Outlawed noblewoman Jaida Lianl had been everything from a high speed courier on Arcalis Prime to a waitress in the cloud café’s on Selenis. Different careers, different names, different identities. When a cover got this easy–so easy she started to believe it herself–she knew she’d been in the same place too long. It was time to move on before she got comfortable and started to make mistakes. Mistakes would allow Imperial Prince Sethan to find her, and if that happened, people would die…
Now after five years, Seth has found her, and she can no longer outrun her destiny: she’ll be the prince’s courtesan, but he’ll never own her heart…
“You don’t have to go through with this, you know that…don’t you, sweetheart?”
Jaida smiled. “Dad, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Duke Lianl’s eyes were full of concern as he turned her to face him. His hands paused for a second on her armbands, then slid down to her hands. The armbands were new, to mark her coming of age. “You’re only eighteen Jaida. We can put this off a year or…ten maybe?”
“Dad, it’s fine. I’m fine. I’m all grown up now. You worry too much.” She chuckled, a light sound of amusement. Nothing could bother her today.
Her father smiled as he swept a look over her. His eyes were the same color as hers, deep sapphire ringed with the silver of royal blood.
“You look just like your mother. She’d have been so proud of you—” Duke Lianl broke off as a familiar sadness filled his eyes. She’d been dead ten years, but Malden Lianl had never forgotten his wife.
“Thank you. I hope she would have,” She squeezed his hands softly before letting go and then tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Shall we?”
“If you’re sure.”
Lord Malden gave in with a small sigh, but she caught the gleam of pride in his eye as he straightened up and gave a nod to the servant at the door. They were ready. The servant pushed the doors open ahead of them, and her stomach clenched. This was it. The moment she’d been dreaming of for years.
“His grace, Lord Malden, the Duke of Lianl, and his daughter, the Lady Jaida,” the herald announced. His rich voice rolled around the cavernous ballroom, a ringing voice that drew the attention of the crowds gathered below.
Would he be here?Jaida’s heart clambered into her throat, trying to escape the manic butterflies racing around her stomach. Shivers chased each other over her skin as Jaida and her father neared the top of the formal staircase. Wide and sweeping, it made a grand entrance into the palace ballroom, and as tradition dictated, every debutante walked down those steps to take her place in society.
Jaida’s heart stuttered to a stop, no longer beating wildly against the formal silk of her gown as everyone in the ballroom below turned to look up at them. Her knees trembled, knocking together so loudly she was surprised the people below couldn’t hear them.
Unable to help herself, Jaida lifted her eyes and looked out over the ballroom below. The floor was a kaleidoscope of color. The bright silks and satins of the women’s formal gowns contrasted sharply with the somber grays and greens of the men.
Her gaze swept over the hall. Had all these people really turned out just to see her presented to the court? Her eyes searched the crowds, looking for one figure in particular. He had to be here. A tall, broad shouldered figure dressed in black and wearing the sash of royal blood. Her breath caught in her throat as her gaze collided with piercing silver.
He was here.
His highness, Prince Sethan Kai Renza. Not just a royal prince, but an imperial prince, and the most eligible bachelor in the Combined Systems of the Fifth Princedom. The only man she was interested in seeing.
Everything faded into the background as he moved toward her, the crowd parting like water before him.
Her hand tightened on her father’s arm as they drew to a stop at the head of the stairs. They would remain there until she was formally invited to the court, then she would walk down alone. It was a journey that signified her transition from childhood to womanhood and marked her as eligible for marriage.
“Breathe, sweetheart,” her father said softly, obviously misconstruing her tension to be nerves. “Imagine them in their underwear if that helps.”
“Especially young Kai-Renza. I remember him as a snot-nosed brat in diapers.” Duke Lianl carried on, ignoring the fact that Jaida was trying to contain her mirth and failing badly. Luckily, being at the top of the expansive staircase, only her father could hear the delicate little snorts of laughter she couldn’t keep in.
