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War Bride

War Bride

 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

Copyright © 2016 Cyndi Friberg

Cover art by Dar Albert

Editor: Mary Moran

 

Electronic Book Publication, August 2016

Trade Paperback Publication, August 2016

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Version 1b

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Praise for Beyond Ontariese

 

Taken by Storm

Taken by Storm had it all—tense action, suspense, erotic sex, humor and a wildly imaginative plot.”

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“Unplug the phone and put the kids to bed; once you start reading Taken by Storm you won’t want any interruptions!”

~Fallen Angel Reviews

 

“For a story that will delight, entertain, and keep you on the edge of your seat, I highly recommend Taken by Storm and award it RRT’s Perfect 10.”

~Romance Reviews Today

 

 

Operation Hydra

“I highly recommend Operation Hydrait’s one of the best science fiction romances I’ve ever read. Perfect 10!

~Romance Reviews Today

 

“Outstanding! This segment only whetted my appetite for more. The heat between Kyrsta and Trey could cause a nuclear meltdown.

~Simply Romance Reviews

 

 

City of Tears

“WOW! City of Tears by Cyndi Friberg is one amazing blend of science fiction at its best and romance at its hottest…”

~eCata Reviews

 

War Bride

Cyndi Friberg

 

Battle Born, Prequel[*:*] Skyla’s prophetic dreams aren’t enough to keep her from being captured by a fierce Rodyte general, but they help her understand what he wants and the real reason he needs her so desperately. She’s now his captive and must decide if she’s brave enough to teach this embittered soldier how to love again.

 

Tragedy, and years of war, have hardened Kryton Lux, made him ruthless and unfeeling. He’s fascinated with his new captive, ready and willing to seduce her curvaceous body. His heart, however, isn’t part of the bargain. She will submit to his sexual demands. And when their time together has concluded, she will return to her homeworld and he will never think of her again. Luckily for Skyla, fate has a far different plan for this stubborn general.

 

From Cyndi: I’ve had many requests for more information about the war brides, so I decided to let one tell her story. Skyla is the mother of three upcoming heroes in the Battle Born series. This is a stand-alone story, but I hope you’ll check out my other books as well. Enjoy!

Table of Contents:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

[]Chapter One

 

Maletta Estate, Hautell Region

Planet of Bilarri

Skyla fidgeted on the padded bench of her vanity as her handmaiden slipped the final pin into her upswept hair. Skyla was surrounded by splendor, had known nothing but wealth and privilege her entire life and still she felt incomplete. She knew it was selfish and shallow to be ungrateful when Mother Creator had been so generous. Then why did her soul cry out for more? Worst of all, she longed for something, or someone, she didn’t yet understand.

A firm knock drew her attention to her bedroom door. Rona, Skyla’s handmaiden, rushed across the spacious room and opened the door just far enough to see into the hallway.

“Is she ready?” Simolta’s tight voice revealed his anxiety.

Skyla stood and adjusted the fall of her dressing gown, making sure she was modestly covered. “Let him in, Rona.” Simolta, her brother, had taken control of the family after their father’s death nine years before. For the most part he was loving and indulgent, but his latest obsession had put them at odds.

Simolta stepped into the bedroom and looked her over with open assessment. “You look lovely, as always. Are you emotionally ready as well?”

“Emotionally ready?” She allowed resentment to cool her tone. “Am I prepared to choose a life partner even if he is not my mate? Am I willing to abandon any hope of love and my longing for children so my family can benefit from my joining?”

He crossed his arms over his chest, chin jutting out at a stubborn angle. “I’ve given you much longer than normal to find a compatible male. Your search has failed. Now it’s your duty to accept a different life path. I’m giving you options, which is more than our father would have done.”

She just glared at him. What he said was true. Most highborn females were given two years to find potential mates and if their efforts failed, they accepted whichever life partner their father, or in her case brother, chose for them. Skyla had begun her search six years ago and had yet to find even one potential mate.

Simolta had selected three males for her consideration and each would attend the lavish festival planned for tonight. He expected her to spend time with each and decide which of the three she favored. The male she chose would then become her life partner. She was not genetically compatible with any of them, so they would never have children of their own. They would never form a soul bond or experience the shattering intimacies only bonded couples enjoyed. Instead, their joining would strengthen some element of her family’s dynasty. Such compromises were common among the wealthy and powerful families of Bilarri. It was just such partnerships that had kept a few select families in power for so long.

“I want children. You know that.” It was true. It was also her last argument, her only hope that her brother would release her from familial obligations.

“I have five children you can mother and there are sixteen more from our sisters. If they’re not enough, you can always adopt.” His firm tone and stern expression made it obvious he would not relent. “There’s no shame in this sort of joining. You need to accept that this is what Mother Creator has instore for you.”

Unable to force an agreement past her tight throat, she nodded.

“The men I’ve chosen are all wealthy and well-respected. They’re older than I’d hoped, but most young men are still determined to find their mate. Besides, I know you’re too sensible to be bothered by such trivialities. Did you look over the information I left for you?”

“I did.” The two tight words were all she could manage when what she really wanted was to scream. He’d left images and financial records for the three candidates. The reports read more like corporate mergers than the qualifications for life partners. As he’d said, all three males were at least ten years older than she. One was closer to twenty years her senior. Each seemed pleasant and affluent, but she’d hoped that the person she’d spend the rest of her life with would be more than “pleasant”.

“Balentar has two children from a previous joining,” Simolta reminded her. “Maybe he would be the best choice for you. His children would not share your blood, but I’m sure they would grow to love you.”

She choked on the lies that would put her brother at ease. She was heartsick and angry and she wasn’t a good enough actress to convince him otherwise.

After a tense silence, he sighed. “Well, our guests should start arriving shortly. I’ll let you finish getting dressed.” He pulled open the door then paused. “Your future will be secured tonight. I’m certain of it.”

Skyla turned to Rona after Simolta had gone. “He knows nothing. Some loveless joining for the benefit of my family is not what Mother Creator has instore for me.”

Rona’s brows arched then her eyes narrowed. “Did you dream of the Rodyte again?”

An image materialized in Skyla’s mind. The man was tall and imposing, vicious even, in a word, Rodyte, sworn enemy of all Bilarrians. His features were sculpted into harsh angles and dramatic hollows. Strange blue streaks threaded through his night-black hair and vivid blue rings smoldered in his dark eyes. She’d been dreaming about him for weeks and she still wasn’t sure if she should be excited or terrified.

The second option was more rational. After all, Rodyte soldiers were known to hunt Bilarrian females, to capture and keep them as sexual slaves, hoping their offspring would possess the quality Rodytes coveted above all else, magic. The sort of magic only Bilarrians possessed. Rodytes considered the practice an act of war, acceptable, even encouraged as part of the centuries-old conflict. They even called the victims “war brides”, as if that justified the savagery. The people of Bilarri found the kidnappings despicable, the worst sort of cowardice.

Despite the unpleasant subject, an intense tingle shivered down Skyla’s spine. What would it be like to be at the mercy of such a man? Would she fight him, resist his carnal tricks with every molecule of her stubborn nature, or would she helplessly surrender? It was said these Rodyte soldiers studied the art of seduction as intently as they learned to fight. Her friends protested the uncivilized behavior in public. Yet in private, they whispered and laughed, fantasizing about all the pleasures they’d know if possessed by a “Rodyte master”.

“Skyla?” Rona’s tone was sharper now, so Skyla dragged her mind back to the present. “Am I right? Did you have another dream?”

Resignation calmed Skyla’s expression, while Rona still looked worried. “Last night it wasn’t the man. I dreamed about the little boy. The first time I saw him, I thought it was the man back when he was a child, but now I’m certain they’re father and son.” Skyla had only seen the boy’s image twice, yet his features were even clearer than his father’s.

“And are you…” Rona couldn’t quite finish the thought.

“I don’t know if I’m his mother or why I’m seeing their images. But the urgency is growing. The images are clearer, each dream more detailed.”

“Have you told your brother? He could post extra guards or—”

“Simolta already hired extra guards for the party. Our guests are important and powerful people. Security is imperative for all of them.”

“I meant for you personally.” Rona smoothed a stubborn curl back into place near Skyla’s temple. Combined with the servant’s anxious tone, the gesture became maternal. “Your security detail should be doubled if a Rodyte soldier has targeted you.”

Skyla shook her head and glanced away from her handmaiden’s compassionate stare. “Then they’d be tripping over each other. Four grown men already follow me around whenever I leave the complex. Besides, this conversation just informed them. Doubtlessly, Ditten is standing outside that door listening to every word we say.”

“Good. You don’t seem nearly as frightened as you should.”

Looking at Rona again, Skyla said, “I don’t know enough to be frightened. I don’t know that the soldier has targeted me. I don’t know that he’s targeted anyone. I don’t know why I’m seeing his image.” Skyla crossed the elegant room, admiring the gown spread across her pedestal bed. The sumptuous garment of rich blue taffeta was elaborately embroidered in gold. It had once belonged to her mother, but had been altered to fit Skyla’s smaller frame. “I frequently see people I’m about to meet and have flashes of situations I’m about to experience. But the images are like still frames from a video stream. They don’t mean much without the surrounding context.”

“You’ve seen a Rodyte soldier and his child. What other context do you need? Rodytes must be avoided at all costs.” Rona lifted the gown off the bed and waited for Skyla to shed her dressing gown before carefully lowering the heavy garment over Skyla’s head. “And I still think you need to tell Simolta about your dreams.” Skyla held the strapless bodice in place while Rona firmly laced up the back. “Ditten is arrogant enough to think he can deal with any situation himself. This is too important. Tell your brother.”

Skyla shifted this way and that, assessing her reflection in the full-length mirror beside her vanity. She knew Rona was right, but something inside her made her hesitate. “He’d cancel the celebration and hundreds of people are already on their way. Even if the Rodyte has targeted me, I have no way of knowing if I’ll encounter him tonight or ten years from now. It makes no sense to raise the alarm without more evidence.”

“I don’t think that’s it at all.” Rona waited until Skyla turned from the mirror and looked at her directly before she said, “I think you want to encounter this man. I think you’re infatuated with him and you think he’ll rescue you from what your brother has planned.”

Skyla smiled at her overprotective servant, but guilt sped her pulse. Rona had started out as Skyla’s governess, then turned companion/handmaiden when Skyla outgrew the need for continual supervision. After more than two decades together, Rona knew her too well. “I wanted to find my mate, as does every Bilarrian. But I also knew there was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t. Besides, how can I be infatuated with a person I’ve never met? That’s just silly.” Rona clearly didn’t believe her, so Skyla attempted to defuse the situation. “I’ll tell my brother about the dreams and I’ll make sure Ditten is aware as well. Satisfied?”

“Thank you.” Rona’s dark eyes swept over her charge and then she returned Skyla’s smile. “You look lovely. Even more beautiful than your mother, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

Thoughts of Skyla’s mother always made Skyla sad. Lavon had passed beyond when Skyla was eight, so she had only faint memories of her warm smile and gentle touch. The video archive helped and her father spoke of his mate often, but now he’d passed beyond as well.

“I’m sorry,” the handmaiden said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s not your fault. I just miss them all and I wish I’d known Mother better. I’ve always felt cheated by her early passing.”

“She was warm and loving, like you.”

Skyla laughed. “I can be warm and loving, but I can also be stubborn and ambitious.”

Rona didn’t bother arguing. They both knew it was true. “Those qualities come from your father. The Hautell family has always been an ambitious lot.”

“I should get going.” Skyla smoothed down her full skirt and checked to make sure not too much cleavage was showing. “I’m sure the guests are starting to arrive and I have a decision to make.” She slid her feet into matching satin slippers and gave Rona a quick hug.

“Choose wisely. Your partner will be with you for the rest of your life.”

Skyla opened the outer door to her suite and found Ditten in the hallway as she’d expected. With long dark hair swept back from his sharp-featured face and incandescent rings separating his black pupils from his equally dark irises, he looked unmistakably Bilarrian. The rings in Ditten’s eyes were red, denoting his birth in the mountain region of Hautell. He was lean and agile rather than heavily muscled—like the Rodyte soldier.

“We should use the walkway,” he told her after offering the perfunctory bow. “It’s safer than crossing the yard.”

The elevated walkway leading from the private apartments of Maletta Estate to the entertainment wing was enclosed and stuffy. Skyla had always hated the claustrophobic tube. The night would be long, the ballroom crowded. She hated to deprive herself of the final few minutes of tranquility before the mid-summer festival began, but she had never been one to take foolish chances.

“All right.” With a frustrated sigh, she started off down the corridor, Ditten half a step behind. “How much did you hear?”

“All of it.” His answer didn’t surprise her. As well as having excellent hearing, Ditten was a powerful telepath. He routinely scanned her mind, per her brother’s orders. Simolta insisted the practice was necessary for her protection, but Skyla felt violated by the overreach. But then Simolta had many policies she considered excessive.

“And did you inform my brother?” This question was almost as unnecessary as her first. Ditten worked for her brother, not for her.

“Of course.” She looked back at her bodyguard and allowed her annoyance to show. “I know you feel like we smother you, but we really are trying to keep you safe.”

“I know.” Her statement neither agreed with nor argued against their approach to her security.

  • * * * *

General Kryton Lux eased his shuttle another centimeter closer to the security grid surrounding Maletta Estate. The external shields of the shuttle had been meticulously tuned so they mimicked the energy signature of the security grid. Energy would be deflected around the shuttle without disrupting the flow or setting off perimeter alarms. He’d used this trick countless times before and it had never failed. The maneuver took patience and precision, but once the shuttle was in place it would act as a gateway, while the security grid remained intact.

“Almost there,” he muttered, more to himself than his companion.

“Take your time. We’ve got all night.” Amusement rippled through Tonn Fyvre’s tone, drawing an annoyed glance from his commander.

“Have you located our target?” Kryton countered as the shuttle finally settled into position.

“I have and she’s on the move, so ignore my smartass remark. We don’t have much time.”

Kryton paused long enough to ensure that the shields were doing their job, then lifted the arm of the pilot’s seat and slipped out into the narrow aisle. “You have the suppression collar?”

“Affirmative.” Tonn stood and followed as soon as Kryton was out of his way.

“I know the bodyguard can throw fire, but he likely has other abilities. I’ll let you strike first.”

“Or you can collar the guard and let me capture the girl?” Tonn wiggled his eyebrows with a hopeful grin.

“No one touches her but me.”

Tonn’s buoyant mood evaporated and he inclined his head. “Of course, sir. I understand the plan and I’m prepared.”

“Then let’s go hunting.” Kryton triggered the hatch and drew his sidearm. Stealth was the name of this game, but it never hurt to be prepared for the unexpected. Their strike had to be fast and focused. He wanted to be long gone by the time Skyla’s absence was noticed.

The estate had been built in a valley, so the ground had a distinct slope. Even though his pace was brisk, he placed his feet carefully, not willing to reveal his position. The sun had set, though it was not yet fully dark. Indigenous tree cover gave way to manicured bushes and neat rows of smaller, flowering trees.

They’re headed for the elevated walkway. Tonn’s voice sounded within Kryton’s mind, transmitted there by com-bots. Many Rodyte technologies simulated Bilarrian abilities.

Kryton had hoped she’d walk across the yard. Close-quarter confrontations were always tricky. Even so, he’d planned for this choice as well.

An emergency evacuation stairwell midway through the walkway would provide their access point, but only if they were in position before Skyla and her bodyguard arrived. Kryton reached level ground and took off running. Though Tonn moved silently, Kryton could feel the slight breeze created by his pumping arms and legs.

Kryton reached the door to the stairwell and pulled a small device out of his pocket. Unlike most of the doors on the estate, which were protected by biometric or telepathic locks, this lock required an antiquated alphanumeric code. It was an oversight Kryton was happy to exploit. Within seconds the code generator provided the appropriate combination and the locking mechanism released.

According to the information Kryton had paid a small fortune to attain, there were no motion sensors or intruder detection systems in the stairwell. Still, he paused long enough to confirm the fact with his armband scanner.

“It’s clear,” he told Tonn, who was scanning as well. Tonn nodded and Kryton bolted up the stairs, his long legs clearing the obstacles three at a time.

He reached the upper doorway just as Skyla and her bodyguard entered the walkway. A large window in the door allowed him to see into the walkway and he watched their progress in a simple convex mirror hung from the ceiling. Tonn held a stun wand in one hand and the suppression collar in the other. Kryton had already checked to make sure his sidearm was set on stun as well. Damaging the bodyguard was an acceptable risk, but nothing would harm Skyla.

His heartrate increased with each step she took. Weeks of planning had led to countless nights of tossing in his lonely bed, dreaming of a future he’d yet to achieve. He’d quickly chosen Skyla from a short list of possible targets. At first he’d wanted her because her abilities were impressive yet nonthreatening. Clairvoyance could be extremely useful and still a clairvoyant was easy to control. At least physically. So he’d dug deeper and became more intrigued with each fact he learned. If the information he’d compiled was accurate, she was the perfect combination of cool logic and fiery spirit. She wouldn’t cower before him like a child, but neither would she despise him simply for being Rodyte. He’d experienced that phenomenon once too often in recent years. He was ready for a mature female with whom he could reason, rather than just rut.

He grasped the door handle as his target neared. Tonn shifted to the other side of the doorway, ensuring that neither Skyla nor her bodyguard saw him. As Skyla drew even with the door, Kryton swung it open and Tonn went after the guard. Kryton grabbed Skyla around the waist and pulled her firmly against him. In less than a second, the bodyguard was unconscious, collared, and lying at their feet. Kryton heard Skyla inhale sharply and realized she meant to scream. He raised his sidearm and reluctantly stunned her. She collapsed into his arms, her weight insubstantial even with the elaborate gown.

Nice work.

Tonn grinned.

More than anything Kryton wanted to savor having Skyla in his arms, but first they had to escape this gods forsaken planet. He draped her over his shoulder and turned toward the stairwell, one of his arms securely wrapped around her legs. Tonn held the door open and they rushed down the stairs. They flew out the door and sprinted for the relative protection of the trees, all the while listening for shouts or alarms.

They’d left the hatch open in anticipation of their hasty return. Maneuvering her through the opening and up the steep stairs tested Kryton’s strength and agility. Her billowy skirts sabotaged him at every turn. He finally managed to guide her entire body into the shuttle. Tonn dove in after him and secured the hatch.

They switched seats. Kryton sat at the navigator’s console and arranged Skyla on his lap. She lay securely in the cradle of his arms, head resting against his shoulder. Tonn slipped onto the pilot’s seat and drew the systems out of standby. The engines rumbled and the small ship vibrated as Tonn carefully eased out of the security grid. Once free, he blasted away from the complex with breath-stealing acceleration. Their exit would create a momentary fluctuation in the security grid, if it showed up at all.

Kryton smiled, finally allowing himself to relax. This had been almost too easy. When Rodytes first claimed war brides, all of Bilarri went on alert, making the simplest capture a challenge. Now, nearly a century later, few Rodytes had the patience or the resources required to maintain a war bride, so Bilarrians had grown complacent.

His captive shifted restlessly, momentarily drawing his gaze. Several strands of her long dark hair had escaped, trailing along her neck and into the valley between her breasts. Her thick-lashed blue eyes had widened when she saw him, the rings separating her irises from her pupils bright red.

“She really is beautiful,” Tonn muttered then quickly turned back to his controls.

Kryton’s gaze lingered on his lovely captive and his body hardened in anticipation of the conquest to come. Capturing her might have been easy, but he had no doubt Skyla would challenge him every step of the way.

  • * * * *

Someone slipped their arm under Skyla’s shoulders and lifted her slightly. Then something cool and smooth pressed against her lips.

“Drink. This will help revive you.” The voice was deep and resonate, obviously belonging to a man, but he spoke Bilarrian with an odd accent. Dread rolled across her shoulders and down her back.

A tangy liquid slid over Skyla’s tongue and she automatically swallowed, and then swallowed again. She blinked several times, then slowly lifted her lids. The stranger’s familiar face awaited her, as she knew it would. He sat on the edge of the bunk, his arm supporting her shoulders. His gaze was narrowed, the blue rings barely visible in an endless sea of black. He appeared every bit as savage as he had in her dreams.

“Who are you?” she whispered. She already knew what he wanted and why he’d taken her. Worse, she knew his seduction would succeed. Despite what she’d told Rona, Skyla had realized she was the boy’s mother the moment her dream revealed his perfect little face.

“I’m you’re master.” He spoke with calm finality. “You will call me sir.”

Ignoring the ridiculous statement, she pushed against the firm mattress and sat up. She wanted to see beyond him and needed to minimize her contact with his arm. There wasn’t much to see. The room was clean yet austere. The bunk on which she lay, a built-in work station and a small couch were the only furnishings. Maletta Estate was in a narrow valley. Only small, agile transports could navigate the challenging terrain. She couldn’t feel a telltale vibration or hear the engines’ drone, but she had no doubt she was on a spaceship.

“How long have I been unconscious?” Then her eyes widened as a far more important question barged to the front of the line. “What did you do with Ditten?”

“If Ditten is your bodyguard, we simply left him where he fell.”

“He wasn’t…” Dread lodged in her throat and she couldn’t speak the word.

“He was unconscious, just like you.” Apparently annoyed by her question, he pushed to his feet and stared down at her. “Despite what you’ve been taught, Rodytes only kill as a last resort.”

He had no idea what she’d “been taught” about Rodytes much less what she had learned on her own. Dreaming about him had made her curious and information was the only weapon against that sort of curiosity. Unfortunately, cold hard facts about Rodytes were hard to find in Bilarrian archives. Too much of what she’d found had been shaped by prejudice and hate.

Playing dumb was rather pointless, but she couldn’t think of any other strategy. “My family will only pay the ransom if I’m unharmed.”

“This isn’t about ransom and you know it.” He set the cup aside and straightened his light gray top before he spoke again. Leaning down, he took her right hand between his and started the vow she’d been dreading ever since she first saw his image. “I claim Skyla of Hautell as my war bride.”

“Stop it.” She snatched her hand back, but he caught it again, intertwining their fingers so she couldn’t avoid his grasp.

“I vow not to harm you and I promise you will be freed just as soon as I’ve reclaimed what your people took from me.”

She tugged against his hold as panic rose inside her. Magic. The Rodytes blamed Bilarrians for “robbing” them of the ability to manipulate magic. And forcing Bilarrian women to breed with them was their way of evening the score. “I won’t be harmed?” A caustic laugh escaped her throat. With a firm jerk, she freed her hand and scrambled off the bed. “How will you ‘reclaim’ what my people stole if you don’t intend to harm me?”

He clasped his hands behind his back, gaze narrowed and assessing. Her dreams had perfectly captured his rugged features and the leashed power emanated by his fierce expressions. What she hadn’t understood was the sheer size of the man. Her head would easily tuck beneath his chin and her entire body would be eclipsed by the width of his chest. He was no longer wearing armor, but his clingy shirt and well-tailored black pants made him no less intimidating.

“You’re not a virgin,” he stated casually. “Why would the thought of joining with me frighten you?”

How in hells’ fire did he know she wasn’t a virgin? “I have no intention of joining with you, now or ever. So you have no reason to keep me.”

“I disagree.”

Why was she arguing with him? She knew damn well he wouldn’t release her. She was just upsetting herself. “Anything you want, you’ll have to take by force. Are you really that evil?”

“Contrary to what you’ve been told, rape is not our way.” His voice dropped, becoming a rumbling purr that spread heat throughout her body. “When I push inside you for the first time, you’ll be wet and aching, more than ready for me to fill you.”

“You’re deluded.”

The corners of his mouth turned up and his expression relaxed. Why had he found that amusing? She certainly hadn’t meant to entertain him.

“Your color is returning.” The smile faded, but his posture remained at ease as he crossed to the far corner of the room. Some sort of compartment had been inset in the wall and a small section of countertop had been mounted above it. “Would you like something to drink?” He motioned to a bottle protruding from a silver bucket, which was arranged on a tray with elegantly etched glasses. “I know you’re fond of eloatta, so I have a bottle on ice.”

