If the question had come from anyone but Erin, Jessica wouldn’t have bothered with a response. But Erin was sweet and innocent. With long red hair, alabaster skin, and model-perfect features, Erin was the one person among Jessica’s fifteen companions who hadn’t gotten herself into this mess. Instead of blowing her off, Jessica wrapped her arm around the younger woman and tried to reassure her.
“They have no reason to kill us.” That much was true. It was far more likely the motivation for the group kidnapping was financial rather than homicidal. “They might even think they’re rescuing us from the evil aliens.” Her dramatic emphasis was meant to amuse, but Erin just stared back with wide, despairing eyes.
‘They’ were armed maniacs who had barged into a tiny transport hub in El Paso, Texas. They had rounded up the sixteen human females who had been about to depart for various Ventori ships or outposts. The females were loaded into the back of a cargo truck. They hadn’t bothered restraining the captives. The females were simply made to sit on the hard wooden floor in the cargo compartment with nothing to hang on to but each other. Mercifully, the kidnappers left a dim overhead light on, which allowed the captives to see each other, but nothing else. What little the bandits had said had been shouted in Spanish, so Jessica was relatively sure the truck was now bouncing along an uneven road somewhere south of the U.S. border.
Erin’s pessimism drew all of Jessica’s unanswered questions to the surface of her mind. Why had Mexican thugs kidnapped a group of carnal companions? Were they protesting the Carnal Compensation Program? They wouldn’t be the first to object to human females being offered as payment to Earth’s alien protectors.
Aliens. Jessica shivered. In less than a week the inhabitants of Earth had encountered two alien races. The Skarilians had come first. They were ruthless conquerors expanding their empire through fear and devastation. They’d announced their arrival with unprovoked attacks on New York and Tokyo. Fifteen million people died in a matter of hours. When Earth didn’t immediately surrender, the Skarilians decimated Los Angeles, Delhi, Shanghai, Chicago, and Mumbai one right after the other. The Skarilians didn’t negotiate. Any species that didn’t surrender unconditionally was simply wiped out of existence.
By the time the Ventori arrived six days later, hundreds of millions of humans had been slaughtered and eleven densely populated cities across the Earth lay in ruins. With ships and firepower even more advanced than the Skarilians, the all-male mercenary army drove back the Skarilian fleet. In the stunning lull after the Skarilian retreat, the Ventori explained their expectations to the United Nations. If Earth wanted to continue benefiting from their protection, then Earth must provide willing females to meet the sexual needs of the Ventori Defenders. The only alternative was extinction at the hands of the Skarilians, so reluctantly the United Nations agreed and the Carnal Compensation Program, or CCP, was born.
“Do you think they’ll release us once we get to… wherever we’re going?” The hopelessness in Erin’s blue eyes told Jessica that Erin knew better. She wasn’t asking for facts, she needed reassurance.
Tracy snorted, the sound harsh and sarcastic. “Yeah, right. They’re taking us to a resort in Puerto Vallarta. We won a fucking sweepstakes.” Tracy shook her head. “Wake up, baby doll. We’re on our way to a slave market or someone’s private collection.”
The snarky remark didn’t surprise Jessica. Tracy had been obnoxious from the start. “Your hateful mouth isn’t helping anyone,” Jessica said in a hushed, angry tone. Even if Tracy was right, she didn’t need to be so insensitive.
“The five-man pod she agreed to service will enjoy her hateful mouth.” Every syllable of Isabelle’s response dripped with venom. “They’ll enjoy her mouth, her ass, and every other hole in her worn-out body.”
“As if you’ve never done a gangbang.” Tracy rolled her eyes and stared off into the darkness. “Having only five clients will be a treat compared to the last two years.”
“My point exactly.” Isabelle emphasized her verbal victory with an upraised brow.
“You’re such a bitch,” Tracy snapped, then lapsed into silence, which had likely been Isabelle’s goal in the first place.
It had taken Jessica a few hours to understand the instant dislike that erupted between the two as soon as they looked at each other. They were both prostitutes, or had been until they signed up for the Carnal Compensation Program. However, Isabelle was an ‘escort’ and Tracy had worked at a brothel a few miles outside Las Vegas. Apparently, the two ends of the prostitute spectrum didn’t appreciate the efforts of the other. Or their clash could simply be a personality clash. Isabelle was refined from the top of her glossy head to her perfectly pedicured toes, while Tracy had garish pink hair, obviously augmented breasts, and a fondness for profanity.
