Professor Han droned on and on until Paige’s heavy eyelids drooped.
He stopped, midsentence. Paige jerked her head up from where her chin rested precariously close to the desk. Two men had entered the lecture theater. One she immediately recognized—the mayor of New Phoenix, Carl Nillson. She sank into her seat and shaded her bleary eyes with her hand. What the hell was he doing here?
The professor cleared his throat. “Class, we’re privileged to have the mayor with us today and his very important guest.”
Paige peeked out between her fingers.
The guest was a head taller than Nillson, which put him at over two meters. She stared, narrowing her gaze on his face. Each feature came into focus one at a time. Coal black eyes that scanned the room, smooth copper skin, and a narrow nose that twitched a little—was he amused or embarrassed by his introduction? Sitting next to her, Katie, her pint-sized roommate, giggled and turned a mottled shade of pink when he latched his eyes on her.
Slowly, he shifted from Katie to Paige. He stared and his nostrils flared slightly, then his eyes widened into dark pits. Paige gasped and covered her mouth. She slipped further down her seat and wished she could vanish. She’d recognized him and given his reaction, which although subtle was apparent, he had also remembered her.
Paige’s cheeks instantly boiled with shameful heat. Why today? Why her class? Couldn’t he have gone down the corridor and interrupted the lecture on intergalactic economics, instead of her Earth’s political studies?
“Who is he?” Katie whispered. “I mean, I can see he’s not human. Too, you know, super masculine.”
Paige shrugged. She had to pretend she didn’t know, because she couldn’t possibly explain where she’d seen him last night. “Well, obviously Vendu.”
Katie nudged Paige’s shoulder. “He keeps looking over here. Should I wave?”
“No!” Paige said, perhaps a little too sharply. She ducked her head down. Now she couldn’t see if he was still looking at her. The hairs on the back of her head stood on end. She squirmed on her plastic chair, suddenly conscious of each lingering mark on her ass.
“Senator Jamen Hosta is touring the campus today,” Nillson said gleefully, “and we would all wish to extend a warm welcome to this special envoy as he familiarizes himself with Earth’s many fine institutions.” Nillson began to applaud. The class joined in.
As the weak clapping died down, the alien visitor spoke. It was the first time she’d heard his voice. “Thank you, students. I apologize for interrupting.” A smooth voice, richly endowed with depth. Perfect English, too, with a faint trace of a unique accent. She lowered her hands, sat up a little straighter.
He continued to address the gathering with his polished words, complimenting them on their university. Paige listened mesmerized as he expressed the importance of building bridges between humans and the Vendu. Good stuff, she thought, better than the fluff that spilled out of Nillson’s mouth.
He ended the speech and the applause was more rapturous than the first time.
The bell rang. Class was over. Thank God. She collected her notepad and pen and shoved them into her shoulder bag.
Nillson’s guest was by the door shaking hands with each departing student. Paige held back as Katie hurried over to have her first handshake with a Vendu. Her fellow students, young and keen, seemed to have conveniently forgotten that this alien species had conquered Earth and stolen a whole continent. Now they were all supposed to be friends. The crowd thinned by the exit. Paige hoped Nillson and the senator would ignore her and move on.
Senator Hosta glanced in her direction. She froze to the spot. For a second, it looked like he was going to walk over to her. However, Nillson gestured to the door and cut across the professor, who was jabbering away about his pet research project—the Earth’s Defense Council.
“Let’s go, Senator.”
Nillson glared over his shoulder at Paige. She got the message—stay away.
Just as she thought she had saved herself any further embarrassment, the senator, undeterred by Nillson’s hastiness, smiled straight at her. Staggering backwards, she clutched her bag to her chest, trying to smother the thumping in her chest.
He nodded, like a small bow, then turned and left the empty room.
Paige slumped into a nearby seat. With luck, that would be it. Nillson wouldn’t say a thing about the tiny gesture of recognition—he had his public reputation to maintain. The senator would finish his visit and go back to his home world Halos. Nobody needed to know that the first time he’d clapped eyes on her wasn’t in the lecture theater, but a different arena.
But why had he been there? What possible diplomatic advantage could be gained from an alien senator visiting that place?
She rose, and cupped an ass cheek through her pants, feeling a residue of heat. She relaxed. Fuck it. So he’d seen her in her panties, bent over and being spanked, did it matter?