Just like a real joining celebration. The thought made her shiver and she crossed her arms. “I want nothing from you.”

“That’s unfortunate because from this moment on your very existence depends on me.”

“Is that a threat?” Fear was a more rational reaction to his tactics, but Skyla felt only anger. Knowing the outcome of their confrontation gave her an odd sense of calm. This felt inevitable. No matter how hard she resisted or how frantically she tried to escape, he would win in the end.

“Your family is rich, your brother powerful.” He leaned back against the counter, hands clasping the edge to each side of his lean hips. “I know you’ve never been claimed by a mate, but has your brother proposed possible matches?”

She stilled and suspicion narrowed her gaze. “Were you spying on me?”

A secretive smile was his only answer. “You’ve failed to find your mate, so now you must settle for a life partner. Affection is no longer a consideration. Would you really have been satisfied with a loveless joining?”

Rodymia had been settled by Bilarrians centuries ago, so it stood to reason that Rodyte breeding would be similar. Genetic compatibility triggered a fundamental attraction known as sexual allure. Without allure, a mating bond wouldn’t form regardless of how many times the couple had sex. And without a mating bond there could be no children. The Rodyte’s reason for capturing her had been to impregnate her, so how had he known they would be genetically compatible? Or had the Rodytes found a way to breed without the mating bond?

Rather than ask him to explain, she hid behind hostility. “Is there a point to your rambling dissertation?”

He chuckled and his expression softened from brutal to formidable. “You’re adorable. Are you always this feisty?”

She tried to lick her lips but her mouth had gone dry. “Just when I’m kidnapped by a madman.”

“I think you’ll find my logic is sound and my point is rather simple. Had you remained within your brother’s control, your joining night would not have been so different from what you’re experiencing now. There would have been some sort of ceremony and then you would have been expected to surrender your body to a male you didn’t choose.”

And the males her brother had chosen were far less appealing than her captor. At least physically. She knew nothing about this man, not even his name. Well, she knew he was ruthless enough to claim a war bride. She dragged her gaze away from his face and tried again to lick her lips.

“Are you sure you don’t want something to drink?” There was no challenge in his tone, no provocation.

She’d meant to be completely uncooperative, but her mouth was so dry she could barely swallow. Seeing no benefit to being stubborn, she relented enough to ask, “May I have a glass of water?”

“Of course.” He turned around and opened the compartment. It was a refrigeration unit stocked with an assortment of snacks and beverages. He found a shatter-proof bottle of water and twisted off the cap before handing it to her. “Shall we sit?” He motioned toward the couch.

She took a drink of the water as much to stall as to quench her thirst. “I’d rather stand.”

Without warning, he swept her up in his arms and walked over to the couch. She gasped as her feet left the floor and water splashed her hand. “It wasn’t really a question.” He sat down and held her firmly on his lap as she tried to wiggle free. “This would feel so much better if you weren’t wearing those thick skirts.”

Immediately she stilled and looked into his eyes. Was anger or arousal making the blue rings glow? He’d been polite until she rebelled, then he’d forced her to his will. The lesson was obvious. He wouldn’t tolerate defiance and he wouldn’t be denied. “May I please sit beside you?”

“Add ‘sir’ and I’ll consider it.”

The autocratic snap in his tone sent tingles down her spine. What in hells’ rings was wrong with her? She should be terrified, yet all she felt was a restless anxiety, as if she didn’t quite know what she wanted. “May I please sit beside you, sir?” Bending just this far was better than remaining on his lap.

He eased her sideways until her back pressed against the armrest, but her legs still draped across his lap. When she tried to lower her feet to the floor, his hand slipped under her skirts and lightly clasped her ankle. His smile and the sudden gleam in his eyes revealed his game. He wanted her to struggle, to give him a reason to touch her more intimately.

Rather than play along, she crossed her ankles and forced herself to relax. “May I ask a question?”

He eased her slippers off and tossed them aside. “You may ask. And if you pose the question with the proper respect, I might even answer.”

“Why do you know so much about me…sir?” She added the title after a short pause.

His large, warm hand returned to her ankle, but he ventured no higher. “This was no random act. You were chosen from a list of potential targets. Your abduction took weeks of planning and many, many bribes.”

“But why me?” When he acted as if he hadn’t heard her, she tried again. “Please, sir, will you explain what I possess that the others did not?”

He seemed to consider it for a moment. Unless his air of authority was a façade, this was not a man used to explaining himself to anyone. “First and foremost, you have five sisters.”

“You’re hoping for a daughter?” How strange. On Bilarri titles and power were passed down from father to son. She’d presumed things were the same on Rodymia.

One of his brows arched and his fingers moved over her skin, or actually over her sheer stocking, which was no real barrier to his touch. “If that surprises you, you don’t know as much about the battle born as you think.”

Battle born. The phrase echoed through her mind and another tingle coursed down her spine. War brides gave birth to battle born children before they were sent back to their shattered lives and expected to carry on as if none of it had happened. Her soul shriveled at the thought. The possibility of being seduced by this man was not nearly as daunting as being parted from their son.

“Why would you prefer a daughter to a son?” His hand crept onto her calf and she quickly grabbed his forearm. “I’m sorry, sir. I meant no disrespect.” His hand stopped ascending, but it remained near her knee.

“Battle born daughters more consistently inherit their mother’s magic.” A muscle in his jaw twitched and he suddenly averted his gaze.

There was more to the situation than he was saying, but Skyla decided not to press. She took another sip of water, savoring the coolness of the bottle between her palms. She didn’t want to anger him, but the question of genetic compatibility refused to remain silent. “Do Rodytes feel sexual allure?”

“We call it the pull, but I’m relatively sure it means the same thing.”

Good. There was a tiny sliver of hope. “Then you know conception is impossible unless we’re genetically compatible.”

His fingers tightened on her knee as his gaze bore into hers. “We’re compatible. We’re extremely compatible.”

“But how could you have known… How long have you been stalking me?”

His gaze narrowed and his grip on her knee released, though he didn’t move his hand. “I already answered that question.”

Silence lengthened and tension mounted as she debated how best to proceed. Escape wasn’t possible as long as they were in space. But were they in space? It didn’t matter! She wasn’t going to escape, not unless her dreams were wrong.

And her dreams were seldom wrong.

“Now it’s my turn to ask questions.” His tone took on a dark, caressing quality, but his gaze remained guarded.

If he had his heart set on a daughter, what would he do when she gave him a son? When she gave him a son? Could she really surrender before the battle had even begun?

Rather than explore the unsettling question, she said, “I thought you already knew everything about me.”

“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” Then, before she could answer, he went on. “I’m not complaining. I would much rather deal with a rational female, but how much did your dreams reveal?”

So he knew she had prophetic dreams. That wasn’t surprising. Her brother continually bragged about her clairvoyance. Knowledge of her other abilities, however, she’d ensured Simolta kept to himself.

When she didn’t reply, his hand resumed its climb. “Wait.” She caught his forearm again, but her hold didn’t even slow him down. “I knew you’d capture me, but I wasn’t sure when.” His fingers caught the top of her thigh-high stocking and slowly pulled it down along her leg. “The images had grown more vivid, so I suspected it would be soon.”

He tugged the stocking off then lingered over her foot and ankle as his fingers caressed bare skin for the first time. “Then you know I won’t hurt you. In fact, quite the opposite. I intend to bring you nothing but pleasure.”

Her hands were trembling so badly, she set the water bottle on the end table behind her. “I don’t want to be your war bride. I don’t want—”

“You’re already my war bride and we’ll figure out what you want together.” Without further warning, he dragged her down until her back rested on the seat of the couch. He shoved her skirts up and wedged his hips between her legs. She hit and kicked, but it did no good. He caught both her wrists in one large fist and simply ignored her flailing feet.

“Please, sir, I don’t want this. I’m not ready. I—”

He silenced her with his mouth. His lips brushed over and against hers, teasing and challenging her. She clenched her fists and kept her lips tightly sealed, refusing to surrender.

“Open, Skyla,” he whispered against her lips. “Let me taste your mouth.”

What he really wanted was for her to taste him. Sexual allure, or the pull as he’d called it, was triggered by the male’s taste. At least for the female. Most males could sense a compatible female by scent alone.

She jerked her face to the side and snapped, “Taun.” No was one of six Rodyte words she’d picked up over the years. She also knew yes, but the other four were profane. She’d use them shortly if he persisted with this bullying.

His elbows locked and he glared at her. “Did you just tell me no?”

The absolute disbelief in his tone confirmed her earlier suspicion. He was a man used to issuing orders and having them instantly obeyed. She dare not back down now that she’d challenged him or all would be lost. “I even said it in Rodyte so you’d be sure to understand.”

Rather than attack her physically, as she’d feared, he heaved himself off her and pulled her to her feet. She jerked her wrists free of his grasp and quickly put as much distance between them as the cabin allowed.

“I’ve tried to be patient with you,” he snapped, “to treat you with far more respect than war brides are generally afforded.”

The space between them made her even bolder. “Why bother with respect when your ‘bride’ is powerless to deny you?”

“Powerless?” he scoffed. “You have all the power. You’re in control. I cannot complete the joining until you allow me to enter your body.”

“Well, that will never happen, so this is an exercise in futility.”

“Never is a very long time.” A cunning gleam brightened his gaze and his smile was almost cruel. “Besides you haven’t heard the rules.”

“Rules? What rules?”

“Every competition has rules and you’ve just chosen to pit your will against mine.”

Dread washed over her in icy waves. He needed her alive and he claimed that he wouldn’t force her. As long as that was true, she could deal with anything else. Unless… “Will you allow others to take what I deny you?”

He crossed the room with a snarl and curled his long fingers around the back of her neck. His eyes blazed with blue fire. “You are mine and mine alone. No one will ever touch you but me.”

She was ridiculously relieved to hear it. “But only if I invite your touch?” He could lock her in a cell and beat her. Somehow she didn’t think that was what he had in mind.

“I never said I wouldn’t touch you.” Now his grin was pure carnality. “I said I wouldn’t consummate this joining until you allowed the final act. That’s the only promise you’ll get from me.”

Refusing to dwell on all of the other intimacies that included, she said, “Then tell me the rules.”

He backed her into the wall and caged her with his brawny arms. He was no longer touching her, but the pose was even more disturbing. He surrounded her, blocking out everything but him. “You will sleep in my arms each night, or you will sleep on the cold, hard floor.”

“Delightful.” Could she snuggle against his muscular warmth and not desire more than his embrace? It was easy to see where this was headed. He would use her loneliness and his physical appeal to manipulate her. She was already tempted, but he had no idea how stubborn she could be. “What else?”

“You will eat from my fingers and drink from my lips or you will go hungry and thirsty.”

“Yeah, that’s not harmful at all.” She glared up at him, determined to ignore the images triggered by his husky words. “So much for your vows.”

Without warning, he reached behind her and snapped the laces securing her dress. “What the…” She slapped at his hands and kicked at his shins, but he spun her around and quickly loosened the bodice of her gown. “Stop it!” She tried to hold the material in place, but he easily tugged it from beneath her hands. Then he effortlessly lifted her off her feet and kicked the gown aside. Within seconds she stood before him clad only in one thigh-high stocking and her lace-edged panties.

He rid her of the stocking, but allowed her to keep the panties before he turned her back around. She covered her breasts with her hands and kicked at her tormentor. Shouting her Rodyte cuss words only made him laugh. Finally, he grasped both her wrists and dragged her hands above her head. His gaze slowly swept down her body then just as slowly returned to her face. “Clothing is at my discretion, Skyla. The more you displease me, the less you’ll be allowed to wear.”

[]Chapter Two

 

Kryton stared into his captive’s bright blue eyes torn between lust and frustration. This was not how he’d planned their first encounter. He’d wanted to ease her fears and help her see that he was no threat to her safety. In fact, he would lay down his life to protect her. He’d known she was spirited. That was one of the reasons he’d chosen her. Still, he hadn’t expected her to be quite so defiant.

Tears gathered behind her long lashes and she furiously blinked them back. She lifted her chin and arched her back, drawing his attention to her naked breasts. “I’m not ashamed of my body.” Why would she be? Her body was perfect, fit, yet softly curved in all the right places. “Look all you like. Just keep your filthy hands to yourself.”

“We already settled this.” With another wicked chuckle, he demonstrated her mistake. He shifted both her wrists into one hand, then caressed her with the other. He cupped one of her breasts, teasing the nipple with the pad of his thumb. “I won’t join with you unless you’re willing. But I’ll touch you whenever I like.” He leaned down and lightly brushed her lips with his. “I’ll kiss you.” Bending even lower, he caught one of her nipples between his lips and sucked with firm pressure. His tongue circled the beaded tip as his lips released. “And I will taste every millimeter of your flesh whenever the mood strikes me.”

“All those things are sexual.” She kept her head turned to the side, but her face was flushed and both her nipples peaked though he’d only touched one. “Forcing them on me is still rape.”

“Am I forcing you now?” His fingertips slid over her breasts, teasing her nerve endings with featherlight touches. “Tell me to stop, convince me you’re not enjoying my touch.”

She took a breath, likely intending to deny him. Before the words could pass her lips, he captured her other nipple with his fingers and gently squeezed. She moaned and closed her eyes, her shoulders beginning to shake.

“Requests always contain the words ‘please’ and ‘sir’.” He slid his lips along the side of her neck then explored the soft underside of her jaw. “If you want something, you have only to ask.”

She pressed against the wall, her hands tightly fisted. “Please, sir, stop arousing me.”

He raised his head and smiled, pleased by the small surrender. “What, specifically, is arousing you?” He pressed his hand against the underside of her breast, lifting the nipple toward his waiting mouth.

“All of it.” She gasped. “Please stop touching me and kissing me. Move back and let me breathe.”

He nipped her hard enough to make her gasp and she turned her head back around, glaring into his eyes. “You didn’t say, sir.”

Her jaw clenched and he thought she’d rebel, then she whispered, “Please, sir, let go of me.”

He moved both hands back to the wall and she quickly lowered her arms, once again covering herself with her hands. “Why do you deny me?” He was genuinely confused. “You’re so wet I can smell your arousal and yet you turn me away.”

“I’m your prisoner, your slave. The only thing I want from you is freedom.”

“You are my prisoner. I don’t deny it. But you are not my slave. You’re my war bride.”

She stilled, her gaze searching his. Her hair framed her face in dark waves, her crimson phitons just beginning to glow. “What’s the difference?”

“If you were my slave, I wouldn’t have stopped. Slaves are property. They have no rights, no authority.” He had never and would never own slaves, but she didn’t need to know that. The more formidable she found him, the sooner she’d surrender. “As my war bride, you’re in control. You will determine when our joining takes place and how long your captivity lasts.”

“‘When’ we join, not if.” She shook her head. “I’m your prisoner and I will never allow you to join with me as long as that’s the case.”

“You’re stubborn. I expected as much. But I’m a patient man.” He finally stepped back, but he didn’t move out of her way.

She motioned toward the gown with her chin. “Please, sir, may I put my dress back on?”

“No.” The extravagant gown represented everything he hated about the Bilarrian elite. “That dress offends me. I will, however, barter for one of my shirts.”

“Barter.” She closed her eyes for a moment, her frustration clear. “I have nothing with which to barter.” She opened her eyes and released a sigh.

“Really?” He made a sweeping motion from her shoulders to her knees. “You have everything you need and more.”

“What must I do to be allowed to wear one of your shirts?” Her tone was tight, her expression carefully guarded.

“Kiss me.”

Her eyes widened then narrowed and she looked around the room. Was she trying to locate the closet so she could just take the shirt? He fought back a smile. This wasn’t his cabin. Even if she managed to open the closet, there were no spare garments in this room.

Apparently deciding to cooperate, she pushed off the wall. She was careful to keep her breasts covered as she approached. “Fine. I’ll allow you to kiss me.”

“That wasn’t the deal.” He resisted the urge to pull the pins from her hair and bury both hands in the unbound mass. “I want you to kiss me.”

“Is everything going to be a negotiation?” She was definitely annoyed, but he also heard a hint of amusement in her tone. And still she wasn’t afraid.

“That’s entirely up to you.”

Rather than argue with him, she slowly lowered her arms. Her breasts were lovely. Not large, but nicely rounded, the tips a deep rose that begged for his lips. She only allowed his gaze for a moment then pressed against his chest and wound her arms around his neck, depriving him of the enticing view while offering him her warmth and softness.

He wrapped his arms around her and waited for her to begin. She pushed to the balls of her feet, but still couldn’t reach his mouth. With a warm chuckle, he slid her up along his body until her face was on a level with his.

“If I’d kissed you on the couch, would you have torn off my dress?”

He shook his head, pleased by her perceptiveness. “I would have given you a robe and allowed you to change in the utility room. I will be as demanding as you are difficult. The moment you surrender, I’ll shower you with affection and show you pleasure like you’ve never known before. Until then, we are adversaries.”

She started to say something then changed her mind. Instead, she pushed her fingers into his hair and drew his head forward, slowly closing her eyes. Her lips were soft and warm as they brushed against his. He reluctantly closed his eyes, drawing her image into his mind. Her tongue traced the seam of his lips, but he was in no hurry to deepen the kiss. He moved his head to a better angle and savored the silken slide of her mouth.

Her legs parted and he guided them up and around his waist. Then his hands grasped her ass, firmly squeezing the soft curves. Gods how he wanted her beneath him, eagerly arching as he filled her core. He finally parted his lips and sucked her tongue into his mouth. She groaned at his sudden aggression, her thighs squeezing his sides. Desire rolled through him, urging him on, but he held himself back and concentrated on the kiss.

She tasted even better than he’d imagined. Their tongues curled and slid, tangling in a sensual dance that moved from his mouth to hers and back.

Suddenly she tore her mouth away, panting harshly as she unwound her legs and slid to the floor. “Was that adequate payment for the shirt?”

He’d been so lost in the kiss he’d forgotten about their barter. It wasn’t fair to be irritated when he set the rules for their game, but he’d hoped some part of her had simply enjoyed kissing him. “Yes. I’ll see to it now.”

Without a backward glance he snatched her gown off the floor, tucked her stockings into his pocket and left the cabin.

“Wait. Where are you—”

He didn’t stop to answer her, didn’t dare. If he saw her kiss-swollen lips and hardened nipples, his control would have snapped. He knew he could overwhelm her, convince her to surrender through sheer force of will, but that was not what he wanted from her. He wanted to tempt her, lure her beyond her misconceptions until she willingly offered herself to him.

He rounded a corner and collided with Tonn. His lieutenant laughed and motioned to the ball gown. “Looks like you lost the best part of that outfit.”

“She’s locked in her cabin.” There were too many weapons and valuables for him to leave her alone in his cabin, so he’d decided to use one of the crew cabins until she became more agreeable. Besides, if she’d seen his luxurious suite, she’d have known he commanded the ship, might even have guessed that this wasn’t the only ship under his authority. He didn’t want her to respond to his position. He wanted her to respond to him.

Tonn picked up one of the severed cords dangling from the back of the gown. “Are things not going well?”

“Things are going as well as expected, but not as well as I’d hoped.” He had no intention of being more specific, even with his best friend.

“You can’t forget she’s Bilarrian elite. She’s not used to taking orders.”

“She’s irrationally stubborn,” Kryton grumbled.

“As are you, my friend. As are you.” Tonn shook his head then smiled, clearly enjoying Kryton’s confusion. “Don’t expect too much too soon. If you pressure her, she’ll feel obligated to resist.”

“When did you become an expert on Bilarrian females?” He resumed his trek toward his cabin and Tonn fell in step beside him. “Weren’t you headed the opposite direction?”

“And deprive you of my wise council?” He laughed. “I wouldn’t think of deserting you in your hour of need.”

“So enlighten me, oh sage oracle.” Sarcasm dripped off every syllable. “How do I win my reluctant bride?”

“Woo her. Talk to her. Put her at ease. Make sure she knows how much you want her, but wait until she comes to you. Give her just enough pleasure to leave her aching for more.”

The strategy wasn’t far from Kryton’s original plan, though the pace was much slower. He’d hoped to consummate their joining in the next few days. Just the thought of endless days, perhaps weeks, without her made him groan inwardly. “And if she never approaches me?”

“Then you’re not trying hard enough.”

Kryton shoved the dress at Tonn. “Get rid of this for me.” They’d reached his quarters and he opened the door with a sharp voice command. “I get angry every time I see it and I have a seduction to plan.”

“Yes, sir.” Tonn grinned then headed off down the corridor.

  • * * * *

Skyla hadn’t been afraid until her captor left her alone in the silent cabin. She was practically naked and every unfamiliar sound sped her pulse, so she decided to explore her cage. First she verified that the door was securely locked. It was more important to confirm that no one could get in than she couldn’t get out. Without her captor distracting her, she detected the subtle vibration of the ship. The ride was incredibly smooth, but they were in motion. She opened every compartment in the room and found all of them empty. Computer access and the companel had been disabled, which didn’t surprise her. She didn’t speak Rodyte, so it was doubtful she could have accomplished much anyway. Still, it was a reasonable precaution. She managed to trigger the door to the utility room, however. She hadn’t yet drank enough to require the facilities, but it was comforting to know they were available.

With her surroundings inventoried, her attention turned inward. She’d always tried to be honest with herself, so she refused to hide behind half-truths and excuses. Rona had been right all along. Skyla was infatuated with her captor, had been even before they met.

His taste still lingered in her mouth, confirming her worst fears. They were genetically compatible, which explained why she found him so attractive. Sexual allure or the pull, it didn’t matter what she called it. Her DNA was urging her to mate, to reproduce and ensure the survival of her species.

So how was she going to resist him when she already wanted him just as badly as he wanted her?

This isn’t about desire. Yes, she found him physically appealing. Okay, very appealing. But who was he? What motivated him? Who did he care for? What was important in his life? Until she knew a lot more about him, she would not willingly yield to their attraction.

As if summoned by her determination, her captor returned. The door slid open and he strolled into the cabin, carrying a large tray and what looked like a blanket folded over his arm. He spoke a Rodyte word and the door closed behind him.

“Did you miss me?” he asked in Bilarrian then added a lazy smile.

“Did you go to your cabin? This room is obviously not occupied.”

“It’s occupied by you until I trust you enough to move you to more comfortable accommodations.”

That piqued her interest. He really was a mystery. “You have the authority to assign accommodations?”

As was his habit, he simply ignored her question. “Are you hungry?” He was back in host mode and she was in no hurry to start the next round of their physical conflict.

She hadn’t eaten anything since morning, but he’d promised her a shirt and it didn’t look like he had one with him. “Did you forget something?”

He set the tray down on the nightstand then turned toward her and shook out what she’d thought was a blanket. It was a plush, long-sleeved robe. “Will this suffice?” He held it with both hands, obviously meaning to put it on her.

It was a power play, a not very subtle reminder that everything she’d receive from this point on would come from him. Insisting that he toss it to her wouldn’t change the reality of her situation, so she reluctantly approached and allowed him to slip the robe up her arms and across her shoulders. He took his time about it, doubtlessly using his height to gawk at her breasts. The instant his fingers released the robe, she overlapped the front and tightened the belt.

“Better?” He rested his hands on her shoulders, preventing her from moving away. Then she felt a subtle scrape against her scalp as he drew one of the many pins out of her upswept hair. “I want it down.”

Do you always get what you want? She knew the answer, so she didn’t bother asking the question. Besides, she needed to choose her battles and this wasn’t one worth fighting. He caressed each strand, gently unweaving the intricate pattern Rona had created. Skyla stood still and tried to ignore her racing heart. His fingers brushed along her neck and sneaked inside the robe, making her restless.

“You’ve formed social alliances with four different men in the past six years.” His fingers pushed into her hair, clasping the strands without actually pulling. “How many entered your body?”

“Are you going to tell me about each of your lovers?” She tried to look back at him, but his hold on her hair wouldn’t allow her to turn her head.