Jessica’s companions seemed to be divided into two categories. More than half of the fifteen were employed, in one way or another, with the sex/skin industry. They were strippers, prostitutes, porn stars, and internet performers ready for something new and different. The other half, herself included, had private, complicated reasons for choosing the Carnal Compensation Program. And then there was Erin. The naïve twenty-year-old had been kidnapped by a ‘talent scout,’ immoral humans who hunted young, attractive females and sold them to the CCP. The CCP commissioner adamantly denied that such practices were allowed much less encouraged, but everyone knew his denials were bullshit. Most carnal companions were willing participants, but some, like Erin, were sex slaves, taken from Earth and trained against their will. Erin had even told Jessica in a tearful whisper that she’d never had sex. She’d keep the information to herself, suspecting Tracy would have a field day at Erin’s expense if she found out that particular detail.
The truck hit a particularly deep rut. Jessica felt almost weightless for half a second then slammed down on the hard floor, jarring her muscles and sending pain slicing up her spine. She muttered a curse under her breath, then sighed. Their captors might not care about bumps and bruises, but they clearly wanted to keep the captives alive. There had been a case of plastic water bottles and a box filled with energy bars and protein shakes. At first, Jessica had been comforted by the offerings. Then she realized it also indicated that their destination was likely hours, perhaps days away.
Tempers erupted shortly after their departure and several of the captives, led by Tracy, had screamed and yelled, kicking and banging on the metal walls in an effort to draw attention to the truck. The bandits didn’t even slow their pace. They simply turned off the overhead light, casting the cargo compartment into utter darkness. The screams soon turned to sobs and rebellion became resignation and fear. The light came back on a short time later and the captives began to talk to each other in an effort to avoid any more hysterics. That had been hours ago, many hours ago.
“I really need to pee,” Erin whispered.
“It’s been at least two hours since the last stop,” one of the strippers said. Her name was April or June, some sort of calendar name. “They’ll stop again soon.”
Tracy rolled her eyes, but kept her mouth shut for a change.
Jessica hoped the stripper was right. The truck had stopped twice already and the captives had been allowed to squat in the bushes. One of the girls took off running and was casually shot in the back then left in the dirt for the animals to devour. After that no one spoke for a long time, and no one tried anything stupid when the truck stopped again.
“So what’s your story?” Nikki asked after a long pause. She sat directly across from Jessica and this was the first time she’d spoken without someone asking her a direct question. With golden brown hair and dark brown eyes, she had a mysterious air that made Jessica curious about her. Nikki had barely escaped the Skarilian attack on New York, which left her with very few options. She seemed to feel that the Ventori honestly deserved to be rewarded for taking on Earth’s enemy, so gratitude—along with a strong dose of survivor’s guilt—motivated her to join the CCP. “You’re the only one who hasn’t explained why she became a carnal companion.”
“It’s not some deep dark secret,” Jessica stressed. “I just feel like a fool.”
“And we don’t?” the calendar stripper replied. “We’re all reassessing our decisions because of this nightmare.”
They were right. Everyone else had shared. It wasn’t fair for Jessica to hold out on them. “I’m a singer and songwriter. I toured with an alt-rock band for almost six years then decided I’d had enough of life on the road.”
“Did you get a job as a waitress or move back in with Mommy and Daddy?” As usual, Tracy’s question was poisoned by bitterness.
“I moved to Nashville so I could focus on my songwriting, but the Skarilian attacks crippled the music industry. Discovering new talent isn’t a priority when so many are struggling just to survive. There are only a handful of record companies still in business and they have thousands of well-established artists and songwriters beating down their doors. They have no reason to take a risk on an unknown.”
“So you chose the CCP?” Nikki sounded skeptical. “Why?”
“I enjoy sex and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was looking for a new adventure.” Jessica shrugged. “The nine-to-five grind has never appealed to me. This sounded way more interesting than waiting tables.”