The previous day
The mayor dashed Jamen’s hope of retiring early to his hotel suite. The evening’s entertainment involved an extra item that Nillson had added to the original agenda: a visit to an establishment he recommended.
“Your kind of place, Senator,” Nillson declared when they finished the evening meal at his residence.
The house sprawled in all directions, rather like Nillson and his portly belly. His face, however, was surprisingly thin and his eyes close together.
“In what way?” Jamen asked.
Nillson winked. “You’ll see.”
Jamen gritted his teeth. One more week in New Phoenix and his tour of Earth’s key administrative cities was finished. He had learned a great deal and was sure his final report would impress the emperor, but Jamen was tired of human politics and attending cultural events. Tonight was promising to be another such occasion.
The street they drove along was dark and poorly lit. Jamen frowned but kept his face hidden in the shadows of the vehicle.
“It’s called the Bow and Tie,” Nillson revealed as they left the car and approached the black door of a windowless building. Before they reached it, the door swung open automatically.
The lights were fixed into the floor and barely illuminated the murky entrance. A man emerged from somewhere and greeted the mayor by name.
“I’ve a special guest.” Nillson cocked his head at Jamen. “Don’t want any trace of him having visited, okay?” He tapped his nose.
The next door took them straight into the heart of the private venue. A gathering of people, mainly young, but not entirely—an elderly gentleman brushed past Jamen, swinging what looked like a thin stick in his hand. The men wore bow ties; a clothing accessory Nillson had insisted Jamen used. It wasn’t comfortable. The women wore remarkably little: bare arms, short skirts, or skintight tubes on their legs. A hubbub of voices, male and female, tussled to be heard without actually raising themselves above whispers. There was a distinctive set of sounds filtering through the hum. A whoosh, then snap, followed by a yelp or a squeal.
Nillson, grinning, strutted by people and shook a few hands.
“What is this place?” Jamen said impatiently. He was tired of the mayor’s games.
A sea of people parted to expose a low dais and on it, a bent figure of a slender, pale woman, whose head dangled somewhere on the other side of a bench as she presented her bottom to the rest of the room. A strip of fabric hid her sex, but otherwise she was nude. Crisscrossing her ass were thin welts, none of which had broken her skin, but they seemed under the lights to be vivid and real.
He turned to the mayor. “You’ve brought me to a punishment block?” A secret one, because Earthlings shunned physical punishments.
Nillson laughed. Jamen thought his response disrespectful and pivoted on his heel, ready to leave.
“No, wait. We don’t have those kinds of punishments, not like you Vendu. No, no. This is for fun.”
“Fun?” Behind him came the swooshing noise and squawk.
“Yes, like your, now what do you call them, Voltas?”
Jamen faced the dais again. The female human wriggled her splendid bottom in a tempting fashion and whimpered. To one side stood a tall black-clad female wielding a rod.
“How naughty have you been, Paige?” the older woman demanded haughtily.
“Oh, very, Mistress,” the woman pleaded. Jamen detected something in her pathetic tone that sounded contrived and lacking in distress.
There was perhaps no harm in watching.
“Voltas are for off-world military personnel,” Jamen said. “They provide respite from fighting and relaxation. We don’t have them in the senate. They are unnecessary.” He didn’t take his eyes off the girl as she received another whack of the stick. Her bottom quivered in response.
“Oh,” Nillson said, failing to hide his disappointment. “So you don’t have clubs like this?”
Jamen sighed in frustration. He was fed up of explaining Vendu mating practices. “There are pleasure palaces for those that need them, but nothing is hidden. Why do you do this here, in a dingy building? What has she done?”
“Done? Nothing. She’s being disciplined and she likes it, the spanking, the cane. It’s what she requested.” Nillson’s defensive comment was accompanied by a swoosh and whack of the rod.
Jamen slipped past Nillson to get a better look at the young woman. He edged around the dais until he stood alongside her head. A curtain of sandy hair hid her face and she gripped the bench legs with taut knuckles. She inhaled deeply, an audible sucking between teeth followed by a lick of her lips. When the cane touched her between her legs and glided up and down her inner thigh, she moaned softly.
The woman tapped the cane against her bare ass. “Going to be good now, ma cherie?”
She lifted her head and Jamen glimpsed two glassy eyes, but no tears. She twisted her torso so that she was looking right at him, almost through him, then she blinked as if finding her focus. Her lower lip trembled and she lifted her chin to answer.
