Devoured: Brides of the Kindred 11

 

Brides of the Kindred

 

Book 11: Devoured

 

Evangeline Anderson

 

 

* * * * *

 

PUBLISHED BY:

Evangeline Anderson Books on Kindle

 

Brides of the Kindred

Book 11: Devoured

Copyright © 2014 by Evangeline Anderson

 

Kindle Edition License Notes

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note #1: Though I have tried to handle it in a delicate way, readers with a past history of domestic abuse may find parts of this book disturbing. Sadly, all of the situations my heroine encounters are taken from true accounts of abused women. If you are in an abusive situation, please seek help.

 In the US you can visit the National Domestic Abuse Hotline online or, if you’re afraid your computer is being monitored, call 1-800-799-7233

If you are in the UK, you can call the Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline at 0808-2000-247

 

Author’s Note #2: For those of you with friends who haven’t tried the Kindred yet, I now have the first four books collected in one volume. It’s called Brides of the Kindred Volume One and you can find it on Amazon or at my . It’s a great way to dip into the Kindred world and you save a couple of bucks buying it as opposed to buying the first four books individually. If readers seem to like it, I may put the next four into another compendium and the next four once I have book 12, Enhanced written.

 

Author’s Note #3: Please no piracy. The Kindred pay my mortgage now and without them, I’d have to go back to doing MRI full time. Since writing hot sex and complicated emotions is way more fun than shoving people into a magnetic hole all day, I would ask that you please buy your book instead of trying to find a pirated copy and encourage your friends to do the same so that I can keep writing and you can keep reading. Thanks!

Hugs and Happy Reading to you all,

Evangeline Anderson June, 2014


Table of Contents

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Tess Evans-Hughes looked around the Human/Kindred Relations building, or the HKR, as the people who worked there called it. One of those people happened to be her good friend, Di, but what she was suggesting made Tess awfully nervous.

“Safe?” Di raised one silver eyebrow at her sardonically. “Sure, hon—a hell of a lot safer than you are down here in Tampa.”

“But what do I do once I—” One of the massive Kindred warriors walked by and Tess dropped her voice to a whisper before continuing. “What do I do once I get up there?”

“Hide, of course. Until it’s safe to come back down here and move to Hawaii or China or the Moon or wherever you can think of that Pierce won’t follow you.”

Tess closed her eyes for a moment. Don’t bother running, Princess, Pierce’s voice sneered in her head. You’re mine and I never let go of what’s mine.

“There’s no place he won’t follow me,” she said in a low voice. “No place he won’t find me.”

“Correction, hon—there is one place he can’t and won’t find you because he can’t get up there. And that’s the place you’re headed.”

“But—”

“No ‘buts,’” Di insisted. “My next tour of the Mother Ship leaves in fifteen minutes and it’s a big one—big enough that nobody’s going to notice if we come back with one less tourist who’s dying to check out the Kindred way of life.”

“But I don’t know anything about them,” Tess protested. “I’m not even registered for the draft.”

The draft was an agreement the governments of the world had with the Kindred that allowed males of their race to call brides from Earth. Being something like ninety-nine percent male because of a genetic mutation—supposedly the same mutation that made them all over six foot six and hugely muscular—meant the Kindred were always short of women.

All unmarried women of a certain age were supposed to be signed up for the draft but Tess wasn’t because technically, she was still married. That was because Pierce wouldn’t sign the divorce papers no matter how often she sent them over.

Instead, he just kept coming over to her apartment and talking about how he’d changed and he wanted her back. Tess had been down that road before so she had refused. But now it seemed he was done asking. The last time she’d sent the divorce papers she came home to find…

Tess shook her head. She didn’t want to think about what she’d found inside her apartment. Just remembering made her feel like she might cry or throw up. Poor Gus…

“You don’t have to know anything about the Kindred except they’re good guys and they don’t beat and imprison their women,” Di said, interrupting her morbid thoughts. “Unlike certain ex-husbands I could name.”

“He’s not technically my ex since he won’t sign the papers,” Tess pointed out.

“You wanted him out of your life badly enough to cough up for a divorce lawyer when you could barely afford to pay rent,” Di pointed out. “Just because Pierce is being an asshole about it—like he is about everything—doesn’t mean he gets to win. As far as I’m concerned, you two are splitsville.”

Tess smiled at her friend and pressed her hand.

“Thanks, Di. You know, you’re the only friend I’ve ever had that could see through him. He can act so charming when he wants to—he even had my mom fooled, right up until the end.”

“You mean when he refused to let you go see her in the hospital?” Di shook her head. “Yeah, I see through him all right. Bullshit is bullshit, no matter how you try and dress it up.”

“Thanks.” Tess pressed her hand again and wiped away a stray tear. Even though her mom had been gone for well over a year, it still hurt to think of her. Hurt to think she had died alone because Pierce was too crazy jealous to let Tess go see her in time.

She turned her head for a minute to try and get control and saw her reflection in the shiny smoked glass window to her right. A short, plump girl with long dark hair that was almost auburn and big brown eyes stared back at her. I’m nothing special to look at, she thought, swiping at her eyes and taking a deep breath. I mean, sure I have a pretty face but it’s on a plus-sized body. What is it Pierce sees in me? Why won’t he leave me alone?

It was the same question she had asked herself back when she first met him, when she was in nursing school. What did such a tall, handsome guy want with a short, plump nobody like her? Now she knew that Pierce had seen her for what she was—an easy mark. But back then it had seemed miraculous that he would want her. That was why it had been so easy for him to cut her off from her friends and family and convince her to move away from her mom…

Oh, Mom… Tess wiped away another tear.

“Sorry, hon. I shouldn’t have said that about your mother.” Di looked genuinely distraught. “Me and my big mouth.”

“No, no—I’m fine. Just a little nervous,” Tess protested, trying to smile. “I mean, I don’t even know where I’m going to stay once I get up there.”

“I do,” Di said firmly. “I know the perfect place for you. You’ll blend right in and no one will be the wiser.”

“But what if I get caught? I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“What trouble?” Di shrugged. “If anybody finds out we’ll just say you got lost from the tour and wound up spending the night. Nobody has to know how long you’re up there.”

“But what if Pierce comes looking for me? What if he figures out I’m up there and he comes up with a tour to find me?”

Di put a hand on her hip. “Do you have any idea how long people wait to get on one of these tours now that the Mother Ship is finally accessible? Years. And once their name comes up, they have to be approved by the senior tour director. Which just happens to be…”

“You,” Tess finished for her with a little smile.

“Me,” Di agreed, patting her neat cap of silvery hair. “So guess who is never going to get approved to go up there.”

“What if he says it’s police business?” Tess countered.

“Oh, please!” Di scoffed. “What police business? No Earth agency of any kind has jurisdiction on the Mother Ship. He’d have to go through the Kindred High Council to get approval after I’ve turned him down.”

“Really?”

Di nodded firmly. “Really. And even then he’d have to have a damn good reason to go aboard. Somehow I don’t think the Kindred High Council is going to think ‘hunting down my ex-wife so I can continue being an abusive asshole to her’ is a good enough excuse to let him go up.”

“Well…” Tess could feel herself wavering.

“Tess…” Di looked her in the eye. “Stop making excuses and listen to me—more than fifteen hundred women a year are killed by an abusive husband or boyfriend. You’re one of my dearest friends—don’t make me watch you become a statistic. After what you found in your kitchen when you came home yesterday—”

“All right, all right!” Tess held up a hand to stop her. “Please don’t say it—I’ve been trying really hard not to think about it.”

“Sorry, hon,” Di said steadily. “But you know it’s true.”

“Yes, I know.” Tess took a deep breath. “All right, I’ll do it.”

“You don’t have to, if you really don’t want to,” Di offered. “You can always stay with me.”

“And put you in danger too? I don’t think so.” Tess shook her head.

“I told you before—I’ve got a gun and I’m not afraid to use it. Especially on an asshole like Pierce.”

“He’s got a gun too. He’s a cop—remember? No.” Tess sighed. “I guess…I guess this is the only way.”

“Good. You’ll be fine.” Di grinned at her, obviously delighted.
“And who knows—maybe you’ll meet a tall, dark, handsome Kindred who can pound Pierce into the ground for you while you’re up there.”

Tess shook her head. “You know I’m not looking to meet anyone. Honestly, after these last few years with Pierce, I might just swear off men all together.”

“Ah, but these guys aren’t just men—they’re Kindred.” Di winked at her. “It’s too bad all the ones my age are already spoken for but you’re plenty young enough, honey. You could—”

“Di…” Tess raised an eyebrow at her.

“All right, all ready—I’ll stop. Just go on over and join the tour group at the far end of the lobby.” Di gestured to the small crowd milling around, ooing and ahhing at the various Kindred warriors stationed around the HKR building. Many of them had whipped out cameras and cell phones and several of the younger, obviously unmarried girls, were posing for pictures with the warriors, who didn’t seem to mind.

It was a perfectly innocent sight but Tess still felt her stomach knotting into a fist as she watched. Supposedly there were three main types of Kindred—Beast Kindred who had golden eyes, Blood Kindred who had pointed fangs, and Twin Kindred who always came in pairs. But honestly, all she saw when she looked around were a bunch of big, muscular, potential threats.

Pierce was a big guy—not quite as big as a Kindred but big enough to have played football in college and he was still an intimidating specimen. Tess ought to know—he’d used his size to intimidate her often enough. It was scary to see guys who were even bigger and more menacing than him walking around.

Di could talk all she wanted about how the Kindred never battered their women but after what she’d been through, Tess found it was hard to trust that was true. Or at least, hard to trust it enough to go up and live among the huge alien males on their home turf. For her, right now, every male was suspect. Every one of them could turn out to be just another Pierce waiting to hurt her.

But if she didn’t go up to the Mother Ship, where else could she go? Where else could she disappear to that Pierce couldn’t find her and drag her back? She’d thought about the battered women’s shelters but Pierce being on the Tampa PD complicated things. The shelters were hidden from prying eyes but her ex had a way of finding things out…

I’ll just have to take a chance, Tess thought unhappily as she watched another smiling girl take a picture with a grinning Beast Kindred. There’s no other way.

Trying to look inconspicuous, she wandered over to the gathered tour group and took a place in the back. Mother Ship, here I come.


Chapter Two

 

“Brother, I’m glad I found you.”

Truth looked up from the vegetables he was chopping, clearly startled by his younger brother’s voice.

“Oh, Garron—what are you doing here? Did you come for last meal?”

“Not exactly.” Garron cleared his throat. “I, um, would like to talk to you. About something private.”

He shot a glance at Far, his brother’s long lost twin, who was happily cooking something at the other end of the food prep area. He had features that were remarkably similar to Truth’s but his hair was long and blond instead of short and dark and his eyes were bottomless black instead of Truth’s pale gray.

Despite their differences, the twins really did seem to belong together. Though Garron had been initially surprised when he met his older brother’s twin and mate—for they shared a female as all Twin Kindred did—he now liked Far quite a lot. Still, what he had to say was embarrassing and for Truth’s ears alone.

“It’s all right.” Far looked up and nodded at them. “I’m done here for now. I’ll go into the living area and give the two of you some privacy.”

“Thank you, Far.” Truth nodded back. He waited until his twin had exited the food prep area to turn back to Garron. “Now. What seems to be the problem?”

“Well…” Garron took a deep breath, trying to think how to approach the topic he wished to discuss. “You know that my name day is coming soon…”

“So it is!” Truth smiled. “We must celebrate in the Earth way which Rebecca has been telling me about. We can have a birthday party—a gathering of friends to wish you well. Also, we will have an Earth confection known as a…as a…” He frowned. “Seven hells, it is either a pie or a cake. Or maybe it’s a pake. Yes! That’s it—we will have a pake with many little flame stalks and you must blow them out and we will all sing to you and bring you gifts and humorous sentiments called ‘greeting cards’ and—”

“Brother!” Garron held up a hand impatiently. “Could you please stop talking about Earth customs for a moment? Have you forgotten what I am? What I may have stirring within?” He put a fist to his chest.

“Apologies,” Truth said. “I did not think.”

“No, because you don’t have to.” Garron couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice. “Because you aren’t really Rai’ku the way I am. You have no dr’gin within. No deadly beast that might come out and kill…” He shook his head, unable to finish.

“But it has been so many years since you came of age,” Truth said. “So many times the virgins were gathered for you and nothing happened. Do you really think you have a dr’gin at all?”

“I feel it stirring within me. Or something stirring, anyway,” Garron said darkly. “I have been having…urges lately. Cravings. Desires.” He closed his eyes briefly, unable to look at his brother as he spoke. “Some of them…some of them very unlike what we were raised to believe are normal or right.”

“Is that all?” Truth sounded so lighthearted than Garron had to open his eyes and look.

“What do you mean ‘is that all?’” he demanded. “You don’t even know what desires I’m talking about.”

“I am sure I can guess.” Truth nodded knowingly. “Does it have to do with wishing to…ah…taste certain parts of the female anatomy we were told never to touch unless mating?”

Garron felt his cheeks go hot. He cleared his throat.

“Possibly…I know I should not wish such things,” he hurried on. “It is wrong but I—”

“It’s not wrong. It’s Kindred. The Kindred part of you coming out,” Truth countered. “Look, Brother, I felt the same way. I longed to do things with my lady—things we were taught were perverted and degrading. Things that—”

“Please…” Garron held up a hand. “No details or I will never be able to look Becca in the eyes again.”

“I’m not going to give you details, I’m just letting you know that what you desire is natural and right for our people—for the Kindred. Look…” Truth put a hand on his shoulder. “I know for a fact there are already some Rai’ku beliefs and teachings you reject. The way the Rai’ku treat their females, for instance…”

“You mean the way they demean and devalue them.” Garron frowned. “No—I could never believe that was right.”

“No Kindred male could,” Truth said gently. “It’s in our nature—in our very DNA—to revere our females. Even our father—as cruel as he could be when he was drinking—never raised a hand to Ama.”

“That was because he took his anger out on you instead,” Garron said in a low voice. “And just because he didn’t hit her didn’t mean he didn’t abuse her. The things he said when he was drunk—”

“Scarred us all,” Truth finished quietly. “I’ve come to understand something, Brother—when a male suffers the things we suffered, he either repeats the pattern he saw as a child or he makes a conscious decision to break it. I made that decision and I know you did too.” His voice dropped to a softer note. “I saw the way you treated Nella—you loved and revered her as a true male should.”

“I would rather have cut off my hand than hurt her,” Garron said honestly. “And I miss her still. I grieve for her. That is why…” He cleared his throat. “Why I find these, ah, urges both frightening and confusing. I want no other female but Nella and yet I find myself burning—on fire with these strange needs.

“Quench the fire,” Truth advised. “Find a willing female to align your mind and body with.”

“I told you—I want no one but Nella and she is gone,” Garron protested. “But say I decided to take your advice and take another female. What if these strange urges presage the coming of my dr’gin? What if when I started to make love to her, I turned?”

Truth frowned. “That would be a problem. Every life is precious to the Kindred—especially female life. You would not be allowed to kill and eat several virgins on your first turning as is the normal way among the Rai’ku.”

“Nor should I be,” Garron said. “The entire process is sickening—I have always thought so. But you and I both know the dr’gin is a mindless beast when it first emerges and the older it grows, the hungrier it gets. If mine should come out now after all this time, it would be ravenous. I might…” He shook his head.

“You might cause all kinds of destruction,” Truth finished for him.

Garron snorted. “That’s a nice way of saying I’d kill and eat every unmated female in my path, Brother.” He ran a hand through his hair. “My name day is coming up very soon—what am I to do?”

“I don’t know.” Truth frowned. “I don’t—”

“Why not use one of the Pairing Puppets?” The new voice came from Far, who had come back into the food prep area.

“Far! This is a private matter.” Truth frowned. “Although actually, that is not a bad idea…”

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry for invading your privacy—just had to make sure my sauce wasn’t sticking.” The light twin gestured to a pot he had set up on an Earth style cooking top which was very different from the Kindred Wave appliance most used aboard the Mother Ship. Perhaps Becca had requested it specially.

Garron waited uncomfortably for the light twin to finish tending his cooking. At last, when he showed no signs of leaving, he could stand it no more.

“What is a Pairing Puppet?” he demanded.

Far looked at him, clearly surprised.

“You don’t know? But you live in the Unmated Males area.”

“I haven’t been there that long,” Garron defended. “I am still finding my way around the Mother Ship.”

“Well in your tours, I am certain you must have noticed the small pink building near the back of the Unmated Males area?” Truth raised an eyebrow at him. “The one with females coming and going out of it occasionally.”

“Oh, I did notice that place. I thought it was some kind of exclusive club,” Garron said.

Far snorted. “It is. The club for males in need of release.”

Garron frowned.

“What are you saying? That it is a house of ill repute? I thought the Kindred didn’t hold with such things.”

“They don’t. But the females that stay in the Pairing House aren’t technically females,” Truth said.

“What he means is that they aren’t really alive,” Far explained. “They’re robots.”

“Robots? As in machines?” Garron was disgusted. “I have no wish to have relations with a machine.”

“They’re more like…like what the humans call cyborgs in their fictional science tales,” Truth said. “They have soft, supple skin and real flesh but it is grown over a metal skeleton. They can understand simple commands and carry on extremely limited conversations but mostly they are made for…”

“For relieving the needs of unmated males,” Far said. “For those who have yet to align with a female mind on Earth.”

“I see…” Garron frowned. “And they are…accommodating to any Kindred male?”

“That is their sole purpose. Without them, the Unmated Males area would be a much more tense and unhappy place,” Far said.

“But the important thing for you is that they are artificial,” Truth said. “They don’t think, they feel no pain. And they do not judge. You could explore your new…Kindred urges…” He cleared his throat. “And if your dr’gin did manifest itself, you wouldn’t have to worry about hurting a real female.”

Garron shook his head.

“I don’t know, brother. As badly as my desires ride me, I have no wish to copulate with some soulless, mechanical puppet. It just seems…wrong.”

“Well, as I see it, that is your only option,” Truth said matter-of-factly. “Unless you wish to take your chances back on Pax among the Rai’ku.”

“Out of the question. T’lar told me never to even make orbit around the planet again.”

“T’lar is an overbearing fool,” Truth said shortly. “You shouldn’t let him keep you from going home if you want to.”

“No.” Garron looked away. “Now that Nella is gone I cannot imagine mating with another. I have no wish to go back to Pax.”

“Then you should really consider the Pairing Puppets,” Far said gently. “If you have needs that are too dangerous to relieve with a real female and you cannot bring yourself to form a relationship with a real female, then a false one is your best choice.”

“I…will think on it.” Garron sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to push back the headache that was threatening. Gods, if only he could control these urges better! If only he could push them down, push them back inside where they belonged…

The way you’ve been pushing them down for years? The way you buried them each time the virgins were called for you because you feared to hurt Nella? whispered a little voice in the back of his head. The way you—

“…stay and eat with us when Rebecca returns?”

Garron looked up, realizing that his brother was asking him a question.

“I’m sorry—what?”

“I said the food is almost ready. It’s an Earth specialty Far and I learned to cook just for Rebecca.”

“You’re welcome to stay if you want,” Far added. “You’re always welcome here, Garron—you know that.”

“Thank you.” Garron smiled at his brother’s mate or tried to anyway—the desires inside him were growing worse again which made it hard to think. “But I think there is something I must do. Not go to the Pairing House, though,” he added quickly. “Something…else.”

“Of course.” Truth nodded gravely. “Be well, Brother. And please don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything that Far and Rebecca and I can provide.”

“Thank you,” Garron said again and bowed. Truth returned the gesture as did Far, though less expertly. “I take my leave of you,” he said and headed for the door as fast as he could.

He needed to be alone for awhile and think.


Chapter Three

 

“So this is the perfect place you have for me?” Tess looked up skeptically at the little pink house with its spotless white trim. “What is it, anyway—some kind of boarding house for unmarried girls?”

Di snorted. “In the middle of the Unmated Males area? Hardly.”

“Well then, what is it?” Tess insisted.

“Just come inside and I’ll tell you. Hurry up!” Di hissed. “I think I see some Kindred on their way.”

The two women ducked into the little house with Tess still protesting under her breath, and found themselves in a very neat, old-timey looking parlor. There were floral print couches lining the walls as well as some large, comfortable looking chairs. Vases of fresh flowers were scattered throughout the room on little tables and there was even a bookcase on one end which held an assortment of real old fashioned paper books.

“Wow…” Tess, who was a complete bibliophile, wandered over to caress the spines of the displayed books. “Look at this—they have all the classics. Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Wide Sargasso Sea—”

Before she could go on, a girl came into the room. She had long, blonde hair and wide blue eyes and she was wearing a very pretty light blue dress which fit her slender figure to a T.

Tess tried desperately to think of an excuse—any excuse—as to why they were trespassing on what appeared to be private property.

“Oh, hi! Uh, we wandered in here by mistake and then I saw you had real old fashioned books and we just…”

But the girl didn’t pay any attention to her. Instead, she took a book from the shelf, seemingly at random, and went to sit on one of the many couches. Then she opened the book—again, completely at random—and stared down at the page. But Tess could tell she wasn’t reading because her eyes didn’t move. She just sat there, staring vacantly at the open book and not saying a thing.

Sidling up to Di, Tess nudged her friend with an elbow.

“What the hell is wrong with her?” she muttered.

“Nothing’s wrong with her,” Di said in a normal tone of voice.

“Shhhh!” Tess hissed. “She’s going to know we’re talking about her!”

Di laughed. “You don’t have to whisper. She wouldn’t notice if you broke a vase over her head.”

“What? What are you talking about?” Since Di wasn’t whispering, Tess spoke normally too although it felt really wrong to be saying things about the blonde girl right in front of her.

“I’m saying she’s not real. She’s a Pairing Puppet for God’s sake.”

“A what? What the hell is a Pairing Puppet?”

Just then the door knob rattled.

“Quick!” Di grabbed her and dragged her into the back room the girl had come from, making sure to shut the swinging door behind them.

“What—?”

“Shhh!” Di gestured to the crack between the door and the wall. “Just watch—you’ll see.”

Making sure to stay hidden, they peeked through the crack and watched.

The front door opened and a large Kindred warrior entered the parlor. From his golden eyes Tess could tell he was a Beast Kindred. He walked in and came to stop in front of the girl on the couch.

The girl looked up, acknowledging him at once.

“Good day, warrior.” Her voice was slightly stilted—almost mechanical. “How may I serve you?”

The Kindred nodded respectfully at her.

“Forgive the intrusion but I need a release.”

“There is no intrusion. You are most welcome here.” The girl smiled at him but again, there was something strange—almost artificial in her expression, Tess thought.

“Thank you,” the Kindred said.

“Would you like to come to my room or do you require me to come with you to your own place of residence for a longer, more thorough release?” the girl asked.

The Kindred cleared his throat. “Your room will be fine.”

“Excellent.” The girl rose suddenly, all in one motion. “If you will follow me, I will be most happy to accommodate you, warrior.”

At first Tess was afraid she was going to take the Kindred into the back room but to her relief, she led him across the parlor to a staircase instead. They climbed the stairs and were soon out of sight. As soon as they were, she turned to Di.

“Okay, what the hell was that all about? Was he talking about what I think he was talking about? Is that girl some kind of…some kind of prostitute?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Di said calmly. “But I told you, she’s not a girl—she’s a Pairing Puppet.”

“Which means…?” Tess made a gesture for her to go on.

“Which means a robot for all intents and purposes. She’s not the only one either—they have a whole bunch of them. They stay here in this house and service all the unmated warriors.”

“They what?” Tess made a face. “That’s disgusting.”

“No, that’s practical,” Di countered. “You’ve seen how big and muscular these guys are—you could cut the testosterone with a freaking knife. If they didn’t have some kind of outlet…” She shook her head. “It would probably get really ugly around here.”

“But…but they’re screwing these things? These robots?”

“Pairing puppets.” Di shrugged. “And yeah, they are. Unless you think that big guy just went up to her room to play a nice game of Monopoly.”

“Very funny,” Tess muttered. “But I still don’t understand why you brought me here.”

“To hide out, of course.”

“What?” Tess nearly shouted.

“Shhh! That Kindred upstairs is horny, not deaf!”

“Look, Di I can’t possibly stay here. I mean, aside from the fact that I don’t look anything like some guy’s robot fantasy dream girl—”

“Don’t sell yourself short, hon—you have a gorgeous face and a really cute figure. And your hair is to die for. It looks brown until you get out in the sunlight and then it’s like a dark red halo all around your head.”

“What you think is cute and what most guys think is cute are two different things,” Tess pointed out.

“Well the Kindred guys might surprise you—they have quite a few full figured Pairing Puppets here.”

“They do?” Tess asked, surprised.

“Uh-huh. They’re especially popular with the Twin Kindred. Although a lot of the other guys like them too. In fact, they’re some of the most requested ones.”

“That’s really—wait a minute, we’re getting off track here.” Tess shook her head. “What I’m saying is that there’s no way I’m going to…to stay here and ‘service’ Kindred guys all day and night. Not even to get away from Pierce.”

“Service them? Oh, honey, no—of course not!” Di looked suitably horrified. “Don’t be silly—I wouldn’t expect you to do that. I said you could hide here—not work here.” She laughed. “If you can call that work. Well, I guess you can…”

“Are you sure this is a good place, though?” Tess looked around doubtfully. They seemed to be standing in some kind of kitchen area. At least, there were countertops and counters and a sink and a big silver machine mounted on the wall that looked kind of like a microwave. There was also a large wooden table with chairs that looked like they had been built for people slightly larger than human. It made Tess think of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” growled Papa bear…

“This is the perfect place.” Di pressed her arm. “Look, just think about it. There’s a well stocked kitchen here—see?” She opened one of the cabinets revealing rows and rows of tiny white cubes.

“Uh…they eat sugar cubes?” Tess looked at them doubtfully.

“No, silly—these are Kindred meal ration cubes.” Di frowned. “I think that’s what they’re called. Anyway, you just take one and put it into this thingy here…” She opened the silver microwave looking thing and placed a random cube inside. “Press the button and in a minute or two…ta-da! A fresh, delicious meal.” She put the cube back in the cupboard. “I’m not going to do it for real but you get the idea.”

“Seriously? They eat real food? But I thought they were robots.”

“The Paring Puppets have real flesh over their robotic bodies,” Di said. “But I think they mostly live on some kind of protein paste. The food is for the warriors. I guess sometimes they, uh, work up an appetite, if you know what I mean.” She winked.

“Very funny,” Tess said dryly. “So there’s plenty of food but where do I sleep? And more importantly, how do I keep from being noticed?”

“Just keep out of sight. It should be easy enough—aside from the kitchen there are tons of bedrooms upstairs with big, comfortable beds. And in a pinch, you could hide in the maintenance and recharging room.” Di gestured to a small, dark hallway at the other end of the kitchen. “Come see.” She led the way and Tess put her head through the doorway.

“What is this?” she muttered when a long, shadowy room met her eyes. Then she saw a pair of eyes gleaming at her from the darkness. “Ahh!” She jerked back, her heart pounding. “There’s something in there!”

“Probably just a malfunctioning puppet waiting for repairs.” Di looked in and nodded. “Yup—that’s it. Oh, and look—it’s one of the plus sized ones, like I told you. Come look.”

Reluctantly, Tess allowed herself to be led into the dark, narrow room. There were giant silver claws placed at intervals along both walls. Most of them were empty but one was clamped down over the top of a girl’s head.

No, not a girl—a Pairing Puppet, Tess reminded herself.

The girl was simply standing there, staring straight ahead, with the three pronged claw attached to the top of her head. She was, as Di had said, quite full figured with large breasts and hips and big thighs too, which could be seen through the simple white dress she wore.

“Wow,” Tess murmured, staring at the puppet. “You weren’t kidding.”

“Of course not—the Kindred like women with some meat on their bones.” Di grinned. “So see—if push came to shove and you were accidentally seen, you’d blend right in.”

“Thanks a lot,” Tess muttered. “I still can’t believe you brought me to a robot brothel to lie low.”

“It’s a great hiding place,” Di protested. “And don’t think I didn’t check it out thoroughly before I brought you up here. I stayed here one night myself, just to make sure everything was okay.”

“And?” Tess raised an eyebrow.

“And it’s perfect, like I said. The perfect camouflage. Plenty to eat, a nice place to sleep—they changed the sheets after every, ah, encounter by the way, so you don’t have to worry about it not being clean. All you have to do is go hide in the kitchen if a warrior comes in looking for comfort. And if they come in the kitchen—which, by the way, doesn’t happen very often that I could see—just duck into the recharging room. It’s easy.”

“Wow…” Tess looked at her admiringly. “You’ve really got this all planned out.”

“I knew eventually you’d need a place to run to, to get away from Pierce,” Di said seriously. “Men like him are hard to throw off the scent. But this should do the trick.”

“I agree.” Tess nodded slowly. “It’s a little—well, a lot weird—but it might just work.”

“It has to.” Di looked suddenly serious. “You can’t go back to him, Tess, and you can’t let him find you. He’ll kill you this time. After what he did to poor Gus…”

“I’m not going back.” Tess lifted her chin. “And like you said, this is the perfect camouflage—he’s never going to find me.” She sighed. “I just wish I hadn’t had to lie to my job about where I was going. I hope Mrs. Henshaw will be okay without me there to find her false teeth. She gets so upset when she loses them.”

“You’re an angel, hon. I know the folks at Happy Rest are going to miss you. But Pierce knows you work there,” Di pointed out. “It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to wait out in the parking lot one night when you’re working a late shift and then—”

“Stop!” Tess put up a hand. “Please, I don’t want to think about it. I have enough nightmares as it is.”

“Sorry,” Di said sympathetically. “Are you really still having bad dreams?”

“Not all bad.” Tess frowned. “And not all about Pierce either. Lately, I…never mind.”

“Lately what?” Di probed.

“Nothing. It’s just this weird dream I keep having but I can’t remember it when I wake up.”

“Then how do you know it’s the same dream?”

Tess shrugged. “I just know.”

“It’s probably just stress.”

“Probably,” Tess agreed. “Look, don’t you think you should be going? The hour of free time you gave your tour group to wander around the parklands is almost up.”

“Oh, you’re right!” Di glanced at her watch. “It’s almost time to get them to the Sacred Grove.” She looked anxiously at Tess. “Will you be okay here? Think you can manage?”

“I’ll…be fine.” Tess wished she could swallow the uneasy lump that had risen in her throat but she tried to smile like noting was wrong. “You just…go on.”

“I’ll visit you on my next tour,” Di promised. “Just lay low for a while and take it easy. After a few weeks maybe we can figure something else out.” She nodded at the old fashioned bookshelf. “Maybe you can catch up on your reading.”

“I guess I will.” Tess nodded and tried to smile. She hugged her friend tightly. “Thanks, Di. I can see you went to a lot of trouble to find this spot for me. I…I really appreciate it.”

“Anytime, honey.” Di gave her a squeeze. “Okay, I’m going to scoot now. You just make yourself at home.”

“I will.” Tess smiled and hugged her again. “Good bye.”

“Good bye and good luck. See you on tomorrow’s tour.” Di gave her a swift kiss on the cheek. Then, after peeking through the crack in the door to make sure the coast was clear, she left.

Tess looked around the kitchen and then sank down into one of the too-large chairs with a sigh. The thought of Goldilocks came back again.

“Who’s been sitting in my chair…eating my food…sleeping in my bed?”

“Me,” murmured Tess. “I will be. I guess I’m Goldilocks.” She sighed. “I just hope like hell the three bears don’t find me out…”


Chapter Four

 

“Are you certain about this? We’ve had false hopes before.” Sylvan leaned anxiously over the bed where the still form of Head Council Member Terex was resting. It was weeks now since the male had been injured in the fight against the demons who had briefly taken over the Unmated Males sections and though he had stirred once or twice, he had yet to regain full consciousness. Just recently Sylvan had put his sister-in-law, Olivia, in charge of watching Terex and she had reported that he had opened his eyes briefly and said a word.

“I’m pretty sure he’s coming out of it,” Liv said confidently. “I told you, he looked right at me and spoke not fifteen minutes ago.”

“What did he say again? Sophia didn’t catch that part when she relayed your message.” Sylvan checked Councilor Terex’s reflexes and noted that they were fine, though his skin seemed a little hot.

“That’s the weird thing.” Olivia frowned. “He opened his eyes, looked at me and said, ‘Soon.’ Then he dropped off again and I couldn’t get anything else out of him. But he’s been restless ever since—like someone having a bad dream who’s trying to wake up.”

“I hope you’re right.” Sylvan shook his head. “The Council is in serious unbalance without him. We need his deciding vote to make any headway with some of the issues we’ve been dealing with lately.”

“Such as?” Liv cocked an eyebrow at him.

Sylvan frowned. “It is Council business, Olivia. You know I cannot—”

“Come on, now, Sylvan. You know I won’t tell anyone but Baird. And you already tell him everything anyway.”

“Well…” Sylvan frowned and ran a hand through his short blond hair. “There has been some question about the draft—the way we call our brides.”

“Yes, I know all about the draft—I was one of the ones who got drafted, remember?” Liv said dryly. “But what’s the problem? It seems to be working.”

“Too well,” Sylvan said. “Now that the Scourge threat is taken care of, some of the governments of Earth are saying that the draft has served its purpose and the Kindred should move on and call brides from some other planet.”

“What?” Liv demanded indignantly. “Of all the ungrateful… Who’s saying that?”

“Someone from your own country, I’m afraid, as well as some others. But the unrest started in America.” Sylvan shrugged apologetically. “It seems that a very high ranking politician has a daughter who has been called as a bride and he doesn’t want to let her go. Apparently he had already made other plans for her future and he doesn’t want her moving to the Mother Ship and joining with one of our kind.”

“Well tough titty!” Liv exclaimed.

Sylvan shook his head.

“I’m sorry but…tough what?”

“Tough titty. It means too bad. If she joined the draft then she has to go when she’s called. You think I got a choice? Hell, I was dragged away from my house wearing nothing but my nighty. I was scared to death the first time I met Baird!”

“Yes, I remember,” Sylvan said dryly. “And I further remember that my people saved the Earth from certain annihilation by the Scourge. Unfortunately, it seems that some of your elected officials have a much shorter memory.” He sighed. “It is almost exactly like what happened on Tranq Prime. Once the Kindred were not needed anymore, we were not wanted either, though we did nothing but good.”

“Ridiculous.” Olivia was still fuming. “So what is the Council going to do? They’re not going to stop calling brides, are they?”

“No, of course not. Anyway, I don’t think so.” Sylvan sighed. “We really need Head Councilor Terex’s input to decide what to do. It’s a very tricky situation and he has always been a master negotiator. If only he was awake—”

“He is.” The deep, sonorous voice startled both Sylvan and Olivia—who gasped and dropped the syringe she’d been holding.

“Councilor Terex?” Sylvan looked at the male lying in the bed hopefully. “Was that you? Are you with us at last?”

Terex yawned and ran a tongue over his teeth, caressing the set of double fangs Blood Kindred had where human canine teeth grew. He stretched, raising his muscular arms above his head until his spine crackled. Like all Kindred, he was powerfully built and he was still in the prime of his life—in his mid forties which was analogous to the mid thirties in humans. Sylvan was sure Terex’s top physical condition was one reason he had been able to recover from his wounds and come back from an injury that would have killed a lesser male.

But he’s not back yet, he told himself. Let’s run some tests and see if he has any deficits.

“Head Councilor Terex?” he said again. “How are you feeling?”

Like most Blood Kindred, the Councilor had blond hair and blue eyes. But when his eyelids flickered open at last, Sylvan could have sworn he saw red instead of the usual ice-blue. He blinked—could it be a trick of the light? When he looked again, the Councilor’s eyes were blue and he was looking gravely at Sylvan.

“Councilor Sylvan,” he said formally. “I understand we’re having some trouble. Help me up and let’s see what we can do.”

“I appreciate you wanting to jump back into action but you’ve only just woken up,” Sylvan said gently. “Let’s run some tests and let me alert the rest of the Council. They’re going to be overjoyed to hear that you’re back.”

“Unnecessary.” Terex motioned at Liv, who had been standing there staring at him. “You, human girl—help me up.”

Olivia looked at Sylvan uncertainly.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s a very good idea, Sir. You’ve been out for weeks and you’re bound to have some weakness and—”

“Never mind.” Terex suddenly sat straight up in bed, unassisted. Then, before Sylvan could stop him, he swung his legs over the side and stood.

“Councilor Terex!” Sylvan put out a hand to catch him but there was no need. The Head of the Council was already striding across the room, completely steady on his feet.

“There is work to be done, Sylvan,” he said, throwing Sylvan a stern glance over his shoulder. “And I must get to it.”


Chapter Five

 

Garron paced back and forth in front of the neat pink house with its white trim. His mind was in a whirl as he tried to make himself cross the threshold and go in. The urges inside him were growing stronger and his blood felt like it was burning in his veins and yet he still couldn’t bring himself to use one of the Pairing Puppets.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried, though. The same night he’d spoken to Truth and Far, he had come over to the Pairing House with every intention of making use of one of the puppets. He had gone inside, selected a girl at random, gone up to the room with her and then…

Then I couldn’t. Why couldn’t I?

At first he had thought it was the smell that put him off. Though the Pairing Puppets had real flesh as Truth had said, they all seemed to give off a faint, mechanical odor that reminded Garron of machinery and oil. It didn’t seem to bother the other males but his nose was very sensitive because of his half Rai’ku heritage—even more sensitive than most Kindred. It was hard to overcome his aversion to that faint, oily metallic scent even to get the release he needed so badly.

But it was more than just the artificial smell that bothered him, Garron had to admit. The second time he had tried to use a Pairing Puppet, he had also failed. And the third and the fourth.

Maybe because you know slaking your needs with a Pairing Puppet would be disrespectful to Nella’s memory, whispered a little voice in his head. You say you still grieve for her—for her terrible fate. Then how can you even consider going with another female—even an artificial one?

Garron squirmed uncomfortably. The little voice was right—it was the voice of his guilt and sorrow. The knowledge that he was being unfaithful to Nella’s memory by even having these desires and urges in the first place. Why can’t I turn them off? Why must I be tormented with need when the one female I wanted—the only one I ever loved— is gone?

But there was something else too…something besides the guilt that kept him from doing what had to be done. A dream—a strange dream he’d been having over and over.

Garron closed his eyes and tried to bring the cloudy dream images into focus. There was a girl in the dream—a girl he could never quite see. It seemed she was hiding in the shadows for some reason, trying to make herself inconspicuous…invisible. In the dream, Garron was seeking her, trying to coax her out of the darkness. But though he called and called, all he could see was a flash of dark brown eyes, a hint of pale skin, a swirl of deep red hair.

Maybe I can’t make myself use any of the puppets because none of them looks like her. But that was ridiculous—he didn’t even know what she looked like. And even if he did, he wanted no one but Nella and this girl wasn’t her.

The thought made him wonder about what Becca and her friends had told him of dream sharing. The aligning of one mind with another…But that couldn’t be happening to him. He was still mourning for his lost love. Nella was the only female he wanted—anyone else paled in comparison. He had even taken a vow to be true to her memory. So his mind couldn’t be aligning with another female’s. He refused to even consider the possibility. And yet…

Garron shook his head. It was all very confusing and the entire situation filled him with guilt. But the need inside him was growing to a fever pitch—his blood was boiling. He couldn’t ignore it much longer.

This time, he told himself, squaring his shoulders. This time I’ll pick one and take her back to my room. I need to…I have to.

He had to deal with his desires before he became dangerous…before the dr’gin within him stirred and woke, demanding sacrifice.

 

* * * * *

“Hi Blondie number five, how are you?” Tess patted the Pairing Puppet on the shoulder as she moved past her.

Blondie number five didn’t look up or acknowledge Tess at all—none of the Pairing Puppets ever did. The artificial girl simply went about the business of making herself a protein pack and drinking it in long, even, mechanical swallows.

“Yes it is a beautiful day,” Tess said sarcastically. “I’m glad to hear you think so too.”

She’d been at the Pairing House about a week now and out of sheer boredom, she’d begun naming the different puppets. It didn’t matter what she said to them—apparently they were programmed to ignore anyone without a penis—so Tess felt free to call them whatever she wanted.

A new girl came into the kitchen—a plus sized model with strawberry blonde hair.

“Hey, Pinky,” Tess said affectionately. “I saw that Beast Kindred you were with last night—looked like a hot date.”

She knew it was silly, but she liked the plus sized puppets better. They seemed more…relatable somehow, even though they completely ignored her just like the skinny puppets did.

“I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed some of your clothes,” Tess went on conversationally. “But I didn’t exactly bring a lot with me and you and I are about the same size.”

She looked down at the outfit she was wearing, one she’d taken out of Pinky’s “room” which was really just the bedroom unit where the Pairing Puppet serviced her clients. Pinky actually “slept” in the recharging room from midnight until seven in the morning. Her fixed schedule and the selection of surprisingly pretty plus sized clothing was why Tess had claimed this particular Pairing Puppet’s area for herself.

The outfit she was wearing today was more of a negligee than a dress, truth be told. It had a stretchy black lace top, cut low to show some cleavage, and a sexy little black skirt that came down to her mid thighs. The flowing sleeves covered her upper arms nicely and the black lace was sexy without being slutty. At least, Tess thought so. She could just imagine what Pierce would say if he could see her in the outfit. In fact, she didn’t have to imagine—she could remember a similar situation about a year before her mother had died…

* * * * *

“What the hell are you wearing? You can’t wear that out of the house!”

“But…” Tess looked down at herself, viewing the plain little black dress she was wearing uncertainly. She had found it online and for a wonder, it actually fit perfectly. It had a high, square cut neckline and ended modestly at the knees but it hugged her hourglass curves nicely—the perfect thing, she’d thought, to wear to their anniversary dinner.

It was the first time they’d gone out in months, since Pierce preferred to stay home. He always said he liked her cooking more than any restaurant and besides, he didn’t want any horny men staring at his pretty wife.

But Tess got tired of staying in all the time—she’d been looking forward to this dinner for months.

Her husband’s eyes narrowed. “Where did you even get that? How did you afford it?”

Tess found herself suddenly tongue-tied. How could she admit that she’d saved back a little money from the part time job he allowed her to work at the nursing home? She was supposed to turn her entire paycheck over to him each week—it was the man’s job, Pierce said, to handle the money. She wasn’t supposed to worry her pretty little head about it. He would give her enough for groceries and household expenses.

But not enough to buy anything nice unless he approved of it first.

“I…my mom sent me a little cash,” she said haltingly. A lie, but the truth would have gotten her into trouble.

Pierce frowned. “I didn’t see an envelope from her in the mail.”

“It was the day you worked late so I got the mail,” Tess said quickly. “Remember? Last Wednesday?”

“Oh. All right.” He frowned. “Look, from now on I don’t want you messing with the mailbox. Even if I work late, just leave it. I’ll get it myself.”

“All right.” Tess felt her throat closing as another little piece of her world was chipped away.

There was so much Pierce didn’t allow her to do. He didn’t like her shopping by herself or running errands. He didn’t want her going back to school even though she had quit in the middle of the nursing program she’d been in back in North Carolina to move to Tampa with him. “Too many horny guys running around a college campus,” he’d said, even though he had sworn she could finish her RN degree once he got settled in his new job. He barely let her work part time at the Happy Rest Nursing Home and he had only approved that place because it was full of old people without any “horny guys” to worry about. Now she couldn’t even get the mail!

Tess noticed that her husband was still staring at her with narrowed eyes and realized that she’d better start defusing the situation quickly.

“I saw it online,” she said, letting him know she hadn’t been out shopping by herself. “And I thought you would like it. I…I got it just for you.”

She hated herself for lying again—for trying to cater to Pierce’s uncertain temper. But if she didn’t she would pay the price. And really, she just wanted to get out of the house for once and go somewhere that wasn’t work.

“Just for me, hmm?” His look of suspicion softened and he smiled at her, the corners of his green eyes crinkling in the way she had found so attractive when they first met.

“Just for you.” Tess breathed an inward sigh of relief. Maybe everything would be all right after all. Maybe they could just go out and enjoy a nice dinner together the way they used to when they were still dating.

“Well, well…it is a sexy little number…” Pierce grabbed her by the waist and kissed her neck.

Tess stiffened but kept the smile fixed on her face.

“I’m glad you like it. But we’re going to miss our reservation if we don’t hurry.”

“Screw the reservation. How can I concentrate on food when I’ve got such a sexy little wife?” Pierce muttered, kissing her again. “Come on, Princess, let’s see what’s under that hot little dress…”

Tess bit her lip. This could go one of two ways. If she gave Pierce what he wanted they might still make the dinner reservation if he was quick. If she resisted, there would certainly be a huge fight and Pierce might “punish” her. He believed it was a husband’s right to have sex whenever and wherever he wanted it and it was the wife’s duty to provide it. The same way Tess provided his meals exactly on time every day, cleaned the house to his specifications, and did his laundry just the way he liked it. Pierce was king of the castle in every way and he always claimed she was his princess.

So why did she feel more like his prisoner?

“Come on, Princess,” he muttered in her ear.

There was really no choice.

“I’m so glad you like it,” she said, hoping her smile didn’t look forced. “Come on, let’s go in the bedroom.”

After ten minutes of staring at the ceiling, he was finally finished. Tess breathed a sigh of relief when he rolled off, satisfied. She had to be careful not to react no matter what he did. If she seemed like she was enjoying it—not that she was—but if she even looked like she was getting pleasure from what he was doing, Pierce got really upset. Apparently, even though a wife was supposed to provide sex on a daily basis, only “sluts” and “whores” actually enjoyed it. In the early days of their marriage that had been hard for her to understand but after being “punished” if she moaned involuntarily or even moved her hips in time with his rhythm, she had learned to put up a wall between herself and any sexual feelings she might have. It was easier that way…safer.

“Well, that was nice,” she said carefully, sitting up and smoothing her dress, which was somewhat wrinkled from the encounter.

“Yeah, it was.” Pierce gave her a lazy grin. “Really worked up an appetite, there. How about you go in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, Princess?”

“A sandwich?” Tess felt her heart sinking. “But…what about our dinner reservation? If we hurry we can still make it.”

Pierce raised an eyebrow. “You really want to go out tonight, huh?”

“Well…” Tess twisted her fingers together. She hated begging but there was no other way. “We haven’t been out in a long time,” she pointed out. “And it is our anniversary…”

“Plus I’m sure you want to show off your body to the guy you bought that dress for,” Pierce said conversationally.

“What?” A red warning flag suddenly went up for Tess. Trouble coming! But she tried to stay calm and defuse the situation. “I bought it for you,” she said, trying to smile. “Just for you, honey.”

Pierce sat up suddenly, his big body tense with anger.

“Did you try it on for him right there in the store?” he demanded. “Did you let him fuck you in it? The way I fucked you in it, Princess?”

“I would never—”

Pierce slapped her hard across the face. Her head rocked back with the force of the blow and her ears rang.

“Oh!” Tess put a hand to her cheek, tears springing to her eyes. Her face felt puffy and swollen. She licked her lips and tasted blood—her bottom lip had split and was already swelling.

“Now, look what you did.” Pierce shook his head sorrowfully. “Why did you make me punish you on our anniversary, Princess? Now your pretty face is all messed up and we can’t go out.”

“I…but I…” The tears in Tess’s eyes now were not just pain but rage. It wasn’t just the hurt he’d inflicted—it was the disappointment. She hadn’t been out of the house except to work and for a single weekly trip to the grocery store in months. Pierce had been building their “special anniversary date” up to her for ages—telling her how good the food was at the restaurant he’d picked, promising her the best bottle of wine they had on their list.

But it wasn’t just the food or wine Tess wanted—she had dared to hope that they might get back to their old relationship—the one they’d had back when they were dating.

Back to the time when she felt more like a princess than a prisoner.

“Why do you do this?” she burst out, before she considered how unwise it was. “Why do you act like such a…such a bully?”

“A bully, hmm?” Pierce’s green eyes were suddenly flat and cold.

Shark’s eyes, Tess thought. More trouble coming… But still she couldn’t stop herself.

“You never treated me like this when we were dating,” she went on. “You were sweet and kind…you said…you said you loved me. And I’m such a stupid fool I believed you.”

“Is that right?” Pierce stood suddenly, towering over her. Tess tried not to cower from his huge form but it was hard not to be frightened.

“Yes, that…that’s right,” she said, lifting her chin.

“Well here’s something else you’d better believe, Princess,” he snarled, his eyes narrowed to slits of green rage. “Fucking your little whore gash made me hungry. And if you don’t get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich right fucking now, you’re going to get a lot worse than a slap across the face.”

Tess jumped up, putting the bed between them.

“I’m sick of this—you never intended to take me out, did you? You probably didn’t even make a reservation!”

“You little slut…” Pierce was around the bed in a flash. Though she tried to run, he had her by the throat almost before she could blink. “Don’t antagonize me, Princess,” he ground out, glaring down at her while Tess choked and gasped for air. “You know how upset I get when you antagonize me.”

“Let…let me go,” Tess wheezed. “I’ll…I’ll…”

“You’ll do what?” Pierce sneered, finally releasing her. “Call the police? I am the police, Princess, remember? And don’t forget, even if you do call out some of my brothers in blue, who are they going to believe—a well respected detective who’s been decorated twice for bravery? Or a crazy lady who calls 911 with a bunch of false alarms?”

“You…you made me…you…” Tess shook her head helplessly. Pierce had tricked her several times into calling 911 for no reason. He’d woken her up in the middle of the night claiming there was a fire or someone breaking in. Tess had made the call but when the authorities came, there was nothing to see. Pierce had told them she had mental problems and was just seeking attention.

The ruse was Pierce’s way of making sure no one who had any kind of authority would ever believe anything she said and it had worked. Tess knew no one would believe her if she called and said her twice decorated police detective husband was beating her. She was trapped.

Abruptly her rage turned to despair and Tess crumpled to a heap on the floor. How could he be like this? How could the perfect, loving marriage she’d envisioned have changed into this living hell where any little incident could turn into a twisted war of pain and rage and hurt? How could she live like this?

How could she escape?

It wasn’t the first time the thought had crossed her mind but this time it lingered, whispering enticingly of freedom. Of a life where she didn’t have to feel like she was walking on eggshells every second of the day. Where she didn’t have to worry about being beaten if she cooked the roast too much…or not enough…or didn’t serve it exactly at 5:45 on the dot.

As though reading her mind, Pierce leaned down and shoved his face into hers.

“Don’t even think about it, Princess—you’re mine. And I never let go of what’s mine.” He pulled her to her feet and shook her once, roughly, for emphasis. “Now go make me that sandwich. But first take off that slutty whore dress. I’ll burn it later.”


 

Chapter Six

 

Tess shook her head, trying to clear the awful memory. Her eyes were wet but she blotted them quickly on the back of her hand. God, Pierce really was a complete and total bastard. Why had it taken her so long to get away from him? Probably because she had stupidly believed him when he’d promised he had changed. But not anymore. Not after he…but she pushed the thought away, unwilling to examine the painful memory of what Pierce had done to finally drive her away for good.

“I’m free of him now. Free. And I’m never going back.” Tess lifted her chin. “Which is why I’m wearing this.” She twirled in the black lace dress she’d borrowed from the Pairing Puppet. “It’s kinda naughty, don’t you think, Pinky? A lot naughtier than that stupid dress that set Pierce off. Not that it matters—you and the rest of the girls are the only ones to see me. No “horny guys” up here.” Tess laughed. “Well, not for me anyway. You girls all have your fair share of them.”

Pinky ignored her and went to the refrigerator unit. She took out a protein pack the same way Blondie number five had, and downed it in three swallows. Then she reached for another.

“That’s right, girlfriend—have to keep up your figure. Although how you manage to stay plus sized on a diet of that pure protein gunk I have no idea.” Tess shuddered. She had tasted some of the liquid goo which was the puppets’ only food once out of curiosity. It was bright blue and completely bland with a thick, greasy consistency that reminded her of motor oil.

As Pinky finished her breakfast and left the kitchen, another puppet came out of the recharging area. It walked with a lurching gait that made Tess think of the old Frankenstein movies she’d see as a kid. It nearly ran into her on its way to the refrigerator unit.

“Whoa, Barbie!” Tess stepped hastily out of the way and frowned as the puppet fumbled clumsily for a protein pack. “Hey, are you okay? You’re not looking so good,” she murmured, coming closer to examine the artificial girl.

Barbie, who had long, golden blonde hair, wide blue eyes, and improbably big breasts, looked exactly like the doll Tess had played with as a child. She was also looking a little worse for wear this morning.

“What’s going on with you?” Tess said, staring at the puppet. “Had a rough night?”

Barbie didn’t respond. Instead she grabbed a protein pack and lifted it to her mouth. Tess saw her slender fingers contract but apparently she squeezed the pack much too hard. The thick protein mixture shot out, coating her face with a dripping layer of blue slime.

“Ugh!” Tess jumped back, trying to get out of the line of fire. “That’s some grip you’ve got there, Barbie. I’d hate to be the Kindred who picks you today.”

Barbie blinked owlishly, her wide blue eyes staring blankly from the bright blue slime mask she now wore. She disposed of her used protein pack and started to head for the parlor.

“I don’t think so.” Gently, Tess redirected her, nudging the puppet by her skinny shoulder blades back towards the recharging closet. “Why don’t you spend the day in there?” she murmured as the puppet went back to her spot on the wall. “I’m sure they must send maintenance around sometime. You better just rest until they come. Otherwise I’m afraid somebody’s going to get hurt.”

The old fashioned wall clock in the parlor chimed and more Pairing Puppets disengaged from their silver three pronged claws and filed out of the recharging room. Tess stepped out of the way and watched as they downed their protein packs and moved into the parlor to await their Kindred clients.

It was still early in the morning so there was no one to service yet. In fact, it only really got busy in the late afternoon and evening, probably because that was when most of the warriors got off work—whatever it was they did for work here on the Mother Ship.

Tess made her own breakfast, picking a cube at random to put in the silver microwave looking machine. She had been trying a lot of new foods since she’d been up here. Some of them looked weird and some were disgusting but on the whole, they tasted pretty good. Although she wished she could have an old fashioned plate of pancakes or a cheeseburger occasionally, she generally enjoyed all the new tastes and textures of the alien food.

When she finished breakfast, she cleaned up carefully and went into the parlor to find a book. Di may have been joking when she suggested that Tess “catch up on her reading” but that was exactly what she was doing.

She looked for Pride and Prejudice in the bookcase, but it was missing. Doubtless one of the puppets had it, staring sightlessly at the pages, waiting to be called to service.

Tess sighed. “Okay, who’s got my P&P?” She went around the room, checking book titles until she found the slim, leather bound volume in Pinky’s lap. “Sorry, girlfriend, but Mr. Darcy’s wasted on you. Here—have this one instead. It’s about a guy who locks his crazy wife in the attic—I’ve had enough of that kind of crap to last me a lifetime.” She was about to replace Pride and Prejudice with a copy of Jane Eyre when footsteps sounded on the old fashioned wooden porch outside.

Oh no! Tess froze, both books clutched in her suddenly nerveless hands. The door to the kitchen—and safety—was way across the room. But she couldn’t be caught in the open—she had to get out of here!

Dropping the books in Pinky’s lap, she rushed for the swinging door—only to find it blocked.

Barbie was standing right in the doorway, her face still dripping blue goo. She seemed to be trying to step over the threshold into the parlor but she was stuck for some reason with one foot raised.

To Tess, the puppet looked like someone about to attempt a martial arts move. The kicking crane or something like that, she thought wildly. Either the circuits in Barbie’s robotic brain were misfiring or her mechanical joints were locked up. Whatever the case, she was filling the doorway with her hourglass figure, not leaving even an inch for Tess to scoot past.

“Move, Barbie,” she muttered, pushing at the puppet’s perfect torso. But though they were soft flesh on the outside, the Pairing Puppets’ skeletons were solid metal. Barbie didn’t budge so much as an inch. She just kept standing there with her face dripping blue and her foot raised high, like she was about to stomp a roach or start doing the Mexican Hat Dance.

The footsteps sounded outside again—louder this time as though whoever was out there was getting closer.

Don’t panic—it’s really early. Maybe whoever’s outside is just passing by. Maybe they won’t even come in, Tess told herself wildly.

The doorknob began to jiggle.

Making a quick decision, Tess jumped for the other side of the room again. There was still a seat open beside Pinky. Grabbing a book at random from the Pairing Puppet, she plunked herself down hastily on the couch and opened it.

Then she stared down, her heart pounding, as the front door opened and a tall Kindred with black hair walked into the parlor.

 

* * * * *

Garron forced himself to enter the house at last. As always, the faint odor of grease and metal met him, making him wrinkle his nose in disgust. He almost turned right back around again. But something stopped him.

There was something different this time. A new scent he could swear he’d never smelled before. And yet…it seemed somehow familiar. It was sweet and fresh and above all feminine. Delicate and faint, it was almost overpowered by the stench of the Pairing Puppets, yet it drew him like a magnet.

But where was it coming from?

He looked up and down the long, narrow room lined with couches. The puppets were all sitting there, staring down at their Earth books, as they always did until someone spoke to them. Only one was standing and it appeared to have something wrong with it. Its face was blue and it seemed frozen in place, with one foot lifted.

Garron wondered what the problem was, but the fresh, faint scent kept teasing his nose and it clearly wasn’t coming from the malfunctioning puppet. He quickly lost interest in it and went back to scanning the room, looking for the source of the enticing aroma.

Where is it coming from? Which one is it? Whatever puppet was exuding that delicious scent was the one he wanted. He could feel his blood boiling and already he was hard as a rock under his tight black flight trousers. He didn’t care what she looked like—he had to have her, whoever she was.

But how to find her?

Closing his eyes, Garron inhaled deeply, letting his incredibly sensitive sense of smell do what his eyes could not—pick out the girl he was seeking. He found the faint strain of lovely, feminine scent and followed it blindly, turning until he knew which direction it was coming from. He took one step forward and then another. When he opened his eyes, he was standing in front of a couch which held two puppets.

Both had lovely full figures, which was nice since Garron preferred a female that wasn’t too skinny. One of them had carefully styled hair that was a strange reddish shade of blonde and wide blue eyes which came up to meet his when he stopped in front of her.

“Yes, warrior?” she asked in a high, mechanical voice. “How may I service you?”

Garron frowned and leaned down to sniff her. He withdrew, his nostrils wrinkling, when the faint scent of oil and metal met his nose.

Not her.

So it must be the other puppet—a short, plump girl with pale, porcelain skin and long reddish brown hair that fell in a thick curtain around her face. Garron couldn’t see what color her eyes were because she was still staring down, apparently concentrating on the book in her lap.

“You,” he said roughly, tapping her on the shoulder.

The puppet flinched—or seemed to. It must have been a glitch in her programming that caused it because Garron had never seen one react that way. Slowly, she looked up.

“Y-yes, warrior?” Her voice was a soft, lovely alto that made his cock surge. “What…what can I do for you?”

Garron stared at her. Her eyes…why did they look familiar? They were dark pools, fringed thickly with black lashes and filled with some emotion. Was it…fear? But that was impossible—Pairing Puppets didn’t feel. Probably it was a trick of the light. Or maybe a different kind of programming.

He leaned closer and inhaled, drawing her scent deep into his lungs. Yes, this was her all right—the girl the delicious aroma was coming from. The scent was so complex—he could even smell notes of uncertainty in it. Was this more Kindred technology at work? Maybe a way to make the warrior feel like he was pursuing the girl instead of the other way around? If so, it was working. He felt his cock harden even more in his trousers and the forbidden urges surged to the forefront of his mind.

“Stand up,” Garron commanded the puppet, his voice hoarse with need. “Let me look at you.”

The girl set her book aside with hands that seemed to shake. Slowly, she rose, displaying herself for him, just as he had commanded.

Garron sucked in a breath at her beauty. She had full breasts and wide, curving hips that filled out the black lace dress she wore nicely. Her long, thick hair trailed down her back like silk and her soft, pink, kissable mouth trembled almost like a real girl’s.

But it was her scent as much as her appearance that drew him. There wasn’t even a hint of the oil and metal stink the other Pairing Puppets always had. Her lovely feminine aroma bewitched him completely until he almost felt like the girl was seducing him, though she did nothing but stand there, looking down at her hands and biting her lush lower lip in a way that was distractingly erotic…and distinctly un-puppetlike.

Though he found them enticing, her mannerisms bothered him. Garron frowned, trying to think past the bewitching scent. She didn’t smell like a puppet and she didn’t seem to react like one either. Why was that?

“Who are you?” he demanded, staring at her. “What are you?”

“Just…just a P-pairing P-puppet, warrior,” the girl stuttered, her pale cheeks going bright red. “I am…I am new here.”

“A new model, you mean?” Garron demanded.

She nodded eagerly. “Yes! A…a prototype. I…have not been here long.”

That explains it. The sweet, fresh scent, the Puppet’s seeming modesty… it all made sense now. Not that Garron wanted to spend much time thinking about it. He had finally found a Pairing Puppet he could bear to use—in fact, he found he couldn’t wait to use her.

But not just use… he wanted to caress every inch of the creamy, pale skin he could see under her thin black lace gown. Wanted to stroke the soft waterfall of silky hair away from her delicate features and decipher the color of those bewitching, dark eyes. Wanted to raise her skirt and stroke and scent and most of all taste her sweet sex…that most forbidden activity that his people, the Rai’ku, considered taboo and illicit…

All the things you wish you could have done with Nella, whispered the voice of guilt in his head. Garron pushed it away with some difficulty.

“I want you,” he told the Puppet thickly. “No, I need you. Now.”

“Oh, I…” The puppet blushed even redder, if that was possible and tried to take a step back. “Perhaps another model, warrior. I am…still so new.”

“No,” Garron growled, his lust and her sweet scent overcoming his inhibitions and even his guilt. “You. I must have you. Come.” He reached out a hand for her and in a moment, the Pairing Puppet put her hand in his obediently.

“My…I have a room upstairs,” she said hesitantly.

But a quick encounter wasn’t what Garron had in mind. He needed to take his time, to explore the hidden urges he’d been suppressing for years. And he needed to take her someplace private, just in case his dr’gin came out at last.

“No.” He shook his head firmly. “I need you to come with me.”

“I…but I…” She shook her head, her big, dark eyes wide with what honestly looked like fear.

Garron frowned. “Aren’t you programmed to serve?”

“Of…of course I am.” She cleared her throat. “I’m just…I mean, forgive me, warrior.”

Abruptly the fear in her eyes got to him. Even though he knew it was a simulated emotion, he couldn’t help reacting to it.

“Hey…” He turned and cupped her cheek, lifting her chin to make her meet his eyes. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said softly. “I just want…I just need to…I need a release. That’s all.” And in that moment, he really meant it. Though he had felt his blood boiling and the beast within him growing closer to the surface, for some reason just being near this little Pairing Puppet seemed to cool him down. His need was just as strong but as he touched her, he found that his blood no longer boiled until he felt he might explode.

I can do this, he told himself. I can take her without hurting her. I can appease the dr’gin within and not let it out. I’m sure of it. As long as I can touch her…as long as I can taste her, I’ll be all right.

The girl—no puppet, she’s only a puppet, he reminded himself—stared at him, wide eyed and trembling for a long moment. Then, slowly, she nodded her head.

“All right. I…I’ll come with you.”

“Good.” Garron knew he would have been within his rights to pick her up and carry her off by force. She was, after all, just a mechanical puppet, built to ease the needs of the unmated Kindred aboard the ship. But he didn’t like to treat a female like that—not even an artificial one. “Come,” he told her, tugging gently at her hand.

After a moment, she followed him.


Chapter Seven

 

Oh my God, are you crazy? What are you doing? Are you actually going with him? The little voice in Tess’s head was screaming and yet somehow she felt powerless to do anything but let the big Kindred who had picked her lead her along the narrow streets of the Unmated Males area. Other Kindred went about their business, walking to and fro, talking and arguing and laughing—none of them seemed to notice that she was being taken away to who knows where to do who knows what with a strange man.

Of course they don’t notice—it’s no big deal because they think you’re a freaking Pairing Puppet! the little voice yelled. And don’t kid yourself with all this ‘going who knows where to do who knows what’ crap! You know exactly where you’re going and what you’re going to be expected to do once you get there.

Yes, that was true enough. There had been hunger in his brilliant turquoise eyes when the big Kindred looked at her. No, not just hunger—he looked like he was starving and he thought Tess was the one who could finally satiate his appetite. There was no doubt what he was going to want to do the minute they got back to his room. Just the memory of that hot look sent a shiver through Tess’s entire body.

How long had it been since anyone had stared at her like that? She’d been with Pierce for so long it was hard to remember if one of the two guys she’d dated before him had ever wanted her as badly as the big warrior seemed to. Pierce himself, of course, had just taken her for granted—she had never been allowed to deny him or to take pleasure from their relations so sex had become a mechanical act—just another chore to be done in order to keep her husband happy. To keep him from “punishing” her.

And now, here was this Kindred—a big, handsome, muscular warrior with spiky black hair and the most flat out gorgeous eyes Tess had ever seen—saying that he needed her. He had even chosen her specifically over every other girl in the room. True, she was the only real one there but he didn’t know that. He could have had Blondie or one of the puppets shaped like Barbie with a tiny wasp waist, legs up to her ears and big E cup boobs. Instead he had chosen, short, plump Tess. Why?

It doesn’t matter why. And it doesn’t matter that he chose you out of everyone else. You can’t just go with him and let him…let him do whatever he wants.

Tess nibbled her lower lip indecisively. Should she run? But that would alert the big Kindred that she wasn’t who—or rather what—she’d claimed to be. That, in turn, could bring her to the attention of the other Kindred. And if they found out she was hiding out on the Mother Ship illegally she could get into a lot of trouble. Not to mention she’d be deported back to Earth where Pierce would probably find her within twenty-four hours.

But are you seriously going to have sex with him, just to avoid getting into trouble? the little voice demanded. I mean, honestly Tess—is it worth it? You don’t even know him!

Tess knew the little voice was right. She couldn’t just go have sex with a stranger—no matter how gorgeous he was. But how could she get away without arousing his suspicion?

As she was wavering uncertainly, the big Kindred turned down another narrow street that was more like an alley and stopped in front of a sliding metal door which had been painted green.

“This is my room,” he rumbled, his deep voice sending a shiver through Tess’s entire body.

Before she could respond in any way, the green metal panel slid open and he stepped inside, pulling her along with him.

Tess felt like her heart had jumped into her throat when the green door slid silently into place behind them. Okay, it’s okay. You’re going to think of a way out of this. Take it easy, she told herself frantically. Trying to still her racing pulse, she looked around and saw what looked like an efficiency apartment.

It was bachelor neat with a kitchenette in one corner and a small study desk in another. The third corner held a large, comfortable armchair and, to Tess’s surprise, a small collection of the same old-fashioned books that were available back at the Pairing House.

But when she turned to the fourth corner her heart, which had begun to slow, started racing again. There was a huge bed, neatly made up with a dark blue coverlet and several thick pillows arranged against the headboard.

Oh my God, the bed—that’s his bed, yammered the little voice inside her head. And holy crap, Tess—he’s already undressing!

Indeed, he was. Tess fought to keep her emotions from showing on her face as the big warrior unbuttoned his royal blue uniform shirt and shrugged it off his massive shoulders. She watched, her mouth dry, as the broad planes of his muscular chest were revealed. He had smooth, tan skin and his shoulders were fully twice as broad as hers. He threw the shirt carelessly on the bed and his big hands dropped to his belt.

Not that it looks like he needs a belt to hold those trousers up, the little voice in Tess’s head pointed out. They’re tight enough to stay up with no help at all—especially in the crotch!

It was true. Though she tried not to look, she couldn’t help seeing the absolutely massive bulge in the tight black leather trousers. Geeze, is he smuggling a python in his pants or is he just happy to see me? She had a feeling she was about to find out. He was already starting to unbuckle his belt and any minute his ginormous trouser snake was going to come popping out and she, Tess, was going to have to deal with it.

Time to make a decision, the little voice said. Are you going to stay here and actually have sex with a guy who looks big enough to literally split you in two or are you going to blow your cover and make a run for it?

Tess had absolutely no idea. Her heart was racing faster and faster, pumping so hard she could feel it shaking her entire body. Her mouth was dry with fear and her palms were damp. She watched, frozen to the spot, as the warrior’s large, well formed hands unbuckled his belt.

What am I going to do? Oh, God—what am I going to do?

But when the belt was unbuckled, he made no move to open his trousers. Instead he motioned to Tess.

“Come here.” His voice was deep with need but soft…almost coaxing.

“Why?” Tess blurted out before she realized it was a very un-robotic thing to say.

He frowned. “Not going to hurt you, little one. I just need to hold you before…”

Before what? Tess wanted to ask but she was already pushing the limit of what a Pairing Puppet would do and say. Even though she had the big Kindred convinced she was a new prototype, he was going to get suspicious if she kept questioning everything he said and refusing to obey orders.

“Come here,” he said again and Tess found herself taking a step forward.

Are you crazy? Don’t go! Run! the little voice screamed. But she took another step toward him anyway. Maybe it was the soft way he spoke to her in that deep, rumbling baritone voice. Or maybe it was the way he’d called her “little one” but she found herself unable to turn away, unable to run.

The warrior took one long stride towards her and suddenly Tess found herself enfolded in his arms. She stiffened at first as he drew her to him, wrapping those long, muscular arms around her shivering shoulders and pulling her close to his broad chest. He was so tall she barely came up to his pecs and so big she felt completely surrounded by his large form.

Danger, shouted the little voice in her head. Get away, get out, he’s going to hurt you!

Except, the big Kindred didn’t seem to want to do anything of the kind. In fact, it seemed like he just wanted to…hold her.

Well this is weird, Tess thought after a minute as he held her close. Weird but also…kind of nice.

It was nice. As they just stood there and the warrior didn’t try to do anything sexual, Tess found herself relaxing. When was the last time she’d been hugged like this? Maybe back when she and Pierce were dating but her ex had never been much of a snuggler. He seemed to think that sex was the only expression of physical affection that really counted. Everything else was stupid girly crap and completely unnecessary.

The Kindred warrior who was holding her didn’t seem to feel that way. In fact, he seemed to really be enjoying just being close to her. At least, if the way he was running his big, warm hands up and down her back, stroking her spine and caressing her hair was any indication, he did.

Against her better judgment, Tess found herself melting against him. She didn’t know him—had never seen him before today. And yet…there was something strangely familiar about this man. His arms around her were comforting and his broad, hard chest against her cheek felt warm and good. Tess could hear his heartbeat, even and slow. Also, being this close to him she couldn’t help noticing that he smelled absolutely amazing.

God, what is that scent? Some kind of alien aftershave? But the warm, rich aroma wasn’t like any aftershave or cologne Tess had ever smelled. There was nothing artificial about it —it was just a warm, clean musk that was dark and spicy and somehow completely masculine. Like someone managed to bottle the basic male essence or something, Tess thought dreamily. They should call it Ode de Hunk or Essence of Hottie or something like that…

The warrior pulled her even closer and lowered his head to bury his face in her hair.

“Gods, you smell good,” he rumbled in her ear, his warm breath caressing the sensitive side of her neck. “And you feel good in my arms.” He sighed deeply, his broad chest expanding with the gesture. “I’m so glad I found you before it was too late. My blood was boiling but you…you sooth it, little one.”

I do? How? We haven’t even done anything yet.

Almost as though he’d heard her thoughts, the big warrior pulled back a little and looked down into her eyes.

“Come,” he growled softly. Keeping an arm around her shoulders, he led her the few short steps to the bed.

Oh my God! Okay, here we go…

Tess’s heart, which had almost slowed down to normal, started pounding again and she felt her entire body go tense. Was he done cuddling now? Was he going to turn mean? Strip off her clothing and throw her on the bed and—

But the big Kindred simply sat down on the side of the big bed and pulled Tess between his legs. She stood there stiffly, facing him, uncertain of what he wanted.

“Closer,” he murmured, pulling her into his arms again. He was so tall they were almost face to face, even with him sitting and her standing but he ducked his head and pressed his cheek to her chest, just above her cleavage.

Now what? Tess thought. But his gesture tugged at her heart somehow. It was almost as though the big warrior was asking for comfort, even though he didn’t say it out loud. Without meaning to, she found she was carding her fingers through his thick, black spiky hair and humming softly. His cheek against her chest was slightly rough with stubble but Tess found she didn’t mind—she liked the scratchy sensation and the warmth of his skin against hers.

She had the strangest feeling she knew him from somewhere but that was crazy—she’d never seen him before in her life, she was sure of it. After all, it wasn’t like he was someone you could forget. With his huge, muscular physique and those pure, deep turquoise eyes fringed with inky black lashes, he would stand out anywhere.

“Gods, I can hear your heart,” he murmured at last.

Tess stiffed in his arms, her hands frozen in his hair.

“I…uh…”

“It’s truly amazing, this Kindred technology,” he continued, nuzzling against her. “If we had such things on Rai’ku, perhaps…” He trailed off with a sigh.

Perhaps what? Tess was relieved that he’d put her very real heartbeat down to amazing artificial technology but this one-sided conversation was becoming extremely frustrating. Where was Rai’ku? Was he not really Kindred? He certainly looked Kindred although she hadn’t seen any other warrior with such extraordinary eyes before. Also, what was his name? She found herself wanting to ask but she was afraid a real Pairing Puppet wouldn’t do that. From what she’d seen, they acted very mechanically—wanting to know their client’s name probably wasn’t in their programming.

“If only you were real,” he murmured, breaking her train of thought.

If you only knew… Tess wondered if she ought to say something. Maybe if she explained her situation he would understand. Maybe…

“But I suppose it’s better you’re not,” he continued.

Okay…guess I’ll keep my mouth shut.

“After all,” he continued. “It’s only because you’re a puppet that I can really talk to you. I can tell you things…things no one else may know.”

He looked at her, searching her face with those gorgeous eyes. Tess looked back, fighting to keep her expression impassive though her heart was pounding again. She wasn’t sure if she should answer him or not but he seemed to be waiting for some acknowledgment of his words.

“Yes,” she murmured at last, deciding that less was probably more.

“I can do things with you.” The fire was suddenly back in his eyes, making them blaze with the same hunger she’d seen when he first chose her back at the Pairing House.

“I…um…yes, I guess…” she whispered, starting to feel nervous.

Forbidden things,” he rumbled.

“Um…what? What kinds of…of forbidden things?” Tess couldn’t help it. She knew her reaction wasn’t what it should be or would be if she was a real Pairing Puppet but the words just slipped out.

His eyes blazed.

“I want to hold you…to touch you everywhere. And I want to taste you.”

“I…I…” Tess had no idea how to react. What exactly did he mean when he said he wanted to “taste” her? It wasn’t what she was thinking, was it?

“Take off your clothing.” He was already tugging at the black lace negligee-dress she was wearing and before she knew it, Tess found herself down to her bra and underwear.

At least you have on a nice, matching set, the little voice in her head pointed out helpfully. Both bra and panties were black satin, shiny and smooth with little bows in the front.

“I…but I…” she started to protest, but the big warrior was already rubbing his cheek against her skin. The gesture was both animalistic and strangely sensual. For a moment he reminded her of a cat—a really freaking big one. It was almost as though he wanted to scent mark her all over—to claim her as his own.

Tess felt tongue tied—unable to stop him as he rubbed his face between her breasts and then down to her trembling abdomen. She was still frozen, even when he laid her gently on the bed and continued down, sliding past her belly button to rub his cheek directly against the black satin crotch of her panties.

“Gods,” he murmured, inhaling deeply, as though he wanted to breathe in her scent. “You smell so fucking good.” He looked up at her again. “I want to taste you, little one. Want to rip away this tiny little garment and spread your sweet pussy with my tongue.”

“Y-you do?” Tess stuttered. His hot words made her feel like her entire body was blushing.

Slowly, he nodded. “I’m going to spend hours between your legs, mapping every secret fold, making you come over and over again. Gods…” He inhaled, his eyes burning. “I can smell how hot and wet you’re getting. Can’t wait to taste your honey right from the source.”

Oh my God…oh my God! Tess felt utterly exposed even with her underwear still on. She could feel the big warrior’s hot breath through the thin material of her panties and though she didn’t want it to, her body was reacting to him, her nipples getting hard and her pussy hot and wet in a way that scared her.

Shouldn’t be feeling this way. It’s dangerous…wrong…

Pierce never wanted to see such signs of arousal in her—never wanted her to show pleasure or suggest anything new. Anything like this. In fact, he had never done what the big warrior was describing except for that one time when he…

Is this what you want, Princess? a mean little voice—the voice of her ex—whispered in her ear. Something new? Something kinky? Something only a little whore would want?

No, don’t think of it. Don’t remember! Tess told herself fiercely. She clenched her fists at her sides and stared up at the ceiling, willing the memory away.

“What’s this?” The big warrior sounded as if he was frowning.

Tess looked down and saw that he was staring at the small, white scar on her inner thigh. Seeing the mark brought back the memory she’d been trying so hard to suppress. The heat she’d been feeling turned to ice down her spine and her stomach clenched in a sick knot of tension.

“I thought you said you were new. That you were a prototype,” the warrior said, frowning. “But this looks like a scar—an old one. Who did this to you, little one? Who hurt you?”

Suddenly Tess couldn’t take it anymore.

She wriggled away from him and scrambled off the bed. Snagging her dress from the floor, she started pulling it on with trembling fingers.

“What…?” The warrior was still on his knees in front of the bed. He looked up at her, frowning in confusion. “What are you doing?”

“Okay, all right, you got me,” Tess babbled. “I didn’t want to blow my cover but I can’t…can’t do this. I’m not a Pairing Puppet. I’m sorry—I’m really sorry.”

His face grew dark and he stood suddenly, towering over her.

“You’re not a puppet? What are you—some kind of a spy?”

“What? No!” Tess backed away from him, her heart pounding. God, why did he have to be so big? She had an idea that her dress was on inside out and backwards but she didn’t care.

“What were you doing at the Pairing House, posing as a puppet?” he demanded.

“I was hiding, all right?” She was backing away from him now, fumbling for the door. The anger on the big warrior’s face was frightening. She had seen that look before often enough in Pierce’s eyes to know what it meant. Trouble coming… It was written all over his face, brewing like a storm. And she wanted to be out of the way before it hit.

“I told you things,” he said, his deep voice throbbing with anger. “I did things…forbidden things.”

“No, you didn’t—not really!” Tess protested, still feeling for the door. “I mean we really didn’t even…”

“We did enough. On my planet the things we did…the things I told you…” He shook his head. “You let me break the ancient taboos. Let me believe you weren’t real—that you would keep my secrets.” He was still advancing on her, his face like a thundercloud.

“I’m sorry!” Tess had found the door at last but it wouldn’t open. “Look, I’ll go, okay?” she gasped. “I’ll leave the Mother Ship. I’ll give myself up to the authorities and I’ll never come back, I swear. You’ll never have to see me again.”

“You can’t—” he began.

But just then, to her vast relief, the metal door panel at last slid open. Tess practically fell out of it, into the narrow street.

“Wait a minute.” Moving much more quickly than such a big man should have been able to, he was suddenly out the door and had her by the arm.

“Let me go!” Tess yanked against his big hand but she might as well have been pulling against an iron handcuff. He wasn’t hurting her but it was clear he wasn’t going to release her either. “Let me go!” she insisted again.

“No.” He glared at her. “You’re coming with me.”

“What? No!” She was still pulling against his hand but he was already marching her down the narrow street. There didn’t seem to be any hope of escape. Tess felt despair wash over her. “Where are you taking me?” she asked.

He shot her an angry glance.

“You mentioned wanting to go to the authorities. I’m taking you to one of them now.”


Chapter Eight

 

 

Commander Sylvan looked confused when the door to his suite slid open.

“Yes, Garron? How can I help you?” His eyes flickered down to the girl with long reddish-brown hair and dark eyes Garron had by the arm. “And…who is this?”

“I don’t know who she is but she’s been hiding in the…in the Pairing House.” Garron had to force the words out. It shamed him deeply to admit he had been visiting such a place, even though among the Kindred there was no stigma attached to it.

