It was always the same intense, horribly tactile dream where every sensation was frighteningly real to her. Wearing nothing but an indecently transparent gown that barely covered her bottom, she was led into a cold white room that filled her with a powerful sense of dread. The glaring brightness of the lights blinded her at first but, as her eyes adjusted, she saw a raised bench of sorts in the center of the room. Like nothing she’d ever seen before, the solid wooden contraption looked as though it belonged in a dungeon somewhere in the annals of history. At each of its four corners were shackles, designed to hold a person securely in place. Just looking at the heavy chains that secured the leather cuffs to the bench made her shudder.
Arranged in a wide arc at the foot of the bench were chairs where the dozen odious old men who formed the High Council sat waiting to witness her humiliation. As the unelected rulers of New Cambridge turned, as one, to stare at their prisoner, panic seized her and she tried to run. Sometimes she made it out into the corridor; other times she barely reached the door before she found herself being lifted off her feet and flung over the shoulder of one of the stern, silent members of the secret police. Too slight to do any real damage to a man of his imposing size, she struggled, nonetheless, against his hold. Pride would not allow her to accept what was happening to her like some meek little mouse. She felt a strong compulsion to fight, even though she knew it was ultimately futile. As her fists pummeled her captor’s back, making absolutely no impact on the enormous brute, he smacked her bottom so hard that, even in sleep, she felt its sting. It gave her a hell of a jolt, but she didn’t wake.
Realizing that she was powerless to resist the will of the High Council, she acquiesced and allowed him to carry her across the room. As he dropped her unceremoniously onto the hard wooden bench, she let out a startled cry. She tried to sit up but, without saying a word, he pushed her back down again. He didn’t have to utter a single word to make himself perfectly clear. To him, she was just another troublesome female, unworthy of special consideration and he would not hesitate to use force if necessary.
Taking no care to avoid hurting her, he bound her wrists and ankles in unyielding leather cuffs that cut painfully into her flesh as she tried to free herself. When he was satisfied that she was going nowhere, he stepped back, leaving her with her arms tethered above her head and her legs spread obscenely wide. It was a humiliating position that exposed her completely to the view of her lecherous audience. Despite herself, she felt a pang of arousal as she acknowledged the tightness of the restraints and recognized just how helpless she actually was. Tied like this, anything could happen and, for reasons she couldn’t get her head around, that excited her as much as it scared her.
Suddenly, the lights were turned down low and a spotlight came on directly above her. Now, she really was on full display and the sense of vulnerability was almost too much to bear.
As the doctor approached, her heart skipped a beat. Tall, broad-shouldered, and impossibly handsome, he was, quite literally, the man of her dreams. His warm, encouraging smile relaxed her a little and, as he began to caress her breast through the diaphanous gown she wore, her nipples drew up into stiff little peaks. Her breath hitched as their eyes met and she saw the raw hunger in his gaze. As his thumb circled her nipple, barely touching her, she whimpered with need and strained to meet his touch. Just as she felt the first tingle of pleasure reach her feminine core, he suddenly removed his hand. Desperate for more, she couldn’t prevent a groan of disappointment from escaping her. Tutting in mock disapproval at her wantonness, the doctor turned from her to put on latex gloves, signaling that the examination was about to get a lot more intense.
Biting her bottom lip, she sighed and closed her eyes, an involuntary wave of excitement washing over her in anticipation of his more intimate touch. As she thought about how it would feel to have his fingertips running over the soft, moist heart of her femininity, she forgot where she was. Nothing else existed for her but the quivering sensation that slowly crept through her body. Then, without warning, two short, fat fingers were thrust into that private space between her legs.
