To create paradise, he'll have to face a nightmare.

Disgraced Marcasian PSF officer Adrian Khalid has one shot at finding a place where he can be himself. At the emperor's request, he's on Lok'ma to help form their military. And find his Lokmane father. Maybe while he's there, he can kill off the ghosts of four years as a prisoner of Tur'een mercenaries.

Moira Salys just wants a new life where she can help other Lokmane put their pain to rest. And maybe let go of her own. But the soldier she sang to while a prisoner of the Tur'een is a memory she can't let go of. Stumbling on him in her brother's office puts her world right for the first time in a year. Spending time with him is a little slice of unexpected paradise.

Everything shatters when Adrian finds a hidden colony of Lokmane on the Southern Islands. And they're planning to execute his best friend. Saving his friend and Lokmane freedom means facing his ghosts. And it might kill everyone he loves.

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Chapter One

Searching: Day One

The one good thing about starting over on another planet was no one knew he'd killed eleven men. No one knew he'd been dishonorably discharged for it. No one knew he'd spent six months out of his mind in a psych ward.

And no one knew he’d been dreaming about a singer named Za’lia. Of finding her, falling in love. And her love healing the remaining cracks in his psyche and soul. In those dreams, he wasn’t afraid to want more. Wasn’t afraid to embrace the possibilities represented by what people called his unreal eyes. Big, a deep, multifaceted teal he’d looked for among Lokmane all his life. And never seen.

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In those dreams were the seeds of reclaiming his life. Of building a new one where it didn’t matter he didn’t look like a Khalid, where his mother didn’t throw her definition of eligible young women at him, and people didn’t look at him like he was some kind of monster just because he’d spent time in a psych ward.

Here on Lok’ma, no one knew anything about him. Other than he was from Marcase and sent by the emperor.

Adrian stood at the window of his little cottage, on the edge of the training area set up for the Honeycomb, sipping from his mug of hot cocoa. The emperor had asked him to help train them, and impress upon the Lokmane the importance of having a functioning military. After losing his PSF career, and his older brother getting his inheritance away from their father, he’d jumped at the chance to leave Marcase.

On this planet, with its rainbow trees, beautiful lakes, vast oceans, and enough islands to make even the most hardcore explorers happy, maybe, just maybe, he might banish the last of the nightmares. They didn’t haunt him every night anymore, but still rocked his world in the worst way too often. He’d been free over a year now, and in his right mind over half of that.

If not for Za’lia’s voice in his dreams, he’d dread sleep. The way he dreaded today and his first meeting with the men whose trust he had to earn.

He drank from his mug, savoring the rich creaminess as it rolled across his tongue. Best in the galaxy. His research said Za’lia might be here. She’d all but disappeared after she’d told the PSF everything she knew about the Tur’een encampment she’d been held in. Almost two years ago now, and she hadn’t been seen in public since.

Curious. Very curious.

Footsteps sounded behind him, and he tensed. “Just me, Adrian.”

He forced his body to relax, and eased onto the arm of the sofa, by the window. Then watched Zu’resh fix his breakfast in the small kitchen. The balanced Mé had been born a Tur’een slave, attached himself to Adrian, formed a telepathic link with him when his voice was frozen, and left with him when rescue came. Adrian owed Z his sanity and his life.

Did you eat yet?”

No.”

Z adjusted to make two breakfasts. “I’m really glad your sister-in-law gave me a bunch of her recipes, but some of the ingredients won’t be easy to find here.”

We’ll make adjustments. I’m a decent cook too, thanks to her.” He sipped from his cocoa again. Amun, his older brother, had been right. Disabled homeless vet starting over on another planet had gotten Anise to give up her top-secret hot cocoa recipe. “Anything I get desperate for, Amun promised to send.”

Good. I kinda got addicted to dates, and I didn’t see any yesterday when I explored the stores.” Z cracked eggs into a bowl and beat the crap out of them. “You nervous about today?”

A little.” His first day as the official imperial military liaison to the Lokmane. “I was told to expect the king to drop in at some point this week.”

Z nodded as he poured the eggs into the skillet. “Everyone seems to like him a lot, and he’s very hands-on. I’d like to meet him too at some point.”

I still want to take your collar off.”

Z shook his head. “Need to know this is all real first. Ask me again in a month.”

I won’t wait that long.” Adrian forced his body up and started for the bar separating the kitchen from the living room. Yes, he had a table as of yesterday, but he liked the bar at breakfast. Kept him stretched out and made walking a little easier. Something about buying everything he needed locally, made by Lokmane, and supporting their fledgling economy, appealed to him. He’d left Marcase with more money than he could spend in five lifetimes, so why not pour some of it back into the people Marcase had wronged?

