Take Me

The Rosabelles, Book 1

Shelli Stevens

Chapter 1

By the gods, she was late. Talia stepped off the walkatron, ignoring the electronic voice that blared a reminder that she was tardy for her next scheduled meeting with the Council. Dragging a towel across her forehead, she headed toward the bathing room.

The physical wellness hour was the one time during her day that she absolutely savored, that she considered her hour. Complete isolation and privacy, taking out her frustrations and wants in the only way she was allowed. Forty-five minutes of running on the walkatron, until her legs were sore and her mind rid of all the dreams that could never be.

She could simply be Talia, a twenty-two-year-old woman blessed—or cursed—to be one of the few dozen women alive and well living on the planet. She was no longer Natalia, the well-pampered and well-used commodity of the Council. A highly educated, groomed plaything for the most powerful men on the planet. In here she could escape the reality of her life as a Rosabelle.

Her mouth tightened and she shook her head.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Every woman blessed to be alive on this planet bears the same reality as you. Only most do not have your luxuries.

She was envied by the other Rosabelles, as well she should be. Though every woman alive was groomed and sold to the highest bidder, she was the only woman who now kneeled at the feet of the Governing Council.

Pausing to look in the mirror, she toyed with a strand of red hair that had escaped the severe knot on top of her head. Her lips twisted downward. Such freedom that strand of hair had. A freedom that was never to be. She pulled the hair taut and tucked it back into the expected knot on her head.

“Mistress Natalia, you must begin your bathing ritual.” The male voice rang out through the bathroom.

Her stomach dropped as she met the bored obsidian gaze of her male servant who waited in the corner. And now the return to reality. She turned around and approached the large basin, already filled with near-scalding water.

“Did you enjoy your run?” Dane asked, taking her arms and urging them above her head.

“It was quite lovely as always, thank you.” She waited as he unfastened, then unwound the strip of fabric that bound her breasts.

“You always seem to look forward to that hour.” He grimaced. “I don’t tolerate exercise, or sweating. The physical wellness hour would be my least favorite time of the day.” He dropped to his knees in front of her and untied the fastenings at each side of her hip, plucking the fabric away and leaving her completely naked. “Then again, I see nothing wrong with being surrounded by the most powerful men on the planet who want only for me to please them.”

“Yes, now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Talia rolled her eyes as he cupped the mound of her sex and ran a thumb down her slit.

He nodded in approval. “Still smooth. The treatments last summer appear to have killed the hair follicles in this region.” Standing again he gestured toward the bath. “Let us begin.”

Talia climbed into the basin, wincing as the water stung her legs. Protesting the temperature would only gain her disapproval from her owners. As with every Rosabelle, she was to be cleansed with the hottest of water that would not damage her skin, but would leave it pink and clean.

She sank all the way under, rinsing all the sweat off her body and wetting every square inch of flesh. When she sat back up, Dane held a sponge drizzled with honey and a creamy, moisturizing soap.

“Hands in the air, please,” he ordered.

Raising her hands above her head, she laced her fingers and closed her eyes. The first stroke of the sponge moved over her breasts and her nipples tightened. She went through the bathing ritual daily, with a man who would never be aroused by her, yet her body continued to respond to the silky touch of the sponge on her flesh.

“Jeez, Talia, you’re so damn responsive. The Council members must love you.”

She bit back a sigh. Yes. The Council members did indeed love her. Although, love was probably a poor choice of words. They loved her body and her skills as a Rosabelle. Never had she, nor would she likely, feel the warmth of another’s love.

Her gut clenched and the familiar sense of despair and feeling trapped washed over her. The recurring this can’t be my life moment that threatened to rip apart her soul.

Dane moved the sponge between her legs and heat speared through her body.

“No, love, don’t get yourself aroused. That’s the Councils job. It will only anger them if you arrive already prepared.”

A spark of irritation ran through her. Of course it would. Gods help her if she were to be aroused when she wasn’t in the Council’s presence.

Every moment of her life revolved around pleasing men—but only the select three men who owned her. Anyone outside the Council and Dane was forbidden from ever touching or even gazing upon her naked flesh.

And never was she allowed to touch herself. A Rosabelle caught touching herself was to be punished in the most severe manner, where she would only begin to wish for death. Though never would she actually be killed, for to do so would mean one less woman on a planet where there were already so few.