Shocked by the sudden intrusion, her eyes flew open and, to her dismay, she found that the sexy young doctor was gone. In his place stood a grim-looking older man who coldly probed her vagina with a deepening scowl of disapproval on his wizened face. His touch was perfunctory and she experienced no pleasure from it, only disgust. Her heart lurched as he shook his head in disappointment, withdrew his hand from her body, and turned to the men of the High Council to pronounce his verdict. A hushed silence fell. The doctor could scarcely conceal his delight at being the bearer of such scandalous news as he revealed the secret she’d held so close for six long months. Victoria Walton, the poster child for maidenly virtue, was not a virgin.
As the room erupted with shouts of outrage and calls for her to be soundly whipped, Victoria woke with a start, as she always did when the nightmare became too much for her to handle. Relieved to find herself in her own bed, she sat up and wiped the tears from her eyes. This was the seventh night in a row that she’d experienced the same dream and she knew it was because the moment of reckoning was fast approaching. Tomorrow, her stepbrother, who was also her legal guardian, would take her to the Town Hall to announce her betrothal to whichever awful man he’d selected for her. Usually, a woman knew who her future husband would be before the public announcement was made but Jonathan had refused to reveal any details to Victoria. He seemed to take perverse pleasure in holding the name of the man she would be forced to marry over her head. It was a reminder, as if one was required, that she held no power in this situation. He could dispose of her as he pleased. Whoever the man was, Victoria had no doubt that he would be rich, influential. Her stepbrother had political ambitions and would have chosen a man of high status, a man with connections, a man who would expect his new bride to be an innocent.
With a sigh, she flopped back onto the pillow, hoping that she’d be able to come up with some sort of escape plan before it was time to get up and prepare for the ordeal of the betrothal ceremony. As she closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind of the troubling thoughts that had disturbed her rest, a soft voice drifted to her through the darkness.
“Same dream, Vicky?”
Hearing Lucy speaking out of the blue startled her. Preoccupied with her own anxieties, she’d forgotten that her friend was there. It was unusual to have someone sleeping over, unheard of since she was a child, in fact. Normally, women over the age of eighteen were only allowed to socialize with each other when one of their guardians was present, to ensure that they behaved appropriately and steered clear of controversial topics of conversation. Women were not permitted to discuss politics or any other subject that might lead them to question the strict rules that governed their lives. The High Council had decreed that medicine, art, and philosophy were all off limits, as was any reference to the law. Women were most definitely not to gather together to talk about their sexual desires.
The penalty if caught discussing forbidden subjects could be quite severe, even for first offences, but Victoria and Lucy had rebelled against the restrictions by joining a group of like-minded women. They’d called themselves the Hyde Ladies’ Circle, after a secret women’s society from the Victorian era that they felt a strong affinity for.
Whenever they could slip away from their guardians, the women had met at the home of their friends, Caroline and Elizabeth Chatterton. Caroline and Elizabeth had been left, by some quirk of fate, without a male custodian to watch their every move. It had been liberating to spend time with other women. They’d read forbidden books, talked about things that interested them, and vented their frustrations at the state of the world they lived in. They’d even produced pamphlets urging social change and some, including Victoria, had gone so far as to help out members of the resistance movement from time to time.
Unfortunately, the activities of the Hyde Ladies’ Circle had come to the attention of the authorities and Caroline Chatterton was arrested for treason. Elizabeth had fled and Victoria had not seen her since the day after Caroline was saved from punishment by the timely intervention of the man who was now her husband. She could only hope her friend had found somewhere safe to lie low. There were many dangers in New Cambridge for a woman without protection.
Deprived of their scapegoat for the growing social unrest, the High Council had turned its attention to looking for her friends. Victoria and Lucy both knew that they had been monitored more closely than usual these past few weeks, because they were known to have been friendly with the Chatterton sisters. Thankfully, however, it seemed that no one actually thought that either of them was involved in illegal activities.
Publicly, Victoria played the wilting flower to perfection. She bowed and scraped to members of the High Council and displayed the utmost modesty at all times. Some days she simply adopted a vacant look of serenity and floated from one place to the next acting the part of the ideal, silent female. Her act was so good that nobody could imagine her ever daring to step out of line.