Z set a plate of eggs and toast in front of him, then got out the yogurt and orange marmalade. Adrian swirled the two together on his plate. “I’m so glad I don’t have to wait to find out what winter is like here.”

Why do you like it so much?” Z joined him at the bar.

Because snow hid all the ugliness and made him happy. Snow days meant Amun stayed home from school too, so he’d have someone to play with. “It’s fun.”

You’re weird.”

So are you.”

Z stuck his tongue out.

They finished breakfast in comfortable silence, then Adrian dressed in his new uniform. Khaki cargo pants, his PSF boots, and a long-sleeved black tactical shirt. Not a uniform exactly, but it didn’t scream Marcase. Most of the Honeycomb men he’d seen the last couple days wore similar clothing. Until they had an official, functioning military, there would be no uniform. And Adrian had lost the right to wear his anyway.

He paused at the door. “You’re sure you’d rather stay here?”

Z nodded. “It’s too much tension. You need to focus on your job. Not defending me.” Z lifted his hand. “Just like you, I have to find my own way. Even if it means I get into a few fights.”

Adrian nodded, pulled the door open, and left his little sanctuary. Since the Lokmane population was so skewed toward female, they tended not to like it when a Lokmane male decided he didn’t like women. Combined with being a different one, a Mé who couldn’t father children anyway, many saw it as a double strike against Z’s very existence.

The king was working on changing it, but he couldn’t talk to every person on the planet and tell them the Més were needed. And a normal part of their existence as a species.

He slid into his cruiser and drove to the command center. Maybe one day he’d be able to walk such a distance again. But right now, it meant disaster and multiple days in bed. He couldn’t afford for these men to see the true extent of his weakness. Not until he’d earned their trust. Which might take the rest of his life. Good thing he liked a challenge to keep life from getting boring.

Thanks to dialog between the emperor and the king, he had his own parking space. Like the other officers. He secured the engine and sat there, staring at the building. Four stories, but only the first two floors were in use at the moment according to his briefing file. It appeared to have been built for the day when the Lokmane did have a military, and needed the room.

On the other side of the door lay a new purpose for his life. The Lokmane faced threats they didn’t understand—ones he did. All too well. Whether these men liked it or not, they needed Z’s knowledge too.

One step at a time.

Getting out and going in shouldn’t be so hard, yet here he sat, paralyzed. Breakfast turned bitter and threatened to come back up. He’d been sent here to stop the Tur’een from ruining more lives, from destroying this embryonic free civilization. What if they had broken him? What if he couldn’t help anyone because he hadn’t put himself back together enough yet?

He shook his head to dislodge the thoughts. Discharge or not, he remained PSF. They weren’t made; they were born. He’d be PSF until he died. They didn’t shirk from danger, or hide under the covers. No, they ran headfirst into whatever they found.

Adrian Khalid, disgraced PSF captain secretly promoted to major by the emperor, had to be the one to walk into this building. Adrian Khalid, the broken man haunted by the worst decision of his life, had to stay out here.

He shoved open his door, stepped out of the cruiser, and walked with measured steps to the front door of his new home-away-from-home. The glass door slid open at his approach. Sunlight and a bright, open space greeted him. A glance up revealed the lobby went all the way up, with nothing but glass. Even the ceiling was glass. Plas-glass, most likely. Open and almost cheerful.

An unoccupied reception desk took up the center of the space. Staircases went up on each side, to more sliding glass doors secured with biometric security systems. Smart. But he had no idea which way to go. Based on this layout, he probably needed to go upstairs. Since he couldn’t get past the doors, he stayed put.

With all the open space, there was no protecting his back. He turned a circle to pinpoint all the exits. Way too many, thanks to the glass.

Someone was running up to the front door, though, and he burst into the lobby. Tall, dark hair, Lokmane, silvery eyes. “I’m so sorry I’m late. Adrian Khalid?”

Yes. And you are?”

Na’var Manchac.” The man stopped in front of him, hand extended.

Adrian shook it. “You’re connected to the Honeycomb?”

Not directly. I was Grand Duke Arrin’s bodyguard for almost twenty years, and ran a spy network for the Shadows. Now I do whatever A’yen needs done.” Na’var indicated the stairs, and started up them.

Adrian followed. Slower. Much slower. He hated stairs now, and the strain they caused on his leg muscles. The burning ache they inflicted usually lasted for hours, even if he only did one flight. “You’re here to run interference, then?”

Sort of. Ma’lik can be a little prickly at times. Doesn’t have a high opinion of Marcasians either.”