But even more humiliating were the things he had said and done with the girl when he thought she was a Pairing Puppet. I held her—took her in my arms and held her close to my heart, body-to-body, he thought. Such contact was forbidden on Pax, where he had been raised. The Rai’ku, did not believe in any kind of physical contact between people unless it was a male and a female during breeding time. They kept to themselves and did not touch one another, except to clasp arms occasionally when sealing a bargain.

And he had done more than just hold her. He had rubbed his face over her skin, breathing in her sweet essence, marking her for his own. Not only that but he had told her he wanted to taste her. The stigma attached to such an act was unspeakable—the shame unfathomable. And he had not only admitted that he wanted to do this, he had actually started to do it. He would have if she hadn’t jumped up and run from him. If she hadn’t admitted—

“I’m sorry,” the girl said, breaking his train of thought. “I know I shouldn’t have been there. I was just…I had no place else to hide. I had to get away from my—” She shook her head. “I’m just…I’m really sorry.”

Commander Sylvan frowned. “Perhaps you’d better explain. Are you here because you’ve been dream sharing with a Kindred warrior? Maybe you came to look for him?”

For a moment the girl’s eyes widened and Garron felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach. The girl in his dream—the one he could never quite see. Could she be…? But then she shook her head.

“No…nothing like that.”

“All right…” Sylvan cleared his throat. “And Garron says you’ve been hiding in the Pairing House?” He looked at Garron. “And you found this out when you…”

“I went there to…to…” Garron could feel his cheeks getting hot.

“Never mind,” Commander Sylvan said hastily. “There’s no need to answer that. In fact—”

“Sylvan? Sweetheart?” Sylvan’s mate, Sophia, suddenly appeared behind him. “Is everything okay?” she asked, looking anxiously at Garron and the girl.

“I’m not quite sure, talana.” Sylvan frowned. “Garron has brought this female—”

“Oh, are you a friend of Garron’s?” Sophia looked at the girl curiously.

“No, not exactly.” The girl shook her head, her dark hair flying. “I’m just…I was hiding but I didn’t mean to…to…”

Sophia’s face grew concerned. “You look kind of shaken up…?”

“Tess,” the girl said softly. “And yes, I’ve had better days.”

“You poor thing. Come in and let me get you a cup of tea. I have a few friends over—if you’re new to the Mother Ship and want to meet some nice girls to hang out with.”

“She’s not here to make friends with other females,” Garron burst out, unable to stand it anymore. “She is a liar and a criminal—hiding in a place she should not be and violating the trust of those who visit there.”

“I’m sorry.” The girl lifted her chin defiantly but her eyes were suspiciously bright. “Like I told you, I had nowhere else to go.”

“Who’s this?” A new face suddenly appeared at the doorway. Garron saw with a sinking heart it was Becca, his brother Truth’s new bride. “Hey, what’s going on?” she demanded, her eyes flicking from the shirtless Garron to the disheveled girl whose arm he still had locked in a tight grip. “Who is she and what are you doing to her, Garron?”

“Nothing.” Garron knew when he was defeated. He liked Becca and valued her good opinion. There was no way he wanted to stand here and explain that he’d been duped by the bewitchingly beautiful human female while seeking a sexual release. He dropped the girl’s arm and stepped back. “Nothing at all.”

Sylvan shook his head. “I still don’t understand. What is it you want me to do, Garron?”

“I…I…” Garron shook his head, feeling foolish and impotent. “I just don’t think she should be allowed to live…where she’s been living. She ought to be sent back down to Earth.”

“Oh? Where have you been living?” Becca looked at the girl with evident interest.

“I…” The girl shot him a glance and shook her head. “Maybe I’d better not say.”

“Maybe you should come in for a cup of tea. Or do you want some coffee?” Sophia and Becca were already reaching out to pull the girl into the suite.

Garron felt himself dying inside as he watched her enter Commander Sylvan’s suite. He knew how females talked among each other. Now everyone whose good opinion he valued would know his darkest, most secret desires.

“Garron?” Becca was looking at him now. “Do you want some coffee? It’s nothing at all like the chii you gave me on Pax but it’s still pretty darn good.”

“Apologies but no, Becca. I…must go,” he growled. “Now.”

Without another word he turned and left, cursing the fate that had led him to pick the little Earth female and make her privy to all his most perverted fantasies. What had possessed him to act and speak as he had? And how could he ever look anyone on the Mother Ship in the eyes again?

It’s exactly what you deserve, whispered the little voice in his head—the voice of his guilt. You swore to always love and cherish Nella’s memory and look what you did—or tried to do. Have you no shame? No regard for the memory of the one you swore you loved?

The voice was right and Garron knew it.

“Forgive me, Nella,” he whispered, running a hand through his hair. “I will take this as a warning. I swear I will never forget you or betray your memory again.”

 

* * * * *

“Um, did you know you have your dress on backwards?” the girl with long brown hair and green eyes asked as she led Tess into a plush living area scattered with oversized, overstuffed furniture.

There were two other girls sitting on the couch. One had blond hair and silvery gray eyes and the other had red hair much brighter than Tess’s and was clearly pregnant. In fact, she looked ready to pop at any time.

“I think it’s inside out too,” the other girl, who the Kindred warrior had called Becca, said. She had creamy mocha skin and the most gorgeous face but her best feature had to be her eyes which were kind and understanding.

“Probably.” Tess gave a shaky laugh. “I was uh, kind of in a hurry to get it back on.”

“And why did you have it off in the first place?” The pregnant redhead raised an eyebrow at her and gave her a sardonic little grin. “As if we couldn’t guess. See, Becca? I told you Garron would find some lucky girl. With those eyes of his, there’s no way he could stay single for long.”

“Um, it’s not actually like that,” Tess said. “I mean, I didn’t even know his name until just now. You said it’s Garron?”

“What?” the blonde girl exclaimed. “Didn’t know his name? Then what were the two of you doing?”

“Nothing!” Tess assured them hastily. “I mean, we would have but I admitted I wasn’t a Pairing Puppet before things got too hot and heavy.” She sighed unhappily. “He was still really angry with me though. Not that I blame him, I guess…”

“Back up…slow down…” The pregnant redhead made a “time out” gesture. “You were pretending to be a Pairing Puppet?”

Tess felt her whole face get hot with mortification.

“Well, yes, but I wasn’t, uh, performing Pairing Puppet activities, if you know what I mean. I was just hiding out at the Pairing House and your friend, uh Garron, thought I was one of the puppets and picked me by mistake. I didn’t want to blow my cover so I went with him…” She shook her head. “I never really intended to…to do anything with him.”

“But you did anyway?” Becca asked gently. “It’s okay, honey—there’s no judgment here.”

“I appreciate that but we didn’t do anything.” Tess shook her head vehemently. “I mean, he took off my dress and unbuckled his belt but then he just…just held me.”

She closed her eyes briefly, remembering the feeling of warmth and safety she’d felt in those powerful arms. Why couldn’t he—Garron—have just been content to hold her a while longer? The warmth of his big body, the dark, spicy scent of his skin…it had been so…so nice. For a moment she almost wanted to cry but she pushed back the stupid emotion. He thought you were a Pairing Puppet, of course he wanted to do more than just hold you! she scolded herself. What did you expect?

“So he just held you?” the redhead said flatly. “Really?”

“Honestly—I know it sounds unbelievable but it’s true,” Tess said earnestly. “But the way he reacted when I admitted I wasn’t…what he thought I was, well, you would have thought we did a lot more. Not that we did—because we didn’t. I mean…”

“I think I know why he was so upset,” Becca said. “I’ll tell you if you want to know. But first we should introduce ourselves.”

“Oh yes, I’m so sorry!” the girl with brown hair exclaimed. “You must feel like you’re on trial and you don’t even know us! Everybody, this is Tess. And I’m Sophie and this is my twin sister Liv.” She pointed to the blonde girl who did have remarkably similar features. “And this feisty pregnant redheaded lady is Kat.” She nodded at the redhead who smiled at Tess.

“And I’m Becca,” Becca said, smiling. “Oh, and this goddess bringing us a plate of scrumptious goodies is Lauren.” She nodded at a woman with creamy brown skin and the most striking amber eyes Tess had ever seen. She was coming in from the front hallway area and carrying a huge tray loaded with cupcakes, brownies, donuts, and other delicious looking baked goods. After a week spent living on alien food, the sweets made Tess’s mouth water.

“Hi, Lauren, where did you come from?” Olivia said.

“Just dropped by to say hi,” Lauren remarked. She frowned. “Hey, Sophie, is there something going on? As I was coming up to your suite, one of the lower ranking guards was right behind me. He said something about an urgent message for Sylvan.”

“Oh, who knows?” Sophie threw up her hands. “Ever since he’s gotten on the Council it seems like everything is urgent. It’s probably nothing.”

“Well, if you say so.” Lauren still looked uneasy.

“We see the baked goods but where’s the baby?” Liv asked, gesturing to the tray in her hands. “I’m dying to see her again—she’s adorable.”

“Aziza’s just down for a nap so I can’t stay long.” Lauren smiled and deposited the huge tray on the coffee table in front of the very pregnant Kat. “I just wanted to run these by because I heard Kat was dying for something sweet.”

“When is she not?” Liv said dryly. “But seriously, Lauren, you’re supposed to be still recovering from having the baby. You shouldn’t be up and around and baking everything in sight.”

“I love it,” Lauren said. “Besides, it gives Xairn an excuse to bond with Ziza. He was scared to death he would break her at first—he would barely touch her.”

“Oh, seriously? That’s too bad!” Sophie said.

“Yes, well, that didn’t last long.” Lauren grinned. “The first time she cried while I was up to my elbows in cake flour, he had to pick her up. Once he realized that he wasn’t going to drop her, he started falling completely in love with her.”

“And I bet she loves her daddy too,” Kat said, laughing.

“Let’s just say she already knows she’s got him twisted around her little finger,” Lauren said. “Not that Xairn minds—that man is absolutely foolish about Ziza.”

“I just bet.” Liv sounded a bit wistful. “I love the way Baird is with Daniel but I can’t help wishing I might have a girl next—even though I know the odds are way against it.”

“Never mind womb mate—you can borrow Kara anytime you want,” Sophie said comfortingly. “But only if you’re willing to take Kaleb too. He cries anytime they’re separated.”

“You guys, I think Tess is feeling a little left out,” Becca said gently, interrupting.

“Oh, sorry doll!” Kat exclaimed. “We’ve all just known each other forever and any time we get together it becomes a total gab fest. Just have a seat and grab a…ooh, Lauren—are those éclairs?”

“Fresh and homemade,” Lauren said proudly. “I’m thinking of selling them in the shop. Let me know what you think of them.”

“No problem!” Kat pounced on the gooey treat and took a big bite. Her eyes rolled up in her head and she moaned in apparent ecstasy. “Mmmm…”

Tess couldn’t help it—she started laughing.

“Are you guys always like this?”

“They pretty much are,” Becca confided. “I haven’t known them as long as they’ve known each other but they took me in like a little lost lamb.”

“Well we had to, Becca,” Kat protested, around a mouthful of éclair. “After all, it was my fault you ate that big slice of horny cake at my wedding that got you into trouble with Truth and Far in the first place.”

“My men—I’m mated to Twin Kindred, or I will be as soon as we plan our joining ceremony,” Becca explained to the puzzled Tess. “As a matter of fact, Garron is Truth’s half brother.”

“He is?” Tess put a hand to her throat. “Then…he has a twin somewhere?” The big warrior was so intense she didn’t know how any girl would handle two guys like him at the same time.

“Oh, no!” Becca exclaimed. “No, Garron isn’t a Twin Kindred—he’s half Kindred and half Rai’ku.”

“Half what? I’m sorry—I’ve only heard of Beast and Blood and Twin Kindred,” Tess said. “I didn’t know there were other kinds.”

“Most people don’t. And the Rai’ku aren’t really a branch of the Kindred because the Kindred High Council has refused to do a formal trade with them,” Becca explained. “That’s because they…” She frowned. “Well, let’s just say that maybe it’s a good thing you and Garron aren’t together.”

“Why? Would he hurt me?” Tess remembered the rage in the big Kindred’s jewel-like eyes. He’d looked every bit as angry as Pierce got—positively enraged when he’d learned he had been telling his secrets to a real girl and not just a Pairing Puppet. And yet, though he had grabbed her by the arm, he hadn’t squeezed or pinched or bruised her as her ex had so often done. And he hadn’t hit her, not even when he looked mad enough to punch a hole in the wall.

“Oh no, of course not! Garron is a good guy,” Becca said at once. “But that being said, he may still be dangerous. Or his Rai’ku half might be. We’re just not entirely sure he’s O’ahn. I mean, we think so but—”

“Not sure he’s what?” Tess asked. “Sorry, but this is kind of confusing.”

“I thought so too when I went to Pax,” Becca said. “That’s the Rai’ku home world,” she explained. “And it’s not exactly a nice place to visit.”

“Oh? Why not?” Tess reached for a cupcake—a luscious looking chocolate one. Everyone else was eating and talking and no one seemed to mind that she and Becca were having their own little conversation.

“Well, it’s freezing for one thing.” Becca took a cupcake too—a vanilla one with pink frosting, and began pealing back the paper. “And the inhabitants are judgmental assholes for another. Oops.” She put a hand to her lips. “Sorry for the potty mouth. Would you believe I was going to be a nun before I got mixed up with my guys?”

“Really?” Tess took a bite of cupcake which seemed to melt in her mouth. “Mmm. This is delicious!”

“Uh-huh—Lauren’s like some kind of a baking wizard. But back to the Rai’ku. You know the first time I met my mother-in-law—well, Truth’s step mother, anyway—she called me a whore?”

Tess nearly choked on cupcake crumbs.

“What? Right to your face? Why?”

“She could smell that Truth and Far and I had…” Becca cleared her throat delicately. “Had been together. The Rai’ku have this incredibly sensitive sense of smell—even better than a regular Kindred’s.”

“I can smell how hot and wet you’re getting. Can’t wait to taste your honey right from the source,” Garron’s deep voice growled in her head. Tess felt her cheeks getting hot at the memory.

“Wow, that’s…amazing,” she said weakly, taking another bite of cupcake.

“They’re extremely repressed people,” Becca said, taking a bite of her own cupcake. “And this is coming to you from a former almost-nun who was raised very strict Catholic. Seriously, the Rai’ku make the sisters in my order look like party girls.”

“How so?” Even though she knew she would never see the big Kindred again, Tess found herself fascinated by the subject of Garron’s home world.

“Well, they don’t touch each other for one thing. I mean, not at all. They don’t even hug their children.” Becca’s lovely eyes widened. “Can you imagine that?”

“That’s awful,” Tess murmured. No wonder he was so upset and kept claiming we’d done ‘forbidden’ things. If they don’t even touch each other, hugging must be a big no-no where he comes from.

“It’s just not a nice place at all.” Becca sighed. “Luckily, I never have to go back since Truth and Far and I aren’t welcome there any more. Not that I’d want to be. But enough about me…” She nodded at Tess. “What about you? What were you doing hiding out in the Pairing House?”

“And what’s it like in there?” Kat chimed in, joining their conversation. “I’ve always kind of wondered.”

“It’s pretty boring, actually,” Tess said honestly. “Although they do have some good books since all the girls—the Pairing Puppets—pretend to read while they’re waiting for, uh clients, I guess you’d call them. I got to reread Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights while I was there—there was nothing else to do.”

“So you just kind of…blended in?” Kat still sounded skeptical.

“I hid whenever I heard any ‘clients’ come in,” Tess explained. “It wasn’t hard.” She didn’t like to say too much about her experience at the Pairing House or why she had been there because she didn’t want to get her friend Di in trouble.

“But why were you there in the first place?” Liv wanted to know. She and Sophie and Lauren were suddenly all looking at Tess. “I mean, there have to be better places to hide.”

“Not where he couldn’t find me,” Tess said in a low voice. She thought of Pierce, of the mean way his green eyes would narrow just before he hit her. Of the way he always had to “punish” her for any infraction—real or imaginary.

“He?” Becca frowned. “He, who?”

“I…” Tess shook her head, realizing she’d been letting herself get a little too comfortable with her new friends. “I shouldn’t have said that. I just—”

“Excuse me, ladies.” The tall blond Kindred Garron had brought her to see—the one Tess was pretty sure must be married to the brown haired Sophie—was suddenly at her side.

“Oh, Commander Sylvan,” Becca said, looking around. “I didn’t hear you come up. Do you want a cupcake? Lauren just brought a fresh batch and they’re amazing.”

“I’m afraid I’m not here for refreshments.” The look on the blond Kindred’s face was grave and it was directed at Tess. Suddenly, she felt like the cupcake she’d eaten was made of lead.

“Is…is everything all right?” she asked. “I mean, am I in trouble?”

“I’m afraid so,” he said quietly. “Forgive me, but I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.”


Chapter Nine

 

 

“She’s being extradited back to Earth. You don’t have to worry about seeing her again.”

Commander Sylvan’s words rang in his head over and over again as Garron paced up and down the short length of his room. He never had to see her again. He ought to be happy—overjoyed—ecstatic.

So why did he feel like someone had dipped his heart in lead instead?

Stop being an idiot, he commanded himself angrily. She was hiding in the Pairing House under false pretenses. She pretended to be a Puppet and learned all your darkest secrets and then no doubt repeated them to Becca and all her friends. It’s a mortifying situation—you ought to be glad it was resolved so quickly.

But though he tried to be glad, he couldn’t. He kept seeing the frightened look in the girl’s eyes when she backed away from him—almost as though she feared he might strike her. As if he would ever strike a female! The very idea was reprehensible to him—no matter how angry he was.

I made her fear me, he thought, sinking down on the side of the bed and burying his head in his hands. I didn’t mean to do that.

Of course she feared you—you shouted and raved at her when you found out what she really was—that she wasn’t a Puppet, a little voice in his head pointed out. But is that what’s really bothering you, Garron? Maybe what’s upsetting you is the way things were before you knew what she was…before you knew she was real.

Garron tried to push the little voice away. Of course he should have known better than to think she was a Pairing Puppet. Her reactions to him—the way she was so clearly nervous about his desires—should have tipped him off. But he had allowed himself to be blinded by her delicious scent. The scent that even now, still lingered in his small room.

Not only that, she had somehow succeeded in calming the burning in his blood. As soon as he got close to her—the very moment he touched her soft skin—he had felt the urgent demands of the beast lying dormant within him begin to fade. It was almost as though she had been able to tame the dr’gin he was certain lived in him. Even though he didn’t know her, the beast within had responded to her gentle touch…

“Stop,” Garron muttered to himself. “Just stop now. It’s late and she’s gone. She’s nothing to you.”

All of that was true but most importantly, the girl wasn’t Nella. He shouldn’t even be thinking about her—not when he had vowed to remain true to the memory of his lost love.

“Forget about her and get some sleep,” he advised himself.

He let himself fall back on the bed and turned over, burying his face in the blue coverlet to try and get some rest.

That was a mistake.

The girl’s sweet, feminine scent was still strong, clinging to the coverlet like a secret perfume meant only for him. Garron couldn’t help himself—he took a deep breath, inhaling her essence as though it was a drug.

Gods! His cock was instantly hard, throbbing against the tight confines of his black flight leathers for release. His blood, which had been cooled by her touch, began to heat again with desire. Though he tried not to, Garron couldn’t help remembering how the girl had felt in his arms.

She’d been so supple and curvy—warm and soft and rounded and she’d fit perfectly against him. When their bodies had lined up, he’d been able to feel the soft crush of her ripe breasts against him and the roundness of her hips and pelvis pressed to his. Gods, he’d loved her lovely, full figure! The feel of her against him, the way she had relaxed into his arms when he held her…and then later, when he had pressed his face to her chest, the way she had stroked his hair…

I should have known she was real right then, he admitted to himself. No Pairing Puppet would have done such a thing. There had been real tenderness in her gesture. A wish to comfort and caress that couldn’t be faked by any machine, no matter how cunningly it was crafted.

Stop it! Garron rolled over on his back and threw an arm over his eyes. Just stop…you have to forget about her now. She’s gone back to Earth. And she was some kind of criminal if what Sylvan says was right. You’re better off rid of her. Remember Nella—remember your vow to honor her memory!

He tried to shut out the memory of holding the girl and breathing her scent and instead concentrate on the other things Commander Sylvan had told him.

“Apparently she’s wanted by the local police department—the authorities who keep peace down on Earth,” Sylvan had said. “I received a call on the viewscreen from one of them—a Detective Pierce Hughes. He said that Tess was wanted for some crimes she’d committed in Tampa, Florida.”

“Did he say what crimes?” Garron had been unable to help asking.

Sylvan had shaken his head. “No and I didn’t ask. But no doubt that’s the reason she was hiding here in the Pairing House—to escape prosecution back on Earth. She’s been deported now and she’s banned from the Mother Ship so don’t worry, Garron—she’s never coming back.”

“Thank you,” Garron had said. “I…appreciate your actions, Commander Sylvan.”

“I’m glad someone does.” Sylvan had sighed.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Sophia was most upset with me about the matter. She said that Tess didn’t strike her as any kind of criminal and that she’d said something about hiding from someone on the Mother Ship because it was the only place she couldn’t be found.”

“Hiding? From who?” Garron’s heart had begun beating faster for some reason.

“Who knows?” Sylvan shrugged. “I assume from the Earth authorities. Anyway, she’s going back to Tampa within the hour. So rest assured you will never have to see her again.”

“Thank you,” Garron had said again. Sylvan had taken his leave and Garron had been left alone in his room to think…or to try not to think ever since.

This is ridiculous. I need to sleep. I can’t keep thinking about the girl. About…Tess, Garron told himself firmly. He rolled over again, burying his face in a pillow she hadn’t used and tried to get to sleep.

Instead he kept remembering how she’d looked in those tiny little undergarments. Her skin had been so pale and creamy against the black, shiny fabric. And when he’d kissed his way down her trembling belly to the crotch of her panties…

Garron groaned and rolled on his back again. Was he never going to get her out of his mind? She was probably gone by now—on her way back to Earth. And good riddance—she was a common criminal. Running from the law on her own planet after having committed who knew what horrible crimes.

But though he tried to picture her doing despicable acts that ought to be punished, all he could see was the full figured Earth girl spread out on his bed. All he could remember was her sweet, feminine scent and the way she’d gotten so hot and wet when he told her exactly what he wanted to do to her.

She was afraid too, though, he remembered. Afraid but aroused at the same time. Why?

Her scent had told him about both her arousal and her fear and Garron’s nose never lied to him. Had she been nervous about the forbidden sexual act he had wanted to perform on her? Even now the idea of spreading her creamy thighs and licking her plump pussy made his shaft rock hard. Or had she been fearful of something else? He flashed on the small white scar he’d found on her thigh. It had looked deliberate. Who had put that there? Why was she afraid? And why couldn’t he stop thinking of her and remember his vow to Nella?

At last, though the questions continued to circle his brain, he found himself growing tired. No, not just tired—weary…exhausted. It had been an extremely trying day. He had to get some rest. He shucked off his leather trousers and tried to get more comfortable.

“Lights off,” he muttered and the automatic sensors plunged his room into darkness. With a sigh, Garron turned on his side and closed his eyes. It was time to let the little Earth girl go now. Time to forget all the puzzling things about her and just get some sleep…

* * * * *

The next time he opened his eyes, he was in a different world.

“So, Princess, I finally found your little hiding spot.” A tall human with brown hair and sharp green eyes greeted the Earth girl, Tess, as she got out of the Kindred shuttle.

Wait—what? Where am I?

Garron stared around himself in confusion. He appeared to be in the middle of some kind of holding area where many Kindred vehicles were parked. There was a hard black surface underfoot and some kind of metal fence surrounded the entire lot.

Though it was past midnight on the Mother Ship, it was clearly some hours earlier here. The sky was a soft blue deepening to dusk near the horizon and several white, puffy clouds floated above. There was a warm breeze blowing that ruffled the long, flowing fronds of the alien which that stood at the end of the lot.

Wait—a breeze? A parking area? Didn’t I just turn out the lights and go to bed? Where is my room? What is this place and how did I get here? And where is here, anyway?

Garron looked around some more and realized he couldn’t see his own body. All right, so he was invisible—that was strange. As for where he was, judging from the fact that the Earth girl, Tess, was stepping out of a shuttle and a human was waiting to meet her, he must be on Earth. Probably in Tampa where Sylvan had said she was being extradited to. And this man waiting for her must be the authority who was taking her into custody. What had Sylvan called him? Detective…Directive…? Something like that, Garron couldn’t remember.

“Pierce,” Tess said flatly.

Detective Pierce Hughes—that was it! Garron remembered.

“Hello, Princess.” His smile was more of a sneer.

Garron frowned. If the man was an authority sent to pick her up, why did he address her in such a familiar way? Was that normal on Earth? But no, it seemed as if they knew each other.

“What are you doing here?” Tess asked him. Though her voice didn’t tremble, Garron thought he could see fear in her eyes. Was she afraid because she was going to be punished for her crimes? Or for some other reason?

“Oh, I think you know the answer to that, Princess.” The man walked forward and took her by the arm—or tried to. Tess jerked away from him and looked back at the shuttle driver.

“Please! This man—”

But the shuttle was already lifting off—apparently the driver was eager to get back to the Mother Ship.

“This man is here to collect you, Tess.” Pierce’s green eyes narrowed. “And don’t get any cute ideas—I have a warrant for your arrest.”

“On what grounds?” she demanded. “I’m not the one who breaks into other people’s apartments and…and…” She shook her head, clearly unable to continue.

“Ah yes, I did make kind of a mess, didn’t I?” He tsked. “Sorry about that. But you had to know that getting some mangy mutt wasn’t going to keep you safe—keep me from taking back what’s rightfully mine.”

“I’m not yours. I never was,” she shot back.

Pierce’s green eyes narrowed again and his hand snaked out. Tess must have seen the move coming because she tried to duck out of the way but he was large for a human and had a long reach. His palm cracked against her face hard enough to snap her head to one side.

Garron had been standing passively up until now, watching and trying to make sense of their conversation. But at the sight of this male hitting Tess, his blood suddenly boiled and a red curtain of rage dropped over his eyes.

“You bastard!” He surged forward…only to find he had nothing to surge with. Though he could see and hear and smell the scents of this new world, he didn’t seem to be able to affect it in any way. He was not just invisible but incorporeal—in other words, helpless to protect the little female.

“Leave me alone!” Tess took a step back, her hand going to the red mark growing on her creamy cheek. “I’m not going with you.”

“Oh yes you are, or did you forget I have a warrant?” He took a step towards her.

“Stay away.” Now her voice trembled as she backed away, trying to put distance between them. “I…I’ll tell everyone in the entire HKR building what you are—what you do. I won’t go quietly!”

“Oh yes you will.” Pierce continued to advance. “Because I’ve already given everyone a heads up that I’m here to escort an escaped lunatic back to where she belongs. I told them not to worry if you shouted or screamed or made crazy accusations—after all, delusional people do that sometimes.”

“You…you’ll never get away with that. Not everyone will believe you.” Tess was beginning to sound desperate now.

“If you mean your good friend Di—who I’m pretty sure had something to do with you hiding up on that fucking ship in the first place—don’t worry about her. It’s her day off. By the time she comes in tomorrow morning, you’ll be long gone.”

“No, I won’t!” She looked poised to flee but Pierce just laughed.

“Look around you, Princess—where are you going to go? This lot is completely fenced off and we’re all alone out here. The only way out is through the HRK building.”

“I…” Tess scanned the area desperately. She had the look of a hunted creature—one who is caught in the shadow of the predator and knows there is no escape.

Pierce seemed to know that. He took one long stride forward and grabbed her by the upper arm. Garron saw his grip tighten as his fingers bit into her soft flesh.

Tess gave a choked cry as he pulled her to him. Pierce cut it short with a brutal, bruising kiss. She pushed and beat against his chest but he gripped her by her long hair and didn’t let her go until he seemed to feel he had established mastery. Then he broke the kiss abruptly and slapped her hard across the mouth.

At the sight of another male touching Tess, taking her mouth, hurting her, Garron felt like he was going to explode with rage. The dr’gin within him woke and roared angrily. How dare this fucking bastard hurt her? How dare he lay so much as a finger on her? I’ll kill him—rip him to shreds! I’ll—

But there was nothing he could do. Nothing but watch as Pierce shook the little Earth girl angrily.

“You little slut,” he said in a low voice, throbbing with rage. “Look at this get-up your wearing—no better than a prostitute.” He shook her again, glaring at the black lace dress she had on. “But I guess that’s just about right because I hear you’ve been hiding in a fucking whore house. Were you happy up there, Princess? Did you get enough Kindred cock to finally fill you up?”

“It wasn’t like that!” Tess protested, still trying to pull away from him. “It was just a place to hide. I never did anything with anyone! I would never—”

“Fucking little liar,” he snarled. “That big blond Kindred, Commander Sylvan, told me you’d been caught by one of the customers when you went with him to his room. What the hell were you doing in his room if it wasn’t fucking him?”

“He just held me.” Tess was still trying to put on a brave face but Garron could see the tears rolling silently down her cheeks—marked red where Pierce had hit her. “I swear it’s true. We didn’t do anything else.”

“Lying little whore.” Pierce spat on the ground contemptuously. “You think I believe that? Stop lying right now or your punishment is going to be even worse when I get you home.”

“You’re not even taking me to the station, are you?” Tess said dully. “You probably don’t even have a warrant. Why would you need one? You can just flash your badge and everyone believes you.”

“One of the many benefits of being one of Tampa’s finest, my dear.” He laughed angrily and yanked her roughly towards the back door of the large building. “Come on, let’s get you home and decontaminate you. I want you nice and clean before I shove my dick in you again.”

“I don’t want that—I don’t ever want to do that with you again.” Tess sounded frightened now. “If you do that to me it’ll be rape.”

Pierce laughed again, sounding genuinely amused this time.

“Stupid little slut—a husband can’t rape his own wife. Ask anyone.”

“Why can’t you just let me go?” Tess begged as he dragged her towards the door. “Why, Pierce? There’s nothing special about me. Why can’t you just let me have the divorce and go find someone else?”

“Don’t want anyone else, Princess. I just want you. Because like I told you, you’re mine. Mine to punish, mine to fuck…mine to do whatever I want with until I get tired of you. Which might be pretty fucking soon the way you’ve been acting.” He shook her roughly. “So you’d better straighten up and fly right pretty quick.”

“I can’t pretend to be something I’m not. I don’t belong to you—I don’t want to be with you,” Tess said desperately. “Why can’t you understand that?”

Pierce eyed her narrowly.

“You’ll pay for that little remark once we get home. Let me see…should I use the belt or the cane? Because whoring around is definitely a whipping offense. I think you need a few bruises on your backside to remind you who you belong to, Princess.”

Tess’s big dark eyes widened.

“No—Pierce, please.”

He shook his head. “Guess I’ll decide later. For now, just shut your pretty little mouth and keep it shut while we go through the building. Remember, everyone in here thinks you’re crazy and a criminal. Mouthing off won’t get you a damn thing but more punishment.”

Then he opened the door and dragged her into the HKR building, and out of Garron’s line of sight.

Garron tried to follow, to find out where Tess was going—where Pierce was taking her. But it was no use. He suddenly felt like he was being yanked backwards, up into the sky and away from the scene of brutality and shame he had just witnessed. Away from the little Earth girl who was clearly in desperate trouble.

Trouble I put her in, Garron thought as the surface of the Earth receded, becoming nothing but a large blue and green ball in the blackness of space. I turned her in—I got her kicked off the ship and that bastard was waiting for her. Waiting to swoop in and do Gods know what to her the minute he got her alone.

She’s in pain…in danger and it’s all my fault. All my fault. All my…

“Fault.” He spoke the last word aloud and found himself sitting straight up in bed.

In bed…was it just a dream then? But no—he could still smell the tropical air, still hear Tess’s soft, broken voice begging to be left alone. He could still see that bastard touching her…threatening her…hurting her.

This dream was real. It was happening. Garron didn’t know how he knew but he did. It was real and he had to do something about it.

It was still dark in his room but the lighted chronometer by the side of his bed showed that only an hour had passed since he had drifted off to sleep.

“Lights!” he roared and was getting out of bed even before they came on, illuminating his small room in a soft glow. He pulled on his flight leathers, boots, and his royal blue uniform shirt without taking time to button it. Then he ran out the door, not even bothering to make sure it shut behind him.

Nothing was important right now but Tess. He was still true to Nella’s memory but he was certain his lost love wouldn’t want him to sit idly by while an innocent girl was tortured. He had to get down to Earth and find her. Had to find her before it was too late.


Chapter Ten

 

The trip down to Earth took longer than he liked and Garron cursed the fact that he didn’t yet have clearance to pilot a Kindred shuttle himself. Truth had taught him how to drive one on their way from Pax to the Mother Ship but until he passed his clearance exam with Baird who was the head flight instructor, Garron was reliant on others for transportation.

When they finally touched down in back of the Tampa HKR building, all his fears and suspicions were confirmed. Not only was the scenery exactly what he had seen in his dream, Tess’s sweet scent still lingered in the air. It was delicate and feminine—and laced with the bitterness of fear. Another male couldn’t have smelled it—not even another Kindred. But Garron was completely attuned to her now. He could have followed her scent for miles or picked her out of a crowd of thousands.

He didn’t know why he felt such a strong connection to her—he couldn’t explain it and didn’t want to. Examining it too closely might reawaken the voice of his guilt. Right now, all he cared about was finding her and making sure she was safe.

And after that I’ll deal with that sick bastard that hit her. That son of a bitch, Pierce…

The dr’gin stirred within him, growling approval. Yes, it was going to feel wonderful to plow his fist right between those narrow green eyes and rip out Pierce’s throat with his teeth, to bathe in his blood and crack his skull open to get to his brains…

Be careful! warned a little voice in his head. Is that you talking…or the dr’gin? Because if you let it out, no one will be safe. Pierce won’t be the only one you hurt. Everyone will die if you can’t control yourself and the beast within.

Yes, that was true. Garron took a deep breath. The first thing to concentrate on was finding Tess. His dream had ended before he saw where she was taken but he could always follow his nose.

Accordingly, he followed her sweet scent through the quiet and minimally staffed HKR building, out the front door, and onto the steps in front of the building that led down to a paved road where alien vehicles were zooming back and forth.

But there, to his dismay, the scent trail ended as though it had been cut off with a knife. Garron cast about, lifting his face high in the air, trying to find where she’d gone. Nothing. He watched as the alien vehicles whizzed past him, their round black wheels gripping the road and leaving the stink of rubber and exhaust in their wake. Possibly—no probably—Tess had been forced into one of those primitive conveyances. If the windows and doors had all been closed, there was no way for her scent to escape. Pierce could have taken her back to his domicile to do whatever he wanted with her. Even now he might be—

Garron choked off the thought. He couldn’t bear to consider it.

Just then, one of the alien vehicles—a small blue one—came to a screeching halt in front of the HKR building. An older Earth woman with neatly trimmed, graying hair jumped out and ran up the steps without giving Garron a second glance. He watched as she threw open the glass door and scanned the interior of the building rapidly.

“Joseph? Joe!” she yelled at one of the building attendants. “Look, I just got a call from Maria. Is it true that the police came and took some girl away from here not long ago?”

“I dunno,” a man’s voice answered. “Ask Maria.”

Garron’s heart leapt and he followed the woman quickly into the building. She must be talking about Tess—so maybe she would know where Pierce had taken her.

“Maria, please…” The woman was talking to a girl who was standing behind the information counter. “You told me on the phone a girl was caught hiding on the Kindred ship and she got taken away by the police—is that right?”

“Well, sure.” The girl shrugged as though it was of no importance. “But it wasn’t like a big deal. I mean, they didn’t come in with their lights and sirens blazing or anything. Actually, it was just one detective—a really nice looking guy with green eyes. He showed me his badge and everything.”

“And the girl. Was she about this tall with long, dark brownish-red hair and big dark eyes?” The woman made a motion to indicate Tess’s height.

“Uh-huh, yeah.” The girl frowned. “Why, do you know her? I just called to give you a heads up in case you had to think of something to tell the tourists tomorrow. I didn’t know—”

“And how long ago did it happen?” the woman demanded.

“I dunno—a couple hours I guess. I called you as soon as I took my break.”

“Shit!” The woman put a hand to her forehead. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“I’m sorry, Di. I just—”

“No, it’s not you. It’s not your fault—you did the right thing calling me. Thank you, Maria.” The woman, whose name was apparently Di, ran a hand through her neat gray hair. “Damn it, that bastard…” she muttered under her breath, moving away from the counter. She pulled out a handheld device and began tapping at it.

This seemed like a good time to Garron—it was clear this woman knew Tess so maybe he could get some information about her.

“Excuse me,” he began as she put the device to her ear.

“Not now.” She didn’t even look at him. “Hello? Tampa PD? I need to know if you took my friend into custody tonight. Yes, I’m trying to find her so I can pay her bail. Her name is Tess…Tess Evans or it might be under Evans-Hughes. Yes, I’ll hold.”

“Excuse me,” Garron said again, beginning to get frustrated. “I need to talk to you.”

The woman named Di barely glanced at him. “If you’re trying to get on one of the tours, you have to sign up at the information desk. Over there.” She gestured over her shoulder and went back to her device. “Yes, you spell her name T-e-s-s E-v—”

“I’m not here for a tour,” Garron growled. “I’m here for Tess.”

“What?” Clearly he had her full attention now. “What do you know about Tess? And how do you know her anyway?”

“I know she’s in trouble. And the way I know is…” He sighed. “Because I’m the one who put her there.”

“What?” She let the personal communication device sag. “Who are you?”

“I’m the one who turned Tess in to the authorities.” Garron hated admitting it but there was no sense in lying—the ugly truth would come out eventually. “I didn’t know why she was hiding or anything about her,” he said in a low voice. “I only knew I was angry when I found out she wasn’t…what she was pretending to be.”

“So you got mad because you couldn’t screw her is that it?” Di demanded, her eyes blazing. She slapped him hard on the chest with her free hand.

Garron accepted the blow.

“That wasn’t it,” he said in a low voice. “I…told her things. Private things. I thought—”

“No, you didn’t think. You got mad and turned her in just in time for that bastard of an ex-husband to come get her and take her God knows where…”

“I didn’t know!” Garron held up both hands in a gesture of peace. “If I had, I never would have taken her to the authorities. I’m here now to try and make things right—only I can’t find her. Her scent ends right outside the building and I don’t know this world. I can’t track her any further without help.”

“Well, you—” Just then her handheld device started squawking again. Di put it to her ear and listened for a moment. “Yes, I understand. Thank you anyway.” She pushed a button that seemed to end the communication. “He didn’t take her to the station.” Her voice was quiet with despair.

“I could have told you that,” Garron said evenly.

“How?” She frowned at him. “How could you know that? Were you in communication with some of the Kindred guards down here or something?”

“Something like that.” Garron didn’t want to tell her about the dream. It sounded crazy for one thing. And for another it was too…intimate. Like a secret he shared with Tess, even though he didn’t really know her.

“Well it sounds like you’ve got more information than I do—where did he take her?” Di demanded.

“I was hoping you would know that.” Garron felt a surge of frustration—was this going to be a dead end?

“Let me think.” She sighed. “Well, he didn’t take her to the station and he wouldn’t take her back to her apartment—he’s been trying to get her out of there for months. I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet he took her back to his place.”

“All right. Where is it?” Garron was ready to go at once.

“He has a house out in Old Seminole Heights—Central Tampa.”

“Can you take me there?” He was shifting from foot to foot with impatience. “Please, I have to find her. I have to make this right.”

Di shook her head grimly. “Knowing Pierce, this situation is so wrong nobody will be able to make it right. But I’m with you—we need to find her.” She frowned at him. “But before we go, why do you care so much? You didn’t even know Tess before today—she was just some girl you turned in. Why the change of heart?”

“I don’t know,” Garron said honestly. “I just know I have to find her and make sure she’s safe. Please, will you help me?”

She gave him a long, speculative look and then nodded.

“Okay, big boy. Let’s go.”


Chapter Eleven

 

“Tess is about the sweetest girl you’ll ever meet. We used to work together at the nursing home. I was the administrator there back before I got the job at the HKR building.”

Di was keeping up a running commentary as her little blue car sped through the Tampa streets. Garron, crammed into the passenger side with his knees almost up to his ears, could only nod.

“Uh-huh. Can this vehicle go any faster?” he asked tensely, scanning the strange alien domiciles and vegetation as they flashed past outside his window.

“Going as fast as I can without getting a ticket,” Di said grimly. “If we attract the attention of the police it’ll slow us down considerably. Not to mention if we get the wrong officer, he might call and give Pierce a heads up that we’re coming.”

“All right. I see your logic,” he growled. But he couldn’t help feeling restless. What was that bastard Pierce doing to Tess? What was she enduring right now because of Garron’s wounded pride? I never should have taken her to Sylvan. I should have let her go back to the Pairing House—at least there she would have been safe!

“We’ll be there soon. Anyway, as I was saying, she’s always been the sweetest kid. So kind to her patients. But she kept popping up with bruises and black eyes—”

“What?” She had Garron’s attention now. “You’re saying he beat her?” He’d been hoping against hope that what he had witnessed in his dream wasn’t a common occurrence. But…he thought of the small, white scar he’d seen on Tess’s thigh.

“All the time,” Di said grimly. “She always had excuses—‘Oh, I ran into the door frame…I fell down the stairs…I tripped in the dark…’ But I could see the signs. My first husband was a beater—nearly beat me to death before I finally got away from him.”

Garron thought of his own childhood. Of the screaming, drunken rants his father, Feels Pain, had gone on. Of the verbal abuse he’d heaped on his mother and the way he had beaten Truth and, on occasion, Garron as well. If he and his brother hadn’t been there to stand up to him, the younger children in the household would have carried his marks of violence on them too.

“I know…something about that,” he said in a low voice. “My own father…” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

“Then you know what it’s like—walking on eggshells all the time, trying to keep him happy, praying he won’t get angry and take it out on you.” Di sighed. “I finally just took Tess aside and let her know that I knew. She denied it at first but then she broke down and cried. She’d been trying so hard to make it work. Every time after he hit her he’d beg her to forgive him—do something nice like buy her flowers and swear it would never happen again.”

“Yes.” Garron nodded, thinking of the remorseful face his father would show after a night of drunken savagery. “I am…familiar with the pattern.”

“So am I. I told her when she’d finally had enough I would help her leave him.”

“And?” Garron raised an eyebrow at her.

“And a couple of months ago he—” Di broke off, shaking her head. “No, I can’t tell you that. I wanted to give you a little background but that’s…it’s personal. Not my story to tell.”

Garron wondered what Pierce had done that finally convinced Tess to leave him. Whatever it was, it must have been truly horrific. And he had sent her back to that situation—he was responsible for whatever was happening to her right now. Whether that bastard was beating her, bruising her…or something worse. It could all be laid at his door.

Oh Gods, I can’t bear it! He put his head in his hands and groaned.

“Hey—are you okay?” Di threw him a worried look as she drove. “You in pain or something?”

“Only here.” Garron put a fist to his chest. “I hate myself for turning her in. If only I had known…I was just so angry.”

“You didn’t know,” Di said. “Nobody did—that was the way Tess wanted it.”

She twisted the wheel and the little car made a sharp left. They were in a residential area now, as far as Garron could see. A quiet street lined with the strange domiciles built right on the ground instead of up in trees where they would be safe from predators. Of course, maybe the Earth people didn’t have big enough predators to worry about—or big enough trees. None of the ones flashing past his window looked like they would support a good sized dwelling, let alone several.

“We’re here.” Di pulled up in front of a medium sized white domicile and parked her vehicle. “I don’t see his car—maybe he’s gone.”

Garron felt his heart jump into his mouth. “If he’s taken her someplace else…”

“We came all this way. Let’s check the house first to be sure. I’d call Tess but I’m sure he’s taken her phone—the bastard. Come on—just be quiet and careful.”

They went to the front of the house but the front windows were covered by some kind of metal mesh which completely enclosed the glass. They had holes big enough to see through but there were cloth panels hanging on the inside of the glass which obscured the view.

“This is new,” Di said grimly, pointing to the metal mesh window coverings.

“Is it not common to have these on your world?” Garron looked at the mesh which was fixed firmly in place almost like a cage around the window. “I thought maybe they were to keep predators out.”

“They put them up to keep out burglars—thieves—in bad neighborhoods. But this is not the kind of place you need them.” Di shook her head. “And I don’t think Pierce had them put up to keep anyone out. I think he wanted to keep Tess in.”

“He intends to keep her a prisoner here?” Garron felt a surge of anger course through him.

“That’s his general MO. Back when they were together, he would barely let her go to work or the grocery store. He wants to keep her under lock and key all the time.”

“Should we try the door?” It was a thick piece of wood with a knob on one side. Garron was ready to burst it open at once but Di shook her head.

“No, let’s go around back first. See if she’s in the bedroom.”

She led the way around the corner of the domicile into an area she called the “back yard” which was filled with more lush, tropical vegetation than Garron had ever seen. There were more of the trees with skinny trunks and long fronds sticking out of their tops which Di called “palm trees” as well as other plants she didn’t name.

All the windows they passed had the metal cages over them and the one they stopped in front of was no different.

“Here,” Di whispered as they peered through the holes in the mesh into a sleeping chamber. There were cloth panels here as well but they were open to show a large sleeping platform with a green and gray spread heaped with pillows. “This is her bedroom—or it was before she moved out.”

As she spoke, Tess came into view. She was wearing a long, white cloth wrapped around her breasts and her dark hair was wet. Garron saw that there were red marks on the side of her face where Pierce had struck her. His heart went tight as a fist in his chest. Had those come from the blows he had witnessed in his dream…or were they more recent?

Tess clearly didn’t see them. She moved slowly…stiffly, keeping her eyes down as she shuffled forward. When she got to the edge of the sleeping platform she lowered herself carefully with her back to the window. The white cloth she had draped around her slipped a bit, revealing the graceful curve of her back and Garron could see the reason for her slow, careful movements.

“Gods,” he muttered hoarsely. His stomach tightened and a wave of rage and remorse so strong it nearly stopped his heart came over him. He could hardly bear to look and yet he forced himself to anyway. After all, he had sent her to this place. It was his fault. His responsibility as surely as if he had marked her himself.

The pale, smooth canvas of her back was marred—the creamy white skin covered in long red welts and bruises. There were cuts too—many of them bleeding. All the wounds were obviously fresh and by the way Tess moved, extremely painful.

Beside him, Garron heard Di suck in a breath.

“That bastard!” she whispered, her voice shaking.

“Those should be my wounds to bear.” Garron’s voice sounded cold and distant in his own ears. “Her pain should be mine.”

“Never mind feeling guilty.” Di’s eminently practical voice dragged him back from the void. “The main thing is getting her out of there. Pierce doesn’t seem to be around so I’m going to take a chance.” Poking one finger through the mesh screen, she tapped on the glass with one fingernail and hissed, “Tess! Tess!”

* * * * *

Tess was moving slowly after the last round of “punishment.” In the end Pierce had decided that “whoring around” was indeed, a whipping offense and the belt was the appropriate instrument of choice. Accordingly he had whipped her the moment they got home—with the buckle end. The hard metal with its sharp tongue had torn her skin, making it extremely painful to move.

Not that she’d been moving much—mostly she’d been cowering in the corner, trying to protect her head and face with her arms. Pierce wasn’t too particular where the blows fell when he got going and she didn’t want to lose an eye.

Wish I was like one of those brave, plucky heroines in Lifetime movies. The kind that grab a butcher knife or a frying pan and smash their abusive husband over his thick skull with it!

But this was real life, not some inspirational movie. Pierce was bigger and stronger than her—he outweighed and outmassed her and he was fast. He’d been a quarterback in college and he still retained some of that speed. There was no getting around him or getting to him—all she could do was try to protect her face and vital organs and pray he didn’t kill her this time.

Now she was having a brief reprieve because Pierce had been called out to work a homicide. Tess knew it was wrong to be glad someone had died but she couldn’t help herself—she was just so grateful he was gone, even if it was for a little while. Of course, he had made certain she couldn’t leave while he was out which made her a prisoner in what used to be her own house but still, at least she wasn’t being beaten at the moment…or worse.

Because Pierce had promised much worse was to come and Tess believed him.

“Take a shower you filthy whore,” he’d ordered before he left. “You’d better be clean when I come back. Clean enough to fuck.”

He’s going to hurt me. Really hurt me this time.

Tess pushed a strand of wet hair out of her eyes and pressed her fingers to her eyelids for a moment, trying not to cry. She had attempted to dry her hair but it hurt too much to raise her hands over her head. After awhile she’d given up and wrapped a towel around herself instead, leaving her hair to hang loose and wet around her shoulders.

She sat on the bed, trying not to think about what Pierce was going to do to her and dreading it at the same time. Sex had never been exactly pleasant with him—not even in the beginning when she’d believed that he loved her. But he had never really gone out of his way to make it painful before. He’d seemed satisfied to get his violent urges out with his fists.

Tess had an awful feeling that he wouldn’t be satisfied with that this time. The beating he’d given her with the belt was just the warm up leading to a symphony of brutality that would doubtless be his piece de resistance.

He may kill me this time, she thought dully. He’ll just start “punishing” me and he won’t stop until I’m dead…

A sharp rapping at the window interrupted her morbid thoughts.

“What the hell?” She turned quickly, a move that hurt her back and drew a hiss of pain from her lips. But what she saw made her so surprised she almost forgot how much she hurt.

Di was standing there, her eyes red and her sensibly short hair mussed as though she’d been running both hands through it, as was her habit when she was upset. And standing right beside her was the Kindred warrior with the turquoise eyes—Garron. Those eyes were blazing at her now, filled with an intensity of emotion that was frightening.

What the hell? What is he doing here? Tess realized that her towel was sagging and hitched it up quickly.

“Di?” She got off the bed and opened the window with an effort that made her wounded back sing Ave Maria. The cool, damp air rushed in causing her to shiver. “Di,” she said again. “What are you—”

“Getting you out,” her friend interrupted. “Is Pierce gone? Come around to the front door and let us in.”

“I can’t.” Tess shook her head.

“What—he’s got you locked up in the bedroom?” Di demanded.

Tess nodded. “Are you surprised?”

“Not a bit. That asshole.” Di looked really upset. “Don’t worry if you can’t get out—we can come in to get you. Big boy here looks like he could do some serious damage to the front door.” She nodded at the warrior.

“No!” Tess exclaimed. “Pierce has it booby trapped somehow—the back door too. If you try to get in you could get seriously hurt.”

“Traps don’t concern me,” the Kindred growled. His voice was deep and angry. “Getting you out of there does.”

“Look, the traps involve loaded shotguns. Seriously, don’t try,” Tess warned. “And why are you even here anyway?”

He frowned. “Time for questions later. If the doors are impassible, we have to find another way.”

“There is no other way,” Tess said dryly. “I’m too pleasingly plump to wiggle up the chimney and Pierce has had these ‘anti-theft’ screens installed at every window. Unless you can pull one out of the concrete, I’m stuck in here.”

She’d been joking because honestly, there was nothing else she could do. It was ironic really, the way Pierce had cut her off. She was trapped in his house in more than one way and even now, when Di had come to the rescue, there was no way she could help Tess escape. He’d made certain of that.

But though she had meant the words as a joke, the big Kindred—Garron, his name is Garron, she reminded herself—took a step back and looked at the metal mesh covering the window appraisingly.

“Hey,” she said after he’d been studying it for a full minute, as though looking for weak points. “I was joking, you know. You’re a big strong guy but you’d pull your arms out of your sockets before you could get one of these screens lose. They’re made to be completely impassible—there’s no way.”

“There is a way.” He stepped forward again and looked her in the eyes with that unnervingly intense gaze of his. “But it’s dangerous.”

“More dangerous than leaving Tess there for Pierce to beat up some more?” Di demanded.

“Possibly.” He looked at Tess seriously. “I am half Rai’ku which means I have something within me which is…other.”

“Other?” Tess felt a chill run through her. “What do you mean other?”

Garron shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand. The point is, I can call on it for strength but if it comes too close to the surface…if I wake it completely…”

“Then…what?” Tess remembered the strange warning Becca had given her about him. That he was a good guy but dangerous. Was this what she had meant?

He shook his head again. “I’m not sure but nothing good would come of it. The other inside me is dormant at the moment but if it awakes it will be very, very hungry.”

“So…what? You have a split personality? Bipolar Disorder? What?” Di shook her head. “I’m not even sure what you’re telling us.”

“He’s saying he can get me out but it’ll be a big risk,” Tess said.

“Yes,” Garron said simply, nodding.

“So you’re asking if I want to take a chance?”

“Yes,” he said again.

Tess thought of the murderous look in Pierce’s green eyes when he’d beaten her—of the way he’d promised to come home and do worse—much worse. Was she willing to take a risk to get out of here?

“He’ll kill me if I stay,” she said softly, speaking more to herself than to Di and the big Kindred. “I know he will—he’s already working his way up to it. He’ll kill me and nobody will do a damn thing because he knows exactly how to work a crime scene. He’ll make it look like someone broke in or I had an accident or he might just hide my body, or—” She broke off abruptly.

“Tess…honey?” Di said softly. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying get me out.” Tess looked up at the big Kindred. “I don’t care about the risks. Get me the hell out of here.”

“All right.” He nodded gravely and looked at Di. “Then I would ask that you go back to your vehicle and wait.”

“What? Like hell I will!” Di protested.

“Please. It’s for your own safety.”

He looked so deadly serious that Tess nodded at her friend.

“Di, please—just do it.”

“What is he even planning to do?”

“I don’t know but if he says it’s dangerous, I believe him.”

“All right, fine.” Di nodded curtly. “But if I don’t hear anything for five minutes I’m coming back.”

She turned and walked stiffly across the back lawn, her irritation clear in the set of her narrow shoulders.

Garron waited patiently until she was gone and then looked at Tess.

“Thank you.”

“No problem. So what should I do?”

“Just step back.” He was already fitting his long fingers through the holes in the metal mesh to get a good grip. “And if you see me start to change forms in any way, run and lock yourself in your bathing chamber. If I don’t see you, the…other inside me should be content to seek another target.”

“Wow…okay.” Tess gave a shaky little laugh. “You’re really not kidding about this, are you?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Step back please, I’m going to try and free you.”

Tess took a step back and watched him carefully. He had both hands hooked into the mesh now and she could see the big muscles in his arms flexing as he got ready to pull. He lowered his head, looking down for a long moment, and she could see him breathing deeply as though preparing himself for the task ahead of him. He looked like a man in the middle of meditation or prayer.

Then he looked up again and she gasped. His eyes—those amazing pure turquoise eyes that looked like the tropical waters off a coral reef—were actually glowing. They blazed like lit torches in the night and for a moment she felt like a wild animal had somehow found her bedroom window and was staring in at her hungrily.

Then Garron began to pull.

His long arms tensed, his muscles bulged and Tess could hear the low growl coming from deep in his broad chest. Tendons stood out on the sides of his throat and a vein throbbed at his temple. His sharp features were turned into a trembling sneer of effort and still he pulled, clearly giving it everything he had.

My God, he’s going to kill himself! He’ll burst his heart or rip his arms out of their sockets!

“Stop!” she exclaimed. “You’ll kill yourself.”

“Not…stopping.” His voice was a low, animalistic growl. “Not until…you are…free. Or I am…dead.”

Oh my God, he really means that! Tess stared at him in awe. Why was he doing this? Why did he care so much about freeing her? And for that matter, why was he even here in the first place?

As she watched, Garron began to look different…larger somehow, as though he had grown in the few seconds since he’d started his effort. The sound coming from his mouth was more animal than human and his eyes were glowing so brightly they were like searchlights in the night.

What’s happening to him? Tess remembered his warning to run if he should change forms. Change into what form, though? What was this other he had inside him? And what might it do if it was released?

Tess opened her mouth to beg him to stop again when she heard a low, crumbling sound coming from the right upper corner of the window. A little shower of broken concrete pattered down and then the same thing happened with the left upper corner.

Garron concentrated his efforts on the bottom corners now, pulling and giving short, hard jerks, trying to yank the mesh cage free. His face was red with effort, his sharp black brows drawn down into an intense scowl. Tess thought she had never seen such single minded determination. He was literally ready to hurt or kill himself to get her out of her prison and she didn’t even know him. She wondered again why he was doing this.

At last the bottom corners began to come loose. The growl coming from the big warrior’s throat rose to a crescendo, becoming a full throated roar as, with one final sharp jerk, he ripped the metal cage away from the window frame and threw it to the ground. It landed with a dull clang that reverberated through the night air, making Tess wince. Then, his job finished, Garron stood there with his head bowed, just outside the window, panting.

“Oh my God,” Tess whispered, completely awed. “Oh my God, you did it.” Then she noticed that his hands were bleeding. Crimson drops that looked almost black in the moonlight dripped from his closed fists as his broad chest heaved with effort and emotion.

“You’re hurt!” Unable to think of anything but his pain, she rushed to the window and reached for him.

“No…” Garron’s voice was low and strangely distorted and when he looked up, his eyes still glowed like blue-green coals. He took a step back. “No, don’t touch me. It’s not…not safe. My blood, it boils. The dr’gin is too close. He wants

“But you’re hurt.” Tess ignored his warning. Leaning out the window, she reached for him, even though it made her wounded back sting fiercely. “You—oh!”

She felt herself falling and the towel slipping at the same time. The window was about waist-height on her but the house, like some many in Florida, was raised. It was a good four or five foot fall to the ground and it was going to hurt like hell…

Except that two large, strong arms caught her before she could hit.

“Oh!” She looked up and realized that Garron was cradling her in his arms like a baby. The second thing she realized was that her towel was now around her waist, leaving her breasts completely bare in the moonlight. “Oh my God—I’m so sorry!” She fumbled for the towel, trying to cover herself but with little success. It was all twisted up around her lower half and didn’t want to come loose. “I didn’t mean to…I mean…that is…”

She broke off because he was staring at her. Not at her breasts—at her eyes. His own eyes were still glowing, although perhaps not quite as brightly as before.

“Put your arms around my neck.” His voice was low and hoarse.

“But…” Tess hesitated, uncertain of what to do. “I thought you said it was dangerous. I thought—”

“Do it. Please.” The words seemed to cost him some effort and she sensed that he was having some kind of internal struggle. A fierce battle of wills. Maybe he was fighting with the thing he had called “other?” Whatever it was, he seemed to think that her touching him might help, although how Tess had no idea.

“All right.” Hesitantly, carefully, she reached up and put her arms around his neck. He was wearing a deep blue shirt but it was unbuttoned, showing his bare chest and abdomen. So when she reached up to hug him, they were skin-to-skin.

The motion pulled the wounds on her back but Tess barely felt it. What she did feel were her bare nipples, made hard by the chilly night air, rubbing against the broad, flat planes of his chest. He was so warm—almost hot, as though he had a sunburn or a fever. And his scent…it invaded her senses with its dark spice, carrying away her reason completely. Though she had meant to simply hug him a little and then pull back, Tess found herself pressing closer to him, wanting more of the delicious skin-to-skin contact wanting to breathe him in and never let go.

Garron seemed to feel the same way. He held her to him tightly and buried his face in the damp hair at the side of her neck, inhaling deeply.

“Gods,” Tess heard him murmur, his deep voice shaking. “How do you do that? How do you calm my blood, simply with your touch?”

“How do I what?” She pulled back at last and looked at his face.

He looked calmer now and his eyes were back to normal. Which was to say that while they were still the most impossibly gorgeous shade of pure, clear turquoise she’d ever seen, they were no longer glowing.

“How do you calm my blood? I was burning…I felt my dr’gin—the other I told you about—clawing its way up and out. I could feel myself changing. And then…then you touched me.”

He looked at her in awe, as though she had done some kind of miracle when all she’d done was hug him with her towel half off.

Oh God, her towel! She was still practically naked in his arms. It was horribly embarrassing and also, though he was holding her gently, her back really hurt.

Tess shifted, tugging at the towel and wincing as it pulled past her wounded flesh.

“Look, I’m really sorry but my back…”

“Oh, of course. Forgive me.” He set her down carefully and Tess was at last able to adjust her towel, much to her relief. Looking down, she saw a bloody handprint on the white terrycloth which reminded her why she’d been reaching for him and had fallen out of the window in the first place.

“Your hands…” She held out her own hands after making sure the towel was knotted firmly in place. “Let me see them.”

“They’re nothing.” He frowned and shook his head. “Nothing I don’t deserve.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Tess demanded. “What do you—”

“Hey, five minutes are up. What’s going on?”

Di was suddenly there, striding around the corner of the house with a frown fixed on her face. She stopped talking when she saw Tess standing in the grassy backyard. Next her eyes flicked to the metal mesh cage lying on the ground like a discarded beetle shell. Her eyes widened and she looked at Garron in awe.

“Wow, big boy—did you do that?”

“He sure did,” Tess said. “But now we need to get out of here before Pierce comes back and finds us. He’s working a homicide but you can never tell how long that will take.”

“We should go,” Garron said. “Is there anything you want to take from here before we leave?”

Tess took a long look at the white house where she had spent most of her married life—the place where she had once thought her husband loved her and then learned differently. The house which Pierce had made her prison—the house he would doubtless have made her coffin if Garron hadn’t come to free her.

For a moment tears stung her eyes but she sniffed and blinked them away fiercely. I won’t mourn for the past. I have to think about the future now —about what in the world I’m going to do. I’m running out of places to hide.

“Tess?” Garron rumbled softly and she looked up at him, realizing this was the first time he had spoken her name. “Is there anything you need from this place? Anything you want?” he asked.

Tess wiped her eyes and shook her head.

“No, nothing. Let’s go.”


Chapter Twelve

 

She touched me and the need to change receded. She calmed my dr’gin with nothing more than her sweet scent and the softness of her hands. How did she do that? Why does she affect me so?

Garron stared down at his black boots, which were up on the seat since there was no room to put them anywhere else in the back of Di’s tiny vehicle. Tess had wanted him to ride up front because of his long legs but he had absolutely refused. Her back was wounded and he wasn’t going to increase her pain by making her ride cramped up in the back. Still, it was a good thing he wasn’t claustrophobic. His knees were practically touching his nose in this miniscule human conveyance which stunk of fossil fuels. How did they stand traveling around in these noisy, cramped, smelly vehicles anyway?

But his discomfort couldn’t hold his attention for long. He kept replaying the scene outside her domicile over and over again. The way she had literally fallen into his arms, the feel of her soft, lush curves pressed against him, the rounded fullness of her lovely breasts gilded silver by the moonlight…Gods, she was beautiful—so gorgeous she made him ache. Literally. He shifted around, trying to part his thighs more to make room for his throbbing shaft. He wished it would go down but there was little chance of that—not when he could smell her sweet, fresh scent even despite the car’s oil and smoke stench.

You shouldn’t be feelings this way for her, whispered the voice of his guilt. Remember your vow. Remember Nella…

I haven’t forgotten her, he argued uneasily. I will be true to her memory but I cannot help the way Tess’s scent affects me…

Then more than her scent reached him. Tess’s low, sweet voice came to his ears and he realized she and Di were having an argument.

“Look, just take me by my place so I can grab a few things and I’ll get out of your hair,” Tess was saying to her friend.

“Get out of my hair? I don’t think so! You’re staying with me.”

“What, so I can put you in danger too? We’ve had this conversation before, Di—I’m not going to stay at your house. It’s the first place Pierce will look the minute he finds me gone. He already suspects that you’re the one who helped me hide on the Mother Ship.”

“We need to get you into a shelter.”

“No.” Tess shook her head vehemently. “They need those spots for women with kids and besides, Pierce is a detective. I know the locations are hidden but something tells me he’d find a way to get to me. If I stay in one place, even if it’s supposed to be ‘safe’ I’m just a sitting duck.” She sighed. “I guess I’ll just have to go on the road.”

“And how are you going to finance this magical mystery tour?” Di asked flatly. “With your savings from the extravagant salary they pay you at Happy Rest? Don’t forget, I used to be the administrator there. I know how crappy the money is.”

“It’s not so bad—you got us a raise, remember?” Tess said. “Besides, I’ve got a little—enough to keep me going for awhile if I’m careful.”

“There is no need for you to go anywhere,” Garron said, breaking into the conversation. “Except back up to the Mother Ship with me.”

“What?” Tess twisted in her seat to look at him though it clearly hurt her back to do so. “I don’t think so—I’ve been banned from there. Banned for life. Besides, why would I go with you?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” Garron said, frowning. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would want to go off on her own. The whole time she’d been talking to Di about going “on the road” he just assumed he would be with her. He had put her in danger—it was his responsibility to protect her. Nothing else made any sense.

“Well, because, I…Oh, look, here’s my place, Di—pull in.”

The little blue car pulled into a parking area filled with other vehicles and Tess started to get out. Then she put a hand to her forehead.

“Crap—my keys!”

“Got your spare right here, hon.” Di was already handing her a small, flat piece of metal. “Want me to come in with you? It’s not likely but if Pierce has already gotten home and found you gone, he could be somewhere around.”

“In that case, I’m going in with her,” Garron growled.

“Well, I would protest but I think big boy here is probably more protection than I would be,” Di said. “Tess?”

“Um…” For some reason Tess was shifting uncomfortably in her seat. “I don’t know…”

“Come on, Tess, we don’t have a lot of time here,” Di pointed out. “The minute Pierce gets home and finds you gone, he’s going to pull out all the stops to find you. This is the first place he’s going to come looking—even before my house.”

Tess bit her lip. “All right,” she said at last to Garron. “Come on.”

He unfolded himself from the back seat and followed her slow progress to a large building which seemed to have multiple dwellings in it—a little like the housing in the Unmated Males area of the Mother Ship.

Tess clutched her towel tight to her breasts and kept glancing around nervously as they climbed the steps to a second story dwelling.

“Sorry I’m so jumpy,” she muttered as they finally came to a stop in front of a door marked 113B. “I’m just not used to coming home in the middle of the night wearing only a towel. Plus this thing with Pierce…”

“Your concern is understandable,” he murmured, hoping to sooth her. “But please know this—I won’t let him hurt you again.” He felt a low growl rising in his throat at the thought. “Ever.”

Tess looked at him a long time, the key apparently forgotten in her hand.

“You really mean that, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t have said it otherwise.” Garron assured her. He wanted to cup her cheek, to touch her in some way, to give reassurance. But though he had held her to him twice in the short time they’d known each other, such contact was forbidden among his people and he found the taboo difficult to overcome when there weren’t extenuating circumstances. Besides, you shouldn’t want to touch her at all, whispered the guilty voice in his head. Remember Nella!

Garron contented himself with looking into her lovely dark eyes.

“Why are you here?” she said at last, searching his face.

“To protect you.” He couldn’t help himself any longer…he reached out and brushed her flushed cheek lightly with just the tips of his fingers. Gods, her skin was soft! “I swear that if he comes near you again I’ll kill him,” he said. It wasn’t a threat…just a statement of fact. He didn’t know why he felt so strongly about this little, curvy Earth girl but he did. And if that bastard who had hit and brutalized her came to find her, Garron was going to rip him to shreds. Literally.

Tess’s cheeks got red and she looked away. “Um…we should probably go inside before some of my neighbors start wondering what’s going on.”

“Agreed.” He nodded. “Lead the way.”

She put the flat metal key in the lock and turned until the mechanism made a small, sharp clicking sound. Then she pushed the door open.

The smell of dried blood and some kind of animal fur hit Garron in the face, making him wince. When Tess pressed a wall plate which brought harsh, overhead lights flickering to life, he saw the source of the stench.

There was a small table in the middle of the front room which appeared to be some kind of food prep area. The table had wilted flowers and glass shards strewn across it. They were lying in a pool of congealed, mostly dried blood which covered the table and had dripped onto the floor.

There were papers too, strewn in careless heaps. Looking more closely, Garron saw they were covered in small, dense script. Many of them were brown around the edges, having soaked up the blood.

Scattered around the messy scene were a few tawny tufts of animal fur. From the scent, Garron could tell that the blood and fur were from the same animal…and judging from the size of the puddle on the table which had spilled out onto the floor, he doubted it was still alive.

“Oh God…” Tess’s soft voice was hoarse. “I’m so sorry I didn’t warn you. I…I forgot how bad it was in here. I guess I kind of blocked it out.”

“What happened here?” Garron asked quietly.

“I…my…” She took a deep breath and tried again. “When I left Pierce and moved in here, I got myself a dog. Not a huge one—just a mixed breed mutt from the pound. I’ve never been a dog person but the woman at the shelter, she told me Gus—sorry, that was his name—she said he was a good guard dog. That he would alert me if anything was wrong.”

“And did he?”

“He never got a chance. Pierce did this while I was gone to work.” She put a hand to her eyes. “I knew something was wrong when I came home. Gus always barked while I was putting my key in the lock—he was always waiting for me. So happy to see me. That day there was nothing…silence.”

She was quiet for a moment herself, with her hand still over her eyes as though she was trying not to see it all again.

Garron’s heart burned in sympathy for her pain. He wanted to tell her she didn’t have to say any more if she didn’t want to. But after a moment, she took a deep, trembling breath and went on.

“When I came in Gus was…was dead in the middle of the table. See the broken vase?” She gestured to the shards scattered around. “Pierce used one of those to…to stab him and…and cut his throat.” She blinked rapidly and Garron could tell she was trying not to cry. “That way if I tried to press charges, he could say the dog attacked him and he had to use the closest thing to hand to defend himself. ‘See, your Honor? No premeditation here. I was just coming over to drop off some paperwork and that vicious mutt…’” Her voice died for a moment and she had to breathe deeply before continuing. “That’s what he would say. But I know Pierce planned it—he wanted to send me a message.”

“Which was?” Garron asked.

“That he owns me. That I’ll never really get away.” She reached out and picked up a crumpled paper covered in dried blood. “These are the divorce papers I sent him to sign. I’ve been trying to get away from him for months using legal means. I was trying to be civil—trying to make it an amicable break. I wanted to keep living here—get into the nursing program at HCC and finish my RN degree. But when I saw this…when I saw what he’d done to Gus…” She shook her head. “I knew he was coming for me and if he got me back, I’d never be free again.”

“Tess…” Garron began but then didn’t know how to go on.

She sighed. “So I took Gus to Di’s house and buried him in her backyard but I didn’t dare to come back here to clean up. I knew he’d be watching. That was when I moved up to the Mother Ship. I just…didn’t have anyplace else to go.”

Garron’s whole being ached with pain and shame. “And I sent you right back down here,” he said in a low voice. “Back to be beaten and terrorized.”

“You didn’t know,” she said gently, putting a hand on his arm. “I don’t blame you—really.”

“It doesn’t matter.” He pulled away from her light touch—though he longed to receive it, he didn’t deserve her comfort. “I blame myself.”

Tess took a deep breath. “Well right now we’re both going to be to blame if we keep standing here until Pierce shows up. I need to grab some clothes and get out.”

“I’ll wait and keep watch. Unless you need some help?”

“No—I think I can manage.” Stepping carefully around the glass and pooled blood, she left the food prep area and made her way to the back of the dwelling.

Garron squeezed his eyes shut and massaged his temples, trying not to smell the stench of dried animal blood and fur. Gods, to think that bastard had killed her one companion! The only creature she had to care for and love. What kind of heartless son-of-a-bitch was her ex mate?

One who will stop at nothing to get to her, whispered a little voice in the back of his mind. Which means you must be twice as vigilant in protecting her.

Garron vowed to himself that he would be. He would keep his vow to remember Nella and be true to her memory but this situation was his responsibility. He wouldn’t leave Tess’s side until he knew she was safe. Until Pierce was incarcerated forever, unable to hurt her…or dead.

He opened his eyes and looked around at the messy food prep area. Clearly this scene disturbed Tess greatly—and with good reason. He didn’t know if he had time to do much, but maybe he could clean it up a little. Now where did she keep her cleaning tools…?

 

* * * * *

When Tess finished packing her large duffel bag, she realized it was too heavy to lift.

Need to leave some of this behind. You’re going on the road—got to travel light. She opened it again and dumped half the clothes and all the non-essential knick-knacks except for the small music box her mother had given her for her twelfth birthday. That was special—she had to have it. She took a few travel sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner and her e-reader which had all her favorite books and pictures on it. The rest she left.

She pulled out the bottom drawer of her night stand and felt for the envelope taped underneath. She was relieved to see it was intact with the contents—about seven hundred dollars—still untouched. It was her entire savings—not much but enough to keep her going a little while if she was careful. She kept it hidden in her apartment because she didn’t trust banks—the transactions were too easy to trace. Especially for a man like Pierce who could just flash his badge and get any information he wanted.

When she’d finished her purge and repacked the bag with the money hidden in an inside pocket, the duffel was only a little bit lighter. Still, it was slightly more manageable and Tess thought she could deal with it. But it still hurt to carry the strap over her cut and bruised shoulder.

In fact, she was beginning to fear that her back might be more of a problem than she’d thought. Pierce had beaten her before so she was used to bruises and welts. But the cuts… well, they weren’t going to heal well unless she could tend to them and she couldn’t reach her own back.

She went to the bathroom and took off the dirty towel which was now much worse for the wear. She should probably pack it too—it had both her blood and Garron’s on it. For a moment she stared at the large, bloody handprint which had dried on the white terrycloth. She held her own up to compare. The Kindred’s hand was more than twice the size of hers—he really was a big guy. But she still didn’t know why he was here and so eager to protect her.

Sighing, she draped the towel over the closed toilet seat and reached under the bathroom counter for a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. It was unopened and she had to spend a moment fighting with the protective packaging around the lid. Back when she was still living with Pierce, she’d kept an entire first aid kit complete with bandages, gauze, peroxide, and antibiotic ointment. When she’d moved into her own place, she had left that all behind. Buying the bottle had been a reflex—a habit. When she had seen it, unpacking her groceries, she’d actually smiled grimly and thought, Well, I won’t need that anymore. Then she’d shoved it under the bathroom cabinet and forgotten about it.

“Looks like it’s a good thing I bought this after all” she muttered dryly as the protective film finally peeled away. “Pierce strikes again. Literally.”

She was trying to make light of it but the memory was still as fresh and painful as the bruises and cuts that covered her back. Cowering in a corner with her arms wrapped around her head while the metal buckle tore at her flesh over and over…Listening to Pierce shout and rave…“Is this what you need to make you mind you little slut? You little whore? Is this what you need to remind you not to spread your legs for other men?”

Don’t think of it now, Tess ordered herself. Turning so that she was at an angle to the mirror over the sink, she craned her head around, trying to get a good view of her bare back. What greeted her eyes was even worse than she’d feared. Wow, he really did a number on me. That’s going to be sore for awhile.

Well, sore was all right—what she couldn’t deal with was infected, especially if she was going to be on the run with no access to antibiotics.

Grimly, Tess reached over her shoulder and dumped the peroxide across her wounded flesh, biting her lip against the pain as it bubbled and stung its way down. God, that really hurt. But at least now she knew she didn’t have to worry about infection for a while.

She repeated the process and then blotted her back gently with a clean towel. There was still half a bottle of peroxide left and she packed it in her duffel for later.

Now the question was what to wear?

A bra was out. She’d packed several but there was no way she could wear one now, not when her back was a mass of bruises and fresh cuts. Tess didn’t like that—her boobs were too big to go au natural. She felt wobbly and obscene without support. But just the thought of cinching the tight elastic straps over her wounded shoulders and across her mid back made her wince. Reluctantly, she decided to go braless—for now.

She found a pink t-shirt she usually used for sleeping and pulled it on gingerly, trying to keep the soft cotton from sticking to her cuts. Probably it would be better if she could bandage them but she didn’t have any bandages or antibiotic ointment. Have to get some later, she told herself as she put on a pair of panties and some black yoga pants. They were form fitting but comfy and they didn’t hurt her hips and lower back where the belt had struck.

Last she found an old pair of ballet flats. They were comfortable and versatile—good for travel. And it looked like she was going to be doing a lot of traveling in the near future.

By yourself? asked a little voice in her head. Or are you going somewhere with Garron?

Tess didn’t know. She still didn’t understand the big Kindred’s motivations. She only knew when he looked at her with those pure, clear turquoise eyes she found it hard to think straight. Mainly because she kept remembering the “forbidden” things he’d wanted to do to her when he thought she was a Pairing Puppet. Also…she frowned…now that she really thought about it, he reminded her of someone somehow. Which was ridiculous of course. She didn’t know anyone who looked like him—how could she? It wasn’t like she was friends with any male models. But he somehow seemed…familiar. Why was that? It was right on the tip of her brain if she could just…

“Tess? Do you need any assistance? We should go soon.” Garron’s deep voice calling from the kitchen broke her concentration.

“Oh, uh, coming.” He was right, they needed to go. Tess grabbed her duffel bag and winced when she unthinkingly tried to sling it across her shoulder. She let out a little hiss of pain and decided to just drag the damn thing. Accordingly, she came out of the bedroom pulling the bag behind her. She had her head down and nearly ran into Garron, who was standing in the short hallway outside her bedroom.

“Oh!” She took a step back from him, an instinctive fear coming into play. He was so big looming over her like that, his broad shoulders filling the small space between the walls of the hallway with barely an inch to spare. The light was behind him, casting his face into shadows, making him dark…dangerous…threatening.

“What’s wrong, you little whore? Are you afraid to take your punishment?” Pierce’s voice hissed in her ears. Tess’s heart was suddenly drumming madly in her chest, her breath coming in harsh, panting gasps.

“Please…Please, no…” She took another step back and then another, nearly tripping over the bag.

“Are you all right?” Garron reached out lightning-fast to catch her, his big hand supporting her upper arm to keep her from falling.

Strangely, his touch soothed her fear. Maybe because Pierce never would have caught her that way. Oh, he would have grabbed her arm to stop her from falling, all right, but then he would have pinched her or squeezed too tight or found some other little, mean way to cause her pain. He never missed a chance to hurt her, though in the early days of their relationship he had passed it off as a joke.

“Oh, come on, don’t be such a girl,” he would say if she complained. “I’m just playing with you, Princess.”

Except that playing with Pierce always involved pain.

Not so with Garron. His touch was firm but gently supportive and his eyes, when he ducked his head to look at her, were filled with concern.

“Are you all right?” he asked again.

“Fine.” Tess gave a shaky laugh. “You just…startled me, that’s all. You’re so big I thought you were some kind of monster or something when I first came out here. Stupid, huh?” She tried to laugh again but her throat was too tight.

To her surprise, he seemed to understand the real reason for her fear.

“It wasn’t a monster you feared—it was that bastard who hit you, wasn’t it?”

“I…” Tess’s mouth felt too dry to speak.

“I shouldn’t have crowded you in a dark hallway,” Garron said gravely. “Not after what you’ve been through. Forgive me.”

“It’s…all right.” Tess cleared her throat.

“No, it’s not. I shouldn’t have frightened you.”

“You didn’t—your size did. You just looked so big standing there in the dark. It reminded me of—” She stopped, biting her lip.

“Of him,” Garron finished for her softly. “As I said.”

“Well…a little,” she admitted hesitantly. “Not that you’re anything like Pierce. You’re just…a really big guy. That’s all.”

The big Kindred sighed. “I can’t help my size or strength, Tess—they’re part of me. But I can promise they will never be used against you. I don’t hit females. Ever.”

Tess nodded. “I believe you. I’m just…a little jumpy right now. I’ll be all right soon.”

Not unless soon means weeks and weeks, whispered a little voice in her head. As in weeks and weeks of nightmares. Because guess what, Tess? I have a feeling that your little run in with the ex is going to start that whole miserable cycle again. Hope you’re up for a little sleep deprivation. Or a lot of it.

Tess sighed inwardly—the little voice was probably right. She’d had nightmares about Pierce finding and “punishing” her for weeks after she finally moved out. In fact, they had only really subsided when she started having the other dream…the one she couldn’t remember. For a moment the thought of her recurring forgotten dream bothered her, but then Garron was asking if he could carry her bag.

“Sure, I guess.” She handed him the strap and watched as he lifted the heavy bag as though it was light as a feather. Like you should be surprised? whispered the little voice. You just saw him pull a freaking metal mesh cage out of a concrete wall. And after you fell out the window, he was holding you like you didn’t weigh any more than a doll which we know is not the case. Lifting your big-ass duffel is nothing.

Thinking of that made her remember that he’d hurt his hands helping her get away from Pierce’s house.

“Hey…” She touched him on the elbow. “Wait a minute. Let’s go in the bathroom for a minute so I can see your hands.”