Although it jarred against her political ideals, there were benefits to being seen as the epitome of feminine frailty. It was because everyone thought she was so fragile that she’d been able to circulate anti-government pamphlets for the rebels without drawing suspicion. The view of her as a trembling maiden had also led to Lucy being allowed to spend the night with her. The people around her assumed that she would need a friend to help steady her nerves before the betrothal ceremony and they were right. She was terrified of what would happen, but not for the reasons they supposed.
“It was horrible,” Victoria whispered. “I could feel everything as though it was really happening to me.”
She’d told her friend all about the recurring dream but omitted to describe to her the part of the dream she’d found exhilarating. Whenever the women of the Hyde Ladies’ Circle had discussed their innermost desires, Lucy had sat back quietly, a delicate pink blush tinting her pale cheeks. Talking about sex seemed to make Lucy uncomfortable and Victoria wasn’t sure her friend would understand her fantasies about being bound and helpless. Suddenly she worried that her longing to be held at the mercy of a powerful male was not entirely natural. It was alright to read about such things in books but she doubted anyone had ever indulged those desires in real life. People just didn’t do those sorts of things. Feeling dirty somehow, Victoria let out a sob. Immediately, she heard movement on the other side of the room as Lucy got up and rushed over to slide into bed next to her.
“It’s going to be alright,” Lucy said as she put an arm around Victoria’s shoulder and pulled her close. Even though Victoria couldn’t see her friend’s face in the dark, she knew that Lucy had grimaced when she spoke words she didn’t believe to be true. Lucy knew as well as she did what would happen. It was a trial that she, too, would have to face soon.
All young women from the upper echelons of society were told what to expect when they were taken for examination after their betrothals were made public. From the very first moment their guardians began to seek a match for them, women were informed about the procedure so they could prepare themselves to face it with dignity. At least, that’s what they were told. Victoria suspected that the real reason they were given advanced warning was because the High Council wanted to make them sweat. Fear made them easier to control.
Her own stepbrother had clearly enjoyed telling her that, once her engagement was announced, she would be taken to a medical room. Before witnesses, her body would be inspected in the most intimate way possible. The humiliation of it was so great that the young ladies had to be physically restrained to prevent them from hurting themselves as they fought against the process. When they were strapped down, they were assessed thoroughly to confirm their suitability for marriage, according to criteria set by the State. They were subjected to a number of tests to ensure that they were physically capable of pleasing their husbands. Their ability to bear children was also checked. Most important, they were examined to ascertain their purity and that was where she would surely fail.
There was no telling what the consequences of her reckless action in giving away her virginity would be. She might be sent to a brothel to do penance for her wayward behavior or be locked away in a breeding facility. Whatever happened, her life as she knew it would be over and it had all been for a moment of rebellion that hadn’t given her half the pleasure she’d imagined it would.
“You know they can’t actually prove you’re not a virgin with their archaic tests.” Lucy seemed to know exactly what Victoria was worried about. Aside from her friend, Elizabeth, who’d been at the same illicit gathering where Victoria had lost her virginity, Lucy was the only person she’d confided her secret to. “There’s no way they’ll find out.”
“Oh, they’ll find out,” Victoria said despondently. She couldn’t be sure, but she suspected there would be some physical trace of what she’d done. The young man she’d coupled with might not have been particularly skilled at lovemaking but he had been well-endowed. His massive cock had surely ripped away any possibility of her meeting the High Council’s impossible standards of purity. “They’ll realize what I’ve done and they’ll punish me for it.”
“Even if they do find out, it might not matter,” Lucy suggested hopefully. “Your fiancé might not mind.”
“That seems unlikely.” Victoria knew how puritanical the male population of Earth could be and so did Lucy. Victoria had broken a sacred law in giving herself to a man who was not her husband.
“Well, perhaps someone will swoop in and rescue you.”
If Lucy hadn’t been grasping at straws before, she really was now.