“If you like.”

It wasn’t the answer she’d expected, so she told him what he’d wanted to know. “I’ve had two lovers.”

“Why did neither of them claim you as mate?” His fingers relaxed, dragging through her hair before he turned her around.

Apparently, that question was more important to him. Why else would he want to see her face? “I wasn’t genetically compatible with either. The first relationship was a harmless fling. We both knew it wasn’t serious.”

“And the second?”

“I thought he was a worthy life partner. He wasn’t my mate, but he had other qualities that I admired. I’d agreed to join with him when my gift warned me of his true nature.”

His brows arched and blue fire sparked deep in his eyes before he calmed his expression. “What has your gift shown you about me?”

“Nothing.” She indulged in a challenging smile as she added, “Yet.”

He made a sound not quite a chuckle then swept his arm toward the bed. “Have a seat and I’ll show you what else I brought.”

“May we please sit on the couch, sir?” She wanted to avoid the bed for as long as possible.

“No.” He crossed the small room and sat on the side of the bed. After tugging off his boots and socks, he arranged the pillows against the wall and raised his hand. “Come here.”

She hesitated, not trusting herself to resist him.

After swinging his long legs up onto the bed, he scooted back against the pillows. “If I come get you, you’ll lose the robe for the rest of the night.”

She moved toward him, each step tightening the knot in her belly.

He took the tray off the nightstand and moved it to the bed beside him.

“Where am I going to sit?” She motioned toward the tray.

“Right here.” He spread his legs and patted the mattress between his thighs.

Touch and tease, he intended to turn every activity into a seduction. “I’m not hungry.” Her stomach growled noisily, branding her a liar.

Apparently hearing the sound, he smiled. “You forgot to tell your stomach.”

If she continued to stall, she had no doubt he’d come get her. And she really didn’t want to lose the comfort of the robe. She reached the bed and he caught her wrist, drawing her steadily forward until she had no choice but to join him on the bed. He guided her into position, her butt on the bed between his legs, her legs arched over his thigh. The robe was long enough to cover her legs, but she was literally surrounded by him.

“Relax. I just want to feed you.”

For now. “I’m perfectly capable of feeding myself.”

He uncovered the tray and revealed a variety of finger foods, most of which she didn’t recognize. There was also a decanter filled with what she hoped was Bilarrian blood wine. Named for its rich red color, the spicy beverage was one of her favorites. But where were the glasses? Bending his leg behind her and resting his hand on his knee, he created a surprisingly comfortable support for her back. He picked up one of the bite-size tidbits and brought it toward her mouth.

“Are you taking me to Rodymia, or will I be kept on this ship?” She glanced into his eyes then accepted the food.

“I haven’t decided yet.”

Her chances of escape were better on a planet, even one as inhospitable as Rodymia. She chewed with more force than necessary, frustrated by her own thoughts. Thanks to her dreams, she knew she wouldn’t escape, so why couldn’t she stop thinking about the possibility? She was afraid, not of surrendering to him, but of what life would be like once he freed her. War brides were social pariahs. Even those with loving families were pitied and shunned by the rest of the elite. No matter what happened from this point on, life as Skyla knew it ended when her captor brought her aboard this ship.

Dwelling on the future only made the present even more unbearable. “Do you command this vessel?” She needed to know more about him, needed to know anything about him.

He placed another bite in her mouth before he responded. “What makes you ask?”

“To be in a position to ensure my safety, you would have to be one of two people, the crew’s commander or the owner of this ship. You were wearing body armor when you kidnapped me, so I believe you’re military, which makes the command conclusion more plausible.”

He inclined his head rather than verbally confirming her assumption. They lapsed into silence as he continued to feed her. Despite how long it had been since she ate, stress was quickly eroding her hunger.

“Is there any way you’d tell me your name, sir?” She added the title as an afterthought, not sure if it would help or not. When he said nothing, she glanced at him then lowered her gaze.

His long fingers pushed into her hair, which pressed his palm against the side of her face. Then he used his thumb to tilt her head back and angle her face toward him. “The only reason you need to know my name is so you can scream it when you come.” He leaned in and brushed his lips over hers. “Are you ready to come for me?”

She shook her head, which inadvertently rubbed her lips against his. Heat cascaded through her body, making her core ache. This was not good. “I… You said you’d tell me about your lovers.”

He released her head and picked up another morsel, feeding it to her as he said, “I suspect there have been fewer than you’ve supposed.”

She licked her lips and paused to clear her mouth. Was talking about his sex life any better than talking about hers? “Maybe your kiss led me to believe you’ve never been with a woman before.” She heard the provocation and froze. What in creation had made her say that?

He paused with the next bite halfway to her mouth. “If you challenge me, Skyla, I will respond.”

He was right. Challenging him was a bad idea unless she wanted to find herself flat on her back with him on top of her. “I’m sorry, sir. I have a strange sense of humor.”

“You weren’t trying to make me laugh. You were trying to make me kiss you.” He set down the bite then returned the tray to the nightstand. “I thought you needed time to accept our arrangement. Would you rather I take complete control? Will it be easier for you if I’m entirely to blame for everything that happens?”

“This isn’t about blame.” She reached past his shoulder and snatched the decanter off the tray, but he took it from her before she could raise it to her mouth.

“You drink from my lips or not at all,” he reminded.

She wanted the wine, but she wanted his mouth even more. She knew they’d be lovers, so what was the point in postponing the inevitable?

You know nothing about this man. He could be a coldblooded murderer for all you know. Her inner voice was sharp and insistent.

“Do you still want the wine?” His tone was even more challenging than hers had been.

She nodded.

“Then say it.”

“May I please have some wine—sir?”

He took a swig off the decanter then pulled her toward him, his fingers tangled in the back of her hair. His mouth covered hers, forming a snug seal and she instinctively closed her eyes. He released the liquid in a slow drizzle and the spicy-fresh taste of blood wine rolled across her tongue. She swallowed twice then tried to push him away. His fingers tightened in her hair, and then his twisting motion made her open her eyes. He set the decanter on the nightstand, freeing his hand so he could touch her.

His gaze locked with hers, the blue rings in his eyes just beginning to glow. “All you have to do is surrender and everything changes.” He touched his fingertip to her temple then slid the featherlight touch down along her jaw. “I’ll adore you.” His other fingers joined the first as he descended along her neck. “Spoil you. Focus completely on your pleasure.” He slipped his hand inside her robe and brushed the upper curve of her breast. “All you have to do is surrender.”

Not allowing her time to reply, he returned his mouth to hers. His lips caressed for a moment then settled against hers, warm, firm, and insistent. The hand in her hair released, his fingers splaying against the back of her head. Like his words, his kiss was insidious, seductive. Rather than forcing his will on her, he beckoned with slow, tempting sensations.

His tongue teased the seam of her lips. “Open, Sky. Your master needs you.”

When she didn’t immediately obey, he eased his hand lower and cupped her breast. Her breath escaped in a stilted sigh and his tongue eased between her lips. His taste crept across her tongue and heat cascaded through her body, pooling between her thighs. How was she supposed to resist him when her own physiology was working against her? She literally ached for the fullness of his body inside hers.

He pivoted to the side and lowered her back to the bed. She raised her hands to his chest, but couldn’t quite summon the will to push him away. Drunk on his kiss and breathless besides, she only moaned as he grew more aggressive.

One of his arms slipped under her neck while he loosened the belt with his other hand. Soon the robe framed her body rather than concealing it. He slowly separated their mouths and stared into her eyes. The rings in his eyes glowed with blue fire and stark hunger sharpened his expression. His hand moved from her neck to her shoulders to her breasts. All the while his gaze bore into hers, daring her to object, to struggle or deny him.

She felt paralyzed, spellbound. Had there been something in the wine or was she truly this weak? She would not just lie here and let him have his way. Her pride alone required that she fight. She pushed against his chest and twisted in a futile attempt to avoid his roaming hand. He covered her breast, squeezing firmly, and the pressure between her legs pulsed.

“You need this as much as I do. Why resist your own nature?” There was no mockery in his words, just calm assurance and curiosity.

With a frustrated cry, she closed her eyes, thinking to shut him out. But his image followed her into the darkness, speeding the scene toward its inevitable conclusion. In her mind, he was on top of her, inside her, as he moved with strong, deep strokes.

He caught one of her nipples with his mouth, drawing on the sensitive peak. She arched helplessly, eyes flying open. Her imagination was more evocative than reality. Apparently, there was no escape from his sensual attack.

Exasperated by her traitorous body, she fisted her hands and hit him as hard as she could. One hand struck his shoulder, the other his jaw. His head was jarred enough that he released her nipple with a throaty growl.

In an instant, he straddled her hips and dragged her hands above her head. His silent focus was much more frightening than threats would have been. He pinned her wrists to the bed with one hand while he dragged her belt out from under her.

“That’s the one and only time I’ll allow you to hit me.” He quickly looped the belt through something on the wall just out of her field of vision. Then he bound her wrists with efficient skill, securing her arms over her head. “If you attempt to harm me again, I will punish you.” After tugging on each arm to make sure the belt would hold, he scooted down along her body.

“I’m your prisoner,” she cried. “Would you calmly accept captivity, or do everything in your power to thwart your captor?”

“You’re only my prisoner because you’re too stubborn for your own good.” He knelt on the mattress near the foot of the bed and pushed her knees toward her chest, freeing her legs from the weight of his body.

Before Skyla could take advantage of the new position, his long fingers curled around the sides of her panties and she thought her heart would pound right through her ribs. Was this it? Would he claim her now, despite his promise to wait until she was willing? Her fingernails dug into her palms and her thighs began to tremble.

He dragged her panties down her thighs, but his gaze remained on her face. “Your scent is intoxicating.” After tossing her panties aside, he grasped the underside of her knees and slowly opened her thighs. “Are you still going to pretend you don’t want me?”

She kicked and twisted, trying to slow his progress at least, but he was so incredibly strong. He pushed her legs up and out, pinning her lower body to the bed as he spread her thighs. His gaze traveled down her body, lingering over her breasts before descending to her sex.

With obvious intention, he lowered his head between her thighs. She closed her eyes and willed her body to go numb. She would not surrender to this monster, regardless of how pleasing she found his outward appearance. He was Rodyte, for creation’s sake. Her enemy. Her— Master. The word whispered through her mind as his lips brushed against her flesh.

Begging him to stop was pointless. Fighting him was useless. But surrender was not an option either.

His lips slid against her and he kept inhaling deeply, clearly savoring her scent. She held perfectly still, determined to ignore his efforts.

“Come for me and I’ll tell you my name,” he whispered against her slit. His warm breath teased as his offer tempted.

He lightly traced her crease with his tongue and heat coalesced between her thighs. She wanted to know his name. Would her soul shrivel and die if she offered him this one concession?

As if he heard her silent debate, he pushed his tongue deeper and gently circled her clit. Sensation spiraled out from the simple caress, threatening to shatter her resolve. Surrender was surrender. Once she started down that path, there would be no turning back.

“I can’t.” Her teeth clenched, making the claim sound harsh and muffled.

“Of course you can.” He parted her folds with his fingers and went to work on her clit.

His tongue stroked over and around the sensitive nerve cluster, instantly escalating her arousal. She cried out and arched, inadvertently pressing herself against his mouth.

Wait. If his hand was assisting his mouth, he was no longer holding her down. She moved her foot to his shoulder and tried to dislodge him with a firm kick. He simply shifted his body sharply and draped her leg over his shoulder.

He quickly lifted her other leg to his shoulder as well then resumed his attack on her senses. His tongue was persistent yet gentle as he learned which caresses made her gasp and wiggle.

“Gods, woman, you taste so good.” Again his lips brushed against her sex as he offered the titillating praise.

Helpless to resist him physically, she stared off into the distance. She thought about her brother, focusing on how exasperating she found his plans for her future. Her captor’s skill quickly burned through that distraction, so she summoned gruesome images of battle fields and—

His lips closed around her clit and softly sucked. Skyla cried out as sensations rippled through her body, echoing the rhythmic pull of his lips. But he didn’t stop when the sensations started to recede. Instead, he slipped two of his fingers into her core and pushed the pleasure higher.

She rocked her hips, panting harshly as she rode out the staggering orgasm. Her inner muscles contracted around his fingers and her clit twitched beneath his tongue, sending wave after wave of pleasure crashing over her. She’d never felt anything like it, never dreamed her body was capable of so much more than a quick burst of sensation.

He finally raised his head, but his hand kept up its steady shuttle between her thighs. “Now, was that so bad?”

She shook her head, eyes tightly closed, refusing to look at him.

“Say the word, Sky. Let me fill you.” He passed his thumb over her clit, reigniting the fire with his gentle caress.

She shook her head faster, not trusting her voice.

“Are you sure?” He slowly pulled his fingers out of her slick core and began a teasing figure eight that took him around her clit then around her opening, but made direct contact with neither. “I want to feel you come around my cock.”

The explicit claim made her tremble. She’d never been with a man who was so overtly sexual, or so wickedly skillful. “No.” The word tore from her mouth, harsh and hollow.

His fingers moved away and she opened her eyes. He arched over her, his big body still wedged between her thighs. Then his mouth claimed hers, his tongue covered in her cream. He kissed her with a nearly savage fervor until she was breathless and restless. Then he pushed up, dragging his chest off her as he stared into her eyes.

“So our battle of wills continues. How disappointing.” He balanced on one hand as he traced her lips with his fingertips. “Still, I’m a man of my word. My name is Kryton.” Then he untied her hands and left her sprawled across the bunk as he hurried from the room.

Skyla unwrapped the belt from around her wrists and closed the robe over her trembling body. Kryton. Now she had a name to put with the face that had haunted her dreams for so long.

[]Chapter Three

 

Kryton slammed back a shot of g’haut, welcoming the vicious burn as it slid down his throat. But Skyla’s taste lingered in his mouth. Not even the fiery liquor could wash away her tantalizing flavor or rid his mind of the sounds she’d made when release shuddered through her soft body.

“Still not going well?” Tonn’s amused tone drew Kryton’s attention to the doorway of his office. He wasn’t in the mood for company. Probably should have closed the door.

Rather than answer the irritating question, he held up the shot glass. “Want one?”

“Why not? I’m off duty for the next four hours.” Tonn sauntered into the small room and sat down in one of the chairs in front of Kryton’s desk.

“She’s irrational,” Kryton muttered as he retrieved a second glass from the bottom drawer of his desk. Then he filled both with the murky blue liquor and handed one to his lieutenant. “How am I supposed to combat complete irrationality?”

Tonn took the shot glass from him, but didn’t drink. “Maybe ‘combat’ is the wrong approach. Did you take any of my suggestions to heart?”

Kryton scooted his chair closer to the desk, drank the second shot, then slid his glass back and forth between his hands. “I tried. She won’t let me woo her.”

Tonn laughed then threw back the g’haut. “This I’ve got to hear. How did your captive keep you from being nice to her?”

Knowing g’haut had a tendency to sneak up on him, Kryton refilled the glasses then put the bottle away. “She keeps challenging me, even after I warned her not to.”

“So you, did what exactly?”

He glared at his friend. In his role as lieutenant, Tonn never would have asked such a personal question. They were definitely speaking as friends. “I’m not going to give you a blow by blow.”

“Not that every man on this ship isn’t already imagining it, but suit yourself.” He only took half the shot this time before he said, “You had me destroy her dress. Did you give her something else to wear?”

“Yes.”

“And have you fed her?”

“Of course,” Kryton snapped. “I’m not a complete idiot.”

“Have you given her something to do? She has to be frightened and bored. Not a constructive combination.”

“Her boredom works to my advantage. I want her to imagine what will happen the next time I return.”

Tonn shook his head, disapproval clearly written on his face. “Why continue with this pretense? Tell her why she’s really here and see if she—”

“I’m Rodyte, her sworn enemy. I’m playing the role she expects of me.”

Challenge arched Tonn’s brow as he stared back at Kryton. “You’re covered in her scent. Are you still playing a role? You’re being damn convincing.”

Kryton sighed. “Our compatibility is more of a challenge than I anticipated.”

“So tell her the truth.”

“I can’t risk it!” He paused for a deep breath, not wanting to take out his frustration on his best friend. “The chances of her offering to help me are basically nonexistent. However, I think she’ll barter for her freedom. But to agree to barter, she has to believe she’s my war bride, not a potential mate.”

“If you persist with this pretense, you’ll ruin any hope you have of claiming her as your mate. Is that a chance you’re willing to take?”

“Do you have a better idea?” he snapped, exasperated by the situation. He had two conflicting goals. Advancing one crippled the other, and each was vitally important to him. How in hells’ rings was he supposed to choose?

“A battle of wills cannot be won, my friend. She knows you won’t really hurt her.”

Kryton closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. His muscles were tense, his mind chaotic, and he ached as he had never ached. “Then what should I do?” He opened his eyes, more than ready for a different strategy. “Give me specifics.”

  • * * * *

Despite Skyla’s determination to remain strong and resolute, she cried herself to sleep. And even sleep was no escape from her exasperating captor. They wrestled and argued in her dreams with just as much chemistry as in reality. She awakened feeling nearly as exhausted as she’d been the night before.

She used the sonic shower, hoping to rid her body of his touch and the memory of his mouth moving over her flesh as if he had every right to explore her. The plush robe was her only garment and the soft fabric rubbing against her skin ignited her imagination all over again. It was torture, sensual, sweet torture, picturing all the things they could do together.

Pacing the cabin was futile. The floor space was so limited, she couldn’t create a soothing rhythm. So she sat on the compact sofa and stared at the walls. With nothing to engage her mind, she was left fixating on her situation. A battle of wills, that was what Kryton had called this.

Kryton. The name echoed through her mind and his image intensified. He was unlike any male she’d ever encountered before. He was undeniably savage, as the rumors warned. And yet, he was intelligent and cunning, preferring to negotiate for her surrender rather than taking her by force.

She crossed her arms over her chest, feeling trapped and claustrophobic. He would win. She already knew the outcome. It was only a matter of time. There was no escape from this, no ending that didn’t include being vanquished by a much stronger force. She would be an outcast, her life shattered by circumstances she couldn’t control. She was breathing too fast, causing her head to spin and her vision to blur.

Sheer exasperation dragged a scream from her throat. The sound was shrill and shocking in the silent room. She would not fall to pieces and reveal her weakness to the enemy! Through simple force of will, she slowed her breathing and unclenched her muscles one by one.

Moments passed as she concentrated on her breathing and forced the panic from her mind.

The door opened and a stranger stepped just inside the room. “Are you all right, miss?” He wore black-and-gray clothing similar to Kryton’s, though this man’s garments had the stripes and insignias of a military uniform. That was where the similarities ended. This man was lean, with sharp features and there was no hint of blue in his short dark hair. “The crew reported screams.” He spoke Bilarrian with a distinct accent.

She licked her lips and drew the sides of the robe more closely together. “I thought I saw some sort of rodent.” The ridiculous lie was better than admitting the truth.

“The maintenance bots keep the ship surprisingly clean, but I’ll report your concern to the appropriate crewmembers.” He remained by the door, as if he was worried about upsetting her. Still she was surprised Kryton had allowed another male anywhere near her. “My name is Tonn and I was going to come get you in a little while. Gener—I mean the commander wants you moved to a different cabin.”

She hadn’t missed the blunder. He’d started to say something other than commander. Gener? General? How strange. “Why?”

“The other cabin is larger and much more comfortable.” Tonn shrugged, yet challenge shone in his blue-ringed eyes. “I can inform the commander that you’d prefer to remain here.”

“I didn’t say that. I just want to know what it will cost me.”

Tonn smiled, the expression softening his features. “You’ll have to ask the commander. I’m just the messenger.”

Anything had to be better than this tiny cage. Besides, she already knew what “the commander” wanted and she was determined to withhold it from him for as long as her sanity allowed. “Am I the only female on this ship?”

His gaze narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

“I’d like to borrow something else to wear. This is a little impractical.” And much too easy to take off.

He dipped his head and his smile turned secretive. “I was in the process of gathering some things to make you more comfortable when I heard the report that you were screaming.”

She folded her arms and raised her chin. “I screamed once. I assure you I’m not prone to hysterics.” Just the occasional panic attack when subjected to the pressures of being kidnapped by a Rodyte.

“Why don’t I take you to your new quarters? You can settle in while I finish gathering the supplies.”

Still unsure if accepting the upgrade was a strategic misstep or not, she simply nodded. She followed Tonn from the small cabin and hurried down one corridor after another. The ship was larger than she’d thought, much larger. Kryton must have shuttled her from the estate to his ship while she was unconscious.

Each crewman they passed immediately pressed his back against the wall and averted his gaze. Would they have reacted that way to any visitor, or was the show of deference the result of Kryton’s personal claim on her? Either way, the reaction was making her uncomfortable.

“What happens if they look at me?” she whispered as Tonn scanned open the door to her new quarters.

“They don’t want to find out.”

Though Tonn’s tone was almost playful, dread sent icy tingles down her spine. If Kryton’s crew was terrified of him, what hope did she have of avoiding his brutality? But he wasn’t really brutal with her. He was aggressive and unreasonable, but not violent.

Unless she counted the actual kidnapping.

She shook away the disturbing thoughts and looked around the new cabin. Easily twice the size of the first, this one was sleek and elegant, the furniture upholstered and inviting. The bedroom was offset from the main living space by a translucent divider. “Was someone displaced so I could stay here?” It was unlikely a cabin this nice would have been left vacant.

Tonn winked at her. “I don’t mind.”

“This is your cabin?” She shook her head. “Take me back to the other room. I won’t stay here if—”

“I insist.” He waved away her objection. “I don’t spend enough time in here to care. Honestly. I want you to be more comfortable.”

“Why are you worried about my comfort? Your commander certainly isn’t.”

Tonn squared his shoulders and regret cut through the warmth in his eyes. “Kryton is the ultimate authority on this vessel. I can’t undermine his decisions. I’ve never claimed a war bride, nor will I ever consider the practice, but that doesn’t change what’s happening to you. If I can make your situation a little less traumatic, I will. It’s as simple as that.”

He felt sorry for her. She bristled at the realization. She’d never accepted pity from anyone. “You don’t need to worry about me. I can deal with Kryton.”

His brow arched and a disbelieving smile teased the corners of his mouth, but he didn’t challenge her assertion. “Food will be brought to you, but the nutria-gen will now create beverages whenever you like. Have you ever used one?” He motioned toward the kiosk inset in the wall near the dining area.

“I know how they work, but I don’t speak or read Rodyte.” Her tone grew tight and impatient. Regardless of how comfortable he made her accommodations, she was still a prisoner.

“The menus are now in Bilarrian,” Tonn told her. “You also have limited access to the ship’s computer. You’ll be able to search the library and entertainment files. Any flat surface in the room can become a display.”

Having something to fill her time would make her stay much more bearable. Still, she didn’t want to become complacent. “Thank you.” He’d clearly intervened on her behalf and she needed to be gracious.

“I’ll return shortly.” He turned and left the cabin without waiting for a response.

How long did Kryton intend to keep her aboard this ship? She couldn’t pilot a shuttle, so her chances of escaping were basically nonexistent as long as they were in space. Should she give in and allow him to bed her? Could she lure him into a false security if she pretended to surrender?

The possibility made her laugh. Who was she trying to fool? It wouldn’t be a pretense. She just wanted to join her body with his, if only for a night or two. It had been so long since a male touched her the way Kryton touched her. That was rubbish too. No one had ever affected her the way Kryton did.

She’d never tried to suppress her sexual nature. She wasn’t ashamed of her desire, but she refused to be ruled by it either. If she’d met Kryton under different circumstances, they would be lovers, likely mates. A genetically compatible male was something to treasure. She’d been searching for a potential mate for the past six years. Even so, succumbing to an enemy was unthinkable. She had to resist him, and resist her desire for him, for as long as possible.

