“So, they’re both princes?”
Jessica Kallson, Jess to her friends, sipped her drink and watched the small group of men on the other side of the room.
Unlike Jess and the two women standing next to her, they weren’t human. Standing well over six feet apiece, with more muscles than she’d ever seen on a man, they were Lathar, the warrior race who had attacked and captured the frontier defense base she’d been stationed on.
Since then, relations had warmed somewhat. Not quite captives anymore, Jess and the other women who’d been brought to the Imperial Court on Lathar Prime were now treated as honored guests of the emperor.
The emperor with the very nice ass in his tight warrior’s leathers she was ogling as he greeted the two men in front of him—both his nephews. But her attention didn’t remain on Daaynal, the emperor, for long. Instead it was hijacked by one of the other men.
Laarn K’Vass was identical to his brother, the husband of Jess’ best friend Cat, but where Tarrick’s hair was cut short, Laarn’s was long. Where Tarrick wore the red sash of a war commander, Laarn’s was the teal that denoted he was a healer. There were other differences as well. His eyes were green, not gold like Tarrick’s, and the body under the jacket Laarn wore buttoned to his neck was badly scarred. The scars were from his profession. She’d only seen them once, brutal marks that decorated his lean, hard body like artwork.
“Hmmm… say what?” She blinked as Cat, standing next to her, clicked her fingers in front of Jess’ face.
“If you can tear your eyes away from my brother-in-law for a moment,” Cat chuckled, amusement on her face. “I said that yes, they’re both technically princes. Their mother was Daaynal’s litaan, his twin.”
“Huh,” Jess started a little in surprise. “I didn’t realize they had male-female twin sets.”
“Yeah. At least, they used to.” Cat sighed. “But with girl babies dying in the womb… there haven’t been any born for a long time.”
Jess nodded, silent at the reminder that for all their military might, the Lathar were facing doomsday as a species. She swirled the drink in her glass and continued watching the three men. Well, she continued watching Laarn as he stepped aside from his brother and uncle, leaving them to talk. She’d noticed that about him.
Although he was as big-built and muscular as his brother, he often stepped back out of the way when Tarrick was talking, as though not wanting to take the attention. He wasn’t shy, though. She’d seen him training and interacting with the other warriors, and he had an easy aura of command they all obeyed. He was quieter, but no less alpha for it. It was more a quiet power, as he watched all around him with a critical eye, and it sent shivers down her spine.
“He’s going to see you looking soon, you know?” Cat commented, her eyes alight with amusement as she looked over the rim of her glass.
Like Jess’ it was filled with a Champagne-type drink, but lilac in color. And, unlike Champagne, she’d found it didn’t give her a hellish hangover in the morning. That wasn’t to say it wasn’t strong. Already she felt a little merry, so she always made sure only to drink one or two glasses. While they were “honored guests” of the court, there were more than enough dangers to watch out for…
Unbidden, her gaze slid to the other side of the room where a large group of warriors had congregated. Most of them were drinking and laughing amongst themselves, and… yes, there was a fight going on in the far corner. Nothing serious by the looks of it, just a friendly bout between two warriors. In the middle, though, one warrior stood steadfast and silent, his light gaze fixed on her. Saal.
Quickly Jess looked away, not making eye contact. Saal had been pursuing her since they’d arrived on Lathar Prime, the fact that he’d happily claim her for his own clear. But, handsome as the guy was, Jess’ attentions lay elsewhere. With a tall, handsome healer…
Her gaze returned to Laarn, who also had a drink in his large hand. But he wasn’t drinking it. Instead, all his attention was on the pad in his hand. A sheet of flexible plastic, it was the Lathar equivalent of a computer and cell phone all rolled into one, but it could be folded up and slipped into a pocket.
“I doubt he’ll even notice, or care much.” She buried her nose into her glass and took another drink, hating the hurt little sound in her voice.
Laarn was a healer and dedicated to his work. He probably hadn’t noticed her, or the fact she was a woman. His entire interest in her was solely based on the fact she was Terran.
She’d tried to chat with him when she’d been in the medbay, offering to spend countless hours in the high-tech hologram bed thing in there as he scanned her DNA over and over, but he’d only ever talked about medical issues. What was her medical history, had she had any diseases in her lifetime, had anyone in her family had anything unusual?