“I doubt there’s another Andrew Rossingham out there,” Victoria said, referring to their friend Caroline’s new husband, who’d rescued her from the High Council at the eleventh hour.
“Well, maybe not, but what about the man you… eh… you…” Lucy’s voice faltered.
“No,” Victoria said firmly, sparing her friend the need to find a suitable euphemism for the quick fuck that she and Thom had shared.
“But doesn’t he care about you?” Lucy’s question betrayed her naivety. “Couldn’t he marry you?”
“Oh, Lucy, that was a one-off.” Victoria’s tone was tinged with regret, not because she’d had sex with a man she wasn’t in a relationship with but because she was about to shatter her friend’s romantic illusions about what it had meant to her. “He didn’t care about me and I really didn’t like him all that much.”
“So, why did you do it, then?”
“Uhm…” That was a good question, but she wasn’t sure what the answer was. To stick it to the sanctimonious bastards on the High Council? To show the world that at nineteen she was old enough to make decisions about what happened with her body? Because her friend Elizabeth was sleeping with a man and she wanted to try it too? None of those seemed appropriate reasons to share with Lucy. “I suppose it was because he made me feel special and I lost my head for a moment. I thought it would be exciting.”
“But it wasn’t?”
“No, it wasn’t,” Victoria confirmed. In fact, the whole thing had been a total disaster. “We were terrified of getting caught and I’m not really sure he knew what he was doing. It was a huge let-down, if I’m honest.”
“Oh.” Lucy sounded crestfallen, no doubt having imagined something almost spiritual passing between Victoria and her lover. “Well, if he won’t help you, what about the Taar-Breckians?”
“The Taar-Breckians?” Victoria’s brow furrowed as she thought about their alien neighbors. “Why would they want to help me?”
“Because you’re a friend of their commander’s wife. Surely they’ll help you if you ask.”
Would they help her just because she knew Caroline? She doubted it. Why would a bunch of fearsome warriors give a damn about the friends of their leader’s wife? She wondered whether she might be able to secure their aid some other way. For a brief moment, she thought about offering herself to one of them. She’d often wondered about what it would be like to be taken by one of those big, muscular brutes.
As quickly as the thought had entered her head, she dismissed the idea. Even if she could find a Taar-Breckian warrior who was willing to help her, it was akin to escaping the frying pan only to find herself in the fire. Although the Taar-Breckian race intrigued Victoria, she’d heard rumors that their males exerted complete dominance over their females, keeping them as sex slaves in the most appalling conditions. While she might dream about being ordered about in the bedroom, she didn’t want to spend her whole life in sexual servitude. She wouldn’t be any better off with them than she was now.
“Anyway, there’s no point worrying about it.” Lucy filled the silence that had fallen. “It will all work out. Just wait and see.”
Victoria sighed heavily. “I hope you’re right.”
“I am.” Lucy squeezed her shoulder in a gesture of reassurance. “Now, try and get some sleep. I’ll stay right here with you.”
Glad that her friend was there to offer support, Victoria made herself comfortable and closed her eyes once more. She just hoped that there was some truth to the old adage and that everything would, indeed, seem better in the morning because, right now, it felt as though she was hurtling toward an abyss.
In the cold light of day, the fears that had stalked her dreams slipped away and the feeling Victoria was left with was one of pure indignation. She could not believe that her stepbrother thought he could determine her future without so much as telling her what his plans were. The whole system of brokering marriage deals was a travesty and she had no intention of going along with what this messed-up society expected of her any longer.
Victoria rose early, slipping out of bed with the greatest care, so she wouldn’t disturb Lucy. Her friend had slept close to her all night, giving her a real sense of comfort. Although she hadn’t got any sleep herself, she felt rested and her mind was clear. She was going to get out of New Cambridge before the betrothal ceremony could take place. It was time to put her money where her mouth was as far as her political ideals were concerned. That meant she couldn’t simply wait around to find out who her stepbrother wanted her to marry. Nor could she risk the High Council finding out that she was not a virgin. She had to go underground and join with others who wanted to overthrow their corrupt government.
