He’s late. I hope he’s not planning to stand me up entirely.
Despite her concern and annoyance over her date Timtur’s failure to arrive on time, Lily sat on the flat rock jutting over the serene lake trying to remain calm. She raised her face to the sky, enjoying the warmth on her skin. Of course, all too soon she’d get a sun burn and be sorry for her rash behavior if she remained in the same spot. Red-headed, pale humans had that problem on every world, not just this one she’d been brought to by alien pirates as a kidnap victim.
Now she scanned the azure sky with less pleasure, fearing the sight of enemy flyers, even if this valley was labelled as a sanctuary by the Badari pack, including Timtur, who’d rescued the humans. Rising, she retreated to the shady forest glade surrounding the rock formation. The climb was an easy one, only a few feet, and she made it quickly. Heights were one of her phobias so she wouldn’t go much higher than this.
Except for the brief moment of savoring the sun’s warmth, on the whole, she felt safer hidden under the canopy of branches.
The picnic lunch remained in its container, probably still perfectly fine to eat, but not as delicious as it had been when she packed the foods in the valley’s communal kitchen a while ago. Winking and nudging her in the ribs playfully, the head cook made a joke about what big eaters the Badari warriors were. “Definitely, the way to his heart,” she’d said wisely.
Lily plunked down on the edge of the blue-and-green striped blanket she’d brought for this special date and knotted the fringe nervously. I can’t use the food to appeal to his heart if he doesn’t show up. This picnic had been his idea so surely Timtur wasn’t planning to avoid meeting her. She’d cancelled her afternoon classes to be free, gotten her hopes up maybe today was the day he’d want to talk about how he saw them as a couple…I probably placed too much emphasis on his wanting us to have time alone today, away from his packmates and my sisters. After all, dating is a totally new concept for the Badari.
She imagined him placing his strong, healer’s hands on her body, not just gliding above her skin exercising his special power. When she’d first arrived, she’d had a relapse of stasis syndrome that defeated the best efforts of the human doctor in the valley, and Timtur had spent hours attempting to heal her, monitoring her condition. In the course of the treatments, the two of them had talked endlessly about every topic under the sun and grown close. Of course, she’d fallen hard for her handsome healer. She wasn’t sure if he felt the same way.
Opening her eyes, she sighed. The healer was something special all right but, despite her best efforts to let him know how interested she was in taking their relationship further than friendship, he always held back. He didn’t show any interest in any of the other human women now living in the valley. She had no rivals for his affections. But still there was something keeping them from going to the next level, and today was the day she wanted to discover what the impediment was.
Which was going to be impossible if Timtur didn’t even bother to show up. Should I give up on ever being more than friends? The idea of never seeing where their relationship could go, never exploring the deep emotional bond she felt with him brought a wave of cold sadness, and she shivered despite the warmth of the sun. Cutting herself off from contact with Timtur would break her heart, not cure her of desire for him.
Startled by the intrusion into her thoughts, she flinched involuntarily and turned to watch him walk toward her from the forest path. All the Badari were incredibly handsome men, built on a massive scale by the alien scientists who’d manipulated humanoid and animal DNA to create the race, but Timtur had an eye-catching athletic grace to his every movement, and a kind heart, which made him an effective healer. His rich mane of brown hair and his dark amber eyes that literally glowed when his emotions ran high were also appealing to Lily, of course.
Knowing she was probably blushing, not about to admit she had in fact been day dreaming of him, Lily smiled at Timtur, standing in front of her with a big grin. “I do get lost in thought sometimes.” How often those wistful musings were of him remained her secret.
“I’m sorry to be late.” He sat next to her and gathered her in for a hug and a gentle kiss on the cheek. “We’re working on a special project deep in the forest away from the human dwellings, and it took me longer than I expected to carry out my task today.”
“You’re here now, and the food is still edible, so everything is good. And we have the rest of the afternoon and the evening.” She brought the basket closer to cover her disappointment over the relatively chaste kiss, not at all what she craved from him, and opened the lid. “I hope you’ll like what I selected.”
Rolling her hand under his so she could clasp his fingers, Lily took a deep breath. “I do think it’s time we really talked, about us.” Now or never. Ignoring the butterflies in her stomach, she asked, “Where do you see this going between us? Do we have a chance?”
