softly say goodbye book cover
Part of the Redemption's Price series:

The dream of a pride and a mate isn't supposed to cost him everything.

Snow leopard shifter Blair Kincade has spent a lifetime using football to fill the gaping hole in his soul. Being an alpha without a pride sucks. As does being lied to about it his entire life by none other than the one he should've been able to trust: his adopted father. Meeting a visiting Russian snow leopard turns into finding the last survivors of his destroyed pride. And the possibility of a mate bond with a woman strong enough to stand by him.

Ballerina Oksana Bukovskaya has come to Colorado with one goal in mind: to save her adopted father, who's slowly losing his memory. There have been one too many attempts on his life, and she's not leaving until he's safe in the Boulder pride lands. Falling for an alpha she thought dead is an unexpected complication.

Uncovering the pieces of what happened to their pride reveals Ares's fingerprints all over a slaughter no one remembers. Plus he's sent one of his assassins after the only man who could've stopped it. Finding the answers--and the killer--is the only way Blair can protect his pride

There's just one problem. It might cost him his mate.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Blair Kincade pasted on his five-millionth smile of the last six weeks and lied to the camera. Thank the gods, the photographer didn’t linger. The Fund banquet always drew them by the dozens and he was in no mood to pretend a second longer than necessary. Dad didn’t deserve it.

He pulled away from his father and tossed back the rest of his champagne. Not that it’d do anything to him, but half his life was about appearances. Tonight, it was the appearance of a happy family, by putting on an act for the cameras and grant recipients. Right now, he wanted every person in this place to leave him the hell alone. Including his father.

“Thank you for doing this, son.”

READ MORE

A soft growl escaped. “I’m here for Owen. Not you.”
John Kincade sighed, just as softly as Blair had growled. Which meant every set of shifter ears in the room heard it. “I messed up, Blair. I admit it. You’re still my son, and I couldn’t love you any more if you were my flesh and blood.”

Blair counted to three so he wouldn’t start a fight. The last thing he needed was to loose claws and fangs on the man who’d raised him, while half of Denver watched. They didn’t need to see their beloved Super Bowl-bound quarterback turn into a snow leopard and get his ass kicked by an almost two-hundred-year-old cougar-turned-lion. “I’m grateful you protected me. But you also denied me everything I was born for.” His throat tightened almost to the point of pain. “After losing your own pride, how could you do that to me?”

“They’re dead, son. All of them. Had you stayed out there as a helpless cub, you’d be dead too.”

“It wasn’t your call to make.” He faced the man who’d raised him, loved him, protected him. “You lied to me for almost thirty years, and I’m supposed to be okay with it? Newsflash, Dad. I’m not.” His human side still thought of the man as his father, but his leopard rebelled at any thought of him as Dad. The fight almost caused physical pain sometimes. Like now. Along with a burning need to get out of the same space.

“Another reporter’s coming.”

“Nice sidestep. This conversation is over anyway.” He brushed past Dad and started looking for Owen.

The annual awards gala of The Samuel Kincade Fund wasn’t a place for the faint of heart. Denver’s elite came in droves, along with politicians, a few celebrities, athletes, and many of the grant recipients. This year the latter group included his older brother Gabe’s mate, Dr. Autumn Dailey. She was doing a DNA study on wild cougar populations, had accidentally tangled with the now-dead Teton pride, and mated with Gabe in the process.

Which made Blair jealous. He longed for a mate of his own, someone to share life with. To share his pain with. When carried by two, it ceased to be as heavy.
Blair followed Owen’s scent to a corner where he hid behind some plants. An undertone of bitterness laced his scent, and Blair put his body between Owen and the crowds. “You don’t look so good.”

A pale and shaking Owen met his gaze. “There are…so many. People.”

Blair moved in closer. Put his hands on Owen’s shoulders. “I know. If you need to leave, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”

“I’m alpha, Blair. This shouldn’t…I can’t—”

“You can leave, Owen, if you really need to. This is a huge thing, and you’ve already been braver than expected.”

Owen leaned forward, and Blair enclosed him in a tight hug. The future alpha of the Boulder pride was a certified agoraphobic. Blair held him as tight as he dared, since Owen outranked him on the alpha scale. “Are you still taking your medication for this?”

“I stopped because it hasn’t happened in ages.” Owen shuddered. “I’d hoped Sekhmet fixed this too.”
The Egyptian goddess of healing and one of the eyes of Ra. She’d healed Owen physically last summer, when he’d been returned to them after being missing for twenty-two years. “I think she heals physical things. This is mental.”

Another shudder, and Owen pressed in tighter. “Can we go outside for a little while?”

Outside. Into gardens covered with snow. His snow leopard forgot all about being mad at Dad and pressed so hard against him, fur rubbed the inside of his skin.

“Of course.”

He steered his trembling baby brother outside, nodding to Gabe and the other security guys as they went past. All acknowledged the movement, but none followed.

An expanse of fresh snow met them, and Blair drew the scent into his lungs. Nothing in the world smelled better than fresh fallen snow. It sparkled in the soft light of a garden lit with strands of white twinkle lights woven into now-bare trees and hidden in hedges. It was also deserted—exactly what Owen needed right then.

Owen peeled away from him and wandered into the shadows. Blair knelt on the pea gravel path and dug his hand into the snow mounded on the side. He let a partial shift go through his hand so his leopard could feel the snow on a paw and quiet down. The leopard didn’t approve of sacrificing their last free night to be here at the gala instead of roaming the snow-covered mountains in the pride lands.

“How come there aren’t any snow leopards in the pride?”

Blair lifted his gaze toward where Owen’s voice came from. Switched to his leopard vision so he could see his brother. “We don’t play well with other cats. Then there’s also the whole communist countries part, and the Himalayas.”

“I can see why they’d want to stay in mountains like that. Where did your pride live?”

Blair raked his paw through the snow once more, shifted it back to his hand, and remained crouched by the soothing chill of the snow. “Siberia.”

“That’s a lot of territory.”

“Maahes says we were close to Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border, in a place called the Tunkinsky National Park.”
Owen appeared out of the shadows, color once more

in his face and the trembling eased. “You don’t look like a Mongol horde.”

Blair threw a handful snow at Owen, who dodged it, a hint of a smile playing with his mouth. Owen stepped back onto the path, snow sticking to his shoes. “You believe Maahes about where you were born?”

“No reason not to.” Blair stood.

“Then why are you so angry about all of this?”

A growl slipped out. “Because they lied to me for almost thirty years. They should’ve told me the truth when I was old enough to understand what pride destruction means.”

Owen eased closer to him. Touched his shoulder for a moment—the touch of an alpha to an upset pride mate. One Blair no longer accepted from Dad, but could from Owen. And his baby brother appeared to know it. “You were, what, nine when I was taken?”
Blair nodded.

“Has it occurred to you fear of losing you might’ve kept them silent about it?”

“I know it did. They almost smothered me, Owen. I took the Arkansas scholarship to get away from it. If they’d told me the truth, I wouldn’t have gone so far away from snow my leopard almost died. And I wouldn’t be so angry right now.” He spun away from Owen’s too-perceptive scrutiny. “All my life I’ve known something important had been taken from me before I could remember it. I asked Dad a hundred times why I was the only natural snow leopard in the family, and I never got a straight answer.”

Owen’s touch returned to his shoulder, anchoring him in reality. In pride. “It could’ve been because Dad has no idea. How else do you explain Adam being a tiger?”
Blair shook his head. “But he doesn’t act like a tiger any more than Gabe acts like a jaguar, or Ben like a leopard. I act like a snow leopard, Owen. I think like one. I need snow and mountains the same way I need oxygen, and I’m happy to go days at a time without seeing or speaking to another living soul. And I’m insanely patient in predator mode. I tracked an elk for twenty hours last year before taking it down. None of that is normal Boulder behavior.”

“It’s normal snow leopard?”

“Yes.”

The touch became Owen resting his arm on Blair’s shoulders and holding him close. “Did you ask Maahes to look for anyone who asked for vengeance?”

“Of course. He didn’t find anything, and told me it probably means they’re all dead.”

Owen squeezed. “Don’t be too sure. Remember, for the last two thousand years we thought he was dead. With everything that’s happened in Russia in the last century, I have zero issues with assuming the Russian cats gave up on any and all hope of our gods caring. Which means if someone besides you is still alive, they’re not going to ask vengeance of a god they no longer trust.”

“I thought of that already. But it doesn’t help me find them. The only thing I can think of is going there and roaming the mountains to see if my presence calls anyone.” He leaned his head over to make contact with Owen’s, needing the touch as much as he needed the cold and snow. “Which assumes any survivors stayed in the area. Which is dumb, if I’m honest. The safe thing to do would be to make contact with other prides and hope for a place.”

“Then contact the other prides, see if anything shakes loose.”

“There’s only one actual snow leopard pride left in Russia, and they’re over a thousand miles west of where I was born. I plan to make contact after the game next week, but I don’t expect them to tell me anything I don’t already know.”

“Could you go over there and see if your presence calls anyone?”

Blair nodded. “It’s risky, though.” He pulled away from Owen. “And most likely pointless.”

Owen scratched at his chin. “Maybe. Maybe not. Me and Dad know when something happens. You’re alpha too. Surely you’d know.”

“I was three. Most alpha connections don’t start forming until after puberty.”

“Whatever you decide to do, I’ll back you.”

Blair smiled at his brother. “Thank you.”

Owen lifted his head in a sudden jerk, and sniffed. “You smell that?”

Blair sniffed too. “Yes.” Another one, slower this time, to draw more in. “Not Boulder.”

“Why do you think I asked?”

Blair’s leopard huffed through his human throat.

“Any idea what kind of cat it is?”

“Leopard. Not African, though.”

“Persian?”

Something in Blair flickered. Stretched for the scent. “Snow.” He glanced at Owen. “I can’t explain it, but I have to find out who it is. Alone.”

Owen nodded. “I’ll go tell Gabe. Shout if you need us.” He hurried off.

Blair put his back to the hall, and his brothers, and followed the scent deeper into the garden. At the fountain, he stopped dead in his tracks and stared at the beauty in front of him.

She stood on the edge of the fountain, her arms spread out to her sides as though they were wings, with her fingers just so, back arched, and her head tilted so she looked up at the night sky. Her heels were on the ground, and her left leg extended with the most extreme pointing of toes he’d ever seen. The extended leg stuck out of the deep slit in her floor-length dress, revealing a muscular calf his running back would envy.

She looked over her shoulder, and he forgot to breathe. The most exquisite face with high cheekbones and huge eyes, all framed with honeyed curls, gave her an air of both serious and saucy. Even with his leopard’s superior night vision, the color of her eyes was a mystery. “It’s impolite to stare.”
Her voice did him in. Never in his life had anything sounded so perfect. And her accent. Magical. “It’s risky to stand barefoot on the edge of a fountain when it’s twenty degrees and dark.”

She moved her extended leg and executed a perfect spin on the ball of her foot to face him. Then she lowered her leg and balanced on the edge of the ledge. “You always walk around frozen gardens without a coat?”

“When the snow is fresh, absolutely.”

The soft, seductive tilt of her lips drew him in even more. “You are the only other snow leopard I’ve scented this evening.”

“Because you and I are the only ones here.”

She stepped off the ledge and into her shoes. “How does a snow leopard function amongst so many Persian leopards and cougars?”

“Not very well, to be honest.” He took a step toward her. “Blair Kincade. This whole shindig is hosted by my father.”

She didn’t flinch at his approach. “Oksana Bukovskaya. Why is your face everywhere I go?”

“Denver’s a little obsessed with football.”

One perfect eyebrow arched. “A little?”

He laughed. “Okay, a lot. We’re playing for the championship for the second time since I joined the team. I’m a Colorado native, so it’s ramping up the excitement.”

“Ah.” She nodded once as the sound came out. “You are dedicated, then?”

“Of course. You don’t get to this level without it.” He cocked his head. “You’re an athlete of some type, too. What do you do?”

“Ballet. I’m a visiting artist to the Denver Ballet Company.”

That explained the odd pose on the fountain, and the liquid way she’d hopped off. “My knowledge of your art begins and ends with The Nutcracker.”

Her lips curved in a half-motion, and her eyes sparkled. “You have the good sense to call it my art. For that, I shall forgive your lack of knowledge.”

“Appreciate it. What brings you to this gala?”

She stepped into the space beside him, all controlled power and intoxicating snow leopard scent. “I’m a replacement date via the symphony.”

He went stone-still. He hadn’t scented any sirens, but it didn’t hurt to double-check. “Orchestra?”

Da. I avoid sirens whenever possible.”

“Wise choice. However, the symphony here is officially allied with my pride.”

“I heard rumors of it.” She met and held his gaze without flinching. A strong dominant, which made perfect sense considering she was here alone. Snow leopard submissives were rare, according to his research over the last few months. “I should go back inside before my date comes looking. He doesn’t know what I really am.”

Blair held out his elbow. “Allow me?”

She looked at his arm, then back at him. “I am not arm candy, Blair Kincade.”

“I know. Coming back in with me will signal my overprotective brothers that you’re not to be interrogated. And it’ll give all the reporters something interesting to talk about, since I’m a confirmed bachelor with zero public interest in the finer points of life.”

Her eyes danced, and she pressed her lips together. “I like the way your mind works.” She curved her hand in the crook of his elbow. “Being seen with you can’t hurt one bit in the free PR department for my performances here.”

He did nothing to hide his own urge to smile, and escorted the gorgeous snow leopard back into the borderline stifling warmth of a hall packed with hundreds of people. Gabe flashed him a thumb’s up as he went by. Blair rolled his eyes.

“One of your brothers?”

“Yeah. All but one are older, and they’re insufferably nosy.”

“Aren’t we all?” Laughter danced in her tone.

“Sure. But my family has the market cornered on not knowing when to stop.”

“It’s something to treasure. Not all of us are so lucky.” No trace of the laughter remained.

Instead, intense, shared sorrow pulled at his leopard. He put his free hand over hers. Shared pain, yes. And maybe a clue. But without revealing he was born in Russia. “You lost your pride?”
Da. I was a five-year-old cub when it happened.”

“I’m so sorry, Oksana.” He tugged her into a shadowed area out of the main walkway. “Boulder is a place where all without a pride are welcome. At the end of World War Two, Bastet charged my father with making a place where the European prides could come to heal and rebuild their numbers. Many stayed.”