With exaggeratedly careful movements, she tiptoed around the room, looking for the most practical items of clothing she could find. It wasn’t an easy task. Even the plainest dress she owned was ridiculously voluminous. If she wore it without the petticoats that were standard attire for a woman of her class, she would still have only limited freedom of movement. Not for the first time, she cursed the laws that meant women must dress much as they had centuries ago. Every item of clothing she owned was completely inappropriate for making a quick getaway. Really, she needed a pair of men’s trousers, but there was no way she’d be able to get her hands on them at such short notice.
Eventually, she settled on one of the thin linen shifts she would normally wear beneath her dress. It was short enough to enable her to run if she had to, but it was a pretty unusual thing to wear in public. She could only hope that, with a jacket over the top, her outfit wouldn’t attract too much attention.
When she was dressed, she slipped on the most sensible pair of shoes she could find and turned to cast a regretful look over Lucy, who was still sleeping peacefully. Although she knew her friend would worry when she woke to find she wasn’t there, Victoria couldn’t risk leaving her a note to tell her where she’d gone. Lucy would never be able to withstand questioning about her whereabouts, so it was safer all round if she knew nothing.
As quietly as she could, Victoria slipped out of the room. Hurrying along the corridor, she practically held her breath as she passed her stepbrother’s rooms, knowing that he was a very light sleeper. She ran down the stairs and paused to look back over her shoulder. She had to be sure that she’d made it this far without alerting Jonathan to the fact she’d left her bedroom. It seemed she had managed to evade detection.
Creeping along the corridor, she made her way to her stepbrother’s study. Once there she discovered, as expected, that the drawer in his desk was unlocked. Like everyone else, he imagined that she was far too docile to ever do anything she wasn’t supposed to and so had clearly never thought to secure his study. Although tempted to search through his papers for some indication of who he’d decided to marry her off to, Victoria knew she had to be quick. She pocketed the pass card for his office at the Town Hall and hurried from the room, terrified that she might be caught at any moment.
The best way to avoid being seen as she left the house was to go through the gardens at the rear of the property. Then she could make her way along the alley that ran behind the row of swanky townhouses where she’d spent her entire life in a gilded cage.
Walking into the kitchen, she was surprised to find Zinnie, their maid, standing by the window with a cup of tea in hand. It occurred to Victoria in that moment that it was only during these early hours that Zinnie had any time to herself. The business of looking after the family was laborious and her stepbrother was especially demanding. It shamed Victoria to think how hard the serving classes had to work when all that was required of her was to sit prettily and try not to misbehave. She yearned to find some more useful way to occupy her time.
“Vicky?” The other woman was clearly surprised to see her. Although they were a world apart in terms of social rank, the two women were of a similar age and Victoria considered Zinnie a friend. “What’s wrong? Why are you up so early?”
“I’m getting out of here,” Victoria said as she moved toward the door, worried that Zinnie might try to block her escape if she didn’t approve of her plan. “I’m not going to wait around to be married off to some old fossil just because he can help Jonathan with his political career.”
“He’s told you who it is, then?”
“No, but whoever it is, I don’t want him.” Victoria was firm on that point.
“Okay, then.” To Victoria’s relief, it seemed that Zinnie had no intention of trying to talk her out of leaving. “Where will you go?”
“I’m not sure, but there are people who can help me.”
“You mean the rebels, don’t you?” Zinnie scrunched up her nose in a way that signaled her doubt. She knew that Victoria had been involved with subversive groups and had never approved. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to get mixed up with that lot?”
“It’s better than doing nothing.” Victoria wasn’t really sure about that, but she had few options. “Look, Zinnie, I have to at least try to get away and if the rebels can help me, then so be it.”
“Well, if you feel you can trust them, I’ll say no more about it.”
“Thanks, Zinn,” Victoria said. She reached for the door handle and then paused for a moment before turning back to the other woman. “Do me a favor?”