“No time. We should leave here.”

“We will—in a minute as soon as I look at your hands. Come on.” Tess tugged him by the elbow into the guest bathroom which was tiny, consisting of a sink, a mirror and a toilet. “Hold out your hands,” she said. “And let me get into that bag a minute—I’ve got a bottle of hydrogen peroxide in there.”

She dug out the bottle and waited until the big warrior reluctantly extended his hands, palm up.

What she saw made Tess hiss in sympathetic pain. The palms and fingers of his large hands were raw and bleeding in several places.

“This looks painful! You should have said something,” she scolded, unscrewing the cap of the peroxide bottle.

“Not nearly as painful as your back,” Garron said softly.

“Oh, well…” For some reason Tess felt her cheeks getting hot. “I’ll be fine. I’ll just pop a couple of ibuprofen. Now, here—this is probably going to sting.”

She had him hold his hands over the sink and poured the hydrogen peroxide over his cuts. He didn’t even wince as they bubbled and foamed but only watched patiently as she blotted his hands with some clean paper towels as well as she could.

“There—that’ll have to do until we can get some antibiotic ointment and some bandages,” she said. “Just try not to get them dirty for now. I can do more in-depth first aid later.”

“Thank you.” Garron nodded gravely and they left the bathroom and moved on down the hall.

As they went through the kitchen, Tess had to stop and stare. The blood, the broken vase and the crumpled divorce papers were all gone. The little round kitchen table was completely bare…and spotlessly clean. So was the floor.

“You…” She looked up at Garron in disbelieve. “You did this? You cleaned?”

“Yes.” He looked worried. “Did you not want me to? The…mess in your food prep area seemed to bother you greatly. I wanted to help.”

Tess shook her head in wonder. She knew there were guys in the world who cooked and cleaned and generally helped out around the house. But knowing there was such a man and actually meeting one were two different things. Pierce had done absolutely nothing to help—considering anything to do with keeping up the house women’s work. And now Garron, without even being asked, had cleaned up a really nasty mess, just because he could tell it bothered her.

“Wow,” she said at last, looking at him. “Thank you. Just…thank you.”

“I know we’re leaving here and not coming back,” he said. “But I thought…your last memory of where you lived shouldn’t be a bad one.”

“Thank you,” Tess said again. She sighed. “I am glad I can remember it this way instead…the other. This apartment has been a good place for me—on the whole.” Of course, after years of marriage to Pierce, anyplace away from him would have been good. But still, she had grown fond of her little nest in the few months that she’d lived there.

“We’d better go,” Garron said.

Tess nodded. “You’re right.”

They walked out and she gave it one last look before flipping off the lights and locking the front door. Then she left it behind—probably forever. Because she couldn’t imagine any scenario where it would be safe to come back to Tampa once she had gone.

Behind her, in the bathroom, the towel with its one bloody handprint lay forgotten…

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Tess’s friend, Di, was crying when they got back to her small vehicle.

“Di? Honey, are you okay?” Tess sounded deeply concerned as she slid into the passenger side after Garron had folded himself into the back.

“I’m fine. Sorry…” The older Earth woman sniffed and blotted her eyes with a small cloth. “I just got a phone call while the two of you were up there.”

“And?” Tess still sounded worried.

“Uncle Jackson…” Di sniffed again deeply. “He finally passed. Just about an hour ago according to the nurse on call.”

“Oh, no! I’m so sorry.” Tess looked like she might cry too. “I should have been there with him—I was always his favorite nurse.”

“You had to leave Happy Rest for a good reason. Uncle Jack would have understood.” Di blew her nose and sighed. “We’ve known this was coming for awhile. Ever since the cancer spread…”

“I know.” Tess looked away. “It’s just…no matter how much you try to prepare, you’re never really prepared. You know?”

“I know. And you’re right.” Di straightened up. “Anyway, it’s given me an idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier.”

“Think of what?” Tess looked puzzled.

Di smiled brightly and blotted her eyes again.

“I know where you can run to.”

“Where?” Tess didn’t sound too hopeful. Garron wasn’t surprised. He knew from his childhood that living with a man like Pierce—a man like his father—could suck the joy and optimism out of anyone.

“Uncle Jackson had a cabin outside of Asheville, North Carolina. He lived there until the cancer got bad and he had to come down here to Tampa so I could look after him,” Di said. “It’s perfect—remote and private and best of all, it’s mine but it’s not in my name yet.”

“So there’s no paper trail to trace it to you…and to connect you to me.” Tess was beginning to sound cautiously optimistic. “That does sound good. But I’ll need a way to get up there. If I try to take my car I’ll be stopped before I can get out of Tampa—Pierce will see to that.” She frowned. “Maybe I should take a bus…”

“No, no—he can trace the ticket.” Di shook her head. “No, you can take Uncle Jack’s truck. It’s ugly and old but it should make it.”

“Is it an automatic? Because I don’t know how to drive a stick—”

“I can share the driving,” Garron said quietly. “If this truck you’re talking about operates like the vehicle we are in now, it should be exceedingly simple to manage.”

“Um…” Tess turned to look at him, wincing as the motion no doubt pulled at her hurt back. “That’s really nice of you, Garron but…I don’t know what to say. I don’t…still don’t understand why you came down here in the first place. I mean I know you said you wanted to protect me but I don’t understand why you want to.”

“I…dreamed of you.” It was surprisingly hard to admit but he could think of no other way to explain. “I saw what that bastard Pierce did to you in the parking area of the HKR building. I…could not sit by and do nothing when I knew you were in danger. I had to come for you. After all—your predicament was my fault.”

Tess sighed. “Not really. Pierce was an abusive asshole a long time before you came on the scene. And I didn’t blame you for being mad at me up there on the Mother Ship. I did give you…” Her cheeks went red and she looked down. “I did give you the, uh, wrong impression.”

“That was no excuse for what I did,” Garron protested. “I should have waited, should have listened to your story. If I hadn’t been so blinded by anger…” He cleared his throat and shook his head. “The point is, you are in this dilemma because of me. Therefore, I will not leave you until you’re safe. My honor as a Kindred and a warrior demands it.”

“That’s really sweet of you but I’m going on the run from my ex-husband who happens to be a pretty good detective, even if he is a bastard. So I don’t know about taking you along for the ride. I mean, you’re not exactly inconspicuous.” Her eyes flicked up and down, as though sizing him up. “You’re what…six foot seven or eight? And with those eyes…”

“What’s wrong with my eyes?” Garron asked, frowning.

“Nothing.” Her cheeks got red again and she cleared her throat. “Except they’re freaking inhumanly gorgeous. I just…I mean, you stand out in a crowd.”

Garron’s hands curled into fists, causing the torn flesh to throb sharply.

“I’m not leaving you.” He looked at Tess. “I cannot. If you won’t let me accompany you, then I must find your ex-mate and challenge him to a Y’grin.”

“A what?” She looked at him blankly.

“A fight to the death,” Garron clarified.

“What, like a duel?” Di looked incredulous. “Look, big boy, it’s nice of you to want to protect Tess but you can’t do that. Pierce is a cop—he has a gun and he’d just shoot you and then say it was because you were menacing him in the line of duty or something.”

“And even if he did agree to fight you, you’d be put away for life for killing a policeman,” Tess said. “No, I just have to go—have to get out of his way. I can’t stay here in Tampa.”

“You can come back with me to the Mother Ship,” Garron said. “The ban they placed on you was a misunderstanding. We just need some time to bring the matter before the Kindred High Council and get it straightened out.”

“Time is what you don’t have,” Di said flatly. “Tess needs to be on the road tonight. The sooner the better.”

“Di is right.” Tess nodded. “I appreciate the invite but I can’t wait around to see if the Kindred Council will let me back up on the ship or not. Not with Pierce looking for me—which he will be the minute he gets home and finds me gone.”

“Then we’ll go to this cabin—together,” Garron emphasized. “In the mean time, your friend can make a call to my brother using the viewscreen in the HKR building. As soon as she calls and lets us know we have clearance, we’ll find the nearest Human/Kindred Relations center and take a shuttle back up to the Mother Ship.”

“I…” Tess shook her head. “I don’t know. I mean, it sounds good but honestly, I barely know you. Why would I go with you?”

“So I can protect you, as I said before.” Garron couldn’t believe she would even ask. It seemed perfectly clear to him that they should stay together—perfectly clear that he couldn’t let her go or leave her alone when she was in such danger. “You say you don’t know me,” he murmured, looking into her eyes. “But I don’t believe that’s completely true.”

“What…” She shifted uncomfortably. “What do you mean?”

“I dreamed of you,” Garron said softly, still holding her eyes with his own. “And even before that dream I had others—dreams of a female with dark eyes who was hiding so I could never quite see her. I think that female was you, Tess.” He looked at her intently. “Can you honestly say you had no dreams of me?”

“I…” Tess seemed about to deny it but then she stopped and bit her lip. “I have had some dreams,” she admitted in a low voice. “I could never quite remember them when I woke up but I did know I was dreaming about the same person—the same man—over and over again.”

“So that’s it? You’re meant to be together because you’re dreaming about each other in a round-about kind of way?” Di sounded skeptical. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s romantic and all but—”

“It’s called dream sharing,” Garron said, still keeping his eyes locked with Tess’s. “Among the Kindred it is considered…significant.”

He didn’t mention that he had never heard of it himself until Becca and her friends had told him about it. Right now he just needed a reason to get Tess to trust him, to let him stay by her side. He had to protect her, had to be with her in case that bastard Pierce sought her out.

I’ll kill him, he thought. Kill him if he touches her again…if he even gets near her…

But in order to protect her, he had to be with her. He just hoped that Tess could understand that they needed to stay together.

She frowned. “I want to be clear about something up front—I’m not looking for any kind of relationship. I think it’s obvious I’m getting out of a pretty rough one and I just…need time to heal.” She lifted one shoulder ruefully, indicating her back. “In more than one way.”

Garron nodded gravely. “I have no expectations or demands. In fact, I have taken a vow to remain true to the memory of another. I only ask that you let me stay by your side and protect you—my honor demands it.”

“For how long?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at him.

“Until I know you’re safe and that you’ll never be in danger again.” Until that bastard of an ex-mate of yours is dead. He didn’t say it out loud but Tess must have seen it in his eyes.

“Pierce is dangerous, you know,” she said quietly. “He carries a gun and he knows how to use it. He’s also crazy jealous and he thinks I belong to him. You could be risking your life just being with me.”

“A risk I am more than willing to take,” Garron assured her. He let his voice drop to a low growl. “And I can be dangerous too, when I choose.”

Tess shivered and looked away. “I believe you. Okay, we’ll go together.”

“Good.” Garron felt a fist of tension loosen in his chest. He could stay by her side and protect her. He still didn’t know why it was so crucial—didn’t understand why the little Earth female was so vitally important to him—but he didn’t care. Though he still intended to be true to Nella’s memory, the fact was that, at least for now, their fates were entwined and he needed to be with her. Needed to keep her safe and be certain that bastard could never hurt her again.


Chapter Fourteen

 

“Who was the call from?” Becca asked, looking up as Truth walked into the bedroom she shared with him and Far. She yawned. “And what were they doing calling so early, anyway? It’s not even time to get up yet.”

The dark twin frowned.

“It was no one I know—but apparently she is a friend of Garron’s. Or at least an acquaintance.”

“She?” Far asked. He was sitting to Becca’s left in the large, three person bed they all shared. Truth’s place was always on the right and Becca was happy to be in the middle. “Since when does your brother know anyone down on Earth?”

“Since he went down there.” Truth sounded grim.

“Since he what?” Becca had been leaning back against a stack of pillows, relaxing, but now she sat straight up in bed. “When did this happen?”

“Earlier tonight. According to this person who called me—I think her name was Ki or Di or something of the sort—he went after the girl he had deported earlier from the Mother Ship.”

“Who—Tess?” Becca asked. “I liked her a lot but I didn’t think Garron did.”

“I don’t think he knew he did until he had a dream about her,” Truth murmured.

“Dream sharing?” Far cocked an eyebrow.

“It seems so.” Truth nodded.

“So why aren’t they up here now instead of back down on Earth?” Far asked.

Truth frowned. “Unfortunately, Garron’s grievance against the female was taken seriously and she was banned from the Mother Ship. But she is in trouble down on Earth and he is staying with her to protect her until it can be cleared up. In the mean time, he has asked me to address the High Council and get her ban revoked.”

“Will they do that?” Becca asked.

The dark twin shrugged. “I do not see why not. I’m going to ask Sylvan to support me in this and if he recommends that the female be allowed to come back on the grounds that she is a potential mate, I don’t know why the other Council Members would disagree.”

“What about the head of the Council—Chancellor Terex?” Far said. “Isn’t he back now? Don’t you have to get permission from him personally?”

“I suppose. But from what I’ve heard from Sylvan he usually goes along with the general wishes of the Council.” Truth sighed and sank down in bed on Becca’s right side. “I’m still concerned though.”

“About what?” Becca asked gently. “It sounds like an open and shut case—once the Council hears that Garron and Tess are dream sharing, I don’t see how they can refuse to let them come back up to the Mother Ship.”

“It’s not that.” Truth shook his head and ran a hand over his face wearily. “It’s Garron. He came to me about a week ago, wanting to talk about Kindred urges and…other things.”

“Which is why we sent him to the Pairing House in the first place,” Far said.

“What—you’re the ones that sent him?” Becca looked back and forth between them. “What urges? And what other things? How come you two didn’t tell me?”

Far shrugged. “It wasn’t our secret to tell, Becca. Garron was shamed enough as it was and he values your good opinion.”

Becca put a hand on her hip. “Please! As if I would think less of the man for having a sex drive.”

Truth sighed. “I still do not think you understand the stigma attached to some of the things we consider normal here on the Mother Ship. Wanting to hold your female close, body to body, is considered abnormal unless you are doing it during mating. And the other things a Kindred desires to do to his female…”

“You mean like tasting her?” Far asked softly.

“Yes. Exactly.” Truth gave Becca a long look. “Even now it feels…forbidden.”

Becca felt a little shiver run down her spine as she remembered how he had nearly lost control the first time he had gone down on her.

“Oh?” she asked a little breathlessly. “That, uh, doesn’t seem to stop you.” It was becoming a running joke between the three of them that the dark twin would rather taste her pussy than do just about anything else. He was always eager to get between her legs to the point where Far jokingly complained that they were going to have to start setting a limit on how many orgasms Truth could give her before it was his turn.

“It’s because it feels forbidden that Truth wants it so much,” Far said quietly.

“I do not just want it…it is a need.” Truth’s eyes blazed into hers, making Becca squirm beneath his intense gaze. “I have come to understand this as I grow to know my Kindred heritage—a warrior’s desire to taste his lady goes far beyond the simple inclination to make her happy.”

“It does?” Becca asked.

Truth nodded and Far said, “It’s a craving—so deep and vast there is no fighting it.”

“Even if you are taught your entire life it is wrong,” Truth murmured. “As I know from experience. It is, as I said, a need.”

“A need which Garron is doubtless feeling as well,” Far said.

“But along with sexual desire comes other problems—at least for one like Garron who is half Rai’ku.” Truth looked troubled. “His name day—the traditional time for a first turning—is coming up.”

“Yes, but at least he hasn’t turned so far. He talked to me about wishing he had declared himself O’ahn,” Becca said.

“Just because a male makes that declaration does not mean it is true. In Garron’s case, I very much fear it is not,” Truth said. “He told me that he felt his dr’gin stirring within him—making itself known at last.”

“He did? Well, what does that mean?” Becca asked, beginning to feel worried herself.

“It may mean danger for anyone around him—anyone close to him.” Truth sighed. “I know he told you what happens when a dr’gin emerges for the first time. During a male’s first turning he may expect to kill and eat at least one and possibly more people before he finds the female he wants to mate with. Only after he feeds can he change back to his other, more rational form.”

“So he can turn back to his regular self the moment he, um, eats somebody up?” Becca asked.

Truth nodded. “But only briefly. That is why it is so important for him to breed the female his dr’gin has chosen immediately—as soon as he turns back.”

“But what if she’s not the one he wanted before he transformed?” Becca asked, remembering her talk with Garron back on Pax. He had been fearful that his dr’gin would kill the girl he loved and he would wind up mated to someone he didn’t care for at all.

“It doesn’t matter,” Truth said. “The dr’gin within him makes the final choice and he must abide by it—she must too.”

“But what if the girl he just devoured while he was in dr’gin form was her best friend or her sister and she just watched him eat her up?” Becca protested.

She kept remembering the long, lithe beasts made of scales and feathers she had seen on Pax. Dr’gins reminded her a little of the stylized papier-mâché dragons you saw during the Chinese New Year if they had somehow come to life. Their graceful bodies whipped through the air as sinuous as snakes, seeming to break all the laws of physics with their perfect movements. They also had long sharp talons and spiked tails—not to mention huge, leonine heads with knife-like teeth and long, red tongues. She couldn’t imagine watching something so deadly kill someone she loved and then be expected to mate with the male who kept it inside him a minute later. It would be unthinkable.

“That would make for a very awkward mating,” Far remarked.

“It is more than awkward—it is often quite savage,” Truth said in a low voice. “The act of mating—of breeding his female—is what brings the two halves of a Rai’ku male together. When she accepts him she is accepting both the male and his dr’gin with all of its untamed, voracious appetites.”

“That’s awful,” Becca exclaimed. “So she watches him kill someone she loves or at least knows, and then she has to have sex—really rough sex—with him immediately afterwards?”

“The male does not hurt her on purpose,” Truth objected. “Well, unless the person or persons he ate in dr’gin form has a cruel or sadistic personality. That is yet another reason why females are preferred as sacrifices during a first turning. They generally have milder temperaments, which keeps the savagery of the first breeding at least somewhat in check.”

“I know all of this is commonplace on Pax but I must agree with Becca that it seems…extremely harsh. Is the female allowed to back out of the relationship at all?” Far asked.

“Never.” Truth shook his head firmly. “You forget, Brother, we are talking about Pax here where females are severely undervalued. Any female refusing to mate with the male whose dr’gin had chosen her would likely be jaeled to death by the entire village.”

Jaeled? What’s that?” Becca asked.

“The jael is a hard, heavy nut that grows on the jaelos bush on Pax,” Truth explained. “It has sharp, stiff, poisonous spines growing out of it on one side. The entire village will take the jaels and cast them at the offending female until she dies either from blood loss or a fractured skull. Even if she doesn’t die of those things, she will still succumb eventually—the poison in the spines will begin to eat away at her flesh until she collapses and no one will help her.”

“Sounds like a savage and brutal punishment simply for not wishing to mate with someone,” Far said frowning.

“It is,” Truth said. “But it’s necessary.”

“What?” Becca said angrily. “How can you say that? What a load of misogynistic crap!”

Truth shook his head. “I can understand why it sounds that way to an outsider but it is not so, Rebecca. A newly transformed male who has just transitioned from dr’gin form back to his normal form is in a very precarious position. If he is not able to mate with the female his dr’gin has chosen for him, he will revert back to dr’gin form and become a D’fex—a rogue dr’gin. He will lose himself completely in his animal form, his mind will be gone, and he will know nothing but hunger and the urge to hunt.”

“That sounds bad,” Becca admitted reluctantly.

“It is,” Truth said grimly. “A D’fex is a dr’gin stuck forever in that first, mindless form. And he already has a taste for sentient flesh so the village is his primary target. Many will lose their lives before he can be killed—and all because he didn’t mate when he had the chance.”

“But say everything goes well and the newly transformed male does mate in time,” Far said. “After that first transformation, a Rai’ku can think just as well in his dr’gin form as he can in his other shape—correct?”

Truth nodded. “Exactly.”

“But they’re still so big and scary. Do they change back and forth around their females? Do they ever injure their females when they’re in dr’gin form?” Becca asked.

Truth shook his head. “Almost never. Whether a dr’gin is savage or tender depends upon the temperament of the male whose other half he is. As a matter of fact, it is said that some are more gentle in their dr’gin form. They are more…what is the Earth word…?” He frowned. “Oh yes—more cuddly.”

“Cuddly? Really?” Becca shook her head. She just couldn’t imagine wanting to cuddle with something as big and strong as a grizzly bear that looked like a cross between a dragon from Chinese folklore and a lion.

“Yes, really,” Truth said as though it wasn’t surprising at all. “You know how cold it gets on Pax—they have been known to keep their mates from freezing to death if they get caught away from shelter for the night.”

“Well…” Becca said hesitantly. “Speaking as a female, I guess if hugging in your normal form was completely taboo, you’d take what you could get. Even if it meant cuddling with a monster.”

“I know how they must have seemed to you while we are on Pax but as long as they mate in time to retain their cognitive abilities, they truly are not monsters,” Truth said. “In fact, there are many positives to having a dr’gin within.”

“Such as?” Far asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Rai’ku males are said to have healing in their tongues while in their dr’gin form,” the dark twin continued.

“What does that mean?” Becca asked.

“They are able to cure their female’s wounds by licking them—much as a Blood Kindred is able to do,” Truth said. “Some say this ability was developed in case they scratched their mates with their poisonous talons.”

“But I thought that was why they developed the antidote,” Becca said. She gave a sidelong look at Far. “Which as we know, isn’t always very effective.” The light twin had actually died of poisoning from a dr’gin’s claws and had thenbeen brought back again—either by the truthonium amulet or by the Kindred Goddess—Becca still wasn’t sure which.

“It’s not very effective if taken too late—the dr’gin’s poison is always deadly if left too long. But it is said that if the wound is cleaned immediately by the same beast who made the scratch, it may heal with no ill effects.” He frowned. “That’s another reason they don’t bother inoculating females against the poison. If the dr’gin who wounds her intends to take her as a mate, he will usually heal her himself. Any of the others who are wounded are considered inconsequential and left to die.”

“Ugh…” Becca shivered. “I really prefer the Kindred view of women over the Rai’ku one.”

Truth brushed her cheek lightly with his fingertips.

“I feel the same way, Rebecca.”

“But I thought licking and tasting were taboo?” Far said, frowning.

“The dr’gin is not licking to give pleasure but to heal,” the dark twin said sternly.

“Un-huh…” Becca murmured sarcastically. “And what if the, uh, wound they need to heal is high up on their lady’s thigh? What then, hmm?”

One corner of Truth’s sensual mouth twitched up.

“Now you have hit on the very reason I used to wish I had a dr’gin within myself. I fantasized many, many such scenarios when I was alone in my room as a young male.”

“I just bet you did.” Becca nudged him with her elbow and his cheeks went red.

“What can I say? I have always longed to taste a female—even when I would not admit it to myself.”

“Of course you did, Brother—it is the Kindred way,” Far said. “But back to Garron—what do you think his dr’gin will be like if it emerges?”

“I am certain Garron’s dr’gin would not be cruel…not after its initial hunger was satiated, anyway,” the dark twin answered.

“So he won’t be cruel after he gobbles her up. It’ll be kind of too late by then, won’t it?” Becca asked. “Do you think we should go down there and try to get him to come back up? Do you think Tess is in danger?”

“I think if Garron thought she was in danger, he would have come back up voluntarily himself,” Far said.

Truth nodded. “Far is right. I know my younger brother—he will do anything to avoid harming a female he cares for. Including repressing a part of himself that has been ready to manifest for years now.”

“Yes,” Becca said thoughtfully. “He told me about how they “gathered the virgins” for him time and again and every time he couldn’t change—couldn’t let his dr’gin out because he was afraid he would harm Nella. But Truth…” She put a hand on the dark twin’s knee. “Garron has been holding that part of himself back for years and you said yourself his birthday—er, name day—is coming. What if when the time comes he just…can’t anymore? Can’t hold himself back?”

Truth sighed and ran a hand through his short, black hair. “I confess, I have the same fear.”

“Well, there is nothing we can do about it now tonight with Garron and Tess down on Earth and the three of us up here,” Far said practically. “And Garron’s name day isn’t for a little while yet. Why don’t you use a Think-me to call him after you meet with the Council tomorrow? While you’re talking you can ask him—in a round about way—if he fears he might hurt this girl.”

“A good idea.” Truth nodded. “The best thing would be to bring him back to the Mother Ship and provide him with several Pairing Puppets he could, er, feed on after his first turning.”

“Why must it be Pairing Puppets? If the dr’gin is hungry, why not give it a cow or some other large Earth animal?” Far asked.

Truth shook his head. “If only it were so easy! But the dr’gin must feed on a sentient being.”

“The Pairing Puppets, while not very bright, do have an extremely limited sentience,” Far acknowledged. “But why must the creature a dr’gin feeds on be a thinking one?”

Truth frowned. “Because ingesting such a being is what awakens the thinking part of it and allows it to be more than just a beast. And as long as it mates in time and does not become D’fex, it will retain the ability to think and reason.”

“What about the whole virgin thing?” Becca asked hopefully. “Maybe that lets Tess off the hook. Will his dr’gin leave her alone if she’s been with someone already?”

“Unfortunately not,” the dark twin said, frowning. “The gathering of the virgins is simply a tradition among the Rai’ku. Females are considered expendable since there are three times as many of them as males. But newly turned dr’gins have been known to eat anyone in their path. They prefer unmated females but their appetites are not limited to them.”

“It does sound like the Pairing Puppets are still our best option,” Far said. “They look and act and smell like unmated females and they are capable of some limited thoughts—hopefully that will satisfy the dr’gin’s cravings for meat.”

“But that only eliminates half the problem,” Becca pointed out. “What about after the feeding? When he changes back and needs to mate?”

Far shrugged. “Another Pairing Puppet I suppose.”

“What? When he’s dream sharing with the human female?” Truth looked offended. “He couldn’t—he wouldn’t.”

“That is true.” Far frowned thoughtfully. “A Kindred male who has started dream sharing with the female he is destined to be with has no desire to copulate with anyone or anything else. Not even an excellent facsimile of a female like a Pairing Puppet.”

“Well, then that’s going to be a problem,” Becca said. “Because I don’t know any human girl who’s going to be down with having sex with a guy after she watched him rip up two or three life-like puppets—which I assume bleed real blood and probably scream real screams—and then eat them. Even if he was in another form when he did it.”

“There’s another problem with using a Pairing Puppet for the mating,” Truth pointed out. “Typically first transformation sex is bonding sex for a Rai’ku Kindred. Garron couldn’t bond to a puppet—and he wouldn’t want to even if he could.”

“It’ll have to be Tess then.” Becca shivered. “Although how in the world she can get in the mood for love after seeing his dr’gin devour anyone is beyond me.”

“There is no reason Tess would have to see the first part of the turning,” Far said quietly. “And do not be too certain about what a female will or will not agree to. Remember, mi’now, you yourself were quite certain you would not want both of us at once.”

“And now look at the three of us,” Truth remarked, brushing a stray curl from her cheek. “Far and I fill you often and well and you do not seem to have any complaints.”

“That…that’s different,” Becca protested a little breathlessly. “I mean, at least I have the bonding fruit to ease the way. Plus, the two of you stay in your right forms. Neither one of you turns into a furry, feathery, scaly monster that looks like he belongs in a Chinese New Year parade!”

“I will talk to Garron about all of this when I bespeak him after the Council meeting,” Truth growled softly. “But for now, I find myself wishing to concentrate on other things.” He scooted closer to Becca and cupped her cheek. “Much sweeter things.”

“I agree with you, Brother.” Far was suddenly right behind her, kissing her bare shoulder. “You know, Becca,” he murmured in her ear. “We still have an hour or so before the three of us have to be up. We could spend it sleeping…”

“Or doing other things,” Truth finished for him.

“That’s true…” Becca had a naughty idea. “I know what things I’d like to do—I want to hear some of Truth’s fantasies. The ones he used to imagine back when he wished he had a dr’gin of his own.” She shivered. “Although God knows, I’m glad he doesn’t.”

Truth raised an eyebrow. “Those were very private thoughts you know,” he said softly. “I never intended to share them.”

“Of course they were, baby…” Becca stroked his cheek. “But you can share anything with us—you know that.” She cuddled a little closer, brushing his arm with her breasts, which were barely covered by her white lace nighty. “Please?”

“Maybe we could act them out,” Far suggested softly. “Becca could lie back against me and play the part of the wounded female and Truth could be the dr’gin intent on healing her…or breeding her, whichever you choose, Brother.”

“I choose both,” Truth growled. “But I don’t want her lying back against you, Far. If we’re going to do this right it needs to be more…animalistic.”

“What…what do you mean?” Becca’s heart was stuttering in her chest as she looked at him uncertainly.

“Here—I’ll show you.” Truth pulled her up to her knees and reached for the lace hem of her nighy. In one swift motion, he had it over her head, baring her breasts and leaving only her little lace panties to cover her.

“Oh!” Becca gasped, covering her breasts out of instinct.

“No, don’t…” Far was on his knees behind her and he pulled away her arms. “You must show yourself, mi’now,” he murmured in her ear. “You must show that you are willing to receive him.”

“I…I’ll try,” Becca whispered. Truth’s pale gray eyes were blazing like silver fire, making her feel naked and hot all over. He and Far were both wearing their blue silk sleep trousers as always but now, as if by mutual consent, they both slipped them off leaving her on the bed with two very large, very naked Kindred warriors.

Mother of God, and both extremely hard, Becca thought, her heart pounding. She was really glad at this point that she was eating a daily dose of bonding fruit. If not, she would have wanted to run a mile from the thick shafts rising between her men’s legs.

“How do you need our lady, Brother?” Far asked, reaching around to cup Becca’s breasts and play with her nipples. “Do you want her on her back with her legs spread for you?”

“No.” The dark twin’s voice was a low growl. “I need her on her hands and knees with her thighs open wide. I need her ready to submit to my tongue in her pussy.”

“Oh…” Becca whispered.

Truth had gone down on her in every possible position by now but his favorite seemed to be lying between her legs while she was on her back. He claimed it gave him greater access and allowed her to relax so he could pleasure her longer.

But something told her this was going to be different. The dark twin wasn’t interested in a marathon session of pussy licking tonight—instead, this was going to be a rough, fast cunt lapping, something to make her so hot she couldn’t help spreading her legs for his thick cock.

“You heard him, Becca,” Far murmured in her ear. “Get on your hands and knees and spread your thighs wide.”

“I…I’ll try. Try to be…to be open for him,” Becca whispered, feeling like her entire body was flushed.

“I’ll help you, mi’now,” the light twin murmured. As he spoke, he sat with his back against the headboard and helped Becca get on her hands and knees in front of him. She knelt there feeling vulnerable but not frightened because Far was right in front of her—close enough to lean on if she needed him. Close enough to kiss if she just wanted him.

“That’s good. Just right,” she heard Truth growl behind her and for a moment she swore that he sounded exactly like a beast. A deep shiver ran through her entire body and then Truth hooked his fingers into the fragile lace of her panties and ripped them completely away.

“Hey!” Becca gasped, looking over her shoulder. “What…what are you…?”

“Hold her still, Far.” Truth’s gray eyes were blazing as he looked at her. “You wanted to know about my fantasy, Rebecca? Well this is it—I want to lick and suck your pussy until I get you good and wet—wet enough for my cock. Then I’m going to slide inside you and fuck you deep and long and hard. Is that what you want?”

“I…I…” Becca felt another shiver go through her and she couldn’t tell if it was a shiver of fear or lust…or both.

“It’s all right, Becca,” she heard Far murmuring as he stroked her hair. “Truth just wants to let his wild side out a little. But I’m still here—I’ll be here with you through it all.”

He ducked his head and kissed her, capturing her mouth at the same time that she felt Truth’s hot breath on her naked ass.

“All right,” she moaned as the kiss broke at last. “If you promise to hold me while he…while he takes me.”

“Of course I will, mi’now.” Far stroked her cheek tenderly in direct contrast to Truth, who was currently licking and nipping the soft flesh of her buttocks and upper thighs.

Becca gave a little cry when she felt his sharp teeth graze her vulnerable inner thigh. Was this what it would feel like to be taken by a dr’gin? To surrender herself to the beast? If she closed her eyes she could almost imagine that Truth was what he was pretending to be—a mindless animal bent only on satiating his deepest hungers with her.

It was a frightening thought. So frightening that when she felt him spread her pussy from behind with his thumbs, Becca surged forward into Far’s arms, wanting the comfort of his broad chest against her cheek.

“It’s all right, Becca,” the light twin murmured, kissing her forehead. “Just relax and be open for Truth.”

“I am trying. He just…oh!” Becca gasped because just then she felt the dark twin’s hot, wet tongue spearing into her pussy. He pressed deep, penetrating her as though he was fucking her with his shaft instead of his tongue. Becca moaned as she felt the hot, wet sensation of him sliding into her channel. “Truth!” she whispered. “Please!”

He growled softly and she could feel him lapping greedily, licking away the juices from her pussy and inner thighs, bathing her swollen clit with his hot, wet tongue.

“Does it feel good?” Far asked in her ear as his twin continued to lick her. “Do you like it when Truth licks your sweet cunt, mi’now? Are you making lots of honey for him to taste?”

“I…” Becca bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she whispered even though she actually did. She had been told by Truth and Far that she was what the Blood Kindred called a numalla—a female that made a lot of pussy honey. And though her heart was pounding and she was nervous and uncertain, her body still responded to her men. She could feel how wet she was getting—how wet Truth was making her by tonguing her open and lapping her inner folds.

He lashed the sensitive button of her clit with his tongue and then sucked it into his mouth and tortured it sweetly until she gave a gasp and felt her entire body tighten.

“Oh…” she moaned, pressing back helplessly to get more of the addictive pleasure of his mouth against her naked, vulnerable pussy. “Oh, please…I think I’m close…so close.”

“Are you going to come soon, Becca?” Far murmured, reaching under her to twist her nipples, which were hanging down like ripe fruit. “Are you going to come while Truth licks your pussy? While he tastes your sweet juices right from the source?”

“I…I…” Becca couldn’t answer but she didn’t have to. Just as her pleasure reached a peak, Far captured her mouth with his own. As Truth tongued and sucked her slick petals, making her come so hard she saw stars, the light twin caught her soft moans in his own mouth, swallowing them greedily as though he loved the taste of her pleasure every bit as much as his brother did.

It seemed Truth could never get enough of her but Becca didn’t know how much more of his mouth she could stand. Just as she thought she wasn’t going to be able to take the intense pleasure any longer, he stopped licking.

She broke the kiss with Far and looked over her shoulder to see that he was breathing hard, his mouth and chin shiny with her juices.

“Truth?” she asked uncertainly.

“Are you ready, Brother?” Far asked, looking up at his twin. “Ready to claim our lady’s sweet cunt with your cock?”

“Ready,” Truth echoed and it was more of an animalistic growl than a word. “Spread wide, Rebecca. Need to get inside you deep tonight.”

Becca tried to do as he said, tilting her hips and pressing her ass back to give him greater access. At the same time her heart began to beat so hard she could feel it pounding in every part of her body at once. Truth had never been really rough with her—neither of her men had. But she had a feeling that she was in for a deep, thorough fucking tonight. The dark twin was like a beast in rut and the only thing he wanted—the only thing he needed—was to plow deep into her pussy and burry himself to the hilt before he shot his seed.

She felt the broad head of his cock sliding over her slick folds and shivered in Far’s arms.

“It’s all right,” he murmured, kissing her cheek. “All right, Becca. Just be open. Just relax against me and let Truth fuck your sweet cunt.”

A sudden thought came to Becca.

“But if he enters me without you, won’t he have pain?”

“He won’t mind,” Far murmured. “In the state he’s in, it will only add to his pleasure.”

“But what about you?” Becca asked as Truth’s broad crown breached her entrance and his thick shaft started its inevitable slide to the center of her being. “Won’t it hurt you, too?”

The Twin Kindred had a very specific type of bond. Their pleasures were doubled and their pain was halved because they were able to share it. But it came with some drawbacks—such as the fact that it was painful for one twin to be touching or penetrating their shared female if the other twin was not touching or penetrating her at the same time.

“I’m all right.” Far stroked her cheek and kissed her mouth softly. “This is what Truth wants—what he needs. I can stand a little discomfort to give him this.”

“But why should you?” Becca murmured, having another idea. “If you don’t need to?”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean…this.”

As the dark twin’s long, hard shaft finally slid home inside her, she bent her head and lapped gently at the light twin’s cock.

Far gave a low, groan and stroked her hair. “Oh, mi’now—that’s amazing. But you don’t have to…”

“I want to,” Becca murmured, looking up for a moment. Truth was holding still inside her, as though waiting for this little exchange to end so he could start fucking her in earnest. “I want all of you—both of you. Always,” she said simply. And then she bent her head to the sweet task of sucking and licking the broad head of Far’s cock while Truth pulled almost all the way out of her pussy and thrust back in again…

Becca didn’t know later how long it lasted. She had fragmented memories—the deep thrust and pull of the dark twin’s shaft in her pussy…the salty-sweet taste of the light twin’s precum as she sucked and licked his cock and took as much of his thick shaft down her throat as she could…the feel of big, warm hands all over her body and the sound of all three of them moaning as they climbed the peak together.

At last, it was too much.

Becca felt herself coming again—felt the orgasm crashing over her, tightening her nipples and making her sex clench around Truth’s invading shaft. At the same time she could feel her men reaching their peaks as well through the mental link they all shared.

She moaned around the thick shaft she was sucking so eagerly and felt both of them pulse at the same time—Far in her mouth and Truth in her pussy. And then they were coming—all of them at once—coming together as one and claiming each other all over again.

Becca swallowed the first pulse of Far’s seed and then let his thick cock slip from her lips to pump the rest of his cream over her bare breasts. At the same time, she felt Truth pressing deep inside her, filling her pussy with his cum. God but it felt good to be so completely claimed by her two men—to have their love inside her, around her, all over her! To know that they were hers and she was theirs.

They all collapsed in a heap and lay panting against each other. Becca’s head was pillowed on Far’s chest and she could feel Truth resting his own head in the curve of her side. It was nice…cozy and she felt completely happy and fulfilled.

She moaned contentedly and arched her back as she felt two sets of strong, masculine hands caress her. How could she have ever been worried about being bonded to two such wonderful men for life? Kat was completely right—it was amazing to have not one but two delicious Kindred warriors utterly focused on your pleasure and satisfaction.

“We’re glad you think so, Mi’now,” Far sent through the link all Kindred share with their bonded mates.

Becca gave him a lazy smile and licked her lips. “Oh, you heard that, did you?”

“We most certainly did.” It was interesting that Truth’s mental voice was every bit as growly as his speaking one. “And we’ll be happy to prove you right again…as soon as we catch our breath.”

“I agree,” Far murmured. “But this time it’s my turn to eat our lady’s pussy. As much as I enjoy watching you taste her, Brother, I do like to lick her myself from time to time.”

“Be my guest,” Truth sent, licking his lips. “As long as our lady does not mind going for…what do they call it? Round two?” He looked at Becca questioningly.

“Round two it is, boys…” Becca felt a lazy little smile tug at the corners of her mouth. “But first the two of you are going to have to clean me up.” She gestured down at herself. “I’m afraid you left kind of a mess here.”

Far’s black eyes went half-lidded with lust and Truth growled approvingly.

“Our pleasure, my lady,” the light twin said. “Our very great pleasure indeed…”


Chapter Fifteen

 

“We should stop for the night. Or for the day at this point since it’s almost dawn,” the big Kindred rumbled, throwing Tess a glance from the driver’s side of the truck. “You look tired.”

“How could I be tired when you’ve been doing all the driving?” she protested, shifting so that the ancient leather seat didn’t press so hard against her wounded back. “Still can’t believe how fast you picked it up.”

He shrugged, his broad shoulders rolling with the motion. In the lights of the dash his gorgeous eyes seemed to glow faintly.

“Kindred are good at piloting and languages. At least that is what I’m learning aboard my new home, the Mother Ship.”

“Have you not…” Tess winced as the seat rubbed her hurt back again. “Not always been there then? Oh wait, of course you haven’t. Your sister-in-law Becca told me all about the planet you came from. What was it called again?”

“Pax.” His full, sensual lips got tight and Tess got the feeling that she’d said something wrong. Should she not have mentioned his home planet? But he’d given her an intro, talking about what he was learning on the Mother Ship which was his new home…

Damn it—I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or say. I still don’t even know why he wanted to come along with me so badly. So he dreamed of me and I might have dreamed of him—so what? Are we supposed to be best friends now?

She wasn’t even sure how the big Kindred really felt about her. Back on the Mother Ship he had appeared to be attracted to her—but that was when he thought she was a Pairing Puppet. Now, down here on Earth, he seemed really remorseful about sending her back into Pierce’s waiting arms—to the point where he just about killed himself to set her free. Then he had been adamant about coming with her, even when she clearly stated she didn’t want any kind of relationship.

As if he wants a relationship with you, Tess, sneered a little voice in her head that sounded suspiciously like Pierce. Your dress size is in the double digits and he’s all kinds of gorgeous. He could be with any woman he wants. Besides, he said he’d taken some kind of vow. So even if he did want to be with you, he wouldn’t. He’s only hanging around because he feels guilty about sending you back to Pierce.

Shut up, she told the little voice grimly. What do I care why he’s with me? The main thing is…the main thing is…damn it…what is the main thing? I can’t even think straight anymore!

She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. It would be easier to think if her back didn’t hurt so much. The places where the heavy metal buckle had hit hardest were aching and the cuts where it had torn and ripped her flesh were stinging. Sitting in this ancient Ford Pickup which had belonged to Di’s Uncle Jackson for hours on end wasn’t helping any either.

He’s right—we ought to stop. Just find some fleabag motel and get some rest for a couple of hours. After all, we’re out of Florida now—that should slow Pierce down—maybe even throw him off completely.

Not that she thought her ex would be that easily deterred. When Pierce saw something he wanted, he went after it with the ferocity of a rabid bulldog going after a bone. And right now, Tess was the bone.

Good thing I have a watchdog of my own to keep me company. Although she didn’t really think Garron looked much like a dog. No, if he was an animal he’d probably be a lion or, no…she frowned. He’d be something else—something fierce but beautiful. Like a hawk maybe? Something that dived from the sky in search of prey. If she closed her eyes she could almost see him diving and swooping down from the clouds…

“Hey!” A large, muscular arm was thrown across her chest, making Tess jump and gasp when it came in contact with her breasts which were bare beneath the thin t-shirt. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to grab you.” Garron pulled back his arm immediately. “You were starting to pitch forward and the seat harness didn’t stop you. I was afraid you would hit your head.”

“Oh, I…” Tess blinked her eyes. “I’m sorry—I must have drifted off. And these seatbelts are old—I guess they’re not working like they should be.”

“Neither are you.” He gave her a stern look. “You can’t keep going like this. We need to stop for awhile so that you can get some rest.”

Tess had to acknowledge he was right. Though she hated to spend the time and money, she was dead on her feet and her back was beginning to feel like it was on fire. It was a miserable combination—dead tired and yet in too much pain to really sleep.

Maybe if I take a nice cold shower and lay on my stomach in a dark room…

“That sounds perfect,” Garron rumbled and she realized she must have spoken the thought aloud. “Now where can we find such a room? Are the natives of your planet friendly—could we ask for a night’s lodging at some of the domiciles we’re passing?”

Tess nearly laughed.

“Hardly. I mean, maybe once people were that friendly but not anymore. We’re going to have to get a hotel room.”

“A what room?” He frowned.

“Look, over there—” Tess pointed to a sign on the side of the highway which mentioned several hotels and motels as well as a McDonalds and a Krispy Kreme. “Take the next exit. There are a couple of cheap options—one of them will do.”

Garron put on the turn signal, crossed several lanes of traffic, and exited smoothly without a word. It was nothing short of amazing how quickly he’d picked up not only the way the truck operated, but the rules of the road. Maybe, as he said, he simply had a genetic aptitude for it.

Tess supposed that being genetic traders, the Kindred would have to be able to assimilate themselves into a new culture as quickly and smoothly as possible. Presumably that included being able to get around in a new place. Probably the big Kindred would have done just as well if she’d handed him the reigns of a horse or the steering yoke of a plane or the controls to a freaking flying carpet. He was genetically predispositioned to get along wherever he was—at least his Kindred side was.

She wondered briefly about his other side—what had Becca called it? Racoon? Rai’quse? Something like that. Should she ask him about it? She remembered the way his lips had thinned when she asked about Pax. Okay, well maybe not. But she really wanted to know, even though she probably shouldn’t. The big Kindred warrior was intriguing to say the least.

“Are any of these establishments acceptable?” Garron asked as they drove past the rows of strip malls, motels, and fast food restaurants. “What about that one?” He nodded at a pawn shop. We Pay Big $$$ for Gold—the blaring neon sign screamed in lime green letters. “They appear to be offering something for gold. The buttons on my uniform shirt are gold plated…”

He glanced down at the deep blue shirt he wore which seemed to be made of some thick, silky satin material. It did indeed have gold buttons with a small insignia which Tess assumed was some kind of Kindred symbol stamped on each one.

“No, that’s a pawn shop,” she said. “You sell valuables there for money but I don’t expect you to sell the shirt off your back. I have a little saved—can’t afford to get two rooms though, sorry about that.”

Garron frowned. “I don’t like the idea of you paying for me. I should have gotten some Earth money on the Mother Ship before I came down but I was so frantic when I woke from my dream, I—” He broke off abruptly, his face turning red. “Never mind.”

“Don’t worry about the money,” Tess said, wondering what he had been going to say. “You’re doing all the driving—I really appreciate that.”

“It still isn’t right.” He didn’t look happy. “I came here to care for and protect you—not take from you.”

Tess didn’t know what to say to that. There it was again—his insistence that he had to take care of her. What was she supposed to make of that? And why did he care so much?

“Oh, here—a Holiday Inn.” She pointed at the familiar green sign, relieved to be able to change the subject. “Pull in and we’ll see if they have any open rooms.”

Garron obligingly did as he was told, bringing the car right around to the front of the hotel.

“Good,” Tess said as she grabbed the door handle and began to fight with it. “Now we’ll just go…go in and see if they…have a room. Damn it!” she ended, giving up in frustration. “This door is stuck again!”

“I’ve got it.” Garron was out of the truck and around to the passenger’s side in an instant. He opened the rusty door easily and held it open for her.

“Thanks.” Tess smiled at him, feeling a little shy. Apparently the Kindred were naturals at being gentlemen too. “I guess chivalry isn’t quite dead.”

He frowned as he gave her a hand down to the pavement.

What isn’t dead?”

Tess tried to think how to explain.

“Chivalry. It’s uh…an Earth concept. The idea that a man should treat a lady with respect and do little things like…like opening her door, carrying her luggage…stuff like that.” She could feel her cheeks getting warm. “It’s silly, really—I was just thinking that you seem to be a natural at it.”

“Thank you,” he said, lifting her heavy duffel out of the back seat. “But I’m just doing what any male would do for any female.”

“Uh…sure.” Tess nodded, thinking of how Pierce had never done any of those things. Then again, it wasn’t like they had traveled much. Her ex had liked keeping her locked away too much to indulge in any weekend getaways.

She winced as she took a few steps for the first time in several hours. The last stop they had made was at a gas station to fill up Uncle Jackson’s fuel guzzling Ford and she had stiffened up considerably since then.

“Tess…” Garron’s deep voice sounded so worried she looked around at him.

“What? Is everything okay?”

“No. Your back…” He gestured, concern written all over his face. “It looks worse—much worse.”

Tess tried to look over her shoulder with very little success. She couldn’t see much but some dried blood and the motion really hurt her back and neck. The pain went nicely with the knot of tension she could feel growing in her gut. She knew her back looked bad—how could it not? It felt like raw hamburger. But it wasn’t like he had to point it out all over again.

“I’m not surprised,” she said grimly. “This kind of thing gets worse before it gets better. Sorry if it grosses you out—I’ll deal with it once we get in the room. In the mean time here—give me my sweater out of the duffel.”

She shrugged carefully into the black sweater. It wasn’t very comfortable but at least it covered the bloody blotches on the back of her shirt. It also covered her breasts which was good—she felt more exposed now that she was standing out in the cold night air.

“It’s not that it makes me feel ill, at least, not for the reason you seem to think.” His voice was hoarse. “You talk as though you’re used to it—to this level of brutality. I just…I don’t see how that bastard could have…”

“He beat me with his belt, all right?” Tess snapped. “The buckle end, which was a first. But it was not the first time he came after me. So yes, I know what to expect. Can we please go get the hotel room now?”

She knew she sounded defensive but she couldn’t help it. The big Kindred didn’t seem to be the “blame the victim” kind of guy, but his words reminded her of people she’d met who were. “Well why did you go back to him? What were you thinking? Did you really believe him when he said he’d changed?”

You couldn’t explain to people like that how trapped you felt—how isolated you were once you’d been cut off from your friends and family, uprooted and moved halfway across the country to a town you didn’t know, where you weren’t allowed to finish school or have any kind of decent job. Not in a way they would understand, anyway.

“I’m sorry,” Garron said in a low voice. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“No, I’m sorry.” Tess sighed. “It just hurts like hell and I’m really tired and cranky right now. I left Pierce months ago and I guess I thought…thought this part of my life was over.” She motioned at her back. “Guess I was wrong.”

“No.” His eyes flashed. “You were right. Didn’t I tell you he’ll never touch you again?”

Sure—for as long as you want to hang around. Until your guilt runs out or you decide you were dreaming about somebody else and you want to go back to the Mother Ship.

Tess didn’t say any of it out loud. She simply nodded and gave him a tight smile.

“Forget about me for a minute—how are your hands?” she said as lightly as she could, trying to change the subject.

“Better.” He held them out, palms up, and she was surprised to see that the abrasions he’d gotten while yanking the anti-theft mesh out of the window were almost healed.

“Amazing!” The nurse in her wanted to examine them more closely. She took one of his hands between her own, much smaller ones, and looked at it closely. “How is this possible?”

He shrugged. “Kindred heal more quickly than humans.”

“Well, that’s…oh!” A wave of dizziness hit her, causing her to grip his hand for support.

“Tess? Are you all right?” Garron sounded really concerned. He reached out to support her with his other hand as well but she shook her head and stepped back. Taking a deep breath, she stood up straight even though it made her back feel like someone had set it on fire.

“Fine—I’m fine. Just really tired. Come on, let’s get a room.”

Garron looked like he wanted to say more. Instead, he followed her wordlessly into the hotel lobby where a sleepy night clerk agreed to let them have a king single room even though it was nearly four thirty in the morning. They rode silently in the elevator up to the third floor and found their room.

Tess opened the door with the keycard since Garron was carrying her duffel. He followed her into the room, but when he tried to follow her into the bathroom, she drew the line.

“No,” she said firmly, keeping a hand on the knob. “This is a private place. See the toilet and shower? People get naked in this room and I’m not about to get naked in front of you. I mean, just because you saw me with my towel half off earlier…” He didn’t just see you—he held you…felt you pressed against him, whispered a little voice in her head. She felt her cheeks getting red. “I just…I need a little time to myself, okay?”

“I know why you want time to yourself.” Garron frowned. “And it’s not all about modesty. You’re going to try to see to your back—but you can’t treat injuries like that alone.”

“I’ll be fine.” Tess shifted uncomfortably. “Honestly, I’m a nurse—or I was almost one, anyway. I’ve got my LPN, just not my RN. Anyway, the point is, I can manage.”

“No, you can’t.” His deep voice was stern. “And you’re not going to try. Take some time to bathe if that’s what you want to do. After that, come out and let me help you.”

Tess set her jaw. She wasn’t going to have him helping her—not after the way he’d freaked out about her back earlier. Also, even though he had seen her half naked before, she didn’t intend to repeat the performance. She had too many big-girl body issues to go prancing around in the nude—especially in front of a guy like Garron who was in perfect shape and looked like he’d stepped off the front cover of Men’s Health.

“I don’t think so,” she said shortly.

“I do.” He looked at her, his jewel-toned eyes blazing into hers.

“I don’t really care what you think.” She was aware that it sounded childish but she didn’t care. She hated feeling like a victim and she’d had enough of men telling her what to do.

“Tess—”

“I’ll be out in a little while. Don’t worry, I won’t use all the hot water.”

She shut the door firmly in his face and then took a deep breath and pressed her forehead against the door. Why was she being so bitchy to him? He was just trying to help, after all.

But I don’t want to need help. I don’t like feeling this way—wounded…cornered…vulnerable. Indeed, she’d liked it a whole lot better back when he thought she wasn’t real—when she was just an artificial girl without any real problems or personality. At least then he hadn’t looked at her with pity in those gorgeous eyes of his. At least he hadn’t been horrified by what had happened to her.

Tess sighed and took off her sweater and yoga pants—though she kept on her panties—and started to pull off her shirt. Or tried to, anyway—but the shirt wouldn’t come off.

The pink cotton t-shirt was stuck to the skin of her back. Indeed, the fabric seemed to have bonded to the places where Pierce’s buckle had cut her especially deep.

Tess gave a low hiss of pain as a small part of the t-shirt gave way, tearing the skin open again as it did. A warm trickle of blood ran down her back.

“Goddamnit!” she muttered under her breath. “Of all the stupid things…”

“Tess?” There was a knocking at the bathroom door. “Do you need help?”

“No!” she said at once. She pulled at the t-shirt again and tore more skin open. “Damn it…” She sighed. There was silence outside the door but it was a listening silence, as though the big Kindred was standing there, waiting for her to acknowledge her helplessness.

“Tess?” he said again after a moment.

Tess sighed, defeated. There was no way she was getting the t-shirt off herself. Although she didn’t know what Garron could do to help, she finally opened the door.

“All right, come in. My stupid t-shirt is stuck to my back but I don’t see what you can do about it.”

He studied the red-splotched back of her pink t-shirt for a moment and she watched his expression covertly in the mirror, looking for signs of disgust. There was nothing on his face, though—he kept it carefully blank. Only the blazing of his pure turquoise eyes betrayed any emotion.

“I think I know what to do,” he said at last. “Come here.” He led her to the bath tub and tested the water temperature carefully before turning on the shower. Then he stepped back. “Get in.”

“What—with all my clothes on?” Actually, she was down to just her t-shirt and panties—a point she was acutely aware of. But still…

“If you ever want to get that pink garment off, then yes. Here—it looks like the bathing area might be slippery.” He rolled up his sleeves and offered her a hand. “I’ll help you in.”

At last Tess’s tired brain began to process what he had in mind.

“I can manage,” she said stiffly and then ruined her show of independence by swaying tiredly before she could even get near the shower.

“Here.” Reaching out, Garron took her arm firmly and handed her carefully into the tub. “Now just stand under the spray.”

Tess hissed as the lukewarm needles of water hit her injured back but after a moment she could feel the shower doing its job. The cotton material which had dried stiff to her back at last began to loosen. Finally, she could feel the t-shirt pealing free to hang in limp, sodden folds around her hips. Her hair got wet in the process, as well as the rest of her but she almost didn’t care. The water felt refreshing after the long, cramped drive and its warmth was welcome against her aching, bruised back.

“All right, I think it’s better now,” Garron’s deep voice said in her ear and the water was suddenly turned off.

Tess jumped—in her pleasure at the shower, she’d almost forgotten he was standing right beside her.

“Step out onto the mat,” he said, indicating the white terrycloth bathmat in front of the tub. “But first take off your wet clothes so I can wrap you in this.” He held out a white towel and nodded at her.

“What? No.” Tess shook her head vehemently. “I told you, I’m not getting naked around you.”

Garron sighed. “You have a beautiful body, Tess but you’re wounded right now. I hope you don’t think I’m the kind of male who would take advantage of you in your current situation.”

“I don’t really know what kind of guy, uh male, you are,” Tess snapped and felt immediately sorry for being mean. After all, he was trying help her. “I mean, you seem really nice I just…haven’t known you that long. That’s all,” she ended rather lamely.

“No, you’re right. You don’t know me.” Garron’s expression was closed. “I don’t blame you for being cautious. Would it help if I closed my eyes?” He closed them as he spoke and then motioned with the towel which he was still holding open for her.

“Well…” Tess bit her lip and decided she was just going to have to trust him. After all, he hadn’t tried to take advantage so far and he did seem like a nice guy. So did Pierce…at first, whispered a voice in her head but she pushed it away. “All right,” she said at last when the big Kindred just stood there with his eyes closed, waiting. “Just give me a minute.”

“Take as much time as you need.”

“Thanks.” She shuffled out of the sodden pink t-shirt as carefully as she could, trying not to pull the bruised muscles of her back. God, you never knew how much you used your back until you injured it—or someone else injured it for you.

Hold still, bitch! Hold still and take your whipping! Pierce shouted in her head.

Tess took a deep breath and put a lid on the memory. There was no point in reliving that part of the pain too.

She debated taking her panties off too and in the end, she decided to do it. Modesty was just going to have to take a back seat to comfort, at least for tonight. She slipped her thumbs into the waistband of her plain white panties—now soaked like the t-shirt—pushed them down and kicked them away. Then slowly, carefully, she climbed out of the tub.

Garron was still standing there waiting with his eyes closed tight, his eyelashes like black fans against his high cheekbones. Tess wondered if he was fighting the urge to peek—or if he was glad he’d promised to keep his eyes closed. Probably the latter. Still, he had said she had a beautiful body…

Forget it and just cover up, she advised herself. Accordingly, she stepped into the white towel and pulled it around her… Or she would have if the rough hotel terrycloth hadn’t felt like sandpaper against her wounded back. She hissed in pain and jumped away from the coarse material.

“Are you all right?” Garron sounded concerned but he still didn’t open his eyes.

“Fine, I just…here, give me the towel, please.” She took the white towel and pressed it against her chest instead of wrapping it around from the back. Now her ass was hanging out but at least her front was covered. In this position the towel only rubbed against one sore spot—a little cut on her left breast just above her nipple. It was the first blow Pierce had landed before she’d gotten into a protective crouch and only a glancing one, so it didn’t hurt that much. “Okay,” she said at last, trying to keep the towel firmly in place. “You can open your eyes now.”

“All right.” He opened his eyes and his gaze flicked over her quickly, as though looking for injuries. “The front of you looks mostly unharmed at least,” he remarked after a quick but thorough inspection.

“That’s because I was in a ball on the floor protecting my face,” Tess said grimly. “A hurt back heals a hell of a lot faster than a broken jaw or a…” She stopped when she saw the look on his face. “I’m sorry,” she muttered, looking away. “I shouldn’t have…I don’t know why I said that.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.” His face was tight, his jaw clenched. “I should have gotten to you sooner. Should never have sent you off the Mother Ship in the first place.”

“I told you, it’s not your fault.” Tess sighed. “Look, I know how horrifying this must seem to someone who’s never dealt with it before—”

“But I have dealt with it,” he said quietly, surprising her. “Look,” he continued, obviously seeing the skeptical expression on her face. He unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it down, off his shoulders. Turning, he exposed his broad, bare back.

Tess caught her breath. She’d seen him shirtless before but only from the front. Now, in the harsh fluorescent lights mounted over the sink and counter, she could see that his smooth, tan skin was marked with long, white scars, almost like stripes running across his shoulders. They were faint, as though they’d been made a long time ago before he got his growth, but still noticeable.

Without thinking she reached up to trace one with her fingertip. The big Kindred shivered under her touch but didn’t try to move away.

“How?” she whispered.

“Those are the marks of a cane cut from the agony plant.”

“The agony plant? Sounds awful.” Tess shivered.

“It has certain chemicals that cause the wound to sting like fire and heal more slowly so the pain lasts for longer.” He frowned. “I was about eight or nine cycles old when he used it on me. I have born the marks ever since.”

“He…who?” Tess shook her head. Who would do such a cruel thing to a little boy?

“My apa—my father. He was…much like your ex mate.” He turned to face her again, pulling the shirt back into place but leaving it loose and unbuttoned.

“He was?” Tess raised an eyebrow at him. “Really? He, uh, hurt you and your mother?”

“Not my mother, no.” Garron shook his head. “I think that is what bothers me so much about what…was done to you. He never lifted a hand to her—or to any female. All his aggression was aimed at my brother and myself.”

“So you…grew up with this kind of thing?” Tess asked hesitantly.

He nodded. “My brother tried to deflect his anger as much as he could but there were times when it wasn’t always possible, especially when my father was very drunk. He…” Garron looked away. “He was unstoppable then, until he had spent his anger on someone. Most often that was my brother, Truth. But sometimes…sometimes it was my turn.”

“I’m sorry,” Tess whispered. Unexpectedly, she felt the knot of tension in her stomach begin to melt. “Sorry I was so snippy with you. I thought you didn’t understand. But now I see you do—you must.”

“I can empathize,” he said. “But I will never understand how anyone could mark such a lovely female or raise a hand to you in violence.”

“Oh, well that’s…” Tess felt her cheeks getting hot. “That’s really…”

“True,” Garron finished for her. He reached out and brushed her hot cheek with his fingertips. “I’m sorry I wasn’t in time to stop what happened to you. Will you let me make it up to you?”

She shook her head. “How?”

“By healing you.”

Tess looked at him uncertainly. “I’m not sure…I understand what you’re asking.”

He sighed. “I’m not either. I’ve never tried anything like this before but I think it would work.”

“Anything like what?” She frowned at him.

“Anything like this. Can I see your arm?” He motioned to her left forearm, which had a bruise and a cut where the belt had hit. Her back wasn’t the only part Pierce had injured—just the most painful.

“Oh, well…okay, I guess” Tess clutched the towel to her chest with her right arm and held up the left to him, wondering what he was going to do.

“Thank you. And as I said, I’m not certain this will work but I think…” He didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, his eyes began to glow again, just as they had when he was trying to pull the metal anti-theft screen out of the concrete around the window at Pierce’s house.

His other—the part inside him he said was dangerous—is he accessing it now? Using it somehow—letting it come forward?

Tess didn’t dare to ask. She just bit her lip but didn’t try to pull away as he leaned down and brought her wounded limb to his mouth. With long, slow, smooth strokes, he bathed the torn flesh with his tongue.

Tess bit back a gasp. His mouth on her skin was hot, wet…and sensuous. But somehow she knew he wasn’t trying to seduce her. He actually thought he could help her in some way although how in the world he expected…

Her thoughts dried up as he pulled back, exposing her hurt arm.

Her hurt arm which was no longer hurt.

Oh, the bruise was still there but the cut was gone—sealed up into a faint white line and even that seemed to fade as she watched.

“How…how did you do that?” Tess gasped. She held her arm up and examined it from every angle, trying to figure it out. “Is this some kind of alien magic or something?”

Garron shook his head. “Not magic—chemistry. The chemistry of my dr’gin.”

“Your what?” she asked, looking up at him dazedly.

“My other,” he clarified. “The other that lives within me. I…called on it to help me and it did. Or rather, I called it to the surface enough to use its healing powers.”

“But…didn’t you tell me that was dangerous? Letting it come up…out?” Tess still couldn’t stop staring at her healed arm.

“It would be if it wasn’t for you. You seem to…quiet it somehow. To tame it.” He looked as though he was groping for an explanation but finally he shook his head. “I’m sorry I can’t explain it better but I actually feel more in control of myself—of my dr’gin—when I touch you. You calm the fire in my blood.”

Tess remembered him saying similar things the first time he held her, back when he thought she was a Pairing Puppet, and also after he had pulled the cage out of the window and had begged her to put her arms around his neck.

“All right,” she whispered, looking up at him. “Now what?”

“Now I’d like to heal your back as well…if you’ll let me.”

“I…” She bit her lip uncertainly. “You want to…to lick my back?”

He nodded. “It’s the only way.”

“But I…I don’t know.”

“Tess…” He took her hand in his and looked earnestly into her eyes. “These scars I bear are old—there was no one to help or to heal me when the wounds were inflicted. But yours are still fresh. If I heal them now before they have time to set…”

“You really want to do this, don’t you?” she whispered, watching his face.

Garron nodded and closed his eyes for a moment. “I can’t…can’t bear to think of his marks on you permanently.” His deep voice was tight. “Please…let me erase them.”

God, can’t believe I’m actually considering this. Tess shifted, feeling incredibly vulnerable and naked behind the thin towel.

“And…you swear that’s all you’ll do? Just…heal me?”

He frowned. “Remember, I told you that I have made a private vow to be true to a memory of another? One I loved?”

“Oh, yes…you did say that. Sorry. So of course it would only be healing.” Tess felt her cheeks go hot.

“Of course,” he repeated.

Tess felt like all the breath had been sucked out of her lungs. It’s okay, she told herself. He’s not looking to do anything but heal me. So it should be fine.

“Well then…” she said aloud, wishing her voice didn’t sound so shaky. “All right.”


Chapter Sixteen

 

They went into the darkened bedroom and Tess was glad the only light was a thin sliver coming from between the closed drapes. It made her feel less self conscious knowing that he couldn’t see her very well.

“Lie down on your stomach,” Garron directed, helping her onto the king sized bed.

Tess did as he said, keeping the towel clutched tightly to her chest and wishing she could cover her bare behind as well. Unfortunately, the skimpy little hotel towels weren’t exactly made for plus-sized girls like herself. No matter how she tried, she was always somewhat exposed.

“Don’t worry about covering yourself—just try to get comfortable.” The big Kindred’s deep voice was gentle as he propped a pillow under her head and arms. Then he lowered himself to the bed beside her.

“I’m…trying.” Her voice came out slightly strangled. Having a big, powerful male looming over her in the dark wasn’t exactly the most relaxing experience.

Hold still you little slut and take your punishment!

Tess bit her lip and clenched her pillow, fighting the urge to curl into a protective ball. Her whole body felt tense as Garron leaned over her. God, why had she agreed to this?

Somehow, just as he had before in the dark hallway in her apartment, he seemed to sense her tension.

“Tess,” he murmured, crouching low so that his warm breath stirred a tendril of hair at her cheek. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she lied. “I just…this is…harder than I thought.”

“I can tell,” he murmured.

Tess tried to laugh but it came out as a breathless gasp.

“Is it that obvious?”

“For one with my senses, yes. I can smell your fear.”

“You can what?” She turned her face to look up at him. “Seriously?”

He nodded, his eyes glowing softly in the dim room.

“Yes. And I know why you’re afraid. I know how hard it is to trust again after trust has been betrayed. But please know this…I will never hurt you.” He stroked a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Never, Tess.”

Tess bit her lip, staring up at his lovely, inhuman eyes.

“I…I want to believe you,” she whispered.

“Then do it—trust me. You’re safe with me. Just relax and let me heal you.”

“I…I’ll try.” It was the best she could do.

“Thank you.” He stroked her cheek. “I promise I’ll go slowly. And you can stop me at any time if the healing becomes too…intense.”

Tess wanted to ask what he meant by “intense” but just then he bent over her again and she felt his hot breath on her wounded back.

She froze instinctively—waiting for the first blow to fall. The first punch from a fist, the first slap of a belt, the first crack of a cane…

Instead she felt only softness…warm, wet softness. The press of lips to her wounded shoulder…the soothing glide of his tongue over her vulnerable flesh. Soon the stinging ache which had accompanied that particular cut melted away—erased by the gentle action of his mouth.

Tess felt her fear ease to be replaced by a different kind of tension. He wasn’t just healing her—he was kissing her better. Literally kissing each cut and wound as tenderly and gently as a lover kissing his mistress’s mouth. And with each press of his lips, each stroke of his tongue, she felt a deep tingling spreading out all over her body. A tingling that somehow found its way from her torn back to the tight tips of her nipples and the warm, wet spot between her thighs.

She bit back a moan as his mouth moved downward, finding the cuts Pierce’s belt had inflicted on her lower back. His big hands held her lightly in place, resting just on the curve of her hips as he trailed tender kisses lower and even lower.

When she felt his mouth against the top curve of her buttocks, heat surged through her. Tess bit her lip. God, was he even kissing her hurt places anymore? Or was he just kissing her because he wanted to? No, no, she tried to remind herself. He’s not interested in me that way—he’s just trying to help. But still the tension kept growing until she began to wonder if he would he ever stop. And even more confusing was the question, did she want him to stop?

Tess shifted and the harsh material of the towel rubbed against her nipples, making them ache. It stung the little cut right above her left nipple as well but she had other problems to think about. Her pussy throbbed between her legs, feeling swollen and hot and very, very sensitive. She found herself spreading her legs—just a little—to ease some of the tension. God, what was going on with her? Was having the big Kindred’s hands and mouth on her really affecting her that much?

Stop it, she told herself uneasily. He’s just healing you. Not…doing anything else.

Except now his hot mouth had moved down the curve of her buttocks and he was kissing the place where her thigh met her body. Tess felt his tongue flick out and lap almost right between her thighs. He made a soft, hungry sound deep in his throat and she felt his hot breath blowing against her pussy lips.

Tess suddenly remembered some of the things he’d said to her on the Mother Ship—back when he still believed she was a Pairing Puppet.

“I want to taste you, little one,” he’s said. “Want to spread your sweet pussy with my tongue.”

But he only said those things because he thought I wasn’t real—he probably just needed a release and he thought doing it with a puppet wouldn’t violate his vow. Once he found out I was a real girl, not an artificial sex toy, he lost all interest…didn’t he?

If that was true, why was he kissing her so gently, in such an intimate place…a place Tess was pretty sure hadn’t been wounded at all? And why did it feel so good even though she tried not to let it?

Suddenly another voice intruded in her head—Pierce’s voice. “Only sluts like it—only whores enjoy having that done to them. Is this what you want? You little slut!”

“Um…” She shifted away quickly, pressing her thighs together tightly.

Garron let her go at once.

“Are you all right?” His voice was hoarse in the dim room.

“Yes, fine. I just…I think I’m healed now. So you don’t have to…don’t have to…”

“But I want to.” His eyes were glowing more brightly than she’d ever seen them.

“You…you promised.” She rolled over, making sure to keep the towel clutched to her chest. “You said you’d only…only heal me. Because of your vow—remember?”

“So I did.” Garron took a deep breath and ran a hand over his face. He looked down for a moment and when he looked back up, his eyes were dimmer. “Forgive me. For a moment I forgot my vow…the scent of your desire overcame me.”

“I…my…desire?” Tess sat up, still holding the towel.

“Your pussy,” he said frankly, his eyes flashing. “You smell so sweet and hot and so Goddess damned wet.” He took a deep breath, inhaling through his nose as though savoring a delicious scent.

Tess felt a flash of heat go through her again…followed by a cold finger of fear.

“I…I’m not…I would never…” she started to deny.

Garron frowned at her. “My nose doesn’t lie, especially not about your scent, Tess.” He sniffed again. “And now I smell your fear. Why do you fear your own desire? Is it forbidden to you?”

“I…” Tess bit her lip, thinking of how angry Pierce got if she seemed to be enjoying herself—even a little bit—during sex. Not that there was much to enjoy—it was pretty much wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am every single time. But still…

“It was forbidden to me,” Garron said in a low voice, as though imparting a secret. “But then, you probably already know that from talking to my brother’s mate, Becca.”

“She did tell me a few things,” Tess said carefully. “Mostly that your people are kind of, uh, judgmental. And that you don’t hug each other.”

“We don’t. It is the way of my people never to touch except during mating.”

“So, no hugging…no holding…so signs of affection at all?”

“No physical signs, anyway.” He sighed. “They say that you cannot miss what you never experience in the first place. But growing up, I used to long to be close to someone. To hold and be held…”

He sounded so wistful that Tess felt her chest ache for him. Her mom had been a single parent, usually holding down two jobs, but she had never mistreated Tess or withheld affection. Tess had so many happy memories when she was younger of hugs and kisses…her mom brushing her hair…sitting on her lap…cuddling under a warm quilt together before bedtime while they read a good book…

Just the thought was enough to bring the sting of tears to her eyes—she still missed her mom terribly. And yet, at least she had these memories to pour over and cherish. From what Garron said, he had nothing like them. What would it be like to grow up touching no one and never being touched? What would it be like to never get a hug or a kiss or any kind of physical expression of affection?

“Lonely,” she murmured aloud. “You must have been so lonely…”

He shrugged and looked away. “I managed. I was close to my brother, Truth—that helped some.”

“But to never even be hugged…to know it was forbidden…”

“It’s not the only thing that was forbidden.” He looked down at his hands. “The things I told you when I thought you were a Pairing Puppet… I must ask, when you spoke to my brother’s mate, did you—?”

“I didn’t repeat any of them,” Tess hastily assured him. She tried not to blush when she remembered how he’d told her he wanted to spend hours between her legs mapping the secret folds of her pussy with his tongue. Did he really feel that way? Or had he just said it because he didn’t think she was real?

“You didn’t?” He looked up at her swiftly.

“No, of course not. That’s…private.”

“Thank you.” He had a relieved expression on his face. “I value Becca’s good opinion. I would not have her think less of me.”

“I doubt she’d think less of you for wanting to do…” Tess cleared her throat. “The, uh, things you said to me. They’re not so terrible…not terrible at all, really.”

“Then why do you fear them? Why do you fear my desire for you and your body’s reaction when I touch you…taste you?”

Tess felt her mouth go dry. “You didn’t really taste me. I mean, not the way you talked about back on the ship. When you thought I was one of the Puppets,” she clarified quickly. “I mean, you were probably just saying those things. You don’t really…”

“Want to taste you?” His eyes flashed in the dim room. “Of course I do. How could I not?”

“But…why?” She knew she ought to change the subject and talk about something else. But somehow the question popped out anyway.

“Your scent is so sweet and hot and it comes from here…” His big hand brushed the part of the towel that covered her pussy. “How could I not want to bury my face between your legs and taste that sweetness right from the source?”

Her heartbeat ratcheted up a notch. “You…I…I thought you just said those things because you thought I wasn’t real—because you thought I was a Pairing Puppet.”

He looked down. “It is true I felt more…free to say what I wanted, to act on my forbidden impulses because I believed you were one of the Puppets.”

“I see. And this vow you took…” She looked at him closely. “You said it was for one you loved. Did you, uh, break up with her?”

“She died,” Garron said shortly. “And I vowed to remain true to her memory. She…she will always be in my heart.”

“Of course.” Tess wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed. On one hand, it was clear he wasn’t interested in a relationship because of his vow for his deceased girlfriend. So she could stop feeling so nervous and jumpy around him. On the other hand, he wasn’t available, even if she decided she did want a relationship.

Don’t be stupid, Tess, lectured the little voice in her head. A new relationship is the last thing you need right now! Especially when you’re still on the run from the old one!

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said aloud.

He shook his head. “It was a while ago. I have been trying very hard to stay true to the memory of the one I loved but at the time I came to you in the Pairing House, my blood was boiling and my…other was very close to the surface. I felt I needed a release.”

“Did you ever get one? I mean…after I left?” Tess couldn’t believe she’d asked the question as soon as it popped out of her mouth but Garron didn’t seem offended.

“No.” He shook his head quickly. “No, your scent was the one that drew me. None of the others held any interest for me.” He frowned. “Speaking of scent, I still smell blood on you. Not much but is there another wound? One I missed before?”

“I don’t thin—” Tess shifted uncomfortably and felt the rough towel rub over the tiny cut on her left breast. “Um, well…”

“There is, isn’t there?” He leaned closer. “Please, Tess, if there is someplace else he marked you, let me take care of it.”

“I…I shouldn’t,” she whispered. “It’s in…in kind of an awkward spot.”

“You don’t have to be ashamed or afraid.” His deep voice was gentle. “I swear I wish only to heal you.”

“Well…” Shouldn’t do this, whispered a panicked little voice in her brain. It’s okay, Tess argued back. He’s just going to heal me—that’s all. Besides, he took a vow! Slowly, with trembling hands, she pulled down the part of the towel that covered her left breast. Then she realized he probably couldn’t see what she was showing him—it was, after all, quite dim in the room. She could only see his facial expressions because his eyes were glowing softly. Again, knowing he couldn’t see her made things a little easier. “It’s here,” she said, taking his hand and bringing it to her chest. “Right here.”

She had meant to put just his index finger over the small cut, so he could know exactly where it was. Instead, she somehow found that his big, warm hand was cupping her whole breast.

“Here?” he murmured, his thumb brushing over the cut spot just above her nipple.

“Yes.” Tess tried to keep the gasp out of her voice but failed miserably. God, the way he was touching her…so softly…so gently…It had been so long since a man had touched her that way. So long since she didn’t have to worry that the hand which held her breast so tenderly might suddenly turn cruel and pinch or twist her sensitive flesh just to cause pain.

“May I heal you there?” Garron asked softly.

“Please…” Tess cleared her throat. “Please do,” she whispered. It’s not sexual, she told herself sternly, trying to quiet the panicked little voice in the back of her skull which said she shouldn’t be doing this. It…it’s medical. That’s all!

She almost had herself believing it until the big Kindred ducked his head and ran his hot tongue over the hurt place above her nipple. Shivers of tension ran down her spine as he caressed her gently with the tip of his tongue for an endless moment. Then he sat back, frowning.

“What…what is it?” Tess asked breathlessly.

“It does not seem to be healing as the others did,” Garron rumbled. “Maybe we waited to long to heal it. Or maybe because it is in such a delicate spot.”

“Oh, well…” Tess bit her lip. “Maybe…maybe you should try again?”

He looked thoughtful. “Maybe. I think if I could take the whole area completely in my mouth…”

Tess’s heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was shaking her entire body.

“You mean…take my…my nipple in your mouth?”

He nodded. “I need to be able to give it my full attention—to really concentrate on the hurt area.”

“I…but I…” Tess didn’t know what to say. “But it wouldn’t be…sexual?” she whispered at last.

He looked at her, his eyes blazing.

“Not if you didn’t want it to be,” he growled softly.

“Well, then…” Pushing away her doubts and fears took an effort but she somehow managed it. “As long…as long as it’s not sexual,” she murmured.

Garron didn’t answer with words. He ducked his head again and sucked her whole nipple gently into his wet, hot mouth. Then he began to run his tongue around and around the sensitive band of her areola.

Tess moaned and found that somehow her hands had found their way into his thick, dark hair. The soft strands tickled her fingers as she pressed her chest out, giving him better access to her breasts, mutely begging for more.

The big Kindred gave her what she was asking for. With a deep, hungry sound, he sucked harder, as though he was trying to get as much of her breast into his mouth as he could. At the same time, his tongue lashed the tender bud of her nipple, sending sparks of pleasure from her sensitive peak straight down to the hot, wet spot between her thighs.

Tess shifted, pressing her legs together, trying to control her breathing. Moving around and moaning like this when she had been with Pierce had meant an instant “punishment.” But somehow, with Garron, she just couldn’t be still.

Shouldn’t be doing this, whispered the little voice in her head. It’s bad…dangerous…

But she didn’t want to stop, not even when she felt his big, warm hand pull down the towel and cup her other breast. He rolled her nipple between his finger and thumb, teasing her, sending more warm showers of sparks straight to her aching pussy. Had she ever felt this hot? This wet and swollen and needy? If so, she couldn’t remember when…

She had a sudden image of herself reaching out to take his big hand and slipping it between her legs. He would cup her pussy as gently as he was cupping her breast and then those long, strong fingers would spread her swollen cunt lips and find their way to her slippery inner folds. Tess could almost feel his fingertips sliding over the aching bud of her clit, circling it the way his tongue was circling her nipple. And then he would go lower, would slide his fingers deep inside her and fill her up…

Tess moaned again, then tried to stifle the sound. God, she shouldn’t be reacting this way, shouldn’t be thinking these things! This was going to get her into trouble! She had to stop this…had to stop him before things went too far…

“Garron…” she said, her voice coming out breathy and high. “I…we…we shouldn’t.”

The big Kindred looked up at her, his eyes filled with hungry blue fire and her nipple still between his lips. He must have seen the uncertainty in her face because he released her, letting her sensitive peak slide slowly, sensuously from between his lips.

“Forgive me.” His deep voice was hoarse. “I got carried away. You have such lovely breasts.” He looked down at her nipple which was still stiff and achy from his attention. “It looks healed now though.”

Tess squirmed uncomfortably. “Um, you can see it? I thought you were just…I don’t know…feeling where it was. In the dark.”

“It’s not dark in here to me,” he murmured. “I have excellent night vision.”

“You do?” She risked a quick glance at his face as she pulled up her towel. “How excellent? I mean, I know your eyes glow but I didn’t think… Could you read in this light?”

“Easily. Why?” He looked up at her. “Does that bother you?”

“Well, yes,” Tess exclaimed. “I’ve been running around in this damn towel for an hour now and rolling all over the bed and letting you see me topless and uh heal me and…” She felt her cheeks get hot. “I just…I probably wouldn’t have done that if I knew you could see me that well.”

