Authors: Zoe York
ldric took a long
, slow drink of barely palatable ale and watched from the shadows of the dingiest bar on Howard’s Moon Space Station—a galactic no man’s land on the edge of civilized space—as Bel’eel Davidsdottir swivelled her hips through the crowded tables.
As if he wore a homing beacon, she found him without difficulty. Damn Verveenian noses.
“Don’t be grumpy with me, Aldric,” she purred as she slid into the chair next to his.
“I’m doing you a favor, so maybe that’s not a problem.”
me a favor, so yeah, it is. I have to be on the other side of the galaxy yesterday. Now is not the time to play games, you got that?”
Her nostrils flared and her eyes glowed as she reared her head back. “So this information you seek on Hefderian prisons…it’s about a woman?”
He didn’t answer her. With that damn nose, she didn’t need him to.
“Who is she?”
“None of your damn business.” For more than one reason, nobody could know that he was rescuing Navena.
“You’ll need credits.”
Cold fear clenched around his guts. “I have untraceable, pre-loaded cards for bribes.”
She shook her head. “Not for bribes.”
The cold turned to ice.
“There are two ways to buy a woman from these prisons. They have quarterly auctions where they go for a bargain.”
Aldric pushed to his feet and grabbed Bel’eel by the wrist. “You can fill me in on the rest as we get ready to depart.”
“I have customers to meet here! I can’t go with you!” She yelped as he dragged her onto the busy concourse. “Stop! It’s not urgent. The next auction won’t be for sixty days. Give or take.”
He rounded on her, rage pulsing through his veins. “Where this woman is concerned, there is no room for estimation. What is the other option?”
With a wilting sigh of regret, Bel’eel curved into his body and took a deep, inhaling sniff as she dragged her nose along his jaw. “You can buy a bride at any time, Viking. But it will cost you.”
He shoved her away, ignoring her cackle of laughter. Bel’eel had always liked it rough. He took a deep breath and held out his hands, palms up. “Find me someone who can counterfeit the funds. With a legitimate trace. And a matching identity.”
She gave him a shrewd look that he knew he would come to regret at some point. “And then you will owe me?”
He nodded. “Anything.”
avena had hoped
the fact she’d gone nineteen days before witnessing the first prisoner removal meant it was a rare event. She didn’t even know what exactly had happened, because
talked about it, and she wasn’t about to start asking questions.
Less than seventy-two hours later, when the cell doors clanged open hours ahead of schedule again, she knew that hope had been misplaced.
“Step out of the cells. All prisoners must move into the center of the room.” The same message.
She’d hoped this wouldn’t happen again. But hope didn’t keep you safe. So after thinking hard about what she had in common with the women taken the last time, she’d done her best to change her appearance. Without a knife or scissors, cutting her hair had proven too time consuming, because she couldn’t draw attention to herself, either. So instead she’d braided it, dozens of tiny, tight weaves springing off her head in all directions. It had taken her the better part of a day, and now that she’d slept on it twice, it was starting to dread up in spots. She looked like a hedgehog—strange, terribly unsexy, and totally perfect.
This time she sauntered into the mix next to a prisoner with roughly the same body shape as her. Maybe that would help her hide in plain sight.
That was her last thought before she felt the sting in her neck and crumpled to the floor.
in Aldric’s body tensed as he watched Navena lose consciousness. Bel’eel had gleefully briefed him before he’d departed for the Hefder system on what would happen. He knew they tranquillized prisoners sold into the black market.
Still didn’t make it okay.
But he wasn’t there as Aldric Gunter, second to Reinn, son of King Ragnar of Midgard. Marksman, security expert, and trusted advisor.
No. For the woman he couldn’t shake from his thoughts and dreams, he’d shaved his head and wrapped himself in leather and steel, assuming an identity created by Bel’eel and the other Verveevian Valkyries.
The Icelandic settlers that had set out from Earth at the same time as Aldric’s forefathers had no idea what they were getting into when they landed on Verveen. A lot of weird pink-skinned loving, to be sure. Crazy-demonic granddaughters, too.
But Bel’eel and her crew knew a thing or two about disguise, and right now, he didn’t care what it would cost him later, because his reflection staring back in the one-way glass high above the prisoner common area was this unfamiliar assumed identity: T’kr Gretch, a warlord from the Dark Moon of Melus.
If he hadn’t just handed over half a million credits, the Hefderians might have questioned his story. He hadn’t had a ton of time to pull it together.
Luckily, money talked.
And he’d just bought Navena as his bride.
ou son of a bitch
!” The rough curse ripped from Navena’s throat as she was yanked back into consciousness, before she remembered that she wasn’t in a position to be tossing around fighting words.
She’d been drugged—twice, if the rush of adrenaline through her system was any indication. Knock her out, rev her back up again. Who gave a fuck what the impact on her body might be?