“Of course. Anything.”
“If you get the chance to speak to Lucy alone, persuade her to find a way out before they can try to marry her off. She’s too sweet to end up with some domineering bastard.”
“Okay, I’ll try,” the other woman promised.
“And you should leave too,” Victoria added as she realized that her disappearance would make life even more difficult for Zinnie. Her stepbrother would be unbearable to be around once his plans were ruined and he would undoubtedly take his anger out on their servants. “Go to your family. You’ll be safe there.”
Zinnie nodded her agreement and Victoria hoped that she would actually follow through on her advice. After giving the other woman a swift hug, she stepped out of the back door, her heart lurching as she realized that she was about to leave everything she knew behind her. Once she crossed the threshold there was no coming back and she was surprised by how much that thought scared her.
Allik watched from the shadows as his target emerged from her family property, into the narrow alleyway at its ear. He’d been alerted that she was up and about unusually early by one of his subordinates, who’d been monitoring the house overnight. Curious about what she was up to, he’d decided to come down here personally to check out her movements. He knew the moment she stepped out of her back gate that he’d made the right choice. From the furtive way she was glancing around, clearly expecting to be apprehended, he could tell she was making a break for it.
A rare smile passed across his lips. He couldn’t help but admire the little human’s spirit. Over the past few weeks, as he’d made plans to extract her from this miserable planet with as little fuss as possible, he’d learned a great deal about her. Beneath the poise and grace that everyone in New Cambridge seemed to revere her for, lay a defiance he found appealing. She was not the delicate creature she pretended to be and he suspected that her stepbrother’s plans to marry her off might push her into revealing her true colors. This young woman had a real fire raging inside her.
As her head turned in his direction, Allik shrank back into the shadows. For a moment, he was worried that she’d spotted him. The way she shrugged her shoulders a few seconds later suggested she was dismissing whatever suspicions she’d felt as unfounded. After a moment’s pause, she started to walk briskly down the path. Following as close behind as he dared, Allik stuck to the darker spots along the walls that bordered the gardens of the neat little townhouses. It wasn’t particularly easy for a man of his size to conceal himself but, since he’d been badly scarred during brutal interrogations by enemy forces, he’d found ways to avoid being noticed. He’d learned to move quietly, to be light on his feet. In crowds, he’d hovered on the periphery, keeping his head bowed to avoid attracting attention. He’d worn dull grey colors that blended into the background and it had seemed to work for him.
For his fellow warriors, the scarring that blighted the left side of his face was a mark of honor but Allik couldn’t bear the looks of pity the women of Taar-Breck had given him. Worse still, were the grimaces of revulsion that greeted him whenever he ran into one of Earth’s more delicate females. His monstrous appearance had even caused one of the ridiculous creatures to faint. From what he knew of Victoria, he doubted that she would experience such an extreme reaction to him but he didn’t want her pity either.
His going unnoticed as he tailed Victoria was helped by the fact that he was clearly dealing with a woman whose awareness of her surroundings was not as acute as she probably imagined it to be. Although she was being cautious, she was nowhere close to being alert enough to sense all the possible dangers she faced. Part of him wondered if he should just scoop her up now. His vehicle was close by. He could get her to a shuttle that would take them to a military transport ship beyond Earth’s atmosphere within minutes. Bringing her into his protection when the streets were quiet would certainly be easier, especially if she decided she didn’t want to be taken. If need be, he could have her bound and gagged and off the streets in under a minute. But he was intrigued by her manner, the twitchiness that told him she was up to something and he wanted to find out what it was.
As he followed her toward the main street that led to the business district, he was surprised to realize that he was actually enjoying this assignment. When his superior officer, Lieutenant Taryn, had first relayed Commander Rossingham’s instructions, Allik had thought this mission was beneath his considerable talents. He, and several of his fellow warriors, had been tasked with locating friends of the commander’s wife and taking them into protective custody. It seemed they had all been members of some women’s group that had flouted Earth’s rigid laws on female conduct. Now they were at risk of being arrested and punished more harshly than their transgressions warranted.