“Why?” He sounded genuinely curious. “Does it bother you for me to see you as you are now?”

“Of course it does!she burst out. “I mean, I’m hardly the right size to go running around in just a towel.”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m not…not thin.” Tess gestured down at herself with the hand that wasn’t clutching the towel. “Not even close.”

“I know.” The deep hunger in his voice surprised her. “Your curves are luscious. It’s a shame you feel the need to cover them up.”

“I…but I…” Tess shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“What is there to understand?” he countered, raising an eyebrow. “You’re beautiful—you must know that.” He frowned. “Unless your standards of beauty here on Earth are vastly different from my own.”

“Um…I would bet they are,” Tess said. “But…it’s nice of you to say so.”

“I’m not being nice—I’m telling you my feelings. The emotions of my heart.” He put a clenched fist to his broad chest. “You’re gorgeous, Tess. With your full, ripe curves and your sweet scent…” He looked at her, his eyes glowing and half-lidded. “I could lose myself in you. Lose myself completely. Forgive me for going too far while I was healing you. For breaking my vow. I was overcome. Lost.”

“I…” She bit her lip. “Thank you, I guess. That’s…no one has ever talked to me that way before.”

“It’s the truth.” He ran one fingertip lightly down her shoulder, making her shiver. “I think you’re healed back and front now. There might still be some bruising but the wounds are all gone.”

“Thank you,” Tess said softly. “That really was amazing. Thank you for healing me.”

“Thank you for allowing me to,” he said softly.

Their eyes met and held for so long Tess wondered if he could hear her heart drumming in her chest. If his eyes were good enough to read in the dark and he could smell how turned on he made her—not that I got turned on—not really, whispered a panicky little voice in her brain—then he could probably hear her heart with no problem.

“Tess,” he said in a soft, deep voice and she was aware that they had somehow gotten closer. Close enough to kiss. This close she could smell his warm, masculine scent—the same dark spice that had enfolded her when he held her in his arms in the Mother Ship. It seemed to invade her senses, making her helpless to pull away, even when he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers very, very lightly.

The kiss was soft, sweet, and feather-light but it made her heart pound like it was trying to break out of her ribs and run away. She wanted desperately to lean into it, to return the passion she felt behind his tender gesture. But something stopped her.

Slut, whispered Pierce’s voice in her head. You want it, don’t you? Of course you do—whore.

She pulled back abruptly. “I should…I need to get dressed for bed. And then get some sleep. We still have to drive all the way to North Carolina and Asheville…”

“It’s all right.” He stroked a strand of hair out of her eyes and stood up. “I understand. Forgive me if I took what you weren’t ready to give.”

“It’s not that, it’s just…” Tess thought about telling him what was really bothering her—the block she tried to put between herself and any kind of sexual desire. Because it was better that way…safer.

“Yes?” He stood there staring at her, waiting.

“Nothing.” She looked down. “Would you hand me the duffel please? I need to get something to wear.”

“Of course.” He gave it to her. “I’m going to go into the fresher for a moment and give you some privacy.”

“Thank you.” Tess watched him go and then looked down at her bag. Forget it, she told herself. He’s gorgeous and he seems to think you are too but I’d bet a month’s salary that Pierce is still after you. You don’t have time to fall for anybody right now—especially a hot, enigmatic alien who took a vow to be true to the memory of his dead girlfriend. An alien might decide to go back to the Mother Ship at any time. So just forget it, Tess. Forget it.

She started digging in the duffel, looking for a night shirt, and wishing she could take her own advice. But somehow the memory of those glowing turquoise eyes and the feather-light brush of his lips just wouldn’t leave her mind.

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

“What the fuck is this?” Detective Pierce Hughes looked down at the metal anti-theft screen—the screen he had personally been assured was completely and totally escape proof by the company rep—lying like a discarded shell outside his house. “What the fuck is going on here?”

He’d come home from working a case, all ready to continue Tess’s punishment, only to find her gone. The little slut had flown the coop without even triggering either of his booby traps. How in the hell had she managed it?

Finding the open window and the missing screen had only answered part of the question. How had she managed to get past the anti-theft cage? There was no way she could have kicked it out—she wasn’t nearly strong enough. No one was—no one human, anyway. Was it possible that she’d gotten a friend—maybe that nosy old bitch, Di, to hook a chain to the cage and use a car or truck to pull it out?

But he didn’t find a chain or any marks where a chain might have been when he examined the thick metal mesh. Besides, there was no room in the little backyard for a car—and no tire marks either. What the hell had happened here? He reached out to touch the heavy thing, hooking his fingers through it and lifting it experimentally.

The weight nearly pulled his arm out of his socket. It was fucking heavy and completely solid. How had it come out?

He let the mesh drop with a muted clang and pulled back his hand. There was something sticky on his fingers. He started to wipe his hand on his pants automatically and then stopped.

Taking a step closer to the open window with its sheer drapes blowing out into the night like ghosts, he held his hand up to the light. Smeared on his fingers was a familiar, dark red substance.

Pierce frowned and rubbed his fingers together. It was blood—but whose blood? Had someone actually pulled this metal cage right out of the concrete by sheer force? But how the hell could anyone do that? Pierce was sure the anti-theft screens were good quality and had been installed properly—he’d overseen the process himself. So if there were no weaknesses in the materials, the person who had pulled this out must have been incredibly strong.

He took a sample, scraping it into the plastic evidence bag he had left in his suit pocket from the homicide he’d just worked. Then, looking for answers, he drove to her apartment. It was locked but Pierce had no problem getting it open. Inside it was empty but clean. He frowned. Someone had gotten rid of the mess he’d left as a warning. All traces of their divorce papers and that stupid mutt she’d bought to try and keep him away were gone—wiped clean as if his carefully staged scene had never happened.

Stalking down the narrow hallway he looked into the bedroom and found a bunch of discarded clothes and knick-knacks on the bed. It looked like his dear little Princess had packed quickly, decided she had too much, and dumped half of it in her haste to be gone. But if she was in such a hurry, why had she taken time to clean up the kitchen?

The bathroom had splashes of some liquid that wasn’t water on the counter—hydrogen peroxide probably—that was one of Tess’s favorite first aid items. She always had a good supply of it in case he had to break the skin while punishing her. That was her fault though—if she didn’t fuck up so much, Pierce wouldn’t have had to mark her so often.

Lying across the toilet was something much more interesting. A big white towel—one of his towels from the house—he realized on closer inspection. And on the towel was a huge bloody handprint. A handprint too big to be human.

He thought of his earlier assessment—that no one human was strong enough to remove the anti-theft cage. That was the key—no one human. And where had Tess been hiding for the past week? Why, up on the Mother Ship with those fucking aliens, the Kindred, of course!

Could a human man have pulled out the screen or left this handprint? No. But a Kindred now…they were big sons-of-bitches. Big and extremely strong. It was difficult to believe that one of them could have been strong enough to pull a metal screen out of solid concrete but maybe this was a special breed or something.

Pierce’s hands curled into fists, his fingernails biting into his palms. Tess must have met him up there on that fucking ship—that cheating little whore! Didn’t she know she still belonged to him—to Pierce? Had his punishment with the belt taught her nothing?

Apparently not. She was probably holed up in some hotel room with him right now, fucking his brains out—the little slut! Spreading her legs for his big alien cock and loving every minute of it…

“Oh, Princess…” he muttered thickly, staring at the inhumanly big handprint. “I’m afraid you just earned yourself another punishment. And I promise this time, I won’t stop punishing you until I’m done…”


Chapter Eighteen

 

Garron slipped away into the fresher to give Tess time to change into her night clothes. While he was there, he tried to collect himself. He leaned back against the counter that surrounded the sink and took a deep breath, his cock throbbing in the prison of his tight black flight trousers. Gods, she was so beautiful…so perfect.

Shouldn’t have done that, whispered the voice of his guilt. What about your vow? What about Nella and staying true to her memory?

He tried to summon the face of his lost love but Tess kept popping up instead. Tess half naked with nothing but that thin piece of fabric between them. The feel of her plump nipple between his lips, her soft, helpless moan as he dragged his tongue across her tender flesh…it made him wonder what kinds of sounds she would make if he licked her pussy. If he spread her thighs and pressed his face to the source of that sweet, feminine scent that was driving him crazy…

But though her desire had perfumed the air between them when he told her how he wanted to bury his face between her thighs and taste her sweet pussy, Garron had scented her fear as well. For some reason she feared intimacy, even though she craved it. It was a mystery…one he ought to ignore. After all, he wasn’t here to claim her as his own—he was only supposed to be protecting her. And yet he couldn’t help wishing he knew the reasons for her fear of desire. Did it have to do with her ex-mate? Had he…done something to her?

Garron’s big hands curled into fists at the thought. Gods, what he wouldn’t do for just five minutes alone with that bastard! He would take the human male apart piece by piece but leave him alive throughout the process, so that each piece could scream for mercy—mercy Garron would never grant.

He deserves nothing but pain for the way he hurt her…beat her. Nothing but a slow, agonizing death. Which Garron would be more than happy to provide. In fact, he was tempted to go back to Tampa and deal with this male head on. Challenge him to a Y’grin—a fight to the death. But apparently that wasn’t the way things were done here on Earth.

We’re only running for a little while, he consoled himself. As soon as I get word from Truth that Tess is welcome aboard the Mother Ship, I’ll take her back up where I can keep her safe. She’ll never have to see that bastard who hurt her again.

And then, once she was safely out of harm’s way…

Then I’ll come back down and kill him.

The dr’gin rose within him, agreeing with the violent impulse—begging to be included in the fight. Garron took a deep breath, trying to calm it, to push it back below the surface.

The beast within him had been rising more and more often lately but that wasn’t so surprising. After all, he had called on it twice just tonight—once to free Tess of her prison and once to heal her wounds. Both times he had gotten the distinct impression that his dr’gin liked her—that it recognized her in some way and wanted to be with her.

It was a strange sensation—one he had never had before, even with Nella. But then, he’d been so frightened that the dr’gin would kill her during his first turning, he had never dared to call it to the surface before. In fact, he had actually doubted its existance for years.

He doubted no longer. As his name day drew near once more, he could feel it stirring…waking. I am not O’ahn—I have a dr’gin within me. A powerful, hungry one.

What would he do when it finally came out?

But maybe, he reasoned, it didn’t have to come out after all. Not if Tess could tame it. Being close to her, touching her, was like a miracle. She didn’t exactly lull the fierce beast inside him to sleep…it was more like her very presence calmed it down. Made it willing to stay submerged.

He sighed. The only problem was, her calming influence only seemed to work when she was touching him—when they were making skin-to-skin contact. During the ride up from Tampa, he had felt the pressure building, felt the dr’gin getting more and more restless. Healing her—kissing her back and shoulders, the sweet rounded globes of her ass, and the tender flesh of her thighs—had quieted it considerably. Sucking her nipple to heal it had had an even greater effect—he could practically hear the dr’gin purring with lazy contentment after he finished healing her there.

But having such intimate contact with her was breaking his vow—the promise he had made to himself to be true to Nella.

I need to stop. Need to make this the first and last time such intimacy happens between us, he told himself firmly. But…what of his dr’gin? Letting the beast within him out was not an option. If it came completely to the surface and overtook him, causing him to change forms, it would devour the closest person around which would probably be Tess.

He couldn’t let that happen—he wouldn’t let that happen. He would just go on controlling it and keeping it buried within him as he had been for years. He had never needed to touch Nella to keep it calm…and he wasn’t going to touch Tess either. Not like he had tonight. He would leave her alone and everything was going to be fine. Once they got back up to the Mother Ship, he was certain he would find a solution to his problem. So he just had to hold on until then.

Everything is all right, he told himself. We’ll be back to the Mother Ship soon…

 

* * * * *

“I am sorry but my answer is no.”

“What?” Truth stared at Chancellor Terex in surprise and disbelief. “I am sorry, Chancellor—I don’t understand.”

“I don’t see how I can be any clearer, Warrior. The Earth female is not welcome back aboard the Mother Ship.”

“But…” Truth shook his head, unable to believe it. He had come to this early session of the Council, certain he would have his request granted in no time. “But she is dream sharing with my brother, Garron. She is most probably his mate which means they belong together.”

“Let him stay on Earth with her then.”

“Excuse me, Chancellor.” Sylvan, who had been silent while Truth presented his cast to the Council, cleared his throat. “I believe the female may be in some kind of danger or trouble which is why Garron wishes to bring her back up—that he may better protect her.”

“That is not our problem.” Chancellor Terex frowned and adjusted the flowing, ceremonial robes that were traditionally worn by the head of the High Council. “The female was banned for a reason—she came aboard the Mother Ship illegally and remained here hiding in the Pairing House for over one solar week for who knows what nefarious purposes. She is not welcome back.”

“But—” Truth tried once more.

“The ban stays!” Terex banged the Speaking Rock—the traditional instrument of the Chancellor—down against the steelwood table, making a final cracking sound. For just an instant Truth thought his pale blue eyes seemed to glint a wicked red but it must have been a trick of the light. The next moment his face was back to its stern, stoic expression.

Truth cast a glance at Sylvan who looked back unhappily and shrugged. Clearly there was nothing more he could do. As head of the High Council, Terex had the final say in every decision and obviously he was not going to change his mind.

“Thank you, Chancellor,” Truth said stiffly, backing away

Terex acknowledged him with only the barest nod.

“And now,” he said, addressing the other Council members. “I understand we have some very pressing business to attend to. What have the governments of Earth been saying about our rights to call brides…?”


Chapter Nineteen

 

Tess woke to the sound of muted voices in the bathroom. Or, no—when she listened more closely, she realized it was just one voice—Garron’s. But he sounded like he was talking to someone. Was he on phone call? Maybe, from the sound of it.

She normally wouldn’t have listened to anyone else’s call but she had to pee—really badly as a matter of fact. And the longer she laid there in the cheap motel bed, the worse the impulse got until she felt like her bladder was just about to burst.

Well, maybe she could just knock on the door and ask if she could get in. He didn’t sound like he was doing anything else in there like showering or shaving. Probably he had just taken the call in the bathroom to avoid waking her. That sounded like the kind of considerate thing he would do.

You know what else is considerate? The way he licked you all over last night to heal you. The way he sucked your nipple into his mouth until you were moaning and squirming all over the bed. That was damn considerate, whispered a naughty little voice in her brain. Not to mention sexy and hot and incredibly arousing…

Tess tried to push the voice away as she got out of bed, but not too hard. It was one she hadn’t heard for a long time but it was familiar. She remembered having those happy, sexy thoughts during college, before she’d met her ex. Maybe she should name the little voice Tess BP—Before Pierce.

She’d felt like a liberated woman in those days—living on campus, making her own way, dating whoever she wanted… Although she’d only had two serious relationships before Pierce, she had loved going out and getting to know new people.

Tess thought wistfully of how happy she was then—of the different person that girl working her way through the LPN program had been. Where had that girl gone to? Had she disappeared the first time Pierce had roughed her up because the waiter was too flirty and he’d thought she was flirting back? Had she gone into hiding the first time he blacked her eye for staying ten minutes longer than she’d promised at the grocery store? Or had Tess BP run away completely after Pierce had dragged her away from her mother’s funeral and broken her wrist for daring to leave town without letting him know?

She shivered. I don’t want to think about that—about all the bad times, whispered the little voice in her head. How about thinking of Garron instead? What about remembering the gentle way he touched you? The feel of his hot tongue tracing your nipple…?

Shut up! Tess felt a tingle of desire mixed with fear. I shouldn’t be thinking about that…remembering it…wanting it…But it was hard to push the steamy memory away all the same.

She finally managed by concentrating on her intense need to pee. God, she didn’t remember drinking that much water last night but she felt like she was about to burst! She tiptoed a little closer to the bathroom door and raised her hand to knock.

“What do you mean, she’s not welcome back aboard the Mother Ship?” Garron demanded from inside the closed door.

Tess froze. Was he talking about her? Well who else do you know that was banned from the Mother Ship recently? snapped a sarcastic little voice that sounded a lot more like her normal internal monologue. Garron had to be talking about her. But if she wasn’t welcome aboard the Mother Ship then what was he going to do? Probably go back up without you, whispered the voice. After all, you can’t expect him to hang around here forever.

“No…no, that’s not an option,” she heard him growl, continuing his conversation. “No, absolutely not!”

What isn’t an option? Going back? Staying here? What? Hardly knowing what she was doing, Tess leaned closer to the door, listening hard.

“No, I don’t blame you, Brother. You tried for which I am grateful.” Garron sighed and she could almost see him running a hand through his thick black hair. “Yes, she is well although I did not get to her in as timely a fashion as I could have wished. He…marked her.” His deep voice sounded strangled. “I can say no more about it for now but I have her with me and she is safe.”

He paused a moment as though listening to remarks made by the person on the other end. Probably the Kindred called Truth since he had called him “Brother,” Tess thought.

“Yes, I know that giving in to emotion brings the dr’gin closer to the surface. Though you are my older brother, you are O’ahn. Do not think to lecture me about such things. You have no ravenous beast coiled within you, waiting to spring out on your naming day.”

His other—he’s talking about the thing that lives inside him. The thing he called on to help break me out of Pierce’s house and also to heal me. But what is his naming day? And how close is it? Tess listened even more intently, straining her ears for every detail.

Another listening pause and Garron spoke again.

“Of course I would if I thought she was in danger! What kind of male do you think I am? I would not put a female I care for in harm’s way—you know this of me, Brother.”

A female he cares for, Tess BP whispered in her head and she felt a little thrill run through her.

“No, listen,” Garron continued. “She tames it. I don’t know how she does it but every time she touches me or I touch her—every time her skin comes into contact with mine—I can feel my dr’gin quieting within me. It’s hard to explain but it’s almost as if it likes her.”

Wow, so his other likes you too. You go girl—just change your name to Tess Beastmaster…or Beastmistress or whatever… Tess BP cheered.

Tess frowned—the perky college-aged cheerleader version of herself aside, this might be serious. Garron had talked about his other being dangerous but what exactly was it—what did he turn into? Was he some kind of alien werewolf, doomed to change at a certain time every year or every month? Was he—

“No, I am not worried, no matter how I sound. I tell you, her touch quiets the burning in my blood.”

Tess remembered his glowing eyes and the way he had begged her to put her arms around him after pulling the metal cage out of Pierce’s window. He had seemed almost frantic until she’d hugged him. And then, almost immediately, he had relaxed and murmured something about how she calmed his blood.

“No, of course I cannot tell her what might happen!” Garron sounded offended now. “You have no idea what she’s been through. I don’t want her to fear me. My size and strength are already frightening enough without making physical demands on her.”

Physical demands… Tess bit her lip. What kind of physical demands? How much contact does he need to keep this…other happy?

“Besides, I need to remember the vow I made to myself—the vow to remember Nella. I need to control it—even if I must do so without her touch. Yes, I know it’s dangerous. But I promise if—”

Suddenly Tess felt a tickle in her nose and knew she was going to sneeze. She clapped a hand over her mouth but all she could do was muffle the short, sharp sneeze that burst out.

Garron was suddenly silent for a moment.

“Wait,” he said. “I think we had better break the connection. I hear her stirring.”

Panicked, Tess turned and ran on her tip-toes all the way back to the bed. She dived under the covers and buried her face in the pillows just as the bathroom door opened.

“Tess?” Garron’s deep voice sounded uncertain. “Are you awake?”

“Huh?” Tess peeked groggily over the cheap polyester coverlet and blinked at him. “What did you say?” she asked and manufactured a yawn.

This isn’t right—I should tell him I heard everything. Tell him I know what’s going on. Well, in a limited kind of way.

Right, but how would the big Kindred feel if he knew she’d been eavesdropping on his private conversation? Tess doubted it would endear her to him and he might get really mad. The old Tess—Tess BP—would have said something. But she’d become a different person in the last few years. A person who cared about self-preservation more than honesty, apparently. So she tried to look sleepy and faked another yawn.

“I thought I heard you stirring.” He stepped further into the room and Tess suddenly registered that there was something different about him.

“Hey,” she said, sitting up in bed. “Where’s your uniform shirt? What’s that you’re wearing?”

“Do you like it? It was the only one that fit but the man at the shop said it would help me blend in with the local culture in this area.”

He had on a tight black t-shirt that clung to his muscular chest. On it in bold red lettering was the slogan, There’s room for all God’s creatures…on my plate.

Tess tried not to laugh. “Uh…well, yes. This being the South, I’m sure it’ll help. You couldn’t do much better unless you got a shirt that said, ‘You can have my gun when you pry my cold, dead fingers off it.’”

Garron frowned. “He did have one like that but it wouldn’t fit me.”

“Okay, but where’s your actual shirt?” Tess frowned. “You can’t tell me you just suddenly had a hankering to wear a funny slogan on your chest.”

“No…” He cleared his throat and frowned. “My other shirt is gone. I sold it at the shop we passed on the way here.”

“What—the pawn shop?” Tess frowned.

He nodded. “Apparently Kindred memorabilia, as he called it, is in high demand. Especially authentic clothing.” He reached into the pocket of his tight black leather trousers and pulled out a wad of cash. “I believe he gave me a very fair price for it. He wanted to buy my trousers as well but I had nothing else to wear and I didn’t think going bare would be socially acceptable.”

“Well, you were right about that but oh Garron, honey…” Tess shook her head, not sure what to say. “You didn’t have to do that!”

“I wanted to.” He frowned stubbornly. “And now I’m glad I did. I just got some news…bad news I’m afraid.”

“Oh?” Tess tried to look like she had no idea what he was talking about. “What happened?”

“I just spoke to my brother Truth aboard the Mother Ship.”

“And…?” Her heart was pounding but she tried not to show it.

“And unfortunately, the Kindred High Council has refused to lift the ban. So you cannot go back aboard.”

“Oh, well…” Tess shrugged, trying to seem unconcerned. “That’s too bad. I’ll just go on to the cabin, then. But I guess…” She looked away, unable to meet his eyes. “I guess you’ll want to be getting back yourself, huh?”

“Are you suggesting that I should go back without you? That I should leave you here?” Garron demanded.

“Well, sure, I guess…” Tess glanced up and him and looked away quickly, plucking at the cheap coverlet. I don’t care, she told herself sternly. I don’t care if he leaves. It’s no big deal. It’s not like I even know him very well. I don’t care…

“No.” In two long strides, Garron was at the side of the bed. He sat on the edge and took her hand in his much larger one. “I’m not leaving you, Tess. If you can’t go back to the Mother Ship, I’m not going either.”

“Oh, well…” She couldn’t ignore the rush of pleasure his words gave her. She looked up at him, unable to hide her smile. “That’s really very…that’s sweet of you to choose to stay.”

“There is no choice for me.” He looked at her seriously. “Where you are is where I belong.” He captured her eyes with his, looking at her so intently that Tess began to feel breathless.

“I…um…would you excuse me for a minute?” she said. “I just need to use the restroom really quick.”

“Don’t be too long,” he said as she hopped out of bed. “I am afraid the first fare comestibles I got you will get cold.”

“The what?” Tess really wanted to know what the hell he had just said but her bladder was now telling her that she needed to visit the bathroom or burst. “Hold that thought!” she exclaimed as he opened his mouth to explain. “I’ll be right back.”

After washing her hands, she glanced in the mirror and tried to smooth down her wild auburn hair. Her eyes were a bit puffy from sleeping so hard—thank goodness she hadn’t had any bad dreams—but other than that she didn’t look too bad. Pierce had slapped her across the face several times but for once he hadn’t left any lasting damage—other than her back which Garron had healed. Thanks for nothing, Pierce, she thought, remembering his narrow green eyes, radiating rage as he…

No, don’t think about it. Think of something pleasant, she told herself resolutely. Make sure you look okay.

She was wearing another one of her big t-shirts—a baby blue one this time—and it only came down to the tops of her thighs. Still, she thought she was decent enough. She was wearing panties too, which she normally didn’t sleep in. But last night after the way Garron had “healed” her, she had thought it prudent to make an exception.

The hotel had provided a couple of those disposable plastic toothbrushes that had the toothpaste already in them so she took a quick minute to brush her teeth. Not like I’m going to be kissing him, she told herself sternly. But still, it’s nice to have fresh breath.

When she was satisfied she looked okay, she came out of the bathroom and gave Garron a smile.

“Okay now, what were you saying about first…what was it?”

“First fare. I believe your people call it breakfast?” He nodded at the tiny writing desk in the far corner of the room and Tess saw that a Styrofoam take out container was sitting there. “Apparently the price of our room also included what the clerk called a ‘buffet’ but they were going to dismantle it at a certain hour. I didn’t want to bother you so I brought you some to have when you woke up.”

“Oh, Garron…” She felt her heart give a little leap as she sat down at the desk and reached for the first plate. “That’s so…” She opened the take-out box and stared for a long moment before she could finish. “So thoughtful,” she finished weakly.

Sitting in the Styrofoam container was what looked like a mish-mash of every Southern breakfast food imaginable. On the bottom was a crispy Belgian waffle, which would have been perfect…except that it was piled with scrambled eggs and cheese. Scrambled eggs and cheese with little flecks of onion and ham and jalapeño in them, Tess saw with dismay. On top of the eggs was a layer of grits and on top of that, a generous serving of sausage gravy which was dripping its creamy, meaty goodness everywhere.

All of that might have been okay—after all, it was no more bizarre than some of the breakfast skillet combos you could buy at Denny’s or any greasy spoon. But there was one last layer that covered everything—a thin, sticky film of what appeared to be blueberry syrup.

The cloyingly sweet scent of artificial blueberries mixed with jalapeno cheese eggs and salty sausage gravy rose to assault her nose and her stomach rolled. Tess had to fight hard not to make a face. Ugh!

“Is this the correct configuration?” The big Kindred sounded anxious. “I saw a human male make a plate just like this so I assumed it must be the right thing to do.”

“It’s…it looks great.” Tess swallowed hard and picked up the plastic fork he had thoughtfully provided. “So you say you saw a guy making a plate just like this one?”

Garron nodded. “Except for the sweet, sticky sauce. He said he couldn’t eat it because of a medical condition which does not allow him to have sugary substances. But I knew you were perfectly healthy so I thought…” He trailed off, frowning. “I did it wrong, didn’t I? I should have added the orange liquid too. But look—I did bring some.”

He took the lid off a covered cup and Tess saw orange juice sloshing inside. He was about to pour it over the contents of the Styrofoam box but she hastily put a hand on his wrist to stop him.

“No, no—this is fine!” She stabbed the fork in and took a big bite to prove it. The flavors of blueberry syrup, sausage gravy, and scrambled eggs with cheese and jalapenos assaulted her tongue all at once, making her nearly gag. The waffle and the grits were mercifully bland but they did add to the strange mixture of textures in her mouth. Somehow she managed to swallow.

Garron was frowning as he watched. “You’re certain you don’t want the orange liquid?”

“That’s orange juice—you drink it,” she said in a strangled voice. “Here, let me…” She took the cup from his hand and took a big drink to wash away the taste of the other breakfast food. “Mmm…” She tried to smile at him. “Delicious. Thank you so much.”

Garron smiled. “I am glad I got the configuration right after all. We still have a little time before we need to be out of the room—I’m going to take a shower while you finish your first fare meal.”

“Of course—go. Enjoy yourself.” Tess smiled, hoping he would leave her alone so she could dispose of the weird conglomeration of breakfast foods.

“I will but first, do you mind if I have a bite? I’m intrigued—I haven’t eaten much Earth food other than the baked goods Becca’s friend, Lauren provides.”

“Um, sure…” Tess pushed the container towards him. “Help yourself.”

Garron picked up another fork and got a large bite, making sure to get a bit of every layer of his breakfast creation. Then he stuck it in his mouth and started to chew.

It didn’t take long for his face to turn red and he swallowed with an obvious effort.

“Ugh—that was—”

“Here.” Tess shoved the orange juice at him. “This will wash the taste away.”

He gulped thirstily but when he lowered the cup he was frowning.

“Tess…” His deep voice was stern. “This is terrible. You cannot tell me this is what you eat for first fare here.”

“Well…” She bit her lip. “We do…we just don’t pile it all up like that.”

“But the male in front of me—”

“Was some kind of weirdo,” Tess assured him. “But actually, most of what you have here is salty—it wouldn’t have been too bad if you hadn’t topped it off with blueberry syrup.”

“But I thought…” He sighed and shook his head. “Never mind what I thought—obviously I was wrong. But you should have told me.”

Tess bit her lip. “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. It was such a nice gesture.”

“I would rather you be honest with me and risk injuring my feelings than tell me a lie just to make me feel good.”

Tess squirmed in the tiny, hard hotel chair. If only he knew…

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking away. “It’s just…been a long time since anyone thought enough to bring me breakfast. I didn’t want to spoil it by complaining.”

“Oh, Tess…” Garron ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “I just wanted to provide for you, I’m sorry if I did it wrongly. It is…” He looked down. “It is a Kindred warrior’s instinct to provide for a female he is protecting. To feed and nourish her and be certain she’s comfortable. But I failed.”

His words touched her heart and she stood to face him.

“Garron, honey, I don’t care about this crazy blueberry-sausage-gravy-waffle surprise thing you whipped up. You sold the shirt off your back to make sure we had enough money! And you’re staying here instead of going back to the Mother Ship just because you feel guilty that Pierce—”

“It’s not guilt,” he interrupted her, his eyes flashing turquoise fire. “I still intend to live up to my vow but I want to stay with you, Tess. And I’ll do whatever is necessary to be certain you’re provided for and safe.”

“Thank you.” Her heart swelled at his words. Impulsively, she stood on her tiptoes and flung her arms around his neck. “Thank you so much, Garron.”

For a moment he just stood there, arms hanging by his sides as though he wasn’t certain what to do. Then he put them around her, pulling her close until every angle of his hard, firm body was pressed against hers.

“Gods, you’re so beautiful and soft,” he murmured into her hair. “I’ve been wanting to hold you like this again, body-to-body, ever since I had to let you go aboard the Mother Ship.”

“Oh, I…” Tess felt a little shiver of desire and fear go through her as his hot breath stirred the hair at the sensitive side of her neck. There’s no casual hugging on his planet, she reminded herself. He probably thinks I’m coming on to him.

If the long, hard ridge she felt digging into her belly was any indication, that was exactly what Garron thought. She tried to move away from it, but somehow she found herself pressing against it instead. Was he for real with the size of that thing? Surely no one could be that well endowed. She had a mental image of letting one of her hands trail down to cup his hot length and see for herself…but no—that was wrong. Dangerous. She needed to put a lid on this.

Before she could say or do anything though, he pushed her gently away.

“Forgive me.” He took a deep breath. “I swore to myself last night that I would keep the vow I made to remember Nella—that I would try not to touch you again. But I seem to have made a bad start.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Tess cleared her throat. “I just wanted to give you a hug to say thank you—for being so considerate and thoughtful.”

“Oh, of course.” He nodded briefly and looked away. “A hug.”

“I’m sorry if it seemed like…if I…” Tess didn’t know how to finish. She took a step back, feeling hot all over with embarrassment. Did he think she was leading him on? Trying to seduce him? He said he was trying to keep his vow and here I go hanging all over him wearing nothing but my nightshirt and panties. God, what he must think of me…

Slut, whispered Pierce’s voice in her head. You little whore. She took another step back, biting her lip.

Garron sighed. “Well, I suppose I should take my shower now. We have to leave here soon.”

“Oh. Of course.” Tess nodded quickly. No matter what she seemed to feel between them, the big Kindred was off limits. She would do well to remember that.

Garron gave her one last, intense look that seemed to burn her up from the inside out, and then headed for the bathroom.

Tess watched him go, feeling like her entire body was blushing. God, why did he affect her so strongly? And how was she going to manage being holed up with him in a little cabin in the woods for who knew how long?


Chapter Twenty

 

“Think hard, Maria…I know you were on duty last night. Were there any unidentified Kindred who came down after I left with my suspect?” Pierce stared at the little desk clerk intently, giving her his best intimidating cop face.

“I…uh…” She looked at him uncertainly. “I’m trying to think.”

“Just take your time.” Pierce switched at once to his charming good cop persona. He patted her arm though what he really wanted to do—what the little bitch deserved—was grab it and twist it roughly until she shrieked the information he needed.

“There was someone. A big guy—well, they’re all big guys.” Her hands fluttered expressively.

“They sure are. Put any pro linebacker to shame.” Pierce laughed heartily and the girl joined in, a little hesitantly. “Do you remember what he looked like?”

“Uh, yes. Yes I do.” She smiled, obviously more relaxed. “He had black hair—like so black it was almost blue, you know? And eyes like…” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen eyes that color. Not even on a Kindred.”

“What color?” Pierce fought to keep the jovial smile on his face. Hurry up you little bitch! Hurry the fuck up!

“Turquoise.” The girl got a slightly dreamy expression on her moderately pretty face that made Pierce want to slap her. “A really pure, clear turquoise—like the color of the water in a tropical ocean by a coral reef—you know?”

“Right—sounds really distinctive.” He nodded helpfully. “And that’s the only Kindred that came through last night?”

She nodded. “He seemed to be looking for something or someone. But he never came and asked for help—not from me, anyway.” She frowned. “Come to think of it, though, he did talk to Di—she’s one of the supervisors. She deals with…”

Yeah, I know what that meddling old bitch deals with, Pierce thought, keeping his face blank as the girl rattled on and on. She deals with stealing my fucking wife away. The bitch had done it once before—Pierce was certain she was the one who had helped Tess get up the courage to walk out on him after she lost the…after the incident. And he was pretty sure she was the one who had loaned Tess the money to get an apartment so she had someplace to stay that wasn’t Chez Hughes. Oh, yes—he had known he would find Di at the bottom of this if he kept digging. It was a fucking foregone conclusion.

“So your supervisor—Di—she left with this big Kindred with the blue eyes?”

“Yes, they left together. But his eyes were Blue-green. Turquoise.” The girl had that dreamy look on her face again that Pierce wanted to wipe off with his fist.

“Yeah, all right. Turquoise.” He curled his hand into a fist at his side and smiled charmingly while his nails bit into the meat of his palm. “Did you hear them say where they were going?”

“No, but Di’s in her office now. I can get her if you want to ask.” The girl started to go but Pierce stopped her with a hand on her forearm.

“No, that’s not necessary.” He couldn’t talk to Di here—not in public. Not where other people could hear him. It would be easier to catch her at her house. He could be so much more…persuasive there. “I think I have everything I need. Oh, except the Kindred’s name—I know you must keep a log of everyone who comes and goes. Can you give me that?”

“Sure.” The girl was already tapping away at her computer. “Just a second…here we go. Garron.” She looked up. “No last name but they don’t always have them. Just Garron. Sounds almost French, huh?”

“Uh-huh.” Sounds like the alien bastard who’s fucking my wife.

“Of course it’s not French—it’s Kindred—that goes without saying. But some of them have such unusual—”

“Hate to cut you short, my dear, but I need to run.” Pierce flashed her another charming smile. “But I tell you what, let’s just keep this little conversation between you and me—okay?”

“Okay.” She nodded eagerly.

“Good.” Pierce patted her hand. “You’ve been very helpful. Thanks so much.”

“You’re welcome, Detective Hughes.” She blushed and smiled. “See you around.”

“I’m sure you will, honey.” He winked at her and sauntered out of the HKR building as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Inside, though, he was seething.

Fucking my wife…Running off with my property…Goddamn alien scum! His palms were going to be bloody hamburger but Pierce welcomed the pain. It helped him focus on what was important—getting Tess back and punishing her so well she could never leave him again. And as for the Kindred son-of-a-bitch who she had taken as a lover…

You’re going to pay, my friend. Oh, how you’re going to fucking pay…

Yes, but first Pierce had a little bone to pick with that meddling bitch, Di. As soon as she got off work, he was going to be waiting for her. It was time he had a friendly little chat with his wife’s best friend.

Pierce’s nails dug into his skin again.

Or maybe not so friendly.


Chapter Twenty-one

 

 

“You don’t understand—my daughter is off limits!” Senator Hastings glowered at Chancellor Terex in a way that no doubt struck fear in the hearts of other Earthlings. He was a big man—almost as big as a Kindred—with distinguished salt and pepper hair and a sturdy physique despite his advanced age. His seat on the World Council, the ruling body on Earth when it came to dealings with the Kindred, had been secure for many years, making him one of the most powerful men on the planet.

In contrast to the Senator’s robust build, his daughter was a frail little thing with long, straight black hair she had scraped up into a severe bun at the nape of her neck and big, frightened eyes she hid behind the strange ocular device the humans called “glasses.”

Terex—or rather, Ur the demon who inhabited him—simply smiled condescendingly. He was quite enjoying being the head of the Kindred High Council and as far as he could see, none of the other Council members suspected him a bit. Little by little he had been pushing—testing the limits of his power and still no one objected to his rulings. This meeting would be a good test to see how much further he could push.

“Councilor Sylvan, as the voice of this Council I will let you answer,” he said smoothly, turning to the Blood Kindred on his right. “What have we to say about the Senator’s objections?”

“Senator,” Sylvan began, in a reasonable tone. “Your daughter, Mei-Li Hastings, has been entered in the draft which means that if she begins dream sharing with a Kindred warrior, she must and will be called for a claiming period.”

“But these are no ordinary dreams!” Senator Hastings turned to his daughter. “Tell them, honey.”

“I… I hardly know where to start.” Mei-Li swallowed hard and looked down at her hands. She looked frail and delicate, as small as a child sitting at a seat drawn up to the Council table which had been crafted for the much larger Kindred.

“Just describe what you’re seeing in the dreams,” Sylvan said gently. “All of us here at the table have dream shared with our mates before we met them. We will not sit in judgment of you, whatever you may say.”

The other Council members nodded and murmured ascent.

“Well, I…” She swallowed again. “It starts out in a big, dark room. Like a…I don’t know a computer room or someplace technical, I guess. It’s hard to see but there are lights blinking and glowing in the shadows. There’s a smell like…oil or metal in the air. Machinery, I guess. I’ve never had a dream where I could smell anything before but this…it’s such a vivid dream.”

“Not unusual during dream sharing.” Sylvan nodded, frowning. “Go on.”

“Well…” She looked down at her slender fingers which were twisting nervously in her lap. “In the dream I know…know there’s something—no, someone in the corner. I don’t want to see him and yet…I can’t help myself. My feet carry me over to him.”

“And what do you see?” Sylvan’s frown had deepened.

“I see…” She swallowed again and her throat made a dry clicking noise. “I see what looks like a…a coffin standing against the wall. It’s this big, metal box shaped kind of like a sarcophagus but with wires coming out of it. And inside it, just standing there is a…” She shook her head. “I don’t even know if I can call him a man.”

“What does he look like?” Sylvan sounded concerned.

“He’s huge but that’s not what makes him so scary. He’s got…metal on him. On his face.”

“Do you mean like a piercing—a metal ring through his ears or nose like some humans get?” one of the other Councilors asked.

The girl shook her head. “No, it’s like…his face is part robot. I’m sorry, I know that doesn’t make sense but I don’t know how else to describe it. And then…” She took a deep breath. “Then he opens his eyes.”

“And?” Sylvan asked softly.

“And one of them is normal—well, as far as I can see in the dark, anyway. But the other is this weird red searchlight looking thing. It glows and it seems to track my movements when he looks at me.”

“I see.” Sylvan nodded. “And does he say anything? Anything at all?”

“Yes.” She nodded, ducking her head nervously. “He always says the same thing in this deep, weird voice. He says, ‘You are not authorized to be here. I will find you and make you pay for this intrusion.’ Then I wake up.”

“Screaming and crying, she wakes up,” the senator put in, rapping the table with his knuckles. “Gentlemen, I know most of you have sons rather than daughters but trust me, when your little girl wakes up crying in the middle of the night from a bad dream, you want to do your best to shoo that boogeyman away. That is why I am here on your Mother Ship today.”

“I’m not a little girl anymore, Dad,” Mei-Li objected, turning scarlet. “I’m a grown woman with a career and a life.”

“A life which is about to be taken from you if we don’t do something about it, Mei-Li,” her father growled.

“But I’m not dreaming of the boogeyman—he’s just a Kindred.” She shivered. “A really strange one, I guess.” She looked at Sylvan. “No offense to your people but I haven’t seen anyone aboard the Mother Ship who looks like the guy in my dream.”

Sylvan sighed. “That is because you’re not dream sharing with a regular Kindred male.”

“What? What are you talking about?” the senator demanded. “Are you saying you people assigned my little girl to some abnormal—”

“Dream sharing is a Kindred phenomenon that happens when a warrior’s mind aligns with his destined mate’s mind,” Sylvan said sternly. “Neither I, nor anyone on this Council can ‘assign’ anyone to anyone else. That is the province of the Goddess.”

“Well, whoever’s responsible, I don’t like it! These dreams—this man—they’re scaring my daughter. And she does not deserve to be frightened this way. Do you know what she does? She’s a children’s social worker.” Senator Hastings rapped on the table again for emphasis. “Now, gentlemen, let me elucidate in case you don’t understand. She protects at-risk children. With my money and connections and her grades and brains, she could have gone to any law school or medical school in the country. But no—her heart is so big—”

“Dad, please,” Mei-Li begged, turning scarlet in a way that both amused and disgusted Terex/Ur. “You’re embarrassing me.”

“I’m just stating the facts, Pun’kin.” He frowned. “They need to know you’re not some spoiled little rich girl who’s refusing to do her duty out of spite. You have an important job and you perform a valuable service on Earth—we can’t afford to lose you.”

“I’m just a social worker,” she protested. “I love my job but…” She looked at Sylvan appealingly. “Look, I wouldn’t mind being called if these dreams weren’t so…so strange. This guy in my dreams, he scares me. So much I’ve been trying not to sleep at night so I can avoid seeing him. Please, can you tell me what kind of Kindred he is?”

Sylvan sighed. “The one you are dreaming of—if your description is accurate—is a member of the Dark Kindred.”

Mei-Li’s delicate cheeks went pale while her father got red in the face.

What?” he exploded. “The Dark Kindred? What the hell kind of name is that?”

“They call themselves the Enhanced Ones,” Sylvan said. “But their faction broke away many cycles ago. And they never dream share with females of any kind. They have sworn never to take brides—it’s the reason they left in the first place.”

“But…what does that mean for me?” the senator’s daughter asked. “I’m dream sharing with one—over and over again. Only it’s more like a nightmare than a dream.”

Sylvan shook his head. “I don’t understand why you would be dream sharing with a Dark Kindred—they distain emotions and have gone to great lengths to eradicate all feeling within themselves. Also, they are not part of our genetic trade with Earth. So I can’t imagine that you would be required to spend a Claiming period with—”

“Oh, yes she will,” Terex/Ur interrupted.

“What?” Sylvan turned to stare at him. “But Chancellor—he’s a Dark Kindred. They disavowed all females when they chose to leave the Mother Ship and join the Enhanced Ones. Besides, where would they spend their Claiming Period? She would never be allowed down to the surface of Vega Prime—not unenhanced as she is.”

“Those will be problems she can work out with the warrior she is dream sharing with when he comes to claim her,” Terex/Ur said, frowning. He really had to work at the frown because he wanted to laugh—he was enjoying this immensely.

“What are you saying?” the Senator exploded. “Are you telling me you want to hand my little girl over to some strange faction of the Kindred who don’t even like women—who might be dangerous?”

Terex/Ur shrugged as though it was out of his hands. “My dear Senator, we are Kindred and as such, we must support the claims of our brethren, no matter how distantly related or how…strange they may be.”

As he had hoped, this really got the human male going.

“No!” Senator Hastings jumped up and pounded on the Council table with his fist. “This will not stand!”

“It will,” Terex/Ur said. “Your daughter has been entered in the draft—she is now being called. If she does not answer the summons and go with the Kindred who has chosen her, she will be in violation of our treaty.”

“Maybe it’s time for that treaty to end,” the Senator growled ominously.

“Senator, please,” Sylvan began. “There’s no need for—”

“I’ve always been a strong supporter of the Kindred,” the Senator continued, talking over him. “You saved us from the Scourge—no one can deny that we owed you for that. But how many Earth girls have you called already? How many have been forced to leave their home planet to come and join an alien race and bear children for you people?”

“No one is forcing anyone!” Sylvan objected. “The Earth females are free to leave after the Claiming Period if they don’t—”

“What are you saying, Senator?” Terex/Ur interrupted. He was really enjoying himself now but he was careful to keep his face blank.

“I’m saying the debt has been paid! Many times over.” The Senator banged on the table again. “I’m saying we need to put an end to this draft once and for all. And, Gentlemen, that is exactly what I am going to say at the next session of the World Council as well. We don’t need you anymore—it’s time you moved on and left our daughters alone!”

“Senator, please!” Sylvan protested but the Senator was already halfway out of the Council room.

“Come on, Pun’kin—we’re leaving,” he growled, taking his daughter by the arm.

Sylvan and a few of the other Council members jumped up to reason with him but Terex/Ur made a motion to them to sit.

“Let the Senator go. He has made his views abundantly clear.”

As the human male stormed out with his daughter in tow, Sylvan turned to him.

“Chancellor, why did you do that? What was the point in antagonizing them?”

Terex/Ur raised an eyebrow at him. “Is it antagonistic to demand what is rightfully ours? I think not.”

“But our situation with the humans is delicate,” another Council member protested. “Senator Hastings used to be one of our biggest supporters—now he’s been turned against us. And he’s not the first human in power to suggest that it’s time we moved on.”

“Councilor Gora is right,” Sylvan said. “If this situation continues to escalate, we could lose our ability to call brides from Earth.”

“That could only happen if we let it happen,” Terex/Ur said. He looked around the table. “And we will not let it happen. We will take what we were promised, whether they wish to give it or not.”

Sylvan stared at him blankly. “Chancellor Terex, surely you’re not suggesting we go to war with a planet we swore to protect?”

Terex/Ur shrugged. “If that is what it takes. If we cannot call brides in any other way, then so be it.”

“But, we cannot allow our warriors to take females by force! We cannot!” Councilor Gora objected. Several of the other Councilors joined him.

“We must not—”

“Our honor as Kindred and warriors—”

Terex/Ur frowned. So they were not ready to consider war yet. So be it. They would be soon.

“Now, now…” he said, soothingly. “Councilors, please. There’s no need to talk about war yet—I’m certain it won’t come to that. In fact, as a gesture of good will towards the people of Earth, I suggest that we stop calling brides for a little while.”

“What?” Sylvan exclaimed. “Stop calling brides? But just a moment ago you said we should take what we wanted. And what about the unmated males whose minds are aligning with females down on Earth? What about those that are dream sharing—and the ones about to start their Claiming periods?”

“They can wait a little while. Just a solar week…or a month…or two.” Terex/Ur frowned at him. “You can’t have it both ways, Councilor Sylvan. You say that you don’t want to go to war with Earth but when I suggest measures to placate our human friends, you object to those too. Make up your mind.”

Sylvan frowned. “I could say the same to you, Chancellor Terex.”

Terex/Ur spread his hands. “But my mind is made up. I feel that a gesture of good will is called for in order to appease the humans.” He looked around the table. “Now, all those in favor of ceasing to call brides for a little while—just until this trouble is cleared up—knock once. Those who disagree, knock twice.”

He looked around the table, fixing each Councilor in turn with a steady stare. Slowly, one by one, each Councilor knocked on the table. Most of the twelve knocked once. Councilor Sylvan and a few others knocked twice.

Terex/Ur was satisfied to see that most of the Councilors voted his way. Not that it mattered—he had the ruling vote. But it would be difficult to carry his point if he didn’t have at least some of them on his side. He would rule them with a firm hand and lead them along little by little until they were under his complete control.

“Good,” he said, nodding as the vote was finished. “We are in agreement—we will stop calling brides for the time being.”

“If we stop calling brides, then no other Kindred faction must be able to call them either,” Councilor Gora pointed out. “Including the Dark Kindred.”

Terex/Ur scowled but he could see no way around it.

“Very well, I will concede that,” he said at last.

Anyway, the damage with the human senator had already been done, he consoled himself. The girl didn’t actually have to be taken at this point. It was enough that her father thought she could be whisked away to some horrible dark planet where females were hated and scorned at any second.

“The unmated males are not going to be happy about this,” Sylvan said in a low voice. “The reason most of them agreed to join this trade was the possibility of calling a bride.”

“Let them take out their stress at the Pairing House,” Terex/Ur said dismissively. “That is what the Pairing Puppets are for, are they not?”

“A Pairing Puppet has no soul. It may be good for a physical release but it cannot truly bond with a warrior or fulfill his need to connect with a female,” Sylvan said.

“But they’re good enough for relieving stress for a week or so,” Terex/Ur reminded him. Or at least until I take care of them, he told himself, repressing a grin.

“I suppose.” Sylvan didn’t sound convinced but Terex/Ur didn’t give a damn. They had established something at this meeting whether the other members of the High Council understood it or not—he, Ur, was the leader and commander of this ruling body. Which made him the commander of the entire Mother Ship—with it’s arsenal of devastating weapons and armies of trained warriors. He was a force to be reckoned with.

“This Council is dismissed,” he said, standing and rapping three times on the table with the Speaking Stone. “You may go. Councilor Sylvan, as Speaker of the Council, I will leave it to you to make the announcement that we are no longer calling brides from Earth.”

“Can I put any kind of time limit on it?” Sylvan asked, his voice tight. “Can I get the unmated males anything to cling to in the mean time?”

“Just tell them it’s a temporary measure,” Terex/Ur nodded at him. “You may all go.”

After the Councilors left, clearing out of the Council room in ones and twos, he sank back into his chair and steepled his fingers on his chest. It was good to be flesh—good to have a physical body. But it was even better to have these damned Kindred exactly where he wanted them.

In the beginning, he had simply desired to cause them pain in any way he could. He had started with petty gestures—not allowing Truth’s brother to bring his bride back up to the Mother Ship for one thing.

But a much larger plan had begun to form in his mind. A plan that involved Kindred desperation and the Earth’s eventual domination.

He slid up a panel in the Council table, revealing a holographic screen. With a few quick movements, he had called up the specs for the Pairing House. He split the screen in two and called up the master circuitry plan for a typical Pairing Puppet.

“Hmmm,” he murmured, staring at both for a long moment. “Yes, this should be exceedingly simple…”

Once the unmated males heard that they were no longer calling females from Earth for brides they would be upset. And when the rumors of the angry Earth senator storming out of the Council members circulated, they would begin to put two and two together. Doubtless they would assume that the ban on Earth brides was because of unhappy humans—humans who wanted to break the treaty which had been made back when the Scourge threat was immanent.

The unmated males would become uneasy and restless but as long as they had the Pairing Puppets to help them achieve the occasional release, they wouldn’t revolt.

“But they won’t have them for long,” Terex/Ur murmured to himself. “And then let’s see how much they object to declaring war on Earth. Let’s…just…see…”


Chapter Twenty-two

 

“Well, hello there, pretty lady. Haven’t seen you around here before.”

At first Tess thought the strange voice behind her must be talking to someone else. After all, she was wearing a pair of jeans that she usually gardened in and a dark blue t-shirt that had been through the wash a few too many times. The outfit was grass-stained and faded but comfy. Also not a bit sexy, which was why Tess had picked it. After the tension between herself and Garron that morning, she’d decided that the less provocative her outfit, the better. Not that she had many sexy clothes to choose from—Pierce had seen to that. But still, the stained jeans and faded shirt combo was definitely on the far end of the seductive spectrum.

“Pretty lady? I’m talkin’ to you,” the voice said again. Someone tapped her on the shoulder and Tess turned around.

“Um, hi,” she said uncertainly, looking at the guy who was speaking to her. He was standing right in the middle of the potted, jerked, and canned meat isle—only in the South could you have a whole aisle of a grocery store devoted to such food stuffs, Tess thought—and leering at her in a way that showed two missing teeth.

The rest of him wasn’t much more appealing. He had thinning brown hair, small, squinty eyes and he was wearing blue jeans so stained and ripped they made Tess’s own jeans look practically pristine in comparison. A white t-shirt which was more gray than white was stretched over his prodigious beer gut. Fat Chick Wanted! it proclaimed.

“Hi, yourself, girlie.” He grinned delightedly. “You new in town? Haven’t seen you around before.”

“I just moved here,” Tess said, before she thought about it. “Uh, I mean, I’m just passing through,” she corrected herself hastily.

He frowned. “Well which is it? If you just moved to town I can show you around. If you’re just passing through, well, I still have some things I can show you.”

“Um…I…” Tess shook her head. Was this guy for real? Was he actually coming on to her in the middle of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store? Instinctively, she looked around. Back when she had been with Pierce, any man flirting with her or even looking at her too long would have earned her a “punishment.” You’re not with that asshole anymore, Tess BP reminded her. You don’t have to worry about him “punishing” you anymore. But even the mental reassurance couldn’t stop the flutter of panic she felt around her heart.

“Well, what do you say?” The man acted like he thought she was just going to leave the store on the spot and go right to his car with him. Was he crazy or just desperate?

“Thanks for the offer but I’m with someone.” Tess gave him a cool but polite smile and turned to go back down the aisle.

“Don’t see you with anybody.” Quick as a flash, the man got in front of her, blocking her way.

Tess was beginning to wish she’d gotten a shopping cart instead of just a hand basket. That way, at least, she would have had something substantial to put between herself and this jerk.

“That’s because he’s in the men’s room,” she said, improvising. Actually, she had no idea where Garron was. Probably he was exploring another exotic part of the Piggly Wiggly. Apparently they didn’t have grocery stores on the planet he came from, preferring instead to grow and make all their own food. He found the idea of processed, prepackaged food intriguing so she had left him to wander the aisles while she got a few things for supper and some staples to stock Uncle Jacks’s cabin.

The cabin—which they had finally reached in the late afternoon—was surprisingly neat and clean—but it had nothing to eat except for a few dusty cans of beef ravioli. Not surprising considering that Di’s uncle had been a resident of the Happy Rest nursing home for several years before he died.

Truth be told, Tess had been happy to let Garron go his own way during their shopping expedition. All day long he had been getting more and more tense and withdrawn until she felt like she was sitting next to a ticking time bomb rather than another person. She wasn’t sure what was the matter with him—was he regretting his decision not to go back to the Mother Ship without her? Or did driving in the mountains around Asheville—traversing the steep, narrow, winding roads—make him nervous? He was, after all, a relatively new driver, at least here on Earth. Whatever the reason, she had been happy to let him go explore the frozen foods section while she headed for the meat and produce.

Now, however, she had apparently taken a wrong turn into the potted meat aisle and was beginning to wish the big Kindred was with her.

“Excuse me,” she said, trying to get around her persistent suitor again.

“I don’t think so, girly,” the guy with two missing teeth and the Fat Chick Wanted! shirt said, blocking her path. He leaned forward and whispered in a low, hoarse voice, “I think you’re just a little nervous. You don’t haveta be though—I can be real sweet when I try and I’m sure willing to try for a juicy little girl like you.”

“Thanks but no thanks.” Tess winced away from his breath which was heavy with the scent of stale beer. Okay, so that was why he was coming on so strong—he’d probably wandered in from the bar across from the Piggly Wiggly. It was called The Sore Elbow—she had seen the cheap neon sign with a badly drawn skeletal elbow and hand holding a beer mug as they drove by it. “Look, I just need this,” she said, grabbing blindly and coming up with a can of chunk light tuna packed in spring water. “And then I have to go meet my…my…” What was Garron to her? Not her boyfriend, certainly. Her bodyguard? Her protector? She supposed she could say man but Garron wasn’t a man—not a human man anyway. He was a Kindred male. “My guy,” she finished at last, a bit lamely.

“Why don’t you just admit there ain’t no guy?” Fat Chick Wanted demanded. “Then come on with me—I’ll show you a real good time.” Before Tess could turn him down again and get away, he grabbed her hand and entwined their fingers. “See? Isn’t that niiice?” he slurred.

“Hey!” Her heart began to beat harder. Fat Chick Wanted was falling down drunk but he was also a foot taller and way stronger than her. “Get off me!” she demanded, trying to shake off his hand. “I don’t even know you!”

“But we’re gonna get to know each other.” He leered at her. “Get to know each other real good, honey.”

“Raymond? Raymond Jason Calhoun!” An angry, heavy-set woman with improbably bright purple-red hair who looked to be in her fifties came bustling up before Tess could say or do anything. She was wearing a Piggly Wiggly smock and a disapproving scowl on her thickly made-up face.

“Uh…Miss Tabby?” Fat Chick Wanted didn’t let go of Tess but he did turn quickly to face the angry woman.

“Raymond, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” the woman demanded. “Didn’t Bob tell you if he caught you in here again harassing the female customers he’d call the law?”

“I wasn’t harassing her none!” Fat Chick Wanted protested, looking guilty. “We were having a conversation—getting along real nice.” He held up Tess’s hand, which he still had a firm grip on, as though to prove his point. “See?”

“You stop that and let the nice lady go!” the woman exclaimed. She turned to Tess. “I’m real sorry, Miss. RayJay don’t mean anything by it. He’s just got a thing for fluffy gals like you and me.” She nodded at her own ample physique. “He gets to drinking down at the Sore Elbow and then he comes in here and—”

“Let go of her. Now.”

The voice behind Tess was familiar and yet strange at the same time. It was deeper somehow—with more than a hint of an animalistic growl—but the threat in those quiet, menacing tones couldn’t be disguised. Her stomach seemed to drop down to her shoes and she turned her head slowly to see Garron looming over her.

Now you’ve done it! whispered a panicked little voice in the back of her brain. He’s seen you with another man’s hands on you! You’re in trouble now—so much trouble!

She tried desperately to drop Fat Chick Wanted’s hand but if anything his grip had tightened as he looked up at Garron.

“I said let…her…go.” The big Kindred’s voice was definitely a growl now and his eyes were glowing with rage. He seemed to have somehow grown twice as big as he normally was—which made him freaking enormous.

“Y-you heard the man, RayJay.” The Piggly Wiggly clerk’s voice shook. “Let his lady friend go and step away.”

No wonder she sounded scared—the enraged Kindred was terrifying to behold. Tess felt her own mouth grow dry with fear as well. A punishment, whispered the little voice in her head. Oh, you’re going to get such a punishment for this…

“I…I…” Fat Chick Wanted’s hand at last unclasped from Tess’s and he took a faltering step back.

Apparently this gesture of defeat wasn’t enough for Garron. He stepped forward and grabbed the drunk by the throat. Lifting him with one hand as easily as if he was a doll, he shook the big man until his remaining teeth clicked together in his head.

“You dare…” he snarled, glaring up at the other man’s face which was now going purple. “You dare to touch my female? She’s mine!” He shook the man again, who made choked, strangling noises. “Mine! Understand? You don’t lay a fucking hand on her. Ever.

Tess backed away from the terrifying sight, her heart pounding, her stomach clenched into a sick fist. You’re mine, whispered Pierce’s voice inside her head. Mine, you little slut! Mine to punish, mine to fuck, and I’ll never let you go!

“Stop it! Stop!” screamed the Piggly Wiggly clerk. “He don’t mean no harm—he’s just drunk! You’re gonna kill him!”

Her words seemed to fire something in Tess. This scene was going to end badly if she didn’t do something to stop it. Shoving the panic she felt down into a dark corner of her brain, she ran forward and grabbed Garron’s arm.

“Stop it! Let him down, Garron. Now!”

At the touch of her fingers on his bicep, the big Kindred seemed to come back to himself somewhat. Some of the rage leaked from his eyes and his big hand—which had been clenched in a death grip around the drunk’s throat—suddenly released.

With a gasping wheezing sound, Fat Chick Wanted went sprawling into the shelf beside him. Cans of potted meat and Vienna sausages came raining down on his balding head and bounced off his round beer belly. He put a hand to his throat where Tess could see fingerprints already forming.

Garron’s fingerprints, she thought sickly. And even though the big Kindred had done the violence for her, she couldn’t help the cold, shaky feeling she got seeing the marks of his hand appearing on flesh. Couldn’t help remembering all the times she’d seen similar marks on her own body…

“I’m so sorry,” she said to the clerk who was kneeling by the gasping drunk, fanning him with her apron.

“Ya’ll better go.” The woman looked up at her briefly. “I’m not gonna call the law—I can understand why your man got upset. But this…this can’t happen again. I think you’d better go up the road a piece to the Wal-Mart if you want groceries.”

“Um, of course. Of course we will.” Tess nodded at Garron who was standing there, breathing hard as though he’d just run a race. “Come on. We need to leave.”

* * * * *

Garron followed her without comment, stalking stiffly out of the human food store though every bone in his body was screaming that he had to stop—had to go back and finish the male who had been menacing his female. But Tess had told him to leave. We have to go. You can’t kill him. Can’t even challenge him to a Y’grin. That isn’t how they do things on Earth, he told himself. But the tension wouldn’t dissipate.

Nor would the dr’gin. He had felt getting closer and closer to the surface all day and now it wouldn’t be quiet. It snarled and snapped inside him, coming forward, wanting to take the lead, to take over. Grimly, Garron pushed it down.

They got into the ancient truck and he stabbed the key into the slot and gave it a vicious twist, causing the engine to roar in protest. Then he slammed the truck into gear and took off, gripping the steering device so tightly he could feel it creaking under his fingers.

My female—he had his hands on her—tried to hurt her. She’s mine! Mine! The dr’gin roared inside him seconding his rage. He could feel it building to a head, coming to a breaking point.

Breathe, he ordered himself. Remember your vow. Remember Nella. But the girl he had loved was gone now—a faceless shadow in his memory. All he could see—all he could think of—was Tess.

It’s because of Tess that you have to calm down. Have to control your emotions! If you let yourself get too angry the dr’gin is going to come out. And then she’ll die. Stop it…just stop it!

The rage was choking him—threatening to take over. And if he let it… Garron shook his head. He had to get control!

Desperately, he rolled down the window and took a deep breath and then another. Pure mountain air filled his lungs and the scent of leaves and rocks and dirt and somewhere far off, running water, filled his senses. This world wasn’t all asphalt and fossil fuels and exhaust. There were good things here too—growing things. He could smell them and the scent calmed him.

It was an uphill battle but little by little, his rage began to recede. At last when they finally reached the cabin, which was in a secluded spot on the side of a mountain, he was able to unclench his fingers from the steering device and start to relax.

Only then, when they were parked and he had rolled up the window, did he finally turn to face Tess.

“Tess,” he began and then realized that she was huddled against the passenger door—as far from him as she could get. Her fingers were gripping the door handle and her knuckles were white. Most telling of all, however, was the bitter scent of her fear which filled the cab of the truck now that the window was back up.

Fresh anger filled him and he had to swallow it down. Of course she was afraid after that bastard had grabbed her and wouldn’t let go!

“Tess?” he said again, more gently and reached out to touch her arm.

She flinched away, her eyes wide with fright.

“Don’t! Please don’t!”

“Don’t what?” Garron looked at her uncertainly.

“I didn’t want him to touch me,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around herself tightly. “He came up to me. I never invited him. I never saw him before. I wouldn’t…I never…so please…please don’t punish me.”

“Punish you? What are you—?”

Slowly a horrible realization began to dawn on Garron. Tess wasn’t frightened because of the drunken male who had grabbed her in the food store. No, the only one she was frightened of was…

Me. She’s scared of me! Scared to fucking death by the look of her.

Garron felt his heart clench at the thought. He couldn’t bear for her to be frightened of him! Couldn’t stand the fact that she thought he might harm her in any way.

“Tess,” he said, his voice coming out more roughly than he’d intended. “Tess, please…I would never hurt you.”

“You marked him.” Her voice was tight with unshed tears. “I saw the prints of your f-fingers on his th-throat.” She shivered. “I can’t…I don’t…”

“I did it for you.” Garron shook his head. “No, that’s not true,” he said in a low voice. “I did it for me. Because when I saw him touching you I got so angry and all I could think was ‘mine.’ I know that’s not right but I—”

Mine. That’s what Pierce used to say.” She was still wrapped in a tense little ball, her arms around herself, her legs crossed tight as though her entire body wanted to ward him off. “He used to say I was his—his property. To punish or fuck or do whatever he wanted with.”

“I didn’t mean it that way!” Garron protested. “I meant…” Go on, what did you mean? whispered a taunting little voice in his brain. Did you mean you wanted to break your vow? Did you mean you wanted to forget about Nella completely and claim this female as your mate? Or did you mean you wanted to let your dr’gin out to devour her? Or all three? Well?

“Well?” Tess sat up a little straighter and threw him a sidelong glance.

“I…I don’t know what I meant,” he said at last, heavily. “I’m sorry. Sorry if I frightened you.”

He got out of the truck and came around to open her door. Tess hopped out quickly before he could extend a hand to help her. She walked quickly to the cabin and fumbled the key into the lock. She didn’t look back as the two of them entered the cool, dark interior.

“I’m going to take a shower,” she said, without looking at him. “I think I—”

“Wait.” Garron couldn’t stand for her to leave like this. “Please, Tess…” He put a hand on her shoulder from behind.

Tess froze at once, her entire body going rigid as though she had turned to stone under his hand.

“Don’t.” Her voice was soft but her tone was intense—filled with so much fear and betrayal it made him sick. He couldn’t see her face but he didn’t need to—he could hear her panic, could smell her terror. “Don’t…please.”

Garron let his hand drop to his side.

“I…I’m sorry,” he muttered, taking a step back. “I shouldn’t have. I…please, Tess, don’t go. Please just stay and talk to me.”

“I can’t.” A visible shiver went through her. “I just…I need some time. Let me get a shower and we can…can try again. Sorry.”

And then she fled, walking quickly down the hallway in the middle of the cabin and shutting the door behind her.


Chapter Twenty-three

 

He’s not Pierce. He’s not going to hurt you. Not going to punish you for something that wasn’t your fault, the voice of reason insisted.

Tess knew it was right but when she closed her eyes she kept seeing those fingerprints forming on the drunk’s neck over and over. And then the image would change to finger-shaped bruises on her own arms and legs…bruises on her belly…

Stop it! Stop it—don’t think about that! she ordered herself. What good will it do? Just take a shower and try to forget.

She stepped into the little bathroom where dusty towels still hung on the cheap metal towel rack. Taking one off, she beat out the dust, trying not to choke, and twisted the shower tap to the far left for hot water. When the clouds of steam started rising, she was grateful that Di had continued the payments to keep the cabin’s electric bill up to date. Right now a cold shower just wouldn’t have cut it.

She stripped down and paused for a moment to look at herself in the oval mirror over the sink. She hadn’t asked Di if her uncle had ever been married but the mirror seemed like a female touch as did a lot of other things in the cabin—like the handmade quilt at the foot of the bed and the scented candles gathering dust on the night table. Whoever the mysterious woman had been, Tess thanked her for her influence. The cabin, while dusty and disused, was in much better shape than she had expected it to be.

The girl who stared back at her from the silver surface of the oval mirror was pale, her eyes big and frightened. Tess didn’t like seeing herself that way. You look like a victim, whispered a little voice. You act like one too. Why did you run away when all he wanted to do was talk?

She lifted her chin and twisted around, trying to get a good look at her back. It was completely healed—not so much as a tiny white scar remained from her encounter with Pierce and his belt.

And that’s because of Garron. He healed you and he didn’t mean to scare you. He’s not Pierce—you need to try to get over the past and move on.

Yes, but that advice was easier to give than it was to take. She could tell herself all day long that the big Kindred meant her no harm but just seeing him wrap his fingers around that guy’s throat and squeeze like he wanted to choke the life out of him had driven every rational thought out of her mind. All that had been left was her innate, visceral reaction and the fear that she might be next, that her punishment was on the way…

Have to get over that, Tess told herself sternly as she washed and rinsed her hair with some ancient shampoo that smelled faintly of the ocean. And you have to tell Garron what’s going on. He was trying to defend you. He didn’t know you would freak out like that—cut the guy a break!

Yes, she would try to. And more than that—she was going to tell Garron the truth. At least, as far as she was able…

She dried off and made her way to the single bedroom with its rustic bed. In here, the bachelor pad factor was off the charts. Despite the dusty candles and the lace curtains in the single window, the furniture all screamed boys club only. The bedspread was blue and green plaid polyester so cheap it made her itch just to look at it and the headboard and footboard were made of interlocking antlers. A deer head mounted on the wall completed the look.

Trying not to look at the poor deer’s glassy eyes, Tess reached in her duffel and pulled out another pair of loose yoga pants, a bra and panties, and a t-shirt. It occurred to her, as she dressed, that most of what she had packed were these kinds of clothes. Sexless, baggy, not very flattering. But these clothes had been the only “safe” choices to wear around Pierce. He had even insisted that she buy the scrubs she wore to work a size too big, because he didn’t want other men looking at her body.

Why am I still dressing like this? I left him months ago. I should have gone out and gotten something sexy to wear like Di suggested.

But somehow she had kept hanging on to her old clothes—the same way she’d been hanging on to her old fears.

Tess looked down at herself. Will I ever be able to get rid of them?

Well, there was no time like the present to start. Take a deep breath, she walked out into the living room. Garron was sitting on the brown and green plaid couch—Di’s uncle had either been Scottish or really into plaid—with his head down and his elbows resting on his knees.

“Garron?” she said softly. “Can we talk?”

He looked up slowly. His eyes were glowing a dull blue.

“If you want to.” His deep voice was quiet.

“I do.” Tess came and sat beside him. “Look, I’m sorry I freaked out on you back there at the Piggly Wiggly. I just…that whole scene brought back bad memories.”

“I shouldn’t have done what I did,” he said in a low voice. “I should have realized it would upset you.”

“You couldn’t know that,” Tess said. “Because you don’t know my past—what…what Pierce did.”

“I know he hit you.” His face was fierce for a moment, his eyes glowing more brightly.

“He did. But…it wasn’t just that.”

“What else?” he asked in a low voice. “Tell me, Tess. Anything that helps me understand. No matter what it is, I want to know.”

“All right.” Tess pinched the bridge of her nose. “God, this is hard.” She took a deep breath. “Pierce used to get really upset and jealous if he even saw another guy talking to me. And if the guy actually touched me…” She shook her head. “There was this waiter once, when we went out to eat. I think he was just angling for a bigger tip but he kept touching my arm. When we got home that night…”

She closed her eyes, trying not to remember but unable to push the memory back completely.

You little slut—you little whore! You liked him, didn’t you? Did you let him fuck you in the lady’s room? Is his cum up inside you right now? Take off your panties you little whore—let me see!

No, Pierce, please! I swear—you know I would never…

Lying bitch!

His thick hand on her arm, right where the waiter had been touching her all night. Then a blinding pain and a sickening crack…

“Tess…?” Garron’s voice was worried.

When she opened her eyes, she saw that he had a hand out to her, as though he wanted to comfort her in some way but he didn’t quite dare.

“It’s all right,” she said in a voice that came out hoarse and shaky. She cleared her throat and tried again. “It’s all right. It’s just hard to talk about. He, uh, broke my arm that night. Here.” She pointed to her left forearm, right between the wrist and elbow. “It was just a greenstick fracture—not compound or anything. I had to lie when I went to get the X-ray. I said I fell down the steps…”

“Here?” His fingers brushed her arm just where she had pointed. “This is where he hurt you?”

Tess’s heart skipped a beat for some reason.

“Uh…yes.”

“May I?” He lifted her arm slowly.

“Um…I…I guess.” Now her heart was pounding. What was he going to do?

But Garron simply pressed his lips tenderly to the spot where she had been hurt all those years ago. Tess thought she could almost feel the old break throbbing under his gentle touch. He held the kiss for a long moment and looked up, meeting her eyes with his own. Tess gazed into those clear, blue-green depths, unable to look away as her heart went into overdrive. She could smell his scent again—that rich, masculine spice that seemed to surround him whenever he was having intense emotions.

At last he pulled away and let her arm go.

“Why…why did you do that?” she whispered.

“I don’t know. I wanted to.” He was still looking at her intently, his eyes on fire in the dim room.

“Thank you, I…” Tess cleared her throat, trying to get her scrambled thoughts back in order. “Anyway, that’s why when you came up and that guy was…was touching my hand, I sort of freaked out,” she went on, trying to pretend the tender kiss had never happened. “I mean, I know you’re not Pierce but my first response was—”

“Fear,” Garron finished for her. “And I didn’t help any by going insane with rage and grabbing him by the neck.”

Tess nodded. “Well, yeah.” She sighed. “It’s just…all these things—these fears—I thought I was starting to get over them. But then when he grabbed me again and took me back to his house and…and…” She shook her head. “Well, you know. Anyway, I guess it just brought everything back.”

“That’s understandable.” He nodded. “Forgive me for losing control like I did. Such an emotional outburst is…unpardonable. It’s just…my other…” He shook his head. “My naming day is near and I fear…”

“What?” Tess asked, when he stopped speaking and looked away from her. “What do you fear?”

He shook his head. “You’re braver than me. I can’t even speak my fear aloud. I’m afraid if I do…”

“It might come true.” Tess nodded. “I think I understand.”

Garron closed his eyes tightly for a moment, a look of intense pain crossing his face. “It’s getting harder to control—more difficult to hold back. I don’t know what to do.”

“I…” Tess didn’t know what to say. But suddenly a snatch of the conversation she’d overheard came back to her. “She tames it. I don’t know how she does it but every time she touches me or I touch her—every time her skin comes into contact with mine—I can feel my dr’gin quieting within me. It’s hard to explain but it’s almost as if it likes her.”

Garron’s exact words when he spoke to his brother. And twice he had told her that she calmed the burning in his blood.

Me, she realized. I’m the answer—I can help him.

The question was, did she have the courage to give him what he needed?

It’s wrong…dangerous, whispered the little voice in her head, the voice of self preservation that had come to live inside her when she married Pierce. You shouldn’t…

But it didn’t have to be sexual, did it? Couldn’t it just be…calming? She remembered the way he had hugged her on the Mother Ship. The way he had sat on the edge of the bed and pulled her close, resting his head on her chest as though asking mutely for comfort. Why couldn’t it be like that?

“Garron,” she said softly.

“Yes?” He didn’t look up.

“I think…I think I can help you. If…if you want me to.”

“How?” He looked up at last.

“Like this.” Tess stood and came around to face him. She stepped between his knees and, heart pounding hard, she reached for him.

Garron seemed to hold his breath as she enfolded him, wrapping her arms around his neck and shoulders and pulling him close. The couch was low so his head came to rest right against her breasts. Tess pulled him close anyway, pressing against him. The v-neck of her t-shirt pulled down a little and she felt the scratch of his cheek against the tops of her breasts as he put his arms around her hips and hugged her back.

“Gods,” he muttered hoarsely. “Oh, Tess…”

“It’s all right.” She ran her fingers through his thick, black hair and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “Everything is going to be all right, Garron. I promise.”

“I hope you’re right. I just…don’t know how.”

“Like this,” she whispered. “Does it…does it help?”

“You know it does.” He looked up at her, his eyes glowing brightly. “Your touch calms the burning…tames the beast within.”

“But not completely,” Tess said, studying his face. “You need more, don’t you?”

“I…” He dropped his eyes. “I cannot ask for more.”

“Yes, you can.” Taking a step back, Tess took his hand and tugged. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?” he asked, getting off the couch.

“To…” Tess took a deep breath. “To the bedroom.”

“But what—?”

“You’ll see.”

Trying to keep her courage up, she lifted her chin and marched down the short hallway to the bedroom with its ridiculous antler bed and plaid bedspread. Taking the handmade quilt that was folded at the foot of the bed, she shook it out and spread it over the garish plaid. There—much better!

Then she started to undress. Off came the baggy t-shirt and down came the loose yoga pants.

“Tess, wait…” Garron sounded uncertain. “What are you doing?”

“Giving you what you need.” She turned to face him in only her bra and panties. Should she take them off as well? Her fingers hovered over the front snap of her bra but in the end she lost her nerve. This would have to do.

“And what…” Garron cleared his throat. “What exactly is it that you think I need?”

“Skin-to-skin contact.” Tess looked him in the eyes. “I have a confession to make—I actually woke up earlier than you thought this morning. I really had to use the restroom so I was going to go but then I heard you talking to someone in there—I guess maybe your brother?”

He groaned. “You heard all that?”

Tess’s heart began to pound. Was he mad?

“I did,” she said steadily. “And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier.”

“It’s all right.” He shook his head. “I just…didn’t want you to know.”

“I would have put the pieces together anyway,” Tess assured him. “All day you’ve been so tense…so on edge. I didn’t realize it before but this was why, wasn’t it? You’ve been fighting the…the other that lives inside you. The…what did you call it?”

“The dr’gin.” He looked grim. “It has been…especially insistent today. I don’t know how much longer I can hold it off.”

“And what happens if it comes out? Never mind…” Tess held up a hand. “I don’t want to know. Right now what I want is for you to strip. Um, down to your shorts, I mean. If…if you wear shorts?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure what article of clothing you’re talking about. But if you’re asking if I wear anything under my flight leathers, I’m afraid not.”

“Okay, um…” Tess bit her lip. What should she do? It’s not sexual, she told herself firmly. It’s comforting…calming. And completely necessary.

“Tess?” He had already taken off his black t-shirt, baring the most mouthwatering chest she’d ever seen.

She took a deep breath. “Take it off,” she commanded. “Go ahead, take it all off.”

Garron complied, but slowly. “What exactly are we going to do?” he asked as he finished taking off his boots and began unfastening his trousers.

“Nothing sexual,” Tess said quickly. “Just…just hold each other, that’s all.”

“All right.” If he was disappointed, he showed no sign of it. But when he pushed down the tight black leather trousers, his long, thick shaft was more than half erect.

“Oh!” Tess couldn’t stop the gasp that escaped her. He had the most spectacular body she’d ever seen on a guy. Broad shoulders led down to a tan chest and rippling abs that moved like molded steel when he shifted. Long, muscular arms and legs with big, capable hands which she already liked were nice but her eyes kept straying back to his torso. A small trail of black hair led from his belly button down to his… Tess tried not to look but she couldn’t help it. So I was right when I hugged him this morning, she told herself as her eyes flickered over the long, thick shaft. He really is that big. And he isn’t even all the way hard!

“Are you all right? Do you want me to put my leathers back on?” He started to reach for his trousers but Tess shook her head.

“No, no! I just…I’m sorry. You’re just so, um, big…everywhere.”

Garron looked down at himself with a frown.

“I believe my endowment is normal for a Kindred.”

“Well, it’s a lot bigger than normal for a human.” She could feel her cheeks getting hot and she tried again not to look below his waist. “Look, never mind about that. Just get on the bed with me.”

“All right.” He lay down on the bed on his back and looked up at her. “Are you coming?”

Poor choice of words! Tess felt a hysterical bubble of nervous laughter rise in her throat and swallowed it back down with difficulty. She had to get hold of herself now—it was time to do this.

She lowered herself to the bed wearing only her pink lace bra and panties. She supposed she really ought to be naked for this to be true skin-to-skin contact but she just wasn’t quite that brave.

Garron was lying on his back, waiting for her, so she scooted over and put her head on his chest. She could hear his heart, deep and steady, and after a moment, he put an arm around her and drew her closer, so that her entire front was pressed to his long side.

“Mmmm.” Tess dared to rest a hand on his broad chest, between the flat copper disks of his nipples and let his warm, masculine scent envelop her. His skin seemed hot—almost as though he had a fever and she wondered if he was okay. He didn’t seem sick—maybe Kindred just ran hotter than humans. She closed her eyes and tried to relax.

“This is…nice. Comforting.” His voice was a deep rumble in her ear.

“I think so too.” Tess patted his chest lightly. “Is it helping…do you think?”

“Some.” He shifted uncomfortably and she realized something was wrong. “Garron?” She opened her eyes and looked at his face. There was a look almost of pain etched on his chiseled features. A quick glance further down the long, muscular length of his body showed why. He was now fully at attention, his thick shaft achingly hard with a pearly white drop of precum just at the tip. “Garron, honey,” she said hesitantly. “Is this…doing you more harm than good?”

“I don’t know.” He shifted again, as though trying to get comfortable. “Being this close to you with so little between us is just…difficult.”

“I’m so sorry!” Tess was mortified. “I never meant to…to make things worse.” She started to get up but Garron stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“Don’t go.” His eyes blazed in the dim room. “You’re so beautiful you make me ache but it’s a pain I would willingly bear just to be near you.”

“Oh…” Tess felt a flutter around her heart and allowed herself to be drawn down against him again. “All right.”