There are times I agree with him.”

Na’var paused and looked over his shoulder. “I know some of what happened to you, but I haven’t shared it with anyone except A’yen. Ma’lik is a good man, but he doesn’t trust anyone outside his men.”

I know I have a long fight ahead of me to gain the trust of anyone here, whether they’re Honeycomb or not.”

Good. It’ll also be hard. From what I know of PSF, hard and long don’t bother you.” Na’var continued up the stairs, but ignored the palm scanner by the doors. They slid open at his approach.

Adrian followed the other man into an area of offices, staffed by Lokmane without collars and in civilian dress. Painful silence fell over them. Every single one stared at him, some with open malevolence. These people hadn’t been in the files Taran—Prince Nicco’s steward and spy master—had given him. Which made sense.

He didn’t move. They had to see he wasn’t a threat, and any movement might be interpreted as such at this stage. He kept his posture as relaxed as possible after coming up a flight of stairs, and scanned every face turned his way. If they thought this might intimidate him, they had to know otherwise right now.

One of the men in the back stalked forward, his bearing tight but straight, hands in fists at his side. His eyes were amber shot with streaks of gold. An unusual color. “Who the hell are you?”

Adrian Khalid. The emperor sent me to help you.”

The man came to within centimeters of him. “We don’t need your help.”

Adrian took a step closer. Hardened his voice. “There are threats out there you know nothing about.”

And you do?”

Intimately. You are?”

The man didn’t move. Neither did Adrian. He wasn’t losing the first pissing contest, even if it did make them think worse of him.

Kellyn, back off. He’s here to help.” Another Lokmane appeared behind Kellyn, and they all went back to whatever they’d been doing. Including Kellyn, though he stomped a little. This one, according to his files, was Ma’lik. Taller than Adrian and Kellyn, dark brown hair, and the oddest shade of brown eyes. They were almost luminescent. “Major Khalid.”

Ma’lik.” Adrian nodded to the approaching man. “I consider it an honor to be here and to offer my help.”

Ma’lik didn’t come as close as Kellyn had. “Thank you. If you’ll follow me, please.”

Adrian did, through the desks to an office in the back. Where Ma’lik shut the door, and took a seat behind the desk. He spun in his chair and indicated one against the wall. Adrian took it. But didn’t stretch his legs out like he wanted to. They had to see him as a soldier first, one capable of handling his position.

Which he was. If he told himself that enough, he might believe it.

Kellyn has issues with humans in general. It’s not because you’re Marcasian.”

Adrian nodded. “His markings are regiment, correct?”

Yes.” Ma’lik leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I haven’t been able to find out much about you outside the official stuff I was sent through your embassy. You’ve been appointed to this after being dishonorably discharged?”

Adrian remained stone still. Took a deep breath. Nodded once.

Care to explain?”

I suppose you deserve that much.”

Ma’lik arched an eyebrow. “I think I deserve a hell of a lot more, since I agreed to this. But we’ll start with what happened.”

The last place he wanted to go. Especially in a hostile environment. But Ma’lik had a point. Adrian focused on a painting behind Ma’lik’s head, and dove in. “My unit was stationed in the Fringes. We’ve been doing battle for centuries with mercenaries known as the Tur’een. I saw an opportunity to gather intel on a group we suspected of attacking passenger ships, and I took it. I shouldn’t have.”

Two deep breaths. He’d have to spend some time later locking things back up so he could function. “We were attacked. Captured. They tortured us. Killed my men.”

Ma’lik sucked in a breath through his teeth.

Then they recognized me as the child of someone important, and held me for ransom. Which my father refused to pay. They kept me for almost five years and treated me like a slave. After I was rescued, I was dishonorably discharged because I got my men killed.” He allowed himself to look at Ma’lik then.

Ma’lik tilted his head. “That’s it? No attempt to justify your decisions, or tell me it wasn’t your fault?”

It was my fault. I see no point in lying about it. The Tur’een are a threat to the Lokmane. I have the horrible advantage of having the most experience with how they make decisions. The emperor asked me to do this to help prepare you for it, and design training semi-capable of handling this kind of thing.”

My men aren’t special operations caliber. We’re still too broken for that.”

Adrian acknowledged it with a tilt of his head and a half-nod. “Your group laid the groundwork for the Doran government to fall. That’s no small feat. I was a prisoner when it happened, so I don’t know the details yet. I want to learn them, learn your structure, your goals, your weaknesses. Then we’ll figure out how to address them and lay the groundwork for a functioning military.”

And he’d need all that to identify officer candidates. Without a command structure, this fledgling army would fall apart before it ever had a chance to form.

We?”

