Tense and silent, Cara sat on the luxury transport, hands clasped in her lap. She stared out the viewport, watching the strange orange and gray planet gradually decrease in size as the ship moved farther and farther away. Everyone claimed Altor was her planet of origin, but she’d spent twenty-two of her twenty-five years on Earth. Her name had been Aspen Hays then. She’d lived a very different life. She might go by Cara Slanar now, but she wasn’t sure who she was, much less where she belonged.
Her ‘parents’ sat facing her. Only she hadn’t known these people existed sixteen days ago. Cara, along with her two sisters, had been snatched from Earth and brought to this star system without their permission. According to these strangers, Cara and her sisters belonged to a powerful group of females called conduits. Odd that their magic had never revealed itself while they were on Earth. She still hadn’t seen any tangible evidence that magic existed.
“Are you going to sulk all the way to the Citadel?” Lezod Slanar, the man claiming to be her father, demanded. His cool, clipped tone made his disapproval obvious.
She glanced at him then back out the viewport. If she didn’t have anything nice to say, she wouldn’t say anything at all. The old adage had served her well for the past few days. When she first arrived on Altor, she had kicked and screamed. She refused to do anything she was told and barricaded herself inside her bedroom. The approach had earned long hours of solitude and a few missed meals. Maybe the silent treatment would finally convince these people to send her home. Probably not. She was too valuable.
Grinnel, Cara’s alleged mother, crossed the aisle and sat beside her. “Your attitude is childish. You need to stop—”
“You said that about my ‘temper tantrums.’” She accented the phrase with air quotes as she turned from the viewport. “I’m being docile now and you’re still upset. Make up your mind.”
Lezod and Grinnel were both dressed in tailored gray suits. Lezod’s was charcoal, while his wife’s was many shades lighter. The same could be said of their coloring. Lezod’s hair was coffee brown, eyes the color of honey. Grinnel’s blonde hair was so light it appeared silver in a certain light, and her eyes were powder blue. Cara wasn’t ready to admit it, but her own coloring seemed to blend theirs. Cara’s honey-blonde hair had always been naturally highlighted with strands of platinum, and subtle flecks of amber peppered her blue irises. Unlike the severe elegance of her parents’ clothing, she had been given a formfitting navy-blue sheath dress to wear that was so short it barely covered her rear end.
“We have done little to correct your behavior because young males of our species thrive on challenge.” Grinnel spoke quietly, hands folded in her lap. She always looked freshly pressed and serene, another indication that she wasn’t Cara’s mother. Most of Cara’s friends described her as lively with a fiery temper. “Taming a feral female will greatly appeal to many of them.”
“Feral?” Cara objected. Stray cats were feral. She was an educated, independent woman, not a wild animal. “I am not feral. I’m pissed off. There is a significant difference.”
“You are rude and disrespectful,” Lezod countered, glaring almost as intensely as Cara. His cold gaze shifted toward his wife and he switched to Altorian. Apparently, he didn’t know Cara had been injected with medi-bots and a nano-translator right after breakfast. “This should be the proudest day of our lives, but I am not sure this person can be deprogrammed. I will never forgive your mother for stealing our sweet, innocent Cara from us.”
He was right. She was no longer sweet and innocent. She was strong-willed and opinionated. On Earth strength and ambition were celebrated. Here they were considered character flaws.
Frustrated and demoralized, Cara turned back to the viewport and tried hard to ignore her parents. This had been the longest two weeks of her life, and it had all begun with a surreal nightmare. She’d been sitting in the parking lot of a restaurant in Juneau, Alaska arguing with her boyfriend. Bill had been so secretive, so dismissive lately that she was ready to end the relationship. Then the passenger door was jerked open and a strange-smelling mist filled the cab. Bill slumped over the steering wheel as a huge soldier in tactical gear pulled her out of the truck. Sudden weakness crept over her body and then everything faded to black.
She woke up in a small windowless room, disoriented yet terrified. It was only after one of the guards slipped a meal tray into her cell that she started to fear she was on a spaceship. The guard hadn’t been a lizard-skinned, bug-eyed alien, but he definitely wasn’t human. She’d been on the first ship a day, maybe two. Then Flora, the older of her two sisters, had stepped into the room. She gave Cara a hug and told her that everything was going to be all right. She promised that they would meet again soon and assured Cara that someone would explain what was going on when she reached her destination. That had been over two weeks ago, and she hadn’t seen Flora since.