Garron turned his head and pressed his face to her hair.

“Gods, you smell so damn good,” he muttered. “And you’re so sweet and soft. It’s like I’m holding a lin’del.”

“Um, a what?”

He looked at her. “I think it’s what your people call an angel? An otherworldly creature too beautiful to be real. That’s what I mean.”

“That’s so sweet.” Tess snuggled a little closer to him. “And you smell pretty good yourself. Do you wear some kind of cologne or…?”

“It’s my bonding scent. When a Kindred wants to bind a female to him, his body makes a certain scent to attract her.” He sounded conflicted about it.

“And did…did your body ever make that scent for…” Tess couldn’t say the name.

“For Nella? No.” He sighed. “We were never this close—ever. We barely touched hands and only once or twice touched lips. Our society on Pax did not allow it.”

“So you never got to hug her? Or kiss her?” Tess felt sorry for him now.

“No, though I wanted to badly. We talked about it. We had…many plans for after we mated. But of course…” He left the sentence unfinished.

Tess was sorry she’d brought it up. “I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s obviously a painful subject.”

“Not as much as it used to be.” He cleared his throat. “Maybe that’s…why I seem to have such difficulty keeping my vow.”

“It isn’t breaking your vow to do…what we’re doing,” Tess objected. “I mean, we’re just, uh, lying here. And Nella wouldn’t have wanted you to be in pain or out of control, would she?”

“No…” He didn’t sound completely sure of himself. “I don’t think so.”

“Well, then…” Speaking of him being in pain, she couldn’t help noticing that he was as hard as ever. Her hand, still pressed to his chest, itched to slip down and ease his ache—to explore that hot, hard length she saw throbbing against his flat belly.

What’s wrong with you? whispered a frightened little voice in her head. What are you thinking of? You know that’s wrong…dangerous. It’s exactly what Pierce was always accusing you of doing. Touching another man!

Yes, but despite all the accusations and “punishments” Pierce had subjected her to, she had never once done anything he had accused her of. Besides, he was her ex-husband, even if he wouldn’t sign the divorce papers, and he wasn’t here. Tess wanted to do something to banish him from her life—something she never would have dared to do back when she was with him.

Besides, she told herself firmly. It isn’t sexual. It’s like…therapy. The poor guy needs some help. I’m just going to help him…that’s all.

Slowly, carefully, she let her hand drift down Garron’s chest and torso. His rock hard abs twitched nervously under her fingertips as she slid even lower but he said nothing until she finally wrapped her fingers around his long, thick shaft.

“Tess?” His deep voice was hoarse and uncertain. “What are you doing?”

“Helping you.” He was so thick she couldn’t get her hand all the way around him but she slid her fingers up and down his hot length anyway. It felt like holding a living, pulsing bar of iron in her hand and touching him seemed to make the warm spice he’d called his bonding scent intensify.

“Helping me…what exactly?” He gave a low gasp as her hand reached his broad, flaring crown and then traveled down again to his base.

“Helping you have a release. That was why you went to the Pairing House in the first place, wasn’t it? You needed a release. Only you never got one.” Tess stroked him again, beginning to find a rhythm. “I think if you did you’d feel better—more in control.”

He gave a shaky laugh and pumped up into her hand. “You appear to be the one who’s in control, lin’del.”

“I am, aren’t I?” Tess liked the idea. It made her feel strong, powerful…less vulnerable. She had never been in control with Pierce. She’d never been allowed to do anything but lay there and look at the ceiling. Now Garron was lying naked on the bed, his big muscular body spread out just for her like some kind of erotic feast, and he was completely open to her. Touching him like this was a heady experience.

But wouldn’t it be even better, whispered the naughty little voice of Tess BP, wouldn’t it be even nicer to taste him?

The thought gave her a wicked little tingle right between her thighs. Did she dare? She looked at Garron, lying there with his big hands clenched in the quilt on either side, his entire body tense with need. The look of almost pain was back on his face and she wasn’t sure if he was trying to reach a release…or trying to hold it off.

How can you resist? the little voice urged. Besides, you’re helping him—remember? It’s just therapy…

Therapy. Right. Tess knew she shouldn’t and yet…the little voice was right. How could she resist?

Slowly, she pressed a soft kiss to his chest and then moved lower, to kiss his rib cage.

“Tess? Lin’del?” Garron’s eyes—which had been tightly shut—flew open. He looked at her uncertainly as she kissed the hard ridge of muscle right above his hipbone.

“Shhh,” Tess soothed him. Her heart was pounding, but with excitement, not fear—she hadn’t felt so empowered for years.

“But what are you—?”

“This,” she murmured and pressed a soft, gentle kiss to the side of his shaft. Then she looked up at him. “Unless you’d rather I didn’t?”

“It is forbidden.” His breath was coming fast now—his broad chest rising and falling rapidly.

“Then…you want me to stop?” Tess bit her lip and started to pull back.

“No, please…” He shook his head quickly. “That which is forbidden…is desirable. If you truly wish it, I would not…would not stop you.”

“Good.” Tess smiled at him and rubbed her cheek up and down his length. God, he smelled so good here! So warm and spicy and masculine and the shaft of his cock felt hot and velvety and perfect against her skin.

“Ahhh…” A low groan fell from between his lips as he looked at her. “Oh, Tess…”

“Yes?” Feeling daring, she opened her lips and placed a hot, wet kiss just below his crown. The long shaft twitched and he groaned again.

“I can’t stop watching you,” he confessed hoarsely, his eyes half-lidded and glowing in the dim room. “I cannot…seem to help myself.”

“You don’t have to,” Tess assured him softly. “Watch if you want to.” Holding his eyes with her own, she placed another hot, open-mouthed kiss directly on the broad head of his cock, taking it between her lips and brushing its velvety hot surface lightly with her tongue.

“Ah! Gods!” Garron’s hips jerked, sending another thick inch of his shaft between her lips. Suddenly Tess found that she was sucking him…not that she minded. He was hot and hard and there was no way she could get him all the way into her mouth but she liked the feel of his broad, plum-shaped head rubbing against the roof of her mouth—not to mention the salty, slightly bitter taste of his precum which was flowing freely now.

Slowly, her eyes never leaving his, she began to bob her head, sucking just the tip and the first two or three inches of his thick cock between her lips, laving him gently with her tongue and stroking the rest of his shaft with her hand as she worked him.

How had she ever gotten so bold? What had possessed her to act like this? Tess didn’t know but she liked the feeling she got—the feeling of power as well as the knowledge that Garron was watching her do this, was allowing her to take the lead and loving every minute of it.

“Tess…lin’del,” he whispered hoarsely as she continued to suck him. “Gods, you’re beautiful with your mouth wrapped around my cock. Gods…”

Tess didn’t answer in words, she simply kept sucking him, twirling her tongue around his thick shaft and taking him as deeply as she could. Every once in awhile she would pull back and drag the flat of her tongue across his broad crown, capturing droplets of precum and licking him as though he was her favorite flavor of ice cream. Through it all, she kept glancing at his face, watching his reactions, loving the intense pleasure she saw stamped on his strong features.

At last it seemed he could take it no more. He was clearly trying not to thrust but she could feel his hips twitching with the repressed urge—could see the way he bit his lower lip and strove to hold himself back while she sucked him. This was pure torture for him—it was time to end it.

“It’s all right,” she murmured, pulling back. “You can move your hips—I don’t mind.”

“I…wasn’t sure…” His jaws were clenched as he began to pump into her hand, catching the rhythm of her stroking. “I…oh, Gods, your little hand is so soft. I’ve never…Oh…”

“Are you close?” Tess murmured, feeling more powerful than ever. “Does it feel good, honey? Are you going to come?”

It was pretty mild as dirty talk went but just saying the words made her feel naughty and sexy and fully alive in a way she hadn’t been in years. She stroked him up and down, still dipping her head occasionally to suck or lick him as he pumped up into her fist. The entire length of his long, hard, muscular body was tight with tension and his face was a mask of intense need.

“Tess…” he groaned. “Ah, Gods…please…just like that. Just like that! Please!”

“It’s okay, honey,” she purred, stroking him harder—almost milking him now. “It’s okay, just let yourself go and come.”

“Gods, yes!” His hands clenched even tighter in the quilt until Tess heard it rip and his body arched off the bed as he responded to her touch. “Gods, lin’del,” he moaned. “You’re making me come…you’re making me come so hard.”

Tess felt him pulse in her palm and then a thick geyser of creamy white overflowed from the tip of his cock and coated her hand as she stroked him. Another followed it and then another until she began to wonder when the last time he’d had an orgasm was. Or did all Kindred just come a lot? Not that she minded—it was kind of sexy, after all, to know that she’d affected him so strongly.

At last Garron’s long body went limp on the bed and he drew in a ragged, gasping breath. Tess released him gently and looked at his face.

“Are you okay?” she asked, suddenly feeling uncertain. “Was…was that okay?”

“It was more than ‘okay,’” he rumbled, giving her a tired little half smile. “It was…I’ve never had such pleasure before…never dreamed it was possible. Thank you.”

“My pleasure.” She smiled back at him, feeling relieved. A part of her had been certain he would be angry with her after this was over—angry at her for doing something so overtly sexual. But no, it was just therapy, she insisted to herself. And it seems to have worked—he looks so much better. Way more relaxed.

“No,” he said seriously, looking at her. “The pleasure was all mine. Could you…would you allow me to return the favor?”

“Um…” Tess felt suddenly nervous again. “I’m not sure what you mean…”

“Perhaps I could just…hug you to start with?” he asked softly. “I don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable, I swear.”

Tess couldn’t help laughing. “Right. Anything that makes me uncomfortable. After I just finished jerking you off—uh, I mean, giving you a release.”

His smile grew wider. “That second way you said it sounds nicer.”

“Yeah, well…” Tess looked down at her extremely sticky hand. “Maybe before we do anything else we should…you know, clean up some?”

Garron looked at himself and nodded.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said wryly, starting to get up.

“No, no—” Tess pushed him back down with her non-sticky hand. “Just stay there and relax. I’ll go get a washcloth.”

She ran to the bathroom, washed her hands and came back with a warm washcloth. She half expected Garron to be asleep and indeed, the big Kindred was lying there with his eyes closed breathing peacefully.

Look at that—all worn out. Tess couldn’t help smiling fondly. Now she would clean him up and he would no doubt roll over and sleep for the rest of the night. At least, that had been Pierce’s usual way after having an orgasm.

As she watched the deep, even rise and fall of his broad chest, she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed. Garron had talked about wanting to “return the favor.” What exactly had he had in mind?

Better not to know, she told herself firmly as she got carefully back onto the bed beside him. You’ve given him what he needed and gone as far as you ought to go. It’s best to go back to being just friends now—if that was what we were before.

She touched his hip gently, letting him know she was there so she wouldn’t startle him, and then began stroking the warm, damp washcloth over his long shaft. Even now, after coming so much and so hard, he was still semi-erect which was pretty impressive as far as Tess was concerned.

“Mmmm…” The deep rumble of contentment that came from him made her smile. “Tess…”

“Shhh,” she murmured. “Just cleaning you up. Then you can go back to sleep.”

But to her surprise, his eyes opened and he put a hand on her wrist.

“Don’t want to go back to sleep.” His eyes, as he gazed into hers, were intense.

“What? Aren’t you tired?” Tess felt that flutter around her heart at the way he looked at her but she tried to keep her voice light.

“Never tired of being with you.”

Tess became suddenly aware that his shaft was growing hard again under the warm washcloth. Oops! Quickly, she finished up and put it on the nightstand.

“There we go. All done.”

“No, not all done,” Garron insisted. He put a hand on her arm. “Will you come closer? Will you let me hold you again? Body-to-body?”

“Umm…” Tess was beginning to feel nervous again but the look on his face changed to one of pleading.

“Please, Tess. I just want to hold you. I won’t do anything you don’t want.”

“Well…” She felt herself melting under the force of those lovely turquoise eyes. “All right.”

She snuggled against his side again and Garron sighed contentedly and pulled her close, wrapping her in his arms. He seemed much more relaxed and comfortable now but also a lot more alert than she would have thought.

“You’re so beautiful,” he murmured, nuzzling his face into her hair. “And so giving.”

“I just…wanted to make you feel good. Uh, to feel better, I mean,” she said hastily. “Did it help? Is your other—your dr’gin—under control?”

“For now,” he murmured. “I don’t know why but having your hands on me in that way seems to really help.”

In a sexual way, he means, whispered the little voice in her head. Tess cleared her throat.

“Um, well I’m glad it worked. And glad you feel good—better.”

“I’d like to make you feel good, too, you know,” he said softly. His big hand trailed down her arm until it rested on her hip. His long fingers curled around her, radiating forbidden heat, making her feel small…helpless.

“Um, that’s really nice of you.” Tess looked down. She could feel herself getting hot…which scared her to death. “But I’m good. Honestly, just fine.”

He turned toward her and cupped her jaw, tilting her chin up so that their eyes met.

“What is it, lin’del?” he murmured softly. “Do you still fear me?”

“No, of course not,” Tess said at once. “It’s just…”

She paused, trying to think how to explain that it wasn’t him she feared at all—it was her own reaction to him. When she had been the one touching him, the one in control, she had felt free, open…safe. But allowing herself to be touched—and to take any kind of sexual pleasure in it—was different and much more difficult. She had gotten around it the night before by telling herself he was just “healing” her. Just as she had convinced herself that touching him just now was a form of “therapy.” But to put all these excuses and ruses aside and simply allow him to touch her body in order to bring her pleasure…it was a much more difficult thing than it sounded. Maybe impossible.

But how could she tell Garron all that?

It was a big, tangled, snarly mess inside her—a rat’s nest of fears and phobias and desires locked away and hidden so deep Tess didn’t know if she could ever find the key. I’m a hot mess—there’s no way I can ask him to deal with all my issues. No way he’d want to.

“Just what?” he asked softly and she realized she’d been thinking too long.

“It’s just…complicated.” She sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, Garron but I’m really tired right now and it’s late. Look…” She gestured at the window. “It’s full dark outside and we were driving most of today. Do you mind if we call it a night?”

“Of course.” He shifted against her. “Can we sleep like this? I like the feel of you against me.”

Tess smiled. Sleeping should be safe enough—as long as that was all they did.

“Sure, I like it too. It’s nice.”

“Good.” He sighed and dropped a gentle kiss on her forehead. “Sleep well, Tess.”

“You too,” she murmured, daring to snuggle a little closer. It really was nice, being this close to him. His big, hard body was comforting and his arms around her made her feel safe and cared for. His scent seemed to relax her and his deep, even breathing acted almost like a lullaby.

Slowly she drifted to sleep…

Only to wake up a few hours later screaming and crying.


Chapter Twenty-four

 

“It’s not mine, is it, you little slut? Whose is it? Who’s the lucky guy who knocked up my wife? Was it Barney, that fucking security guard who works at the nursing home with you?”

“Please, Pierce…” She was cowering against the wall, trying to avoid his blows. “Be reasonable—Barney is almost seventy! Besides, I would never, never do that with anyone else. I don’t even look at other men. Please!”

“Lying little whore! If you don’t look at other guys, how did you get pregnant?” He glared at her, his eyes poison green slits, his face screwed up in a mask of fury. “Huh? Tell me that?”

Tess knew she ought to try harder to placate him. What had started out as a few slaps and shoves was going to turn into full on punching soon and she would be on the receiving end of it. But as it did, sometimes, her anger got the better of her common sense.

“How do you think I got pregnant? You flushed my birth control pills because you said you wanted to start a family. Well, guess what Pierce—this is it.” She pointed at her lower belly, rounder now than usual, since she was finally beginning to show. This is your family—your baby—all yours and no one else’s! And you know it. You’re only pretending otherwise just to give you an excuse to hit me—like you ever need an excuse.”

Pierce’s face got even uglier.

“You little slut! I know that brat inside you isn’t mine. I know you’ve been fucking around on me! You always do—that’s why I have to punish you all the time.”

“How could I?” Tess demanded. “You know what I do all day—I get up, make your breakfast, go to work where I’m surrounded by female nurses and patients in their eighties and nineties, then I come straight home and make you supper and I’m in for the night. That’s it—that’s all. That’s my whole entire day.”

He scowled. “You’re fucking around on your lunch hour.”

“How could I? You’ve been dropping me off and picking me up for months now,” Tess pointed out. “Even if I wanted to cheat—which I don’t—there’re no men at work who are anywhere close to my age. There’s just no way, Pierce. You can twist it all you want but there’s no way this is anyone’s baby but yours.”

“Is that so?” He stood there breathing angrily, puffing through his flared nostrils like a bull, the way he always did when he was working himself into a rage. But at least he’d stopped hitting and slapping her, which was a big improvement.

“Yes, that’s so.” Tess felt a cautious sense of relief. She had him dead to rights on this argument. He couldn’t “punish” her for something she couldn’t possibly have done. She dared to get out of her protective crouch and stand straight against the wall. “It’s yours,” she said softly, pointing to her lower belly. “He or she is your baby, Pierce. Yours. And mine. Ours.” She tried to smile at him, hoping she could make him see. “Can you imagine holding him or her? Picking a name? Decorating the nursery? Can you—?”

“No.” His fist came flying so fast it was just a blur. She didn’t have time to shield herself—barely even had time to react. Still, she tried to cover her head instinctively, tried to shield her face from his fist.

But it wasn’t her face he was aiming for—not this time.

She felt the sickening blow like a sledge hammer to her lower belly. This was no simple slap or even a light punch—Pierce had put all his weight behind it. It knocked the wind out of her and she crumpled to her knees, clutching her belly, frantic with pain and fear.

Even before she caught her breath, she knew that something inside her had gone terribly, horribly wrong. The fragile spot in the center of her pelvis felt boneless and heavy at the same time. Somehow she knew that the spark that had been kindled inside her had gone out. Had been smashed out by the fist of the one who had put it there in the first place.

“Oh, no,” she whispered, curling in on herself in a protective ball. She cradled her wounded belly in her arms, holding herself as though she could hold the little one who had been so briefly within her. “No…no…”

And then the cramps started, the ripping pain and the knowledge that it was over, all over. The fragile little life was gone…

 

* * * * *

 

“It’s gone…gone.” Tess curled in on herself, clutching her belly as tears rolled down her cheeks. Grief pierced her, ripping at her with claws sharper than the cramps that had torn her apart. Loss filled her, darker than the blood that had spilled from between her thighs. “Oh, please,” she moaned softly, unable to stifle her sobs. “Oh, please…no. No…”

“Tess?” Suddenly a huge, male form was looming over her in the darkness. “Tess, what’s wrong?”

The words themselves didn’t register—only the masculine tone and the big body crowding her…threatening her.

“No, leave me alone!” Tess scrambled to the end of the bed and huddled against the footboard. “Stay away—haven’t you done enough? I lost it—I lost it!

“Lost what? Tess, please…” He came toward her again, one hand outstretched. “It’s me—just me,” he said.

Tess shrank from his touch.

“It’s gone—are you happy now? You took care of that. Gone.

“What’s gone? Tess please—look at me. Look at my eyes—it’s me—Garron.”

Something about what he said slowly began to register. His eyes…why could she see his eyes in the dark?

Because they’re glowing, whispered a little voice in her head. And they’re not green—they’re blue. Turquoise.

“I…” Tess didn’t know what to say. She swiped tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.

“It’s me,” he said again and then he was enfolding her in his arms.

For a moment Tess stiffened against him. He was so big…so impossibly strong. She could feel the power in those massive arms—he could rip her in two if he wanted. As easily as ripping apart a doll or a stuffed animal.

She started to pull back but he pressed her face gently to his throat.

“Breathe me in,” he murmured, stroking her back with long, soothing strokes. “Breathe my scent, lin’del. It’s me. Just me.”

Tess did as he said, gulping in one deep, shaky breath after another. His scent—it wasn’t the too-sweet, cloying aftershave that Pierce always used. It was a warm, dark spice that smelled like safety…that smelled like home, although she didn’t know why.

Her body registered the fact that she was safe before her mind did. Even before she made a conscious decision to do so, she felt herself sag against his broad chest as her body went boneless and she finally relaxed.

“It’s all right,” Garron rumbled, stroking her hair and back. “Everything is all right. You just had a bad dream.”

“Yes. I…should have warned you I have them from time to time.” She drew away from him a little and swiped at her eyes again. “I’m sorry if I freaked you out. That’s…not the most pleasant way to wake up, I know.”

“It doesn’t sound like whatever happened in the dream was pleasant either.”

“Well, that’s why they call them nightmares, right?” Tess tried to laugh but it came out as more of a sob.

She’d had bad dreams about Pierce ever since she left him. Sometimes he was chasing her and she tried to run but her feet kept getting stuck to the floor. Sometimes he was screaming in her face while she was tied to the bed and she couldn’t shield herself from his angry blows. But this one—this half dream/half memory—was the worst. The one she dreaded the most. Why did it have to be the dream she had the first night she slept in Garron’s arms? Not that they were more than friends or anything but still…The big Kindred probably thought she was crazy now.

“I’m sorry,” she said again, trying to sniff back the tears. “I just…it was a bad one. I should…I think I’ll go sleep on the couch. That way if it comes back I won’t wake you up again.”

“No. Absolutely not.” He took her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes, his face filled with concern in the dim room. “You’re going to stay here with me and tell me about the dream.”

“What? No!” Tess shook her head. “It was nothing—silly. Really, let’s just forget it.”

He frowned.

“My people believe that dreams hold significance—either for the past or the future. This isn’t something to just shrug off, Tess. You need to tell me about it—make me understand so I can help you if it comes back again.”

“Why should you want to help? Why do you care?” she demanded. Planting both palms on his broad chest, she pushed him away, reclaiming her space. “You made a vow to honor your deceased fiancé, remember? And I’m on the run from my psychopath ex. We’ve both got too much baggage to get involved so why bother?”

“Because we’re already involved,” he said in a low voice. “At least, I am. I do not know about you.”

Tess bit her lip, her anger suddenly dying.

“What do you mean?”

“Tess…lin’del…” He took a deep breath. “I have been trying to honor my vow—trying to remember Nella and everything she meant to me for so long that…” He sighed. “Well, I think I lost sight of the present and the future by always looking to the past. She was beautiful and I loved her with all that was in me. But…she is gone. Gone, never to return.”

“I’m sorry,” Tess said, feeling bad. “Sorry for your loss.”

“So am I. But I cannot live in the past forever. You…Tess, you’re here with me now. You’re warm and curvy and beautiful…” His hands described an hourglass in the air. “So damn beautiful it makes me ache to look at you.”

“Oh…” Tess whispered. “I…thank you.”

“I’m only speaking the truth of my heart.” He put a fist to his chest. “I hope it doesn’t frighten or distress you.”

“No, I just…don’t know exactly where you’re going with it,” she said.

“I don’t either.” He spread his hands. “I only know that I want to be with you—to protect you, to shelter you, to hold you. So please…” His deep voice dropped to a gentle tone. “Would you tell me about your dream?”

“I…” Tess sighed. “All right, I will. But you may wish you hadn’t asked. I wasn’t kidding when I said I had a lot of baggage.”

“I’m listening,” he said simply. He went up to the head of the bed, propped a pillow against the antler headboard and leaned back against it. After a moment’s hesitation, Tess followed him.

“I don’t suppose Di told you what finally made me leave Pierce for good?” she asked.

He shook his head. “She said it wasn’t her story to tell.”

“Okay, right. That sounds like Di.”

“Is that what the dream is about? The reason you left?”

Tess nodded. “Yes, and it’s not pretty. God, how can I say this?”

“Just say it,” he murmured. “Just tell me, Tess.”

“All right, fine. You asked for it.” She took a deep breath. “About six months before I left him, Pierce got it into his head that he wanted to start a family…”

 

* * * * *

Garron listened quietly as she spoke, taking in every word, watching her lovely face for signs of tears. There were none at first—Tess spoke in a clipped, mechanical voice, sounding like the robotic being she had been pretending to be when he first met her at the Pairing House. It was as if she was trying not to feel, trying not to let the past reach out and swallow her whole as she told him her story. Having suffered abuse growing up, Garron completely understood.

“So Pierce wanted a family,” she said, looking down at her hands. “I don’t know why. Maybe he thought a baby would tie me down more—like I could be any more tied down than I was.” She gave a dry, unhappy laugh that hurt Garron’s heart to hear. “I had no say in the matter, of course. Pierce made all the major decisions—even the ones that had to do with me. Especially the ones that had to do with me.”

She paused for a moment and he wondered if he should say something. But it seemed she was just gathering her thoughts—or maybe gathering her courage to tell him more. Instead of speaking, he reached for her hand. Tess looked at him briefly and he was afraid she might pull away. He was ready to let her go if she wanted him to—after everything she had been through he would never hold her against her will. But to his relief, she only froze for a moment…then slowly entwined her fingers with his. Then she went on.

“Anyway, he took my birth control pills—medicine that keeps you from getting pregnant—and flushed them down the toilet. He made me watch,” she said in that same, mechanical voice. “Then he fucked me.”

Garron held his tongue, but with difficulty. He squeezed her fingers briefly and Tess glanced at him again.

“It wasn’t like that,” she said quickly. “It wasn’t rough or anything. It was just…one of my duties. My wifely duties.” She gave that unhappy laugh again. “It didn’t matter how I felt about it—if I was in the mood or not—if I was sick. None of that made a difference. Every night it was the same thing—quarter past nine, time to fuck. Time for Pierce to fuck, anyway. I was supposed to lie there and look at the ceiling and not move or make a sound. I was just a receptacle—just a way for him to get off.”

Garron couldn’t be silent anymore. “But that’s—”

“Wrong? Selfish? Mean? Yeah, all of the above.” Tess sighed. “But that’s the way it was with him.”

“But it’s stupid,” Garron growled. “Why should he be allowed to enjoy the act and not you?”

“Because, according to Pierce, even though a dutiful wife gives it up for her husband every night, only a slut or a whore would actually enjoy it.” She looked down at her hands. “Pierce got so angry if I showed any kind of pleasure at all. Not that it was very pleasurable, lying there getting nailed to the mattress every night but still, I wasn’t allowed to show any emotion. If I did, he…” She cleared her throat and looked away. “He ‘punished’ me.”

“He hit you,” Garron said flatly. “Beat you.” It made sense now—the fear he smelled on her whenever she got aroused. After years of being subject to such abuse, she had doubtless come to associate any outward display of desire or sexual interest with swift and immediate pain.

Tess nodded briefly. “Right. But anyway, we’re getting off the subject.”

Garron squeezed her hand again, trying to keep his face calm though inside he was angry for her—so angry. The Kindred believed in worshiping a female’s body—in giving pleasure, not just taking it. To every Kindred warrior his mate was a representation of the Goddess—someone to be revered and cherished. And even on his home planet, where touching and holding were forbidden on a day-to-day basis, expressions of love were at least permitted during mating.

It sounded to him like Tess had gotten nothing from her ex-mate—no affection, no pleasure—nothing but pain. Gods, how he wanted to make that male pay…but Tess was talking again and he didn’t want to miss anything she had to say.

“Of course, I got pregnant,” she went on in that same, dry, emotionless voice. “How could I not since he did it to me every night? He didn’t notice at first and I was afraid to tell him. Eventually, though, I started to show…”

Her free hand crept unconsciously to her belly and Garron remembered that had been where she was holding herself when she first woke up crying from the nightmare. He began to have a terrible idea…an inkling of what she was going to tell him. He hoped he was wrong but…

“Tess,” he said in a low voice. “If you don’t want to tell this now…”

“I’m all right.” She looked up at him, her eyes suspiciously bright. “I’ll go on unless you’d rather I stopped.”

Garron looked into her eyes—large, dark, pools of pain—and knew she needed to speak. That she had to get it out—no matter how hard it was for her to tell or for him to hear.

“Go on,” he said gravely. “I wish to hear whatever you would tell. I won’t interrupt you again.”

“Thank you.” She looked away but squeezed his fingers tightly. “When I finally told him—told Pierce I was…” She swallowed hard. “That I was expecting, he went crazy with jealousy. He had this idea that the baby wasn’t his even though there was no way it couldn’t be. He literally controlled every aspect of my life. Even if I had wanted to cheat—which I didn’t—there were absolutely no opportunities. No way for the baby to be anyone else’s but his.”

“But he wouldn’t believe you,” Garron said softly.

She shook her head. “No. He wouldn’t believe me. He got angrier and angrier and then he…he…” The hand at her belly curled into a fist. “He punched me. Here.”

Garron felt his heart thump painfully at the broken sound in her voice. She couldn’t maintain the distance between herself and the painful memory—that much was clear. A single tear slipped down her cheek and she brushed it away with trembling fingers.

“Tess…” he whispered, his voice hoarse with emotion. His eyes were stinging and his chest felt tight. He longed to comfort her but he didn’t know if she would let him.

“I lost it, of course. I never…never even knew if it as a boy or a…a girl,” she whispered. Another tear slipped down her cheek and this time she let it go.

“Tess,” he murmured again, unable to say anything else. He couldn’t help himself any longer—he pulled her to him, pressing his face into her hair to breathe her in. He was afraid she would push him away but after a moment, she hugged him back. The scent of her grief—bitter and slightly sweet, like funeral flowers, filled the air. “I’m sorry,” he whispered against her neck. “So sorry. If only there was something I could do.”

“There’s nothing. It’s over.” She pulled back from him and blotted her tears on the back of her hand. “At least it gave me the courage to leave him for good.”

“And then I sent you right back to him. Sent you back to that son of a bitch. That…” Garron shook his head, unable to finish. He couldn’t find words strong enough to express his rage against the male who had hurt her so horribly.

“Garron, honey, please don’t think like that. I told you I didn’t blame you for anything and anyway, you healed me.”

“But I should have been with you before.” He scrubbed a hand over his face fiercely. “Why wasn’t I? Why didn’t I start dreaming of you when you needed me? Why couldn’t I save you?”

He tried to keep his face blank, his voice under control but inside he was seething. Enraged. He couldn’t turn back the clock but at least he could avenge her pain—take vengeance for her loss. He wanted to punish the bastard who had put that broken look on her face, who had hurt her so badly for so long.

Inside him the dr’gin, which had been dozing contentedly after their encounter earlier, now woke with a roar. It agreed with Garron—vengeance must be had! It was ready to come out right now and do whatever had to be done.

Careful! whispered the rational part of his brain in a voice that was growing fainter by the minute. Pierce isn’t here for you to punish. If you change now, if you let the dr’gin out, you’ll only kill the very female you want to avenge.

But the voice of reason was faint…unimportant. The dr’gin roared within him again, insisting that it had to come out!

No! No—back! Down! Garron thought at it fiercely. He took a deep breath and then another and another, trying to push back the rage and sorrow Tess’s story stirred in him. Control—he had to regain control!

Suddenly he felt her small hand stroking his arm.

“Garron—honey? Are you okay?” Her voice sounded really worried.

“I am…” The words came out in an animalistic growl and he had to clear his throat and try again. “I am fine,” he assured her, though it wasn’t really true.

She frowned. “You sure don’t look fine. Your eyes are glowing like search lights and you’re breathing like you just ran a marathon.”

“Forgive me.” Garron put his head in his hands and took more deep breaths, his chest heaving. “It’s just…your story made me so sad and so…so angry. The other inside me—my dr’gin—wants to come out and rip that abusive bastard apart. I’m trying to tell it that he’s not here—that there’s nothing we can do right now—but it’s not…not listening.”

“I heard you tell your brother this morning that your dr’gin uh, liked me,” she said in a soft voice.

Garron nodded. “It does seem to—it certainly feels very protective of you. As do I. But…” He glanced at her briefly. “But I do not think that would stop it from harming you if I allowed it to come out. I cannot take that risk.”

“But—”

He stood up abruptly and stepped away from the bed. “Excuse me. I need to go outside. If I can’t…can’t hold it back, then I need to be as far from you as possible when I transform.”

“No, wait!” To his surprise, Tess jumped up and threw her arms around his neck. “Don’t go,” she pleaded. “We backed it down before—we can do it again!”

“I shouldn’t…shouldn’t take the risk,” Garron protested. But already he could feel his blood burning a bit less, just because her arms were around him and she was touching his skin.

“It’s not a risk,” she insisted. “Let me help you, Garron. I’m the one who made you so upset, so I should be the one to help calm you down.”

Her offer was tempting—damn near impossible to refuse—but Garron didn’t want to force her into doing anything she didn’t want to do.

“No,” he said gently, trying to pull her arms from around his neck. “I can’t ask you to do anything like…what you did earlier just to appease my other. It’s not your duty to help me or service me in any way for any reason.” He would be damned if he’d treat her like Pierce had, even if the alternative meant leaving the cabin to let his dr’gin out and possibly never regaining his other form again.

“I don’t see it like that,” she protested, refusing to be pushed away. “It’s something I want to do. I want to…to help you.” Suddenly, she pressed her mouth to his in a kiss so unexpected and so passionate, it took his breath away.

Garron hardly knew what to do at first but then he couldn’t help reacting—couldn’t help kissing her back. Her lips were so soft…so sweet and the body pressed against his was so lush and curvy. He felt an instant rush of blood to his cock and he couldn’t stop himself from crushing her to him and running his hands up and down her luscious curves. Gods, she felt so perfect in his arms…so right.

Yet even as he kissed her back, he tasted salt on her lips—the remains of her tears. Slowly, he pulled away.

“I can’t, Tess,” he muttered hoarsely. “I can’t—not after what you’ve been through tonight. Not after what you told me. I’d want…” He looked away, unable to meet her eyes. “I’d want more than before. I’d want to touch…not just be touched. And I don’t want you to fear me.”

“I won’t,” she whispered. “And I can do this as long… as long as I’m helping you. I…” She shook her head. “I can’t explain it any better than that, I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t make sense.”

It did, though—in a convoluted way.

“I think I understand,” he murmured. “As long as what we’re doing is necessary—not just for pleasure—”

“Exactly.” She nodded, looking relieved. “You do understand.”

Garron did. She wanted this—wanted it as much as he did—but she was afraid to want it. Unless she was doing something to help him—fulfilling a duty, as it were. If that was the case, then she could relax—could tell herself that any pleasure she got from anything she did, or had done to her, wasn’t her fault.

It was a strange, twisted, round-about way of thinking but having grown up in a family where abuse was a daily occurrence, he understood it. He was familiar with the justifications, the inner monologues, the guilt and secrecy and lying—even to yourself—just to make getting by a little bit easier. It might have seemed strange to an outsider but if this was what Tess needed to make physical love between them work for her, he was more than willing to give it.

Still, he wanted to be absolutely certain.

“Tess,” he murmured softly, cupping her cheek. “Are you sure? After what you just told me…the pain you just relived…”

“That’s what makes me certain.” She brushed away a tear and looked at him determinedly. “I want to help you, Garron. I need to help you. But maybe…maybe you could help me too. Help me forget. Or at least, put it out of my mind.”

That decided him completely. Tomorrow he would have to find another way. His name day was coming closer and the danger was growing. But for tonight, he would let her help him tame his inner beast.

“Tess,” he said softly, searching her eyes. “Lin’del…I need you. Will you help me?”

“Yes,” she whispered, tilting her face up towards his. “Yes, please.”

Garron felt a low growl of possession and need rising in his throat at her willingness. He buried one hand in her hair, pulled her close, and kissed her again.


Chapter Twenty-five

 

He needs me…he needs my help. I have to help him, Tess told herself as she gave in to the sweet feeling of his mouth covering hers. The justification helped. As long as she wasn’t just doing this for pleasure, she was able to relax and enjoy it. After all, she had to help Garron control his other—his dr’gin—and if touching and kissing him was the only way to do it, how could she help that? It wasn’t her fault that it felt good, was it? No, she told herself firmly, it wasn’t. So it was okay to let go and feel the incredibly intense sensations of Garron’s big, hard body against her own.

As though he had read her mind, the big Kindred moved them back to the bed.

“Is this all right?” he murmured as he lay down beside her.

“More than all right,” Tess assured him.

“I want to hold you again. Body-to-body…face-to-face,” he murmured. “With nothing between us.”

Tess bit her lip. “I…all right. I’ll just…” She started to reach for the front clasp of her bra but he stopped her.

“Let me.”

Feeling nervous, Tess lay back and let him unfasten the front hook of her bra. He peeled it back slowly, revealing her breasts.

“Gods…” His voice was hoarse. “You’re so beautiful. I love your full breasts.”

“Th-thank you,” Tess stuttered. He had seen her before—had healed her by sucking her nipple—but laying there bare and exposed for that intense, glowing gaze still made her nervous. How much were they going to do tonight? How far were they going to go? Some of the confidence she’d been feeling earlier leaked away. Was she ready for this? Would she ever be ready for this?

Garron moved down and she was certain he was going to start kissing and licking her breasts. Instead, he pressed his cheek to her chest and wrapped his arms around her waist—holding her close.

For a moment she was frozen. Then, hesitantly, she began to run her hands through his hair. This seemed to be their special embrace and she liked the way it made her feel cherished and safe at the same time. If only she could stop wondering exactly what she had let herself in for, she might even be able to catch her breath and stop being so nervous.

“I love to hold you like this,” Garron murmured, his breath hot against the sensitive valley between her breasts. “I like the sound of your heart in my ear.” He pressed closer and seemed to be listening for a long moment. Then he looked up at her, frowning. “But it’s pounding so hard. Are you all right, Tess? Do you still fear me?”

Tess bit her lip. “Not you, exactly. I’m just not…sure what we’re going to do. Um, how far we’re going to go.”

“How far do you want to go?” he asked gently. “I don’t want to do anything that frightens you.”

“I…” Tess wasn’t sure what to say. How could she tell him that everything seemed frightening right now?

“You’re still upset from your dream and from everything you told me,” he murmured, stroking her back. “For tonight, let me just hold you…and touch you. Let me bring you pleasure the way you brought me pleasure.” He looked into her eyes. “Would that be all right?”

“And you wouldn’t mind if we didn’t…you know? Have sex?”

“That isn’t my main objective, Tess,” he murmured. “You are.” He cupped her breast and placed a soft, hot kiss just to one side of her nipple. The tender gesture sent a thrill through her.

“Oh, Garron…” She ran her hands through his hair again and he nuzzled against her.

“I want to suck your breasts again, lin’del. Want to take your nipples between my lips and suck them until I make you moan.”

Tess bit her lip again. “But I can’t…I don’t, uh, make noises during…when I…”

“You did last night when I healed you,” he murmured. He kissed her again, this time a hot, open-mouth kiss directly on her nipple.

“I…I did?” She vaguely remembered making some soft noises that she had tried desperately to stifle. Pierce would have been enraged to hear her make any noises of pleasure at all.

“Mmm-hmm. I’ve never heard anything so lovely. I’d like to hear it again.” Garron sucked her nipple completely into his mouth and circled it slowly with the hot, wet tip of his tongue.

“Ohhh…” Tess couldn’t help the soft little moan which fell from between her lips.

Garron looked up at her, his eyes half-lidded with lust. Slowly, he released her nipple.

“Just like that, lin’del. Love to hear your pleasure.”

“I…” Tess felt uncertain. “I just…it’s hard. After years of trying to always be quiet. To never make a sound…”

“I want to hear you moan,” he growled softly. “But maybe I should give you something to moan about.”

He captured her other nipple between his lips, sucking hard until electrical tingles of pleasure ran from her tight peaks straight to the spot between her thighs. Tess moaned again—she couldn’t help it. But at the same time, she felt his big hand traveling down her rib cage to her belly. And from there, it came to rest over her pussy mound.

“Garron?” she whispered breathlessly as he cupped her. His fingers were still on the outside of the pink silk panties she wore but she could feel their heat clearly through the thin fabric.

“Can I touch you here, Tess?” he murmured, looking into her eyes. “Can I try to make you moan?”

“I…” Guilt and fear rose in her and she had to ask. “Do…do you need to?”

He nodded slowly, clearly understanding her hunger for absolution.

“I need to. Need to slide my fingers into your panties and feel your soft little cunt in the center of my palm. Can you let me do that, Tess?”

“I…” He needs it! Needs help to control his dr’gin, she told herself. Finally, she felt the knot of tension and guilt in the pit of her stomach begin to loosen.

“Yes,” she whispered at last. “Yes, Garron—please.”

He didn’t answer with words. Instead he slid his fingers beneath the waistband of her panties and let them trail down to cover her pussy.

Tess could feel his hand cupped around her but there was a cushion of air where his palm should have been touching her flesh. He was keeping his hand there, hovering just about a half an inch above her. Enough that she could feel the heat of his palm and fingers, but couldn’t quite feel his touch.

“Garron?” she asked uncertainly, looking up at him. “What…what are you doing?”

“Waiting,” he murmured, looking into her eyes. “Waiting until you’re ready.”

Tess wasn’t sure what to say about that. “Until I’m ready? But how…how will you know?”

“I’ll know,” he murmured. Then he ducked his head and sucked her nipple into his mouth again, lashing it with the tip of his tongue until Tess thought she might go insane.

Another soft moan came from between her lips as he switched nipples and began the sweet, unbearable torture on the other side as well. God, Pierce had never done anything like this for her! He’d had zero interest in foreplay, preferring as he said, to get to the “main event.” At most, he might pinch or twist her nipples if he was feeling especially horny but the rough way he did it hurt too much to get her in the mood.

Now Garron was sucking and licking her sensitive peaks as though they were delicious, succulent treasures he couldn’t get enough of. He growled softly with need as he tended to her, laving her nipples with his tongue one minute and sucking them as deeply into his hot mouth as he could the next.

Tess moaned again and, almost without knowing it, began moving her hips. It was just a few, shallow thrusts as she pressed her breasts up to his mouth, offering herself to him, but it was much more than she had ever dared to do with Pierce. She knew she shouldn’t do it—the little voice inside her whispered that it was dangerous to move, dangerous to make any sign that she liked this. But again, somehow she just couldn’t help herself.

Then Garron sucked hard on her right peak and nipped it very gently, sending an electrical tingle of pleasure all through her. Tess gasped and her hips bucked up…placing her pussy in direct contact with his hand at last.

The big Kindred released her nipple and nestled her pussy mound more firmly into his big, warm palm.

“I told you I’d know when you were ready,” he murmured in her ear. “So are you, Tess? Are you ready for me to spread your pussy open and explore your sweet inner folds?”

“I…” She wasn’t sure what to say. She wanted him to touch her, wanted to give in to the desire that threatened to burn through her like a wildfire out of control. But it was still a little frightening.

“I won’t do anything you don’t want me to,” Garron said softly. He was watching her intently. “We can just lay here if you want to. It’s enough for me to hold you in my hand.”

“It is?” Tess felt herself relax at his soothing words.

“It is,” he assured her gently. “You feel so warm and soft and delicate and your scent is so delicious.”

Tess bit her lip uncertainly. “My scent? You can smell…but you’ve got your hand over…”

“The scent of your desire still perfumes the air,” he assured her softly. “It tells me how aroused you are…and how hot and wet your little pussy is getting.”

Tess felt her stomach flutter nervously at his hot words.

“I…what makes you think I’m getting, uh, wet?”

“As I said, your scent.” He kissed her cheek and murmured, “I’m sure if I was to spread you open now, I’d find your inner cunt all slippery with honey.”

“You…you would?” The hot, dirty words whispered in her ear were making her crazy and yet he still did nothing but talk.

“Mmm-hmm.” He rubbed her gently, still keeping his hand and fingers on the outside of her pussy. “Are you, Tess? Are you wet for me?”

“I…I don’t know. I think so,” she whispered boldly, pressing her hips up to rub harder against his palm. “Would…would you like to find out?”

“Of course I would,” he murmured, looking into her eyes. “In fact, I need to. But I need something from you, too.”

“Wh-what?”

“I need you to ask me to do it.”

“I…what?” she looked at him uncertainly. Was he asking her to talk dirty to him? It hadn’t been hard earlier, while she was in control. But this—asking to be touched intimately while he was the one doing the touching—was harder. Much harder.

“I’ll get you started,” he said softly, still looking into her eyes. “Say, ‘Garron, I need you to spread my pussy open with your fingers.”

“Oh!” Tess bit her lip, uncertain if she could voice such a raw request.

“Go on,” he murmured encouragingly. “And look into my eyes when you say it.”

Tess wasn’t sure about this—the idea made her feel both hot and embarrassed. But he had said that he needed it. Maybe voicing out loud what they were doing helped control his dr’gin in some way. For whatever reason, she decided she would follow along.

“Garron,” she said softly, looking into the glowing turquoise depths of his eyes. “I…I n-need you to spread my…my pussy open with…with your fingers.”

“Of course.” Two long fingers opened her very gently, baring the soft, vulnerable inside of her pussy. Tess gasped, feeling suddenly exposed but he didn’t do anything else…not yet.

“Garron?” she asked, looking up at him.

He kissed her cheek and then her mouth, very gently, before answering.

“Yes?”

“Are…are you going to, uh, touch me?”

“Do you want me to?” he asked.

“Do you need to?” Tess countered.

Slowly, he nodded. “But I need to hear you ask for it. Say, ‘Garron, would you please pet the inside of my pussy?”

This time it was a little easier to say the words.

“Garron,” she whispered, still looking into his gorgeous, other-worldly eyes. “Would…could you pet the…the inside of my pussy?”

“Good.” He kissed her again. “Of course I will, lin’del. Nothing would give me more pleasure. But first I’d like to take off your panties so I have more room to work. Is that all right?”

Tess bit her lip. Pierce had never asked her if anything he wanted to do was okay with her—he just did it. It was nice to be asked. It made her feel safe—safe enough to agree to taking off the last scrap of clothing that stood between them.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I’ll take them off.”

“No.” He put a hand on her leg. “I want to do it. Will you let me?”

“All right.” Tess expected him to just reach down and push her panties down her legs. Instead, he slowly withdrew his hand and then knelt beside her. He leaned over and slipped his long fingers under the waistband of her panties. Slowly, reverently, he drew them down past her hips, baring her little by little as though he was unveiling a work of art.

Tess felt her breath catch in her throat as he slid the pink silky panties down her thighs and then her legs until at last he could take them all the way off. Then, instead of coming back up to the head of the bed to join her, he kissed the inside of her ankle. Moving up, he kissed her knee.

“Um…” She wasn’t sure what to say. But then he kissed her thigh. He was getting closer and closer to her pussy which was making her incredibly nervous.

Garron seemed to sense this because he looked up at her.

“I smell fear on you again, Tess. Is this bothering you?”

“I just…” She squeezed her thighs together and took a shallow breath as bad memories tried to intrude. “I’d just rather not…I don’t want your, uh, mouth down there. Your hand is okay but I’m not comfortable with…with anything else.”

“All right.” He came back up to the head of the bed and lay on his side, facing her. He put an arm around her, drawing her close. “We can take things slowly,” he murmured, placing his hand on her trembling stomach. “As slowly as you want.”

“Thank you.” Tess felt a rush of relief as she relaxed against his hard chest. It was hard to know how to react to the big Kindred’s gentleness and patience. It had been so long since she was able to say yes or no to anything sexual—so long since she’d been able to decide what she wanted done to her or to ask for something she didn’t want done to stop. Asserting herself like this was almost a foreign concept but she liked it—liked it a lot.

Garron spent a long time holding her close and stroking her back and shoulders and buttocks again with his big, warm hands. Tess felt herself melting against him, her breasts pressed to the hard planes of his chest and their thighs brushing. His spicy bonding scent filled her senses and the long, hard club of his sex branded her belly. But though he was clearly aroused, there was no sense of urgency or impatience coming from him.

“This is nice,” she whispered at last. “But…I thought you wanted to, uh, touch me.”

“I am touching you.” He stroked her cheek and looked into her eyes. “Do you know how many years I dreamed of holding a beautiful, curvy female like you this way? Skin-to-skin with nothing between us? I am in no hurry for it to end. Are you?”

“No. No, not at all.” Tess smiled at him.

“Good. But I am going to touch you more intimately— I’m just waiting for you to be ready.”

“What? But…I thought I was.”

“Until I started kissing your thighs which provoked your fear,” he said. “Now I need to get you ready again.” He smiled, his eyes half-lidded with desire. “Don’t worry—I don’t mind at all.”

“But how will you know? When I’m ready?”

“I’ll know. So will you.” He kissed her cheek gently. “Gods, you’re soft and beautiful in my arms. Love to hold you this way, lin’del.”

Tess snuggled against him. She loved the feel of his big, warm hands on her and his muscular body pressed to her own. But she had to confess that while all the touching and stroking was really nice, it was making her…hungry for something more.

Well then why don’t you get some more, whispered the little voice of Tess BP in her head. Don’t be shy—you’re already naked in bed with him. Why not have a little fun?

Acting on the naughty little impulse, Tess tilted her chin up and captured the big Kindred’s lips with her own. He groaned softly and returned her kiss, running the tip of his tongue over the seam of her lips, asking for entrance.

Tess opened to him willingly, pressing harder against his big form, as she invited him to deepen the kiss. He did, slipping his tongue gently into her mouth, penetrating her in the most tender way imaginable.

Her nipples throbbed and her pussy suddenly felt swollen and wet. She moaned softly and sucked on his tongue, wanting even more. His mouth tasted of some exotic spice she couldn’t name—something hot and delicious like cinnamon but wilder. The taste of him seemed to do something to her—rather than satiating the hunger she felt, the mysterious taste made her want more. More of his mouth, more of his big form pressed against hers, more of his hands on her body. More.

Then get more, the voice in her head whispered.

Once again, letting her impulses guide her, Tess reached for his big hand and pressed it between her breasts. Then she guided it down her body until it came to rest between her legs, cupping her pussy once more.

Garron broke the kiss and looked at her, one eyebrow raised.

“Tess?” he said softly as she pressed against his palm.

“Please,” she murmured, looking up at him. “I want…I want you to touch me. To pet the…the inside of my pussy.”

“Of course, lin’del,” he growled softly. “I think you’re ready now.”

“More than ready,” Tess assured him. “I…I don’t think I’ve ever felt this ready.”

“We still need to take it slowly. Here…” He adjusted their positions so that she was lying on her back with her head pillowed on one of his thick biceps and he was lying on his side, almost hovering over her. “Is this all right?” he asked, leaning down to kiss the corner of her mouth.

“Yes, I guess.” Tess kissed him back, smiling a little. “Is this so you can reach me better?”

“Partly. And partly because I want to look in your eyes while I explore you.”

Tess bit her lip, feeling nervous. “Oh, really?”

“Really,” he murmured and then he cupped her bare pussy in his big hand again. “I want to watch you moan.”

“Oh…” She didn’t know what to say but just then he spread her outer pussy lips with his index and ring fingers. This time he didn’t wait or tease her. Tess felt his long middle finger dip down to slide across her slick inner folds, making her gasp though she tried not to.

“It’s all right.” Garron was watching her intently as he circled the swollen bud of her clit very, very gently with a single fingertip. “All right to move…to make noise. I want your pleasure, Tess—want it so much I can taste it.”

As if to illustrate his point, he lifted his hand for a moment. Tess saw that the finger he’d been using to touch her was shiny with her juices. She bit her lip in embarrassment when she saw how wet she was but Garron seemed to love it. He growled softly and sucked the finger into his mouth, licking away her honey as though it was a delicious treat.

“Garron?” she asked uncertainly.

“Gods, you taste good,” he murmured, reaching down to touch her again. Tess moaned and jumped a little when he slipped two fingers into her heated depths this time, swirling them around in her juices.

“You…you think so?” she asked uncertainly. She found it hard to believe he would enjoy her taste or the idea of licking her so much. After what Pierce had said…had done—but she pushed the bad memory away quickly.

“I know so,” Garron growled, stroking over her sensitive inner pussy until she quivered. “Just wish I could taste your honey straight from the source.”

Tess shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, I just…I don’t…”

His nostrils flared. “Desire and fear. Sometime you’ll have to tell me why the idea of spreading your legs and letting me lick and suck your sweet little pussy distresses you so. In the mean time, just relax and let me make you come.”

His fingers were working faster now, sliding along the sides of her clit, building a pleasure sweeter than any Tess had ever known. Pierce would never have done anything like this for her. His touch on her skin was cruel…punishing. She’d never had a man caress her so slowly, so tenderly. Her hips moved in time with the big Kindred’s fingers and soft little moans of need were being pulled from her throat, no matter how hard she tried to stop them. She could feel the intense sensations beginning to peak inside her and she could tell the coming orgasm was going to be amazing—so hot it was almost scary.

She was getting closer and closer when suddenly Pierce’s voice intruded in her head.

Slut! You little whore, getting off on it like that! Good girls don’t like it—they just endure it. Shut up and lay still!

No! Tess squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, trying to ignore the accusations, trying to push back the past. She could feel herself shutting down, could feel her body freezing up, denying the guilty pleasure she got from Garron’s touch. But she couldn’t do anything about it…

“Tess. Tess, look at me.”

The big Kindred’s deep, gentle voice caused her eyelids to fly open and she looked up to see him staring at her with a hungry expression.

“Stay with me,” he murmured, his fingers slipping over her pussy and clit a little faster. “Stay right here with me. Look into my eyes and feel what I’m doing to you.”

“I…you’re touching me,” she whispered, almost unable to get the words out.

“I’m stroking your sweet, inner cunt,” he murmured. “And you’re moving with me—I like that. Like it a hell of a lot.” He motioned to the way her hips were thrusting in time to his caresses. “I like the sounds you make too. The soft, helpless way you moan when I do this…” He slid one finger deliberately over the aching bud of her clit making Tess gasp and cry out loudly.

“Oh!” she clamped a hand over her mouth but he shook his head.

“No, lin’del, don’t try to stop yourself.” His deep voice was hoarse with desire. “Give in to the pleasure.”

“I…” Slowly, she removed her hand.

“Good,” he murmured encouragingly. “Gods, you’re gorgeous lying here all spread out for me. I love having you in my arms, feeling you shake and tremble while I pet your sweet pussy. Love your warm scent and the feel of your cunt honey coating my fingers.”

“I…I like it too. Being in…in your arms I mean. Feeling you touch me,” Tess confessed. Her hips were twitching faster now and she could feel the pleasure building. “I…Garron…I think I’m close.”

“Good.” His eyes blazed in the dim room. “Give in and let yourself come for me. Come while I do this.” He slid his finger over her clit again and then slipped two long digits down to the entrance of her pussy and thrust deep inside.

“Ah!” Suddenly it was too much—the pleasure was too intense to be denied anymore. The past was swept away. All the bad memories, the things she’d endured at her ex’s sadistic hands, melted to nothing under Garron’s touch. Tess’s back arched as her pleasure broke over her and she reached the peak at last. “Oh, Garron—yes! Yes!”

“That’s right, come for me, lin’del. Gods, you’re gorgeous when you come,” he murmured. Then he leaned down to take her mouth with his as he continued to fingerfuck her until she thought she would go insane.

She moaned and cried, bucking her hips up to meet his thrusting fingers, grabbing at his broad shoulders, letting lose as she hadn’t done in years and the big Kindred seemed to love it all. He swallowed her cries eagerly and continued to penetrate her until she could stand it no more.

“Please,” she gasped at last, breaking the kiss. “I can’t…”

“All right. It’s all right,” he assured her softly. He stopped thrusting and slowly withdrew his fingers. Then, watching Tess the whole time, he sucked them into his mouth and licked them clean, being careful to get every last drop of her honey.

Tess was still panting—trying to catch her breath. Watching him lick his fingers clean of her juices gave her a strange shiver deep in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t help remembering the “forbidden” fantasies he’d told her the first time they met, back when he thought she was a Pairing Puppet. Did he really want to go down on her that badly?

Doesn’t matter if he wants to or not, whispered a little voice in her head. You don’t do that—don’t let anyone go there. Not since Pierce…

She pushed the thought away again. Right now she just wanted to relax and enjoy the afterglow. She literally couldn’t remember the last time a man had given her an orgasm. Come to think of it, had any man ever given her one? Even before Pierce? She didn’t think so. And during her marriage, she hadn’t given herself many either. It seemed better—safer—just to wall off the sexual part of herself and forget about it. Now Garron was reminding her of it and she found she liked it, even though it was a little scary.

Speaking of the big Kindred, had touching her helped him? Had he been able to back down his dr’gin? A quick look showed that his eyes were still glowing in the dim room but they seemed to glow when he was feeling aroused as well as when his other was trying to get out. So it might not be a very good indication…

“Are you all right?” he murmured, breaking the silence.

Tess nodded. “More than all right. That was…incredible.” She felt her cheeks getting hot and wondered if he could see her blushing with his “excellent night vision.”

“I am glad to hear it.” He brushed a soft kiss over her lips and she tasted her own secret flavor there. It gave her a surprising flare of heat between her thighs.

“I…um…don’t think I’ve ever come that hard. Ever,” she said.

He growled approval low in his throat.

“I’m glad, lin’del. Your pleasure is mine.”

“But did it help?” Tess asked the question that was making her anxious. “I mean, is your dr’gin happy?”

“For now.” He frowned. “But it came damn close to getting loose tonight. I think…I think tomorrow I need to find the nearest Human/Kindred Relations building and make a call to my brother. He told me had had some possible ideas about what to do if I couldn’t control the dr’gin on my own or even with your help.”

Tess felt her heart sink.

“So…you’re going back to the Mother Ship after all?” She supposed she couldn’t blame him. But after what he’d said about them already being involved…

“No.” Garron’s eyes blazed brighter. “Absolutely not. I told you I wouldn’t leave you alone. Wherever I go, you go. And wherever you go, I go.”

“Sounds good.” Tess was surprised at how relieved she was. Part of her realized that this probably wasn’t a good thing. She couldn’t afford to become dependant on the big Kindred—she needed to be able to fend for herself. But still…she couldn’t help it. She liked him.

Maybe more than like, whispered Tess BP but she shut that thought off quickly. It was one thing to admit she was getting attached to Garron. It was another to let herself imagine she was falling in love. That was just silly—wasn’t it?

“So you’ll come with me to find a HKR building?” Garron asked, breaking her train of thought.

Tess nodded. “There’s one in downtown Asheville. I’m from North Carolina. Not this part but we used to come here on school trips sometimes. Lots of historic sights—Civil War stuff and Chimney Rock National Park. Anyway, I can show you where to go.”

“Good. First thing tomorrow, then.”

“It’ll give me a chance to call Di and talk to her too,” Tess said. “I have her cell number memorized but I didn’t want to risk calling from anyplace along the road. The HKR building will have a secure line.”

“Tell her you’re fine and that I’m staying with you no matter what.” Garron smiled and pulled her close for another kiss. “I think it’s time we got some sleep.”

“I agree.” She yawned. “Suddenly I’m exhausted.”

“I am too.” He yawned too and kissed her forehead. “Thank you, Tess,” he murmured. “For letting me touch you.”

She gave a sleepy little laugh and snuggled closer against his big, broad chest.

“I think I should be thanking you. That really was amazing.”

“For me too,” he murmured. “More than you know.”

Tess wanted to think of a reply but suddenly exhaustion caught up with her. All the intense emotions she’d been through in the past hour came crashing down on her and she could barely keep her eyes open.

Hope I don’t have another bad dream! she thought as she started to drift off.

“You won’t.” Garron’s deep voice was a soothing whisper in the darkness and she realized she must have voiced the thought aloud. “And if you do, I’ll be here to calm you. Good night, Tess.”

“Good ni—” she started to say but the words ended in a yawn and then she was asleep.


Chapter Twenty-six

 

“I can’t do that. You know I can’t.” Garron frowned at his brother, Truth. The other male was pictured on the viewscreen in the private call room of the HKR building in downtown Asheville.

Truth frowned.

“Apologies, Brother, I see no other way for you to let loose your dr’gin without killing or maiming anyone.”

“I won’t mate with a Pairing Puppet,” Garron said. “I cannot. It would feel…wrong.”

Truth raised an eyebrow. “Because you feel loyalty to Tess? You wish to call her as your bride?”

“I…do not know.” Garron sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I made a vow to myself to stay true to Nella’s memory. At the time I made it, I was certain I would never love again. Never feel for any female as I felt for her. But…”

“But you find yourself caring for this little human female, despite your efforts to remember Nella. Do you not?”

“I do,” Garron confessed. “She’s so fragile, Brother. And yet so strong. You do not know—I cannot tell you—the things she has endured at the hands of her ex-mate. And yet she carries on, her spirit unbroken. I wish to protect her but more than that, I wish to…to heal her.”

“Physically? As a dr’gin is able to heal his mate?”

“I’ve already done that once,” Garron confessed.

“What? How?”

“I called upon my dr’gin and used its healing power to seal her wounds.”

“What?” Truth demanded. “Garron, you know how dangerous even attempting such a thing is. I don’t know how it was even possible for you to use your dr’gin’s power without letting it all the way out. The closer you let it come to the surface—”

“I know, I know.” Garron sighed. “But her ex-mate had hurt her. There would have been scars and I could not bear to think of his marks on her forever.” His jaw clenched when he thought of the way her creamy flesh had been marred. “The things he’s done to her…I just want to kill him.”

Truth made a ‘calm down’ gesture with one hand.

“Easy, Brother. Your eyes are glowing.”

“I…” Garron took a deep breath, willing his dr’gin to be quiet. “Forgive me. It’s just the way he abused her…”

“Has left scars that are not just physical, I suspect. Scars not visible on her skin. Are these what you wish to heal her of?”

“Possibly.” Garron thought of the way she had wept in his arms. Of the terrible loss she had shared with him. Again he had to take a deep breath to quiet his dr’gin. “I just want to be with her,” he told Truth. “Always. But how can I do that without dishonoring Nella’s memory?”

“Brother, Nella would not begrudge you a chance at a new life, or a new love,” Truth said gently. “I knew her—she was a female of worth and she cared deeply for you. She would not have demanded that you live the rest of your life in celibacy, denying yourself the comfort of a mate just for her. That wasn’t the kind of female she was.”

“No, I guess not.” Garron sighed. “I suppose I feel guilty because, well…the emotions I have for Tess are so intense. So much…”

“Stronger than what you felt for Nella?” Truth finished for him dryly. “Can you really be surprised at that, Brother? Remember how we were raised on Pax—to never show physical affection, to keep our distance, to never speak the feelings or our hearts. I tried to conform but you…you always rebelled against the unwritten rules of our people. You always wanted more. And now, for the first time, you are in a place with a female you care for where you can have more. Of course your emotions are intense.”

“It’s not just that,” Garron said in a low voice. “It’s Tess herself. She draws me…all of me. Not just my conscious self—the male I am now—but the beast within as well. She draws my dr’gin.”

“But she can no longer help you control it?” Truth asked.

Garron shook his head. “She helped me last night—twice. But the second time it was a near thing. I felt my dr’gin actually coming up—taking over. She barely saved me from transforming.”

His older brother frowned. “It sounds like a dangerous situation.”

“It was,” Garron said shortly. “Very fucking dangerous. Which is why I can’t risk it again—I need to do something. My name day is only a few days away. I cannot be around Tess when my dr’gin finally comes out.”

Truth sighed. “And yet you reject my idea about the Pairing Puppets. Well, it’s just as well. I don’t know that they have any to spare. Several have broken down lately—at least, that is what I heard from a friend in the Unmated Males section.”

“Really?” Garron frowned, remembering the malfunctioning Puppet with the blue goo all over its face he’d seen when he first found Tess. “Isn’t someone assigned to repair them?”

“There was a tech team that specialized in the Pairing House and its inhabitants but they’ve been sent off the Mother Ship on some kind of mission.” Truth frowned. “Honestly, Brother, it’s probably a good thing you’re not here right now. Tensions are high—it would not be good for your emotional state, especially while trying to contain your dr’gin.”

“Why? What else is going on?” Garron asked. He hadn’t lived on the Mother Ship for long but he already felt connected to it and to the Kindred as a whole. Though he had been devastated to be cast out of Pax at first, it seemed like a blessing now. It had allowed him to find his true home and his true people—so it concerned him if they were threatened.

Truth sighed and ran a hand through his short, black hair.

“I suppose there’s no harm in telling you since the rumors are flying all over the Mother Ship. There is a human girl—the daughter of a prominent Earth politician—who had begun dream sharing with a Dark Kindred.”

“One of the Enhanced Ones?” Garron frowned. “I don’t know much about them but I thought they never called mates.”

“They don’t,” Truth said grimly. “And for good reason. Zeaga Four, their home planet, is said to be a dark and dangerous place and they allow no one who is unenhanced to step foot on the surface. In fact, they have a fleet of medical barges orbiting their planet for just that reason—to enhance those that wish to visit Zeaga Four.”

“And this…unusual situation…is causing problems?”

Truth nodded. “A lot of problems. Relations with Earth are strained. So much so that the Kindred High Council has announced we will stop calling brides for the Unmated Males for a period of time.”

Garron gave a long, low whistle and shook his head.

“That’s got to be a very unpopular decision.”

“It is,” Truth agreed. “Almost as unpopular as the Council insisting that the girl who is dream sharing must go with the Dark Kindred who is calling her for a Claiming Period. Or they were before Chancellor Terex changed his decision.”

“But of all the Kindred, they are the ones who do not revere females. They don’t even worship the Goddess, do they?”

“They worship only intelligence. Theirs is the religion of science and technology.” Truth sighed. “I don’t know how it’s even possible for one of them to dream share with a female at all. They have implants that allow them to circumvent all emotion, specifically to keep them from needing to bond. They—”

“Wait a minute.” Garron held up a hand to stop him. “Go back. What did you say about the implants?”

“That they keep the Dark Kindred from feeling. Anything, apparently. No joy, no sorrow, no anger—nothing.” Truth frowned. “Wait a minute, Brother. You’re not thinking—”

“Why not?” Garron demanded. “We both know it’s emotion that brings the dr’gin to the surface. Emotion is what sets it free and allows the first transformation to occur. If I could deaden my feelings at will—every time I felt my dr’gin rising—my problem would be solved.”

“But how will you get there? Zeaga Four is twenty thousand light years from Earth.”

“Just because I’m not allowed aboard the Mother Ship doesn’t mean it can’t fold space for me,” Garron pointed out. “I just need a shuttle—I can borrow one from the HKR here in Asheville.”

“You still haven’t been cleared to pilot one yet.”

“Then talk to Commander Sylvan,” Garron said. “Have him clear me and get permission to fold space to Zeaga Four.”

Truth frowned. “Commander Sylvan is very understanding but why would he go to so much trouble?”

“Tell him that while I’m there I can see if I can find anything out about the male who is dream sharing with this Earth girl,” Garron said. “I won’t stir up trouble—I’ll just visit one of the medical barges orbiting the planet. But I might come back with some valuable information.”

Truth nodded thoughtfully.

“He may agree. I get the idea that his hands are tied by the Council so he can’t really send anyone from the Mother Ship. But you’re an independent agent—a transfer from another world who doesn’t really fall under any jurisdiction. You could easily gather information under the guise of getting help to control your dr’gin.”

“Now you’re thinking!” Garron exclaimed. “Go talk to him, Truth. Right away if you can. Please, I can’t hold back the dr’gin much longer on my own. This could be the answer to all my problems.”

“I hope so, Brother,” Truth said. “I truly do.” He frowned. “But what about your female? Zeaga Four is a dangerous place. Would you take her with you?”

Garron frowned. “I do not like the idea of taking her into danger. I don’t wish to leave her but she might be safer here at the HKR building awaiting my return. If Commander Sylvan agrees to fold space for me, it shouldn’t take long to get to the medical barges around Zeaga Four and back again.”

“You’ll have to decide what to do for yourself,” Truth said. “Wait a moment while I go find Commander Sylvan. I’ll Bespeak you with his answer.”

“I’ll stay here in the HKR building,” Garron promised. “If all goes well, I’ll start for the Vega system today.”

“I hope so. Truth out.” His brother’s image disappeared from the viewscreen just as Garron heard a soft knocking at the door.

“Come,” he said.

“Garron?” Tess poked her head around the door uncertainly. “Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all. I just finished talking to my brother and we have a possible solution.” For the first time in days, Garron felt hopeful. “This could be it, Tess,” he said, taking her hands in his. “I could—” He stopped because something was obviously wrong. Her face was white and drawn and the bitter scent of sorrow and fear emanated from her. “Tess,” he murmured. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s my friend, Di.” She took a deep breath, obviously trying to control her emotions.

“What did she say?” Garron asked anxiously. He had only met the older female briefly but her loyalty and love for Tess had been clear.

“She didn’t say anything.” Tess looked down at her feet, her long hair shielding her face like a curtain. “She…she’s in the hospital in the ICU.”

“What?” Garron demanded. “What happened?”

“Someone broke into her house and beat her…” Tess shivered. “Beat her with a baseball bat. That’s what they think it was, anyway. Whoever it was left her for…for dead. They don’t know if she’ll ever wake up again. It’s that bad.”

Garron’s heart tightened in his chest at the hurt sound of her voice.

“Tess,” he said, his voice coming out rough. “Lin’del…look at me.” He lifted her chin gently and pushed back her hair. Her lovely face was paper white and a single tear marked her cheek.

“This is my fault,” she whispered. “We both know who did this. Garron, I have to go to her.”

“No!” He cupped her cheek and looked at her anxiously. “Don’t you see, Tess? This is what he wants. She probably wouldn’t give him any information about where you’d gone so he found the perfect way to draw you back. The minute you step foot in the medical facility where your friend is being tended, he’ll have you. He’ll have both of us and, as you pointed out, he has the jurisdiction here.”

“He won’t have you.” Tess lifted her chin. “I’ll go back alone. I need to be with Di.”

“Is that what she would have wanted?” Garron demanded. “For you to put yourself straight back into his hands after all she’d risked to help you go free?”

“No, but…” Her voice wavered. “She’s my best friend. I should be with her.”

“And you will—if and when she wakes up. Right now all you could do would be to sit by her bedside and wait for him to drag you away from her,” Garron pointed out. “Don’t forget, Tess—I was dream sharing with you. I saw how manipulative he can be. He took you out of the HKR building in Tampa without anyone saying a thing about it—all because he molded the situation to look like what he wanted.”

“Pierce is good at that,” she admitted reluctantly.

“Don’t put yourself back in his power. Di wouldn’t have wanted that.” Garron sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I have a possible solution to my problem. If you can just bear with me until I can get it fixed, then we can concentrate on finding a way to get you to your friend’s bedside without that bastard coming after you.”

“Oh?” She brushed a tear off her cheek. “What are you going to do?”

“If all goes well, I think I know of a place that can help me,” Garron said. “It will mean traveling to the fringes of a very dangerous planet but as long as we follow convention and stay off the planet’s surface, we should be fine.”

Tess frowned. “We?”

“Yes.” He nodded grimly. Before he’d been thinking of leaving her behind—just for a day or two under the watchful eyes of the Kindred stationed in Asheville. Now, however, her ex-mate had proven himself to be more than abusive—he was unquestionably murderous. Ruthlessly willing to do anything he had to in order to get Tess back. The only way to make sure she was completely safe was to take her with him—even if it meant going into danger. “Yes,” he said again, looking into her eyes. “I’m not taking any chances with you, lin’del. You’re going to come with me.”


Chapter Twenty-seven

 

It was the third time Tess had ridden in one of the Kindred shuttles that moved back and forth between Earth and the huge Mother Ship which orbited the moon, but this was by far the most comfortable journey. The ranking Kindred officer at the Asheville HKR had given them a long range shuttle since they intended to fold space. It was roomier and more luxurious than either the civilian transport she’d gone up to the Mother Ship in the first place or the small two person craft she’d been brought back down in.

But the comfortable—albeit much too large—flight chair she was strapped into and all the complicated looking instruments on the driver’s side of the craft couldn’t hold her attention for long. As Garron manipulated the ship up and out of Earth’s atmosphere, all she could think of was Di.

Oh, Di, I’m so sorry. So sorry I put you in harm’s way!

She could picture the scene in her mind—Pierce shouting and raging at first, demanding answers which her friend refused to give. Then his voice would drop to that dangerous, quiet tone—the almost whisper she knew meant a particularly bad beating was on the way.

She could imagine him standing over Di holding a bloody baseball bat.

“Where’s my wife, you whore? Where did you send her? Answer me or so help me God…”

“Tess, stop.” A big warm hand on her knee drew her attention to Garron.

“What?” She looked at him and realized he looked blurry. Then something warm and wet rolled down her cheek and she understood why. “Stop what?” she said again, brushing the tears from her eyes.

“Stop torturing yourself,” he said softly. “Di wouldn’t have wanted it.”

“I can’t help it,” she admitted in a low voice. “I just keep picturing it over and over and there’s nothing I can do—”

“I can.” He looked at her intently. “I promise you this, Tess—there will be a reckoning. For your friend. For all the pain and torment he inflicted on you.” His eyes flashed suddenly in the dim cabin. “When we come back to Earth, I will see that he pays—over and over.”

“No, Garron,” she protested. “You don’t have to—”

“I want to. I must.” His voice was a low growl. “I will not call you ‘mine’ because I know how you feel about the idea of being claimed or owned. But I must and will protect and avenge you.”

“I…” Tess didn’t know what to say. Knowing he felt so strongly about her left her nearly speechless. And though he wasn’t claiming her in so many words, he certainly was with his actions. His…how would it feel to be his? To be Garron’s? she mused. The idea gave her a flutter in her stomach because somehow she knew if she were to belong to him, he would also belong to her.

“As for your ex-mate,” he went on. “For now, all you can do now is to keep safe and stay far away from him. Your friend would have wanted that.”

“Well…” Tess tried to laugh but it came out as a broken little sob. “You’re certainly taking me far away. How far did you say? Ten thousand light years?”

“Twenty,” Garron said grimly. “But the journey will be nearly instantaneous. We’re going to fold space—or rather, the Mother Ship will fold it for us.”

“Okay, as long as we don’t come back home and everyone is dead from old age.”

“No.” He shook his head. “That would be if we were traveling at or just below light speed.”

“And everyone back on Earth would have aged much faster than us, right?” Tess asked.

“Exactly. That is one reason why direct trajectory space travel is useless. The distances between the different stars and systems are so vast that even going at such a tremendous rate of speed, it would take us years to reach the nearest star. That’s why the Kindred developed the space folding technology—they never would have been able to find genetic trade partners if they were limited to their own solar system or even their own galaxy.”

Tess nodded. “Okay, but—”

Just then there was a small dinging noise which seemed to be coming from the large flat screen at the front of the instrument panel.

“Incoming call,” Garron explained. “Probably from Truth.” He manipulated one of the controls and the viewscreen flickered to life. The image on its flat surface was the tall, blond Kindred who Garron had taken her to in the first place when he caught her in the Pairing House.

“Garron,” he said, nodding shortly.

“Commander Sylvan.” Garron returned the nod. “I thank you for facilitating this trip.”

“You’re more than welcome, Garron, but I expect you to live up to your part of the bargain,” the blond Kindred said. “It has been years since there has been any contact between those of us aboard the Mother Ship and the Dark Kindred. Gather any information you can about their ways and practices.”

“I will do my utmost,” Garron promised gravely. “Is anything known about which male the human girl is dream sharing with? Should I try to get specific information about him?”

“All she seems to know is that he has one enhanced eye,” Sylvan said. “No names or any other specifics were apparent in her dream—at least, none that she told us.”

Garron frowned. “It isn’t much to go on.”

“I know. Which is why I mainly just want an overview. Now if you happen to run across more specific information, I would greatly appreciate it. Anything we could use to put the girl’s father’s mind at ease would be valuable.”

“I’ll try.” Garron sounded uncertain. “But if what I’ve heard about the Dark Kindred is true, there isn’t much about them that would put anyone at ease.”

“Zeaga Four is a grim and dangerous place,” Sylvan admitted. He frowned. “Which begs the question, why are you bringing your female with you there?”

“Because as dangerous as Zeaga Four is, she is still safer with me,” Garron said. “Her ex-mate is intent on finding her. He is violent and abusive. I won’t leave her on the same planet as him while I fly off to another system.” His eyes glowed in the dimness of the cockpit.

“All right. All right.” Sylvan held up his hands in a calming gesture. “I trust in your good judgment and your ability to take care of your female. And I’m certain she trusts you as well.”

“I do,” Tess put in. She had been listening quietly up until now but it seemed like she had to say something. “I trust Garron completely.”

“That’s good.” Sylvan nodded. “Then I take it the two of you have made up the differences you were having when Garron first brought you to me?”

Tess thought of the night before, of Garron’s big hand between her thighs and his deep voice murmuring that he wanted to give her pleasure, that he wanted to hear her moan…

“Yes.” Her voice came out in an embarrassed squeak and she felt her cheeks getting hot. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Yes, absolutely.”

Sylvan smiled, showing two sets of short, sharp, double fangs.

“That’s good. And now, before the Mother Ship folds space for you, I have someone else who wants to talk to you.”

He stepped back and Becca came onscreen along with a tall Kindred with very short black hair. He looked a little like Garron in the face but his eyes were a pale gray instead of turquoise.

“Hello, Truth,” Garron said, nodding at him. The other male nodded back but it was Becca who spoke.

“Tess! It’s so good to see you again! I just wanted to say hi before you went flying off.”

“That was nice of you.” Tess smiled at her. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to stay and get to know you better the other day.”

“That was my fault,” Garron said shortly.

“No it wasn’t,” Tess put a hand on his leg and turned back to Becca. “I know I’m not allowed aboard the Mother Ship but I hope you guys don’t think I’m some kind of terrorist or something.”

“Of course not.” Becca made a shooing gesture. “And I don’t think you’ll be banned forever. Once you and Garron get bonded, they’ll have to let you come back aboard.”

“Um…bonded?” Tess asked, looking at Garron. His eyes were glowing again and his cheeks had gone red.

“Rebecca, I believe you’re overstepping,” Truth said quietly. “I do not believe that Garron and Tess have spoken of bonding yet.”

“Oops!” Becca put a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry! The two of you just look so cozy and right together. I just assumed…” She shook her head. “But I shouldn’t have. Sorry if I made things awkward.”

“You didn’t,” Tess assured her although she was dying to find out exactly what “bonding” entailed now. Was it a Kindred thing? Though the interstellar warriors had been in orbit around the moon and calling brides from Earth for years now, there was still a lot of secrecy around the actual process of becoming a Kindred bride. It was treated as something that was strictly on a need-to-know basis. And since she’d been married to Pierce and hadn’t even been registered in the draft, she certainly hadn’t needed to know. Until now.

“Be careful on Zeaga Four,” Truth said, obviously changing the subject.

“We’ll be fine,” Garron assured him. “We’re only going to visit one of the medical barges, after all. But since the Dark Kindred visit the barges regularly for enhancements, we should still be able to get plenty of information about their habits and practices.”

“Just don’t let Tess out of your sight,” Truth warned. “The Enhanced Ones do not revere females as they should.”

“I know, Brother. We must go now—I see the rift opening.” Garron nodded at the viewing area at the front of the ship which was located where a windshield would be in a car.

Tess let her eyes follow his and what she saw nearly took her breath away. There was a huge gash in space—a violent, blood-red tear with a pitch black center like a malevolent eye.

“Are…are we going into that?” she asked, pointing to it.

“Looks really freaky, doesn’t it?” Becca asked sympathetically. “But don’t worry, it’s just the fold in space. It feels a little weird going through it but it doesn’t do any damage. Uh, unless you’re pregnant…” She let the last word hang in the air like a question.

Tess shook her head quickly, feeling her cheeks get hot again.

“Uh, no. Nope, no chance,” she assured Becca quickly.

“Well, I didn’t think so since you had no idea what bonding was. But still…” Becca looked off-screen for a moment. “Okay, Sylvan is telling us to wrap it up. Folding space takes a massive amount of energy so you guys need to get going.”

“Approaching the rift now.” Garron was already manipulating the controls.

“Bye, Tess.” Becca waved at her. “When you get back, we need to get together again. If you can’t come to the Mother Ship, I’ll come down to Earth to see you.”

Tess smiled. “That sounds great. I’m, uh, not sure where I’ll be though. Probably not in Tampa until the situation with my ex gets resolved.”

“You’ll have to tell me all about it. In the mean time, take care of yourself.” She pointed at Garron. “And you take care of Tess. I like her.”

Garron nodded shortly. “I will protect her with my life. Not a drop of her blood shall spill unless all of mine has first been shed.”

“Wow…” Tess looked at him uncertainly. “Is that…”

“It’s a Kindred oath,” Becca assured her. “But you can be sure he means every word of it—Kindred don’t take such things lightly.” She winked at Tess. “I know—it’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? Call me if you have any questions—seriously, any time of the day or night. Okay?”