“I never met anyone like you before,” he said. “You’re special to me—”
“I’m very attracted to you. I can’t deny that. Thoughts of you distract me from my duties all too often, and I count the hours until we can spend time together again.” His brow was furrowed and his mouth turned down.
She nodded to encourage him, although the tension thrumming inside her like a taut wire remained. Timtur wasn’t talking like a man ready to take a relationship to the next level. “You know how much I care about you, so I don’t understand why we can’t be…more than friends.”
He shook his head, his mane of burnished brown hair shifting in the sunlight. Lily had a hard time resisting the urge to run her fingers through the strands and try to pull him close for a kiss. “It’s not simple for me, Lily. I have duties, responsibilities—”
“More than Aydarr?” Her older sister was mated to the pack’s leader, Aydarr. “He seems to juggle the demands on his time with being Jill’s mate perfectly fine.” Giving in to temptation, Lily cupped Timtur’s cheek. He leaned into the caress but when she moved forward a bit as if to kiss him, he straightened and ignored the overture. Biting her lip, she said, “I think the time’s come when we could explore what we do have, what we feel about each other, in more depth.”
“Become physically intimate?”
“Not just that, although I think we’d be good together.” When he didn’t respond, she added, “I—I need more. I need to know this is going somewhere and we have a future of some kind, beyond friendship. Frankly, I have a hard time thinking of you as just a friend, and it hurts to be afraid this is one sided on my part.”
Growing angry at his reticence or self-control or both, embarrassed at having spoken so frankly and revealing her vulnerability to him, she made as if to rise. “Maybe this picnic today wasn’t such a good idea.”
Timtur caught her and pulled her onto his lap. “In all our years of captivity under the Khagrish, we never had the chance to become friends with women, much less to consider relationships,” he said. “Because there were no women. This—you and me—is all new, and I’m trying to walk carefully, not to rush either of us. Not to make a mistake and ruin our friendship.”
Stung, she struggled against his embrace, and immediately he released her. Lily rose. “If you think a more serious understanding between you and me could be a mistake, then I don’t know what I’m even doing here.” She put her hands on her hips and glared at him, anger radiating through her nerves. “I thought I meant more to you.”
“I’m expressing myself badly.” He made a rueful face. “See, it’s as I feared, I am going to spoil what’s been so amazing about having you as a friend, being able to talk to you about anything.”
“I have obligations no other Badari has.” He reached out to her with one hand. “Not even Aydarr. I have to take those into consideration.”
Lily ignored the gesture and wrapped her arms around herself self protectively. “So tell me what you perceive the obstacles are to us being a couple. I believed we could talk about anything. You’ve told me so much about your life in the lab, about what the Khagrish did to you and your people. I thought you trusted me.”
“I do. It’s hard to explain some things to an outsider.” He patted the blanket beside him. “Please, sit with me?”
She was about to comply with his soft spoken request when there was a loud whistle from the forest and another Badari warrior jogged into view. Shading her eyes with her hand, she recognized Camron. “What’s he doing here?”
“I don’t know.” Timtur rose and met the newcomer as he left the path and started toward the picnic site.
“You’re needed at the clinic,” Camron said, ignoring Lily. “Didn’t you hear the summons?”
“I closed the telepathic channel,” Timtur said a bit awkwardly. “Lily and I…had things to discuss.”
“Well, they want you there now. Patrol ran into a Khagrish security detail, came back badly shot up, two men injured, one isn’t doing too well. Too many internal injuries to self-heal. Dr. Garrison is doing her best, but—”
“But she isn’t trained to heal Badari.” Timtur shook his head. “I’ll go at once.” Almost as an afterthought, he turned to Lily. “We’ll have to resume the conversation another time.”
She made a shooing motion. “Go, take care of the wounded.” But the healer had already pivoted on his heel and sprinted off with the amazing Badari speed. Annoyed and disappointed, Lily spared a moment to wonder if the flash of relief she’d seen on his expressive face was indicative of his overwhelming reluctance to talk to her about their relationship.
“I understand. No apology necessary. We were only having a casual picnic.” She made herself shrug as if she didn’t much care.
“Do you need help to carry the container to the kitchen?” he asked.
Although she wanted to leave the damn container and everything else, storm off and have a good cry, Lily shook her head and again kept her tone casual, hiding the pain. “I can manage but thank you.” She started folding the blanket as the soldier nodded.
