people conveniently used her worship as an excuse to walk around naked all the time and to engage in any and every sexual fantasy they desired with whoever happened to be closest at the time.
Alex had little understanding of why a society so loose with their morals needed religious tokens. That is, until her customer-Santhia, the pervert-gave her one of them and showed her the statues were really battery-operated sex toys.
She hadn’t used the contraption-yet-but she still had it somewhere in the ship. Though now, she doubted she’d be able to find anything. The way the ship had headed into the planet and landed nose-down suggested everything she owned was probably strewn about where it didn’t belong.
First thing she needed to do was get outside to find out where she’d landed.
As hard as it was to reach her boots, with the hard edge of the belt cutting into the side of her neck and her ribs protesting every time she inched lower, Alex dislodged the small pocket knife she always kept there. After several agonizing minutes of failed carvings, she managed to slice away the taut fabric enough for it to snap off. She sighed in relief.
Alex re-sheathed the knife in her boot and stood up.
Her head spun a little, but she anchored herself by spreading her legs a bit wider. She lifted her arms up as far as she could and stretched her spine. As she surveyed her surroundings, her stomach sank. She didn’t have the kind of credits it would take to fix the interior of the ship, let alone whatever had happened to the exterior, assuming it could even be repaired.
This ship was the only reminder she had left of her father. Louis Wales might not have been an honest man, but he always took great pains to care for his daughter. He had meant the world to her.
He told her how important she was every night before tucking her into bed on the small cot at the back of the ship. The one she kept bare and unused. There were too many memories in the tiny room to disturb them.
Louis may never have actuallytold her he loved her, but what he didsay was enough to convince her he cared. His actions spoke much louder than his words most of the time. Even now, she missed him so much.
Alex reached for the necklace her father had given her, but it wasn’t there. Of course, how could she have forgotten? She’d left it behind, and now everything was going wrong and wouldn’t get any better.
Alex closed her eyes for a second, trying to keep the memories from filling her mind. There was no point. Every time she thought of her father, the anguish would strike. It was always best to let it ride out.
Her mother had practically kicked them out of her life when Alex was only five years old. Then, she hadn’t been old enough to understand what was really going on and had no idea her mother’s aspirations as a politician on her home planet were more important than a husband and daughter. That’s exactly what Lorraine had done, though. It never bothered Alex, because being with her father always made her happy.
When Lorraine tracked Alex down and forced her onto planet terrain, Alex wasn’t allowed to see Louis. She’d assumed he was either killed by her mother’s guards or by one of his dirty business partners. The last time she’d seen him was when he sneaked into her room to give her the key to access Promise. He’d told her where he’d hidden it for her, kissed her forehead, and left.
That was over ten years ago.
Not knowing if he was dead or alive hurt the most.
As soon as she ran away from her mother’s planet, she made finding him her first mission. He’d left her enough credits to survive on her own for a while, and she’d taken advantage of the fact. Alex quickly became a kid in space, a runaway searching for her father in the places she knew he frequented. It was how she stumbled into the courier business, after hanging around so many dirty bars, asking questions, and sitting back to watch humans and aliens come and go.
She never found him.
How she managed to hold onto her innocence for so long was a mystery, but having a goal in mind had kept her out of trouble. She’d given up her virginity when shewas ready to, not when some pimp decided she should. It’s why she hoped Michaela took control of her life, instead of letting it waste away.
Alex, you need to let go of the past. Now’s not the time to dwell on this stuff.
She sighed, staring at the dead dash. No point in trying to get any signals out, now. She could only hope that someone had received her distress messages while the ship was going down.
She took a quick breath and released it. Concentrating on the problem at hand was the best course of action. No amount of hoping, or a torrent of memories, was going to get her out of this problem.
What do I know for sure?Well, she knew she was on a planet, so there had to be some sort of village or city nearby, maybe even a spaceport. If she could find a mechanic, anyone qualified to take a look at her ship, she might be able to sort this mess out.
The interior damage seemed to be isolated to the cockpit. The farther she ventured into the tight corridor leading to the sleeping quarters, the more she managed to calm down.
Alex grabbed her backpack, filled it with a few water bottles, a handful of energy bars, several tops and pants, and a few assorted blades, plus her ID. Who knew what awaited her once she left the safety of her ship. She’d need plenty of credits to pay her way out of her ship’s damage.
She made sure the blaster was still strapped onto her thigh and slung the bag over one shoulder, before taking a last look around. The only picture she had-her with her father-caught her eye. After a second’s hesitation, she grabbed it.
Louis had caramel-colored skin and curly hair he’d kept cropped. She’d always damned the fact she’d inherited her mother’s paler skin, but she had her father’s hair. She stuck the photo into the pocket of her backpack. He’d always insisted that a paper picture was worth more than the digital kind, and she honored the fact by carrying this piece of paper around with her. It never left the ship, but with Promiseso banged up, she decided it was worth taking. Besides, her other good luck charm was gone for now.
She headed toward the side door and manually pushed it open.
The metal felt hot to the touch, still warm after entering the planet’s atmosphere, but the rush of cool air from outside struck her face. She enjoyed the way it caressed her curls away from her face. The sweat that had built up beneath her clothes cooled as it dried.
At least Promiseseemed to be pretty tightly lodged in the branches, because it didn’t shift with her movements.
For a second, she cursed herself for opening the door without a moment’s hesitation. What if she needed an oxygen mask on this planet? For all she knew, there could have been poisonous gas in the air. Not every planet in the galaxy was oxygen-based.
She shook her head, disgusted at her absentminded behavior.
Luckily, she confirmed the oxygen content by taking a quick gulp of air.
Alex stepped outside but couldn’t find firm ground. She tumbled forward, flying through the air as her hands clawed to grab at the branches striking her face and body on the way down.
When she finally landed, it was on top of something firm that made a sound and collapsed beneath her.
Alex felt the undeniable beating of another’s heart against her chest.
As she scrambled to press her hands against the leafy ground to lift her body, she met the blazing green eyes of a dark-haired man lying underneath her. The color stood out in his dark face so much, her breath caught for a second. He had to be the most stunning man she’d ever laid eyes on. With his black, dreadlocked hair framing his face, she couldn’t help but stare.
She was straddling him, their noses only centimeters from touching. The stranger widened his eyes as he returned her stare.
“Uh, sorry…and thanks,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to squash you, but I appreciate you breaking my fall.” Even if her ribs throbbed, rubbing against his.
“You…you fell out of the sky.” The guy seemed amazed, as if a miracle had just occurred-not just a woman falling out of a tree, because she hadn’t been looking while she was vacating her ship.
“I fell out of the tree. My ship’s up there. I crash-landed on this planet.” Alex lifted her chest off his and sat back on his hips to take a proper look at the man. His arms were pinned down at his sides, kept in place by her thighs. Even so, she could see how muscular he was, in the same athletic way as Ulric. His arms were sculpted with muscle, and judging by the looks of the jungle around them, Alex wondered if this was some sort of rural civilization.
His eyes were shiny. “I watched the fireball descend, but I wasn’t sure if it was a ship or a meteor. We rarely have any visitors here.”
“I’m not exactly a visitor.” She watched his reaction. “Can you tell me what planet I’m on?”
“This is the planet Eden.”
“Eden? I’ve travelled through space all of my life and have never heard of Eden.” No wonder it hadn’t been listed on her navigation maps.
“No, you wouldn’t have. We’re a small planet, hidden behind the moon of Paradise. No one ever notices our planet long enough to think about landing here.” The man’s facial structure was amazing. His chiseled jaw, high cheekbones, and nose were very impressive.
Alex couldn’t stop looking at him. He was exquisite, gorgeous in a very manly way. The color of his skin was the same shade she’d always wished had graced hers. It’s the same color as Daddy’s.
No, she couldn’t let memories crowd her, now. She had to work out a way to get help and get Promiseup and running. “Listen. I need someone to take a look at my ship,” she said, still trying to shake the crazy thoughts. The last thing she needed right now was to find herself in a new attraction, after running from another. Then again, she haddecided she’d get involved with another man the first time someone interesting popped up. She shook her head. Not now, later.“My ship’s damaged pretty badly.”
The man’s eyes darkened, but he didn’t answer.
“Did you hear what I said? I need to get someone to take a look at my ship, sooner rather than later.”
“We have mechanics, but not the sort who can fix a…spaceship.” His voice was low, eyes scanning the canopy of tall trees above as if he were trying to locate her ship.
“How can that be true? Who repairs yourships, then?”
“We don’t have any spaceships.”
“Surely you’ve got a shipping dock? Where’s that?” It wasn’t as if she came in the proper way. Surely someone on this planet would have seen her breach their atmosphere without permission.
He shook his head.
For the first time, she wondered if he was comfortable. Alex still had him pinned, and she hadn’t yet made a move to get off him. She had to admit, there was something really exciting about being so close to this strange man-almost calming. That sounds totally stupid.Her brain was still muddled from the accident, memories, and all the other weird shit she’d put up with today.
“How do your people get in and out of here, then?”
“We don’t,” he answered. “As I’ve already mentioned, we don’t have ships. So, we don’t travel outside of Eden.”
Her eyes narrowed as she glared down at him suspiciously. “That’s impossible.”
“The people of Eden don’t get visitors, and we don’t visit anyone. We’re more than happy in our village.”
“Then how am I supposed to get out of here? Like pretty much everything else on the ship, my communicator’s fried. Do you at least have that? Some sort of communication device I can use to call someone off this planet?” Alex felt as if she were falling into a very dark tunnel. A tunnel leading her into a very strange and out-of-the-way planet that she couldn’t escape.
She had a life in the stars. A job, a lover…
I can’t be stranded, here.Not now and not when she’d left Ulric because of her need to be free.
“We have electronic ways of contacting others on the planet, but not outside. I’m really sorry.”
“Then, how am I supposed to get off this rock?”
“You can’t get off,” the guy whispered. “Though, I can take care of you. Take you back to my village and provide shelter, food, and drink-”
“I don’t need a babysitter. I need to get a job done!” She checked her watch. Sackor was going to be pissed.
“A babysitter?” He looked confused. “That’s not what I’m offering.”
“Then, what are you trying to say?” I have to get off this planet, and soon. If I don’t deliver Sackor’s stash, there’s going to be hell to pay.
Maybe, she should have stayed with the scoundrel who had offered her a better life-a simple way out of the dangerous situations she usually stumbled into. If she’d accepted Ulric’s proposal, she wouldn’t be sitting on some stranger, on a weird planet, with no way of contacting anyone else in the galaxy. Still, it was too late to regret her decision. She’d denied Ulric and was now stuck on Eden.
Alex winced when she made a move to stand up.
The man caught her arm to stop her. “Are you hurt?”
“It’s my ribs. Don’t worry about it. Nothing’s broken.”
“I can take a look for you. I’m a healer,” he said.
“Are you some sort of doctor?” She couldn’t see a bag anywhere. How was he going to heal her exactly?
“No, I’m a healer. ”
“Do we need to go to a medical center or something?” In a medical facility, they’d have some form of comm-unit. They had to.
He shook his head. “No, I can heal you with my hands.”
“Okay,” she replied skeptically. They must do things verydifferently on this planet.
“What’s your name? I’m Damon.”
“Alex is an unusual name for a girl, but I like it,” Damon said with a lopsided grin. “Will you accompany me to my village before nightfall?”
“Are you asking me out on a date?” she teased. Maybe that’s why he’d offered to use his hands to ‘heal’ her.
His brow furrowed. “Would you say ‘yes’ if I was?”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry. It was a joke.” She looked around. He was right. The light shining down so brightly only minutes before had almost receded into the horizon.
“Night comes quickly on this side of the planet.” He answered her unasked question.
“Right.” Alex felt a sprinkle on her arm. She lifted it and noticed several droplets of green liquid had burned through her jacket and onto her skin. The thick substance seeped in through her pores and became tiny squirmy things beneath the surface. “What the hell?”
Alex craned her neck. The steady stream of green liquid dripped from the tree above. It took her a few seconds to realize it was leaking from her ship. Sackor’s cargo! The suspicious barrels she regularly transported for him must have been damaged during the crash.
“Is everything all right?”
She pushed off Damon and stood, getting out of the leaking liquid’s path.
He followed suit and took a step forward. “Alex, are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She pulled up her sleeve. Alex couldn’t take her eyes off the tiny worms-or whatever they were-squirming beneath the skin of her arm.
Damon followed her gaze, grabbed her right arm, and held it up to stare at it. A frown darkened his face. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I must remove them before they reach any of your vital organs.”
“You know what they are?”
“Parasites,” he answered, lifting her arm for an even closer inspection.
“What the hell?” Her stomach flipped with disgust. What would these horrid things do to her?
“These tiny creatures live as eggs inside the waters of Lake Eros. They can survive in that form indefinitely, but once they come in contact with the skin of another living creature, they penetrate it. The egg hatches beneath the surface, and they eventually make their way into the heart or lungs, even kidneys and liver of their host.”
“The host dies.”
“That’s it? They hatch and kill? What happens to them?” Alex tried to pry her arm away from his grasp, but his grip tightened.
“They die with the host.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“These parasitic worms are micro-organisms. They’re supposed to live in the lake. They’re not supposed to be removed.” His lips pressed into a thin line, and his brow furrowed as he continued to inspect her arm.
“Are you telling me these things belong in a lake somewhere?” If she made it out of this alive, she was going to kill that asshole, Sackor. What the hell was he doing transporting this stuff across the galaxy, anyway?
“Where’s this Lake Eros?” It was strange, because even though she could see the tiny worms squirming away, she couldn’t feel them.
“It’s on this planet.”
“What?” That didn’t make any sense.
Damon lifted his gaze and met hers. “There have been several incidents with these worms before, but only when someone comes into contact with them inthe water.”
She didn’t want to state the obvious, but someone-possibly Sackor himself-not only had access to Eden but had been taking this liquid for years. This wasn’t the first time she’d transported these barrels, but it wasthe first time she’d crashed landed and had any of it seep into her skin.
“Is this kind of lake common on other planets?” She had to know.
“Not that I’m aware of, but I don’t have contact with other places. I’ve already explained that to you.” Damon pinched her skin between his fingers.
“Hey, that hurts!”
“I know it does,” he said. “Where’s the liquid coming from?”
“I’m not sure,” she lied, looking up.
He pulled a knife out of his pocket and held the tip against her arm.
“Wait a sec. What are you going to do with that?”
“I have to cut them out. It’s the only way to ensure they don’t spread.” He didn’t wait for a response and instead stuck the blade into her arm. He cut a straight line along her forearm, using the tip of the blade to flip the skin and scrape at the exposed wound.
“Ouch.” She instinctively tried to pull free.
“Stop moving. I’ve almost got all of them!” With that admonition, he continued to scrape, flinging all the dead worms off the blade. “They’re gone, now.” He loosened his grip but didn’t release her.
Alex looked down at the raw patch of red on her arm. He’d flipped the skin back into place, and the horrid worms were gone. Yet, she wasn’t bleeding.
“I need to dress your wound,” he said. “I can heal it properly when we reach the village.”
“Thanks, but I think-”
“This’ll do until we get home.” Damon ripped a section off the bottom of his sleeveless shirt and wrapped it around her arm several times. “I can’t heal you out here, but in my village, I should be able to. Can you tell me why liquid from one of our lakes is dripping from your ship?”
Alex couldn’t take her eyes off his firm abdomen, now exposed by the missing piece of cloth. His skin was smooth, and his tight muscles rippled with his every move. “It wasn’t my ship.” She met his gaze.
“I might be naïve to the way of space travelers, but I’m not stupid, Alex.” His eyes were intense, so green they sparkled.
A sharp screech overhead distracted her. “What was that?”
“We need to get out of here. Now!”
“Why? What’s going on?”
Damon’s face turned upward, and his eyes narrowed. “After dark, the birds come out to hunt. They feed on anything and everything they can find.”
“What birds?” The screeching above didn’t sound like any bird she’d ever heard. On her mother’s planet, birdlife was abundant-canaries, budgies, cockatoos, parrots, and many more she couldn’t even name. None of them sounded as scary or as big as whatever was flying over the trees, though.
Goosebumps rose along her skin. Alex leaned over and picked up her discarded backpack. “I don’t like the idea of leaving my ship unattended-”
“They’re carnivorous scavengers. They won’t touch your ship, but youdon’t want to be outside long enough for them to notice.” Damon wrapped his hand around hers. She cringed when he pulled on the bandage over the cut she’d gotten from Sackor.
Alex wanted some time to think this through, try to understand why he said sheshouldn’t be out here, and hadn’t included himself. He was as much flesh and blood as she was, and if these scavengers were a threat to her, why not to him?
She also had to figure out how Sackor could have accessed liquid from a planet that wasn’t detected by radar. She could hopefully figure everything out later, but right now, there were some very scary birds descending toward them, and she didn’t particularly want to see them up close.
“Come on.” When Damon dragged on her arm, she realized there was no time to think, only to run.
The beast leaped out of the trees, landing with a thump on the leafy ground.
He raised himself on his hind legs, raised his snout, and sniffed the air. Something smelled familiar. It wasn’t just the scent of the woman the human part of him craved so much. Her sweet scent was mingled with that of an unfamiliar male, as well as the multitude of smells the jungle around him radiated.
He wasn’t entirely Ulric, anymore.
The man he’d always been remained somewhere deep inside, but he’d faded into the background and given command to some sort of animal. He looked at his hands, now caramel-colored paws, but still holding Alex’s leather necklace and golden bracelet.
What the hell happened to me?
Voices distracted him.
He slowly made his way toward them, peeking around the tree housing the wrecked ship he’d just jumped from.
“What birds?” There she was, Alex. She stood with a man, and he was standing too close to her.
The screech overhead distracted Ulric, and when he turned back to Alex, the man had grabbed her hand and was dragging her away.
No, she’s mine!
Ulric raced out into the clearing, surprised at how easily moving as a four-legged animal was, but he got there too late. The man had already led Alex into the path ahead of him. Entangled with branches, he couldn’t see anything but darkness.
Follow her scent. I will follow her, wherever she goes.He’d tear the man to shreds if he laid another hand on her. No one touches her but me!
When he took the first step, the loud screeching overhead was quickly followed up with a sharp stabbing to his back.
He made a move to get free.
The creature shrieked in his ear, digging its claws deeper into his skin and fur. He tried to shrug it off, but he was pecked in the back of the head. Warm blood trickled down his scalp and the back of his neck, but a wound was nothing to the majestic creature he’d become.
Ulric had no idea what had happened, but the change had come swiftly and easily. Out of nowhere, to fill him with a strength and hunger he’d never known before. This creature attacking him didn’t stand a chance against the wrath he suddenly felt inside.
Nothing was going to keep him from finding Alex.
She was the reason why he was here. She was the reason for everything, now.
He lifted his front legs, struggling to wrap his paws around the creature’s skinny neck, damning the fact he couldn’t, because he was no longer a man with hands and fingers. Instead, he sneaked a look over his shoulder and extended his claws, digging them into the creature. He swung it over his head, slamming its bony body on the ground in front of him.
He took a step back, away from the bird-like animal, taking the opportunity to get his next move figured out as it struggled on its back. Before it had a chance to take flight, he leaped forward, but the creature pecked him in the face.
Agony tore through him.
He collapsed to the ground and roared in protest.
The wounded bird took flight, disappearing into the air.
Ulric took the opportunity to get to his feet, disappointed that he couldn’t check his face with his paws without making it worse. As much as he tried to wish himself back into human form, he remained an animal.
How was Alex going to react when she saw what he’d become? Why had this happened to him, and why did this place feel so familiar?
Where the hell did we crash?
All his questions faded when the bird attacked, again. This time, it seemed determined to pluck his eyes out.
Ulric managed to avoid every attempt, spun around, and stabbed his claws into the tough skin of the creature’s abdomen. The cold blood seeped over his fur, and the bird squawked and flapped its leathery wings, attempting to escape his clutches. He didn’t let go. He kept a tight hold, slowly embedding his sharp claws deeper and deeper, until he managed to tear right through the coarse skin.
The creature cried out, and Ulric threw it to the side. Before the bird had a chance to respond, he tore the wings right off its back, followed by the beak, and finally snapped its neck.
When the creature’s cries died and the life had completely slipped away from it, he glared at the hands still wrapped around the bird’s scrawny neck. His hands were back to normal.
I’m human. What the fuck is happening to me?
He looked up, feeling the pull of the glowing orb in the sky.
The moon seemed to be calling him, caressing his skin with its cool touch. Trying to draw out the monster he hadn’t had a clue lay hidden inside him. The canopy of trees above shielded him, giving him the chance to hold onto a little bit of control.
Ulric released the creature and stepped into the direct path of the moon. Instantly, he felt the fur crawl over his skin, so he stepped back. With the trees shading him from the full effect of the satellite, he remained a man.
Maybe Alex didn’t need to find out what had happened to him. As long as they got off this planet, he’d be fine.
A new bout of screeching caught his attention. Shadows played out on the ground, a multitude of them. He wasn’t going to stay here and make himself a target.
He looked at his hands. Both of Alex’s lucky charms were gone.
Ulric looked at the ground, careful not to touch the moonlight as he searched for them. The glint of the bronze key caught his eye, and he leaned over. He’d found the necklace but couldn’t find the bracelet he’d given her.
He couldn’t waste any more time looking. The birds were closing in, and Alex was still being led away from him by some man who had no right to touch her.
Ulric turned and ran the way Alex had headed.
With any luck, he could avoid the light of the moon and still be the man she knew when he reached her.
With every step they took, Damon’s grip tightened around her hand.
He took Alex farther into the darkness of foliage around them. She was running blind, and as much as she hated the situation, she had no choice but to trust this stranger. The pressure of his grasp made the bandaged cut sting and itch, but she knew they had no other option but to keep going, and she certainly didn’t want to face these surroundings without a guide.
Whether she was ready or not, it looked like they were headed for his village. Wherever the hell that was.
She had no trouble keeping up with his fast pace. She’d done a lot of running during her life and was conditioned to it. The terrain, like everything she’d experienced so far on this planet, was harsh and dangerous. Twigs and leaves were getting caught in her hair, branches were swiping at her face, and the tangle beneath her feet made her feel as if she was about to fall with every step. She pushed on, determined not to become some creature’s lunch. She had things to do, places to go, a lover who was waiting for her on Anteris.
Why hadn’t she stayed with Ulric? Things would have been less complicated. Sackor wouldn’t have scratched her. She wouldn’t have made a new enemy and certainly wouldn’t have crashed on this shitty planet. Whenever she stayed with Ulric, things were mostly straightforward. Maybe thatwas part of the problem. It was all too simple with him. So, since she enjoyed a challenge and adventure, she should feel right at home here, right?
A shiver raced down her spine. Why did I have to go and think about him, again?
If she really couldn’t get off this rock, what would Ulric do…forget about her and move onto some other chick? What about her? What would shedo? She couldn’t take her eyes off Damon’s broad shoulders and the way his dreadlocks bounced around him as he ran.
The ongoing screeching overhead was suddenly replaced by a roar. Every thought slid from her mind. Her gut clenched with fear. What the hell kind of wildlife did they have on this damned planet, anyway?
Damon suddenly stopped in front of her, not giving her enough time to slow down before smacking into him. He didn’t seem to notice as he turned around, holding a finger in front of his mouth to keep her quiet. He looked over her shoulder. She followed his gaze, yet couldn’t see anything but the jungle engulfing them from every angle. She hated to think about the amount of insects creeping and crawling around her right now.
A shiver roused goosebumps when she remembered the worms.
“What type of animal made that noise?” she whispered, trying to catch her breath.
Damon looked at her for a second. “Come on. We need to keep moving.” He continued forward, dragging her behind him.
She groaned when a branch slapped her forehead, but she didn’t stop. Instead, she tried to stay as close to Damon as she could. The backpack was slapping her lower back with every move, and it was starting to grate on her nerves.
A small nip at the back of her leg made her stumble. She lost her balance, her hand slid from Damon’s, and she fell forward. “Son of a bitch!”
Damon raced back and helped her to her feet. “Don’t worry. We’re almost home, now.”
Alex spat out some dirt and wiped the rest from her front. “Something bit me.”
“It was one of the birds. The younglings like to toy with their prey. They’re small enough to hide in the bushes and take small bites until they immobilize you.”
“That’s comforting.” She took his hand, but instead of moving on, Damon pulled her closer. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pressing their bodies close together, until she could feel his heartbeat. Her frantic pace echoed against him, but his seemed calm compared to hers. “What the hell are you doing? Just let me blast it.”
“Shhh,” he whispered near her ear.
Alex opened her mouth to ask how standing around hugging was going to stop an attack, when movement on her left caught her eye. She turned her head very slowly, until her right cheek was pressed up against his firm chest.
Damon hugged her tighter and leaned over enough to rest his chin on the top of her head. What the hell was going on here?
The creature-stepping so close, she was sure they’d soon become an easy meal-hardly resembled a bird. Its body moved awkwardly. The fleshy wings were held tightly against its crooked spine as it used spindly legs to walk. Its eyes were beady as it inspected the area and used the long beak to feel around. She couldn’t believe it when the tip touched Damon’s arm but the creature turned away.
She didn’t say a word and held her breath until she was sure the bird had left. She tried to move, but Damon kept her pinned in his embrace. Assuming it meant that the threat was still close, she relaxed against him, maybe enjoying their closeness a little too much. He smelled really nice, like herbs.
When he loosened his grip, she pulled back a little, giving her enough room to look up into his face. “Okay, you have to tell me what the hell that was.”
“It was my way of protecting you.” He kept his gaze up, surveying the area.
“The bird touched you but didn’t even register you were here…why?”
“For some reason, the birds can’t sense me. It’s why I’m the only one who ventures out of our village.”
“Right, so when you mentioned before that the birds would notice me, you weren’t talking in general? You meant they’d eat me and ignore you?”
“Yes,” Damon said, finally meeting her eyes. “Are you all right to keep moving?”
As good as it felt in the circle of his arms, she managed a nod. Freaked out or not, she didn’t hesitate to run beside him this time.
So far, she didn’t like this planet very much, what with the crash-landing, the liquid spill, and now these killer birds. Although, Damon was a different story. He intrigued her. How could his body have been enough of a shield to keep the bird from snatching her?
Alex allowed Damon to lead her farther into the darkness ahead of them. Everything looked the same to her. She felt as if they were getting deeper into the regions of the jungle, rather than escaping. She had to trust this handsome stranger knew where they were going. She sure as hell didn’t have a clue of which way to turn.
She ran past another bunch of overhanging branches, and all of a sudden, they were in a clearing. Alex looked around as the scenery moved past them. They were moving fast through what looked like a darkened meadow with knee-high grass and a pitch black sky above.
Alex made the mistake of looking up. What she saw made her heart thump so fast, she nearly lost her footing.
The sky was filled with fleshy beings, all much bigger than the one they’d seen. Yet, justlike the one in the jungle, the only feature that made them resemble a bird was the huge beak-like thing in front of their horrid faces.
She pumped her legs faster, harder, until her lungs felt like they were burning. She was pretty sure her legs would give out on her at any moment, but she willed them to keep moving.
“Don’t look at them,” Damon called beside her. He held her tightly and stepped closer, until their arms were touching.
Not looking was easier said than done. She didn’t want to see the ugly creatures, but they were diving lower, like a shroud ready to cover them.
“Jump!” Damon shouted over their screeching.
“Alex, you have to jump!”
He didn’t bother explaining himself, instead stopping long enough to grab and throw her over his shoulder. Before she could protest about his cavemen behavior, he was airborne, taking her with him.
Everything changed around them. The air became thick and hot, weighing heavily on her already overused lungs. The blood rushed to her head as he carried her like a sack.
By the time he put her down again, a flush of anger swirled inside her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Protecting you,” he said, not looking sorry about what he’d pulled.
“Manhandling me is not protecting me!” She took another step away from him, glad the backpack had stayed put. “Besides, I can take care of myself.”
Damon gave her an amused look. “I’m sure you can, but while you’re in Eden, I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure your safety.”
“I don’t need a bodyguard,” she spat. In her experience, people never helped others unless they wanted something in return.
“Listen, I need to tell you something, Alex. I don’t want to be your babysitter or your bodyguard-”
“I don’t want to hear it.” She didn’t want to have this conversation right now. She was too confused and angry, and she didn’t particularly care what he wanted. She’d find out soon enough, anyway.
Damon stared at her, his green eyes intense. “I’m sorry if I offended you. That wasn’t my intention.”
Alex ran a hand through her unruly curls, and her fingertips got stuck in the mess. She pulled out a few leaves and decided to change the subject. “Where are we?”
“You live here? ” She looked back over her shoulder. Behind them was a concrete wall, but that wasn’t possible. They’d just been inside a jungle and a meadow. She hadn’t noticed any sort of fortress up ahead as they ran. Where had this wall come from?
Alex took a step toward it. She pressed her bandaged palm to it and felt its solidity. The concrete was smooth beneath her skin, and very much there, even if it didn’t make an ounce of sense. “How is this possible?”
“The walls keep our village safe from attack. It’s a protection barrier laced with magic.” She heard Damon move up behind her.
“Did you say magic?” She couldn’t help but chuckle at the notion. They lived in a galaxy where credits and violence were the only form of power and manipulation. Technology ruled supreme. Magic was make-believe, woven into stories. Tales about mythical places-like the ones her father used to tell her about, every night before she went to sleep. Magic wasn’t real.