When Cara was moved to the second ship, she’d been put into a cabin with her younger sister, Raina. They quickly determined that neither of them understood why they’d been kidnapped, but Flora seemed to know a lot more than they did. That wasn’t really helpful because Flora had been taken away before she could explain anything.
About an hour later, their grandmother walked into the cabin looking sad and regretful. Iris was in her mid-sixties. Her light brown hair was liberally threaded through with gray and her eyes were also light brown. “They’ve only allowed me fifteen minutes, so please let me finish before you start asking questions.”
Cara had been shocked to realize her entire family had been taken, so she sat quietly and listened while Iris spoke.
“You were born on a planet called Altor. That is where we are heading now. The people on this ship believe they are rescuing you, but Autumn and I had very good reasons for why we took you off world. My bloodline carries a very powerful… I guess you would call it magic. We are known as conduits, and without us other empowered people are unable to reach their full potential.”
Despite her intention to remain silent, Cara couldn’t help but ask, “If we have this powerful magic, why have we never seen you use it? Why have none of us even sensed it?”
“Autumn and I bound your abilities when we left Altor, but I was not strong enough to maintain the spell once Autumn died.”
Why did she keep referring to their mother by her first name? It was not her usual habit.
Before Cara could ask about the anomaly, Raina’s gold-green eyes narrowed and she asked, “What does a conduit do?”
“We are part of what is called a power triad. As the name suggests, there are three parts—a source, a controller, and a conduit. The other two gifts are relatively common, but conduits are rare. So rare in fact that we have been hunted and enslaved down through the ages. Laws were passed designed to protect us. Unfortunately, the policies weaponized our abilities and enabled those with wealth and authority to determine how our abilities would be used. Autumn and I didn’t want to subject you to an environment that seemed to value your abilities more than your thoughts and feelings, so we left.”
“Why is Mom suddenly Autumn?” Cara arched her brows. Her heart was racing and she wasn’t sure why she felt so agitated. “You’ve never referred to her like that before.”
“I gave birth to three daughters—Grinnel, Settari, and the woman you knew as Autumn. Each of my daughters also gave birth to at least one girl. You are my granddaughters, but only Flora was Autumn’s daughter.” Iris looked at Cara. “Your mother is Grinnel, my oldest daughter. Aspen is not your real name. Your Altorian name is Cara.” Her gaze shifted to Raina as she said, “My middle daughter Settari is your mother. Your Altorian name is—”
“Raina is the only name I have ever known,” she insisted hotly. “I’m not changing it now.”
Cara understood Raina’s decision, but she wasn’t sure she agreed. If Aspen Hays was a fabrication, she didn’t want to continue living a lie. The problem was she wasn’t sure if Iris had been lying then or if she was lying now. “You referred to Autumn in the past tense but not your other daughters. Are they still alive?”
She nodded. “Your parents and Raina’s are alive and anxious for your return. Raina has two younger sisters. You have three older brothers.”
Cara glanced at Raina, needing to see how she was reacting to this fantastical tale. Did it matter that they were cousins rather than sisters? They had been raised in the same house, slept in the same bed for the first six years of their lives. Cara wasn’t sure why, but it mattered to her. It all mattered. She would not perpetuate Iris’ lie!
Anger lit Raina’s gaze, making her eyes gleam with emerald fire. “So according to you, we aren’t ordinary humans scratching out a living in a secluded part of the U.S. We’re alien refugees with magic powers and our mother is really our aunt. Also, our long-lost families are waiting on Altor to welcome us home.” A soft scoff illustrated just how ridiculous Raina found the tale. “You should write for a soap opera.”
Cara stood and moved closer to Iris. The cabin wasn’t large, so they soon stood toe to toe. “You took us to Earth without our parents’ permission, didn’t you? That’s why the Altorians consider this a rescue. You are the kidnappers. You and Aunt Autumn.”
“This is nonsense, Aspen. I don’t believe a word that comes out of her mouth.”
Unfortunately, Cara believed Iris was finally telling the truth. “We’re on a spaceship, for God’s sake. If this isn’t real, then how do you explain what’s happening right now? And my name is Cara, not Aspen.”
Raina pivoted toward Iris as she challenged, “Show us. If this conduit thing is real, do something magical.”
“It is not that simple,” Iris said. “I have been separated from my triad for two decades and my age—”
“You’re full of shit,” Raina concluded. And then called out, “Get this person out of here. I’m finished listening to her lies!”
The door burst open and an armed guard dragged Iris from the cabin. His alien origins were even more obvious than the guard Cara had seen before and a shiver dropped down her spine.
