From the way she was shifting restlessly on the sofa, Taryn could tell that the little human was uncomfortable. She moved around, unable to settle in one spot. Wriggling from side to side, she picked at some imaginary piece of fluff on her skirt, trying to keep her trembling hands busy. Her eyes scanned her surroundings as though it was the first time she’d ever set foot in the place, but he knew that it wasn’t. The frantic way her eyes were darting about was a tell-tale sign of her nervousness. Brave as she’d been to walk in here, she clearly wasn’t at ease.
He had to concede it was probably strange for her to be there under the circumstances. The house belonged to one of her friends, a young woman who’d recently been taken as a bride by his commanding officer, Andrew Rossingham.
Taryn and a half dozen other Taar-Breckian warriors had moved in to use the house as a base while they were on a mission here in New Cambridge. It would undoubtedly be odd for her to see all these men she didn’t know in otherwise familiar surroundings. He had to admit that a large male like him did look out of place among the feminine trappings of human domesticity.
Taryn could hardly believe that the woman who was the focus of his latest assignment had just walked in here of her own accord and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. She was one of several young women that he and his men had been tasked with finding. They were to be brought to his home planet of Taar-Breck because, although they might not realize it, they were in grave danger. Earth’s corrupt High Council was looking for friends of his commander’s wife to punish them for their activities as part of some illicit women’s group. The members needed to be brought to safety, whether they liked it or not. Lucy was the woman he’d been instructed to take into his protection as his mate. Taryn had been trying to figure out how best to spirit her away without attracting too much attention. Her arrival at the house gave him an unexpected opportunity.
As he watched her on the security monitor, Taryn realized that it must have taken considerable courage for them to come here. She couldn’t possibly have known what she was walking into, whether the reception she got would be friendly. It looked as though whatever doubts she might have were now beginning to play more forcefully on her mind. She got up from her seat and took a couple of steps toward the door. Then she muttered something to herself, words of affirmation, perhaps, and walked to the window instead. She leaned her forehead against the glass and Taryn wondered what she was thinking. Time to go and find out, he guessed.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he hurried from the control room his men had set up in the basement and walked along the hallway. He could scarcely believe how eager he was to speak with her. This sort of nervous anticipation had not assailed him since he was a youngling, engaged in military training for the first time. He wondered why he had made that connection in his mind. Would dealing with this young woman be like going into battle?
As he entered the living room, she turned around. Her eyes scanned over his body, seeming to take in his massive size, the breadth of his shoulders, his long, muscular limbs. Her mouth dropped open. Taryn could sense her interest, but he also smelled her fear. While some men might get off on that, he didn’t like it one bit. Although she didn’t know it yet, this woman was to be his mate. He wanted her warm, willing, and pliant, not terrified out of her wits.
“Take a seat, Miss…” He knew exactly what her name was. After all, he’d been following her every move for weeks now. He wanted, though, to see if she would try to palm him off with false information.
“Bainbridge,” she said in clipped tones. “Miss Lucy Bainbridge.”
Her response was formal, creating a distance between them. Her stiff manner made it hard for him to get any real sense of the type of woman she was. Hopefully she wasn’t always so restrained. It would be hard to get close to someone who held herself in check all the time. Still, at least she hadn’t tried to conceal her true identity from him. He thought that was probably a good sign.
As she walked toward him, Taryn made a careful study of her. He’d seen images of Lucy, of course, had watched her from a distance, but this was the first time he’d been in the same room as her. Up close, she was even prettier than he’d thought. The color of her hair was like nothing he’d ever seen before. It was the warmest shade of golden blonde. Her eyes were wide, blue, and iridescent like precious stones. There was an otherworldly quality about her. She looked a bit like a doll, but he knew she couldn’t be anything like as delicate as her appearance suggested.
Lucy Bainbridge had been a member of a women’s group whose very existence had been considered a crime. Given the harsh penalties the women faced if caught, it took guts to be involved in something like that. The expression on Lucy’s face might be guileless but she surely possessed some ingenuity. This was a young woman who’d repeatedly given her guardian the slip so she could meet her friends, after all. She’d also evaded apprehension by the security forces who were suspicious of any female out on her own. It was no mean feat to avoid detection by trained agents of the state, yet she’d done it for several years, as far as he could tell. No, despite her innocent look, she must have some cunning about her.