Her expression turned bitter. Life on the endangered species list could be a real pain in the ass.

“Close your eyes while I wash your hair.”

She obediently closed her eyes and enjoyed the moment where her hair was let free down her back. So rarely was that allowed; only if one of the Council members requested it so. Otherwise, she was to wear it in a knot atop her head.

Dane massaged her scalp and worked the cleanser in her hair into a lather.

“Rinsing now. Keep the eyes closed.”

Warm water sluiced over her head, down her face, and over her breasts.

“Very nice, love. All done. You can get out now.”

Talia stepped out of the tub and into the fluffy soft towel that Dane held. He wrapped it around her, patting her down. Once she was dry he pulled her hair again into the severe knot atop her head, and then began oiling and lotioning her body.

A half hour later her body was dewy and perfumed. Her lips were topped with shiny pink gloss and her lashes curled and inked. She donned a pale blue silk dress with sleeves to the wrists, an empire waist, and a low bodice.

Dane gave her an appreciative glance. “Look at how nicely you’ve cleaned up.”

“Only with your help, as always.” She gave a slight smile; the movement felt awkward as the muscles around her mouth stretched. When was the last time she’d smiled?

“Well, I do try. Now, we should go, because I have a lunch date with a certain warrior in training.”

They left the bathing chambers and she cast him a sideways glance. “I take it things are well between you and Thomas?”

“Quite well.” The slight flush in his cheeks and brightening of his eyes surprised her. Perhaps Dane was developing an attachment to the younger man?

On a planet with so few women, it was not uncommon for men to take other men as lovers.

They moved into a busy corridor, passing a general.

“Good day, mistress.” He bowed slightly, his hungry gaze moving over her.

Talia curtsied and lowered her eyes demurely. The general was just one of the many men who would never be allowed to touch her.

“The Council has already begun meeting for the day.” Dane cast a nervous glance her way. “They will not be pleased to find you late.”

“I’m sure they will not,” she agreed mildly and glanced through the window in the corridor down to the city below. Men roamed the streets, their clothes tattered as they begged for handouts. They would not be outside for long, though; the air outside was not safe to breathe for long periods of time.

She bit back a sigh. Even with the dangerous environment, she wished just once to be able to experience life outside the Council’s headquarters. Once as a child, she’d been taken outside, but the memory was so vague she couldn’t tell what was real and what was simply made up in her head from watching the teletron.

But that is not your life, it never will be. She lifted her chin, squelching back the bite of loneliness. Turning her gaze back to the corridor, it locked on a pair of dark brown eyes.

She had no idea who he was, yet he watched her rather intimately. Irritation pricked her. The man leaned against the corridor a few feet ahead of them.

He was quite attractive. Tall, dark hair, broad shoulders, and a predatory stillness in him that sent a frisson of alarm through her. Alarm and…heat. She felt a warm flush steal into her cheeks. But why? She was no virgin unused to a man’s sexual interest.

Dane escorted her closer to him, and the breath in her throat seemed to lock. He did not bow, she realized in shock. With so few women in existence, all Rosabelles were held in the highest regard. It was required that every man bow in the presence of one. Instead his gaze moved over her slowly and thoroughly, to the point where she wondered if he might have the impossible ability to see beneath her dress.

Her pulse, which had already begun to race, throbbed for a different reason now. How dare the man? Had he no respect?

He straightened from the wall as she came abreast of him, but instead of bowing as she assumed he’d do, he gave her a mocking smile and lifted one eyebrow as if to challenge her. She jerked her gaze away from him, her heart thudding like mad.

How foolish he was to stare at her so—to not bow. If she were smart she’d report him. It was no less than he deserved.

Even after she’d passed by him, she could feel his gaze burning into her back. She was accustomed to being stared at, but never had it unsettled her so. Never had something as common as a man’s stare created heat that spiraled throughout her body and settled low in her belly.

Her nipples tightened and she groaned in dismay. This was not good. Her arousal was now blatantly apparent, and the Council would note as much the moment she entered the room.

“Come.” Dane punched in the code that opened the automatic doors, and they hissed open.

Talia took a deep breath, and unable, to resist, glanced back at the man. He continued to watch her, but his eyes were now narrowed and his mouth drawn tight.