“You can’t say things like that! It’s…I don’t know, treason maybe?”
The Duke shrugged, but the amusement drained from his face. Below them, the Prince stepped forward.
“What the hell…” Her father’s voice echoed shock as Sethan strode to the bottom of the staircase in a total breach of protocol.
What was he doing? The tension in her father’s body was catching, flowing through to Jaida.
“Duke Lianl, it’s a pleasure to see you at court again.” Sethan inclined his head in deference to her father’s status as a royal duke. Then he turned his attention to Jaida, and heat flared in his quicksilver eyes. She shivered. It felt like her soul had been branded. Then Seth did something no one expected.
He bent into a deep bow before straightening and extending his hand to her. “My lady, would you do me the honor?”
“Move that fucking piece of shit… Yeah, I’m talking to you buddy. Sheesh, some people really need to learn to drive.”
Jaida slumped back into the harness of her power loader and concentrated on transferring the load she was carrying from the open cargo hold in front of her to the anti-grav pallets beside it. She grumbled under her breath as she worked. Today was not a good day. The idiot-factor was so high she was virtually swimming in them.
She shook her head, her dark hair dancing about her shoulders, and issued another curse directed at idiots who wanted to load high and drive fast. Yeah, she was just as interested in her weekly bonus as anyone else, but there was no way she was risking a safety fine. Especially not when her rent was due.
She moved smoothly, arms and legs activating the sensor plates in the bi-pedal loader as she transferred her load container by container. A tired sigh escaped her lips as the last one slid into place with a heavy clunk-click. The red light on the side of the full pallet flicked to green and it moved away on automatic, a fresh one sliding into place in front of her.
“Hey chica, almost quittin’ time… You working overtime?”
Jaida turned at the voice, the feet of the loader clunking against the deck plating until she could see the voice’s owner. Felis, the only other woman on the team, smiled back at her through her front screen.
Jaida rolled her shoulders to ease the ache creeping across them. “Yeah, I am. Could do with the extra cash, and you know what’ll happen if the Galess shipment doesn’t get offloaded in good time. Hicks’ll pitch a hissy fit, and tomorrow will be down the shitter before we start.”
She smothered a sigh at her language, automatically coarse to match her cover identity. She’d been everything from a high-speed courier on Arcalis Prime to a waitress in the cloud cafés on Selenis. Different careers, different names, different identities. When a cover got this complete and easy, so easy she started to believe in it herself, she knew she’d been in the same place too long.
It was time to move on, before she got comfortable and started to make mistakes. Mistakes would allow Seth to find her, and then people would die. They always did. Trouble was she liked Felis and the guys. For the first time in years she felt at home. If a wanted woman could relax enough to feel at home anywhere.
“Jai! Boss wants to see you in the office.”
Another voice interrupted their conversation. Both loaders turned at the heavy clump-whirr-clump of an approaching crane-lifter. Jaida hid her shudder as the driver leered at them. All the women on the docks knew about Hanrahan—they’d all been subjected to his sexist and suggestive comments.
“Hey Jai, you want a hand getting out of that tin can? Perhaps a little bit of a rubdown?”
“No thanks Han, I might catch something.” She turned away in a whir of mechanics, rolling her eyes as she passed Felis. “Best see what the boss man wants. Catch you tomorrow if I’m not out before you leave.”
“Okay, good luck sweets. Mood he’s been in, you may need it.”
* * *
“Jai’s one of our best loaders…precise and fast. Keeps to herself. Never had a bit of trouble with her. Polite and easy to get along with, the others all like her…” The docking bay manager’s voice trailed off as the man at the window turned and fixed him with an iron gaze.
“She’s a criminal, Mr. Gregaris, not at all the sort of person you want in your employment.” Seth’s voice was quiet, but inside he was seething. He turned back to the window as the loader rounded the last corner and started down the straight walkway toward the offices. He watched it approach, his face an impassive mask. He’d learned early in life never to show weakness or reveal the chinks in his armor. As chinks went, they didn’t get much bigger than Lady Jaida Lianl.