“Shall I wait to escort you?” Camron was one of the Badari she knew pretty well since he taught a class at the school she ran. He was calm, a no nonsense guy with whom she was comfortable. “I know you’ve said the woods make you nervous at times, although we drove away all the predators when we took up residence here in the valley.”
“An escort would be nice.” Lily glanced at the trees and repressed a shudder. The afternoon shadows were lengthening and the idea of walking home by herself didn’t hold much appeal. She’d been so happy hiking to the picnic spot earlier in the day. She hadn’t been nervous to be alone but now the place seemed darker and more ominous. Why couldn’t Timtur have spared at least a moment to think about her having to go home by herself? Because when the pack needs him, he answers immediately. Which was honorable and proper of course. Her head ached, thinking about all the complications in what ought to be so simple—getting to know a man on a deeper level than friendship. She made herself smile at Camron, waiting patiently while she dithered. “And maybe since you offered I will let you carry the basket after all.”
Two days after the over-before-it-started picnic, Lily was in her office at the valley’s tiny school, sitting at the desk the Badari had made for her and going over proposals for classes various people had pitched to her for consideration on the curriculum. The Badari cubs had been raised in the cruel captivity of the Khagrish labs and she was trying to offset the trauma of those experiences, as well as broadening their knowledge of the world. As a trained teacher with advanced degrees from a respected Sectors university, she enjoyed the challenge, although she was sorry the boys had been deprived of anything like a normal childhood. She was proud of her school here and grateful there was a need she could fill.
The door creaked open, the perpetually stuck hinge protesting as it always did and she glanced up with a cheerful expression to greet the unexpected guest. Good mood immediately fading, she rose from her chair instinctively as Vattan, the alpha-born future leader of the ninth generation of Badari crossed the floor toward her. She’d been hoping for Timtur to drop by, not this arrogant man.
Timtur was the healer for the entire pack, born into what the Khagrish scientists labelled as the eighth generation of their experiment in genetic engineering. Vattan and his age group was the next youngest cohort created after the one containing Timtur, seeming to Lily’s eyes to be about ten years younger than the healer or his peers. Of course the Badari didn’t age the way humans did, but Timtur appeared to her to be in his mid-thirties and Vattan looked like a man in his mid to late twenties.
The hair on the back of her neck rose as ancient instincts whispered of danger. Vattan frightened her for no reason she could state, other than his general predatory air.
Being alone with this aggressive warrior in the office this late in the afternoon gave her a bad feeling. No one was likely to come to her rescue. Lily tried to sidestep, and he put one arm out to keep her in place, boxed in between his massive body and the wall. “Thank you, but I’m already going with my sisters,” she said, trying to control her breathing. “And I’m expecting to meet a friend there.” She wished she’d followed her instincts and left the minute he stepped into the room, even if that would have been rude. “I asked you before, Vattan, not to keep singling me out. I’m sure you’re a very nice person, but I’m not interested.”
“You should be. I’m the Generation 9 Alpha. I’ll be in charge of the packs and the valley someday, once Generation 8 dies off. Or I kill their Alpha in combat. Any human woman should be happy to have my attention.” He nuzzled her neck.
“Stop touching me!” Shocked, disgusted, she shoved at him but, since he outweighed her by easily two hundred pounds and had muscles like slabs of granite, her defensive gesture made no impression on him. “Please, leave me alone.” Her heart was racing and her legs could barely hold her up.
“You think I don’t know you have eyes for the healer?” Vattan gave a contemptuous snort, even as he pressed his body more closely to hers. “He’s weak. I could kill him easily in a dominance challenge.” The young alpha eyed her figure appreciatively. “But he’d never risk fighting me, even over you. You need a strong warrior to protect you on this planet.”
Trying to hold him at arm’s length, Lily debated whether to lie and say she would attend the party with Vattan. It might end this encounter, and then she could appeal to the settlement’s leader Aydarr, the Alpha in charge of the pack, as soon as she was able to get away from her stalker. But the Badari could smell lies, or so it was said, and she was afraid to make Vattan angry.
Footsteps sounded outside, and she hoped for a rescue, although the encounter was bound to be embarrassing for her. She was terrified if no one interrupted him, Vattan was going to overpower her and assault her right here in the office.