“Sure. Thank you,” Tess said but she was still looking at Garron.

The big Kindred faced straight ahead as the viewscreen went dark, his face lit by the faint glow of the instruments.

“Garron—” she began.

“Hold tight,” he murmured. “We’re about to enter the rift. When we come out the other side, you will be further than you have ever been from your home world.”

“But I’ll be with you,” Tess said softly. “So I’ll be all right.”

“Yes.” He gave her a quick sideward glance. “I swore to protect you and I will.”

“I know,” Tess whispered. “I know.” And then they entered the red gash in space and she closed her eyes.

 

* * * * *

Garron watched anxiously for the appearance of the silver-black planet that was Zeaga Four in the viewscreen. Though he had never been there, he had heard that it was a completely industrialized planet ruled by sentient machines though how it had become that way, remained a mystery.

It came into view soon enough, spinning slowly in space. Its metallic surface reflected back the light of its sun—a bloated red giant in the first stages of its inevitable collapse. A million years from now, the inhabitants of Zeaga Four would have to find a new home. But in the meantime, it appeared to be business as usual. Machinery glittered in the pale red sunlight and the many white and red medical barges that orbited the silvery-black world were busy with smaller ships constantly landing and departing from their vast docking bays.

Garron chose the largest barge he saw and headed for the bay. Opening a frequency, he called in the Kindred universal tongue to ask for permission to land.

“What language is that?” Tess asked, after he was granted permission and began their descent to the barge. “It sounded almost like German but more guttural.”

“It’s the Kindred’s original language—the one my people spoke on First World,” he said. “Here…” He put the ship on auto for a moment and stood. After rummaging in several of the secured cabinets, he found what he was looking for near the first aid kit. “Take this,” he said, handing Tess a pill.

“Um, what’s this?” she asked, examining the pill in her palm.

“Universal translator bacteria—an oral dose.” Garron sat back down and resumed piloting. “I was told they were standard with all long range vessels now—it’s a good thing too. Otherwise you wouldn’t know what anyone was saying.”

“Is it safe for humans?” Tess still looked doubtful.

“It was developed especially for them—for human brides who visit their Kindred mates’ home planets,” Garron assured her. “You don’t have to take it if you don’t want to but—”

“No, I’ll take it.” She swallowed it dry, with some difficulty. “Okay, so now I’ll be able to understand you when you speak another language?”

“It should take effect almost immediately,” Garron assured her. The ship was entering the vast, pulsating, translucent atmosphere bubble that protected the docking bay from losing air. “All right—we’re docking now. Just stay close to me and you’ll be fine.”

“Of course.” She nodded quickly. “All that talk about this being such a dangerous place though…”

“Zeaga Four—the planet itself—is very unsafe. Deadly, even, for the unenhanced,” Garron said. “But the medical barges are quite safe. They exist to service anyone who needs medical attention, supposedly free of charge.”

“Wow—aliens who offer free health care.” Tess sounded impressed. “That’s great.”

“I said supposedly,” Garron said darkly. “Nothing is ever completely free. Stay close to me and don’t accept anything from anyone. All right?”

“Yes, all right.” She nodded and Garron killed the engines.

“Here we go.”


Chapter Twenty-eight

 

“Wow, this is huge—even bigger than the Mother Ship.” Tess looked around in awe at the vast, bright white room they were standing in. It was bigger than a football field—bigger than several football fields, in fact. Despite its daunting size, everything was completely spotless even with the many, many strange spacecraft she saw parked for what seemed like miles in all directions. Above, the glittering, translucent bubble they had passed through to get into the medical barge was the blackness of space.

But the scenery wasn’t the only strange thing to be seen. As Tess watched, a huge creature with gray skin and a horn for a nose climbed out of the ship beside theirs. It was draped in a long purple robe and it looked a little bit like a rhinoceros standing on its hind legs. It was eating something—when Tess looked closer it appeared to be some kind of bread or muffin—at least it was muffin shaped. That was where the similarity ended, though, because it was twice as large as her head with green flecks speckling its grainy surface.

The rhino-thing took a large, messy bite of the giant muffin, spraying crumbs everywhere across the pristine white floor as it chewed. It paid no attention to the mess it had caused but someone noticed—or rather, something.

To Tess’s surprise, a tiny creature smaller than the palm of her hand suddenly whizzed into view. It moved in a quick, herky-jerky way that reminded her of a toy remote controlled car but it had purple and green fur that stuck up in whorls and swirls, almost like a guinea pig’s.

Its long purple whiskers twitched when it detected the crumbs on the floor and it began to eat them at once. But it wasn’t nibbling so much as sucking them up—almost like a tiny vacuum cleaner. Soon it was joined by other creatures similar to itself but with different colored fur. Tess watched in amazement as the vacuum guineas made short work of the stray crumbs. In a moment, every single crumb was gone and the little creatures scattered, leaving the floor as spotlessly white as it had been before.

“Did you see that?” she asked, turning to Garron, who had been securing their ship. “Those little things? Those—”

“They’re just cleaner-bots, oh my yes. A type of furskin, so they are, so they are. The barges are infested with them but at least that type provides a valuable service.”

Tess whirled around to see another strange creature staring at her. It was staring up, for she was about twice as tall as it was. Tess was quite glad of this fact when she had a moment to examine it. She felt certain if she had turned around and seen something that looked like it did which was much larger than her, she would have screamed.

The creature had a body like a chimpanzee, hunched over and covered in patchy, light gray fur. It also had a long, mournful face with long, drooping ears. Large, intelligent eyes were looking up into hers. If Tess had been tempted to think that the creature was some kind of non-sentient animal, the look in those large, brown eyes would have decided her otherwise.

“Hello?” she said to it uncertainly. “Are you…?”

“I’m Yipper, so I am, so I am.” It nodded at her gravely. “I am a Tolleg. And yourself?”

“I’m Tess—I’m human,” Tess said. “And this is Garron.”

“Of Kindred stock, so you are, so you are?” Yipper sounded hopeful as he looked at Garron.

The big Kindred nodded shortly. “I am.”

“That is good, very good.” Yipper bobbed his head up and down eagerly and rubbed long, clever-looking, hairy gray fingers together. “Fresh Kindred DNA is always useful. And what kind of enhancements will you be needing today? I’m to be your own personal technician so whatever you need, I’ll provide. So I will, so I will.”

“At least take us out of the docking bay before we talk business,” Garron growled.

“Of course, of course! To the lounge we go. Mayhap your female would like a refreshing libation? So she might, so she might?”

“Maybe,” Garron said noncommittally. “But let’s get out of this damned docking bay first.”

“Naturally, naturally!” Yipper led the way with a strange, loping gait that was somehow simian, but as far as Tess could see, they could walk for hours in any direction and not reach the end of the vast white room. She was just beginning to wonder why there weren’t any kind of trams or scooters to shorten the journey when they came to a thick yellow and black striped pole that extended about seven feet up from the floor.

“What’s this?” she asked as Yipper beckoned them forward.

“The way to the lounge, I assume,” Garron muttered.

Tess had no idea how the yellow and black pole could take them anywhere but when Yipper motioned for them both to stand close and touch it, she did.

“What now?” she asked, looking at Yipper who had also placed his clever looking little hand against the yellow and black striped side of the pole.

“Now we go, now we go.” He nodded quickly and they dropped suddenly down through the floor.

Tess gave a short, sharp scream and then Garron grabbed her and dragged her close, wrapping one massive, muscular arm around her. Looking down, Tess saw that a circular section of the white floor they had been standing on had detached itself and was taking them downward, into the bowels of the medical barge.

They were in some kind of a clear glass tube and she saw glimpses of other areas as they whizzed down past the levels of the ship. Some looked like medical areas—the theme of pure, blinding white was repeated and she saw some patients strapped to upright boards while others were lying face down on floating beds or gurneys. Each of them had a creature like Yipper performing a procedure on them though from what she could see, the Tollegs—Tess thought that was what he had called himself—didn’t appear to be using any instruments. She wanted to see exactly what they were doing but the circular section of floor they were standing on moved too fast.

Soon they were passing other levels which appeared to be devoted to recreation. In one, a vast pool filled with pale pink water seemed to extend in all directions. Tiny translucent fish with glowing red eyes were swimming in the water and all kinds of alien creatures were floating and playing in it as well. On another level, there was what looked to Tess like some kind of a squash court. But the players were using a living creature as a ball. At least, it looked alive—it fluttered around like a bird and landed on one of the player’s heads.

There were about a million questions she wanted to ask but before she could, the circular disk they were standing on came to an abrupt halt and the glass tube they had been traveling in melted away completely. They were left standing in the middle of a dim room that appeared to be lit by little balls of blue flame which floated in midair around the perimeter. There were tables and chairs of various heights as well as a long, curving bar at one end of the room. A creature with multiple eyes and several long, many-jointed arms was standing behind it serving drinks. Tess shuttered—Looks like a cross between a spider and an octopus! Ugh!

“Come and sit, come and sit,” Yipper invited, motioning them to come to a table by the side of the bar. It was extremely tall with chairs to match so of course, it fit Garron perfectly. Tess managed to get seated but her legs dangled as though she was a little girl sitting at the adult’s table.

“Sorry,” Garron said, seeing her plight. “This furniture must be made for Kindred.”

“So it is, so it is,” Yipper agreed. “Let me get you a libation. What will you have?”

“Nothing that will impair my judgment,” Garron growled. It was clear he didn’t exactly trust the hairy little Tolleg.

“I know just the thing, just the thing.” Yipper disappeared, giving Tess a chance to look around the dim lounge.

There were many strange patrons around them, some standing at the bar and others sitting at the various tables. To her right, Tess saw some with long pink necks and slender heads with black, beak-like mouths. They would have looked like flamingos except for their large purple and green eyes and the green suits they wore on their skinny, elongated bodies. There were other even stranger people in the lounge but the ones that drew Tess’s eyes the most were a pair of Kindred-looking men who walked up to the bar to the right of them. Or at least, they would have looked Kindred if they hadn’t had so many weird accessories on their faces.

Both of them were wearing black metal, full-body suits of armor which made their huge forms even huger and more imposing. One of them had black goggles where his eyes should have been and a bald head with wires sticking out of it. He had metallic cones that swiveled in different directions where his ears should have been and one of his arms moved with odd, robotic precision as he tilted his drink to his mouth.

The other man at least had hair. It was dark brown and combed straight back to reveal a high forehead and sharp cheekbones. He had stern features that made it look like he was constantly frowning but when Tess looked closer she saw that was just the set of his face—his expression was actually completely devoid of emotion.

One of his eyes had some kind of device screwed into it which turned it into a red, glowing light. Tess wondered what he could see with it—more detail? Or maybe it let him see things farther away. Whatever its merits, it made him look like some kind of a cyborg—half human and half robot. The effect gave her the creeps. Somehow that one mechanical eye in his otherwise normal-looking face made him look more alien and intimidating than any of the other weird creatures she saw drinking at the bar including his companion.

“I see you are admiring the enhancements on display, so you are, so you are,” Yipper said at her elbow.

Tess gasped and nearly jumped out of her chair. She had been studying the two cyborg-looking Kindred so intently she hadn’t even noticed the little Tolleg had come back from the bar.

“Who are they?” she asked in a low voice, still looking at the men.

“Some of the Enhanced Ones, so they are, so they are. That one is Six—quite high in the rankings and close to the Collective.” He nodded at the Kindred with the dark hair. “Do you see the ocular device? That is my work, so it is, so it is.”

“Impressive,” Garron muttered.

“Right, impressive.” Tess tried to smile. “Was it difficult to uh, install?”

“Tricky,” Yipper admitted. “Eyes are always tricky, so they are, so they are. But Six let me build on his existing structure instead of replacing it completely. That made it easier, so it did, so it did.”

“Oh…” Tess snuck another look at the Kindred with the one mechanical eye. Suddenly he turned to stare back at her, the red light flashing like a search beam. There was no expression on his face but she felt a sense of menace coming from him—as though her curiosity in him had been noticed and was most certainly not welcome. Tess gasped and looked away quickly.

Garron seemed to notice her concern because he covered her hand with his and glared at the Enhanced Kindred Yipper had called Six. A low growl rose in his throat as they locked stares.

“Garron…” Tess squeezed his hand, worried that the brewing conflict would erupt in violence which might bring out his dr’gin. But after a moment, Six shrugged and turned away, as if they weren’t worth his time. He knocked back his drink and motioned to the octo-spider bartender for another.

“Let us discuss enhancements,” Yipper said, as though nothing had happened. “But talking is thirsty work. Here you are, here you are…” The little Tolleg was holding two long, thin metal flutes filled with green, frothing liquid. He handed them each a flute before scrambling nimbly up onto the tall chair across from Garron.

“Um…” Tess held the strange looking concoction at arm’s length. “Unless this is an alien version of an apple-tini, I don’t think I want it.”

“It’s a Berthon fizzing mellow,” Garron said. To her surprise, he took a swallow of his own drink and licked his lips. “A pretty good one, actually.”

“Oh, uh…okay.” Tess still looked at the green, bubbling mixture uncertainly. Anything different had come to mean danger to her. Any break in routine, anything out of the ordinary had been cause for a ‘punishment’ while she was with Pierce.

Come on, don’t be so boring! whispered the voice of Tess BP in her head. You’re literally over a million miles away from that jerk and he’s your ex! Live a little.

The voice made Tess feel brave.

Well, why not? Garron drank it so it’s obviously safe. Can’t hurt to give it a try. Aware that the big Kindred and Yipper were both watching her, she took a careful sip of the foaming mixture.

To her surprise, it was absolutely delicious. Subtle flavors that reminded her of pear, pineapple and cinnamon swirled in her mouth. There was another flavor too—something that had a hint of cool, minty creaminess but she couldn’t think what it was like. She only knew it was wonderful.

Tess had only meant to take a sip or two but before she knew it, she had drained the glass and was asking for more.

“Of course, of course!” Yipper motioned to the octo-spider bartender who simply reached out one long, jointed-tentacle arm and deposited two more metal flutes filled with foaming green mixture on their tabletop. “And now,” he said as Tess began to sip again. “Down to business. Let us discuss your enhancements. So we should, so we should.”

Garron sighed. “Fine. I need an emotion dampener. As soon as possible.”

Yipper raised his hairy eyebrows.

“An emo-damper? That’s a major enhancement, so it is, so it is. Are you sure a far seeing ocular wouldn’t suit you better? Or maybe a new arm—punch right through solid plasti-steel so you could, so you could. Or what about multi-jointed legs or some collapsible wings? Flying all over you could be.”

“I don’t need to fly or punch through solid steel or see any farther than I already can,” Garron growled. “I need to get a handle on my emotions and the sooner the better.”

Yipper shook his head. “Emo-dampers are delicate and dangerous. We usually install them just before a new warrior comes out of the incubation pods. A damper installed after the flesh has already knit together is unreliable unless done properly. So it is, so it is.”

“How unreliable?” Garron demanded.

“Only one has been implanted with long term success and that was in one of the Dark Ones—the Enhanced.”

“The Dark Kindred, you mean?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, so they are called by some.” Yipper nodded at the two standing at the bar. “It was in Six, there actually—I did his implant myself. But he came to us as an adolescent, so he did, so he did. You are a fully grown.”

“I only need it to work in times of great stress,” Garron said. “But I need it soon. My name day is coming up and I am in danger of changing into…something else. Something not safe for Tess to be around.” He nodded at her as she took another sip of the foaming green drink.

Yipper frowned, which caused his entire long, furry face to look as thought it was collapsing into itself.

“You will change into something else? This I have never heard of. May I ask what kind of Kindred you are?”

“I am half Raiku,” Garron said, reluctantly, Tess thought.

“A new kind of Kindred!” Yipper clapped his little hands together excitedly. “I knew it! So, I did, so I did! Tell me more of the other half of your heritage, please!”

Garron frowned but complied with the request.

“The Raiku hail from Pax, a planet in the Silverbeam system. The males there turn into ravenous, dangerous creatures called dr’gins. I have such a creature in me and I do not wish to let it out.”

“And emotions bring it closer to the surface? So they do, so they do?” Yipper asked, staring at him intently.

Garron nodded. “Exactly. If I can control my emotions, I should be able to control my dr’gin. Enough to keep it inside, at least during my name day. After that—after the danger is past—I don’t mind feeling again as long as I can control my emotions periodically when they get too strong.”

But Yipper was shaking his furry head.

“You seem to have a misconception, so you do, so you do. An emo-damper is not temporary—nor is it a switch you can turn off and on. Once it is implanted, it is for life. If it is working properly—and I will be certain that it is—you will never feel any kind of emotion again. No, you won’t, no you won’t.”

“What?” He had Tess’s full attention now. “You’re saying it’s permanent—he can never take it out and he’ll never feel anything again? Not hate or joy or sadness or…or love?”

“I am afraid not.” Yipper looked mournful. “A sad life, so it is, so it is. I have always thought so, anyway. Yet many choose it. All of the Enhanced who live below on the surface have chosen so because the Collective demands it. That is why the Dark Ones feel nothing—it is part of being Enhanced. Emotions are a crime, so they are, so they are.”

Tess didn’t know what the Collective was and she didn’t care. She only knew that if Garron went through with getting this emotion-damper implant, he would never feel again. And if he didn’t feel anything for anyone…Go on and say it—admit it, whispered the little voice in her brain. If he doesn’t feel anything for anyone he’s not going to care about you. Is he now, sweetheart?

“Garron,” she said, turning to him. “This is awful. You can’t go through with it!”

“I must.” He didn’t look very happy about it but there was an expression of determination stamped on his strong features. “There’s no other way.”

“There has to be!” Tess objected. “You can’t give up feeling anything ever again just because you’re worried about one single day! Go off on your own on that day—on your name day. Let whatever happens, happen.”

“You don’t understand.” His voice was low and intense. “You cannot because I haven’t fully explained.”

“Perhaps you would like some privacy?” Yipper asked tactfully. “May I show you to a guest room? You can talk about it, so you can, so you can. I will prepare the implant just in case and you can let me know your decision in the morning.”

“That sounds good,” Tess said quickly. She looked at Garron. “Is that okay with you?”

“Well…” He frowned. “The way my emotions have been fluctuating lately…”

“If your dr’gin starts coming out, I’ll help put him back in the box,” Tess promised quickly. “Please, Garron, just take a night to sleep on it. This is a big decision—it will affect the rest of your life.”

He sighed and looked at Yipper. “All right. Show us to the guest rooms then.”

“Very good, very good.” The Tolleg nodded and scrambled nimbly off his barstool. “Follow me, follow me.”

He led them out of the bar, taking a different route than the glass tube that had brought them there. As they left, Tess threw one last glance over her shoulder at the Dark Kindred sitting at the bar. As if he felt her eyes on her, the one Yipper had called Six, turned to stare back.

Tess dropped her eyes quickly. But she couldn’t help imagining Garron looking at her with that same, cold, impassive glare. She shivered. He couldn’t do that to himself—couldn’t give up all his emotions.

Could he?


Chapter Twenty-nine

 

“Okay, can you please explain to me why you feel like you have to get this done?” Tess asked, the moment they were alone in the vast guest room decorated in silver and blue wall hangings. “I mean, I know it’s not really my business but you brought me here with you and I thought…thought maybe there was something between us.”

“There is,” Garron said in a low voice. “For me, anyway. I wasn’t sure how you felt.”

“How could you not be sure?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips. “After the way you touched me the other night? The way you made me…” She broke off, a deep blush spreading over her pale cheeks. “I mean, I just…I wouldn’t have told you what I told you or let you…do what you did if I didn’t feel for you.”

“I feel for you too, lin’del. Too much.” Garron sank down on the side of the large sleeping platform and put his head in his hands. He could feel his dr’gin rising with the strong emotions this conversation was bringing up and he had to will it back down by force. “Much too much. Which is why this is so damn hard.”

“Why do it, then?” she demanded. “Why not just come back home with me—back to Earth—and go up in the mountains on your name day. Let your dr’gin come out if it wants to. Run around and hunt some deer or whatever and then come back once it’s all tired out and you’re ready to change back.”

“I wish it was that simple.” Garron took a deep breath, struggling with his dr’gin. “I truly wish it was, but it’s not.”

“Why not?” Tess asked. “Please tell me—I really want to know. Because if you do this, Garron, if you take this implant, then that’s it. It won’t matter if I feel for you because you won’t feel for me anymore. You’ll look at me the way that Six guy did—like I was a bug you wouldn’t mind squashing.”

“No, I won’t!” Garron rose and began to pace around the room. “I could never look at you like that—never be so heartless.”

“Of course you could—if you have no feelings!”

Tess was looking more and more upset. The sharp scent of her worry and anxiety caused his dr’gin to shift restlessly within him. Their female was in danger, it informed Garron. Something had to be done—she had to be calmed, protected.

I’m trying, Garron told it grimly. Settle down. Be still!

“Is it Nella?” Tess asked in a low voice. “Do you want to have your emotions eradicated so you can keep the vow you made to remember her?”

“No!” Garron ran both hands through his hair in frustration. “No, she’s gone and she is never coming back. You’re here—right here with me—and yet I cannot have you. I was stupid to ever think I could.”

“Yes, you can.” Tess came to him and put a hand on his arm. She looked earnestly into his eyes. “You can, Garron. Look, I know I have a lot of baggage. I have a crazy ex who wants to kill me and anyone I’m with and I’m not really great at sex and I’m not exactly skinny—”

“You think I care about any of that?” he demanded. Taking her by the shoulders, he looked into her eyes. “I care for you, Tess. You’re perfect, just the way you are. More than perfect…” He let his eyes roam over her lush curves longingly. “It’s me that has the problem—not you.”

“Oh sure. ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’ That’s classic,” she said bitterly. “That’s not very original, Garron. I thought you were different but I guess guys are the same all over, no matter what galaxy they come from.”

“I’m not trying to put you off, I’m being honest with you! You wouldn’t want to be with me anyway—I could never bond you to me permanently as a Kindred male is supposed to do with his mate.”

“What is ‘bonding’ anyway? What does it mean? Because I have to tell you, Garron, it sounds like an excuse.”

“Bonding or bonding sex, is different for every kind of Kindred,” he explained. “When it happens, it binds the male and female together in an unbreakable bond. They can hear each other’s mental voices and sometimes feel each other’s emotions.”

“That sounds…intense,” Tess said. “But what does it have to do with us?”

“A Rai’ku Kindred can only bond with his female after he has had his first transformation,” he explained. “And since I don’t dare to let my dr’gin out, even once—”

“But why not?” she demanded. “If it’s just the first time that it’s a problem, there ought to be some way around it. Some way to—”

“The reason I can’t be with you—the reason I can’t risk the transformation…” Garron couldn’t help himself—his voice rose from a whisper to a roar. “Is that I don’t want to kill you!”

“What?” She backed away from him and he let her go. “What did you say?”

“You heard me,” Garron growled. “If my dr’gin comes out, someone will die. Most likely you, if you’re near me. I can’t risk that—I won’t.”

“Come on now…” Her voice was shaking but she looked at him defiantly. “You don’t really mean you’d kill me when you changed?”

“Kill you and eat you.” He hated to put it in such stark terms but he saw no other way to get the urgency of the situation across to her.

“I’m sorry—what?” Tess still had a look of incomprehension on her face. She still didn’t understand—maybe she didn’t want to understand. Who could blame her?

“Nella,” Garron said, trying to make it clearer. “You never asked me how she died.”

“How…?”

“She was killed. By my own brother just after his transformation.” He ran a hand through his hair. “You see, when a dr’gin first comes out, it’s nothing but a mindless beast, bent on satiating its appetites. It eats the first person it sees—preferably an unmated female. Nella was one of the virgins gathered for my younger brother’s first transformation…and she was unlucky enough to be chosen as a sacrifice to his hunger.”

Tess’s face was white. “So you’re saying…”

“I’m saying that unless you wish to be devoured, you need to let me do this. Let me get the emotion damper. Or I will kill and eat either you or whoever else is at hand the moment I change. The moment I let the dr’gin out. Or the moment it comes out on its own because I can’t stop it anymore.”

He could feel it rising in him again, even as he spoke. He pushed it back down with an effort.

“I…” Tess seemed to be trying to deal with what he’d told her. “All right, that’s…that’s pretty bad. But couldn’t you just kill a deer or a cow or something like that?”

“The dr’gin demands sentient flesh,” he said grimly. “It will only eat a thinking, self-aware creature.” Gods, he hated telling her this—hated painting himself as a monster. But it was what he was—what he harbored within himself. There could be no lying about it, no pretending it wasn’t true.

“So if you turn…someone has to die.”

“Yes.” He nodded wearily. “And that someone would probably be you. I could not bear that, Tess. Please…”

“Oh, Garron…” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears. “I…I don’t know what to say. I guess…I didn’t understand before.”

“I know you didn’t,” he said heavily. “Because I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to tell you. Didn’t want you to know the worst.”

He turned away from her then, expecting her to turn away as well. She would probably leave him now—ask for another room. Maybe one with a viewscreen so she could call the Kindred Mother Ship and ask for someone else—someone safe—to take her home. She—

His dark thoughts were interrupted by the feel of her arms around his waist and her soft cheek pressed against his back.

“Tess?” He turned uncertainly in her embrace, bringing her into his arms. “You shouldn’t. It isn’t safe.”

“I don’t care.” She pulled closer and pressed her face against his chest.

Garron knew he shouldn’t touch her—his dr’gin was dangerously close to the surface—closer than ever before. But as it always did, her soft touch seemed to calm the beast within. Not enough to keep it from coming out forever as he had once hoped, but enough for now, it seemed.

“Lin’del,” he whispered roughly. Somehow his hands found their way into her long, dark red hair and he was tilting her chin up. She stood on her tiptoes, reaching up to him and he bent to cover her mouth, knowing it was wrong but unable to help himself. Unable to do anything but taste her sweet lips one last time.

* * * * *

“I want you,” Tess breathed when the kiss broke at last. “Please, Garron. If you have to do this—if you have to get the damn emotion blocker—then I want you while you still want me.”

“I thought you were frightened.” He studied her face intently.

“Not of you. Not anymore,” Tess whispered. “After last night…” She felt her cheeks grow hot as she remembered the gentle way he had touched her and made her come. Making love with Garron would be nothing like having sex with Pierce, she was certain. He wouldn’t expect her to lie still and pretend to feel nothing. She could move and moan and enjoy herself without fear of reprisal.

And she could make love with the big Kindred. She needed that—needed the memory of him wanting her—of them wanting each other—before it wasn’t possible anymore.

“I want you,” she repeated softly. “Now—before it’s too late.”

“I want you too—so damn much,” he growled softly, his eyes glowing. “But I don’t know if I should take you—not completely.”

“Why not?” Tess couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

“Touching you seems to calm my dr’gin. But actually taking you…I’m afraid it might have the opposite effect. It might be too much.” He stroked a strand of hair away from her face. “I’m sorry but I don’t want to take that chance.”

“All right.” Tess nuzzled her cheek against his big palm, loving the warmth of his hand. “But we can still hold each other. I want to be with you, Garron. I want to touch you again…and feel you touch me.”

A soft growl rose in his throat.

“I want that too.”

Suddenly they were ripping off each other’s clothes in a near frenzy. Garron pulled off his shirt and Tess stood on her tiptoes to kiss him as she worked on the fastenings of his black leather flight trousers. He tugged off her jeans, kissing her back hungrily.

Tess buried her hands in his hair and licked at his lips, asking for entry. He opened for her eagerly and she sucked his tongue into her mouth, loving the taste of him. There was a faint trace of the sweet, fizzing drink they’d had at the bar but mostly he tasted of heat and that delicious, almost-cinnamon spice that was just purely him.

“Gods, your mouth is so sweet,” he murmured, when the kiss broke at last. “I want to taste you some more. Want to taste all of you tonight.”

“Umm…” Tess suddenly felt nervous. But before she could answer him, he swung her up into his massive arms and carried her to the bed which sort of looked like a big silvery-blue bean bag.

He deposited her gently in the center of the vast structure—clearly they were used to having Kindred guests here—and joined her after he finished stripping off his leathers.

Garron was completely naked now but Tess was still wearing her blue button down shirt with her bra and panties. He went to work on the buttons but he had slowed down some. Rather than just ripping them open as she half expected, he undid each one slowly, taking the time to place a hot, sweet kiss on each bit of her skin he uncovered.

She moaned breathlessly as he kissed the top of her chest…the valley between her breasts…the spot right above her belly button… And then his mouth landed at the waistband of her pale blue panties. His lips were soft and his hot breath blew across her mound, sending a shiver through her entire body.

“Oh!” Tess jumped and that little voice in her head—the one that had been silent during everything else—suddenly spoke up. Stop…wrong…dangerous…

She froze, clamping her thighs together involuntarily before he could go any lower.

“Tess? Lin’del?” He looked up at her questioningly. “What’s wrong? I thought you weren’t afraid anymore?”

“I’m not. Of…of most things.” She propped herself up on her elbows, still keeping her knees firmly together. “I’m sorry, I just…this…the idea of you kissing me there makes me really, um, uncomfortable.”

“Why?” His eyes were blazing but his voice was soft. He stroked one long finger over her knee, making her shiver again. “You know I love your taste.”

“I…I know…” She hesitated, nibbling at her lower lip while her heart pounded. Should she tell him?

Garron inhaled deeply and then gave her an intense, half-lidded look.

“I can smell your desire, lin’del. Part of you wants this. What’s holding you back?”

Tess sighed. “Just…a bad memory I suppose. Look.” She sat up all the way and parted her thighs. “See this?” She pointed to the small, white scar on her inner thigh, right below her panty line. It was shaped like a double crescent—almost an oval marking her flesh.

“I noticed it the first time I saw you. Back when I thought you were a Pairing Puppet.” Garron stroked the scar gently with his fingertip and Tess closed her thighs again, moving away from his touch. He didn’t comment on the way she’d inched away from him. “What happened there?” he murmured, raising his eyes to hers.

Tess took a deep breath. God, it was hard to tell this. No harder than what she’d told the night before but still…it was an old pain she would have rather kept buried.

“It happened on my honeymoon—right after Pierce and I got married,” she said, looking down at the silvery blue bedcovering. “Someone had given us a copy of The Joy of Sex as a joke. It’s a book about different sexual positions,” she explained, when Garron frowned uncertainly. “Anyway, I guess whoever gave it to us thought they were being funny but they outlined some stuff in it—mostly the, uh, chapter on, uh…going down.”

“The male tasting his female, you mean?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Uh-huh.” Tess nodded, plucking aimlessly at the bedcovering. “Pierce saw it and acted like he…well, he acted like he liked it. Like he really wanted to do it. I never…” She cleared her throat. “Never really had a guy, you know, do that to me much. I mean, I had a boyfriend in college but we never…he didn’t express interest in that, so…”

“But Pierce did?” He frowned.

“Yeah but it turned out he just…wanted to teach me a lesson.” Tess squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she could forget. “He got me all relaxed, just like the book said. He was, um, stroking my thighs and saying things like, ‘Is this what you want? Is this how you like it?’ I…I hadn’t been with him long. And up until we were married he was still…I guess still trying to keep his true nature under wraps.”

“Because you never would have committed yourself to such a male if he had shown you his true self.” Garron’s voice was a low, dangerous growl.

“Right.” Tess swallowed hard. “Anyway…he had me all…all open and…and vulnerable. And then he just…”

“Just what?” His eyes were glowing again, the rage bubbling just under the surface.

“He bit me,” Tess said flatly. “Really hard. Hard enough to draw blood.”

“Hard enough to leave a scar.” Garron’s deep voice was hoarse. “Gods, how could he?”

Tess shrugged unhappily. “Like I said, he was teaching me a lesson—his kind of lesson.”

“What did he think he could teach by hurting you so? By savaging you?” Garron’s deep voice sounded strangled, as though he was trying to control his anger. “The bastard,” he growled.

“He told me only whores and sluts wanted…that done to them. He said I was disgusting to even let him get his face anywhere near my…down there.” Tess could feel her cheeks heating with a miserable, embarrassed blush but she couldn’t help it. “I…bled for the rest of our honeymoon but what hurt more than the pain was the sense of…of betrayal. I couldn’t believe I had married a man who could be so cruel.” A jagged little laugh escaped her. “Of course later, I found out how much worse he could be. But that was the first time. My first clue. God…” She put a hand over her face. “I should have gotten out right then. Why didn’t I?”

“You didn’t want to believe it. Didn’t want to believe he was a monster.” Garron pulled her hand gently from her face and lifted her chin. “Tess, you don’t have to be ashamed to tell me this.”

“I can’t help it.” She ran a hand through her hair. “He just…made me feel so dirty. So…unworthy of love. Especially…that kind of love.” She looked at him pleadingly. “I’m really sorry but you understand, don’t you? Why I can’t let you…do that.”

“I understand your ex-mate was a sadistic bastard.” He sighed and shook his head. “We have to stop talking about him. It makes me too angry—brings the dr’gin too close to the surface.”

“I’m sorry,” Tess said at once. “I shouldn’t have told you.”

“No, I wanted to know.” He put one large, warm hand on her arm. “Can I see it again? The scar?”

“I…guess so.” Reluctantly, Tess unlocked her legs and opened them until the white, crescent shaped scar on her inner thigh was visible. Garron studied it, being careful not to touch, and Tess looked too, even though she didn’t want to. Looking at it too closely seemed to bring back the awful night she’d gotten it.

She could still remember everything—the sudden, bright pain she had been totally unprepared for because she had been anticipating only pleasure. Her utter disbelief and horror when Pierce’s teeth had locked into her flesh…the way she had screamed and writhed and begged, trying to push him off. And somehow worst of all, his angry, bloody grin when he finally let go and looked up at her.

“That’s what you get, Princess! For wanting to be a little whore. For acting like a dirty slut. That’s right—that’s what you are—just a dirty slut. I would never put my face between your filthy whore legs. You’re lucky I put my cock there!”

“Tess…” Garron’s voice called her back and she looked up at him.

“Yes?”

“Don’t,” he murmured. He cupped her cheek and brushed away a tear that had escaped down her cheek with his thumb. “Don’t think about it. About him.”

“I’m trying not to but it’s hard. I’m sorry.” Tess sniffed, her eyes burning, and started to close her legs again. Garron stopped her with a hand on her knee.

“Please don’t. Can I…” He looked at her, his eyes glowing softly. “Can I kiss you there? On your scar? If I promise to be very, very gentle?”

She shook her head. “I’m just…I’m not sure why you’d want to.”

“I want to heal you…or at least try to,” he murmured.

“But…isn’t the scar too old?”

“This isn’t the only scar you bear.” He touched the white crescent lightly. Tess jumped a little but didn’t move away this time. “I just… I want to try and erase his mark on you. If not physically, then in other ways.”

“Oh Garron, honey…” The sincerity in his eyes made Tess feel like she was melting inside. Against her better judgment, she felt the fist of tension that had been building in the pit of her stomach from the first time his lips had brushed too near her panties, begin to loosen.

“Please?” he murmured, stroking the top of her thigh. “You know I’ll never hurt you, Tess.”

“I…all right.” Tess’s heart was beating hard as she leaned back against the silver-blue beanbag bed. It seemed to adapt to her movements, cradling her in a semi-upright position so she could see what was going on. Tess supposed that was best. She felt more in control, less vulnerable like this. She still didn’t fully understand why it was so important to Garron to be allowed to kiss the old hurt but if he really wanted to, she found it easier to relax this way.

The big Kindred was also getting into position. As the beanbag bed helped Tess stay upright, it seemed to support him as he got to his knees in front of her.

Tess felt her heart stutter in her chest as he placed one big hand on the inside of her knee, urging her to let her legs fall open. She complied—halfway. Bending her right knee, she let it fall to one side, exposing the ugly little scar.

“Oh, lin’del,” he murmured softly. Then gently, almost reverently, he leaned down and pressed his lips to the white crescent stamped on her skin.

Tess felt her breath catch in her throat as the soft heat of his mouth met her tender flesh. Though she knew Garron was nothing like Pierce, part of her was clenched up inside—waiting for the pain that was sure to come.

But there was no pain. Only the warm, wet sensation of his tongue stroking over her inner thigh, tracing the scar over and over as though he was trying to erase it.

Tess’s heart started beating faster and this time it wasn’t fear that caused it.

“I, um, don’t think you can, you know, get rid of it the way you did the other marks. The ones on my back,” she said, shifting a little. “If…if that’s what you’re trying to do.”

“I’m not,” he murmured, looking up. “I’m just enjoying your taste…the feel of your skin…” He nuzzled her gently with his cheek. “You’re so soft here. So lovely.”

“I…” Tess’s mouth was suddenly too dry to speak.

“Can I kiss you a little higher? Maybe…here?” His fingers brushed lightly over her mound, sending a sudden flash of heat through her. “You don’t have to take these off if you don’t want to,” he added, motioning to her light blue panties.

“I…um…” Part of her was still fearful. But Garron was so gentle…so tender. And his hand, which had come to rest naturally on her inner thigh, was so warm. “All right,” she whispered at last. “I guess so. As long…as long as I don’t have to take off my, um, panties.”

“Leave them on as long as you want to.” His voice was a soft, deep growl. He bent his head to her again and Tess waited to feel his lips brush the thin, silky material that covered her mound. To her surprise, he pressed his cheek to her first, rubbing against her almost like a cat, and then inhaled deeply.

“Um, Garron?” she asked uncertainly, her heart thumping.

“You smell so good here.” He looked up, his eyes half-lidded and blazing with desire. “Gods, your scent…it’s like a drug. I can’t get enough of it…enough of you.” He inhaled again and then pressed his lips gently to the top of her mound.

Tess’s stomach quivered as she felt his hot breath blowing through the thin, silky material to bathe her pussy. She was uncomfortably aware that this was making her hot—more than hot. She could feel herself getting wet and swollen under the panties and she wondered if Garron could smell her desire. Judging from the rapt look on his face, it was entirely possible.

It was still hard to believe that he wanted to do this so badly—that he wanted to put his lips, his mouth, directly between her legs. Ever since Pierce had hurt her, Tess had thought that all men felt like her ex did. That even the ones too nice to say it secretly thought women were unclean, unworthy of such an intimate expression of love and affection. But this clearly wasn’t the case with Garron.

He looked up at her, his eyes burning with pleasure and need.

“Gods, your little pussy is so soft and hot. Can I kiss you lower?”

“Um…” Tess felt like she couldn’t get a deep enough breath. “How…how much lower? Show me?”

“Here.” One long finger ran gently down the center of her panties, tracing her pussy slit. Tess moaned when it bumped over her clit. God, how could it be that this act—the one she had feared and tried so hard not to think of—was turning her on? And yet, it was. She could feel herself opening under the blue silk panties, could feel her pussy lips spreading like a flower desperate for light.

“I…I guess so,” she whispered.

He ducked his head again and nuzzled between her legs. This time Tess could swear she felt his tongue, hot and wet, as it traced her slit through her panties. She moaned and jumped a little, fisting her hands in the bedcovering on either side of her.

Garron looked up at once.

“Are you all right? Did I scare you?”

“No, you…just startled me. That’s all,” Tess assured him. “Are you…are you finished?”

“Do you want me to be finished?” he murmured, raising an eyebrow.

“I…I don’t know,” she confessed. “This is…it’s still kind of scary. But…it feels good too.”

“I want to make you feel good. I want to taste you—so much.” He placed a gentle kiss on the inside of her thigh. “I could do it through the panties if you’re still nervous…” He captured her gaze with his, looking at her intently. “But I’d rather kiss and taste your bare pussy…if you think you could let me.”

“I…” Tess’s heart was pounding so hard she was sure he could hear it. She certainly could, anyway—it thundered in her ears so loudly she could barely think.

Don’t, whispered the cautious little voice in her head. Don’t, it’s a trap! It’s dangerous…

Garron is not Pierce, answered another voice—the voice of Tess BP. He’s gentle and kind and he seems to really, really want to do this. Let him. Take a chance.

“Tess?” the big Kindred asked and she realized she’d waited too long to answer.

“You…” She cleared her throat. “You really want to do this?”

“Gods, you have no idea how much.” His eyes blazed. “From the moment I first saw you—from the moment I first smelled your sweet scent—I’ve longed to taste it from the source.” He stroked her knee. “But we can go slowly…so slowly, lin’del. I can just kiss you at first, if you like.”

“I…” Somehow Tess found she was nodding her head. “All right,” she whispered at last. “Slowly.”

“Slowly,” he promised. And then he was hooking his fingers into the sides of her panties and drawing them down her thighs and over her legs.

Tess’s first instinct when the panties were gone was to close her thighs again. But Garron coaxed them open, caressing her with long, gentle strokes of his big hands, murmuring how beautiful she was and how much he wanted to see her.

At last she felt herself loosening up again. She let both knees fall open and, for the first time, let him all the way in.

“Mmm, lin’del…” His voice was hoarse with desire as he stroked her inner thighs, his gaze roving hungrily over her softly rounded mound. Tess was glad she kept it neatly trimmed and a little discomforted by the fact that she was already so hot and wet though he hadn’t even touched her bare pussy yet. Her outer lips were puffy with need and the pink pearl of her clit was on display, peaking boldly out from her inner folds as though it wanted to be kissed…as though it wanted to be licked…

Tess felt both embarrassed and hot—put on private display just for him. She had expected him to dive right in and start kissing her right away but he seemed content just to look at first, to drink her in as he continued to caress her thighs.

“Um…Garron?” she asked at last.

He looked up from his rapt contemplation.

“You’re so beautiful, Tess. And you honor me so greatly with your trust. I swear I won’t betray it.” He looked at her earnestly. “I will never hurt you. Never be rough with you.”

“I…I know you won’t,” she whispered breathlessly.

“Your soft little cunt is so luscious, so sweet…” He traced her slit gently with one fingertip and Tess moaned as he slid over the sensitive bump of her clit. Garron licked her juices from his finger and looked at her. “Delicious. You deserve to be worshiped with reverence and gentleness. Deserve to be pleasured over and over until you give up your honey and come for me.”

Keeping his eyes locked with hers, he lowered his head and kissed her tenderly, fitting his lips to her pussy almost as though he was kissing her mouth.

Tess felt the breath fall out of her in a long, slow sigh as she felt the warm, wet heat of his mouth against her most sensitive area.

“Oh…” she whispered and somehow one of her hands had found its way into his thick, black hair. “Garron, I…”

“I want to kiss you deeper.” His eyes were glowing with need. “Can I spread you open, Tess? Will you let me kiss your inner cunt?”

“I…” She could deny him nothing now. Looking down, watching how his broad shoulders split her wide, seeing his dark head between her thighs was too much. “All right,” she whispered. “Yes…yes, you can.”

“Good.” Gently he bracketed her wet pussy with his big hands. Tess bit back a moan as he spread her open with his thumbs, revealing the slippery inner folds of her cunt and the pink bud of her clit. Then he bent his head to kiss her again.

She couldn’t help moaning this time as his mouth met her open pussy. She could feel him kissing, gently but more insistently, kissing and then licking her inner cunt, bathing her petals with his hot tongue, pressing deeper and deeper as though he couldn’t get enough.

“Garron…” she gasped breathlessly, her hand fisting in his hair as shocks of pleasure coursed through her. “Oh, God…that feels…feels so good.”

“And you taste so good.” He licked her again, using the flat of his tongue to slide from the bottom of her slit up to the top, as though she was an ice cream in danger of melting. “So sweet and salty…” His eyes were half-lidded with lust. “But I want to taste the source of your honey, lin’del. Want to put my tongue inside you. Deep inside you.”

“Oh, uh…” Tess bit her lip, her heart pounding. “All…all right,” she whispered. “If…if you want to.”

“I need to.” It was almost a growl. And then he was wrapping his massive arms around her thighs and spreading her even wider, tilting her pelvis up so he could penetrate her more easily.

Tess gasped in surprise but though she was still a little wary, the fear that had haunted her from that awful first night of her honeymoon with Pierce was now gone—erased by Garron’s gentle but intense kisses.

It occurred to her that even before Pierce had bitten her, she’d had a sense that her ex wasn’t really into the oral thing. She’d thought at first that he was just doing something he thought he ought to do, in order to be romantic. Of course after the bite, she realized he’d had a much more sadistic motivation. But even if he hadn’t been so cruel, she was certain he would never have enjoyed her body the way Garron was currently enjoying it.

Because it was clear the big Kindred was completely into this. That he was fulfilling some fantasy he’d had for years—maybe most of his life. The way his eyes blazed with desire and the way he rubbed his cheek against her open pussy, bathing in her scent, made it obvious he wanted this—that he wanted her badly. The hot way he explored her pussy, mapping her secret flesh with long, hungry licks and then sucked her clit into his mouth to torture it sweetly with the tip of his tongue made it clear he loved what he was doing.

Tess moaned again as she felt him swirl his tongue around the tender bud of her clit. The way he was tasting her was sending shivers and shocks all though her body. She could feel her nipples getting hard and a wire of pleasure was beginning to tighten in her lower belly. The attention he was paying her pussy seemed to make her wetter and wetter—the more he licked her, the more her juices overflowed.

Garron seemed to love it.

“That’s right, lin’del,” he murmured hoarsely, licking her again. “Give up your cunt honey, spread your pussy and let me taste it right from the source.”

“Yes…” Tess whispered as he tilted her pelvis up and traced a path with his tongue down to her quivering entrance. “Yes, all right…God, yes.” Her muscles were tight with anticipation and yet she felt so supple in his hands…so right. It was almost as if she flowed to him as naturally as water running downhill. Her whole body seemed to yearn for him…to trust him…to want to give him whatever he wanted.

Garron seemed to feel her need…her trust in the way she moved beneath his hands and mouth.

“That’s right, relax…” His eyes captured hers with an intensity that made her heart pound and he stroked her thighs gently. “Relax and let me make you come, lin’del…come so hard against my tongue.”

“I…I’ll try,” Tess whispered and then he was bending his mouth to her once more, intent on penetrating her, on owning her completely.

There was no way to keep her hands from fisting in his hair as he plunged his tongue deep in her pussy. No way to stop the breathless moans that broke from her lips as he pressed against her, burying his face between her legs to get his tongue as deeply into her as he could, to taste her to the core.

“Ah…ah!” Tess found her hips were bucking up to meet his thrusts and then she felt something else—the broad pad of his thumb had somehow come to rest between her pussy lips, right beside her sensitive clit.

As he tonguefucked her, Garron slid his thumb around her clit, circling the little button, swollen with need, while his tongue thrust deeper and deeper inside her, as though he was reaching for her very soul.

“Oh…Oh, please!” Tess gasped and arched up to meet him, pulling his hair, scratching his broad shoulders, losing herself completely as the pleasure of his mouth on her pussy finally crested. Deep in her lower belly the wire that had been winding tighter and tighter finally snapped. She cried out, her hips thrusting helplessly as bright sparks danced in her vision. Her toes curled and every muscle in her body seemed to tense at once as the orgasm washed over her, taking her to a peak higher than any she’d ever been to before.

“Garron!” she heard herself calling as her back arched. “Oh…oh, God, Garron!”

He rode out her orgasm, his arms wrapped around her thighs, his tongue pressing even deeper into her well, lapping away her juices eagerly as she came…came so hard she saw stars. Only when her tremors and moans subsided did he finally lift his head.

“Tess,” he growled softly and licked his lips. “Gods, your honey is sweet.”

“Show me.” She held out her arms for him, wanting him above her, on top of her. Wanting to feel the weight of his big body covering hers, holding her.

Garron came to her at once. He took her mouth in a hungry kiss and Tess moaned in pleasure at the taste of her own secret juices on his lips. God, he felt good against her! She could feel the hot steel of his cock branding her belly, making her wish he was lower…deeper.

Then at least part of her wish was granted. He shifted and the thick shaft slipped between her wet, open pussy lips, coming to settle against the throbbing button of her clit.

Tess couldn’t help herself—she had never wanted anyone more than she wanted him at that moment. Wrapping her legs around his trim waist, she pulled him down, grinding against him shamelessly, letting him know exactly how much she wanted him.

“Gods…” His low groan was pained. “Tess, we shouldn’t…it’s not safe. I want you too damn much…”

“I want you, too. Now.” Reaching between them, she captured his long, velvety hot shaft in her hand. Daring to act on the impulse, she fitted the broad, plum shaped head of his cock to her entrance and pushed up with her hips.

They both groaned as he sank halfway into her, his thick cock stretching her to the limit. Tess thought she had never felt so full and he was only halfway into her. What would it feel like when he finally touched bottom inside her?

She was eager to find out…but it was not to be.

With a low, frustrated moan, Garron suddenly pulled completely out of her and rolled over. He sat up on the side of the bed and buried his face in his hands.

“Garron? Honey?” Tess sat up beside him and put a hand on his broad, bare shoulder.

“Don’t!” He twitched away from her.

Tess drew away, hurt.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m the one who’s sorry.” He turned his head to look at her and she thought she had never seen such a pain-filled expression.

“Garron?” she whispered.

“We can’t,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, lin’del. Please try to understand. I want to—I want you more than any female I’ve ever been with. But I can’t…can’t risk it.”

“I understand,” Tess said in a low voice.

“I don’t think you do. The dr’gin is so close right now…” He put a hand to his broad chest, as though he could push the thing down, keep it inside himself purely by the force of will.

“Was it…what we were doing, was it making it worse?”

“Yes.” Garron sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s the strong emotions bringing it up. The way I want you, the way I need you, the way I lo…” He cleared his throat and looked away. “The way I care for you. It’s too much. Too close. We can’t take the risk, Tess. We just can’t.”

“You’re right. We can’t.” She couldn’t help the wave of disappointment that rushed through her but she tried to mask it. Had he really been about to say that he loved her? And did she feel the same for him?

Doesn’t matter if you do, whispered a nasty little voice in her head. He’s going to be emotionless starting tomorrow. What does it matter if you fall for him and he falls for you if he can’t remember how he feels once he gets the implant put in?

It was a very true, if a rather depressing thought.

Garron started to get up.

“Hey…” She put a hand on his wrist. “Where are you going?”

“I should go. I’m not fit for you to be around right now. Not safe to be around.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Tess said softly.

“You should be,” he said darkly. “You would be if you’d ever seen a dr’gin in the flesh.”

“I’d still know it was you.” She stroked his arm. “Look, we don’t have to make love. Just hold me. This is…” She cleared her throat. “This is the last night you’ll want to, probably. So please, if you can stand it…”

“If I can stand it?” He gave a harsh, jagged laugh. “It’s all I want. Just to be close to you.”

“Then come on.” She scooted up to the head of the bed and rolled on her side. “Spoon me.”

“Spoon? What does that mean?”

“I’ll show you. Come on.” She got him into position and sighed as the massive warm wall of his chest came flush with her back. For such a big, muscular guy he made an amazingly good pillow. She snuggled back against him, trying to ignore the way his still semi-hard shaft was pressing against her ass. “This is nice. I’m going to miss this.”

“Just because I’ll lose my emotions doesn’t mean I will abandon my promises to you,” Garron said softly. “Your safety will still be my first priority. And I will avenge you—I swear that to you, Tess.”

Suddenly her eyes were burning and she had to swallow back tears.

“Look, I know you only have good intentions, talking like that, but it’s making me feel worse. Could you just…just hold me tonight? Would that be all right?”

“More than all right,” he murmured and she felt the soft brush of his lips in her hair as he kissed her. “I just wish I could offer you more than tonight.”

“I wish you could, too,” Tess said and then the tears came and there was no way to stop them.

Garron held her tighter and buried her face in her hair.

“Gods,” he whispered fiercely. “I’ve never hated what I am more than I do right now. Tess, if there was any other way…”

“But there’s not.” She turned over and pressed her face to his chest. “There’s not. So stop talking about it and just hold me.”

“All right.” He stroked her back gently.

Tess pressed against him and cried herself to sleep in his arms, knowing she would never be held in them again.


Chapter Thirty

 

“So you’ve decided to get the emo-damper, so you have, so you have?” Yipper looked at him hopefully.

“Yes,” Garron said heavily. “It seems I have no choice.”

Tess said nothing.

They were standing in Yipper’s Enhancement Area, a large, white room on the third floor of the medical barge filled with racks and rows of all kinds of bio-mechanical equipment. Garron saw robotic extremities—from small things like fingers, hands and feet all the way up to entire arms and legs. There were many different ocular mounts, artificial acoustic ear enhancements, even nasal plugs that he supposed greatly increased the sense of smell.

Not that he needed any help in that area—he could smell everything. The metallic scent of the robotic parts, the sterile cleanliness of the room, Yipper’s aroma, a bit like an old rug that had been stepped on with muddy boots.

But more than anything else he smelled Tess—smelled her sorrow and disappointment which hung in the air around him like the aroma of dying flowers. Though she was keeping her face carefully blank this morning, that scent said everything to Garron. It said she felt like he was leaving her, abandoning anything that was or could ever be between them.

Which is exactly what I’m doing. But what the seven hells else can I do? Better to lose her forever than let the dr’gin out to devour her! I can’t risk it—I can’t!

Even now he could feel the dr’gin trying to force its way out of him. He was holding it in check—just barely. But he had the same feeling you get when you’re sick or drunk and know you’re going to throw up. You know it’s going to happen eventually—it’s just a question of when.

Garron already knew the answer. His name day was tomorrow. If he didn’t get the implant today—right now—by tomorrow he would be a murderer. And the person he would most likely kill was the one he had sworn never to hurt. The one he loved.

Because he did love her—so damn much. So much it hurt—burned inside him like a fire that refused to be quenched. Stupid, he told himself angrily. Stupid to let yourself love her, to let yourself feel so much so quickly. You haven’t even known her that long.

But he’d known her long enough. Long enough to know she was the female he wanted to spend his life with. Not that any of that mattered now. Once he was rendered an emotionless robot like the Dark Kindred, nothing would ever matter again.

“Very good, very good,” Yipper said, rubbing his long, hairy fingers together. “Let me see—I was working on the implant last night. Strengthening it just for you…”

“Is it that hard to implant in a grown male?” Garron asked, frowning.

“It’s tricky, yes it is, yes it is.” Yipper nodded. “Mostly because you weren’t grown in an incubation tube, like most of the Enhanced are.”

“But I thought you said the male you implanted successfully with an emotion damper wasn’t grown in a tube?” Garron said.

“He wasn’t. His family died of scarlet plague—yes they did, yes they did. He came to us as an adolescent. At first One, the first emissary of the Collective, simply tolerated him—allowed him to live as best he could scavenging on the barges. But then he went and asked to become one of the Enhanced. He had the necessary DNA and the Kindred background so One allowed him to try an implant—with the understanding that if it failed, he would die, yes he would, yes he would.”

“Die? Will this implant kill Garron if it fails?” Tess demanded, speaking up for the first time. “Because that’s not acceptable! Even if he can’t feel, he has to be safe!”

“I am speaking of Six, not Garron,” Yipper said gently. “A failed implant would mean Six’s death because emotions are forbidden on the planet’s surface where the Collective rules supreme. If he was caught exhibiting signs of feelings he would be summarily executed. Still, it was a risk he was willing to take.”

“I don’t understand,” Garron said, frowning. “Why is having emotions a crime on Zeaga Four?” He asked the question not just because he was curious—he had sworn to Sylvan that he would try to get some background on the strange inhabitants of the mechanized planet. He ought to honor his word. Right—that’s the only reason you’re asking. Not just to put off the implant a little while longer, whispered a cynical little voice in his brain. Garron pushed it aside. “Well?” he asked Yipper.

The Tolleg frowned and scratched one of his long, floppy ears.

“Well, it has to do with the history of Zeaga Four, yes it does, yes it does. You see, it didn’t used to be ruled by the Collective—”

“What is the Collective?” Tess asked, coming to stand beside Garron. She slipped her hand into his as though they were just making casual conversation.

I think I’m not the only one who wants to put this off, Garron thought, entwining her small, soft fingers with his. Just holding her hand made his heart thump painfully but he forced himself to ignore it and concentrate on what Yipper was saying.

“The Collective is the ruling body of mechanoids—they control all aspects of life on Zeaga Four,” the little Tolleg explained. “But they have not always held power. Many centuries ago, the life forms that lived on the surface looked very like the two of you—tall, bipedal, mostly hairless…” He made a face as though this was distasteful. “Anyway, they went to war—the whole planet fighting among themselves, yes they did, yes they did. The lot of them were nearly wiped out. Only the rise of the Collective saved them from going completely extinct.”

“So…the machines took over?” Tess asked, frowning.

“For the good of the planet.” Yipper nodded earnestly. “Yes they did, yes they did. And they determined that the root cause of the problem was the emotions—all the feelings the inhabitants had all the time. So they gave them a choice—eradication of all emotion or extermination.”

“And they chose to lose their emotions rather than die,” Garron said, nodding. “I see.”

“But I thought you said the inhabitants were grown in tubes?” Tess said.

“They are grown in incubation tubes now, of course. Yes they are, yes they are.” Yipper nodded vigorously. “I was speaking of the beginning of the Collective—centuries ago. Back in the beginning, after the eradication of emotion, sexual procreation decreased until the organic inhabitants of Zeaga Four were in danger of dying out. In fact, the females of the species did die out. That is one reason the Kindred were allowed to merge with the society on the surface—they offered fresh DNA and they were willing to give up all emotion, as the Collective demanded.”

“But why?” Tess asked. “I don’t understand why anyone with a choice would choose that.” She didn’t look at Garron as she spoke but he knew she was thinking of him.

“Why, because there were no females to call at that time. No there weren’t, no there weren’t,” Yipper said. “It had been years since a new trade partner had been found and their existing sources for brides had reached saturation levels. So a branch of the Kindred broke off and came here, to Zeaga Four. They declared that if they could not call brides, they wanted to rid themselves of all desire and emotion. So they wouldn’t miss what they could not have, don’t you know, don’t you know?”

“I guess that makes sense.” Garron sighed. “If you can never have the female you crave, I supposed it’s better not to crave her.”

“It’s still pretty hard on the female, though,” Tess snapped.

“Tess…” He squeezed her fingers and she shook her head.

“Never mind, I’m sorry.” Her eyelashes fluttered rapidly, as though she was trying to blink back tears. “So how did the Kindred get rid of their emotions if it’s so hard to implant a grown male?”

“This was centuries ago—the Collective had different technology. In fact, the unit I customized for Garron has been modified using the notes from those first emotion dampers, back when the Kindred first joined the Collective and became Enhanced. I’ve worked quite hard on it, yes I have, yes I have.” He looked proud.

“I’m sure you’ve done an excellent job,” Garron said shortly. “But…” He searched his mind, trying to think of another question—anything to put off the implant. Anything to feel just a little longer for the female at his side.

Tess came to his rescue.

“So the reason you’re performing this, uh, procedure up here instead of down on the surface of Zeaga Four is because no one who has emotions is allowed down there?”

“Well, there are special dispensations that are occasionally handed out—for visiting dignitaries and the like, yes there are, yes there are,” Yipper explained. “But yes, in general the Collective prefers to keep the surface an emotion-free environment. They even have a whole subclass of mechanoids devoted to making sure no feel-crime is committed—the sniffers.”

“Feel-crime? Seriously?” Tess looked skeptical.

Yipper nodded. “Oh yes. But you don’t have to worry about being sanctioned for that up here. Feeling is safe aboard the medical barges. At first, of course, they harbored only the incubation tubes to grow new organic inhabitants for the planet but now there are far too many visitors to expect them to all get emo-dampers.”

“Of course,” Garron murmured. “So you probably don’t implant them much.”

“Except in the tube grown, no,” Yipper said. “Though it was the first enhancement ever offered, back in the beginning. Then, because the organics wished to be able to keep up with the Collective physically, we began offering other enhancements.”

“They certainly seem to have kept up.” Tess shivered and Garron wondered if she was thinking of the two Dark Kindred they had seen in the lounge the night before. “But why do you offer free medical care and enhancements to everyone?” she continued. “And is it really free?”

“It is free in that we only take what our clients would have left behind anyway, yes we do, yes we do,” Yipper explained earnestly. “We get paid in genetic material.”

“Meaning?” Garron raised an eyebrow at him.

“Growing new organics in the tubes requires fresh DNA on a regular basis, lest we fall into a rut by growing mindless idiots, as the Scourge did before their end,” the Tolleg said. “As we work, any blood or tissue left behind is banked—stored for future use.”

“So you mean cloning?” Tess looked horrified.

“No, no—not exactly. We mix the DNA some before we use it. And we never use it in the lifetime of the donor, no we don’t, no we don’t. Maybe a hundred solar years from now there will be an organic male who has some of the same characteristics as Garron, here. He may even look a bit like him. But he will not be exactly like him. Not a true clone, no indeed, no indeed.”

“Even if he was a true clone I doubt he’d look anything like me,” Garron growled. “He’d probably have robotic legs and a metal arm and a camera for an eye or some damn thing like that.”

“It is true that the organics that live on Zeaga Four tend to get many Enhancements, yes they do, yes they do,” Yipper admitted. “Of course, part of that is because the Collective doesn’t allow anyone to visit the surface without some form of enhancement—however minor.”

“Even the visiting dignitaries that are allowed to have emotions?” Tess asked.

The Tolleg nodded. “Even them, even them. The policy tends to…discourage all but the most determined of visitors.”

“I bet it does,” Tess muttered.

“But the law makes perfect sense,” Yipper said earnestly. “For now you can scarcely tell the organic inhabitants from the mechanized ones. The two have almost completely merged—a truly blended society.”

“A blended emotionless society,” Garron muttered bitterly.

“True, true.” The Tolleg nodded again. “But they have no more war on Zeaga Four. No conflict or unhappiness. Everyone knows his place in the Collective’s Rubric. It is a truly harmonious place. Well, except for the purges…”

“The what?” Tess demanded.

“Nothing, nothing,” Yipper said quickly. He looked around the white room as though someone might be listening. “We have spoken enough, yes we have, yes we have. I have, perhaps told you, more than I should. Are you ready for your implant, Kindred?”

“Not quite.” Garron frowned. “I have a few more questions.”

“No more about the Collective or Zeaga Four, no indeed, no indeed,” Yipper said quickly, looking around again.

“Nothing like that,” Garron assured him. “I just want to know exactly what I’m getting into before I let you do this.”

“Let me show you the implant. Truly, it is a work of art—yes it is, yes it is.” Yipper climbed up on a tall white stool to reach something in a long row of cabinets along the wall as he spoke. He searched in several cabinets until at last he seemed to find what he was looking for. He climbed down and turned to Garron, holding something in his hairy little fist.

Tess stared at it mistrustfully when he opened his hand, revealing a long, shiny silver metal tube as long as a finger but as thin as a hair. Attached to the tube was a silver and black button about the size of a fingernail.

“Why does it look like that?” she demanded. “What’s the tube thing for?”

“Basically it is a medication delivery system, yes it is, yes it is,” Yipper explained. “This is the reservoir and production unit…” He touched the black and silver button gently. “It will make a lifetime supply of a powerful emotion damping drug. This is the delivery unit.” He indicated the long silver hair. “It feeds directly into the brain stem to stop emotions at their source. People speak of their ‘heart hurting’ when they fall in love or similar foolish statements. But it is your brain that tells your heart to feel, yes it does, yes it does.”

“Of course it does,” Tess said dully. “But…you’re really going to implant that in Garron’s brain?”

“Only the delivery system. The reservoir will be seated at the back of his neck.”

“But…why couldn’t you just give him less of the drug? Maybe just enough to get through a few days until…”

“Until it wears off. But what happens on my next name day, a year from now? Or even the next time I have any strong emotions?” Garron asked. “What do I do then, Tess? Worry about hurting you all over again?”

“I just wanted…I’m just trying to think of a way…any way at all…” She shook her head. “Never mind.”

“I’m sorry,” he said raggedly. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “More sorry than I can say but I have held back my dr’gin for years—I cannot do it anymore. Not without help. And if I let it out…”

“I understand. I know.” Tess nodded. “I’m sorry, too.”

“I am afraid the unit does not work that way, anyway. No it doesn’t, no it doesn’t,” Yipper said gently. “You see, the reservoir holds enough of the drug for the first day only—that is only until the production unit can start stimulating the enhanced one’s body to begin manufacturing the drug on its own.”

“What? I don’t get it.” Tess frowned.

“It is a difficult concept,” Yipper admitted. “But you see, the genius of the emotion damper’s production unit is that it introduces the drug to the subject’s body which quickly becomes dependant on it. When the reservoir runs dry, the brain is stimulated to make more on its own, using cerebrospinal fluid and the brain’s own chemistry.”

“So basically it gets the patient hooked on the drug and then uses the brain as a chemistry set to make more,” Tess said dryly.

“Essentially, yes.” Yipper nodded. “The emotion dampening drug is constantly produced, stored in the reservoir, and then re-introduced to the brain via the delivery unit. An elegant and self-contained system, you can see, you can see. And one that can never run out of medication because it depends on the brain’s own chemistry to make more.”

“But you said they were prone to failure,” Garron said, frowning. “How would I know if it was failing?”

“Well, you would start feeling again, yes you would, yes you would. But I will make certain that doesn’t happen because it would be a bad thing. Very bad, very bad.” Yipper frowned.

“What? Why?” Tess, drew closer to Garron, holding his arm protectively as though she could shield him from harm with her curvy little body.

“Well, because,” Yipper frowned. “Any emotions you are feeling that are interrupted by the emotion damper would return the moment the unit failed—but three times as strong. It’s called a threefold reactions and honestly, most life forms are not able to withstand such intense emotion, no they aren’t, no they aren’t.”

“That sounds bad.” Garron frowned. He didn’t like the idea of going through the pain and guilt of losing Tess times three. What he was feeling right now was already bad enough—he didn’t need any more. “Can you guarantee it won’t happen to me?” he demanded.

Yipper spread his long, hairy fingers and shrugged. “I can only tell you I am the best at this procedure. I have been doing it for approximately two hundred and forty solar years.”

“What?” Tess demanded. “You’re over two hundred years old?”

“Over three hundred, actually. Yes, I am, yes I am.” Yipper nodded. “Tollegs are a very long lived race. It’s one reason the Collective called us to staff their medical barges. The other reason is that we are the best natural surgeons in the known universe. Yes we are, yes we are.” He nodded his long, furry head proudly.

“Well…” Garron sighed. He could think of no other questions, no other way to stall the procedure. Besides, the dr’gin within him was becoming restless, demanding that he had to come out and soon. He needed to get this done.

The little Tolleg seemed to understand.

“You are ready now, yes you are, yes you are,” he said gently.

“Yes, I guess I am.” Garron squeezed Tess’s fingers one more time. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.

“Me too.” There were tears in her eyes again and his heart ached for the pain he was putting her through.

“I love you, lin’del,” he said roughly. “I know I shouldn’t say it now but I can’t help myself—I want you to know how I feel…”

“Before you don’t feel it anymore,” she finished for him in a choked voice. “I understand.” Standing on tiptoes, she reached up and put her arms around his neck.

Garron bent down, allowing her to pull his face towards hers. Their lips met for what he knew would be the last time so he made it count. Crushing her to him, he made a long, slow, tender exploration of her mouth, memorizing her taste, trying to burn this moment into his memory forever. Tess clung to him, returning the kiss passionately as though she was trying to do the same thing.

“I…I love you too,” she whispered and then the tears in her lovely dark brown eyes overflowed and ran down her pale, porcelain cheeks.

“Very well, I am sorry for your loss but we must get started. Yes we must, yes we must,” Yipper said softly. “I have a bilateral, lower extremity, full replacement-enhancement scheduled after this and it cannot wait. No it can’t, no it can’t.”

“Of course.” Garron released Tess reluctantly. She felt so good in his arms—so right with her lush, full curves pressed against his own larger body. Would he ever get to hold her again? And even if he did, would he care?

Suddenly the emotions of love and loss and sorrow and guilt became too much. He felt his eyes heating, his blood burning as the dr’gin within roared that it must come out now!

“Quickly,” he gasped, turning to Yipper. “I feel the beast inside me. I need the implant now.”

* * * * *

 

“I need the implant now—right now,” Garron said again and Tess saw that his eyes were glowing more brightly than she had ever seen them.

Very well, very well.” The Tolleg led him quickly to a white table with a hole cut at one end. “Lie here face down,” he said, motioning for Garron to put his face in the hole.

“It…it’s like a massage table,” Tess said, sniffing.

Garron didn’t respond. He simply lay on his stomach with his face in the oval opening and looked down at the perfectly white floor. Tess could tell that his whole, big body was tight with his internal struggle—every muscle bulged with tension as he fought to keep his dr’gin from emerging. Seeing him lying there, fighting with himself, brought home the truth to Tess—they were out of time. Garron needed to get the implant right away.

A low groan was torn from his throat and Tess bit her lip. She wanted to touch him—to soothe him in some way. But she was afraid she would only make matters worse.

“All right now. All right, all right.” Yipper was moving quickly. He scurried around the room, assembling the equipment he needed—which didn’t appear to be anything but a glass jar of some white powder and the implant itself. He put these things on a small rolling table and went to get the stool he had used to boost himself up to the high white cabinets earlier.

When he had everything arranged to his apparent satisfaction, the Tolleg climbed up on the stool and hovered over Garron’s bare neck. He pulled the collar of his t-shirt further down and then, to Tess’s horror, he stuck out a long, pink, pointed tongue and licked the exposed skin.

“Wait a minute—what the hell?” she exclaimed. “What are you doing? Why are you licking him?”

“Why, to anesthetize the area, of course.” The Tolleg looked at her as though she was the one who was crazy. “Have you never seen a surgery before? Have you not, have you not?”

“Not one like this!” Tess protested. “Where’s the sterile field? Where are the medical instruments?”

“Why, here, my dear.” Yipper stuck out his tongue which seemed to be extraordinarily long. The pointed pink tip split in two and a thin white blade that looked like it was made out of sharpened bone emerged.

“What the hell?” Tess whispered. Watching the deadly instrument emerge from the kindly, silly face of the little Tolleg was like something out of a horror movie. Then the blade changed—morphed somehow into a pair of long, bone tweezers. Then it became some kind of suction device—a hollow tube but inside the tube Tess thought she saw rows and rows of tiny, sharp teeth.

Ugh! She wanted to look away but somehow she couldn’t.

Mercifully, Yipper finally pulled his tongue back into his mouth.

“I told you we Tollegs were natural surgeons, yes I did, yes I did. I have every instrument I need to perform any surgery right here.” He tapped his mouth with one hairy finger. “And as for sterility, please do not be concerned. My saliva has natural anesthetics and antibiotics in it. This powder…” He nodded at the small glass jar filled with white granules. “Contains a coagulant to minimize blood loss. Garron will be quite safe, yes he will, yes he will.”

“I may be safe but neither one of you is going to be if you don’t get started right now.” Garron’s low growl was somewhat muffled but Tess could hear the urgency in it nonetheless. “In fact, I want Tess to leave the room,” he went on.

“No,” she protested. “I want to be here with you.”

“I don’t want you near. The emotions…” He took a deep breath. “Having you near makes it too hard. Just go, please?”

Tess swallowed back tears.

“Of course. If that’s the way you feel.”

“Try to understand, lin’del.” His voice softened a little and he lifted his head to turn and face her. “I just want you to be safe.”

“All right. I’ll go.”

“Thank you.” His voice was strained as he fitted his face back into the oval hole again.

Tess turned for the door but not before she saw Yipper bend over the back of Garron’s neck once more. The long pink tongue extended and the bone blade came out. It sliced neatly down the center of the big Kinded’s neck and a line of crimson blood welled out.

As a nurse seeing blood didn’t bother her but and Garron didn’t want her there. And she suddenly realized she didn’t want to stay. Didn’t want to see the procedure that would separate her completely and permanently from the man she loved.

Her eyes blurred with tears, she hit the door release button and ran out of the blindingly white, sterile room…


Chapter Thirty-one

 

And directly into a broad, muscular chest covered in black armor.

Tess stumbled and would have fallen if one large, mechanical hand hadn’t gripped her arm and kept her upright. She looked up, wanting to see who had her… and her heart froze in her chest.

It was Six. His face was perfectly impassive but the red search light he had for a left eye scanned over her face, as though he was looking for something.

“I…I’m sorry. Excuse me.” Tess tried to pull away from him but his grip on her arm was unbreakable. “Please…” she gasped, trying to wriggle out of his punishing grasp. “Don’t hurt me! I’m sorry I ran into you, I was just—”

“Tell me of your home world.” His voice was deep and strangely emotionless.

“Tell you what?” Tess yanked on her arm, still trying to get away. “What do you want to know? I can’t give you directions or anything like that—we came from light years away through a fold in space to get here. It’s not like telling someone how to get to the nearest gas station.”

“You call it ‘Earth’ do you not?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, we do. Is that all you want to know? Can I go now?”

He shook his head. “Tell me more.”

“Tell you what, exactly?Now that her initial shock was over, she just wanted to get away from him so she could find someplace private. Someplace she could cry in peace. She could feel the tears stinging her eyes but she couldn’t stop them.

Six noticed them too. He gripped her face with his free hand, his fingers and thumb digging into her cheeks. Tess struggled to get away but his grip was like iron—literally—the hand that was holding her felt completely mechanical.

“Let…me…go!” she gasped.

Six only turned her face from side to side, studying her like she was a particularly interesting specimen under a microscope. The red beam that was his left eye moved rapidly over her features.

“My ocular scanner indicates elevated heart and respiration,” he said at last, his voice a deep, impersonal rumble. “The liquid dripping from your eyes—what is it?”

“Tears.” Tess sniffed. “Don’t you know what tears are? Yipper told us you weren’t always like the rest of them—that you didn’t used to be emotionless.”

He frowned and released her face, though he continued to hold her arm.

“I have…a vague memory of my past. No more. So these tears, they mean you are feeling right now?”

“Yes, I’m feeling!” Tess snapped. “The man I care about is lying on a table getting an emotional lobotomy. The next time I see him, he’s going to look at me like you do—like I’m something he scraped off the bottom of his boot! So you’re Goddamned right I’m feeling. Now why don’t you let me go so I can go feel someplace private?”

At last Six dropped her arm.

“I saw someone like you,” he said, still staring at her with his one normal eye.

“What, you mean a female?” Tess demanded, remembering that Yipper had said all the females from Zeaga Four had died off centuries ago.

A faint frown creased his narrow lips.

“Not just a female. She was…of your kind. But smaller—considerably smaller.” His hands came up, describing two straight skinny lines in the air.

Tess put a hand on her hip.

“So on top of everything else, now you’re calling me fat? I don’t believe this! My day just keeps getting better and better.”

He shook his head.

“I am not calling you anything. I am referring to the other—the one I saw during my recharging period.”

“You mean in your dreams? You dreamed of her?” Suddenly it began to click. “Oh my God…” Tess put a hand to her head. “You mean you’re the one who’s dream sharing with that girl back on Earth?”

“Dream…sharing?” He said it like it was an old word—a concept he’d known once but had almost completely forgotten.

“That’s what it’s called. I don’t know much more about it except that the Kindred consider it significant. So this girl—she’s skinny?”

Six nodded. “She is extremely small and frail.” He frowned disapprovingly. “She looks weak—unable to protect herself. Also, her hair is long and black and straight and she wears strange oculars on her face.” He motioned at his eyes, miming circles.

“Um, I’m sorry but you really can’t talk about ‘strange oculars,’” Tess said. “But I assume you mean she wears glasses.”

“I do not know what they are called. Only that they seem to have clear glass lenses that cover both her eyes.”

“Yup, glasses. God, that poor girl.” Tess shook her head. “You’re going to scare the living hell out of her!”

“Why should I cause her to have emotions of fear?” he demanded, his frown deepening.

“Well just look at you…” Tess gestured at him. “In that armor—you Kindred are already big but that armor just makes you huge.”

“This is my exoskeleton. It protects during combat and aids in mobility on planets with extreme gravity. I rarely take it off.”

Tess shook her head. “Then good luck getting within a hundred feet of her before she runs screaming. That freaky red Terminator-eye thing you’ve got going on doesn’t help either.”

“My scanner was my second enhancement after my damper. It has served me well.” The red light swiveled. “And she will not need to run from me—I have no intention of going near her. I just…wanted to know more about your planet. Your people.”

Tess sighed. “Well if you really want to know, we’re not that different from you except we let ourselves feel things. Oh, and we don’t turn ourselves into cyborgs. Other than that…pretty much the same.”

“You say you let yourself feel things. But you just told me that the male you care for is getting an emotion damper—didn’t you?”

Tess’s eyes stung again and she had to blink back fresh tears.

“Yes, he is. It’s a long story. Basically he can’t trust himself with emotions.”

“No one can,” Six told her. “Emotions are irrational. They make one violent and unpredictable.”

“Yeah, well…” She sniffed. “They also make life worth living. The touch of your lover’s hand…the look in his eyes when he says he cares for you…the taste of his mouth…what does any of that matter if you can’t feel when it happens?”

She couldn’t help remembering the look in Garron’s eyes when he’d told her he loved her. So full of longing—so desperately unhappy. If only there had been another way…another choice…

“You believe this?” The deep rumble of Six’s voice interrupted her thoughts. He was looking at her curiously. “Truly?”

“Yes.” Tess swiped at her eyes and looked up at him defiantly. “Yes, I do. Emotions hurt sometimes but they’re also a beautiful thing. They let you care for someone other than yourself. They let you love. And without that, what’s the point?”

“There is work to be done,” he pointed out. “There are tasks to be accomplished…”

“Sure, but what do you care if any of it gets done? If anything gets accomplished? If—” Tess shook her head in disgust. “Never mind. It’s like trying to explain a rainbow to someone who’s color blind.”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“My point exactly.” She sighed. “Look, I don’t want to talk anymore. Just do that poor girl back on Earth a favor and stay as far from her as you can.”

“As I said, I have no intention of going to her,” he said stiffly.

“Good. I—”

“Now then, now then—we’re all finished. Yes we are, yes we are.”

Yipper’s high voice interrupted her and Tess turned to see him leading Garron by the hand. The big Kindred had a blank look on his face that made Tess’s heart thump painfully. She knew he probably felt nothing for her now but she went to him anyway.

“Garron, honey?” She put a hand on his arm. “Are you okay?”

“I am well.” He looked at her hand as though wondering why she was touching him.

“He is still adjusting to the drug. Yes he is, yes he is,” Yipper said soothingly. “He will be fine by the end of this solar day when his brain starts manufacturing it on its own.”

“The end of the day?” Tess frowned. “But…I thought we were going back to Earth. Are we staying another night?”

“Of course not.” A faint frown, much like Six’s, creased the corners of Garron’s generous mouth. “I am perfectly fit to pilot a ship.”

“Really?” Tess looked at Yipper for confirmation. “Because I know back on my planet they don’t want you driving a car for a couple of days after a major operation—let alone piloting a freaking space ship thousands of light years across the galaxy.”

“He should be fine. Yes he should, yes he should,” the little Tolleg said, nodding. “In fact, he will be a better pilot now than he was before.”

“Emotions cloud judgment,” Six, who had been standing there silently, put in. “Piloting is much safer without them.”

“Yeah, right,” Tess muttered. She felt like crying again but she didn’t want to do it in front of Six—the big asshole. She knew it wasn’t rational but she almost hated him right now. Probably because she couldn’t bring herself to direct her hatred towards Garron, who was now just as emotionless as the Dark Kindred.

“A few post-op instructions.” Yipper held up one long, hairy finger. “Avoid any situations that might bring up strong emotions in the next few days. This is especially critical around during the end of the first day, when Garron’s brain is first starting to learn to make the drug for itself. Yes it is, yes it is.”

“Why?” Tess asked.

“Once the last of the artificial drug is used up and just before the first batch of the organic drug is made by the brain, the implant is vulnerable to failure—more vulnerable than it will ever be again. Yes it is, yes it is,” Yipper lectured. “In fact, it might be better for you to stay here. Garron could be put into a sensory deprivation room for this first night, to avoid unnecessary stimulation. Yes he could, yes he could.”

“No.” Garron shook his head. “We need to get back to Earth. Tess has unresolved difficulties there.”

Tess looked at him, surprised.

“You remember that?”

He frowned. “I lost my emotions—not my memory. I remember the promises I made to you—the vows I took. I will strive to honor them and keep my word.”

“Thanks but you don’t…don’t have to do that.” She swallowed hard, hoping he would say something like, “But I want to. Want to keep you safe—to protect and avenge you.”

