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An Excerpt From: JAKE’S PRISONER
Copyright © CAROLINE MCCALL, 2012
All Rights Reserved, Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.
Cyraelian Territories, 2525
The red terra-pod screeched to a halt, throwing up a cloud of dust on the desert road. Tanith Jasson opened the driver’s door, stumbling a few paces across the sands before collapsing onto her knees and vomiting. This was supposed to have been the best day of her life—the day that she would get her new ID and leave this backward rock of a planet for good. But everything that had been planned so carefully for months had gone horribly wrong in seconds.
Tanith rose unsteadily to her feet and wiped her sleeve across her mouth. She couldn’t get the image out of her mind. Her contact, as he hurried through the spaceport, oblivious to the Internal Security operatives tailing him. Their shouts, ordering him to stop before they opened fire, the screams in the crowded concourse. Everyone had dropped to the floor, watching with horror as the man allowed himself to be vaporized rather than surrender. She was sick with guilty relief that her new ID had been destroyed along with him and then she was just sick.
How could she have been so stupid to think that she could escape Cyraelia so easily? Tanith took a deep shaky breath and tried to calm down. If the security forces suspected that she was planning an unauthorized voyage, they would have taken her into custody and thrown her into a women’s colony. Her savings were gone, her contact was dead and now she was stuck here, with no hope of escape. Tanith bit her lip, willing herself not to cry. Climbing into her terra-pod, she drove back to the city.
Back in her residential unit, a light flashed on her personal com—a message from Raoul. She hadn’t seen him in three years. She didn’t even know what planet her brother was on. Maybe he was in another galaxy entirely. His message was curt—go to a party at the Ministry of Intergalactic Affairs one week from today and spy on some humans. Find out whatever she could about them. Tanith’s heart dropped like a stone. So far, it had been just talking, a little harmless flirting for information, but what if Raoul demanded something more? She didn’t want to think about that.
It would take her months to find someone else who could be persuaded to give her a new ID. There was no way out. Her residential unit was registered in Raoul’s name and it was only through his contacts that she had a job. What consortium would take on a female employee, knowing that she would resign when a marriage was arranged for her? She had no choice. She had to keep him sweet.
* * * * *
After a week, she was almost hopeful again. No one had come for her. The news coms had described her contact’s death as an “incident in sector nineteen”. She was safe, for now. Tanith rifled through her personal storage facility, looking for something to wear to the party. What on Cyraelia was a human anyway? Please don’t let it be one of those scaly creatures with a forked tongue, like the one she got stuck with the last time she attended one of those diplomatic dinners. If one of those creatures slimed on her again, she was going to kill Raoul.
Her hand touched the red dress. It had cost a small fortune in credits and she had never worn it. Well, if she had to go, she might as well look good. An hour later, her terra-Pod pulled up outside the glass dome of the Ministry of Intergalactic Affairs. She had no invitation but smiled prettily at the waiting attendant and he opened the doors for her. Thankfully, dinner was over. She wouldn’t have to watch a display of live-food eating by the Vashtar like the last time. Tanith glanced around the crowded reception hall. There was nothing too scaly or slimy. Perhaps the human creatures had left early.
Accepting a glass of kurprit from a passing attendant, she asked him to point out the humans. Tanith stood close to a marble pillar, trying to observe them. They were quite tall by Cyraelian standards. One was very fair with dark eyes. His face looked as if it had been carved from stone, except for the mouth, which had a hint of sensuality. The brown-haired one looked bored and uncomfortable and from the number of empty glasses in front of him, he was enjoying the hospitality a little too much.
The last one was tall and lean, with dark, wavy hair that curled about his face. His eyes were framed by thick, dark lashes and they appeared to be green. Tanith looked again. They must be implants, whoever heard of green eyes? The dark one glanced in her direction, forcing her to slide farther behind the pillar.
A fair-haired girl stood forlornly at the welcoming desk. Tanith recognized her as a niece of the ambassador and wandered over to join her. She handed Tanith a copy of the ambassador’s speech. “Can you believe it? Over one-third of the human crew is female and some of them are officers.”
The girl was buzzing with excitement. “The females were here earlier, dressed in uniforms just like the males. And do you know the best bit? They’ve gone to a bar and the males let them.”
With that last breathless piece of information, she turned to serve another customer. Tanith waited impatiently while she directed a middle-aged man to the cleansing facilities. “Is it an all-human ship or do they recruit other species?”
“I think this one is all-human, but Captain Hallstrom said that he looked forward to the day when he could serve alongside a Cyraelian.”
Tanith’s heart raced with excitement. The captain’s wish might come true sooner than he expected. Her contact might be gone, but this evening might not be such a loss after all.
* * * * *
“I need a drink,” Pete growled.
Jake eyed the empty glasses in front of him. “You’ve already had three.”
“Three tiny glasses of kurprit.” Pete snorted, staring at the granular residue in the bottom of his glass. The Cyraelian national beverage was sickly sweet, even for him. “Do you think they have beer here?”
