“Earth to Sebastian,” Kaya says, and I turn away from the window to find her standing next to me, holding a half-full flute of champagne. Her hair is pulled back into its usual prim bun, but her navy pencil skirt is tight enough that I can see every curve of her ass. The second button of her blouse has come open, which means I can almost see cleavage.
She must not have noticed the button yet. Kaya never intentionally leaves more than one of them undone.
“What did you say about Earth?” I ask, resisting the urge to look down her blouse. The voices and the clinking of glass from the cocktail party are an intrusion, and I’m not sure I heard her right.
She shrugs, looking a little embarrassed. “It’s something my dad used to say when I was a kid. I was a bit of a daydreamer, and when he caught me staring into space, he’d say, ‘Earth to Kaya! Come in Kaya!’” She imitates a staticky voice, as if her dad is speaking to her over an archaic shortwave radio. Then she shrugs. “Doesn’t have quite the same ring, here on Rhodon.”
“I guess not.” And I’d had no idea she was from Earth.
I turn back to the window, as much to stop myself from obsessing about that second undone button as to study the ground below. Though I’m doing that too. Unfortunately, we’re cruising too high over the darkened landscape for me to see much.
“Sebastian, you’ve been staring out the window for a while,” Kaya says. “We should probably work the room.”
The “room” is actually the lowest level of a space yacht we prisoners call “the blimp.” It’s a party boat capable of traveling from system to system as well as cruising at low altitude within the atmosphere of a celestial body.
That celestial body, in this case, is the prison planet Rhodon. Also known as the Red Rock because of the crimson tint of its foliage and soil, Rhodon is the armpit of the universe, and an odd choice for a flying cocktail party. Unless you’re one of the sadistic fucks drinking and gossiping behind me, who’re willing to spend a small fortune to fly across the galaxy to watch two people beat each other to death in person, rather than on the feeds.
That’s what happened this afternoon. I beat a man to death in the arena, in front of both a live and a broadcast audience, because that’s what inmates sentenced to death by combat do: kill or be killed. I had no choice. Yet I can still feel the ghost of his throat beneath my hands as they squeeze. I can still see his mouth gaping open, sucking at air, but unable to pull any into his lungs. I can still hear the cheering of the crowd.
And now that the violence is over, the aforementioned sadistic fucks get to relive the event in all its gory splendor by partying on a space yacht with the victor.
“Sebastian? Do you need anything?” Kaya asks. Because that’s part of her job. Technically, as my sponsorship liaison, her chief duty is to secure corporate patronage to pay for my medical care and any weapons provided for me in the arena. Without those, my life expectancy decreases significantly. But she also decides how miscellaneous sponsorship credits are spent on me off camera. Which is usually in the form of fresh food and various toiletries in the greenroom.
As a civilian fighter, before I was a convicted criminal, my endorsement deals were for personal profit. Wear a sponsor’s workout gear on camera, get two hundred thousand credits deposited into my account. And there were other perks. Clothes. Tech. Women. Travel. My own personal short-range shuttle.
That feels like another life. Like it happened to someone else.
Some days, it’s hard to believe I gave it all up. That I got myself sent here on purpose. For my sister. To protect Sylvie. The reality here is day-to-day survival—fighting for my life, rather than for profit—and most of the time, everything that came before this feels like a half-forgotten dream.
“Water?” Kaya says. “Or juice? I might be able to find orange. Or tomato.”
“I’m fine.” That’s an outright lie, because Kaya can’t get me anything I really need. Freedom. Respect. Hell, she can’t even get me a real drink at a cocktail party supposedly thrown in my honor, without risking her job.
An inmate gladiator makes for tantalizing party entertainment, unless you arm him or give him alcohol.
“Well then, we need to mingle. That’s why you’re here.”
Just once, I wish they’d bring me up on the blimp before sundown, so I could actually see the surface of this miserable planet. My sister’s down there somewhere, in zone three. As last season’s champion, her sentence was commuted from death to life in the open population, and I would give anything for a glimpse of her. Not that I’d be able to tell it was her, from this height. But if I could see the other inmates and the buildings, at least I’d have some idea what she’s up against.
“She’s fine, Sebastian.” Kaya steps closer to peer out the window with me, and the scent of her perfume is so familiar that I’m reaching for her before I even realize my hands have moved. I force my arms back to my sides—I can’t touch her in front of all these people—and my hands curl into fists from the effort to resist. “But I’m not sure that’s zone three.” She points across the large viewing room taking up the entire lower level of the blimp, toward one of the windows on the other side. “I think zone three is that way. We should be flying directly over it in about half an hour.”