Yet, she had to admit there was something very strange about this planet.
Alex craned her neck to follow the length of the wall. It continued up and up, seemingly unending.
“We’re blocked off from all threats of danger. You’ll be safe here.”
He stood so close that Alex felt his breath on her hair. She fought to keep the shiver of pleasure from showing, but it was there. Below the surface lay an undeniable attraction she would eventually have trouble keeping at bay. No matter how much his protective actions angered her, the caring nature of this man was somehow softening her up.
“So this wallcan magically keep those bird things out?” Alex spun around and met his gaze. If she extended a hand, she could touch him. Run her fingertips along his smooth face and down his chest. She couldn’t help but look at his exposed abs. She bit her bottom lip.
“Yes,” he said.
“What about the other animals out there?”
His eyes darkened. “What other animals?”
“Are you kidding me? You didn’t hear the scary roar out there? I’ve never heard anything like it.”
“I don’t know what that was. Only the birds live outside.”
None of this makes any sense.She’d heard the birds go quiet because of it. Still, she didn’t want to argue with him, anymore. The bottom line was she was stranded on this bizarre planet and needed his help. “Magic doesn’t exist, by the way. It’s a fairy tale.”
Damon shook his head. “It does exist.”
“Well, I don’t believe in it.” Alex narrowed her eyes and stared at him. Was he serious? Did he really expect her to believe without proof?
“You should,” Damon said, taking another small step forward.
“Why?” she whispered.
“Don’t you feel it buzzing, right now?”
She had no idea what he was talking about.
“Didn’t you see the bird walk away from us when we stood right in front of it?”
“That wasn’t magic. It was some sort of shield, a repellant.”
“What’s so funny?”
“I can feel it right now. I’ve felt it since the moment I saw you. Maybe this will help you understand.” Damon touched her cheek with the back of his hand, and her skin warmed. When he leaned over, a rush of ecstasy raced through her body, churning her stomach into a hundred knots she wanted to have undone. It felt as if he were pouring something into her, just with his touch. They’d touched outside, and she hadn’t experienced this reaction. Something was different.
Their lips were so close, she could almost taste him, and suddenly she wanted to feel those full lips on hers. She couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to kiss him.
“Damon, did you find anything?” a male voice asked behind him.
He dropped his hand but didn’t step away. “Tell me you can’t feel something flowing between us?” he whispered.
His warm breath forced her eyes closed for a second. She couldn’t answer, only managing to swallow the ball of desire he was teasing out of her.
“Damon! Did you find anything?”
He sighed, obviously frustrated. “Yes, I did.”
“Well, what was it?” the annoying male voice pushed.
Alex opened her eyes and licked her lips. Damon smiled down at her, as if he’d somehow proven a magical point by teasing her senses. There was nothing magical about it. Hell, she was a sentient being. I’m pretty sure any female with a heartbeat would have felt some sort of buzz from his display.It had absolutely nothing to do with magic and everything to do with attraction.
Damon turned away, and his smile faded. She stared at his broad shoulders and slender waist. This guy’s going to get me into a whole heap of trouble.
Still, he might be just what she needed to get back on track and put a stop to her exclusivity with Ulric.
“I found this.” Damon stepped aside to reveal her.
The other man gasped, his blue eyes widening as if he’d never seen a woman before. “Where did you find her? Is she an alien?” He wasn’t as tall as Damon, had blonde hair, bronze skin, and on closer inspection, looked more like a teenage boy than a man.
“Levi, she’s a space traveler, and her ship crashed on our planet.”
“I need someone to help me fix it,” Alex said, taking a step forward. “Do you know of any mechanic who can help me?”
“A mechanic?” Levi looked confused, staring from her to Damon and back again.
“Yes, a mechanic.”
“I already told you. We don’t have anyone who can repair a spaceship.”
She turned to focus on Damon. “Why did you bring me here, then?”
“Would you have preferred to stay outside with the birds?”
Alex crossed her arms. She had every right to be angry. Since she’d left Anteris, nothing had gone right. Now, she was stuck on a planet with no one who might be able to help her get Promiseback into working order. What would she do if thathappened?
A shiver shook her to the core. She refused to even consider such an option. Sackor’s wrath would eventually be on the cards-because she’d failed to deliver his cargo-and she would deal with it, but she wouldn’tgive up on her ship. No matter how many of those bird things were out in the jungle, she’d somehow get Promisefixed.
“Damon, Levi. Why are you boys keeping this lovely girl away from the rest of us?” A tall, blonde woman swept past them, her white dress trailing behind her. She looked like a goddess, with long straight hair held away from her face as her cerulean eyes shone. Her skin was tanned, and her face beautiful. “I sincerely apologize for their behavior. We don’t get many visitors on our planet, but I can assure you that you are most welcome here.”
The lady wrapped an arm around Alex’s shoulders and encouraged her forward. “Welcome to Eden. We will prepare a feast in your honor, to make you feel at home. Then, you can tell us how you fell from the sky and came here to help us.”
“Help you?” she whispered.
“Why, of course. We’ve been expecting you.” An entourage of people had appeared out of nowhere. One of them-a thin man with a scowl on his face-didn’t look too happy to see Alex.
“We’ve known about the prophecy of the space traveler who would one day become our savior for a while now.”
“I think you’ve got the wrong person.” What the hell was happening?
“You haveto be the right one. You must be the dark-haired beauty who shall fall from the sky and help complete our cycle of utopia,” the lady insisted.
Alex swallowed her response and instead locked eyes with Damon, who had a smirk on his lips. She had no idea what any of this was about but walked alongside the woman as she was led into a gorgeous landscaped garden she hadn’t noticed. She’d been too distracted with Damon and the concrete wall.
Maybe I can get some real answers from this woman.Instead of the hocus pocus Damon had offered her so far.
Ulric watched Alex run across the meadow.
If he’d set off right away, he knew he could have reached her before the man threw her over his shoulder and made her disappear, but with the jungle ending so abruptly, he’d hesitated. Afraid the moon would change him, again, and she would see what he had become.
He paused, staring up at the sky. It was filled with birds, but he could still feel the white orb call to his body with a seductive hum.
I might be a prisoner to the moon’s moods and cravings, but I can make it across without turning. I’m sure of it.
The fact that he’d lost sight of Alex was driving him insane.
He lifted his nose and could still smell her sweet tang. She was nearby-somehow, somewhere. Alex was here but unseen. No matter what it took, no matter what hideous thing he’d become, he was determined to get her attention. His humanity might be dangling from a slippery slope, but all the memories worth holding onto revolved around her. Using Alex as an anchor might prove to be his saving grace. He was sure of it.
The leather choker was too small to fit around his neck, so he wrapped it around his hand. He couldn’t wait to give it back to her and was determined to find the bracelet, too. She thought the bracelet was just a piece of jewelry, but it was a lot more. When she’d left his quarters, he’d uploaded a surprise onto the tiny microchip embedded inside it. Something that would ensure she lived a long and prosperous life without having to struggle to raise credits from the pathetic courier job he despised.
He’d meant it when he told her he hated her having to spend time out in space, struggling to make a living.
Ulric would change her economic status, and she’d have no choice but to love him for it.
He took a deep breath and raced ahead. His legs might still be human at the moment, but they were more powerful than before. It only took ten strides before he felt something foreign push against him.
The birds squawked, descending from the sky at the same time, causing the moonlight to filter through.
He collapsed to his hands and knees, the fur already rushing over his skin.
After several breaths, he realized that not only had he changed into a furry animal, but he was staring at a garden. The dark clearing was instantly replaced by a garden now rolling out into a maze of concrete, grass, and flowers.
He looked over his shoulder. The lower half of his body remained on the other side of a tall, concrete wall that had sprung up out of nowhere, and if he didn’t move, there would soon be too many birds to fight.
This didn’t make any sense, but he could smell Alex.
This is where she’d disappeared to.
He crawled forward, following her scent, until the savage rumble of his stomach consumed all his other thoughts. The delicious smell of ripe flesh pushed everything else from his mind. For a second, he couldn’t even remember who Alex was.
The only thing that mattered was satisfying the hunger twisting his gut, as the sharp presence of the moonlight urged him forward.
There’s just something about her. Something I’ve never felt with anyone else before.
There was a lot more to Alex than her stunning looks and tough attitude. The small swell of magic Damon felt radiating off her body enticed him. He’d never felt an ounce of true magic within anyone else before. Sure, all living things had a little sparkle in their essence, but no one in Eden connected to the arcane like he did.
Now that he’d felt it shimmer from her, he was fascinated. Alex also made him feel strange-happy-and mixed up at the same time. She amused and excited him on a level he couldn’t explain.
Damon ripped off the shirt he’d ruined in order to bandage the space traveler’s arm and threw it in the trashcan in the corner. Of course, he missed, but a little concentration and a lift of his right hand managed to place the tattered shirt where it belonged.
He hadn’t shown anyone the full extent of his magical control, but it seemed to be increasing all the time. As long as the others thought it was only available for seeing and healing, that suited him fine. He hated to be paraded around in front of everyone. He didn’t doubt that if Priestess Aleena learned of his newfound power, she’d encourage him to show it off.
All his life, he’d felt different. Not because he was mistreated-he fit perfectly into Eden’s society-but by being singled out for his power. No one ever pointed a finger his way because the color of his skin and hair were different from theirs. It was almost as if they didn’t notice such details but unintentionally singled him out by continually pointing out his use of the arcane.
Damon shook the thoughts away, instead trying to recall every inch of Alex-starting at her glossy brown, curly hair and down to her curvy body. The memory was enough to cause his magic to short circuit. That he’d been able to control himself and not do something completely stupid while in the jungle was a testimony to the control he had over the arcane, because his body had almost caved several times.
Using his way of protection as an excuse to put his hands on her had served as a good enough distraction, but how long would it work? He tried to hint at his interest in her, but she misunderstood his intentions…babysitter or bodyguard, he didn’t want to be either. Though, he wouldlove to guard every inch of her naked body.
If he kept touching her without context, she might eventually push him away.
He’d already seen her feisty side after forcibly taking her over the fortress barricade, but if he hadn’t, the birds would have mauled her. The dangerous threats outside the walls of this sheltered part of the planet were very real. Eden was marked with opposing terrain and creatures ready to take a bite out of anything human. Well, except for him.
Though he couldn’t explain what had caused the roar in the jungle.
Damon also didn’t understand what the parasitic worms had been doing inside Alex’s ship, but he supposed she had her own secrets. Now that she was stuck here, he had a lifetime of getting to know everything about her, including every inch of her body.
He licked his lips at the thought.
It all comes back to her luscious body…
The knock on his door roused him from the lusty thoughts he knew he couldn’t keep to himself forever. Sooner or later, he’d let her know exactly how she made him feel, because no one had ever roused both his human and magical sides before.
“Come in,” he called.
The door opened, and Elroy appeared. He paused just inside the doorway. “I need to speak to you, Damon.”
He glared at Elroy. The head of Aleena’s security certainly wasn’t his favorite person to chat with. The man hardly had time for him, so Damon couldn’t help but wonder what had suddenly changed. “What do you want to speak to me about?”
“The woman you invited into our sanctuary-the space traveler.” His lips were set in a grim line. The man never smiled. Well, unless Aleena favored him for the night.
“What about her?” Damon walked across the room, to one of the storage cubes. He pulled out another shirt and added a new pair of pants as well. With the amount of fluffing about that the Priestess did in most of her conversations, he’d have enough time for a quick shower. Besides, he’d made sure to leave Levi behind to keep an eye on Alex.
“She’s dangerous,” Elroy said.
He closed the storage cube and held his clothes to his chest. Yes, he could vouch for how dangerous Alex was. Her curves were going to prove lethal. He wanted to touch her, found himself looking for any excuse to put his hands on her.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes, I heard you, but I don’t know what you mean.”
“Something feels wrong about this woman.” Elroy crossed his arms. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s a change in the air, and I don’t like it.”
“That’s funny, because she only feels right to me.”
“That’s because you’re not thinking straight. She’s probably bewitched you already, and I refuse to let her do the same to our Priestess.”
Damon couldn’t help but smile. “Oh, is that what you’re reallyworried about?” Although Aleena enjoyed the company of men, it was no secret she favored females. “You’re concerned about the Priestess losing interest in you and instead investing it in Alex?”
Elroy scowled. “I don’t see that woman as a threat. I know where I stand with Aleena-”
“Yes, you stand in line with a whole lot of others,” he interrupted, with a laugh. Elroy liked to think that because he was the head of Priestess Aleena’s trusted security detail, she considered him the most important lover in her life. Too bad everyone else knew she didn’t feel that way at all.
“I’m not here to argue with you.”
“Then, what are you here for, Elroy?”
“I’m here to warn you about the traveler. Be careful with how much trust you put in that woman. Most of all, watch her very closely. Mark my words, things will get a lot worse around here, now that she’s invaded our home.” His eyes narrowed. “I intend to keep a very close eye on her, too.”
“Elroy, don’t you dare!” Damon took a step toward him. “I’ll take care of Alex. You don’t need to keep an eye on her. She’s mine to watch, and I’ll protect her.”
“Who do you intend to protect her from?”
“Anyone who threatens her,” Damon replied, keeping his gaze pinned on Elroy. This was certainly a challenge, and he wanted the other man to realize he wouldn’t back down. He might not fully understand this instant need he had for a woman he barely knew, but he refused to ignore the call of magic.
“I think we’re the ones who’ll need protection from her,” Elroy said. “You’re right about one thing, though. You’ve got no choice but to watch over her, now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The reason I’m here is to let you know that Priestess Aleena has assigned you to be the space traveler’s personal guard.”
“I’ve got no problem with the assignment.”
Elroy rolled his eyes. “I didn’t think you would.” He stepped out of the room without another word.
Damon didn’t bother to call him back. The conversation was over. Elroy was infuriating and enjoyed dumping his own opinions and words of foreboding on others, but he refused to listen to reason. The one thing Damon did agree with was keeping a close eye on Alex, but not because of suspicion. If he could stay with her all day and night, he’d be a happy man.
Speaking of which, Aleena would soon be done boring Alex with the prophecy and feast details. If he wanted to squeeze in a quick shower, he’d have to hurry.
“You know. At some point, you could’ve mentioned that everyone and everything on your planet is totally insane. I would’ve appreciated the head’s up.” Alex glared at Damon. She watched him with narrowed eyes. He was attempting to avoid her gaze from across the room.
A smile curved his lips. “I didn’t have enough time,” he said with a shrug. “Besides, what fun would that have been?”
Fun? Is that what he thinks we’re doing here?
She didn’t call almost being eaten by a pack of flying monsters, and then being led to believe she would somehow save a civilization she hadn’t known existed, to be a good time. She was confused, and a headache had crept up on her after the woman who called herself Aleena bored her with details Alex didn’t care about. She’d zoned out after a while, more interested in checking out the immaculate, landscaped gardens than whatever the woman had been raving about.
When she hadn’t been able to get a single word in, she’d figured out Aleena wouldn’t provide any of the many answers she wanted.
More and more, this was starting to feel like some sort of nightmare.
She pressed her fingers to her temples.
“What’s wrong?” Damon asked.
“I have a headache. Do you have some magical way to fix this, too?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Before she could stop him, Damon closed the door and was once again standing within touching distance. He certainly had a problem with personal space-he didn’t know the meaning of it.
Alex made a move to step back, but he put a hand on her shoulder, keeping her steady. “You don’t have to run away from me. I won’t hurt you.” His green eyes were twinkling but still amused. He removed her hand from her temple, softly replacing it with his. He then rubbed his fingertips over her skin in small, circular motions, until the throbbing completely faded. “Does it feel better?”
She swallowed. He certainly knew how to get her sensual juices flowing. How could innocently massaging away a headache make her gut clench with desire? She managed a nod.
“Good. Now, I need you to sit down so I can fix your arm, as well as take a look at the other wound on your hand.” Damon turned away, leaving her a little breathless. He grabbed a small, wooden cart pressed against the wall and wheeled it toward her.
They were inside a vast room with a bed, a large armchair, and several wooden storage units. The walls were all painted white, and a significant, curved window was placed opposite the bed. Not bad for a guest room.
It looked like the ladyof the planet had assigned this hunk as Alex’s keeper, while he’d decided to be her protector. Maybe he can help me in other ways, too.The way he kept holding and touching her, she wouldn’t be able to control herself much longer.
“Damon, you need to be straight with me,” she sighed. “I have no idea what the blonde woman was talking about. Most of the time, I don’t even know what you’rebabbling on about, either.”
He chuckled. “I’ll answer as many of your questions as I can, but not until you let me heal you.” The seriousness made him even more appealing. He reached for her arm and helped maneuver her into the armchair.
She sat down. Being forced to spend too much time alone with this man would definitely lead to a lot of trouble. There wassomething between them, and she couldn’t deny it. It echoed in the way he looked at her-the small smile continually curving the corners of his mouth. She didn’t want to analyze it too closely just yet. I’m certainly not going to admit it out loud, either.
Right now, she wanted her skin repaired and properly bandaged. With a resigned sigh, Alex removed her jacket.
Damon looked at her while he grabbed a short stool. He placed it directly in front of her and sat down. He was positioned very close, with his long legs spread apart for better access to her wounds.
“So, what do you want to know?” He unwound the makeshift bandage he’d made out of a piece of his previous shirt.
While the woman, Aleena, had walked with Alex across the most beautiful gardens she’d ever seen, Damon had disappeared long enough to change his shirt. Now, he wore a cream-colored, sleeveless shirt with a cord keeping the top of it together-definitely not enough to conceal most of his impressive chest. Matching pants covered his legs and fell over his bare feet. She’d noticed most people here walked around barefoot, but Alex decided to keep her boots on…for now.
“I want to know everything.”
“Okay, but where would you like me to start?” he asked, pausing to raise his dark eyebrows at her.
“How did you know where to find me?” To be honest, Alex didn’t know where to start. This situation seemed surreal. He was affecting her so much, she couldn’t think straight.
He dropped the dirty bandage on the cart beside him and met her eyes. The intensity in his stare made it hard to breathe.
“Can you stop looking at me like that?” she blurted. Alex was starting to get annoyed with those bedroom eyes. The smoldering looks he kept giving her were playing havoc with her body. She couldn’t help but fantasize about what his long fingers would feel like all over her naked flesh. Would his eyes hold the same intensity while touching her? Or was this part of his seduction? Maybe he was just a tease.
“How am I looking at you?” He grabbed the small washcloth floating inside a porcelain bowl filled with water.
“Ah, never mind,” she said with a frustrated sigh. What was the point? One way or another, she already knew where this would lead. “Just answer my first question. How did you know where to find me?”
“I didn’t.” Damon dabbed the washcloth against her arm, cleaning it. “You fell onto Eden hours ago, so I think you must have been unconscious for a while.”
“Yeah, I was.” The watch wrapped around her uninjured wrist had confirmed it. She winced.
“Sorry,” he said, dabbing softly. “I spent hours out there and walked past the same spot many times before you fell on me.”
Heat rose up her neck and face. She cleared her throat. “That doesn’t explain why you were looking for anyone.”
“Oh, yes. Priestess told us of the breach.”
So, they did have ways of knowing when someone neared or entered their atmosphere. It gave her hope for getting out of here.
“This must be terribly confusing for you,” Damon said with a small smile. “If it’s any consolation, we’ll take very good care of you. Priestess Aleena has been talking about the prophecy of the space traveler since I was a kid.”
“You sure know how to make a girl feel special.” Special…and weird.
“Alex, you arespecial, and not just because of the prophecy. Magic is woven deep inside you. I can feel it.”
“Listen, you’re gonna have to stop with the magic talk, okay? I’ve already told you. I don’t believe in it.”
“Just because you don’t believe in it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Were either of your parents magic users?” He dried the skin of her forearm with a small towel.
She snorted. “No.” If either one of her parents had access to any sort of mumbo-jumbo, she would’ve known about it, because they’d have used it for self-gain.
Damon stared at her for a moment. “Would you like me to show you some magic?”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you going to pull a rabbit out of a hat or something? Trust me, I’ve paid good credits to see many an illusionist. Although most are good, they’re all frauds at heart, using sleight of hand and other acts of trickery.”
Alex had been involved with an illusionist-a man who lived in a spaceport on the other side of the galaxy. Wondrous William had amazed her with a great many illusions, both in and out of the bedroom, but mostly he was good at swindling credits out of her. Will had been trying to contact her for weeks, but she’d ignored every message he sent to Promise during her stay on the Anteris Space Station.
It was just her luck to now be stranded on a planet where magic and prophecies existed. It would have been easier to live the rest of her days naked on Zeal, the Aphrodite-worshipping planet.
“There’s no trickery in magic.” Damon dropped the washcloth back into the bowl and placed the towel beside it. Then, he leaned over, pulling her arm closer to his face.
“What are you doing?”
“Just relax and watch, okay?”
Damon’s mouth hovered over her skin, and for a second, she thought he was going to kiss her, but he didn’t. Instead, he blew a line of warm breath along the cut he’d made when scraping the worms out.
A shiver raced through her body. The skin of her forearm tingled-a thousand tiny pinpricks soothing her so much, she wanted to lean back into the armchair and close her eyes to the unbelievable sensations. Her nipples tightened inside her bra, and something hot stirred between her legs. For a moment, Alex felt as if she was going to have an orgasm.
“Don’t close your eyes. Keep watching,” Damon whispered. His breath made her skin buzz.
She squirmed in her seat but kept her eyes pinned to her arm. Alex watched, in disbelief, as the separated skin blended with the rest of her arm.
“What the hell?” She pulled out of his grasp to take a closer look. The wound was completely healed over. She ran her fingertips over the smooth skin. It felt and looked as if it had never been cut. “What did you do? How did you do it?”
“I worked some magic to heal you.”
“No, really. Howdid you do it?”
“I used the arcane all around us and connected it to your own magic to heal you.” His eyes were bright with wonder.
“I’ve already told you, I don’t have any magic!”
He shrugged. “Every living soul has some sort of magic within them. Wouldn’t you say that being alive is magical enough?”
She didn’t answer. She just kept looking at her flawless skin. There wasn’t even a scar to mark where he’d cut her.
“There are some who have it inside them but don’t know how to connect to it, but I can help you with that.”
“No, thanks.” Alex refused to believe his insane claims. They lived in a time of technology and space travel, where most of the galaxy’s population chose to live inside space stations rather than on planets. Yet this place was different, starting with the tall walls surrounding the gardens, all the way to those hideous bird beasts, and whatever other dangers lurked outside this seemingly safe sanctuary.
What was she doing here? More importantly, how the hell was she going to get out?
“In time you’ll feel it, yourself. You won’t be able to hold it back any longer,” Damon said.
“I don’t intend to be here too long.” Alex met his gaze with a harsh glare.
Something crossed in front of those gorgeous green irises and seemed to disappear just as quickly. “I don’t wish to have the same conversation with you over and over again, Alex. It seems like you continue to dwell on the fact that you’ll soon leave, but you won’t. This is where your destiny lies-”
“My destiny is out in space, delivering cargo.”
“No, your destiny is here with me.” His jaw was clenched tight, gaze pinned on hers. He lowered his voice and said, “Besides, carrying stolen cargo originating from our planet isn’t exactly a destiny.”
Alex didn’t bother to ask him how he knew for sure when she hadn’t confirmed anything about the liquid.
She tried to keep the goosebumps at bay, but they were spreading all over her body. “No, your destiny is here with me.”Why would someone who was practically a stranger say something so bizarre? It reminded her of Ulric’s confession of love. What was going on? Why was everyone acting so strangely around her? Even Sackor’s sleazy advances had increased in tenacity lately.
“Besides, you need to help us,” Damon said.
“From where I stand, it doesn’t look like your society needs any help.”
Damon dropped his gaze and took her injured hand in his. He unraveled the bandage she’d wrapped around the Sackor-induced wound and stared at it silently, for too long.
“How did you get this wound?”
“Someone accidentally scratched me.”
“I think it’s infected.” He reached for the washcloth again and rinsed it to clear off the blood clinging to it. He wrung the excess water out and dabbed at the taut skin between her thumb and index finger.
She winced at the instant sting and tried to pull out of his grasp, but he held on tighter. “Don’t move. I need to clean this before it gets any worse. Tell me who did this to you.”
“An idiot. It’s not important.”
“This might take some time to heal.”
“Can’t you just blow on it and make it go away?” She wasn’t comfortable with his bogus claim to magic, but if it made the sting and the ugly redness disappear, she was all for it.
“I don’t think it’ll work on this.” Damon seemed to be concentrating a little too hard on her hand.
“Can you at least try?” She met his eyes with the same intensity he used with her. Why would his mojo-magic only work selectively? Now, thatsounded far-fetched.
Damon nodded and lifted her hand to his mouth. He pressed his lips together and blew out a soothing breath, making her giddy.
Alex closed her eyes to once again enjoy the sensations travelling along her skin. She opened them in a rush and watched the open skin seal then split again within seconds. “What the hell just happened?”
“Whoever did this to you wanted to make sure it couldn’t be healed,” Damon answered, frowning.
“Why?” Questioning, or trying to understand, Sackor’s motivations seemed a waste of time. The bastard always had a reason for everything he did. No matter how corrupt or creepy.
Damon took a closer look. “This looks like a marking of some sort.” He leaned forward, and the proximity of his body made her nervous. He smelled so nice.
“Why would anyone want to mark me?”
“Maybe he wanted to keep you on his radar, so he can track you down whenever he wants to.” He was concentrating hard, as if he could see something she couldn’t. “I’m not sure why, but it feels strange. Almost like there’s something in there.”
“He put an actual bug inside me?” Why would Sackor bother? She’d delivered his crap many times before, and never needed any sort of tracking. Alex was good for the delivery. Well, except this time. Was it possible that he somehow knew this would happen? Was he responsible for messing around with her ship, so she would crash? Why here? Could such a petty thing really be his intention, or did he want to eliminate her for some other reason?
Like everything else, it didn’t make any sense. It was as confusing as the way Damon’s fingertips made her feel as they travelled up the underside of her arm.
“What are you doing?” she snapped.
“Don’t you like it?”
She made a move to pull away, but he didn’t let go.
“I can’t help myself, Alex,” he whispered, shifting in his seat until his face was close enough to feel his breath on her cheeks. “Whenever we’re together, all I want to do is touch you.”
“Stop it, okay?” She barely managed to get the words out, because her voice cracked. The tingly sensations he’d roused raced beneath her skin. He was turning her on so much. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself if he continued. Not a good idea when there was so much other crap going on.
“I can’t. Trust me, I’m trying to stop this as much as you are…but I find myself very attracted to you. It’s more than physical. Your magic is caressing mine.” His pupils were larger, darker, allowing his desire to shine through.
“I’ve already told you. I don’t have any magic.” How many times would she have to say this? Why doesn’t he believe me?
Damon pressed his mouth closer to hers, until their lips touched for just an instant. The softness of those full lips made her swoon, but he pulled away and gazed deep into her eyes. He paused long enough to return a second later, for a proper kiss.
She found herself opening her mouth to his and parting his lips with her tongue, so she could slip inside. The connection of their tongues stirred an indescribable sensation, like none she’d ever felt before.
Her hands remained in her lap, Damon’s at his sides. The only part of them touching was their mouths, and there was something very arousing about that.
“We’ll need to head out soon. The feast being held in your honor will be starting in an hour,” Damon said, breaking the kiss. “Aleena will be upset if I make you late.”
“What would Aleena say if she knew you were trying to seduce me?” Her breath was ragged. Alex dared to reach out, running her fingers over his smooth cheek. Her fingertips heated at the barest touch of his caramel skin. It excited her, encouraging her to give in to the undeniable rush of attraction she’d experienced since falling on this man. She might not believe in magic, but she believed in lust.
He shook his head, making the dreadlocks sway in front of his face. “I’m not trying to seduce you.”
“Why did you kiss me, then?” She wiped the strands of hair away from his face.
“Why did youkiss me back?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. It just felt like the right thing to do.”
His eyes lit up. “So you do feel it, then? The magic flowing between us is affecting you, too?”
“How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t-”
“Do you believe in the magic of two bodies drawn to each other?” His voice was low and husky, more like a rumble.
She nodded. “Now, you’re starting to make sense. I definitely believe in that.”
The smile on his lips widened. The desire darkened his eyes. “Would you accept my advances if I pursued them further?”
Alex nodded. What was the point of lying to him? She wanted him as much as he obviously wanted her. After all this time of staying away from other men-the thought of eventually returning to Ulric’s bed had kept her company even during the loneliest of times-Alex felt it all slip away. The only thing that mattered now was being with Damon, with this stranger. She was prepared to throw caution to the wind, just like she used to, instead of dwelling on the fact she didn’t know a single thing about Damon or that they’d only met hours ago.
None of it mattered to her before Ulric, and it didn’t matter now.
Something she couldn’t even begin to put into words had taken over-a desire so strong and feral, she couldn’t wait to enjoy Damon’s body.
Damon pushed off the stool, kneeling in front of her. He lowered his eyes, staring at her chest while he licked his lips. He gripped her thighs and slowly spread them. She wasn’t sure what he was going to do next, but when he moved in closer, she wrapped her arms around his neck.
She was glad she’d unstrapped her thigh holster and left it on the bedside table. She wouldn’t need her blaster right now.