Yes. I’m here in an advisory capacity. Not as an officer of any kind, or someone you have no choice but to listen to.” Adrian crushed the need to shift in his seat a little, to ease the fire crawling across his back from the damn tattoos reacting to the pressure of a hard seat-back.

Your eyes.”

For once in his life, his eyes—and what they hinted at—were an asset. “It’s possible I’m a half-blood. I plan to find out while I’m here. If I am, will it help?”

Treated like a slave for almost five years?”

Adrian nodded. Pushed his left sleeve up before he could overthink it. For once, the damn tattoos might have a purpose and make his job easier. “Marked like one too, and I react to it. The pain your men live in is something I understand.”

Ma’lik left his chair, knelt in front of Adrian, and studied the pattern. It was made up of half-circles wound together, with dots scattered all over it. “The color is similar to the king’s, but I’ve never seen the pattern before.”

They have their own. Ink is whatever they happen to steal. There are thousands of Lokmane in their settlements.”

Ma’lik stood, every line of his body rigid. “Slaves?”

Adrian nodded.

Then they need to be eradicated.”

Agreed. Easier said than done, though.”

The door burst open and he glanced at it. But didn’t jump, thank the gods.

Ma’lik, I swear if you don’t—”

He cut her off. “Not now, Moira.”

Adrian stared. With his mouth open. Za’lia stood there, wearing dark pants and a pink sweater, her hair falling in loose waves across her shoulders. She stared too. Covered her mouth. Spun and ran out of the office.

How had she seen his face when he’d never seen hers?

Za’lia knew the Honeycomb leader. Who was Lokmane. She was supposed to be Barayan, but might not be. Her name was Moira, and she lived here. The way Ma’lik said her name, they might be related. Of course. Nothing else in his life had been easy. Expecting this to be had been the worst kind of foolish.

But he had to know for sure. And he had to tell her what she’d done.

He surged out of his chair and followed her to a small alcove. She stood there hugging herself, biting her lip and looking as though she was trying not to cry. She held her hand out to stop his approach, and he froze. “You saw me?”

Za’lia nodded.

I never saw you.”

You were unconscious,” she whispered.

You saved my sanity. I’ve been looking for you. To thank you.”

Just please leave me alone.” Her words were broken. Like him. “I can’t be around you.”

A laser shot to the gut couldn’t hurt any worse. “Then I won’t trouble you again. Thank you for singing to me.” He backed away from her, and forced himself to return to Ma’lik’s office. Where he closed the door and stood with his back to it. “You knew all along. Didn’t you?”

Ma’lik nodded. “Still wanted to hear it from you. Make sure it matches what my sister told me.”

Did it?” That hardness again.

Yup.” Ma’lik took a step toward him, and went all big brother. Something Adrian recognized from all the times Amun had done it to protect him from their father. Including the last time, when Amun punched the man. “Please stay away from her. What she experienced there scarred her as much as what they did to you. She needs to heal.”

Every muscle went rigid. He didn’t want to stay away from her. Her voice continued to keep him sane, helped him hold the flashbacks at bay. He lifted his chin, almost glaring at the man. “And if I don’t stay away?”

Then we’ll be getting much better acquainted. In a way you don’t want. So long as I’m breathing, no Marcasian is touching my sister.”

Adrian put his hand on the door knob. Curious, to find actual door knobs everywhere on this planet. “You don’t get to decide what’s best for her.”

Neither do you.”

He pulled the door open and stepped out of the office. Just in time to see Za’lia—Moira, what a beautiful name—running for the stairs.

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.

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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?”

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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

Three complete novels, over 300,000 words!

Lokmane slave A'yen Mesu has lost everything. Except his name. Yet he refuses to be treated like the slave he is. When his new owner, Dr. Farran Hart, finds his people's lost homeworld, he'll do anything to make sure it's not taken away again. Even if it costs him his heart.

After a year exploring the lost planet Lok'ma, A'yen and Fae return to her home planet and join the fight to emancipate the Lokmane. Unexpected allies join them, and their enemies kidnap A'yen in a last-ditch effort to prevent emancipation. Separated by lights years, A'yen and Fae must fight for the right to live in freedom. No matter the cost.

Once emancipation comes, A'yen keeps fighting to overcome prejudice and create a home where all Lokmane are welcome--regardless of background and life. His enemies attack those closest to him, so he fights back with the only weapon he has: truth. It's the only chance of saving his bodyguard, Da'Ro. Happily ever after can't happen if Ro is dead.

Join A'yen and Fae as they fall deeper in love, find secrets humanity buried, and discover the power of love in all its forms.This set includes the first three novels in the A'yen's Legacy futuristic romance series. If you want an epic romance focused on a wounded hero who refuses to give up, this is the series you're looking for.