“Are there other snow leopards besides you?”

“Not born ones. My dad and our next alpha can be one, but it’s the hardest one for them to hold.”

Her eyes were the most beautiful hazel green he’d ever seen. The browns and greens of a forest. “An adult survived the slaughter too, and he’s taken care of me ever since. Something in him is broken. He needs to be under an alpha and strong wardens.” She sucked in a breath. Met his gaze again. “I accepted this invitation in the hopes of meeting the pride and seeing if you can help him.”

“Then Bastet guided us together outside. Of course we can do that. You’re welcome too, for as long as you want to stay.”

She drew in a shaky breath. “It’s not as hard for me, since I don’t remember being in a pride. He does remember, and I know he’s lonely.”

“Come meet my dad. Two of his wardens are also here.”

The last of the sorrow around her fell away. “Spasiba, Blair.”

The Russian word slid over him, melting into his soul like butter on Mom’s fresh bread. Many thought it an ugly language, but not Blair. He’d always been drawn to it, always found something soothing in the unique sounds and cadence. This particular word meant “thank you”. “You’re most welcome, Oksana. Word of warning, though. He’s intimidating.”

“I am a Russian principal ballerina. An intimidating alpha is less threatening than an angry Russian ballet mistress.”

Blair laughed. “Ditto for one of my coaches. Dad could take scary lessons from him.”

“Lead on.”

Blair did just that, winding through the crowds, nodding at people he knew, all while keeping Oksana close—all the better to give the gossip mill fodder for tomorrow. Something more interesting than lists of attendees, or if any couples had fights.

Then again, it’d also make his teammates razz him without mercy when they got wind of it. Blair Kincade, married to his sport, seen with a beautiful dancer. Someone was bound to find a bad joke in it somewhere.

Dad stood with Mom near the stage, Mom radiant in a dark red evening gown, her hair piled on top of her head in one of her elaborate up-dos with curls and lots of pins and a bit of a 1940s look to it. Some of the pictures of when she and Dad first mated after the war put her in the bombshell pinup category.

Mom leaned into Dad, listening to him with every part of her body. There were worse families to end up part of, if he was honest with himself. At least he’d grown up with parents who loved each other. Watching them fall in love all over again, now that Owen was home safe, qualified as magical.

And made him long all the more for a mate of his own.

The crowd parted, and Dad caught sight of them. Blair’s leopard recoiled, wanting to both run away and rake his face. Curious how it had no bad feelings toward Mom. Then again, maybe not. She hadn’t been the one to lie to his face about who he was. Only Dad had made that mistake.

“We have a visiting snow leopard who needs to speak with you.” He stopped outside of touching distance. “Oksana Bukovskaya, John Kincade. Boulder alpha.”
Dad’s eyes hued gold, and his intimidating factor went through the roof.

Blair’s leopard reacted with a vicious shove. Every alpha instinct in him went on high alert, and he shifted his body to protect a snow leopard he didn’t know.

COLLAPSE
His Soul To Keep cover

To save his soul, he risks condemning the world.

Boulder pride security chief Gabe Kincade is losing his mind. It's the only explanation for remembering a past life in ancient Egypt as one of Maahes's warriors. Meeting a gorgeous scientist his jaguar says is his mate is a complication he can't afford—and can't resist. Ares is after him, and if the god catches him, he's dead. Again.

Wildlife geneticist Autumn Dailey has spent the last fifteen years tracking big cat DNA. She's on the verge of a huge discovery, and the key might be in the samples from her cougar population study. Being kidnapped by people who turn into cougars proves she's found her something huge. Gabe Kincade showing up and promising to protect her from an unhinged alpha is an unexpected bonus. So is falling in love with him.

But Ares knows who Gabe really is and what he can do. The Greek god of war will do anything to take possession of his soul. Including a temptation from his past capable of destroying Autumn. To save her, Gabe has to save himself. No matter the cost.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter 1

“Get it together, man. You don’t have time to go insane.” Gabriel Kincade turned away from the bathroom mirror and went outside on his back porch. Maybe looking at the beauty of a Colorado fall morning would help erase the lingering dream. A dream of the sands of Egypt hot beneath his jaguar’s paws, where the heat was almost a living entity and the great pyramids of Giza were nothing but a landmark telling him how much further until he reached home and safety.

His jaguar paced restlessly beneath his skin, the need to shift making him itch. It wanted to return to the heat of the Egyptian desert. Not face another Rocky Mountain winter. Which at once made no sense and all the sense in the world. Jaguars were jungle cats, and craved heat. But they weren’t indigenous to the African continent, so why the hell did his jaguar insist it was home?

READ MORE

He checked his watch and hissed. Almost late. Back inside and he dressed in his slate blue suit, a cream shirt, a gray tie, and his cat’s eye cuff links. No one in his pride understood the comfort he derived from dressing this way. Including himself. But it made all the difference when he had to interact with the human world.

Same deal for the leather interior of his almost-luxury SUV he’d bought six months ago. Brand new. Some assumed him pretentious and snobby because he’d gone to law school at Harvard and always had a new car and expensive clothes. The trappings brought comfort and peace. If only he could figure out why, since no one else in his family was attracted to the same things.

He slid behind the wheel, turned on the seat warmer to banish the chill, and headed toward the university for his breakfast meeting. Meeting with sirens weirded him out, but it was necessary to cement the alliance Dad and David Michaels were trying to build.

As he pulled into the parking lot, his phone buzzed. He parked, and lifted it from the cup-holder. Owen, his youngest brother and future alpha of the Boulder pride. “Hey.”

“He still doesn’t get it, Gabe. I can’t talk to him yet.”

Gabe leaned his head back, staring through the sunroof at the brilliant blue of a perfect October morning. “It’s been almost three months. You have to at some point. He knows how bad he messed up. All he wants is a chance to earn back your trust.”

Owen sniffed. “He proved to me he’s a siren. There is no earning back my trust.”

David Michaels, newly minted leader of the Denver symphony and the only brother Owen had known for over twenty years. They’d been closer than close. Until David turned himself in to the old symphony leader to save his brother and mate, then fell prey to the woman’s control and shattered the brother he’d sworn to protect.

Thinking about it still made Gabe want to rip the siren’s throat out. But he refrained due to how much it’d hurt his only sister, David’s mate. “His curse is broken. I think you owe him a chance to make things right.”

“I don’t owe him a damn thing.”

Gabe straightened. “You’re wrong there, little brother. Our whole family owes him everything. I’m saying it aloud for my benefit too. As mad as you are at him, you’d regret it the rest of your life if he died with this rift in place.”

Silence on the other end.

“Just remember Berenice was controlling him through a blood bond. He truly didn’t recognize you. If he had, he’d have found a way to get rid of her without hurting you.”

“Talking to yourself again?”

“No.” He killed the seat warmer and the engine. “I was there, remember? I know siren blood control when I see it.” He’d always known. Another piece of knowledge he couldn’t explain. “Ask Maahes if you can use his cabin as neutral ground to meet with David. If he didn’t love you, he wouldn’t be busting his ass trying to get you to talk to him.”

A huff—part cat, part man. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good. I’m late for my meeting, so I’ll talk to you later.” He ended the call, slid the phone into the inside pocket of his jacket, and headed into the cafe with his tablet in hand. These breakfast meetings were designed for him and his symphony counterpart, one of David’s council members, to get to know each other and figure out how to work together to keep Ares from making more trouble. They rotated between Denver, Josh’s territory, and Boulder, Gabe’s territory.

Stepping into the cafe made his jaguar tense. He didn’t like the sirens. Or having to be nice to them. Gabe paused to give his jaguar a moment to adjust. Human and siren scents mixed with warm syrup, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee, bacon, and eggs. Out of habit, he sorted the living scents. Nine sirens, in addition to the one he was meeting with. Two shifters carrying his pride scent, and one who didn’t. Almost forty humans.

He looked at every siren. Not a single one could meet his gaze. Except the one he was meeting with, Josh Hall. His darker skin tone and lighter build like David’s made him almost pretty. But the siren had a core of steel and had already proven loyalty to his leader. As well as being willing to face the strength of the Boulder pride when he’d deemed it necessary to save David. That, Gabe respected.

Gabe made his way though the tables and took the empty chair. Said nothing until the waitress came over to take his order and fill his coffee cup. “Owen called me a few minutes ago.”

Josh sipped his coffee. “David tried to see him last night. Didn’t go well.”

“He’ll come around.”

“Wish he’d do it faster. A couple of Western symphonies have figured out he’s David’s weakness. They’ll go after him at some point.”

Gabe grimaced. He’d been teaching Owen how to fight, but he still had a long way to go before he could defend himself without help and harness the power of his alpha status. He might’ve pinned Dad on the Fourth, yet Dad was right. Owen wasn’t ready to take his place. At the current rate of progression, he might never be.

All because David had fallen prey to Berenice’s control and fed on his brother.

“The New Mexico symphonies are sending reps to talk to us in a couple weeks. They want to meet with your pride as well.”

Gabe drowned his French toast in maple syrup, then sliced into it. “We’re not the dominant pride there. Why us?”

Josh lifted one eyebrow. “You really expect me to believe the New Mexico alpha makes big decisions alone?”

Gabe shrugged. “Had to try.”

Josh let out a low chuckle and shook his head. “This is still weird for me too.”

“Glad we’re on the same page.”

The conversation turned to their scheduled topic of Halloween and all it entailed. Maybe this year would be quieter, since the Denver symphony was no longer an enemy.

Gabe accepted a refill on his coffee, savoring his meal. Another thing he never took for granted and didn’t understand why. The company wasn’t half bad either. In another world, he and Josh probably would’ve been friends.

Another customer came in, and the person’s scent made his jaguar sit up. Gabe looked to the door and the stunning woman heading for the counter. Her path brought her right by his table, and he breathed her in. Cool and crisp, with a hint of water lily and pomegranate—a scent he’d never found around here, and one that made his jaguar homesick. Long brown hair pulled back in a braid. Luminous, soft-looking skin the color of the desert sands his jaguar claimed as home. A facial structure similar enough to Mom’s to whisper Latino or Hispanic ancestry, probably one of her parents or grandparents.

Ours. Mate.

Gabe squelched the urge to turn in his chair and keep his gaze on her. Never had his jaguar said anything about a woman. Or a man. He was almost tempted to argue, but arguing with himself never ended well. Especially when the jaguar started it.

“Morning, Autumn. Usual?”

“Of course.”

His jaguar went boneless, the two words not even directed at him as persuasive as just the right kind of stroking on his fur. Mate. Her voice was, simply put, the sweetest of music. Not too high, not too low. If she whispered his name, he’d be gone forever.

Keeping his attention on his plate took every bit of concentration he had. And still her scent wouldn’t let go, and her chit-chat with the lady at the counter kept stroking his fur. Mate.

He looked heavenward without moving his head. I know that. She’s human. So much for not arguing with himself.

Mate. Ours.

She sailed past him on her way back outside, a cup of coffee in one hand and a bag in the other. Muffins, according to his nose. Apple cinnamon and pumpkin. Excellent choices. Her braid swayed along her back, contrasting with exquisite beauty against the hunter green of her jacket. Black dress slacks and plain loafers teased him with visions of her in a skirt and heels.

No. She was a total stranger and he had no business undressing her in his mind. Talk about rude and inconsiderate.

She went to the silver sedan beside his SUV, set her muffins on the roof, and dug into her purse. A broad-chested man came up beside her. Autumn went stiff and her eyes widened. The glass couldn’t hide the acrid bite of fear in her scent. The man grabbed her arm, and coffee sloshed over both of them.

Gabe shoved back from the table. “Excuse me, Josh.” He had to check his stride so he didn’t run out the door.

“Get your hands off me.” The fear wasn’t in her voice, but the other man was a shifter—his scent marking him as a cougar—and he scented it the same as Gabe. He saw it in the satisfaction stealing over the man’s face. Gabe’s jaguar rose up, begging to be unleashed and spill the other shifter’s guts. Claws pricked at his fingertips, three of them slicing out anyway.

“Not until I get my answer.”

“The lady said to let go.” Gabe stopped a couple feet from the shifter, arms crossed.

The other shifter looked him up and down. “Bug off, Kincade.”

Recognition hit. One of the secondary wardens from the Teton pride. “I’m the one who lives here. So why don’t you do as the lady asked and go home?”

“You’re just like your father, meddling in things that don’t concern you.”

Gabe couldn’t help it. A low growl came out of his throat. The warden appeared to realize what it meant, because he released Autumn and backed away. Gabe continued staring at the warden as he climbed into a big truck. The Teton alpha was a piece of work, and his wardens weren’t much better.

“Thank you.”

Gabe turned his full human attention to Autumn, his jaguar still focused on the threat to their mate. “He’s bothered you before?”

“Can’t take no for an answer.” Autumn set her half-empty coffee cup on the roof of her car and looked at her sleeve and pants. “Blast. I’m already late.”

“May I get you another cup of coffee while you clean up?” Damn. Too eager.

She studied him, her head tilted to the right just enough to show off the slope of her neck. “I guess. This is the first time he’s taken off without me threatening to call the police. Thanks for that.” She unlocked the car and set the muffin bag on the seat, then locked it up again.

He walked beside her back into the cafe, held the door, and went to the counter for her coffee while she continued into the ladies room to clean up. What on earth did the Teton pride want with this woman?

She joined him at the counter, grimacing at the stain on her dark shirt. “Thank God I didn’t wear white today.” She lifted her head. Met his gaze. “How did he know you?”

Human meant he couldn’t tell her the whole truth. “My company has had some business dealings with his employer. They weren’t pleasant.”

Autumn looked him up and down, obviously taking in his clothing and the way he carried himself. “Who do you work for?”

“The Kincade Group.”

“What do they do, exactly?”

His jaguar sighed with intense pleasure at the sound of her voice. The man seized the chance to keep talking to her. “A lot of development, architectural design, commercial properties, some infrastructure engineering. That kind of stuff. We’ve been part of Boulder for over a hundred years.”

“I had no idea they had such roots in the area. Pretty cool.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “I’m almost late. It was nice meeting you. Thanks for the help and coffee.”

