Rose looked at the tall, mottled-green male hovering over her. He was a Cattelan, one of the many alien races that scourged the Ring, looking for ships to plunder and goods to steal. This one’s name was Arrik, and he was the captain of the largest pirate ship this side of the solar system. At least, that was what he said. Not that she cared.
His hand was still above his head, and his smoldering yellow eyes burned holes inside her skin. The entire left side of her face throbbed with pain where he’d backhanded her. It would leave a mark for sure. She’d be lucky if she only had a bruise in the morning. Rose swallowed and glared at him. The hatred she felt for the alien male was like a tidal wave of ice, digging through her internal organs, chilling the fear she should be feeling to a dull ache in the back of her mind. She was no match for his size and strength, but she wasn’t a sheep to accept slaughter without a fight, no matter the consequences.
Still, the hand that reached for her throbbing cheek trembled. Some fights weren’t meant to be won.
Rose closed her eyes. One mistake, one little moment of inattention was all it took.
The Cattelan had captured her as she walked back from her hunt, a mere few hours from her house. Rose was exhausted and her feet and fingers were dull with the cold, but a string of three rabbits dangled from her hips. She was giddy with excitement at the thought of food, not looking around for signs of danger, as her father had taught her. As she had done countless times over the years.
It was her fault. Her fault the rabbits were thrown in the snow like garbage, like they didn’t mean life or death for the four people waiting in the mudhouse. It was her fault their last hope for survival was now aboard a slaver’s spaceship, leaving them defenseless and with no way of feeding themselves. They were doomed, and so was she.
Capturing her had been so easy.
It took Arrik only a second to jump on the opportunity, literally. As soon as he saw her, he leapt over the five feet or so that separated them and knocked her to the ground. The rest was history.
Rose was bagged and grabbed in a matter of minutes, and the world she knew had blacked out of existence. The next time she opened her eyes, she was inside a tiny white room, strapped down on a medical bed. The Cattelan had been there, looking over her body as if she was a unicorn sprinting out of the sea. He’d probably never seen a real life human before. Not many people had.
Cattelans were a merchant race involved in anything that turned a profit, including slavery. They would get more from the sale of Rose’s body than they could spend in two entire lifetimes, the whole crew of them. But first, they had to deal with her human downsides. So, they fitted her with a top-of-the-line universal translator, embedded deep inside her brain, and proceeded to inoculate her against all illnesses humans were known to succumb to in the vast aggregation of planets known as The Ring. They performed every test imaginable, deemed her fit and healthy and, since then, she had been treated like an exotic pet—so precious and fragile it had to be preserved in a glass enclosure for its own protection.
That was about a week ago. Rose had spent her days since in a tiny cell under controlled atmosphere. She was about to go crazy in the confined space. She was used to the open spaces, and the claustrophobic living quarter made her want to scream and hit the walls with her fists until they bled.
Right now, she would happily replace the walls with the green bastard’s face. Rose’s stare locked with Arrik’s and they exchanged strings of malevolence.
“Again, where are the other humans?”
“There are no others.” She gave him what she hoped was an intimidating sneer. “I escaped from the breeding facility last spring, after killing my guards.”
“You think I’m stupid, human?” He raised his hand again and Rose glowered at him, forcing herself not to flinch. “No specimen was reported missing from the breeding facility in the last twenty-three years. You’re lying.” An ugly smirk spread on his lip-less mouth, showing yellow teeth. “There are ways to make you talk.”
Arrik stepped closer, his gaze sliding over her body, his intent as clear as the erection stretching the fabric of his pants.
“Get up.” He tugged at his pants. “Take off your clothes. I’ve never had a human female before.”
“If you touch me, you’ll never have any other female, period.” Rose glared at him. “I’ll cut off your cock with my teeth if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Humans are supposed to be the best of all females.” He pulled a long black belt from his tight gray pants. “Let’s see if you’re worth the fortune you’re going to get me.”
Arrik moved, his longer reach an advantage in the fight to come. It was easy to see that he didn’t think she was a threat, no matter her earlier bragging. He wouldn’t hurt her, though. Damaging merchandise as precious as Rose wasn’t in his best interest, and Cattelans were experts at getting the best of their goods. Human females were worth fortunes, in any condition, but she was more valuable if she was pretty.
Still, what he had planned would wound her more than any blow.
“I’ll kill you for that.”
“A wild human female.” A long, forked tongue lapped the air, tasting her pheromones. “I’ll be richer than an Avonie duke.”