Damon clamped his mouth over hers. He ran his fingers up and down her bare arms, stirring her into a fevered frenzy. The warmth she’d felt near the wall-when she first thought he was going to kiss her-seeped from his skin and into hers. He kissed her soft and slow, and she couldn’t tear her mouth away. The buzz of pleasure swelled up inside her, as if he were caressing her into climax but hadn’t touched her intimately, yet.
“I want to pleasure you,” he whispered in her ear. His mouth closed around her earlobe. “I’m going to do it by using magic.”
This time, she didn’t bother correcting him.
Damon’s fingers were now running down her sides and had reached her waist. He gathered the fabric of her tank top enough to slip his warm fingers underneath.
She squirmed at his touch, pressing her breasts against him and trying not to let the discomfort of her hurt ribs show.
“I want to heal you, too,” he said, slowly kissing his way down her neck, shoulders, and arms. He lifted her tank top, and she leaned back into the armchair. His lips were now hovering above her abdomen. “Your ribs are bruised.”
She lifted her hips and rubbed up against him. Her breath quickened, but he shook his head.
“Not like this. Not yet.”
She stilled, wanting to know what he had in mind. He was driving her crazy with those expert fingers of his. If he started using his mouth, she doubted she’d be able to stand it.
“What are you going to do, then?”
“This.” He leaned over, his lips just a centimeter away from her burning skin, and blew a line of hot breath over her.
She squirmed again, feeling heady and so desperate to reach climax, she felt like she would melt into a puddle at any moment. “Damn it, Damon. You’re driving me crazy.”
“I hope so.” He kissed her ribs, and a zing rocked her body.
“What the hell was that?” She was so hot and ready for him.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he kissed her skin again, slowly leaving a line of kisses over her ribcage and following it down to her lower abdomen. When he reached the waistband of her pants, he paused. Lifting his face to look at her, he kept his eyes pinned on hers as he pressed his hand to her bare skin.
“This is magic I’m sure you’ve never felt before.”
Alex was about to respond, but her breath caught in her throat. He’d flattened his palm over the skin below her bellybutton, and her body convulsed. The heat of his skin pierced through hers in a sudden explosion, erupting between her legs. An orgasm teased her into submission. It was so gradual, she couldn’t help but moan and groan, biting down on her bottom lip to keep from screaming.
She’d experienced plenty of different ways to climax before, but nothing quite like this. When it should have been over, and she felt spent, another orgasm shook her to the core. She arched her back and whimpered, wishing he would stop torturing her with this endless pleasure yet hoping it would never end.
The door on the other side of the room was suddenly pushed open. “Damon. Damon, you must hurry. We need you down in the courtyard. Something has…oh, my apologies.”
Damon removed his hand from her lower abdomen and looked over his shoulder. “What do you want, Levi?”
The orgasm’s intensity slowed but didn’t completely fade.
She looked across the room-feeling a little hazy-meeting the teenager’s wide eyes. He was staring right at her, but when she caught his eye, he looked away. His gaze roamed around the room, but he couldn’t hide the red darkening his cheeks with embarrassment. If the tendrils of orgasm weren’t still chasing pins and needles of ecstasy beneath her skin, maybe she would’ve felt a slight tug of embarrassment, too. Then again, maybe not. Alex never apologized for an orgasm, especially one this miraculous. Why should she? How the hell had Damon made her come without even touching her where she’d experienced the full brunt of pleasure?
“Levi, what’s wrong?”
“I’m so sorry, Damon. Ah, we’ve found a dead body in the gardens, and the Priestess would like you to come down to the courtyard.”
Damon frowned. “What do you mean by a dead body?”
“A body was found mutilated along a garden path,” Levi answered in a low voice.
“It’s why she needs you to take a look. Priestess would like to know if you can read anything that’ll tell us what happened.”
Damon nodded. “Okay. I’ll be there right away.”
Levi hesitated for a few heartbeats before he nodded. “I’ll tell her you’re on your way.” He turned around, left, and closed the door behind him with a small thump.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Damon whispered more to himself than to her. His eyebrows were furrowed, knotted in a look she hadn’t seen on him since they’d met. Not even the birds had seemed to affect him this much.
She touched his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Murder doesn’t happen in our society.”
“Crime exists in every society.”
“Not in ours,” he whispered. Damon refused to meet her eyes. “I’ve never seen any evidence of murder within these walls.”
She sat up straight, enjoying the last of the pleasurable aftershocks. “What about those bird creatures? Haven’t they killed some of your people? You mentioned the lake with the worms, too.” She cringed at the reminder, but when she looked at her arm, all evidence was gone. Too bad the cut on her hand remained. What the hell had Sackor done to her?
“Yes, I’ve seen the birds kill some of our people, and the lake too, but that always takes place outsidethe walls. Harm is never inflicted by one of our own.”
“That doesn’t sound right.” She’d never heard of such a thing. Violence, abuse, and murder occurred all over the galaxy.
“We live in Eden.”
Alex was confused. If they lived in such a wonderful world, with absolutely no violence, why was sheneeded to seal their utopian society? “Okay, so if everything’s so perfect here, why do you need me?” She’d just had her first Damon-induced orgasm, and whatever unfamiliarity had existed between them before had diminished. The warmth of his body remaining close to hers was comforting.
She couldn’t explain it and didn’t particularly like to admit it, but there wassomething flowing between them. She refused to refer to it as magic, though. It was more like raw and passionate lust. If Levi hadn’t charged into the room, she knew what would’ve followed. At the thought, a few things she wanted to do to Damon raced through her mind.
“Alex,” Damon began, pushing a few stray curls away from her forehead. His eyes were shiny and filled with knowledge. She wondered if he would ever share any of it with her. “We need you, because the prophecy states that once the space traveler is amongst us, a chain of events will begin. Events which will help us become forever segregated from the dangers beyond our boundaries. Without the lakes, birds, and other predators out in the jungle, my people will be able to live in eternal harmony. All thanks to you.”
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to do all of that. Besides, aren’t you already segregated by those tall walls?”
Damon shook his head. “Those walls are secure for the moment, but it’s only a matter of time before the barrier starts to slip.”
“So, you’re saying this dead person is the start of these events?”
The thought made her uncomfortable. “I hope no one blames me for this.” If they all knew about this bizarre prophecy and she’d been unwillingly cast in the lead role, would these people eventually turn on her? She looked at Damon and didn’t think he would, but she couldn’t be sure about the others.
“I won’t let anyone accuse you of killing, or of any other wrongdoing. I’m going to protect you.” Damon pressed his hands against her upper arms, glaring into her eyes. “Will you come with me, so we can see what’s happened?”
She’d much rather strip her dirty clothes and see what he had to offer once he took his off, but he seemed too distracted. Besides, after the overload of satisfaction he’d unleashed on her, she wasn’t sure she was up to more at the moment.
“Sure, let’s go.” Let’s see what other freaky things this place has to offer.This planet was starting to feel more like hell than Eden. “I’m not going anywhere without my blaster, though.”
Alex had seen more than one corpse before. Some of the shitty places she’d travelled during her long stint as a courier were so crime-infested that anyone could be shot dead in a crowded spot. She was usually good at looking the other way, but sometimes it was hard not to stare. As a result, she’d seen plenty of humans and aliens left to die on the sidewalk, in alleys, motel corridors, and bars. It was never a pretty sight, but it was something she’d mostly become desensitized to.
As a kid, dead bodies had been a frequent occurrence, too. Wherever her father went, he always seemed to attract the wrong kind of attention. Fortunately for him, he’d gotten shot a lot, but never killed. Some of the people who shot at him hadn’t been so lucky. Louis Wales had a steady hand and spot-on accuracy.
On her tenth birthday, he’d stuck a blaster in her hand to teach her how to aim and shoot-both to injure and kill. She’d gotten so good at it so quickly, he beamed with pride. Alex could still remember how happy it made him to know that she could take care of herself if he wasn’t around. He’d said it a lot, but she’d been too young to suspect he actually meant it.
Still, she’d never killed anyone. She had no problem shooting someone’s hand off or disabling them by blowing out their knee, but she was glad she hadn’t had to kill. Yet.
She blinked as she stared at the corpse Damon had led her to. It had been dumped inside the garden labyrinth, and he’d had no trouble finding it.
I’ve never seen anything like this before.
The dead body didn’t have a clean bullet or laser wound anywhere. It no longer looked human, resembling a lump of meat with various open sections, several limbs missing, and the head left twisted at a sickening angle. It was completely covered in blood, with deep-etched claw marks wherever there wasn’t a limb missing. A pool of crimson spread out below the remains, with other darker stuff. It reeked of feces and death.
Alex took another step back, disgusted. For once, she was actually glad she’d spent so much time amongst degenerates and criminals. Otherwise, she’d have already thrown up.
Damon stepped forward, and his fingers slid away from hers. He’d held her hand since the moment they’d left the room and continued to hold it even after they met up with the others. She hadn’t resisted his touchy-feely action, because his warm skin made her feel good. It kept reminding her of what he’d done to her.
If that’s how he heals all the time, there must be some really sick women around Eden.
When his bare toes dipped into the edge of the blood puddle, she cringed. How could he act so natural around something he claimed never happened around here?
She reluctantly turned her gaze back to the corpse and caught sight of a shiny bone peeking through a particularly nasty wound, in what had to have been the chest. Was that a rib? The way the moonlight glistened on the sharp end only added to her revulsion. She wondered if this had been a woman or a man.
Priestess Aleena stood across from them, on the other side of the corpse. She stepped forward, and the hem of her long, white dress almost dipped into the blood. “Do you know what happened to him, Damon?” The blonde stood with people on both sides. The grim-looking man who kept glaring at Alex with a sour expression on his face had taken a step at the same time as Aleena.
Shrubs lined the expanse of wall behind them, and blood was splattered on some of the leaves.
There seemed to be a lot of walls around here. Damon kept referring to this place as a village, but it looked more like a castle or a fortress.
Alex wondered if the population built as many walls around themselves as they did in this seemingly safe haven. For crime not to exist, something strange had to be going on behind the scenes. To not have crime while living in such a concentrated population didn’t sound realistic. It wasn’t how humans behaved, and since she’d only seen bare-footed, blue-eyed, and blonde humans walking around so far, she assumed the population was all human.
She stared at Damon, with his beautiful, caramel skin and black hair. He might have light eyes, but his pallor wasn’t the same as everyone else’s. Why?
“Well, Damon. What do you see? Anything that can help us figure out what happened?” Aleena asked again.
He squatted a little closer and narrowed his eyes, as if he were scanning the corpse and the area. “He was definitely murdered.”
A chorus of gasps sounded around Alex. She looked up.
Aleena lifted a pale hand in front of her mouth. Levi’s eyes were so wide, they looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets. Another man gasped in horror beside him. The tall, skinny one with the constant scowl glared at Alex. What the hell is his problem?
“I think whoever killed him took several bites first,” Damon added with a small shake of his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“What?”Aleena’s complexion turned waxy, as if she were getting sicker by the minute. “Could it be one of the birds?” She looked up at the dark sky, as if checking to see if she could find the answer written above.
“I doubt it,” Damon said. “They usually peck at their prey. This isn’t pecking. Someone tore him apart, and it looks like he was feasted on, but not the same way a bird would.”
“Speaking of feasts,” Aleena said, turning her attention to Alex. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to postpone the celebratory feast in your honor. For the moment, at least…I hope that’s not a problem, Alex.”
She shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I understand.” Not that she’d wanted to partake in any sort of feast about a hocus-pocus solution to whatever imaginary problems these people had. After seeing this dead body, maybe she’d been too quick to judge their utopian society.
“How could this have happened?” the nameless, angry man asked.
“If not the birds, then what did this? We don’t have any wild beasts within the village walls.” Levi’s voice was low, barely more than a whisper.
Alex wasn’t sure it was a good idea to have a teenage boy witness such a barbaric act. Then again, he seemed to be Damon’s assistant or something.
“You have wild beasts outside,” Alex observed. “I heard one roar earlier.”
Aleena’s brow furrowed, but she didn’t say anything.
“I think you’re mistaken,” the sour-looking man said, with a stern shake of his head. “There are no roaring beasts in the jungle.”
“I’m sorry, but who are you? I didn’t catch your name.” Alex crossed her arms. This man definitely had some kind of problem with her, and she was determined to get to the bottom of it. The last thing she needed was someone with an agenda against the ‘space traveler’.
The man lowered his gaze, sweeping over her cleavage with obvious disapproval. When he met her eyes again, a smirk curved his lips. “My name is Elroy. I am the consort of our Priestess and head of security.”
Alex had to admit that she was curious. She found it strange how they all referred to their obvious matriarch as a Priestess, but she hadn’t seen any statues or chapels so far. To hold the title, one had to somehow be connected to a deity. So who did Priestess Aleena worship? What deity did she preach about to the population of Eden?
The more she learned about these people, the less she liked being stranded here. There was something very odd about them, and she had no intention of getting caught up in their insanity.
She considered the man who didn’t like her. “Well, Elroy. Maybe it’s time for you to consult your magical stones. Or whatever it is you use for security around here, because it’s been officially breached.” Alex unfolded her arms and placed them on her hips instead. She hadn’t bothered with her jacket and was only wearing her dirty tank top at the moment, but she didn’t appreciate the man’s disapproving scrutiny.
“Maybe we should take youin for questioning. It seems a little too coincidental for something this violent to occur almost as soon as you arrived.” Elroy’s suggestion echoed around them.
No one else reacted.
Alex yanked the blaster from its holster and rushed him before anyone had a chance to stop her. She didn’t even skim the puddle of blood before she had the barrel pressed against his temple. She motioned at the mess near her boots. “Are you accusing me of doing this?” Anger simmered beneath her skin, making her breath come in spurts. “If I was going to kill someone, I wouldn’t need to get my hands dirty. As you can see”-she jabbed the end of her blaster harder against him-“I handle myself pretty well with a weapon. So, why would I tear someone apart when I can use my blaster, huh?”
The man didn’t move. He just kept his beady eyes glued on hers.
Anger and determination rushed through her. She wasn’t going to let this asshole accuse her of something so barbaric.
For some reason, he obviously didn’t like her. She didn’t care about who liked her or not, but she wasn’t going to put up with anyone’s crap.
Elroy lifted an eyebrow, but he didn’t even wince. “I’m merely stating the obvious. Since you arrived, strange things have started happening…”
“Elroy!” Damon stood up and reached her in seconds. He pressed a hand to her shoulder. “Alex had nothing to do with this. She’s been with me the whole time.”
She had to admit that she liked knowing Damon was ready to back her up, almost as much as the warmth radiating from his palm. Boy, this man sure could do some weird and wonderful things with his hands.
“It’s too coincidental,” Elroy repeated.
“I said she was with methe whole time. Why don’t you just drop it?” Damon’s voice was low, calm. “Alex, put the gun away. He’s not worth it.”
“I think you’re blinded by the lure of her body,” Elroy spat, but a bead of sweat dripping from his forehead betrayed him. So, he wasaffected by the proximity of her weapon, after all.
Good to know.
There was always something comforting about that. At least her father had been right about a few things in life. He’d told her most people were afraid when a weapon was pointed at their heads, no matter how much they tried to convince you otherwise.
Alex pressed the blaster tighter against Elroy’s temple before withdrawing it.
Damon cut in front of her, and his right fist connected with Elroy’s mouth. The man didn’t just fall back. His feet actually lifted off the ground, sending him backward. The wall stopped him, helping him land on his feet. As he wiped the blood dripping from the side of his lip with the back of his hand, he glared at Damon and grinned.
“If you ever say something like that again, I’ll hit you harder!” Damon’s chest rose and fell violently, and his hands were still squeezed into fists. “Don’t you have any respect?”
Wow, he packs quite a punch!
When Damon took her hand, she could suddenly feel his heartbeat echoed in hers, as well as the way his blood boiled with rage. Something freaky pounded between them, and she didn’t trust it. Even if it excited her enough to remember what he’d done with just a touch of palm-to-skin.
What the hell is he doing to me? Why is he affecting me this way?
“If I were you, I’d stop using magic to power my every move.” Elroy took several calculated strides until he was settled beside Aleena, who’d been silently watching the exchange. There’d been a change in the Priestess’s demeanor. She looked distracted.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Damon spat.
“Please. Elroy, Damon. Stop this nonsense!” Aleena finally stepped between them. “Elroy, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your useless thoughts to yourself. Alex is a guest in our village. She’s lost and has no way of getting home. I will make it my mission to ensure all her comforts are met…no matter what they may be.” Her gaze turned to Damon. “Please, Damon. You know violence is nottolerated within these walls. If I see such a display of anger from you, again, I will be forced to punish you.”
Both men lowered their heads and nodded.
“Alex, please accept my deepest apologies for having to endure this most uncommon situation. Believe me when I say that we are a peaceful civilization.”
Alex responded with a small nod. She didn’t feel like adding any more to this strange confrontation. She found Elroy’s very open and verbal attack to be peculiar. From her experience, consorts were usually seen but not heard. They kept their mouths shut and only provided opinions or comments behind closed doors, usually after personally pleasuring their leader. She knew her own mother had never paid any attention to a consort, even if they’d induced an orgasm worth remembering.
The thought repulsed her. Her mother repulsed her. She’d always been so inappropriate, sharing details about her sexual relationships when Alex didn’t want to hear about them. I hate that woman. What did she do to Daddy? There was no doubt in her mind, and she suspected Lorraine had something to do with Louis’s disappearance. One day, I’ll finally be ready to confront her about it.
Of course, that’s if she ever got off this crazy planet.
“Damon, is there anything else you can ascertain from this body?”
He faced Aleena and answered, “I can’t get any residual reading from the person’s spirit, but it’s Mony Lin. I was able to connect with his spirit, which probably means he moved on right away.” He stopped for a second. “Whoever did this to Mony had a reason for it. The trace of violence still lingering is so strong, it’s making my skin crawl. I can taste hunger, craving, excitement, jealousy, and even lust.”
“What should we do?” Aleena asked, obviously distraught. “How do we ensure this doesn’t happen, again?”
“For starters,” Damon said, “I don’t think anyone else should find out about this. Who found the body?”
“A young girl,” Aleena answered.
“Did she see anything?”
“I’m not sure. We haven’t been able to get her to talk.”
“What do you mean?” Damon asked, as his brow furrowed.
Aleena shrugged. “Exactly what I said. She hasn’t spoken a word since she alerted Elroy and Levi of the whereabouts of the body.”
“She’s probably in shock. I wouldn’t be surprised if she interrupted the attack. There’s a whole section missing from the corpse, which might mean the attacker consumed some of the flesh.” Damon hesitated, as if he didn’t want to continue in case he pushed any of them over the edge of sickness.
“I suggest you go see her,” Aleena said. “Go to the girl, and see if you can get her to talk. If you can’t, see what you can readfrom her.”
Damon nodded. “Yes, that sounds like a good idea, Priestess.”
“Make sure you keep your outsider with you at all times,” Elroy cautioned with distaste. “If you can’t personally account for her whereabouts, and something else happens, I’ll have no other choice but to bring her in.”
Damon turned a dark look toward Elroy.
Alex sighed. This guy’s attitude was starting to grate on her nerves.
“Elroy, please. You are in charge of security, not of running the place! That’s my job.” Aleena rolled her eyes. “Come on. You and I need to discuss a few things-one of which includes manners.”
Elroy held out an arm, and Aleena hooked hers around it. “Damon, I want some answers. I won’t allow a tendril of violence to penetrate our society. Figure this out, quickly. The new moon is less than a day away, and according to the prophecy, it’s when the space traveler’s power needs to be harnessed for the ritual.” She smiled at Alex before continuing down the path and being swallowed by a long line of trees.
What ritual?No one had mentioned anything about a ritual to harness anything. She turned to ask Damon, but he was too busy handing out instructions.
“Levi, can you clean this up, please?”
“No problem, Damon,” the teenager said with a small nod. He pointed at the only other person who’d remained. “I’ll get Milo to help me.”
Milo nodded. The scrawny man with long, blonde hair didn’t look much older than Levi, and he hadn’t spoken a word during the entire ordeal. He also avoided looking at anyone but Levi.
Damon smiled. “I appreciate it. Please, make sure there’s not a single bit of blood left behind.”
“Sure. We’ve got it under control,” Levi said.
“Great, thanks.” Damon turned away from the corpse and reached for Alex’s hand. He led her away from the bloodied mess and the unfortunate two who’d been charged with cleaning it up.
“Are they going to be okay with the clean up on their own?”
“Yes. Levi’s very thorough, and Milo’s good at following instructions. Once they’re done with it, no one will ever know someone was killed on this spot.” His green eyes darkened, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it was because he was angry or sad.
“What if someone doessee them clean up?”
“They won’t. Come on.” Damon encouraged her to move forward.
“How do you know for sure?”
“There’s a perimeter sectioned off around the gardens. No one will venture this far until they’re advised it’s okay to do so.”
“Aren’t they a little young to be doing this, anyway?”
“No, they’re not. Both of them turned twenty just recently. That’s old enough to take care of things. Besides, age means nothing around here.”
She continued to walk beside Damon but took one last glimpse over her shoulder. Levi and Milo both looked so young…
Anyway, she had other things to worry about at the moment.
“Is this how you deal with problems around here? By covering them up?” She couldn’t help but ask the question. It had been nagging at her.
Damon sighed and shook his head. “No, there’s usually no need to cover anything up. It’s just too risky to share this news. If anyone else found out about this, there might be widespread panic. That’s the last thing we need right now.”
She pulled on his hand, forcing him to stop. “It’s because of me, isn’t it? If you start telling everyone that someone got mauled in the gardens, they might turn against me, right?”
Damon shook his head as he stood close. “To be honest with you, I don’t know what they would say or do. I just think it’s better not to find out.”
“So, you don’t think everyone else would react like that jerk did? What’s his problem, anyway?”
Damon rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand, sending an instant jolt between her legs. Yep, it looks like any skin-on-skin connection with this guy is going to be orgasmic.
“You don’t need to worry about Elroy. I can take care of him,” he said. “Even if I think that you did a pretty good job of putting him in his place.” His smile widened.
“Why doesn’t he like me?”
Damon looked into her eyes. “It’s nothing personal. He just doesn’t like change, feels threatened by it. You don’t need to worry about him.”
When Damon cupped his other hand around her cheek, she gasped. “Whoa.”
She closed her eyes for a second, letting the crazy sensations filter through her body-afraid she would climax again. “You sure know how to touch a girl.”
He laughed, and his breath played over her face. “Look at me, Alex.”
When she opened her eyes, his lips were mere centimeters from hers.
“Are you going to make me feel this way every time you touch me?” If it meant he had the power to wash away all the horrible things she would see during her life, then she welcomed it. It could get in the way when she needed to keep her wits about her and concentrate, though.
“It looks that way,” he said. “Is it a good thing or a bad thing?”
She couldn’t help but chuckle. “It’s definitely a good thing for me, though I don’t know how appropriate it’s going to be if you make me come every time you rub your fingers over my skin.”
“Oh, of course,” he said, teasing. “I see how that could make things a little awkward for everyone else.”
Alex sighed. It makes things awkward for me, too. She’d never experienced anything like this before. “So, maybe we need to set some ground rules. How about you hold my hand, but don’t go out of your way to make me feel like I’m about to become a puddle of goo every time you rub my skin?”
He leaned over, covered her mouth with his, and kissed her with so much fervor, he stole her breath away. “I agree.”
She stared deep into his emerald eyes, unable to say anything for a few seconds. As weird as it felt to be doing this after what they’d just witnessed, she couldn’t stop herself.
Alex cleared her throat. “Okay, I’m glad we got thatcleared up.” She let the last speck of desire seep out of her system. “You must be a very popular healer around these parts.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Well, if you have this effect on everyoneyou touch-”
“No, actually I don’t.” He shook his head, and the dreadlocks stirred like snakes around his face. “You’re the only one who reacts this way to my touch.”
Alex swallowed. What the hell do I say to that?Why would shebe the only one he could affect in such a sensual and powerful way? He’d seemed to know exactly what he was doing back in the room. Still, the last thing she wanted to do was ask him. He might start talking about the magic he’d mentioned he sensed in her and other similar nonsense.
She chose to change the subject. “So, we’re going to see the girl?” She still felt a little breathless, and her heart was beating a little too fast.
For a second, she almost told him about the way she’d felt his heart and mood echo inside her earlier, but she decided not to confuse everything more than it already was.
“How will you get her to talk?”
“I’ve got ways.”
“Care to share any of those ways with me?”
“I think it might be better if you see it for yourself.”
“Okay, let’s go then.” Alex stepped away from him, turning toward the path ahead of them. “Oh, and by the way. I appreciate you sticking up for me, but like I’ve told you before, I can take care of myself.” She winked at him.
“I appreciate you telling me that,but while you’re here, I’ll continue to protect you when I think you need protection.” He caught up to her and grabbed her hand, as if to force his point.
This guy’s stubborn and almost impossible to reason with. I like him.
Maybe, Damon was just what she needed right now: a challenge. The same thing Ulric used to be before he decided to simplify everything.
Rage surged through Ulric, making his blood boil and skin itch.
His neck twitched. He watched them hold hands and walk away as if they’d been together for years.
Alex had never shown this level of familiarity with him. She never held his hand or kissed him in public. She mostly enjoyed being tucked away inside his personal quarters, away from the prying eyes of the rest of the population. Almost like a secret. Is that how she’d thought of their relationship-as a hidden affair?
Who was this man who dared to touch Alex when she belonged to someone else? Why had he kissed her? More importantly, why did she let him?
No one should be touching Alex, but me. She’s fucking mine!
Yet, he’d witnessed the intimacy between them.
Ulric snarled and felt it rumble deep in his throat. He dropped onto his back legs, digging his claws into the dirt beneath him.
After crossing into this enclosed fortress, he hadn’t been able to avoid the moon’s glow. Even ducking behind a bush or shrub wasn’t enough to conceal its influence and keep the moon’s invisible fingers from caressing the beast out of him.
He used the tip of his tongue to pick a piece of meat from between his teeth. Blood had dried on his snout, but he didn’t care. Killing a man with his own hands and then chewing into him should have horrified the human side of him, but it didn’t.
All Ulric could focus on right now was Alex-how she was slowly slipping away from him, and that another man seemed more important to her than he did.
Had she even thought about him once, since crash landing here? Did she care about what he’d confessed to her back on Anteris?
He stayed in the shadows behind the row of trees, as he made his way back to the area where he’d killed the man and discarded him like a lump of meat after being interrupted. The corpse might be cold, but hunger was once again starting to make Ulric’s stomach tense.
The corpse wasn’t there, though. Just two guys kneeling over the area, scrubbing the concrete path.
He watched their very methodical way of cleaning for a while and found the swooshing noise of their scrubbing brushes and the constant motions lolling him to sleep.
With half-lidded eyes, he watched the two guys get to their feet and stare at each other. For the longest time, they didn’t say a word-just stood facing each other like statues. Until the shorter man took a step forward and closed the distance between them.
What the hell?
Ulric’s eyes widened when the guys started kissing, but he decided he didn’t want to watch them any longer.
Instead, Ulric lowered his body, burrowing himself deep into the underbrush. Enough to feel the fur slowly recede into his pores as the moon’s influence slowly subsided.
Pain tore through him as he tried to catch his breath. Shifting only seemed to hurt when he changed back into a human. It felt as if the moon wanted him to remain a monster by making him realize that becoming a man would hurt him a hell of a lot more.
He hadto change back. It was important to get through to Alex before someone else romanced her away from him.
He knew she enjoyed spending time with other men, even long into their trysts. Alex was a free spirit who liked to roam and do her own thing, so sharing her body and enjoying sexual satisfaction came with the territory.
He hadn’t cared about it before. Not until his view of her developed into something else. Not until all Ulric could think about was her returning to his bed, so he could spend more time with her. Not until he started thinking of their time together as making love, rather than just fucking.
What a fool you’ve been! You thought she was starting to feel the same way about you.Why wouldn’t he assume such a thing? After a few years of noncommittal sex, maybe he’d hoped they’d mutually fall in love. Well, he was wrong. If she was in love with him, she wouldn’t be kissing another man and strolling with him like she didn’t have a care in the world.
Ulric had been stupid not to realize the truth when she denied his offer to stay with him. She doesn’t love you, and you’re never going to make her change her mind. The sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be.
He’d overheard the conversation near the dead body he’d had to abandon. He now knew Alex wasn’t accepted by everyone in this foreign place. There was one man who was suspicious of her.
If Ulric couldn’t convince her that what they had together was worth exploring, he was going to have to do something else to ensure she returned to him.
After catching his breath and collecting his thoughts, he stepped out of the thick shrubbery. The moonshine and the hunger struck him simultaneously. It burned deep inside his stomach as his body convulsed from man to beast.
The corpse he’d discarded hadn’t been enough, and now with the rage of seeing Alex with another man, he had to satisfy the need, again.
His stomach ached for more flesh, more blood. He wanted to guzzle until he couldn’t take any more, gorge on meat and blood to fulfill the desperate need.
It was the only thing that would help him ignore the pain she’d caused him, but the two cleaning men were gone.
He paused for a second, positive he could hear the sound of footsteps echoing each other.
The sound of laughter caught his attention.