He opened his mouth to say something to make her stop, but she sailed past him and was in her car so fast all he could do was stand there and gape as she left.

“You’ll get nowhere with her, so don’t even ask me for her name.”

He faced the hostess, working on keeping his face from giving anything away. “Wouldn’t dream of it. How much do I owe you?”

She rang him up and he paid, with another cup of coffee to go. If Autumn was his mate, Bastet would make sure they met again. Under better circumstances. That was one of the best things about mates in his world—you couldn’t hide from each other. When it was time, it was time, and nothing short of death could stop it.

Josh grinned as he stood from his chair. “I won’t tell a soul.”

“You better not.” Gabe’s jaguar growled in the words. He left the cafe, coffee in hand, and slid into his SUV. He pulled his phone from his jacket and dropped it in the cup-holder beside his coffee. It buzzed as he cranked the engine. He hit the button on his steering wheel to answer the call. Bluetooth was a wonderful invention.

“It’s Erica. You busy?”

“No. What do you need?”

“For you to come to the lab. I’ve been sending stuff to John for almost a month now, with no real answer. He has to know about this.”

Gabe backed out of his space and headed for the University of Colorado campus. “What’s going on?”

“Not discussing it over the phone. You have to see it. Now’s a great time because my boss is running late. If you’re close, you might beat her in.”

“Ten minutes.” He ended the call, the coffee in his stomach turning into the most vitriolic of acids. Bobby, Dad’s second warden, handled all of the science related things right now since most of the people involved were from his pride. Including Erica. Trying to send the info straight to Dad explained why he hadn’t seen it. Unless it had Bobby’s name on it, nobody knew Dad had to see it.

He parked and went inside. Erica met him. “My boss just got here, but it’ll still be a little while before we have the morning meeting. She didn’t look too happy.”

Gabe followed Erica through a maze of halls and into a small office. A massive plasma TV mounted on the wall dominated the space. “What’s going on?”

Erica turned the TV on and an incomprehensible mess appeared. “We’re mapping wild cougar population DNA right now. Somehow, seven of the Teton pride cougars got tagged and collected from.”

Gabe crossed his arms loosely and stared at the mass of colorful graphs. “Some of our DNA was collected during the last cougar population study. Why is it different this time?”

Erica went to the screen and tapped a spot left of center. “There’s something really strange going on with it. I’m collecting samples from our pride to do some comparisons, off the record. I want to get you so I have a better cross-section to work from and figure out if it’s in the human DNA or the animal.”

Gabe turned his full attention on Erica. She was a submissive, and he could pull every last detail out of her if he wanted. But he didn’t. It violated her, and made him feel like a slimeball. She was also a certifiable genius and had been working with their DNA for over twenty years. Besides, something else was more important. “Why did you go outside the chain?”

Erica lowered her gaze, without lowering her head. Her soft black curls fluttered around her face. “It’s important. If I’m right, the Teton pride is in big trouble.”

Gabe took a step toward her. Relaxed his posture and kept his voice gentle. “Dad hasn’t seen any of it. Bobby screens this stuff and goes to Dad when he has all the information he needs to explain it.”

Erica scuffed her shoe on the carpet. “I thought it’d be faster to go straight to John.”

“Not with this. He glazes over when DNA gets mentioned.” Gabe stroked her cheek. “Everything you’ve sent to him, send it to me and Bobby. We’ll make sure he’s briefed so we can figure out what to do.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He pulled her into a hug. “It’s all right. It’s not like there’s a time bomb involved.”

Erica accepted the reassurance, then stepped back and turned to the screen. “I wouldn’t say that, exactly. I need permission to share it with a human scientist I know.”

Gabe opened his mouth, but Erica’s raised hand stayed him. “She knows about us. Since my boss doesn’t, I can’t go to her.”

Gabe nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Erica beamed. Took up station beside him and walked him back into the maze. Pomegranate and water lily made him stop at a junction, his jaguar rolling around in the scent and his human body frozen.

Autumn came around the corner, stopped, and put her hands on her hips.

COLLAPSE

He fought for her. Now she must fight for him.

Lorin, Prime of Arkos House, just wants to do his job and court his Sunny, High Lady Sagira Memeos. But a private meeting with the emperor reveals Essence, an illegal designer drug targeting Lokmane, is spreading to the edges of the Marcasian empire. Which threatens Lok'ma. Lorin takes his private war public--and puts those he loves in danger.

Sunny isn’t sure Lorin’s war is a good idea. Especially since he’s asked her to be a daro ally in the Marcasian Lords’ Chamber. It puts a giant target on her sisters. When Lorin's war spills over into her personal life and her house is broken into, backing away from him is the only answer she can find.

When Lorin is shot, then kidnapped from a public place, Sunny must accept her societal position and go on record as a Lokmane rights supporter. But taking a stand puts her future with Lorin—as well as his life—in jeopardy. Choosing between love and loyalty might break them both.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Earth Year

Karnak, Marcase

War: Day One

The spicy-sweet citrus of his Sunny’s perfume filled his head. Lorin smiled and opened his eyes. She knelt beside his bed, arms folded on his covers, chin on her hands—staring at him, their noses centimeters apart. “Good morning, Lorin.”

He cupped her cheek, sliding his thumb along her cheekbone. “Morning, Sunny. Are you eating breakfast with me?”

READ MORE

She nodded, dislodging his hand. “Figured you’d want a friendly face before you walk into battle in a couple hours.”

Lorin groaned. Battle. Appearing before the daro board to make his case for having Yev’an’s claim removed. Not something he looked forward to, but Yev’an was a gentle, scared boy who ought to be free of the bastard who owned him. For that reason, Lorin planned to step out of the shadows all daros lived in, and fight for Yev’an. As well as every other daro and Lokmane threatened by the brewing Essence crisis. “Battle is the right word.”

Sunny smoothed his curls. “I think you’re very brave to do this. I’m not sure I could.”

Lorin sat up, keeping his covers over his naked lower half. Lack of clothes still made Sunny uncomfortable, though they’d come a long way since the day Lapis Memeos died three months ago.

Three months of freedom, after eleven years of fearing he’d never be free of the woman. His plan to convince Sunny he was a real person had exceeded his expectations, and he’d fallen in love with his childhood nemesis. He had helped her navigate her ascension to ruling high lady of the empire, and she had held him while his controlled world fell apart around him.

Essence, a designer drug used on Lokmane, was spreading through the daro houses, and so far they hadn’t found a way to stop the deadly stuff. It had already cost one of Lorin’s daros his life. Being a daro was supposed to keep them safe, make them untouchable. But Minton was dead. Kell and Keesa, two more of his daros, had been overdosed as well. Both had survived, but it didn’t lessen the weight of the guilt on his heart.

Neither did thinking about Yev’an’s situation. But this one he could do something about. And he would in three hours, when he stood before the daro board and made his case to have the claim voided.

Claims were horrible things. They gave owners rights to have their daro whenever they wanted, and to manipulate their client lists. In Yev’an’s case, and Lorin’s, the claim also led to physical abuse and hating oneself. Mistress’s claim on him had made his life beyond miserable. If he did nothing for Yev’an, the boy was doomed to the same hell Lorin had lived in for too long.

Yev’an’s master wasn’t a high noble. Lorin could find no valid reason not to intervene and put a stop to the abuse.

He shoved all of it aside. Right now, his Sunny was here, and she belonged to him. He leaned forward, covered her mouth with his, and drew her into his lap. Her arms went around his neck as he worked magic with his studs. All seventeen of them—tongue piercings only daros were allowed, and he’d earned every single one with hard work and dedication to his craft.

Sunny broke it and leaned back to catch her breath. “I can’t believe your studs ever gave me the willies.”

He smiled. Touched one of her red curls. “I can’t believe I ever thought you’d be as horrible as your mother.”

I could’ve been, if not for you,” she whispered. She touched her forehead to his for a moment. “You saved me, Lorin. Don’t ever forget it.”

How can I? You did the same for me.”

Cynda cleared her throat. “Breakfast is on the patio. Clock’s ticking, brother.”

Sunny slid off the bed. “I’ll be outside.”

He watched her go. At this rate, she’d never be comfortable in his world. Never be comfortable with the sight of him wearing nothing. Never be comfortable putting her hands anywhere on his body. Her cascade attempts were improving, but remained far too hesitant for his liking.

Well, he wasn’t known as one of the most patient daros in Karnak for no reason. Sunny was worth the effort.

He left his bed, pulled on a pair of cotton lounge pants, and went to the patio. Yellow and orange kissed the treetops, and the breeze held a hint of chill. Fall was coming, and there weren’t many days left of eating his meals out here with nothing between him and the sun.

He took his seat, poured a cup of coffee, and removed the cover from his plate. An herb and feta omelet, toasted raisin bread with honeyed butter, and yogurt swirled with orange marmalade. One of his favorites. Sunny’s too. “Have you thought about who to appoint to sit in for you in chamber?”

Sunny wrinkled her nose. “Must we talk about it?”

Chamber opens in one week. You have to choose someone.”

Sunny cut into her omelet, but didn’t lift the bite. “I’ve been distracted with something that hit me the other day.”

Lorin slid his bare toes up her left calf. “What?”

My heir.”

His insides went cold. The thought of Sunny having a child with another man infuriated him. Securing her heir would give people an opportunity to speculate on where her heart lay, or to push her into a marriage she’d regret. Even make her uncomfortable enough to distance herself from him—something he wasn’t okay with.

But he was a daro, a creature of shadows and night. A keeper of secrets. A pair of loving arms to soothe fears and dry tears. A safe place for his clients to feel treasured and cherished, loved and adored. As a daro, he had no legitimate claim to her heart, and no right to give his heart away. He was meant to care for wounded people, to build intimate relationships in a world ruled by money and alliances of power.

Lorin as a man able to make his own choices did not exist. He was a daro, Prime of Arkos House and responsible for twenty-eight other daros who looked to him for protection and help. He also represented the Karnak Houses on the Synedrium, a responsibility the four other Primes didn’t want. He had a minimum of ten more years of being active before he had a prayer of being free enough to claim Sunny the way he wanted.

The only child I want to have is yours.”

His heart leaped, but he stuffed it down. No matter how much he hated the idea, this was one thing they couldn’t share. “My child can’t be your heir, Sunny. Nor can we have one before I retire. We’ve talked about this.”

Her fingers tightened on her fork until her knuckles turned white. “I still can’t make myself be naked in a room with you. How can I have a child with a stranger?”

You don’t have to marry him, or even have sex. There is such a thing as an heir contract, where there’s no physical intimacy involved.”

It wouldn’t be fair to the children.”

It would also mean if he turned out to be a bastard, you could protect the children from him.”

Her death grip on the fork relaxed. “You do have a point there. But how would I choose? Every eligible bachelor in Karnak is after me.” She lifted her blue-crystal gaze from her plate. “I don’t trust myself to pick someone since I can’t stand the thought of being alone with one long enough to get to know him.”

For the first time in his life, anger at being a daro wound through Lorin’s heart. He had no right to tell other men to stay away. Her position as a high lady meant her duties to the empire came first, before her love for him. As his duties as Prime of Arkos House came before his love for her.

With a sigh, she bent her head. “I wish we could run away and build our life the way we want it.”

Lorin dropped his fork, left his chair, and knelt beside Sunny. Took her hands in his. “At this very moment, so do I. But we can’t. Like it or not, you’re a high noble and I’m a Prime. It’s not meant for us to be together in any way other than daro and client. The fact we’ve made it this far is more than we ought to have.”

It’s not enough,” she whispered. Soft fingers stroked his cheek. “I want you all to myself and I’m no longer afraid to admit it. I don’t want to share you.”

He captured her hand and kissed her fingers, then returned to his seat. “I want the same, but it’s impossible. My heart and loyalties aren’t mine to give away. If they were, I’d give them to you without a second thought.” Breakfast no longer appealed. Unable to look at the hurt in Sunny’s eyes, he swirled his fork through the yogurt.

What if I abdicated and we ran away?”

You know I won’t. I can’t abandon my daros any more than you can abandon your sisters.” He lifted his head to see her. “Like it or not, our lives are not our own. We already have more than I dreamed possible. Reaching further right now will only hurt us.”

I don’t care.” Sunny threw her napkin on the table, shoved her chair back, and went to the balcony railing. She leaned on it, staring at the gardens below, no doubt.

Lorin followed her. Slid his arms around her waist from behind. “I do. I’m about to start a war, yaseera. It isn’t fair to fire the opening shot, then tuck tail and run. For this to work, we need a high noble as ally in chamber. You’re the only one we can count on, especially if Hepshut turns out to be tied to Essence production.”

She faced him. Draped her arms around his neck. “I don’t care about politics, Lorin. I don’t care about the empire either. All I care about is having a life with you. A life where I feel safe. It’s not too much to ask.”

He touched his forehead to hers and closed his eyes. “You’re wrong. It is too much to ask of me. The law forbids me to give it to you right now, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. Like it or not, I am a daro and my life is not my own.”

I hate this. I hate sharing you. I hate knowing how many other people have the right to be with you.”

He opened his eyes to see her, to beg her to accept their fate. “I’ve never hidden from you what I am. You went into this knowing I can’t give you all of me for at least ten more M-years. We have to make the best of the life we’ve been dealt.”

She ducked out of his arms. “I’m not hungry anymore. Think I’ll head to the office and see what I can do about finding someone for my chamber seat.”

From his place leaning on the rail, Lorin watched her go. The thought of her getting to know another man well enough to have a child left him cold inside. It must be how she felt when she saw him with a client. He returned to the table and forced down the toast and yogurt.

Cynda came up behind him and hugged him. His twin always knew what to do to soothe him. “Everything will be okay, Lorin.”

How?”

I don’t know yet. But it will.”

He covered his leftovers, followed Cynda inside, and went through his transformation into the Prime of Arkos. Black leather pants, a gray silk shirt with a v-neck, his signet pendant on a leather cord, stacked chevron rings, and the five row hand drape with rust-hued rubies down the center from his wrist to middle finger. And eyes outlined in kohl.

Yev’an and Damon Arkos were in his sitting room when he stepped in, Yev’an also in leather pants and a silk shirt with his silver collar reflecting the light. If things went according to plan, the collar would be replaced with a chain-link necklace. Damon wore one of his pinstripe three-piece suits.

