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Wyvern’s Outlaw: The Dragons of Incendium #7 by Deborah Cooke (1)

One

Anguissa, dragon princess and Captain of the starship Archangel, didn’t make mistakes.

That was the reason she’d survived almost three hundred years of roaming the galaxy with the strategy of following only the rules that suited her.

Yet, she had apparently just made a colossal mistake, one for which her sister Thalina would pay the price.

It was impossible.

And obviously true.

Anguissa scowled. She checked the ship’s position after the jump, recalculated and reviewed. She hadn’t chosen this quadrant as a destination, yet here they were. She didn’t like this quadrant or know it well—it had always given her a bad feeling, even on the star charts, and she’d visited it only once.

It was widely believed to be the hunting ground of the Gloria Furore, the notorious space pirates who would steal anyone or anything. They sold to the highest bidder.

Anguissa had also survived as a star pilot by not provoking the Gloria Furore.

That she was back in the identical location as that single visit defied belief, especially as she hadn’t chosen it as a destination. The presence of the Armada Seven, a ship commanded by Captain Hellemut, made her location indisputable.

The nav system didn’t show that Anguissa had made a mistake. In fact, it indicated that she had chosen an entirely different destination, the one she remembered choosing, half a galaxy away from here.

Which could only mean that her ship had been sabotaged.

Captain Hellemut had somehow compelled Anguissa to come back.

It was all too easy to remember the words of the captain allied with the Gloria Furore, intergalactic bandits of the worst kind.

To appear in this quadrant once could be an accident, Captain Anguissa. To appear twice would be a provocation.

There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt about how this would play out. Any second now, Hellemut would hail the Archangel—if she didn’t attack first.

Anguissa needed to keep Hellemut from firing, given the payload still locked in the hold of the Archangel. It was secured and quarantined, but destroying the Archangel would disperse it.

Which was the last thing Anguissa wanted to happen.

She hid her trepidation from both her sister Thalina and the android who Thalina insisted was the Carrier of her Seed.

“You said this sector would be vacant,” the android noted. Powers of observation were probably supposed to be a benefit of his kind but it was one of the traits that Anguissa found really irritating.

She hoped it irked him that she called him “Robot.”

Anguissa tapped the display and spoke lightly, as if she wasn’t panicking inside. “That’s the problem with a quick departure.”

“Where are we?” Thalina asked.

“Where we shouldn’t be,” Anguissa admitted. “I called up a list of recently visited locations and chose the wrong one. We’re too far out. Frack. I don’t usually make these kinds of mistakes.”

Thalina’s voice rose. “But we can get to Cumae, right?”

“There are sufficient stores for one life form to reach Cumae or to return to Incendium,” the android said. “Not both.”

“That makes no sense,” Thalina protested.

“Our present location is distant from both planets,” he informed her. He drew a triangle in the air, one with a long point. “Consider that we are here.” He indicated the single point. “To jump to one or the other is a difference of direction more than distance.” He tapped. “That said, the individual would have several days of minimal nourishment if Incendium was chosen as destination, but would still arrive alive.”

Anguissa barely listened. She didn’t need the lesson. She was thinking about fuel.

Strategy.

And a virulent virus locked in the hold.

Thalina was convinced that the android was the Carrier of the Seed, the destined father of her child, and might be her HeartKeeper. That was insane, to Anguissa’s thinking, but she respected her sister’s conclusions.

She could smell Thalina’s reaction to the Seed, against every expectation. It must somehow be true.

Anguissa had to ensure her sister’s safety, whether she was pregnant or not.

The upside was that Anguissa suspected Captain Hellemut really wanted her and no one else. It was a personal lesson Hellemut intended to give, which meant it might be possible to send the Archangel out of reach.

Anguissa decided to teach the captain of the Armada Seven to be careful what she wished for.

It was possible, after all, that Captain Hellemut didn’t know that Anguissa was a dragon shifter. She wasn’t rumored to be strong on research, and Anguissa hadn’t revealed her true nature in their last encounter. She might have the element of surprise on her side.