When she turns back to me, I get another whiff of her perfume, and I have to fight the urge to lean into her. To breathe deeper. Before this morning, it had been six weeks since I’d smelled that fragrance, because Kaya and the rest of the filming crew don’t come around during the hiatus between broadcast seasons. But her scent triggers a familiar forbidden urge, as if it hasn’t been weeks since I saw her. Since I kissed her and almost got her fired.
“You really think she’s okay?” I ask.
Kaya nods and moves a little closer, as if she’s spotted something intriguing out the window, where we can see nothing but a sea of darkness split by strings of red laser wire running along the tops of the huge metal walls that divide this planet into various zones. To keep the violent populace from forming riotous cities, according to Kaya. “Sylvie’s the strongest woman I ever met.” Her left hand settles softly on my right triceps, and I go as still as I can, to keep from spooking her out of that gentle touch. “I made sure she left the arena with as many supplies as I could sneak into her pack.”
Her touch is feather-light, her fingers skimming over the skin on the back of my arm, and I move into the touch, wordlessly demanding more for a second, before what she’s saying actually sinks in. “So, what? You gave her some extra food? A book of matches? A bottle of lotion from the greenroom? I appreciate the fact that you wanted to help her, but those won’t do her much good if they were stolen the second she stepped into zone three. She’s alone out there. And no matter how strong she is, she can’t take on an entire zone full of men by herself.”
Especially in her traumatized state.
Less than an hour before she was dropped off in zone three, Universal Authority—Kaya’s employer—made my sister shoot Graham, the love of her life, in the arena. That’s how she became champion. I saw the agony on her face when she had to pull the trigger, to save them both from being ripped apart by a pack of metal hounds. To at least give Graham a quick death.
She’s been out there alone and in mourning for a month and a half. I can fight in the arena for the next nineteen weeks and wait for them to release me as this season’s champion. Or I can take my fate into my own hands and speed up the clock.
I spent the entire hiatus planning my move.
Kaya looks like she wants to say something. Like some confession is burning the tip of her tongue. But then she only lets go of my arm and sips from her champagne flute. Whatever’s on her mind, she can’t say it in front of this many potential eavesdroppers.
“Thank you, Kaya,” I whisper. “For at least trying to help Sylvie.”
She looks up at me. Her gaze connects with mine, and her smile…changes. It’s no longer the dazzling camera-ready light beam she shines at CEOs and sponsors. Now her smile is smaller and warmer. It’s real and it’s personal.
It’s just for me.
“I wish I could have done more.” She glances at her shoes for a second before meeting my gaze again. “I…um… I’m not coming back next season. I told Charles—” The producer she works with. “—after the finale. After we filmed them releasing Sylvie into zone three. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep sending people to their deaths, murderers or not.”
I blink at her. “Why next season? Why would you come back this season?”
“For you.” She clears her throat, as if the admission makes her uncomfortable. “I don’t trust anyone else to get what you need out of your sponsors. To give you the best possible shot at walking away from the arena. But after this, I’m done.”
She came back for me. To dress me, and arm me, and get me medical care. To take care of me.
I want to kiss her so badly that resisting the impulse makes me ache all the way into my bones. Maybe we could sneak off somewhere. Maybe…
No. That might have worked last season, when Sylvie and Graham were here to engage with the investors, but now there’s no one but me to keep the guests entertained, and I’ve already been staring out this window for too long. I can feel the crowd growing restless. Any second, someone will—
“Kaya!” The high-pitched voice startles me out of my thoughts, and I turn to find a woman in a snug blue dress holding a bright pink cocktail in a stemmed glass. As she talks to Kaya, her gaze crawls over me like flies on a corpse.
A very attractive corpse.
While they chat, the ladies draw me into the crowd again. I ignore the hands of strangers trailing up my arms and down my back because tonight I’m the entertainment. The women—and a few of the men—flew halfway across the galaxy not just to see me fight, but for this. For an after-party on a space-yacht, where they can look through the transparent floor—an energy field the thickness of just a few atoms—at the prison planet beneath us, while they feel up the convict mingling among them as if they own me.
And really, I guess they do.
When Kaya wanders a few feet away to take another flute of champagne from a floating tray, the woman in the blue dress snuggles up to me and runs her hand down my bare stomach onto my crotch, over the tight athletic pants they’ve dressed me in, like an X-rated action figure. I grit my teeth, and she frowns at me, evidently disappointed that I’m not getting hard for her.