Yev’an sat with his hands pinned between his knees, bottom lip pinched between his teeth. Lorin knelt in front of him and ran his thumb across the boy’s chin to make him release it. “Everything will be okay, Yev’an.”

I dreamed last night they said no, and he came here and beat the snot out of me.”

Lorin put his hands on the boy’s face. “He’s never stepping foot in this house again.” The bastard had been banished over the summer after Damon caught him beating the boy.

But he still sends for me, and I have to go.” Yev’an’s voice shook.

Lorin stood, pulled Yev’an up, and hugged him. “I’ve never lost a battle. I don’t intend to start now. If for some reason they say no, we’ll file criminal charges against him. Then they’ll have no choice but to release the claim. Trust me, Yev’an. Please.”

Yev’an sniffed. “Okay.”

Lorin released him, smoothed his hair, and headed downstairs.

An hour later, they were in the hearing room at the Cultural Ministry building, Lorin studying the committee members. He knew very little about the newest member and his loyalties, though his ties to High Lord Hepshut weren’t a secret. His vote wasn’t likely to be in Yev’an’s favor, since Hepshut and his sons were banned from every House in Karnak. The man hated the daros for their refusal to bow at his feet.

The chairman tapped his gavel. “The hearing in the matter of releasing the claim on Yev’an of Arkos is now in session. Mr. Arkos, Lorin, present your case.”

Lorin squeezed Yev’an’s hand, shot a glare at Yev’an’s master, and joined Damon at the podium in front of the committee members. Six women, six men. One beholden to a high noble for his appointment, two more on the verge of retirement, and the rest dedicated to upholding the ideals of the daro houses. They needed nine votes to release the claim. Lorin was certain of seven.

Damon presented the evidence, including the video Lorin had recorded the night he and Damon had Yev’an’s master removed from the house two months ago. All six women paled as they watched it, and one wiped her eyes. Six votes assured to release the claim, as expected, and Lorin held his smile back.

Yev’an’s master presented his case, an incoherent rambling. Once he was finished, Lorin returned to the podium. The chairman looked up from his notes. “Lorin, as Prime of Arkos, your first conversation with Yev’an included his preferences, correct?”

Yes.”

What did he say?”

That he never wanted to be touched by a man again as long as he lives. Every time his owner left, Yev’an came to my room bruised and in tears. Fear of what his owner will do to him continues to affect his list building. It’s half the size it should be. I field at least a dozen requests every open night, but he’s too fragile for most of them. Instead of building his confidence and learning from the other daros, he keeps to himself and doesn’t want anyone seeing the bruises and bite marks on his body. As a result, he isn’t yet bringing in enough to start saving for retirement.”

Is it true you banned his owner from your House?”

Yes, in an effort to protect Yev’an. The man has switched to sending for Yev’an at all hours of the night and day, making it impossible to settle into any kind of schedule. The few appointments he does book often have to be rescheduled or canceled.”

His weekly average of completed appointments?”

Eight. His appointment logs have been provided in the evidence folders.”

The chairman leafed through the papers, mouth pursed and turning into a grimace. “In twenty-five years of being part of the daro world, I have never seen such a low completion rate. It’s your view this is not a reflection of Yev’an’s skills?”

Correct, Mr. Chairman. The few clients he has placed on his list have nothing but praise for him. Two have agreed to speak with you. Their contact information is in your folder.”

The chairman looked to his right and left. “I don’t think that will be necessary. We’ll adjourn to discuss the matter. It shouldn’t take long. The evidence is clear the claim is interfering in every facet of Yev’an’s life.”

Lorin bowed his head to the committee members and returned to his seat. Yev’an grabbed his arm and pressed as close as physically possible. Lorin put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and held him, angled to block his master’s view of Yev’an.

What now?” Yev’an whispered.

We wait for the verdict. The chairman needs two more votes. Like he said, it won’t take long.”

Yev’an sniffed, still burying himself in Lorin’s side. “I want to be free of him so I can be a real daro. I like being one.”

So do I. There’s just something about knowing when a hurting person comes to you, you can make it all better for a little while. It’s a rush I never get tired of.”

A rush Sunny didn’t seem to understand. Yes, he loved her. With all his heart. He wanted to be only with her. But at the same time, he didn’t want to abandon his clients. They needed him as much as Sunny did. A couple of them needed him more, if he were honest about it. Sunny had her sisters. Some of his clients had no one except him.

The board members returned to their seats. Lorin stood, bringing Yev’an up with him. The chairman tapped his gavel again. “By a vote of nine to three, the claim on Yev’an of Arkos is released. Yev’an, step forward.”

Yev’an went rigid. Lorin nudged him forward, staying at his side as they walked to the table.

His master stalked toward them, hands in fists at his sides. “You can’t do this. He’s mine.”

Lorin stepped into the man’s path, keeping Yev’an safe behind him. “He’s a daro. His responsibilities to his clients come before your desires.”

The man had the decency not to attack him in front of the board. He threw his coder on the table and left the room. Damon pocketed the coder, and touched Yev’an’s cheek. “It’s all right. I’ll take it off when we get home.” He faced the committee and bowed from the waist. “Thank you for setting this right.”

The ones who’d voted in Yev’an’s favor inclined their heads. The Hepshut stooge, as expected, wasn’t one of them. Neither were the two about to retire. Lorin glared at them a moment. They’d never been friendly to the daros they were charged with overseeing.

They returned home and Damon removed Yev’an’s collar. He threw it in his dormant fireplace, grinning for the first time since his arrival three months ago. “Thank you, Lorin.”

Lorin kissed the boy’s forehead. “You’re most welcome. Get some sleep.” He waited until Yev’an crawled into bed, then returned to his own room. Undid his hair, wiped the kohl from his eyes, changed into his cotton pants from earlier, and called Sunny.

She answered on the fourth ring, with video. Her hair was loose now, instead of contained in a clip as it had been this morning. The riot of curls made his fingers itch to play with them. “Is something wrong?”

He shook his head. Brushed his hair out of his eyes. Unlike her tight corkscrew curls, his own were soft and big—and made Sunny jealous since his weren’t as prone to insanity. “I wanted to tell you, if you want, I can help you find someone for the heir contract.”

Trembling lips curved. “Thank you. Amun offered too. Is it too much to ask you to join us for lunch and we can start making a list?”

Yes. I need sleep, Sunny. I have a full night. Why don’t you join me for supper around seven?”

She nodded. “We’ll be there. He has some suggestions for my chamber appointee too. Is Yev’an free?”

His turn to nod. Then he smothered a yawn. “I’ll see you tonight.” He ended the call, crawled into bed, and pulled his covers up to his chin. When Sunny realized she was leaving, and Amun wasn’t, things were bound to get interesting.

And not in a good way.

COLLAPSE

Childhood enmity turns to love, with one problem: his heart isn't his to give.

Lorin is a daro, a Lokmane trained to make humans feel special and valued. As Prime of Arkos House, no one stands between him and the safety of the daros under his careexcept his mistress. The dead one, and the new one. He needs to focus on the Essence crisis infiltrating the Houses, and his sister's safety. Not figure out how to balance his duties with falling in love.

When her mother dies, emotionally wounded Sagira Memeos becomes the Marcasian Empire’s newest High Lady. And reluctant owner of the most sought after daro in said empire. He’s her childhood nemesis, and way too sexy for his own good. With his kindness finding its way into her bruised soul, asking for his help to navigate her succession to ruling high lady probably isn't her brightest idea.

Lorin wants Sagira. But not if he has to pay for it with innocent lives. She’s a distraction he can't afford while the bedrock of Marcasian high society is under attack. Not to mention facing losing his sister to the man who wounded Sagira. If the daro houses fall, all hope of freedom goes with them.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter One

Karnak, Marcase Prime

Earth Year: 5236

Lorin, Prime of Arkos House, sank into the hot water of his private mineral pond. Every inch of his body ached from exhaustion, despite the last twenty-four hours spent sound asleep. Mistress didn’t believe in allowing him to actually rest during his two week sabbatical every year. No. He had to keep her pleased and sated, while ignoring his own needs.

READ MORE

As a daro, and the Prime in charge of his House, he had legal protections other Lokmane didn’t. Not that Mistress cared about any of them, as she’d spent the last eleven Earth-years proving to him. Nor did she care he knew Taran, Prince Nicco, Princess Honor, and the emperor, and could make Mistress’s life miserable if he chose. Then again, she knew it wasn’t in him to do that. Even to the one woman alive he hated and wished dead.

He went to the side, folded his arms on the ledge, and rested his head on them with his eyes closed. Air jets kept the water moving. Soft splashing at the steps told him Cynda, his sister and caretaker, was coming in to rub his back. Three seconds later, her hands began working with slow, gentle strokes. He sighed in pleasure.

Too bad no magic hands existed to ease the soreness of his tongue.

I don’t understand why she won’t let me come with you.” Cynda focused on the knot in his neck driving him nuts.

Because she knows you’ll make her leave me alone, and she can’t have that.”

You’re a daro, Lorin. Not a common whore.”

Except when he spent time with Mistress, he felt like a common whore. Even when he was flawless, in his opinion, she found something to criticize. “Maybe she’ll drop dead. I don’t think any of the girls would care about claiming me.” He groaned as Cynda pressed into one of the knots in his shoulders. “I just want to be left alone to do my job.”

He loved being a daro—a Lokmane trained to provide a safe, intimate place for the humans of Marcasian high society. Soothing hurts, watching ignored men and women bloom under his attention, helping abuse victims move into the role of survivor, were all things he excelled at. He had a purpose larger than himself, and wasn’t locked into an identity as slave and property. Something he wanted every Lokmane on Marcase to experience.

All ability to talk disappeared for several dizzying minutes as Cynda dug her thumb into each knot. While his massage training focused on erotic pleasure, her’s was all about pain relief and relaxing him. She switched from digging knots to kneading muscles, and his powers of speech returned.How are the novices settling in?” One of the things he hated most about his forced sabbatical timing was missing the arrival of three new daros. Ones he’d chosen to complement Arkos House, and fill the gaps in his daro family.

Kell befriended one of the boys. The girl is hanging out with Keesa, thinks Garin is crude, and can’t believe any Prime would let him in a house.”

Lorin chuckled. Garin was crude, in an endearing sort of way. He almost had more clients than he could handle, despite being from the provinces and only four M-years of daro training, which made him a four in daro-speak. “And Yev’an?” The one ten he’d picked, even though he wasn’t a good candidate to be Prime one day. His personality fit Arkos.

Cynda sighed this time. “He’s a little thing, like you. I haven’t heard him speak, and he keeps to himself. I think he’s terrified.”

If I can move better after another nap, I’ll send for him. And the others.”

Good. Minton is trying to convince them you don’t care and that it’s normal for you to ignore novices.”

If he had the energy, he’d go punch Minton. He wasn’t claimed, and didn’t understand how difficult it was to balance Prime responsibilities with his obligation to Mistress. She didn’t care about his responsibilities either. “Why did I say yes when Teeg asked me?”

Cynda kissed his cheek. “Because you care, brother. You don’t think your daros exist to make you look good. I’ve heard some horror stories about other Primes letting the wrong client into a novice’s bed and breaking them.”

No one gets broken on my watch. Teeg would kill me.”

If I didn’t beat him to it.”

Lorin focused on relaxing, letting Cynda and the water do their jobs and rejuvenate his exhausted body. And mind.

Another set of feet entered his private room. The heavy tread and jingle of ankle bracelets signaled Garin’s arrival, the only daro Lorin allowed to join him in here without an invitation. Garin sat on the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the water. “Gonna live this time?”

Probably.” Lorin forced his eyes open to look at his friend. At six-six, Garin towered over him. Something about him put Lorin at ease to be himself, and he didn’t mind accepting Garin’s help when he was too tired to walk up three flights of stairs. “I asked you to keep Minton away from the novices.”

I’m doing the best I can. I can’t exactly punch him in the mouth when he starts yakking in front of everyone. Though I’d love to try.” Garin waggled his eyebrows and grinned.

Lorin laughed, as always. “Before you do, give me warning so I can sell tickets.”

Garin’s grin faded. “Kell told them about the time you dragged Camden Hart out of here by his ear. Yev’an believed it, but I’m not sure the other two did.”

Cynda said he’s little, like me.

Garin nodded. “About your height. May not be finished growing yet.” He kicked at the water, splashing it into Lorin’s hair. “He’s claimed too. He hid it well, but he was relieved when the man left.”

Lorin knew the feeling. Relief at being out of her bed gave him the strength yesterday to get in the car on his own, though Garin had carried him upstairs.

Arkos said to tell you don’t feel like you have to come down tonight.”

He says that every year. I’ve never taken him up on it and I never will, no matter how tired I am. Especially if Yev’an is so scared. I wouldn’t have made it through my first open night without Teeg.”

Garin splashed again. “I don’t understand why claimed daros are always eights and tens, and tend to be so scared. You have more protections and rights than the rest of us.”

Lorin pushed back from the ledge, moved to the built-in bench, and let his arms float so Cynda could work on them. He’d often wondered too, and the only explanation he’d come up with was the value of their training, eight M-years and ten M-years. An eternity and a fortune went into making eights and tens. “The claiming, mine in particular, removes most of those rights and protections. Which is a big part of the tension between Minton and I.”

Minton, bane of his existence. A ten who believed he’d been cheated out of his rightful place as Prime of Arkos House. Didn’t matter there was no way in hell, or every inhabited planet in the galaxy, Teeg would’ve chosen a pompous, selfish ass like Minton to lead the most respected House in Karnak.

Garin sighed. Of all the daros at Arkos, he knew the most about Lorin’s lack of protection when it came to his mistress. “I’ll never figure out the inter-house politics and all the posturing. What’s wrong with focusing on satisfied and happy clients?”

Nothing. It’s why I like you and wish to the gods I could get rid of Minton.”

Garin didn’t respond. His legs kept moving in the water, lapping waves against Lorin’s shoulders and splashing into his hair. Cynda worked on his arms for half an hour then washed his hair and rubbed conditioner in it from roots to ends. She rinsed and repeated twice more.

The stiffness and bone-deep ache were gone, but getting out took Garin’s help. He sank into the nearest lounge chair, resting his forehead on Garin’s shoulder as Cynda rubbed the straightening cream into his hair. Mistress hated his curls. The thought made him want to beg Cynda to leave it out for a change. Let him have control of something he ought to have control over.

