From the way she was shifting restlessly on the sofa, Taryn could tell that the little human was uncomfortable. She moved around, unable to settle in one spot. Wriggling from side to side, she picked at some imaginary piece of fluff on her skirt, trying to keep her trembling hands busy. Her eyes scanned her surroundings as though it was the first time she’d ever set foot in the place, but he knew that it wasn’t. The frantic way her eyes were darting about was a tell-tale sign of her nervousness. Brave as she’d been to walk in here, she clearly wasn’t at ease.
He had to concede it was probably strange for her to be there under the circumstances. The house belonged to one of her friends, a young woman who’d recently been taken as a bride by his commanding officer, Andrew Rossingham.
Taryn and a half dozen other Taar-Breckian warriors had moved in to use the house as a base while they were on a mission here in New Cambridge. It would undoubtedly be odd for her to see all these men she didn’t know in otherwise familiar surroundings. He had to admit that a large male like him did look out of place among the feminine trappings of human domesticity.
Taryn could hardly believe that the woman who was the focus of his latest assignment had just walked in here of her own accord and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. She was one of several young women that he and his men had been tasked with finding. They were to be brought to his home planet of Taar-Breck because, although they might not realize it, they were in grave danger. Earth’s corrupt High Council was looking for friends of his commander’s wife to punish them for their activities as part of some illicit women’s group. The members needed to be brought to safety, whether they liked it or not. Lucy was the woman he’d been instructed to take into his protection as his mate. Taryn had been trying to figure out how best to spirit her away without attracting too much attention. Her arrival at the house gave him an unexpected opportunity.
As he watched her on the security monitor, Taryn realized that it must have taken considerable courage for them to come here. She couldn’t possibly have known what she was walking into, whether the reception she got would be friendly. It looked as though whatever doubts she might have were now beginning to play more forcefully on her mind. She got up from her seat and took a couple of steps toward the door. Then she muttered something to herself, words of affirmation, perhaps, and walked to the window instead. She leaned her forehead against the glass and Taryn wondered what she was thinking. Time to go and find out, he guessed.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he hurried from the control room his men had set up in the basement and walked along the hallway. He could scarcely believe how eager he was to speak with her. This sort of nervous anticipation had not assailed him since he was a youngling, engaged in military training for the first time. He wondered why he had made that connection in his mind. Would dealing with this young woman be like going into battle?
As he entered the living room, she turned around. Her eyes scanned over his body, seeming to take in his massive size, the breadth of his shoulders, his long, muscular limbs. Her mouth dropped open. Taryn could sense her interest, but he also smelled her fear. While some men might get off on that, he didn’t like it one bit. Although she didn’t know it yet, this woman was to be his mate. He wanted her warm, willing, and pliant, not terrified out of her wits.
“Take a seat, Miss…” He knew exactly what her name was. After all, he’d been following her every move for weeks now. He wanted, though, to see if she would try to palm him off with false information.
“Bainbridge,” she said in clipped tones. “Miss Lucy Bainbridge.”
Her response was formal, creating a distance between them. Her stiff manner made it hard for him to get any real sense of the type of woman she was. Hopefully she wasn’t always so restrained. It would be hard to get close to someone who held herself in check all the time. Still, at least she hadn’t tried to conceal her true identity from him. He thought that was probably a good sign.
As she walked toward him, Taryn made a careful study of her. He’d seen images of Lucy, of course, had watched her from a distance, but this was the first time he’d been in the same room as her. Up close, she was even prettier than he’d thought. The color of her hair was like nothing he’d ever seen before. It was the warmest shade of golden blonde. Her eyes were wide, blue, and iridescent like precious stones. There was an otherworldly quality about her. She looked a bit like a doll, but he knew she couldn’t be anything like as delicate as her appearance suggested.
Lucy Bainbridge had been a member of a women’s group whose very existence had been considered a crime. Given the harsh penalties the women faced if caught, it took guts to be involved in something like that. The expression on Lucy’s face might be guileless but she surely possessed some ingenuity. This was a young woman who’d repeatedly given her guardian the slip so she could meet her friends, after all. She’d also evaded apprehension by the security forces who were suspicious of any female out on her own. It was no mean feat to avoid detection by trained agents of the state, yet she’d done it for several years, as far as he could tell. No, despite her innocent look, she must have some cunning about her.
As she moved to take a seat on the sofa, the long skirt she wore swished around her ankles. Clasping her hands together as she settled herself, she looked up at him, her brow creasing as though she was trying to decide whether she’d made a terrible mistake in coming here. Aware that he was looming by the doorway in what might be seen as a menacing fashion, Taryn came further into the room. He sat down on one of the armchairs that was too small for his muscular frame and tried to adopt a nonthreatening pose.
“My men offered you refreshments?” Taryn checked.
“Yes, they did.”
Lucy sounded as though their hospitality had surprised her and that irritated him. Humans seemed to think that his race were barbarians when, in fact, the Taar-Breckians could teach them a thing or two about civilized behavior.
