Fingers traced a delicate path up the inside of my arm. Soft. Furry. Setting off a delicious shiver down my spine. Mmmm. I smiled drowsily. Dyllan.
Furry? Wait—that’s wrong. Fingers aren’t furry.
An ice-cold bolt of fear shot through me, banishing any thought of sleep. I froze, opened one eye a crack, and stifled a scream.
A fat grayish-green centipede-like creature, easily eight inches long, had made its way up my arm, headed toward my neck. So close I could see a pair of sharp fangs. Its mouth snapped open and shut convulsively while it crawled, as though it could already taste my flesh.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!”
In one continuous motion, I leaped to my feet, yanked the horrible creature off me, and stomped it into the ground, screaming all the while.
“Ree, what’s wrong?”
Andreu was by my side in an instant. Despite his advanced years, he still moved as swiftly as a young Thelian warrior.
“I hate this fucking planet!”
He looked down at the fur-covered mound of mush on the ground, then back at me. “Thank the gods it was nothing serious.”
“Nothing serious? That hideous creature was about to sink its fangs into my neck!”
Jaden and Zeke burst into the cave, weapons drawn.
“Stand down,” Andreu barked. “False alarm. It was only a bug.”
“Big bloodsucking bug,” I muttered, shooting him a dark look.
Jaden spied the gooey mess on the sole of my boot and grinned. “The poor thing probably died of fright before you ever stomped on it. You were shrieking like a banshee!”
“It’s not funny. I think half the creepy crawly stuff on this gods-forsaken world is deadly.”
“Fortunately, you heeded my warning and slept with your boots on,” Andreu remarked. “If it crawled into your shoe and bit you when you stuck your foot in, you’d have had a hard time walking for a couple of days.”
“I’m sick of walking. I’m sick of sleeping on the ground with my boots on.” My voice rose with every word. “I’m sick of being dirty and hungry all the time. I fucking hate this place!”
I charged out of the cave before a storm of tears brought me to my knees. I couldn’t—wouldn’t—allow myself to cry in front of my men. Showing anger was acceptable. Crying would be interpreted as weakness, by me if not by them.
They’d have understood. Even expected it. But I was damned if I’d fall apart because of some disgusting bug, no matter how horrid it was. I hadn’t broken down yet. I’d seen both my father and my lover slaughtered before my eyes, along with hundreds of our rebel forces. And then I’d been forced to flee to this uninhabited hellhole of a planet.
From the moment we arrived here we’d been on the move constantly, since Andreu was certain that bastard Thane had mercenaries searching for us.
Andreu. I would never have survived those first days after my father’s death without him. He didn’t just spirit me away. He was there by my side every moment, encouraging me, motivating me, sometimes even nagging me, to keep on going. Not for my sake, for the sake of all those who now looked to me as their inspiration. Thinking of him made me regret my meltdown.
Andreu had a hard enough job without my temper tantrum adding to his worries. He’d been my father’s right-hand man, his chief advisor and dearest friend. He had to be nearly eighty, but you’d never have guessed it to look at him. Standing tall and proud, he had a full head of black hair slicked back from a profile that could have graced an ancient Roman coin, complete with the stern jaw and prominent hawk nose. Andreu refused to yield to old age the same way he refused to yield to any other enemy that threatened him. Or my father.
And he’d taken me under his wing. I knew he’d lay down his life for me without hesitation, his final act of loyalty to my family.
I asked Andreu once why he never took up the mantle of leadership himself.
“Your father had a gift,” he’d said. “I remember the first time I heard Gaius speak. He climbed up on the still-smoldering ruins of a house in the center of our village and spoke straight to the hearts of those of us who had survived the attack. Plain words, but powerful words. By the time he finished, he’d turned that ragtag mob of angry, frightened people into an army, ready to take on the Federation.
“Some are born to lead,” he’d gone on. “But every good leader needs a friend by his side, someone who isn’t afraid to be an asshole when he has to. Someone who will dole out bad news as well as good. Someone willing to tell him the unvarnished truth, instead of saying only what he wants to hear. I knew right then if Gaius was to lead us, it was my duty to be that asshole.”
I had gone up on tiptoe and planted a kiss on his cheek. “And you’re damned good at your job,” I’d teased.
Despite my bad-tempered outburst in the cave, the memory brought a smile to my face. I was lucky to have Andreu. I drew strength from him. Since I was a little girl, he’d been my tutor, my advisor, my friend. Over these long months on the run, he’d kept me alive. He and Jaden and Zeke.
I marched back and forth, beating a path through the dense jungle foliage hiding the mouth of the cave until I’d regained a vestige of self-control, then headed back inside. All three men were careful not to look at me, fearful of setting off another firestorm.
