Cambry must have a flashing molest me sign over her head. She’d been trying to give off the don’t come near me vibe, but maybe it didn’t translate on this forsaken planet.
Sleep on the death pod would be impossible. Even without the constant shuffle and murmur of low voices filling the hall packed with two hundred human refugees, Cambry didn’t trust the human male who’d settled his sleep pad next to hers.
What she really needed, more than decent sleep, was a weapon. A laser gun would be amazing, but she’d settle for a piece of piping or a stick. Even a sharp nail.
She’d seen the human chatting up another female at dinnertime. He gave off that creepy vibe she’d learned at an early age to beware. When the female rebuffed him and joined in a close pack with several other beings, he’d changed his focus to Cambry.
Cambry knew the fact she hadn’t joined or formed her own little protective grouping made her a target, but bonding with strangers wasn’t really her thing. She hadn’t survived twenty-three years living in the slave tenements below the factory where she worked without a healthy wariness for all other beings, male or female. She’d never trusted anyone but her only family member, her younger brother, Tal.
The pang in her chest at his loss nearly took her breath.
The squeak of a boot passed nearby, and she lifted her gaze. One of the Zandian guards strolled a few meters away. Nearly seven feet tall, broad-shouldered, and hugely-muscled, the male oozed masculine power and virility. Though he appeared young, she’d seen him giving orders to the other guards. He must be some kind of supervisor. “Hard to sleep in this animal pen, isn’t it?” he murmured, coming closer.
Great, now she’d attracted attention from him, too. That flashing sign must be really bright.
He crouched down, which surprised her. Making her crane her neck up to look at and answer him would be the usual bullshit authoritative thing to do to a human slave. Beings who thought they were superior didn’t usually get down on her level.
“Yeah.” She made a weak attempt at a smile.
Like all the Zandians who had supposedly “rescued” them from death, he had peachy-purple skin and horns on the top of his head. The intensity in his long-lashed brown eyes made her catch her breath. What did he see? He studied her like he really saw, like he really wanted to see. It made her itchy, as if all her vulnerabilities might be exposed if she let him keep looking.
“Can I get you something? A blanket or sleeping pad?”
She swallowed down more surprise. Was he actually being friendly? Chivalrous? Did that even exist between prisoners and guards? Slaves and masters? Aliens and humans?
Because that’s what they still were. If the Zandians thought Cambry bought their so-called “rescue” of the beings on the death pod, they were sorely mistaken. Yes, they’d prevented her death that day, but anyone with a brain knew they’d only delayed it. Now, they wanted to send them all on a death mission to take back their planet Zandia. Naturally, they wanted humans on the front lines—their deaths didn’t matter.
“You don’t dare shut your eyes, do you?”
Perceptive male. Third time he had surprised her. She vowed not to let it happen again. Whatever his game, she needed to figure it out—quick. Before she fell for it. Because the handsome Zandian oozed charisma. That must be how he’d worked his way into a position of power at such a young age.
When her non-answer served as acknowledgement, his gaze turned to a smolder, making flutters cascade in her belly. “I’ll keep watch so you don’t have to. I promise no one will bother you tonight.”
Her heart picked up speed. Not because it was a good line, but because something in the solemn utterance made her actually believe him. But why would this male promise her anything? What did he care if she slept well or not?
His promise produced a visceral reaction in her. Heat curled low in her belly as she measured his physical ability to defend her. His arms bulged with solid muscle; pectorals stood out in stark relief beneath the finely woven white uniform tunic. She’d already noticed he moved with a grace and ease belying his large stature. Yes, he probably could effectively handle any threat that came his way. And it shouldn’t turn her on so much that he’d offered her his protection.
When her nipples stiffened beneath her tunic, she folded her arms across her chest to hide them, fighting off her attraction for the obviously virile male. “Don’t bother. I don’t trust you more than any other being here.”
His lips quirked. “Smart female. Well, I’ll watch over you just the same. I don’t like seeing you unprotected.” He reached for his sword belt and unclipped a slender titanium object about the length of her palm and the width of two fingers. He offered it to her.