Why? he mused to himself, his temper simmering just under boiling point. I would have given you the universe, anything you ever wanted. Why run?
The loader clumped to a stop below him and a force field snapped into place around the bay. The blue-turquoise haze was unmistakable, shimmering as oxygen was pumped into the enclosed area. The air vents on the hatch popped, releasing the pressure in twin geysers as the canopy lifted. A small, slender figure emerged and climbed down the front of the large machine with an ease that spoke of long practice.
Seth’s anger started to mount again. She would rather do manual labor than be with him? If it was work she wanted, then he’d be sure to give it to her…on her back in his bed.
“She’s a criminal?” The dock manager sounded confused. “Begging your pardon, Your Highness, but are you sure you have the right woman? Jai…no, I can’t believe she’d even think about breaking the law. She’s a stickler for them.”
Below Seth, the woman walked toward the door, pausing for a moment to look up as though she sensed the sword of Damocles hovering over her.
“Perfectly sure, Mr. Gregaris.” Seth bit back the surge of triumph. There could be no mistake. It was her. He resisted the urge to step back. She couldn’t see him up here, and even if she could, there was no way out. His men had the bay surrounded and his second in command was in place at the single room apartment she rented. There was no escape. Not for Jaida.
Not from him. Not now.
* * *
Something was wrong. Jaida reached the main doors and paused for a moment as a tendril of dread wound its way up her spine. Narrowing her eyes she tried to get a look into the lobby ahead as she passed through the first set of sliding doors. She couldn’t linger here. The bay was on a time sequence. In five minutes the force field would snap off, and she’d be left trying to breathe hard vacuum. Something she didn’t particularly fancy doing.
Rock and a hard place. She stepped forward. The doors slid shut behind her with a solid clunk. The sound rolled through her like a death knell. Her instincts screamed at her to run, not step into the reception lobby.
“Crap, crap, crap. This is such a bad idea.”
She moved forward to the doors and tried to peer through them as the airlock went through its cycle. She’d always thought it was overkill, what with the bay outside, but now she was glad of the delay. Trying for nonchalance, she scanned the lobby. Already her agile mind was working out all the routes out of the building.
Miriam, the receptionist, sat behind the large flexi-glass-and-steel desk, headset on and hands moving swiftly over the holo-console in front of her. Her fingers twisted and pinched as she worked, plucking at images Jaida couldn’t see from this side of the desk.
She scanned around, her vision panning from one side of the room to the other. Opposite the reception desk, a small group of couches sat in front of full-length windows overlooking the loading docks. Having worked on them for months, she’d have picked a different view. Even a blank wall would have been preferable.
Nothing was out of place, not even a leaf on the expensive Terranian palms in the corner.
“Okay, jumping at shadows. Get a grip, Jai,” she told herself as the doors in front of her slid open and she stepped through.
“Morning Miriam, boss called me. Shall I wait?”
Jaida headed toward the chairs discreetly hidden behind the palms. Unlike the plush couches for the visitors, these were hard, wipe-clean plastic. For the workers, people like her. The dregs of society. A long time ago she’d have sat on the couches and not thought a thing about it.
Those days were long gone. She went to sit on the chair nearest to the lift door.
“No. Go on up, go right in.” Miriam said.
One eyebrow winging up in surprise, Jaida stood and headed that way. It wasn’t until the door slid shut behind her and the lift started up that she processed what Miriam had said.
Go right in.
No one went right into Gregaris’ office. He was an approachable guy, if a bit blunt, but even so, no one went right into his office. The sense something was wrong hit her in the gut again, stealing her breath. The lift was too small. She couldn’t escape. For five years she’d made sure she always had an escape route, always had a way out. Panic clawed at her gut and her heart climbed into her throat.
