Copyright © 2008 Leigh Wyndfield
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Chapter One: The Safe House
Jax walked through the first level of his security setup, carrying the woman over one shoulder. “Lock,” he said, hearing the slam as the bolt went home in the reinforced door.
He’d bought the safe house from an old gunrunner he’d met when he first came to Sector 12 seven years ago. As strong as his security had been, it hadn’t been enough for Jax, so he’d added the voice-activated doors and the computerized system and cameras.
Except for the small foyer, the whole house was underground, with nothing on the walls to hide the rough, exposed steel. It was a dark, ugly hole every hour of every day, but Jax hadn’t been looking for luxury in his attempt to stay alive.
“Open,” he said at the next door to trigger the voice-activated part of the lock, then he lowered the woman to the floor. He needed his hands to turn the bolt. Four steel rods ran through the portal, clicking into place in the adjoining wall. The foyer and next two rooms served only to put barriers between him and unexpected visitors.
During his time on Sector 12, he’d amassed enough money selling weapons to unauthorized planets to buy not only this house, but the woman he picked back up into his arms. They had both cost him about the same amount of balseems.
Feeling the fire start deep inside his groin, he broke into a jog. Dammit, he’d cut it close. The once yearly mating cycle ran through his body like one of Sector 12’s sandstorms and he couldn’t do anything about it but ride the swirling inferno until it played itself out. He’d tried to fight it once, but the consequences were too much for him to contemplate doing so again. If left unfulfilled, the racing agony that coursed through his veins could drive a strong man to take his own life just to stop the pain.
The third door wasn’t voice activated. He opened it using an old-fashioned puzzle code, keeping the woman carefully balanced on one shoulder. It was time consuming but if the power went out, as it often did in this remote outpost, he wanted some measure of security that didn’t rely on the generator to keep it going.
Jax watched his red-stained hands shake as he completed the puzzle, moving the last sliding plate into place. He had minutes, seconds, milliseconds before he would be in trouble. Taking a deep breath, he concentrated on opening the door, then shutting it and resetting the code. He set the motion detectors on as well. He had to be careful. For the next twenty-four hours, he would be essentially helpless.
Shifting the woman to his other shoulder, he brought down a simple bar, threading it into the catch. It was the last piece of his security.
He placed her on the bed as the first wave hit him. It knocked him onto his knees, the pain in his groin so intense, he could barely breathe. Alexander must have known his time was close. He’d kept him there for hours negotiating for the woman. The bastard hadn’t budged from his original price, no matter what Jax did to try to induce him to lower it.
Finally, in desperation, he’d paid it. It had been too late to find another woman anyway. Flying the transport back, he hadn’t been sure he would make it to his safe house. He’d known his time was almost out.
When the pain eased, he stood. The woman lay motionless on the bed, still passed out from the drug she’d been given. Alexander said it would wear off before long. Jax hoped so. Gods knew, he would soon be so desperate, he’d mate with her even if she was unconscious.
He stripped her clothes from her body, noting the fine fabric Alexander had dressed his slave in. The military shirt and flack jacket were pilot gear. If she was qualified to fly, it explained why he’d had to pay so much for her.
His hands shook as he pulled off her tall boots, then her black pants and simple white underwear. For a moment, he looked at what he’d bought. She was tall for a woman but not as tall as he was. Men from Jimlee were known for standing above most humanoid peoples in the galaxies. One arm lay thrown to the side, the numbers tattooed there marking her as a slave, but her brown hair was cut just below her chin, also indicating she was a pilot. It framed her face to show off high cheekbones and full lips. He wondered what color her eyes were.
The next sexual wave started to build and Jax hurried to take off his own clothing, ripping his shirt in the process. The clothes landed by his feet without another thought. He picked her up again, throwing her over his shoulder as he tossed back the blankets.
While he’d upgraded the security, he’d left the rest of the house alone, only buying a new bed and bedding. The gunrunner hadn’t been big on cleanliness and the smell of sour body wouldn’t air out of the old mattress. Jax had his limits.
He hadn’t gotten around to upgrading the ancient heater. Nights on the desert were cold. Sector 12 was one of thirteen unlucky planets in the Danthium Quadrant of Galaxy Grid 219. Translated, he lived on the edge of nowhere on a planet so insignificant, it didn’t even have a real name.
Moving her over on the bed, he lay beside her. Pulling up the blankets, he turned and gathered the woman into his arms.
Safe. For now.
He breathed in her scent, the press of her naked body easing the growing pressure of the mating time.
It would be twenty-four hours of hell for both of them. He wouldn’t be able to stop mating with her, even after she was exhausted. No matter how much he fought this, each year it was the same. If he’d known what he would face when they banished him from Jimlee, he wouldn’t have left without a fight. It was pure irony that he’d become exactly what they had accused him of being seven years ago.