Unable to wait any longer, he swiftly rose onto his four legs and followed the sound. He walked across one path, and then another, all the while trying to figure out why this garden suddenly seemed familiar.
He didn’t dwell on it. Not when he spotted a couple holding hands and smiling at each other as they walked toward him. Neither had noticed him.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” the woman whispered.
The man smiled. “Don’t worry about it. That just means we’ll have more privacy. We’ve got the whole place to ourselves.”
She giggled, but the humor died when they stopped in front of Ulric.
The man took a step back, defensively pushing the female behind him.
Ulric wasn’t about to let them get away. This time, he would consume as much as he could digest, and while he was at it, he’d leave Alex a little memento. Then, maybe she’d realize he was here and would stop playing with the locals.
When Ulric leapt into the air, the man raised his arms up in front of him, but he still landed with both paws against the man’s chest, causing him to stumble and pin the woman beneath him. The man struggled but wasn’t much of a challenge.
When Ulric sunk his teeth into the side of the man’s neck and devoured his flesh, the male stopped moving.
Ulric drank some of the succulent blood before biting a chunk out of the man.
The woman screamed and squirmed, still caught beneath them.
Don’t worry, honey. You’re next.
The beast couldn’t wait to consume her soft flesh, as well.
The girl appeared to be very young, maybe in her mid-teens. Her blonde hair was almost as pale as her skin. She’d pushed several silky strands behind her ears, and the length hung down to her waist. Her light blue eyes were wide, unfocused, her pupils tiny. She clutched her small hands together in her lap, fingers overlapping each other, and shoulders rigid as she faced Damon. She sat in a chair inside a white room with a curved doorway that opened up into the garden path.
On her way over with Damon, Alex had noticed the gardens weren’t just situated in one part of the enclosed ‘village’, but were actually interwoven all around it. The endless garden, along with the surrounding walls and linked paths, made this place look like a labyrinth. If she didn’t have Damon beside her, she probably would have gotten lost several times already.
Although it was still dark out, a feeling of warmth and comfort filled the room. This wasn’t a cold planet. The warm air wrapped itself around her body, and with no one scrutinizing her, Alex was glad she wasn’t wearing her jacket.
She turned back to the girl, who sat motionless. The constant rise and fall of her chest confirmed she was still breathing. Whatever she’d seen must have been gory enough to make her so shell-shocked, she was practically comatose.
Even in the warm surroundings, Alex shivered.
She’d probably been this girl’s age when she last saw her father. The night before her arranged wedding, Louis managed to change the course Lorraine had set Alex on. She’d never had a proper chance to thank him. I was so confused that night.Trying to figure out how she would survive a life of coercion with a guy she didn’t even know and a mother who would oversee every single decision she made, had felt devastating. So, when her father appeared out of nowhere, she’d half-expected it to be a dream.
The key he’d given her confirmed it had all happened.
I wonder if I looked the same way this girl does now.
No, as shocking as losing her father and never knowing what really happened to him was, this girl had seen someone virtually butcher another person.
“Laurie, it’s all right. You can talk to me about what you saw. I won’t hurt you.” Damon knelt down in front of her. The tone of his voice was soft, and every move he made was slow and precise. “Actually, I’m here to help you. I want to make sure that what you witnessed never happens to anyone, again.”
Laurie didn’t seem to register his words or proximity.
Alex leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms, determined to stay out of the way and curious to see how he would handle this. Damon appeared to wear a lot of hats around here, but he seemed to apply unconventional and bizarre methods of investigation.
She was surprised she’d been allowed to tag along. Then again, as long as Damon kept an eye on her, she supposed no one cared where she went. Besides, there didn’t seem to be any clear or organized law enforcement. She hadn’t bumped into a single police-type figure, so far. Well, except for the annoying man, Elroy, who claimed he was the Priestess’s consort and security.
She couldn’t help but wonder…if they all followed a Priestess and used Damon to read weird shit off dead or comatose bodies, did it mean the structure of this strange society was built on the foundations of mumbo-jumbo? Why live their lives without clear direction? Was the notion of magic a way for Priestess Aleena to keep everyone in line, while skirting any sort of real social structure like other planets and even space stations had?
On Anteris, everyone had a role, even those who were just waltzing in and out as often as she did. Many visitors were known to be the biggest scum of the galaxy and surrounding planets, but Ulric had established a sense of law and order. There was an active police force and a court. Everyone knew that if you pushed the envelope too far, the authorities would eventually catch up with you.
Only the worst bar on Anteris got away with a degree of lawlessness. That was why she’d been able to take out a cyborg without being arrested. Though, she was sure Ulric would have gotten her out of trouble, anyway.
That’s the problem.He bailed her out of everything, fed her the most delectable of dishes, satisfied her every whim whenever she craved it, let her dominate most situations, and covered all of her expenses while she was with him. She’d even stopped paying docking fees for Promise.
The carefree, skirt-chasing scoundrel who’d first entered her life had somehow morphed into someone else. Into a man who asked her to give up her job, so she could stay with him and do nothing.
He even said he loves me.
In a way, by caring about her, Ulric made her feel as if he were maneuvering her into a path she wasn’t ready to take just yet. She enjoyed being free to travel around the galaxy in Promise, taking care of business while sightseeing, and checking out what the male population had to offer.
It was no wonder she didn’t even miss him right now. If anything, she was glad to be away from him, because it meant she could do whatever she wanted with Damon-a mighty fine specimen who was attracted to her and never failed to strike the right chords. No matter what Damon claimed, he was from a planet she would eventually leave. She could have her fun, and then be on her way before she had a chance to develop any real feelings for him, or Damon for her.
She let go of her thoughts to concentrate on Damon and the girl.
“Laurie, speak to me. I can help you.” Damon had placed a hand over the girl’s, but she still wasn’t responding.
“What do you do, now?” Alex asked when he stood up and turned to face her.
He looked tired, frustrated. “I don’t think she’s going to talk, if that’s what you mean.”
“So, that’s it? There’s nothing else you can do?”
“There’s definitely something else I can do. Watch me perform a different type of magic,” he said with a wink.
“Is so-called magic your answer to everything?” she retorted.
He shrugged, a smile curving his lips. He seemed to enjoy her discomfort with the subject a bit too much.
“Have you ever thought that maybe what you’re doing isn’t magic at all, but could be caused by some sort of magnetic field around this planet? Maybe it’s just something in the water, and it makes you thinkyou’re performing magic.” She was clutching at straws, because what he did when he touched her was very real. “Or maybe it’s power from whatever divine deity your Priestess serves.”
He looked confused. “What divine deity?”
Alex pushed off the wall. “Uh, the one Aleena serves. Whatever goddess protects your village. Surely, your Priestessspreads the word of some sort of deity, whether ancient or modern?” Even people who used the goddess Aphrodite as an excuse to screw around all the time would worship, make offerings, and take part in rituals in her honor.
Damon shook his head. “There are no goddesses or gods. We don’t worship any deities. Priestess Aleena is our matriarch-the one who ensures we remain in a safe and crimeless society. It’s all her doing. The power of her leadership keeps our vision clear.”
“Right.” She couldn’t help but smell a rat in his explanation. Or rather, in what sounded like a brainwashing statement the population was probably forced to recite. Alex didn’t suspect him of lying, as much as she suspected Aleena wasn’t as holy and fair as she liked the population to believe.
Alex had never met a woman who claimed to be the Priestess of her own church and dogma. It just wasn’t done. Then again, this planet wasn’t on anyone’s navigational maps, so Aleena could pretty much do whatever she wanted.
Why is Eden off the radar?
If Promisewasn’t damaged, Alex would be able to access her computer and research a little more about Eden and its moon, Paradise. She had a feeling something wasn’t right, but she didn’t particularly want to keep discussing it with Damon at the moment. Not when he was in the middle of an intense investigation and getting nowhere with this kid.
“Is everything okay?” He was kneeling down in front of the girl again, but the question was clearly for Alex.
“Yeah, everything’s fine.”
Damon nodded, turned back to Laurie, and squeezed her hands in his. He lowered his head, closed his eyes, and a flash of color passed from his hands to the girl’s.
“Alex, are you watching?” Damon whispered.
She sighed and observed him taking a deep breath. When he released it, the flash of color was back-amber-and forming an aura around their joined hands.
Alex felt the urge to move forward, but instead, she blinked a few times when the shimmer spread until it surrounded Laurie and Damon entirely. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes, until the light gradually receded back into Damon’s hands, as if it had never been there.
He opened his eyes in a rush and sucked in a breath.
“What the hell just happened?” It had only taken a few minutes, but she could tell he had experienced something.
Damon released Laurie’s hands and stood. “I just saw everything as she did.”
“Well, what did she see?” As unlikely as it sounded, she wanted to know what had obviously spooked him so much.
“As we suspected, Laurie walked in on the attack.”
Alex sighed. “So, you know who did it, then?”
He met her eyes, and his darkened. “Not entirely.”
“What do you mean?”
He took a few steps toward her. “Alex, some sort of animal attacked Mony Lin.”
“That’s a good thing, right? It means you were right. No one in Eden is capable of doing what we saw left discarded in the gardens, and that’s a good thing. Isn’t it?” She didn’t understand what the problem was with this scenario. “It was one of your wildlife.”
Damon shook his head. “No, Alex. We don’t have any wildlife withinthe walls. I thought I’d already told you that. Besides, this looked more like some sort of beast, which explains the lust and excitement it felt for the victim’s flesh.”
“What do you mean by a beast?” The wall behind her suddenly felt too solid, as if it was the only thing keeping her up but would soon close in around her.
“Alex, some sort of beast attacked Mony Lin with the intention of tearing him apart and feasting on his flesh,” Damon answered.
He was watching her too closely. She tried not to wince.
“There’s no way you could know all that just by touching someone’s hand.”
A chuckle escaped him. “After everything I’ve already shown you, you still question what I can do? You’re a hard woman to please.”
She wanted to tell him that wasn’t true. After all, he’d given her a lot of pleasure when he’d laid his hand upon her abdomen. One quick glance at the girl stopped her, though.
Now isn’t the time to get us back on that track.
She kept looking into his eyes but didn’t say anything.
“I know what I saw. I felt the residue of the beast’s craving, and watched him kill and tear into a person.” He pushed a few dreadlocks away from his face. “We have some sort of animal loose within our walls, and I have no idea how that’s possible.”
“You said no one could get through.”
“You came through with me.”
“What if something broke through at the same time?” Alex had an eerie feeling crawling through her body.
“No, I would’ve felt it. No one can cross in and out of the walls without me.”
“Really?” That seemed a little odd.
“What about the roaring beast we heard out in the jungle?”
Damon took another step. “I’ve lived here all of my life and have trekked around the entire planet, because Eden isn’t a very big place at all. In all my travels, I’ve never seen or heard a creature that roared.”
“We both heard it, right?”
He nodded, looking thoughtful.
None of this made sense, and as she pondered her own thoughts, something horrible struck her. What if whatever was loose in the gardens had somehow landed with her? She’d been carrying a lot of sealed barrels for Sackor, and she had no idea what was in any of them. After the incident with the worms penetrating her skin, who knew what else was in those barrels? She’d assumed it was liquid, some sort of lager or something, but there were ways to store animals in a similar way, right? After the crash, maybe something got out.
When she’d rushed out of the ship, she hadn’t even bothered to check the cargo area.
“Alex, is everything okay?”
She nodded absently. “So if we both heard the roar, there’s obviously an animal loose on this planet…” A vicious, hungry animal-one that happened to be outside in the jungle at the same time we were and somehow penetrated the walls. She couldn’t bring herself to add the last bit out loud. It raised too many questions.
Damon nodded. “It still doesn’t explain what it is.”
“What did this thing look like, anyway?”
“It was shaggy and wild, but I didn’t get a proper look.”
“Was it big?”
“The same size as a man. Why?”
She swallowed the lump in her throat, and released a quick breath. Surely something as big as a man couldn’t fit inside a barrel, could it?
Levi rushed into the room, shouting, “Damon, Damon!”
Alex jumped. His sudden appearance threw her line of thought out of whack.
“What’s wrong, Levi?”
The teenager stopped in front of him, bent over to take a few breaths, and said, “There’s been another attack!”
“Where?” Damon’s eyes darkened. “Wait a minute. Where’s Milo? He wasn’t attacked, was he?”
“No, he went to alert the Priestess.”
“Of course,” Damon said with a quick nod.
Levi was still trying to catch his breath, but he was now able to stand upright. “We were heading home after cleaning up and stumbled on a bunch of limbs, as well as some clothes.” Levi’s gaze strayed to the floor in front of him. “I think it was a man and a woman.”
“Damn it! No one was supposed to be in the area.” Damon pushed his hair back and away from his face. He looked angry and anxious. “You need to show me where it happened.”
Levi nodded. “Damon, I need to tell you something else, first…”
“What? There’s more?”
The teenager looked at Alex for just a moment, before holding up his closed hand in front of him. “We found something near the dead bodies.”
Damon leaned over. “What is it?”
“It’s a key,” Levi answered, opening his hand.
The first thing Alex noticed was the glint of bronze. Then, she made out the familiar curves and swirls on the bow of the antique key, before noticing the leather cord it dangled from.
The familiar choker was now bloodied.
Alex instinctively reached for her neck, even though she knew her lucky charm wasn’t there. It’s in Levi’s hand. What the hell is he doing with it?
Damon grabbed a hold of the leather cord and lifted it, until the key dangled between his fingers. “Where exactly did you find this?” His brow furrowed with concentration, as if he were trying to read it like he’d done with Laurie.
“It was lying on top of the discarded clothes.”
She knew what he’d say next-what Levi had obviously already noticed. It explained why he was acting a little stranger than usual around her. Damon would see the inscription on the back of the bow. The words her father had carved into the back: For you, Alex.
Sure enough, only a few seconds later, Damon turned to look at her. His gaze wasn’t accusatory. He just seemed to want an explanation, anything to clarify why a key bearing her name was found beside mutilated bodies.
She released a heavy breath, but it made her lungs feel tight. It felt as if an invisible pressure was pressing against her chest. Every inhale felt like a struggle as she tried frantically to think about how to explain her way out of this, and how she could voice it.
How could she tell Damon that none of this was possible, because the last time she’d worn the choker was on Anteris, seconds before stripping her clothes off and heading for the shower? That the only time she ever took the necklace off was when she showered with her lover, Ulric, and that she’d forgotten the choker he now held on Ulric’s bedside table.
Such an answer would only reveal personal details about her life she wasn’t ready to share. It would only confuse herfurther, because how could her lucky charm wind up at the scene of a crime on this planet if she hadn’t been wearing it when she’d left the space station? Unless…
“Do you recognize this, Alex?” Damon finally asked. His voice sounded a little tinny, too far away.
She nodded, hoping this was the only question he wanted to ask her right now. Alex felt a sense of claustrophobia engulf her-something that only struck her when she felt emotionally smothered.
Someone who spent so much time inside a ship, space stations, and spaceports, didn’t physically feel constricted by enclosed areas. Yet, emotion could affect her this way.
“Yeah, it’s mine…I lost it…” Her lips were dry, so she licked them. It wasn’t enough. She needed a drink, maybe some of that water making Damon delusional enough to think he could use magic.
She pressed the back of her head against the wall, realizing she was losing her grip. Her legs weakened, and she slid to the floor, landing on her butt. Everything about her felt heavy, lethargic.
Alex squeezed her eyes shut for a second, hoping she’d imagined all of this.
When she reopened them, Damon was still holding the familiar leather cord with the original key to Promiseswinging from it.
Damon crouched in front of her. “Alex, are you okay? What’s wrong with you?”
She felt as if she were suffocating but managed a nod. “I need some air.”
“Okay. Come on.” He helped her to her feet.
For once, she appreciated having someone else to lean on, someone to support her when nothing in her world made any sense.
Although, she wasn’t sure how Damon would react when he found out the truth. As well as how he’d feel about the possibility of her being responsible for indirectly bringing a beast capable of killing without mercy into his peaceful home.
The coincidence is too big to ignore.
What have I done?More importantly, how did Ulric fit into any of this?
Damon paused in the open doorway. He half-turned to look at Alex one last time before leaving her alone. She’d fallen asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow. He’d stood by the side of the bed and watched her for a while.
Now, she lay on her stomach in the middle of the large bed, the white sheet pulled up to mid-back. Her bare shoulders glowed from the light of dawn, already spilling through the open window adjacent to her. The defined muscles of her shoulders, back, and arms flexed every now and then, as if she were exerting herself even during slumber.
He couldn’t help but wonder about her life before she reached Eden. Why had she crashed her ship here when no one else ever had? Why did she have liquid from Lake Eros onboard her ship? These questions made him realize that although he felt an instant rapport and a good dose of attraction toward Alex, he really didn’t know a thing about her.
That’s not going to stop me from protecting her or from getting to know her.
The connection he felt went deeper than whatever separate lives they’d been living before meeting. He knew she’d literally fallen on him for only one reason. Fate.
So much had happened tonight, and now morning would be upon them very soon. Maybe, he should think about getting some sleep as well.
She’s so beautiful. He couldn’t take his eyes off her curly hair and the way the sheet curved around her ass. It reminded him of how she’d reacted when he’d put a little bit of magic into his palm and pleasured her without really touching her. He hadn’t lied when he’d admitted she was the only person who reacted to his touch. A lot of magnetism flowed between them. No matter how annoyed and frustrated she got every time he mentioned their mutual magic.
He had to let her rest, now. So, he closed the door behind him and squeezed his hand around the bronze key and leather string, trying not to visualize the way her name was scrawled into the metal.
Alex hadn’t said too much about it. She’d looked so freaked out that he hadn’t bothered to push her. Instead, he led her out into the gardens, so she could breathe again. When she insisted she was too tired to face anymore, he accompanied her back to her room.
He’d felt a lot more on the object than a simple inscription. There was some deep, protective magic woven into this strange, bronze key. Not only could he read residue from Alex on it, but also another source. Someone with a much stronger ability had affected the object. He couldn’t help but wonder who’d given her the key in the first place. He might not have pushed her before, because of the obvious shock she’d suffered after seeing it, but he’d need to get some answers from her soon enough.
If she kept too many secrets from him, how was he going to protect her properly when others started to ask probing questions? He might know that a token of hers being left at the scene of the crime didn’t necessarily mean she’d done it, but others might use it to their advantage. The fact that Alex had been with him almost every moment since she’d crash landed, and when he was absent, she’d been accompanied by Aleena and her entourage, wouldn’t make any difference to Elroy.
“Will she be okay?” Levi asked, approaching from the other side of the darkened corridor, interrupting his thoughts.
Damon shrugged as he turned around. “I’m not sure.”
“What happened to her?”
“She didn’t go into specifics.” Damon tucked the key into his pocket and stared at the young man who still looked frazzled. “I’m sorry that we didn’t get a chance to go check out the area, but I will soon.”
“It’s okay, I understand. Though, I don’t think Elroy will be as forgiving. He wants to see you. The Priestess would like to know what you read off the girl, if anything.”
“I realize that, but I’m not leaving Alex alone in this room. Not when-”
“I thought as much,” a familiar voice called, a second before Elroy stepped out of the shadows of the corridor. “So, I decided to come and see you myself.”
“What do you want now, Elroy?” Damon ran a hand over his face. He really wasn’t in the mood to deal with any of Elroy’s accusations at the moment. He knew what was at stake, was well aware that two more of their people had been mauled and eaten, and he hadn’t gone over to check it out, because Alex had taken precedence over everything. He had agreed to watch her, and that included taking care of her when she didn’t feel well.
Besides, he had no idea of how to tackle the strong and very violent images he’d read from Laurie’s mind. He intended to speak to Aleena about it and seek counsel from her. Not only was the animal out of place, but he wasn’t sure if Laurie would make it out of this unscathed. The young girl hadn’t responded to his healing via the arcane, and he was definitely worried about the consequences.
Elroy glanced at the closed door and scowled. “I need to talk to the space traveler.”
“Her name is Alex. Can’t you call her by her name?”
He stepped past Levi, until he stood directly across from Damon and the door. “Unlike you, I don’t wish to get close and personal with her, so referring to her as a ‘space traveler’ suits me justfine. I’ve already told you to watch yourself around her.” Elroy paused, narrowing his eyes. “You should stop acting like a lost idiot around her and see just how much she threatens our way of life.”
“Did Aleena get close and personal with you?”
At the question, Elroy winced.
Damon suspected Elroy had probably been whipped, literally. Elroy was the only person who ever pushed Aleena far enough to receive such a punishment. Although, rumor had it that whips and chains were a usual part of their bedroom activities.
“Don’t ask what doesn’t concern you.” He peered at him with narrowed eyes. “Unless you’re jealous. Is that it? You wish the Priestess would take notice of you?”
Damon almost gagged. He’d only ever seen Aleena as a mother figure, not as a possible sexual partner. Sure, she’d offered herself up many times, but how could he take a woman to bed who symbolized what a mother was supposed to be? He was an orphan, but she’d become his surrogate parent. Sleeping with her was out of the question, even if she desperately wanted to have his offspring.
Aleena was obsessed with his magical ability and wanted him to procreate, so there could be more like him within their society, since he was the only one. She didn’t even care if it was with other females, as long as he produced babies with them. He always refused, though. Having sex wasn’t the problem. He enjoyed that part, and it was enough for now. He just hadn’t felt the need to produce a child with any of the women in Eden, Aleena included.
“That’s really sick. You knowhow I see our Priestess,” Damon finally said. “Now, just tell me whatever the hell you’ve come here to say.”
“What I’d like to do is arrest the intruder.”
“On what grounds?”
Elroy snorted. “Isn’t it enough that a token of hers was found near the dead couple Milo showed me?”
“Do you have it with you?”
“No. Idon’t, but I’m sure youknow exactly where it is.” Elroy looked at Levi for a second, before returning his cold stare to Damon. He held out his palm. “Give it to me.”
Damon crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t make this hard on yourself, Damon,” he spat.
“Even if I did know where this mysterious token was, I sure as hell wouldn’t hand it over to you, so you can use it to pin false accusations on Alex.”
Elroy closed the distance between them. He might be a skinny runt compared to Damon, but they stood at the same height. So, when he overstepped his personal boundaries, Damon didn’t move an inch. Instead, he looked him in the eye and couldn’t help but smirk and feel smug, because the key was burning a hole in his pocket.
“Listen to me, Damon,” he hissed, some spittle hitting him in the shoulder. “I know you’re prepared to do whatever it takes to protect her, but I will get my hands on the bloody necklace. I’ll prove this traveler cannot be trusted, and I’ll make sure everyone knows about it. Do you hear me?”
His smile broadened. “I hope that wasn’t a threat, because you know what I can do to you with my ability.”
“Your witchcraft doesn’t scare or impress me. Do you understand?”
“I don’t care what does. I just need you to get the hell out of here and go do your job. Put extra security in the gardens, and ensure no one else sneaks past the barriers we placed. Isn’t that what you should’ve done in the first place to ensure it didn’t happen, again?” Damon paused for a second. “If anyone should be blamed for what happened, it should be you. Your preoccupation with Alex is clouding your common sense.”
Elroy snickered. “That’s rich. Don’t you try to spin this in a way that makes her look like an innocent bystander. Have you asked yourself why something belonging to her was there in the first place? Are you really willing to risk more of your own people because of some strange woman? What could the whore offer you that the many women we have here can’t?”
He didn’t even think about it before striking Elroy with his fist. This time, he didn’t put any magical force behind it, just delivered a hard whack to his jaw.
Elroy wiped the side of his mouth before blood dribbled from it. “Don’t you think it’s a little odd that some sort of wild animal is suddenly within our walls? We’ve never had such a problem before, not until she got here.”
“Don’t you get it? She’s been accompanied by someone every single moment she’s been here. She didn’t do it.”
“Maybe not directly, but who knows where she comes from, or who else travelled with her? Have you never heard of people who shift from human to animal?”
As ridiculous as the notion sounded, Damon had to give the suggestion a little credibility. Even if he hadn’t considered Alex would be travelling with someone. She’d seemed to be alone and hadn’t mentioned any crew or passengers.
“Did you search her ship?”
Damon shook his head.
“You’re going to be sorry you hit me, again.” Elroy turned around but looked over his shoulder to add, “Don’t think for a moment that this is over. When I’m done with her, you’re both going to wish she’d died when her ship crashed.”
Damon made another move toward him, but Levi stepped up and grabbed a hold of his forearm.
“Just let him go.”
Elroy grinned and continued on his way, once again laying out his plan and intentions without waiting or needing a response.
“Don’t let him wind you up,” Levi said, releasing his flimsy grip. “There’s no way a human could be responsible for such barbaric acts.”
Damon nodded, recalling the shaggy animal he’d seen in Laurie’s memories.
“ Have you never heard of people who shift from human to animal?” Elroy had said, but what had prompted him to suggest something so strange? Was it the condition of the corpses, or did he know more than he led on?
If Damon went to the library, he might be able to find something. He doubted Elroy would return to hound Alex again, so if he left now, he’d be able to borrow a book or two and bring them back to read while he watched Alex’s door.
I hate that he’s made me look at this from a different angle, but I’m determined to find out the truth.He still refused to believe Alex was somehow involved, but Elroy’s shifter suggestion could have some credence.
“You’re absolutely right, Levi,” Damon said. “Listen, I need to pop into the library for a while. Can you stay to watch her door?”
“I need you to stay right here the wholetime. Don’t doze or wander off, in case Elroy decides to return.”
Levi nodded. “I’ll stay until you get back. You can count on me.”
“Good, I know I can.” He sighed. “I won’t be long. Levi, how does Elroy know about the necklace?”
He lowered his head. “Milo probably told him. He ispart of security and answers directly to Elroy. There’s no way he could lie to him about what we found. Not like I could.”
Even if Levi was again absolutely correct, he couldn’t help but wonder…if Elroy hadn’t known about the necklace, the idiot probably wouldn’t have reason to push so much. His dislike of Alex must be even more intense than Damon first suspected.
“Okay, I’ll be back soon.”
Damon headed toward the staircase and took the stairs two at a time. He knew a shortcut to just about everywhere. Getting to the library would take minutes.
He hoped researching the beast now lurking in the shadows of their planet would somehow clear Alex of any blame.
He dug his hand into his pocket, rubbing his fingertips along the back of the key, over the inscription of her name.
It doesn’t look like I’ll be getting any rest just yet.
Warm hands shook her shoulders. “Alex, honey. Wake up.”
Alex rolled over onto her other side, sitting up in the process. Disoriented, she tried to remember when she’d fallen asleep. Being so worried about the next day, she hadn’t realized she’d actually dozed off. “Wha-what happened?”
She hoped it wasn’t time yet. At age fifteen, Alex wasn’t ready to face the horrible future her mother had secured for her.
“I’m so sorry to wake you, but I really need to speak to you. We don’t have much time.”
Alex rubbed her eyes. Her heart sped up as the haze of sleep slid from her mind. “Daddy, is that you?”
He lifted a finger to his lips. “Yes, honey. It’s me,” he whispered. “Not so loud. We don’t want anyone else to hear.”
She threw her arms around his neck, holding him tightly and biting down on her bottom lip to keep from crying. Was it really him? “I’ve missed you so much. Where have you been?” Maybe she was dreaming.
Louis Wales pulled back, gently holding onto her arms as he encouraged her out of the hug. “Listen, honey. That’s not important at the moment. Like I said, I don’t have long. She’s probably got guards outside your door.” He looked over his shoulder.
“She has, but I told them that if they come inside, I’ll punch them in the mouth.”
He smiled and ruffled her curls. “That’s my brave girl.”
“Daddy, I’m not a little girl, anymore.” On the inside, she was glowing at his words.
“I know, Alex…but you’ll always be my little girl. No matter how old you are.” He looked at her for a moment, his dark eyes focused on her face in a way that saddened her. It made her feel as if he was trying to memorize her face, because he thought he’d never see her again. “You’ve grown a lot since the last time I saw you.”
He was dressed in rags, and his face was smeared with dirt, but she didn’t care. This was the moment she’d been hoping for since she was forcibly dumped on this planet-her father’s return.
Unable to bear the sadness in his eyes, she decided to change the subject. “Besides, I’ve got my blaster tucked under my pillow,” she said, hoping to make him proud.
“Excellent, that’s good to hear. Never have your weapon too far away. You never know who’s going to sneak up on you or try to jeopardize your situation by stealing it because you weren’t careful.”
She nodded, and several long curls tumbled over her shoulders. Alex hated having long hair. When she’d been in space with her father, he’d let her cut it herself, but her mother insisted she let it grow out. She’d been here under a year, but it had already grown almost halfway down her back.
“Daddy, I miss you. I don’t like it here.” She sucked down the sob trying to tear out of her mouth. “She’s going to make me marry a stranger.”
He fisted the silky sheets into his right hand, as if he was as enraged as her. “I know what she’s doing, and that’s why I’m here.”
“Are you going to take me away from all of this?”
His features darkened. “Well, yeah-”
“I can’t wait for us to leave this place, together. We make a good team. Don’t you think, Daddy?”
“We make the best team, honey…but I can’t go with you.”
“What do you mean?”
Tears blurred his face.
He let go of the sheets and grabbed her left hand. He opened it and dropped something into her palm, before trying to close her fingers around it. “I want you to have this. Promise is yours, now. She’s hidden in the bushes behind the stables. If you get there before daybreak, you should be able to make a swift getaway, but you have to be quick.”