As she moved to take a seat on the sofa, the long skirt she wore swished around her ankles. Clasping her hands together as she settled herself, she looked up at him, her brow creasing as though she was trying to decide whether she’d made a terrible mistake in coming here. Aware that he was looming by the doorway in what might be seen as a menacing fashion, Taryn came further into the room. He sat down on one of the armchairs that was too small for his muscular frame and tried to adopt a nonthreatening pose.
“My men offered you refreshments?” Taryn checked.
“Yes, they did.”
Lucy sounded as though their hospitality had surprised her and that irritated him. Humans seemed to think that his race were barbarians when, in fact, the Taar-Breckians could teach them a thing or two about civilized behavior.
“But I declined.” She bit her bottom lip nervously, as though wondering whether refusing the offer of a drink had been some sort of cultural misstep.
“That’s alright,” Taryn assured her as she was obviously on edge. He needed her to feel comfortable so he could find out what had brought her here. “So, what can I do for you, Miss Lucy Bainbridge?”
“I want to get away from here.”
“But you’ve only just arrived.” He knew perfectly well that wasn’t what she’d meant, but something about her wide-eyed, innocent look made him want to tease her.
“I mean away from New Cambridge,” she clarified.
Taryn leaned back in his chair and cast an appraising look over her. This was certainly interesting news.
“And where do you wish to go?” he asked.
“I really want to go to Taar-Breck.” There was definite enthusiasm in her response.
That surprised Taryn, considering Earth’s High Council had been circulating vicious rumors about the supposed barbarity of his homeland for many years. Negative propaganda was one of the ways they tried to discourage people from moving to his planet. Lucy would have heard little about his people apart from terrible tales of how poorly the men treated their females. According to the stories the High Council spread, Taar-Breckians used women as slaves, showing them absolutely no care or consideration. It was all lies, of course. The men of his race might like to take charge and set strict rules for their women, but they also saw to their welfare. Still, the question remained. Why would she choose to go to a place with such a tainted reputation willingly? He knew from his observations of her that she was naturally submissive, but it seemed unlikely that she would harbor a desire to be completely stripped of her free will.
“I see, and what makes you want to visit my home planet?”
Her lips pursed, and he knew that his deliberate misunderstanding of her meaning had annoyed her.
“I don’t want to visit,” she said indignantly. “I want to go and live there. My friend Caroline was taken there already, and I miss her.”
“That’s not much of a reason to leave all you know behind.”
“Oh, uhm, well…” She seemed a little flustered. He wondered if she’d planned out in advance how this conversation was going to go, and he’d dragged her off course. “Well, there’s also my friend, Victoria.”
“What about her?”
“Well,” Lucy said, looking down into her lap, “her betrothal ceremony is scheduled for today and she’s not going to sit around waiting for them to marry her off to some creepy old man. She disappeared before I woke this morning and if she doesn’t come back, I’ll be next in line.”
“Next in line?”
“Yes, my father has been speaking to several potential husbands for me, but there’s a strict order of things. Victoria’s family is more important than mine, so the announcement of her betrothal must take place first,” Lucy explained. “If she’s really run away, they’ll move on to me next.”
Taryn shook his head as he tried to make sense of what she’d just said. He would never understand these humans and their bizarre social rules.
“Won’t they try to bring her back?” he asked. If a woman ran from him, he would track her across the universe and drag her home if necessary.
“They will, but only to punish her. A runaway isn’t afforded the honor of marriage.”
The way she spoke made it sound as though she actually believed there was some privilege in being bartered off to the best prospect for social advancement. But, if that was the case, why would she seek to escape her own betrothal? At the thought of this beautiful, delicate creature being given to some other man, Taryn clenched his fists. He hated the idea of her being made to yield to a man who wasn’t worthy of her submission. Human males were lazy when it came to their women. They didn’t take the time to nurture them properly, to ensure that their needs were being met. It made him so angry to see how human males took for granted the gifts they were given.
Seeing the look of panic that crossed the young woman’s face as the tension radiated from him, he forced himself to relax.
“So, you wish to make your escape and you’d like me to help you?” He wanted to be sure he understood correctly why she’d come to him.
Lucy nodded vigorously, a look of expectation on her face.