A young cub burst into the room, clutching an armful of handhelds. “I’m sorry I’m late, Miss Lily.”
It was Yonn, from the canid DNA pack, chosen earlier, before classes, for the honor of being her teacher’s aide today. Delivering the devices was his final duty of the day. He skidded to a halt, eyes narrowed. “What’s going on? Do you need help?”
Yonn stood his ground, dropping the handhelds and deploying his own childish claws and small fangs. “Miss Lily smells scared, like prey. Are you scaring her?”
Terrified for the cub, she seized her opportunity to move away from the desk where Vattan had kept her cornered. She tried to circle around the soldier, but he had the lightning reflexes of his kind, and he grabbed her wrist with one hand. Yonn lunged but Vattan slapped the boy off his feet with his free hand. Lily screamed and tugged futilely at his grip on her.
“Please, let the boy go,” Lily said, afraid of what Vattan might do next in his aggressive state. “You and I can talk about tonight once he’s gone.” Over her shoulder she said to Yonn, “Thank you for your help, now go and have the cut on your arm treated.” And get help. Not for the first time Lily wished she had the ability to speak to the Badari mind to mind as they spoke to each other. Surely the cub would summon assistance for her? But first he needed to get out of here.
Unfortunately, Yonn wasn’t ready to abandon his self-appointed role as her protector. He placed himself between the door and the adults, in an imitation of the defensive stance a warrior would assume in combat. “I’m not leaving you alone with him.” His words were spoken in a child’s treble, but the clear menace to Vattan was that of an adult twice his age.
Lily remembered again the Badari had been created by the alien scientists to be fearsome warriors and trained mercilessly for battle from a young age. Surely Vattan wouldn’t harm a cub. Would he?
Pounding footsteps outside the door caught her attention and Ronan, the other potential future Alpha born into Generation Nine burst through the door. Taking in the situation at a glance, he deployed his claws and fangs. “Thank you for calling me,” he said to the child. “Are you all right?” He stared over Yonn’s head at Lily.
“Yes, I’m fine. A little misunderstanding. Please, can we all calm down?” She didn’t want there to be any more violence or unpleasantness. “I’m sure Vattan didn’t mean any harm—”
“He was treating Miss Lily like prey,” Yonn said, not backing down. “I didn’t like that. Humans aren’t prey and especially not the teacher. Badari are supposed to protect weaker beings.”
Lily was desperate to keep the situation from escalating further. Conflict, much less violence terrified her—she just wanted the incident to be over, with everyone gone about their business. “I’m sure Vattan and I can sort this out if you want to take Yonn to see the healer.” Common knowledge in sanctuary valley was how Ronan and Vattan barely tolerated each other so she regarded it as essential to keep them separate.
Blushing, Lily tried again to free herself from Vattan’s grasp. “I’m not in a relationship with anyone.” Embarrassment vied with anger in her mind at being the center of such a personal discussion.
“None of this is your business,” Vattan said to Ronan. “Take the cub and get out.”
Vattan shoved Lily away and released her so suddenly she staggered a step, tripped over a handheld on the floor and fell; banging her arm on the desk with so much force she felt an ominous, intense pain in her arm as it struck the edge. She was afraid she’d pass out from the agony running up her arm into her shoulder. Standing at his full height, the brash young Alpha roared a challenge and advanced on Ronan, displaying the deadly claws and fangs their alien scientist creators had given him. “I’m done with your interference. You want to challenge my dominance? Maybe you want this human woman for yourself? All right, now is the time to settle this once and for all.”
The two men circled each other in the relatively small space, making feints and sizing each other up.
Yonn bolted out the door. Lily wondered if he’d been telepathically ordered to leave by Ronan. Holding onto the desk with her good hand for support, she got to her feet. “Not here,” she said. Realizing her voice was weak, she cleared her throat and tried again. “Don’t fight in here, please. Go outside.”
Ronan flicked a glance at her as if he was going to answer, but Vattan took advantage of the momentary distraction to pounce on his adversary and the battle was on.
Lily screamed, appalled by the violence of the attack. Already both men were bleeding and wounded as they grappled with each other. She was trapped, helpless. There were no weapons in the teaching office, even if she’d known how to shoot. The Badari were huge, built on a scale much larger than even the biggest, most fit human males, and as the two of them slashed and flailed, they crashed into the furniture and the shelves.