“But I declined.” She bit her bottom lip nervously, as though wondering whether refusing the offer of a drink had been some sort of cultural misstep.
“That’s alright,” Taryn assured her as she was obviously on edge. He needed her to feel comfortable so he could find out what had brought her here. “So, what can I do for you, Miss Lucy Bainbridge?”
“I want to get away from here.”
“But you’ve only just arrived.” He knew perfectly well that wasn’t what she’d meant, but something about her wide-eyed, innocent look made him want to tease her.
“I mean away from New Cambridge,” she clarified.
Taryn leaned back in his chair and cast an appraising look over her. This was certainly interesting news.
“And where do you wish to go?” he asked.
“I really want to go to Taar-Breck.” There was definite enthusiasm in her response.
That surprised Taryn, considering Earth’s High Council had been circulating vicious rumors about the supposed barbarity of his homeland for many years. Negative propaganda was one of the ways they tried to discourage people from moving to his planet. Lucy would have heard little about his people apart from terrible tales of how poorly the men treated their females. According to the stories the High Council spread, Taar-Breckians used women as slaves, showing them absolutely no care or consideration. It was all lies, of course. The men of his race might like to take charge and set strict rules for their women, but they also saw to their welfare. Still, the question remained. Why would she choose to go to a place with such a tainted reputation willingly? He knew from his observations of her that she was naturally submissive, but it seemed unlikely that she would harbor a desire to be completely stripped of her free will.
“I see, and what makes you want to visit my home planet?”
Her lips pursed, and he knew that his deliberate misunderstanding of her meaning had annoyed her.
“I don’t want to visit,” she said indignantly. “I want to go and live there. My friend Caroline was taken there already, and I miss her.”
“That’s not much of a reason to leave all you know behind.”
“Oh, uhm, well…” She seemed a little flustered. He wondered if she’d planned out in advance how this conversation was going to go, and he’d dragged her off course. “Well, there’s also my friend, Victoria.”
“What about her?”
“Well,” Lucy said, looking down into her lap, “her betrothal ceremony is scheduled for today and she’s not going to sit around waiting for them to marry her off to some creepy old man. She disappeared before I woke this morning and if she doesn’t come back, I’ll be next in line.”
“Next in line?”
“Yes, my father has been speaking to several potential husbands for me, but there’s a strict order of things. Victoria’s family is more important than mine, so the announcement of her betrothal must take place first,” Lucy explained. “If she’s really run away, they’ll move on to me next.”
Taryn shook his head as he tried to make sense of what she’d just said. He would never understand these humans and their bizarre social rules.
“Won’t they try to bring her back?” he asked. If a woman ran from him, he would track her across the universe and drag her home if necessary.
“They will, but only to punish her. A runaway isn’t afforded the honor of marriage.”
The way she spoke made it sound as though she actually believed there was some privilege in being bartered off to the best prospect for social advancement. But, if that was the case, why would she seek to escape her own betrothal? At the thought of this beautiful, delicate creature being given to some other man, Taryn clenched his fists. He hated the idea of her being made to yield to a man who wasn’t worthy of her submission. Human males were lazy when it came to their women. They didn’t take the time to nurture them properly, to ensure that their needs were being met. It made him so angry to see how human males took for granted the gifts they were given.
Seeing the look of panic that crossed the young woman’s face as the tension radiated from him, he forced himself to relax.
“So, you wish to make your escape and you’d like me to help you?” He wanted to be sure he understood correctly why she’d come to him.
Lucy nodded vigorously, a look of expectation on her face.
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked, his tone a little sharper than he’d intended.
“Well, my friend who was taken to Taar-Breck, her husband is… he’s…”
“He is my commanding officer,” Taryn filled in for her, “and grandson to my king.”
She looked surprised at that, as though she hadn’t realized that Caroline Chatterton’s new husband was part of Taar-Breck’s ruling family, but she quickly recovered herself. The same serene mask that all Earth’s upper-class women seemed to wear in public settled on her face.
“Right, so I thought…” Her voice trailed off and she began to fidget once more. She didn’t seem able to hold her composure for long. Taryn wondered if she was always like this, or if his presence made her particularly uncomfortable.
“You thought that he would want me to risk a diplomatic incident by removing a citizen of Earth from her home without her guardian’s permission.”
He made it sound as though the very idea was shocking but, in fact, it was close to the reality of what he and his men had been asked to do. Their commander had ordered that Lucy and several other young women be brought to Taar-Breck. It was partly because he couldn’t stand back and watch innocent women being hunted down by a corrupt government that he’d decided to act, and partly because he wanted his wife to have her friends close by. It was a risky venture. If the High Council found out they were taking these women to safety, they would be outraged. Relations between Earth’s rulers and the Taar-Breckians were already tense and it would take very little to cause a crisis.
Taryn had no idea why he didn’t just tell Lucy that it was his mission to help her. It would be the kindest thing to do since she was obviously having a hard time asking for his assistance. Something stopped him from letting her off the hook, though. He supposed it was because he was getting a kick out of watching the ever-changing expression on her face. She really was quite adorable.