He didn’t appear pleased with her being led into the Council’s chamber. The thought perked her spirits a bit and she raised a mocking eyebrow back at him, before turning to enter the chamber alone.

*

Ryder watched the doors to the Council’s chamber slide shut and clenched his fists. Fuck. She was the target Rosabelle? He shook his head and walked to the window that overlooked the city. Now this was just a complication that he didn’t need.

What should have been a simple plan had just become a helluva lot more complicated. The last thing he needed was his dick rock hard when he set the events in motion. As long as you think with the right head you’ll be fine.

And they would be blindsided if all went well. He rocked back on his heels and envisioned the Rosabelle who’d just passed by. Like all Rosabelles he’d encountered on this planet, she had been beautiful. With lush breasts, a small waist, and slender thighs that he already imagined spread wide for him. But there had been more about that woman. A fire he’d seen within those pale blue eyes, whereas in most Rosabelles he had encountered there was simply a flatness—a resignation to their lives.

The blood in his cock stirred and his breathing grew heavier. He would have her. Hot and willing when the time was right, but now…now he needed to stick to the plan.

*

Talia entered the Council’s chamber, pushing aside the familiar despondency and apprehension. She walked in with her head held high and her shoulders back, allowing her breasts to thrust against the fabric. Always present your body’s curves in the most provocative manner. She’d learned the manner of walking from the day she was first groomed to become a Rosabelle.

The room was cold with steel walls, circular in structure with each of the Council members’ desks spread throughout. In the middle of the room was the couch that could be altered into a bed—just looking at it brought a cold trickle of sweat down her spine.

“Natalia, my dear. You’re late, but have impeccable timing. We were about to begin our first break of the morning.” One of the Council members, Victor, rose from his desk and approached her. His gaze moved over her possessively. “You look absolutely stun—”

He broke off and the sudden silence in the air was wrought with tension. Oh gods. He’d sure noticed quickly enough. She’d hoped he’d not see it, be too preoccupied.

“Take notice, gentlemen,” he said and closed the distance between them. Reaching out he cupped her breast through the dress, capturing the tight nipple between his fingers. “It appears our Natalia has found something to be aroused by outside our chamber.”

“And I apologize, sirs,” she murmured uneasily and lowered her gaze. “It was simply the thought of you three that has put me in such a state.”

The lie was reasonable enough, but would they believe it?

“Really?” Victor’s tone indicated his doubt. “How aroused have you allowed yourself to become? Shall we check, my dear?”

She kept her gaze lowered and gave a submissive nod. Her pulse quickened with trepidation. She heard the scrape of the other chairs across the hardwood floor and knew that Ramirez and Franklin were approaching her.

The warm air tickled her ankles as one of the men lifted her dress. With her gaze still downcast, she recognized the age spots on the hand that held the fabric. It was Ramirez, the eldest of the men, who was somewhere in his mid-fifties.

The dress was raised past her knees, up her thighs, and then over her hips. Her naked pussy was revealed to the men in the room. Men who knew every inch of her body the way a painter knew every detail in his painting.

Ramirez’s fingers slipped between her legs and rubbed over the lips of her cunt. She closed her eyes, knowing her body would respond at this point. Heart and emotions out of the equation, her body knew pleasure.

“She is already wet.” His disappointment was evident.

And her body also knew pain. She knew what would come next. She bit her lip and a tremble shook her body.

“I see.” Victor sighed.

Her dress was once again lowered. She heard the rasp of a zipper and opened her eyes, lifting her gaze to the men. Franklin had his cock out, and was stroking the thick purple erection as he leered at her.

“Remove your dress, Natalia,” Victor commanded.

Without hesitation she undid the single button in the back and let the dress slide off her body and onto the floor.

“Now you will assume the position for punishment.” Victor glanced over at Ramirez. “You may participate if you wish.”

The older man nodded and went and sat upon his desk, hastily reaching for the fly of his pants.

Talia took a deep calming breath, walked to the desk, and leaned forward, thrusting her ass out toward Victor. She placed her palms on either side of Ramirez, watching as he freed his erection and lifted it eagerly toward her lips.

“Take him within your mouth,” Victor commanded. And then the first stinging slap of his hand rained down on her buttock.

She barely flinched and parted her lips, allowing Victor to press his erection into her mouth. The slaps continued, harder as she suckled upon Ramirez’s flesh. She went into her zone, the only way in which she got through these moments. Not thinking, only performing.