Although Allik had no great liking for the corrupt tyrants who ruled Earth, preventing the High Council from getting their hands on these women seemed like a job that a less experienced warrior could handle. It was not what he had spent more than a decade training for. It was not what he had fought wars for and it was most definitely not the type of task he’d endured such harsh treatment at the hands of the enemy for. Allik had earned the right to lead men into battle. He’d been reluctant to move into the intelligence division while he regained his full strength and, at first, he’d thought that being assigned to this mission was an insult. But the request for him to rescue this woman had come direct from their commander, a man he admired greatly, and so he hadn’t refused.
From what Allik had been told, Rossingham’s wife had personally selected each man who would assume responsibility for one of her friends. She wanted them to take these women to Taar-Breck and help them to acclimate to their new surroundings. Although it had not been communicated directly, it was clear that she wanted the men to take her friends as brides. Why she had chosen a battle-hardened warrior like him to guide and protect a beauty like Victoria Walton, he would never know, but he was becoming increasingly grateful that she had.
Despite his initial misgivings about the whole enterprise, in the week or so that he’d been observing Victoria, he’d found himself becoming more and more intrigued by her. Everywhere he went in New Cambridge, there seemed to be someone singing her praises. Of course, they spoke of her beauty but they admired more than that. Apparently, nobody was more accomplished in the womanly arts, whatever they were. Nobody was more virtuous. There was, he had heard, no woman purer than Victoria Walton.
He’d first seen this paragon of virtue in the flesh as she and her stepbrother had exchanged pleasantries with an older man on the sidewalk outside their house. It had seemed to be an innocuous conversation but Allik had caught a subtle narrowing of her eyes, a wry twisting of her lips that hinted at a rebellious nature. He’d seen right through the carefully constructed veneer of respectability. Nobody was as well-behaved as she appeared to be. This was a woman with hidden depths and he looked forward to being the one to uncover her secrets. If she agreed to have him, that was. No matter what his commander’s wife had planned, or how much he was drawn to her, Allik would not press an unwilling woman to be his mate. He might look like a monster but he would not behave like one.
Knowing that her stepbrother kept a substantial amount of cash in his safe, Victoria hurried through the streets toward the Town Hall where his office was located. It was risky, walking right into the heart of the High Council’s operations, but it was also necessary. If she was going to persuade the rebels to help her lay low, she would need something to pay them with. Despite their high ideals, she knew that they would want money in exchange for their help.
As she crossed the road, she quickened her pace. People were beginning to emerge from their homes, a little earlier than she would have thought, to head for work. If she lingered, the chances of encountering someone she knew became greater. She couldn’t risk running into anyone who would ask her awkward questions about her strange manner of dress, or challenge her about being on the streets without her guardian.
Victoria entered the Town Hall by a little-used side door and moved quickly toward the stairs that would take her to her stepbrother’s office. Keeping her head bowed low and doing her best to avoid being caught by the security cameras, she hurried up to the third floor. By the time she reached the door to Jonathan’s office, her hands were shaking so badly that she needed to take a few steadying breaths before she could swipe the pass card to unlock it. The moment it was open, she hurried inside and closed the door behind her. With her nerves threatening to fail her, she ran to the safe. If she wasn’t quick, her niggling doubts about whether she was doing the right thing would overwhelm her. She keyed in the numbers she recalled Jonathan entering and prayed that he had not changed the security code. As the heavy metal door of the safe swung open, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you,” she muttered into the silence.
There was not as much cash in the safe as she’d imagined there would be, but it was enough to grease a few palms and make it worth the rebels’ while to help her. She quickly stuffed bundles of high denomination notes into her pockets. As she stepped back, her eye was drawn to something precious at the back of the safe. Nestled on a small cushion of white satin, there was an exquisite emerald brooch. It looked familiar and it took her only a moment to recall that her late mother had worn it occasionally. It had been an anniversary present from her father.