I sank down on a log near the pitifully tiny fire. We dared not build a fire out in the open and anything bigger would have filled the cave with smoke.
Jaden had speared some unrecognizable carcass on a spit. He was nursing it carefully, turning it every so often so as not to sear the flesh and render it completely inedible. He lifted the stick from the flames and held one end out to me. “Hungry?”
I stifled a sigh. I was tired of living on half-cooked skinned rodents. I’m sure he was too, but he and Zeke refused to take down a larger animal that would require a raging fire to cook. Every step we took in the wilderness, every branch we broke, every wisp of smoke from a fire, could lead trackers straight to our hideaway.
“Yes, thank you,” I said, as graciously as I could manage.
I knew the men wouldn’t eat until I did so I choked down every bite. Besides, I’d need food in my belly to keep going, though it was the last thing I wanted to do. If I grew too weak to walk, Zeke and Jaden would simply carry me through the jungle rather than abandon me. It wouldn’t be fair to heap another burden on them.
Many a night I’d wished I could lie down and die. I had no home, no family except for Andreu and these two weary warriors. My father had ordered them to spirit me away if anything happened to him, making them swear to put my safety above all else.
They took their responsibility seriously. It was Jaden who had clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me to the ground the night Thane’s forces launched a surprise attack. He kept me hidden from their view, silent and immobile. But he couldn’t keep me from seeing my father fighting valiantly as a dozen men charged him all at once. Or seeing Dyllan—my Dyllan—rush to his aid, only to be slaughtered along with him.
I fought too that day, scratching and clawing and kicking. But no matter how frantically I attacked him, Jaden refused to let me go. He took the beating I gave him, then held me in his arms just as tightly when I dissolved into deep racking sobs after our enemies dragged away the mangled bodies of the men I loved.
Forcibly I put the image out of my mind. Giving in to sorrow and despair would dishonor the sacrifice Gaius had made. I had a responsibility to the men with me and to the rebels who’d managed to survive. I was my father’s daughter. I had to live—to take up the burden of leadership and one day lead the fight.
“Stay here,” Zeke ordered.
As if he needed to. I knew my place. Move from one refuge to another in the dead of night. Remain hidden until our allies arrived.
Zeke and Jaden went out on daily reconnaissance missions, searching for any sign of the Thelians. They’d been doing that ever since we landed on this primitive planet. But as the weeks went by, I began to doubt if our desperate cry for help had even been received. Our cruiser had been badly damaged when a Federation destroyer fired on us as we escaped. Before we lost contact with our allies in other worlds, we managed to send out a final message, telling them we couldn’t make it to Thela and we’d been forced to divert to this uninhabited jungle world.
We all teleported to the surface of the planet and Jaden programmed our cruiser to plummet into the sea, so there’d be no trace of it. We had to leave most of our supplies behind, bringing only weapons and basic survival gear.
Though I griped about it, my life wasn’t much different now from the way I’d lived back home. For years, my father and I traveled from one rebel base to another. I’d have loved an unlimited wardrobe, maybe even a sexy pair of shoes, but personal possessions were a luxury I couldn’t indulge when everything I owned had to fit into a backpack light enough for me to shoulder while on a dead run. So I dressed like all the other soldiers, in a drab gray uniform and sensible boots, wearing flowing silk gowns and delicate dancing shoes only in my dreams.
I made an exception for two things—the locket my father had given my mother on their wedding day and my underwear. I didn’t have to pack the locket since I never took it off. It hung on a gold chain around my neck, tucked out of view under my shirt. And I justified the extra pair of wispy black lace panties stuffed into the bottom of my backpack by telling myself they weighed much less than the white cotton underpants issued with my uniform.
Dyllan had loved seeing me clad only in those black panties. But he’d made me feel beautiful no matter what I wore.
I brushed away a tear and tried to make myself busy. In every camp we made I’d developed a routine to help the long hours pass more quickly. I cleaned and checked our weapons daily, and Andreu and I sparred, practicing hand to hand combat until I was drenched in sweat.
This location was better than most. Not only did we have shelter, I had the luxury of running water. At least that’s what I told myself when I retreated to a damp corner of the cave where it trickled over the rocks, forming a muddy pool on the ground. I washed as best I could, then rinsed out my uniform, swapping it out for the one I’d laundered the day before.
I’d stripped down all the weapons and was cleaning a photon blazer when Andreu appeared in front of me. He held up a hand, motioning me to be silent, then signaled that he was going outside. I hadn’t heard anything, but the old man had ears like a bat.