“Are backstage parties as wild as they say?” one of the strippers asked. Jessica couldn’t remember her name, but the strippers had all congregated together after the first round of getting-to-know-you revealed their similarities.
Memories tugged at Jessica’s mind, some exciting, others sad. “Some of them were. Others were a total bore.”
“How big was your band?” Erin asked. “Would we know it by name?”
“We had a small but loyal following. The band’s name was Cadence Kahn.”
Erin sat up straight and looked at Jessica with new interest in her baby blue eyes. “Oh, my God, you’re Anne Saint, lead singer of Cadence Kahn. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you. My roommate in college turned me on to your music. You’re amazing.”
“Anne Saint?” Tracy scoffed. “What a lame stage name. How did you come up with that loser?”
“Her real name is Jessica Anne Saint Claud,” Erin explained. “She just plucked out the middle part. And there is nothing lame about her. Cadence Khan had four number one hits on iTunes. They toured with some really big names. “
“Wow,” Tracy sneered. “I had no idea we had a has-been celebrity in our midst.”
“You might well be the most hateful human being I’ve ever met, and I’ve met some real scumbags.” Isabelle shook her head, clearly disgusted by Tracy’s rancor. “I remember Cadence Khan too. Most of your stuff was rock, but you had one dance hit that was stuck in my head for about two years.”
“‘Rhythm of Life.’” Jessica smiled, but all the nostalgia only made her feel more restless. “Jon, our guitar player, fought like hell to keep it off the disc, but the producer agreed with me. It ended up being our bestselling hit.”
“I love that song,” the calendar stripper gushed. “It’s still on my play list. The beat is infectious and the lyrics are so clever. And your voice.” She just shook her head. “I’d blow the devil to be able to sing like that.” The other strippers laughed, and even Erin smiled.
“Thanks.” If the situation had been less dire, Jessica would have basked in the attention. But their future was so uncertain this trip down memory lane felt wrong. “It all seems like another lifetime now.”
“How many of your bandmates did you fuck?” Tracy wanted to know.
Refusing to be baited, Jessica looked into the hateful woman’s eyes and smiled. “All of them at one time or another, and several at a time when I was in the mood for something wild.”
With another derisive sound, Tracy averted her gaze. “Then you should feel right at home on a Ventori ship.”
I just hope we still end up on Ventori ships. The comment wasn’t helpful, so she kept it to herself. The CCP offer Jessica accepted had been from a two-man pod. Gontar and Nion Layhee were cousins and they commanded one of the larger ships in the Ventori fleet. The contract included a sizable bonus for each year she renewed the commitment. She intended to give it a year and see if the unusual lifestyle was something she’d enjoy or not. If it was too restrictive or just plain strange, she’d simply move on after the first year.
Desperate for any form of distraction, she closed her eyes and thought about what little she knew about her defenders. All the Ventori were big and buff, military life having sculpted their bodies. She tried to picture their faces, but all the talk of sex had taken her imagination in a different direction.
Without conscious thought an image formed, shockingly detailed and evocative. She saw herself pressed between two Ventori. They held her in midair, one in front and one behind. She couldn’t see their faces, but their bodies were perfectly clear. Her legs draped over the strong forearms of the male in front of her as his cock surged in and out of her pussy. She could feel his thickness, the stretch of her inner walls as her body wrapped around him. And as if that weren’t stimulating enough, the other Ventori fucked her ass, filling her fuller than she’d ever been before. She fought back a moan, shocked by her body’s intense and instantaneous reaction to the explicit fantasy.
And even more overwhelming than the fullness was the realization that she was helpless in their arms. They positioned her, held her, possessed her. All she could do was surrender to their demands and accept what they chose to give.
She’d played in a group before, effortlessly flowing from one partner to another in a sensual tangle of bodies. She’d pleasured one man with her mouth while another fucked her from behind, but double penetration was still a titillating fantasy. She shivered and forced the image away, slowly opening her eyes. This wasn’t helping.
“Do you think it’s true?” the calendar stripper asked in a stage whisper.
“You’ll have to be a little more specific,” Tracy grumbled.
“Will the Ventori spank us if we disobey?” The catch in her voice made it obvious she wasn’t upset by the idea.