For all this time, he’d faced this mating ritual in a place three galaxies away from his home planet. It didn’t comfort him that this was the last time before his exile ended. He still had the next twenty-four hours to get through. Over the years, he’d realized whoever had framed him for the crime had most likely figured he would die during the mating period, since he’d never had training on how to survive it. But he had survived for the past six mating seasons and he would survive this one, no matter how brutal it became. Afterwards, he’d be on a ship within days, headed home where he’d step to the helm of Romely Corporation—his right by blood, even if he had been convicted of a crime. Then he’d find who framed him and gut them.
The woman made a small mewling noise, drawing his attention. At least he would offer her something tomorrow. He turned her onto her side so he could curl his larger body around hers. One night of hell would surely be a good exchange for her freedom. Whatever she’d done to put herself into debt, she’d walk away without owing a dime, only the numbers on her arm showing what had happened to her.
She smelled like cinnamon, he realized, placing the rare spice. It calmed him. For a moment, he thought of another time. The boy in his memory smiled at his father before leaning down to smell the spiced drink in his hands. Cinnamon wafted from the cup. His family had been close once and he still missed his father with a dull ache, despite the fact he knew his only remaining blood relative hadn’t believed him innocent. He even missed Babette and his new-brother at times, even though he’d never felt love from them.
Everything had changed when he was arrested, tried and convicted, all within a lunar cycle. He’d been exiled before the mating ritual had ever come upon him, so he hadn’t been prepared. And without a guide to take him through his first time, he’d made a big mess of it. Every year was a little better than the last, but he knew he and the women he slept with suffered from his inadequacy. It ate at him that he had no power to control the raging inferno inside him.
The worst part of it all was his lack of knowledge.
One of the few things he’d learned over the years was to draw out the opening play for as long as he could. He would last several hours without actual intercourse if he concentrated.
Like now. The second wave receded with the satisfaction he felt from touching her.
He could feel the hormones racing through his body and knew he’d begun to sweat out a powerful chemical that would be an aphrodisiac for his mating ritual partner, whoever she might be.
The woman stirred in his arms with the first sign of waking. Jax buried his nose in her hair and inhaled her deep into his lungs.
He didn’t know how he would explain this to her, but in the end, it wouldn’t matter. He would have her.
“We’ll need to give up the chase for this one,” Jorash said, his back-world Alterian twang making the words hard to decipher.
“Why?” Dante asked, and Nick could already hear that note of demand creeping into his voice. The prince didn’t like to be told no.
Jorash stood, his head barely reaching Dante’s chin. “Won’t be worth it. She’s too hard to catch.”
The prince narrowed his eyes, his delicate lips stretching into a thin line, but the effect was spoiled by the sweat pouring off his brow. “Not for me she isn’t.”
Nick rolled his eyes and watched with interest as Jorash tried to dissuade him.
“I have sworn not to chase her again.” The old man shifted, his shadow throwing the flower into darkness, giving definition to where the woman had been lying down to watch them.
Wrong move, Nick thought as his hunter’s brain analyzed the imprint of her body. He’d been wrong to picture her as small and fragile like a captured song bird. She was tall, possibly a few inches shy of his height, and the imprint she’d left implied she had some substance to her.
“Again? How many times have you tried to capture her?” Dante’s excitement jumped in the words, his face looking like a child who’d just been promised a sweet. Nothing turned on the bored prince more than the forbidden. As long as having it didn’t involve real work.
“Many times.” Jorash stared off in the distance, his leather face thoughtful. “I caught her once. Beautiful. Truly beautiful.” He shrugged a scrawny shoulder. “I held her for ten hours before she escaped, killing one of my men in the process. Since then, I’ve chased her only by accident. She is kind enough to leave her sign to warn me off so I don’t waste my time.” A slow smile spread on Jorash’s face, filled with admiration for the Morjan woman.
“Then we’ll have to capture her. No one else will do.” Dante’s voice had a snap to it that was final.
“You will waste your time and money, Prince. It is not worth the investment. We can capture another for you with a fourth of the effort.”
“I want this one,” Prince Dante snarled. “And I’m paying more than you’re worth for the effort. You’re charging by the day, not by the capture.”
After a pause, Jorash nodded to him. “Then we need to hurry. She’s already gotten quite a lead on us. We’ll be lucky to catch her if she’s going into the desert.”
Jorash and Dante returned to their horses, leaving Nick standing there, looking at the flower drawn into the sand. She’d killed for her freedom. She’d escaped. She could warn off her enemies just by making a mark on the ground. She wasn’t small and wilting, but tall and strong and capable.
A chill traveled up his spine. His mind warned him of the danger of letting his obsessive instincts take over, even as the Trilec part of his being slipped its cage, unable to resist the challenge. His nostrils flared wide, searching for her scent. His blood pumped inside his veins, whispering for him to catch the prey, bring it down, possess it.