“What? No, I can’t leave without you.” She’d already known what he’d put in her hand before he’d said a word. The edges rubbed her skin, and the long end stuck out between her fingers, because they weren’t long enough to hold it entirely.
“Alex, honey. Listen to me. I wish I could go with you, but I can’t. Your mother likes to play hardball. You know I didn’t want to leave you with her in the first place, but she made sure I got caught in a position that would ensure you were taken from me. She’s just too politically and financially powerful, compared to me. It tore my heart out, but it was no contest.” He paused, once again looking over his shoulder. “I’ve managed to fill the tank, left enough credits onboard, and even sufficient food to last you months. You need to get to Promise and get the hell off this planet, before she manages to ruin your life like she has mine.”
Tears slid down her cheeks. “Daddy, I can’t do this on my own. I need you.”
“You and I both know that you’re strong enough to make it on your own. I’ve got faith in you. I’ll find you one day. I promise.”
Somehow, she managed a nod and suddenly realized her father had been grooming her for this situation for years. Had he known Lorraine would try something this ruthless one day? He probably had. I have to be strong for him.
She wiped away the tears with her other hand, cleared her throat, and nodded. “Okay, Daddy. I can do it.”
“Good.” He squeezed her hand. “Now, I have to go. I have to make sure that I provide enough of a distraction for you.”
“What about clearance? How am I supposed to get off the planet without it?” Her mother had told her enough times that she’d never get away without detection. Everyone who left and entered Wells needed clearance beforehand.
“Don’t worry. You just need to get to the ship and off this planet by daybreak, and everything else will work out. Okay?” His eyes were shiny, as if he wanted to cry as well, but he was determined to stay strong.
Alex nodded again, hearing commotion outside her door.
“That’s my cue to leave, honey.” Louis stood up. He leaned over, gave her one last hug, and kissed the top of her head, before he stepped away and headed for the window. “I’ve got faith in you, Alex. I know you can do this. Don’t let your mother win. Don’t let her ruin your life and force you on a path you’re not ready to take.”
“I won’t let you down, Daddy.”
“I know you won’t.” He stepped over the windowsill, and she wondered how he was going to get down from the sixth story. “Honey…”
“I left a photo on the dash for you.”
Her heart fell. Not exactly what she’d expected him to say.
“Also, keep the key with you no matter what. It’ll protect you.” With that final, cryptic comment, he was gone.
Guards charged in through the door, and Alex jumped, but she sneaked her hands under the sheets before any of them noticed. She stuck the key under her thigh and held the sheet in front of her body, as if she were trying to be modest, instead of hiding her ticket out of this hellhole.
“What’s going on? Who said you could charge into my room?”
“I’m sorry, Miss, but where is he?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean. Didn’t I tell you that I’d punch you if you came in here without my permission?”
One of the guards watched her while the other stepped in front of the window and leaned out.
“Can you see anyone?”
“No, there’s no one out there,” one guard said to the other.
The guard watching her lowered his head. “Sorry to interrupt your sleep on such an important night. We just feared for your safety.”
“You two better get out now, before I blast you away.”
They both snickered on their way out. If she was them, she’d be more concerned about how stupid they looked in their uniforms. Who wore feathers on their helmets and thought they looked threatening, anyway? Funny how they didn’t take her seriously, but she wouldn’t hesitate to bust their kneecaps.
Once they were both out of her room, she pulled the key out from under her thigh. She held it in her left palm. It felt warm and tickled her skin. It still smelled faintly of her dad, and oil. She ran her fingertips over the intricate swirls around the bow of the skeleton key and turned it over. There was the inscription her father had made when she’d turned ten-when he told her Promise would one day be hers.
I guess today’s the day. She sighed, traced her fingertip down the barrel, and into the rectangular tooth.
She couldn’t help but smile as it buzzed inside her hand. This old key was the only way to get into her father’s ship, Promise . As well as the only way to get it started. She always teased him about it being old-fashioned and rusty, but he insisted it was perfect. He also said it was rustic, not rusty.
Alex untied the knot on the end of the leather cord, wrapped it around her neck, and retied it. The key hung down to her stomach, so she stuck it under her shirt.
Daddy, I promise. I’ll never take this off.
She jumped off the bed, grabbed a bag from under it, and started filling it as quickly and quietly as she could manage.
Ulric leaned into his back legs and leaped onto the window sill. He landed with a huff before scrambling inside. The last thing he wanted now was for someone to spot him. He’d been watching this room for a while, and he knew Alex was finally alone.
As soon as he stepped into the room, his animalistic features receded into his pores, and he became a man. With the last caress of the moon against his spine, he was able to suck in a deep breath of the early morning air and welcome the man he’d always believed himself to be.
He stumbled, doubling over as the pain of becoming himself rushed through him. It took a moment for it to subside, before he could straighten.
None of what had happened to him since reaching this planet made any sense, but he didn’t see what he could do to change it. He was at the mercy of the bright orb in the sky. With a new day dawning, maybe he’d be able to use the time to show Alex he was here. If she knew he’d hidden in her ship, because he couldn’t stand to be away from her, surely she’d change her mind about everything. She would realize how much he cared about her and would admit she felt the same way about him. They could get out of this strange place with concrete walls, buildings, and endless garden paths, and run to Promise. Then, get the hell off this planet and head back to Anteris.
This planet-or at least its moon-was turning him into a crazed animal.
His stomach was finally sated, but the rage still buzzed beneath his skin.
He stepped farther into the room, enough to be engulfed by shadows.
Alex’s familiar scent teased his nose. Even before he laid eyes on her, he licked his lips. Now that I’ve found her, a new hunger’s rising.
There she was, sprawled out on her back. A flimsy sheet covered the lower half of her body but her top had risen over her abdomen. His gaze shifted higher, focusing on the dark outline of her nipples against the fabric. His gut clenched with desire. His erection twitched, ready for action.
What would she do if I climbed into bed beside her and started to make love to her? Would she shun me away, ask me what I’m doing here, or just go along for the ride?
He was about to find out when something caught the corner of his eye. Alex’s bag sat on an armchair, and tucked into the pocket was a paper photo. He’d never seen it before. Curious, he headed for it. When he lifted and tilted it toward the light, he saw a much younger version of Alex, and a man with close-cropped, black hair had an arm wrapped around her. They were both caught in mid-laugh, as if one of them had said something funny to the other, and they both couldn’t help but laugh out loud. They looked so happy.
Ulric couldn’t help but envy a man who could make her this happy. The sparkle in her eyes made them widen with innocence. He couldn’t help but wonder who this man with dark skin was.
Alex didn’t share her innermost secrets with Ulric. She just gave him reports of where she’d ventured during her last courier delivery or what she’d delivered. She only shared generic things she could talk to any random stranger about, instead of sharing personal details with the man who loved her.
He tucked the photo back where he’d found it and tiptoed over to the side of the bed. For several minutes, he just watched her sleep. Watched as she rubbed the tip of her nose and snored, before licking her lips.
What was she dreaming about? At least she was sleeping alone, and not with the man who seemed to shadow her every move on this planet. As soon as Ulric saw the prick leave the building, he was tempted to follow him, so he could tear him to pieces. Instead, he decided the lure of Alex trumped everything else. Though, he’d had to wait several minutes while someone else rummaged around inside her room. As soon as whoever it was left, Ulric hadn’t been able to wait a moment longer.
“Alex,” he whispered, exhaling. Maybe, he hoped, his voice would wake her, awaken a realization within her. Or maybe he just liked to say her name.
Ulric noticed her key necklace wasn’t around her neck. When he inspected the bedside table, all he found was her blaster holster. Where the hell is it?He’d seen the two male lovers find Ulric’s latest mess, as well as Alex’s lucky charm. Then, each had run in a different direction so quickly, he didn’t know which one had taken it.
Yet, it wasn’t in this room. She was supposed to see it and put the pieces together. Remember where she’d left it and work out the only way it could’ve reached this planet. She needs to know I’m here!
He licked his lips and still tasted blood in his mouth. His torso was stained with it, too. The blood, dirt, and leaves in his hair probably made him look like a feral native, but none of it mattered right now. He wanted to be close to her so badly, he didn’t give a shit about how he looked.
I’m going to surprise her. After all, she’s never denied me pleasure before.
Ulric pressed a knee onto the bed, and then another, recalling how she’d done something similar the last time she was in his quarters. How he wished she had just accepted his offer. He’d rather be with her-naked in bed, eating and drinking to their heart’s content-than lost in a foreign place. Separated, while he feasted on the flesh of humans, and she got to know another man.
It just didn’t seem fair.
When he got close enough, he leaned over and ran the back of his fingers over her cheek. She squirmed and moved her face to the other side.
“Alex,” he whispered near her lips. “Are you awake?” He knew she wasn’t. How many times had he roused her from sleep by rubbing his cock along her back or belly?
The thought made him harden. His erection was so hard, it hurt.
He ran his fingertips down the side of her neck and the middle of her chest, before moving them over her left nipple. He circled his fingers over the hard flesh peeking through the fabric of her top.
“Oh, Damon,” she whispered, curving her spine upwards. “Don’t stop.”
Ulric felt as if a dagger had punctured his heart. She’d called him by another man’s name. Did this mean she’d already had sex with him?
“Alex,” he repeated. “It’s me.”
She didn’t wake up. Instead, she licked her lips and pressed her eyes tighter. As if she wasn’t ready to wake up, and instead wanted to remain in what she believed was a dream.
That’s fine with me.Ulric leaned down, wrapping his teeth around her nipple. Even through the flimsy fabric of her top, he was able to feel her puckered skin. His cock was beyond help. If he didn’t penetrate her soon, he was going to burst at the seams.
She groaned but was still not entirely awake.
Ulric let her nipple slip from between his teeth and lowered the sheet along her body. She was still wearing her underwear, but it wouldn’t stop him. He opened his palm and ran it over the mound between her legs, until she writhed at the soft and slow movements.
He wanted to rip her underwear off and dip his tongue inside her, but how could he? I can’t do this.How could he put his tongue on any part of her when he’d lapped up blood and torn into flesh? It seemed obscene.
“Damon, kiss me,” she whispered.
For all he knew, she could be having a wet dream about this Damon guy. As much as he hated him for being the one Alex now wanted, Ulric couldn’t leave just yet. He turned to face her, rose along her body, and pushed her hair away from her face. When she lifted her body off the mattress and wrapped her arms around his neck, Ulric stiffened but leaned into her when she lay back down.
Alex stuck her tongue into his mouth, kissing him the way she always did in the bedroom. With so much desire, she never managed to disappoint. She pulled back, breathing into his mouth, one hand now wrapped tightly around his erection and already tugging him.
“Oh,” she panted. “Touch me with your magic.”
He pressed his palm against her chest, forgetting about all the thoughts keeping him from kissing her in the first place.
She kissed him again, rubbing him harder. “Gee, what have you been eating, Damon?”
“It’s not Damon.” He felt so close to coming already, he wished he’d kept silent and not interrupted her flow.
Her eyes snapped open, and she dropped her hand.
For a moment, they stared at each other. Almost as if things were rolling around inside her head, until everything made some sort of sense.
“ Ulric?What the hell are you doing here?” She looked around the room. “You can’t be in Eden.”
Eden? So that’s where they were. He’d never heard of it, yet it sounded so familiar. Why?
For a second, Ulric wondered if it was better to just let her believe this was all a dream and take advantage of the fact, but what good would that do? She obviously didn’t want him, anymore. He’d heard the disappointment in her voice.
She’d found someone else to amuse her in bed, and she’d forgotten all about him.
“I’m here because of you.”
He growled into her mouth. “You should’ve listened to me back on Anteris. Why didn’t you stay with me? I hadto be with you. Don’t you understand how much I want you?”
“I don’t know what you mean!”
“Have you already forgotten what happened on Anteris? What I said to you?”
Alex sat up so fast, she head-butted him. “Dammit!”
Ulric recoiled. He jumped off the side of the bed before he did something he would regret. He didn’t want to hurt her, but with the instability this place had on him, maybe he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.
She wiped her mouth, then rubbed her forehead. “What the hell is that disgusting taste in your mouth?”
“Alex.” He backed away from her. Every new reaction, every new word out of her mouth, wounded him a little bit more. It made him realize she didn’t want him in her life. That’s probably why she’d left his room in such a hurry after his admission of love. Why hadn’t he been able to see it, then?
Maybe because you’re a fucking idiot!
Her brown eyes glistened, as if something had suddenly dawned on her. “No way. It can’t be. Ulric, tell me it wasn’t you!”
“What wasn’t me?” he whispered, now standing very close to the window.
“Tell me you didn’t kill those people.” She stared at him with wide, horror-filled eyes. “Oh, shit. You left my key there, didn’t you?”
He didn’t reply.
“I forgot it in your room, but you managed to…I don’t understand any of this. Did you want these people to blame me for the murders?”
“No, I would never do that to you!”
“Then, what do you want from me, Ulric?”
“I just want your love. That’s all.” I sound like a pathetic moron.He heard shuffling outside the door, as if someone was approaching.
Ulric took another step back and realized the moon hadn’t completely faded yet, probably determined to touch him one last time.
Without taking his eyes off the woman who was slowly tearing him up inside, and unable to do anything to stop the effects of the satellite, fur rushed out of his pores and covered his entire body.
Within seconds, he’d become a monster in front of her.
“What the hell?”
He couldn’t stand the terror and disgust in her eyes. He needed to get away. As he turned and leaped out the window, he heard Alex yell one last thing: “No!”
“Alex, what’s going on?” Damon asked, charging into the room.
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the open window.
Ulric had just been inside this room. She’d kissed him, touched him, even spoke to him. Then, he’d turned into… something . The man she’d known for several years now had changed into some sort of furry beast before jumping out the window.
What the hell is going on?Now, she had more questions than answers. Since the moment she’d crashed into this planet, everything had been shrouded with confusion, and now she had to add Ulric to the mix. I can’t believe he’s here! How is that even possible?
She licked her lips and regretted it instantly. The horrid taste of blood and gore made her gag. Nausea rolled around inside her stomach, making her queasy.
Ignoring Damon’s concerned face, she jumped out of bed and ran into the adjoining bathroom. She threw up in the toilet, letting all the confusion and sickness seep out of her at the same time.
As screwed up as everything was, she needed to put it into some sort of order. She had to make real sense out of all the pieces, which started to fit together the moment she found Ulric naked on the bed with her.
When she was sure there was nothing left to throw up, she straightened and flushed. Then, she headed for the sink to clean her hands, as well as rinsed her mouth out several times. Luckily, she’d dumped her toiletries bag in here earlier, so she quickly brushed her teeth before rinsing with mouthwash.
She found it strange that the locals could so casually refer to Eden as a village, giving the impression of a rural place, yet their indoor plumbing was as sophisticated as it was in cities. This place was full of contradictions.
How the hell did Ulric get to this damn planet?There was only one way it could have happened, and she didn’t like it one bit.
She hit the edge of the sink with an open palm. “Shit!”
“Alex, are you okay in there?”
The bathroom door was still open, but she appreciated Damon staying outside. She wasn’t ready for him just yet. Not having to actually see Damon at the moment made it a little easier to deal with this. Only a little.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” She unwrapped the moist bandage from around her hand and flinched. She’d forgotten to take it off before cleaning her hands. The skin looked tender and red. It hadn’t scabbed over yet, but it looked bruised. She couldn’t remember if it actually looked worse than when Damon had cleaned it out.
“Are you sure?”
“What made you scream before?”
“I had a bad dream,” she lied. Her dream hadn’t been bad at all. She’d recalled the night her father helped her change her life for the better. It’s what happened after the dream, when she’d slid into a dreamless sleep-and then woke up to find a man who never left Anteris-that was driving her insane. She’d been so convinced Damon had sneaked into her room to surprise her, and instead had found Ulric.
She couldn’t keep her hands from shaking. Did I really see him turn into some sort of animal?
Alex shook her head. As ridiculous as it sounded, she was positive she had. One second, he was backing away from her, and the next he literally changed right before her eyes. Of course, realizing her choker was found at the scene of a vicious crime now made total sense, but how could she tell Damon any of this without rousing suspicion?
She hadn’t invited Ulric to come along for a ride on Promise, and he sure as hell hadn’t been hiding in one of Sackor’s barrels. Yet, she’d inadvertently caused those violent deaths. Ulric had somehow stowed away on her ship, and she hadn’t even detected him.
Ulric is turning into a monster and killing people because of me.
“Are you okay, now?” Damon asked.
“Yeah, I just need to take a quick shower. That’s all.” She doubted a shower would cleanse away all the grime she felt internally, but she needed to wash Ulric’s touch off her skin.
How could she be so disgusted by a man whom she’d craved for so long?
Alex sighed. That wasn’t important right now. She was determined to have a nice, warm shower and take the time she needed to sort through a few things.
Then, she’d do the only thing that would totally erase the chills from her body-seduce Damon.
* * * *
Damon didn’t chase Alex into the bathroom. He could take a hint and knew she wanted to be alone right now. Whatever dream she’d woken up from had obviously affected her so much that she needed to be totally alone.
When the water started up, he headed for the armchair with his armload of hardback books. He paused when he noticed Alex’s bag sitting on the seat. He could clearly see a picture tucked into the mesh pocket at the front but decided not to touch it. He didn’t want to disturb her things, didn’t want to pry. She might be keeping some things from him, but he refused to find them out by spying on her. Not like Elroy was determined to do.
As Damon headed for the bed, with the light of day now filtering in through the large window behind him, he noticed a patch of dirt and leaves on the tiled floor. When he leaned over, it became obvious that they were actually half-made footprints leading to the bed.
Damon placed the four books he hoped to find answers from at the foot of the bed and inspected the sheets. There, he found several dark patches as well. “Levi!”
He ran into the room. “Yes, Damon?”
“Did anyone come into this room while I was gone?”
He looked away, shaking his head. “No, I stood by the door the whole time, and no one approached.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay, thanks. You can go home. I’ll stay here, now.”
“What happened to her this time?” Levi asked.
Without saying anything else, Levi lowered his head and stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him. Damon had no idea what was going on, but he was sure someone hadcome into this room. He trusted Levi when he claimed he hadn’t seen or heard anything, but that didn’t change the facts. Judging by Alex’s reaction, he was sure something strange hadhappened. She didn’t strike him as the kind of woman who scared easily or ran away from her problems. Yet, he could feel her tension from here.
What happened to her?
He decided it was best to grab his books and read about men who turned into animals. After all, even if the only explanations he found were old folktales and myths, at least it would give him somewhere to start. From his experience, a lot of myths were more truth than story.
Damon glanced at the thin book right on the bottom: Priestess amp; Goddess.
He hadn’t intended to grab this one, but what Alex had pointed out about Aleena bothered him for some reason. Why hadn’t he ever thought to question who their Priestess worshipped, if anyone? Who were the population of Eden secretly devoted to, through her? Maybe, he never bothered to ask, because everything was so efficiently run. The problems in Eden were minimal. The population of 700 all lived in harmony and managed to produce one generation of offspring after another. This was as close to utopia as anyone could get, so whywould he dispute it?
It wasn’t until Alex appeared in his life that he started to challenge anything around him. This society was all he’d known. His whole life’s memories were made on this beautiful part of the planet, led by the strong and caring Priestess Aleena.
He’d been the only one to roam outside the walls and discover every inch of the planet, returning to report his findings to the Priestess. Sometimes, he took others with him, and they didn’t come back because of the birds or the lake, but no one ever went out without him. They couldn’t.
Every new experience had helped carve him from a curious boy into a man hungry to learn more and see new things. He’d always secretly wanted to learn why he was different.
Every time he looked in the mirror, he wondered why he wasn’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed like everyone else. Still, it hadn’t been enough to make him question anything.
Not until Alex came along and he’d felt a small well of magic within her. He’d been positive he was just an anomaly. He simply believed he looked physically different, because the gift of magic and his constant use of the arcane had somehow altered him. An idea he’d discussed many times with Aleena, and she’d reinforced.
Yet, Alex wasn’t blonde, and even though her skin was darker than the others on this planet, it still wasn’t as dark as his.
Somehow, I think Alex holds the key to my true origins.
After the library, he’d passed by the latest crime scene and had been saddened and repelled by the violent emotions he’d sensed. Whoever was terrorizing the population wanted to get a message across, and the fact that something belonging to Alex had been dumped next to what little was left of the bodies had to be a clue. After all, hadn’t he also found a wound on her hand he couldn’t heal? He’d felt the dark energy radiating off it, as if something were embedded beneath her skin and was sending signals out to someone.
Maybe everything Alex remained tight-lipped about was what they needed to investigate in order to find their killer. He’d do this his way, though, because he still believed her to be innocent. Someone was using her as a pawn in a much larger game. He was sure of it.
Damon rolled his shoulders.
As much as he knew he needed sleep, he couldn’t bring himself to rest right now. So, he closed his eyes and spent a few minutes drawing strength from the arcane, just enough to give him the stamina he needed to survive another sleepless day. It flowed from the warm air around him, creeping in through his fingertips and extending until he felt it stir the energy his body craved deep within him.
He opened his eyes, grabbed his books from the bed, and dropped them onto the storage rectangle pressed against the end of the bed. He decided to start his research with the obvious choice: Werewolves and the Moon.
Alex felt as clean as she was going to get.
She hadn’t come to any conclusions about a single thing, except that she now knew exactly who was stalking the residents of this bizarre ‘village’. Still, she had no intention of speaking about it with anyone. Not even Damon. If any of this got out, who knew what Elroy would try to do to her? He might lock her up and throw away the key.
There was only one thing to do. She had to find a way off this rock. If it meant trying to fix the ship herself-as improbable as that was-then, she was prepared to at least try.
In the meantime, there was a very attractive man waiting in the room.
With so many things throwing her off track and making her feel as if she’d lost total control of her life, the only thing that would help keep her sane would be to finish what they’d started. All the flirting, teasing, and innuendo would end. Right now.
She walked into the room completely naked and gave her hips an extra sway, loving the way the ends of her wet, curly hair touched the tops of her shoulders. Beads of water dripped from the ends and down her back.
“Is everything okay?” As soon as Damon looked up, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. The look in his eyes confirmed she’d already succeeded in her seduction.
“I feel a lot better, now, thanks. Is that what you’re asking?” She released a quick breath. She’d decided to let every thought go for now, so she could concentrate on the one thing always guaranteed to make her forget all of her troubles. For a while, all she wanted to do was feel Damon’s body next to hers.
“I can see that.” He put his book aside, as his green gaze swept over her-from head to toe, and then back up.
She put her hands on her hips. “What’re you reading?”
“It’s not important.” He stood up. “What’s important is that you’re okay.”
She couldn’t help but smile as she slowly made her way toward him, and he didn’t move-remained as still as a statue. Standing on her tiptoes, she kissed his cheek. Such an innocent gesture was ruined when one of her nipples grazed his bare chest. Still, she made a move to step back.
Damon wrapped his arms around her waist to keep her in place. “Where do you think you’regoing?” His voice was husky, his breath warm and sweet on her face.
“Nowhere, I hope.” At least for now.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered near her ear.
Her body trembled at the sound of his voice, and her nipples hardened. Her eyes closed involuntarily as she breathed in the sweet scent of his breath. He smelled like summer fruits, and suddenly her stomach churned. She was so hungry, famished. Right now, the hunger burning between her legs and every inch of her bare skin superseded everything else. She couldn’t let this moment slip away.
Damon lifted a hand to her chin and slowly tipped her head back. He leaned forward to press his lips against hers. “You’re also delicious.”
Alex opened her mouth to his kiss. There was nothing innocent flowing between them. She needed this man to smooth away everything that was falling apart around her.
She melted against his chest and wrapped her arms around his neck. He kept one hand on her chin and the other on her waist, but she wished he would use his magical touch on her. Desire welled up inside her, and she couldn’t wait to get him in bed.
This is the only way. I need to completely purge Ulric from my memory.
Damon stopped kissing her long enough to stare into her eyes. His were so dark, there was no way she could deny their mutual desire. He pushed a hand through her hair, his fingers catching in her curls and forcibly pushing her head back. With her neck exposed, he flicked his tongue over her pulse. Every touch of his full lips excited her further, but when he started blowing on the skin he moistened with his tongue, she could hardly keep from squirming in his embrace.
Alex licked her lips. “Are you sure you don’t make everyone feel this way when you touch them?”
“I’m positive,” he said, running his tongue along her neck. “You’re the only one I can get this reaction from.” He placed one of his hands just below her bellybutton, and the breath caught in her throat. The coils of climax were already stirring, racing beneath her skin, as if his hand was able to draw them out.
Damon’s fingers slid lower, toying with her pubic hair.
“Go on. Don’t hold back,” she whispered against his neck. “Touch me where you’ve wanted to touch me since we met.”
In response, he ran his fingers up and down her lower abdomen, sending an onslaught of sparks along her body. Each flicker penetrated lower, slowly seeping in, until an orgasm caught her by surprise.
Her legs gave out on her as she struggled to catch her breath. The pleasure was so intense, she felt boneless.
Damon lifted her up into his arms, and she spread her legs around his waist. He growled in her ear as he carried her across the room, until she was caught between the wall and his hard body.
“You’re so incredibly sexy. Do you know that?”
She laughed. “I thought we were going to savor this, together.”
“Relax. I’ve got more where thatcame from.”
Alex wiggled against him, stroking him over the fabric of his pants, until she felt his erection. She enjoyed teasing him as he watched her with raw lust burning in his eyes.
He covered her mouth with his, growling into her.
The reaction only made her hotter. Shewas having this effect on him, and it made herburn with longing. Being desired by a man so much that he lost total control always gave her a rush she couldn’t get enough of. Every time they’d been alone, he’d managed to drive her insane with desire and climax, while still displaying a tremendous amount of self-discipline. It felt good to see him letting go.
As his tongue lapped at hers, she ran her hands over the smooth skin of his shoulders, slipping the shirt off his back. She enjoyed the way his muscles twitched under her fingers.
“How are we going to get your pants off?” she asked, pulling on his waistband.
He took a sideways step and lowered her butt against a piece of wooden furniture. “Undo the cord, and you’ll find out.” He separated their bodies only enough to allow her to move.
When she untied the cord, the loose fabric sitting on his hips slid down his legs and reached the floor. He stepped out of his pants and closed the distance between them, again. He wasn’t wearing anything underneath, and the feel of his warm skin against hers made her tremble.
“Oh, my,” she whispered, licking her lips. “Impressive.”
He laughed, and the sheer joy of it made butterflies flutter inside her stomach.
Alex couldn’t take her eyes off his caramel-colored body. The flawless, smoothness of his skin, the defined muscles everywhere she looked, the thin cover of hair starting just below his bellybutton and disappearing underneath their joined pelvises. She was practically sitting just centimeters from his erection, and it made her giddy with anticipation.
Damon pressed his mouth to hers and kissed her long and hard. He sucked on her tongue until she closed her eyes and arched her back. He was all smiles as he pulled away long enough to cover her right breast with his mouth. The action caused her back to press higher along the wall, giving him the perfect angle to suckle her. He kept his green eyes pinned on hers as he licked the nipple with his tongue, his thumb flicking the other one.
She spread her legs a little wider to invite him in that direction, but he didn’t enter her. Instead, he slid his thumb off her nipple and ran his hand down the middle of her body, leaving behind another line of magical sensations along her skin, until he reached her thighs. He sucked her nipple into his mouth and nibbled on it while pushing his fingers inside her. Two fingers moved in and out of her, leaving her wanting more. He added another one, and she clenched around him, arching her spine so he could access her properly.
Alex was glad he’d found something to prop her up against, because she couldn’t hold herself up. Too many vibrations warred within her.
She murmured, lost in sensation. Nothing mattered but the way he made her feel with his mouth, hands, and body. The tiny sparks his fingers delivered tore through her every time he pushed them inside. She felt so good-as if her body was floating. She was going to come again, very soon. His fingers slid in and back out of her so slowly, she thought it might take a while to reach her peak this time. Instead, the added magnetism on his fingertips seemed to draw it out, pulling everything to the surface until she was blinded with it.
Alex licked her lips. “Oh, Damon.”
He didn’t stop. His fingers were deep inside her. His tongue had abandoned her nipple and was now in her mouth.
She felt as if she was going to explode into a thousand tiny particles of pleasure if he continued this very sensuous, but languid, touch.
“I want to pleasure you over and over again,” Damon whispered along her skin. He dipped his tongue into her mouth. “I’ve wanted you since the moment we met.”
Alex screamed when another orgasm tore through her like a violent, pleasurable attack-his fingers moving inside her, and the words and admissions driving her insane. As she came, letting the pleasure of it flow through her body like a warm rush, Damon finally entered her. The action only added to the intensity of what he’d done to her.
He took a step forward and gripped her butt so tight, she wondered if she’d be bruised when they were done.
I don’t care. It’ll be worth it!
He set a rhythm, which turned out to be the complete opposite of his touch. The calmness had been abandoned, replaced by a crazed fervor which increased with his every thrust.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist you any longer,” he whispered, those green eyes never leaving hers. “I had to have you, had to get inside you. I couldn’t take it, anymore…”
She couldn’t speak and instead wrapped her arms around his shoulders, enjoying every time he drilled so deep into her that she felt it in her core.
Wow. He’s amazing.
Damon was just what she needed.