“It sort of makes sense,” one of the other strippers said. “They’re used to military discipline. Orders are obeyed without discussion and there is a strict chain of command. If we anger them or disobey…” She shrugged. “I think it’s kind of hot.”
“You better hope a firm spanking is the worst of your concerns.” They could always count on Tracy for encouragement.
Refusing to let Tracy’s pessimistic thought be the one everyone fixated on, Jessica asked Isabelle, “Were any of your clients celebrities?”
The escort shook her head. “I was with a congressman for almost a year, but that’s as close as I got to famous.”
“I did a lap dance for every member of Open Scorn, one right after the other. They gave me a five hundred dollar tip. It was amazing,” calendar stripper boasted.
“Think how much they would have paid you if you did more than shimmy and twerk.” Tracy arched her brow in challenge. “I did several rock bands.”
“At the same time?” Isabelle asked and everyone laughed.
Jessica allowed herself a deep exhale. The release of tension was much needed by all of them, even if it wouldn’t last.
Tracy just flipped off Isabelle and the conversation went on without her.
The truck lumbered to a halt a few minutes later and Jessica’s heart gave a sickening lurch. Were they about to find out why they’d been kidnapped? She was pretty damn sure she didn’t want to know.
Erin grabbed Jessica’s arm and muffled a sob by pressing her face against Jessica’s shoulder.
“Pull it together. It’s never wise to show your fear,” Jessica advised in an urgent whisper. Erin nodded, but her shoulders still trembled with suppressed emotion.
The doors at the back of the truck were heaved open and sunlight flooded the interior. Jessica frantically blinked, trying to restore her vision. After so many hours of dimness, the glare was painful.
Two burly men pointed guns at them then motioned to the ground. Stiff from hours of inactivity and terrified, the women awkwardly scrambled down from the truck. Jessica dragged Erin with her, trying not to draw attention to the sobbing girl.
They were in the walled courtyard of a massive hacienda. Beyond the walls stretched miles and miles of desolate, sunbaked desert. Oh, shit. This couldn’t be good. Only drug lords and reclusive movie stars had fortified compounds in the middle of the desert. Somehow she didn’t think a movie star had ordered their kidnapping. But what would a Mexican drug lord want with American females? Ransom? Sex? This seemed like a lot of trouble, and foolish risk, for a booty call.
Her gaze shifted back to the landscape surrounding them and Jessica tensed. Even if they managed to escape their captors, where would they go? Hopelessness welled inside her threatening what was left of her composure.
Several of the strippers dissolved into tears and Erin clung to Jessica like a spider monkey. Jessica had to remain strong. She had to stay calm and rational if she ever hoped to… What? Lead a rebellion that would get them all killed?
Massive arched doors at the front of the hacienda opened and a dark-haired man strode out. With the regal bearing of a monarch, he walked along the curved stone path that led to the courtyard. All the guards snapped to attention. Clearly, this man was their boss.
Jessica watched him closely. If it weren’t for the obvious wealth surrounding them, he would have appeared ordinary. He was of average height and weight, and his features were on the blunt side of regular. Only his dark eyes hinted at power and ruthlessness.
He spoke in rapid Spanish to one of the kidnappers. Jessica looked at Tracy. Unfortunately, the bitch was the only one among the captives who spoke Spanish, and she’d made it obvious that she intended to hide the fact as long as she could and use whatever she learned to her own advantage.
“I think he’s the leader,” Erin whispered, peeking out from behind her long red hair.
The apparent boss moved toward the captives. He slowly circled them, boldly assessing them as if they were property—stolen property. When he reached the front of the group again, he motioned to Erin and said something to the especially mean-looking guard on his right.
Of course he goes for the pretty virgin. Men are so damn predictable.
Acting on instinct, Jessica pushed Erin behind her and tried to make herself as big as possible. She squared her shoulders and rolled to the balls of her feet, arms slightly out from her sides. Four years of kickboxing was no match for a gun, but Jessica refused to stand there and do nothing.
The guard tried to move her aside. Jessica dug in her heels, ready for a fight. “No! You can’t have her.” She might not be able to stop the inevitable abuse, but she would postpone it as long as possible.