Lily had to take refuge under the desk. She wanted to curl into a ball and close her eyes, but she was safer to watch the fight and be poised to take a chance to escape and go for help. She realized with horror this was no hot tempered brawl. They’re trying to kill each other. Vattan got his fangs deep into Ronan’s shoulder and hung on, while the other slashed his side open and kicked his legs out from under him.
Tangled together, the two men fell through the open doorway, rolled off the porch and fell onto the lawn.
“Easy, take it easy. Are you all right?”
It was Timtur who held her tight, asking anxious questions.
Trying not to cry, relieved he was here, she clung to him. “Make them stop.”
“This has been brewing for a long time, unfortunately,” said Aydarr, the Alpha who ruled the valley, from his position on the other side of Timtur. “We must allow the dominance challenge to be completed.”
She realized the area was surrounded by Badari now, from both the felinoid and canid packs. The soldiers were ringing the patch of grass where Ronan and Vattan still battled, watching the carnage closely. There were no humans present other than herself, not even Jill, her sister who was the Alpha’s mate. Her head swam and she was nauseous from the continuing pain in her arm. “You can’t let them kill each other.”
“You saw what happened?” Aydarr asked without taking his attention from the fight.
“You’ll have to give evidence later.” He was calm in the midst of the crisis.
“Of course.” Her heart sank. Why had she assumed this episode would be over once the fight ended?
“This isn’t the proper time or place, nor the way the issue should have been settled,” said Jamokan, the ruling Alpha of Ronan and Yonn’s canid DNA pack. She was relieved to see Yonn standing within the protective circle of the man’s arm. The child’s wound now bore a crude bandage, ripped from someone’s shirt. “Young hotheads.”
Trying to be fair, she said, “It was Vattan—”
Aydarr held up one hand, black talons like knives gleaming in the late afternoon sun. “Save your testimony for the council.”
“Thank the Great Mother the cub called for help,” Timtur said. “I think every Badari in the valley heard him.”
With a tremendous roar, Ronan flipped Vattan, getting him on the grass on his back, and in a flash he straddled him, placing his fangs on the other’s throat. “Yield or die,” he said, the words barely understandable.
Vattan made a futile effort to dislodge his opponent then lay still.
Lily held her breath.
Aydarr and Jamokan, who was his subordinate, walked into the blood spattered grassy area and stood together beside the prone fighters. Eyes radiating golden light fueled by emotion, Aydarr squatted next to Vattan and leaned over, careful not to interfere with Ronan’s physical control of the situation. “Do you yield?”
“I yield.” The words were grudging, snarled.
“Yes. Now let me up.” Vattan made another convulsive attempt to throw Ronan off.
Aydarr laid a hand on Vattan’s shoulder and spoke directly to Ronan. “The matter is decided. You are the victor.”
“Today.” Vattan’s voice was derisive.
“As you say.” Vattan closed his eyes.
With Jamokan’s assistance, Ronan rose.
“There will be a council of the pack elders at moonrise,” Aydarr said. “To determine any other open matters surrounding this unsanctioned dominance challenge. But the outcome of the fair combat will stand.”
The surrounding Badari soldiers gave their own battle cries in approval.
Lily thought she was going to faint. Timtur guided her to a seat on a nearby rock outcropping when she resisted returning inside the office. He ran his hands over her arm. “Go take care of the cub, and the boys,” she said, acutely conscious of the fact healing humans wasn’t his job. Someone in authority might reprimand him—or her—for distracting him from his own people. “I’m fine.”
“I think your arm’s broken.” He glanced at the grassy space where the combatants and the cub lingered, accompanied by their respective Alphas and the pack enforcers. “You need to see your sister, the doctor. I wish I could take you myself—”
“No, it’s all right. I understand, your duty to the pack comes first. You don’t treat humans.” She waved him away although she wanted nothing more than to curl into his embrace, weep from the stress of the last hour, and receive comfort from the man she dreamt about. Standing this close to him and being unable to ask for his support made her chest tight with stress. The fact he didn’t seem to realize how needy she was right now, or chose to ignore her state burned.