“This isn’t real,” Raina insisted, but the wild look in her eyes told Cara that she was terrified that it was true. “It can’t be real.”
Raina was taken to a different location as soon as they arrived on Altor, so Cara faced the next two weeks entirely on her own. There was no denying that she was on an alien planet. Altor bore little resemblance to Earth. She met her biological parents and they quickly confirmed much of what Iris had said. Living in denial was nearly impossible when everything around her supported her grandmother’s story. Like it or not, she was Cara Slanar, an Altorian conduit.
The only part that had yet to be confirmed was the magic. No one had conjured a rabbit, or made anything disappear. If she was a powerful mystic, why didn’t she feel any different than she had on Earth?
“If you would simply talk to us, Cara, this would go more smoothly.”
Grinnel’s coaxing tone drew Cara back to the present and the ordeal awaiting her at the Citadel. She’d spent the past two weeks learning everything she could about Altor. Most Altorians had some sort of paranormal ability, but only the best and most powerful were chosen for training at the Citadel. Of those chosen, only a few dozen qualified to form power triads.
Reluctantly, Cara found the idea exciting. She had watched too many superhero movies to not secretly wish she had a paranormal ability. And then she found out how power triads worked. Sources and controllers were always male, and conduits were female. Triads weren’t just military teams. They were domestic units. They shared their lives and their bodies with each other.
Growing up in Alaska hadn’t given Cara a lot of opportunity to explore her sexuality. She wasn’t a virgin, but having sex in the back seat of a car was about as adventurous as she’d ever gotten. So when she learned that she would soon have two mates, she found the idea titillating. Then her research revealed that Altorian males were sexually dominant. Having sex with a couple of gorgeous men was a fun fantasy, but she had no interest in putting up with two overbearing jerks for the rest of her life.
“We do not want to make this decision without knowing your opinion on any of it,” Grinnel was saying. “You are leaving us no alternative.”
The absurdity of the statement made Cara laugh. “I don’t want to be a conduit! Send me back to Earth.”
Grinnel sighed, starting to look as frustrated as her mate. “You were born a conduit. It is not something you choose. Refusing to cooperate with this process only hurts yourself.”
Rather than reply to the statements, Cara asked, “Where are my sisters, or pardon me, cousins? I want to see them, at the very least talk to them.”
“Holo-comms are privileges, and you have not earned any,” Lezod reminded her.
Leaving her room was a privilege. Walking in the garden was a privilege. Using the entertainment library was a privilege. Access to the central data stream was a privilege. She had heard it all before. If she didn’t bow to their will, her life would remain a living hell, or at least a limbo of utter boredom.
“Did you even glance through the dossiers I gave you?” Grinnel continued, ignoring Cara’s question entirely.
Cara had done more than skim. She’d carefully studied each one. There was nothing else to do while locked in her bedroom. The reports had been surprisingly comprehensive. Each applicant had recorded a video introduction, as well as including video clips from work and leisure activities. She’d been able to witness their behavior in a variety of situations, including how they behaved around females. Of course, the clips were carefully curated by the applicant to make them look good.
“I looked at them,” Cara admitted. “Altorian males are esthetically pleasing, but they are also aggressive, chauvinistic, and condescending.”
“The applications were submitted before you were involved. They were compiled with Altorian females in mind. We expect our males to be strong and protective. We do not consider those qualities chauvinistic. Several of the teams asked if they could submit an application packet specifically tailored to you, but I felt like that would be dishonest.”
Finally, something on which they agreed. She looked at Grinnel and nodded. “Thank you. None of these males are going to change who they are because my cultural expectations are different from theirs. Lying to me now will only make things worse in the long run.”
Grinnel hesitated, appearing uncertain. “You are part of Altorian society now. Is there any chance you will adjust your cultural expectations to more closely match ours?”
Cara had actually thought about this a great deal. “I was an exchange student for my junior year of high school. I went to a country called Japan. I worked hard to learn their language and become acquainted with their culture and traditions. I felt it was important to be respectful because I was the visitor.”
“Is that yes or no?” Lezod grumbled impatiently.
“I would approach this situation in exactly the same way—if I had come here willingly.”
Lezod shook his head and looked at his mate, switching to Altorian again. “She cannot be trained until she is broken. We must keep that in mind when we choose her mates.”
Cara didn’t bother telling him that she could understand him. It was more than likely that her prospective mates would feel the same way, so she better figure out what she was going to do about it.