Tonn returned a few minutes later with a stack of garments draped over his arm and a canvas bag clutched in his other hand. “I’m no expert on female attire, so I brought an assortment.” He raised the bag and went on. “This contains personal items. If you need anything else, just let me know.” He walked into the bedroom then returned without his burden. “Do you have any questions? I really do need to get back to work.”

She shook her head, not looking forward to being alone again. “You’ve been very kind. Thank you.”

“Someone will bring you a tray within the hour.”

“If the kiosk is unlocked, can’t I just choose my own meals?”

“The commander wants to start with beverages.” Tonn’s smile appeared almost apologetic. “If you behave yourself with the privileges you’ve been given, he’ll allow you even more freedom.”

She nodded, dreading the answer to her next question. “When will he return?”

“I have no idea.” He seemed uncomfortable, so she wasn’t surprised when he bowed and left the cabin.

She blew out a ragged sigh then looked around, unsure how she felt about her new cage. The other cabin had been more confining. It was a continual reminder of her true circumstances. This might weaken her resolve, allow her to forget that she was a prisoner. Maybe she should refuse all the comforts Tonn had provided. She could stay in the bathrobe and—she harmed no one but herself with that attitude. Kryton didn’t care what she wore. He’d only take it off her soon after he arrived anyway.

With another sigh of frustration, she walked into the bedroom and went through the things Tonn had gathered for her. She selected a dress and set it aside, then hung the others in the closet. Each garment was rich and elegant, obviously meant for wealthy customers. Why would a Rodyte warship have such things on board? Maybe Kryton and his crew weren’t part of the legitimate military. Dread sank into her belly as her thoughts spiraled downward. Was Kryton a pirate or a Rodyte-sanctioned privateer?

She shook away the useless speculation and slipped into the borrowed dress. The style was simple, even a bit provincial with a lace-up bodice and long, loose skirt. The quality of the fabric and the construction of the garment were excellent and she liked the vivid blue color. She found a pair of slip-on shoes in the canvas bag, along with lotion, a brush, decorative combs and a variety of personal care items. Tonn had done well to anticipate her needs.

After putting everything away in the utility room, she stepped into the shoes and returned to the outer room. Food was delivered a short time later, though she didn’t have much of an appetite. Sitting around worrying about what would happen the next time Kryton walked through the door was pointless. She needed some sort of a strategy. Allowing him to control the situation had been a disaster.

Her one and only weapon against him was her wits. She had to keep him talking, help him see beyond his obsession. If he saw her as a person, not just a sexual object, perhaps she could… What? Talk him out of seducing her? Not only was the possibility hopeless, thanks to her visions, she knew he’d succeed in the end.

She set the tray near the door and went to the corner workstation. The computer greeted her in Bilarrian, so she quickly navigated through the menus to determine what “limited access” meant. She found the library database, but the vast majority of books were in Rodyte. There weren’t any books in Bilarrian. No surprise there. However, she found a small selection of Ontarian titles and she was also literate in that language.

Several hours passed as she alternated between brooding and reading. The subtle swish of the door warned her that she had a visitor. She didn’t bother turning around. She knew who it was, could sense Kryton’s commanding presence without seeing his face.

“Is this your new strategy?” A hint of amusement threaded through his voice. “Pretend I don’t exist?”

With obvious reluctance, she stood then turned around. Kryton was wearing his uniform jacket for the first time since she’d awakened. She was no expert on the Rodyte military, but the garment certainly looked official and intimidating. “Will you leave if I do?”

“Am I really that intolerable?” He stalked toward her, his movements slow and controlled.

“You wouldn’t be intolerable if you’d behave.” The closer he drew the harder her heart pounded.

“If you truly wanted me to behave, you wouldn’t respond to my misbehavior.” He stood close enough to touch her now, yet his hands remained at his sides. “I thought about you all day.”

“And I’ve spent all day thinking of ways to escape you.”

He laughed softly then motioned toward the dining area. “Did you come up with a viable plan?”

“Telling you the details isn’t part of the plan.” She followed him across the room and slipped onto the chair he pulled out.

He seated himself across from her then rested his forearms on the table. “Do you like the cabin?”

She shrugged. “One cage is much the same as another. I’m still unable to leave.”

“Where would you go if I released you? Back to your empty life?”

His attempted insult was so absurd it made her smile. “Are you honestly implying that I’m better off as your captive?”

As usual, her refusal to cower before him made him scowl. “I’m offering you much more than captivity. You just refuse to consider it.”

“If I surrender, allow you to use me, you’ll shower me with gifts and meaningless luxuries. But you’ll still take away my child. Nothing you can offer would be worth that tragedy.”

Before he could reply, someone knocked on the door. Kryton called out a Rodyte greeting without taking his eyes off her. A small parade of young men followed, each bearing a covered dish. They arranged everything on the table. The last man set empty plates and flatware in front of Kryton and then Skyla. The visitors left without making eye contact with her or uttering one word.

“Is everyone on your ship that friendly or are they just afraid of you?”

“They sense the frustration in me and want no part of it. I suppose one could call that fear.” Kryton scooted his chair back then stood. “What would you like to drink?”

“It makes no difference to me.”

“Of course it doesn’t,” he grumbled. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

She lowered her gaze and took a deep breath. Angering him only encouraged him to touch her, to demonstrate his dominance. Keeping him talking was a much better strategy. “I’d enjoy a glass of blood wine. If it’s available.”

His head dipped, acknowledging her request. Then he moved to the food dispenser and ordered a bottle of blood wine. After the kiosk printed the bottle and two glasses, he carried everything back to the table. “The dress suits you, brings out the color of your eyes.”

She took the glass of wine he proffered before responding to the compliment. “I appreciate the dresses, but I can’t help wondering why a Rodyte warship has female garments on board.”

He returned to his seat and poured himself a glass of wine. “I doubt the truth is as entertaining as the explanations you concocted.”

“Tell me the truth and we’ll compare.” His gaze searched hers for a moment and she realized her friendly tone came precariously close to flirting.

“The dresses, along with a wide selection of other valuables, were aboard a ship we were sent to salvage. The crew had abandoned the ship long before we arrived. We never so much as saw them.” He uncovered one of the dishes and motioned for her plate. “How did you explain it?”

She handed him her plate with a quick smile. “The simplest answer was that the dresses belonged to someone’s lover or a pleasure giver. But the quality is exceptional.”

“Pleasure givers are only allowed on long-range missions. I tend to stay pretty close to home.”

She nodded, trying to relax despite the awareness that pulsed between them whenever he was near. “It was also evident that the dresses are new, so that explanation didn’t make sense.”

“What was your next conclusion?” He set her plate down, his attention focused entirely on her.

“That Tonn had used the ship’s main production kiosk to print the dresses.” Her mouth dried out as his intense stare lingered on her face. She took a quick sip of wine before adding, “Again the quality was too fine. Besides, why would a military ship catalogue the patterns for female garments?”

“Your logic has been flawless so far. Do you have a final conclusion?”

“I wondered if you were a pirate. Of course, pirates don’t generally bother with uniforms.”

He filled her plate with small portions from several of the dishes before handing it back to her. “I’m not a pirate.”

“I know. Tonn told me you’re a general.” Anger sparked within his eyes, confirming her suspicions, so she quickly amended, “He didn’t actually say the word, so please don’t punish him. It was a minor slip and I wasn’t sure until you reacted just now.” Kryton said nothing as she picked up her fork and studied her plate. Nothing looked familiar, but at least he wasn’t sticking to the eat-from-my-hand and drink-from-my-lips stipulations. She’d heard that Rodyte food was spicy, so she took a tiny bite of everything before deciding what to eat. “How long have you served in the military?”

“My entire adult life.” He wasn’t paying much attention to his food as he shoveled it into his mouth. Apparently, she was much more interesting than the contents of his plate. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m curious about you,” she admitted softly. “Is that allowed?”

He set down his fork and took a drink of wine. His expression was inscrutable, as usual. She didn’t think he’d answer, then he asked, “What do you want to know?”

His indulgence wouldn’t last long. She needed to make her questions count. “Do you have a morautu?” It was a foolish question. Even if he had a chosen mate stashed away somewhere, why would he tell her?

He quickly took another drink, but not before she saw speculation gleaming in his eyes. “How would I form a mating bond with you if my morautu were still alive?”

So at one time, he had been bonded with his chosen mate. A layer of his protection peeled back and she sensed the pain deep inside him. She was tempted to ask what had happened, but the answer couldn’t be pleasant if the female was no longer alive. “Do you have children?”

As suddenly as his indulgent mood appeared, it vanished. “Eat. You’re too damn skinny.”

She nearly laughed at the claim. She was anything but skinny. Her round hips and fleshy thighs made many fashionable styles impossible for her to wear. Still, compared to him, she was tiny. She took a long drink of wine before she said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m not upset. I’m tired. It’s been a long day.”

She knew an excuse when she heard one. She had upset him. “Neither of us is eating much. Will all this food go to waste?”

He shook his head. “Nearly everything on a spaceship is recycled. Nothing goes to waste.”

That made her feel a little better, but she still had so many questions. Perhaps he’d answer if the question was less personal. “Have Rodytes figured out a way to circumvent the mating bond?”

His eyes widened and he pushed his plate aside. Clearly, she’d surprised him. “What led you to such a wild conclusion?”

Unraveling mysteries had always appealed to her and this question had been rattling around in her head since long before her abduction. Her prophetic dreams had warned her that she would become a war bride, so she tried to learn as much as possible about the situation. “You planned to capture me, selected me from a list of females. I presume they were all genetically compatible with you.” He didn’t confirm or argue with her statement, so she continued. “Such is not always the case. I know of many war brides who were not personally targeted. They were captured during battle or were simply the victim of circumstance.”

After a silent pause, he pointed out, “Those are statements not questions.”

She’d started this by asking a specific question. He was the one who had evaded the answer. If he wanted specific questions, she’d give them to him. “How are war brides impregnated if they’re not genetically compatible with their captors?”

He stood and covered the dishes then refilled their wineglasses. “It’s better, safer, for both male and female if they’re genetically compatible. But we now have a compound that makes the mating bond unnecessary. The scientist who created the compound is working hard to make the procedure safer. Right now it’s extremely dangerous for both male and female.”

“Then why do they do it? Why endanger two lives when the outcome is so unpredictable?”

“You’d have to be Rodyte to understand.”

“You’re Rodyte.” She stood as well, but moved to the opposite end of the table, creating a barrier between them. “Explain it to me.”

His eyes narrowed and he snatched his wineglass off the table. “Are you mocking me?”

“No. I’m trying to understand you, trying to find something resembling common ground.”

Slowly, he raised his glass and took a sip. His gaze never left her and his free hand clenched into a tight fist. Clearly he was conflicted, but she couldn’t determine the specific factors clashing inside his mind. With one quick scan she could find out. She’d have access to his emotions as well as his thoughts. But she’d taken a vow when her abilities manifested, promised not to read anyone’s mind without their permission.

Did vows apply to the enemy?

Before she could decide one way or the other, he began to speak. “I know what you’re thinking. I’ve heard it all before. How can Rodytes miss what we’ve never known?”

“It is a confusing contradiction.” She picked up her glass and followed as he meandered into the living area.

“Have you ever known someone who was born on a space station yet longed for a ‘home’ they’d never experienced?” He sat on the couch, leaving plenty of room for her to join him.

Knowing how quickly things turned physical between them, she sat facing him in an armchair instead. “A space station is not the same as a planet. I’m not sure I see the correlation.”

“All right. Why do so many people who were adopted search for their biological parents? Even those with idyllic childhoods often long for something they’ve never known. They can’t explain it, but the need is real and powerful.”

She understood what he was saying and yet she’d never experienced anything similar. “Is your life so unfulfilling that only magic will satisfy you?” She hadn’t meant to mock him, but sarcasm was her go-to weapon whenever she felt vulnerable.

His gaze narrowed again and his nostrils flared. “Without magic, my life is incomplete. The need is instinctual.”

Rodymia had been founded by Bilarrians who were unable to manipulate magic. Life on Bilarri revolved around paranormal abilities, so the original outcasts felt disenfranchised and ignored. Claiming a planet of their own and developing technologies that mimicked Bilarrian abilities pacified the disgruntled exiles for a time. But centuries passed and the Rodytes grew restless and resentful.

“How many generations has your family been without magic?” The question would likely annoy him, but that seemed unavoidable. They were debating the issues that had driven their planets to war.

“It’s been four generations since anyone in my family could manipulate magic.” He drained the remainder of his wine then set the glass aside. “I’m sure you see that as a justification for abandoning the fight. I, on the other hand, can’t help wondering how different our lives would have been if we’d been allowed to remain on Bilarri. We might have—”

“What are you talking about? Your ancestors weren’t forced to leave Bilarri. They chose to find another planet rather than abiding by our laws.”

He sneered. “What utter nonsense. My ancestors were exiled, driven from their homes and forced to depart with whatever they could carry on their backs.”

She shook her head. “That’s ridiculous. Your ancestors were Bilarrian. Why would they have been kicked off their own planet?”

“Because they were ‘tainting’ the bloodlines, spreading their weakness like a cancer.” Bitterness snapped through every syllable. Even though he’d been taught inaccuracies and half-truths, he obviously believed every word.

“I think we need to agree to disagree,” she suggested in a calm, clear voice. “Your view of history differs greatly from mine.”

“No doubt. Unfortunately, history shaped this war and this war gave birth to the war bride concept. If you ever hope to understand me, you must understand the reasons I keep fighting.”

He had a point. If she analyzed his decisions from a Bilarrian perspective, his actions would seem irrational. “For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that your people were ejected by force. How does that justify the rest?”

“Let’s use my family as an example.” When she didn’t object, he continued. “On Bilarri my family had wealth and enviable positions. Despite our inability to manipulate magic, it was likely my ancestors would have been able to attract mates with magical abilities. Within a generation or two, it’s also likely that the ‘weakness’ in my bloodline would have been corrected.”

If what he said was true, she could see why he’d be bitter. But Bilarrian history told a very different tale. Rather than argue with him, she simply waited for him to continue his story.

“But that’s not what happened. On Rodymia, we were surrounded by other bloodlines that had lost the ability to manipulate magic. Instead of rebuilding our bloodline, we had no choice but to reinforce the weaknesses and abandon any hope of ever feeling magic flow through us again.”

“I understand what you’ve told me,” she said carefully. “How did these events lead to the capture of war brides?”

“We were desperate and enraged that Bilarrians could be so cruel.”

“So you took out your frustration on helpless females?”

His scoff was harsh and hollow. “There is no such thing as a helpless Bilarrian, male or female.”

Gods, how she wished that were true. She had abilities many considered extraordinary, yet each skill was passive. None would help defend her against this brute.

A long, silent pause stretched between them. She was scrambling for something to say when he asked, “Did that answer your questions? Do you understand me now?” Apparently, uninterested in her answer, he turned his head and stared off into the distance.

The sarcasm in his tone angered her enough to silence her inner warnings. He was the enemy, determined to bend her to his will. Why shouldn’t she use every tool at her disposal? She poured energy into her empathic receptors and carefully slipped into his mind. Rather than mining for specific thoughts, she scanned his emotions, curious to see what lay beyond his emotionless mask.

Anger and frustration blazed into her mind, momentarily robbing her of breath. How was it even possible to suppress such intensity? She inhaled slowly, filtering out the strongest emotions so she could study the seething combination underneath. Guilt, sorrow, and loneliness twisted around each other in an ever-changing mixture of misery. He was in pain, had been in pain for years, perhaps decades.

The last thing she wanted was to feel sorry for this man, so she eased out of his mind. A name echoed through his memory, momentarily halting her withdrawal. Arton. Woven through the name was a poignant blend of feelings. Frustration, regret, and an aching sort of helplessness. Whoever Arton was, Kryton cared about him or her deeply.

“Who is Arton?” The question slipped past her lips before she could stop it.

His head snapped back around and their gazes collided. “Where did you hear that name?”

She started to blame it on Tonn, but she’d already incriminated him once and he’d been nothing but kind to her. Using Kryton’s favorite strategy, she simply ignored the question.

He stood and walked toward her, his blue phitons glowing. “Did Tonn speak that name?”

“No.” She couldn’t allow an innocent to take the blame for her. “I…”

His hands closed around her upper arms and he drew her to her feet. “You read my mind.” She didn’t deny it. “There was no mention of this in my research. What else can you do?”

“We’re enemies.” She looked into his eyes, refusing to cower even though inside she was shaking. “Why would I tell you anything?”

“Because we’ll resume our battle of wills if you don’t.”

He’d already guessed that she could scan. Offering him the details of that ability might keep him from pressuring her to reveal her other, more interesting, abilities. “I’m better at discerning emotions than specific thoughts. We call the ability scanning.” Actually, scanning was a general term for a multitude of skills. Some Bilarrians could ‘scan’ objects as well as people.

The pain she’d sensed within his mind flashed into his eyes as he whispered, “Arton is my son, but that’s all I’ll say about him.”

He’d spoken of his mate in the past tense, yet Arton still resided in the present. If the child was alive, why did thoughts of him cause Kryton so much pain?

“I’m sorry I scanned you.” When he did nothing but stare back at her, she added, “It won’t happen again.”

His fingers tightened against her arms. She thought he’d yank her closer and resume their battle of wills. Instead, he pushed her back and let go. “I’ll send Tonn to clean up the mess. Don’t open the door for anyone else.”

[]Chapter Four

 

As promised, Tonn arrived a short time later and cleared away the dishes. “Was something wrong with the food?” He glanced at her then went back to shoveling the uneaten entrees into the recycling unit.

“We were distracted.” The word didn’t begin to describe the conflict building between her and Kryton, but it was the best she could do right now.

Tonn released a snorty sort of laugh. “I just bet you were.”

She tried to assist him, but he wouldn’t let her. Finally tired of being shooed away, she stood back and watched as he worked. “Why are you the only one he trusts to come near me?”

Tonn’s brows arched as he paused to look at her. “Would you rather have someone else?”

“No. I was just wondering why he trusts you more than anyone else. Are you related or something?”

“I’ve known General Lux longer than you’ve been alive.”

She wasn’t sure if he realized he’d repeated the blunder or if he just didn’t care if she knew. Either way, she didn’t point it out to him. “Were you around when his son was born?”

He turned from the recycler, clearly shocked by the question. “He told you about his son?”

She chose her words carefully. If she played this right, she might be able to draw out more information by inferring she knew more than she did. “His name is Arton and his mother passed beyond.” It was a guess. She didn’t know for sure that Kryton’s chosen mate had been Arton’s mother. But it made sense that the two sources of sorrow were connected. “Did she die in childbirth? Is that why it’s so painful for Kryton to speak of him?”

“I can’t believe he told you anything about Arton. Kryton never speaks of his son.”

“Why? If Arton is alive, wouldn’t that help ease the pain of losing his morautu?”

Tonn shook his head, astonishment clear in his expression. “He told you about Jiatta too? This is extraordinary.”

She moved closer to Tonn and lowered her voice to barely above a whisper. “He only told me enough to completely confuse me.” She sighed and glanced away then looked deep into his eyes as she said, “I want to understand him better. Will you please explain what it all means?”

Motioning her back to the table he’d just cleared, they sat across from each other. “I’m only sharing any of this because he brought it up first. It’s vitally important that he never know I told you.”

“I understand and appreciate the risk you’re taking.”

Even with her sincere assurance, he hesitated. “Kryton was very different while Jiatta was still alive. You wouldn’t have recognized him. He laughed and smiled, told jokes and plotted mischief. He would have done anything for her.”

Not wanting to distract him, she simply nodded.

“They were ecstatic when Jiatta realized she was going to have his baby. They’d been mated for two years and had begun to wonder if something was wrong.”

“Did something go wrong with the pregnancy?”

“In a way.” Tonn averted his gaze and began to fidget. “Arton was born with harbinger coloring.” His eyes shifted back toward her as he asked, “Do you understand what that means?”

There were no harbingers on Bilarri. Though she also had prophetic dreams and could see into the future, she wasn’t controlled by a ruthless guild. She’d heard horror stories about Harbinger Guild. They were secretive and self-serving. And worst of all, they claimed any child born with silver hair and silver-ringed blue eyes regardless of the parents’ objections. She couldn’t imagine why Rodyte authorities allowed such things to take place. It was barbaric.

“Harbingers came and took the baby?” She was almost afraid to ask.

“Not exactly. Kryton managed to hide Arton from the guild for a little over five years. Kryton’s still not sure how they found out.”

“And there was nothing Kryton could do to stop them from taking the boy?”

Tonn shook his head, looking pained by the memories. “He wasn’t there when it happened. I’m sure the harbingers planned it that way.”

“Did he try to get Arton back? Couldn’t he just storm their stronghold and demand his release? Kryton is a general, for creation’s sake.”

“He tried everything you can imagine, but Harbinger Guild is armed with more than prophetic dreams. They employ a variety of mercenaries from all over the star system. Harbinger Academy is a fortress. Kryton is a favorite of the crown, but even that connection couldn’t force Harbinger Guild to give him back his son. The guild’s right to potential harbingers was established in laws a long time ago.”

“What?” She’d known the details would be unpleasant, but her stomach was tied in knots and her chest was so tight she could hardly breathe. “There are laws giving Harbinger Guild the right to steal children from their families?”

“Only those with Harbinger coloring.” His resentful tone assured her he was not defending the practice in any way.

“Why is their coloring so important?”

He seemed surprised that she didn’t know. “Harbingers are a side effect of genetic manipulation. The anomaly that gives them their powers also results in their unusual coloring.”

“Does everyone with silver hair and blue eyes end up with prophetic abilities?”

He shook his head. “The ones who develop their powers naturally are known as organic harbingers. They tend to be more powerful—and more unstable—than transformed harbingers, which are those created through genetic manipulation.”

Rodytes had been manipulating DNA for decades, often with horrific results. Bilarrians, Skyla included, found the practice appalling. “Is Arton still with the harbingers?”

Again Tonn nodded. “His abilities are unique and exceptional, so the guild elders guard him like a priceless treasure. Despite all of Kryton’s attempts to rescue Arton, it’s been twelve years since Kryton last saw his son.”

She pressed her hand over her heart, unable to ease the ache. Those bastards had robbed Kryton of his son’s childhood. Even if they rescued Arton now, he was nearly grown. “No wonder he’s so…intense.” Tonn had no reply, so she risked another question. “How did Jiatta die?”

“She was murdered by one of Kryton’s enemies. Kryton hunted down everyone who was there and killed them, but he still blames himself for not protecting his morautu.”

Skyla wasn’t sure which story was sadder. Each left her feeling empty and miserable. “Thank you. This helps a lot.”

He inclined his head. “Why do you want to understand him better?” A hint of challenge threaded through the question.

Confiding in Tonn was foolish. Obviously he was close to Kryton, likely more friend than subordinate. There was a distinct possibility that Tonn’s kindness was part of Kryton’s overall strategy, but she had no one else. “If he were the beast he pretends to be, he would have taken what he wanted last night. I’m hoping I can reach the man beneath the anger.”

Tonn’s lips bowed into a secretive smile, but he didn’t respond to her comment. “His mood was particularly dark when he summoned me. Now I understand why. It’s doubtful he’ll return. You should get some sleep.”

The door closed behind Tonn, and Skyla’s heart dropped into her belly. Was she disappointed or relieved? She honestly wasn’t sure. She’d thought knowing why Kryton was so angry, so bitter, would help her deal with him. All it did so far was make her feel sorry for him. A reaction that would enrage him, no doubt.

She was too agitated to sleep. This was only her second day as a captive and already she was irritable and restless. How in creation was she going to survive nine months or longer? Kryton had promised that things would be different as soon as she surrendered to their attraction. But surrendering to a Rodyte went against her basic nature and everything she’d been taught to believe.

An exasperated sigh shuddered out as she sank onto one corner of the couch. She kicked off her shoes and drew her legs up under her skirt. Tonn’s explanation left her with more questions than answers. First and foremost, how could a man who had experienced having a child forcibly torn from his life ever consider doing the same thing to someone else?