With that last assessing look, Arrik leapt. His strong hands closed around her ankle and she was thrown on her back, too slow to react. He slammed his large body over hers, pinning her under his weight. He didn’t even have to struggle with her, his nearly three hundred pounds were enough to render her defenseless. His weight was making it impossible to breathe, and all Rose was able to do was to gasp for air, opening her mouth uselessly as though she was a fish out of water.
As the seconds passed, her lungs burned and tiny spots of darkness grew in her field of vision. Panic took hold and Rose fought more fiercely, knowing she was using her oxygen reserves uselessly, but unable to control it. It didn’t matter. Dying was better than the life the slavers had in store for her. As darkness invaded her thoughts, she summoned the features of her family, as they were before her father left. Her cousin Aliena, her twin brothers, even her mother’s soft eyes, full of tenderness and love. Her father’s easy smile, coming back from a hunt with a deer carcass on his back. Those were the things Rose wanted to see as she was dying.
Darkness grew and Rose felt her grip on reality slip.
Arrik grabbed both her wrists, brought them over her head, and pinned them together inside his larger hand, then finally lifted his crushing weight from her ribcage.
Rose gasped for air, gulping in the life-giving oxygen in large, greedy mouthfuls. The next second, the stench of the male’s body hit her nostrils, a mixture of damp, rotting vegetables and acrid sweat. It was all she could do to prevent herself from gagging. Rose shut her eyes and focused. She needed all her strength to fight him off. Panic was just going to waste her energy, and she didn’t have any to spare. Wasting precious seconds indulging in sensitivities such as smells wasn’t one of her weaknesses, thanks to years of hunting with her father. When a girl knew how to gut a bear open, nothing could turn her stomach.
Without giving her time to recover, Arrik used one hand to keep her arms above her head while the other groped at her body. He squeezed her breast between his large, strong fingers so hard it hurt. Unable to restrain herself, Rose cried and twisted, but it was no use. He was so much stronger than her, she could as well wrestle with a boulder. Arrik’s yellow gaze locked with hers as he used his knees to push her legs open, forcing himself between her thighs. A whimper escaped her lips, and tears stung her eyes.
She wasn’t as strong as she thought. Not nearly strong enough.
“You’re soft, and you smell like nothing else I’ve ever smelled.” His voice was husky and bubbled with lusty violence. “I’m not even sure I’ll sell you right away. Maybe I’ll keep you for a while. You’ll be worth less, but that kind of pleasure is priceless.”
Rose’s heart sank deeper in her guts. He was going to keep her for his personal pleasure. He would rape her, repeatedly, and she was sure he would take pleasure in inflicting as much pain and humiliation as possible. She had to think fast if she wanted to avoid that fate. Opportunities wouldn’t come by the dozen, if they came at all. Then a plan imposed itself. It was a stupid, destined-for-failure plan, but it was the only one she could think of.
Arrik didn’t have a choice. If he wanted to rape her, he had to undress himself and take off his clothes, too. Rose’s pants and top were made of a light fabric, reminding her of cotton. Arrik could easily rip through them with his bare hands. His own clothing was another matter. He was wearing top quality synthetic leather, virtually tear proof. He had to withdraw from her and take it off if he wanted to do anything more than dry humping. And he did, without question.
Rose kept her eyes on Arrik as he let go of her wrists. He still towered over her, sitting with his knees between her spread thighs. His gaze didn’t waver from her body as he started to fidget with his shirt. Her breaths rose in rapid succession as she searched for an opening, her mind racing. When Arrik’s shirt was over his head, blocking his view for a few precious seconds, Rose didn’t hesitate.
She rushed forward, head-butting him in the stomach. It had the intended effect and Arrik fell down on his ass, unbalanced. Summoning all her strength, she brought her knees high up on her stomach, then used her two feet to kick him square in the face. The kick hit its target squarely, jerking his head back with a sickening snapping sound. Arrik roared in fury, struggling against the constraint of the fabric, his arms still trapped in the shirt. Then the fabric came over his head and he glared straight at her. Two molten yellow eyes fastened on Rose, and she knew there would be no end to the male’s retribution. Failure wasn’t an option anymore.
With everything she had left, she brought her knees up high again and aimed her next kick at his groin. Her heels connected with the hard bulge of the Cattelan’s erection with a muffled thump. This time, Arrik didn’t roar, but let out a thin, choked sound of agony as he grabbed his sex with both hands. His eyes rolled in their sockets and he fell on his side, momentarily incapacitated.
Without losing another second, Rose jumped over his body and pulled with all her strength on the strong necklace that attached the universal magnetic key to Arrik’s pants. It was sheer luck that Arrik was confident enough in his own superior strength that he didn’t bother leaving it behind him. She would have had no means of opening the door without it.