It was only fair, since she’d been surprised herself. Who had tampered with the nav system of the Archangel? Who had betrayed her?

Who had dared?

It was a mystery she hoped she had the luxury of time to solve.

Thalina and her android were talking, but Anguissa hadn’t really been listening. “Not to interrupt you two, but we’ve got more trouble than supplies,” she said. She pushed her sister firmly down and out of sight. There was no telling what else had been tampered with. There might be a video feed to the Armada Seven, as well. “I know that ship.” She pointed to the display on the far side of the deck, which showed the Armada Seven in all its hideous glory.

It was an ugly ship, manufactured for power and not for grace, then repaired as necessary in foreign ports. It was large and grey, a freighter later armed for war, but not a vessel to be underestimated. It had enough firepower to annihilate the Archangel five times over.

“We are being hailed,” the android said. “By the other ship in the quadrant.”

“By Captain Hellemut of the Armada Seven,” Anguissa agreed.

“You anticipated this meeting?” he asked.

“No, but I recognize the ship and I know its captain well enough to speculate on her plans.”

“Ah!” he said.

There was only one way to get Thalina safely away from Captain Hellemut and the android was Anguissa’s best chance of an ally.

“Okay, this is what’s going to happen, Robot, and you’re going to make it so.” Anguissa leaned toward Acion and gave him rapid instructions to flee with Thalina after she teleported to the Armada Seven herself alone.

“This is illogical,” he protested.

She glared at him. “On the contrary, it’s the only thing that makes sense,” she insisted, then took advantage of what had to be his basic programming. “You exist to serve right?”

Correct.”

“And I’m your captain, so I command you to do this in order to defend my sister.”

He frowned and Anguissa wished he could calculate probabilities a little faster. She was well aware of the flashing signal on the comm and she knew that Captain Hellemut’s reactions wouldn’t be improved by delay.

“What’s happening?” Thalina asked.

Anguissa glared at her sister. “Stay out of view and keep silent if you want to live. You do not want to mess with these people.”

“Who are they?”

“Frack knows but they work for the Gloria Furore.”

That was apparently all the warning her sister needed because she hid immediately.

“And strap down,” Anguissa added in a growl.

“This is excellent advice,” the android said and Anguissa breathed a sigh of relief that he was going to do as instructed.

“And you will ensure that my sister has no opportunity to become curious about the contents of the hold,” she muttered in an undertone.

“I note that it’s secured and quarantined,” the android said.

“And there’s only one person in the universe who could figure out my code.”

Their gazes met and held for a moment, then the android nodded agreement.

It wouldn’t take Thalina long to deduce what Anguissa was planning either, so Anguissa didn’t give her any time. She went to the transport deck, propping her hands on her hips as she faced the screen. “Open the frequency to hail, Robot.” she commanded. “Let’s do this thing. Oxygen is wasting.”

The screen was immediately filled with the sight of Captain Hellemut in all her hideous three-eyed glory. She had to be the most unattractive creature in twenty sectors, but Anguissa smiled. “Greetings, Captain Hellemut,” she said in the universal tongue. “How I have missed the sunshine of your smile.”

“You are a fool to return, Captain Anguissa,” Captain Hellemut replied with a smirk. “And I thought you were clever.”

“I just dislike unfinished business,” Anguissa said.

“The Archangel is targeted by all of our weapons, Captain Anguissa. You are in no position to negotiate.”

“What do you want?”

“Complete surrender, of course.”

“Is that all?”

“You, first, and then the Archangel.”

How deep did the sabotage go in the Archangel’s systems? Would the ship surrender itself to Hellemut, regardless of what Anguissa commanded?

She still couldn’t think of how it had been done. Someone on her own crew must have betrayed her, but Anguissa couldn’t imagine who it might have been. She kept her crew small, on purpose, and they’d all been with her for a long time. She trusted them.

Could Hellemut have somehow compromised the nav system at a distance?

Was there a worm lurking in the communication link? Anguissa didn’t think that was possible, but she would hurry the conversation just in case it had become possible.

Thalina had to escape.