Her mouth watered and her eyes stung as she tried to square her shoulders and get her mental shit back together. She shoved to her feet from where she’d been slumped against a low couch, moving as quickly as possible given her condition.
That’s when she felt the warm, solid hand in the middle of her back.
Her bare back.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” she hissed, twisting away from the oversized man looming right beside her. He was too close to see clearly, and the lights above were too bright. Not the spotlight of the prison common space. She’d been moved somewhere else. A room she’d never seen before. So she looked down at her body instead, and couldn’t contain the groan that rolled out of her at the ridiculous get-up she’d been poured into.
Silver fabric twisted around her torso, barely covering her breasts before sliding down her midsection, then around her hips in the scantest of miniskirts.
Taking a quick head-to-toe assessment of her body, she determined she wasn’t injured. No aches or other evidence of injury.
That was something.
Surprisingly, her braids felt like they were still intact. So she was wrapped up for sex, as long as someone put a bag over her head. Or they had a grunge fetish. Neither possibility gave her any comfort.
She took a deep breath and narrowed her gaze on the Hefderian official sitting behind a desk on the far side of the room. “Excuse me,” she started. She’d gotten used to speaking slowly, giving the translating devices time to start working. It was amazing technology, although it really interfered with raging uncontrollably at one’s jailers. “As a uniformed member of the Federated Nations of Earth Security Force, I formally protest this change in my detainment. I’m sure that there is a diplomatic process to follow, and whatever this—” she gestured at her half-naked body “—is, it probably falls outside that process.”
The official didn’t look up.
“They’re not coming for you,” a gruff voice said from right behind her.
She spun around, her fists coming up in a defensive hold, but she froze as her gaze collided with dark eyes, flashing a warning that took her a beat too long to process.
She knew that face.
“Ald—” She cut herself off. She hadn’t seen him in months, and the last time they’d sparred at Ashleigh’s farm he’d had long, chestnut wavy hair.
Now he looked like an outlaw, with a shaved head and a tattoo crawling up his neck and over half his cheek.
It was a decent disguise. Since she wasn’t supposed to know him… “Who the hell are you?”
He grinned, hard and feral, white teeth flashing in his tanned, stubbled face, lined more now than in the past. A shiver ran through her core at the authentic hunger in his eyes. Whatever he was playing at, he was all-in on the cover act.
And he didn’t answer her question.
It was Aldric, wasn’t it?
She edged closer, a cautious step that brought her within snagging distance. She let out a surprised yelp as he hauled her roughly against his body, hard and thick and broader than she’d have thought possible.
Had he gotten bigger since she’d seen him last?
He growled as he stroked a heavy hand over her crazy hair, his eyes darkening into glittering dots of onyx. “Hold your tongue, woman. I’m not buying you for your conversation skills.”
“Excuse m—” The rest of her outraged protest was muffled by his other hand clamping over her mouth.
When she was wearing absolutely nothing and he was dressed up as—
Oh. Her eyes widened as he glared at her.
This was a crazy plan. He wasn’t
buying her. Her pulse thumped painfully at the base of her throat as she willed herself to breathe through the panic.
“How long will this take?” Aldric grunted over her shoulder, aiming his question presumably at the guy behind the desk. Navena couldn’t tell for sure, because he’d buried her face in his shirt.
The alien response started across the room, and when the translation crackled from the speaker beside them, the words didn’t land properly at first. “We’ll have you and your bride processed in a minute, Gretch.”
She twitched inside the solid steel band of Aldric’s grip, and he slid his hand possessively over her shoulder, squeezing the nape of her neck—a warning that she had no trouble understanding—before slowly stepping away from her. Just far enough to make hard, unwavering eye contact.
His gaze wasn’t familiar at all. It was hot and searing, and it didn’t linger on her face. He drank in her near-nudity, and she had to will herself not to respond. He was good, with the act and the look and the
. Because even as he’d shifted them apart, he somehow still had his hands on her. One hand on her shoulder, his thumb rubbing back and forth on her collarbone, the other on her bare hip. Hot, rough callouses branding against her skin.
When his eyes found hers again, she was pretty sure she’d drown in the molten lava that poured over her.
It was nothing compared to the searing heat of his lips crushing against hers and the burning scrape of his palm dragging up her side.
He didn’t push the kiss deeper—didn’t force her mouth open or tangle his tongue against hers—but it still took her breath away.
What the hell is going on?
“Trust me,” he muttered as he pulled back. Or maybe there was a questioning uptick at the end? But he twisted away from her before she could answer—good thing, because the answer was probably “hell no, you lunatic, no matter how hot you suddenly are, because you’re not acting anything like the friend I used to know”—and when he turned back, he had a twist of twine in his hands.