Tense silence descended as they continued on toward the Citadel. Her parents hadn’t given her much of an idea what to expect. She knew they had narrowed her choices down to three teams, each containing a source and a controller, but they had not told her which teams they had selected.
The Citadel came into view a few minutes later and Cara sucked in a deep, shaky breath. She felt restless and agitated, wanting to be anywhere but where they were going. “If I don’t like any of these guys, will you start the process over?”
Grinnel started to respond, but Lezod cut her off with an upraised hand. “If you do not like any of these males, you will like the others even less. These teams are the very best, the most powerful and accomplished. Any of them would be capable of protecting and providing for you, and that is all that matters.”
“You can’t force me to marry someone.” Can you? The final question echoed in her mind. This wasn’t America. Arranged marriages might be the norm on Altor. Her research hadn’t contained a lot of specifics about how triads were formed.
“‘Marry’ is a human term. Contracts for the services of a conduit are negotiated by her parents. The conduit’s approval is not necessary. Your cousin Flora was bound by such a contract. You were contracted also, but your betrothed mates chose to claim another female because they believed you were dead.”
“What about Raina?” She was almost afraid to ask. “Is she bound by a contract?”
“I would be shocked if that family had been able to attract a top-level team.”
His voice took on a condescending coldness that made Cara ask, “Why is that?”
Grinnel shot him a warning look and Lezod smirked. “We do not socialize with the Borak family. That is all I will say on the subject.”
His evasion required no explanation. She could read between the lines. Her parents were rich, like billionaire rich. Their sprawling estate and elaborate mansion made that much obvious. Apparently, Lezod considered the Borak family beneath him. She shifted her attention to Grinnel. “Isn’t Raina’s mother your sister? Are you too good to ‘socialize’ with your own flesh and blood?”
“I will always love Settari, but her choice in mates was… unfortunate.”
Cara didn’t even know how to address such snobbery, so she just shook her head and looked out the viewport. The Citadel loomed before them, the shape strangely familiar. The top section spiraled into three wide, rotating rings. Docking and loading bays dotted the smaller ring at the bottom of the structure. Suddenly she realized where she had seen the shape before. “My grandmother has a Christmas ornament that is shaped just like that.”
“Each trainee is given a miniature of the Citadel when they complete their studies,” Grinnel explained. “Odd that Iris wanted to commemorate an institution she claims to despise.”
Most of Cara’s interaction had been with Grinnel or staff members. She was finding Lezod’s personality abrasive. Rather than responding to his attitude, she looked at Grinnel. “What happens when we get there? Is this like speed dating or will we interview each team separately?”
“It is more accurate to say that they will be interviewing you,” Lezod answered for his mate. “These teams have applied to be considered for the power triad program, but they must officially submit an offer for you. At that point, I will approve, reject, or make a counter offer.”
He would make the decision, not her. Was this a hint of things to come? If all Altorian males were this sanctimonious, she was doomed. Then a thought occurred to her. If no one had offered for her yet, maybe she could behave so badly that no one would. Before she traveled down that road, she needed more information. “What happens if all three teams decide that I’m more trouble than I’m worth?”
Lezod rolled his eyes and sneered in Altorian, “She will be face down over someone’s lap before we make it to our room.”
“What the hell does that mean?” she demanded without thinking about the fact that she wasn’t supposed to understand Altorian.
His head whipped around toward his mate. “When was she injected with translation nanites?”
“This morning, dear,” Grinnel admitted with a smile. “Ephrod Laeth insisted that she be the one to conform to his needs, not the other way around.”
Lezod chuckled. “Sounds like Ephrod.”
And that was one strike against Ephrod before she even set eyes on him. Not a good start.
They were cleared for approach a short time later and Cara tried to calm herself as the transport maneuvered into a landing bay. Her pulse raced and her mouth went dry. She suddenly had a very bad feeling about this.
“Come,” Lezod ordered as he moved toward the front of the small ship. The cockpit was enclosed, so Cara had never seen the pilot, but the rest was one open space. “We are late. They are waiting for you.”
Refusing now served no purpose. They would simply drag her there kicking and screaming, which would likely amuse her prospective mates. She decided to conduct herself as if she deserved respect, hoping that at least one of the teams would respond accordingly.