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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.

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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.

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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

If Taran loses his girl--and his second chance at love--he'll never find his way to freedom.

A'yen's Reign: Year Two
Taran has served Nicco, prince of Marcase, for twenty-three years. While on a fact-finding mission to Corsica--a planet annexed by the empire thirteen years ago--Taran and Nicco are kidnapped by the Freedom Alliance and taken deep into the Corsican hardwood forests.

Da'Renna, sister to King A'yen's linked bodyguard, has loved Taran since the moment he saw her. Leaving him behind wasn't easy, but her brother needed her more. Hearing about Taran's kidnapping makes her wonder if she made the right choice.

With the help of a friend from Corsica, Da'Renna and her brother sneak in to find Taran. When mercenaries take her hostage, Taran must make the choice he dreads most: his master, or his soul-mate.

Freedom isn't supposed to be this hard.

Note: This novel stands alone and is a great entry point into the A'yen's Legacy futuristic romance series

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

Ten years old. Taran stared out the window at the street below. “When he comes back, how will he know where I am?”

The prince sighed. “Everyone here knows where you’re going. They’ll tell him.”

Fourteen years old. Taran stared out the window at the gardens below. “How will he know where I am? Titan’s a long way off. He can’t find me there.”

The prince sighed. “Everyone knows where you’re going. I’ve left instructions that if he comes, Anthony is to be told. He’ll let us know.”

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Seventeen years old. In two more days. Taran stared out the window at the gardens below, fingers splayed across the glass, telling himself the streaks of moisture were from the rain beating on the glass and not because he was trying not to cry. “He’s not coming, is he?”

The prince squeezed his shoulder. “No, Taran, I don’t think he is. Are you ready?”

Taran remembered nodding, then walking the long hall. Down the grand staircase. To the throne room. He knelt before the emperor for the prince to collar him and claim him in front of the entire court. No one could touch him. No one could take him. No one could hurt him.

Except those he was foolish enough to allow into his heart.

Twenty-five years old. It worked. She came to him. For three blissful weeks they pretended her collar didn’t tie her to Jacob Morrison. Against his better judgment, Taran fell in love with her.

Thirty-four years old. Taran stared out the window. Story of his life. “She’s not coming back.”

“We don’t know for sure.”

Taran didn’t look at his master, his protector, his friend. His brother in every way that mattered. “She never replied to my last letter.”

“You told her you weren’t coming to her brother’s wedding. I think she’s pissed.”

Taran turned his back to the window overlooking the gardens. Nicco Faroukh, prince of the Marcasian Empire, second vizier to the emperor, sat cross-legged in the middle of Taran’s bed. “She’d beg me to stay. Then we’d end up fighting and saying things we don’t mean. She’d scream at me for not being brave enough to stand on my own. Maybe throw something at me. I’d leave. She’d expect me to apologize first, though I haven’t done anything wrong. We’d end up right where we are now. My way is a lot less painful.”

“For you or her?”

“Both. I’m not leaving you, and she’s not leaving her brother. Which leaves us both screwed and alone.”

Nicco’s mouth twitched. “Alone, yes. Screwed? That’s your problem. You haven’t been screwed in a year.”

“You did me last night.”

“Cascades for pain relief don’t count. You told me that, remember?”

“Yes.” Taran left the window. Returned to the foot of the bed, and closed his suitcase. “Besides, this needs to be done. You’re not going alone.”

Nic groaned. “If my father hadn’t been such an idiot and invaded a planet, we wouldn’t have to do this.”

“But he was an idiot. Who knows how long it’ll be before things are calm enough again? We can’t miss this opportunity.” Taran grabbed his handset from its charging cradle and tucked it in the correct pocket on his backpack then slung it over his shoulder. “Ready?”

“I guess.” Nic slid off the bed. Fingered the green and gold threads woven into Taran’s hair at his left temple. “I still wish you’d cut them out for this trip.”

Taran gripped Nic’s shoulder. “We’re making this trip together. Cutting them out won’t protect me if something should happen.”

“Do you have two months’ worth of your meds?”

“I do. Though I still think it’s ridiculous to take so much.”

“Humor me.” Nic’s body tightened. He turned and headed through the sitting room joining Taran’s bedroom to his. Taran followed to make sure he didn’t forget anything.

Nic’s wife, Honor, leaped into his arms, clinging to his neck. “I wish you wouldn’t go. It’s still so dangerous.”

“We’ll be fine. Security is a PSF squad.”