“And if I decline this generous offer?” she asked.

“I’ll obliterate you both together, right now.”

“How very persuasive you are, Captain Hellemut.” Anguissa raised her hands. “Open a beam to transport me to your deck so I can surrender in person.”

Hellemut chuckled, evidently not realizing that Anguissa never surrendered anything this easily. It was an advantage and Anguissa would take it. She gave a nod to the android, then turned her head to wink at Thalina so that the other captain couldn’t see.

Then she felt the tingle of the transport. It always started with the hair on the back of her neck standing up and a shiver rolling over her flesh. She had to arrive in the same form as she departed, but that wouldn’t last long. The tingle claimed her, the transport dividing her molecules and flinging them along the trajectory to the Armada Seven.

Anguissa vaguely felt a void open behind her, a hint that the Archangel had jumped just as she’d commanded, then the heat that she always felt on emergence.

She felt the deck of the Armada Seven beneath her feet and didn’t waste a second. She summoned the shift, changed shape, and breathed a torrent of dragon fire directly at Captain Hellemut.

In that same instant, Anguissa smelled the Seed. It sent a jolt of desire through her, a primal urge to mate that was so hot and imperative that nothing else mattered except identifying the Carrier and seducing him completely.

Hellemut screamed and evicted her seat to hide behind it. The seat burned, flames dancing high, and the air filled with smoke. Instead of finishing what she’d started, Anguissa scanned the deck, inhaling deeply.

The Carrier of the Seed was the co-pilot, the man who was staring at her with narrowed eyes. He was tall and muscular, a man who could have been from Incendium—except that Anguissa had never yearned to claim a man from Incendium so badly. His expression was guarded and his aura was dark.

She realized with a start that he was an umbro, a species from Centurios feared and loathed throughout the known universe. They were often called Soul-Stealers. They captured and claimed, leaving their victims to bleed to death while they hunted anew.

Anguissa took another breath of the Seed and didn’t care.

She wanted him.

She wanted him now.

And he was hers to possess.

Ryke knew better than to waste opportunity.

Although he was tempted to linger, just to witness the arrival of Princess Anguissa on the deck of the Armada Seven. He wondered if she could possibly look as alluring in reality as she did on the display—some captains did manipulate their appearance—and he wouldn’t have minded having a closer view. Even on the display, her bold stance was enough to take his breath away—never mind the curves straining her uniform in all the right places and her dark eyes flashing with defiance. He was curious about women with spirit and verve, as they were unknown on Centurios. Ryke had a feeling Anguissa was both.

And that she would more than satisfy his curiosity.

He also guessed she would quickly shift shape to her dragon form upon arrival, and that would be a sight to behold. He’d never seen a dragon shifter and was curious why they were so despised on his home planet. They had to dangerous, of course, but at the same time, it would be exciting to survive an encounter with one.

But even this temptation wasn’t enough for him to compromise his own plans. Ryke had been waiting too long for a chance to escape. Beautiful women and the temptation they offered had been his downfall in the past. A long run of enforced celibacy couldn’t influence his choices, not now.

He needed to to grab the opportunity Anguissa offered. He’d never seen Hellemut so driven to conquer a foe before.

Was it personal?

Did that matter? It was useful, and that was all that should be important to Ryke.

As soon as the sight of Anguissa faded on the display, Ryke watched his superior. Captain Hellemut leaned forward and gripped her chair, her anticipation palpable.

Her attention was completely fixed on the transport deck.

Was this the real Captain Hellemut or one of her doppelgangers? The copies had been improving so steadily that Ryke couldn’t reliably tell the difference any more.

It didn’t matter, really. He just needed to remember that there were at least two Hellemuts to escape.

Ryke could feel the tingle on his nape, the one he always felt during a transport—whether he was witnessing it or participating in it. Any second, Anguissa would arrive.

After that, Hellemut would survey the deck.

She didn’t miss a lot with her three eyes.

This was a once-in-captivity opportunity.