Jake laughed. “Sorry, Pete, no beer. They have something like wine, it’s called venon. You can probably trade for some back at the spaceport.” Jake glanced across the table at the captain. Strom didn’t look as if he was in a hurry to go anywhere. All the junior officers had left when dinner was over, but he was still politely listening to Cyraelian diplomatic talk. They had done the respectful introductions, encouraged the trade inquiries and accepted as many invitations as they could reasonably get through over the next few weeks. As senior officers, they would have to wait until Strom was ready to bring the evening to a close.
A flash of scarlet caught his eye. The girl in the red dress was slender. Her sleek blue-black hair was elaborately arranged. Ivory skin contrasted with her dark slanted eyes, heavily made up with dark eyeliner to make them appear even more dramatic. Her lips were pure carmine. Jake whistled softly. “What’s the protocol on relations of the non-diplomatic kind?”
Strom flashed him a warning glance. “Don’t even think about it, Jake. Cyraelians are very protective of their women. Stay away from her.”
Jake watched as she crossed the room. She didn’t so much walk as glide and she was heading directly for their table. “That might prove difficult. She’s coming this way.”
“Who is she?” Strom murmured to the diplomat sitting beside him.
“Her name is Tanith Jasson.”
Jake’s ears pricked up when he heard her name. Raoul Jasson was a vicious terrorist, wanted on more than a dozen planets, and they had a very personal score to settle with him.
Strom maintained his usual impassive demeanor, but the hand that rested on the table curled into a fist. “Is she any relation of Raoul’s?”
“I’m afraid so,” the diplomat replied. “She is his sister.”
Jake, Strom commed silently, she’s Raoul’s sister. You have free rein.
Jake stood up and smoothed his uniform tunic. This was one mission that he would take great pleasure in. He winked at Pete. “See you later.”
* * * * *
“Ah, Ms. Jasson, how delightful to see you.”
Tanith cringed. That voice was the last one she wanted to hear tonight. She turned and nodded politely to Atam Sorza, hoping to extricate herself without any further contact, but the plump hand on her arm prevented her from leaving.
“Have you heard from Raoul lately?”
Tanith gave an elegant shrug. “You know brothers.”
“You would tell me if he was in contact, wouldn’t you, Tanith? Raoul has something that belongs to me and he’s been a little remiss in returning it.”
Tanith tried to sidestep past him. “I know nothing about your business with my brother. Excuse me, Atam.”
“Not so fast.” Atam’s fingers trailed slowly down her arm. She kept her expression blank, trying not to show her revulsion. “I’ve sent Raoul several inquiries regarding your bride price, but he hasn’t responded.”
If her brother thought for one minute that she would accept this one as a mate, she would kill him. The thought of belonging to someone like Atam made her skin crawl. “Not every female wishes to marry, Atam. Many females of my generation would prefer to lead independent lives.”
Atam’s small, thin mouth curled up in a sneer. “You should consider yourself fortunate to have any offers, Tanith. In fact, you should be a lot more grateful.”
His hand slid from her arm to her waist. This was going to get nasty. If she slapped him, she would have to leave and she hadn’t spoken to the humans yet. She glanced over at their table. Two of them were still sitting there, but the other one was heading her way. The dark-haired one raised an eyebrow when he saw Atam’s hand on her waist and his eyes flashed a questioning glance. Oh great, just what she needed, another male who wanted to rescue her.
“Lieutenant Jake Svenson, ma’am. I believe you promised me this dance?” His voice was deep, his accent unfamiliar and she found herself smiling at him.
“You’re new here, Lieutenant.” Atam’s gravelly voice was loaded with menace. “Don’t become involved in matters you don’t understand. Ms. Jasson will remain here with me.”
The human was taller than Atam and there was a challenging glint in his eye that was difficult to ignore. “I think that’s up to the lady to decide.”
Atam’s hand slid away and the human led her onto the dance floor.
Up close, Tanith could see that his eyes really were green. The same color as the wild felines who lived on the outskirts of the city. His dark good looks and seductive smile promised wicked things and it had been a while since anyone had dared to look at her like that. Her brother’s name was usually enough to dissuade most suitors.
“I didn’t need to be rescued,” she said as she stepped into his arms. “I could have taken care of him.”
His lips twitched as if he was trying not to laugh. Jake’s arms slipped around her waist and he pulled her close. “I’m not the rescuing kind. You just might be in more danger from me.”
* * * * *
Jake tried to hide his amusement as he watched the older Cyraelian pace around the edge of the dance floor. He had been staring at them for the last twenty minutes. Surely he didn’t think he had a chance with someone like her? “Old friend?” he asked.
“He wants to marry me,” she confessed, darting a vicious glance in Atam’s direction.
Jake took a step back. She had to be joking. “Please tell me you said no.”
Her eyes flared with anger. “I wish I could. Females have no choice here. Their senior male relatives select a mate for them. Welcome to Cyraelia, the largest women’s prison in the galaxy.”
He hadn’t expected to feel sympathy for her. She was the sister of a terrorist. Hell, she was probably a terrorist too. Keep your mind on the job, Svenson. This is strictly business. “And your male relatives?”