Something was wrong. She dragged deep breaths into her lungs and forced her heart rate back down to something approaching normal. It worked, but only just. Her heart pounded and slammed against her ribcage. The sides of her neck hurt with all the tension as she battled her fight-or-flight instincts.
Gradually she got them under control, biting her lower lip as she watched the numbers above the door count up. Sweat slid between her shoulder blades and down the valley between her breasts. Nothing was wrong; there was no way Seth could have found her here, not with all the hoops she’d jumped through to set up this identity. A lot of money had changed hands for her to get the ID and med numbers of a kid who’d died at seven but whose parents had never registered the death. Med numbers were worth their weight in gold.
The door pinged. She gulped a lungful of air as they slid open to reveal the corridor beyond. It was empty.
Shaking her head Jaida stepped out the lift and walked toward Gregaris’ office. Plush carpeting under her feet ate the sound of her steps as she approached the door. Her hand reached out, was almost at the handle, when she paused. A frown creased her brow.
Something was wrong. The instincts that had been clamoring since the lobby ganged up on her and became tribal screaming. This time, she listened.
She snatched her hand back from the handle and turned on her heel. The space between her shoulders itched as she headed back the way she’d come. She could feel the crosshairs painted on her back, a little red mark dancing across her skin like a butterfly.
Walking past the lift door, she headed for the emergency stairs at the end of the corridor. She’d barely covered half the distance when it began to open. Her heart stilled, fluttering deep inside her chest as she started to backpedal. She knew what she’d see before the heavily armed trooper stepped through the open door.
Time slowed to a crawl as the muzzle of the trooper’s rifle swung toward her. The red dot of the laser sight raced across the pale walls, then across her field of vision, blinding her for a second. She turned and raced for the lift, yelling and slamming her hands against the flat metal of the closed doors.
“No. Oh please, Lady, no…”
They’d called it back down. She jabbed at the buttons frantically as more troopers piled into the hallway. There was no way out, just the lift and the stairs currently filled by imperial guards. Or…the office at the end of the corridor, the door looming in her peripheral vision like some harbinger of doom.
She abandoned the lift and raced up the corridor, grabbing at each handle as she passed, hoping beyond hope one would give. If she could just get into one of them she could find a ventilation shaft or something. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d escaped him that way.
“Lady Jaida Lianl, by order of his Imperial Majesty, you are under arrest—”
“Screw his Imperial Majesty!”
Her hand closed around the last door handle, and wonder of wonders, it opened. She stumbled through and slammed hard into a solid chest. Strong arms closed around her, and with a gasp she looked up into familiar silver eyes.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“No…” Her gasp of denial was automatic as she fought against his hold, vicious as a wildcat, bucking and heaving in his embrace.
“Yes.” He quelled her struggles by yanking her up hard against him.
Panic and awareness flared through her at the familiar feel of his body against hers. His Imperial Highness, Prince Sethan Kai Renza. Seth. The man she’d once loved with all her heart and soul.
Defeat wrapped around her heart in a crushing embrace as she looked up. He had the face of a dark angel, all hard, masculine lines. His eyes were mercurial silver, their cast almost feline, surrounded by thick, dark lashes. A straight nose sat above sinfully full lips reputed to make even a priestess think wanton thoughts. He was as handsome as she remembered, but where once his expression had been charming, it was now hard and triumphant.
“Let me go!” She shoved at the brick wall of his chest, but it was a futile gesture. Seth was solidly built with a warrior’s physique. Once it had thrilled her, but right now she’d give everything she owned to be on the other side of the galaxy.
“Anyone would think you’re not pleased to see me.” His drawl was rich and mellow, just a hint of his court accent tainting the galaxy-standard he spoke.
Jaida’s lip curled into a sneer. “You don’t think? Goddess, you musta been at the back of the queue when she was handing out the brains.”
He winced at her words. She knew he would. The rough dock dialect would grate on his nerves just as much as the insult.