Ryke slowly eased away from his station. The trick was not to catch Hellemut’s attention with a sudden movement. His heart was pounding and his palms were damp. He hoped his concern didn’t trigger any sensors set to monitor anxiety in the crew. He kept his hands away from the controls, just in case. Most of the crew looked to be a bit worried so maybe his reaction wouldn’t stand out.

There was a shimmer above the transport deck. Hellemut lifted a finger and leaned closer.

Ryke ducked. He heard the slight sound of Anguissa’s arrival and felt the air change. He guessed she was changing shape, because his ears popped, but he was on the move. He expected her to roast Hellemut, which would suit him just fine.

He felt heat and heard a roar. He smelled burning flesh.

Everything was exactly as he’d expected.

Ryke raced across the deck, taking advantage of the distraction Anguissa offered. The rest of the crew appeared to be transfixed by the sight. The color drained from the face of Lored, the nav specialist, when Ryke was alongside him.

Lored had seen a lot.

Lored swore softly under his breath, clearly amazed by Anguissa.

It was too much. Ryke couldn’t deny himself one glimpse. He was on the threshold of escape, almost free, when he dared to glance back.

Then he stared as well.

Anguissa was magnificent.

In dragon form, she was obsidian, gleaming black, with a writhing mane of hair instead of the scales he might have expected down her spine. She filled the transport deck, her back against the ceiling, her tail coiled across the floor and into the command area. Her eyes had orange flames instead of pupils, as if she was filled with fire, even as she exhaled a torrent of flames at Captain Hellemut.

Hellemut had ducked behind her massive chair. The flames appeared around it like a corona, but Hellemut was looking over the deck.

Ryke should have defended his captain.

He wanted to help with her demise, instead.

Anguissa seemed to be doing a good job. Time to run.

“Ryke!” Hellemut snapped. He froze and straightened, knowing he’d been caught and doubting the result would be good. “Why have you left your post?”

Anguissa stopped breathing flames as her attention shifted to him. Having her gaze fixed upon him was both terrifying and exciting—in fact, he hadn’t been so aroused in years. Celibacy definitely didn’t agree with him. It was messing with his concentration. Anguissa inhaled and Ryke was sure she’d breathe more fire. She took a step closer, her eyes gleaming, even as he eased back.

The deck shook under her weight.

“Ryke?” his captain demanded.

Ryke bowed low to Hellemut, pretending to be frightened. “I left my post because there’s a dragon, Captain. It seemed sensible to flee.”

Hellemut sneered. “And you, a warrior of Centurios, are afraid? Have we finally found something to terrify you, Ryke?”

“I’ve never seen a dragon, Captain.” He glanced at Anguissa and summoned an expression of disgust. “They’re filthy abominations.”

Anguissa reared up and roared, her eyes blazing so brilliantly that they were like glimpses of an inferno. The dark mane rippled on her back as if it was a living organism itself. Ryke realized it was a line of snakes, snakes with eyes as yellow as those of the dragon. They bared their fangs as she scattered sparks across the deck, then she took a deep breath, obviously intending to loose another blast at Hellemut.

“There will be repercussions for this insubordination, Ryke,” Hellemut snarled, even as she reached over to his station and loosed the beams aimed at the transport deck. They generated an energy field of tangled green light, a vortex that surrounded and contained the dragon. It was designed to halt a hostile invasion from the transport deck and its effectiveness sickened him. Ryke could smell dragon scales burning as the trap closed around Anguissa like a net and she snarled as she was bound.

The ship shook when she fell motionless to the transport deck. A shudder rolled through her massive body as her eyes closed.

She looked dead.

Turned out that subduing a dragon was very easy.

Ryke felt his suspicion rise.

Too easy.

Captain Anguissa, he remembered from his research, was inclined to use a feint in battle.

“That’s right,” Hellemut mused as she reseated herself in her chair. She brushed imaginary dirt from her sleeves, settling her enormous mass in place with satisfaction. “You have little tolerance of non-humanoid species on Centurios. I had forgotten.” She beckoned with one massive hand. “Exterminate the abomination, Ryke. You might enjoy it as much as I will.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Hellemut waved at the fallen Anguissa, whose eyes were open just a slit. “Farewell, Princess Anguissa. I don’t doubt that you’re still listening. I regret that we didn’t have longer to enjoy each other’s company but really, I thought you’d give a better fight than this.” She glanced back at the crew and her voice sharpened. “I expect damage reports as soon as the worm has breathed her last.”