She climbed down from the transport and smoothed her too-short skirt into place before crossed the landing bay. Everything seemed cramped and dingy. Everyone spoke of the Citadel with such reverence. She’d expected something more impressive. She emerged into the corridor and her feet refused to move. The long, narrow corridor with its exposed utilities and rust-stained joints gave her a profound sense of déjà vu. “I’ve been here before,” she muttered as her steps began to drag. This was where she had been moved from one ship to another on her way to Altor. She reached out and touched Grinnel’s arm. “Is Flora at the Citadel?”
“Yes, dear,” she admitted without breaking stride.
“What about Raina? Is she here too?”
“Raina is with her parents and will remain there until her mates are chosen and her training begins,” Grinnel explained in the same casual tone.
“I know you don’t like Raina’s parents, but I happen to love my cousins very much. Can I speak with her, maybe visit her?”
“Her name is Luna, not Raina,” Grinnel reminded with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Incensed by her mother’s nonchalance, Cara dug in her heels and put her hands on her hips. “If Flora is here, I want to see her. Now.” She didn’t yell, at least not yet, but she made it obvious that she wouldn’t let the matter drop.
Lezod turned to face her, his features tense with annoyance. “Flora is in training. Trainees are not allowed visitors. It would be too distracting.”
Altorians and their ridiculous rules. Cara took a deep breath, determined to remain calm and respectful. “If I could speak with her for just a few moments, see that she is unharmed, and—”
“I said no.” His gaze narrowed and his chin lifted. “You must stop arguing every time you do not get your way.”
“This is ridiculous,” she flared. “I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
“Is there a problem?”
The sharp, authoritative voice made Cara snap her head to the side. A middle-aged female with dark brown hair and amber-colored eyes stood a short distance down the corridor. She was dressed in the same matte black uniform that Cara had seen others wearing. Were they all Citadel employees? The female’s hands were clasped behind her back, giving her a militant bearing.
“A simple misunderstanding,” Lezod assured the newcomer. “We will be with you momentarily.”
Pausing to glare at her father, Cara strode past him and approached the female. Clearly her father had no intention of taking her to Flora. Maybe this person would be more reasonable. “Do you work here?”
“I am Supervisor Winlos,” the female informed. Her tone implied that Cara should understand what that meant.
“My cousin Flora is here somewhere.” Cara used the same even tone she had employed earlier, hoping it would be more effective now. Surely, someone in this star system would respond to politeness and logic. “I have not been allowed to see her since we were taken from Earth. I am concerned about her wellbeing. Can you please arrange for a quick meeting or even a holo-comm?”
“Your concern is a serious insult to her mates, and your father explained why you cannot see her.”
Trepidation closed around Cara’s belly, squeezing like a fist. If Flora was really fine, why wouldn’t they allow a quick meeting? She had been worried about both her cousins, but Flora in particular. Flora had seemed so different the last time Cara had seen her. It was as if her will had been sucked out, or crushed by her two ruthless males.
Apparently, it was time for a little human stubbornness. “Fine,” she snapped. “I’ll find her myself.”
Sidestepping the scowling supervisor, Cara took off down the corridor. She wasn’t sure where she was going, but she had to start somewhere. Someone knew where Flora was, and Cara didn’t care if she had to pound on every door in the place, she would see for herself if her cousin was being abused.
She turned a corner and darted down an adjacent hallway. After passing several shuttle bays, she came to a massive cargo area. She needed to get off this level, maybe ask someone where the training took place.
The rhythmic pounding of booted feet drew her attention to the corridor behind her. Two uniformed guards came into view and ran directly toward her. Damn it. Supervisor Whatshername must have summoned help.
This is foolish. You have no idea where to look.
Ignoring her rational inner voice, she continued to indulge the rebellious impulse. She ran faster, looking for a stairwell or ladder. Flora had to be on another level. There was nothing but empty ships and storerooms down here.
“Stop her,” one of the guards called out as she approached a team of workers.
She turned and headed down an adjacent hallway. The guards were gaining on her, but it didn’t matter. She was tired of being good, of doing what her captors said and accepting all the changes without argument or struggle. No one gave a shit what she wanted or thought, so why should she cooperate?
A hand closed around her upper arm and Cara cried out. “Let go!”
“Sorry, mistress,” the guard said softly in Altorian.
She yanked against his hold, fighting back tears as he pulled her back the way they’d come. “I just want to see my cousins.” Emotion burned the back of her throat and tears blurred her vision. She wanted to see Flora and Raina, but she also wanted to return to the life she had known with them. Being dragged along by an armed guard was more proof that her wishes and her opinions no longer mattered. She was a commodity, an empowered vessel others wanted to possess.