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked, his tone a little sharper than he’d intended.
“Well, my friend who was taken to Taar-Breck, her husband is… he’s…”
“He is my commanding officer,” Taryn filled in for her, “and grandson to my king.”
She looked surprised at that, as though she hadn’t realized that Caroline Chatterton’s new husband was part of Taar-Breck’s ruling family, but she quickly recovered herself. The same serene mask that all Earth’s upper-class women seemed to wear in public settled on her face.
“Right, so I thought…” Her voice trailed off and she began to fidget once more. She didn’t seem able to hold her composure for long. Taryn wondered if she was always like this, or if his presence made her particularly uncomfortable.
“You thought that he would want me to risk a diplomatic incident by removing a citizen of Earth from her home without her guardian’s permission.”
He made it sound as though the very idea was shocking but, in fact, it was close to the reality of what he and his men had been asked to do. Their commander had ordered that Lucy and several other young women be brought to Taar-Breck. It was partly because he couldn’t stand back and watch innocent women being hunted down by a corrupt government that he’d decided to act, and partly because he wanted his wife to have her friends close by. It was a risky venture. If the High Council found out they were taking these women to safety, they would be outraged. Relations between Earth’s rulers and the Taar-Breckians were already tense and it would take very little to cause a crisis.
Taryn had no idea why he didn’t just tell Lucy that it was his mission to help her. It would be the kindest thing to do since she was obviously having a hard time asking for his assistance. Something stopped him from letting her off the hook, though. He supposed it was because he was getting a kick out of watching the ever-changing expression on her face. She really was quite adorable.
“I wouldn’t expect you to help me for nothing,” Lucy said, surprising him.
“I hope you’re not about to offer me money. That would be a grave insult to my honor.”
Lucy shook her head. “I have no money.”
“Then what are you offering?” Taryn was intrigued by the way her eyelashes drifted downward and a delicate blush stained her cheeks.
“Well,” she shifted awkwardly on her seat, “I’m a virgin and I know how valuable that is.”
“Not to me,” Taryn responded bluntly.
Lucy’s eyes looked a little teary and Taryn started to feel bad about testing her like this. It was akin to pulling the wings off a tiny insect. He just couldn’t help himself, though. Something about Lucy Bainbridge had piqued his curiosity. She gave the impression of being quite fragile and yet he knew there must be a stronger side to her. Perhaps he was teasing her in the hope of drawing out a different aspect of her personality.
“Well, anyway, I’m offering to become…” She paused and seemed to be trying to steel herself for what she was about to say. “That is, if you’ll help me, I will become your… your pet.”
“My pet?” It was so unexpected he couldn’t help but throw back his head and laugh.
Eyes flaring with defiance, Lucy rose to her feet. Now, that was more like it. He could practically feel the fury burning from her. It was intriguing to see her displaying a little spirit at last.
“I can see I’ve wasted your time,” she said haughtily as she walked toward the door.
“Stay where you are.” Taryn got to his feet and stalked toward her. Although she let out a gasp of surprise as he reached across the distance between them to caress the soft skin of her cheek, she didn’t step back from him. “So, you want me to put my collar around your pretty little neck and make you crawl at my feet?”
She looked as though she might be having second thoughts and then nodded her head.
“Yes,” she said with obviously forced enthusiasm, “that’s what I want.”
“Really?” Taryn queried as he took a step back from her. He doubted she’d really thought this through, but he had to admit he did find the idea intriguing. “In that case, kneel.”
“What, now?” Her voice quivered.
Taryn inclined his head. Lucy looked at him, her eyebrows knitting together in a frown once more and then slowly sank to the floor. Eyes averted, focusing on anything but him, she knelt at his feet. There was something innately graceful about her, but her shoulders were rigid. Tension thrummed on the air around her.
“Very good.” Taryn was impressed that she’d obeyed, even if her reluctance did scream out at him. “Now, crawl.”
Lucy looked up at him in shock and he could practically hear her thoughts churning in her mind as she tried to decide what to do. Expecting her to object to his command, he was surprised when she gave an almost imperceptible nod of acceptance. She got onto all fours and began to move across the floor. Her voluminous skirts seemed to hamper her efforts and, after only a few seconds, she gave up.