Instead of watching Nic kissing his wife goodbye, Taran went to the window to look at the gardens one last time. He hadn’t kissed Ren in eleven months—an Earth year. Or felt her touch on his skin, her hair tickling his nose, or taken a shower with her. Once again, his obligations to a man he’d sworn his life to came between them. And she refused to understand.

Saving her brother—the Lokmane king’s linked bodyguard—hadn’t been enough. Taran had stood there and lied to Anthony, and the court, to keep Ro from going to prison. The young man had done his time in hell, and deserved to be free of his tormentors. Even if he had to commit murder to do it.

Then Ren chose her brother over her lover; over the man she said she loved. She left him and went to Lok’ma to make her dream family with Ro—as if oblivious to the family she had here in Karnak, in the palace. With Taran.

She’d taken his heart with her. He moved through his days in a haze, half a person, half a brain, half a soul. What would it take to convince her they were meant to be together?

They said goodbye to Nic’s kids and headed for the Imperial landing pad. If he’d made a different decision, he’d be leaving for Lok’ma instead of Corsica today. But he hadn’t. Duty and promises won over love. Maybe she was right. Maybe, if he really did love her, leaving Nic wouldn’t be so hard.

No. Leaving Nic would always be hard. The man had walked through hell for him.

#

“Sir, I can’t guarantee your safety if we go there. Even a flyover is dangerous.”

Leaning against the wall, Taran crossed his arms and watched Nic take on their PSF security squad.

“Why is it dangerous?”

“The rebels have weapons capable of bringing shuttles down.”

“The forest between here and Prescott is so dense, their window for a clear shot is miniscule. I’m willing to take my chances.” Nic glared at the captain. “An opportunity of this magnitude isn’t likely to happen again. I’m not going to miss it based on a maybe.”

The captain’s jaw tightened, but he stepped out of Nic’s way. Nic continued to the cockpit to instruct the pilot, and Taran returned the captain’s steady, blank look. “Is he always this unreasonable?”

Taran pushed off the wall. “He’s not being unreasonable, Captain. What’s been done here is wrong, and we’re not leaving until we have as much information as we can get. Your job is to provide security, not obstruct us from completing our mission.”

The captain raked him with a sneer. “Remember your place, slave.”

Taran pushed his sleeves up to show the gold outline of his markings. The man’s eyes widened. “Remember yours, Captain.” He brushed past the officer, and returned to his seat by the window.

Nic joined him a few minutes later, and the shuttle lifted off. “The pilot said it’ll take about six hours to get there.”

Taran glanced at the captain and his two men. Tapped the side of his head to tell Nic he wanted to do this telepathically. Nic nodded, and Taran opened the link. “The captain has a point about it being dangerous. We’ve yet to meet a single Corsican who thinks remaining under Marcasian control is a good idea.”

I know. Prescott has managed to stay neutral ground. I can’t ignore someone from the rebellion leadership being willing to talk. It shows we’re serious about finding a solution that works for as many people as possible.”

Even if it’s a trap?”

Even then.”

So long as you’re sure.” Taran closed the link.

Thirteen years was a long time for a war. Good men and women—on both sides—had died because of High Lord Hepshut and deceased Emperor Joseph’s greed. If the stories Taran had heard were correct, innocent Corsicans were being slaughtered. Over who would control a planet covered with hardwood trees. It made no sense.

But it posed a threat to the continuing freedom of Lok’ma. Four years ago, an archaeologist confirmed Rim One was the mythical Lok’ma. She’d fallen in love with the Lokmane slave she’d bought to protect her, who now sat on the Lokmane throne as King A’yen V. His father-in-law had owned the largest breeding farm system in the galaxy, and had been taken down when he kidnapped A’yen and tried to work him to death.

A’yen had become the spark to a revolution, and most planets in the galaxy had adopted emancipation acts. Even Doran, home of the breeding farms, had fallen last year. But not Marcase. If the high nobles had their way, the Lokmane in the empire would never know freedom.

One way or another, Taran wasn’t leaving Corsica until he had some kind of proof High Lord Hepshut was involved in the current atrocities. As owner of most of the steel production, he had the most to lose when emancipation came.

And it would, whether Hepshut liked it or not. Taran planned to make damn sure of it. Maybe then Ren would come back to him.

Ren. Better not to think about her right now. He picked up his tablet, put his earbuds in, and went into his book, the latest thriller from his favorite author. He lost all track of time, and didn’t come out of the book world until a violent shaking of the shuttle tossed him on the floor.