Her parents were nowhere in sight when they reached the original hallway, but Supervisor Winlos was waiting. The guard positioned Cara to face the supervisor and then stepped back.
“Such shows of defiance will not be tolerated by your potential mates,” Winlos said firmly. “You will learn that lesson very quickly if you do not take my warning seriously.”
Using anger to drive back her self-pity, Cara just glared, but her father’s prediction echoed through Cara’s mind. She will be face down over someone’s lap before we make it to our room. Cara could only think of one reason a woman would be placed face down over a man’s lap. Did these Neanderthals spank their females? The idea was too preposterous to take seriously, so she disregarded it.
“Where did Grinnel and Lezod go?” She was furious with both of them, but she was curious why they’d deserted her.
“Parents are not allowed to watch the assessment.”
Assessment? She didn’t like the sound of that. Would the males be assessing her or would she assess them? Somehow, she doubted it would be the latter. “I’d rather not go in there alone.”
“The males are held to very strict standards of behavior,” Winlos explained. “If any of them violates the rules, they will be escorted from the room immediately.”
She probably meant the statement to reassure Cara, but all she could think about was how different Altorian standards of behavior were from human. “Will you please answer one last question?”
Winlos triggered the door as she said, “It depends on the question.” She motioned for Cara to enter the room.
Cara stepped inside, but looked back as she asked, “If nothing is wrong with Flora, why won’t my parents let me see her?”
Winlos remained in the hallway. “You know the answer. Do not ask about her again.”
“I don’t know!” Cara yelled as the door slid shut between them. “I honestly don’t understand!” She kicked the door in frustration then turned around. Six sets of eyes stared back at her curiously. “Sorry.”
The room wasn’t large or impressive, much like the rest of the Citadel. The perimeter walls were lined with armless chairs and padded benches, but everyone was standing. The males congregated in groups of two, as if they didn’t want to get too close to the competition. Cara knew all their names from studying the dossiers but she was anxious to actually meet them. In the dossiers, the teams had been numbered. She hoped the numbers didn’t indicate priority for her parents. If that were true, her preferences were reversed from theirs.
“What do you not understand?”
She wasn’t sure who had spoken, but it was unlikely that any of these males would react differently. Altorian customs might seem strange and unfair to her, but they were all well acquainted with them.
Not surprisingly, Chancellor Ephrod Laeth approached her first. He was one of the planetary leaders, so he likely felt it was his right to begin. He was the controller for team one. The male standing a step back from him was Boslit, team one’s source. Both wore dark blue business suits not unlike what one would find on Earth.
Was it coincidence that the dress her parents had chosen for her was also dark blue? The possibility made her intensely uncomfortable. Despite their wealth and authority, team one was by far her least favorite. “Chancellor Laeth,” she greeted with a tentative smile. “It’s nice to meet you.”
His jaw worked and his eyes narrowed as he stared down at her. “It is customary for someone of my station to instigate the formal greeting. I will ignore the infraction because of your primitive upbringing.”
Wow, nice to meet you indeed. She lowered her gaze and took a deep breath. Less than a minute in his presence and he confirmed all of her misgivings. This jackass was even more of an arrogant prick than her father, and she hadn’t thought that was possible. “I apologize. The information I was given didn’t detail greeting protocols.”
“Ignore him,” someone advised, his voice much warmer than the chancellor’s. “We cannot expect you to follow our rules when you aren’t aware of them yet.”
Glancing up to locate the speaker, she found him standing to Ephrod’s left. He had reddish brown hair and amber-colored eyes. “My name is Skolat, and this is Idrix, my source.” Skolat was team two’s controller. Both males wore fitted blue uniforms edged in gold.
Maybe the color of her dress was coincidence after all. She dipped her head rather than sticking out her hand. Shaking hands was a human custom. Altorians seemed to love formality, so she said, “I’m honored to make your acquaintance.”
“You are a long way from home,” Idrix said with a friendly smile. “I hope your journey wasn’t too unpleasant.”
It wasn’t really a question, but his smile encouraged her to share. “The actual journey was over before I realized what was happening. The next two weeks were more challenging.”
“No doubt.” Merrik insinuated himself between Skolat and Ephrod. He was team three’s source and the best-looking male in the room. His size and muscular build had confused her when she’d studied his information. Judging strictly by appearance, she would have thought he was a controller. “It had to have been quite a shock to find out you were an alien.” His shoulder-length hair combined blue, gray, and white into a color Cara had never seen before. His eyes were deep red, like burgundy wine.