When he stood, he wobbled. Garin picked him up and carried him to bed. He hadn’t the energy to fight it. Cynda arranged the pillows, pulled the sheet and blankets up to his chin. He closed his eyes and fell asleep again to the sound of Cynda’s bedroom door slamming shut.

Two hours later, his eyes fluttered open. Cynda sat in the chair by the window, using the sunlight to illuminate her sewing. He sighed and stretched then curled around a pillow. “What are you working on?”

She lifted her gaze for a moment to smile at him. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes sparkling. Garin had carried her off for some wild sex, no doubt. “Putting new buttons on your white shirt.” She returned her attention to her work, a faint tinge of pink creeping up her neck.

I don’t mind you being with him, Cynda. How many times do I have to say it before you believe me? I trust him to be gentle with you.”

She rubbed her hand over the scarred left side of her face. “I’m just a way to gain favor with you. I know that, and it’s okay.”

Lorin slid from between satin sheets to kneel beside his sister. He caressed the scars. Kissed her forehead. “With Garin, it’s not about me. He’s falling in love with you, Cynda. Don’t turn him away because you think you’re nothing but an avenue into my good graces.”

She turned her head to break the contact. “How do you know he’s not lying?”

He pushed to his feet, steadied himself with a hand on the back of the chair, and kissed the top of her head this time. “No one can lie to me when my tongue is in his or her mouth. You know that.” He tilted her head back to look at him. “His deepest desire is to buy his freedom and marry you.”

Why?”

We all have scars, Cynda. Garin’s aren’t visible, but they’re still there. I’m not afraid of you being with him.”

As long as you’re active, Lorin, I’m not going anywhere.”

He knew better than to keep pushing when she trotted out this line, so he backed away and went to his closet for clothes. His hangup about being clothed all the time had disappeared years ago, but Yev’an no doubt used clothing as a shield. Lorin had too, eleven years ago when he arrived at Arkos House as a young man afraid he wouldn’t be able to live up to Mistress’s demands and keep his sister safe.

Once dressed in his softest cotton lounge pants and an open shirt, he paged Ali, the house schedule keeper, and asked for the novices to be sent up. He opened the drapes in his receiving room, and two of the windows to let in the summer breeze and the scent of the lush rose garden below.

A bowl of fruit sat on the coffee table, with ripe apples on top. His favorite, but the fruit would inflame the sore spots between his tongue piercings. The oranges looked good too, but then he’d have to pick pulp out of the holes and off the stud posts. He picked up an apple anyway and inhaled the sweet juicy scent, weighing whether or not he wanted to deal with the trouble.

Hungry?”

Starving.”

Cynda tugged him away from the fruit. “I’ll go get something that won’t require twenty minutes with the mirror.”

Thank you.” He retrieved his tablet from the drawer in his cabinet desk and stretched out on the chaise end of the sofa to start catching up on messages while waiting for the novices and food.

Half a dozen were stupid jokes from Markos, one of his clients and a dear friend; one from Teeg with a picture of his two-year-old twins; a couple from Amun, another client and friend, asking advice on a present for his wife.

He paused at the two from Mayara, Prime of Echis House in Nubia, subject line: Essence. He groaned a little. Essence meant he had to deal with the woman, instead of deleting the messages. Knocking on the door kept him from opening it. “Yes?”

Ali poked his head in. “They’re here. One at a time?”

Please.” Lorin turned the tablet off. Tucked it between the cushion and arm of the sofa as Ali showed the first novice in. She bowed her head to him. He motioned for her to sit beside him and she did, her floor-length silk gown whispering over the rug. The side slit went halfway up her thigh and revealed a perfectly shaped leg when she sat, and a stack of silver ankle bracelets two inches high.

Welcome to Arkos House, A’rika.” He brushed her chin with the pad of his right thumb. She opened her mouth. Six copper-colored studs, the mark of the Sekhmet school. He’d hoped Keesa would take her in. Sekhmet daros tended to stick together since they weren’t as valued as Pater and Maxim daros. He leaned forward to cover her mouth with his. Field focused on her core personality, he swept his tongue across the roof of her mouth and the inside of her upper lip.

Adventurous, with a bit of a wild side. Not even a hint of fear. Excitement bubbled through her, infusing her mouth with the taste of honey. He broke the kiss and smiled at her.

I heard you don’t choose from Sekhmet often. I’m honored to be here.” The words came out a little breathless, as usual after a first kiss from him. Eleven years and he still had it.

I liked what I saw. Do you have any preferences?”

Studs clinked against her teeth. He shook his head. “You can chip a tooth doing that. I don’t recommend it.”

Her cheeks flushed and she glanced at her lap. “I don’t have any that I know of.”

If it changes with experience, tell me. I was told Keesa has taken you in. Take questions to her first, and if it needs to come to me, she’ll tell you. Unless you have problems with a client. The moment they’re formed enough to speak, bring those concerns to me.

She nodded. “Minton said—”

Ninety percent of what Minton says is a lie. I’m your Prime, which means I’m here to help you and protect you.” He smoothed hair from her face and smiled. “I take my responsibilities seriously.”

Is my dress acceptable for a debut?” She stood and turned a slow circle. The blue silk fell in sheer waves from a high waistband.

It’s perfect. There’s a house jewel collection for you to use until yours is built. I’ll see you in a couple more hours.”

Another nod and she left the room with the graceful walk of a daro who excelled at dancing.

He repeated everything with Emrys, who preferred women but was willing to take men if they showed true interest. Eight black tongue studs showed he’d been to Maxim. Paired with Kell was perfect, since he’d been at Maxim too. Something about Emrys made Lorin hesitate, though. The boy harbored a great deal of anger. He hid it well, but Lorin’s ability to find lies with a kiss meant none of his daros could hide their true feelings from him for long. He’d have to get to know the boy before he could find the source of the anger, though.

Lorin stayed in his seat because, like Garin, Emrys towered over him at six-five. Not only was he the youngest reigning Prime in the empire, but he was the shortest active male daro. Every male daro he met made him feel like a shrimp.

Until Yev’an entered, trying to hide in his clothes. He pressed his back against the door, eyes darting back and forth, chest moving in a rhythm Lorin recognized—concealed panic. He stood and held his hand out. Gentled his voice and tried to keep the bedroom timbre out of it. “It’s all right, Yev’an. I don’t bite.”

Yev’an swallowed hard, but left the door and slid his hand into Lorin’s. He squeezed. Turned his head for Yev’an to see the gold coil pierced along the outer edge of his left ear, another sign he was claimed, in addition to the gold collar around his throat instead of the daro chain necklace. The boy collapsed onto the sofa, rubbing his coil with his left hand. “I hate him,” he whispered.

I hate mine too. I’ve never met a claimed daro who feels any different.” Lorin didn’t need to kiss this one to know fear ruled him. One harsh word from a client and he’d shatter. “What do you want?”

To never be touched by another man as long as I live.”

Done.” Lorin released his hand. “But I can’t keep you from your master. I wish I could.”

Yev’an relaxed a little, leaning into the cushions.

Do you have your own caretaker?”

Yev’an shook his head. “He wouldn’t let me.”

Lorin swallowed his anger. As a ten Yev’an, had earned the right to choose his own and have one already familiar with his needs and how to relax him. A year from now, he’d have the clients, gifts, and wardrobe to require his own. “We’ll find you one.”

Studs clinked against teeth. This time, Lorin stayed silent. The boy might not react well to being chided during their first meeting. He needed gentle, tender care to build his confidence. There was one I wanted, and nobody picked her. She’ll be too old next time, won’t she?”

Probably. We’ll find her, and if she’s willing, mine will finish training her.”

Yev’an smiled. Some of the fear left, and he straightened.

Lorin returned it. “Have you had sex with a woman before?”

Once.” He fixed his gaze on his knees. “I wasn’t very good at it.”

The first few times are always awkward, no matter how much training you have. Mine was a disaster and I was so upset when the floor didn’t open and swallow me. I have the perfect person in mind for you. If she doesn’t come tonight, you can keep an empty bed if you like.”

His head came up and blue eyes widened. “Really?”

Really. You’re safe here, Yev’an. I will never pair you with someone capable of hurting you.”

But you’re so young.” His neck flushed and he looked down again.

Lorin lifted Yev’an’s head with a finger to his chin. Showed him all seventeen gold studs pierced through his tongue. “I may be young, but I know what I’m doing. All I need to figure out what a client wants is one kiss. My prime taught me how to do it, and I’ll teach you, if you want. The better your client list, the easier it is to petition for your freedom.”

Unless you were owned by High Lady Lapis Memeos. Damn that woman, holding him so tight it was a miracle he hadn’t suffocated. Drop dead, bitch, please.

I’ll think about it.” Yev’an smoothed his silk pants. “Do I have to change?”

No.” But who he could pair the boy with for the night? Garin’s clients would scare him spitless. Minton would lie to him. Kell ignored women. The number of people Lorin needed to greet tonight made him a bad choice. Braith was perfect, but not due back from his sabbatical—a real one—for another week. Damn. “Is there anyone you feel comfortable shadowing tonight?”

Garin seems nice. He scared my master into leaving early, and helped me choose a room. And he didn’t touch me.”

Too bad Garin was ineligible for Prime; he had a knack for soothing nervous daros. “All right. For now, you can share a caretaker with him and Kell. She’s very calm and sweet, and they do whatever she says.”

Yev’an nodded and stood. His shoulders were straighter, his eyes a little less haunted. With protection and time, he’d come out of his shell and become very popular. Though his unwillingness to see men made grooming him as a possible successor for Arkos almost impossible.

I’ll see you in an hour.”

Yev’an left. Two minutes later Cynda came in with food. The Essence messages would have to wait.

COLLAPSE

A’yen's loved ones are under attack. To save them, he'll risk everything.

Half the Lokmane are free and the resettling of Lok’ma is in progress. A'yen is crowned king, but it isn't stopping his enemies. Someone is after Ro, and the woman he's falling in love with is caught in the middle.

When Fae is injured in a cave-in at a dig site, A'yen knows who’s to blame. Proving it is the hard part. Things get worse when he walks into a political trap, and Ro is framed for murder. Saving his reputation is easy compared to saving Ro. Ro’s demons come for him, taking him back to a life not worth living.

A'yen races to save Ro before he can act on his deepest desire: killing his tormentor. Happily ever after can't happen if Ro is dead.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter One

Lok’ma

Earth Year: 5234

Ro stared at his king. Didn’t matter his mouth hung open. Didn’t matter A’yen stared right back. “You did what?”

“I invited the Marcasian emperor to send a representative.” A’yen crossed his arms while his gaze drilled holes into Ro’s brain.

“Are you insane?”

“Not last time I checked.”

Ro gave the man—his king, yes, but also the closest thing he had to a friend—his fiercest frown. “I beg to differ. Do you want them to see how easy it would be to conquer us again?”

READ MORE

A’yen leaned back in his chair, and propped his bare feet on the corner of his desk. He still wore a collar, because he insisted on being the last Lokmane to remove his. At the current rate of emancipation—stalled out—he’d go to his grave wearing it. “Pretty sure they already know. I’m operating under the assumption they have spies here.”

A valid point, but one Ro wasn’t ready to concede. Instead, he turned to Sa’nar Jenkins, the newly-elected prime minister. He’d be sworn in next week, minutes after A’yen’s coronation. “Please tell me you tried to talk him out of this. You’re from there. You know what they’re like.”

“I agree with him.”

“Then you’re both insane.” Ro stalked to the window, hands hidden in his pockets. A’yen knew how upset he was about this. Sometimes being a telepath and empath came in handy. Not today. A’yen was too calm. Too reasonable. Sa’nar as well. He faced them again. “Why? Why take such a huge risk? So much could go wrong.”

“We don’t know how many are enslaved within the empire. Marcase isn’t known for doing things because it’s the right thing to do. The only hope we have of getting through to them is to show them we’re real.” A’yen’s feet hit the floor and he leaned forward. “I’m sure as hell not sending someone there. You’re not the only one unnerved by this, Ro, but we’ve tried everything else. Their High Senator won’t talk to Dad. If you have a better idea, please, tell me.”

Forcing the tension from his shoulders, Ro sat. “If I was any good at politics, I wouldn’t be covered with blue.” He glanced at his markings. The pattern resembled braided vines of thorns in a dark blue the same shade as his eyes. Twelve years, and his hatred of them hadn’t dimmed. Neither had the judgment from others. They saw only the blue and what it meant: a marked sex slave, forbidden by law to say no to anyone. Even to other slaves.

They never saw Da’Ro, the person. The man who laughed with A’yen’s little boy. Or the man learning how to cook, who secretly devoured poetry and had fallen in love with Shakespeare’s sonnets. Thanks to Jasmyn.

Calm seeped through him at the thought of her. No one knew she was teaching him how to read Common, so he could appreciate the master wordsmith without translation barriers.

Jasmyn Jenkins, Sa’nar’s oldest daughter. She saw him. For some strange reason, she liked him too. The real him, who was little better than a whore and totally unworthy of someone pure like her. They’d met two years ago when A’yen visited the Hidden in the Morrow Nebula. From the moment Ro saw her, he’d wanted to stand on his own and be worthy of her.

“Does Jasmyn light up like that when she thinks about Ro?” A’yen had the good sense not to laugh out loud, but it danced in his tone.

Sa’nar’s chuckle made Ro’s ears burn. “A father doesn’t divulge his daughter’s secrets.”

“My love life, or lack thereof, is not the subject at hand, A’yen. Do you really want them to know we don’t have a military, or a fully functional economy?” Ro locked his gaze on A’yen until he squirmed.

“Like I said, I’m pretty sure they already know.”

“And on the off chance they don’t?”

“They do.” Sa’nar heaved a sigh. “There is very little in this galaxy they don’t know.”

“We’re making it easier for them why?”

A’yen shook his head and leaned back again then appeared to change his mind because he leaned forward, arms folded on his desk. Ro twisted his telepathic field to see the colors. Growing pain shimmered around A’yen in a halo of dark green, a perfect match to his markings. The curse of the markings—constant, never-ending, nerves-on-fire, slicing, stabbing pain. Down to the bone. “Doing it like this, we retain some control of what they see.”

“Not good enough.”