His fingers clenched in her hair, holding her mouth to his cock as she brought him to orgasm. He spilled his seed into her mouth and she swallowed automatically, trying not to focus on the hot burning of her buttocks.

Ramirez released her just as an arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her upright.

“You are forgiven, my dear.” Victor turned her around, his gaze full of lust.

Ramirez slipped off the desk, which allowed Victor to lay her down upon it. The wood was hard upon her spine, but she offered no protest as he stepped between her thighs.

He ran his hands over her body, squeezing her breasts and then moving down between her legs. He thrust two fingers inside her and wiggled them around.

“Wet indeed. A woman’s cunt is like the rarest fine wine. So few can afford it. We are entitled, we are blessed.” He fell to his knees and buried his face against her pussy.

His tongue moved over her, rough and eager. He found her clit and lapped at it—at her, devouring her like a man deprived.

The warm arousal she’d felt when she’d seen the man in the corridor returned. His image instantly embedded itself behind her closed lids, and suddenly it was not Victor pleasuring her, but him. The dark-eyed man in the hall, sucking and licking her flesh.

The pleasure spiraled until it seemed to spill over in waves. Her body trembled. She blinked. What had just happened?

Victor stood and ran his hands down her thighs. “How interesting. I do believe our Rosabelle just had a small orgasm.”

An orgasm? She had not thought it possible. Confusion swept over her. The pleasure had built while she had thought about that man in the hall.

“Do not get a swollen head over it. I am sure it was an accident,” Franklin grumbled. “I believe it was decided that I was to have her during the morning break?”

“Yes, that was what we agreed upon this morning.” Victor’s reply sounded reluctant.

She opened her eyes, watching Victor step away from her and Franklin move between her thighs. Since the day they’d purchased her when she’d turned eighteen, never would they take her one after another, always spreading out the actual act of sex throughout the day.

“Hello there, baby.” Franklin grinned, pinched her nipple to the point of pain, and thrust his erect cock hard inside her. “I’ve missed you.”

Victor climbed atop the desk and straddled her chest. He freed his own erection and rubbed it across her lips.

“If you don’t mind, my dear?”

She opened her mouth and took him inside. Why did he ask her when they both knew she had no choice? This was her life. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ramirez leaned over the desk and a moment later his fleshy lips closed over her nipple and he began to suckle.

What if there was some way to have more? If there was an out from her life as a Rosabelle. Don’t be a fool. You know it’s impossible. Yes. Completely impossible. She bit her lip, squelching back any hope, and went back into her zone.

Two hours later Talia was in what she liked to refer to as the midday lull. Where the three men had been pleasured, and her only duty was to sit with them while they discussed business. Or perhaps serve them food or beverage if they so desired.

“Ramirez, what is the course of action we have lined up against the planet of Belton?” Victor asked while she sat on his lap. The hand that rested around her waist slid upward to idly fondle her breast. “Are the troops prepared to be deployed?”

Talia lowered her gaze, all too familiar with this topic. The Council was organizing an unplanned assault on a nearby planet that they had a supposed alliance with. The reasoning behind their plan was to gain resources that were dwindling upon their own planet.

“Indeed they are. The preliminary attack is scheduled for the fifteenth of next month. By all accounts Belton’s government has no reason to suspect we have anything but good intentions.”

Their discussion might have unsettled her, yet she’d heard enough in previous talks to not be bothered. The planet Belton was nothing but a wasted planet run by violent barbarians. She sighed and pressed a hand to her head. How long until she could leave?

“My dear, are you well?” Victor turned his attention to her fully.

Talia saw her opportunity and jumped on it. The men would be in discussion for at least another hour.

“I fear I am on the verge of a headache.” She ran her tongue across her lips. “I would request a few minutes to return to my bedding unit and lie down?”

“Oh. Well, I suppose there’s no harm in it.” His tone was reluctant as was the arm that left her waist. “So long as you return by the two o’clock hour. And make sure you summon Dane to accompany you.”

“Of course.” She lowered her gaze and slipped off his lap, stepping into her dress again.

At the door she glanced back into the room and found Franklin’s gaze on her. She could sense the lust and cruelty radiating off him from across the room.