If she was able, she would keep it as a reminder of a happier time with her warm and loving mother but, if necessary, she would trade it for her freedom. As heartbreaking as it would be to hand over such a treasure to the rebels, it would be a sacrifice worth making if it allowed her to escape from the life she was destined for.
Just as she closed the door to the safe, she heard footsteps as someone entered the room behind her. For a moment, she would have sworn her heart stopped beating. She swung around to find a security guard standing there, arms folded over his broad chest. She cursed under her breath. The foolhardiness of her plan was glaringly obvious now. She’d been propelled into action by her burning sense of indignation and hadn’t stopped to think things through. Now, she could see clearly that she’d made a terrible mistake.
“Miss Walton!” It was no surprise that the guard recognized her instantly. She’d come here often enough with her stepbrother, after all. “What are you doing here?”
Not quite ready to surrender to the inevitability of being taken back to her stepbrother to be punished for her attempted escape, Victoria had to think on her feet. “My stepbrother sent me to fetch something for him.” It was an unlikely scenario but perhaps the security guard would believe her. The High Council’s enforcers tended to possess more in the way of brawn than brains.
“What did he want you to fetch?”
“Just a brooch he wants me to wear at my betrothal ceremony.” Victoria opened her hand to show him the piece of jewelry. “He wants everything to be perfect.”
The frown that formed on the guard’s face told her he was skeptical. Victoria tried flashing her sweetest smile. It was usually enough to get her what she wanted, but he was unmoved.
“And he sent you dressed like that?”
Victoria shuddered as he looked her up and down, his mouth twisting into a salacious sneer. No doubt he was able to see right through the thin shift to her long, shapely legs.
“It was a matter of some urgency,” Victoria responded weakly.
The guard looked far from convinced. “Easy enough to check.”
As he walked toward the communications device on her stepbrother’s desk, a wave of panic welled up inside Victoria. Knowing there was not a moment to lose, she moved quickly. Before she could even register what she was doing, she picked up a heavy bronze statuette. Jonathan had amassed dozens of the hideous objects in an attempt to present himself as cultured. Swinging it with as much force as she could muster, she struck the guard across the back of the head. Immediately, he went down, hitting the floor with a thud. As Victoria looked down at his unmoving form, she was afraid that she’d killed him. There was blood oozing from a nasty wound at the base of his skull and she couldn’t tell whether or not he was still breathing.
Crouching down next to the prone figure of the security guard, she tentatively placed a hand on his chest. She blew out a breath of thanks as she felt its steady rise and fall beneath her palm. No matter how desperate she was to escape, she didn’t want anyone to be hurt in the process. She took a moment to savor her relief that he wasn’t dead and then realized that she had to get out of there. It was impossible to know how long he would remain unconscious.
As she got to her feet, she came up, unexpectedly, against a hard, solid wall. It wasn’t until strong arms wrapped tight round her middle that she understood someone was behind her. A very tall, muscular man, if she was any judge. Twisting and turning, she struggled within her captor’s grasp, trying to see who it was that held her, but his grip was too tight.
“Tut, tut.” A deep, masculine voice growled in her ear, making the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end. “You have got yourself into a mess, haven’t you, little one?”
Victoria shook her head, as much in denial of being called little as anything else. At over six feet in height, she towered over all the women she knew, and many of the men.
“Let go of me,” she demanded in the most imperious tone she could manage.
“That’s not going to happen. I have orders to retrieve you and that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Retrieve me?” Victoria’s heart sank. Was this man, whoever he was, here on the orders of her stepbrother? “You’re taking me home?”
“Yes, but to my home, not yours.” His words sent a chill skittering down her spine. “You’re coming to Taar-Breck.”
“Taar-Breck?” she shrieked.
“That’s right, little one.” She felt the warm breath on her ear as he leaned close to whisper words that both terrified and excited her. “You’re mine now.”