“Don’t talk like that.” His hand slid into the hair at her nape, and his thumb stroked along the sensitive skin at the side of her neck. Refusing to be cowed, either by his touch or his larger, more powerful body, she pulled against his hold.
“Or you’ll what? Declare me an outlaw, exile me from my family, and denounce me as a criminal? Oh…wait. You already did that.”
Anger flared in his silver eyes. He leaned in until his lips brushed against her ear and whispered. “You’re mine, you always were.”
She snorted, an inelegant sound of amusement and contempt. “I’ll never be yours, Seth. Never. Why do you think I left? You’re not man enough for me.”
It was a foolhardy thing to say to an Imperial prince, especially Seth, but she wasn’t thinking. She wanted to hurt him. Deal a blow to his masculine pride. Her heart ached at the lie, but now that he’d caught her, it was the only weapon she had. Her heart had been shattered beyond repair anyway, so what was one more hurt?
All that mattered now was hiding the effect that seeing him again was having on her. She kept her expression cold and furious, but deep inside a flutter had started in the empty and bruised space in her soul. Blood surged faster through her veins at his touch, and the solid strength of his body against hers started a fire low down in her belly that burned brighter every second.
“Not man enough?” His eyebrow winged up, a raven arch against his pale skin. Court pale. None of the nobility would be uncouth enough to allow their skin to tan. Well, unless they’d been on the run for five years like she had, taking any job they could just to eat and provide a roof over their head. The first thing she’d done to fit in was get a suntan.
As soon as the word was out of her mouth, she knew she’d pushed too far. Fury blazed in his eyes, scorching her to her soul. His fingers tightened in her hair. She tried to turn her face away, but he hooked a finger under her chin and tugged. Not gentle, not rough, just unstoppable.
Held fast, she watched as Seth’s lips descended. A whimper escaped as he pried her lips apart and thrust his tongue past them to claim the sweetness within. The touch of his lips shattered her defenses. Disbelief and need surged through her in equal amounts. She’d promised herself that, should the worst happen and he captured her again, she would be as cold as the grave. Wouldn’t respond to him at all. To her, Sethan Kai Renza had ceased to exist as a man.
His kiss was designed to punish and humiliate, but as soon as he touched her, her body responded. The blood in her veins heated, and her breasts tightened as he held her. Her heart rate skittered and went through the roof as she developed trouble taking her next breath. Worst of all was the heat spreading out from her core. Shame burned bright banners across her cheeks.
She moaned against his lips as his tongue thrust again, sliding along hers and demanding her response. A response she gave, tentatively at first but then with unwilling passion. Her tongue tangled with his in an erotic dance, but her heart ached. After all he’d done, how could she crave his touch?
He lifted his head. Heat and smug satisfaction colored his eyes. “Not man enough, was it?” he taunted as he stepped away.
She clamped down on the sense of loss. There was no way she wanted him touching her, not ever again.
“Take her to my room at the Babylon, and for heaven’s sake, scrub the stink of the dock off her.”
Mina was born and raised in the East Farthing of Middle Earth (otherwise known as the Midlands, England) and spend her childhood learning all the sorts of things generally required of a professional adventurer. Able to ride, box, shoot, make and read maps, make chainmail and use a broadsword (with varying degrees of efficiency) she was disgusted to find that adventuring is not considered a suitable occupation these days.
So, instead of slaying dragons and hunting vampires and the like, Mina spends her days writing about hot shifters, government conspiracies and vampire lords with more than their fair share of RAWR. Turns out wanna-be adventurers have quite the turn of imagination after all...
(But she keeps that sword sharp, just in case the writing career is just a dream and she really *is* an adventurer.)
The boring part: A full time author and cover artist, Mina can usually be found hunched over a keyboard or graphics tablet, frantically trying to get the images and words in her head out and onto the screen before they drive her mad. She's addicted to coffee and would like to be addicted to chocolate, but unfortunately chocolate dislikes her.