As soon as Rose pressed the small, oval object into the depression on the side of the door, it slid up, and the hallway, with its long white walls, appeared. There wasn’t a lot of time before Arrik regained his composure and ran after her. She looked down both ways, and sprinted to the left. There was no particular reason why she chose to go that way, she just made a quick decision because staying still, she knew, would mean defeat. She couldn’t afford defeat. Rose ran along the corridor, searching the walls as she went.
Father had told her about spaceships when she was younger, but she’d never even dreamed she’d find herself on one. Rose silently thanked the man for his diligence in educating her, and kept searching. She scanned the long hallways for a round, red hatch, just big enough to let a grown man through. The escape pod was her only chance at freedom. Even death would be better than the life of a slave in the human female sex trade.
A shout traveled from the far end of the hallway, interrupting her thoughts. Her time was up.
“You little bitch!” Arrik’s enraged voice echoed off the walls.
Rose was too scared to turn back. She kept running, hot tears running down her cheeks. She wasn’t even looking for the red hatch to the escape pod anymore. All her being was focused on one simple, meaningless task: to run as far away as she could from Arrik. She knew it was pointless. There was nowhere to go to inside the ship, nowhere she could hide, nobody who would lend a helping hand. Still, instinct pushed her legs faster, reaching the limits of her endurance.
Behind her, Arrik’s footsteps were ever closer.
Rose tried, but in the end, it hadn’t mattered. She had failed. She hadn’t found the escape pod. She was going to be raped and sold, then raped some more, for the rest of her life. She wasn’t even going to be allowed to die, she was too valuable for that. Whoever was going to buy her would keep her in optimal health for the duration of her long, hellish life.
She stumbled, her forces near depletion, but regained her footing at the last minute. The first of a long line of horrors was about to grab her, she could almost feel its putrid breath on her neck. At the last minute, she bolted in a wild turn, not caring to look out before she did.
Then it was there. The door wasn’t round like Father had told her. It was rectangular, with a red circle painted in the middle. Inside the circle was another, smaller circle. It was the sign for the escape pod.
Fast, she pulled the lever and the door slid open. Rose rushed inside, and closed the door just in time to see Arrik’s furious face slam on the small round window. He was beyond enraged. He looked mad enough to rip her to shreds with his bare hands. His nose was bleeding the gray blood of his race, and his lips were split. A vicious satisfaction sprung inside Rose at the idea that she managed to wound him. Hers wouldn’t be the only blood spilled that day.
“Push the release button.” A deep, masculine voice rose from somewhere inside the pod. “It’s the round one, right next to your hands.”
Rose turned around and tried to see where the voice was coming from, but couldn’t make anything out in the near total darkness.
“Who’s here with me?”
“If you don’t push the button in the next five seconds, the door will be unlocked from the command center.” There was a quiet urgency in the stranger’s tone, and it made Rose’s already racing heart skip a beat. “You won’t get another chance.”
The information raced to her mind and without another second of hesitation, Rose palmed around the door until she found what she was looking for. A large, round and flat button was there, right where the stranger said it would be. She pushed with all her strength with the flat of her hand. Nothing.
“I don’t understand.” Rose spoke, her voice small and shaky in the confines of the pod. “It’s not working.”
“Give it a second. It’s the safety features sealing the ship’s main air supply,” the stranger said. He spoke with a calm and confident tone, like he was trying to reassure a small child. “It has to disengage the hydraulic pressure for the release.”
There was a loud clicking sound as the seals cut the air supply. The air in the pod changed now that it was isolated from the main ship. Rose could almost feel the aseptic void of deep space on her skin. Of course she couldn’t, or she’d be dead in a split second. Next, the anchors snapped free and the pod floated away, strangely small against the monstrous shadow of the Cattelans’ ship.
The pod moved fast, using its high capacity boosters in a series of short bursts, as was its programming. She stared at Arrik’s face through the small window as the pod accelerated. In less than a second, he wasn’t visible anymore, and ten more seconds later, all that remained of the large slaver’s ship was a tiny dot in the black immensity of space. A giggle rose in the small space of the pod, a sound of drunken relief. A few moments later, Rose realized it had come from her.
“You have to secure yourself.” The unknown voice came back, full of tension. “Fast.”
“What?” Rose was too drunk on relief to understand. “We’re free!”
“This pod is going to jump into hyperdrive. You’re going to get hurt if you don’t secure yourself.”