“Then take it off,” Taryn said as he reached down to help her to her feet. As she straightened up, she looked at him with eyes narrowed and he repeated the order. “Take off your dress.”
Hands trembling, she reached up to take hold of the laces that held the bodice of her dress together. Her fingers played with the fabric ties for a moment and then she dropped her hands to her sides.
“I can’t,” she wailed.
“Yes, you can.”
“No.” Her tone was firm now. “I can’t.”
Taryn shrugged his shoulders. “You came to me and asked to be my pet, but it seems you’re not ready to commit to that yet.”
The corners of her pretty pink lips turned down as she looked up at him with those big, glistening blue eyes. Her expression of hopelessness was almost enough to penetrate his thick skin and prick at his heart. Almost, but not quite.
“So, you won’t help me?” she asked.
As it happened, he did intend to help her, and not just because he’d been ordered to. He’d wanted her from the moment he saw her and now that she’d come to him with her intriguing offer, he was determined to have her as his pet. He would test her, tease her, punish her, and cherish her as his most precious possession but first he needed her to be sure about what she was asking for.
“I will give you forty-eight hours to think this over,” Taryn said. “Consider whether you really can wear my collar and obey my every command without question. Think about whether you want to serve my needs and allow me to introduce your body to the most intimate pleasures. Come to me only when you are prepared to surrender to me completely.”
He watched her closely as she frowned. Her eyes widened and then her brow crumpled again as her mouth twisted at the side. It was cute the way her face changed as her thoughts played out so vividly. She gave him a polite nod, her ingrained good manners clearly kicking in when he was sure she felt anything but civil toward him. As she moved toward the door, he reached out and placed a hand on her arm to stop her.
“Know this, Lucy Bainbridge, I will leave here in two days’ time and you will come with me in full submission or not at all.”
She nodded once more and walked from the room, her head held regally high. Taryn went to the window and watched her exiting the house. Her steps were light and quick as she walked down the path. As she disappeared from view, he rubbed his forehead wearily, wondering what the hell had gotten into him. His little human had presented him with the ideal opportunity to spirit her away to Taar-Breck and yet he’d let her leave. Still, he knew she would be back before his deadline expired. It was clear that she wanted to be his pet, even if some parts of her mind were still bucking against the idea. When she returned, he would fulfill her deepest desires and make her his in every way.
Lucy hurried through the park toward the old post office, her mind racing as she replayed her encounter with that intimidating Taar-Breckian warrior. She couldn’t believe that she’d actually had the courage to make her proposition, or that she’d got down on her knees like that for a man she’d only met minutes before. Worse than that, for a man whose name she didn’t even know. He hadn’t given her the basic courtesy of introducing himself and yet she’d done what he asked without question. What the hell had gotten into her?
Although she’d approached him, offering to become his pet, she hadn’t imagined for one minute that he would begin to issue orders immediately. She’d wanted to refuse, to tell him that they needed to establish a relationship first, but something had compelled her to do as he told her. A thrill had pricked through her as she obeyed his command. Sure, she’d felt some embarrassment at kneeling for him but it had also felt entirely natural, as she’d known it would. For a long time, Lucy had read books about women who submitted to men and she’d been curious to try it. She just hadn’t imagined giving herself over to a man like the Taar-Breckian warrior. With her quiet temperament, she’d thought the type of man she would be attracted to would have a gentler disposition. She’d pictured a man who would ask her to follow his instructions, who would treat her as a cherished partner while fulfilling her deepest fantasy. She realized now that she’d been a little naïve in her expectations.
The Taar-Breckian’s overwhelming dominance had come as a bit of a shock to her. More disturbing still was that she’d thrilled to the dispassionate note of command in his voice. His air of authority did funny things to her insides and made her yearn to be at his mercy. That had to be a testament to the raw, male power that oozed from his every pore. She’d become drunk off it. There really was no other way to explain the fact that she couldn’t stop picturing herself on her knees before him. She was ready to abandon all thoughts of an equal relationship and give herself over to his control. Well, almost. She still had some doubts.