He slipped out, disappearing into the dense foliage. Despite my promise to remain hidden, I crept to the mouth of the cave.
A solitary figure appeared at the far edge of the clearing. He bent to study the trampled undergrowth, sniffed a broken twig, then stared straight at the dark crevice in the rocks where I crouched. Though I was certain he couldn’t see me, I shrank back.
He stood upright on two legs, with no discernible tail or horns, which ruled out several dozen alien species. Built like a human, his frame was solid and packed with muscle. From this distance he looked to be roughly a head taller than Jaden or Zeke. A pair of pants made from dark rough cloth hung low on his hips. Over his bare chest he wore a fawn-colored open vest fashioned from the hide of an animal I didn’t recognize. A tangled mane of dark hair hung down to his shoulders, held back from his face by a narrow strip of hide tied around his forehead.
He moved into a patch of sunlight and I got a better look at him. His skin was smooth, the deep bronze of someone who spent most of his time outdoors. Crude weapons hung from a wide belt around his waist. The double-headed one with a thick wooden handle had a sharp blade on one end and a flat blunt surface on the other, capable of wielding deadly force in both the forward and backward swing. A long knife made of shiny black stone looked like the obsidian blades I’d seen once in a holographic exhibit of ancient Mesoamerican tribes. He turned slightly away from me as he scanned the clearing and I saw he had a bow and a quiver of arrows slung over one shoulder.
I felt insulted. Instead of the trained mercenary from a highly evolved world that I expected, the Federation sent a primitive hominid species to track me down. This creature with his archaic weapons was no match for our superior firepower. Did Thane think I could be defeated so easily?
The alien must not have sensed any danger, because he moved again, coming closer to the cave entrance. So close I could see piercing blue eyes, with a surprising spark of intelligence in them. His features were well-defined, with a high forehead, chiseled cheekbones, and a strong jaw, unlike those of aliens farther down on the evolutionary scale. If he’d been dressed in decent clothing and had a good haircut, he’d have been quite handsome.
I had no clue what planet he hailed from.
He froze, as though he’d seen or heard something in the thick foliage behind him. A moment later, I heard it too. Rustling sounds, then muffled thuds as though someone—or some thing, possibly a large beast—was moving fast through the jungle. The planet was home to many species of predators.
My thoughts flew to Andreu. Instinctively, I sent a silent prayer to the gods asking them to lend him their protection. I doubted it would make any difference. I’d prayed fervently while I watched my father and my lover murdered. Prayed for a miracle that never happened. I hadn’t had any faith in prayers or in the gods ever since, but for Andreu I was willing to set aside my disbelief.
The alien slipped back into the jungle. I kept watch, my heart in my throat.
It seemed hours passed, though I’m sure it was only minutes. Suddenly, the bushes parted and the mercenary headed toward the cave. There was no sign of Andreu.
My heart sank. If he was keeping watch, my loyal friend would never have let the tracker get so close to me. My mentor had years of experience behind him in hand to hand combat, but the alien was younger and stronger. I had to face the fact. Andreu was gone.
This time Jaden wasn’t around to stop me. I jumped out from behind the rocks where I’d taken cover, reaching for the photon blazer I always wore on my belt, then remembered every weapon I had lay in pieces on the floor of the cave. With a wild cry, I snatched a hunk of rock from the ground and dashed toward him, planning to smash the alien’s head in with it.
“I’m through hiding! I’m through running. Come and get me, you son of a bitch!”
Shrieking curses, I jumped out from behind the rocks and raced toward him.
The alien whirled around to face me, a bloodstained knife clutched in his fist.
His eyes were cool as he sized me up. Dismissive. Though dressed as a man, I was much smaller in stature than Andreu. Armed only with a hunk of stone, I posed no threat.
I decided to use that to my advantage. Dropped the rock and shrank back, feigning terror.
In truth, it didn’t take much acting skill. I’d faced opponents before in hand to hand combat, but never one so big. And never one who was armed while I had no weapons.
He took two steps toward me—and I charged. Using his own momentum against him, I grabbed the wrist of the hand holding the knife and yanked him off balance. In one continuous motion I swept his legs out from under him and tossed him on the ground, then jumped on top of him with an elbow solidly planted in his throat and my other arm pinning down his knife-wielding hand.
I knew he couldn’t breathe but instead of panicking, the creature smiled at me. A chilling smile, devoid of any humor or warmth. I increased the pressure, bearing down on him, intent on crushing his windpipe.
He backhanded me. A solid blow from his other hand, harder than any I’d ever taken in a practice match. His knuckles connected with my cheekbone right below the eye socket. I heard the crack, then everything went dark.