Alex rocked her hips against his, rubbing herself against him and meeting him halfway. She couldn’t stop the gasps and whimpers escaping between her lips, and it made his smile widen. The sensation mounted to a fever pitch, and the only magic going on in this room right now was from their raw act of intense sex.
When she surrendered to ecstasy again, they shuddered together. He moaned and she echoed it, but something she’d never felt before happened. As they shared their mutual orgasm, she felt an amazing stirring deep inside her, and it shook her to the bone-sending a multitude of sparks racing inside her.
“Do you feel the magic flowing between us?”
She held on tighter to his shoulders, her mouth open, because she couldn’t keep the groaning under control. It felt like an overflowing orgasm refusing to end, even though the physical friction between their bodies was spent.
“Alex, that’s my magic touching yours,” he whispered in her ear, before shuddering all over again. “It’s spilling into you.”
She couldn’t speak, nod, or wonder if he meant it as a euphemism.
For the first time since they’d met, Alex couldn’t deny she felt something that couldn’t be explained away with lust and sex.
Ulric stood under the shade of the trees below the room Alex was staying in. He could hear the familiar sounds of sex spilling from the window. His mind filled with the many times his hands, tongue, or cock had been the reason for her crying out that way, but she wasn’t calling out hisname this time.
As much as he wanted to charge into the room and yank the other man off her-so he could shred the prick to bits and then consume him-Ulric found he couldn’t do more than claw his fingers against the wall.
Every bit of strength he’d possessed-and ultimately exerted-since he got here was slowly fading.
He fell on his ass, not caring about the dirt, rocks, and bark scratching his naked flesh. Right now, all he could think about was rest. Without the light of the moon on his back, he didn’t seem to have any real sense of motivation or hunger.
I’m so tired. I just want to sleep.
Still, he couldn’t shake his distraught and anger toward the woman he loved. How could she have looked at him like he was an odious beast? How could she take his admission of love and spit in his face as if he didn’t matter? Was this her intention from the moment she’d left his room on Anteris, to forget about him by fucking other guys? He knew for a fact that she hadn’t been sexually involved with anyone for a while. He’d made sure his spies found out. So, what had changed?
His heart ached. He had to do something about turning this pitiful reaction around. He was Ulric Cale, the owner of the Anteris Space Station. The man who could have as many chicks as he wanted, and all he had to do was wink to get their attention.
The one time he let himself take someone seriously, she betrayed him.
Ulric rested the back of his head against the wall and closed his eyes.
Defeated, he let darkness smooth away the sunny glare of the day, but not before he heard the undeniable sounds of mutual climax filtering out of the window.
Alex, you’re going to pay for this.
“So, tell me about this,” Damon said, dangling the leather cord of the choker above her face.
Alex stretched her arms over her head, unable to shake the memory or the sensations their sexual connection roused along her body. Even now, every time she moved, she could feel a twinge of pleasure tease between her legs and echo in her lower abdomen. The sheet slid down her front to reveal her breasts.
Her attempt at distraction didn’t work, but she didn’t cover herself. “Do you still feel the…uh…? I’m not sure how to ask the question.” How could she put it, without sounding like an idiot? Do you still feel an echo of your orgasm?That definitely sounded stupid.
He pulled the choker into his palm and engulfed it. “Yes, I still feel the residuals teasing me, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve never felt this before, so I don’t know how long it’ll last.”
“Do you know what it is?” She bit her bottom lip, curious to hear how he’d attempt to explain it. She might not believe in magical powers, but when they’d climaxed at the same time, something strange had definitely flowed between them. It reminded her of when she temporarily felt his heartbeat and rage in the gardens.
“It’s because our magic is finally joined.”
She raised an eyebrow.
The ghost of a grin teased the edges of his mouth. “Okay, the energy building up between us when we…ah…” His voice trailed off, and he licked his lips. “Before, we were just attracted to each other, but now, the inner vitality drawing us together has connected. We’ll probably be able to feel an echo of each other’s moods.”
“What does that mean?”
He smiled. “More explosive orgasms for both of us, I suppose.”
“Oh, I can definitely live with thattype of magic.”
Damon nodded. He’d made his way over to the other side of the bed and was now sitting beside her. He was still naked as well, so she tried to keep her gaze off his groin area, which was difficult when she still felt the buzz of what they’d done to each other at daybreak.
“Now, tell me about this key of yours.”
She took a quick breath and released it. Avoiding his eyes, she turned to look out the window. The sun was setting already, and she couldn’t help but feel a chill sweep through her. Even though the room was warm and Damon sat so close, a sense of foreboding washed through her.
As much as sex with Damon had numbed her body to everything else, her mind was still filled with things that didn’t make sense-some of which she wanted to stay in denial about.
If Ulric had managed to get into this room once already, what would stop him from doing it, again? Did he know she was with another man right now? She couldn’t help but wonder how he would react if he did. No, I know exactly how he’d react. He wouldn’t like it at all.Ulric had seemed so focused on his admission of love, to the point of obsession.
There’s nothing I can do about it.At least she’d slept for most of the day without having to deal with any of this.
“Look, Alex. I know this was found near the dead bodies for a reason. I don’t want to push you, but I need to find out what’s going on.”
She glared at Damon. He misunderstood her silence, but his sudden pushiness still irked her. “Is it because you’re starting to doubt me as well?” She toyed with the new bandage around her hand. The skin was starting to itch underneath.
“No, that’s not it. But-”
“I don’t know what to tell you, because I have no idea how it got there.” Okay, so that was a blatant lie, but it wouldn’t make it any better if she said: Oh, yeah, Damon. I think one of my former lovers stowed away on my ship to surprise me, because I left my lucky necklace behind. While he was at it, he somehow managed to turn himself into a beast thing. Why don’t we meet with your Priestess and discuss it? That would notgo over well.
“Okay, fine. You don’t know how it got there, so why don’t you start by telling me what it is?” His green eyes were shiny, curious but not angry.
“It’s a key.”
Damon shook his head, setting his dreadlocks on a frantic dance around his face. “Yes, it is, but what is it for?”
“It opens something, of course-”
He moved before she registered what he was doing. With his face inches from hers and his eyes glowing like matching jewels, he stood over her. She hadn’t seen this hard edge to him before. He sighed-in obvious frustration-and dumped the choker on her chest. It slid between her breasts and stopped at her stomach.
“If you want to keep playing games, that’s fine. Unless I know some truths, I won’t be able to help you when Elroy moves on the attack,” he finally said.
His sudden anger burned beneath her skin. How did he go from calm to thisso quickly ?She’d obviously underestimated him. “He can’t prove anything. He didn’t even see…”
“He didn’t see what?”
Alex shook her head. She grabbed the bronze key and held it in her hand. It now fit inside her palm, not like the night Louis first gave it to her. Her life had changed so much since then.
Five years after taking over the ownership of Promise, she’d spent a lot of credits to have a new security system installed on the ship. While she was there, the technician had suggested she also change the locks to get in and out of the ship. She’d agreed but left the original warded lock this key fit into on the outer hatch. It would always remind her of where she came from and provided a way to get inside if the electronics malfunctioned. Even though she’d also, eventually, upgraded the ignition, this key could still be used as a backup if the automatic controls on the dash failed.
A lot of good it did when I was passing this stupid planet. Of course, that’s because she’d forgotten it.
“Look, I’m sorry. You’re right.” She might not have to go into all the nitty-gritty details about Ulric, but she did want Damon to know about the key she valued as much as her ship. “This used to be the key to my ship.”
He cocked an eyebrow and sat down on the bed, his back pressed against the pillows. “Used to be?”
She tried for a chuckle, but it came out a little wrong. “Yeah, the ship belonged to my father. My ship’s name is Promise, and my father gave it to me when I was just a kid. I won’t bore you with the family troubles that led to a kid running away from a planet she despised, but I willtell you it means the world to me.”
“So, your father gave you the key?”
She nodded, tracing her fingers over the uneven scrawl of her name. “It was his way of helping me find freedom.”
“That’s interesting.” Damon rubbed his chin.
“You told me neither one of your parents were magic users.”
“That’s because they weren’t.”
“Yet, I can read some sort of magical impression on this key,” he said with a frown. “Which leads me to believe…you probably inherited your magic from your father.”
She shook her head. After what they’d shared and experienced together, as well as the healing he’d performed, she didn’t want to get back on this topic. “I would’ve known if my father could do freaky things like healing. I lived with him most of my life.”
“Where did you live?”
“We mostly lived on the ship, but we travelled all over the place. Why, does it make a difference?” She stared him in the eye, daring him to answer with some ridiculous claim. If my father could do any sort of magic, he would have told me. He wouldn’t have hesitated to use it to keep her away from her mother’s clutches. I’m sure of it.“Are you telling me magic can only be used in certain places within the galaxy?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know about that. I’ve never been anywhere else but here.”
“That’s right. No one ever leaves this planet or has any way of contacting anyone outside it. Yet, your Priestess knew when I crashed. Did you ever find out why?” With every new detail she found out, Alex’s suspicion of Aleena grew. Just what was that woman hiding?
He didn’t answer. Instead, he focused on her chest.
He rubbed his fingers up and down her arm. “I’m just trying to understand why your presence makes me question everything.”
“What’re you talking about?”
He sat up, leaned over toward the end of the bed, and handed her a thin book.
She read the title and said, “ Priestess amp; Goddess.What’s this about?” Alex looked up and found him staring at her.
“After you asked me which deity Aleena worshipped, you got me thinking.”
“You bought this to answer your question?” She leafed through it quickly. It was nothing more than a children’s reference story with pretty pictures and flowery text in a flowing font. She hadn’t seen an actual book outside of her ship for a while. She had about a dozen stashed away in Promisebut hardly saw anyone else handle something that wasn’t electronic, anymore.
“I borrowed it from our library,” he said with a shrug.
“A kid’s story isn’t going to answer your questions.”
“It’s the only book I could find mentioning the terms Goddess andPriestess.”
She raised an eyebrow. Maybe Aleena didn’t want any of them to know the truth, but what could the truth be? It had to be something pretty important for her to do such a petty thing as control their library. “Did it help you, or did it confuse the issue?”
“Everything’s been confusing since you arrived.” His fingertips were causing havoc inside her body. Almost as if his touch was reigniting everything still rushing around within her. How long would the aftereffects last?
She didn’t know what to say. Instead, she tried another question, one that might piss him off even more. “I don’t want to offend you, but there’s something I’ve been wondering about since I entered your village.”
He laughed. “You’ve called me a liar since the moment we met, because I believe in using the arcane. You’ve accused our leader of keeping things from us, and refuse to answer a direct question…now you’re worried about offending me? Just ask your question, Alex.”
“Okay, then. Why don’t you look like everyone else?” As soon as she blurted it out, she felt like a total idiot and held her breath. Did she sound prejudiced?
Damon’s eyes looked a little sad. “Your question doesn’t offend me, but I don’t know the reason. I never thought it to be important before, but I think it might have something to do with my use of magic.”
She stopped herself from rolling her eyes. The last thing she wanted to do was upset him. Instead, she said, “Wait a second.” Alex jumped off the bed and headed for her bag. She quickly grabbed the photo tucked into the front and rummaged inside until she found a few energy bars and two bottles of water. She carried everything back to the bed and threw one of the bars at Damon before rolling one of the bottles along the bed until it hit his thigh.
He caught the bar but ignored the water. “What’s this?”
“It’s a VEB.”
“Which is?” He inspected the foil wrapper suspiciously.
“It’s a vitamin and energy bar.” She shrugged. “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”
“I’m sorry. I should have arranged for food to be-”
“Don’t worry about it. Just take a look at this. It’s a picture of my father and me. I was about ten when this was taken.” As soon as he took it, she split open the packaging and scarfed down most of the energy bar in less than a minute. Then, she washed it down with the water. That’s better.
Damon scanned the photo with curious eyes. “You were a cute kid.”
Now, she rolled her eyes. “No, that’s not why I’m showing you. Look at my father’s skin, at his hair, at his eyes…”
He lifted the photo a little closer. “He has darker skin than you and green eyes, so you must take after your mother. It looks like you got his curly, dark hair, though.”
“Exactly! My father has green eyes and dark skin…just like you.”
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying, except that the first time I saw you, I remembered the color of his skin. When I looked at his photo again, I couldn’t help but wonder how much your skin and eyes resembled his. I think you might be from the same race as my father.”
He shook his head. “No, that can’t be. I was born here, on Eden.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Where was your father from?”
“See, that’s the problem.” She sat down on the bed, not caring about both of them being completely naked while having this conversation. “He never spoke about his home planet or people. He never liked to talk about it. The only thing he ever told me was that he came from a place where everything was pure…and magical.”
“Magical?” Damon echoed.
“I’m sure he didn’t mean-”
“How can you be sure? He actually used the word?”
Alex thought back to the memory, and nodded. “Yeah, he did. I always assumed he meant it was a lovely place, though. Not magical in any literal way.”
They were both silent for a moment.
“Are you going to eat that?”
Damon shook his head. “No, here. You have it.”
She took the foiled energy bar from him and ate it as fast as she had the first one. They might not taste as good as real food, but she was famished.
Damon continued to stare at the picture as if he was looking for some sort of answer.
Alex decided to put the choker back on. Things always made more sense and felt better when it was around her neck. She secured it and let the key dangle down her breastbone. Suddenly, all the fuzzy sensations rushing around her body stopped.
Damon’s brow furrowed. He winced.
“What’s the matter?”
“I can’t feel it.”
“You can’t feel what?” she asked, confused.
“I can’t feel your magic, anymore.” He stared at the key. “Can you remove the key from around your neck?”
“I just put it on!”
“All right, all right,” she said, untying it. As soon as it was off, the rush of warmth hit her hard. She dropped it and fell back against the pillows. Something very close to an orgasm began between her legs and intensified as it spread, leaving her breathless. “Wha…what was that?”
He’d closed his eyes, too, and an erection had lengthened between his legs. “I can feel your well of magic, again, but when you put the key on, I couldn’t. I think that might be…”
“Might be what?” Her nipples were so hard, they hurt. All she could think about was crawling over to him so they could get it on, again. When she felt the same response from him, she nearly rushed him.
He sounded breathless when he answered. “I think your father might have put a protection spell on the key to keep others from feeling your magic. By doing that, even youcan’t feel it.”
Her heart sped up. Her father had told her to keep the key on her at all times, claimed it would protect her. She’d always assumed he meant because of Promise. Oh, gosh. This was getting a little too confusing, but there was no way she could believe all this hocus-pocus talk. Yet, how could she deny it now that she’d actually felt it? No amount of illusion could make her feel things the way she just had.
Wondrous William had shown her a lot of tricks, and while they fascinated and excited her, none had ever had thisintense, physical effect on her.
Damon looked down at the photo. “Your father might not have told you about it, because he wanted to keep you safe, maybe even hide you from someone. Is that possible?”
“Well, we did hide from my mother for a while…but he didn’t give me the key until just before I ran away from her planet.” When she saw his concerned face, she shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s a little complicated. We’ve got a very dysfunctional family unit.”
“Your father is the only one who knows for sure. Is there any way to contact him?”
“Well, considering we’re on a planet, which according to youhas no form of communication, and I haven’t seen my father in over ten years, nope. I’d say I can’t contact him.” She looked away. “I don’t even know if he’s alive.”
She heard the sheets rustle and felt his warm fingers on her chin. He lifted it, and she couldn’t help but stare into his beautiful eyes. “Talking about Daddy always makes me sad. He risked his life to give me back mine…”
Damon kissed her lips, just a light caress. His green eyes stared into hers, and the compassion inside them made her stomach flip. He seemed like such a complicated man. Someone who on one hand was gullible enough to believe in things like magic, but on the other hand, had enough sense to research his own leader because of a simple question.
“I think your father tried to protect you even when he wasn’t with you.” He took the key and leather cord from her hand. “I think this was always meant to be more than just a key to your ship.”
She nodded. Of course, that sounded like something her father would do. Teaching her how to use a blaster, how to navigate Promise, and becoming familiar with the controls by the time she was 13 had all been part of the same plan. How long had he known that Lorraine would chase after them when she wanted something?
“I want to continue what he began. I want to take care of you, Alex.” Damon held the key in one hand and pressed the other against her cheek.
She closed her eyes at the heat surging from his touch. “Damon, I don’t need you to take care of me. Besides, we just met-”
“I know. This seems very strange to me, too. I’ve never connected to a woman on this level before.”
She opened her eyes and stared into his.
“Alex, I’m not going to lie to you. I enjoy sex, a lot. I’ve never shied away from it and have had many lovers since my sexual awakening, but I’ve never had this sense of wanting to look after them, to be with them constantly, and protect them.” He paused, releasing a breath. “From the first time I saw you, I felt it. I know you don’t want to believe in magic, and maybe that’s not even the right word for it. For all I know, and like you’ve pointed out before, there could be a scientific explanation for all of this, but I only know it as magic. It’s what I feel when I’m with you. The explosive climax you drew out of me is still rolling around inside me. That’s not a reaction I’ve ever felt after a sexual encounter with anyone.”
All she could think to do was lean over and kiss him. She pressed her lips against his, as his hand slid from her face to caress her hair. He could never understand what he’d done to her by admitting this. It’s exactly how she’d lived her entire adult life. After she lost her virginity-just shy of turning 20-she hadn’t been able to stop. It was the only way she’d ever felt close to someone, even if only for that one moment. To know Damon had lived the same way made something inside her calm down and feel connected to him.
All the worries and knots Ulric’s admission and suggestions had caused her had smoothed out, finally.
“I’m not making you a proposal or pushing you into a commitment, because we need to get to know each other first, but I do want you to know that I reallyenjoy being around you.” He kissed her lightly. “I would love to do more of what we did earlier today. I can’t lie about it.”
Alex nodded. “I can definitely live with that.” Although, she had no idea how thatwas going to work out. She still had no intention of staying on this planet.
I can think about that when the time comes.Right now, she’d finally met a man who wanted exactly what she did without acting like he owned her, or she owed him something-which had been a constant problem with the string of lovers she’d accumulated along the way. The only time she hadn’t encountered a problem was with one-night stands, but if she intended to hookup every time she was in their area, they’d soon start getting possessive. Not in the way Ulric had-by foolishly admitting love-but just a sense of ownership she found suffocating.
“Good.” He kissed her, again. “As much as I would love to lie you down right now, I think we’ve got some other things to discuss first.”
Before he could ask her any questions, she beat him to it. “Yeah, speaking of which, did you find out anything else about whatever killed those people?” Changing the subject seemed like a safe choice. So far, everything they’d thrown up in the air made her uncomfortable. Discussing Ulric wouldn’t help, but Damon didn’t know what she knew. Though, one look at the other books he’d piled at the end of the bed told her he had his suspicions.
“Nothing yet, but I have been reading about werewolves. Have you ever heard of them?” He sat back, watching her face.
She shrugged. Everyone had heard some version of the story at one time or another. Actually, her father used to tell her a bedtime story about a little girl who wore a red jacket and the werewolf that stalked her, until one day she figured out it was actually her grandmother. The story freaked her out when she was a kid, but never induced nightmares, so she’d asked her father to tell her many times.
Ulric would definitely induce nightmares, though.
Would his condition have any physical effect on her? Sure, she was totally protected against pregnancy and every sexually-transmitted disease known to humans, but did Ulric’s situation surpass the procedure she’d endured? Like most responsible adults in the galaxy who wanted to have sexual relationships without killing themselves, Alex had paid a hefty fee to have a microchip embedded into her wrist. I hope that’s enough protection.
“I know they’re both human and animal,” she said.
“Did you know most werewolves change with the phases of the moon?”
She shook her head. “What’s the moon got to do with it?”
“According to the book I read, every satellite affects a werewolf differently. In some locations, they won’t ever change, but other places can drive them batty and force a change so violent, they lose total control of themselves.”
“Oh.” She peered out the window and could see the huge orb of the moon already out and shiny. “Does your moon change phases?”
“No, it’s always full, which is the other peculiar thing. According to legend, that’s when a werewolf changes from a man into an actual wolf.”
“Yeah, very peculiar.” She refused to concentrate on the fact that Ulric lived inside a space station situated nowhere near a moon. How long had he been hiding this secret from her? “So, how do you think any of this relates to what you saw in the girl’s head?”
Damon shrugged. “I’m not sure. This is folklore, and I didn’t actually see the creature change into anything. I’d assumed the killer was just an animal.”
“Then, why are you reading about werewolves?”
“It was just something Elroy said.”
Uh-oh. If that bastard suspected something, did it mean he knew? Had Elroy actually seen Ulric change like she had? She bit her lip. As much as she wanted to keep what she knew from Damon, for fear of implicating herself, she had to admit what little she knew. The last thing she wanted was to cause a rift of mistrust between them.
“Does he know something you don’t?”
“Elroy always thinks he knows something the rest of us don’t.”
She looked at the key in his hand. “So, what should we do with the key?”
Damon handed her the photo and the leather choker. “Why don’t you put them away in your bag for now? No one on this planet has access to the arcane but me, so you’ll be safe.”
“Okay.” That made sense. She definitely didn’t want anyone else to get their hands on it. She headed over to the armchair and tucked both things into the bottom of her bag. While she was there, she grabbed some clothes and dumped them on the end of the bed. As much fun as it would be, she suspected they wouldn’t be able to walk around naked all night.
“I really should’ve arranged for someone to bring a fruit platter up to your room. I just got so distracted by everything.” His eyes were on her breasts. “One look at your body can really stun a man and make him forget about everything else.”
“Are you trying to distract me?”
His eyes glowed, and he nodded. “I think I am.”
Alex crawled onto the bed and knelt in front of him. She grabbed both of his hands and pressed them against her breasts. He had big hands, but they weren’t big enough to cup her entirely.
“Do we have to leave the room, tonight?” She traced her lips with the tip of her tongue, watching his groin for a reaction. “Maybe you should get some fruit brought up here…”
A groan escaped between his gritted teeth as he made a move toward her.
The door opened, and someone rushed inside. Levi slammed the door behind him and pressed his back against it. His blonde hair was wet and stuck to his forehead. His eyes were wide when he glanced their way. When he noticed they were naked, he lowered his gaze.
“I am so very sorry to barge in like this.”
“Do you ever knock?” she asked, still naked and kneeling in front of Damon.
Levi’s cheeks colored, but he didn’t look up.
Damon stood. “You can go and get dressed if you like. I need to speak to Levi.”
“I’ll get dressed, but I’m not going anywhere. Something’s obviously spooked him.” Alex couldn’t care less if she didn’t have a stitch of clothing on, and there was another man in the room. Moreover, Levi was more embarrassed than trying to catch a glimpse of what she had to offer. “Besides, he’s already seen me naked.”
Alex backed off the bed and grabbed the skin-tight pants she’d dumped on the end. As she stepped into them, she couldn’t keep her eyes off Levi.
“What’s going on?” Damon asked him.
She slipped her bra on next and covered it with a black tank top stopping just above the low-ride waistband of her pants.
“Another person has been killed,” Levi said.
“Okay, but that doesn’t explain why you’re so worked up.”
“Elroy found the person and claims the victim wasn’t mauled this time but shot.” His chest rose and fell a little too fast. Was he hyperventilating?
Damon shook his head. “We don’t have access to guns. Aleena makes sure of it. Not even security has access to weapons.”
“Why’s that?” Alex asked.
“Because we don’t actually have any,” Damon answered without turning to face her.
She stared at his broad shoulders and watched the muscles twitch as he tensed.
Levi pointed a finger at Alex. “She does.”
“Yeah, but it’s always with me.” As she crawled back onto the bed to reach for the bedside table where she’d place her holster and blaster, she found only the holster. She grabbed it. “What the hell? I left it here. Where did it go?”
How many times had her father told her to alwayshave her blaster nearby and to never take her eyes off it? She’d suffered so many careless moments lately-starting with her panic when she’d first seen the key, followed by sleeping for however long before Ulric paid her a visit, then ending with her long, hot session with Damon, and more sleep. She couldn’t pinpoint when anyone could’ve gotten their hands on her weapon, but they obviously had.
Her heart sped up. She’d never lost her blaster before.
“He says he has the weapon,” Levi added.
“That’s not possible. I always make sure it’s with me. No one’s been in this room but us.” Ulric had, but he’d been totally naked, so he hadn’t taken it. She headed for the armchair and quickly rummaged through her bag. Nope, it wasn’t in there.
Alex dumped the bag and made her way to stand beside Damon. He was watching Levi with narrowed eyes.
She stared at the empty holster in her hand for a long moment, before strapping it around her thigh.
“What are you leaving out?” he asked.
The teenager swallowed but met Damon’s eye. “When you left me to watch over Alex, someone else didcome by.”
“Who was it?” Damon’s voice sounded deeper.
For a moment, Alex swallowed the lump in her throat. She held her breath, wondering if Levi knew about Ulric’s bizarre visit.
“Milo hung out with me, but we were outside the whole time.”
“I don’t understand what the problem is, then.”
Sweat ran down Levi’s face. “Well, he and I are…we’re sort of in a…um…in a…relationship.”
“I don’t understand what any of this has to do with Alex-”
“I swear. I didn’t leave the building. I only ducked around the corner with him. We just wanted a little privacy and found it down the corridor.”
“Did you see anyone get in or out?”
Levi shook his head.
Alex couldn’t stop a shiver from running through her. If Levi had been with his lover around the corner to get some privacy, there was no way he would have heard someone sneaking into her room. For all they knew, two people could have sneaked in while she slept and was dreaming about her father’s last visit.
Things just get freakier around here.
“Afterward, Milo told me that Elroy knew about us. He sent Milo to distract me, so he could sneak into the room. If Milo didn’t agree to do it, Elroy told him I’d be the next person to die-”
“So what you’re telling me is that Elroy sneaked into this room and took Alex’s weapon to kill someone, and then planned to frame her?” Damon looked furious.
Levi nodded, and he looked so much younger. It didn’t stop Damon from closing the distance between them and slapping him in the face.
“You lied to me! I thought I could trust you.”
“You can.” Tears streamed down Levi’s face, and his cheek had turned red.
“Where’s Elroy, now?”
“I don’t know.”
A knock sounded on the door, and Levi jumped, as if it suddenly burned his skin.
Damon held a finger over his lips.
“Damon, I know you’re in there, so you might as well open the door before I tear it down.”
He headed for the door, but Alex called his name. When he turned to look at her, she tossed him his pants. It took him seconds to slip them on, and tie up the cord. Damon opened the door, slowly.
The security guy stood in the doorway. “Well, it’s about time you opened up. You know I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
“What do you want, Elroy?”
“I want you to stop protecting a criminal.”
“I don’t know of any criminal.”
“Very well, then.” Elroy stepped into the room, pointed the blaster at Damon, and shot him point-blank.
“No!” Alex yelled, somewhere behind him.
Damon fell back against the bed. The burn of the laser strike spread over his shoulder like boiling water slowly pouring over his skin. At least Elroy hadn’t hit any vital organs or ruptured anything important. He lifted a shaky hand to the smoking wound and pressed his left palm over it. He might not be able to regenerate skin and tissue on himself as quickly as he could on others, but he could still heal his own injuries.
Elroy knew that and had no doubt shot with the intention of incapacitating him for the moment. What did he plan to do?
“Damon, are you all right?”Alex appeared beside him. She grabbed a hold of his uninjured arm and helped him to a sitting position on the edge of the bed.
He managed a quick nod, never taking his eyes off his attacker.
“Oh, this is really touching. Too bad you’re not going to get a chance to be together after I’m done with you.” Elroy stepped into the room with a smirk on his thin lips, keeping the weapon out in front of him. “The Priestess is finally going to realize I was right. We don’t need you here. We offered you shelter after your crash, and you’ve repaid us by killing with no remorse.” He paused for a moment, glaring at Alex. “You were so desperate to kill our people, not even having your dog do your bidding was enough. You had to use your weapon as well.”
“I don’t have a dog,” she whispered.
Damon winced. “Don’t listen to him.” His whole left arm felt numb. Pins and needles ran down the entire side. This wasn’t good. Not when he wanted to protect her so badly.
Knowing a little bit more about Alex, and seeing the photo of her father, he understood her lack of magical awareness. If her father kept it from her, and she spent her entire life travelling from one end of the galaxy to another, how could she be expected to believe in anything but guns, ships, and technology? The way her magical capacity had been numbed as soon as she put the key around her neck made Damon realize she was probably right. Maybe her father and I are of the same kind.Of course, that only saddened him, because it meant Aleena had lied to him about everything.
“Oh, Damon. It makes no difference if she listens to me or not. I’m going to prove everything to Aleena, and you’re all coming with me.”
“You can’t prove anything without the animal,” Damon said with a sigh.
“Who says I don’t have the animal?”
Alex stiffened beside him, her fingers clinging more tightly to his arm. “You caught him?”
Elroy eyed her with disgust, and Damon’s fingers itched to smack him. How dare he show such disrespect toward her when she hadn’t done anything wrong. How could Elroy have singlehandedly captured a feral monster who feasted on flesh and blood? Damon could still remember the murderous rage he’d read off Laurie’s memory of the animal. Whether he was entirely beast, or a creature of legend, didn’t matter. The animal only had one thing in mind, and he doubted this poor excuse of a man had been able to capture it.