Lucy shook her head to dispel thoughts about yielding to the warrior from her mind. Right now, she had to concentrate on ensuring that she reached her destination unseen. She moved off the main path and in among the thick line of trees that bordered the park. She doubled back a hundred yards or so, just in case she’d been spotted by anyone. A woman on her own tended to attract a lot of attention but the streets were quiet, so hopefully nobody had spotted her. Hitching up her skirts, she clambered over the fence that would take her into the alleyway behind the post office. It was a bit of a struggle and, as she came down on the other side of the barrier, she landed in an inelegant heap on the ground.
Brushing the dirt from her hands, she got to her feet. She hated having to scramble over fences and walk down dark alleys, but she knew there were no surveillance cameras here. Over the years, she and her friends had learned where they were visible to agents of the High Council and where they could come and go as they pleased. There was a surprising number of blind spots to exploit.
Lucy hurried along to the back of the post office. Pressing her shoulder to the heavy door of the derelict building, she gave it a shove. There was a loud scraping of metal on concrete as it opened, just enough for her to squeeze through. She didn’t like being in this place with its odor of abandonment and decay, but it was relatively safe. Thousands of people walked by every day without giving the building a second glance.
She crossed the large, empty space where customers in the old days must have queued up to mail their letters and parcels. Making her way past the serving counters, she headed into the back room where people had once sorted the mail. She walked to the far wall where the entrance to the space she and her friends from the Hyde Ladies’ Circle used from time to time was concealed. Kept from sight by a stack of shelves, the door led into a long corridor, at the end of which was a small room. Each of the women in the group had brought something to decorate the space so it would be comfortable in case any of them had to spend a considerable amount of time there. Lucy was glad of that because she was going to have to stay there for a spell. She wasn’t ready to go back and face that Taar-Breckian warrior again and she certainly couldn’t go home. Her father would demand to know where she’d been this morning, what she knew about Victoria’s disappearance. If she managed to hold her nerve and refused to tell him anything, he would probably put her under lock and key until he could marry her off. Any hope she had of making it to Taar-Breck would be lost.
As she entered the corridor and pulled the door shut behind her, Lucy reflected on how much things had changed in just a few short hours. Last night, she had stayed with her friend, Victoria, to give her some support before the betrothal ceremony that had been scheduled for today. Her being away from home overnight wasn’t something her father would normally approve of, especially since Victoria’s stepbrother was a bachelor. Spending the night under the same roof as an unmarried man without her guardian present was something that would be frowned upon, but Jonathan had persuaded her father to allow it. He’d thought that Lucy’s presence would calm Victoria’s nerves before her betrothal was announced.
Recently, Victoria had been putting on a convincing show of maidenly distress, but Lucy knew that what her friend really felt was anger. She was being married off to a man she hadn’t chosen for herself, after all. It was only natural that she would rail against that. Like most men would, however, Jonathan had read her mood all wrong and assumed she was nervous about the prospect of performing her marital duties for the first time. That was a joke. Victoria had thumbed her nose at the establishment by losing her virginity months ago.
But, when she had woken this morning, Victoria was gone. Lucy and her friend’s maid, Zinnie, had fled the house before Jonathan Walton could discover his stepsister was missing. He had an explosive temper and Lucy hadn’t wanted to find herself on the receiving end of it. Knowing that Victoria’s departure would make her own life here uncomfortable, Lucy had gone straight to the Taar-Breckians for help.
It wasn’t a completely spur of the moment decision. Ever since her friend Caroline had been arrested, Lucy had felt it could only be a matter of time before the secret police knocked on her door. There were few options for escape available to her and going to Taar-Breck where Caroline was now settled with her husband seemed the least ominous of them. Sure, she’d heard rumors that the aliens treated their females badly, but the stories were clearly exaggerated. At least, she thought they were. Now that she’d come face to face with one of their warriors and heard his demands, she wasn’t quite so certain.
As Lucy entered the small room where she intended to spend the night, she jumped back in fright. There was already someone in there.
“Zinnie!” she exclaimed, once she’d recovered her powers of speech and realized who the figure emerging from the shadows was. “What on Earth are you doing here? I thought you’d headed north to look for Elizabeth Chatterton.”
Lucy was not exactly sure why Zinnie thought that Elizabeth was hiding out in that part of the city. Actually, until the maid had mentioned that was where she was going, Lucy hadn’t even realized that Victoria’s maid knew Elizabeth. She chose not to ask too many questions in case the two women were connected through some subversive activity. In the current political climate, she suspected that ignorance might be bliss.