I couldn’t have been out for more than a few seconds, but it was time enough for him to gain the upper hand. I came to with him straddling me, the knife poised against my throat. I started struggling, but he was easily twice my weight. It was like being pinned under a solo transporter.
I writhed underneath him, bucking up against his bare chest, and saw his eyes widen in surprise. He ran a hand over my shirt, found the curve of a breast hidden under the shapeless garment, and squeezed.
“A female dressed as a warrior!”
His voice was low and guttural, but I understood the words. It sounded like a dialect of Rydalian, a language I’d run into during my travels with my father. Perhaps he was a primitive species from one of the lesser planets in that star system.
Surprised by a female warrior. I could use that to my advantage too. I batted my eyes at him, trying to look both timid and alluring at the same time, then jerked my knee up between his legs, doing my best to ram his balls into his belly.
He grunted but instead of crumbling into a fetal position, he flashed me a grin and squeezed my breast harder. Hard enough to make me grit my teeth. I’d be damned if I’d make a sound.
“You were the one who screamed. You dress like a warrior but fight like a girl. I fight warriors. Not girls.” He tossed the knife aside. “I am your master now. Do not attack me again.”
“Fuck you!” I snarled.
I raked my nails over his face, leaving a trail of blood down one cheek. His eyes narrowed.
“I do not fight girls. But I punish females who disobey me.”
He got off me and I tensed, getting ready to make a run for it. But before I could move, he’d flipped me onto my stomach and yanked my pants down to my knees.
Dear gods. This alien bastard was about to rape me.
That’s when I screamed. “Jaden! Zeke! Help!”
The sound of a hard palm connecting with soft flesh came a millisecond before the lick of fire seared my backside.
He whacked me again, so hard the breath whooshed out of me. “They are not coming. They are dead.”
“Murderer!” I screamed the word at the top of my lungs.
His hand came down even harder than before, this time in a flurry of harsh swats.
Though I’d taken my share of blows in sparring matches, I’d never been spanked before. The searing pain stunned me. Spanking was an archaic form of dominance, practiced by primitive beings, primarily males, who lacked the capacity to use reason to control the behavior of their mates or their young. It had been outlawed on our world eons earlier.
And now I understood why. Not only did it hurt like hell, it was humiliating. Being held down and having my ass bared, then spanked like a naughty child, destroyed my dignity. Made me feel helpless and weak.
But it also awakened something deep inside me, a dark need I’d never felt before. Each stroke sent a fresh wave of heat through my backside and another kind of heat straight to my core.
I blamed my response on my amygdala. A vestigial remnant of the brain dating back to our earliest ancestors, it was known to trigger instinctive responses that originally evolved to ensure the survival of our species.
I told myself it was my amygdala that stirred the primeval urge to submit to this bigger, stronger male. One whose firm domination demonstrated he could just as easily use that strength to protect me and my offspring from nameless danger. Though I hated what he was doing, when his hand came down again, I felt my pussy gush.
The minute I became conscious of the thought, I banished it. How could I even think of such a thing when my dearest friend lay dead? At his hand. “Damn you to the seventh moon of Cyres!” I shrieked.
“I told you to be silent!”
He started spanking me again, his rough palm striking the same tender spots over and over. I concentrated on the burning pain, refusing to acknowledge the darker heat pouring through me. “Why? You’re going to murder me like you murdered Andreu. So get it over with. Kill me. Kill me now!”
He flipped me onto my back, clapped a hand over my mouth. Brought his face within inches of mine. “I do not kill females. There is no need. You are weak and easy to subdue. And I do not kill in cold blood, only to defend myself.”
He was a lying bastard.
I glared at him and started flailing. Kicking wildly, pummeling him with my fists. If I was about to die, I wouldn’t make it easy on him. I’d go down fighting till the end.
I caught him square in the nose, hard enough to make him wince. He let loose with a string of harsh sounds I didn’t recognize, probably primitive cuss words, and ripped off my shirt. Taking it in his teeth, he tore off a corner and crammed it into my mouth. Then he reduced the rest of it into strips and bound my hands together before running another piece over my mouth and tying it behind my head to keep the makeshift gag in place. Only then did he sit back on his haunches to stanch the blood streaming from his nose with the last remnant of my shirt.
We were both splattered with it. He daubed at a few spots on my face, then gave up.
“I need to see to the bodies,” he muttered.
Lifting me like a sack of grain, he draped me face down over his shoulder and made his way into the cave. He glanced around, then dumped me unceremoniously against one wall on my backside.
He sized up the cache of stripped-down weapons across the room. “No wonder you fight like a girl,” he remarked. “You rely on metal sticks to defeat your enemies.”