She looked at it without moving, then, when she realized what it was, snatched it out of his hand before he changed his mind. Grasping the handle, she unsheathed the small dagger and held it to the dim light, examining the blade. Razor sharp. Gleaming. Praise our long-lost Mother Earth.
A shock of warmth traveled through her chest. Another being had understood her well enough to offer the tool she desired most at the moment. It threw her off balance. She was used to males seeing her as an object, looking at what they might take from her. This one—a being in a position of power no less—looked and gave her something.
His lips turned up even more at whatever he saw in her face—the shine of appreciation, perhaps. Or maybe awe at his generosity and trust. Because he should’ve seen she was far from trustworthy. She’d be using the dagger and any other means she could find to escape this rathole as soon as possible.
She wet her lips with her tongue, trying to ignore the way his gaze dropped to her mouth and heated. “Thank you.”
She blinked. Not Master Lundric or Captain or whatever his title was. Just Lundric. She supposed she owed him her name in return, though it went against her personal code of keeping herself closed off.
“Cambry,” he repeated in a soft voice, as if savoring the sound of her name on his tongue. He stared at her another moment, like he was drinking her in, then stood and positioned himself against a nearby wall, making his intent clear. I promise no one will bother you tonight.
She and her brother had always looked out for one another. They’d been a team, watched each other’s backs. But she couldn’t trust anyone else to do it. Even so, a chink fell from her shield, jumbling her emotions. Fear and loss warred with the stirring of something warmer. The idea of having Lundric watch over her should not make her feel safe. She needed to stay vigilant, look for her opportunity.
She palmed the knife and lay down on her side with her back to the wall and her face toward her creepy neighbor. No, she was on her own until she found and freed Tal.
Cambry. The name suited the exquisite female. Lundric had been fascinated by the auburn-haired human from the moment he saw her. She held her chin high, walked with an aggressive swagger, and carried herself with ready alertness, like she was prepared to address any threat. She also gave off attitude in waves. He had no doubt she could defend herself with the proper weapon. Which was why he gave her one.
A woman so beautiful would have admirers. And he didn’t trust any male here—human or Zandian. He hated thinking of her being vulnerable to attack. The mere idea of it had him clenching his fists, a red haze seeping in and stealing rational thought.
So he leaned up against the wall near her nest on the floor to watch over her. He ought to make the rounds—walk the perimeter of the large hall to make his presence felt, but nothing could tear him away from his vigil.
He’d already decided she belonged to him. His little human.
He’d been raised to believe humans were inferior, weak. They were an enslaved species, after all. Yet Zander, the prince of his species, had taken the human slave, Lamira, as his mate. Rok, his superior here, had mated her sister, Lily. He’d heard his mentor, Master Seke, the Zandian Master of Arms, had been given their mother as his slave concubine.
So why shouldn’t he have one, too? There were no Zandian females of mating age left—his species was nearly extinct. And rumor had it Daneth, the prince’s physician, had determined Lamira to be the best gene match for Zander to breed. If humans were the closest, most beneficial species for them to mate, he would gladly take one. This one.
They were headed to war. His whole life had been spent preparing for it. It only made sense for him to also breed before they left. Daneth had already taken and frozen Lundric’s seed as a precaution, but wouldn’t leaving an actual child be better? He had to do his part to preserve what little was left of Zandian genetic code.
What a lie. He didn’t give a veck about preserving his genetic code. He just wanted Cambry. The fierce little rebel with cunning intelligence behind those big brown eyes. The female who snatched a dagger up and looked ready to use it. The beautiful, tough little human. He’d like to tame the wild animal right out of her. Teach her no harm would ever come to her by his hand, but there would be plenty of pleasure.
Teach her not to bolt when he wrapped his fist in that dark auburn mane and pulled her head back while he drove deep from behind. When he pinned her slender wrists above her head and licked and sucked those magnificent little breasts he’d seen shifting beneath her tunic. What color would her nipples be? Pink? Peach?