Sorry, but entitled and demanding is not my type. I’d rather pursue than be pursued.
She squeezes, and when her grip grows too tight, I finally give her what she wants: eye contact. “Find something you like?” I try to pretend I’m somewhere else—with someone else—so I can get hard. To keep from insulting the bitch whose sponsorship could save my life.
Kaya, with three undone buttons.
Kaya, bent over, her tight little skirt riding up to reveal slim, firm thighs.
Kaya, with her hair down and her lips wet, practically begging for another kiss.
Now I’m hard. And I’m starting to see a pattern in my mental porn collection.
“There’s something I like,” the woman in blue whispers, petting my erection through my pants.
I force my jaw to unclench, so I can play my part. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for. “Then maybe you’d like to arrange something private?” I think about Kaya—about the time I had my tongue in her mouth, her curves pressed against me—and my cock swells even larger beneath the woman’s hand.
Her pupils dilate and she licks her lips as her gaze roams down from my bare chest. She’s going to take the bait.
“Yelena,” Kaya scolds, rejoining us with two fresh flutes. For a second, I hope one of those is for me. Champagne is a little delicate for my taste, but I’ll take anything with alcohol in it right now. Yet Kaya hands the second flute to Yelena, despite the jealousy crawling all over her features.
She doesn’t want this woman to touch me.
That makes two of us.
Yelena accepts the champagne and sets her empty stemmed glass on another floating tray. “Can you blame me?” She turns to Kaya with a naughty smile. “He’s sex on a fucking stick. Like…a sex-sicle. I just want a little lick.” Her hand roams down my bare chest, and I clench my fists to keep from smacking it away. “I’m willing to pay…”
“This isn’t the Resort,” Kaya snaps. “He’s a gladiator, not a prostitute.”
I should be relieved by her defense of me. But hearing her say what they’re all thinking about me makes bile rise into the back of my throat.
“You don’t have to make it sound so…predatory,” Yelena says. “I’ll make sure he enjoys himself. Really, I’d be doing him a favor.” She turns to me. “How long have you been locked up with all those men, anyway? Surely you deserve a reward, for all you’ve accomplished.”
For all the men I’ve killed.
I should get to let a strange woman use me like a human dildo in exchange for all the murders they’ve made me commit.
This place is vile.
“No,” Kaya snaps, and Yelena removes her hand from my chest. But she hasn’t given up on this. I can see that in her eyes. I give her my best smoldering smile, hoping to fan the embers burning in her…gaze. I need her to take me some place private. I just need a few minutes away from this crowd.
Yelena turns to Kaya with a bright smile, and I can sense an impending subject change. “Kaya Johnston, I just realized we’ve been here for nearly an hour, and you haven’t said a word about your big news! If I hadn’t seen David at the UA shareholder conference, I’d have no idea you two are getting married!”
Cold washes over me, like a bucket of ice water dumped on my head. I stare at Kaya, stunned. Then anger blazes through my shock.
She kissed me like I was the only source of air on the planet, and she’s engaged. To a Universal Authority shareholder. I know there are farther-reaching implications of this new information, but all I can think about in this surreal moment is that someone else is going to get to touch Kaya.
Someone’s already been touching her. So where the hell is her ring?
“I…” Kaya glances at me, and for just an instant, her bubbly, professional facade cracks, showing a hint of…regret? Embarrassment? She doesn’t want me to hear this. I’ve been with her most of the day, and she hasn’t said a word about this fiancé, yet every time I turn around, I find her watching me. She keeps looking for reasons to touch me. To lean closer.
But what the hell did I expect? I’m a convict, and she’s a beautiful, wealthy, free woman, like a throwback to the life I gave up. An uptight rich bitch playing “what if” on fight days for a little taste of danger, but probably cuddling on leather sofas drinking fine wine with her straight-laced, pencil-pushing fiancé during the rest of the week.
That shouldn’t bother me. Light flirting and one kiss—even one amazing kiss—mean nothing. I only started flirting in the first place because Kaya’s in charge of all the goodies that show up in the greenroom, and I knew from the beginning that there could never be anything more to this than one kiss, stolen as a distraction so Graham could steal a knife. So why do I suddenly feel…dirty? Used?
“So?” Yelena says, oblivious to the tension forming between Kaya and me. “When’s the big day?”
“We haven’t set a date yet. There’s no hurry. Did you try the crab puffs?” Kaya points at a floating tray, obviously trying to change the subject, and when Yelena turns to grab an hors d’oeuvre, I pin her with a gaze.