But Garron only shook his head again.

“Not true—I gave my word and I am obligated to keep it. We will go today.”

“All right. Fine.” Tess crossed her arms over her chest. “I guess we’d better get going.”

“Goodbye.” Yipper nodded at them. “And remember—be careful this first night. Yes you must, yes you must.”

“We will,” Tess assured him dully. “Of course we will.”

Six inclined his head to her and then to Garron.

“May fortune favor you both.”

“Thanks,” Tess muttered. “But right now I don’t think fortune gives much of a damn for either one of us.” She turned away from the Dark Kindred and looked at Garron. “Come on, let’s go.”

He nodded silently and they left.

Tess cast one last glance over her shoulder as they went and saw that Six was still standing there silently, his red searchlight eye scanning them as they walked away. With a shutter, she turned to face front.

Well at least I kept him from going after that poor girl on Earth—whoever she is. Guess I did my good deed for the day.

Not that it made her feel any better. Looking up to see that blank, uncaring expression on Garron’s face made her feel like she would never feel better again.


Chapter Thirty-two

 

“Report, Garron. What did you learn?”

Commander Sylvan’s face filled the viewscreen of the small ship which Garron was piloting quickly and efficiently.

“Several things about the past of Zeaga Four,” Garron said smoothly. “There is much to be learned of the Dark Kindred simply by knowing their history…”

He proceeded to tell everything they had heard from Yipper in a cool, robotic voice while Tess sat silently in the passenger seat.

Sylvan nodded as Garron talked.

“I knew that everyone who went to the planet’s surface was required to have some kind of enhancement but I didn’t know emotions are against the law there,” he said thoughtfully.

“Clearly it is to keep the peace,” Garron said. “A most logical solution. Elimination of emotions also eliminates the threat of war.”

“You don’t have to worry about any of this, anyway,” Tess said, speaking up for the first time. “I met the Kindred the girl is dream sharing with—his name is Six.”

“You met him?” Sylvan leaned forward, his face getting larger in the viewscreen. “What did he have to say?”

“Just that he’d seen a girl like me in his dreams. Only she was thinner, of course,” Tess said wryly. “And she has long, straight black hair and she wears glasses—he called them oculars.”

Sylvan was nodding. “Yes, that sounds like Mei-Li—the senator’s daughter.”

“Well then, there you go.” Tess shrugged. “But don’t worry—he says he’s not coming after her. He doesn’t want her—probably because he’s completely emotionless.”

“It is best that he has no emotion to cloud his judgment,” Garron said. “His decision not to pursue a relationship that has no value to him is completely understandable.”

“Given the political situation with Earth right now, it is good news that he doesn’t intend to pursue her, but…” Commander Sylvan cleared his throat and frowned. “Garron, if you don’t mind me asking, you sound…different.”

“He got an emotion damper,” Tess said dully. “Just like the Dark Kindred. Like that Six guy I was telling you about.”

“Oh?” Sylvan raised an eyebrow at Garron. “And that…took care of your problem?”

“It was the only viable solution and so far it has worked well,” Garron acknowledged. “I no longer feel the threat of my dr’gin rising within me. It is as if…as if the damper has put it to sleep.”

“Well then.” Sylvan nodded. “Excellent. And you’ll be back to yourself after the threat is past? Truth told me that tomorrow is your name day but after that…”

“It’s permanent,” Tess said harshly. “This is Garron now. He’s always going to sound this way—be this way—from now on.” She cleared her throat, trying to hold back tears. She didn’t need to cry in front of the Kindred commander.

“Oh…” A look of compassion came over Sylvan’s face. “I am sorry, Tess.”

“That’s all right.” She looked away, biting her lip.

“Clearly it’s not,” Sylvan’s voice was gentle, even over the viewscreen. “Should I try again to get the ban against you lifted so the two of you can come back to the Mother Ship? I know the other females would welcome you and it seems to me you could use what my mate Sophia calls some ‘girl time.’”

“Thank you for your concern but we have unfinished business on Earth,” Garron said, before she could answer. “After it is settled, I will of course return to the Mother Ship.”

“Of course,” Tess said dryly. “Because what reason would you have to stay on Earth?”

“None, once I am assured of your safety,” Garron said, clearly oblivious to her sarcasm. “I have employment and living accommodations aboard the Mother Ship—that is where I belong. But not until I discharge my duty to you.”

“Don’t do me any favors,” Tess snarled, unbuckling her seat belt. She couldn’t stand this anymore. All the way from the medical barge and through the rift in space, Garron had been acting like some kind of a freaking robot. It was as though someone had sucked his soul out and left nothing but an empty shell. It hurt to see him this way. Hurt so much she had to get away from it.

“You really should not unfasten your harness at this juncture,” Garron said, frowning. “We will be descending to Earth’s orbit very shortly. It is safer to be—”

“Screw that.” Tess was up and out of her seat.

“Tess…” Commander Sylvan’s voice on the viewscreen stopped her. When she turned back to it, the look of sympathy on his strong features almost made her lose control.

He knows. He can tell what’s wrong. Her eyes flicked over to Garron, who was sitting there piloting the ship with a completely impassive look on his face. Commander Sylvan knows, but look at Garron—he has no clue. He’s never going to have a clue. He doesn’t care. He’ll never care again.

“I have to go,” she said in a choked voice. “I’m sorry, Commander Sylvan.”

“I’ll tell Sophia or one of her friends to call you,” he promised. “And I’ll try again to get the ban against you lifted.”

“Why bother?” Tess swiped at her eyes. “I have no reason to want to go to the Mother Ship now. I never will again.”

She turned and ran towards the back of the shuttle. She didn’t care what happened to her when they hit Earth’s orbit—she just had to get away for awhile.

 

* * * * *

“Truly, I do not think it is wise for you to go back to Tampa right now.” Garron frowned at her as they climbed into the cab of the Earth vehicle called a truck outside the Asheville HKR building. “We established that your ex-mate is probably there waiting for you—waiting at the medical care facility where your friend is recuperating.”

“I don’t care about that,” Tess said stubbornly. “The nurse said that Di was awake for a few minutes and that she was calling for me. I have to go see her.”

Garron sighed. Why was she so illogical? She seemed to feel that the emotions she had for her friend outweighed any safety issues. He knew it was his duty to protect her—he had sworn himself to do it and it must be done. But her irrational insistence on putting herself in danger made it much more difficult.

“All right,” he said. “We will go back. But not tonight—the journey is too long.”

“What are you talking about?” Tess’s voice was sharp and brittle and the set of her shoulders was stiff. “We just traveled twenty thousand light years. What’s a few hundred miles?”

“I am fatigued.” He frowned at her. “And you are emotional. Neither of us is fit to drive this vehicle for a long period under these conditions. After a good night’s rest, we will be in much better shape.”

“But—” she started to protest.

Garron held up a hand to stop her.

“The medical attendant said that your friend was out of danger—correct?”

“Well…yes,” Tess said grudgingly.

“Then a few more hours for a good night’s rest will not make any difference. We will go back to the cabin and sleep. In the morning, we will make the journey. Agreed?”

“Fine,” she muttered, crossing her arms over her chest and looking out the window at the passing scenery. “Take us back to the cabin.”

“Certainly.” Garron nodded. It was the right decision, even if she couldn’t comprehend it with her emotion-clouded judgment. They would rest and tomorrow head back to her home. There he would confront her ex-mate and either kill or incarcerate him. After that, he would be free to go back to the Mother Ship where he belonged. Tess, of course, could get back to her life here on Earth.

Somewhere deep down inside, so far down he could barely feel it, something stirred at the idea of leaving her. Hadn’t he promised they would be together forever—that he would stay with her no matter what?

Garron shook his head. Where was the logic in that? He would keep his promise to make certain she was safe. After that, well, Tess had her life and he had his. It was better to keep them separate.

He maneuvered the truck smoothly through the late afternoon traffic and got into a turning lane. Dimly he remembered that Tess had been surprised at how quickly he had been able to get the hang of driving an Earth vehicle but he didn’t see why—it was exceedingly easy, especially after the complexity of piloting one of the Kindred shuttles.

Four car lengths back on the other side of the road, a gray, unmarked sedan suddenly made a U turn to get into their lane.

Garron didn’t notice. Tess’s shoulders were shaking and he was wondering if she was crying again. If so, was there any way to stop such an illogical display of emotion? It made him…uncomfortable for some reason. Even though it made no sense he didn’t like to see her unhappy.

Deep inside him, the unrest stirred again. Something with sharp fangs and claws like knives uttered a low growl of protest and turned over in its drugged sleep.

Garron shook his head, ignoring the sensation. It was foolish to worry. They would get a good night’s rest and start back to Tampa tomorrow. And then everything was going to be fine. Just fine…


Chapter Thirty-three

 

“Yup, that’s him all right.” The red-haired clerk at the Piggly Wiggly had nodded vigorously when Pierce had showed her the picture of the big Kindred with the blue-green eyes. A stab of triumph that went bone-deep pierced through him. He’d known he was on the right track when he found the pawn shop where the big bastard had sold his shirt. But now he was so close he could taste it.

Yes! Got you, Princess. Got you now!

“And he had a girl with him?” he had asked, frowning. “This girl?” He had shown a picture of Tess and the clerk had nodded again.

“Yes, that’s her—poor girl. I think her man’s reaction kind of upset her—even if he was just trying to protect her. Not that nobody needs much protection from RayJay. He’s just an old drunk that likes to look at pretty ladies.”

“I’m sorry—her man?” Pierce just couldn’t let that pass.

“Well, yeah…” The clerk looked confused. “Ain’t they a couple? They sure seemed like it. I mean he was ranting and raving that she was his woman and RayJay better not lay a hand on her or some such. I just assumed…”

“Actually, we have reason to believe that he kidnapped her,” Pierce lied smoothly. “He’s also wanted for beating another woman to death.”

At least he was pretty sure that cunt, Di was dead. If she wasn’t it wasn’t for lack of trying on his part. Bitch had point blank refused to give him any information on Tess’s whereabouts. It was only after he’d broken most of her ribs, her arm and her jaw with the bat that she’d mumbled something about “Ashville.” Then she’d lost consciousness and nothing he could do would bring her back. Damned inconsiderate of her, as far as Pierce was concerned. But what the hell—was he a detective or wasn’t he? He’d sniffed around, followed their trail, and now he was so close he could almost smell Tess’s perfume…

“He…he beat her to death?” The clerk’s eyes had been wide and horrified. “But…isn’t he one of them Kindred? I thought they didn’t hit women.”

“This one does.” Pierce had put an appropriately grim look on his face. “Listen…” He waved the picture of Tess again. “This woman might be in serious danger. Did you hear them say where they were staying?”

“No, I’m afraid not.” She brightened. “But I can tell you what they were driving. It was an old Ford pick-up, just like the one Old Man Jackson used to drive. He was this old feller who lived up in a cabin on the mountain for, oh…just ages. Until he got the cancer and had to go down to be with his niece in Tampa.”

Pierce had been in the process of tuning the silly bitch out but this got his attention again.

“In Tampa, did you say?” he had asked, frowning. “Tell me, did you ever see his niece—I mean, did she ever visit? What was her name?”

The clerk had pursed her lips. “Let me think, it’s been years…” Her face brightened. “Oh, yes—Dianna—that was it! And he called her Di for short.”

“I see…” Pierce had nodded, his pulse pounding with excitement though he never showed it. “And can you tell me where this cabin he used to live in is?”

“Oh, sure I can—I pass it every day on the way to work. It’s…”

He had taken the directions but the cabin had been a dead end. Though it was clear someone had been there recently, it was deserted. An APB on the truck also turned up nothing—apparently it wasn’t out on the road, at least not around Asheville.

Pierce had staked out the cabin all night but neither Tess or the big Kindred she was currently fucking had come anywhere near the place. At last he had concluded that they must have moved on.

He was pretty certain they must have continued their little road trip but before he left town, he wanted to check the HKR building in downtown Ashville. After all, the bastard with Tess was a Kindred. He could leave the entire planet with her if he wanted to—but Pierce didn’t think he would. Tess wouldn’t leave until she’d checked in with Di. And when she found out what had happened to her nearest and dearest friend, she would insist on attending the funeral.

I’ll catch you there, Princess, even if I don’t find you here, he’d thought. He was certain of that. Still, he’d decided it couldn’t hurt to take a pass by the HKR.

And low and behold, what had he seen as he was on his way there? A beat-up old Ford truck with two passengers. One of them was a Kindred with bright blue-green eyes. And the other was…Tess.

Pierce had made a U turn to follow them and now they seemed to be headed back to the cabin.

Oh, Princess, he thought, a grim smile growing on his face. You don’t know it but you’re in so much trouble…you’re in for such a punishment tonight…


Chapter Thirty-four

 

“There is no need for you to sleep on the couch. It does not look very comfortable,” Garron said, frowning.

“I want to. I’d rather sleep here.” Tess began pulling the extra set of sheets over the scratchy plaid cushions. To be honest, she couldn’t stand sharing a bed with the big Kindred the way he was now. She didn’t want to lie beside him and think about how they had slept entwined the night before and how they would never sleep that way again. The couch, lumpy and scratchy though it was, was preferable to that.

Garron simply shrugged, his broad shoulders rolling with the gesture.

“If it pleases you.”

“It does,” Tess said. “Besides, Yipper told you to avoid stressful situations tonight.”

“And sharing a bed might be stressful because…?” He frowned, clearly uncomprehending.

Tess bit her lip, remembering the way he had wanted her. How desperate he had been to touch her, to taste her. And now the idea of lying beside her completely naked probably wouldn’t even make him break a sweat. Hell, she was wearing the sexiest nightgown she had—it wasn’t very risqué but at least it was made of lace and it molded to her curves—and his eyes had never even left her face.

“It just would be,” she said, turning away to tuck a corner of the sheet around the cushions. “Or maybe not. But it doesn’t matter—it’s better this way.”

“As you wish.” He shrugged again. “I will take a shower and get to bed. Unless you would like a shower first?”

“I’ll take a bath later—after you finish.” The way she felt now a good long soak in the tub was about all she had to look forward to. “Just leave me some hot water.”

“Certainly. Good night, Tess.” He nodded in a completely civil manner, as though they were casual acquaintances who meant nothing to each other.

Which is basically what we are, now, Tess thought. And all we’ll ever be again.

She waited for him to walk away but he didn’t. Instead he stood there frowning.

“Garron?” she asked after a moment. “Is everything okay? With the, uh, implant I mean?”

“I think so.” He sighed and looked at her. “I want to say something but I don’t know how.”

Her heart began to thump even though she knew it was stupid.

“Yes?” She tried to keep her voice even and steady. “Just say it.”

“I…” He shook his head. “I hardly know how to put this. I know—I remember—that we were…close to each other. That we cared for each other and had…sexual urges to be together.”

“Yes,” Tess said carefully. “We did. Do you…are you, uh, feeling any of that now?”

He shook his head. “No, I feel nothing. Except…”

“Except what?” Tess leaned forward, hoping against hope.

A frown creased his face.

“Except that it…bothers me to know that the cessation of our mutual urges upsets you. I know it isn’t logical or right but it does.”

“Oh, Garron.” She went to him and put her arms around his waist but it was like hugging a block of warm, breathing wood. He simply stood there and let her hug him without moving. After a moment she looked up and saw a look of confusion on his face.

“Tess…” he said at last.

“Do you want to hug me back?” she asked, trying not to cry.

“I…I’m not sure.” Slowly his large, muscular arms came around her shoulders in a tentative embrace. He dropped his face to her hair and inhaled deeply. The arms around her tightened. “Your scent,” he whispered. “It…makes me remember…so much.”

“Do you feel anything now?” Tess asked, looking up at him hopefully.

“I…do. Something strange. Something…” Suddenly he stepped away from her, out of her embrace.

“Garron?” she asked, biting her lip.

He shook his head. “I think…I begin to see what you meant when you said sleeping in the same space would be stressful. I believe I should go take a shower now. Perhaps a very, very cold one.”

“You think so?” Tess took a step towards him but the big Kindred took a step back.

“I’m sorry but I think it would be better for us to stay apart.”

“Of course,” Tess backed up at once.

“I…” He closed his eyes for a moment as though collecting himself. When he opened them, the cool, impassive expression was back on his face. “I will leave you now.”

“All right,” she whispered.

“Good night.” Garron sounded cool and collected again—utterly in control. Apparently the moment of emotion—if that is what it had been—was over.

Tess watched him go, the silver and black button of the implant winking at the back of his neck. As he left, the little spark of hope inside her died.

Don’t be stupid, she told herself sharply, brushing away the useless tears that rose to her eyes. What were you hoping for—that his damn implant would fail? And where would that leave you? As dr’gin chow. You have a suicide wish or something?

“Or something,” she muttered to herself, wiping her eyes again on the sheet.

She got settled on the couch and then listened to the water running in the little bathroom. She could imagine Garron in the shower—she knew how mouthwatering he looked when he was nude. If he was himself she would have gone to join him. But that wasn’t possible. He’d asked her to keep her distance and that was what she had to do. The possibility of any kind of romantic or sexual relationship between them was over—over for good. It would be better if she just accepted that and moved on.

Sighing, she turned over, facing the back of the couch, and waited for him to be done. When he was safely out of the shower, she intended to take a nice long bath. Maybe it would make her feel a little less like crying. In the mean time, she would close her eyes and rest, just for a minute…

 

A quiet scratching sound from the direction of the front door woke her. Was it her imagination? Maybe some coons digging in the trash outside? They were always a problem around this area. It was quiet for such a long time she almost fell asleep again. Then, just as she was nodding off the scratching resumed.

Tess frowned and forced herself to wake up enough to stumble up and off the couch. The little cabin was a box of shadows with only a few bars of light coming in through the cheap Venetian blinds over the windows. She padded over to the door and put out her hand, intending to open it and scare away the raccoons that must be digging around out there.

Except what are they digging in? whispered a little voice in her head. You and Garron grabbed a bite to eat at the HKR building. It’s not like you brought any food home for them to smell. So what are they doing scratching around the front door this time of night?

The thought stopped her cold and she suddenly felt much more awake than she had been. She drew her hand back from the knob. The little voice made sense. What were raccoons doing outside her door in the middle of the night? And was it really coons making the noise?

The scratching sounded again—very loud in the quiet cabin. This time Tess realized that it was coming from the lock. It was a metallic sound, almost as if someone was scratching something metal with a wire.

Like maybe someone scratching the inside of a lock, trying to pick it? whispered the little voice again.

Tess went cold all over. This isn’t right. Have to get out of here. Slowly, quietly, she began backing away. But before she could get two steps back from the door there was a final sounding click and it suddenly swung open.

A big dark shape which had been crouched in front of it rose slowly. The moon shone behind him, making him nothing more than a black silhouette but Tess would have known that shape anywhere.

“No,” she whispered, backing away.

Suddenly the shadow was on her. One hand grabbed her wrist and the other slapped something sticky over her mouth. The scent of too-sweet, cloying aftershave filled her nostrils, making her want to gag.

“Hello, Princess,” a familiar voice hissed. “I hope you’re ready for your punishment because you’ve certainly earned it this time…”


Chapter Thirty-five

 

Garron woke suddenly from a sound sleep with the feeling that something was very, very wrong.

It was a scratching or clicking sound that woke him at first but then the scent reached his nose—or rather, a mixture of scents that set off all kinds of alarms in his head.

The first thing he noticed was a sickly-sweet smell. Where had he smelled that before? It seemed somehow familiar—suddenly it came to him. He’d smelled it faintly—very faintly—coming from the domicile of Tess’s ex-mate when he’d gone to rescue her.

The second smell was instantly recognizable—the bitter scent of Tess’s fear was floating to him from the living area of the small cabin. The short hairs at the back of Garron’s neck stood up and a low growl began to build in his throat. Somewhere deep inside him, his dr’gin stirred, stretched, and began to come to life.

Suddenly he realized what was happening and what was going to happen if he wasn’t careful.

No! he told himself sternly. Don’t give in to emotion—don’t let the implant fail. Just take care of the situation and remain calm.

Trying to take his own advice, he climbed out of bed and stalked quietly down the hallway leading to the living area. After a moment, he could hear someone speaking in a soft, hissing whisper.

“That’s right, Princess, going to punish you good this time. You thought you could run away on me, go off with another man when you’re mine? Oh, Princess, you’re in so much trouble. It’s more than a whipping offense this time. I might have to get a knife…maybe give you a new tattoo, you think?”

There was a soft, muffled sob that Garron recognized as Tess. He was trying to hold on to his calm but inside him, his dr’gin was fully awake now. It was roaring, telling him that something was happening to their female—that she was in danger, that something must be done…

Be quiet! Garron told it desperately. I don’t need you—I can handle this. Go back to sleep and let me think!

He kept his back to the wall and stayed in the shadows as he looked out to assess the situation in the living area. A human would have seen nothing but black, indistinct shapes in the darkness but Garron’s night vision was Kindred sharp—he saw everything in a glance.

Pierce, Tess’s ex-mate, had her immobile in the middle of the room. He had one arm wrapped around her waist, pinning her arms to her sides. There was a gray rectangular patch—maybe some kind of adhesive—across her mouth so she couldn’t scream.

In his other hand, Pierce held a knife. It had a long, sharp silver blade that reflected the moonlight coming in from the shaded windows. He was drawing it up and down Tess’s cheek in a threatening way. He hadn’t cut her—yet. But from the way he was talking, he was planning to do that and worse.

“Maybe if I carve my name where you’ll see it every time you look in the mirror you’ll finally get the picture, hmm Princess?” he hissed in her ear. “I’ll carve it on your cheek, shall I? Or maybe I should just carve ‘whore’ on your forehead. Because that’s what you are—a little whore running off on me. Well let me tell you, you’ll never get a chance to run again. Not when I’m done with you…”

Tess made a soft, muffled moan. There were tears in her eyes but it was clear she didn’t dare move. She was trapped and this bastard was about to start slicing her up.

At the sight of her tears and the scent of her fear, so strong in this room it was almost overpowering, a switch seemed to flip inside Garron. The impassive calm he’d felt ever since he’d been implanted with the emotion damper was abruptly and completely shattered. He stepped out of the shadows with a roar that shook the cabin.

“What the Hell?” Pierce looked up, the knife in his hand frozen by Tess’s cheek.

“Let…her…go.” Garron’s voice was hardly recognizable in his own ears. It sounded deeper somehow, more animalistic.

“Well, well—so you’re the bastard who’s been fucking my wife. Nice to meet you, you son of a bitch,” Pierce snarled. If being confronted in a dark room by a six foot eight massively muscular Kindred with glowing eyes bothered him, he didn’t let it show.

“She’s not your mate—not anymore.” Garron heard the animalistic rumble in his own throat and knew the dr’gin was close, so close to the surface. Be careful, whispered the voice of reason in his head. If you let it out, you might kill them both. Be careful…be careful!

“Oh, she’s mine all right. And you’re going to stand there and watch while I prove it.” Leaning over Tess, Pierce licked the side of her face, starting at the edge of her jaw, sliding his tongue up, and ending right at her hairline. Tess moaned and writhed in his grasp but she couldn’t break free.

At the sight of another male hurting and frightening the female he loved, Garron thought he might go completely insane. A red curtain of rage dropped over his vision and he took another step towards them, his hands flexing into fists. Goddess damn it he was going to rip this bastard into tiny, bloody bits!

“I don’t think so.” Pierce raised the knife again. “Come any closer and she’ll be maimed for life. Think I’m bluffing? Watch.” He placed the wickedly sharp tip of the silver blade right at Tess’s temple. “Don’t know how much you know about our anatomy, you big bastard, but the human face really isn’t attached to the skull. You cut it just the right way…” He slid the knife down, slicing from her temple to her jaw and Tess gave a muffled shriek behind the gag. “And it’ll come…right…off.” He lifted the knife, preparing to cut some more.

“No!” Garron couldn’t stand it anymore. Deep inside he felt the beast that had slept within him for years boiling to the surface. Dimly he understood that his dr’gin was rising, that the implant in his neck was no longer working to keep the monster in check, but he didn’t care. All he could feel was rage that this bastard had dared to threaten Tess. All he could see was the cut on her face. All he could smell was her blood and fear hanging in the air and that scent, more than anything else, was making him crazy.

It’s coming! he thought. It’s coming and I can’t stop it.

I don’t want to stop it.

Then he knew no more.

* * * * *

Tess gave a muffled gasp when Garron changed. One moment he was himself—a big, muscular guy with black hair and glowing turquoise eyes—and the next moment he was a completely different creature.

It happened so fast she didn’t see the transformation, even though she was watching. But suddenly, there in Garron’s place, was a creature bigger than the biggest grizzly bear standing on its hind legs. Its fur or feathers—Tess couldn’t tell which—were pure white, almost seeming to shine in the dark cabin, and it had razor sharp talons that curved into cruel hooks like an eagle’s.

When it turned its vast, leonine head, Tess saw that the only thing it had in common with Garron was its eyes—they were a deep, pure, glowing turquoise that shone like search lights as it studied her and Pierce.

There was a moment of pure, breathless silence as the dr’gin seemed almost to float before them in midair. For some reason, gravity didn’t appear to affect it which gave the whole encounter a slow-motion, dream-like quality.

That was until it opened its mouth and roared.

Curving, knife-like teeth glinted in the moonlight and a sound that was a cross between a lion’s roar, an eagle’s shriek, and the loudest alarm claxon Tess had ever heard split the air—and felt like it split her eardrums as well.

She screamed behind the piece of duct tape Pierce had slapped over her mouth and writhed in his grip.

Perhaps stunned by the noise, Pierce loosened his hold on her and Tess was at last able to break free. Clapping her hands to her ears, she stumbled backwards, tripped and fell against the couch.

To her right, Pierce was also retreating.

“Holy fuck,” he breathed, his eyes wide with fear. What the sight of an angry Kindred warrior had failed to do, the dr’gin accomplished effortlessly—clearly Pierce was scared to death.

But as Tess knew from experience, her ex was even more dangerous when cornered. She watched in horror as he dropped the knife he’d been using on her and pulled a gun out of his belt.

“Come on, you fucker,” he hissed, aiming right at the brilliant white hide.

“Watch out—he’s got a gun!” Tess shrieked—or tried to. To her horror, she realized she still had the duct tape over her mouth. She clawed for the edge of it as Pierce advanced on the floating dr’gin. But before she could rip the duct tape off, the white beast roared again and flowed forward with a sinuous grace that seemed to belie the laws of physics.

There was a loud bang and another deafening roar. To her horror, Tess saw that a dark crimson patch had appeared in the white feather-fur covered hide and was quickly spreading.

Yet the gunshot wound didn’t slow the dr’gin down a bit. It gave that alarm-claxon roar again and came straight at Pierce with its curving fangs spread and its claws extended.

“Fuck!” he shouted and fired again. And again and again.

Three more crimson patches appeared on the pure white hide but the wounds only seemed to make the dr’gin angry. It flowed forward, losing none of its animalistic grace, as Pierce staggered back, trying to get out of its way. Suddenly he tripped and fell flat on his back.

The dr’gin pounced.

Tess watched in horror as it grabbed Pierce’s right leg, the curving talons sinking deep into his flesh, while its impossibly long fangs closed around his ankle. There was a crunching sound and his entire foot, still clad in one of the expensive Italian driving loafers he loved, suddenly disappeared into its red maw of a mouth.

Pierce shrieked with horror as he stared down at the spouting stump where his right foot had been. He scrambled backward but the dr’gin was by no means satisfied. It flowed forward, going for another bite.

Somehow Tess scrambled onto the couch and drew her feet up, breathing hard as she watched the scene playing out right in front of her. Pierce was literally at her feet, just in front of the old plaid couch, and though she didn’t want to see what was coming next, she found her eyes were glued to the action—unable to look away.

“Leave me alone!” Pierce yelled hoarsely. “I won’t…you can’t…” He raised the gun again but before he could pull the trigger, the dr’gin lunged forward and engulfed his hand and most of his arm in its massive mouth. There was another dull crunch like a thick celery stick being broken and suddenly his elbow was nothing but a bloody stump. The dr’gin chewed twice then swallowed everything—even the gun—before coming back for more.

Pierce shrieked, his face going gray in the moonlight. His big body fishtailed across the floor like someone having a seizure but there was no escaping now. The dr’gin took his other foot and calf next…then it bit a huge chunk out of his torso. Slippery ropes of intestine spilled out of the gaping hole in his side and blood sprayed in a crimson-black arc, spattering the couch, the wall, and Tess, who was still watching mutely with wide eyes.

“My God, oh my God,” she whispered, squeezing herself into a ball. She had hated Pierce for a long time—he had hurt and abused her and betrayed her trust more times than she could count. But never, even in her most vivid revenge fantasies, had she imagined watching him be eaten alive by a hungry beast.

“Tess!” he gasped and she saw that somehow he was still breathing, still alive even after all the blood he had lost. How was that even possible, she wondered numbly. How could he survive when the dr’gin had eaten over half of him?

“Tess!” he said again, blood bubbling from between his lips. “Make it…stop. Can’t…you can’t…let it…hurt me. Kill me…”

Tess shook her head, her blood-spattered hair flying. She couldn’t stop the dr’gin now—no one could. She remembered what Garron had said about its insatiable appetites when it first emerged. It was going to eat its fill and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

“Tess!” Her ex sounded angry now. “Tess, you can’t—”

At that moment the dr’gin lunged forward and took his entire head in its vast mouth. There was a muffled shriek and a snapping sound and what was left of Pierce’s body went into one last, violent spasm. Then he went limp in the dr’rin’s jaws and there was nothing but the wet, messy, crunching sound of the beast feeding.


Chapter Thirty-six

 

Tess didn’t know how long she stayed there, huddled on the couch in a ball. It was still dark outside and she felt like she had fallen into a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from. She put her hands over her ears but she couldn’t shut out the sounds. The wet ripping of flesh being torn and the dull, muffled crunching of bones being ground between those knife-like teeth bored into her head. Her heart pounded and she knew she would never be able to forget those noises—or the sight of her ex husband being messily devoured.

The dr’gin paid no attention to her as it fed. It reminded Tess of a hungry dog gnawing a bone or licking a plate to get every last little bit. It occurred to her numb brain that this would be the perfect time to run. She could climb over the back of the couch and slip quietly out the front door which still stood ajar, letting in a narrow ribbon of moonlight like the path to freedom.

But she was frozen in place. Though she told herself repeatedly to get up and go, she couldn’t make so much as a finger twitch. She was curled in a ball, her knees drawn up to her chin and her arms wrapped around her legs, her eyes wide and staring as she watched Pierce disappear into the dr’gin’s red flecked maw.

Oh God, she thought numbly, watching as the long, red tongue licked up every last scrap of flesh from the sodden carpet. Oh God, oh God, oh God

The scene of carnage went on forever—a never ending loop of gore and horror that wouldn’t stop. Tess had no way of measuring time anymore. It seemed like hours since she’d first been awakened by the sound of a scratching at the door—days since she’d stood there and watched Garron turn in the blink of an eye from his normal self to this ravenous, mindless beast.

Then, suddenly, she realized the dr’gin had finished its meal. Not a shred of Pierce remained except for the gory patch on the carpet where he had been devoured.

The dr’gin lifted its head, sniffed the air…and looked directly at Tess.

Oh God…oh my God! Why didn’t I run when I had the chance?

But it was too late now. Pierce had been nothing but an appetizer—now she was going to become the main course. She stared numbly into those glowing turquoise eyes as the dr’gin flowed toward her. Its brilliant white feather-fur was stained and splotched, flecked with gore from its feast. As she watched, its long red tongue came out and licked delicately around its mouth. The gesture reminded her of a cat trying to get the last bits of cream from its fur only the dr’gin was savoring the last few drops of her ex-husband’s blood.

And he really is my ex now, she thought. Even if he refused to sign the divorce papers. He’s dead and digesting in the belly of the beast. You can’t get much more ex than that.

A hysterical bubble of laughter rose in her throat at the thought and she clamped a hand over her mouth to keep it from coming out. She didn’t want to startle the dr’gin into any sudden moves. Didn’t want to scare it. It was still staring at her, moving closer and closer. Tess felt like she had a tiger or a great white shark stalking her.

Going to die, she thought, her heart pounding so hard it sounded like a drum in her ears. Oh my God, I’m going to die and it’s going to hurt—a lot. Pierce’s death kept replaying over and over in her mind’s eye. The way the dr’gin had eaten him piece by piece, almost like a cat toying with a mouse. The screaming and shrieking and begging and blood… Were those same screams about to be torn from her throat? Was the beast that Garron had carried inside him for so many years—the beast he had warned her about—going to be the last thing she saw before it bit her head off?

I understand now, she thought as its large, leonine head rose to the level of her own. I get it, Garron—I see why you were willing to give up ever feeling again. To give up all your emotions. Anything to keep this thing inside of you from getting out. Anything to stop what just happened from happening.

The dr’gin’s eyes were boring into her own now and Tess found she couldn’t look away. It was almost as if they were in some kind of weird staring contest—as though the beast was looking into her somehow. What was it seeking? And what would happen if it didn’t see what it was looking for?

Tess sat there, barely daring to breathe, her heart jack-rabbiting in her chest. The glowing turquoise eyes filled her vision and the air was heavy with the metallic scent of spilled blood. She was cold all over and her stomach ached as though she’d swallowed a fist sized block of ice that wouldn’t melt.

Oh God, I hope I’m not going to be sick…

Suddenly the air around the dr’gin shimmered and Garron was standing there, completely nude and covered in blood. He loomed over her in the darkness, huge and muscular and somehow menacing. He was utterly silent…and rock hard. The club of his cock throbbed between his thighs, standing at attention as though the act of carnage he had just committed had made him incredibly aroused.

Tess blinked, unable to make her mind understand what was happening.

“G—Garron?” she stuttered uncertainly. “Wh-what…?”

Before she could finish her question, he leaned forward and seized her by the shoulders. Tess gave a muffled shriek as he dragged her up off the couch as easily as a rag doll and crushed her to his broad, blood-stained chest.

“What are you doing?” she gasped. “Stop—stop!”

His eyes were still wild—still feral—and again he didn’t answer in words. Instead he slammed his lips over hers and kissed her, thrusting his tongue into her mouth while he ground the hard shaft of his cock against her belly.

Bile filled Tess’s throat as a metallic taste spread across her tongue.

Blood, oh my God—that’s blood I taste on his lips! Pierce’s blood! He just chewed him up and lapped up his blood and now he’s kissing me! Ugh!

She ripped her mouth away from the big Kindred’s and spat on the ground.

“Stop it! Get away from me! Leave me alone!” She wanted to kick him between the legs but he was holding her too close, still grinding his shaft against her like he wanted to fuck a hole right through her nighty. “Get off me!” she demanded.

Garron paid no attention. With a low growl, he began to rip at her blood-stained nighty. The fragile lace tore easily under his big hands, baring her breasts.

“No, please!” Tess shoved at his face with both hands when he ducked his head and tried to capture one of her exposed nipples with his mouth. “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” She began to be really afraid—even more frightened than when she thought his dr’gin was going to eat her. What was wrong with the big Kindred? He acted like a man possessed—like he didn’t care if he hurt her.

Garron didn’t answer any of her questions. Instead he kissed her again, forcing more of the hot, coppery, nauseating taste of Pierce’s blood into her mouth. He palmed her breasts and rolled her nipples roughly.

Tess gasped as pain and fear surged though her. Why was he doing this? He was acting just like Pierce!

Just like Pierce… Suddenly she knew that begging and pleading wasn’t going to get her anywhere. After all, it never had with her ex.

Tess pulled away from his savage, bloody kiss and slapped him as hard as she could across the face.

The message seemed to get through at last. Garron dropped her back on the couch abruptly and took a step back. His eyes were wide and glowing and still filled with hunger—a hunger that turned Tess’s stomach. He started to reach for her again, apparently changing his mind, but she drew away from him.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked in a trembling voice, wiping her lips on her arm to get rid of the bloody taste Garron had forced into her mouth. “How could you act like that? You promised…promised you would never hurt me. And then you go and almost…almost…” But her voice broke and she couldn’t finish the sentence. Couldn’t admit, even to herself, that Garron had been well on his way to sexual assault.

The hot tears stinging her eyes seemed to get through to the big Kindred as nothing else had. Some of the hunger faded from his glowing eyes to be replaced by something that looked like shame.

“So…rry.” His deep voice had an odd, halting quality as though he had somehow forgotten how to speak and was trying desperately to relearn. “Just…need…you.”

“Well you can’t have me. Not like this. Not after what…what I just saw you do.” Tess motioned to the blood spot on the carpet. “I mean, I’m grateful you saved me but I just saw you rip…rip Pierce to…to shreds… and…and eat him.” Her voice wavered—speaking the words seemed to bring everything back in vivid detail. Her ex-husband’s shrieks and cries, the wet sounds of his flesh ripping, the bones crunching… “I can’t…I just can’t,” she whispered. “Not like this.”

“Un…derstand,” Garron muttered hoarsely. “So…rry.” Suddenly his big form shimmered and the dr’gin was there in his place, its feather-fur floating gently in the air currents like pure white seaweed below the surface of the ocean.

“Garron?” Tess drew back from the beast. “Please, I—”

But she didn’t get a chance to finish her plea, because the dr’gin turned and left the cabin. It flowed out the door in a river of silky white feather-fur and was gone into the night.

Garron and his dr’gin were gone.


Chapter Thirty-seven

 

Becca wasn’t sure what to expect when she turned on the viewscreen hanging on the wall of Sophia’s living room. The communications officer had told her little about the nature of the call but he had apparently thought it was important enough to route it from the main viewing room where most off-ship communication was received to a private residence.

Sophia and Sylvan had gone into their bedroom to give her some privacy and Truth was waiting in the hallway outside for the same reason. Far was back at their suite, making something to eat for the three of them but Becca suddenly found she had no appetite. For some reason, she had a bad feeling about this call. A really bad feeling…

Everything’s going to be fine, she told herself firmly. Tess probably just needs a shoulder to cry on. Sylvan had told Sophia, who had in turn, told the rest of the girls about the awful choice Garron had been forced to make. She could scarcely imagine giving up all emotion for the rest of your life but that was apparently what Truth’s brother had chosen to do. Anything to keep his dr’gin contained. Remembering the huge, frightening creatures with their glowing eyes and knife-like teeth and claws she had seen on Pax, she couldn’t blame him.

Despite her self-pep talk, her finger shook as she pressed the button that brought the viewscreen to life. It flickered and suddenly Tess’s face came into view. But this was Tess like Becca had never seen her before.

Her hair was wild for one thing and it was sticking up on one side, as though it had gotten wet and dried that way. Her face was pale and spattered with blood and the white lace nightgown she wore was torn and splotched with gore. She clutched it closed around her breasts and the hand holding it shook.

But more than any of these details, Becca was struck by her eyes. They were wide and shocked—the eyes of someone who has survived some horrific event and hasn’t quite been able to convince themselves they’re still alive yet.

“Tess?” she asked sharply when the other girl just looked at her. “Tess, honey, are you okay?”

“I…” Tess shook her head. “I don’t…don’t know.”

“Tess, look at me—listen to me.” Becca tried to keep her voice calm and soothing. She wished she could reach through the viewscreen and grab the other girl’s hand or hug her but all she could do was talk. “Tell me what happened to you,” she insisted gently. “Come on, tell me now.”

“He ate him.” Tess’s voice was little more than a whisper. “He ate Pierce—my ex-husband. Every…every last bit of him. Like…like a dog licking a plate clean. He devoured him.”

“He? He who?” Becca demanded, her heart thumping. But she was terribly afraid that she knew the answer. The image of a huge, floating dr’gin flashed in her mind’s eye again. Tess’s next words confirmed her worst fears.

“Garron,” she whispered. “He…he changed into his dr’gin and then he devoured Pierce. Even his clothes. Even his gun. Everything.”

“Mother of God,” Becca murmured. “Are you serious? But I thought he got an implant to control it—to keep it inside.”

“It didn’t work.” Tess sounded numb. “I mean, it might have if Pierce hadn’t broken into the cabin and started carving me up with a knife.” She touched a long red cut that ran from her temple all the way down to her jaw. “When Garron saw that, it was like…like something inside him snapped. He…he changed. And then he…”

“Ate your ex-husband,” Becca finished for her.

“That isn’t all…” Tears began to leak down her cheeks. “Then he changed back and he tried to…he was going it…” She sniffed. “I can’t say it. I don’t want to say it.”

“Say what? Never mind.” Becca waved her hand. “You can tell me later. How many people know this? How many saw?”

“Just me,” Tess whispered. “I…I saw it all. And oh, Becca…I can’t unsee it. It…it’s in my mind. Like a movie clip that won’t stop playing. I keep seeing him bite…biting off Pierce’s arms and legs and his…his head.”

She buried her face in her hands and her shoulders began to shake as silent sobs wracked her.

“Oh, honey….” Becca bit her lip. She had always liked her brother-in-law, despite his inherent potential for this kind of violence. But knowing that it had actually happened at last—that he had let his dr’gin out and had killed and eaten someone—was almost too much for her mind to encompass.

“I…I wish I could forget,” Tess whispered. “But I can’t. I can’t.”

“Listen, you stay right there. You’re in the Asheville HKR building in North Carolina—right?” That was where the communications officer had told her the call was coming in from.

“Y-yes,” Tess said in a trembling voice. “And I’m sorry to bother you but I didn’t know who else to call.”

“You did the right thing,” Becca told her. “You stay right there—I’m coming to you just as fast as I can.”

“Thank you.” Tess wiped at her streaming eyes, smearing some of the blood that speckled her face across her pale cheek. “Thank you so much.”

“Just stay there,” Becca said again. “I’m on my way.”

She turned away from the view screen and nearly ran right into Truth, who was standing just inside the doorway.

“I heard everything,” he said grimly before Becca could speak. “Come on, let’s go.”

* * * * *

Tess felt a little calmer by the time the shuttle bearing Becca and Truth touched down. The Kindred commander on duty was the same one who had loaned Garron the ship to go to Zeaga Four and he had been kind and understanding when she asked for a private viewing room to call Becca. Even better, he didn’t ask any questions, despite her startling appearance.

After the call, while she was waiting for Becca, he had provided her with a private room to shower and change. He had even found a pair of old sweatpants and a sweatshirt someone had left there. That someone must have been a Kindred because the clothes were far too big for Tess. Still they were clean and whole and there was no blood on them so she was glad to put them on—even if she did swim in them.

Now she was sitting on a couch, sipping a hot, soothing cup of tea that one of the human girls manning the HKR had made her. The warming liquid running down her throat seemed to steady her nerves so Tess was feeling much more like herself when Becca and Truth finally burst into the HKR building.

“Tess, oh my God, are you okay?” Becca ran up to her, a worried expression on her lovely face.

“Better now.” Tess put down her tea and got up to hug her. She was glad to feel the other girl’s arms around her neck. “I’m sorry for calling you like that, acting so crazy,” she said in a low voice when they broke apart. “I just…I guess I was in shock.”

“Of course you were.” Becca pulled her back down on the couch and Tess picked up her tea again. “What you saw sounds terrible.”

“It was,” Tess said quietly. She took a deep breath. “It was like something out of a horror movie, honestly.”

“I have seen a dr’gin feed after the first transformation,” Truth said in a low voice. “I understand your horror and distress.”

“I can understand the…what Garron’s dr’gin did. What I don’t understand is what happened…after.” Tess bit her lip.

“After?” Truth asked.

“After it was over with Pierce and he changed back into himself.”

“What happened?” Becca said gently. “It’s okay, Tess, you can tell us.”

“He…he attacked me. Or started to, anyway.” Tess put a hand to her eyes, almost unable to tell the awful details. The way Garron had acted after his dr’gin had eaten Pierce was in some ways worse than seeing Pierce torn apart and swallowed up in the first place.

“He attacked you?” Becca sounded like she was frowning. “That doesn’t sound like Garron.”

“It wasn’t like him—at all,” Tess exclaimed, looking up. “He…he seemed to go crazy with lust. He was shoving me around and holding me down to kiss me and…” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, he’d never acted like that before. I just…can’t understand it.”

Truth cleared his throat. “Maybe I can shed some light on the subject. What kind of a man was your ex-mate?”

“Abusive.” Tess looked down at her tea. “Sadistic. Manipulative. I stayed with him a lot longer than I should have but he made it really hard to get away—he was a police detective.”

“One of your peace keepers here on Earth?” Truth asked.

Tess nodded. “I don’t have to tell you in words—all you really need to know about Pierce is right here.” She touched the side of her face where the long slice Pierce had made with his knife still throbbed.

“What happened there?” Truth asked.

“Remember I told you Pierce—my ex—came after me with a knife?” She looked at Becca who nodded.

“That’s awful.”

“It wasn’t exactly a day at the park,” Tess said dryly, touching her cheek again. “Pierce sliced me from my temple all the way down to my jaw but he wanted to do more. He was…was talking about pealing my face off.”

“Seven Hells,” Truth muttered hoarsely. “What kind of a male would do such a thing?”

“Pierce would,” Tess told him. “He liked hurting people—me especially. But when he said that—that’s when Garron sort of lost it and turned into his dr’gin.”

Truth nodded. “Seeing the female he cared for threatened must have been too much for him to bear. Even the emotion dampening implant he had would not have been able to hold him in check.”

“That makes sense,” Tess acknowledged. “But what does any of this have to do with the way Garron was acting?”

“Everything,” Truth said. “A dr’gin tends to take on some of the characteristics of the person or persons it devours for a short time after the first transformation.”

“It sounds like your ex was a real piece of work,” Becca murmured. “So if Garron took on some of his personality traits…”

“Those traits coupled with his intense need to breed is probably what prompted the way he acted toward you,” Truth said.

“He did back off when I was forceful enough. I had to…to slap him and yell at him to make him stop.” Tess pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “So you’re saying that this uh, personality change is only temporary? Because I have to tell you, it scared me to death.”

Truth cleared his throat. “Typically the traits ingested along with the dr’gin’s first meal will fade quickly.” He frowned. “So would you mind telling me…what happened after Garron uh, ‘backed off,’ as you put it?”

“Yes…” Becca leaned forward. “Did the two of you make up? Where’s Garron?”

“I don’t know.” Tess shrugged. “He said he was sorry, then his dr’gin came out and took over again and he ran out the door. Or, um, floated out the door. I have no idea how he did that. The way his dr’gin moves is so weird.

At her words, Truth groaned softly and Becca looked truly upset.

“What?” Tess was alarmed. “What did I do? Was it bad?”

“It’s not your fault.” Becca leaned forward to put a hand on her knee.

“What’s not my fault? What did I do? What about Garron?” Tess fought to keep the panic out of her voice and didn’t quite succeed.

Truth sighed heavily. “I am afraid that Garron has gone D’fex.”

“D’fex? What the hell is that?” Tess demanded.

“It’s a rogue dr’gin. A beast which is mindless, hungry…and very, very dangerous,” Truth said soberly.

“What? But why? What does that even mean? How did it happen?”

“When a Rai’ku male enters his first transformation, his dr’gin’s first instinct is to feed,” Truth explained. “Once that hunger is satiated, he turns back to his original form. At that time he has a very short window in which to breed with the female his dr’gin has chosen. Tell me, Tess, did Garron’s dr’gin stare at you or look into your eyes before he changed back?”

“Well, yes…” Tess remembered feeling like the dr’gin was looking into her somehow—searching for something. She also remembered wondering what would happen if it didn’t find what it was looking for. “Yes, it did,” she said again.

Truth nodded. “It was deciding if you were the female it wanted—for itself and for Garron.”

“And what was the verdict?” Tess asked.

“It chose you—obviously. If it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here with us alive right now,” Truth said.

“Oh…right.” Tess shivered as the implications of that sank in.

“All right, so the dr’gin chose Tess,” Becca said. “Then Garron turned back to himself—his guy self I mean—and tried to attack Tess because he’d basically had an asshole for breakfast—meaning Pierce.” She looked hastily at Tess. “Oh sorry, I guess I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”

“No, in this case you’re just telling the truth,” Tess tried to smile but couldn’t quite manage it. “And you’ve got it all right so far. But then after I refused to…you know with Garron, he turned back into his dr’gin and left. And now you say he’s some weird word that means he’s crazy?”

D’fex. And yes, he has for all intents and purposes lost his mind,” Truth said, nodding. “He will be nothing but a dangerous, hungry beast now—hunting for humans to eat wherever he is.”

“And all because I wouldn’t have sex with him?” Tess was aghast. “This is my fault?”

“Of course not, honey!” Becca protested. “Nobody could blame you for not wanting to get busy after just watching your ex get eaten alive. You’d be some kind of psychopath if that kind of thing turned you on!”

“But…we can fix it, right? I mean, we can find him and…and…”

But both Truth and Becca were shaking their heads.

“I’m sorry, Tess,” Truth said quietly. “I am afraid Garron is lost to us now.”

“Lost to us? What is that supposed to mean?” The panic was surging in her again and she had to fight to swallow it down and keep her voice from trembling. “You don’t mean he’s permanently stuck in that form—in his dr’gin form, do you?”

“Unfortunately, that is exactly what I mean.” Truth looked down at his hands. “He’s gone now. Gone for good. Everything that made him a sentient creature has been obscured—buried permanently beneath the beast mentality of his dr’gin. There is no bringing him back.”

“What? But…no. No, I don’t accept that.” Tess slammed down her mug so quickly that lukewarm tea sloshed over the side and spilled on the floor.

“I’m afraid you have to accept it, honey,” Becca said gently. “That’s just the way it is—Rai’ku Kindred biology.”

“Well why didn’t someone tell me any of this?” Tess demanded. “Why didn’t Garron happen to mention it? Why didn’t he say, ‘Hey, babe, if I do happen to turn into a dr’gin and I don’t eat you up, I’m going to need for you to have sex with me right away or I’ll be stuck as a dr’gin forever. Why didn’t he say that, huh?”

“I believe he was deeply ashamed of what he was.” Truth looked up and the sorrow on his face really drove the reality of the situation home to Tess. Garron really was lost—his brother was already mourning him. He was gone.

“Ashamed?” she whispered.

“Because of his fear that he would hurt the female he loved—first Nella and now you—he has hated the beast inside him and hated himself for carrying it inside for years,” Truth said.

“Besides, he got that emotion dampening implant,” Becca pointed out gently. “That was supposed to solve the problem. There was no way he could know it would fail.”

“I guess not…” Tess sank back down on the couch and buried her face in her hands. “Is there really no way at all to bring him back?”

Truth shook his head. “Once a dr’gin turns D’fex there is no bringing it back.”

“But…but what if I went out in the woods…went looking for him? What if I—?”

“Don’t you dare!” Becca looked really alarmed. “It would be like hunting a man eating tiger!”

“Rebecca is right,” Truth said firmly. “You would be courting your own death. There is nothing left of Garron now but a very hungry beast. No Rai’ku male has ever been brought back to himself once he has gone D’fex.

“So that’s it then?” Tess sank back against the couch feeling like someone had dipped her heart in lead. “He’s really gone. Permanently gone?”

“I am afraid so.” Truth looked away but not before she saw that his eyes were suspiciously bright.

“Truth, honey…” Becca put a hand on his knee and he took it in his own and squeezed it.

“I should have done more to help him,” he said in a low voice. “Should have found a way somehow…”

“You’re talking like he’s dead,” Tess whispered, sitting up. “But he’s not—Garron is not dead. He’s still out there somewhere, alone in the mountains.”

“Everything that made him Garron—that made him my brother—is dead,” Truth said harshly. “Dead or buried so deeply there is no getting to it.”

“I know this is rough, Tess,” Becca said softly. “Which is why Truth and I aren’t going to leave you. We’ll take you back to Tampa with us and make sure you’re settled.”

“I guess I could go back to Tampa now,” Tess said numbly. “Garron took care of Pierce for me so there’s no reason I couldn’t…couldn’t go back to my old life. I could even start nursing school again if I wanted…”

“That’s the way to think,” Becca said gently. “Go forward—look towards the future, not the past.”

“I’ll try. It’s just that…” Tess’s breath hitched in her chest. “Just that even though I hadn’t known him long we…we formed a connection. He was…Garron was so special. So wonderful…”

Now you’re doing it! whispered a little voice in her head—the voice of Tess BP and this time it sounded angry. Listen to you—talking about him like he’s dead. Like he’s past tense. This is the man you care about, Tess—the man you love. Are you really going to give up on him that easily?

The little voice was like a shot in the arm. Tess squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. No. No, I’m not! Garron is out there somewhere—I just need to find him and bring him back to himself. That’s all.

But something told her not to tell Becca and Truth about her determination to find Garron. They were both convinced that he was mindless and dangerous and beyond help—if she told them she wanted to go looking for him they would stop her. No, it was better to just slip away unnoticed and go on her own.

“Would you excuse me?” she said. “Too much tea—I’m going to the ladies room.”

She was half afraid that Becca might decide to come with her but it was clear the other girl wanted some time to comfort her man. Truth’s eyes were still bright and his jaw was clenched.

“Okay, hon,” Becca said distractedly. “You go ahead. We’ll be here.”

“All right.” Tess nodded. She wanted to say something else about how grateful she was that they had come down to be with her, but she was afraid anything like that would sound like a farewell and put them on alert. So she just nodded again and headed for the ladies room as casually as she could.

She walked quickly and purposefully in the direction of the bathrooms, which were located in the front of the building. To be on the safe side, she pushed open the door to the women’s room and went inside.

Once there, she counted to ten and took a deep breath. She hated lying to her new friends like this but she was sure Becca wouldn’t let her go without a fight. And right now, she didn’t need any more drama. She just needed to go look for Garron.

She counted to ten again, then opened the door a crack and looked out. Becca was turned away, speaking to someone on one of the many public viewscreens—probably her other husband, Far. Truth had his head in his hands.

Tess froze for a moment. Then she left the ladies room as quietly as she could, palming the keys to the truck, which were in the pocket of the baggy sweatpants, to keep them from jingling.

Silently, she slipped out the door and was gone.


Chapter Thirty-eight

 

“Garron? Garron?” Tess’s throat hurt and her voice was hoarse from calling so much. Her arms were scratched from several encounters with wild black raspberry bushes and the stinging cut that ran from her temple to her jaw which Pierce had made was bleeding again. She was a mess and the shadows in the woods were growing long as sunset rapidly approached. Still, she didn’t want to give up.

“Where is he?” she muttered to herself, pressing through another thick copse of trees. The springy branch of a young alder sprang back and slapped her in the face. Tess gave a little gasp and pressed a hand to her cheek. One of the twigs had poked her in the face, just a fraction of an inch from her eye. Maybe it was time to take stock before she blinded herself or bled to death from a million tiny scratches.

“Garron, where are you?” she said softly. Then she looked around her. “And where am I?”

Lost, that’s where you are, whispered a pessimistic little voice in her brain. Where was Tess BP when she needed her? But the peppy cheerleader voice was conspicuously absent.

Tess pushed the idea of being lost aside, refusing to panic, and looked around some more. Unfortunately, nothing in this part of the woods looked remotely familiar.

She had set off late that morning from the cabin, thinking to try and trace the dr’gin’s trail. Unfortunately, it had left no trace. No footprints or broken branches—nothing at all as far as Tess could see.

Remembering the way it seemed to float in the air, completely ignoring gravity, she supposed that made sense. Still, she had hoped to find at least one or two clumps of its white feather-fur caught in the branches of trees or bushes. But there was no sign that the dr’gin had ever been there. It was as if it had vanished into thin air.

Undeterred, Tess had set off to circle the cabin, calling Garron’s name. Her circles had grown wider and wider as the hours wore on until she found she had somehow spent almost all day in the woods calling for him.

Maybe you should head back, whispered the pessimistic voice in her brain. If you can find the way back, that is. You can try again tomorrow. After all, it’s almost sunset now and I don’t think you want to meet his dr’gin in the dark.

Tess had to admit that was true. Meeting the beast with its razor sharp claws and knife-like teeth in the daytime would be bad enough. But day or night, she had no idea what she was going to do when she did meet it—if she ever met it at all. Should she call it to her? Treat it like a dangerous dog that might bite? Would she even get a chance to do any of that? What if it came at her from behind? What if it was already stalking her? What if it was behind her right now?

Stop it! Tess told herself angrily. Stop worrying so much. This is Garron we’re talking about—he loves me! He won’t hurt me, in either form.

Oh yeah? Then why did he attack you and almost rape you earlier? whispered the voice. Eating Pierce changed him. Going D’fex has probably changed him too. At least, Truth and Becca seemed to be convinced it had.

Well, they’re wrong, Tess told the voice stubbornly. Garron is still in there, inside his dr’gin somewhere. I just have to find him so I can find a way to get him out. I just—

A suddenly crackling in the leaves behind her made her gasp and whirl around. There was nothing there on first glance but then Tess was able to make something out. A pair of large, yellow eyes was staring at her from between the leaves. Predator’s eyes.

“Uh…” Tess took a step back and the owner of the eyes took a step forward.

When it came out from the shadows of the trees, she had to bite back a gasp. It was a simply enormous wolf with shaggy gray fur and glaring yellow eyes. It stared at her unblinkingly and a long pink tongue came out to circle its jaws.

Oh my God, it’s hungry! It’s licking its chops!

Tess’s heart started pounding but she knew from experience that if you let a dog know you were afraid of it, it would come after you. Taking a deep breath, she straightened up and looked the wolf in the eyes.

“Get!” she said in her strongest voice. “Go on, get!”

The wolf cocked its head to one side, regarding her as if she was an interesting specimen it would like to study. Or maybe a tasty morsel it would like to taste. Then it took another step towards her.

“No, get!” Tess reached out blindly, trying to find any kind of a weapon without taking her eyes off the huge gray predator. Her seeking hand found the springy alder branch that had whipped her in the face earlier and she broke it off with quick, jerky movements, her eyes glued to the wolf the entire time.

The wolf took another step forward and she swished the branch at it. It was so close now that she smacked the tip of its black nose.

The wolf jerked back and its silky muzzle wrinkled into a snarl. It began to growl—a low rumbling like the idling of a car that seemed to rise from deep in its throat.

“Get back!” Tess insisted, waving the branch at it again. “I mean it, get away from me!”

She was backing up as she spoke—which made it hard to appear confident and menacing but she tried. Then her heel caught on a root and she went sprawling.

It happened in a second but it seemed to take much longer. Tess gave a gasping cry and pinwheeled her arms, trying to regain her balance. The wolf, no doubt sensing an easy supper, crouched to leap on her.

Tess fell backwards, watching helplessly as the lean, shaggy gray shape launched itself in her direction. It’s going to kill me—kill me and eat me up. Guess it’s my day to die after all…

But it wasn’t. Just as she could see the wolf’s huge yellow eyes and its slavering jaws growing in her field of vision, something long and sinuous and white appeared. It clamped the wolf in its teeth and shook it until Tess heard a sharp snap and a piercing whimper. The blur of motion was suddenly still and the white form loomed over her. Tess was finally able to see what had saved her.

“Oh my God….Garron?” she whispered. It was indeed him—or his dr’gin at least. It floated in the air before her with its white feather-fur flying in all directions, looking even more otherworldly now in the forest than it had back at the cabin. The limp form of the wolf hung from its jaws. “Garron?” she whispered again.

The dr’gin shook the beast in its jaws viciously and then let go with a snap! The huge wolf went flying and slammed against a nearby tree trunk where it crumpled to a silent heap on the ground, obviously dead.

“Garron?” Tess scrambled to her feet, never taking her eyes from the floating form. It was looking at her again. Giving her that unblinking glare that had so unnerved her at the cabin. What was it thinking? Whether she would taste good for dinner? She would have thought that eating someone as big as Pierce would keep it satisfied for awhile but it was twilight now and her ex-husband had been devoured in the early morning. Maybe the dr’gin had a really fast metabolism. Maybe it was already hungry again. Maybe…

The brilliant, glowing turquoise eyes, so like Garron’s, suddenly narrowed and the dr’gin inhaled deeply, its nostrils flaring as it sniffed the air.

Oh my God, it’s smelling me. Becca and Truth were right. I’ve stranded myself in the forest with the equivalent of a man eating tiger. I—

Her thoughts were cut off as the dr’gin lunged right at her.

Tess gasped as she was knocked to one side. She heard a scuffle in the dried leaves and bushes right behind her. A strangled snarl turned abruptly into a pained whimper.

Scrambling to turn around, she saw the dr’gin had yet another wolf in its jaws—it must have been sneaking up on her from behind.

One more minute and I would have been wolf chow! It saved my life—twice. That has to mean something, doesn’t it?

She didn’t get a chance to answer her own question because off to her right she heard a long, low, mournful howling.

“Crap!” she whispered in a trembling voice. She peered into the forest but the dusk was deepening rapidly and she couldn’t see a thing. Then she did—a pair of yellow eyes was approaching and getting closer and closer. Not only that, but there wasn’t just one pair of eyes. Several sets were speeding towards her in the darkness.

The howling sounded again, much closer this time. Great—it wasn’t just one wolf or even two that had been hunting her. There was a whole freaking pack.

She turned to the dr’gin which still had the limp body of the second wolf dangling from its jaws. It met her eyes and swung its head, casting the furry corpse out into the forest. Then it lowered itself until it was horizontal to the leaf strewn forest floor and looked at Tess.

Tess looked back uncertainly. Was it really indicating what she thought it was?

“Garron?” she asked softly, taking a tentative step towards it. “Do…are you asking me to…to get on your back?”

The dr’gin made a snorting sound and looked at her. Then it cast a glance at the rapidly approaching wolf pack and looked at her again.

Don’t do it! whispered the voice of panic in her brain. It just wants to take you off somewhere so it can eat you!

But what was her alternative? Was getting eaten by the dr’gin really any better than being ripped apart by wolves? It was, as Di would have said, six of one or half a dozen of the other.

The pack was almost on them now—so close that Tess could see white teeth and long pink tongues as well as yellow eyes coming at her from out of the dark trees. She hoped she wasn’t interpreting the dr’gin’s signals wrong but there was no more time to doubt.

Stepping forward, Tess climbed awkwardly onto the long, sinuous body and threaded her fingers into its silky feather-fur. She was intensely relieved when it didn’t buck her off and eat her at once. In fact, it seemed to wait until she had a firm grip on its fur. Then with a sudden surge, it leapt into the sky, leaving the snarling, snapping wolf pack behind and taking Tess with it into the night.


Chapter Thirty-nine

 

“I can’t believe she snuck away like that!” Becca said for the hundredth time as they drove down the rutted dirt road. “Is the girl crazy? Does she have a death wish?”

“We don’t know for a fact that she went to look for Garron’s dr’gin,” Truth pointed out, but inside he didn’t have much hope. He had seen the look in Tess’s eyes when she said that Garron was still there, inside the beast that had consumed him. She hadn’t been ready to give up yet. Love and pain had made her reckless.

“Oh yes we do,” Becca said grimly. “You heard her, saying he was still in there.”

Her words mirrored his thoughts so exactly that Truth felt a surge of guilt.

“You’re right, Rebecca. We should have done more to stop her. I should have done more.”

“It’s not your fault, honey!” Becca put a hand on his arm. “I just wish we could find that damn cabin they were staying at. I just…”

“You’re close—almost there,” came the voice of Far through the mental link all Kindred share with their mates. “I can feel you getting closer.”

“Far?” Truth sent, frowning. “Where are you? I thought we were out of range of the Mother Ship, even for our bonded link.”

“Which is why I came down to Earth,” the light twin said. “But I made a stop in Tampa first, to speak to Tess’s friend, Di.”

“The one who called to tell us about Tess and Garron in the first place?” Truth sent back.

“Exactly. The females working at the Tampa HKR told me where I could find her. She was badly beaten but she’s awake and responsive now and she was able to give me the coordinates to the cabin. Take the next left, Brother, and then drive a little further and look to your right.”

Truth did as he said and soon enough they saw a small, rustic dwelling with two vehicles parked in front of it. One was a large, lumbering thing that stunk of fossil fuels. Truth believed the humans called it a “truck.” The other was a small, sleek car which was clearly a converted Kindred shuttle. Far stood just outside it, his long blond hair glimmering in the last rays of the setting sun.

Truth parked his own converted shuttle on the side of the road and jumped out to greet his brother. Far went to him with open arms and Truth felt some of the tension he’d been carrying since they got the awful news that Garron had gone D’fex ease just a little as his twin enfolded him in a firm embrace.

“Gods, Brother,” he murmured as strong arms held him tight. “I’m so glad you came. It’s good to see you.”

“I second that.” Becca stepped in to make it a three way embrace. They all hugged each other in silence for a moment, drawing strength from their bond.

Finally Truth stepped back, his eyes stinging a little. “Garron…”

“I know,” Far sent gently through their link. “I’m here for you, Brother. Here to help you bear the pain.”

“Thank you.” Truth cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “Right now, though, we need to find Tess. Have you been here long?”

Far shook his head.

“I just pulled up a moment before you.”

“So you haven’t seen anything?” Becca asked.

The light twin shook his head again.

“No, but I thought I heard something a minute ago. It was so far I couldn’t be certain but it sounded like snarling and thrashing. That way.” He pointed into the deep undergrowth that surrounded the cabin. “I was going to check it out but then I felt the two of you and called to you.”

“I suppose it might have just been some wild animals fighting,” Becca said doubtfully.

“Or it might have been Garron’s dr’gin making a meal of Tess,” Truth said darkly.

“Let’s check the cabin first, before we jump to conclusions,” Far said reasonably. “After all, we don’t know—she might be just inside and too upset to come out.”

“I could certainly understand that,” Becca said softly. “She just lost the man she loves forever—that makes you crazy.”

Mi’now…” Far put an arm around her shoulders at the same time Truth slipped an arm around her waist. She had lost both of them at different times and though they had managed to come back and be together, the experience had deeply affected the female he and Far both loved.

They made their way to the cabin but when Becca raised her hand to knock, the front door creaked open at the first blow of her fist to its wood panel.

“Hmm, that doesn’t seem good,” Becca murmured.

“Not at all.” Truth pushed the door open wide and was about to step in when the smell of blood hit him in the face. He stepped back, wincing.

“Ugh.” Far made a face. “This place reeks of death.”

“And look at the carpet.” Becca motioned. There was just enough light to see the dark, sodden stain in the middle of the living area, right in front of the couch.

“This must be where Garron’s dr’gin devoured Tess’s ex-mate,” Truth said. “Let’s just hope he didn’t come back and eat her as well.”

“I don’t think so.” Far sniffed the air. “I only smell one kind of blood here. My nose may not be as sensitive as a Rai’ku’s but I can tell that much.”

Truth sniffed the air and nodded. “I agree. Let’s search the cabin and try to avoid the blood. Tess may still be in the back, too filled with grief to move or care what happens to her.”

But a search of the small cabin revealed no signs of Tess other than her clothes. Clearly the place was deserted.

“What are we going to do?” Becca asked when they converged outside the cabin again. None of them really wanted to be inside where the stench of blood and death still lingered. “If she’s not here, where is she?”

“I think we all know the answer to that,” Far said quietly. “Her vehicle is here but she’s not in the cabin.”

“She went looking for him—looking for Garron,” Becca put a hand to her throat.

“She must have.” Truth felt another surge of guilt. He should have kept an eye on the human girl instead of letting his own grief blind him. “But I greatly fear that all she is going to find is her own death.”


Chapter Forty

 

Tess thought later that she would never forget her first flight on a dr’gin’s back. As the long, lithe body rose high in the air she clung to him, leaning down to wrap her arms around his neck, afraid she would fall off. She still had no idea how the dr’gin was able to fly. Maybe he was filled with some lighter-than-air substance inside? Whatever it was, the huge beast seemed to have no trouble at all rising higher and higher, right above the tree tops as it flew up the side of the mountain.

At first Tess—who had never liked heights—was afraid to look. But the dr’gin flew so smoothly she finally dared to open her eyes a crack. The sight took her breath away.

Flying high above the forest, she could see the last burning orange and crimson red vestiges of the sunset bleeding across the landscape. The dying light threw the trees into stark relief, turning them into tall, black shadows and filling the forest with danger and mystery.

“Oh…” Tess whispered, sitting up a little, though she made sure to keep her fingers tightly clenched in the dr’gin’s silky feather-fur. She’d been on airplanes before and seen such sights from the window but never had she felt so enveloped by the view.

She could see in every direction for one thing, not just a tiny square presented by a plane window. For another, there was nothing separating her from the vast space around her and nothing to distract her from its beauty. There was no noise of the airplane engines, no coughing or shifting from other passengers or a bored stewardess reciting safety instructions by rote. The dr’gin flew in absolute silence—there was nothing but the soft whistle of the wind in her ears and the cry of an occasional bird.

Even the smells were different up here—the air was fresher, cleaner. It was colder too. Tess shivered and lowered herself a little, resting her forearms on the dr’gin’s broad back to soak up some of its heat. His soft white feather-fur was warm of course, but his body also seemed to be a very high temperature. Under the silky white mantle of fur, she could feel something like hard, overlapping scales. From these radiated an immense heat which almost might have burned her if the wind wasn’t so chilly.

As it was, she felt just right. Floating along on the dr’gin was like riding in a warm car on a crisp fall day and putting down the windows to enjoy the cool autumn air in her face.

Well, no, it’s not exactly like a car ride, Tess corrected herself. It was more like what she imagined a magic carpet ride would be like. The smooth, flowing of the dr’gin beneath her, the panoramic view of the natural beauty all around, the soft whistling of the wind…despite her continued anxiety about her fate, Tess found it enchanting. Seduced by the beauty of the moment, she almost felt like if she had to die, she was glad to have this as her last memory.

Then the dr’gin made for a dark opening in the side of the mountain. Tess ducked her head just in time as they soared over the steep lip of a cliff and then went directly into a very big, very black cave.

The dr’gin came to a halt at last, his long claws scrabbling against the rocky cave floor. Then it just sat there.

“Um…” Tess wasn’t sure what to do. Should she thank him? Could he understand her? And when had she started thinking of the dr’gin as “he” instead of “it?” She didn’t know but it seemed right, somehow.

The dr’gin shook impatiently, like a horse twitching to get rid of a fly.

Oh right—and I’m the fly.

Tess took the hint and got off quickly. It was easy since the dr’gin was low to the ground. It wasn’t like sliding off a horse—more like simply standing up and stepping over his broad back to stand on the stone floor beside him.

“Thanks for the ride,” she said and winced when her own voice echoed unnaturally in the stone space. How big was this cave anyway? She’d been to Natural Caverns in Virginia and she knew that some cave systems could extend for miles and miles of convoluted, twisting tunnels and vast grottos inside the mountain. Just the idea of all that black, empty space at her back made Tess extremely nervous.

She looked around but the light of the setting sun was almost completely gone and the darkness gathering around her was thick and impenetrable. In fact, she realized, she couldn’t see much of anything except the dr’gin’s eyes glowing hungrily right beside her.

The euphoria she’d felt during the beautiful, silent ride abruptly leaked away to be replaced by a numbing fear. The dr’gin took a step towards her, its claws scratching on the stones, its eyes wide and glowing a brilliant turquoise.

“Please…” Tess took a step back. “If you brought me here just to eat me…”

The dr’gin cocked its head to one side, for all the world like someone trying to understand something spoken in a foreign language. Then it started to come toward her again.

“Please…” Tess took another step back and nearly fell. Her breath was coming short now as panic took over. Maybe the dr’gin had brought her here just to eat her. She’d thought he was rescuing her from the wolves but maybe he was just making sure his dinner didn’t have any pieces out of it. “Don’t!” she begged as the huge beast flowed toward her. “Please, don’t.”

The dr’gin gave her a long look and then, to Tess’s confusion and relief, he retreated swiftly to the opposite side of the cave. There he curled into a circle and turned his face to the stone wall. The gesture was strangely familiar and suddenly she realized that the dr’gin was very deliberately giving her space.

Tess watched him for a while uncertainly. What was going on? Why had he stopped moving in on her and left so abruptly? Was he trying to tell her something? Was he really giving her space the way a person would or was he simply saving his supper for later?

It was all too confusing to understand. Sighing, she sat down and leaned back against the opposite wall of the cave. A cold wind whistled in through the cave mouth but she drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs, trying to ignore it. After awhile she closed her eyes and fell into a light, uneasy sleep.

 

She was wakened an unknowable period of time later by a chorus of high, mournful howling coming from just outside the cave. Gasping, she sat bolt upright, her hands clutched to her chest. How had the wolves managed to find her way up here on the side of the mountain? Was the whole pack out there? Were they—?

Suddenly a long, lithe white shadow flowed past her and out the cave mouth. Tess got a brief glimpse of the moonlight sparkling on its flowing fur and then the dr’gin’s unearthly claxon alarm-roar split the night air.

Tess clapped her hands over her ears but not before she noticed that the howling had abruptly stopped. Had Garron’s dr’gin chased away the pack? Had he killed any more of them? Would he be in a mood for more killing when he came back into the cave?

The screaming roar was not repeated but her heart was still pounding minutes later when the dr’gin came back into the cave. He took a look at Tess, shivering with a combination of fear and cold, started to go back to his place on the opposite wall, and then stopped.

“H-hey,” Tess whispered, her voice breaking on the word no matter how hard she tried to keep it steady. “Uh, did you scare them all off? Are they gone?”

The dr’gin gave her another look and came towards her purposefully, flowing over the ground like a river of white silk.

“No,” Tess begged softly, as she had before. “No, please…”

But this time the dr’gin didn’t stop. Instead, he flowed around her, encircling her body with his own long form and nestled her securely in the curve of his side.

At first she didn’t dare to move or even breathe. But the dr’gin didn’t seem to be offering her any harm—it was more like he was protecting her. Keeping her warm. His actions reminded her of what Garron had told her several times—that his dr’gin liked her and felt protective of her. Maybe he wasn’t saving her to eat later. Maybe he genuinely wanted to keep her safe.

“Okay,” Tess murmured. “Okay, I guess this is all right.”

Little by little, she allowed herself to relax. The dr’gin’s side was surprisingly comfortable and very warm. It molded itself to the shape of her body, reminding her of a high end armchair filled with memory foam or some similar material. Only memory foam didn’t breathe and it wasn’t covered in silky fur.

Tess sighed and turned on her side, pressing her cold cheek to the warm hide beneath her. Unfortunately, it was the cheek Pierce had sliced open with his knife. Rubbing it against the dr’gin’s hard scales reopened the wound and shot a bolt of pain through her face.

“Ouch!” She winced and sat up, her fingers going to her hurt cheek. They came away warm and wet. Was she bleeding again?

Suddenly she became aware that the dr’gin had curved around to face her, so close that his huge head was almost in her lap. He sniffed her bloody fingers, his hot breath blowing across her hand. Then he licked her, his long tongue curling around each digit in turn, as though it was trying to get every last trace of blood from her hand.

Tess froze.

Oh my God, I’ve done it now. Now he’s tasted my blood he’ll eat me for sure!

Sure enough, the huge, leonine head rose up, drawing close to her own until they were eye-to-eye.

“Garron,” she whispered, looking into those glowing, turquoise orbs. “Garron, please…please, no.”

The huge mouth opened and she closed her eyes tight, not wanting to see when the final bite was going to happen. Please, she prayed silently. Please, just let it be quick! Don’t make it long and drawn out and painful like it was with Pierce. Let it be qu—

Her prayer was cut off when the dr’gin’s hot, wet tongue swiped over the side of her face. Oh God, it was tasting her! Getting the blood right from the source. The next thing she would feel was those massive jaws closing over her head and his fangs sinking into her neck, severing her carotids…

But there was no final, fatal bite. Instead, the dr’gin just kept gently licking, bathing her face with its tongue.

Gradually, her heart stopped pounding so frantically and the tension left her body. The dr’gin’s breath had the same wild, almost-cinnamon scent that Garron’s had. As it licked her, she felt the familiar tingle and knew what was happening.

“You…you’re healing me, aren’t you?” she asked softly, daring to open her eyes at last. “You’re doing just what you did that first time, back in the hotel room.” She shivered, remembering the pleasure of his mouth on her then, his gentle touch, his comforting words that put her at ease and aroused her at the same time. “Garron,” she whispered. “Oh, Garron, if only you could come back to me, really come back to me…”

And a voice inside her head whispered, He will, child…if you are brave.


Chapter Forty-one

 

“Huh? What?” Tess looked quickly around the darkened cave but there was no one there. And in fact, the voice seemed like it had come from inside her own head. Yet, it didn’t sound anything like the voice she heard when she lectured herself or the fun loving voice of Tess BP. It was stronger somehow, clearer, and much, much more powerful.

I’m going crazy, she told herself. There’s no one here but me and Garron’s dr’gin.

It is not simply his dr’gin—it is HIM. Garron himself. He longs to come back to you, to be with the female he loves.

“Oh my God,” Tess muttered aloud, sitting up straight. “That time I know I heard it. Unless I’m going crazy.”

Be assured that your sanity is not in question, my child, the powerful and somehow feminine voice murmured gently. I have simply come to give you guidance.

“Can…can you help me? Whoever you are?” Tess asked uncertainly. She spoke quietly and stopped looking around the darkness. The voice was definitely coming from inside her own head though she had no idea how that was possible.

All things are possible for me, child, the voice murmured. Even returning this male to his rightful form. But you must help and you must not be afraid.

“I’m not afraid of him—not anymore,” Tess whispered. “I…I love him. Love him so much. Even in this form as a dr’gin. Although I wish…wish so much I could have him back the way he was.”

You can if you are brave.

“But…how?” Tess asked.

You must draw him to you. Embrace him. Call to the true Garron, locked within the body of his beast. Already he is attuned to you, understanding your words and emotions. But you must use more than words to bring him back—it will take action, bold action on your part to break the power of D’fex.

“What kind of actions?” Tess protested. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it! Anything—I’ll do anything at all!”

You must discover that for yourself, the voice murmured. Think of the ways you soothed him when his dr’gin rose to the surface before. Remember the things he longed for, the things that kept the beast at bay. These same things are what will bring him back to you at last.

Thoughts filled her head, memories of Garron speaking about what he had longed for all the years he had lived on Pax. His forbidden dreams and desires…

Tess swallowed hard. “Hey, you don’t mean I should, um…”

Act quickly, my child. This window of opportunity I am able to offer you is narrow and soon to close. Be brave.

“Brave how?” Tess protested. “What are you talking about?”

But the voice didn’t answer and somehow, though she couldn’t say exactly how, Tess knew that the speaker was gone.

“At least give me a hint,” she muttered but only the wind whistling through the cave mouth answered her. She already gave you a hint, her own inner voice—the voice of Tess BP—whispered back. You know what you have to do. Now do it.

Tess supposed she did know, but the idea made her nervous—extremely nervous. Still…be brave, the voice had told her.

“All right.” She lifted her chin. “I’ll do it. I can be brave. I can.”

Carefully, quickly, she slipped out of the oversized sweatshirt and sweatpants. Then, completely nude and shivering, she cuddled back into the dr’gin’s embrace and pressed herself against its hot side.

The dr’gin snorted in apparent surprise and looked at her from those glowing eyes.

Tess just hugged it harder.

“It’s okay,” she whispered to it. “Everything is going to be okay.” I hope!

The soft feather-fur felt ticklish against her bare skin and the heat of his body seemed much more intense without her clothes. She could feel his breathing more clearly too and the warm, spicy scent of his skin—so exactly like Garron’s own scent—made her feel almost dizzy.

Are you crazy? whispered a pessimistic little voice in her head. Or just perverted, hugging the damn thing in the nude like this? What’s wrong with you?

There’s nothing wrong, Tess told it. Nothing at all. I’m doing what she said—whoever she was. I’m being brave.

The dr’gin snorted again and licked her cheek as if he could hear her thoughts and agreed with her. The dr’gin—

No, not the dr’gin, Tess told herself sternly. Garron—it’s Garron in there. And you have to draw him out, just like she said.

“Garron,” she whispered softly, looking into those large, glowing eyes. “Garron, I know you’re in there. Come back to me.” She hugged him tighter, feeling the soft fur rub sensuously against her bare nipples. “Come back to me.”

For a moment she felt something strange. It was almost as though the body she held in her arms had changed shape just for a split second. One moment it was lithe and sinuous and covered in the soft, downy feather-fur and the next it was smooth and hard and muscular. Then it was back to being furry again but that one split second was all Tess needed. She felt a surge of hope and an equal surge of determination.