Ryke hesitated, trying to figure out how to foil Hellemut.

He didn’t want to see Anguissa die.

And he certainly didn’t want to be the one responsible for the deed. It was one thing to be abducted by the Gloria Furore—it had to be quite another to have a league of dragon warriors from Incendium hunting him, intending to take their vengeance for the death of one of their royal family.

Hellemut watched, eyes glittering, as Ryke returned to his station and surveyed the console. Why hadn’t Anguissa changed shape again? He glanced up and discovered that she was watching him. He could see the fire burning in the narrow slits of her eyes.

It wasn’t dimmed at all.

Her nostrils quivered and her eyes shone, those snakes trembling, as if she was excited about something.

She had to be pretending to be more subdued than she was.

Maybe all she needed was a chance.

He held her gaze and the snakes bared their fangs. They were odd, but evidently a good clue to her thoughts.

If given that opportunity, Anguissa would create the distraction Ryke needed to escape. She’d take her vengeance upon one version of Hellemut and he’d run. Ryke smiled and let his hand hover over the controls.

“Say your prayers, Snake-Eyes,” he said, his words prompting Hellemut’s chuckle.

Anguissa’s eyes flashed. Did she understand his plan? Ryke had to hope so. He tapped a command, knowing Hellemut could see it on her own display.

She watched, then smiled and settled back, anticipating a show. “Excellent choice, Ryke. A slow incineration will maximize my pleasure.”

As soon as Hellemut averted her gaze, Ryke changed the command to one that would stop the beams and release Anguissa. He executed it before he could be stopped.

The force field blinked out, the green net of energy disappearing before their eyes.

“Ryke! What have you done?” Hellemut had time to roar before Anguissa’s answering bellow filled the deck with deafening sound.

He should have run, but Ryke had to watch.

A dragon princess was a dangerous temptation.

In the blink of an eye, Anguissa was on her feet and bounding toward the console that had emitted the energy beams. She ripped it from its mooring and cast it across the deck so that it shattered and smashed. Ryke ducked and retreated as she incinerated the crew that stepped up to retaliate, her plume of flame frying the wall containing the nav console to blackened wreckage.

The Armada Seven had just become space debris.

There was no better time to leave, to Ryke’s thinking.

Hellemut shouted commands in fury but Anguissa turned the wall of fire upon her once again. Hellemut’s scream rose higher in her anguish. A pane of glass popped due to the frequency of the sound and the crew ducked as shards scattered over them.

Alarms sounded even as Ryke was filled with satisfaction.

It was good to see Hellemut suffer.

It would be better to know that she was dead. She appealed to him, stretching out one hand from the core of the flames. Ryke simply stared back, letting her see that he wouldn’t help her.

Mercy had no place in their relationship. She’d taught him that.

Fury lit her eyes but Ryke didn’t care.

It was payback time.

The other crew members just watched, too. A lack of loyalty was, Ryke supposed, a hazard of creating a crew by abduction and keeping them in their place with physical torture.

Hellemut’s screams faded as the smell of burning flesh became oppressive. When the flames stopped, a cacophony of alarms made him want to plug his ears. The sprinkler system had activated itself and the water made electrical systems short. Sparks flew across the deck, igniting fires where they landed. Anguissa shredded the captain of the Armada Seven with her talons, cast her aside, and scanned the deck hungrily.

The realization that she wasn’t satisfied hit the crew like an icy tide of shock. The deck filled with shouts and chaos. When one crew member reached for the comm, Anguissa swung her tail and smashed the communications console, sending a chunk crashing to the floor. There was a small explosion, then eruptions of brilliant light all over the deck.

Ryke saw the nav specialist, Lored, lunge for the button that would awaken the sleeping troops. Better late than never.