The words brought her back to reality. The voice was definitively male, and spoke with a deep roll of the throat, a bit like a growl. It was a good, reassuring voice, a voice she would have found sexy if she wasn’t scared half to death. Whoever had spoken, he was right. The escape pod was about to undergo a series of accelerations so severe they felt like a single burst into the ungodly speed necessary for deep space travel. If she didn’t secure herself, Rose was going to be hurled against the walls like a rag-doll. She would be hurt; bones would be broken. She could die.
“I don’t see anything,” she said, hating the shaking, plaintive undertone in her voice. “Where are the seats?”
“Walk toward my voice,” the stranger said. “There’s a seat right next to me.”
Rose obeyed, walking toward the voice as he kept uttering encouragements. Her hands stretched in front of her, her heart pounding. She had no idea what was supposed to be inside the pod. She had spent all her life in Earth’s wilderness, away from even the most basic technology. The only knowledge Rose had of all these things came from her mother and father, and the stories they and the other escapees told the children. She was clueless and defenseless.
Finally, her hands hit cold metal bars. A second later, strong, warm fingers wrapped around them. The stranger was on the other side of those bars.
“Good. The seat is on your left. I’ll hold you, so you won’t fall.” The stranger’s hands closed around her wrists. “You don’t have long before the pod takes the jump.”
Rose was thankful for the stranger’s hands as she made her way to the side. She reached with one hand, the other still in the stranger’s hold, and found the thinly padded seat. Reluctantly, she pulled away from the stranger and sat. Belts were attached to the back of the seat, and she fidgeted with them until they were secured across her chest in a crisscross pattern.
“Thank you. You just saved my life,” Rose said.
“It’s my pleasure, Pretty Thing,” the stranger answered, his voice a low, humorous growl. “You just saved mine.”
Rose opened her mouth to counter, but no words came to her mind, so she shut it again. How could he find the wit to call her Pretty Thing when their lives hung in such a precarious balance? And how would he know anything about her looks? The pod was pitch black.
Less than thirty seconds later, the pod shot into hyperdrive, blasting away from the main ship, the computer having completed its calculations to the nearest planet capable of sustaining life. The sudden surge of speed cut her thoughts short. Rose’s head banged on the back of the seat as the pod surged forward, and darkness invaded her mind as she lost consciousness.
The last thing her mind registered were the stranger’s strong hands, wrapping around hers.
* * *
What are you?
The small female’s head lolled limply on her shoulders, long strands of hair covering her face in an avalanche of savage curls. Reaching between the bars of his cage, Karian lifted the curtain of curls from the female’s face.
Her features were delicate and soft in a fragile way reminiscent of the just-born youngling, with large eyes framed by heavy eyelashes and plump lips that hung partly open. The bones underneath her silken skin were rounded and fine, giving her face an appealing, dainty appearance. Karian’s gaze traveled down her body, strapped in the seat. She was slender, reed like, willowy, like a blade of grass on the plains of his homeland. She was a true enigma, more so than any other female he had encountered before, and he had visited half the worlds in the Ring. He inhaled deeply, tasting her sweet pheromones in the back of his mouth.
Midnight God! This female was arousing to no end.
Karian cursed the darkness that forced him to gaze upon the female with his infrared vision. The receptor cells in his eyes that allowed him to see even in total darkness were an invaluable asset in battle, but the landscape of red didn’t allow him to catch all the subtleties he sensed in her, and it frustrated him. Strange that he attached so much importance to this female, of all the things he should be worried about.
But then again, after ten years in solitary confinement in a cage, he was starved for anything to keep his mind from spiraling into a pit of boredom bordering on insanity.
As the pod sped away to some unknown planet’s surface, Karian let his thoughts wander back to the day he was captured by the Cattelans. All he could hope was that the others hadn’t fallen into the same trap he did. Karian had followed a lead indicating the presence of an illegal slave market on one of the worlds controlled by the Eoks and rushed to stop the hateful trade. Eoks never permitted slave trade on the worlds under their jurisdiction, even if it wasn’t entirely forbidden inside the Ring. Upon arriving at the market, Karian saw red and fought, killing the slavers until none remained. Or so he thought.
He should have waited for reinforcements; he should have planned better. It was his fault he was captured. His nerves had been on edge after leaving his brother Arlen’s mating ceremony, and he was careless, his mind full of anger and distraction. He roamed the slave market, lost in his rage.
The Cattelans came from behind. He didn’t even see them as they shot him with ionic charges. The extreme electric current ran through his body in a fraction of a second, before he could react or even formulate a thought. Only later did he take full measure of his mistake. He woke up in a Cattelan slave ship, in a cage, and already far away from home.