“Yes, Mistress,” she said in a neutral voice.
He couldn’t stop staring; something kept his attention and he bent slightly to level his head with hers. She blushed and shook the hair out of her watery eyes. Her face screwed up as the cane whipped another faint line across a buttock, then another and another, all in quick succession and forming neat rows. She stomped her foot on the floor, gasping for breath, but remained folded over the padded bench and if there were tears, they weren’t falling like raindrops. She was neither bound nor trapped and there were no enforcers holding her down. If she wanted, she could get up and walk away.
Jamen hadn’t expected a human female to be so submissive. Clearly, his brother had told him the truth.
Nillson touched his elbow. “Come on, there are other rooms—”
“No, no, thank you. I’ve seen enough.” Jamen straightened up, annoyed by Nillson’s constant needling.
“Well, if it’s not your thing,” he sneered.
Jamen was under orders not to offend his human hosts. Too much was at stake to risk jeopardizing their fledging relationships with Earth. He unclenched his fists. “One more room, then.”
He turned back to the bench. The girl was gone and the crowd was dispersing. He searched over their heads, but there was no trace of her. Pity, he thought. For the first time since he’d arrived on Earth, he’d seen someone he fancied knowing more about, especially a female who braved a place like the Bow and Tie. What made her choose to be spanked? And why the spectacle of being watched? Unlike the women of the Voltas who received training, what could this Earthling gain from being disciplined with a rod when there were far more intimate and pleasurable ways to submit?
The next room was less inspiring. One man flogging a tall woman. More of the same perhaps, but different—the couple was playful and laughing. Nillson was right; the club was about fun and pleasure. So why hadn’t the other pair demonstrated it? Something wasn’t right.
Nillson got the message a second time when Jamen requested they leave. During the journey back to his hotel, Jamen almost asked the mayor if he knew the girl but thought better of it. In three weeks he’d be gone; what would be the point in meeting her?
He ignored the mayor and tried hard not to feel disappointed.
She stuck her head out the door. There wasn’t anyone outside the lecture theater. If the mayor was really gone, she could at least avoid any further embarrassment. She hurried along the corridor to the nearest exit. The quicker she reached home, the better. She couldn’t bear the thought of exposure and having to explain to her fellow students why she went to the Bow and Tie once a week.
Skidding around a corner, she bumped into someone big and bounced off his chest. Peeking up, she saw who blocked her path—the alien. She jumped back and hugged her bag.
“Uh, excuse me,” she muttered. Glancing around, she spotted a few students, but nobody she knew and no sign of Nillson.
The Vendu senator leaned a shoulder against the wall and folded his arms across his beefy chest. “Nice to meet you. Again.” He arched his black eyebrows.
“I’ve never met you,” she said quickly. “You’re mistaken.”
He refused to budge. “She called you ma cherie—what does that mean?”
Mistress Marie. He was talking about the domme who had spanked her ass the previous night. Another visitor to the club, but this one had come from Marseilles. Paige closed her eyes and sighed. “My darling. It’s French. I guess you don’t know French. Your English is excellent.” She had to admit he had a body of a barbarian but was clothed like a smartly dressed executive. The Vendu were physically stronger than humans and built to fight. She barely reached his shoulders.
“Thank you.” His eyes gleamed. “I worked hard on learning your language before I left Halos.”
The big planet at the center of the Vendu Empire—Halos. He had come a long way and here he was, chatting up a student. Why? And where was Nillson?
“The mayor?” She rose up on tiptoes and peeked over his shoulder.
The corner of his thin lips twitched. “I escaped. He offered to take me back to the hotel, but I prefer to walk. Would you accompany me?” He pushed himself off the wall.
“The Canyon Oasis? Not too far for you?”
She shook her head. He was staying in the grandest hotel in town. She’d never stepped foot in it. Most residents of New Phoenix lived in the high rises built after the Vendu invasion had destroyed most of old Phoenix. The hotel was a recent addition and part of the ongoing rejuvenation of the city. It had taken decades to recover from the destruction and slowly, cities all over the planet were re-growing and people were returning from the country, where they’d lived in relative safety. The Vendu hadn’t touched the rural provinces and left much of it unspoiled; consequently, more and more virgin land had been cultivated. They were running out of fertile soil.
He held the door open for her. The sun was dipping behind the tallest buildings, casting shadows down the street. Canyon Oasis was three blocks away from the campus.