He realized that even this opportunity was dissolving before his eyes. The temptation of beauty had almost cost him a high price again.

The Armada Seven shuddered, as if it mourned the passing of Hellemut—Ryke supposed someone should—then began to slowly spin. Crew members staggered as the propulsion that kept a modicum of gravity on the deck failed in spurts.

He lunged for the portal, fearing he’d waiting too long.

“Ryke of Centurios!” Anguissa shouted, stepping on the corpse of Hellemut.

He froze, his blood running cold that he was the object of her attention.

Could a dragon smile? It seemed to Ryke that she did as she approached him, and he feared the worst. With another sweep of her tail, Anguissa cleared the deck, smashing the team into the walls. She spewed more flame over the survivors as if disinterested in their fates, her eyes gleaming as she stared at him.

“I seize command of the Armada Seven, which means you all answer to me.” Her voice was low and sexy, somehow feminine despite her dragon form.

Ryke really had been alone too long.

But she was so magnificent.

So beautiful, in either form.

His mouth went dry.

He held her gaze, even as she breathed a stream of fire that roasted the tips of his boots. “Not me,” he dared to say.

Her eyes shone. “Yet you stopped at my summons, even though you think me an abomination,” she mused, smoke rising from her nostrils.

“On Centurios, all non-human life forms are considered abominations,” Ryle said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Why?”

“Because the bestial mind is different,” he confessed. Time was slipping away. The troops had to be awakening in the storage hold far below. Ryke heard the airlocks groan and recognized that the damaged deck would be sealed off from the rest of the ship before it was further compromised.

“More focused?” Anguissa demanded, eyes blazing. He could feel the force of her will upon him and averted his gaze.

“More manipulative.” He bit out the words, seeing her skepticism. He elaborated to insult her, hoping she would turn away from him. “A beast can deny the will of an umbro, twist the truth and even deceive the umbro into believing he’d witnessed something that had never happened. Such abominations defy the rules and refuse to be controlled. That added to their tendency to deceive means they had to be exterminated.”

Her eyes flashed. “We’re not on Centurios, Ryke.”

She was already showing her true nature, her interest compelling him to stand and explain when he should have been running.

“No. We’re in deep shit, Snake-Eyes.” He gestured to the smoking and charred remains of the ship’s controls. “If you’re taking command of this pile of junk, good luck with it.”

“Not a fan of the Armada Seven, Ryke?”

“Trashing the nav system was a short-sighted strategy if you’d meant to use this vessel to go anywhere at all. What is your exit plan?”

She was surprised. Ryke guessed it was because of his form of address, not because of the situation. She had to know that trashing the deck would have repercussions.

She couldn’t be stupid, could she? That would have been a real abomination.

“You’re impertinent, Ryke.”

“I’m honest, Snake-Eyes. It’s a novelty around here.”

“And you’re an umbro,” she whispered, leaning closer. Her eyes glittered. “Why haven’t you killed them all?” Her voice dropped low. “Why haven’t you killed me?”

“There are some places even an umbro doesn’t want to go.” He wasn’t going to explain his strategy, not to a dragon shifter.

Her eyes narrowed and he wondered how sharp her hearing was. Could she hear the airlocks and the troops?

Ryke could. The airlock over his head was moving and would slide into place in seconds. The deck would be sealed off and the damage contained until it could be assessed and repaired. Either way, the Armada Seven wasn’t going anywhere soon.

He had to leave immediately and forget this dragon princess.

“It’s been a treat, Fire Breath,” he said, and waved before he ran. Ryke took a chance that she wouldn’t be able to respond quickly enough to stop him, but he feared it was a long shot.

Even with the air lock closing.

“Stop!” Anguissa cried.

Ryke didn’t.

The Seed.

The scent of it filled Anguissa with a seductive mix of yearning and satisfaction. Her lust was raw and rampant, her need so potent that it made her a little bit dizzy. The scent of the Seed made her desire rise and obliterated every other concern from her mind.

It was dangerous and irresistible.

It even overwhelmed her aversion to umbros.