“I still plan to go north,” Zinnie explained, “but there are government agents everywhere. I’ll wait until nighttime when it’s easier to move around unseen.”
Easier, perhaps, but there were dangers other than the secret police lurking on the streets once night had fallen. Lucy knew that only too well. After all, she had crept about in the darkness many times, to go to meet her friends. She’d had to avoid running into unsavory men, and women, each time. She didn’t know exactly what kinds of criminal activity they got up to, but she’d heard enough rumors of violence to realize that the civilized veneer that glossed over the city’s problems faded with the setting sun. Lucy had no intention of lecturing Zinnie about the risk to her safety, though. She was a grown woman, more than capable of making her own choices.
“So, you’ll stay here until nightfall?” Lucy asked.
“If you don’t mind, miss.”
“Of course not.” Lucy didn’t know the other woman particularly well, but Victoria was unusually close to her maid, so she guessed she was okay to be around. Anyway, she would be glad of some company for a little while. Lucy hated being on her own. “I owe you for getting me out of the Waltons’ house before Jonathan found out she was gone. Do you know any more about where Victoria went?”
“No.” Zinnie shook her head. “Like I said this morning, I’m pretty sure she’s gone looking for the rebels.”
“She must be crazy,” Lucy said. Anyone of their social class who thought they could put their trust in members of the rebel forces was crazy. Sure, they had a common interest in seeing the downfall of the High Council, but the rebels hated the more privileged members of society and wanted to see them stripped of their wealth and status. Besides that, they were unpredictable, and they always needed money to keep their fight against the state going. That made them dangerous. There was no guarantee they wouldn’t betray Victoria in exchange for the generous reward her family was bound to put up for her return.
“That’s what I told her,” Zinnie said, “but you know Vicky. Once she’s made up her mind about something, there’s no stopping her. Anyway, what about you, Miss Lucy? Did you manage to speak to someone at Lady Chatterton’s house?”
“I did,” Lucy confirmed as she flopped onto one of the large floor cushions in the center of the room.
“And will they help you?”
“Perhaps,” Lucy replied, thinking about how the Taar-Breckian warrior had taken her proposition and turned the tables on her with demands of his own.
“They had conditions?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” Lucy said, “I met with one of their leaders and asked him to help me.”
“Go on,” Zinnie prompted when Lucy fell into contemplative silence.
“Well, he wanted to know why he should and I told him that if he did, I would become his pet.”
Zinnie stared at her for a moment, a look of sheer incredulity passing over her face. Then she burst out laughing.
“It isn’t funny,” Lucy said indignantly.
“Oh, Miss Lucy, it is, a bit,” Zinnie said, quickly bringing herself under control. “What on Earth made you offer to be his pet?”
Lucy’s cheeks blushed. “That’s a bit personal, but I thought it would be something he might like, that we’d both like.”
Zinnie gave her a compassionate pat on the hand that told Lucy she understood if she didn’t want to go into detail.
“So, what did he say?” Zinnie asked.
“Uhm, well, he told me that he would expect me to obey his every command.” She didn’t think there was any point in telling the other woman how she’d got down on her knees for the warrior. It was humiliating enough that she’d done it, without sharing the experience with a virtual stranger. “He’s given me some time to think about whether I can submit to him completely but he wants an answer soon.”
“And he won’t help you unless you agree?” Zinnie asked, her expression a little more solemn now.
Lucy shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t think so. He didn’t seem the type to compromise.”
In fact, it seemed to Lucy that this was an all-or-nothing kind of man. He would have fixed expectations of her and she doubted there would be any room for the sort of negotiations she’d dreamed up for her ideal relationship.
“So, what will you do?”
“I don’t think I have much choice if I want to get out of here,” Lucy replied. “I’m going to have to agree to his terms.”
“It might not be so bad.”
Zinnie’s words were clearly a response to the look of trepidation on Lucy’s face.
Lucy smiled weakly, realizing now that the platitudes she trotted out so often for her friends were worthless when it came to making a person feel better.
“And,” Zinnie continued, “once you’re in Taar-Breck, you can speak with Lady Caroline. If you’re miserable with this man, she’ll surely help you get out of the arrangement.”