Ever since her dreams revealed that she would be captured by a Rodyte, she’d been most bothered by the thought of losing her son. Kryton’s obvious aversion to rape gave her a security she hadn’t expected to have once she became his prisoner. Yet their genetic compatibility was a complication she’d never even considered. The game was rigged against her. Succumbing to his seduction was all but inevitable, but how would she live without her little boy?

Anger built within her like an ancient engine building up steam. Confronting Kryton in person would incriminate Tonn. But there was another possibility. She was a dream walker. She could slip into Kryton’s dreams and interact with his mind. It would give her the freedom she needed to explore his reactions and emotions. Anything could happen in dreams, so it was doubtful he’d question her knowledge of his mate and little boy.

A pang of guilt made her pause. She’d promised him that she wouldn’t scan him without his permission. She’d said nothing about dream walking. Besides, he’d kidnapped her. Surely that entitled her to a little misbehavior.

She rolled her shoulders then scooted down until she lay across the cushions. It had been several months since she dream shared with anyone, but she’d mastered the skills long ago. She took a deep breath and cleared her mind, releasing the tension and silencing all the questions. Once she achieved a calm sort of emptiness, she projected her being across the metaphysical plane, using Kryton’s image to guide her.

Locating him was easy. Already their spirits had connected. Her soul sensed a potential mate and was drawing her toward him, making resistance harder with each encounter. Unfortunately, Kryton was brooding rather than sleeping, so she released the trance with a frustrated sigh.

She read for an hour at the work station then tried again, but Kryton was still awake.

After finishing the book and wandering around the cabin, examining every corner of her new cage, she finally felt drowsy. So she went to the bedroom, decreased the lighting to a faint glow, then undressed. Sleepwear was the only garment Tonn had neglected, but Skyla didn’t care. As long as she was sleeping alone, naked was fine with her.

As her mind settled down and she waited for sleep to claim her, she decided to try connecting with Kryton one last time. His churning energy drew her toward him, the path even easier to navigate than it had been before. An image appeared in her mind, growing more detailed and more tangible as she opened herself to the connection. It was imperative that she match her energy to his or he would sense her presence in his dream.

She hovered beyond the scene for a moment, observing rather than participating in the dream. He stood beside a bed wearing only his uniform pants. His big body blocked her view of the person lying on the bed, but they were bound both hands and feet, open and helpless before him.

“Are you finally going to end these foolish games?” His voice sounded gruff and demanding.

She eased around him, knowing what she’d find, yet unprepared for the impact of the image. She saw herself spread-eagled, naked, and trembling. But she looked flushed and hungry rather than terrified.

Unwilling to let his idea of her ruin this opportunity, she sank into her image and took control. “I didn’t start ‘these games’. You did.”

He bent one knee on the bed then paused. “Why do you continue to resist? I know you want me. Even now, I can smell your arousal. Why are you still afraid?”

“I’m not afraid. It has never been fear that holds me back.”

“Then what? Why do you still refuse me?”

“Our son.” Revealing this much might be foolish, but it was the only tactic available to her. “I don’t want to be separated from our son.”

“Son?” Now he sounded tense and disbelieving. His knee was mere inches from her side and yet he made no move to touch her. “Why are you so certain you’ll bear me a son?”

“I’ve seen him in my dreams, just as I saw you. If we continue down this path, I will bear you a son, not the daughter you want.”

His expression hardened and his lips thinned. “You’re just saying that to dissuade me.”

“Open your mind and I’ll show you his face.”

“Bilarrian mind tricks.” He sneered and moved his knee off the bed. “Only a fool would allow such a thing.”

Emboldened by his subtle retreat, she provoked him further. “If I’m the one paralyzed by fear, why do you keep tying me up?”

“I don’t want to hurt you.” He crossed his arms over his chest, drawing her gaze to the sculpted perfection of is torso. Was he really this well-toned or was his appearance the result of ego. This was his dream after all.

“Why would you hurt me if I want you as much as you claim?”

He chuckled and strolled toward the foot of the bed. “If you wanted to wrestle, my love, all you had to do was ask.”

My love? Why would he use such an intimate endearment in his dream when he remained emotionally distant in reality? He unfastened the ankle restraints, so she held her tongue, not willing to risk provoking him again until she was unbound.

He released her wrist restraints as well then stood back and watched her. She sat and rubbed her wrists, making no attempt to hide her naked body. She wasn’t sure how to bring up the subject of his son. If she didn’t stay within the context of the dream, it would likely jar his subconscious and he would awaken.

In the stilted manner of dreams, he was suddenly on the bed in front of her. He wrapped his fingers around her upper arms and drew her to her knees. He knelt as well, so she had to tilt her head back to look into his eyes.

“Don’t fight me, please.”

His soft, nearly pleading, tone shocked her. He never allowed himself to appear vulnerable. “I must.” She sucked in a ragged breath, her heart pounding wildly. This was her opening, the only opportunity she’d get. If he kissed her, she’d be lost. “You want to steal my child from me. How can you, of all people, do that?”

He tensed, his fingers digging into her arms. “Me ‘of all people’? What do you mean by that?”

There was no turning back now. There was no way he’d tell her while awake. Would he be any more candid while dreaming? “You know the heartbreak of losing a child. How can you inflict such pain on another?”

His chest heaved and his phitons glowed. She was half afraid he’d lash out physically. He was clearly infuriated. “It is not the same thing.” But guilt bled through his other emotions. She didn’t need to scan him to recognize what he was feeling. “It’s because of Arton that I’m doing this.”

That was odd. She met his gaze directly, struggling to remain calm. “How does seducing me help you rescue Arton?”

“How do you know about that?” He yanked her against him, making it hard for her to see his face. “You shouldn’t know.”

“I’m a figment of your imagination. I know what you want me to know.” She whispered the explanation against his chest, her breath warming his skin.

“I can’t fight them.” His voice was harsh, almost strangled. “They see every move I make before I make it. I have no weapons to use against their powers.”

Understanding unfurled inside her. She’d been born with similar gifts. Kryton was planning to use her to take on Harbinger Guild. Uncertainty sped her pulse and respiration, drawing her attention to her naked breasts. Her nipples rubbed against his chest with each anxious breath, creating an entirely different sort of tension.

“I’m just one woman.” She eased back, breaking contact with his chest and allowing her to see his face. “I’m not sure I can help you.”

“Not while you fight me at every turn.” His hand slipped into her hair and formed a loose fist. “Agree to help me rescue my son and I’ll set you free.”

She searched his eyes, confused and angered by the offer. If her visions were correct, she would bear his child. So either the offer was false or it would take a very long time to accomplish the rescue. “Will you still release me if the attempt fails?”

His fingers slowly tightened in her hair as his expression turned savage. “Three attempts and then I’ll free you regardless of the outcome.”

“And until then?” Her heart began to pound again. “Am I still your prisoner?”

He lowered his head, lips barely touching hers. “I’m not honestly sure who has captured whom.” Then he tilted her head and sealed his mouth over hers.

She held perfectly still as his lips caressed hers. This was his dream. It wouldn’t seem odd if she surrendered. And she wanted to surrender, had wanted to join with him even before he kidnapped her. She’d suspected there was more to Kryton than his harsh exterior and now she knew why. He wasn’t trying to breed his way back to magic. He was a father desperately fighting to free his son.

They’d first met in her visions. So it felt natural to touch him, to meld with him while enveloped in the surreal haze of dreams. She parted her lips, allowing the tip of his tongue to venture deeper.

He turned and laid her back across the mattress. She parted her legs, making room for him between her thighs. His throaty groan urged her on as his kiss grew more demanding. The hand grasping her hair shifted to her shoulder, positioning his forearm beneath her neck. His other hand wandered across her breasts, staking his claim with touches every bit as bold as his dizzying kiss.

Her hands were unbound for a change and she took full advantage of the freedom, exploring his arms, shoulders and back. He was tangible and yet not quite real. She’d never touched him like this, so her mind struggled to produce the sensations. Her visions left her with a curious mixture of longing and dread. Then each confrontation fueled the smoldering fire. Now desire burned through her being, yet her emotions were still conflicted.

His muscles bunched and flexed as he changed position, better aligning their bodies. The unmistakable ridge of his erection pressed against her lower belly, the thick base rubbing her clit. He rocked his hips and she gasped, momentarily separating their lips. The increased pressure sent sensations pulsing along her inner walls, scattering her inhibitions.

After recapturing her mouth, he shifted his weight onto his knees. Was he still afraid she’d refuse him? He was clearly using kisses to silence her.

His hand eased between their bodies and a strangled sort of moan escaped with his next breath. “You’re so wet.” As if to prove his claim, he slid two of his fingers deep into her passage. Then he lifted his face just far enough so he could look into her eyes. He pulled his hand back, paused for one breathless moment, then thrust his fingers deep inside her again.

Emboldened by the knowledge that this wasn’t real, she arched her hips, taking his fingers deeper. “Yes,” she whispered. “Oh yes.” His phitons blazed as his hand shuttled back and forth. She tightened her inner muscles, caressing his fingers as they slid in and out. It felt good, and yet it was only a teasing hint of what she really wanted.

He lowered his head again, but his lips found the underside of her jaw rather than returning to her mouth. She moved restlessly beneath him, her arousal building with each thrust of his hand. She didn’t want to come like this, alone and at his command. She wanted to share this with him, wanted them both to be desperate for fulfilment.

“Please.” She closed her eyes, not wanting to see triumph in his gaze.

His lips closed around one of her nipples and drew hard enough to make her gasp. “Please what?”

She pressed her lips together, reconsidering her willingness to beg.

He slowed the rhythm of his hand, focusing her attention on the motion of his fingers. “Tell me what you want and I’ll give it to you.” He pushed deep, then paused to stroke her clit with his thumb. “I won’t let you come until I’m inside you.”

The warning sent tingles up her spine and her breath caught in her throat. Then his thumb lifted and his fingers started sliding again. His lips moved from one breast to the other, reinforcing his touch with deep suction. She arched as the sensations spiked into pain, then gasped as his lips released, leaving her nipple wet and achy.

There was no reason to endure this needfulness here. She wanted him and they both knew it. “Join with me.” Once the words were out, she opened her eyes and added, “I want you inside me.”

Ravenous desire twisted his features as he ripped open the front of his pants. But the frantic urgency eased as he positioned himself at her entrance. His lips parted as if he’d say something, but all she heard was a moan as he slowly pushed into her core.

She watched his face, transfixed by the emotions crossing his features. His phitons glowed brightly and his teeth clenched. He was barely inside her, as if he wasn’t quite sure he was ready to take her. She drew her knees up along his sides, the offer obvious. He pulled his hips back, then filled her with one hard thrust.

The sudden fullness forced a gasp past her lips then she released her breath in a soft hiss.

He paused, clearly concerned by her reaction. “Did I hurt you?”

“A little,” she admitted. “It’s been a really long time.”

He rocked back onto his knees, his cock still deep inside her. Then he slipped his hand in between their bodies and caressed her. His gentle touch accented how tightly she stretched to take him, yet eased some of the tension from her muscles. He found her clit with his fingertip and began a soft, circular motion that soon had her panting.

Rather than allowing her to retreat behind closed lids, he stared into her eyes. “Come for me.”

She raised her hands above her head and tried to relax. The gentle orbit of his finger drew her need tighter and tighter. Her inner muscles rippled around his thick shaft and he let out a ragged moan. His hand continued to tease her as he pulled back, nearly out, then drove deep again.

Eased by a fresh coat of cream, he slid more easily this time. She arched her back, offering her breasts to him as well. He bent his head and accepted the invitation, teasing one nipple and then the other.

Sensations swirled around her and dove through her, bombarding her nerves with divergent signals. His finger continued its featherlight caress, while his mouth was much more demanding. And all the while his cock slid in and out of her core.

All of a sudden, he thrust hard, burying himself to the hilt. “I said come.”

It wasn’t a reminder. It was a command. He caught her clit between his finger and thumb, carefully pulling on the sensitive nerve cluster as his lips did the same to her nipple.

Her orgasm burst with concussive force, arching her body nearly off the bed. She cried out as her core contracted in deep, rhythmic spasms and reality was obliterated by the pleasure pulsing through her body.

When reality finally returned, he was thrusting hard and fast between her thighs. His hands grasped her hips and his upper body no longer arched over hers. She concentrated on the inescapable fullness of their joined bodies, but now he felt so far away.

She raised her hands and caught his upper arms, pulling him downward. He shifted without halting the rapid shuttle of his hips. She curved her fingers around his neck and brought his mouth to hers. His lips parted, but he waited for her to kiss him. She didn’t hesitate. Her tongue slipped past his lips and explored the warm interior of his mouth while his cock filled her over and over.

Her kiss took on the demanding rhythm of his hips. He moved over her and into her, and suddenly his emotions trickled into her mind. She wasn’t scanning him. This shouldn’t be happening. And yet the meld was undeniable. She felt his consuming desire for her body, but that was where the emotions began. Loneliness and pain drove the physical hunger. He wanted so much more from her than sexual release, so much more than he’d ever admit.

Distracted and unnerved by the depths of his feelings, she drew back from his mind, lessening the intensity of the dream-meld. His fingers entwined with hers and he pinned her hands to the bed as his hips took on an even wilder rhythm. She was trapped beneath him, filled by him, and still she wasn’t afraid. This wasn’t real. It was a blissful fantasy, a much needed break from the conflict raging between them.

Freed by the reminder, her pleasure crested again. Sensations burst inside her, momentarily stealing her breath. She crossed her ankles at the small of his back as her core rippled around his cock. He gasped, then groaned as violent shudders tore through his body. Echoes of his pleasure reached her mind, prolonging her release.

“How are you doing this?”

His sharp tone jerked her back to the present and she released her hold on the dream.

Reality snapped back into focus and she found herself sprawled across the bed in her new cabin. The sheet was tangled around her hips and her nipples were tight and tingly. Quickly rolling to her side, she drew the sheet up around her shoulders, hiding the proof of her arousal. She was still breathing hard and a strange ache pulsed between her thighs. Shared dreams often resulted in physical manifestations, so she wasn’t alarmed by the feeling. Still, it emphasized what they’d just shared, how amazing it had felt to have Kryton deep inside her.

The cabin’s main door slid open and she held perfectly still. Had he come to confront her with his suspicion that she was controlling his dream? He walked to the bedroom, his stride purposeful yet quiet.

“Skyla?”

His voice held a note of alarm, so she sat up on the bed, sheet carefully tucked beneath her arms. Rubbing her eyes, she manufacturing a yawn. “What time is it?”

He narrowed his gaze, his lips pressing into a grim line. The diminished light hid the details of his expression, but there was no missing the frustration in his eyes. “It’s late. Why aren’t you asleep?”

“I was asleep until you called my name.” She finger-combed her hair back from her face then looked at him more closely. “Am I in trouble again? You look angry.”

He stared at her for a long time, then shook his head. “I just wanted to check on you before I turned in for the night.”

He wore his uniform pants, but she’d never seen the shirt before. He’d likely grabbed some random garment as he rushed out the door. “I’m fine. You may go.”

His eyes narrowed again as he heard her rude dismissal. “I’ve decided to spend the night.”

Every time she challenged him he became more aggressive. So why did she keep doing it?

He walked around to the side of the bed and slowly opened the front of his shirt.

“I’m not having sex with you.” At least not while they were awake.

“Who said anything about sex?” Despite the inference, his voice turned smoky and his smile promised carnality.

He shrugged out of the shirt, revealing his muscular chest and rippling abs. Her eyes widened and she clutched the sheet to her naked breasts. His body was every bit as impressive as it had been in his dream. If anything his dream image had been less toned than his true self. “Then why are you undressing?”

He lifted one broad shoulder in a halfhearted shrug. “I always sleep naked, and so will you.”

“I’ll sleep on the sofa.” She tugged the sheet free of the mattress, intending to take it with her, but he caught her wrist.

“The bedding stays here and you’re forbidden clothes until morning. So you can stay warm and comfortable in this bed or freeze over on the sofa. The choice is yours.”

“That’s not much of a choice.” She tugged against his hold, knowing she couldn’t free herself unless he allowed it.

“It’s the only one you’ll get, so decide.” He released her hand and reached for the waistband of his pants.

She rolled to her other side, refusing to be influenced by his spectacular body. “Are you always such a bully?” He was a bully at times, yet this scenario was entirely her own fault. He’d been ready to leave when her smart mouth changed his destination. She heard the rustle of clothing, then felt a subtle dip as he climbed onto the bed.

Panicked by her recent failure to resist him, she scrambled off the end of the bed and tried to escape. She’d only run three steps when his hands came down on her shoulder. She gasped and held perfectly still, not giving him a reason to touch her more intimately.

“Not staying?” His tone was hushed, yet filled with challenge.

“You said it was my choice.”

His arm suddenly banded her torso just below her breasts. “Can you control minds or just dreams?”

She froze, barely able to breathe. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Really.” His other hand cupped her mound then slipped between her thighs, lightly teasing her folds. “Then why are you soaking wet?”

She grabbed his wrist and tried to pull his hand away from the evidence of her arousal. “I was watching a sexy entertainment file.”

“Don’t make me check the surveillance feed.” His tone took on a warning sort of grumble. “I’ll have to punish you for lying to me.”

“This room is under surveillance?”

“This entire ship is under continual surveillance. It’s standard operating procedure for every ship in the Rodyte military.” He moved his hand to her belly, a nonverbal warning that the interrogation was far from over. “Now explain the extent of your powers.”

She still hesitated. The security feed would prove she hadn’t been watching a sexy entertainment file, but it wouldn’t prove she’d entered his dream. “Fine,” she huffed. “I was dreaming about you. That can’t be surprising. You’ve been arousing me since I woke up on this ship.”

His arms tightened slightly and she heard his ragged sigh. “You expect me to believe it was coincidental?”

If she denied her ability, she’d have to pretend she didn’t know the true reason he’d kidnapped her. He’d agreed to free her if she helped him rescue his son. It was a huge risk either way, but she’d rather gamble for a chance at freedom. “I certainly didn’t intend for it to end the way it did.”

He cupped her breast and pulled her more tightly against his body. “How did you intend for it to end?”

“I was going to ask you about Arton and then slip out of your dream. You’d only told me enough to confuse me.”

“Well, someone told you a whole lot more than you were meant to know.” He released her suddenly, then pushed her toward the bed.

She dove between the sheets and kept her back turned until he joined her beneath the covers. She couldn’t allow Tonn to take the blame for the situation. It was better to let Kryton believe she’d broken her word. “Dream melds are strange. I didn’t intentionally seek out the information. I just hinted at things I wanted you to explain.”

“Doesn’t that amount to the same thing?” He slipped one arm beneath her neck and wrapped the other around her waist, pulling her back into the warmth of his body. “You still accessed information you had no right to know.”

The argument was counterproductive and she was determined to move forward. His secret motivation had given her a glimmer of hope and she had no intention of squandering the opportunity. “How did you intend to ask for my help if I’m not allowed to know about Arton?”

His chest heaved and his warm breath stirred her hair. “I would have allowed Tonn to tell you once you became more cooperative, or I might have told you myself.”

“That’s quite a paradox because the only reason I’ve found to be at all cooperative is your son’s rescue.”

He pulled her even closer. “It didn’t seem that way while you melded with my dream.”

His hold was restrictive rather than sexual, yet she felt his body harden against her back. “Dreams aren’t real. And dreams don’t result in children.”

“Did you mean what you said?”

She squirmed restlessly, trying to find a position that decreased the pressure of his erection against her back. “Which part? You’ll have to be more specific.”

His arm tightened and his fingers splayed against her ribs. “Stop wiggling. This is important.”

She stilled, but already her body ached for more of what they’d experienced in the dream meld. “Why’d you insist on being naked if you wanted to talk?”

He simply ignored her question and continued the topic he’d introduced. “Is the thought of losing your child what keeps you from responding to me?”

“It’s more complicated than that, but yes. I would be devastated if you took my son from me.” She felt tension ripple through his body. This was another fact she’d only revealed in his dream.

“How accurate are your visions?” A hint of skepticism crept into his tone.

“My brother started documenting them six years ago. He was not able to confirm the accuracy of each because some were too confusing, but only two have been disproved.”

“Two misfires in six years?” He no longer sounded doubtful, more like filled with dread. “How many times have you seen our son?”

He wanted a daughter, needed a daughter if he hoped to reintroduce magic into his bloodline. Was that still his goal? Would he give up if she stressed the futility of his current plan? “I’ve seen him three times. If we continue along this life path, I will bear you a son.”

“Doesn’t your vision make that inevitable?” His hand ascended along her ribs, then cupped the underside of her breast.

“My visions reveal likely futures, but when changes are made the outcome can be altered.” He shifted his hand, stroking her nipple with his thumb. She grabbed his wrist and guided his hand away from her breast. “If I agree to use my abilities to help rescue Arton, will you free me?”

He rolled to his back but left his arm under her neck. “If your abilities lead to Arton’s rescue, I’ll return you to your brother.”

She was no longer sure she wanted to return to her brother. As Kryton pointed out, her brother’s plans for her weren’t much different than Kryton’s. She was still to be forced into a loveless joining to advance someone else’s agenda. She rolled until she faced him, inadvertently pressing her body against his side. “Three attempts. You agreed to that stipulation in the dream.”

“I’ve reconsidered.” He stared at the ceiling, his profile chiseled and stern. “I will only release you if we succeed. You’ll try that much harder if your freedom depends on success.”

“But that’s not what—”

He whipped his head around and silenced her with a glare. “That’s my final offer. Agree or we go on as before.”

She searched his eyes, trying to understand his sudden coldness. Was he frustrated that all of his careful planning would lead to a son, not a daughter? Or was he tormented by thoughts of his firstborn son? Whatever the cause, his ardor had apparently cooled. She should be grateful. Instead, she felt sad and alone. “If I agree, will you stop trying to seduce me?”

A dangerous smile slowly parted his lips. “You’re my mate. As your visions and my dream proved, our joining is inevitable.”

Her jaw dropped. How dare he throw that back in her face? “We are potential mates and my visions revealed one possible future. Nothing is inevitable.”

“If you say so.” He chuckled and closed his eyes. “Your only hope of evading me is to keep me focused on something else. Go to sleep and dream about Arton. I’m anxious to begin.”

[]Chapter Five

 

The next six days passed in a flurry of activity. Skyla saw more of Tonn than she did of Kryton and she was beginning to feel neglected. According to Tonn, the ship had been beset by one crisis after another. But Skyla suspected an element of strategy also kept Kryton from visiting her. The last time they’d been together had been intensely erotic and keeping her focused on their dream joining worked to his advantage.

Her future had become a sort of race. She needed to facilitate Arton’s rescue before Kryton finished seducing her. And surrendering to him became more of a temptation with each passing day. Her life on Bilarri had been a pleasant yet empty routine. Even her job held little reward. She told pampered rich people how much their toys were worth so they could insure them or sell them at auction. It all seemed pointless and shallow.

She’d spent the past six years searching for her mate. She’d traveled extensively and submitted her DNA to every database she could find. Last year she’d grown desperate enough to contact an interplanetary mate-finder, but even that semi-humiliating step had proved futile.

And then a potential mate found her.

With a frustrated sigh, she tried to force away thoughts of Kryton. It didn’t matter that he was devastating to her senses or that he could provide her with the one thing she’d dreamed about all her life, children. He was Rodyte. That alone made joining with him impossible. But what if she turned the tables on him? She could do her best to become pregnant before she earned her freedom. A shiver dropped down her spine as the thought percolated inside her mind. She couldn’t let him realize he’d succeeded or he’d never allow her to leave. But Bilarrian females often sensed pregnancy long before outward signs indicated that they’d conceived.

“What caused that expression?” Tonn asked her. “You look like you’re plotting a crime.”