“It’s all I’ve got. Snubbing them won’t do us any good either.”

Ro gritted his teeth a moment to keep from saying something he’d regret. A’yen was the most stubborn, unafraid Lokmane he’d ever met. “I don’t have to like it.”

“I don’t like it either. This way, we get them on our turf, where you and some of the other Més can look around and prepare for any potential threats.”

Ro glared at A’yen. “This isn’t the emperor you pissed off, is it?”

Sa’nar sighed, a long please-don’t-try-my-patience kind of sigh. “You did what?”

A’yen’s ears turned red and he ducked his head. “The one I pissed off is dead. I looked at him. Made eye contact and everything.”

“Of course you did. Should’ve known.” Sa’nar stood, and gathered a stack of papers from the edge of A’yen’s desk. “Any other pissed-off government officials I should know about?”

A’yen’s lips pursed as he thought. Ro gritted his teeth again, to keep from laughing.

“Only if a territorial governor from Centron counts. But it was more than a decade ago, and I doubt he’s still in office. I threatened to break his wife’s fingers if she didn’t get her hands off my ass.”

Ro slapped a hand over his mouth to keep a cackle inside, his usual reaction to the ridiculous story of A’yen risking his life to get a woman’s hands out of his pants, while Sa’nar laughed aloud. “You are one of a kind, A’yen.”

A’yen grinned. “That’s probably a good thing.”

Still chuckling, Sa’nar left the king’s office for his own. Ro crossed his arms and turned his glare on.

“Anybody ever tell you that glare is hot enough to melt steel?” A’yen mimicked Ro’s posture for a moment. “Heard anything from the network?”

Ro’s irritation fled, and he dropped his guard. A’yen protected him like Rhys had, always making sure no one knew just how on edge he really was. About the migraines that plagued him. Or about his notebook full of ways to kill Camden Hart and Jacob Morrison. “No. I don’t understand how they can disappear as if they never existed.”

In the year and a half since she’d disappeared with her master, Jacob Morrison, no amount of digging and interrogating had given him any clues to his sister’s location.

Ro picked up on Fae’s presence seconds before she opened the door behind him. The soon-to-be queen also treated him like a brother, and didn’t mind at all when he snuck into the nursery to hold the growing-like-a-weed prince, Da’Rhys. He wanted the prince to know about his namesake, about the strength of character inherent in his name. A name given him to honor the sacrifice Ro’s brother, Da’Rhys, made to keep A’yen—and Ro—alive long enough to be rescued from Benai Hart’s clutches.

Fae rested a hand on his shoulder for the briefest of moments then turned to her husband. Dark-as-night black hair fell in a braid down her back. A’yen placed a hand on each side of her stomach and kissed it. Three months pregnant, with a girl this time. Ro let A’yen’s joy flow through him in a riot of yellows, everything from the peel of a lemon to a pat of butter from the kitchen.

A’yen and Fae’s children were the closest thing Ro would ever have to children of his own. The price of being a Mé—telepath, empath, and telekinetic—was never fathering a child. And if his nieces and nephews were ever freed, he’d be lucky to see them from a distance considering how much his brother’s widow hated him.

Fae sat in A’yen’s lap and he cupped the back of her neck with his hand, to hold her still while he devoured her. Their passionate kisses had ceased embarrassing Ro fourteen months ago. Their passion helped him feel safe. Gave him a guide to what true love looked like.

A’yen finally released her mouth and she snuggled against him, cheek pillowed on top of his head. “Inviting the Marcasian emperor to send a representative knocked something loose in my memory.” Fae turned her gaze to Ro. “About Camden.”

Ro turned the colors off. Ice filled his veins, pumping through his body from the place where his heart had once been. A heart Camden had shot down in cold blood eighteen months ago. “What?”

“Camden’s eight years older than me. He went to Gill Mar too.” Fae paused. Laced her fingers with A’yen’s. “Both of Emperor Joseph’s sons attended Gill Mar.”

“Why?”

Fae shrugged. “Maybe they wanted to get away from him for a while. Anthony, the sitting emperor, would have been there with Camden. It’s conceivable their paths crossed.”

Ro settled into his chair, soaking the knowledge in. “Why do you say that?”

“Because mine crossed with Nicco, the younger son. He’s two years older than me, but we ended up in the same graduating class because he missed three semesters. He seemed like a halfway decent person at the time.”

“He’s Marcasian, Fae. It’s impossible for him to be decent.” A’yen accepted her smack on the back of his head with a grace born of years of experience.

“Smart-ass.” She stuck her tongue out at him then turned her attention back to Ro. “I say Nicco seemed halfway decent because his personal servant was a Lokmane boy. That boy worshiped the ground Nicco walked on. Everyone on campus knew it. If you hurt him, Nicco took it as a personal insult to his honor.”

Ro studied A’yen’s reaction. He, too, worshiped the ground a human walked on. First with Wayan Mesu, his first master and lover, then with Fae. He still lit up like a star going supernova when he heard Mesu’s voice. “Okay, I concede. It’s possible he could be halfway decent.”

“What you’re trying to not explicitly say is: Anthony Faroukh might be the reason we can’t find Camden.” A’yen kept his voice soft. Probably to lessen the impact on Ro of hearing the bastard’s name. The info was possibly helpful, but getting into the Marcasian Empire was like digging through a fourteen-foot-thick lead wall with a straight pin.

Fae’s bright green eyes turned into pools, which she blinked away. Her emotions lived on a hair trigger when she was pregnant, and she’d already apologized dozens of times for the hell her brother had forced Ro to live in. “If they became friends in any way, Camden might have run to him for protection. If he’s somewhere in the empire, it explains why we can’t find him.”

The familiar darkness crept into the back of Ro’s mind. The more they learned about what the Marcasians had done to the Lokmane—how they’d been the ones to enslave—the more Ro wanted them dead. All of them. There were no innocents in his mind. Every person living in Marcasian territory was guilty of torturing his people. Of sentencing his brother to death.

He stood and bolted for the door. Time to get out of here and deal with the murderous rage on his own.

#

Jasmyn Jenkins looked up from her holo-screen to smile at Daddy. “What was so important?”

“The Marcasian emperor is sending a representative to the coronation.”

Jasmyn leaned back in her chair. “Is A’yen crazy?”

Daddy chuckled. “That’s what Ro asked.” He perched on the edge of her desk. “Everything ready for next week?”

Not just the coronation, but Daddy’s swearing in as prime minister. “Ready as it can be.” Jasmyn turned her computer off, pulled her bag from the bottom drawer, slid her tablet inside, and stood. Ever the gentleman, Daddy offered his arm, and she tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. She pressed close to his side. Where she was safe.

“A’yen suspects there’s more going on between you and Ro than friendship.”

Jasmyn huffed. “I fully intend to die an old maid. Besides, Ro wouldn’t know true love if it sucker-punched him.”

“Not all men are bad, baby.” Thankfully he had the good sense not to say anything else.

Ro had the capacity to be bad, as Daddy put it. A darkness thicker than deep space cloaked him. His grief over his brother’s death had consumed him, turning into a murderous rage he hid from everyone. Daddy had no way to know about it, but she sensed it in Ro. Felt it every time her hand brushed his.

Speaking of Ro, he turned the corner ahead of them, hurrying toward the back exit and the shortest path to the under-construction royal residence. Something in his gait was off. “Go on, Daddy. I’ll be home later.”

He paused. “If you’re sure.”

She nodded. “I need to talk to Ro for a minute.”

His eyes lit up. Despite her protests about dying an old maid, every member of her family knew she’d abandon it if the right man came around. Daddy and A’yen hoped Ro might be the man. So did Violet, her twin sister.

In the most hidden part of her, she hoped he might be too. He’d been so sweet and attentive to her in the Hidden, blushing whenever someone mentioned her name, often dealing with awkward silences because he didn’t know what to say to her. But a different man had returned with A’yen after their three months trapped at a Hart farm on Doran Four. A hard man who wore a mask in front of everyone. Even her and A’yen.

She left Daddy in the hall and hurried after Ro. Since she’d begun teaching him to read Common, she’d developed the ability to track his presence. He couldn’t hide from her. More importantly, he knew he couldn’t. She turned another corner, where a pile of freshly milled lumber hid them from the construction crew, and found him waiting for her.

One foot rested on the wood behind him, and his hands were shoved in his pockets. Breath stilled in her chest as she drank him in. Six-four, toffee hair, the yummiest dark blue eyes she’d ever seen, an aura of strength…the stuff dreams were made of. She’d stopped noticing the markings the first time he spoke to her, but he liked it when she traced her fingers along the vines on his forearms. He’d never admit it, though.

“Hi.” She ran her fingers down the length of his exposed markings.

He didn’t smile. “Hey. Do you know who they invited next week?”

“Daddy told me a few minutes ago. Can’t say I’m too thrilled about it. Mama’s going to freak.” She leaned her right shoulder against the pile of wood. “Any idea why?”

“I know exactly why. The Marcasians can take your father back if they want.”

She sucked in a breath. “Would they?”

“I don’t know.”

“I guess I still don’t understand the concept of seeing people as property.”

Ro gave her one of his rare smiles. “For which I am so grateful. You don’t know enough to judge me.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

Unlike with He Who Shall Not Be Named, Ro’s touch and studying gaze didn’t leave her exposed or quaking in fear. He could be violent at times, yes, but with her, he seemed to go out of his way to be kind and gentle. And she did the same thing with him. Something about him invited her to trust him.

But the violent side most didn’t know about almost made her want to run before he targeted her.

“Usually I do judge people. Harshly, sometimes. You’re different, Ro. Everything you’ve done is to protect yourself, not hurt other people.” Against her better judgment, she didn’t fear the dangerous man in front of her. “What has you so upset?”

Ro’s nostrils flared, his jaw tightened, and the tendons in his neck stood out. “Camden might be hiding in Marcasian territory. Fae thinks he might’ve been friends with the current emperor while they were in college.”

If there was one thing she knew intimately, it was the signs of anger turning to rage. Ro exhibited all of them. Past experiences—granted, with other men, one in particular—said he’d erupt at any moment and take his anger out on the closest target. Her. She inched one foot back, ready to turn and run if necessary.

Hands still in his pockets, Ro’s gaze locked on her. “I know the difference between friend and foe, Jas. If I ever get my hands on the man who made you so skittish, I’ll turn his brain to goo and make it run out his nose.”

Part of her was drawn to the sheer brutality of his threat, to what it meant in Ro’s world. He was willing to do anything he deemed necessary to protect her. Which was why she could never tell him about her past. She might hate the scumbag tormenting her, but she didn’t wish him dead. Most of the time. “What are you going to do about Camden?”

“I don’t know. As bad as I want to kill him the same way he killed Rhys, I want my freedom too. If he’s hiding in Marcasian territory, I can’t have both.”

Ignoring her better sense, Jas took his hand and squeezed. “Chances are, whoever’s coming will have a mind you can go through for clues. Right?”

“Right.” He raised their hands to his lips and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.

Such a tender, sweet gesture. Something Daddy did to Mama all the time. A’yen too, and Violet’s husband. No one had ever done it to her, and it stirred longings she’d buried years ago. Desires she’d ignored for the sake of survival.

“I miss our reading lessons,” he whispered.

“Me too. Once the coronation is over, I’ll have spare time again. We need to get you reading the plays. The comedies are the best.”

The corners of his mouth lifted and some of the darkness fled from his eyes. “Before you and Shakespeare, I’d almost forgotten how to laugh. You’re good for me, Jas.”

“You’re good for me too, Ro. Which is why I expect you to dance with me at the coronation ball.”

His nose wrinkled. “I don’t know how to dance.”

“Neither do I. We can stumble around together.”

His head cocked, and he released her hand. Being paged by someone. “I have to go. A’yen’s heading out to meet Sun Chaser.”

She nodded and watched him jog back to the Council building, also still under construction. Everything on Lok’ma fell in the under-construction category. A world of new starts waited for anyone brave enough to take it.

Too bad her courage had died with her dreams the day she was accused of murder.

COLLAPSE

Freedom has a cost. Can A’yen pay it without losing his soul?

Liberation of the enslaved Lokmane begins with the king. A’yen and Fae agree to visit the Hidden, a group of escaped Lokmane, to protect his identity while the Shadows make their move with emancipation acts. But he's not prepared for the prejudice rampant in the Hidden, or their lack of patience for him. And his new linked bodyguard is unstable to the point A'yen fears for the young man's sanity.

Upon returning to Titan, A'yen is kidnapped and taken to the largest breeding farm in the galaxy. This time he'll be himself even if it kills him. His resolve to unite his people grows as he wonders if he'll live long enough to do it.

With A'yen kidnapped, Fae returns to the Lokmane homeworld seeking the final pieces of what happened two thousand years ago when they were conquered and enslaved. Getting as far away from her father as possible is the only way to keep her from disappearing too.

Separated by light years, A'yen and Fae have to stand alone and fight for their right to live in freedom. No matter the cost.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter One

Earth Year: 5232

Batava, Titan

Farran Hart-Mesu watched her husband’s shoulders rise and fall in the deep rhythm of sleep while she lay on her side next to him in the bed, head propped on her hand. Three weeks post-marking and red continued to streak A’yen’s skin. It was fading now, but too painful to attempt a cascade.

READ MORE

Green ink now covered A’yen’s back. Instead of the lines they’d expected down his spine, the pattern fanned out from the braid running the length of it, covering over half the skin. Twisting, crossing, joining the lines on his sides, circling his waist to make wearing pants an exercise in patience.

Her fingers itched to soothe his pain, but there was nothing she could do except hold his hand or dry his tears. Even Will Dreen’s serum didn’t ease it. A’yen’s step-brother had tried everything he could think of to help A’yen. None of it appeared to be working.

A’yen sighed, lifted his hand, and rubbed under his nose. Fae brushed hair from the side of his face and his eyes fluttered open. Leaning over, she kissed his cheek. “Morning.”

Is it morning already?” Instead of the smooth baritone she loved, his voice came out as a hoarse croak.

Happens every day about this time.” She continued feathering her fingers through his hair. Across his cheek and jawline.