His teasing tone put her at ease while his sexy half-smile sent her pulse racing. “I’m still adjusting to all the changes.”
“I’m Merrik, by the way, and this is Tov Nee, commander of the Agitarri.” He motioned toward a dark-haired male with piercing ice-blue eyes. A close clipped beard framed his mouth and accented his strong jawline.
Tov ambled forward and held out his hand.
Surprised by the human gesture, she placed her hand on his. His long fingers closed and he raised her hand to his lips. Both Tov and Merrik wore snug synth-leather pants and loose-fitting shirts. They looked more like pirates than soldiers.
“You never answered the chancellor’s question.” His deep voice seemed to rumble through her entire body and then his lips brushed against her skin. Warmth cascaded through her torso and pooled between her legs. Her nipples hardened and her core clenched. Holy crap, she was in serious trouble if the faint brush of his lips could do that to her. “Why were you upset when you first entered the room?”
She hesitated. Altorian males preferred submissive, obedient females. It was unlikely any of them would have approved of her behavior in the corridor. “It was nothing. I will deal with it later.”
Tov’s brows drew together and his lips thinned. “Answer the question.” His tone became inflexible.
In her opinion, Tov and Merrik were the most interesting of the three teams. And it wasn’t just their handsome features. Their videos had been lively, their accomplishments more varied than the other teams. The chancellor bragged about his privileged upbringing and the generational wealth of his family. Skolat and Idrix were both career military and their attitudes reflected that fact. Tov didn’t just command the Agitarri, he owned it and fifteen other warships. He decided when and how his fleet would be used. Team three seemed independent, even a bit rebellious, and that appealed to Cara greatly. Why not tell Tov and see what he did with the information?
“I was taken from Earth with my two cousins. We were raised together so I think of them as sisters. I have not seen or spoken with either since our rescue and I am worried about both. When I realized that my older cousin, Flora, was here at the Citadel, I asked if I could speak with her. All I want is a quick interaction to be assured that she is not in danger or being abused.”
“Altorians do not abuse females,” Ephrod insisted, sounding insulted by the possibility. “Your concern is foolish.”
“She has only our word on that,” Skolat pointed out. “Is your cousin already in training?”
“She is,” Cara admitted with a sigh.
Skolat looked at his source then shrugged. “Trainees are not allowed visitors. However, you can rest assured that she is being provided for and protected. Every trainee is.”
“Oh, I think we can do better than that,” Tov said, his ice-blue gaze smoldering. He looked at Merrik and asked, “Is your aunt in residence?”
“I haven’t spoken with her in a couple of weeks, but I see no reason why she would have left.” Gazing off into the distance, Merrik said, “Commsys, page Provost Nadis Korla, urgency level moderate.”
“One moment, Commander Lilika,” the communications computer responded.
“Can I comm you later, Merrik?” a female voice sounded a short time later. “My new trainee is in the middle of an exercise she has never attempted before.”
“This will just take a second. Who is mentoring Flora, the female they just recovered from Earth?”
The unseen female chuckled. “That would be me.”
“Flora’s cousin is with me and the lack of communication has her half-convinced that Flora is being tortured. I know an actual visit is forbidden at this point, but can you please activate video long enough for Cara to see that her cousin is alive and well?”
“Only for you, Merrik. Only for you.” A holographic scene flickered to life in front of Merrik. The room depicted appeared to be a small lounge or spacious office. Flora knelt in the middle of the floor on a padded mat. Her eyes were closed, features peaceful as she made a repetitive series of motions with her hands. “See, no bruises or dried blood. But I really need to supervise her progress. I will speak with you later.”
The comm ended and Merrik looked at Cara. “Feel better now? Obviously, Flora is unharmed and doing well. Also, my aunt is highly sought-after. It is an honor to be mentored by her.”
“Thank you,” she said earnestly. “That meant more than you know.”
Merrik inclined his head, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Would you care for a drink before we start the assessment?”
She desperately needed to calm down, so she nodded. “That would be great.” Merrik walked off across the room and her gaze naturally gravitated back to Tov. “And thank you for making the initial suggestion.”
“It was nothing. Now, you have us at a disadvantage, Cara.” Despite the sensual purr in his voice, Tov’s gaze never left her face. “You were given detailed information about us, but we know very little about you.”
“He’s right,” Skolat joined in. “Tell us about Earth.”
Merrik returned with a stemmed glass filled with a pale pink liquid. Their fingertips brushed as she took the glass from him and sensations tingled up her arm. Team three was her favorite. She’d known that before she met them. Unfortunately, she was not the one making the choice.