No longer amused by her antics, the guard shoved her so hard she nearly lost her balance. Jessica pivoted at the last minute and blocked his path again. She raised her arms, hands fisted in front of her face as if she were going to spar with him. The other guards laughed and shouted what sounded like encouragements. Her guard glared and motioned her aside. When she held her ground, he raised his arm, ready to backhand her across the face.
The roar of an engine snapped everyone’s attention to the sky. A large spaceship loomed about thirty feet above the ground and a deep male voice blared, “Touch any of the females and you’re dead. They belong to Ventori Defenders.” When the guard didn’t lower his arm, the order repeated in Spanish.
The guard looked at his boss for guidance, but the drug lord was running for a nearby car. Two of the guards accompanied the drug lord, but the rest had been left behind, indicating their true worth to their ruthless boss. Served them right.
“Fucking coward,” Tracy snapped, and for once Jessica agreed with her assessment.
The mean-looking guard barked orders to those left behind, positioning them around the females. The guards aimed their weapons at the spaceship, but the effort seemed almost foolish, like threatening a tank with a handful of pebbles.
Jessica had seen images of the Ventori ships, but this was the first one she’d witnessed in person. The Skarilian ships had been strange cylindrical crafts, sleek and windowless. The Ventori vessels were triangular, more or less, the decks larger at the bottom than at the top, creating an exaggerated stair step effect.
The Ventori spoke again in rapid Spanish and round ports at the front of the ship slid open, the weapons inside beginning to glow. Could they fire those guns at the guards without killing the females standing directly behind them? Jessica tensed. They’d cared enough to come after them. Surely they wouldn’t be so careless now.
A pulse burst from one of the ship’s massive guns, drilling into the dirt less than a foot away from the mean-looking guard. He yelped and jumped backward, but remained in a hostile position. Another Spanish warning was issued from the ship and the guard shouted something to his comrades. Two guards near the back of the circle ignored his order. They threw down their weapons and ran off, one heading right, the other left.
The head guard fired his rifle at the spaceship and the remaining guards followed his lead. Precise pulses of energy from the ship dropped each guard where he stood.
Had the Ventori just killed all the guards, or were they unconscious? Much to Jessica’s shame, she didn’t care which fate had befallen them.
Several of the captives gathered around Jessica, while a larger group surrounded Isabelle. Jessica quickly identified the commonalities between the two groups and shook her head. Humans would always be tribal. They couldn’t seem to help themselves. The skin workers, including obnoxious Tracy, had chosen Isabelle as their leader. The four non-sex workers had looked to Jessica for guidance.
Before Jessica could analyze the development too closely, the Ventori ship set down outside of the courtyard wall. She moved toward the narrow archway beside the automated gate. Her ‘tribe’ followed along behind her, while Isabelle’s team stayed where they were. A hatch in the ship opened and a stairway slowly angled toward the ground.
Jessica knew what the Ventori looked like. The recruitment center had been run by them. But those Ventori were attempting to appear civilized, nonthreatening. This male was primed and equipped for battle.
His large black boots appeared first, then solid, muscular legs. His hips were narrow, which made the distinct flare of his torso all the more dramatic. With washboard abs and mile-wide shoulders, he was strength personified. Of course, he was covered from neck to knees in sculpted body armor, so all the brawn could be clever crafting rather than actual muscle mass. Yet power emanated from each movement he made, further proof that the armor was shaped by the man, not the other way around.
He stepped onto the ground and Jessica could finally see his face. His glossy black hair formed small peaks all over his head. On anyone less… savage, the style would have looked absurd, even childish. Strong and angular, his features were clearly nonhuman, yet the symmetry and power of his high cheekbones and square jawline made him appear exotic rather than strange. Ventori eyes reminded her of black marble, shot through with vivid color. The colored lines varied greatly, but the main color of the iris was always black. The most common combination was black and red, but Jessica had seen blue and black, green and black, even one with shimmering silver. Their pupils were slits rather than round, like some reptile and feline species. This man’s eyes were red and black, intense and assessing.
“Commander Rook Fortar of the Ventori Protectorate.” He pressed his fist to the center of his chest, then sharply extended his arm.
Jessica didn’t know the proper response to his gesture, so she just said, “Jessica St. Claud of Earth. Thank you so much for your assistance.”