“You could have told me,” I whisper. “I know we’re not exactly friends, but…you could have told me.”
“Oh my god. These are amazing,” Yelena says as she rejoins us, swallowing her first bite of crab puff.
“I hear there’s something even better in the back.” I turn a heated look on her, and her brows rise as she swallows the last of her champagne. “Maybe I could show you, if Ms. Johnston could pull a couple of strings. I hear she’s really good at that.”
“No,” Kaya says through clenched teeth, ignoring me in favor of Yelena. “I can’t leave you alone with an inmate. That violates about a hundred safety regulations. I could lose my job.”
Yelena shrugs. “So send a couple of guards with us. I know these things happen, Kaya. Mindy Rollins said that last year she made a special donation, and Cohen Roth’s handler got her fifteen minutes with him. She said it changed her life.”
“Mindy Rollins is prone to exaggeration,” Kaya insists.
“But it happened. And it can happen again. And it’s not like he’s unwilling…”
They both turn to me, and I shrug, pinning Kaya with my gaze. “I’m here to keep the guests happy, right?”
“Is that really what you want?” She’s giving me an out. As if this weren’t my idea.
“Fifteen minutes with a beautiful woman, after months spent in a filthy cell, surrounded by other men?” I force a grin. “I think I can take one for the team, just this once.”
Yelena laughs. “Then it’s settled.” She links her arm through mine and guides me toward a door at the back of the room, leaving Kaya no choice but to follow. As we cross the transparent floor, with the surface of Rhodon gliding past far beneath my feet, I realize that my new date is making no effort to keep our rendezvous secret. She wants everyone to know where we’re going and exactly what we’re about to do.
They think I am a high-priced whore.
They can think whatever they want, as long as I get a few minutes away from the crowd.
Yelena leads me into a dim hallway, and as she follows, Kaya grabs two guards from their post along the wall. “Please escort Mr. Wolfe and Mrs. Aslanov some place private and stand watch while they…interact.” Anyone else would have told the guards to shoot me if I even looked like I might hurt Yelena, but Kaya knows me better than that. I would never hurt an innocent woman.
Even if offering to pay for my cock casts a bit of smudge on that innocence.
The guards fall in with us, one ahead, one behind, and Yelena lets her hand roam down my back to squeeze my ass as we walk. A minute later, the guard in the lead slides open a door into an unoccupied office and gestures for us to step inside.
As I cross the threshold, I turn for one last look at Kaya, who’s watching me from down the hall. She looks…hurt.
The feeling is mutual.
As I let Yelena tug me into the office, I wonder what Kaya’s fiancé’s last name is.
The door closes behind us, and the guards take up a position in front of it, rifles crossed over their chests, gazes fixed on the two of us. They’re clearly eager for a show.
Yelena begins pawing at me, evidently unbothered by the audience. She sucks on my nipple as she slides her hands into my pants, and I close my eyes, letting my body respond to the physical sensations. Trying not to think about who I’m here with.
Or who I’d rather be here with.
Or the fact that there are two strange men watching.
“My, you’re big all over, aren’t you?” Yelena says, and the very sound of her voice threatens to kill my erection. I kiss her, trying to pretend she’s Kaya. But she doesn’t taste like Kaya. She doesn’t smell like Kaya. She doesn’t kiss like Kaya. She’s too handsy and demanding. As if I’m just here to be used.
If I’m going to get through this, I’m going to have to take charge.
“Shut up.” I lift her and set her on the desk, and before she can object, I pull her hair back to expose the long line of her throat. She gasps, startled by the harsh movement. Then I reach back and unzip her dress. She wouldn’t want to fuck a gladiator unless she was expecting—secretly craving—some rough edges.
“Take it off,” I demand as I step back. “All of it.”
Yelena’s brows rise. Her pupils dilate even further, and I can practically smell her lust in the air. She slides off the desk onto her feet, but her hands hesitate at the silky straps on her shoulders. “Gentlemen, would you mind turning around?”
One of the guards frowns. “We’re here for your safety, ma’am.”
“I think you’re here to get off watching,” she snaps. “He’s not going to hurt me. Much,” she amends, throwing a heated gaze my way. “Right?”
“Whatever you want,” I promise.
“I own eight percent of Universal Authority, gentlemen. So turn the fuck around, or I’ll have you fired.”
The guards glance at each other. Then, with a hesitant shrug, they turn and face the door.