He’d been fascinated when she’d told him about cancer, even though it had all but been eradicated, and about childhood diseases. As soon as she tried to get something personal out of him though, he clammed up, declared they were done for the day and left medical.
She’d soon learned not to ask him anything personal, in the hope of spending more time with him. Perhaps if he saw her often enough, he might start seeing her as a woman.
So far, though, no such luck.
“Hmmm… yeah, he’s very focused on his work,” Cat admitted, a frown between her brows. The frown was noticed as they were joined by a third woman, her fingers laced through that of a tall, heavily built warrior. Jane Allen had been the Marine commander on the base but was now happily married to one of their former captors, Karryl.
“Who is? What did I miss?” Jane asked, her gaze following the direction they were both suddenly not looking in. She sighed. “Laarn? Is he still being obtuse?”
“Obtuse? What is this word?” Karryl looked around the small group, his expression curious as, obviously not satisfied with just holding Jane’s hand, he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her into his side.
“It means he’s being dense,” Jane explained, her hand on the broad chest of her man. Jess all but sighed at the loved-up look the two exchanged. She wanted that, the all-consuming love and passion she saw between Cat and Tarrick and now Jane and Karryl. “It means he’s not seeing what’s standing right there in front of him. In this case, Jess.”
Karryl blinked, the surprise evident. “But she isn’t standing in front of him. She’s standing right here.”
“No, that’s not what I me—” Jane paused as she clocked the tiny curve at the corner of his lips. “Asshole. You know what I mean.”
He grinned. “I do. But why do you think he doesn’t see her? Laarn’s a healer, but he’s as male as the rest of us. I think you’ll find he’s probably very aware of Jess.”
“He is?” Cat and Jess asked at the same time. Then Cat gestured toward where the big healer stood, his attention still riveted on the pad in his hand. “How does that equate to being aware of Jess?”
Karryl’s expression went blank for the moment in a neutral expression Jess had noticed a lot of the warriors used, usually when they didn’t want to talk. He shrugged. “A man is a man, whatever else he does.”
* * *
Laarn hated social functions. They were pointless. A waste of time that could be better spent elsewhere, doing something productive or in the training arena.
He sighed as he looked up at the sounds of a fight. Seemed like some warriors had decided to bring the training arena here. A small group hovered around a pair who were going at it hammer and tongs. The betting had already started. By the looks of the combatants though, and the quick glances they kept shooting across the other side of the room, they were less interested in the winner’s cut and more interested in catching the eye of one of the human women.
Bloody show offs, Laarn snorted to himself, but he couldn’t resist a quick look that way himself. There were nearly twenty of them at court now, and all delightfully feminine in a way the Lathar, without women of their own, hadn’t seen in decades. The fact that they were the descendants of a Lathar colony team only added to their allure.
Even he could see the appeal. They were tiny but intelligent, and some were as fierce as any warrior. Not that all males found that kind of fierceness attractive. Some did. His gaze fell on the tall figure of his lifelong friend, Karryl.
From the same clan, they shared blood on their father’s side and had grown up together. The big warrior had his arm wrapped around the slender waist of his new mate, the human warrioress, Jane Allan. Laarn had seen her in battle, and she was as ruthless as any Lathar. He’d heard tale that she’d shot the warrior who’d poisoned Karryl and tried to claim her point blank between the eyes, not a shred of mercy in her body. Karryl beamed with pride as he looked down at his mate, obviously head over heels in love, with his wrists bare to show off his mating marks.
But, for all that he’d been brought up a warrior before going down the path of healer, Laarn didn’t want such a warrior woman for himself. His gaze slid to the side a little, to a slender woman standing between Karryl’s mate and his brother’s mate, Cat.
For a moment, he was frozen in place, watching in fascination as she turned to place her empty glass on the tray of an oonat, a waitress. The light conspired and highlighted the slender curve of her neck and jaw, his gaze riveting to the luscious line of her lips as she smiled at something Karryl had said.
Jealousy ripped through him in an instant, his fists clenched at his side as he glared across the room. The only man she should be looking at, smiling at, was him.
“She’s a pretty little thing. Isn’t she?”
Laarn turned slightly to find Daaynal standing next to him. Slightly taller and heavier than Laarn himself, he had the same green eyes Laarn saw in the mirror each morning.
“She appears to be attractive for her species, yes.”