She knew what Ryke was, but she still wanted him. That was amazing. He was tall and strong, a warrior among men, and—if he hadn’t been an umbro—Anguissa would have wanted him even without the encouragement of the Seed.

But he was an umbro. She should know better.

Ryke. A good strong name.

She could readily believe that he was from Centurios, whose fighting men were legendary throughout the galaxy for their ruthlessness, their cunning, and their raw power. That he was an umbro should have given her pause, but the Seed allowed for no hesitation. She was looking forward to claiming him, no matter what price she had to pay.

It was true that the Seed had surprised her and made her flow of dragon fire falter. It was true that she’d been a little distracted as she tried to identify him in the ranks of the crew. It was definitely true that she’d been more enthusiastic in breathing fire than would have been ideal. It was the Seed, undermining her judgment, obliterating all concerns beyond seducing the Carrier.

But once she’d spotted Ryke, she’d let herself be captured, knowing she needed to reserve her strength for their mating.

He’d not only criticized her technique—which was refreshing—but he’d facilitated her release.

Clearly, their thoughts were as one. She hadn’t believed he was revolted by her nature. No, there had been a very interested gleam in his eyes, one that Anguissa recognized well. She liked his blunt speech and his audacity.

Why was he running?

Belatedly, Anguissa recalled what she should have realized all along. The Seed was turning her into an idiot. Of course, Ryke was right. The deck would be cordoned off from the rest of the ship since it had been damaged. Her passionate extinction of Hellemut had compromised the Armada Seven more than she should have dared.

But Ryke had a plan.

He knew the ship better than she did, and she trusted him.

He was the Carrier of the Seed, after all.

This line of thought took less than seconds.

Anguissa shifted shape on the way across the deck, reaching the portal he’d used in her human form. She seized a weapon from a wounded guard, striking him in the face to startle him into releasing it. Even in her smaller form, she had to roll beneath the closing airlock to escape before it was sealed.

Half a dozen crew members had managed to escape, but Anguissa fired on them and they backed away. Most were already wounded and none would survive long. She doubted this one was the only air lock that would be secured. There’d be at least one more that was automatically deployed, if not two. Anyone on the wrong side of the air lock when it sealed, would die quickly.

She saw Ryke ahead of her, running down the corridor, though she could have found him by the scent of the Seed alone. She galloped in pursuit, encouraged to greater speed by the promise of their union.

It would be fast and furious the first time. She didn’t have the patience for leisure. She wanted him. She wanted the Seed. She needed him immediately. There was no possible question of a delay.

Anguissa even considered the merit of a small, non-critical injury, maybe to the ankle, just to slow Ryke down, then decided against it.

She wanted him whole. Perfect.

And she was gaining on him.

She leaped as he reached the end of the corridor and caught him around the waist, the force of her impact sending them both sprawling on the floor of the lurching ship. The Armada Seven rolled in that moment, clearly experiencing a greater failure of its gravity generators, and the floor became the ceiling.

Anguissa used the momentum to land on top of Ryke so they were chest to chest. He felt good, all hard muscle and masculinity. She smiled at him as she framed his face in her hands. They were essentially alone, the crew members on this side of the air lock staying out of sight.

“How long until the Gloria Furore sends reinforcements?” she murmured.

His gaze flicked, his pulse leaping beneath her touch. She felt his erection against her thighs and smiled at the unmistakable sign of his enthusiasm. She’d been right. The attraction was mutual.

Ryke surveyed her, then locked his hands around her waist and drew her closer in a most satisfactory way.

They were thinking as one! The smell of the Seed invaded Anguissa’s senses, tempting her, beguiling her, driving every other thought from her mind.

This might be the fastest seduction ever.

It might also be the most satisfying one.

“Their nearest ship is at the far end of the sector.” Ryke was obviously calculating. Anguissa liked that her touch seemed to be distracting him. She brushed her lips across his, savoring how he shivered, liking how he tasted. He had a short beard, just a day or two of growth, long enough to be soft, dark enough to make him look dangerous. “Roughly a month, in Incendium terms.”