This is my chance. There has to be something in here I can use to disable them. And if Yelena thinks it’s part of the game, she’ll probably let me tie her up…
Then movement on my left catches my attention, and I turn to see that there’s a window looking out into the hall—and that Kaya is watching us through it, her expression twisted with an odd combination of lust and pain. She’s torturing herself by watching. But that’s her choice, and I refuse to feel bad about that.
She’s the one who lied about having a fiancé. Whose eyes lit up every time I came into the room. Who kissed me back like my mouth was her drug of choice. She’s the one who let me think it was okay to feel something good, in the middle of the hell that is zone one.
And now she’s pulled that rug out from under me. Left me cold and alone.
I angle Yelena with her back to the window, so I can see Kaya over her shoulder, and while the rich bitch does a bad strip tease, showing off a surgically perfect middle-aged body, I let them both see how much I’m enjoying this.
Even if that’s a big fucking lie.
Finally, Yelena throws her black lace panties into the air and stands before me in naked triumph. It’s my move. I’m supposed to “change her life.” But I’m not hard anymore, and I’m not going to be. Not for her.
Not with Kaya watching through the window, her jaw clenched.
She could stop this. She could burst through the door. Or knock on the window. Or even shake her fucking head. One sign that she doesn’t want me to do this, and I’ll stop. All she has to do is admit that I’m more to her than a product to peddle. More than a good girl’s bad boy fantasy.
But she only stares at me, brow furrowed.
I can’t fuck Yelena. I wasn’t even planning to. By now, I should have had her all tied up and the guards disabled, but Kaya’s practically daring me to go through with this. So I do the only thing I can, with a soft cock and a huge chip on my shoulder.
I pick Yelena up and press her against the wall. Her legs go around my hips, but I slide her higher before she can get my pants undone. I lift her until her thighs settle onto my shoulders, her perfectly groomed pussy inches from my face. Then I turn my head, to make sure Kaya’s watching.
Her beautiful lips are angled down in a tragic pout, and as she turns and flees down the hall, I realize the dramatic shine in her eyes is from the tears standing in them.
Because I am a total asshole who was determined to hurt her like she hurt me. Even if I’m not willing to admit that she has.
“Something wrong, big guy?” Yelena asks, and I look up at her, to avoid seeing what’s right in front of my face.
“Not in the least.” I lift her off my shoulders, then I lay one finger over her mouth before she can complain. “I just had an idea.” I pick up her dress and pull her thin sash from the loops around the waist. “If this is too much for you, let me know.” I hold the sash up, and her eyes shine with excitement. This is exactly what she wants. Pseudo-danger. Safe words. Rough sex with restraints, in a perfectly safe office, with two guards standing by, ready to rescue her, should this go too far.
Yelena wants to play a game.
She has no idea that she’s about to lose.
I lead her to the chair behind the desk, and when she sits, I move behind her. While I kiss my way down her neck, triggering an exaggerated series of moans from her, I gently pull her arms back. Then I tie the sash around them, just tight enough to pinch. To make her feel as if she’s actually restrained.
Which just happens to be true.
The back of the desk chair gets wider toward the top, and she’ll never be able to lift her bound arms over it.
With her tied in place, I grab her underwear and shove the material into her mouth, which she accepts because I’m giving her a playful smile as I run my free hand down her arm.
As I back away from the chair, I give her another sexy grin and make a shushing gesture with one finger over my lips. She nods, her chest rising and falling rapidly with excitement. Then I pick up a heavy, round knickknack from the desk and sneak across the room, my shoes silent on the floor.
By the time Yelena realizes what I’m about to do and starts making distressed noises behind her underwear gag, I’m just feet from the guards. They turn, and I swing at the one on the left. The glass ball smashes into his temple, and he goes down in a lump on the floor.
The other guard blinks for a second, stunned, and he tries to lift his rifle. But that’s too big a gun for such close quarters. I slam my hand down on top of the barrel, preventing him from raising it, and he’s too busy trying to overpower my left arm to notice my right one as it flies toward his head. The glass ball hits him in that same spot, and he goes down next to his coworker, one arm splayed across the other guard’s chest.
They look pretty damn cozy, as if they cuddled until they fell asleep on the floor.
Yelena makes high-pitched, desperate sounds behind her gag as I step over the unconscious bodies. I consider the rifles, but like all the guns on Rhodon, they’re probably programmed to recognize only authorized users’ fingerprints.
As I slide the door open, I give Yelena another shush signal, and she grunts frantically, her eyes wide. Then I close the door between us and take off deeper into the blimp, in search of the mechanical room.
This ship is about to go down.