He returned his attention to Jess, immediately tapping down his reaction to the little human female. Daaynal might appear to most to be a big, dumb warrior, but Laarn knew better. His uncle was as ruthless as the day was long and far cannier than he appeared. He’d survived countless assassination attempts since he’d been on the Imperial throne, and many before that, when he’d been a crown prince. There were even rumors that he’d killed his first assassin before he was ten cycles old, saving both himself and his sister, Laarn’s mother, in the process.
“Attractive for her species?” Daaynal snorted, burying his nose in his tankard and taking a deep swallow. “Have you heard yourself? Attractive? She’s beautiful. They all are…” He lifted his head to look across the room at the group of women, warm appreciation in his eyes.
When he looked back, his gaze was sharp. He looked over Laarn’s shoulder for a moment, pointedly, and then back again.
“Careful that the prize you want isn’t stolen out from under your nose while you’re not looking, sister-son,” he advised in a low voice. “Now, tell me of your research.”
Laarn groaned inwardly. He’d hoped Daaynal wouldn’t ask, but he kept his expression neutral.
“So far the genetic material confirms that the Terrans are descendants of the lost exploratory mission. There is some deviation, but after so long that’s to be expected.”
“They’re still close enough genetically to us though?” Daaynal asked.
Laarn nodded. “Yes, they are. Procreation between human and Lathar is more than possible, expected even. In fact,” he mused, looking across the room to where the two human-Lathar couples were standing, “since the bonded males can’t keep their hands off their mates, I’m surprised we haven’t seen a pregnancy yet.”
He managed to keep the frustration out of his voice. Just. As the premier healer in the Latharian empire, he was leading the research project into the condition that caused all female young to die in the womb. Because without women of their own, they were doomed as a race. Even with the influx of human women, there was always the possibility that the same thing could happen to any human-Lathar children. If it did, gaining human mates for their warriors was at best simply a stay of execution. In less than a generation, they would be facing the same problem.
And that wasn’t the worst of it. He’d been tracking the problem with their DNA for years, and it was speeding up. If his suspicions were correct, before too long it wouldn’t just be the female fetuses that were affected. It would be any viable fetus. And shortly after, the ability of any warrior to get his woman pregnant would be eradicated.
“I just don’t get it,” he added. “It’s not progressing like any disease I’ve ever seen before. If I had to guess from the raw data, I’d say we were looking at more of a bio-genetic agent at work, but on a massive scale with no clue as to the method of infection.”
He sighed, running his hand through his hair in a rare display of agitation. He was a good healer, a damn good one. Probably the best in the empire and, some said, better than even his grandfather, the last, near-legendary lord healer. Some said, but not all. More said he wasn’t as good as his grandfather, that the K’Vass line was muddied by the fact the lord healer had married a commoner. Never where any K’Vass warrior could hear, of course—no Lathar was that suicidal—but he knew what they said.
He couldn’t heal them.
“You’ll find something,” Daaynal said, belief in his voice. “Although, wouldn’t it be easier if you had a mate of your own… for close observational purposes, of course. You’d be able to monitor any possible pregnancy in real-time, wouldn’t you?”
Oh, his uncle was good. Laarn almost found himself nodding in agreement before he stopped dead. Even the flicker of an eyelid might be taken by Daaynal to mean he agreed, and thus seal his… and Jess’… fate. He allowed his gaze to flick over to her. She was so tiny and delicate compared to him. When he was around her, he ached to claim her. But he couldn’t. And he couldn’t allow Daaynal to remove her choices either and make her mate him.
He’d seen the looks on the human women’s faces when he’d removed his jacket during the journey to court. The shock and then the careful looks away. Or if any of them had to look at him, they ensured they looked him directly in the eye, no quick glances down to his body.
For the first time in his life, he’d been concerned about how others viewed him. How Jess viewed him. Did she see the strength it had taken to endure the marks he carried? Or did she see him as a scarred monster?
His jaw tightened. From the way the humans acted around him, it had to be the latter. He was under no illusions. He wasn’t pretty to look at. And, if their species treasured physical appearance so much, why would she want him when there were better looking warriors around?
“Think about it,” Daaynal ordered, clapping him on the back and then moving away to circulate.
Laarn stood where he was a few moments longer and then turned with a sigh. He should make an effort and talk to a few people. Then, at the first opportunity, he would make his escape and return to the lab.
He had work to do if he was going to save them all.