He yanked the buds from his ears as the lights went out. Alarms assaulted his hearing. His tablet slid across the floor and banged into the opposite wall. The shuttle lurched, sending him on the same trajectory as his poor tablet. He turned his body to keep from slamming into the wall feet first and breaking a leg. Instead, the impact knocked the breath from him, and sent pain shooting through his ribs.

“Taran, are you okay?” Nic’s voice came from the doorway behind him.

He sucked in a harsh breath. Winced at the pain it caused. “Fine. What’s happening?”

“They’re shooting at us.”

The shuttle shook again, and went into what felt like a nose dive. Taran slid backward, grabbing the door frame to stop his slide. Nic went down with a yelp and what sounded like his body crashing into something immovable. Taran squeezed his eyes shut to lessen the feeling of spinning, and tried to brace for impact.

Silence fell as the alarms lost power. Then everything shuddered, metal screeched, and the ground sucker-punched the shuttle. Vibrations from the floor beneath shook his bones.

With a final lurch, the shuttle stopped moving. Impact. With what? Taran released his death-grip on the door frame and pulled himself into a sitting position to look around. Panels dangled from the ceiling, wires and cables hanging loose. Some of them showered sparks. Great. Fire hazard death trap.

Backtracking his link to Nic revealed him breathing, but unconscious. Holding his ribs with one arm, he used the other to pull up on the frame and get to his feet then tested his legs to make sure nothing was broken. He’d have a killer bruise on his left hip from banging into the wall, but everything worked as it should.

He sent his field through the shuttle, searching for signs of life. The soldiers were in the back, alive but trapped. He’d worry about them later. They were resourceful enough to get themselves out.

Taran stepped over panels, and into the hall where Nic had been. He lay on his side, back against the cockpit door. Blood soaked his sleeve. Taran picked his way through the debris and knelt in front of him. “Nic?”

No response.

The cockpit door started screeching. Taran grabbed Nic and hauled him away from it. The pilot stepped out, wearing a dazed look, blood dripping from a cut at her hairline. A grin spread across her face when she looked down. “This was too easy.”

Taran tightened his grip on Nic’s arm. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t really think you’d found a shuttle pilot unopposed to Marcasian control of my home, did you?” She paused and laughed. “Oh that’s so sweet. You did. Too bad for you. We’ve been planning this for years.”

“You’re not going to win this by kidnapping us. We’re here to talk. To find a solution that works for everyone.”

The pilot shook her head. “We don’t believe you. We will never bow to the Marcasian Empire.” She pointed at him. “Don’t you move, now. We have plans for you.” She continued past him, hand on the wall to keep her balance. Five minutes later, he counted six shots of a handgun. She came back grinning. “Like shooting fish in a barrel.” She hunkered down between him and the one way out. “I don’t know how long it’ll take them to get here to pick us up, so you best get comfortable.”

“Can I at least have a first aid kit to stop the bleeding?”

The woman turned and rummaged in a hole then threw him a white box with a red cross on it.

He sat beside Nic and ripped his sleeve the rest of the way. A nasty gash met him. It might need stitches. He opened the kit and rummaged through it. Wiped most of the blood away and spritzed the wound with the antibiotic/coagulant spray then wrapped it in clean gauze. He checked for broken bones, and swallowed the urge to growl when he found a break in Nic’s left leg covered by ugly purple bruises and swelling.

Nic groaned and his eyes fluttered. “Am I dead?”

Taran knelt in front of him and smoothed his cheek. Spoke in Marcasian, with Lokmane grammar to keep the pilot from figuring out what he was saying. “No. It was a trap, and we’ve crashed somewhere between Capital City and Prescott.”

Nic frowned. They hadn’t spoken this way since Emperor Joseph died three years ago. “The pilot’s in on it?”

“Pretty sure she just executed our PSF detail.” He sent up a silent prayer to Anubis to speed the men on their journey to the afterlife. “Your left leg is also broken, so don’t go trying to play hero.”

Nic shifted and grimaced. “So much for making a run for it.”

“We wouldn’t last two days in the forest, and they know it. I haven’t the faintest idea how to survive in the woods, or what’s safe to eat and what could kill us with one bite. Not to mention, I’m a lousy shot.”

“I’m not.” Nic grabbed Taran’s arm. “Help me sit up.”

Taran did, and positioned Nic’s leg to put the least amount of pressure on the broken bone. He looked over his shoulder at the pilot. “Is there an air splint? His leg is broken.”

“Supposed to be one in the kit.”

More rummaging turned it up. He knelt with Nic’s leg between his. “This is going to hurt.”

Nic’s jaw clenched, and he pressed his hands against the floor. At least he hadn’t been wearing boots. As gently as he could, Taran removed the shoe then the sock, cut his pants leg off, and slid the splint into place. He flicked the valve to inflate it, and Nic’s head banged into the wall. “Son of a bitch!”