“Yes, I caught the beast when he leaped out of your window and passed out in the garden.” Elroy stepped closer, still glaring at Alex. “Tell me. What was he doing in here with you? Does a dog satisfy you in bed? I guess it’s understandable why Damon wouldn’t be enough for you.” His dry chuckle filled the room.
What was he talking about? Damon wondered if Alex had left this out of her story on purpose, or had she intended to tell him how the animal fit into her life eventually? He wasn’t sure and didn’t have the energy to be angry with her at the moment.
While Elroy gloated, Alex caught him by surprise. She let go of Damon, took a step forward, and kicked out a long leg. She knocked the blaster out of Elroy’s hand, and it tumbled to the floor, but before she could grab it, Elroy booted it toward the open door.
Milo appeared in the doorway. He bent over and secured the weapon, as if he were holding a piece of rotted fruit or a dead animal.
Elroy held out his hand. “Give me the weapon.”
Alex made a move to get around him, but Elroy wrapped a hand around her wrist, spun her around, and secured it at the small of her back.
“Don’t move, you whore.” He looked at Milo. “Give it to me.”
“No,” both Damon and Levi said in unison.
Elroy’s face was red, his eyes blazing with rage. “If you don’t give it to me now, Levi will be the first one I kill when I pry it from your dead hands.”
Milo closed his eyes and held the weapon out for Elroy, who removed one of his hands from his grip on Alex. He tightened the other on her wrist, yanking her backward. She protested and looked as if she were trying to wiggle out of his grasp but couldn’t. When Elroy wrapped his bony fingers around the weapon, he pressed the barrel to the side of Alex’s head.
“Good. Now that everything’s been cleared up, let’s go.” Elroy looked so smug.
For the first time in his life, Damon felt useless. He didn’t know much about guns, but he suspected the laser shot from the barrel had the ability to not only wound and kill, but also temporarily stun the victim. His entire left side drooped downward, and he couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to move. Let alone come to their rescue.
The arcane he’d managed to draw within him was helping to heal the wound, but it provided no relief in getting sensation back into his arm. Besides, his use of magic only involved defense, not attack.
He met Alex’s eyes. She was staring back at him, but she didn’t look disappointed or hurt, just frustrated. I’m sorry, she mouthed.
Damon didn’t understand what she had to be sorry about, but he’d make sure Elroy regretted this. He wasn’t sure how he’d do it, because he couldn’t think clearly at the moment, but he’d somehow manage.
“Tie him up,” Elroy ordered Milo with a motion of his head.
The younger man looked a little scared as he approached, so Damon tried his best to hold out his arms in front of him and said, “It’s okay, Milo. Do it. I won’t hurt you.”
“You’re always the hero, aren’t you?” Elroy dragged on Alex’s arm, and she cried out. “You’re always the one who’s there to help the injured or sick, but you have no idea how many have slipped through your fingers without your knowledge.”
“When I get my blaster back, I’m going to blow your head off!” Alex spat, trying to break away from his hold.
Elroy laughed. “I don’t think so.”
Milo had already secured one of the plastic ties around Damon’s wrists and started on the other.
Alex continued to squirm against Elroy and managed to smack the back of her head hard enough against his face to cause him to stumble back a step. For a moment, it seemed like he was about to lose his grip on both Alex and the gun, but it only took him an instant to regain his step. He dropped her wrist and instead wrapped an arm around the front of Alex’s body.
“Get your hands off me, you creep!” she exclaimed, still struggling against him.
Damon wished she would just calm down, because she was only making it harder on herself. Struggling against a man with a weapon would only tire herand anger him.
Yet, he already understood enough about Alex’s temperament to know she wouldn’t listen.
With a defiant smile on his face and blood dribbling from his nose, Elroy lifted the weapon and smacked the butt of it against the back of her head. He let go, and she slid to the floor, unconscious.
“You bastard!” Damon hissed, standing up. Milo had finished securing the bindings around his wrists, but he still had a mostly functioning right leg. When he took a step forward, someone grabbed his forearm. He turned to find Levi.
“He’s not worth it.”
“I think that’s the first smart thing I’ve ever heard you say,” Elroy said with a chuckle. “Now, which one of you pansy boys is going to carry the whore for me?”
Levi stepped forward to volunteer.
“Good. Let’s get going. My patience is wearing thin.”
When Damon stepped out of the room-Milo helping him limp along the corridor and Levi carrying Alex behind them-he wondered what the hell Elroy hoped to achieve by doing this. Aleena had shown nothing but hospitality toward Alex, so how would she react when she saw this stupid scheme of his?
A chill seized his stomach.
As much as he wanted to believe in their Priestess, he couldn’t help but recall a particular sentence in the book he’d borrowed: A true Priestess hides nothing from her people, and hopes only to spread honor, pay tribute, and be thankful for what her Goddess provides her land with.
When Ulric opened his eyes and stretched his body, he felt a sense of disorientation. It deepened when he tried to stand up and found that he couldn’t. The top of his shoulders were constricted, and his head was forced to lean into his chest.
What the hell?
He remembered falling asleep underneath Alex’s window, full of anger toward the woman who’d denied him. No one had ever turned him down before-not the way she had. Then again, he’d never made such a serious offer to a woman, either.
In his dreams, he’d fantasized about being the one who made her cry out and squirm at his every touch. It helped him temporarily forget he’d promised himself he’d make her pay.
Where the hell am I?
He rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands and looked around, feeling the pull of his muscles as he struggled to find a comfortable position.
Everywhere he turned, he faced thick, metal bars. He wrapped his fingers around them, pulling hard, trying to break or separate them. They refused to budge. He was trapped inside a cage. How the hell did this happen?
He pressed his face against the bars, defeated yet again.
Pitch black surrounded him, and a cold so severe, it seeped in through his naked flesh and into his very bones. Lowering himself to his knees, he inspected the barren area he was in. It seemed to be some sort of cavernous area with rocky outcrops on the edges. Except for the moon filtering in from the gap high above, there was no other light. Where the cage had been placed, it didn’t reach him, but he could still feel the cool fingers of moonlight trying to reach him.
He’d learned the hard way-if the moon wasn’t touching him, it couldn’t affect him.
Did someone else know, too? Who moved him?
The longer he stared between the bars of the square box he’d been stuck in, the more he could make out. The stairs located behind him appeared to have been literally carved into the rock wall and had been smoothed out by years of constant use. The glare of monitors reflected the area around him. He also noticed that the gap at the top of the ceiling was mirrored on the floor directly below. Several feet from where he was, Ulric could make out an abyss. What was this place, and what the hell was he doing in here?
He might be confused about the location, but what alarmed him the most was the familiarity. For some reason, it felt as if tiny, fragmented memories were trying to seep into his head about this restricted area. He knew no one was supposed to be here, as his mother had told him many times…
These can’t be my memories. Just like me, both of my parents were born and raised on Anteris.
There’s something very strange going on, and I don’t like it one bit.
He leaned forward, once again placing his face against the cool, metal bars. “Hello?” He doubted anyone would answer, but it was worth a shot. How much more insane could he get at this stage?
“Hello, there,” a female stepped out of the shadows. “I was wondering when you would wake.”
His heart somersaulted in his chest. Why does this woman look and sound so familiar? He swallowed the lump in his throat. “What am I doing here?”
The woman took a step closer, and her lovely features glowed under the moon’s radiance. She was beautiful and had the kindest face he’d ever seen. Her blue eyes were pale but warm. Her skin as luminescent as the long dress she wore. Her bare toes peeked out beneath the dress, and her blonde hair was so long, it tumbled over her shoulders and reached her waist. He’d never seen a woman who encompassed what he imagined a Goddess would look like.
She’s stunning. Yet, he didn’t feel an ounce of desire toward her. He wanted to worship her as he would a deity, a mother figure. He thought being on his knees was the appropriate position to be in while greeting such a woman.
Ulric lowered his head in a show of respect. “Who are you, Goddess?” he whispered in awe.
The woman chuckled, and he couldn’t help but gaze at her.
“My name is Priestess Aleena,” she answered.
Even her name was beautiful.
He suddenly felt as if something struck his head, and a multitude of recollections he hadn’t known he carried with him, tumbled into his mind.
“Don’t worry, Ulric. All of your questions will be answered, and very soon, by the sound of it.”
He wasn’t listening, anymore. The rush of unfamiliar memories caused a whirlwind of confusion inside his head, forcing him into a fetal position on the cage floor.
“Put me down!” Alex blinked a few times, trying to get her bearings and clear the remnants of being unconscious. It wasn’t an easy task, while being held upside down and bent over someone’s bony shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The back of her head throbbed, but it wasn’t as bad as the rage flowing through her body.
Her mother’s guards carried her around like this whenever she refused to listen to Lorraine’s instructions. She’d hated it then, and she hated it now. It’s why she was so pissed when Damon had done the same to her while crossing into this nightmarish place.
She kicked out and connected with something soft.
“Ow!” The grip on her loosened.
She took the opportunity to dislodge her midsection and stumble to the ground, taking the person doing the carrying with her. After she managed to untangle herself, she looked down into Levi’s familiar face. He seemed too busy cupping between his legs to care that he was now lying on his back, on the harsh ground.
“You can walk the rest of the way on your own. Don’t get any other ideas. If you make any sudden movements or try something stupid, I’ll blow Damon’s brains out.” Elroy had the barrel of her blaster pointed against the back of Damon’s head, between his dreadlocks. He was limping and favoring his left side, but he didn’t even pause.
Alex scrambled to her feet and held out a hand to Levi, offering to help him stand. He hesitated for a moment but eventually put his clammy hand in hers. When they were both standing, she let go, turned away, and walked on. She couldn’t be angry with him or even his other half, Milo. Not when she’d heard the threat Elroy had made. Yet, she couldn’t help but wonder why the head of security hadn’t put thismuch thought into keeping his people safe in the gardens.
She looked around. They were inside a building she didn’t recognize, but it looked like all the others-stone, uncolored walls, shiny white tiles, and sparse wooden furniture. Everything in Eden seemed so minimal. Was efficiency more important than comfort to these people?
“Why are you doing this?” She stood just behind Elroy and doubted he’d answer, but she couldn’t stand the silence and hated how focused he was on Damon. Luckily, Milo was helping him move forward.
I should be the one helping him along.She made a move toward Damon, but Elroy grabbed a hold of her wrist, yanking her back.
“Stay behind me,” he said. “That’s where your new place will be.”
“You bastard,” she whispered. “What the hell are you getting out of this?” Well, aside from framing her with murder, of course.
Elroy didn’t bother to look at her when he said, “You’ll soon see for yourself.”
She didn’t bother saying anything else after that. Instead, she kept her gaze pointed ahead, trying not to stare at Damon’s bare back. The tense set of his shoulders confirmed that even though he wasn’t reacting or fighting back, he was wound up pretty tight. Knowing he was a healer gave her a little hope. Surely he’d be able to heal quickly after being shot. The only problem she could think of was the blaster’s laser also having a numbing effect on his body. It eventually wore off but usually took hours. Would he be able to flush the effects from his system sooner than that? Judging by his sluggish movements, she doubted it.
She could feel his desperation flow within the pit of her stomach. Though the flowing echo of their mutual orgasm had now receded, the lingering, sensual buzz between them still bit into her.
“Open it, Milo.”
“I don’t have access to her room-”
“It’s unlocked,” Elroy snapped.
Alex blinked, only now realizing she’d been walking on autopilot and hadn’t noticed they’d reached a closed door.
Milo did as instructed and helped Damon limp into the bedroom.
Alex followed close behind, glancing at their new surroundings. This room resembled the one she’d been staying in. Even the window was located on the same wall.
Elroy led the small group toward another door. One she assumed was the bathroom, but instead turned out to be a small closet. When Milo opened it, Elroy pushed him out of the way. Never taking the weapon off Damon’s head, he curved his hand around the side of the doorway, and a creaking noise started up.
She leaned closer and watched the floor inside the closet slowly open up into a dark hole.
Milo pushed aside a row of white gowns-each was a different design, but all looked just as stylish.
Alex’s stomach fell when she realized whose bedroom they must be in and what this meant. She suddenly wanted to catch a glimpse of Damon’s face but could only see his back. Had the woman leading these people betrayed them all along?
“Come on. Let’s go,” Elroy said. “Grab the whore and head down first.”
Milo reluctantly released Damon’s arm and grabbed hers instead. He didn’t say a word but looked at her with big, sad eyes. She didn’t resist when he took her hand and descended into the hole. She did quickly glance over her shoulder in time to see Levi take over the position Milo had been forced to abandon.
She also noticed Elroy kept the blaster steady, even as they moved farther down the slick stairs.
Focusing on the stairs ahead was hard, because she couldn’t see a darn thing and being barefoot didn’t help. She couldn’t get a proper grip, but Milo kept a tight hold on her arm, ensuring she didn’t slip or fall into the darkness ahead.
With every new step, the temperature dropped. By the time they reached the bottom, she felt goosebumps sprouting all over her body.
A second before the others reached them, Milo whispered, “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t get a chance to respond, to tell him that she understood all of them were in the same position. First chance she got, she was going to smack Elroy. She might have gotten a knock on the head for head-butting him, but the satisfaction of knowing she’d made him bleed was enough for now.
“Step aside for a moment,” Elroy said, before the electronic sound of keys being pressed echoed around them. A second later, yet another door slid open in front of them. “Get inside. All of you.”
Alex swallowed. She still couldn’t see where they were going, but she had no doubt it would serve as their tomb. None of us are going to make it out of this pit.If they were about to find out what was going on, they would all die with the secret.
“About time you got here,” called a familiar and very sweet-sounding female voice.
Once they’d all stepped inside, the door slid shut behind them with a very final clicking sound.
“Welcome to my secret lair,” Aleena announced. As if to echo her words, a multitude of lights and monitors snapped on, one at a time. “I’m glad you finally made it. Just in time, too.”
“Priestess Aleena?” Damon said, uncertainly.
Alex’s eyes stung at the sudden glow of lights on the adjacent wall. She rubbed the tears away, trying to get as oriented as she could with the cave they were in.
“Yes, it’s me.” Aleena took a step, getting closer to the group. “Elroy, put the weapon down. He can’t do anything, anymore.”
“Just let me shoot him and be done with it.”
“No!” Alex took a step, but Milo held her back.
Aleena turned to look at Alex, and a small smile teased her lips. “Don’t be silly, Elroy. You know I need him for one last thing.”
Elroy sighed and lowered the blaster to his side. “Afterward-”
“We’ll see when the time comes. I still need him to provide me with an offspring, so it’ll be a while before he becomes completely useless.” Her smiled turned wicked.
Elroy’s face soured.
Alex felt a stab in the pit of her stomach. The thought of Damon impregnating this woman made her uncomfortable. Though, she couldn’t help but wonder if this meant Damon was also one of Aleena’s lovers. If she ruled supreme, she could do and demand whatever she wanted from whomever, couldn’t she?
“What makes you think I’d agree now, when I’ve denied you every other time?” Damon spat.
Aleena shrugged. “This time you won’t have a choice.”
“What the hell do you want with us?” Alex said, taking a step forward, even when Milo tried to hold her steady.
“Ah, the space traveler always has so many questions.” Aleena stopped in front of her, lifting a hand to Alex’s hair and stroking the ends of her curls. “You’re quite lovely and feisty. I like that. If you’d like to join Damon in the bedroom with me, you’re more than welcome to.”
“I don’t swing that way.”
She lifted a narrow shoulder in a half-shrug. “Once again, you wouldn’t have a choice. I rule supreme. If I want the two of you in bed, then it willhappen.”
Alex didn’t bite. Whatever sick game of dominance this woman was playing, she wasn’t going to win this time. “Yeah, about that,” she began, never taking her eyes off the so-called Priestess. “Who exactly do you worship? Who is the deity you serve and honor?”
Aleena’s blue eyes hardened as much as her features. She still looked beautiful, but in a very cunning and cold way. “I don’t serve anyone, Alex. The people of Eden serve me.” She pulled on Alex’s hair.
“Then, you’re not a Priestess.”
She leaned forward, almost pressing her body against Alex, and whispered in her ear. “You might be right, because I make up the rules as I go along. So, what doesthat make me?”
“A bitch?” If she doesn’t stop tugging on my hair, not even the threat of a blaster is going to stop me from beating the shit out of her.
Aleena laughed in her face, before releasing her hair. “I was thinking more along the lines of Goddess.”
“How do you keep this planet off the radar?” Alex shifted her gaze to stare at the wall filled with screens, refusing to indulge this delusional woman’s quest for grandeur. A long panel, with keyboards, smaller screens, and other gadgets she hadn’t seen before, lined the surface. This had to be Aleena’s control center, where she watched and plotted without the people above suspecting a thing.
There was something featured on every screen. Although Alex couldn’t see all the images clearly, she recognized the paths and the surrounding gardens, as well as the room they’d entered to get access to this hidden lair.
Aleena stepped back, but she was still close enough to grab Alex’s curls if she wanted to. “Oh, you’re a smart one, aren’t you?”
“Why do you lie to your own people and tell them there’s no way to get off this planet when there obviously is? I bet you’re hiding ships as well, and maybe even a spaceport of some sort.” It didn’t have to be big, and certainly didn’t have to house more than one ship, but Alex suspected it was probably located somewhere within this large cavern.
“My people don’t need to know anything I don’t want them to. It’s my duty to guide them.”
“How could you do this to us when we all believed in you, trusted and served you? How could you take advantage of us like this?”
Aleena’s blue eyes darkened. “Oh, Damon. I didn’t take advantage of you. I’ve been keeping you safe. Trust me. You don’t need to be out there. Only bad things happen in space.”
Alex couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to her, to make Aleena this way.
“It should be our choice, not yours,” Damon said.
“You sound like those fools.”
“What fools?” Alex asked, trying not to breathe in the sweet scent of her.
“The Elders, of course…” A faraway look filled her eyes.
“What elders?” How much was this woman hiding?
“Aleena, is this really necessary? Aren’t we running out of time?” Elroy asked, taking a step.
“Hush, Elroy. We’ve got time.” Aleena stepped close to Alex, but this time trailed her fingers down the valley of her breasts, pausing for a moment before turning to head for Damon. She ran a hand over his smooth arm. “The Elders ran the planet before you were born. Lucky for me, there’s no one around who actually remembers they ever existed. They were five people who thought they knew what was best for all of us. They’re the ones who built the walls to keep the birds out, but they were stupid enough to think it would be enough. It wasn’t, because at night, the birds still flew overhead and managed to catch the odd person walking in the gardens.”
Damon’s brow furrowed as he listened.
“We needed much more protection, and I was determined to find it in the stars. That wasn’t my responsibility, of course. They only trusted me with selling our wares and foods to other places. It was a great way to trade, I have to admit. Visiting those markets was a way for me to find the answer I wanted, and I eventually did. I found it in a couple of sorcerers I managed to lure with the promise of riches beyond their comprehension. The fools. We don’t have any riches to offer, never did.” She ran her fingertips up and down Damon’s arm, as if he were a pet. “While I was out there, I was attacked. Brutally beaten and raped. I returned to Eden, ashamed. The ordeal became a horrible burden, which would haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Alex swallowed the lump in her throat. Suddenly, the energy bars and water weighed heavily in her stomach. For some reason, she knew what Aleena was leading to, and she didn’t want to hear it.
A small groan echoed around them.
“Hush,” she whispered. “I managed to get the sorcerers to help me with what needed to be done, and then made sure that anyone who was old enough to remember the old ways was used as fuel to create the security we so desperately needed.”
“I don’t believe you,” Damon spat. “You would sacrifice our people for protection?”
“Wasn’t it worth it? I’d say it was.” Aleena sneaked a quick glance at Alex. “No one’s bothered us for decades, the birds stay out, and you’re the only one who can wander in and out. Do you ever wonder why?”
Alex hadn’t seen many people during her stay, but they all didseem pretty young. How long ago had Aleena done this crazy act?
“Now, we’re finally ready to carry out the final step in completelyseparating us from those horrid night birds and the dangerous galaxy. This way, no one will ever find us, again.” She looked at Alex. “We’ve got less than half an hour to complete the moon ritual.”
Alex had lived a lot of her life without having to take care, or give a crap, about anyone but herself. Yet, she couldn’t let this manipulative woman make such a serious decision for everyone without their consultation. It was her bitch of a mother all over again.
“Priestess,” Elroy began, “we should begin.”
Color sprouted high on Aleena’s cheekbones. Her long, pale hair tumbled over her shoulders as she crossed her dainty arms in front of her. “You keep quiet, now,” she snapped. “Elroy’s dislike of aliens almost gave everything away. He’s got good reason to hate them, of course. We were promised to each other all those years ago, and were about to make our union public, when the Elders found out what had happened to me. They labeled me tainted, even though it wasn’t my fault. I was attacked, but they wouldn’t listen and forbid our union. By then, I was a little scared of men anyway, and sought out companionship from women. They just felt safer, softer, and knew how to wipe away my tears when they fell at the most inopportune times. Elroy was patient and loyal, waiting until I was ready. For that he must be rewarded.” She held out a hand to him. “Come here.”
Elroy hesitated. “What about them? I need to keep this-”
“Just come here.”
He headed toward her with the blaster at his side. When he placed his hand in hers, she led him farther into the cave and away from the rest of them.
Alex looked up, and for the first time, she noticed the moonlight filtering in from above. She turned her attention back to Aleena and Elroy. They paused, their hands still joined.
Aleena rose on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “Thank you for your loyal service.”
“The pleasure was always mine, Aleena.”
Alex wanted to knock the smugness off his face. Her fists balled up at her sides with rage. Her blood boiled as she glared at the rocky surface-wondering what this crazy bitch had in store for them, and hating this man who was so blindly being led by her. Aleena obviously didn’t care about Elroy, yet he was willing to do whatever she wanted him to do. She was leading him on, using his unconditional devotion against him.
“Give me the weapon,” she said, taking it out of his grip and dropping it at her feet.
Priestess Aleena smiled and let go of his hand before placing both of hers against Elroy’s chest. She caressed him lightly and pushed. He stumbled, a confused expression on his face. When she took another step and pushed once more, Elroy tumbled out of sight.
His screams echoed up from what sounded like a void.
A bolt of light shot up from a huge hole in the ground-like some sort of vertical force-field reaching for the moon.
When she turned to face them, Aleena’s demeanor had darkened.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Damon asked. Instead of approaching the Priestess, he backed up until he stood beside Alex. Taking her hand in his filled her with a sense of safety that had been absent since Elroy forced them into this situation. Yet, she couldn’t help but wonder how he’d gotten the restraints off his wrists.
It doesn’t matter.
“Oh, Damon. I hadto do it. Elroy’s love for me makes his life-force much stronger. Besides, he’s made a few too many mistakes, and I never did get over the betrayal of men.” She wiped one hand on her dress. “After I get a child out of you, I’ll never need a man, again.”
“That’s not going to happen.” He tightened his hand around Alex’s. “I’ve got no interest in you.” Damon gave Alex a sideward glance, as if the latter bit had been said to her and not Aleena.
A low growl echoed around them. It was followed up by the word, “No!”
Alex shivered, because she knew exactly who was making those sounds.
Damon’s green eyes blazed with anger. “What else are you hiding?”
Aleena smiled as she leaned over, picked up the blaster, and tucked it in between the silver cord around her waist.
Damon stiffened beside Alex. Milo and Levi took on defensive stances, but the Priestess walked past all of them. They all turned with her, following her every move to see where she was going.
Alex noticed a cage and something pacing inside.
“The animal,” Damon whispered. He made a move to push Alex behind him, but she held her ground.
“I’d like you all to meet, Ulric.” She unfastened a large padlock and threw it to the rocky ground at her feet. “Well, all except for Alex. You already know him quite well, don’t you?”
She could feel the heavy weight of Damon’s stare but refused to look at him.
A brown blur raced out of the cage, across the rocky surface, and charged Damon. He let go of her hand just as he was knocked to the ground with a savagery that made Ulric’s furry snout dribble with spit.
“Damon!” Alex called. The last thing she wanted to do was aggravate Ulric, but Damon had already been weakened.
Levi and Milo stared in amazement, stuck to the spot.
Alex stepped forward but was stopped by the eyes of the beast. Ulric looked at her over his shaggy shoulder, his dark gaze penetrating hers. Horror and repulsion filled her, reminding her of how he tasted when he’d kissed her inside the room. Of him being naked, and that she’d actually touched him only moments before he morphed into something else.
Her stomach churned, but she kept the sickness down with quick, shallow breaths.
The animal watched her until Aleena stepped between them. “Let him be, son.”
For a moment, Alex didn’t know who the Priestess was talking to.
The fangs protruding from Ulric’s top lip seemed to retreat a little. His giant paws pressed down against Damon’s chest, pinning him to the spot.
She couldn’t bring herself to say the name filling her mind.
“Ulric.” It was Aleena who said it. “Come to me. Now.”
The beast took a step back, removing his paws from Damon. He went from quadruped to bipedal within moments. His face convulsed, and his spine arched as the fur retreated and became smooth skin.
Damon struggled to sit up. His left arm still didn’t seem to work properly.
Alex made a move to help him, but Ulric blocked her path.
“No.” Ulric seemed to have struggled with the change. His skin glistened with a layer of sweat. The muscles of his back and arms shifted into place, until she recognized every naked contour. “Alex, you belong with me.”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t.” Her breath remained unstable, but it was enough to string words together. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.” His body shook, and he was a mess. The air of self-assured control had been stripped from him, and he didn’t smell all that nice. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. You were supposed to get your business done in Lark, and then I was going to surprise you.”
“Surprise me? My ship crash-landed. What did you do to it?”
“It wasn’t me.” Ulric took another step. “I told you that it’s an old piece of crap. It was only a matter of time before this happened.”
How dare he say that? She resisted the urge to slap him, because she couldn’t bear the thought of touching him.
So, she was right. He’d been on her ship all along. She just hadn’t sensed him. Had he been trying to secure some sort of romantic getaway for them as she headed out on her latest cargo delivery? His offer of a permanent place on the Anteris Space Station had been sweet, but she’d refused and should’ve been given the decency to continue on her way. Alone.Not have him do something as possessive as this.
“Actually,” Aleena interrupted, “it wasyou, Ulric.”
He looked at her, confused. “What are you saying?”
“The ship crashed, because you were onboard. As soon as you passed by Paradise, you were pulled into the planet.”
“What the hell were you thinking?”
Ulric stared at Alex. “I didn’t know.”
“He’s right. He didn’t know…how could he?”
Alex speared Aleena with the filthiest look she could manage. He might not have known any of this would happen, but it didn’t make up for what he diddo! He’d invaded her ship and tried to force himself into her life after she’d made it clear that she wasn’t ready for such a commitment.
“I told you I didn’t want to stay with you. Why couldn’t you just take the hint and let me go?” She sneaked a quick glance at Damon, who was now standing and rolling his shoulders, as if he was concentrating on recovering and not listening to this uncomfortable exchange.
Ulric’s eyes were darker than she remembered them, and no longer fully human. The glint of the animal he’d somehow transformed into still lay beneath the surface. His face was shadowed with a beard.
“I just want to be with you. Is that so bad, Alex?”
“Get away from her!” Damon shouted.
Ulric looked over his shoulder, then met her gaze. “It looks like you’ve already replaced me.”
“I don’t understand what you were thinking. Why would you stow away on my ship? Damn you for being so possessive. You don’t own me, okay? I’m not one of your many possessions back on Anteris.” Alex yelled. She thought she’d already established herself as something more than just another possession. Yet, this invasion of her privacy proved otherwise.
Aleena stepped in Ulric’s path when he approached her. “I think it’s time we get a few things straight. You all look so angry and confused.”
Ulric turned and glared at the blonde woman. “I’ve dreamt about you so many times. Who are you?”
“I’d like you all to meet Ulric Cale. Although, that wasn’t the name I gave him. Someone else had the honor of naming him.” She wrapped a small hand around his arm, forcing him to face her. “He’s the one who’s been slaughtering people on our planet.” Aleena sighed. “It was inevitable and certainly wasn’t his fault.”
“Wait a minute,” Alex said. “You knew he was the one slaughtering your people, and you didn’t do anything to protect them?”
She shrugged and grabbed Ulric’s other hand when he tried to slip out of her grasp. “As I mentioned before, while I was out in the stars, something happened to me.” Tears filled her eyes. “The man who attacked and raped me, not only left me for dead in a back alley behind a market, he also impregnated me.”
“What are you saying?” Damon asked.
“The pregnancy was harsh, painful, and long. I killed a few people in the gardens myself, and the Elders locked me up for the last half of it. After much research, they understood what had happened, but I refused to believe them. That is, until my son changed from a baby into a pup after his second birthday. It was our moon, you see. Paradise forced him to become a monster. Every single night, he would change. I wanted a better life for him, so I went in search of a place without a moon and someone willing to adopt him.” She wasn’t looking at anyone but Ulric. “I found them on a space station called Anteris.”
Ulric tried to let go of her hands, but she held on tighter.
“No, son. Don’t be angry with me. It’s because I loved you so much that I had to give you up.”
A growl echoed around them. “You were raped, and the experience turned you against men. I heard you say it before. How could you have loved a product of such a thing, someone who would grow up to be another man?”
Aleena sighed. “Okay, maybe you’re right. Maybe I despised you, because you reminded me of the filth that had violated my body. Maybe without you, I would’ve been able to overcome the rape and forget it ever happened…but when I carried you to term-”
“Why didn’t you kill me before I was born?” Ulric lifted her hands between them. He was holding on so tight, Aleena’s skin glowed unnaturally white.