Discouraged by the thought, she lifted her glass and took a tentative sip. The taste was unfamiliar, yet light and effervescent. She took another drink and smiled. “It’s nice. What is it?”
“The best vineyards in this star system are found on Pyron,” Ephrod told her. “That brand is one of many I stock in my private wine cellar.”
If her father made her marry this jerk, she would smother him in his sleep.
“You, me, and millions of others,” Tov dismissed the boast with a wave of his hand. “Pyronese wines are one of the most popular in our galaxy. It is like a human bragging that they buy beer.”
“I asked her about Earth, not liquor,” Skolat reminded impatiently. “Tell us about your world.”
“Earth is divided into countries, and each country has its own personality.”
“Tov said you are likely from America. Is that true?” Skolat asked.
“It is.” She looked at Tov, unsure if she should be impressed or insulted. “Why was that your assumption?”
“Fugitives must blend with local populations while still having access to accurate information and some way of supporting themselves. Those goals seemed easiest to achieve in America. Likely somewhere relatively remote.”
She shook her head, amazed by the accuracy of his deductions. “I live in Alaska. It’s very much as you described it.”
“That would be more impressive if you were not the only one who has actually been to Earth.” Ephrod tried to mimic Tov’s dismissive tone, but failed.
“That’s not true,” Tov smirked, his pale blue eyes gleaming. “Merrik has been to Earth too.”
Intrigued, she looked from Tov to Merrik and back. “When did you last visit Earth? How many times have you been there?”
“We have been six, no, seven times,” Merrik told her. “And the last trip was about two years ago.”
“Have you ever been to Alaska?”
Tov shook his head. “I have heard it’s quite beautiful.”
“People travel from all over the planet to enjoy the scenery and wildlife.” The conversation was making her homesick. She had almost accepted that her chances of ever seeing Earth again were extremely remote, but that could change if her mate owned a fleet of starships. Team three was likely her parents’ least favorite. Would it be possible to change their minds?
“You do not have simulators that can accurately reproduce the environment?” Skolat asked. “Why is it necessary to travel there?”
Ephrod made an impatient sound and rolled his eyes. “I told you, Earth is still extremely primitive. They cannot even leave their planet.”
“We have been to our moon and sent unmanned vehicles to other planets,” Cara corrected.
“Do not argue with me, girl,” he snapped.
Cara hated being called girl, especially in that condescending tone. “It was a clarification, not an argument.”
He strode toward her, anger blazing in his dark eyes.
Suddenly, Tov was there blocking the chancellor’s path. “I was not finished speaking with her.”
“She is being disrespectful,” Ephrod persisted. “I tolerate insolence from no one.”
“As soon as she is yours, you can discipline her whenever and however you choose. But she is not yours yet.”
The chancellor’s chin lifted arrogantly. “I am close friends with her parents. This is a formality, nothing more.”
She’d been afraid of that. Instinctively, she moved closer to Tov.
Ignoring Ephrod’s hostile stare, Tov asked, “Did you have a vocation? How did you fill your time?”
“I worked in a gift shop. It wasn’t glamorous, but it helped Grandma pay the bills.”
“This is a waste of time. None of this information matters. Are you a virgin?” Ephrod asked, the hopeful catch in his tone unmistakable.
“Are you?” she countered, no longer interested in playing nice with him. “My sex life is none of your business.” Ephrod might well be the rudest person she’d ever met.
“If the others wish to socialize with you, they can do so after the assessment. Take off the dress. I want to see what your parents are offering.”
Her eyes widened and she sucked in a ragged breath. “That better be Altorian humor. I am not amused.”
He just smirked and ran his gaze boldly from the crown of her head to her toes. “I do not repeat orders.”
What the hell was wrong with him? She looked at Tov and then Skolat, but neither made a move to assist her. “Is he serious?” Her pleading gaze landed on Merrik next, though she wasn’t sure why.
“It is customary,” he told her, and even his eyes were starting to smolder. “We have the right to examine you.”
“Examine me how?” she cried. “What exactly does that mean?”
“Attendants,” the chancellor called out. “We require assistance.”
Apparently summoned by the phrase, Supervisor Winlos pushed the door open. She moved into the room followed by two uniformed males.
“I suspected you would be difficult,” Winlos said, her disapproval obvious.
Not waiting to see what they were going to assist with, Cara sprinted for the door. One of the males caught her around the waist and Cara went wild.