I can do this! I can bring him back!

“Garron,” she whispered, rubbing herself sensuously against the long, hot body. “Do you remember the first time you healed me? How you healed my breast by sucking my nipple?”

A soft, almost human growl was her answer. He was listening and he was understanding her words—Tess was certain of that. She felt another surge of determination.

Feeling bolder, she went on.

“Do you remember the first time you touched me? God, I came so hard on your fingers…” She lifted her hand to touch one of the dr’gin’s paws and felt it change in her hand. Just for a moment, she was holding a big, warm hand, its finger enfolding her own. Then it changed back to a paw again but Tess wasn’t deterred—she went on.

“Remember when you tasted me?” she whispered. “I was so scared but you were so gentle. You just kissed me at first…so softly, so tenderly. You were kissing my pussy almost the same way you kissed my mouth.” The memory made her heart start to pound and her breath come short. “It made me so hot and wet the way you tasted me,” she admitted in a low voice. “I loved being open for you…loved feeling your mouth on me down there.”

She was rubbing against Garron with reckless abandon now, enjoying the feel of the soft fur against her bare skin. It tickled her nipples and made her naked pussy tingle with anticipation…

There was that sudden flash of movement again and again she was holding Garron in his true form against her once more. His nude body was warm and smooth and hard against her own and his arms encircled her, holding her tight.

“Gods, Tess,” he croaked, his deep voice sounding rusty. “Don’t stop. Please…need you…your scent…your taste…”

This time when he shifted back to the dr’gin Tess gave a little cry of frustration. Why couldn’t she hold him to his other form? His true form? But she was determined now—she knew what to do and she wasn’t giving up.

“Garron,” she whispered fiercely. “Come back to me.”

There was a flicker again and then the body she was holding started shifting back and forth, so quickly it was hard to keep track of. One moment it was long and furry, the next hard and smooth and muscular.

“Garron,” she said desperately. “Please…” Need a way to keep him with me—to keep him in his true form! But how?

The big Kindred’s hoarse words echoed in her head.

…need you…your scent…your taste.

Of course!

With trembling fingers, Tess reached between her legs and spread her pussy. She was wet down here, wet from remembering his soft, gentle kisses and the tender way he had tasted her here. Something told her that tonight wasn’t going to be quite so gentle but she didn’t care—she just wanted Garron back and she was willing to do anything to get him.

Pressing her fingers deep into her well, she gathered her juices, moaning as she rubbed her swollen clit. God, she needed Garron! Needed the big Kindred to come back and ease this fire inside her, to make her his completely.

Then bring him back, whispered the voice of Tess BP in her head. Bring him back and claim him…so he can claim you.

That was exactly what she planned to do. Slowly, she lifted her fingers and pressed them to the dr’gin’s mouth. A hot, wet tongue lapped at them, cleaning the honey from her hand hungrily.

“Taste that?” Tess murmured, fearlessly thrusting her fingers between the razor sharp fangs. “That’s me, baby—all me. Come back and taste me again. Come back and make love to me.”

Suddenly the fangs melted away for good and her fingers were engulfed in a different, much smaller mouth. At the same time, she felt the big body flicker…and hold.

“Garron!” she moaned, pressing harder against him. His broad chest felt wonderful against her naked body and she could feel the hot, hard length of his shaft rubbing against her belly.

“Tess,” His deep voice was ragged and filled with desire. “Gods, need you so much…”

“You can have me,” she assured him eagerly. “Please, I want you inside me now.”

“Not yet…” He leaned down and took her mouth in a hungry kiss. Tess moaned as she felt his tongue invade her mouth, bringing her own secret taste as well as the sweet, hot cinnamon flavor that was at once and entirely Garron.

“Please,” she whispered breathlessly when the kiss broke. “Please take me, Garron. Quick—before you turn back!”

“Need to taste you first,” he growled softly. “Need to get between your thighs and lap your sweet cunt, Tess.”

“You…you do?” Her breath seemed to catch in her throat. Though she had been begging him to do just that, the stark reality of this act still made her heart beat fast and her knees weak.

“Have to, lin’del,” he whispered hoarsely. “It’s your scent and taste that anchors me in this form. I need to bathe in your sweet scent—need to tonguefuck you long and hard tonight until you come all over my face. It’s the only way I can be sure I won’t change back.”

“All right,” Tess murmured, her heart fluttering. His eyes were glowing in the dark again and she reached up to run her hands through his thick black hair which was every bit as soft as his feather-fur had been in his dr’gin form. “All right,” she said again. “Take me, Garron. Do…do whatever you need to do. I want you to.”

A low growl of pure need rose from his throat and then he was kissing and licking his way down her body. His hot mouth captured one of her nipples and Tess moaned and rose to meet him, offering herself without shame.

Slut, whispered Pierce’s voice in her head but she pushed it away without hesitation.

This is what Garron needs—for me to give myself completely—to open myself without question to whatever he wants to do. And if that’s what it takes to bring him back and keep him back, I’ll do it. I’ll do anything—I don’t care. I don’t care and I’m not ashamed!

Garron growled softly and switched to her other nipple, engulfing it in his hot, wet mouth and sucking hard. Tess moaned and writhed under him as he mouthed her tender bud and then nipped it sharply, sending sparks of pain and pleasure shooting straight to the heated spot between her thighs.

“Garron!” she gasped as he did it again and then lapped her nipple gently, as though to sooth the ache he had caused. “Oh, God, Garron, please…”

“Please, what?” He looked up at her, his eyes glowing fiercely with desire.

“Please…” Despite her dirty talk earlier, Tess felt suddenly tongue tied. Before she had been speaking to a beast which might not understand—now she was talking to a man who knew exactly what she was saying. “Please kiss me lower?” she whispered, biting her lip.

He shook his head.

“That’s not good enough. Tell me what you want me to do. Exactly what you want me to do.”

“I…”

“Say, ‘Garron, I want you to kiss my pussy,’” he commanded hoarsely. “I need to hear you say it, Tess. Need to know you want it as much as I do.”

“I do want it,” she assured him. “I…Garron, I want you to kiss my pussy. And…” Her cheeks were hot but she made herself go on anyway. “And I want you to taste me too. Want you to…to spread me open and…and lick inside me. Put your tongue deep inside my…my cunt.”

He gave a low groan of desire and his eyes flashed.

“Gods, lin’del, love to hear you talk like that. Love to hear you beg for it.”

“I am begging,” Tess told him boldly. “Kiss me lower. Go on, I…I won’t try to stop you. I…I’ll open myself for your tongue and give you anything you want…anything you need. I swear.”

He groaned again. “Such sweet words, lin’del. So sweet and brave to spread yourself so wide for me and let me fuck you with my tongue.”

Tess’s breath caught in her chest and she bit her lip as he began to move down her body again. He kissed a trail from the bottoms of her breasts down her quivering abdomen and belly until he came at last to the soft, well trimmed thatch at the top of her mound.

Up until now, Tess had been lying with her legs stretched out straight and her knees together. Now she moaned softly as Garron split her thighs wide, parting her legs to give him complete access to her pussy.

The motion spread her lower lips as well and she could feel herself opening, showing him without a doubt how turned on she was, how wet his kisses and caresses had made her.

“Gods,” he muttered raggedly, staring down at her and Tess knew he could see her perfectly despite the darkness in the cave. “So beautiful…so sweet.”

“So kissable…” Daring greatly, Tess opened her thighs even wider, baring her slippery inner folds for him as well as the tingling little button of her clit. “Come on, Garron…lick me. Taste me.”

“With pleasure…” With a low, animalistic growl, he lowered himself and wrapped his long, muscular arms around her thighs, holding her open for his assault. “So wet,” he murmured. “So wet and hot and perfect…”

Tess gasped as he lifted her pelvis to his face like a man dying of thirst would lift a bowl of water. He rubbed against her, bathing in her scent as he had promised, and she moaned as the rough stubble on his jaw scratched her tender skin. Sensation tingled through her, making her buck her hips up to meet his deliciously rough caress, making her want more…

“That’s right…” Garron looked up at her, his mouth and jaw already wet with her juices. “Ride my face tonight, Tess. Ride my tongue. Help me make you come.”

Then he buried his mouth between her legs and lapped her open with one long, hot, wet stroke of his tongue.

Tess moaned and fisted her hands in his thick, silky hair, riding his face as he had asked. She had never felt so open, so vulnerable…and yet she had never felt so free. Here she was, her thighs split wide with the big Kindred between them, his tongue buried deep in her cunt and there was nowhere she would rather be. No one she would rather be with, no one she would rather be giving herself to.

“Please,” she whispered, grinding shamelessly against his hot, wet tongue. “Oh God, please, Garron!”

He growled low in his throat in answer and sucked her throbbing clit into his mouth. The tip of his tongue drew magical patterns around and around her tender bud, making her moan helplessly and rise to meet him again and again.

At last, when she thought she couldn’t take much more, he moved lower and sank his tongue deeply into her cleft. Tess moaned again as he started to fuck her—thrusting his tongue exactly as she imagined he would thrust his cock. Hitting all the right spots, filling her up…

The thought made her so hot, she couldn’t stand it. With a sudden gasp, she felt a whip-crack orgasm race through her, making her pussy juice helplessly against his invading tongue.

“Oh God…Oh God!” She bucked against him again, giving in helplessly to the tide of pleasure that was sweeping over her.

Garron growled approvingly and lapped up every last drop. Tess moaned and arched her back as he dragged his tongue over her slick petals, determined not to miss any of her honey.

At last he stopped licking her and looked up, his eyes blazing like blue furnaces in the night.

“Tess…” he began and then stopped and frowned.

“What?” Tess was still panting from her orgasm but she could sense the unease in him. “What’s wrong, honey? Are you afraid you might turn back?”

“I will turn back…if I don’t take you.”

She frowned, not understanding the problem.

“So? Then take me. I want you to!”

“I want you too, lin’del. So badly I can scarcely stand it. But…”

“But what?” she asked gently, getting up on her elbows to look at him more fully. “What’s wrong? Just tell me—-whatever it is, we can fix it together.”

“I don’t think you can fix this.” He looked away, a troubled expression on his strong features.

“Fix what?” Tess was beginning to feel exasperated. Her orgasm had been brief—just an appetizer and she wanted more. More of his big, hard body pressed against hers, more of his deep, growling voice in her ear, more of him inside her…More.

“You cannot fix my hunger for you.” He looked at her again and this time she could clearly see the need and shame warring in his eyes. “The dr’gin , it’s still close to the surface—too close.”

Tess bit her lip. “What are you saying? That you might…change back in the middle?”

“No. But I cannot…cannot be gentle with you, the way I wanted to while it is so close.”

Tess’s heart started to pound but she raised her chin.

“That’s all right. I don’t need you to be gentle.” Looking him right in the eyes, she spread her legs wide and lay back, offering herself. Take me, Garron—I can handle it. I can handle you.

“Can you handle this?”

Instead of lowering himself on top of her, he reached down and raised her roughly. Flipping her over, he pushed her down to her hands and knees and pressed her thighs wide apart.

“Garron?” she gasped, looking around to see him crouching behind her.

“Can you handle me like this?” he asked, his voice a low, needy growl. “Can you raise your sweet ass and take my cock deep in your pussy, lin’del? Can you let me take you hard and fast? Because I don’t just need to fuck you tonight—my dr’gin is too close—too demanding. I need to breed you. To thrust my shaft as deep inside your soft little cunt as I can and bathe your womb with my seed. I need to come in you over and over, need to fill you up and make you mine completely. Mine forever. Can you handle that?”

Tess moaned, her heartbeat so loud in her own ears she could barely hear anything else. Could she submit to this kind of rough love? Pierce had never done anything like this. He’d kept their lovemaking exclusively missionary position—boring and utterly quiet except for a few grunts on his part. Maybe that was why being up on her hands and knees with Garron behind her, both of them panting and needy and hot felt so forbidden…so animalistic.

She bit her lip. It wasn’t the way she’d expected her first time with Garron to be but if this was the way he needed it…

“Yes,” she whispered raggedly. “Yes, I said I’d do anything to bring you back and keep you with me and I meant it. Anything at all. Even…even this.” Lowering her head, she spread her thighs wider and raised her ass, offering herself, opening her pussy for her lover’s thick shaft. “Take me,” she begged softly, looking back at him once more. “Take me the way you need to, Garron. I want you to.”

With a low, hungry growl, he gripped her hips and she felt the broad, blunt head of his cock slide over her open pussy. He bumped over her sensitive clit, making her jump and gasp and then the thick tip found its way to her entrance.

Tess lowered her head and moaned softly as the head of his cock breached her and began to slide slowly, inexorably inside. She’d had Garron within her once before—well, halfway anyway, but it was different this time. He seemed bigger somehow—thicker—almost as though he was channeling the dr’gin and this part of him had somehow grown to its huge proportions.

Still, she could do nothing to stop him—she was on her hands and knees, her thighs spread wide, half impaled on his thick shaft. She could only raise her ass and spread her thighs wider, trying to accommodate his girth, trying to be open enough for the huge cock he was thrusting deeper and deeper inside her.

“Tess…Gods…so tight,” Garron groaned.

“Sorry…trying to be…open enough,” she whispered.

“I’m not complaining. You fit me perfectly.” His voice was a low, caressing growl, his breath was hot against the back of her neck, and still he filled her. Tess knew she was extremely wet from the way he had tasted her but she could still feel her inner walls stretching as he fucked into her. God, he was huge and so long. Would this ever end? Would he ever reach bottom within her?

Just as she was certain it would never happen, it did. The blunt head of his cock bottomed out and kissed the mouth of her womb. They both moaned at once and Garron dropped his head to kiss her shoulder, his teeth grazing sharply over her bare flesh.

“Do you feel that, lin’del?” he muttered hoarsely. “Do you feel my cock in you, all the way to the root?”

“God,” she whispered brokenly. “God, yes, I feel it. You’re in me…in me so deep.”

“Going to get even deeper,” he promised her in a low, rough growl. “Need to fuck you hard tonight, Tess. Need to breed you and fill your soft little pussy with my cum.”

“I…I know,” she whispered back, hanging her head. “I know you do.”

“I’m sorry…” His voice was still rough but there was a note of shame in it too. “Sorry I need to take you this way. It’s the dr’gin within me—it needs me to plant my seed deep in your belly. Needs me to come inside you until your sweet pussy overflows.”

“It’s all right,” Tess assured him. “I…I’m ready.” To prove it was true, she lowered herself to her elbows, letting them rest on the rough rock floor. The motion spread her thighs even wider, giving him even better access to her pussy, allowing him to get a fraction of an inch deeper into her wet cunt.

“Gods…” Garron groaned, and then it seemed that he could wait no longer. Tess’s mute invitation was too much—too tempting. With a low growl he pulled back until all but the head of his cock was out of her and then slammed forward, thrusting deep and hard into her pussy.

Tess moaned softly and clenched her hands into fists as she tried to be open enough for his rough, delicious fucking. She could feel herself stretching with each punishing stroke, could feel his thick shaft invading her, filling her, taking her so hard she cried out with a pleasure that was close to pain with every thrust.

Garron growled and gripped her hips tighter, then he leaned forward and palmed her breasts, rolling her nipples until she moaned some more. He kissed her shoulder again and then bit her—not enough to break the skin but enough that she could feel his teeth. It was a mark of possession and it made Tess shiver even as she submitted to him.

It was as though she was being fucked by two creatures—the man she loved and the beast within him. She could feel the dr’gin surging just below the surface, taking pleasure in her body as surely as Garron was. Part of her wondered what would happen if it suddenly decided to come out—what would she do if the smooth, hard, muscular form hovering over hers suddenly changed into one that was covered in fur? Would she try to get away…or simply stay there and let the dr’gin fuck her as Garron was doing now?

Luckily she didn’t have to answer that question. Garron was able to remain in his current form as he bred her, fucking her long and hard, claiming her completely.

I never wanted him to say “mine” to claim me like Pierce used to try to do, she thought as Garron went on and on. But Garron really is claiming me—after this, I’m his and he’s mine. After this we belong to each other…

After what seemed like forever, she could feel the big Kindred speeding up, his thrust becoming deeper and more erratic. At the same time, she felt her own pleasure growing, climbing the peak with each rough thrust as he pressed inside her, spreading her inner walls with his cock.

God…too much…too much! she thought deliriously. Can’t take much more…

And then Garron gave her more anyway. She felt one large, warm hand slide down from her right breast and find its way to the place where they were joined. She gasped as he spread her pussy lips wide and rubbed roughly over her throbbing clit.

The rough, deliberate pleasure while he continued to pound inside her pushed Tess over the edge at last.

“Oh…oh, God…Garron!” she wailed as her orgasm pierced through her. “Oh God, yes…take me…fuck me!”

“That’s right,” he growled, his fingers sliding over her slick folds. “That’s right, come for me, lin’del. Come all over my cock while I breed you…while I fill your sweet pussy with my seed…”

And then she felt him grip her pelvis so tightly she knew she would have finger shaped marks on her hips the next day. With a low roar, he thrust into her, pressing as deeply as he could to reach her core.

Tess felt a hot rush and knew he was coming inside her, filling her with his seed, breeding her exactly as he had promised. With a soft wail, she backed to meet him, trying to get all of him, trying to give herself completely as she accepted his lust and need completely. As she opened her pussy and her heart to the man she loved and the beast inside him.

“Garron,” she gasped. “I love you!”

“Love you too, lin’del,” he gasped. “So much…so damn much…”

Tess bucked back against him, wanting this moment to never end. Wanting to feel him in her, claiming her forever.

“Garron,” she whispered. “Garron, I…”

But the physical sensations of intense pleasure coupled with the extreme emotions were suddenly more than her system could handle. Sparks of errant light danced before her eyes and then everything faded to black.

With a little moan, she collapsed on the stone floor and knew no more.


Chapter Forty-two

 

Tess woke the next morning, sore but satisfied. She was completely naked but somehow she wasn’t cold. Why was that?

Blinking, she looked around and saw that she was sitting on a new fur sofa. A white fur sofa. She frowned. Why had she picked white? It was a bad choice—one glass of red wine and it was going to be toast.

Then she woke up a little more and realized the sofa was breathing. The back of it was heaving up and down very slowly, almost as though it was some huge beast and not a sofa at all. Almost as if…

“No!” Tess sat up, completely awake at last. “No, it can’t be!” she exclaimed, looking at the dr’gin who was curled around her. He raised his head and looked at her quizzically from those brilliant turquoise eyes—Garron’s eyes. “I brought you back last night,” Tess told him, beginning to get really upset. “We said we loved each other. You can’t be stuck in this form again. You can’t be!”

“I’m not stuck, lin’del. I simply reverted to this form to keep you warm last night.”

The voice was unmistakably Garron’s but Tess was hearing it with her mind, not her ears. It made her think of the other disembodied voice she’d heard the night before—the one that had told her to be brave. Was she going crazy, hearing voices all the time now?

“What?” she whispered, staring back into its eyes. “Did…did you say something? And how did you say it?”

“I’m speaking through our bond.” His jewel-like eyes blinked slowly. “The bond that all Kindred males have with their mates.”

“You…we… what?”

“We are bonded.” The dr’gin looked away. “For that I am sorry. I know how you must feel about it.”

“How I must…” Tess shook her head. “I still don’t understand. What does bonded mean—besides you being able to speak inside my head, I mean?”

“It means we are tied together…permanently.” The voice in her head didn’t sound very happy about it.

“How…how did that happen?” Tess demanded.

“When I took you last night…when I bred you…” The dr’gin gave her a look from the corner of its eye. No, not the dr’gin—this was Garron in his dr’gin form. The two of them were one now, Tess suddenly understood.

“When you…bred me?” she asked.

“You need only to look at the marks I left on your flesh to know what I’m talking about.”

Tess looked down at herself—really looked—for the first time and sucked in her breath. There were bruises on her pale skin—mostly around her hips—but a few in other places as well. Not only that but the skin had been erased from her knees and elbows and the palms of her hands. Just looking at the raw, red flesh made the wounds she hadn’t noticed earlier sting.

How in the world…? Then it began to come back. Dimly she remembered kneeling on the hard stone floor of the cave as Garron plowed into her from behind.

Probably happened then. She shivered at the vivid memory—the rough pleasure of letting him take her completely—the overwhelming feeling of being utterly owned by him.

“You have bite marks on your back as well,” Garron informed her. “I wanted to heal them but I didn’t feel I had the right without your permission. I had to keep you warm, however which is why I curled around you. Though I know how you must feel about being in close proximity to me in any form right now. I hope you understand.”

Tess shook her head. “I don’t understand anything. Why would I not want to be in close proximity to you?”

“How can you ask that after seeing what I did?”

Garron shimmered and changed form. In an instant he was sitting there beside her on the hard stone floor of the cave completely naked. The change made Tess jump.

“Oh, you’re back! You really can change back and forth now.” She wanted to throw her arms around him but something stopped her—maybe it was the dark expression on his face. Or maybe the fact that she was still completely naked. She crossed her legs and draped an arm across her bare breasts as unobtrusively as she could.

“Yes, I’m back—thanks to you.” Garron gave her a long, searching look. “You saved me from being D’fex, Tess. Or rather, I used you to save myself from it. For that I must beg you to forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” Tess put a hand over his lightly. “Really.”

“That’s not true,” he said in a low voice. “There is much to forgive. Much I did to wrong you.”

She drew her hand away uncertainly. “Is this you giving me the “it’s not you it’s me” speech again? Because I have to be honest, Garron, if that’s it, then I will never forgive you.”

“But it is me—I’m the one who hurt you. You did nothing but come and seek me out, even when you knew it might mean your death. And look how I repaid you.”

“How you…? Wait a minute…” Tess frowned. “Is this really about last night? Or it is about you wanting to break up with me because I’m not Nella and you’re regretting the whole ‘bonded for life’ thing?”

“How could I regret bonding myself to you?” Garron looked at her, holding her eyes with his own. “I told you that Nella—as much as I loved her—is in the past. You are my present. And…my future. At least, I once hoped you were.”

“I can be.” Tess looked at him uncertainly. “If…if you still want me.”

“Of course I still want you!” Garron reached for her hand, entwining their fingers. “But I wouldn’t blame you a bit if you didn’t want me. Not after…after last night.”

“Last night was…intense.” Her face was suddenly hot with a blush as she remembered the incredible sex they’d shared. “But I’m not upset about it. Not unless you are.”

“I am upset—deeply disturbed at the way I behaved. At the way I treated you.” Garron looked away. “I vowed to loved and cherish you and never treat you roughly and then I…” He seemed to have difficulty getting the words out. “I treated you no better than your ex-mate. I wouldn’t blame you if you never forgave me for that.”

He started to draw his hand away from her but Tess wouldn’t let him.

“That’s not true,” she said fiercely, holding his hand tightly in her much smaller one. “Garron, look at me.”

Reluctantly, he met her eyes again.

“You’re nothing like Pierce was. Nothing. Not even after you first, uh, ate him and took on a few of his personality traits. You came after me at first but then you stopped when I asked you to. Even though you knew you had to mate or turn D’fex. Pierce would never have stopped. He took what he wanted and didn’t give a damn about me.”

“That is not the only way I mirrored him,” Garron pointed out. “He hurt you—marked you. I did the same last night.”

“Pierce liked to hurt me and scar me for his own sadistic amusement,” Tess said. “You marked me out of passion. Not on purpose—not because you got off on it—but because you were still in a kind of in-between state. You were channeling your dr’gin.”

He frowned. “How do you know that?”

It was pretty obvious the way you kept flipping back and forth until I finally managed to keep you in one form. Also, you were probably having what Yipper called the ‘three-fold reaction’ because the emotion damper failed. Remember when all the emotions you were having at the time the damper was implanted come back three times as strong?” She frowned. “What happened to the implant anyway? Is it still in you?”

Garron ran a hand over the back of his neck. “No, it’s gone—my body must have either expelled or engulfed it during my first transition.”

“Like it did with Pierce’s gun.” Tess shivered. “You know, I understand the clothes and even the shoes but how in the hell did you digest a gun?”

Garron shrugged, his broad shoulders rolling.

“The acid in the stomach of a dr’gin is one of the strongest in the known universe. I could eat anything in that form—even rocks—and digest them.”

“Ugh.” Tess shook her head. “Well, I guess you can never complain about my cooking then…”

“Don’t try to make jokes and change the subject,” he said severely. “We were talking about how I wronged you.”

“No, we were talking about why you got a little out of control. And don’t forget, I did tell you I didn’t mind when you said you couldn’t be gentle,” Tess reminded him. “Which was understandable—you were having the three-fold reaction and fighting with your dr’gin at the same time.”

“I do remember many strong emotions—feelings of guilt and shame and a lust so strong I felt I could barely control it.” His face darkened. “Clearly, I could not control it.”

“So?” Tess leaned forward. “You can’t make love to a tiger and expect to come away without a few scratches and scrapes. You were wild last night—literally. You couldn’t help yourself.”

“That’s not an excuse,” Garron said stubbornly. “None of this is.”

“I’m not trying to excuse anything,” Tess murmured. She stroked along the inside of his wrist gently with her fingertips. “I’m trying to tell you how I feel. I didn’t feel abused or attacked last night. I knew what I was getting myself into when I came after you in the first place—I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But Garron, nothing worth having comes easily. And you’re worth it. Worth the trauma of seeing my ex-husband eaten alive, worth being scared to death when I came looking for you…and certainly worth a few bumps and bruises and bites.”

Finally she began to see hope dawning in his eyes.

“You really feel that way?”

“Absolutely,” Tess assured him. At last she dared to lean forward and put her arms around his neck. Her bare breasts pressed against his hard chest making her bite back a moan.

“Tess…lin’del…” Garron held her tight. “After all I’ve put you though, I can’t believe you’re finally, truly mine.”

“I am,” she assured him. “And that’s not going to change no matter what.”

“I love you,” he sent through their new link and Tess felt the sincerity of his words right down to the tips of her toes.

“I love you, too,” she sent back, nuzzling closer to him. “So much, Garron. And I—”

“Teeeeeeessssss? Tess, are you here? Teeeeesssss?”

The call was distant but clear, floating up on the morning air currents from outside the cave.

“Becca!” Tess breathed. She jumped up, meaning to go to the cave mouth and shout back but then she realized she was completely naked. “Oh…” She looked around, wondering where the baggy sweat suit she’d been wearing the night before had gone to.

“Your clothing is over there.” Garron had turned back into his dr’gin form. He nodded his huge head to a far corner of the cave. “Put it on and I will take you down to meet them.”

“They’re probably looking for you, too,” Tess said, grabbing her clothes and beginning to pull them on.

“I have no doubt they are but they do not expect to find me. Not as a rational, thinking being that is.”

“Then we have a surprise for them. A happy one. Truth will be so glad—he was crying over you yesterday. He—” Just then she heard a deeper, masculine voice calling her name as well. Becca must have one or both of her husbands searching too.

“Come,” Garron said, shaking himself so that the white feather-fur rippled like silk. “Get on my back and let’s go meet them.”

“All right…” But for some reason Tess hesitated.

“What is it?” The dr’gin blinked at her questioningly.

“I don’t know—it’s silly.” She looked around and sighed. “I guess…I guess part of me just wishes we didn’t have to leave this cave. Which is ridiculous because it’s chilly and the stone floor is really hard. But I guess I just feel like…like we finally really connected in here.”

“Tess…” The dr’gin shimmered and Garron was there again, holding out his arms. She went to them willingly, loving the warmth and safety she felt in his embrace.

“I know it’s silly,” she said. “It’s just a feeling.”

“It’s not silly but you should know that it’s not just the cave. I’ve felt a connection to you from the first time I saw you. From the second I smelled your sweet scent in the Pairing House, I knew I had to have you.” He looked into her eyes and spoke softly. “I might not have admitted it to myself or to you right away, but I knew in that moment you were the only female for me. The only one I could ever love.”

“Oh, Garron…” She pressed her cheek to his chest and stood there holding and being held by him, feeling complete for the first time in her life.

“If this cave means so much to you, I can always fly you up here again,” he pointed out, stroking her hair. “We can make it a regular destination if you want.”

“That’s right.” She laughed softly. “I’m bonded to a man who can fly. I feel like Mrs. Superman or something.”

“I have no idea who that is…” Garron shimmered again and the dr’gin reappeared. “But I do know we need to go down and let our friends and my brother know that we’re not dead.”

“All right.” Tess got on his back and took a double handful of the white fur. “But I reserve the right to come back here any time, just like you said. Only next time I’m bringing a blanket or a roll of memory foam or something. This stone floor is hard on a girl!”

There was a soft sound of what might have been dr’ginish laughter and then they were sweeping out of the cave, sliding through the rising air currents and the morning sunshine to find the forest floor below.


Chapter Forty-three

 

“I still can’t believe you’re okay!” Becca gave her a spontaneous hug and Tess hugged her back, glad to be alive and back with her new friend. “I mean it’s amazing. Just…amazing!”

“I guess it is.” Tess smiled. When she had come floating down from the side of the mountain, riding on Garron’s back, she’d thought Becca’s eyes would pop out of her head. But now that they were all cleaned up and comfortably seated at a table in the HKR building in Asheville, Becca seemed to be getting over her shock.

Tess was feeling much better herself. They’d had lunch and a shower and Becca had given her a change of clothes which looked much better than the worse-for-wear oversized sweat suit. Now she and Garron were comfortably installed in one of the guest suites for visiting Kindred here at the HKR building which was good, because she couldn’t face going back to the cabin. Not after all the awful things she’d witnessed there.

She wasn’t sure what she was going to tell Di about what had happened at her uncle’s cabin, but she would think of something. After all, she was going to see her friend tomorrow. She and Garron were taking another road trip from Asheville back to Tampa. And this time she didn’t have to worry about Pierce following her.

Thinking of her ex-husband still gave her a little chill. She supposed there might be questions about his disappearance but since he was gone and there was no body to use for evidence, she didn’t anticipate too much trouble. Truth and Far had promised to pull up the stained carpet and burn it so she was hopeful she could keep mostly out of any investigation that might occur.

“And you’re feeling all right?” Becca asked and Tess realized she’d been spacing out for a moment, thinking of her future plans.

“We’re fine—both of us,” Tess assured her.

“More than fine.” Garron spoke to Becca but his eyes were on Tess and their turquoise depths were hot. Tess blushed and looked away.

“Uh, yes. I can see that,” Becca said, smiling at him. “And it’s good to see you in your right mind.”

Garron nodded solemnly at her. “Actually, since Tess brought me back to myself, I am in my ‘right mind’ as you say in either form.”

“That’s amazing!” Becca gushed. “And to think I thought Tess was crazy to go after you.”

“I knew Garron was in there, just waiting to be let out,” Tess said, smiling and squeezing her lover’s hand.

“Actually, his name is now G’ron,” Truth said, nodding at his brother. “According to the Rai’ku traditions after a male’s first turning, he takes his adult name.”

“Um, okay—G’ron it is,” Becca said. “It looks like you guys have had a hell of a night,” she said to Tess. “But considering you’re still alive, I’d say it all worked out for the best.”

“Obviously.” Truth frowned. “But I must know—how is it you didn’t devour Tess in your D’fex state, Brother? How did she pull you back from the brink of madness?”

“Oh, well…” Tess could feel her face getting hot and Garron’s cheeks were also dull red with embarrassment. Luckily, he didn’t have to answer the question.

“How do you think, silly?” Becca demanded, looking at Truth. “They’re bonded. Aren’t you?” she asked Tess, who nodded.

“We are,” Garron—or G’ron as Tess supposed she ought to start calling him—said. “I am proud to claim Tess as my mate and my bride. She is part of me.” He put a fist to his heart. “I owe her everything and I love her with my entire being.”

“Oh, honey…” It was all Tess could do to stop herself from jumping in his lap. She tried to restrain herself, however, and just squeezed his hand instead.

He studied her palm, tracing the scrapes she still had gently with one fingertip.

“It occurs to me, lin’del, that while I apologized for the injuries I inflicted on you, I never healed them.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Tess sent back quickly. But she couldn’t suppress a shiver of excitement when she remembered how pleasurable his healing could be. The soft feel of his mouth, the warmth of his tongue as it glided over her flesh… “I’ll be fine,” she sent, trying to push the forbidden images away while they were still sitting at the table in mixed company.

“You’ll be fine after I heal you.” To her surprise, Garron pulled her into his lap and started kissing her right there at the table.

“Garron, er, G’ron,” she protested, half laughing, half embarrassed. “We’re in public here.”

“You think I care about that?” he growled through their link. “And don’t worry about calling me G’ron. Only on Pax do males change their names when they make a first transition. I left that behind and I never want to go back to it. I am content to stay here with you.”

“Mmm, I’m feeling pretty content myself right now…” Tess admitted, kissing him back.

“A-hem.”

The sudden sound reminded her that they weren’t the only people in the room and she looked up to see Becca laughing at her.

“Come on, boys,” she said to Truth and Far, taking their hands and rising from the table. “It looks to me like the honeymoon period is still going on for these two. Let’s let them go back to their suite and have a little more bonding time.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Tess exclaimed, even as Garron got up from the table, holding her as easily as if she was a doll. “We didn’t mean to be rude!”

“That’s okay.” Becca’s lovely eyes gleamed with laughter. “I know how it is. After all, we’re still kind of in the honeymoon phase ourselves, aren’t we, boys?” She gave Truth and Far a smile which Far returned while Truth answered with a hungry growl.

“Well, if you’re sure…” Tess said, even as Garron was starting to walk away with her. He paused for a moment, impatiently, for her to talk to her friend.

“Positive,” Becca assured her. “Besides, we’ve got a shuttle to catch. Are you guys going to stay here in the guest quarters at the HKR for awhile?”

Tess nodded and made a face. “For tonight, anyway. There’s no going back to the cabin. Not after Pierce…well, not right now. Not sure what I’ll tell my friend Di when I go see her.”

“So she’s getting better?” Becca asked.

Tess smiled. “Much. So much that she told me she didn’t want to see my face until I’d tied up any lose ends in Asheville.” She shrugged. “But there isn’t much to tie up, really.”

“Okay. Well I know Sylvan is still trying to get your ban from the Mother Ship revoked. There’s another council meeting today and I’ll call you before you leave tomorrow to give you the news.”

“All right.” Tess smiled but she could feel Garron’s growing impatience through their link. “Look, we’d better go.”

“Uh-huh.” Becca started laughing again. “All right. Go on, then. Have fun.”

“We will,” Garron answered for her. “Farewell, have a safe journey back to the Mother Ship.”

Before any of the others could answer, he was striding swiftly away, taking Tess with him. She waved over his broad shoulder and Becca, still laughing, waved back before she and her husbands went to find the shuttle that would take them home.

“That was rude you know,” she told Garron with mock severity even as he started to kiss her neck. “Very rude to just pick me up and carry me off like some kind of a…of a caveman.”

“But the cave was where we bonded,” he objected through their link. “I thought you liked the cave.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Tess giggled and then moaned when he found a particularly sensitive spot on the side of her neck.

“Then what did you mean?”

“Never mind.” She gave up, not caring about anything but being with him. “I’ll explain later. For now, just take me to bed. I think I want a little more ‘bonding time’ as Becca put it.”

“My pleasure, lin’del,” he growled softly through the link. “And soon it will be your pleasure too. I’ll see to that…”

Tess was sure that he would.

 

End

 

Epilogue # 1

 

 

"So they're all bonded and happy now?" Kat asked, taking another bite of strawberry delight cupcake.

"Perfectly. They couldn't keep their hands off each other." Becca grinned, remembering how Garron had carried Tess away almost in mid-sentence.

"I'm so glad." Sophie smiled and wiped pink crumbs off her nephew, Daniel's rosebud mouth. He was toddling everyplace now and he seemed to love Lauren's cupcakes as much as the rest of them.

"We didn't get to know them long but I'm glad they got together." Liv was holding her niece and nephew, Kara and Kaleb, one in each arm. Both of them were looking up at her with wide, wondering eyes. Kara's were ice blue like her father's and Kaleb's were green like Sophie's. It was too soon to tell about hair, though—they both still just had little blond wisps on the tops of their heads that hadn't grown out yet.

"These guys are adorable." Becca tickled Kaleb's cheek and he turned his wide green eyes on her. "Can I hold him?" she asked.

Sophie laughed. "Help yourself—just be sure you stay close to Liv when you do. I swear they scream bloody murder if you even take them across the room from each other."

"I'll be careful." Becca put down her cupcake and held out her arms for baby Kaleb. She noticed that his gaze went immediately to his twin sister when she took him. But when he saw that Kara was still within sight, he settled with a contented sigh into her arms and gave her an adorable toothless grin.

"Awww," look at that." Kat smiled. "He likes you."

"Yours are going to like me too if they ever come out," Becca said teasingly. "Seriously, how long until you're due?"

"I'm past due," Kat groaned and put a hand to her hugely swollen stomach. "Seriously, they're killing me."

Liv frowned. "Is that normal?"

"It is according to Sylvan," Sophie said, feeding Daniel another little bite of pink icing from her finger. "He says sometimes Kindred pregnancies can be prolonged for thirteen months or even a little longer."

"Ugh, don't remind me!" Kat exclaimed. "I'm so miserable. If it wasn't for Lauren and her baked goods, I don't think I could go on living."

"Where is Lauren, anyway?" Liv asked. "She just dropped off the cupcakes and ran. I hardly even got to see Ziza."

"Having a spa day with her mom, the lucky un-pregnant girl," Kat said. "Ugh, why has everyone had their babies but me? Why must I be so eternally pregnant? I feel like I'm carrying triplets or something in here."

"The tests would have shown that—wouldn't it?" Sophie asked. "I mean, you only got two flowers and they only heard two heartbeats, right?"

"I've been studying Kindred obstetrics and it gets complicated with Twin Kindred pregnancies sometimes," Liv said. "Sometimes there's a shadow twin."

Kat grew pale. "Don't talk about that! That's bad luck when I'm still pregnant!"

"Sorry, Kat-woman," Liv said quickly. "Let's talk about something else—you never told us where Tess and Garron are going to live, Becca."

"Well, I think they wanted to come back to the Mother Ship," Becca said, tickling the baby's cheek again to see his toothless little smile. "I know for sure they don't want to go back to the cabin where Garron, er, ate Tess's ex."

"As in killed him or actually ate him all up like the big bad wolf?" Kat asked.

"Ate him all up. Even his gun, apparently," Becca said. "And Tess had to watch the whole thing. She's over it now but she's not exactly anxious to return to the scene of the crime."

"Can't say that I blame her," Liv remarked.

"Well, they're bonded now," Kat said comfortingly. "So I'm sure Chancellor Terex will have to lift the ban on Tess and let her come back aboard."

"I don't know…" Sophie looked troubled. "Sylvan is trying but he says that the Chancellor…doesn't seem like himself lately."

"I wondered about that," Liv said darkly. "He seemed so strange when he came out of that coma."

"Well, I'm sure being in a coma changes you," Becca said. "I just hope he'll change his mind about Tess. I really like her."

"She seems like a sweetheart and I know Truth would like to have his younger brother near," Liv remarked.

"Well, we'll know soon," Sophie said. "I think Sylvan is talking to Chancellor Terex right now."

"Fingers crossed, everybody," Kat said. "But before you cross them, somebody hand me another cupcake. Chocolate this time, okay?"


Epilogue # 2

 

“But they’re bonded now—she’s his bride.” Commander Sylvan leaned across the large, smooth desk, his handsome face concerned.

“I understand that, Commander.” Terex/Ur put a suitably concerned look on his own face. “But I cannot reverse my ruling for one warrior without reversing it for many. We are not calling brides from Earth right now—how will it look to all the other Unmated Males if I allow…what was his name again?”

“Garron.” Sylvan appeared to be gritting his teeth. “Or, G’ron, now as I understand it.”

“Yes. Whatever his name is…” Terex/Ur waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway, how will it look if I allow him to bring his new bride on board the Mother Ship while all the other males are denied?”

Actually, Ur knew exactly how it would look—like one warrior was being favored over another. And the last thing he needed was a mutiny on his hands. He wanted the anger of the Unmated Males turned squarely on Earth, where it belonged—not on him.

“That is another issue we must discuss,” Sylvan said. “The Unmated Males are growing restless. The ones that are dream sharing especially—they want to claim their brides. We must start calling brides from Earth again.”

“But if we allow our own males to call brides, we must also support the claims of other factions,” Terex/Ur pointed out smoothly. “We must allow our Dark Kindred brother, who is dream sharing with Senator Hastings’s daughter, to call his bride as well.”

Sylvan shook his head. “That, at least, shouldn’t be a problem. Tess—the same human female you refuse to allow back on the Mother Ship—actually met with the male who is dream sharing with the Senator’s daughter. His name is Six and he told her that he was not planning to call her after all.”

What?” Terex/Ur could barely suppress his anger. He’d been counting on the conflict between the Dark Kindred and the senator’s daughter to boil over into a witch’s brew of anger and hostility. Only that morning Senator Hastings had placed another irate call to his viewscreen. He had assured Terex/Ur that if his daughter was taken, he would consider it an act of war.

“And I’m not just talking about a personal war,” he’d said, his face growing red with anger. “I’ll take it to the World Council and get it pushed through. You may have a mighty arsenal of weapons, Chancellor but the united governments of Earth have been developing some pretty devastating weaponry as well. And we have the entire planet at our disposal. We’ll knock you out of the sky!”

“Oh, I very much doubt that, Senator,” Terex/Ur had replied smoothly. “But have no fear. We are not calling brides from Earth…at the moment. Though if we start again, your daughter will likely be one of the first called.”

The call had ended with anger and vitriol on the senator’s part and satisfaction and glee on Ur’s. And now Sylvan told him the idiotic male wasn’t planning on calling his bride?

“When did this happen?” he demanded. “Why wasn’t I immediately informed?”

Sylvan raised an eyebrow at him.

“Why, Chancellor Terex, you sound upset that a global crisis has been averted. Senator Hastings is a powerful male on the World Council. If he called for war with the Kindred because his daughter had been taken…”

“Of course I’m not upset.” Terex/Ur tried to school his features into a smooth, blank slate. It wouldn’t do to have the fool of a Kindred suspect him. “I simply want to be kept informed of all such important happenings. It is your job to inform me, Commander Sylvan.”

“Which I am doing now, Chancellor Terex,” Sylvan replied icily. “But can we get back to the business at hand? We must start calling brides from Earth again before the Unmated Males mutiny.”

“Let them go to the Pairing House.”

“That is no longer a viable option. Most of the Pairing Puppets are broken and the technical team which specializes in their care has somehow been redeployed away from the Mother Ship.” Sylvan frowned. “I do not know by whom.”

He didn’t know because Terex/Ur had taken care to cover his tracks. He’d been very careful in the slow but regular decommissioning of the Pairing Puppets and the redeployment of the team that fixed them. And at the same time, he’d been stoking the fires of Senator Hastings’ rage. He wasn’t about to let Commander Sylvan ruin all his hard work.

“I’m sorry,” he said blandly. “But we are not calling brides from Earth right now.”

Sylvan frowned. “But the Unmated Males—”

“Will simply have to keep their shafts in their trousers a little while longer,” Terex/Ur said, frowning. “That is all, Commander Sylvan. You are dismissed.”

“But—”

“I said, you are dismissed. Is that clear?” Terex/Ur frowned at him.

Sylvan bowed stiffly. “Understood.”

“Good. Then leave my office. I have things to attend to.”

The other male turned without another word though his anger was clear in the stiff set of his shoulders.

Ur frowned as he watched him walk out of the office and the door swished shut behind him. Commander Sylvan would bear close watching. Should he expel him from the High Council? But, no…that would cause too much suspicion. Besides, Ur was a firm believer in keeping one’s enemies close.

In the meantime, he had more pressing matters to attend to. Such as how he could provoke a war between the Kindred and the humans when that fool of a Dark Kindred, Six or whatever his name was, had decided not to call his bride after all.

And yet…Terex/Ur steepled his fingers on his chest and leaned back in his chair, considering the possibilities. And yet, how often had a Kindred who had begun dream sharing with a female actually foregone the chance to call her voluntarily? After living among them for awhile—and living inside one of their bodies—he knew their internal drives quite well. Possibly better than they knew themselves.

If Six was being driven to call a bride, his urges to come and find her would be strong. In fact, the Kindred mating instinct was stronger than any other they had—even the will to live. That was evidenced by the stupid way a Kindred warrior would so easily give up his own life protecting or defending his bride.

So maybe…maybe this Six simply needed a push—a little nudge in the right direction. Of course, he might be worried that his need to call a bride would be construed as having illegal emotions, which would be grounds for termination on Zeaga Four. Ur knew all about that—he had been studying the Dark Kindred—or the Enhanced Ones as they called themselves—from the moment Senator Hastings came to the Mother Ship complaining that his precious daughter shouldn’t be claimed by one.

Terex/Ur tapped rapidly on his desk, raising the viewscreen. Rapidly, he placed a long distance—a very long distance—call to Zeaga Four. A blue screen appeared and a smooth, mechanical voice began to speak.

“You have reached the service of One, the Mouthpiece of the Collective. Do you care to leave a message?”

“No. I must speak to One at once.”

“That will not be possible. One does not take outside calls.”

“He will take this one. This is the Chancellor of the High Council of the Kindred of the Mother Ship.”

There was a pause in which Terex/Ur straightened his official robes. Then the blank blue screen dissolved and a Dark Kindred of around the age of Ur’s stolen body appeared on the screen.

One, the Mouthpiece of the Collective, was scarcely distinguishable from the machines he served. He was shaved completely bald and the top of his skull had been replaced by a clear plexi-steel cap which showed multiple wires and electrodes embedded in the pulsing pink and gray matter of his brain. In addition, both eyes had been enhanced with black ocu-scopes and his ears were thin silver fans, no doubt designed to collect low and high frequency sounds inaudible to the Unenhanced. A black plug emerged from one nostril and both arms had clearly been replaced—one was completely metal and the other ended in a claw. His mouth—which was the only unenhanced thing about him—was a thin, bloodless slit. He looked at Terex/Ur completely without emotion.

“Yes, Chancellor?” His voice was without inflection. “Why do you call on me when our factions have not spoken in many cycles?”

Terex/Ur leaned forward a little.

“I have a deal which I think may be beneficial to both our peoples.”

“You have my interest. Go on.”

“Are you aware that one of your number is dream sharing with a human female from the planet Earth? The planet the Mother Ship is currently orbiting?” Terex/Ur asked.

A slight frown creased the slit of a mouth.

“That is not possible. We of the Dark Kindred have foresworn ourselves of all contact with females. In addition, each of us is implanted with an emotion damper to curtail the need to call a bride.”

“Nevertheless one of your number—a male called Six—is dream sharing. It is causing…much consternation among the humans who inhabit Earth.”

“Six, is it?” One nodded. “That would explain much. He came to us as an adolescent instead of being grown in the artificial womb tubes. Perhaps his emotion damper has finally begun to fail.” He looked at Ur. “What do you wish me to do about it? I refuse to have him purged without adequate proof. He has become very useful to me—a protégé of sorts.”

“No, no, no—I do not wish you to purge him,” Terex/Ur said hastily. “On the contrary—I wish him to come and claim his bride.”

The thin, bloodless mouth creased into a frown again.

“Impossible. The Enhanced Ones do not call brides.”

“This one must,” Ur insisted. “The current political climate demands it.”

“I thought you said the dream sharing was causing much consternation? We of the Zeaga Four do not seek war with another planet.”

“What if the planet in question was rich in heavy elements needed for advanced circuitry?” Terex/Ur raised an eyebrow at the Mouthpiece of the Collective. “Not to mention that the humans are a genetic match with Kindred. There are billions and billions of fresh DNA samples waiting for you here.”

One frowned. “We collect many samples from the various sentient beings who visit our medical barges. But it is true that not many are suitable for genetic mixing.”

“All of the inhabitants of Earth are suitable,” Terex/Ur said enticingly. “And I can guarantee you free access to them. All you have to do is come and take them.” He raised a finger. “But it must be at the right time. First Six must claim his bride and bring her back to Zeaga Four for their Claiming Period.”

“Impossible,” One said again. “The Unenhanced are not welcome to the surface of our planet. She would have to be modified or enhanced in some way to step foot on Zeaga Four.”

“So much the better.” Terex/Ur tried to hold back a grin. “The more enhancement the better in this case.”

“What of her emotions? Is she a feeler?”

“I am certain she is—all these humans are.” Terex/Ur grimaced. “But do you not have special dispensations for such entities?”

One nodded slowly. “We do. But she cannot stay here indefinitely flaunting her emotions. It might cause…problems. Eventually, if she wished to become a permanent inhabitant, she would have to take an emotion damper implant.”

“Of course she would.” Terex/Ur could scarcely keep from rubbing his hands together in glee.

One raised one thin, pointed eyebrow.

“And this is the ‘deal’ you mentioned? I must allow Six to claim a bride and in return you will grant us access to the Earth’s natural resources and the humans’ DNA?”

“Of course. Subject to my timeline, of course,” Terex/Ur emphasized. “The Kindred of the Mother Ship must already be at war with the denizens of Earth before they will accept ‘help’ from another faction to subdue the humans. After the war is won, of course, you will have access to all the Earth’s riches. Both organic and inanimate.”

One nodded thoughtfully. “It seems a generous proposal though quite risky for Six. If the Claiming Period he spends with this female causes his emotion damper to fail entirely, I will be forced to purge him. I would…regret that.”

“What value is the life of one compared to the gains of so many?” Terex/Ur argued.

“True. And Six has a very strong character. I do not believe he would allow himself to be corrupted. Perhaps it is an acceptable risk.”

“Your reasoning seems sound. Surely the Collective would approve of such logic,” Terex/Ur said gravely.

“True…true.” One nodded again. “A moment while I consult with them.” The black lenses of his ocular implants flickered briefly shut and there was a faint humming sound. The electrodes implanted in his brain, visible beneath his clear skull cap, lit up in a complicated series of patterns.

Terex/Ur waited impatiently. If One did not agree to his deal…

Just then the black lenses cycled opened and the Mouthpiece of the Collective nodded.

“All right, the Collective agrees to your proposal. I will send Six to claim the Earth female he is dream sharing with and we will join the war against Earth when it breaks out. In return, I will expect full access to the natural wealth of the world as well as DNA samples of all the inhabitants.”

“Done.” Terex/Ur nodded smoothly. “But see that Six claims her quickly.”

“At once,” One promised. “And now I must go. I have other matters to attend to.”

“Of course.” Terex/Ur nodded. “I will speak with you later as events unfold.”

“Agreed.” One nodded once more and then his image dissolved into the blue screen.

Terex/Ur sat back in his chair, an evil grin spreading across his face. Now he had just one more call to make. His fingers tapped over the controls, bringing up the image of the person he wished to speak to.

“Yes, Chancellor Terex?”

“Commander Sylvan,” he said, putting on his most earnest face as he stared into the viewscreen. “It is possible that I was too hasty in my decision earlier. On further reflection, I believe that you were right. We should start calling brides from Earth again. Please make it so.”

On the viewscreen, Sylvan nodded.

“I am grateful you reconsidered, Chancellor. The Unmated Males will be overjoyed to hear it.”

“Of course they will.” Until they heard that Earth had declared war on them and refused them any more females. And then they would have no choice but to join the war in order to claim their brides. But Ur would allow that to unfold on its own.

After all, the first bride to be called would be Mei-Li Hastings, Senator Hastings’ daughter…

 

 

 

Read on for the first chapter of Brides of the Kindred 12, Enhanced coming this summer 2014…


Enhanced

Chapter One

 

“Who are you?” she whispered. “Why am I here?”

“I…do not know.” Six’s voice sounded rough and uncertain in his own ears. The slender, tiny shape of the girl who haunted his dreams stood before him, her dark eyes wide with fright.

“I don’t know why I can’t stop having these dreams.” She looked around her at his service room which was where she always seemed to find him, when he was resting in his docking station.

Her hair fell in a long, straight waterfall of black down her back and her big eyes were partially obscured by strange glass and wire oculars. Six wondered what they were for. They didn’t seem to have the range of his own ocular scanner, the one he’d had implanted over his left eye. Could they be to correct her vision? But if that was the case, why did she simply not have some enhancements done?

“What is your designation?” he asked, since she continued to stand there. Usually she faded almost immediately. It was disturbing to note that this time she wasn’t leaving.

“My…designation?”

“I am Six.” He thumped the breastplate of his exoskeleton impatiently with a metallic clang. “What do you call yourself?”

“Oh. Mei-Li. My name is Mei-Li.”

“May-Lee?” Six frowned at the strange mixture of syllables.

“It means ‘beautiful flower’ or something like that, I think. My mother picked it out when my parents adopted me from China because it sounded exotic without being too hard to pronounce. I…” She took a step back. “I’m sorry, I’m babbling. And I’m still here. These dreams never last this long.” She looked around. “Why am I still here?”

“I do not know why you remain or why you come at all,” Six said. “You certainly do not belong—you have no enhancements and clearly you are consumed by emotion.”

“Enhancements?” For some reason she looked down at her small, barely rounded breasts.

Through the sheer white garment she wore, Six could see that they were tiny but perfectly shaped. For a strange moment, he wondered what they would feel like in his palms. Would the pink points of her nipples, pressing innocently against the thin white fabric, feel good against his fingertips? And what would her reaction be to his touch? Would she moan—illicit emotion overcoming her as he stroked those delicate buds? Would she—?

He shook his head, trying to clear the strange thoughts away. Where had they come from? And what had he been talking about with the little female? Oh, right—enhancements.

“Enhancements like my own.” He motioned to his enhanced left hand and the ocular scanner in is left eye. “You have no enhancements. You are not authorized to be here.”

“That’s what you always say—that I’m not authorized to be here… That you’ll hunt me down and make me pay…” She began to back away from him, fear growing in her eyes.

“Because you are not.” Six reached up to disengage himself from his docking station and took a step toward her. His exoskeleton made a mechanical hiss and his boots thudded heavily against the metallic floor panels.

“No—please!” She backed away from him, almost stumbling in her haste. “Please don’t!” She looked around. “Oh God, I just want to wake up! Just let me wake up…”

Suddenly Six’s eyes opened and the dream—if that was what it had been—was over. He looked around, searching the room with his scanner but it was empty—it was always empty. The girl in his dream was nothing but a figment—an insubstantial wisp who disappeared the moment he opened his eyes.

But he could no longer dismiss her as nothing but a figment and the dream as nothing but a slight aberration during his recharging period. It was coming more frequently for one thing—the girl was disturbing his sleep on an almost nightly basis now. And for another, the dream seemed to be lasting longer. He had been able to have an actual exchange with her this time—not a good sign.

Reflexively, he reached behind his head and felt the small metal button of his emotion damper, embedded in the flesh of his neck, just below the base of his skull. Still in working order, he assured himself. I feel nothing. But then why did the dreams keep recurring? And what could he do about it?

Suddenly the speaker at the door of his service room buzzed to life and the voice of Ter, his domicile’s informations system, spoke.

“Six, you are requested in One’s domicile at once.”

For some reason, Six’s heart began pumping harder.

“Why?” he demanded. “It is not my day to communicate with One. Please clarify.”

“No clarification possible,” Ter’s mechanical voice said. “One has requested your immediate presence. He has given no reason for this request.”

Nor did he have to. As the Mouthpiece of the Collective—the group of mechanoids which ruled Zeaga Four with an iron hand—One was entitled to make any request he desired and expect immediate obedience.

“Will you come?” Ter asked.

“I will. Tell One he may expect my presence momentarily.”

“Very good.” With another buzz, the speaker fell silent.

A vague feeling of unease settled over Six as he left his domicile and entered the busy, dark streets of Prime, the main urban center of Zeaga Four. Six frowned to himself as he walked, threading his way through the busy traffic of wheelers, trackers, and mechanoids as well as the organic Enhanced that made up the diverse life in the city. High walls of metal and tempered glass rose all around him, blocking out the sky but he was so used to the view—or lack thereof—he barely noticed it. Instead, his thoughts were turned inward. This unease that would not leave him…it was almost like…like an emotion.

But that was foolish, surely. He was simply concerned for his future, as any rational being would be. And possibly the dream, which kept coming over and over again, was getting to him.

Not that he planned to do anything about it, he reminded himself. The girl was light years away and obviously a feeler. There was no place in his neatly ordered life for such as her.

Still, his thoughts kept returning to her slight, frail form and her large, frightened eyes. What if someone threatened her, so far away on that tiny planet where she lived? How could she protect herself? She didn’t even have an exoskeleton…

Before he knew it, he found himself standing outside the featureless metal door that led to One’s domicile. It was exactly the same as any other organic’s residence. There was no class distinction among the inhabitants of Prime—not even for those close to the Collective.

He pressed a sound activator in the center of the door and waited for the resulting alert to ring within.

“Name?” the voice of the domicile’s informations system demanded.

“Six. One is expecting me.”

“He is with Two, now. A momentary delay.”

“Understood.” Six crossed his hands behind his back and stood at ease, waiting impassively.

Only a moment later, the metal door panel slid open. He started to step inside but a low, robotic form suddenly appeared, blocking his way. It looked up at Six and growled, a metallic buzzing sound that vibrated its entire body from its blunt snout filled with jagged metal teeth down to the tip of its segmented tail.

A sniffer.

Six stood perfectly still, eyeing the mechanoid impassively. It growled again and sidled closer. The metal portals in its snout that comprised its nostrils irised open and began inhaling air.

The process reminded him of his induction into the Collective—when, as an adolescent, he had first had his emotion damper installed. Had he failed that test, the jagged metal teeth would have closed around his throat and his life would have been over.

Now, as he had so many years ago, Six looked impassively into the glaring red mechanical eyes and waited for its decision. The sniffer continued to inhale, stalking around him on stiff, metal legs until at last it seemed satisfied. With a final buzzing growl, it backed away and sat on its haunches by the side of the domicile.

“Well, well—so you passed the test.” The voice belonged to Two—the Eyes of the Collective. He was second only to One and they were often in company with each other, consulting on matters of importance. He was a tall, skeletal male with a skull-like face and an advanced multi-spectrum scanner that took up his entire right eye socket as well as the right side of his face. It was permanent—not built over the existing structure like Six’s was. Instead of an exoskeleton, he wore a long, black leather coat which buttoned at his boney chin and fell to the tops of his black boots. When he spoke, he appeared to have too many teeth.

Two was also in charge of the sniffers—the mechanoids whose sole job it was to ferret out Feel-crime in the general populace. Six supposed he should not have been surprised to see one of Two’s pets in attendance but nonetheless, it bothered him. He had not been so thoroughly inspected since his first initiation into the Collective. It was almost as if Two was hoping to find something wrong with him. Something illegal.

“Yes, I passed.” Six spoke without rancor though he did not enjoy the other male’s company. “What did you expect? That I would be guilty of Feel-crime?”

“I would not be surprised.” Two’s mouth stretched in a humorless rictus of a grin showing his many sharp, yelllow teeth. “After all, One informs me you have been dream sharing with a female.”

“Why would he inform you of that? It is none of your concern.” Six’s heart began beating faster again and the sniffer, which was lying down now, its snout on its metal paws, raised its head and whined.

“That’s right, Gurn.” Two snapped his fingers and the sniffer came to heel at his feet. “Six protests much for one whose innocence is in question.”

“I have done nothing wrong,” Six said stolidly, willing himself to be blank once more. “The dreams came to me—I did not seek them out.”

“Of course you didn’t,” One said from the doorway of his domicile. The clear skull cap which showed the electrodes of the Collective implanted in his brain glinted faintly in the weak sunlight which had somehow made its way between the towering buildings of Prime. “Your guilt or innocence is not in question here. I merely wished to speak with you, Six,” he said.

“One.” Six looked up with something like relief. “May we speak privately of this matter? I do not feel it concerns Two.”

Everything approaching Feel-crime concerns me.” Two gave him that grimacing, humorless grin again which showed too many teeth.

“There is no Feel-crime here,” One said stolidly. “You may go, Two. I will speak to you at a later time.”

“Of course.” Two nodded slightly and glided away, the sniffer jogging at his heels.

One nodded at Six. “Please enter my domicile and make yourself comfortable.”

“Thank you.” But Six cast a last glance over his shoulder at the thin, retreating figure. He did not care for the Eyes of the Collective. The male was too eager to find wrong-doing and he displayed smug satisfaction when he was able to punish those found guilty of Feel-crime.

Six touched the back of his neck again, almost without knowing he was doing it. The emotion damper implanted in the back of his neck was a good one—installed by the best Tolleg surgeon aboard any of the medical barges. Even a sniffer with the most sensitive olfactory apparatus would never scent Feel-crime on him. He was safe. Two couldn’t touch him.

One stood aside and allowed him to enter the cool, dark domicile and then sealed the door behind them.

“Now, Six,” he said, leading the way down the long, dim hallway to his work room. “As Two said, I understand you have been dream sharing with a female.”

“Not on purpose!” Six protested. “The dreams come and I cannot make them go. They don’t mean anything, though—they simply disturb my rest during my recharging period.”

“Dream sharing is a Kindred phenomenon,” One said, seating himself behind a plain black metal desk with a smooth, clean, empty top. “It is to be expected that it would happen to you eventually.”

“What? But why?” Six took the stool in front of the desk, hooking the leg sockets of his exoskeleton into the power grids along the metal sides of the stool reflexively. It was like One to have such a seat for the recharging of a guest’s armor. He was thoughtful in that manner.

“You are pure blooded Kindred, are you not?” One raised an eyebrow at him. “The rest of us who have had our DNA mixed by the Tollegs and were grown in the artificial incubation tubes have traces of other races mixed in. But you came to us already formed as an adolescent. Your genetic heritage is more pure…and thus more prone to this kind of deviance.”

Six frowned, not liking the word ‘deviance.’

“What am I to do about it? As I said, I do not invite the dreams—they just come. And I cannot make them go, no matter how I try.”

“Tell me about the girl.” One leaned back in his chair, his black oculars cycling lazily. “The one you are sharing with. What does she look like?”

“Small…frail…unable to protect herself.” Six frowned. “I always feel she may be in some kind of danger and that I should do something about it. But…I don’t know what.”

One nodded thoughtfully.

“You feel protective of her. Not really an emotion—simply another Kindred trait.”

“I feel nothing for her,” Six protested, his heart speeding up for some reason. “I feel nothing at all.”

“Of course not. No one accused you of feeling,” One said gently.

“Two did.” Six frowned. “Why else would he instruct his pet sniffer to inspect me?”

“Two…is Two.” One shrugged as though it was of no consequence. “I didn’t call you here to talk about him—I called to talk about your dreams.”

“Do you want me to have my emotion damper inspected?” Six asked. “I could ask the Tolleg who installed it—”

“No. I want you to claim her.”

It took a moment for One’s words to sink in. When they did, Six stared at him uncertainly. If he could have felt anything, his emotion would have been shock.

“What did you say?”

“I said I want you to claim her—go and claim the girl you are dream sharing with.”

“Claim her and do what with her?” Six demanded. “I have no frame of reference when it comes to females.”

“Untrue. You had a female parent and a female sibling—a sister I believe it is called—before the Red Plague claimed them.”

“The Red Plague…” Six shut his eyes briefly. Blood leaking from their eyes and ears…oozing in crimson rivulets from Kaylee’s nose, the corners of her mouth. “Kill me, Jax. I want you to kill me…it hurts so bad…”

“…Claiming Period here.”

“What?” Six’s eyes flew open. “Forgive me—I did not quite hear your words.”

“Which is why you should get an acoustic implant—at least on one side.” One frowned disapprovingly. “I said that you can spend your Claiming Period here on Zeaga Four.”

“But I don’t know what a Claiming Period entails,” Six protested. “And the girl is completely unenhanced—I can see that much in the dreams. Also, she is a Feeler.”

“You can study the rules of the Claiming Period as you journey to claim her,” One said. “As for enhancements, she can get one or two simple ones aboard one of the medical barges before you come to the surface.”

“And her emotions?” Six asked. “What if she doed not choose to get an emotion damper as one of her enhancements? What then?”

One sighed. “A special dispensation will be granted. Though if you keep her and she stays here for the long term, an emotion damper will become necessary.”

“Of course,” Six said numbly. He stood up. “But…why? Why do you want me to do this, One?”

The older organic, which Six had come to regard as his mentor, sighed and rubbed one hand over the smooth, see-through skull cap.

“Officially I will say only that it is the will of the Collective. Unofficially, I will tell you that events are in play that can affect all of Zeaga Prime. I cannot tell you more than that.”

Six frowned. “I will do it if you ask it of me, of course. But I still do not understand.”

One looked up at him. “I know you don’t and I know this is a risk for you, Six, but I believe you can do it. Your character is strong, your logic unimpeachable. You will not allow yourself to fall into Feel-crime, no matter what influence this human female has on you.”

“She has no influence,” Six said, frowning again. “None at all.”

But against his will he remembered the sheer, silky white garment which showed her small, perfect breasts…the fear in her eyes…her soft, sweet voice when she begged him not to hurt her… Someone needs to protect her, a voice whispered in his head. She’s too tiny, too delicate—defenseless.

“I know she doesn’t. And I know you will stay strong.” One’s voice broke the strange reverie he had somehow fallen into.

“Oh, of course. Of course, I will, One.” Six nodded.

“Good.” His mentor stood and nodded at Six. “When you have her, bring her back to me and let me inspect her enhancements. I will grant you a personal dispensation for her emotions so you won’t have any problems.”

“Thank you.” Six made a formal bow which One returned with a nod of his head. “I will do as you ask.”

“See that you go at once,” One said. “Take your fastest shuttle and have the tertiary medical barge fold space for you. Its energy source is the strongest.”

“Of course.” Six nodded again and turned to go.

“Six?”

“Yes?” He turned back to see a strange, unreadable expression on One’s face. Then again, it was odd to see any expression on the normally blank countenance of his mentor.

“May Fortune favor you,” One said formally. “Now go. I will see you next when you have the girl with you.”

Six nodded again and left. But as he stepped from One’s domicile into the dim daylight of Prime, he wondered what reason his mentor could possibly have for him to claim the human girl.

And what would Six do with her once he had, in fact claimed her? What did one do with any female? A quick vision of tiny, perfect breasts and huge, lovely eyes flashed before his mind’s eye and was gone just as quickly.

He lifted his chin and headed for the shuttle docks. There was much to do and much to learn.

It was time to claim his bride.

 

Can’t get enough Kindred? Don’t worry, Enhanced will be coming soon… And if you happened to read this book out of order, the first four novels of the Brides of the Kindred are now collected in one volume you can find at .


  Brides of the Kindred Glossary

 

AllFather—the evil head of the Scourge, a race that are the byproduct of a failed genetic trade. The AllFather is one of the Old Ones and has the power to reach into a person’s mind to harvest emotional pain and trauma. He lives for the fulfillment of the Scourge Prophesy.

 

Ancient Ones—beings which live in the Deep Blue—the darkest and most inaccessible part of the Rageron jungles. They are sentient but not related in any way to the Kindred. Each Ancient One has two forms—a bipedal form which resembles a human or Kindred and a beast form which can be deadly and they can change between forms at will. The Ancient Ones predate even the First Kindred and revere the skrillix plant, which they guard jealously.

 

Bespeak—to contact someone mentally using a Think-me device. It is considered rude to bespeak someone you don’t know intimately.

 

Beast/Rager Kindred—come from Rageron—a jungle planet full of beautiful but deadly flora and fauna. They have dark hair, golden eyes, and hot tempers but their most defining characteristic is the mating fist. The mating fist is an area at the base of the Beast Kindred’s shaft which engages fully only during bonding sex with his chosen mate. When engorged it swells to keep the Beast Kindred and his bride locked together until she is completely bonded to him. This ensures sex that is both extremely long lasting and multiorgasmic for both partners.

 

Blackness between the Stars—another name for the Hoard or Grimlax, an ancient enemy of the Kindred. These beings have no souls and so are considered demonic by the Kindred.

 

Blood Fever—a condition suffered by unmated females on Tranq Prime, the home world of the Blood Kindred. Blood Fever or Burning Blood as it is often called, is caused by a parasite living on the icy world that affects only women. The parasite—found in the fleeta or blood beetle—reacts with a compound in the Tranq Prime water supply to cause the fever. Symptoms include chills, increased sexual need and the feeling of the blood heating in the veins as well as increased coloration of the nipples and sex. If the fever is not treated in forty-eight hours, it will result in death.

Once a Kindred male has had a female’s blood, he forms a natural antidote to Blood Fever which he can pass on by sharing body fluids with her. The most effective way to get the antidote into the female’s system is for a Blood Kindred to bite her, thereby injecting it along with his essence. However, it is also possible to pass along the healing fluid through sex.

Blood Fever used to be very common on Tranq Prime which is what prompted the cold, proud natives to initiate a genetic exchange with the Kindred in the first place. A recent vaccine has nearly eradicated the disease, however, and the original inhabitants of the ice bound planet have little reason to continue the trade. A faction calling themselves Purists are against any further trade with the Kindred.

 

Blood/Tranq Kindred—are blond with pale blue eyes and come from Tranq Prime where ice, snow, and arctic-like temperatures are the norm. To combat the severe weather conditions, the Blood Kindred have higher than normal body heat with double the human amount of red blood cells. They have developed specific biting rituals to share their supercharged blood and take the blood of their mates during their own version of bonding sex. They have a set of double fangs located where a human’s canine teeth would be. These fangs do not develop fully or become sharp enough to pierce flesh until a Blood Kindred is with a woman he wishes to mate and bond with.

 

Bonding Ceremony—a wedding-type ritual which takes place after the Claiming Period if the bride chosen by a Kindred warrior has allowed him to have bonding sex with her and joined her mind to his.

 

Bonding Sex—the extra step a Kindred warrior takes to bind his bride to him permanently during intercourse. For the Beast Kindred, it is the use of the mating fist. For the Blood Kindred, bonding sex means sex during penetration. Twin Kindred bind a bride to themselves by entering her and coming in her at the same time.

 

Claiming Ceremony—a sort of engagement service that takes place when a bride is first claimed by a Kindred warrior. He declares his intentions toward her and she vows to obey the laws of the Claiming Period.

 

Claiming Period—women who are drafted are required to go up to the Kindred Mothership and spend a thirty day “claiming period” with the warrior who has chosen them. If, at the end of that time, they have managed to resist the charms of their Kindred mate, they are allowed to go back down to Earth and resume their normal life. However, if they succumb to their Kindred male’s seduction, they are mated for life and must move to the Kindred ship to live, leaving everything else behind and seeing their family and friends on Earth only infrequently. Of course, many women are unwilling to give everything up at the drop of a hat, draft or no draft. But the Kindred have a secret weapon—devotion to their female’s pleasure and attention to detail during incredibly hot sex.

 

Claming Period Rules—The Claiming Period lasts for four weeks during which the Kindred warrior attempts to seduce his chosen bride and she tries to resist him:

The Holding Week: the Kindred warrior may hold his bride.

The Bathing Week: the warrior and his bride bathe together and he is allowed to massage her with scented oils and make her come.

The Tasting Week: the warrior is allowed to perform oral sex on his bride.

The Bonding Week: sex is allowed but it is completely up to the bride whether she will take things a step further and allow bonding sex which is a special and specific process to the three different types of Kindred males. (Most women have given in well before this point but a few do resist.)

 

The only way out before the claiming period is up is a breach of contract. This can happen if the Kindred warrior does not strictly follow the rules and tries to skip forward in the order of allowed events or by breaking one of the rules laid down by the Kindred High Council. These rules—mostly to do with restrictions on communication with Earth—are for the safety of everyone aboard the Mothership and are nonnegotiable. Ignorance is no excuse for breaking them and will result in immediate termination of the claiming period.

 

Convo-pillar—A half inch long insect which resembles a brightly colored caterpillar. Convo-pillars were genetically engineered by traders on the fringe colonies around Rageron to translate alien languages by communicating via thought waves to their wearer’s brain. They have been outlawed by the Kindred High Council because their notoriously unreliable translations cause more conflicts than they solve.

 

Dark Kindred –also known as Enhanced Ones—this faction of the Kindred race broke off centuries ago when there was a shortage of viable females to call for brides. Vowing to overcome their sexual urges, the Dark Kindred made a genetic trade with the cyborg-like residents of Zeaga Four who are ruled by a group of sentient machines called the Collective. Since all emotion is prohibited on Zeaga Four, the organic inhabitants get emotion damper implants to keep them from committing Feel-crime. Anyone found guilty of Feel-crime without a special dispensation from the Collective may be summarily purged.

 

Deep Blue—the darkest and most inaccessible part of the Rageron jungles

 

Dream Sharing—occurs when a Kindred warrior’s mind aligns with that of his bride and they begin to see each other’s day to day activities and memories in their sleep. However, the alignment of the two (or three in the case of the Twin Kindred) minds can take several forms and is not limited to sleep.

 

Fireflower Juice—an alcoholic beverage made from the Fireflower plant native to Rageron. It resembles milk in appearance but has the flavor of honey, vanilla, lavender and blueberries.

 

High Councilor—the rightful ruler and defender of the Kindred home planet, First World. Only the High Councilor may sit upon the throne of wisdom and see with the eye of foreknowledge. Without a High Councilor in place, First World and the rest of the Kindred race cannot be adequately protected against the evil machinations of the Hoard.

 

Hoard—an ancient enemy of the First Kindred also known as the Grimlax or the Blackness which eats the Stars, they are evil, demonic beings with ravenous appetites and a desire to conquer, devour, and destroy every living thing in the universe. They are divided into tribes with the lowest echelon being the most numerous and primitive. The elite or upper echelon tribes are more sophisticated and intelligent but also much more dangerous. They are notoriously manipulative and able to change their appearances using a technique called “shadowing” to look like anyone or anything they choose.

 

Kindred—a race of genetic traders who have traveled the universe for centuries looking for viable matches to expand their gene pool. Since a genetic anomaly ensures that their population is ninety-five percent male, they are specifically looking for women.

The three genetic trades the Kindred have already made have resulted in three very specific types of men. But though they take on some of the physical characteristics of the race they are trading with, the Kindred gene always ensures three things: physical prowess, extremely large and muscular body structure, and undying loyalty to the female of their choice.

 

Krik-ka-re—a Scourge tradition in which the mind life of one being may be traded for or ransomed by another.

 

Kusax—a special knife made from the tainted metal at the core of the Scourge home planet. One scratch can be deadly as it infects the wounded person with a soul poison which ensures a slow, agonizing death.

 

Law of Conduct—the Kindred law which says every warrior is responsible for the good behavior of his bride and gives him the right to punish her—within reason. Often the “punishment” is sexual in nature and some brides become serial offenders simply to experience their Kindred warrior’s particular form of discipline. ; )

 

Luck Kiss—a kiss performed by the best man and maid of honor at a Kindred Bonding Ceremony in order to bring the happy couple good luck.

 

Mate of my kin—the way Kindred warriors refer to the brides chosen by their brothers. It is analogous to the English term sister-in-law.

 

Marks of Possession—the Scourge way of marking a female as their mate. The Marks of Possession include a close-fitting collar, piercings in the nipples and clitoral hood, and a brand on the inner hip or the top of the buttocks. Scourge with Kindred blood also desire to scent-mark their mates but they require the traditional marks of their kind to really feel bonded to the female of their choice.

 

Mother of All Life—the main Kindred Deity, a kind and benevolent goddess whose teachings include respect and reverence for all things female.

 

Numala—a Blood Kindred name which means “liquid pussy.” It refers to a female who produces more than the regular amount of lubrication when aroused. Numalas are much prized by the Blood Kindred and sought after as mates because they are more likely to be able to accommodate a Blood Kindred warrior’s larger than average cock.

 

Psychic-Knife—a torture device developed by the Scourge which is able to break the mental and emotional bond between a Kindred and his bride.

 

Rage—also Protective Rage or Berserker Rage—a state of altered consciousness that comes over a Kindred warrior when his bride is threatened. It floods the bloodstream with endorphins and causes such intense anger and aggression that a Kindred in this state becomes a killing machine who will die to protect the woman he has claimed.

 

Sacred Grove—an area of green and purple trees that houses the temple of the Mother of All Life. The Kindred Mother ship has been equipped with an artificial green sun like the one on their home world in order to allow these holy trees to grow and flourish.

 

Scourge—a genetic trade gone wrong, these menacing outsiders have twisted desires and sexual needs fierce enough to frighten away even the most adventurous. Their need to dominate and possess their women completely has led to a strange prophesy that they must fulfill…or die trying.

 

Scourge Prophesy—“One of two, alike and yet different—the double fruit of a single womb from the third planet of a yellow sun. She shall be marked with a white star between her breasts.” These words were spoken by Mee’ah—the last living female of the Scourge race who was believed to be a great seer. The Scourge are a dying race, forced to create new members in artificial wombs called flesh tanks or vats because they have no females. Yet, because they have some of the same genetic characteristics as the Kindred, they are able to create only male children and each new generation is weaker than the last. The prophesy refers to the woman the Scourge believe will be able to mate with the AllFather and bear only daughters to rejuvenate their race.

 

Skrillix Plant—also known as the Pain Vine. This plant is found only in the heart of the Rageron jungles called the Deep Blue. The brilliant crimson berries of the skrillix are said to cure many illnesses, including stasis sickness and can also dissolve an improperly placed or artificial soul bond. The thorns are said to be as poisonous as the berries are helpful. One prick from a skrillix thorn can give waking nightmares, forcing the victim to relive painful memories. When minds are linked by the juice of the berries, these visions can be shared with others who can witness them via a chemically induced neural link.

 

Take-me—an animal native to Twin Moons that has been domesticated by the Kindred for transportation aboard their ship. The Take-me has green fur and two heads, one on either end. Each head has three purple eyes. The Take-me has the unique features of being to expand and compress its mass which makes it ideal for storage. Because they originally lived in caves, most Take-mes stay very contentedly in small dark areas in the Kindred food prep areas where they live off the scraps and leavings of their master’s meals. They can eat almost anything except banana peels which they are allergic to.

 

Tharp—an animal that looks very much like a thin fur blanket which can be worn as a garment. Tharps are cultivated on Tranq Prime and prized for their ability to multiply their host’s body heat and keep them warm in even the most frigid conditions. A tharp can be worn by only one person— as a neophyte or youngster it imprints upon a host and will slowly starve if parted from them. Tharps are intelligent and capable of limited movement. They live as long as their host and subsist only on body heat, needing no other form of sustenance to survive.

 

Think-Me—a thin silver wire worn around the temples which facilitates mental communication between people who already have an intimate connection.

 

Touch-U—a flat black mat-like animal native to Tranq Prime which the Kindred have adapted to be a home health appliance. The Touch-U is capable of giving a gentle massage or an all-out erotic experience depending on which button is pushed.

 

Twin Kindred—come from Twin Moons—a world of vast, stormy oceans dotted with craggy but beautiful islands. True to their namesake, Twin Kindred always come in pairs. The brothers are not identical, however. There is always a light twin and a dark twin. These labels refer not just to skin, hair, and eye coloring but to the twin’s moods and perceptions of the world. The dark twin in the pair is usually more moody and withdrawn while the light twin takes a substantially brighter view of life. The twins are closely linked and able to sense each other’s emotions. They cannot be separated by long distances or for long periods of time without severe pain. They must also share a woman, linking her into their mental and emotional exchange for very intense ménage sex.

 

Urlich—a type of dog bred by the Scourge. At maturity they are modified with machinery to heighten their sense of smell and intelligence which results in a cyborg-type animal. Once in pursuit of whatever scent has been programmed into their brains, the urlich are utterly single minded and incapable of stopping until their prey has been cornered and captured.

 

Wave—a Kindred cooking appliance which emits thousands of finely collimated beams of heat to cook food in under a minute.

 

Zichther—an animal native to the jungles of Rageron, the zichther resembles a small bright blue teddy bear in appearance until it opens its mouth and reveals three rows of incredibly sharp, shark-like teeth.

 

 

Evangeline Anderson is a registered MRI tech who would rather be writing. And yes, she is nerdy enough to have a bumper sticker that says “I’d rather be writing.” Honk if you see her! She is thirty-something and lives in Florida with a husband, a son, and two cats. She had been writing erotic fiction for her own gratification for a number of years before it occurred to her to try and get paid for it. To her delight, she found that it was actually possible to get money for having a dirty mind and she has been writing paranormal and Sci-fi erotica steadily ever since.

You can find her online at her website www.evangelineanderson.com

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