“Oh, I tried. Trust me, I did. Though, you wouldn’t get out. There was nothing I could do to purge you.” She paused. “I even tried to kill you afterward, by leaving you out in the jungle, but you always made your way back home before the birds could get you. The strength of the moon was too potent within you.”
The snap of bones filled the silence.
Aleena winced, but Ulric didn’t release her. What had he broken?
Ulric looked around his mother, to focus on Alex. “Don’t look at me like that.”
How else was she supposed to look at him? She couldn’t believe what had happened, what he was. The fact that she didn’t want anything to do with him went beyond the secrets and realization of him being a flesh-eating animal at night. She’d let him go the moment she stepped out of his quarters. She just hadn’t realized it until now.
“Alex, tell me you’ll come home with me,” he whispered.
She shook her head. Pain and anger swirled inside his eyes, but she refused to string him along any longer. A tug of confusion and uncertainty pulled deep in her gut, and she recognized it as Damon’s reaction. Her decision had nothing to do with what had happened here on Eden-not Damon, not the beast, or even getting stuck. Alex turned to look at Damon, wishing he hadn’t gotten caught up in all this craziness. He deserved so much better.
“Don’t look at him! You’re mine,” Ulric growled.
Aleena cried out, and another series of snaps erupted.
“No one walks away from me!”
“Consider this the first time,” Alex whispered.
Ulric’s eyes were rimmed with tears as fur sprouted from his pores. He tossed Aleena to the ground and rushed for Alex, but he was stopped when Damon shouldered him out of the way.
The animal slid near the edge of the crevice Aleena had pushed Elroy into, but he was back on his feet in moments. He surveyed the area with his snout in the air. His lips curled over his fangs, exposing them, seconds before leaping toward Alex a second time.
Ulric landed on the ground with a thump when the laser bolt blasted him in mid-leap.
Aleena held the blaster one-handed. The barrel was still smoking when she dumped it on the ground and stumbled forward. She fell to her knees. Her other hand hung uselessly at her side, looking like a rubber glove. Ulric had obviously broken every bone.
Her face was focused on him. Not with love, but with a look of hate marring her usually flawless face. “I never thought I’d see you again, but when I watched you jump out of her ship, I felt it deep within me. A mother never loses her bond with her child…no matter how much I wished I could.”
“Aleena, why did you drag all of us into this?”Damon’s voice was harsh, frustrated.
She sighed, avoiding all eyes. “All I ever wanted was to protect us from the dangers outside.”
“By culling the older population? What exactly did you do to them?”
“Damon, they served the same purpose as Elroy. The same purpose you will all serve, as well.”
Ulric looked up at Aleena with red-rimmed eyes. He’d been crying, and none of them had noticed. Alex felt a twinge of sympathy toward her former lover, but her anger surpassed any pity. It was his fault that she’d ended up on a planet run by a selfish freak.
“What about the prophecy?” Damon continued his interrogation, never letting go of Alex’s hand.
“I made it up.”
“It came true!”
“Yes, Damon. It did. You can imagine my shock when the monitors showed me our atmosphere had been breached by a ship, and I watched it crash into the jungle.” She sighed, looking down at her lap. “When I sent you out there, I didn’t think you’d find anything but a carcass or two. I was wrong on many counts. It wasn’t until I saw Ulric that I realized we were all in a lot of trouble, and that my hidden secret had finally caught up with me. That’s okay. I can clean this up the same way I’ve always cleaned up every other mess.”
“What other mess?” Damon’s anxiety echoed through his fingers and into Alex.
Aleena looked at him, tears cascading down her pale face. “Do you really think we live in the kind of community I try so hard to keep together? Of course we don’t. People disobey me all the time. They constantly break the rules, and I’m forced to deal with them.”
No one said anything.
She released a breath. “It’s hard to rule with an iron fist and make the rest of the people believe we’re living in utopia. I have to do whatever it takes to make things work.”
“That’s despicable!” Damon shouted. “How dare you keep us in the dark about everything? ”
“Don’t you dare judge me! Do you have any idea who your parents were? Those bloody gypsies were so easily lured by the promise of credits…” her voice trailed off. “They never cared about you. All they wanted was the riches I lied to them about.”
“What are you saying?”
“Didn’t you think it strange that you’re the only one who can practice any sort of magic within our walls? The only one who can freely wander in and out whenever he pleases?” The calculating look in her eyes made Alex shiver.
“It’s because of my connection to the arcane,” he answered with a shrug.
“No.” Aleena shook her head, making her hair sway like a wave. “Damon, you’re the only one who can connect to the magic holding our fortress together, because the sorcerers who made it were your parents. They gave their lives so I could save ours.”
“So, you killed them?”
“I took you in and raised you as my own. You replaced the son I lost in Ulric. Don’t you think thatwas payment enough?”
What the hell was this lunatic saying?
“Are you really my mother?” Ulric winced. Aleena had been a much better shot than Elroy-she’d burned a hole right through Ulric’s chest.
“Yes, I am. I promise your sacrifice won’t be in vain.”
“What sacrifice?” A vein in Damon’s rigid jaw pulsed as he glared at Aleena.
Alex couldn’t believe she’d fallen into a planet with an outward appearance of peace and serenity, paid for with vicious lies and cover-ups. Maybe her mother wasn’t the only bitch in the galaxy willing to do whateverit took to secure her own position of power. No matter what the cost.
What Aleena had called Damon’s parents kept echoing inside her head: sorcerers. Sorcery was a completely different thing than magic. Her father had told her about it only once, claiming all sorcerers came from a long line of gypsies who travelled the stars and lived all over the place. They were nomads who spent most of their lives moving from one place to another, selling their wares or smuggling what wasn’t theirs. They also had use of something he called the Arcanae-the force of energy they believed flowed through all of creation and could be accessed via ritual.
The only reason he’d confided this in her was because they’d once crossed paths with a female sorcerer who cut him up pretty bad, without laying a hand on him.
Her heart sank. I can’t believe I didn’t put this together before. Damon had referred to his use of magic as arcane…
She turned to look at Damon, with his gorgeous, caramel skin and glowing, green eyes. If he carried the blood of sorcerers, did it mean her father did, too? Her mother had often referred to him as a ‘gypsy’, but Alex never thought anything of it. She couldn’t believe her life was clicking together at the same time as Ulric and Damon’s.
“Aleena, what are you planning?”
“Hush, Damon. It will all work out. You’ll see. My son can’t stay on Eden, and now that he knows the truth, he can’t go back to his space station, either.” Aleena looked at Ulric with a sad smile curving her lips. “Do you understand why you’re here? You were never supposed to leave your home. I thought your parents made sure of that.”
“They did, but I sneaked out. Besides, they’ve been dead for years.” He paused, licked his lips, and trembled. “I just wanted to surprise her.” He closed his eyes. “It burns so much. Why did you shoot me?”
“Because I knew you would never accept this fate willingly.”
“Accept what fate?”
“Your life is worthless. You have to forfeit it for others,” Aleena answered. “There might not be a prophecy, but the ritual that’ll permanently seal us off from the dangers of the planet is very real.”
“I won’t help you,” Ulric whispered.
“You’re going to stand up, now.” Aleena continued, as if he’d never spoken.
Ulric didn’t resist when his mother dragged him up with her. “I don’t want to die. I can return to Anteris with Alex and forget any of this happened-”
“No, you can’t. I warned them about this.”
“Who did you warn?”
“I told your adoptive parents that if you ever returned, your fate would be sealed. It’s where I got the inspiration of the dark-haired traveler who would lead us to salvation.” A dry chuckle escaped her. “I never imagined it would come to be.”
“I don’t understand,” Alex whispered.
“It’s simple, really. The sorcerers used some of Ulric’s blood to forge the energy to fuel the barriers, then they used their own to close it.” She dragged Ulric by his arm, forcing him to move on unsteady feet. “I knew we would never be completely safe until I used the blood of my own son, and that of the sorcerers’ son to seal it. It’s the only way.” She lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not taking Damon with you,” Levi said.
Alex looked at Damon. She couldn’t believe this insane woman was willing to kill both men in order to succeed in this insanity. Damon met her eyes with a determined look and offered her a small smile. When she looked away, she found Ulric staring at her. Even in human form, his eyes glowed like an animal trapped in the dark.
He looked so sad, but she couldn’t bring herself to show any empathy toward him. None of the crazy stuff had been his doing. Still, she couldn’t help but blame him.
Ulric broke eye contact and turned to peer into the hole in the ground. “Okay, I’ll go willingly.” His toes skimmed the edge of the light. He turned to look at Alex again, and mouthed, “I really do love you, Alex. I’m sorry you couldn’t love me back.”
She took a step, ready to tell him things weren’t that simple. There may never have been love between them, but the desire which brought them together in the first place hadbeen real.
“That’s a good boy, “Aleena said proudly. “You’ve finally given me something to be proud about.”
Ulric didn’t turn to face her when he said, “Alex, find the bracelet I gave you. It’s out in the jungle, somewhere near your ship. Plug it into your computer and you’ll see just how much you mean to me.”
Alex didn’t know what he meant, but she didn’t get a chance to dwell on it.
Ulric wrapped an arm tightly around Aleena’s waist. “I’m ready.”
“What are you doing?” The Priestess squirmed in his grip, her broken hand caught between them.
“You want to save your people so badly, then youcan do it with me.”
“No, let me go. Damon, stop him!”
Damon didn’t do or say anything.
Ulric took a step forward and fell into the abyss, with Aleena still in his arms.
The light engulfed and sucked them down, leaving a mist of blood in its wake.
Even when Ulric felt the flesh being torn from his body one layer at a time, he kept a tight hold of the woman who claimed to be his mother. Everything she’d said to him was true-his parents hadtold him he wasn’t their biological son, and they warned him about the bad things that would happen to him if he ever left Anteris.
He’d listened to them for most of his life, until falling in love had caused his life to unwind and brought him to the place where it all began.
Everything he’d achieved had been for nothing.
So, taking the person responsible for giving birth to him seemed just. This woman-Aleena-had evil plans, and he refused to let her follow through with them. He wouldn’t let her kill Alex, which she obviously had every intention of doing. By taking Aleena into the abyss, he’d also managed to help others. At least he could move onto the next phase knowing he’d done some good in a fucked up situation.
I hope you don’t forget me, Alex. I’m sure I’ll never forget you.
He also hoped his shapeshifting condition would never affect her.
Even without a physical shape, the light of the moon still managed to caress him. For the first time since feeling the satellite’s call, he opened up his awareness to it, allowing it to grab a complete hold of his very essence.
I don’t care what I become, now. Take me.
Instead of continuing down into the mouth of the abyss with Aleena, he felt his spirit rise as if it were being pulled by the moon.
Now, he would finally become one with someone. The moon loved him the way Alex couldn’t.
Before he ceased to exist completely, Ulric couldn’t help but mentally smile, trying to imagine what Alex would do when she saw what he’d left for her. Of course, the credits he’d uploaded onto the bracelet would be nothing compared to the inheritance coming her way.
Goodbye, Alex. It was good while it lasted.
The sun beat against Alex’s back. In spite of the many trees, the sun still managed to find them as they trudged through the uneven terrain of the jungle. Is this what the moon did to Ulric?Had it chased him around until it caressed the fur out of him, and he had no choice but to surrender? The thought roused a shiver, because in a sense, that’s what he’d tried to do to her.
Ulric-the man she thought she knew-had turned out to be a complete stranger. Not even entirely a man, either. She found it amazing that even after spending so much time in bed with him, she still hadn’t known a damn thing about him. She’d only skimmed the surface of Ulric Cale and hadn’t thought to dig deeper. Even after all of their exclusive intimacy, she’d never cared enough about him to bother. Why hadn’t she realized this before?
I just hope his being half-animal doesn’t affect me.She’d have to check with her physician and ensure her microchip covered her against every transmittable disease.
“Are you all right?” Damon casually rubbed small circles on the back of her hand.
As good as it felt, she pulled it away. “I thought we spoke about this.”
“We’re alone,” he whispered.
He might be technically correct, but Levi and Milo were just up ahead. They’d left the fortress as soon as day broke, lugging a huge cart with parts and tools to fix her ship. They’d looked so professional and efficient. She couldn’t remember seeing either of the boys so relaxed before.
Less than twenty minutes ago, Levi contacted them to let them know they were almost finished. Code for: your ship is almost ready to leave this horrible planet.
She turned to glance at Damon. His dark hair glowed in the sun, the dreadlocks hardly swaying as they continued forward between the trees and vines in their way. Although he smiled back when he caught her eye, she could feel the tension inside him. The blaster wound might have completely healed, but his world had been turned upside down. How much would knowing the truth about his parents and about Aleena change him?
“How are you? ” The weight of her blaster felt heavy against her thigh. After reclaiming it, the weapon felt tainted. It had wounded Damon and helped kill Ulric. Still, if she remembered why she carried it in the first place, everything else would soon fade.
“Now that I’m leaving Eden with you, I’m fine,” Damon said.
She sighed. He’d told her of his decision as soon as they’d left the cave the night before. “Are you sure? With Aleena gone, everyone’s going to be lost. They’ll need someone to help them get back on track.”
“That’s what Levi and Milo will do. They’ll lead them into a fair society with a chance at democracy. They don’t need me. I don’t really belong with them.”
“Where do you belong?” Her heart skipped a beat while she waited for his answer. What did she want to hear, anyway? After what happened with Ulric, she wasn’t sure.
He shrugged. “Wherever life leads me, I suppose. As long as I follow the magic, I’ll be okay.”
She smiled. “Just promise me something, okay?”
“What’s that?” His gaze met hers, and it was a little darker than usual. As if the weight of what had gone on around them had taken a toll on his spirit.
“From now on, we’ll be honest with each other.” Of course, she meant it more for her sake than his. After all, shewas the one who’d kept things from him, not the other way around. Though, he did tell her one big fib. “Since you’ve already lied to me, I thought we should agree to honesty from now on. Forget about everything that’s happened and move on.”
Damon nodded, but said, “When did I lie to you about anything?”
“Well, you told me you didn’t have any mechanics on your planet. Yet, there are two. One of them also happens to be an electrician!”
“I didn’t know about Levi and Milo. It was as much a surprise to me as it was to you,” he said with a smile.
“So, you’re really going to be part of my crew, huh?” A worm of anxiety wove its way tightly inside her stomach. After taking charge of the ship, she’d never had anyone on Promisewith her. She stuck her hand in her pocket and touched the bronze key for comfort. Did she have to keep from wearing it now, since Damon would be nearby most of the time?
“Of course, unless you’ve changed your mind,” he said. His thumb ran crazy circles around the back of her hand.
She clenched her thighs together, trying to walk as casually as she could but bit down on her bottom lip when the ecstasy raced through her. Her cheeks heated.
She opened her mouth to answer but didn’t get the chance.
“We’re done!” Levi called from the height of the tree where her ship was still lodged.
She hadn’t even realized they’d reached the spot. “Excellent.” I really can’t wait to get out of here.
Alex pulled her hand from Damon’s grip. With the surge of the orgasm slowly fading, she started to scratch her hand. During all the commotion, she’d forgotten to replace or even remove the bandage, and it had been bugging her since they’d stepped out of the relative safety of the fortress. She didn’t want to alarm Damon, so she’d kept quiet.
Now, it was too unbearable to stop. She scratched it, wanting to tug the bandage off.
“What’s wrong? You’ve been doing that a lot.”
“It’s just getting a bit itchy. That’s all,” she said between gritted teeth.
The concerned look on Damon’s face made her feel self-conscious.
Levi and Milo landed simultaneously on the ground beside them. They each dumped their tool bags into the waiting cart, which appeared to be a little less full than when they’d taken off. Their long hair was matted with sweat and grease, and their faces were covered in it.
“Is it all fixed?” she asked. Excitement bubbled up inside her. Until she’d caught a glimpse of Promise,she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed her ship. It might be a rust bucket and not so great to look at, but it was her home. The only real home she’d ever known.
Levi nodded. “We fixed all the mechanical and electrical problems, but you do have some cosmetic issues. We’re not equipped to fix them.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got a bodywork guy who can help.” She wondered how Damon would be affected while travelling with her, as she randomly ran into the string of ex-lovers she’d left scattered along the way. Still, she hadn’t committed to anything but offering him a place on the ship.
Besides, she’d probably have to build new contacts so Sackor wouldn’t find her.
“Damn!” She scratched her hand.
“You two better get going,” Damon said. “It’s already getting dark.”
Milo looked overhead.
“Are you guys sure you don’t want me to seal the fortress completely?”
“No, Damon. We don’t need to.” Levi shook his head. “We can’t get out without you, anyway.”
Alex watched him hand over the dreadlock he’d cut off, as well as the small canister of his blood. She’d watched him cut his forearm and hair before they left Eden.
Damon shrugged. “Either way, this should be enough for you to get in and out of the barrier whenever you need to. I’ve put some of my magic into both. If you change your mind about not sealing the village off, you still have time to pour the blood into the hole.”
“Thank you.” Levi took the offerings and shoved both things into his pocket.
The sun’s rays seemed to draw down faster. A definite trace of twilight already surrounded them.
“Come on, Milo.” Levi held out his hand, and the other man took it. They made a cute couple. It was good to see them being liberal with their mutual affection.
“We need to go, too.” Damon wrapped his hand around her wrist and yanked her forward.
The slimy voice poured over her body and left behind the trails of disgust it always roused inside her. She looked at her hand and yanked off the bandage, wishing he hadn’t had a way of tracking her down.
She gasped when a tiny eye stared back at her from inside the crook of her hand. The yellow eye had a green slit in the middle, and blinked continuously.
Damon followed her gaze. His frown deepened.
“Is this the first time you noticed my surveillance on you, dear Alex Wales?” Sackor stalked out from the thick foliage with a blaster in his dark right hand, and a smile on his hard face. Two of his goons followed close behind, with their own blasters pointed. One stood on each side of their leader.
“What the hell do you want?” Alex tried to ignore the eye staring back at her. There wasn’t enough soap in the galaxy capable of making her feel clean after this.
Sackor sniffed the air between them. “You didn’t deliver the goods I entrusted you with.”
“Cut the bullshit. You did this to me back on Anteris.” Alex took a step forward. The horror of what was beneath her skin pushed her bravado to the surface. This piece of crap wasn’t going to get away with implanting her with some disgusting thingso he could keep tabs on her.
He laughed. It was more noise than anything else, an echo deep within his throat. She wanted to cut off his circulation.
“I knew about your boyfriend’s origins, if that’s what you mean.” Sackor shook his head in obvious disgust. Those goggle-shaped eyes were shiny. “The poor sucker had no idea. All these years, and he didn’t know his home planet was where I’d been collecting my greatest weapon of mass destruction. With those little worms under my belt, I can overrun anywhere. Your boyfriend’s space station is next.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
Sackor sniffed the air. “Yes, I can smell this other guy on you. Why must you taunt me this way? You’ll lie in everyone’s bed but mine. Why?”
“Yes, I would,” she spat the words out. “I wouldn’t touch you if you were the last creature in the galaxy…or even the universe.”
Sackor lifted a hand and slapped her cheek. The ends of his spiked claws pierced her skin, tearing it.
He’s going to pay for this.
Damon stepped forward, but she held him back.
“Too bad the option is no longer yours.” Sackor eyed Damon with suspicion.
“There’s no way I’ll let you touch me!”
Damon attempted to take another step, but one of Sackor’s goons cut in front of him, pressing the blaster into his midsection. Levi and Milo held their positions to the side.
“Like I said, the choice is mine.” Sackor reached for her arm, but she dodged him.
The light of the sun was almost completely gone, and the screeching from above began, sounding like a terrifying symphony.
Sackor lifted his head to scan the trees, but he seemed satisfied enough to turn his attention back to her. “I’ll forgive that you didn’t deliver the last cargo if you agree to stand beside me.” The offer hung between them as his beady, dark eyes peered into hers. “It doesn’t have to be forever. Just long enough for you to claim what’s on this.” He held up the bracelet Ulric had told her to find.
“Hey, give that to me, you bastard. It’s mine!”
Sackor held it out of reach. “You can have it…after we go back to Anteris and you legally sign the contents of the microchip over to me.”
“What?” What the hell was he talking about? She was about to ask when one of the bird monsters swooped down from between the trees.
One of the goons lost his face when the bird’s claws swiped it off. A second bird grabbed the other one and took him into the trees. Their screams echoed around them, only to stop as soon as a shower of blood dribbled over them like rain.
Sackor stepped forward, but his bony shoulders were already seized. He struggled to break free. Both the blaster and bracelet slid from his hands as the bird dug its claws deeper into his harsh flesh. Sackor met her eyes one last time-the fear so evident, she couldn’t help but smile. The creature’s large beak dug a gaping hole into the top of Sackor’s insect-like head, as easily as if it were a giant egg.
The bird-creature spread its tendon-laced wings out wide, screeched, and took off into the night, with Sackor in tow.
“We need to move, now! ” Levi yelled.
Alex leaned over and scooped up both the bracelet and blaster, when she noticed Sackor’s crown. She took that too and stuck everything deep into her bag.
Sackor was dead, and she couldn’t be happier. His death meant that a lot of secrets had died with him-including this planet, the worms, and Ulric’s fate. There was no way that piece of crap would have shared something as powerful and profitable-as what he hoped to gain from here-with anyone else.
Now, I don’t have to hide from him or seek new clients.
“Levi’s right. They’ll come down for more.” Damon slapped the two men affectionately on their backs. “Be safe and take care of the people. You’re all they’ve got.”
“I’m sorry about our part in all the trouble,” Levi said.
Damon took a step back. “Farewell.”
Alex didn’t wait for him. Instead, she was already climbing the tree trunk when another round of frenzied screeching began. It wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be to get to the top. It was either the skill she’d picked up during her stay on her mother’s planet or the urgency of trying to get away from the birds. Either way, she was inside Promisewithin minutes, Damon following close behind. She shut and sealed the door behind him.
She ran to the back of the ship, to make sure Levi and Milo had removed every one of those damned barrels like they said they would. She hadn’t noticed them in the jungle, but they weren’t in her cargo area, and that’s all that mattered.
“Alex!” Damon called from the front of the ship.
The ship shook as the screeching creatures battered it from all sides.
She lost her balance and smacked her shoulder against the wall a few times, but eventually she made it into the pilot seat and rubbed the armrests lovingly.
“Sit down and strap yourself in,” she called over her shoulder.
She heard the snap of the seatbelt and the creak of the seat behind her. No one had sat in the other seat since she’d stopped being a passenger and became the pilot.
“Come on, baby,” Alex whispered when she pressed the button to roll the engine into action. It took a few attempts, but eventually it sputtered into action, without the need to use her lucky key.
I’ve missed you, Promise .
She lifted the lever to open the thrusters in the back, and screaming followed. The flames shooting out the back had scorched whatever creatures were back there. Yes!
A satisfied smile curved her lips. “Damon, are you ready?”
“As ready as I’m ever going to be.”
Alex took hold of her steering stick and moved it forward. The ship took several attempts to dislodge and rise off the tree, but she persevered.
Promisefinally shot up into the blackened sky, rocking every step of the way. The creatures filled most of the sky. She could see their hungry, red eyes through her visor, ready to tear at the ship burning them as it ascended.
With her heart beating inside her throat, Alex maneuvered Promisehigher into the sky and away from a planet she never wanted to see, ever again.
“You’re sure it’s completelygone?”
“Okay…I’ll take your word for it.” Yet, Alex didn’t sound convinced and inspected the gaping hole several times before offering her hand so he could seal it. She met his eyes. “Go ahead.”
Damon chuckled, leaned over, and blew a warm breath across the skin between her index finger and thumb. The air tickled his cheeks and made his lips buzz as it poured from him and onto her skin, sealing it instantly. He was putting a lot more in there than just his breath.
She trembled beneath his grip, and he couldn’t help but smile. He doubted he’d ever get tired of having such a sensual effect on Alex. That a touch of his hand or a little of his breath made her squirm this way, excited him.
Damon hadn’t known what to expect once they were in space, but the arcane felt just as strong out here as it did back on Eden. If anything, he felt a pull deep down inside, as if there were an actual location calling out to him.
Aleena lied to me about so much…
No, I don’t want to think about her right now.He wasn’t ready to face all the revelations, lies, and secrets his life had been based on since he was a child. Aleena had taken advantage of his naivety and used his magic for her own purpose-always having a bigger goal in mind. No, I can’t focus on that lying woman.Maybe he never would.
Alex had suspected Aleena from the beginning, which made him realize she was in tune with her inner magic more than she knew. While they were alone in space, he would volunteer to help her learn more about the suppressed side of her she didn’t like to believe existed.
In such proximity, he could feel her power caressing his.
Alex inspected her hand with a smile. “Thanks. It’s not itchy, anymore.”
Damon stared out the small circular window on the wall across from him. He didn’t feel comfortable looking out the windshield just yet. There was so much blackness outside. He still felt a little sick in the stomach, though he was hardly going to admit it.
“So, will it bother you if I wear the key, now?”
He wanted to tell her to never to wear it, because he enjoyed the connection flowing between them, but if her father had poured some sort of protective magic into it and insisted she wear it, there had to be a reason. What had her father wanted to protect her from?
“It’ll mean we can’t feel each other in a sensual, deep way…but if you agree to keep it off when we’re touching, I don’t see a problem.” He knew it meant a lot to her. That she hadn’t mentioned it until now meant a lot to him.
He looked at her for a silent moment, enjoying the view of her long, shapely body, her beautiful face, and her shiny, curly hair…
Damon was going to like spending time alone with her. He could certainly understand why other men would want her company, but he’d decided to wipe the other man-the werewolf-from his mind. If he didn’t, there would be too many questions he’d want answered. The only thing he knew for certain was that Ulric had been Alex’s lover and wanted her so much, he stowed away on her ship.
Everything else is her business, not mine.
“Oooh, that sounds good to me,” Alex said with a wink. When she didn’t make a move to put it on, he had to wonder about her motivation. “So, how do you like it out here?”
Damon glanced quickly at the endless darkness outside the ship but turned back to Alex. To help ease him into space travel, she’d offered to cruise the stars for a while before landing on any other planet terrain, space station, or spaceport. She sure seemed to know her way around.
He’d accepted. “It’s very quiet and peaceful.”
“Where would you like to go first?”
“Wherever you need to,” he said with a shrug. The last thing he wanted to do was get in her way. He was happy to go wherever she was headed.
“I don’t have anything lined up, but I willhave to score a job or two soon. We need credits to keep us in space.”
Damon toyed with the question before saying, “What about your father?”
“What about him?”
“Will we go looking for him?” How could he tell her that by finding him, hemight indirectly get some answers about his own origins?
“Maybe…one day,” she said with a faraway look in her eye. “I think I would love to search for him, to find out if he’s alive or dead, once and for all. I’m not ready, yet. I know I’ll be one day, though. I’d love to find out more about the sorcerers and gypsies. I’d also like to help you get some answers of your own.”
Damon smiled. It was amazing how easily she denied his magic claims, yet seemed to feel the same vibes he did. “Thank you for letting me tag along with you.”
Damon took a step closer and pressed his lips against hers for a hard kiss. “I just couldn’t stay there.” He touched his fingers to the back of her head, and smoothed out the lump on her scalp.
“I know, and you’re welcome to stay with me for as long as you want.” Alex pushed her hand through his hair and met his eyes. “I can’t promise you anything, but I can offer you a place to stay. I can also tell you that although I want you in my life, I’m just not sure I’m ready for any intense commitment, yet.”
He touched her cheek, sealing the cut the black creature had given her during their confrontation in the jungle. “Shhh, let’s not talk about it. I know exactly what you mean. Now, I have a question for you.” He didn’t expect anything from her. After what had happened with the man on Eden, he understood she’d had a life of her own before they met.
Maybe one day, they would become more, maybe they wouldn’t, but he certainly wanted to have a good time discovering the stars with her.
He held up a golden statue he’d been wondering about since he found it on the floor of the ship. “Can you tell me what this is?”
Alex smiled. “That’s a statue of the Goddess Aphrodite.”
“You worship her?”
“Why do you have it, then?”
“It was a gift…” She stepped away from him, pulled off the gold bracelet she’d been wearing-and often toyed with, but wouldn’t talk about-and tucked it into the same drawer he’d seen her stash the bronze key in. “I think it’s best if I just show you.”
“Oh, okay.” He wondered what all the mystery was about.
“Come on.” She grabbed his hand and led him out of the cockpit. “Thanks for fixing me up, by the way.”
So much for healing her on the sly!“You’re welcome.”
Intrigued, Damon let her guide him across the cockpit.
Just as he passed the window, he noticed what looked like a tiny ship approaching in the distance, but he didn’t bother mentioning it. He figured ships traveled past each other all the time.
Besides, Alex was heading toward the sleeping quarters.
Now, I really want to know what this is.
About the Author
Yolanda Sfetsos lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband, daughter, and cat. She loves to spend most of her days writing stories. Her muse doesn’t like genre restrictions, and loves to toe the dark, otherworldly edge of storytelling.
When she’s not writing, she spends as much time as possible with her small family. She also enjoys watching movies, TV shows, anime, going for walks, and reading.
You can visit her website at www.yolandasfetsos.com