“I warned you.” Taran eased away from Nic’s leg and faced the pilot, hand out to give her a gauze pad. “You’re bleeding.”

She frowned at him, but took the pad.

“I need my backpack from the other room.”

She lifted her gun and aimed at Nic’s head, laser sight on. “Be quick.”

Thank the gods Nic’s paranoia made him keep all his meds in his backpack. He dug it out of the compartment, pulled his powder inhaler out and used it, since it was time then hurried back to Nic.

“Not so paranoid now, am I?”

Taran shook his head and sat beside Nic. “She said this was planned.”

“I’m not surprised.” Nic sighed. “Hepshut’s going to be in heaven with this, waiting for Anthony to screw up.”

“Shut it.” The pilot flicked her laser sight on again and leveled it at Nic’s chest.

Taran glared at Nic to reinforce the woman’s command. He lost track of time as they waited in silence for whoever the pilot was in league with, but it must have been at least an hour. The sounds of a couple of light vehicles filtered through the twisted metal of the shuttle.

A tall human male came in and stood behind the pilot. “Any PSF?”

“Already neutralized.” She took the man’s offered hand, and stood. Put a hand on the wall to steady herself. “The human has a broken leg.”

“He can suffer with it until we get back to base. Not that anyone will want to waste tech or painkillers on him anyway.”

Taran felt Nic tense, and put a hand on his arm.

The man knelt in front of them, rifle balanced on his legs. “You speak Common?”

“Of course.” Nic straightened, glaring at the man. Taran kept his hand on Nic’s arm.

“Good. Because we refuse to speak your hideous language.” The man turned his gaze to Taran. “Get him up and out on the grass.”

Taran slung his backpack in place then helped Nic maneuver into position to pull up without putting weight on his leg. Nic groaned as he stood. Taran pulled Nic’s left arm across his shoulders, and threaded his right around Nic’s waist. “Use me like a crutch.”

“It’d be easier if you weren’t four inches taller.”

“I can’t shrink on demand, so suck it up and get moving before they start putting holes in us. I don’t know about you, but I want to live long enough to ask Ren to forgive me for pissing her off.”

“Honor will never forgive me if I get myself killed.”

“Exactly.” Taran focused on getting Nic through the debris, which the humans didn’t clear. Of course. Why help the representatives of their oppressors?

“My head is killing me.”

“My ribs are killing me.” Taran stopped at the edge of the door. Four feet to the ground. Too far for a man with a broken leg to jump. “You have to sit and slide off.” He lowered Nic, jumped down, and held his arms out for Nic to brace on as he slid. Taran slung his arm across his shoulders again and helped him to the back of the cargo truck, thirty feet away. Another man, wearing green and khaki camo fatigues, pulled Nic into the truck with Taran guiding his leg.

Fingers landed on his back, pressing into the freeze points. Taran arched, head back, fighting to keep breathing as agony shredded his body. His wrists were held to the metal frame of the truck, mag-locks engaged, and the fingers disappeared. But his arms were stretched taut and he had no room to relax. He focused on keeping his breathing even. Showing weakness in front of these people meant his death. Just as it did anywhere else for a Lokmane man wearing a collar.

Another hand pushed his head forward and used his hair to keep him from moving. Yet another pressed something into the lock on his collar. “Don’t you dare.” He tried to kick backward, but his leg wouldn’t obey.

“You’re slave to a Marcasian. You should be thanking us. Besides, we know there’s a tracking chip in your collar.”

“Don’t presume you know anything about me.” Except for the tracking chip part, because it was true. But he kept it to himself, and squeezed his eyes shut to keep his emotions hidden. To them, the collar might be a symbol of slavery, but not to him. It meant Nic cared enough to offer him the highest level of protection possible. Being collared in court made him a person in the eyes of the law.

The collar peeled from his neck and he heard it bounce on the floor of the truck. He opened his eyes and watched it stop at Nic’s feet. Before he could grab it, another soldier picked it up and threw it out, over Taran’s head.

One of his wrists released and the man behind him pulled the cuff off, replaced it with another one, and did the same to the other wrist. Then he jammed a rifle into Taran’s lower back. “Climb up.”

Taran didn’t move. The pilot held her gun to Nic’s head. He scrambled into the truck, where the soldier grabbed one wrist, held it to a metal support, and activated the mag-lock. He repeated the procedure with the other one, leaving Taran helpless and at the mercy of their captors.

Nic’s hands were done the same way, with another set of mag cuffs. Then they were blindfolded, and the truck lurched into motion.

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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