It wasn’t just physical, though his need for her had been immediate and undeniable. No, he also wanted to find out what had hardened the little human and figure out how to win her softness back.
Cambry. His human. He would ask the prince if he could have her.
He kept his post beside her for the rest of the night, satisfied when she finally did slip into a restless sleep, drifting off for an hour at a time before jerking awake and looking around. She glanced over at him each time and he lifted his chest as if to show her it made him proud to be the one who watched over her. From now on, he’d be the only vecking being who had the privilege. A duty he took more seriously than death. Because if anyone threatened that little human—his female—he’d crush them.
The center of the pod didn’t have windows, so it was hard to tell when dawn came. Living without light would be difficult for the Zandians, who relied on light for energy more than food. They’d have to make frequent trips to Zander’s palatial pod for the crystal-amplified light baths. It didn’t do much to improve the prisoners’—make that former prisoners’—morale, either. The group—mostly humans with a few odd other species mixed in—still wore the downtrodden faces of any refugees. Rok’s female, Lily, had been working hard to instill hope, and some seemed to believe her promise of a better life on Zandia, but most braced their shoulders as if ready for another attack on their dignity.
As the beings began to rouse, he turned on the sunlight simulator. A new group of guards came in for next shift, reporting to him for duty and carrying boxes of nutrition packs. He eyed the packs with distaste. They were disgusting compared to the meals he’d enjoyed on the palatial pod, but he was tired, his energy weakened from lack of food and light. He needed rest, but there was no way in hell he was going to let his female sleep another night in this crowded hall.
As the beings filed forward to receive their nutrition packs, he gave orders to his guards. “They need to be given living quarters today.”
Rok, his superior, had already mentioned the necessity, so he didn’t feel like he was stepping out of line by ordering it done today. “Allow them to self-select who they will house with. Give them housing in the prison cells, offices, closets, anywhere you can find. For those who remain in the prison cells, show them the locks have been disabled. Remove the doors if they’re too nervous. They need to settle in because this pod will be our home for many planet rotations—maybe even a solar cycle, depending on how quickly we can get them trained.”
“Yes, Captain Lundric,” his guards murmured.
Cambry stood up, holding herself with the same ever-present wariness he’d seen on her from the beginning. She’d listened to every word, but mistrust still reflected on her face.
“Start with filling the cells. Sten, you and I will scout other possible housing options.” He lifted his chin at Cambry as if she were one of his men. “You come with us to help scout.”
She clenched her jaw, her hand tightening on the dagger she’d attached to her belt.
Her mistrust shouldn’t wound him so much. Her gaze darted from him to his guard, Sten, then over to the human male still pretending to sleep beside her—the one she’d been afraid of the night before. He knew, in her mind, she’d be smarter to stay in the hall. There was safety in numbers.
Hand still on the dagger, chin lifted, she stepped toward him, accepting his order.
It took all his willpower not to throw her over his shoulder and carry her off to his quarters, declaring her won. Stars, how he wanted to claim that lithe little body.
Soon. Veck, yes, soon.
He fished a nutrition pack out of the box and tossed it to her. “Come.” He resisted the urge to push Cambry in front of him, even though his every instinct screamed to stay at her back where he could protect her. Until she trusted him, it would make her itchy to have him behind her. He led the way down the hall, purpose helping him push through fatigue. There was no way he could sleep until he got his female settled somewhere safe.
“Don’t Zandians eat? Or do you hide the decent food somewhere else?”
He looked over his shoulder at her, surprised a slave on a death pod dared used such a surly tone with him. Not that it didn’t make him hard as veck. He loved the fight in her. It drew him in as much as her hot-as-magma looks.
She had the sense to flinch under his look, her projected confidence flickering. She swallowed. “Sorry, am I supposed to call you Captain or something?”
He smirked. “Little female, you can call me anything you like.” Master. Protector. Yours. “It won’t change a thing.”