Lily bit her lip, feeling the pain in her arm and side, and unsure she could walk to the clinic. But she was reluctant to ask anyone for help. Right now she felt very much like an outsider. Do the Badari blame me for the fight?
“Lily!” It was her older sister, Jill, who burst into the clearing where the teacher’s office was located. Megan, Lily’s twin, was right behind, carrying her medical bag. Her sisters came straight to her, hugging her and helping her to her feet.
“Mateer called me,” Megan the doctor said, referencing her mate, with whom she had a telepathic bond. “He said you’re injured, and now I’m here I can see the seriousness for myself. Hold still.”
“What the seven hells happened?” Jill asked, staring at the injured cadets a few feet away.
Now that she had her own support system present, in the form of her sisters, Lily closed her eyes and gave in to the tears. She couldn’t speak through the overwhelming emotions and even breathing was a challenge.
Jill motioned to her mate, the Alpha. “I need someone to carry my sister to the clinic. She’s too upset and shaken to walk. And then you and I need to talk.”
Hands on her hips, eyes narrowed, Jill was the picture of indignation. “What exactly was the situation? Why did those idiots choose the teacher’s office to have their damn dominance challenge?”
“I can walk,” she said, sniffling as she forced herself to rise, leaning on Megan. “I—I really prefer to be with humans right now, if you don’t mind.” The idea of any Badari, even her sister’s mate, touching her was upsetting. She could tolerate Timtur carrying her, but he was still involved in healing Ronan’s wounds, as evidenced by the pale green glow emanating from the healer’s hands and bathing the young alpha’s skin in a soft light. After a strenuous healing session on Ronan, Timtur would be weakened himself and unable to give her any special attention. No matter how much she might crave it.
Swallowing hard, she took a cautious step, fighting the dizziness.
“Watching two of my soldiers fight for dominance isn’t a sight for human eyes,” Aydarr said, his voice low and sympathetic. “The entire incident is unfortunate.”
Unfortunate is putting it way too mildly. Lily smothered her first, annoyed reaction to the trauma she’d endured. Aydarr was trying to see things from a human point of view—she’d give him credit for the effort. And of course his mate was a tough soldier herself, unlike Lily, who shrank from even verbal disagreement, much less physical violence.
He sent a soldier with them, in case Lily needed help before Rik arrived on the scene. Lily was grateful the man assigned hung back behind the trio of women as they proceeded along the shady, tree-lined path. The light hearted birdcalls from the sky above and the bright sunshine seemed incongruous with the dark turn the day had taken. She wasn’t sure she ever again wanted to work in the snug teaching office she’d been so proud of. Not now.
She kept trying her best to cope, to find her path as a survivor, but life on this savage planet was terrifying. And the threat of the alien kidnappers who’d originally abducted them all was still ever present. Any minute the Khagrish could find this peaceful valley and carry them all off to be experimented on in their monstrous labs. Lily couldn’t place much trust in MARL, the 10,000 year old Artificial Intelligence who claimed to be able to protect the entire area completely from attack. So far he’d been right in his self-assessment but what if the Khagrish figured out an approach MARL hadn’t thought of?
But even without those worries, she felt adrift. Her sisters were mated to Badari warriors, had made a place for themselves here, and she was often left to her own devices. The other humans in the valley were friendly enough, and she had acquaintances among the women, but no one to really lean on.
Teaching the cubs and especially trying to help the younger ones capture something of a normal childhood was a satisfying challenge, occupying most of her waking hours, but not much comfort at a time like this. And her daydreams about Timtur the healer were equally empty. The pack came first for him, as he constantly made clear by his actions.
“Can you tell us what happened?” Megan asked as they made their way slowly along the path toward the clinic. Fortunately at this time of day there weren’t too many valley residents out and about, being in the large dining hall or in the dorms relaxing after the official work day ended.
“We’re your sisters. You can tell us anything, any time. Our family bond comes before any loyalty to the pack,” Jill said in a carefully controlled tone. A muscle in her clenched jaw twitched. “Aydarr will understand. I think we shouldn’t discuss this around any other humans, however. Not everyone is comfortable with the Badari as it is.”
Count me as one of those people today. Lily shuddered and wished again Timtur had dropped by the office, as he often did late in the afternoon. Hoping for some time with him, she’d lingered and, of course, that meant she was there for Vattan to find. With a deep sigh, she launched into the story as she walked.