“Good,” Anguissa purred, running her hands over his hard strength. “I always feel celebratory after I survive certain death.”

He lifted a brow. “You do it that often, Snake-Eyes?”

“All the time,” she confessed. “Danger is the spice of life.”

Ryke smiled, looking confident, cocky and sexy enough to eat. His voice dropped low. “There are other spices I prefer.”

Like?”

“Like survival.” He rolled her to her back in the same moment that he captured her lips with his own. It was a good kiss. A great kiss. A kiss so thorough and proprietary that it left Anguissa burning for more. It certainly distracted her from whatever nonsense he’d said. She raised her hand to grip his hair and pull him closer, but Ryke pushed abruptly to his feet.

By the time she opened her eyes, he’d claimed her weapon and shoved it into his belt. He gave her that little wave again, then turned to run in the same direction again.

“Survival?” she echoed, suspecting she’d missed something.

“That’s the one.” Ryke touched a fingertip to his ear with a short glance back, then ran faster.

Anguissa straightened and listened. She heard the distant vibration of many feet.

Marching in unison.

Soldiers, within the ship and coming toward the deck.

She swore and scrambled to her feet, once again running in pursuit of Ryke. “You said it would be a month!”

“It will be,” he countered. “The soldiers in the hold don’t take that long to awaken, though.”

“In the hold?”

“Cyborgs, kept chilled to slow their metabolisms. They breathe less, eat less and live longer that way. There are three chambers of them, just waiting to be revived.”

Anguissa almost growled. “I hate robots.”

“Technically, robots aren’t androids...”

“Spare me the lecture. I know the differences. I don’t like any of them.”

“Tell me what you really think.”

Anguissa glared at him. “You define abomination your way and I’ll define it mine. Who revived them?”

“Someone on deck. I saw the resuscitate command given.”

“Shouldn’t they have been awakened before the battle began?”

He granted her an amused glance. “It appears that Hellemut underestimated you, Princess.”

“Is that why you helped me escape?”

“No. I helped you escape to help myself escape,” he replied as he came to a halt before a sealed portal. The sound of the footfalls was louder and Anguissa glanced behind them. She heard Ryke tap a code into the panel beside a locked door.

“You mean you’re not one of the Gloria Furore?”

“Bite your tongue,” he chided. “I’m slave labor, or I have been until just now.” The door slid open, revealing a yawning darkness. Anguissa took a deep breath and guessed that they were moving closer to the hold. The air was colder and smelled faintly of metal and fuel.

“But they don’t let anybody go. Those troops are coming...”

“If we’re caught, I’ll just tell them you captured me.”

The door closed behind them, sealing them in a dark corridor as Anguissa laughed lightly. “They’ll never believe it.”

Ryke held up a small light. It shone beneath his face, giving him a sinister appearance. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “The surveillance film of your arrival will have been downloaded to them so that they can prepare for your destruction,” he confided. “They’ll believe it.”

Anguissa glanced down the corridor. “What makes you think you can just leave?”

“I made all the preparations.” He gave her a hot look. “The Gloria Furore fucked up, Snake-Eyes. They trusted me and I took advantage of their mistake.” Ryke looked determined and grim, as well as a bit reckless.

Umbros were predators, destroyers, said to have no moral code. Anguissa shivered, because she wanted him so badly.

The footsteps were louder.

Anguissa tried to ignore the distraction of the Seed and pretty much failed. “And what about me? Should I trust you, Ryke?”

“That’s entirely up to you. I’m leaving and there’s room for one more if you want to come along.”

“You’re inviting me?”

He winced. “I have a weakness for beautiful women.” He shook his head, apparently surprised by his own words. “Even the ones are a lot of trouble.”

Anguissa felt herself smile. “That sounds like an invitation I can’t refuse.” She ran her hand over his shoulder and felt his breath catch in response. “Don’t worry, Ryke. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Again, his gaze collided with hers, the intensity in his eyes making her heart skip. “I know.” He nodded to the open portal. “Now, move. There won’t be any second chances.”