Something flitted through his eyes. The beginnings of a twinkle maybe. Maybe. The pain she’d seen in him on the Rim over the last thirteen months hadn’t prepared her for this. It consumed him, setting fire to his body clear down to his bones. A’yen’s best friend, Pete Tristan, practically lived in the guest room right now, though he hadn’t been here last night. He’d been a big help making sure she didn’t make A’yen’s recovery worse.

Fae, I’m so hungry.”

An ocean flooded her eyes and she covered her mouth a moment. Sniffed the flood back. Wiped a stray drop from her face. “You really are going to live.”

Appears so.” Jaw clenched, he pulled his arms beneath his chest and pushed up from the mattress. His arms quivered, weak from lack of use, but he made it up. Just in time for Fae to catch him before he fell over. Ragged gasps filled her ears as his forehead came to rest on her shoulder. “Okay. Bad idea.”

Then why’d you do it?”

To make sure I could.” He didn’t finish the thought, but she knew. The only thing he hated more than being a slave was an inability to do things for himself because of pain. “How long has it been since I kissed you properly?”

Metal touched her skin as she slid her hand down his neck. “Too long. I miss you, A’yen.”

I miss you too. I also hate not knowing what you’re thinking.” He straightened, bringing his head up last to look into her eyes. His telepathy. Whenever he used it to tell her how much he loved her, it soothed her fears.

She didn’t look at him, her gaze instead stuck on the collar. The coldness of it against her skin rammed home the fact he was her property. Like every other Lokmane in the galaxy, he was a slave. Bound to it two thousand years ago by a long-defunct group called the Social Union, as punishment for refusing to help bring the Lokmane’s genetic cousins, the Barayans, into the Union. So said the messages left behind by the last king, A’yen IV. There was more to the story. Fae knew it in her bones. “So much has to happen before it can come off. What if we don’t live that long?”

His index finger touched her chin, lifting until their gazes met. Smoldering eyes lit a fire in her chest. One he couldn’t quench without passing out from the pain. “We will live that long. You will be able to take all of this off and throw it away.” He looked at his wrists, also encased in metal. “This ends with me. One way or another.”

The thought of losing him left her quaking inside. A metallic taste in the back of her throat. Irrational unwillingness to ever let him out of her sight again. He was the only man in her life who didn’t treat her like a statue in the corner, meant to be admired from a distance and never trusted with anything requiring thought.

A’yen saw her. Looked into her soul. And liked what he saw. Months with him weren’t enough to undo the years spent living under her father’s judgment and emotional abuse.

He cupped the back of her neck, kissed her with soft pressure. “I hate how you’re so upset by all this and I can’t even hold you.”

She placed her hands on each side of his face. Kissed his forehead, his nose, his chin. Inflammation filled his body to the point where touching any of the ink triggered pain that left him frozen in agony and struggling to breathe. Time to stop thinking about it and try to be normal. “What do you want for breakfast?”

His mouth curled. “I can have anything?”

Leaning back, head tilted, she stared at him. “I may regret this, but yes. Anything.”

I really want you, but that won’t be much fun for either of us. So I want chocolate chip waffles. With bacon and scrambled eggs.”

That’s not too bad. Spice tea?”

Yes please.” He pecked her cheek, then eased down again on his stomach. His breathing hitched when ink met sheet and she took his hand, wincing as he squeezed with all his might. He gripped her hand for several more minutes while his breathing returned to normal. Well, normal for right now. Measured, to keep the ink from moving, with occasional shudders.

Fae slid off the bed with as little movement as possible and pulled the sheet off his legs. On her way out of the room, she turned the air down two degrees and set the vent to blow across his back. He claimed the cool air calmed the fire a bit.

She started a pot of coffee then the rest of the meal. Whatever it took to get him eating. No matter how much of a mess it made with melted chocolate in the waffle iron and bacon grease on the stove. Cooking like this calmed her nerves. Helped her remember the good pieces of her childhood.

How things had changed in the last fourteen months. When she’d met A’yen, in holding on Deseret, he’d been closed off, distrustful, and resented her intrusion into his grief. Dragging him to the Rim, the one place he’d been where the slave laws didn’t follow him, had been agony for him. Until they’d found proof the perfect-for-life planet had once belonged to the Lokmane. When the Breeders Association plant Henry Reston threatened to destroy her reputation, so no one would believe she had found the Lokmane homeworld, A’yen traded himself for her safety. And he hadn’t even confessed to loving her when he did it.

The slave she’d bought for protection had stolen her heart, married her, and wanted to fill their house with children. Then they found out twenty-seven days ago he was the next Lokmane king. Now he had a target painted on his forehead. Carrying his child, whenever it happened, would put one on hers too.

Thirty minutes later, she took a tray to the bedroom with enough on it for both of them. He needed her help to sit up this time and his arms shook. Heavy breaths spoke of the fire in his muscles.

Do you want to try leaning back on pillows?”

Oh hell no. The sheet still hurts.” He drew his legs up, crossed them at the ankles, and propped his elbows on his knees. It took twenty minutes, but he cleaned his plate. She took it from him and he stretched out once more. The position he’d lived in for the last three weeks.

His breathing turned to gasps, from exhaustion this time. More quivering and shaking. Fae set the tray on the floor, curled up beside him, and stroked his hair until he fell asleep. She missed his running commentary, sneaking up behind her and stealing kisses, the way he made her forget to breathe. Stupid marking laws had stolen all of it.

Laws passed by men like her father, president of the Breeders Association, so they could control the millions of slaves working on agricultural farms, in mining, factories, and processing plants. The more she watched her husband suffer, the more firm her new convictions became.

Funny thing that, having convictions. Having them didn’t mean she possessed the strength to act on them.

She wandered into her office and turned her computer on. A’yen’s careful scanning of every single thing they’d found last year left her able to work on her findings reports from home. To stay close to him and be there every time he needed her.

A silent laugh moved her shoulders at the memory of A’yen’s first words on walking into the house. “It’s not a museum. I’m proud of you, Fae.”

Nonetheless, little trinkets and artifacts covered her office shelves. Mementos of every dig she’d participated in over the last ten years. She’d hung one of A’yen’s lake paintings where she could see it every time she looked up from her screen. To remind her they were fighting for his right to have a home of his own and be a free man. She’d taken the Morrow Nebula painting to be professionally framed, and planned to hang it in the living room.

How long would they live here, in her little house? Something much grander waited for them in the nebula where the Hidden—Lokmane descended from those who’d escaped slavery—were concealed in clouds of gas and dust, protected by the Barayans. Fitting, since they’d been enslaved trying to protect them.

The planet they’d explored, she could live on. Quite happily. Especially in the area around the dig. The thought of visiting the Hidden, though, left her shaking in her boots. Na’var, her father-in-law’s telepathically-linked bodyguard, claimed they didn’t like humans. She wouldn’t either, in their shoes. The thought of a prolonged visit made her stomach churn and the bacon in it turn bitter.

A chime rang through the house. Fae groaned, turned her screen off, and went to the door. The sight of a familiar dark outline made her stomach clench into a knot and, hand shaking, she turned the knob.

The towering form filled the doorway. No smile softened the sharp angles of his face, or made his eyes sparkle. “I’ve given up on you coming to see me, so here I am.”

Fae swallowed her heart and stomach. “Hello, Dad.

#

If Senator Larson raised her voice one more time, Arrin Dreen was going to jump across the room and yank her larynx out. He looked at the plaster ceiling and started counting in an effort to distract himself. High Senate sessions weren’t usually so heated, even here in the Loks Mé subcommittee.

Senator Moray of Athen—the man who’d protected A’yen for so long—banged his chairman’s gavel, and Arrin jumped. The sound might as well have knocked a hole in his head. The scene before him blurred. A dozen rapid blinks cleared it. Spots hovered at the edges of his peripheral vision. Again.

Senator Larson, must I remind you for the fifth time that we are here to discuss this in a civil manner? There will be no shouting, no yelling, and no name-calling.” Senator Moray leveled his glare at Larson from Doran.

The Athen and Titan economies are entirely different from Doran’s. What gives you the right to dictate emancipation to the rest of us?”

Raina, Arrin’s wife and protector, lifted her hand. “Our economies may be different, but our morality is not. Nothing proposed so far looks at the particulars of emancipation. All we’re presenting is a resolution to pursue options. Which will be different for every planet.”

Arrin let himself smile. His heart cried for emancipation now. Without regard to the consequences of the economies and civilizations involved. But the logic in him, determined to do the right thing for his people’s future, believed Raina’s course of action to be correct.

Whether he liked it or not, the majority of the Lokmane weren’t ready for freedom. Something must be done to address the concubine situation too. Like him and his sister. His son, A’yen, and countless thousands of others who’d chosen to live as husband or wife with their owners. Even if the law didn’t call it marriage, it was marriage.

Too bad he couldn’t trust Prime Minister Salem to do his part and prepare the Hidden to help the newly-freed transition to a life without masters and mistresses, orders, and schedules. The sooner A’yen healed and headed out there, the better. Maybe he could knock some sense into stuck-up Salem.

Larson stood, her gaze sweeping across the room, landing with narrowed eyes and a frown on Arrin. “Not all of us are so intent on letting a slave out of his place.”

Arrin tensed, the urge to speak overwhelming, but the law forbade him to say anything in his own defense. The time for breaking it had not yet arrived. They had to get the resolution out of the committee first.

One of the Barayan senators rose. “When one’s entire fortune is built on brothels and the sex trade, one should not be so quick to defend one’s stance on the issue.”

Larson turned three shades of red. This particular Barayan senator, a cousin to the queen, knew Arrin’s family history. How his father had been taken as a sex slave, the spark of life beaten out of him.

Moray tapped his gavel this time. “I think we’ll take an hour’s recess and let everyone calm down.”

Arrin turned his tablet off, more to conceal his handwritten notes than anything else, slid it in its case, and slipped out of the room. He needed calm and quiet for a little while. Damn headaches, getting worse every month it seemed. Raina’s office fit his needs, and he lowered the blinds before stretching out on the couch.

Sometimes he took his shirt off and sat in the sunlight streaming through the west facing windows. Not today. Darkness called, his one refuge from the pain in his head growing more nauseating with every beat of his heart.

The door opened and shut. Raina’s soft footfalls crossed to the bathroom. Water ran for a moment. A cool cloth draped across his closed eyes and her gentle touch massaged his temples and hairline. “When did it start?”

First time Larson stood up. I’ve never been so disappointed to see someone win reelection. She has too much sway on the floor.”

Raina kissed his forehead without ceasing the massage. “I agree. It’s why public opinion and exposing true life on the farms is so important.”

So many will die in retaliation for it. I don’t like deaths on my conscience.”

No one does, my love. Charles told you this wouldn’t be easy.”

He never said it’d be this hard either.” Thinking about all those destined to die in their pursuit of freedom left his skin clammy, his heart fluttering. So many had already died, yes, but not knowing freedom lay within reach.

Has a decision been made by the historical society about the library Farran found?” He’d give almost anything to see the library with his own eyes, to feel the books, to walk through his history. To see the things A’yen had seen.

Not a decision, exactly. More like a compromise. The next phase of colonizing will be allowed, but another archaeological team will be sent out to look for more. Only passing emancipation here or on Athen can stop it.”

This is wrong.” The words came out in a tortured whisper. He pulled the cloth from his eyes to stare at his wife, the woman who had bound herself to him to protect him from those who wanted him dead. Knives danced across his eyeballs, stopping only to dive into his brain. “It’s our home, and they shouldn’t be allowed to take it from us again.”

Dr. Tyler is going, and Charlie told me last night he’s looking for someone to take his classes so he can go too.”

The knowledge did nothing to soothe him. Charlie—Raina’s oldest son and a history professor at Gill Mar University—and Robert Tyler would fight for them, but both were more than a little naïve about how the rest of the universe saw the Lokmane. Especially Tyler. Many would never believe the slave race capable of self-governance and independent thought. The Association actively promoted the idea, and painted Lokmane men as dangerous and untrustworthy.

As much as he wanted to share Raina’s faith in public opinion, his own experiences, even in Titan’s more liberal society when it came to his people, said he couldn’t. So many were afraid of him. Shop owners refused to allow him entrance. Most restaurants denied service, if he made it through the door to begin with.

Others treated him like an idiot, assuming because the law forbade him to read human languages, it meant he was incapable of learning. Most humans didn’t bother learning the Lokmane language, with its strange grammar rules and phonetic alphabet.

Even on Earth, a few countries recognized the slave laws, though not all of them. Only Baray refused to recognize them across the board. The rest of the galaxy didn’t know the reason, but Arrin did: they sheltered the Hidden.

Raina kissed his forehead again. “I hope A’yen doesn’t over-think all this like you do.”

He smiled, reaching up to caress her cheek. “Why would he over-think it when he can jump and see where he lands? He’s been insulated and protected from all the things that make me over-think. I wish Wayan could see what he’s going to do.”

Someone cleared a throat. “I hate to interrupt this little love fest, but I have bad news.”

Na’var Manchac, his right arm. Arrin pulled the cloth back over his eyes. “Spit it out then.” Though clouded from the headache, he still picked up on Na’var’s attempt to pull it out. It didn’t budge.

That’s weird.”

Raina shushed him. “Not so loud.”

I went over to the house to see if Fae needed anything, and somebody beat me there. So I hung around until the man got out of his cruiser. Just about had a heart attack too, when I saw who it was.”

Arrin pulled the cloth off, sat up, and glared at Na’var. “What part of spit it out did you not get? My head is going to split open in about five minutes.”

Na’var sat in the closest chair, elbows on his knees, hands clasped, unease flowing off him in waves big enough to drown a person. “It was Benai Hart.”

The pain in his head no longer mattered. Arrin bent over from the weight of the news. One of his worst nightmares playing before his eyes, and he couldn’t do a damn thing to protect his son. None of them had factored in Hart coming here to see the daughter he usually ignored.

Raina’s hand rubbed his back. “Did you see his son?”

No. Considering what’s going on right now, there’s no way Hart left Doran without Ro, which means the lecherous bastard probably came to control A’yen. Pretty sure Fae knows nothing about it, and when A’yen finds out, he’s likely to get himself killed. Pete’s living in her guest room right now. No way will he let Hart have the room.”

Arrin straightened, in control again. “Not that he’d grace his only daughter with his continual presence. Her place isn’t up to his standards.”

Do you want me to go back?”

No. The danger of your discovery is too great. Where’s Pete?”