Senator Hosta strolled while she practically jogged to keep up with his long legs. “Why were you waiting for me?” she asked.
“I am curious. Nillson thought I would enjoy visiting the Bow and Tie.” He slowed and she ceased trotting.
“And you didn’t?” She moved the bag to the other shoulder. Her books weighed a ton and the heat of the sun was cooking her.
“Allow me.” Before she could protest, he slipped the strap off her arm and effortlessly carried the bag as if it was made from feathers. “No. I had not asked to go.”
“Oh.” She felt slightly disappointed, but not surprised. Hardly anyone would claim to have her fascination with spanking. It was her dirty little secret. Nillson knew about it, but only because he liked to visit. He never spanked anyone, just watched. Or gloated, as one of the other regular girls commented once. His creepy behavior was well-known.
The senator continued to alter his pace until he matched hers. “I assume you like going there?” he asked.
There seemed no reason to lie. Nobody knew Paige Lester that well. Unlike the mayor, who was an honorary member of the club. If Nillson had taken him, then the mayor was also at risk of adverse publicity.
“I find it enjoyable. I don’t always, you know, get…”
“Spanked?” The word rolled off his tongue unfettered by nerves. “Because you are good?”
She guffawed. “I’m not sure my getting spanked has anything to do with being good or bad. I get money, you see.”
“You’re paid!” He halted and took her arm, spinning her to face him. He had furrowed tramlines forming on his forehead. “Somebody pays to beat you?”
“Not like that. The guests pay a membership fee to the club, and I and a few others go along and in return for spanking, we get our expenses paid and tips, good tips. It’s more like a job and it helps pay for my rent and stuff.” She eased her arm out of his grasp. “I don’t want my friends to know.” She tugged on the bag and he handed it to her. “Look, I should get back home. I’ve exams coming up.”
He pursed his lips. “I’m sorry, I’ve offended you—”
“No, oh, no. I’m just shy about it. I don’t usually tell anyone.” Except she’d just told an alien from somewhere far away. It was turning into one hell of a bizarre day. “My roommate doesn’t know.”
“On Halos, there is no shame in having such needs. If you enjoy pain with your pleasure, then it is the responsibility of a mate to fulfill those wishes. Naturally, we also discipline offenders. Disobedient soldiers are whipped. Prisoners are punished.”
They weren’t speaking loudly; even so, the sidewalk was deserted. Thank goodness, she thought. However, she was intrigued by what he said. She wanted to know more.
“Would you join me for an evening meal? In the hotel?” he asked.
A hundred tiny shivers erupted down her warmed back. “Why?” she whispered.
“I’d like to know you. I think we can learn much from each other.” He spoke so naturally, unhindered by the social norms of her species. Clearly, the Vendu spoke what was on their minds.
“Sure,” she said. Would she tell her friends that an alien had asked her out on a date? They’d never believe her. She hardly believed it herself.
He smiled—a charming one, too. The Vendu had all the facial features of humans, and something more. Maybe what set him apart from human males were the dark moons of his eyes and the sheen of his skin.
She swung her bag onto her shoulder. “I have to go that way.” She pointed to a side street that led to the student accommodation block.
He stepped out of her way. “Three days’ time, I have an evening free. I don’t have many left. Eight in the evening. I shall see you?”
“Yes,” she shouted over her shoulder. “Senator.”
“Jamen. My name is Jamen.”
“Paige. I’m Paige Lester.”
He watched her until she disappeared around the corner. By then, her legs were shaking and her mouth had gone dry. What the fuck was she doing? Going out with a strange man was risky, but an alien warrior? She should have said no. But, she hadn’t. Instead, she had leapt at the opportunity to meet him again. He had dangled some invisible lure before her and she had to find out exactly what it was.
As she swiped the access card to her building, a hand clamped down on her shoulder. “Paige,” a voice snarled in her ear. “We should talk.”
Her heart skipped a beat. She recognized the voice. His fingers pinched harder. “I… I—”
“Shut up, and come with me.” He dragged her away from the door toward a waiting car. She kicked her heels but it was futile. If Mayor Nillson wanted to talk, nothing would stop him.
Following his encounter with Paige, Jamen researched the rituals of what dating involved—a meal, light alcohol, pleasant conversation on neutral matters, some interest in childhood and families, work, and minor compliments on appearance.