“Was anyone harmed by those creatures?” he sneered, but his gaze remained warm and penetrating as it swept her from head to feet and back.
His obvious interest made her progressively more uncomfortable. She belonged to another Ventori pod. It was wrong for her to notice how handsome he was, how powerful and intense. “We’re pretty shook up,” she admitted, “but there aren’t any physical injuries.”
His head dipped once, acknowledging her statement. “I’m relieved to hear it. I only have room for six on the shuttle, so we should prioritize. A larger ship is on its way. Everyone will be evacuated long before the brigands regain consciousness, but only six can depart immediately.”
“The five of us are ready to leave,” Erin said with sudden strength.
Jessica looked at her and smiled, glad to see spirit returning to her eyes. “I’ll see if one more from the other group wants to come with us.”
“Anyone but Tracy,” Nikki insisted. “We’ve all had enough of her attitude.”
Jessica nodded and turned to go.
“The other ship is only eight of your minutes away,” the commander told her. “They won’t have long to wait.”
She acknowledged the comment with another nod then hustled back through the archway. Her pulse was pounding harder now than when she faced off with the guard. It had to be leftover adrenaline. Why else would she feel so… giddy?
“Are they hideous?” Tracy asked with a shudder.
Jessica couldn’t decide if she was serious or not. “They don’t look human, but I don’t consider them hideous.” Far from it. She’d found the commander compelling, and—she didn’t want to admit it but—surprisingly sexy. She shifted her gaze to Isabelle as she explained, “They only have room for six, but another ship is a few minutes away.”
“Would anyone like to go with Jessica?” Isabelle asked to the group at large. “They have room for one more.”
“Not if the other ship is almost here,” the calendar stripper said.
No one else volunteered either, so Jessica waved goodbye with a clear conscience and retraced her steps. The commander was still standing outside the shuttle when Jessica returned. He looked aggressive and intimidating, but for some reason she couldn’t explain she wasn’t afraid. She met his gaze directly as mutual fascination arced between them. This was the sort of male she’d agreed to serve, to please and pleasure for the next year, maybe more. A heated shiver dropped down her spine and made her nipples tingle.
“How did this happen?” he asked in a low, urgent tone.
The question jarred her out of the sensual haze. Was he blaming the crime on the victims? Typical. “They stormed into the transport hub brandishing guns. I have no idea how they knew we’d be there, but it was obvious they knew exactly what to expect.” His only response was a thoughtful nod, so she asked, “How did you find us so quickly?”
“That was mostly luck.” He motioned her toward the stairs. “I have other questions but they can wait until we’re back aboard my ship.”
She moved forward, placing her foot on the first stair. Then his words brought her up short. She was about to board a shuttle and be flown to an alien spaceship. The Layhee pod would come get her or make arrangements for her to come to them. This is what she’d agreed to, what she’d accepted with a casual shrug in CCP headquarters. She was about to become the carnal companion of two dominant males, two aggressive soldiers who had been deprived of female comfort for months, maybe years. Suddenly the situation was entirely too real and she was far less certain of her decision.
She wasn’t afraid of sex. She’d always had a strong libido, and life as a touring musician had exposed her to situations most would find shocking. What paralyzed her now was the utter vulnerability to which she’d agreed. Her defenders could do anything they wanted with her and no one would stop them. She’d be on a spaceship full of sex-hungry males. If she displeased her defenders, all they’d have to do was withdraw their protection for a day or two.
A large, warm hand lightly touched her shoulder. Her blouse was sleeveless, so his fingers connected with bare skin. She gasped, but didn’t jerk away. Heat and hunger curled through her body, making her core ache.
“Are you all right?” The commander stood so close she could feel his breath in her hair.
His scent, an evocative mix of dark spice and clean fresh air, wrapped around her, sinking deeper into her body with each ragged breath she took. She felt dazed, yet restless in a way she’d never experienced before. “I’m just a little overwhelmed. I’ve never been that terrified before.”
His fingers gently squeezed and tingles rippled across her skin. “You’re safe now. The nightmare is over.” He slowly lowered his arm, releasing her from the strange sensations.
She nodded and continued up the stairs, fervently hoping he was right. Unfortunately, it seemed much more likely that her nightmare was just beginning.