Another hour in hyper-drive and the pod was free-falling, victim to an unknown planet’s gravitational force. Karian had no idea what the calculations had chosen, and could only hope for one of the many inhabited planets or moons in The Ring. There were plenty.
Even if that was the case, he’d still need odds-defying luck if the slavers decided to hunt him down. They wouldn’t use all their fuel looking for him, but scouring one or two of the local moons and planets was a definite possibility.
As soon as the pod landed, he’d need to re-wire the distress signal and send for his home world. If the Eoks came before the slavers, he was saved.
For this, he needed to get out of that cage. The allurium alloy used to make it was the only metal strong enough to contain him. He was nowhere near strong enough to make a dent in it.
Karian glanced at the female’s lolling head. She’d saved him, he couldn’t deny it. It was a unique chance that she had chosen the very pod he was detained in to escape. How this fragile creature had summoned the courage to fight a male such as Arrik was beyond his comprehension. Yet, she clearly had, and she’d won.
He was going to repay the favor. A life for a life.
Karian winced. It would be hard to get the female to help him out of the cage. Being Eok had a lot of perks, but their reputation was not exactly enviable, especially with females. The fear was unwarranted, of course, but she didn’t know that.
The female moaned, and her incredible scent penetrated his nostrils again. His attention went back to her wondrous features.
“What are you?” Karian asked her, reaching with his finger to pat a strand of silken hair away from her face. “Pretty Thing, you’re like nothing else I’ve seen.”
“Of course I am,” the female answered, startling him. Her voice was musical and soft, even in her half-awakened state. “Humans are like unicorns and mermaids. Only fools claim they have seen one.”
Her inviting lips stretched in a faint smile and she chuckled. Her eyelids fluttered, but remained closed. She fell back into oblivion, leaving Karian alone with the echo of her words.
Karian stared at the female’s peaceful face while the pod dropped out of the unknown planet’s sky. Confusion and incredulity mixed together as he studied her closer, then incredulity gave way to a deep amazement. The soft grain of her skin, the delicate features, the soft curves and the sweet smell coming off of her body in intoxicating waves, were all threatening to take him to the edge of insanity. Yes, she was human.
This changed everything.
The small female that lay unconscious, strapped in the seat beside him, was worth a fortune. She was a unicorn, a mermaid, and a golden goose if there ever was one. Karian swallowed, pushing hard on the knot that had taken hold in his throat.
Humans were extinct on their homeland of Earth. They had been hunted to extinction a century ago, decimated by other, stronger species’ greed. The few specimens that remained were kept in breeding facilities under careful supervision, and when sold, reached prices of astronomic proportions. Wherever this one came from, she was worth more than a small world’s yearly income.
There was no way the Cattelans would let her go without a fight. They would search for her relentlessly, plow the nearby planets and moons until nothing remained unsullied by their dirty hands. They surely already had a rich buyer for her—most probably the emperor reigning a few planets over—to finance the mission until she was found. Karian cursed his luck at finding himself in the pod with her. She had saved his life and was more intoxicating than any female had the right to be, but the human was a poison fruit like no other. Even when she was unconscious and in the dark, his body responded to hers, and his crotch burned with a stubborn erection.
No, she was definitively off-limits. He had more important things to think about than feeding his lust.
His thoughts stopped when the pod shook violently as it entered the unknown world’s atmosphere. The human female’s head started to jerk back and forth. Too fast and too harsh. It might hurt her, do damage to that fragile body Karian knew little about. A wave of protectiveness overcame him, and he reached for her beyond the bars. She was so small, so fragile, with her soft skin and slender limbs, that fear shot through him at the idea of her being hurt. Reaching as far as he could, Karian cradled her head in his hands. He cursed the metal alloy bars that kept him away from her, stretching his own arms as far as they would go to touch more of her soft, warm body. Strands of her hair brushed his face and he inhaled her sweet, floral scent.
“You’re a wonder, Pretty Thing,” he whispered in her ear. “I wish I could claim you for myself.”
The human female turned her head his way and blinked. He knew she couldn’t see him, yet it was as if she saw through the darkness and deep inside his soul, where his most secret thoughts resided. Her full, soft lips stretched in a smile. She was not fully conscious, but the beauty of her face, the open trust of her smile, pulled him in.
“Thanks for saving me,” she said with a voice like a spring breeze. “I wish you could claim me, too.”
Then the human female closed her eyes and fell back into unconsciousness. Karian stared at her face, a knot of unprecedented feelings roiling inside his guts. Something shifted inside him, pushing his soul out of balance, and he knew nothing would ever be the sam