Her confidence slipped a little further, and he could almost see her mind working as she puzzled over his statement.
All the offices had been taken by the Zandians, and his guards slept in the bunkroom used by the Ocretion guards before they took over the pod. Still, there had to be some other place for her. He used his palm to activate the doors on room and after room, assessing their potential and giving Sten orders on what to do with each one.
When he found a small storage area, big enough for a bed and even a chair, he stopped looking. “We’ll empty this. Stack the supplies neatly in the hallway,” he ordered both of them.
Cambry hesitated, obviously not wanting to enter the small space due to the possibility of being trapped in there with them.
“You stay out here. We’ll hand you the supplies for stacking.” He reached in and grabbed the first box, swiveling to drop it into her arms.
Theirs hands brushed when she took it, and his gaze tangled with hers. She had warm brown eyes, her lashes the same dark auburn of her thick hair. She seemed to be searching his face for something, so he let her look, hoping he showed whatever she needed to see.
She swallowed and took the box, turning away quickly, but not before he saw confusion on her beautiful face.
Lundric—Captain Lundric, she’d learned—actually growled when his guard Sten tried to hand her a box. Lundric snatched it from him, glaring Sten down with an animalistic show of dominance. She wasn’t sure whether to slap his face at the audacity or laugh at his territorial act over her. She probably ought to be more afraid.
If she had half a brain, she wouldn’t have come on this errand alone with these two. Even with the dagger Lundric had given her, the two could probably overpower her, although she’d give them one helluva fight first.
The image of the two of them shoving her into the storage space and taking turns having their way with her flickered through her mind...and sort of turned her on. No, Sten having a turn didn’t excite her, but the crazy image of him holding her down while Lundric shoved his way deep into her—
Sweet Mother Earth! What was wrong with her? Her panties were actually dampening at the idea of being forcibly taken by this huge specimen of masculine power. What had lulled her better instincts into complacency?
It was too much to believe he really saw into her and understood her needs and desires, and yet...he had. He’d given her the dagger. Now he was supposedly finding some safer places for them to sleep, although she still didn’t know whether to trust his plan. But, if it was a ploy, what did he stand to gain? Someplace to get her alone, maybe?
She stacked boxes neatly outside the closet.
“So what did you do to land yourself on the wrong side of Ocretion law?” His question was deceptively casual. Even though his back was to her, she saw the charge of tension run through him, waiting for her answer.
“I killed three guards.”
It was true. But she’d also thrown it out as a threat, and he clearly caught her intent because, when he swiveled with the next carton, the corners of his mouth tugged up. “I have no doubt you did.” He looked almost...proud of her.
As he handed her the box, his focus dipped to her lips like they had the night before. What did he want to do to her mouth? Kiss it? Claim it?
A shiver ran through her. She didn’t even know what claim it meant, but it seemed to fit the hunger flickering behind his gaze. She dropped the carton and immediately looked back, watching Lundric’s powerful back ripple when he stooped to pick up another box. Sten caught her looking and hid a smile as he looked away.
To hell with him. What did he think was so funny?
When they’d emptied the little storage room of all its contents, Lundric turned to her. “Let’s go get your things.”
Her brows shot up. “This is for me?” Her safety meter spun wildly and landed on no way. She took a step backward. “I’m not going in there.”
Lundric held his palms out, as if to show he had no weapon. “Take it easy. No one is trying to trap you, little female.” He drew his fist back and smashed the palm-activated door lock panel beside the door.
She bit back the involuntary shriek of surprise choking her throat. The power behind that fist was dizzying. She made a mental note never to put herself on the receiving end of it.
The panel sparked and flashed and then died out. He shoved the pocket door open and closed. “See? Nothing I can do from the outside now. I’ll fashion you some kind of clip you can use from the inside. You control the lights inside, too. See?” He showed her the button just inside the door that turned the lights on and off.
Prickles covered her skin. Had he really done all this...for her? To keep her safe? Or—since he already believed he’d protected her the night before—to give her some semblance of control over her own safety? It was too much to believe, and yet, something in the way he watched her, as if her reaction mattered—really mattered to him—made her think it was true.