“If she can help me,” Lucy said. She had no idea what her friend’s situation actually was. For all she knew, Caroline might be shut away in some gilded cage. But, if she did have freedom, then perhaps she might be able to persuade her husband to help Lucy get out of the relationship if she was unhappy.
“I’m sure it will be okay,” Zinnie said, patting her arm in a gesture of comfort. “Do everything he asks of you until you get to know him a little better and then you’ll be able to work out ways to get around him. Men are all the same. Please them in bed and they’ll give you whatever you want.”
Lucy nodded, but realized that she hadn’t given enough thought to the more demanding aspects of a relationship with the Taar-Breckian warrior. She knew she could dress up, crawl around, and act the part of a pet easily enough but when it came to physical intimacy, she wasn’t so sure. He was a large, imposing male. Her small, delicate body would never cope, would it? She really had no idea.
Once Zinnie had left her alone for the night, Lucy tried to block out her fears by making her surroundings as homey as possible. She reckoned that if she made her environment comfortable, her mind would soon settle. Maybe then, she would stop imagining all the horrible things that could happen to her if the wrong person found her here.
There was a camp bed stored in the large cupboard at the back of the room, so she set it up for herself. A metal contraption with a canvas cover, it didn’t look very cozy, but it was probably better than sleeping on the floor. There was a small table lamp in the corner of the room, so she took it and placed it next to the bed. When she switched it on and doused the main light, it cast a warm glow over everything, softening the harsh gray of the walls and making the atmosphere less hostile. She took a quilt from the large box where she and the other women had stored some essentials in case any of them was ever forced to spend the night here. When the women had gathered the bits and pieces together, the thought of sleeping in this hidden room had seemed like it would be an adventure. Now that it was a reality for Lucy, she really wasn’t looking forward to it.
When the bed was made and there was nothing else to distract herself with, Lucy stripped down to her thin cotton chemise. She folded her clothes neatly and placed them on top of the wooden box she’d fetched the quilt from. Then she clambered up into the narrow bed and tried to make herself comfortable. Beneath her, the metal frame creaked loudly with every move she made, and Lucy suspected that, for the second night in a row, she wouldn’t get much sleep. Last night, she’d been kept awake by Victoria tossing and turning as she suffered through the recurring nightmare she’d been having ever since she found out her betrothal was imminent. Lucy couldn’t blame her for feeling unsettled. Both women were painfully aware of what would happen to them.
Before they were handed over to their future husbands, they would be taken to a medical room. They would be strapped to a chair, their legs spread apart, and examined in the most intimate way possible while the dozen creepy old men of the High Council looked on. It was supposed to be about verifying their purity, but Lucy doubted that was the real reason behind the humiliating inspection. She suspected it was to remind young women that their lives, their bodies, were not their own.
As she was about to turn off the light, Lucy heard a sound in the corridor outside. It might be Zinnie coming back, but she didn’t think that was likely. She leapt out of bed and looked around frantically for something she could use to defend herself. There seemed to be nothing useful. Throwing a fluffy pillow was unlikely to have much impact on an intruder. She took a deep breath to calm herself. Then she remembered the revolver her friend Caroline had acquired on the black market. She wouldn’t want to use a weapon that could be deadly, but it might be enough of a deterrent to force an assailant to back off.
Lucy ran to get the gun. She slipped her hand behind the wooden bookcase and found it, taped to the back panel. She pulled it free just as the door swung open. As the lights came on, she was blinded for a second. When her eyesight recovered, she saw the figure of a large male in the doorway. Her heart pounded as she raised the gun. She had no idea whether it was actually loaded or if it would still fire.
“Put that thing down,” the deep voice of the Taar-Breckian warrior she’d met this morning commanded. “Lucy, put that thing down.”
Lucy shook her head as he stepped into the room, seeming to fill the space with his angry presence. The fury vibrating from him scared her. As he moved a little closer, her hand trembled.
“Lucy, I won’t tell you again.”
She shook from head to foot. Her fingers moved, almost of their own accord, pulling back on the trigger. A deafening crack split the air and when she came to her senses, she was horrified to see blood blooming on the white sleeve of the warrior’s tunic. As her eyes met with his, she could see the cold rage in them and her heart seemed to stop. What the hell had she done?