She smiled at him. “In a way I am.” Tonn had brought her dinner tray a few minutes ago and she’d convinced him to share the meal with her. They sat across from each other in the small dining room in her upgraded cabin, but Skyla was too distracted to have much of an appetite. This was one subject she dare not share with him, so she switched to a believable alternative. “How old was Arton when he was taken by Harbinger Guild?”

He paused to clear his mouth before answering her. “Around five. I’m not sure exactly. Is that important?”

“It could be.” Skyla took a drink of blood wine as she considered her next question. Hoping to trigger a vision, she’d spent countless hours meditating and reviewed everything she knew about Arton each night before she went to sleep. Still, any useful information eluded her. Many of her visions were spontaneous, but more were triggered by specific stimuli. If she had objects Arton had touched or access to the memories of people who knew him, her visions might be more productive. “Has Kryton seen his son since that day? Maybe in a surveillance vid or…has there been any contact between the two?”

“Surveillance is forbidden inside Harbinger Academy, but Kryton’s investigators have captured stills and a few short vids of Arton down through the years.”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“A few weeks before he was taken.” Tonn set down his fork and pressed back into his chair. “Why all the questions?”

She’d confided in Tonn, told him about the bargain she’d made with Kryton, and just about everything else. He was easy to talk to and Skyla was lonely. Even if he was Kryton’s spy, she had nothing else to lose. “My visons are often triggered by objects or memories. I think the reason I’ve been unsuccessful is because I have no connection to Arton.”

“The person with the strongest connection to Arton is Kryton,” he pointed out with a knowing smile.

She drained her glass then pushed back from the table so she could cross her legs. “He’s avoiding me.”

“He’s been extremely busy, but I suspect he’ll make time for you. You should have told me you were missing him.”

“I didn’t say I was missing him,” she stressed. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

Tonn chuckled, clearly unmoved by her vehemence. “I’ll com him for you.”

He gazed off into the distance as if he were communicating telepathically. There were no visible devices on his person, so how was he sending the com?

“He needs twenty minutes to finish what he’s doing and then he’ll come here.” Tonn’s gaze returned to her face as he offered the explanation.

“Are you telepathic? How did you contact him?”

One of Tonn’s brows arched and amusement made his dark eyes shimmer. “You’ve never encountered anyone with integrated tech before?”

“I’d never left Bilarri before and Bilarrians have no use for most forms of technology.” She hadn’t meant the response to sound so bitchy, but his amusement made her feel ignorant. “What did you mean by integrated? Integrated with what?”

“With me. The tech is inside my body.”

His tone still held a hint of disbelief, but she tried not to take offense. Her perspective was just as alien to him as his was to her. “You have some sort of communications device implanted in your body?”

He nodded. “Com-bots are mandatory for all military personnel. It allows us to contact each other or interact with our ship even when we aren’t aboard.”

“Are others allowed to listen in on your conversations?”

He stilled and resentment hardened his expression. “It’s not like we have a choice. As I said, the implants are mandatory.”

It was obvious she was venturing near painful elements of his life, but understanding Tonn could help her understand Kryton. “Why did you join the military or is military service mandatory as well?” She’d researched Rodymia after her first couple of dreams featuring Kryton. But her interaction with Kryton and Tonn had shown her that most of the information had been tainted by prejudice and much was utter nonsense.

“Two types of people join the Rodyte military,” Tonn told her. “The first are sons of the elite. Their commissions are purchased by their families. Higher prices guarantee higher starting ranks. They’re educated and trained for command. And most spend their entire lives climbing the ranks of leadership.”

“Kryton falls into this category?”

Tonn nodded. “He belongs to one of the six founding families. The Lux empire is old and substantial. He had two older brothers when he first reported for training. Both have since passed beyond.”

“Yet he remains in the military. Why?”

“It’s the only life he’s ever known. It made more sense to hire estate managers than to abandon the career he’s spent a lifetime building.”

More death and loss. No wonder Kryton was morose so much of the time. Every person he’d ever loved had been taken from him. She tried not to think about Kryton, but his image lingered in her mind. He’d suffered so much and yet became so successful. According to Tonn, Kryton was one of the youngest generals to ever earn the rank and he now had eleven ships under his command.

If it weren’t for his willingness to use her, she might respect, even admire him.

She shook away the troubling thoughts and refocused on Tonn. “What about you? Why did you choose the military?”

He scoffed. “People like me don’t ‘choose’ the military. We begrudgingly turn to the military for basic survival when we have no other choice.”

He didn’t offer specifics, but she understood the concept. The military offered housing and food, not to mention a sense of belonging and a purpose. Such things were appealing for those without resources or a support system. “How long is the initial commitment?”

“Ten years.”

Her eyes widened and compassion flowed through her being. “That seems excessive. Is there any way to leave if the soldier wants out?”

Tonn shook his head. “That’s called desertion and deserters are shot on sight.”

“Wow.” It was hard for her to imagine such inflexibility. Everyone on Bilarri was encouraged to explore, to flow from one occupation to the next until they found the perfect fit.

“So what is life like on Bilarri?”

Before she could answer, Kryton walked into the room. Her heart fluttered and tingly heat crawled across her skin. It hadn’t been twenty minutes. It had barely been ten. Was he anxious to see her? She hadn’t realized how much she missed him until her body reacted to his arrival. He appeared virile and commanding without saying a word. And having all that intensity focused on her was exhilarating.

Tonn motioned toward the platters in the middle of the table. “There’s plenty of bokton left. Have you dined?”

“Later.” Kryton waved away the suggestion as his gaze settled on Skyla. “What did you need?”

She needed him to stop ignoring her. She was lonely, bored, and anxious to earn her freedom. Except freedom meant she’d never see him again. A strange heaviness dropped into her stomach and she found herself saying, “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat? I’m not the only one who forgets about food.”

Kryton’s brows arched but his gaze softened as he moved to one of the empty chairs and sat. Tonn went to the kiosk and printed a clean plate and flatware for Kryton, but Kryton’s attention never shifted from her. “So answer Tonn’s question. I’m interested in the answer as well.” His deep voice played across her senses, creating more tingles and breathlessness. Apparently, he didn’t need to touch her to arouse her. All he had to do was enter a room.

She shook away the sensual haze. “What was life like on Bilarri?” He nodded and Skyla debated what to tell them. Compared to the harsh structure of the Rodyte military, her life would seem frivolous. “After my formal education, I was trained by a guild master. The two combined took twenty-five years.”

Tonn returned to the table and handed Kryton the napkin-wrapped flatware and a plate. “How long have you been out of training?”

She smiled at the younger man. “If I told you that, you could calculate my age.”

“All right.” Tonn returned her smile. “Then do you have an occupation? And if not, how do you spend your time?”

“I’m a consultant for various museums, auction houses, and insurance companies. I verify the authenticity and establish the value of art and antiques. My specialty is anything from the Pylean era, which has become quite popular in recent years.”

Tonn just stared at her with a blank expression, but Kryton chuckled. “There’s not much call for those skills on Rodymia.” Kryton filled his plate as he went on, “Your other skills, however, might garner some interest.”

“What other skills?” Tonn snapped out of his stupor and looked at Skyla with open curiosity. “You can do more than dream about the future?”

Awe infused his voice, sending guilt rippling through Skyla. The hunger for magic had driven these men to war, and yet she took her abilities for granted. She’d spent years working with a guild master until she controlled her gifts effortlessly. So why didn’t she use them? She could accomplish so much, help so many, if she would simply step out of her comfort zone. It was sad that it had taken a Rodyte warrior to motivate her to use her abilities.

“She’s Bilarrian,” Kryton reminded. “Need I say more?” The subtle warning backed off Tonn, as it was obviously meant to do. Kryton turned to Skyla and asked, “Did you have a reason for summoning me or were you just lonely?”

Amusement softened the challenge, so Skyla answered honestly. “I need your help. I’ve been unable to summon a vision about Arton without some sort of catalyst. I’m hoping your connection to him will guide my gift in the right direction.”

He paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. “What do you need me to do?” Rather than eat the bite, he set down the fork and gave her his undivided attention.

“If you’re willing, I’d like to start with a memory meld.”

Kryton scowled, clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion. “I don’t like anyone messing with my mind.”

“That’s understandable.” She glanced at Tonn. He was listening intently to every word they said. This conversation would be easier if she were alone with Kryton. “Our other interactions were harmless, more or less. I give you my word that this will be too.”

Kryton stared at her silently for a moment, eyes slightly narrowed. “Are there other alternatives?”

“Is there anyone else with a deep emotional connection to Arton?”

His chest expanded and he looked away. “You know there isn’t.”

“Unless you need me,” Tonn interjected, clearly sensing the rising tension in the room. “I’ll get back to work.”

Skyla didn’t speak again until Tonn was gone. If Kryton wouldn’t agree to do this, she was stuck. It might be for different reasons, but they both wanted to free Arton. “I’ve tried everything I know to trigger a vision and nothing has worked. I’m not sure I can help you unless you help me first.”

He reached across the table and took her hand in a remarkably gentle hold. His thumb skimmed back and forth across her knuckles as if he were trying to memorize the texture of her skin. His sexual aggression was easier to resist than these tender moments. She expected a Rodyte warrior to act like a brute, not a gentle lover.

“Who will control which memories you access?” His gaze locked with hers as he waited for her answer.

Trying to lighten his mood, she asked, “Why? Do you have something to hide?”

He didn’t smile, as she’d hoped. His expression remained grim and wary. “There’s much of my life I have no desire to revisit, much less inflict on you.”

She now knew enough about his life to understand his attitude. His past had been shaped by tragedy and death, his only retreat order and discipline. The combination made for a harsh and hollow existence. “I’m only interested in memories involving Arton. I know the events surrounding his loss are traumatic, so I’ll try to avoid those scenes.”

He slid his hand up her arm, his gaze still boring into hers. “I want my son back. Take whatever you need.”

The offer surprised her, as did the flare of determination in his gaze. Until now the only thing to elicit such passion had been seducing her. She slipped her hand out of his and motioned toward the sitting area. “Let’s move to somewhere a little more comfortable.”

“I’d be more comfortable in your bed.”

Longing erupted at his suggestion and her wicked plan surged back to the front of her mind. If she surrendered to his seduction, their bonding would likely create the connection she needed to access information about Arton. But she couldn’t encourage him openly, couldn’t give him any reason to believe she wanted anything other than freedom. “I need to concentrate. The couch is a better choice.”

He stood and waited for her to rise as well. Instead of leading her across the room, he pulled her into his arms. “I missed you, Sky.”

Her heart flipped over in her chest. His tone was a sweet temptation luring her away from reality. He didn’t care for her, hadn’t been pining away for her during their separation. They weren’t lovers. He needed her and desired her for utterly selfish reasons. Why shouldn’t she use him in exactly the same way? “We can wrestle again or you can help me rescue your son.”

“Let’s do both.” He wrapped his arm around her neck, cradling her head in the bend of his elbow. The move was controlled, painless, yet overtly dominant.

She searched his gaze as he lowered his head, confused by the conflict she saw in his eyes. The desire she’d grown accustomed to was now combined with something deeper, something softer. Before she could decipher what she was seeing, his lips touched hers, caressed for a moment, then pulled away.

“You’re right.” He sighed then released her. “If I start this now, we’ll either end up in bed or you’ll send me away—again.”

Guilt squeezed her heart for an instant, then anger burned it away. “I will not apologize for resisting you.” He turned to walk away, but she grabbed his brawny arm. “I’m your prisoner. You want to use me to incubate your child and then throw me away.” The review was as much for her benefit as his. She could not allow herself to forget what he really wanted.

“You’re my mate.” He looked back at her without turning around. “I didn’t understand what that meant until I captured you.”

She was one potential mate, but they’d had this argument so many times she didn’t bother saying it. Instead, she pointed out, “You had a morautu. You had to have known how it would feel to interact with a compatible female.” Not waiting for his response, she let go of his arm and moved toward the sitting area. “You want to free Arton and I want to be free of you. Let’s focus on those goals, please.”

You’ll never be free of me.

Skyla’s heart skipped a beat as Kryton’s thought reached her mind. Clearly he hadn’t meant to share the traitorous vow, but their minds were already linked and strong emotions were nearly impossible for Skyla to filter out. She stopped walking and turned around. “What did you mean by that?”

“By what?” His voice was more of a growl, but guilt sparked in his gaze.

“Why will I never be free of you? If Arton is rescued, you promised to release me.”

Rather than answer her question—as usual—he asked one of his own. “And you promised not to scan me, so why did you hear my thought?”

She licked her lips. Why was she on the defensive? He was the one intending to break his vow. “Our minds have formed a link. It wasn’t intentional, but I think I triggered it when I scanned your mind. I felt it again when I shared your dream.”

He chuckled. “‘Shared your dream’ makes it sound consensual. You took control of my dream so you could indulge impulses you’re not willing to surrender in reality.”

“That is not why I did it.” Color crawled up her cheeks, contradicting the vehemence in her statement. “I had no way of knowing what you’d be dreaming about when I joined you in the dream realm.”

“Really?” He clasped his hands behind his back, challenge clearly written in his narrowed gaze. “I’ve thought of little else since I brought you aboard my ship. What did you think I’d be dreaming about?”

“Dreams aren’t usually so…focused.” She fiddled with the fall of her sleeve, avoiding his gaze. “I just wanted to talk to you.”

He closed the distance between them and lightly grabbed her upper arms. “I crave you, Skyla. Your image never leaves my mind and my dreams are even worse. I need to be near you, to protect and comfort you, and yet I know the primary threat in your life right now is me. How am I supposed to protect you from myself?”

Skyla tensed. This was it. All she had to do was stop struggling against their natural attraction and she’d be on her way. She’d use his genetically compatible body to give her the child she’d always wanted. She’d repay him by rescuing his son from the harbingers, and then she’d walk out of his life forever. Just like he intended to walk out of hers.

“I know what you mean.” Slowly raising her gaze to his, she inhaled his evocative scent. “I’m so tired of battling myself. I don’t think I can fight it anymore. I ache as you ache.”

It was all the encouragement he needed. He crushed her against his chest, dragging her to the balls of her feet as his mouth crashed down on hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck and opened for his questing tongue, more than ready to surrender to nature’s demand.

Without separating their mouths, he picked her up and carried her to the bed. He sat her down in the middle of the mattress, then attacked his clothes. His boots went flying and his garments joined them half a second later. She pulled off her slippers, but that was as far as she got before he joined her on the bed.

“Let me.” It was more of a plea than an order for a change. “All my fantasies begin with me undressing you.”

She didn’t argue, but didn’t help. She just sat there and let him take off her clothes. Resisting him had been one of the hardest things she’d ever done. Still, if she suddenly had no qualms at all, it would seem suspicious.

Once he’d removed her blouse, he pulled her to her knees, then unzipped her skirt and eased it down past her hips. She wasn’t wearing undergarments and the realization drew an appreciative moan from him. He knelt as well and lifted her far enough so he could sweep the skirt out from beneath her legs. Then their naked bodies pressed together from shoulders to knees and his hands moved greedily over the back of her body. She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her face against his chest, unable to meet his gaze.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” His voice was barely a whisper and his hands moved away from her ass. “I am serious, Skyla. I won’t claim you unless you’re willing.”

“I want this, but I dread the outcome.” She eased away so she could look into his eyes. “I’ll be a pariah. Don’t you realize how horribly former war brides are treated on Bilarri?” And I will never allow you to separate me from my child.

“Then stay with me.”

Time stood still as she stared into his eyes. Was he serious, or was he telling her what she wanted to hear? His expression was so intense that she couldn’t tell if it was calculation or sincerity fueling his inner fire.

“You’re my morautu,” he persisted. “Your place is by my side.”

“Here on the ship? What sort of life would that be for our son?”

His phitons flashed and frustration hardened his rugged features. “I’m a wealthy man, Skyla. I can easily provide for you, maintain the level of luxury to which you’re accustomed.”

“Will your people be any more tolerant of a war bride than mine? Somehow I doubt it.”

“You aren’t a war bride. You’re my morautu.”

She just stared back at him in silence as she fought back tears. Why was he doing this? It was crueler than any of his other strategies. She blinked furiously, but a tear escaped one corner of her eye and slid down her cheek.

He caught the drop on his curved index finger. “Why are you crying?”

“Because I don’t believe you,” she whispered. “If I’m no longer a war bride, am I free to go?”

Tension rolled across his features and he slowly lowered his arm. “You’ve finally found your mate. Do you still want to go?”

Conflicting emotions collided inside her mind. Did she want to leave him and return to her empty life? Her plan had made perfect sense a few minutes ago. How had everything become so convoluted? “I… If we…”

With an audible sigh, he crawled off the bed and pulled on his pants. “The question shouldn’t be that hard to answer. I’m offering you my heart, my soul, my future. All you have to do is accept it.” He grabbed his shirt and boots, then headed for the door.

“Wait, I—”

“You clearly need more time,” he cut her off. “I’ll see you have it.” Without so much as glancing over his shoulder, he rushed from the cabin.

  • * * * *

Skyla rested her hands on the masterfully carved stone railing and watched the sun sink into the sea. The back terrace of Lux Manor looked out over the shimmering water, so Skyla found herself here often, enjoying the brisk sea air and panoramic view. It had been two weeks since Kryton brought her to his massive estate, and then silently flew away. If it weren’t for Tonn, she might have locked herself in her lavish bedroom and refused to come out. But Tonn’s patient humor and optimism kept her from succumbing to self-pity. And armed guards prevented her from leaving the premises.

The guards also made the situation perfectly clear. Kryton might not want to call her a war bride any longer, but as long as she was his prisoner she was not his morautu.

“Shall I go find you a jacket?” Tonn asked from a short distance away. He always gave her space unless she invited him to join her. She’d been particularly moody today, so he’d followed her around like a frustrated shadow. “The temperature drops quickly once the sun has gone down.”

“It feels good. I’ll go inside if I get cold.”

“All right.” She hadn’t given him permission to approach, but he moved closer anyway. “It’s more than obvious that you two quarreled. Will you please tell me what went wrong?”

She turned toward him, leaning her hip against the stone railing. “What did Kryton tell you?”

“Nothing. He told me to keep you out of trouble and that was all.”

She’d wondered why Tonn had been allowed, more like forced, to accompany her. He might be compassionate and an extremely good listener, but he was clearly out of his element surrounded by luxury. She suspected this was punishment for being so nice to her. “Kryton made a very appealing offer, but I wasn’t convinced he was sincere.” She motioned to one of the many guards skulking about the property. “Apparently, I was right.”

He glanced at the guard then shook his head. “What do the guards have to do with you and Kryton?”

“He told me I was no longer his war bride, that he wanted to make me his morautu.”

Tonn’s eyes rounded comically and his jaw dropped open. “What did you say to that?”

She bristled at the panic in his tone. Already she could tell he blamed her for what followed. “I asked him if I was free to go. A chosen mate is not a prisoner, so I should have been free to do as I pleased.”

“And it pleased you to leave him?” He shook his head as sadness clouded his expression. “You have no idea how hard it was for him to make that offer. Emotions of any sort are incredibly hard for Kryton to express. He’s endured so much pain that he turned his heart to stone merely to survive.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt him, but I won’t be hurt by him either.” She turned back to the twilight sea and watched the waves crash against the rocky shore. “He can’t expect me to offer my heart while I’m still his prisoner.”

“As soon as you trusted him with your heart, he would have set you free.”

“You don’t know that,” she snapped, but his words rang true and regret nearly choked her. “Why do I have to make the first move? That’s so unfair.”

Tonn’s expression hardened and he shook his head again. “If you were truly his war bride, you would be carrying his child by now. War brides are slaves, forced to do the will of their Rodyte masters. Kryton has been courting you since the moment you awakened. Can you truly not see the difference?”

She thought of how drastically his behavior had changed since that first night in the tiny cabin. He’d made concession after concession, trying to ease her fear and earn her trust. Even after she invaded his privacy, twice, he’d offered her the sort of relationship she’d always dreamed about. And she’d thrown the offer back in his face.

“He kidnaped me,” she cried. “And he’s a Rodyte. I thought he was just saying what I wanted to hear so I’d give him a child.”

“I know you desire him, but is lust all you feel?”

The time for denials had passed. She would never find her way out of this tangle if she didn’t start being honest with herself. “I care for him much more than I want to, but I still find it hard to trust him.”

“That’s understandable. But think back over your time together. Has he ever lied to you?”

“Are you serious?” She shook her head, unable to hide her disbelief. “If I’m not really a war bride, as you claim, then everything he said to me was a lie.”

Conviction crept into Tonn’s tone as he responded to her accusation. “He was playing a part, acting as you expected a Rodyte to act. He needed you to hate him enough to do anything to escape him, even agree to help rescue his son.”

But she didn’t hate him. She’d fallen in love with him instead.

“Has he ever broken a promise to you?” Tonn persisted.

“He was about to.” But the thought she’d overheard could have indicated his determination to claim her as mate rather than his willingness to deceive her. She shook her head, heart thudding rapidly against her ribs.

“Is there anything you’ve asked of him that he’s refused to do?”

“Other than freeing me?”

Challenge arched Tonn’s dark brows. “You spent the last six years searching for a genetically compatible male. Why are you so eager to escape now that you’ve found one?”

“He didn’t contact me like a civilized suitor. He kidnapped me!”

“Why do you think that is?” he shot back. “Would you have taken his suit seriously if he contacted you through the mate finder?”

She gasped. “How do you know about that?”

Tonn laughed and looked out into the night. “Where do you think he got your DNA profile and a list of your abilities? Bride hunters have used those charlatans for decades to find compatible brides.”

She thought about all the information she’d given the mate finder. Her interests and abilities. Her background and aspirations. She’d made it incredibly easy for Kryton to find what he needed. “This is unbelievable. We’re doing it to ourselves.”

“No,” he stressed as he turned his head back toward her. “The warriors are to blame. You did nothing wrong.”

“But what about Kryton? Was it his intention to woo me from the start, or did his attitude evolve over time?”

It took him a moment to answer. “If you’d been a true war bride, he would have claimed you that first night.” He waited until she looked into his eyes before he added, “Your courtship might have been unconventional, but he has always been courting you.”

“Oh, Tonn, I’m such a fool.” She covered her mouth with her hand as a sob broke loose inside her.

Tonn wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick hug. “Would you like me to com him? He can be here in less than an hour.”

“Please, but don’t tell him what I want. Just tell him I’m ready to talk.”

[]Chapter Six

 

Kryton powered down his shuttle with a frustrated hiss. Skyla crooked her finger and he came running like an obedient lap pet. He was such a fool. A lovesick fool, he corrected. He no longer tried to deny it. He was desperately in love with Skyla of Hautell, and there was nothing he could do about it. He intended to explain himself one last time and if she was still unwilling to trust him, he’d let her go.

Sorrow squeezed his heart at the thought of losing her. How could he lose what he’d never had? If she felt nothing but lust for him, it was better this way. He knew all too well what it was like to have a morautu who despised him.

He crossed from the landing pad to the mansion’s side entrance. It was late and he didn’t want anyone but Skyla to know he was here. If she refused him, again, the last thing he wanted was a bunch of pity-filled gazes following his every move. He scanned open the door then reactivated the perimeter alarms. He’d dismissed the guards shortly after he landed. Regardless of how things turned out with Skyla, extra security was no longer necessary.

Taking the servants’ stairs to the third floor, he went directly to the master suite. He wanted this settled once and for all. Skyla had disrupted his well-ordered life long enough. He paused before the door and raised his hand to knock. To hells with that. This was his house and she was his morautu. He eased the door open and slipped inside the shadowy room.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness, then he strode across the sitting area and into the adjoining bedroom. His heart lurched within his chest when he found the bed empty.

“Skyla?” Panic tore her name from his mouth.

The curtains billowed in the wind and she stepped into the open doorway leading out onto the balcony. “I’m here.”

He took a deep breath to calm himself then joined her. Moonlight bathed her lovely face in silver and made her eyes particularly luminous. Her slim body swam within the folds of his bathrobe, making him envy the plush material.