Na’var’s lips pursed as he thought. “I believe he’s on Adventure at the moment. I heard him telling A’yen something about navigation system upgrades before I left yesterday.”

Get him down here if at all possible. Figure out where Hart is staying and keep track of his movements.”

Consider it done.” Na’var crossed the rug, rested a hand on Arrin’s right shoulder. “No harm will come to A’yen. Not while I’m still breathing.”

Arrin gripped the hand a moment, absorbing Na’var’s strength. He didn’t say anything. Na’var knew how thankful he was for everything he’d done, everything he’d sacrificed to free their people.

Na’var left, off on his mission, the particulars of which Arrin would never know. If he were a praying man, he’d get on his knees and beg any god willing to listen to protect his son from the evil residing in Benai Hart.

But he was not a praying man. Right now, he wasn’t even a man full of much hope.

COLLAPSE

They've taken everything from him. Except his name.

The Loks Mé have been slaves for so long, freedom is a distant myth A'yen Mesu no longer believes. A year in holding, because of his master's murder, has sucked the life from him. Archaeologist Farran Hart buys him to protect her on an expedition to the Rim, the last unexplored quadrant of the galaxy.
Farran believes the Loks Mé once lived on the Rim and is determined to prove it. And win A'yen's trust. But she's a breeder's daughter and can't be trusted.

Hidden rooms, information caches, and messages from a long-dead king change A'yen's mind about her importance. When she's threatened, he offers himself in exchange, and lands on the Breeders Association's radar. The truth must be told. Even if it costs him his heart.

Published:
Genres:
Excerpt:

Chapter One

Earth Year: 5231

Three hundred sixty-six days and the images continued to haunt him. His screams and cries. Master’s whispered final words to not lose himself, no matter what.

Damn humans. Taking the one person he loved above all others and locking him in this hell called holding. Fitting, really, since A’yen Mesu’s entire life had been put on hold when the enforcers dragged him away. Loks Mé. Less than human. An alien. Nothing but a slave. One easily replaced since no one cared he was an expert cartographer in his own right.

READ MORE

A whirring sound filled the cell block. The mag-locks. Buyers. A’yen forced himself off his bed, went to the bars keeping him prisoner, and positioned his hands where he wouldn’t be forced to stand for who-knew-how-long in an awkward position. The cuffs on his wrists reacted to the mag-lock and stuck to the bars so tight he couldn’t get free if his life depended on it.

He kept his gaze glued to the floor to avoid punishment from the hold keeper. When a pair of small feet in black boots stopped, he stiffened. So far no woman had dared to stop in front of him. Due to fear, most likely. They didn’t understand most Loks Mé men couldn’t stand the thought of hurting a woman, or seeing a woman hurt, while they were helpless to stop it.

The feet stepped closer. “You were owned by a cartographer?” Her sweet voice didn’t mean she’d stay that way.

“Yes.”

“A member of the Guild?”

“Yes.”

“You can look up.”

He did, and the breath left his body. Five inches shorter than his six feet four, but finely-boned at the same time. Delicate. Hair dark as a black hole framed a kind looking face, with bright green eyes studying him. She glanced at her tablet again and he sucked air into his lungs.

The entry she studied showed her his history and place of birth, he knew, along with other facts. But not the things that made him a person. “When did you leave Athen?”

“When I was ten.”

“Why did a Titan cartographer buy you?”

Because Senator Moray, his mother’s owner, trusted him, and A’yen hadn’t been afraid of him. But he couldn’t tell her that. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t give in. “I don’t know. But I’m very glad he did. He filed the first climate report on Rim One.”

Her shoulders drooped and she stared at her table for a minute. “I wanted to meet him some day. If you’re here, that’ll never happen.” The green gaze pinned him again. “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“Do you have any unlisted skills? Navigation or piloting maybe?”

Something about her reminded him of Master. Made him want to trust her. But only a little. “Perhaps.” This time he let his lips curve up. Surely she was smart enough to know it was a yes, and the closest thing to a yes she’d get unless she bought him. He’d never enjoy a life of almost freedom again, but anything was better than here.

“I thought so.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “A male with pilot and navigation skills would cost more than I can spend.”

“Then I’m the deal of the century.”

“I expect you to prove it.”

“I will.”

She stepped back, green eyes sparkling with pent-up laughter. “Keeper, I want this one.”

Chosen now, sale all but final, he didn’t look away. The keeper’s face still wore a scowl, even though he was getting rid of A’yen. “Are you sure, Dr. Hart? He’s quite a handful.”

A’yen stiffened at the acid in the keeper’s words. The man wanted him in a regiment, to suffer and die a horrible death. The fate most Loks Mé men were doomed to, and one Senator Moray had saved A’yen from. Following orders, being nothing more than a number in a system, were things A’yen never wanted to experience.

“I’m sure. Where we’re going, a strong spirit will serve him well.”

He let his gaze slide back to her. More than anything he wanted to ask where they were going, but he clamped down on it and kept his mouth shut. Anywhere was better than here. So long as he left the Deseret system and its cursed sand, he’d learn to live again. Maybe even find more humans who saw him as a person instead of a borderline dangerous commodity.

The keeper made a notation on his tablet, then continued down the long hall, pointing out Loks Mé and their skills to his buyers. A’yen craned his head to look through the bars, watching Dr. Hart until she disappeared around the corner.

Three hours later the mag-locks released. A’yen sank to the floor with bent knees and leaned over till his chin nearly touched his ankles. The buyers had left an hour ago, but as usual the keeper left the locks engaged to remind them all who ruled this hellhole.

Muscles somewhat relaxed, he stood again and packed his few belongings. Four changes of clothes not worth keeping—all a Loks Mé was allowed to have while in holding—a sketchbook he’d managed to keep hidden, though nearly filled. He flipped through it. A half-finished sketch of the Deseret Senate building did nothing but taunt him.

Footsteps echoed on the stone walls and he slammed the book closed before shoving it into the bottom of his rucksack. Which he then left on the bed. He faced the wall and held his arms behind his back. The mag-locks engaged three seconds later. Another three and his cell door opened. He turned to face the keeper’s assistant, who entered to pick up his bag, then led him down the hall and into one of the exit rooms.

Dr. Hart sat in a chair, studying something on her tablet. She looked up when the keeper’s assistant cleared his throat. “Shall I secure him for you, while the collar and cuffs are re-coded?”

She shook her head. “Not necessary. There’s nothing in his bio to say he’s dangerous.”

The assistant hmphed in the back of his throat, but turned the mag-lock off. Since A’yen’s knees and feet were still a little sore from earlier, he sat in the other chair and stretched his legs out. Re-coding took thirty-four minutes. Might as well be semi-comfortable. He held his wrists out, palms up.

Dr. Hart set her tablet aside and pulled three chips from her pocket while motioning the assistant out. She walked over to him and placed one in each slot on the cuffs, and the last in the slot on his collar. “Do you have any family?”

“My mother, on Athen Three.”

“I’ll make arrangements for you to get in touch with her. I know you have some questions, and since we have awhile before we can leave, ask away.” She sat down again, mirroring his posture this time.

Oh, he had questions. Dozens of them. But only a few mattered. “What kind of doctor are you?”

“Archaeology.”

“What sort of an expedition is this?”

Her face lit up and she leaned forward. “Pre-colonization mapping of the first HZ planet on the Rim. With rings around a double moon.”

In spite of himself, he leaned forward too. The Rim had fascinated Master, and he’d passed it to A’yen. An archaeologist and a cartographer on such expeditions were standard. But she didn’t know he was a Guild-certified expert planetary cartographer. Staying aloof right now seemed the better choice. “Why are you so excited? There are multiple planets with rings around their moon and potential lost cultures.”

“I think it might be the Loks Mé home world.”

He leaned back, excitement sputtering out beneath a cold blanket. “You’re delusional.”

Her chin lifted. “You don’t believe your own stories?”

“Why should I? They’re fairy tales designed to instill false hope.” Three hundred and sixty-seven days ago he’d believed them. But no more.

Her shoulders went back and she stared him down. “Well, I believe them. And I intend to find it.”

Foolish notions like this could get a person killed on the Rim. Better to die in exploration than rotting away in a cell.

#

Farran watched him from the corner of her eye for all of ten minutes, then abandoned pretense and openly watched him. He didn’t seem to notice. That, or he didn’t care.

Vivid blue eyes weren’t focused on anything in particular. A shadow hung in them, but not enough to take the multifaceted color away. Loks Mé eyes always reminded her of gemstones, and his were bright as sapphires. Blue eyes were as common in his race as brown in humans, yet she’d seen this particular shade of blue only once before, on Titan. In the face of her expedition sponsor’s bound concubine.

Blond hair hung just past his shoulders, pulled back at the nape of his neck and wrapped with a leather tie. Only privately-owned males were allowed adornments of any kind. He must have fought to keep it, which meant it held some meaning.

His shoulders were wide, with toned arms accented by the markings tattooed on them. Well-built and solid, he’d have no problems keeping her safe. The wide, flat nose typical of his species gave his face a smashed in look to some. Not her. She found it endearing and sexy as hell. Plus he was taller than her. Not an easy thing to find.

Everything about him screamed controlled power. And incredible heartache.

He remained still until the re-coding finished, as if lost in his own world, then slung his pack over his shoulder and followed her out.

Not a word crossed his lips on the twenty-minute ride to the Hart home. Bren and Morris would take care of new clothes for the night, since she was on such a tight schedule. Besides, skipping Dad’s farewell dinner for the team wouldn’t exactly go over well. As always, walking his tightrope kept her safe.

The slave didn’t look out the window either. But, coming from an exotic place like Athen and mapping the galaxy, sand must be pretty boring. She pulled his bio up again and checked his age. He turned thirty-one on Departure Day. He’d spent twenty years with one man. She’d spent twenty years trying to earn recognition from one man.

“Here we are.” She stepped out of the vehicle and he followed. In silence. Morris opened the door and greeted her with a hug. “Morris, I’m running late. Can you get him settled for the night?”

“Of course. Come with me.” Morris motioned, and again the man followed without a word.

Farran ran up the stairs to her room to clean up and change before dinner. Still so much packing to do, enough to make her despair of getting any sleep tonight. She threw the door open and skidded to a stop. The packing was finished, except for her papers. “Oh, Bren. How will I last the year without you?”

Bren wrapped her in a hug. “I’m too old for such gallivanting around. Did you find what you were looking for?”

“I did. And then some.” Farran sat down to unlace her boots. “He’s had one master, a Guild cartographer. He can navigate and pilot shuttle craft.”

“What’s his name?”

Her hands stilled. “I forgot to ask.”

“For shame, Fae. He has feelings, you know.”

“I know.” She pulled her boots off and rushed through a shower, trying her best to ignore the guilt swirling around her. Tunnel vision wasn’t a good thing to have going into this, considering she was searching for his past. It wouldn’t do to forget he was a real person. No matter how excited she was.

Fastest shower on record, then it was time to fix her hair. Bren took care of it, one last time, by braiding it around her head. “I’ll find out his name before I go to the drawing room.”

Bren kissed her cheek. “That’s my girl.”

Fae crept down the back stairs to avoid being noticed by anyone and slipped into the slaves’ quarters. Most were upstairs, working on the meal, preparing the dining room. She knocked on the door to the only unassigned room.

“Come in.” He sounded reluctant.

She pushed the door open in time to see his bare back. The green markings of private ownership rippled across his shoulders as he lifted his arms and pulled a new shirt over his head. His blond hair looked damp.

“I forgot to ask your name.”

He turned and looked at her, brows forming a V above his eyes.

“No one has asked you your name? They’ve just called you seventy-one?”

He nodded. “My name is A’yen.”

“It’s nice to meet you, A’yen. I’m Farran, and don’t you dare call me mistress. Makes me feel old.”

The intense blue eyes locked on her face. “Then what should I call you?”

“I’ll have to think about it. Tomorrow I’ll take you for new clothes.” She turned and left the room. Upstairs, she joined her co-workers for the next year.

“I can’t believe my little girl is leaving for a whole year.” Dad rubbed her back while he spoke, then kissed her cheek. Sometimes he could be a great actor. The memory of his rage over her announcement two months ago would live a long, long time. At least this time he’d only sprained her wrist when he grabbed her, instead of breaking it.

“Maybe longer.” Dr. Cooper sipped from his wine glass. “This planet is heavily forested and appears to have a significant river system.”

“My girl never could resist a good tree.”

Everyone laughed, at her expense. She pasted on a smile. No one knew why she’d really pushed so hard to join this group. Except Bren, and now A’yen. Since he didn’t believe his own peoples’ legends, he’d keep it to himself. Not that anyone would ask him anyway. Everyone said males were dangerous and couldn’t be trusted. Because of Marcus, her childhood friend and Bren’s son, she knew better.

There had to be a reason the Loks Mé home world had been abandoned and purged from every map. Such a rich oral culture didn’t get made up by accident. Something in their past was glorious and worth remembering. Whoever enslaved them didn’t want it remembered. Which made her all the more determined to find it.

If she found it, proved the Loks Mé were once free, they might could be free again. If that happened she’d take Bren, find Marcus, and make their own little family where bigots like her father and brother weren’t welcome.

“Do you really think we’ll find ruins, Fae?” Her assistant’s voice dragged her back into the room.

“I’m sure of it. I just don’t know what kind or how well preserved they’ll be. The planet is too perfect for life to have not had something there at some point in time. Patience, Willa.”

Willa’s excitement overflowed, reflecting Fae’s own. She leaned in and whispered. “Did you really buy a Loks Mé male?”

Fae nodded. As her best friend Willa would never judge her for it. “Whatever I have to do to put some space between me and my father is worth every penny.”

“I’m proud of you, but I also hope it doesn’t backfire on us. Dr. Cooper won’t be happy.”

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of chit-chat and speeches. What she really wanted was to get in the ship, take off for the Rim, and not come back until she found proof of a free Loks Mé culture.

And see if A’yen was worth the insane amount of money she’d spent on him.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:B&N SFF blog wrote:

"An intensely emotional tale."

InD' Tale Magazine on http://www.indtale.com/reviews/other/my-name-ayen%C2%A0ayens-legacy-1 wrote:

"...a brilliant start to a sci-fi series with a romantic twist." 4 stars from InD' Tale Magazine