He laid the tablet on the bedside table. The research notes were part of the information file sent to him before leaving Halos. Some of it had been compiled by his brother, Galen, who was a judge and mated to a human, Zara. Galen had sentenced Zara to a whipping for disruptive behavior during a student exchange visit, but then he’d changed his mind and taken her to his house to complete a different punishment. Her chosen ordeal had brought the couple together and now they were paired for life. Something that Jamen would never have believed of his brother two years ago when Galen left Halos to begin work as a high judge in New Ayres Rock. Remarkably, Galen wasn’t the only Vendu to have found love with a human. The First Couple, Marcos and Freya, had begun their passionate affair on a prison colony. Freya had written the introduction to human courtship techniques.
Vendu males also courted and initiated the process. Females generally did not approach a male, unless prompted by another male. A man would choose a female, usually as and when a suitable one became available, then after introductions, which included a list of sexual preferences, and if she agreed since she was entitled to refuse, he fucked her. Then he might decide to meet again for further bonding. If they really connected, they would breed, assuming the couple was fertile; if not, they moved on to another pairing. If they lived together, it was purely for convenience.
Humans were more cautious. They took time—weeks and weeks, it seemed, according to Freya’s lengthy notes. He had only had a little over two weeks.
Rising from the bed where he’d reclined, he selected a suit from the wardrobe. Before he left his home planet, he’d commissioned a range of suits that fitted with Earth’s fashions: a jacket with lapels, shirt with buttons instead of magnetic seams that melded together, and loose-fitting pants, unlike his molded ones. And in the place of regulatory black, he’d chosen dark grays and blues. The Vendu preferred uniforms or authentic clan clothes that dated back to ancient times when they fought with swords and spears.
He brushed down his sleeves and combed his thick locks of black hair off his forehead. Satisfied his appearance was optimized, he left his penthouse suite and took the express elevator to the ground floor and the dining room.
She was waiting by the door, shuffling nervously on her high heels. He paused to admire the delightful creature: stockings, tight-fitting dress without sleeves, and a skirt that hovered above her knees. She’d shapely calves, he noted. He already knew she had a shapely ass.
When he moved toward her, she jerked slightly, as if caught off guard. She raked a lock of hair out of her eyes with a noticeably trembling hand—a nervous habit he’d watched her perform a few times in their brief encounter outside the university. He rather liked it.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello. Your dress is very… appropriate.” The greeting ritual was brief. He remembered she wasn’t required to kneel or bow her head. Neither should she address him as sir. He already expected her to use his given name and not his title. Those things he decided were acceptable, as long as she remained courteous.
She straightened her skirt. “Thank you.”
He held the door open and she walked into the restaurant with a degree of grace. High heels were not a problem, which meant she was used to dressing up.
The chief operative in the restaurant, a man named Gustave, pointed them to a secluded corner far away from other diners. Jamen and Gustave had come to an arrangement. Because Jamen was unfamiliar with native food, he had asked Gustave to serve him different dishes each night, then he was saved the awkwardness of not understanding the menu. Jamen had used this technique throughout his time on Earth and it had worked well.
Gustave positioned the chair behind Paige and shook out a napkin over her lap before handing her the menu.
“Thank you,” she said.
Jamen sat opposite. Her politeness toward those who served them was also noted. He believed servants should be respected. The Vendu relied heavily on the serving classes. When they conquered a world, they typically used the captured population as slaves, and the best trained and most reliable were offered prestigious roles on Halos. However, Jamen had no plans to turn Paige into a servant. He doubted she would accept such a lowly position.
She thumbed through the menu, her eyes darting about the pages. Her skin was pale, perhaps a little too pale and her hands still shook. For somebody who was accustomed to being spanked in front of people, she was surprisingly anxious.
“You pick,” she said suddenly, slamming the leaves shut.
“Not hungry?” He frowned. Was she ill?
“No, I mean, yes. Just, this is not where I typically eat. I’m living on a shoestring. I have to eat out of cartons.” She glanced around the vast salon. Only a handful of other people were eating in the hotel. It was a quiet night.
He wasn’t sure what a shoestring had to do with food. He guessed she was poor. Students on Halos were accustomed to frugal living, too, although it was supposed to do with building character rather than a lack of money. All young people had to learn the basics of survival because nobody knew where they might be sent in the Empire and some conquered planets were more inhospitable than others.
He waved Gustave over. “Pick something, please.” With the simple request, he handed back the menus.
She chuckled. “Well, that’s one way to do it.”