She watched him silently, tension clear on her delicate features.

Her reluctance fueled his determination. “Tonn said you wanted to talk, but I’d rather start if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind.” She seemed relieved by the offer.

He rested his forearm on the railing and turned his body toward her. “When I began my search, I wasn’t looking for a bride. I was looking for a weapon to use against Harbinger Guild.”

“I know.” Her tone was emotionless and she said nothing more.

“But we were genetically compatible and it twisted everything. Suddenly I had two needs, both incredibly important, but they pulled me in opposite directions.” He took another breath, trying to slow his pulse, but her scent filled his nose along with the cool night air. His senses came to life and his heart pounded even faster. “I’m Rodyte. I knew you would hate me and want nothing but to escape me. Still, I needed your help to rescue my son. So I decided to use your hostility to motivate you rather than attempt to overcome it.”

Her eyes narrowed and she buried her hands in the pockets of the robe. “But I found out about your son in the dream meld. In fact, you were furious about it.”

“I was furious because I’d lost control of the situation. Tonn was supposed to tell you about Arton, little by little, over a period of time. You weren’t ready to learn what I really wanted.”

“What you really wanted?” Her laugh was harsh and humorless. “You made that perfectly clear every time you entered the cabin.”

He sighed and folded his hands into fists. This wasn’t going well at all. “I won’t apologize for wanting you. Combating the pull every step of the way wasn’t part of the plan. I captured you to rescue my son, not to warm my bed.”

She turned toward the sea, letting the night wind play through her hair. Her profile was so pure, so perfect that it took his breath away. “I know what did happen.” Her voice was soft and thoughtful. “Tell me what was supposed to have happened.”

With a sigh he realized he wasn’t quite sure. The intensity of their attraction had reshaped all his well laid plans. “I knew the only way you’d help me was if I agreed to set you free, but your abilities led you to the truth much sooner than you were supposed to know. You didn’t trust me at all and I’d behaved badly too many times for you to believe anything I said. The pull was stronger than I’d ever imagined and—”

“You can’t blame this on the pull,” she flared, turning toward him again. Her red phitons glowed, a not so subtle reminder that she was Bilarrian. “You’d been through it before. You knew how intense everything would be with a potential mate.”

He shook his head. “It was never like this with Jiatta. Genetic compatibility only amplifies attraction. It doesn’t create it. I was attracted to you before I caught your scent and the pull kicked in. I feel like I’ve always loved you.”

“Loved me?” She shook her head, eyes filled with pain. “I’m not sure you know the meaning of the word. You don’t torment someone you love. You don’t frighten and intimidate them.”

He couldn’t defend his actions. She was right. He’d behaved horribly, used the situation to indulge his savage side. “I’m sorry. I was wrong to manipulate your feelings and exploit the need created by our genetic compatibility. I should have been stronger, more protective of my potential mate.”

Apparently that hadn’t been the response she’d expected. Her expression softened and tension melted out of her stance. “You knew we were compatible before you kidnapped me. If rescuing Arton was your only goal, why didn’t you choose someone else?”

“I never said Arton was my only goal. I said he was my original goal. He was the reason for my search. But my search led to an extraordinary female who was searching for a compatible male. The mate finder told me you’d been searching for six years. I couldn’t help wondering if I could give you what you wanted in return for your help.”

Emotions rolled across her features so fast he couldn’t untangle them. One thing was certain. She wasn’t ready to forgive him yet. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”

He laughed and spread his arms in a helpless shrug. “I’m your enemy. You’ve been taught since birth to hate me. I couldn’t risk your refusal. Rescuing Arton is too important.”

“So you continued with your original plan while trying to ‘court’ me?” She still sounded confused and he couldn’t blame her. The situation was confusing. He was attempting to accomplish two things that clashed and contradicted each other.

“Basically.”

She took a step toward him and then another. “Why were you so afraid that I’d reject you if you told me everything? We’d spent enough time together. You should have known I’d feel compassion for your son and want to see him reunited with his father.”

He clenched his fists as dread twisted through his gut. If she needed complete honesty to trust him, he’d bare his soul. “I wasn’t afraid you’d reject Arton. I was afraid—” Emotion closed his throat and he couldn’t finish the thought.

“I’d reject you?” He nodded. “But why? You know how much I want you.”

“Jiatta wanted me too.” Needing to purge himself of the bitterness and sorrow, he rushed through the explanation. “Mating fever brought us together and allowed us to be happy until Arton was born. Then I was so consumed by my need to protect Arton that Jiatta felt neglected.”

“Wasn’t she worried about the safety of her son?”

Skyla’s vehemence pleased him, but he couldn’t allow the misconception to soften what really happened. “Don’t blame her. The fault was mine. I should have done a better job of balancing my interests. My relationship with Jiatta was just as important as keeping Arton safe, but I focused entirely on Arton.”

Compassion warmed Skyla’s gaze as she shook her head. “It’s never that cut and dry.”

“Perhaps.” He wanted his past laid to rest, so he hurried on with his story. “We fell into a sad routine. It was as if we were going through the motions of life rather than actually living. She was cold and distant and I didn’t know how to reignite the fire we had once felt for each other.”

“Did you want to reignite the fire?”

“Of course. She was my morautu. I wanted what we’d been promised, a love to last a lifetime.”

Her lashes swept down, shadowing her gaze. “Apparently it takes more than genetic compatibility to make that happen.”

“I agree. It takes conscious effort and determination to make any relationship last. After mating fever burned itself out, neither of us were willing to do the work.”

Silence fell hard and heavy. Tension still pulsed between them, yet neither knew what to say. The story wasn’t finished. He just couldn’t bring himself to reveal the rest, to confess the worst of his failings. They looked out at the ocean, then at each other again. If they couldn’t get beyond this barrier, there was no hope for them.

After a long pause, she asked, “Was Jiatta still alive when the harbingers came for Arton?”

He never spoke about those horrible events, tried very hard not to think about them. But Skyla needed to know. She needed to understand the darkness still lingering inside his soul. “I wasn’t there when they came for Arton, but Jiatta was. We were living in a modest cottage on a secluded island in an effort to elude the harbingers. I still don’t know how they found us, but they killed the guards before Jiatta even realized there was a problem. They forced their way into the house and Jiatta tried to fight them, tried desperately to protect our son. They beat her bloody and left her there on the floor as they took off with Arton.”

Suddenly Skyla was pressed against his chest and her arms wrapped around his body. “I’m so sorry this happened to your family. I can only imagine the pain you must have felt.”

Stunned by her reaction, he just held her for a moment, savoring the unexpected warmth. But the story still wasn’t over. The most important part remained. “Jiatta blamed me for what happened.” He stroked Skyla’s hair as he spoke, comforting himself with the softness. “Her indifference turned to hate and her outbursts became more violent until I had no choice but to leave. That’s why she was alone with her bodyguard when one of my enemies came looking for me.”

“Oh dear gods.” Skyla hugged him even tighter. “Tonn told me that’s how she died.”

He nodded, hoping she’d feel it even though she didn’t raise her head off his chest. “I checked on her the following day because no one at her villa was answering my coms. That’s when I found her body. It wasn’t a clean kill. They’d tortured her before they let her die.” He felt Skyla shudder, so he didn’t elaborate. What more was there to say?

“I know you tracked down the men who did it. Tonn told me that too.” She finally looked at him, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. “And I know you blame yourself for her death.”

“I blame myself for all of it. How could I not? I failed my son and I failed my mate. What right do I have to claim another female when I couldn’t protect the one I had?” He pushed her away and grasped the railing, preventing her from hugging him again. “I didn’t tell you this to earn your pity. I wanted you to understand why I’ve been so conflicted. I hid behind your preconceptions so I didn’t have to face how desperately I want this to be real.”

“Do you still want this to be real?”

He snapped his head around and looked into her eyes, confused by the tenderness in her tone. “I’m not worthy of a mate, regardless of how much I want one.”

“That’s not your decision to make.” A soft smile curved her lips and desire smoldered in her vivid blue eyes. “Unless I misunderstand Rodyte custom, the male stakes his claim and the female either accepts or rejects him.”

“You understand Rodyte custom.” The implications of her statement nearly paralyzed his mind. She’d already rejected him repeatedly. Why was she bringing it up now?

“So explain the rest to me. How would life work for a Rodyte general and his Bilarrian morautu? You’re respected and clearly affluent.” She motioned to the oceanfront mansion surrounding them. “Would claiming me put your career in jeopardy?”

“No,” he insisted. “My personal life is my own. My supervisors have nothing to say about it.”

“But it’s likely you would be passed over for promotions and many would criticize your irrational behavior. Unless things are significantly different here than they are on Bilarri.”

He inclined his head, acknowledging her point as valid. “There are many who would disapprove, but I don’t care. I’m the head of my family and there are very few with the authority to dictate my actions.”

“Tonn said you’re a crown favorite,” she persisted. “How will Pern Keire react to one of his generals joining with a Bilarrian? Your planet is at war with mine, yet I will have access to your mind and emotions. Surely the crown stirate will have something to say about that.”

“He can rail and threaten me until hell’s rings turn to ice. He needs me too badly to do more than shout. My heart has made its choice.”

“All right. What about me? Would we live here or on your spaceship? How often would I see you if I stayed here?”

Her tone remained conversational, her expression calm, yet each question she asked peeled away another layer of his confidence. Was it possible she was still considering her options, or was she simply defining the situation so she could reject him one final time? “Here would be more practical, or at one of my other properties. And as for how often you’d see me, I’d be home most every night. I’m a multi-ship commander. I supervise and dispatch long-range missions, but I seldom participate in them.”

She pressed her teeth into her lower lip, looking slightly uncomfortable. “My brother would disown me, but my sisters might forgive me once the shock has worn off. But I would never be able to return to Bilarri. You’re asking me to give up my home and most of my friends. I know you think my job is frivolous, but I enjoy it.”

“I’m offering more than just me,” he reminded, barely able to think past the rushing of blood through his ears. “Unlike the males your brother chose for you, I can give you children.”

“Battle born children,” she muttered. “Will they be ridiculed and shunned. I don’t care what people think about me, but I’m not sure I could deal with anyone being cruel to our sons.”

“Sons?” He took a step toward her, hands trembling. “We will have more than one?”

She shook her head, but was suddenly avoiding his gaze. “I’m not sure why I said that. I’ve only seen one.”

He narrowed his eyes on her lovely face, not sure he believed her. “And don’t forget that your abilities would make you invaluable here. On Bilarri magic is common; here it’s a rarity.”

With a hesitant step, she brought their bodies closer. He could reach out and touch her now, but he kept his hands at his sides. He didn’t want to rush her, wanted her to be certain of her choice.

“So answer the question,” she prompted. “Do you want this to be real?”

Hope swept away the past and left him breathless and trembling. “More than anything.”

“Then let me go.”

Her smooth features revealed nothing and his heart lodged in his throat. He couldn’t tell if this was a test or the cruelest twist anyone could ever conceive. Everything within him prayed it was a test, but there was only one way to find out. He swallowed hard, then forced the words out despite the sawdust in his mouth. “You are no longer my prisoner. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

She held out her hand and her eyes filled with mischief. “I want to go inside. I want you to take off your clothes and get on the bed. Each time we’ve touched you’ve controlled the situation. As penance, I want you to give that control to me.”

He tensed. Control wasn’t a preference with him, it was his basic nature. He wasn’t sure he could—if he didn’t, she’d walk away. He could see it in her eyes. She needed to regain control of her life, which meant he would have to trust her for a change.

“Anything you want is yours.” He wrapped his hand around hers, entwining their fingers. “Now and always.”

Her smile broadened and she led him back inside. Giddy pleasure filled his brain, making it hard to think. Was this really happening? Had his feisty war bride transformed into his morautu? They’d come this far before, reached the point of joining only to have her turn him away. Was that her game? Would she leave him naked and desperate as she walked out of his life forever? He deserved no better, yet he didn’t see cruelty in her eyes, just warmth and sweet acceptance.

She squeezed his hand. “You look terrified. I didn’t think you were capable of the emotion.”

“If this is some sort of game…” He would not beg for mercy. He was a Rodyte general! Pride reinforced his shattered composure. If this was her revenge, he’d face the challenge head-on as he had always done.

“You’re the one who likes games. I’m tired of pretending.” There was no rancor in her tone, no sarcasm that he could detect.

They stood beside the bed, his bed, in his ancestral home. His pulse kicked up a notch at the importance of the setting. He started to speak, to ask again if this was real, but she pressed her fingertips against his lips and silenced him.

“No more words. No promises or denials. Let’s let our bodies communicate, let our souls explore each other.”

How could he argue with that? Their mind link would allow him to feel her strongest emotions and once he claimed her there would be no more secrets between them. He framed her face with his hands and bent his head to kiss her, but again she covered his mouth with her fingertips.

“You haven’t atoned for your sins.”

His hands folded into tight fists and dread surged through his system. He was starting to understand why trust had been so hard for her. She’d told him that this wasn’t a game, had assured him that he would finally have what he desired most in the universe. So why was it still so easy to imagine her walking away?

She guided his hands back to his sides, then separated the front of his shirt with two firm tugs. He shrugged out of the garment, but didn’t try to touch her. He’d tied her up and held her down each time his passion flared. She deserved this small revenge and a whole lot more. Her small, warm hands moved over his chest and down his arms, pausing to explore each muscle and tendon. Her obvious interest thrilled him, each throaty murmur stoking his flames a little higher.

Crimson fire lit her phitons by the time she unfastened the front of his pants. She’d yet to remove his boots, but she seemed much more interested in his arousal than ridding him of his clothing. Her bold touch swept over his erection once and a shudder of need shook through him. Not wanting the potential tangle to restrict his movements later, he stepped back and quickly pulled off his boots. Then he returned to his original position and waited for her next move.

Lightly grasping his shoulders, she turned his back toward the bed then tugged his pants to his knees before pushing him down on the edge of the mattress. Being maneuvered by a female was such a novelty that he chuckled. Then she bent over and grabbed the hem of his pants, ridding him of the garment with one firm tug.

Her gaze narrowed as she looked over his naked body. Enjoying her attention, he leaned slightly back on his hands and boldly spread his thighs. The pose was blatantly sexual and undeniably male. He started to ask if she liked what she saw, but bit back the words. She’d asked him not to speak and he wanted to give her what she’d requested without hesitation or reserve. She was his morautu and it was his fervent wish to satisfy her every desire.

“You are a feast for the eyes,” she whispered, disregarding her own rule. “I’ve wanted to do this ever since I first dreamed about you.”

Dreams had brought them together and joining with her in a dream had made it impossible for him to let her go. “I’m yours,” he whispered. “Do whatever you like with me.”

She stepped between his legs and took his face between her hands. “I’m not sure how this will work. Our love is forbidden on either of our worlds, but I’m willing to figure it out together.”

Their love? The phrase slammed into him like a fist. Did he dare believe that she loved him?

Her lips pressed against his before he composed himself enough to speak. She tilted her head, fitting her mouth more securely over his. Her tongue teased his lips, obviously asking for entrance. He opened for her, ready to risk his heart for the tiniest chance at true happiness.

It felt oddly invigorating to let her control the kiss. He kept his hands behind him and let her have her way. Her lips slid and her tongue wandered, encouraging him to respond. He curled his tongue around hers and followed her retreat until his tongue was in her mouth.

Dominance surged and he fisted the bedding, fighting to remain passive. She needed this, which meant he needed to give it to her, regardless of how alien it felt.

She broke away from his mouth with a little gasp, then kissed her way down his neck. Her hands paved the way for her lips. She wandered across his shoulder then onto his chest as she slipped to her knees beside the bed. Her hands settled on his hips while her mouth teased his abdomen, or actually teased his cock by lingering over his abdomen.

He’d imagined her doing this for him more times than he could count. His shaft bucked, lifting off his abdomen as if to draw her attention. Though the movement had been spontaneous, mostly, her fingers curved around his aching flesh. Her mouth, however, continued its leisurely trek across his belly.

Please. The word echoed through his mind, though pride alone kept him from speaking.

She looked up at him and smiled, feminine power gleaming in her eyes. “Is something wrong? You sound like you’re in pain.”

He narrowed his gaze and pushed one hand into her unbound hair. “You know what happens when you challenge me.”

Her smile faltered and her hand began to stroke. “Not yet. I want to feel you lose control before you take it back.”

“Then get on with it,” he growled out the directive. “I need you too badly to wait.”

She bent her head and licked his tip, her gaze still locked with his. “Better?”

He arched his hips, pushing between her silken lips. “Now it’s better.”

Clearly understanding that her time at the helm was limited, she stopped toying with him. Instead her lips formed a firm circle and slid down his shaft until he was deeply imbedded in her mouth. He threw his head back and groaned. It felt so damn good. It was all he could do not to end it right there and then.

Her lips slid back up while her hand returned to stroke him. The two together were sheer ecstasy. Her head bobbed and her tongue swirled, building his already blazing desire. She knelt before him, selflessly pleasuring him with her mouth. He’d begun to wonder if this day would ever come, if he’d ever experience her freely offered passion.

Exhilarated by her gift, he concentrated on the steady slide of her lips and the arousing patterns her tongue created over and around his most sensitive areas. They had waited so long, and he wanted her so badly, he knew it wouldn’t last long. Still, he wanted to savor every moment, every sensation.

Suddenly warmth and affection flowed into his mind, faint at first like the echo of emotion rather than the actual feeling. He shivered. This wasn’t him. His emotions—when he allowed himself to acknowledge them—were more intense, more consuming. Already their mental link was expanding, evolving into something stronger and more interactive.

He held perfectly still and let the connection grow. Physical sensations melded with metaphysical awareness, propelling the pleasure beyond anything he’d ever experienced before. He cried out, both hands moving to her hair. He didn’t pull, didn’t close his fingers, just cradled the back of her head. She didn’t do this begrudgingly. She felt exhilarated and powerful as she drove him toward completion.

It was all too much, too stimulating, too exciting. He cried out and lunged to the back of her mouth, coming in pulsing jets. Pleasure exploded inside his mind. His? Hers? He couldn’t tell any longer, and didn’t really care as long as they were both satisfied. She continued to suck, drawing every last shudder from him before releasing him from her mouth.

He closed one hand into a careful fist and tilted her head back. “Is that adequate penance, my love?” She just grinned, so he kissed her, undeterred by his taste in her mouth. He wanted his scent all over her body and the rhythm of his energy imprinted on her soul. “I hope it was, because now it’s my turn.”

 

Skyla gasped then laughed as he picked her up and tossed her to the middle of the bed. She playfully kicked at him, which just made it easier for him to position himself between her legs. He knelt now, beside the bed, his chest framed by her thighs. His hands grabbed her butt and he pulled her hips to the edge of the bed, dragging another nervous laugh from her mouth. Her knees were already bent, so she placed her heels on his broad back, anxiously waiting for him to begin.

He was clearly in no hurry thanks to his recent orgasm. His taste was still strong in her mouth, a taste she’d never found appealing before. Now it seemed right, natural. Kryton was her mate. She wanted to know everything about him, every expression, every reaction, every millimeter of his amazing body.

Apparently, his thoughts ran along similar lines. Instead of going right to work between her thighs, he caressed her legs and hips, his touch sure, yet gentle. His hands ascended along her sides, one keeping pace with the other. He cupped both breasts at exactly the same time, his gaze locking with hers.

“You’re amazing,” he whispered, his voice hushed and reverent. “I’m not sure why you’re still here, but I’m thrilled that you are.”

She tried to sit up, but he shook his head and squeezed both her nipples. “I let you play. Now raise your arms overhead and accept whatever I give you.”

Excitement shivered through her body. There was no denying that his aggression aroused her. When his voice turned all stern and commanding, her body responded as never before.

He continued to tease her nipples as he lowered his head toward her sex. His tongue gently traced her slit, caressing without parting her folds. She crossed her ankles behind his neck and rotated her legs outward, giving him more room to move. He tilted his head one way and then the other, approaching her crease from different angles and creating different sensation.

She closed her eyes and concentrated on the pleasure, stubbornly tuning out the rest of the world. His tongue eased between her folds, circling the entrance to her core. Her mind instinctually opened as he reached the very center of her body. Searing passion blazed into her mind, vibrating their fragile link. She gasped, saturating the connection with energy to keep the conduit from burning out. Were all of his emotions so intense? The answer was so sad she didn’t want to think about it. He suppressed his emotions so often they exploded each time he turned them loose.

His tongue swept over her clit, launching tingles of heat up through her body. He slid down and circled her opening, then returned to her clit. The pattern accented the emptiness inside her while fueling the flames licking at her abdomen.

She arched, giving him better access to her core. He pushed right into her slick passage, giving her a hint of penetration. “Yes,” she rasped, unable to stop the verbalization.

“You like that.” It wasn’t a question. “How about this?” He slowly pushed two of his fingers even farther into her.

She tightened her inner muscles but knew it would never be enough. He pulled his hand back then drove his fingers deep over and over, giving her a teasing preview of what they both wanted.

“No more. Please, claim me.”

His breath hissed out, but instead of obliging her. He lowered his mouth to her clit again and moved his hand faster, sliding his fingers in and out.

Now raise your arms overhead and accept whatever I give you. His silken command echoed through her mind as his fingers drove into her core. She squeezed him with her inner muscles and shivered each time his tongue caressed her clit.

Knowing this wouldn’t end until they were well and truly bonded made everything they did even more exciting. She arched her back, feeling her breasts sway with the motion of his hand. His tongue circled and flicked, over and against her sensitive nub until pulses rippled along her inner walls and tension gathered beneath his mouth.

She was close, so very close. All it would take was—his tongue stroked upward, pressing rather than flicking. The unexpected change detonated the sensations and sent fissures of pleasure streaking all through her. She cried out sharply as he jerked his hand out and lunged up along her body. His cock filled her core in one smooth stroke, drawing another cry from her throat.

Her legs ended up hooked over the bend of his elbows and his mouth was suddenly on hers. He soothed her with tender kisses as her body stretched around him, unused to the rock-hard fullness lodged inside.

“Relax,” he whispered the word against her lips then went back to kissing her.

She wasn’t a virgin, but it had been a very long time since her last lover. Even the fleeting thought felt intrusive. Kryton wasn’t her lover. He was her mate, the other half of her soul.

Despite his order, she raised her hands to his face, needing to touch him. They kissed and kissed, their tongues melding while her body adjusted to his. Gradually her muscles relaxed and he was able to move a little. But the fit was still overly tight, so he slipped his hand between their bodies and encouraged her response with gentle circles from his fingertip.

“Come for me, love. I can’t move until you do.”

She felt invaded and surrounded, overwhelmed, yet at peace. Her emotions were so conflicted they made her head swim. This Rodyte warrior, her captor, her “master” would spend the rest of his life at her side. Her long, frustrating search had led her to this man on this planet. She tensed as a lifetime of prejudice and pride melted beneath the heat of their love. She didn’t care if everyone she knew disapproved of their joining. She and Kryton were meant to make each other whole.

One final flick of his fingertip sent her over the edge. She cried out as pleasure erupted inside her. His energy expanded the link yet again and his emotions rushed into her mind, clear and staggering now that their connection was wide open.

He slowly pulled his hips back and his shaft slid easily in her new slickness.

“Yes,” they whispered in unison.

He rocked back onto his knees and pulled her hips up toward him as he drove fast and deep into her depths. “Oh gods yes!” He threw his head back, ecstasy clearly written on his face.

His pleasure rushed into her mind with each stroke of his lean hips. She was filled with his flesh and flooded with his consuming hunger. She offered herself without reserve, surrendered to the intensity of their joining. Each thrust of his hips also drove the bond deeper into her mind. They created a whirlpool of sensations and emotions. His cock drove into her core, forcing the pleasure higher. Her mind accepted the sensations and poured them back across their link to fuel his next thrust.

Soon his hips hammered and their mouths fused as their bodies flowed together. She wrapped her legs around his lean hips and clutched his back with both arms. He braced himself with one hand and stroked her face with the other.