“Just one brother,” Tanith replied. “I haven’t seen him in almost three years, but he contacted me last week.”
Now this was getting interesting but he could hardly interrogate her on the dance floor. There was a terrace outside, but the older man was still hanging around. He would have to risk it. “Would you like to go someplace else?”
Tanith laughed. “You really are new here, Human. A hundred people are watching us and at least one of them will report back to my brother.”
“And do you always do what you’re told?”
She raised her chin at the hint of challenge in his voice. “No, but I have to be discreet.”
Jake lowered his head until their faces were almost touching. He inhaled, catching a hint of her perfume, heady and unfamiliar. She had a very sexy mouth. He wondered what the diplomatic protocol was on kissing an exotic stranger in the middle of a crowded dance floor. “So, be discreet,” he whispered.
Her eyes held his, dark with amusement and a hint of something else. “There’s a red Terra-pod parked outside. I’ll see you there in ten minutes.”
With that, she turned and walked away into the crowd.
Jake commed Pete silently, Don’t wait up.
Pete commed something unintelligible back to him, it sounded like bastard and Jake tried not to grin as he headed for the exit. This was going to be a piece of cake.
* * * * *
The low-slung red terra-pod was empty when he arrived in the parking lot. Too eager, you’ll have to watch that. It wasn’t locked and Jake opened the door and slid into the passenger seat. Tidy, he noted, apart from a pair of high-heeled shoes on the floor. The mirror was angled downward as if she’d been checking her reflection and there was a faint hint of her perfume. He heard the click of heels on the pavement outside and the door opened. Tanith tugged off her shoes and tossed them to him. “Sorry, Human. I wasn’t as discreet as I thought.”
With that, she pulled up one side of her dress and unclipped something from her thigh. There was a brief flash of laser-light under the dash. “Terra-pod, implement manual override and disengage speed safety protocols.”
Jake was conscious of several men running toward the vehicle. “Tanith, did you just bypass the ignition interlock of your own terra-pod?”
Tanith released the brake and reversed at speed into the middle of the driveway, narrowly missing one of the men. “Of course not,” she said, never taking her eyes from the mirror. “This one isn’t mine.”
The Terra-pod spun in a wide arc, scattering a thick cloud of dust before speeding through the open gates. Jake’s fingers gripped the edge of his seat. Damn it, he had just organized a date with a crazy woman.
Tanith adjusted the mirror and muttered an expletive under her breath when two vehicles exited the gates in pursuit. “Terra-pod, display map. Grid area 12E.”
The map flashed on the dashboard screen and Tanith braked suddenly before reversing down a narrow side street. She dimmed the lights and watched as one of the pursuit vehicles sped by. They weren’t so lucky with the second one. The large, slate-gray terra-pod stopped at the entrance to the laneway and a man stepped onto the pavement. Jake recognized the older Cyraelian from earlier. He wasn’t giving up easily.
Tanith gave him a speculative look. “Have you ever played Tor-bird, Human?”
Jake could feel a trickle of sweat running down between his shoulder blades. This wasn’t the easy seduction he had planned. He was liable to get killed before he got any information from her. “I can’t say that I have.”
Tanith revved the engine. “Terra-pod, engage passenger safety restraints.”
A lightweight harness enveloped him and the terra-pod shot forward, throwing Jake hard against his seat. Their speed increased as they approached the other vehicle and only at the last second did it reverse onto the main street. When they missed the vehicle by inches, Jake let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
Tanith drove with the same nonchalant skill he’d observed in seasoned pilots. They raced through the streets, staying barely within the speed limits. A short while later, they reached the outskirts of the city, passing a field of wind turbines before turning off the highway and heading into the desert. Only then did she reduce speed.
The desert was still and beautiful at night. He liked it that she didn’t feel the need to fill the silence with small talk. Through the open windows of the Terra-pod, he could taste the desert air, sweet, dusty and earthy. In a strange way it reminded him of home. They turned off the main road, moving along a twisting incline until they reached the top of the hill. When Tanith adjusted the controls, the roof of the Terra-pod opened. Jake stared at the view in front of them. A million stars hung in a dark-blue velvet sky. They looked so near that you could almost touch them.
Tanith gazed at the sky and sighed. “This is one of my favorite places. I envy you, Human. You’ve been there, up among the stars. What is it like?”
He was supposed to be seducing her, finding out everything he could about Raoul. Instead, they sat side by side, counting shooting stars, and she listened to him talk about what it was like to travel across the galaxies. He couldn’t remember when he’d had such a good time. It was kind of like a date and he was enjoying himself far too much with someone who was supposed to be his enemy. Jake reached down and took her hand in his. “I don’t suppose you want to talk about what happened earlier?”
He was only half hopeful that she would tell him. Tanith struck him as someone who was adept at getting into and out of trouble.
She didn’t try to draw her hand away but her face betrayed a fleeting expression of sadness. “Human, I don’t think you would believe me.”
When Jake raised her hand to his lips and kissed the inside of her wrist, he was rewarded with a smile. “You could try me.”