“It’s effective,” he agreed.
She fidgeted with her fork. “So… you invited me, and here I am.”
“Yes. Tell me about yourself.” He opened with the first question that Freya suggested. It seemed appropriate.
She started hesitantly. “I’m an only child. I come from the north, by the Great Lakes. There’s no university up there because the lakes are poisoned and nobody wants to live there anymore.”
“Polluted. By radiation and stuff. From the war with you.”
Talking about the past was proving awkward. He changed tactics. “What are you studying?”
“Infrastructure and politics. Because we’re having to rebuild following your invasion. It’s a long, slow process.”
He ignored the reference to the war, unlike infrastructure, which was more relevant. “We have plenty of experience at world rebuilding.”
“To your specifications, I assume.”
Gustave arrived with a basket of bread rolls. “I’ve chosen the steak for you. Wine?”
“You will select the optimum palate cleanser,” he batted back. Gustave hastily retreated. “Yes, we have requirements when we build colonies. What about politics?”
“We have to reestablish our institutions. Globally and nationally. The Earth Defense Council sets the agenda. Lots of committees and councils.” She sighed, puffing out her lips. “I guess I want to help in some way.”
“We have councils too. War councils, mainly.” He had failed to establish any line of conversation that caused her to smile.
Gustave poured red wine into the glasses.
She pinched the glass stem hard with two fingers. She was still nervous and hunching her shoulders into a ball. There was nobody watching or listening to them. Jamen had checked his room for infiltration devices and covertly carried an alerter around with him. If anything dubious came close to him, it set off a warning alarm. Vendu spy detection was far more advanced than the humans. Plus, Gustave had ensured Jamen always had space around his table.
“Councils,” she said slowly. “Who gets to be on them?”
“Senators. Members of the imperial family and advisors to the emperor.”
“You’re not elected?” She took a quick sip of the wine, which then turned into a longer mouthful.
“We are appointed by the emperor from a list proposed by the governors of the colonies and clans. No citizen need be involved in governance. They are productive in their own ways.”
“Hardly a democracy, then,” she said before drinking half the contents of the glass.
Jamen wondered if the wine helped her relax, because it seemed to have the opposite effect. She continued to wriggle and glance around the room, as if she expected somebody to leap out at her.
“We don’t pretend to be democratic. When you have a huge empire, it is too complex to manage a democracy. Earth should take lessons from us. The Empire is strong because we rely on few leaders and obedient citizens.”
“Like you.” There was a soft smirk accompanying her snark. He let the disrespect go on the basis she was struggling with something. He wanted to know what that was.
“Yes. I have been selected to serve as a Halos senator. My family are warriors.” He was one of twenty-five senators put forward by the warrior clans of Halos; the other fifty were appointed by the governors of conquered worlds. Only the colony on Earth had not appointed a senator. The reason was obvious. The Vendu couldn’t appear to be in control of the planet, even if they believed they could overrun it with ease. The humans were not a species to be subjugated. They were to be the Vendu’s allies and hopefully in the future, provide mates. In return, Earth gained from the technical advances gifted to them by the Empire. He made a mental note to speak to the Imperial Bureau for Environmental Regeneration about the Great Lakes. Perhaps their scientists could help clean them.
“You must have it easy, especially as it seems unelected representatives can do whatever they want. So why come here when you govern so much better than us?” Her aggressive tone starkly contrasted with her cowering demeanor—she spoke words but acted edgy and uncertain. He really didn’t think she was trying to insult the Vendu, because her questions came across as ill-conceived and somewhat reckless.
“It isn’t our place to interfere with Earth’s political state.” He savored the wine—a full-bodied flavor. He enjoyed Earth’s drinks more than their food.
She dissected a piece of bread, but didn’t eat a crumb of it.
“Still no appetite?” He was increasingly concerned by her behavior.
She blushed and the coloration highlighted the rise of her cheekbones. She was pretty when not so pale.
Gustave laid the plates of steak and vegetables before them and she stabbed at the meat with her knife. Blood trickled out. Her shoulders slumped.
He leaned across the table. “You don’t like steak? Why did you not say?”
“I do like it, although I can’t afford it. It’s just too… pink.”
Jamen waved Gustave back to their table. “Cook hers more, please.” He pointed at her plate.
“Of course, sir.” Gustave collected the offending dish and spun on his heels.