The end came suddenly, detonating like a sensory explosion. He arched violently, driving his entire length deep inside her. They cried out together and she came half a second behind him. Waves of pleasure crashed over their bodies and saturated their minds, making thought impossible. They clung to each other, kissing slowly until reality returned.

“I can’t believe you’re still here,” he whispered against her damp lips.

She chuckled and nipped his lower lip. “Where else would I be?” Then she looked deep into his eyes, determined to wipe away his doubts permanently. “I’m your morautu. Regardless of the challenges life has instore for us, we will face them together.”

He paused for a deep yet tender kiss. “I don’t deserve you.”

“If we got what we deserved, love, we’d both be in serious trouble.”

[]Chapter Seven

 

Visions came gently to contented minds. Skyla snuggled against Kryton’s side, her head pillowed on his shoulder. They’d made love a second time then enjoyed a long, leisurely shower before returning to their bed. This was their bed, their house, their new lives. She wasn’t sure what the future held, but she was ready for the new adventure. She trusted Kryton to protect her from those not worth her tears, and her sisters would just have to come visit her on Rodymia.

Her mind rambled through memories as she surrendered to exhaustion, but her gift wasn’t ready to let her sleep. For the past week an image had reoccurred in her dreams, it was so intimate and so personal that she hadn’t told Tonn what she’d seen. The image was always the same. She saw herself sitting on a richly upholstered sofa facing a massive stone fireplace. On her lap cuddled a rosy-cheeked toddler and an older boy sat at her side. The older boy was turning the pages of a book as she read the story aloud. As she waited for the boy to turn a page, she looked up and smiled at Kryton. He sat in a tall-backed chair facing her, his expression relaxed and content. On his lap sat the oldest of their three sons, his head resting against the middle of his father’s chest. All three boys had curly dark hair and vivid purple rings in night-black eyes. A combination of her red phitons and Kryton’s blue, she supposed. The scene was so idyllic, so perfect that she hadn’t dared hope it was real.

Each time she’d seen this image, it ended after she looked at Kryton. Tonight, however, the scene continued and expanded, drawing her attention to a tall, young man watching from the corridor. He held the door open just far enough so he could see into the library. He had short silver-blond hair and piercing blue eyes. His gaze narrowed as he took in the charming scene, but she felt resentment and loneliness blasting off him. He blinked and his phitons shimmered like polished silver coins. He was a harbinger. No, more specifically, this was Arton.

Excitement surged through her and she tried to sink into Arton’s mind. His head snapped up with the first brush of her energy and he looked around, expression suddenly vicious. Who are you? What do you want with me?

The response shocked her. Never before had anyone in a prophetic vision attempted to interact with her. But then, she’d never encountered a harbinger before. Their abilities were similar to hers.

It’s Skyla. If he was free of Harbinger Academy at this point, then they must have succeeded in rescuing him. Time streams could be so confusing.

Skyla? His gaze shot back to the Skyla on the sofa. How are you doing this?

I’m reaching out to you from the past. We haven’t rescued you yet. Can you guide me back to the day before it happens, or can you tell me how we accomplish it?

Arton turned and pressed his back against the corridor wall, eyes wide and disbelieving. I always wondered how you knew when and where to find me. All you’d say was “It’s better if you don’t know.”

I’m not sure how long I can maintain this connection, she warned him. Please tell me what I need to know.

What’s the date where you are? She told him and he laughed. You better hurry. Three days from when you are, I’ll be moved from the academy to a safe house on Saternite Square. I’ll be escorted by two guards and a skimmer pilot. Set up the ambush on Rinforter Boulevard near the lake.

She could feel the present pulling her back. Her energy was nearly expended. What time?

Just after noon. Father won’t like it, but you need to be there too.

The vision released in a blur of color and white noise. Skyla sprang up in bed, gasping for breath. “Kryton, wake up.” She reached over and shook his shoulder. “I’ve just had a vision. I need to tell you what he said before I forget the names. I’m terrible with Rodyte names.”

Kryton sat up as well, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “What did you see? Who was in the vision?”

“Arton. I just had a conversation with your son.”

His blood-shot gaze locked with hers and hope rushed across their mental link. She had his attention now. He scrubbed one of his hands over his face and shook away the last of his sleepiness. “What did he say? Was he all right?”

“He was fine and he was here, so the rescue will likely succeed.”

The assurance calmed Kryton, helped him focus. “Computer, record conversation.” He smiled at her, then explained. “Just to make sure I don’t scramble the information. I haven’t slept well in weeks.”

She grinned. “Can’t imagine why.”

“What did he tell you?”

Not ready to share her secret peek into their future, she dove right to the pertinent information. “Three days from now Arton will be transferred to a safe house on Saturnine Square.”

“It’s probably Saternite Square. I don’t know of a Saturnine Square anywhere near the academy.”

She blew out an anxious breath. “See why I woke you up. By morning I’d have twisted everything beyond comprehension.”

“I doubt that, but please continue. What else did he tell you?”

“He said to set up an ambush on Rainfordor Boulevard near a lake.”

He smiled at her. “Rainforter Boulevard runs past a lake. It also passes near the academy. I’m sure that’s what he meant. Did he suggest a time or tell you what we can expect in the way of armed reinforcements?”

“He’s clearly his father’s son. The strike should happen just after noon and you’ll be facing two guards and a skimmer pilot.”

Wonder filled his eyes as he looked at her. “And just like that you’ve accomplished what I’ve been unable to do for the past twelve years. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Thank Arton. It’s his plan. I’m just the messenger.”

He pulled her into his arms, a smile lingering on his lips. “A messenger who contacted Arton during a vision. Don’t downplay how amazing you are.”

She kissed him, thrilled to finally do something important with her abilities. “Kryton, I could sense his emotions for just a moment. He’s a very volatile young man. You need to be prepared for the changes the harbingers have wrought in him.” The scene in her vision took place six or seven years after his rescue and still Arton was resentful and discontent. Yet he’d seemed to calm down and was willing to help once he realized who she was. Then she remembered Arton’s last stipulation. “He also said I need to be there.”

Kryton’s eyes narrowed and his lips pressed into a disapproving line. “And if I refuse, you’ll tell me I’m endangering the mission.”

“He wouldn’t have told me if that’s not the way it happened.”

Now she’d confused him. He glanced into the distance then shook his head. “How did Arton know the details of his rescue? Were you sharing some sort of future dream?”

“I was seeing a scene from the future and Arton’s harbinger abilities allowed him to communicate with me.”

He shook his head again. “And I thought dream walking was surreal.”

They’d returned to their earlier position with her snuggled against his side. She absently stroked his chest, remembering the picture-perfect scene at the beginning of the vision. Kryton was clearly focused on the coming rescue, so she tucked the treasure away, intending to share it once Arton was safely free from Harbinger Guild.

“You will stay in the ship until the fighting is over.” His arm squeezed her shoulders, emphasizing the directive.

“Yes, sir.” Knowing he couldn’t see her expression, she smiled.

  • * * * *

The next three days flew by as Kryton planned the ambush. He summoned his two best officers, Rondar and Jafftin, not trusting the mission to lesser men. He and Tonn would attack from one side of the road, Rondar and Jafftin from the other. It was likely he and Tonn could handle the mission alone, but Kryton wasn’t taking any chances. This rescue had been twelve years in the making. He intended to analyze every possibility and plan for as many twists as possible.

With that goal in mind, Kryton flew his smallest shuttle to the area Arton had mentioned and assessed the advantages and weaknesses of several specific positions. Mature trees surrounded the lake and Rainforter Boulevard wasn’t heavily traveled. Leisure access was on the far side of the lake. Even if the ambush was observed, no one would be close enough to interfere.

He shot a visual record of three possible approaches and presented them to his men the following day. He was trying hard not to let emotion warp his perspective, but he asked for input from his trusted friends just in case he failed.

“This is not an official mission,” he stressed, “so participation is strictly voluntary.”

Jafftin waved away his concern. “I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone. Official or not, this mission is long overdue.”

Relieved by his vehemence, Kryton allowed himself to relax. “We’ll use my family’s private shuttles. They’re fast and agile, perfect for our needs.”

“I like position B,” Rondar said after each man had seen all three possibilities.

They’d gathered around the small table in the kitchen. Late-afternoon sun streamed in through multiple windows, making the stone countertops gleam.

“B is my preference as well.” Kryton looked at Jafftin, then Tonn. “Do either of you have a favorite?”

“The rock formations in position A will provide more cover, but B will allow for a faster departure.” Tonn wrinkled his nose. “C is a distant third.”

Jafftin shrugged. “I can make any of them work. This is all pretty cut and dry.”

Kryton nodded. “But it has to be fast and clean. I can’t help feeling this is my last chance. Arton is seventeen. He’s been with those bastards twice as long as he was with me.”

Jafftin waved away the concern. “You’re his father. There is no substitute for the bond between father and son.”

Kryton wasn’t convinced, but he didn’t argue. Giving in to his pessimism would trigger a downward spiral and he needed to remain strong, focused and hopeful.

He ended the informal meeting so his men could enjoy the estate’s amenities for a few hours before they turned in for the night. They needed to arrive at the ambush site before Arton, but not so early that they looked suspicious.

His houseguests joined him and Skyla for dinner and he was pleasantly surprised with how quickly they took to her. Learning that her vision had provided them with the information they needed to plan the mission had turned their mistrust to admiration. Rondar was especially interested in her gifts. She answered each of his numerous questions with a patient smile.

“How long have you known Jafftin and Rondar,” Skyla asked a few hours later. She’d washed her face and changed into a nightgown that skimmed over her curves. She stood near the balcony door brushing out her hair.

Kryton was already in bed. He’d propped himself up with a couple of pillows so he could enjoy watching her. “I went through training with Rondar and met Jafftin a few years later.”

“They were much friendlier than I’d feared. Dare I hope others will react the same way?”

“Anyone who snubs you because of your planet of origin isn’t worth our time. I won’t waste energy thinking about them.”

She set the hairbrush down on the dresser and joined him on the bed. “I’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you something.”

His eyes widened and his heart flipped over in his chest. “Already?”

She laughed and lightly punched his arm. “You egotist. Even if we are that lucky, it’s even too soon for me to sense a pregnancy.”

It was ridiculous how disappointed he was, so he minimized his reaction. “Then what have you been meaning to tell me?”

“Arton wasn’t the only one I saw in the vision.”

A hopeful smile slowly bowed his lips. “What did you see, or should I say who did you see?”

“You, me, and our three little boys.” She watched him carefully, waiting for his reaction.

“I knew it.” He beamed, joy nearly bursting his heart. “Even though you denied it the other day, you’d seen them. Hadn’t you?”

She nodded, returning his smile. “I wasn’t quite ready to tell you then.”

“Three children.” He took a moment to absorb the concept, to think of all the things he’d be able to teach his sons, all the experiences they’d share. “All of them boys?”

She sighed, some of her buoyancy evaporating. “Are you disappointed?”

“No,” he said without hesitation. “I’ll be thrilled with any child I share with you.”

“But what about magic? You said your life was incomplete without it.”

“I have magic in my life. My mate can manipulate magic. Her gifts are extraordinary.” Her only response was a pleased smile, so he leaned down and kissed her. But then a thought occurred to him. “Was Arton interacting with our children? What exactly did you see?”

She hesitated and he felt the sudden tension in her body. “I was reading to the boys in front of a fire in the library. Arton was standing in the hallway watching us. I didn’t sense danger coming from him, just resentment and restlessness.”

Even after they rescued him, Arton was going to resent them? The possibility broke Kryton’s heart. “How old were our sons?”

“The oldest was five, maybe six. The others around four and two.”

He sighed. Six years wouldn’t be long enough for Arton to work through his bitterness? Another pang of sorrow compressed Kryton’s heart, but determination soon swept it aside. “I don’t care how long it takes. I will help him through it.”

  • * * * *

Kryton had been involved in countless missions that were much more complicated and dangerous. So why was his pulse pounding? He knew the answer, but couldn’t allow himself to think about why this mission was so much more important. He and Tonn were in position on the south side of Rainforter Boulevard. Slightly staggered from where they hovered, Jafftin and Rondar waited on the north. Both teams were in compact shuttles with camouflage shielding. The reflective panels fell short of true invisibility, but allowed any vehicle to blend with its environment.

Skyla sat quietly in the second row of seats. Her behavior had been exemplary ever since they left Lux Manor. Still, she was another distraction Kryton couldn’t afford.

“Here they come.” Tonn motioned to the skimmer speeding along the road. As promised, Arton sat beside the pilot and two guards took up the second row of seats on the open hovercraft. There were no other vehicles and no air cover. The harbingers had grown careless, or overconfident. Kryton didn’t care which. He was happy to take advantage of their arrogance either way.

He’d instructed Jafftin and Rondar to remain at the ready, but only intervene if he and Tonn failed to incapacitate the guards.

The skimmer rapidly approached their position and Kryton carefully targeted the power pack and navigation with his forward blasters. He had to immobilize the craft without blowing his son up in the process or catapulting him into the lake. Using a minimal power setting, he shot three fast bursts into strategic areas of the skimmer. Sparks flew into the air and the hovercraft careened out of control.

“Move out,” he shouted, already out of his seat.

Ignoring the three stairs which they’d lowered a short time before, Tonn jumped out of the main hatch and nimbly landed on the ground.

Kryton followed suit, charging the skimmer as it smashed into a nearby hill, violently jarring the passengers. The guards recovered quickly and leapt to the ground, pulse rifles drawn. Tonn focused on one while Kryton took the other. Kryton’s guard got off the first shot, but the pulse went wide. With steely determination, Kryton aimed his pistol and shot, sending a narrow stream of energy into the guard’s chest. The guard screamed and his eyes rolled back in his head. His rifle dropped from his hands half a second before his unconscious body collapsed.

Tonn had even better luck. He dropped his guard before the man managed to fire a shot.

Rondar and Jafftin rushed forward, ready with restraints. Confident that the situation was under control, Kryton turned back toward the skimmer. The pilot stood to one side, looking rather dazed. But Arton was nowhere in sight.

“Shit!” Kryton looked up and down the road, then toward the lake, but still saw no evidence of his son.

“He ran into the trees,” Skyla called as she dashed off in the same direction.

Sprinting after her, he easily caught up to her slower pace. Why had Arton taken off? It didn’t make sense.

They heard the sharp snap of tree branches and an alarmed yell. Kryton ran even faster. He crashed through some underbrush and nearly trampled Arton, who now sat on the forest floor. His knee was bent and he rubbed his ankle, fear and mistrust burned from his silver-ringed eyes.

Kryton faced his son, holding both hands up, palms showing. “We’re here to help you, son. There’s no reason to be afraid.”

“I’m not afraid and I’m not your son,” Arton snapped, his hostile gaze shifting to Skyla then back.

“Arton,” Kryton tried a softer tone. “Look at me. It’s been a very long time, but you know me.”

Rather than responding to the request, Arton turned his head toward Skyla. “Who are you and why has your image haunted my dreams?”

She moved slowly forward until she stood beside Kryton. “My name is Skyla. I’m your father’s morautu.”

Arton scoffed. “I was born to my father’s morautu. You are not my mother.”

Kryton sucked in a ragged breath. The harbingers hadn’t told him about his mother’s death? Now, after a twelve-year separation, he had the dreaded task of informing his son that his mother was murdered.

Before he could pull himself together enough to speak, Skyla took control of the situation. She stepped closer, then knelt in the dirt at Arton’s side. She didn’t touch him and kept plenty of space between her and the hostile young man, but now their eyes were on a level.

“I’m very sorry to inform you that your mother has passed beyond.”

He could no longer see her face, but her voice was soft and compassionate.

Arton looked at him then back at Skyla. There was no outward reaction to the news. Instead, he asked, “Is he really my father?”

“Yes. We’ve come to take you home.”

Another scoff escaped his son and Kryton cringed. He never even considered whether or not Arton would welcome the rescue.

“I’ve been at the academy for most of my life. Why change things now?”

He started to defend himself, to tell Arton all the times he’d attempted a rescue, all the strategies he’d tried, but Skyla gave him a mental nudge.

Not now. We need to get him to safety and tend his injury. He acknowledged her suggestion with a subtle nod, so she held her hand out toward Arton. “We’re here now. Would you like to see your ancestral home? Nothing will be forced on you.”

Kryton tensed. Like hells it wouldn’t. There was no way in creation Arton was going back to the harbingers. He let Skyla feel his frustration, but forced himself to remain silent.

Arton’s gaze finally locked with his. “They said you’d abandoned me. That your life had moved on and you’d forgotten.”

“How could I forget my own flesh and blood?” Tears swam before his eyes and he frantically blinked them away. “Thoughts of you have never left my mind.”

“We need to move,” Skyla stressed. “It’s not safe to linger here.”

Still Arton hesitated. He rubbed his ankle and stared off into the trees. “If one word you’ve spoken is untrue, I will insist that you return me to the academy.”

“Understood.” Kryton moved up beside Skyla and held out is hand toward his son.

After a short pause, Arton took his hand and allowed Kryton to pull him to his feet. With one unsteady step, Arton realized he couldn’t put weight on his injured foot. Kryton tried to support him with Arton’s arm across his shoulders, but even that wasn’t adequate.

“Carry him,” Skyla urged. “We need to get out of here.”

He wasn’t about to argue, but Arton held up his hand and shook his head. “I will not be carried like a child!”

Kryton chuckled. “Then how would you like to be carried? You can’t put weight on that foot until your ankle is stabilized.”

With an exasperated growl, Arton allowed Kryton to pick him up.

By the time they returned to the road, Rondar and Jafftin had departed and the guards were nowhere in sight.

“The pilot insists on staying with the hovercraft,” Tonn told them as they approached Kryton’s shuttle.

“What have you done with my bodyguards?” Arton demanded to know.

“They’re on their way back to the academy.” Tonn looked at Kryton as he added, “Rondar said to com him if you don’t want them released.”

“The guards were just following orders. It’s the people issuing those orders who are going to answer to me.”

Arton began to brood as they secured him in a seat and prepared to take off.

“Are you okay?” Skyla asked after a long silent pause.

“I don’t understand any of this.” He looked at her then away, his expression conflicted.

The misery in his gaze tore through Kryton. His son believed he’d been deserted, that his parents didn’t care for him. He hadn’t even known his mother was dead. Hatred for the harbingers boiled up within him, spilling over into focused rage. Every member of that accursed guild who ever lied to Arton would pay for their cruel deceit. He didn’t care how long it took, every single one of those bastards would pay.

Tension built as the silence lengthened. Arton fidgeted in his chair, his anxious gaze looking everywhere but at Kryton.

“Where…where are you taking me?”

Skyla reached over and took Arton’s hand, giving it a maternal squeeze. “We’re taking you to Lux Manor.” She paused for a friendly smile. “You’re going home.”

  • * * * *

Four hours later, Skyla pressed against Kryton’s back and wrapped her arms around his waist. “We did it.” She tried to sound enthusiastic, but she felt emotionally drained. “Arton is sound asleep in his bed. He’s safe and he’s back where he belongs.”

Kryton slowly turned within the circle of her arms and leaned back against the balcony’s railing. She wasn’t the only one who liked to stare out at the sea when their mind was troubled. “You did it. Arton has no use for me.”

“Give him time.” She tilted her head back so she could look into his eyes. “It took twelve years for the harbingers to twist his thinking. We won’t be able to untwist it overnight, but we will untwist it.”

“He seems so lost.”

As did his father, but she kept the thought to herself. Kryton’s muddle was understandable. All of this had happened incredibly fast. “He needs love and stability. We can give him both.”

“He needs to know the truth, all of it. He’ll sense any deception.”

She nodded. “He is incredibly perceptive.” Arton hadn’t said much on the shuttle ride home, but the few things he had said were real zingers.

“Why was your image in his dreams? Was it just a harbinger thing?”

“I think he was inadvertently tuning in while I was trying to contact him. My signal wasn’t strong enough to punch through, yet it was persistent enough to reoccur.”

“That makes sense.” Kryton sighed. “As much as any of this makes sense. I didn’t think it was possible for me to hate the harbingers any more, but I do.”

She moved her hands to his chest and rocked to the balls of her feet, bringing her face closer to his. “Hate can keep you focused and give you energy. It can also consume you until there’s nothing left.”

He bent down and kissed her tenderly on the mouth. “I’m so glad you’re here. None of this would have been possible without you.”

“Your welcome, but now the real work begins. We have to rebuild trust and unteach all the misinformation the harbingers fed him.”

His warm palms framed her face as he stared into her eyes. “I couldn’t do this without you. I’m not equipped for this sort of thing.”

“Do you love your son?”

“Of course I do.” He seemed insulted by the question.

“Can you be patient and supportive?”

One corner of his mouth quirked. “Sometimes.”

“Then you have everything you need.”

For a long time, Kryton just held her. They turned sideways so they could both see the water. His hand stroked the back of her head, his fingers sinking into her hair. “Have you thought of a name yet?”

Confused by the odd question, she looked up at him. “A name for what?”

“Our son. Isn’t it Bilarrian custom for the mother to name the firstborn?”

That was the custom, but she was shocked that he knew about it. “I don’t even know for sure that I’m pregnant.”

“If you’re not, we’ll keep trying until you are.”

Her vision gave her confidence that she wouldn’t have too long to wait. Still, she hadn’t really thought about a name. “What do you think about Sedrik? That was my favorite grandfather’s name.”

“It’s not bad. How about Kaden? That was my father’s name,” Kryton countered.

“Kaden sounds more like a second son to me.”

Kryton chuckled. “All right. We’ll stick with Sedrik. Commander Sedrik Lux. General Sedrik Lux. I like the sound of that.”

“Hold on a minute. Why does he have to join the military? Maybe I want a different sort of life for our son.”

He tensed and his tone grew serious, as did his expression. “Even though you’re my morautu, our sons will be considered battle born. The military is the most common profession for battle born sons.”

She wasn’t pleased by that tidbit. But how could she object to the career path without insulting a lifelong soldier? They had many years to settle the debate. Sedrik was not yet born, and Kaden would arrive two years later. Rather than continue the awkward discussion, she returned to the playful topic. “We’ve named babies one and two. What about little number three?”

“I’ll have to give that one some thought.”

“Fair enough.” She reached down and took his hand. “If we’re all out of names, let’s go to bed.”

He entwined their fingers and gave her a little squeeze. “My thoughts exactly.”

THE END

 

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I swore I’d never do this, but here I go. If you enjoyed this book, could you please take a minute and write a review? Reviews have become an important way for readers to find new authors and to evaluate new books. My books sell well, but don’t tend to receive a lot of reviews, so I’d really appreciate your help.

Thanks, Cyndi

Featuring Kaden Lux and Lexie Ward


War Bride

Battle Born Prequel: Skyla's prophetic dreams aren't enough to keep her from being captured by a fierce Rodyte general, but they help her understand what he wants and why he needs her so desperately. She's now his helpless captive and must decide if she's brave enough to teach this embittered soldier how to love again. Tragedy, and years of war, have hardened Kryton Lux, made him ruthless and unfeeling. He's fascinated with his new captive, ready and willing to seduce her curvaceous body. His heart, however, isn't part of the bargain. She will submit to his sexual demands and when their time together has concluded, she will return to her homeworld and he will never think of her again. Luckily for Skyla, fate has a far different plan for this stubborn general. Note to Readers: This book contains detailed descriptions of sizzling passion only suitable for mature readers. From Cyndi: I've had many requests for more information about the war brides, so I decided to let one tell her story. Skyla is the mother of three upcoming heroes in the Battle Born series. This is a stand-alone story, but I hope you'll check out my other books as well. All my books blend elements of science-fiction, fantasy, and paranormal romance. The Battle Born books lean more toward sci-fi, but there is still plenty of steamy romance. Enjoy!

  • ISBN: 9781370397648
  • Author: Anything-but-Ordinary Books
  • Published: 2017-01-23 01:20:13
  • Words: 40996
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