“I wouldn’t expect you to help me for nothing,” Lucy said, surprising him.
“I hope you’re not about to offer me money. That would be a grave insult to my honor.”
Lucy shook her head. “I have no money.”
“Then what are you offering?” Taryn was intrigued by the way her eyelashes drifted downward and a delicate blush stained her cheeks.
“Well,” she shifted awkwardly on her seat, “I’m a virgin and I know how valuable that is.”
“Not to me,” Taryn responded bluntly.
Lucy’s eyes looked a little teary and Taryn started to feel bad about testing her like this. It was akin to pulling the wings off a tiny insect. He just couldn’t help himself, though. Something about Lucy Bainbridge had piqued his curiosity. She gave the impression of being quite fragile and yet he knew there must be a stronger side to her. Perhaps he was teasing her in the hope of drawing out a different aspect of her personality.
“Well, anyway, I’m offering to become…” She paused and seemed to be trying to steel herself for what she was about to say. “That is, if you’ll help me, I will become your… your pet.”
“My pet?” It was so unexpected he couldn’t help but throw back his head and laugh.
Eyes flaring with defiance, Lucy rose to her feet. Now, that was more like it. He could practically feel the fury burning from her. It was intriguing to see her displaying a little spirit at last.
“I can see I’ve wasted your time,” she said haughtily as she walked toward the door.
“Stay where you are.” Taryn got to his feet and stalked toward her. Although she let out a gasp of surprise as he reached across the distance between them to caress the soft skin of her cheek, she didn’t step back from him. “So, you want me to put my collar around your pretty little neck and make you crawl at my feet?”
She looked as though she might be having second thoughts and then nodded her head.
“Yes,” she said with obviously forced enthusiasm, “that’s what I want.”
“Really?” Taryn queried as he took a step back from her. He doubted she’d really thought this through, but he had to admit he did find the idea intriguing. “In that case, kneel.”
“What, now?” Her voice quivered.
Taryn inclined his head. Lucy looked at him, her eyebrows knitting together in a frown once more and then slowly sank to the floor. Eyes averted, focusing on anything but him, she knelt at his feet. There was something innately graceful about her, but her shoulders were rigid. Tension thrummed on the air around her.
“Very good.” Taryn was impressed that she’d obeyed, even if her reluctance did scream out at him. “Now, crawl.”
Lucy looked up at him in shock and he could practically hear her thoughts churning in her mind as she tried to decide what to do. Expecting her to object to his command, he was surprised when she gave an almost imperceptible nod of acceptance. She got onto all fours and began to move across the floor. Her voluminous skirts seemed to hamper her efforts and, after only a few seconds, she gave up.
“Then take it off,” Taryn said as he reached down to help her to her feet. As she straightened up, she looked at him with eyes narrowed and he repeated the order. “Take off your dress.”
Hands trembling, she reached up to take hold of the laces that held the bodice of her dress together. Her fingers played with the fabric ties for a moment and then she dropped her hands to her sides.
“I can’t,” she wailed.
“Yes, you can.”
“No.” Her tone was firm now. “I can’t.”
Taryn shrugged his shoulders. “You came to me and asked to be my pet, but it seems you’re not ready to commit to that yet.”
The corners of her pretty pink lips turned down as she looked up at him with those big, glistening blue eyes. Her expression of hopelessness was almost enough to penetrate his thick skin and prick at his heart. Almost, but not quite.
“So, you won’t help me?” she asked.
As it happened, he did intend to help her, and not just because he’d been ordered to. He’d wanted her from the moment he saw her and now that she’d come to him with her intriguing offer, he was determined to have her as his pet. He would test her, tease her, punish her, and cherish her as his most precious possession but first he needed her to be sure about what she was asking for.
“I will give you forty-eight hours to think this over,” Taryn said. “Consider whether you really can wear my collar and obey my every command without question. Think about whether you want to serve my needs and allow me to introduce your body to the most intimate pleasures. Come to me only when you are prepared to surrender to me completely.”
He watched her closely as she frowned. Her eyes widened and then her brow crumpled again as her mouth twisted at the side. It was cute the way her face changed as her thoughts played out so vividly. She gave him a polite nod, her ingrained good manners clearly kicking in when he was sure she felt anything but civil toward him. As she moved toward the door, he reached out and placed a hand on her arm to stop her.
“Know this, Lucy Bainbridge, I will leave here in two days’ time and you will come with me in full submission or not at all.”
She nodded once more and walked from the room, her head held regally high. Taryn went to the window and watched her exiting the house. Her steps were light and quick as she walked down the path. As she disappeared from view, he rubbed his forehead wearily, wondering what the hell had gotten into him. His little human had presented him with the ideal opportunity to spirit her away to Taar-Breck and yet he’d let her leave. Still, he knew she would be back before his deadline expired. It was clear that she wanted to be his pet, even if some parts of her mind were still bucking against the idea. When she returned, he would fulfill her deepest desires and make her his in every way.