“What?” Jamen raised his eyebrows as she continued to chuckle. Finally, she was losing her stiffness.
“It’s just, I feel sorry for him. You’re giving him all this responsibility and he’s used to specific instructions up front. You would say: I want it rare or well-done.”
“He never asked how you desired your dish.” Jamen found human rituals around meal times confusing. Who was serving whom?
“I think he’s a little intimidated.” She smiled.
Jamen stared at her. Her face had lit up to reveal two neat rows of white teeth and faint smile lines that wrinkled around her eyes.
“Are you intimidated by me?”
She paused. “No. Not you.”
“But somebody else has upset you.”
The smile evaporated and she nearly knocked over the glass by her hand in her haste to remove the smile from sight. The trembling suddenly deteriorated.
Now he understood what was going on. “You’re spying on me for somebody?”
The color drained from her face. “Oh, please. I…” Her voice disintegrated and tears filled her eyes. She reached behind to grab the back of the chair.
“No,” he said quickly. “Don’t go. Stay. Tell me what is going on.”
Her pitiful state touched him. She was obviously upset and not in control of her emotions. Instead of feeling anger at the situation, he wished to rectify it.
“I can’t,” she whispered, her voice barely reaching him.
“Why?” He pushed his uneaten food to one side and leaned closer.
“He’s going to tell my friends. And, worse, he’s threatened my internship.”
“I thought you were a student?”
“I finish next week after my last exam. Then hopefully I’ll graduate. After that, I have an internship at the City Hall for a year.”
“You’re talking about Nillson, aren’t you? He’s threatened you?” He hated the man even more now.
She nodded. “He knows about the Bow and Tie. He knows that I have this thing for… spanking,” she said quietly, looking over her shoulder. Gustave hadn’t returned.
“And he will use it against you. Is it illegal, what you do?”
“Oh, no. But it’s humiliating. For those of us who like it, it’s okay, but I’m not sure I want my parents or friends to know. They might think I’m nuts.”
“Oh.” He leaned back in his seat. “How did he find out about us meeting?”
“He watched us walking along the street together. He thought it suspicious. Then, before I got home, he pulled me into his car and demanded I told him what was going on. I had to tell him about us meeting.” She chewed her lower lip. “Sorry.”
Demanded meant coerced—she was vulnerable. “Don’t apologize. Nillson wants to know what exactly?”
She hung her head. “I shouldn’t tell you. I’m supposed to be loyal to him, not you.”
“By spying on his behalf? That is not good. Just ask me. What have I to hide? I’m a politician, not a general. I don’t work with the military or intelligence. My expertise is in lawmaking.”
She lifted her face. “He wants to know how the Vendu pass laws without involving your citizens. Kind of behind the scenes. Without due process.”
“I see. Well, we don’t pass them behind closed doors. We debate them publicly and citizens can express their concerns with a senator. However, it is the emperor’s final decision. What does he think happens?”
“I don’t know.”
Jamen grimaced. Nillson was a dishonorable representative of his people. Using Paige to do his dirty work and threatening her was not acceptable.
“I shall report him to a higher authority—”
“Oh, no, please don’t!” She raised her voice in alarm before dropping it back to a whisper. “I don’t want to make trouble. I just want my internship.”
“By spying on me? Hardly a respectable start.” He shook his head. “You seriously want to work in politics?”
“Yes. But, I suppose I wish I could be interning somewhere else.”
She guffawed. “I’ve marked my card with Nillson. He’s going to be all over me once I start at City Hall. I’d go anywhere if I had the chance.”
Gustave reappeared with her steak, looking triumphant. “Voila.”
“Eat,” said Jamen. “And relax. I won’t tell him and I’ll give you stuff to keep him happy. Nothing secretive or confidential.”
She picked up her cutlery and sliced off a chunk of meat. “Looks good.”
Jamen ate slowly, watching her appetite gain as she realized he wasn’t going to ruin her life with accusations, or let Nillson think she’d failed. However, the ghastly man had marred her future prospects.
He swirled the wine around his glass and pondered the opportunities that awaited her. Jamen knew without a doubt he had chosen her and unless she refused him, she was going to be his for some time to come. The reason he knew was the hardening of his balls, the tautness in his belly, and the constant reimagining of her spanking. His version was much better and she’d probably enjoy it more.
He decided to make a proposal. If she accepted, he would have to make arrangements. If not, then he would have to find a way to empty his mind of those recurring images.