He took a step closer, his expression going soft. When he reached for her face, she jerked away on an inhale. His hand dropped to his side, all the power and hunger she saw there tightly leashed. Once more, the lips turned up. Instead of inspiring anger, it seemed her resistance amused him.
“Go get your bedroll.”
She nibbled on her lip, still assessing the danger. She tossed her ponytail and tried opening and closing the door herself. He was right—it didn’t lock now. With a single nod, she strode back down the corridor in the direction they’d come.
It would’ve been a better exit if she’d gone in the right direction.
Lundric waited until her steps slowed before he whistled. When she looked back, he wore a broad grin. Obviously, the warrior thought it funny.
She pursed her lips and marched back, her worn boots clomping on the floor, Lundric’s appreciative gaze sending heat creeping over her cheeks. When she reached them, Lundric gave a low chuckle.
“You find me entertaining, Captain?”
“Yes,” he drawled. “I find everything about you entertaining, little female.” The parts he left unspoken seared her skin, made her breasts grow tight and heavy, her pussy damp. He inhaled sharply. She sensed tension from him, as if he only barely held back from grabbing her and throwing her down to have his way with her.
Like a skittish animal, she darted away, out of his reach, cursing herself for showing fear. Only the fear this time wasn’t of physical harm. It was something deeper. Darker. Something that had her body feeling tingly and alive for the first time in ages.
She stomped back to the large hull where they’d slept. Only half the beings remained, huddled in groupings. Her bedding had disappeared, as the entire room had been straightened up, the blankets stacked in a neat pile by the door. One guard led a group of eight past her as she came in. She thought someone might stop her, ask where she’d been, but it seemed a human walking around unattended wasn’t cause for alarm.
She picked up two blankets—one to lie on and one to cover herself, and swiftly rolled them into a bundle. She should wait here, in this room, to see what was happening with the rest of the prisoners. She shouldn’t be spending time alone with the captain, who had clearly taken an interest in her beyond guard-prisoner.
One of the guards pointed at her. “Who are you camping with?”
She looked around, gut fisting up with dread. None of the groups looked friendly. And she already had her own room.
Which probably came with a whole mess of strings attached.
Somehow, she couldn’t muster a great deal of fear of those strings, though, even having seen Lundric’s right hook and the dark hunger in his eyes. He’d shown respect for her—hadn’t touched her, had given her a weapon, had looked after her safety.
Maybe he didn’t have any dark intent.
Or maybe morbid curiosity had her wondering just how it would feel to have those huge arms cage her, that powerful body drag her into submission. He looked like the kind of male who took a female long and hard. Maybe tied her up first and slapped her ass.
She fought back the reaction her body had to those thoughts and cleared her throat. “Captain Lundric has found a closet for me down there,” she said, waving toward the hallway.
She expected more interrogation, or demands for proof, but he merely nodded and moved on. Free, she slipped out the door, taking long strides back to her closet. In the hallway outside it, she met Lundric, carrying an entire cot—yes the whole structure—under one arm.
“I found you a bed,” he grunted.
She willed her giddy little heart to slow back down. They probably had lots of beds lying around the pod. It wasn’t like he was some kind of hero or something. She stepped back to allow him to enter her closet and shove the bed against the far wall, so she’d face the door as she slept. Exactly where she would’ve placed it. He’d already placed a single chair in, as well.
“There you go. I’ll work on a lock before nightfall.” He turned and walked away before she could even say thank you.
Not that she was sure she was going to.
But the point was, he didn’t wait for any thanks.
She shoved the door closed and leaned her back against it, her mind too full of Lundric.
So far, none of the terrible things she’d thought would happen since she was thrown on this pod had occurred. She hadn’t been executed by the Ocretions. She hadn’t been raped, or sold to a new slave owner. Each new turn was stranger and stranger. And this one with Lundric was the strangest yet.