Unable to speak, I settled for shaking my head angrily and glaring at him, then realized my current situation proved his point. I’d thought I was proficient in hand to hand combat, but here I sat trussed up like a game bird ready for the oven. Nearly naked, pants down around my knees, bare ass hot and stinging. All because for once I hadn’t had my photon blazer on my hip. It was humbling to face the fact that our modern technology was useless if we came up against a savage’s brute strength while unarmed.
Bare ass hot and stinging. Savage brute strength. The words sent a wicked shiver down my spine. My pussy clenched at the image of being draped across his thighs and spanked again, then taken hard and rough.
Suddenly I was overcome with guilt for the filthy thoughts he’d put in my head. Damn the creature! He’d killed Andreu. How could I be aroused by such a monster?
He retied my wrists behind my back, so my breasts thrust out. I hadn’t been touched by a man since Dyllan died and I was acutely aware of his hands on my body. When his arm brushed against my nipple, it tightened into a firm red peak. The civilized part of my brain swore I’d kill him if he took advantage of my helpless state and pinched it. The primitive slut in me hoped he would.
Instead he turned his attention to making sure I’d be completely immobile. Turning his back on me, he pulled a handful of leather thongs out of a pouch at his waist. He used the longest one to bind my ankles together, wrapping it securely around them several times, then tying it tight. Though he left my pants pulled down, bunched around my thighs, he never even glanced at my pussy. I should have been relieved that he wasn’t tying me up so he could rape me, but he didn’t show any sign of experiencing the same sexual urges I was having. For some reason that made me even angrier.
When he was sure I couldn’t get loose, he bent down and collected a handful of parts from the weapons cache. He turned back to me with a warning. “Do not move. Do not try to escape. If you disobey me, I will punish you.” Then he headed outside without another word.
I took a good look at what he’d left behind. Even if I managed to get loose, there was no way I could cobble together a single weapon. Either he’d gotten lucky or this uncivilized being knew an awful lot about modern technology.
From where I’d been dumped I could only see one corner of the clearing outside the cave. I had no idea what he’d done with the other pieces from the weapons. He moved so silently I wouldn’t even have known what he was up to if I hadn’t caught a glimpse of him disappearing into the jungle with Andreu’s limp body slung over his shoulder. Despite my screams there’d been no sign of Jaden or Zeke. I was forced to believe him when he said they were dead too.
At first the chill of the damp stones lining the floor of the cave numbed the burning sensation on my bare bottom the way the shock of watching Andreu die had numbed my emotions. But after a while, the cold seeped in, along with the reality of the dire circumstances I was in. My ass ached. My face throbbed where the alien had hit me, each pulse sending a nauseating wave of pain through my head. I was trussed and bound. If something happened to him and he didn’t come back for me, I could die here. With the brute no longer near me, the lustful desires he’d stirred disappeared. I started shaking uncontrollably and my teeth would have chattered if not for the gag in my mouth.
I’d only cried one time since I was grown, on the day my father was murdered and my lover lay dying in front of my eyes. But when I thought of Andreu giving up his life to try and shield me from harm, tears began flowing.
Once I started, it was as though a dam burst inside me. All the emotions I’d held back for so long poured out. I grieved my losses. My friends, my family, all gone. I sobbed for all the brave souls who’d given their lives to the cause of freedom, now dead along with my father. I cried bitter tears of self-pity. Had I really fought all these years, only to die alone in the darkness of this cave, abandoned on a hostile planet?
For months, I’d wished I was dead. But when my nose started stuffing up from my crying jag, I panicked. With the gag in place, I couldn’t breathe through my mouth. I was suffocating.
The will to survive kicked in. Big time. My tears vanished and I forced myself to concentrate on taking shallow breaths.
I closed my eyes, exhausted. It was all too much to bear. My chest hurt from crying and my lungs were starved for air. I twisted my body, so I could wipe my runny nose on the leg of my pants and breathe.
The move scraped my sore butt against the hard stone floor. A jolt of stinging pain shocked me back to my senses. I could hear Andreu’s voice inside my head.
“You’re Aria DiMello, daughter of Gaius DiMello, commander of the Insurrection. Your lineage dates back to ancient Rome. Your ancestors were wise scholars, gifted artists, powerful leaders—and among them were the most ruthless bitches and bastards ever born. Are you going to let one ignorant savage take you down? As long as your heart is still beating, you fight!”
I started shaking again, this time with anger. My enemies might be strong, but I was cunning. The blood of the legendary Borgias flowed in my veins. I’d avenge the deaths of my dear friend and my protectors.
I’d slit the throat of the man responsible for Andreu’s death—and as I did it, I’d look into his eyes and smile.