For the most part she was treated well and never harmed. Yet Franklin possessed a cruel side that he on occasion let loose on her when they were alone. Fortunately, they were rarely allowed in that situation.

Suppressing a shudder, she turned and exited through the door. She made her way to Dane’s chambers, reluctant to interrupt him during his time with Thomas, yet knew there was no choice. A Rosabelle was never allowed to be alone in her bedding unit.

She reached the corridor that led to his chamber; a glass window above looked down upon his room. Spotting Dane and Thomas in bed together, her heart sank. She sighed, hoping he’d forgive her.

Truly there was no privacy in this community. The entire building that housed the Council and its staff was made up of mostly windows.

Sex was nothing to be ashamed of within these walls, therefore was never hidden, with the one exception being with a Rosabelle. The Council’s chambers and bedding units were equipped with privacy shields that would slide down to cover the windows. No man, save the three Council members, was allowed to watch her in any sexual act.

She clasped her hands in front of her and glanced down again at Dane and Thomas. It was time—she could avoid the interruption no longer.

Talia stepped toward the stairs to his chamber, but hesitated as the men exchanged a long kiss. Rarely, if at all, had she ever seen two people so completely besotted by each other.

She watched as Dane urged Thomas onto his hands and knees. He kissed the younger man’s neck, wrapping his hand around Thomas’s cock. The trembling in the other man was visible even from where she stood.

You should not watch this. A hot flush made its way through her body. It was not the first time she had seen two men make love, but she had never seen her assistant. She would almost consider Dane a friend, and to watch this intimate moment felt awkward. But the obvious love they shared held her entranced.

Dane now stroked his fingers between the younger man’s buttocks. He picked up a small bottle that sat next to them on the bed and squirted lubricant over his fingers. Talia’s breath caught while she watched him press two fingers into Thomas’s asshole. He moved them in and out, while continuing to stroke the other man’s cock.

“Oh…” She bit her lip, cutting off her husky groan.

Dane removed his fingers and lined his cock up with the small hole, then pressed steadily inside the other man. His thrusting started slow and then grew faster, while still he continued to stroke Thomas’s cock.

Talia shifted her stance, trying to ease the pressure of the slick cream that gathered heavy in her cunt.

Minutes passed and she continued to watch them make love—transfixed by how both men’s passion seemed equal and was not feigned, forced, or even lukewarm, as was the life she was accustomed to.

Dane thrust deep and stayed within the other man. She could swear she heard them both cry out. Then he pulled out of the younger man and kissed his shoulder. Thomas rolled over onto his back, reaching his arms up and drawing Dane down for a deep kiss.

Talia closed her eyes. How was she supposed to walk back into the Council’s chambers in such a state of arousal? How would she explain it? They would never believe the same excuse twice in one day.

She stepped back, hitting something hard. Steel like arms slipped around her waist, wringing a gasp from her and holding her immobile.

“Release me.” She struggled, attempting to twist her head to see who held her.

“Interesting. A Rosabelle who not only likes to perform, but enjoys watching as well?”

Though she had never heard him speak and could not yet see him, she knew it was he. The man she’d seen in the corridor earlier. Blood raced through her veins and heat spread throughout her body.

“Do you have a death wish, sir?” She clenched her teeth and attempted to pry his fingers away from her waist. “No one outside the Council is allowed to touch me. To do so is grounds for immediate execution—”

He spun her around, his hands gripping just above her elbows. He backed her up against the wall in the empty corridor, his dark eyes boring into hers.

Her back slammed into the cold metal wall and her eyes widened when his head dipped just inches above hers.

“Well, if I’m going to die, princess, I think I should do so having gotten to know you a little better.”

His breath feathered over her cheek, sending shivers of awareness down her spine. So new was the sensation that all protests died on her lips. She met his gaze, her own eyes wide.

No man had touched her outside of the Governing Council. Now this man—a stranger with eyes that burned like the devil—touched her as if he had every right to.

“What is your name?” he asked, his lips nearly touching hers.

Her knees felt oddly weak and she gripped his solid forearms. “Talia.”

His mouth closed over hers, confident and demanding, sending shock waves of pleasure through her body. His tongue pressed past her lips and delved into her mouth, rubbing slowly against hers. The onslaught of sensation and emotion was confusing, yet pleasing.

The Council rarely kissed her and when they did the gesture was hurried and sloppy. It was nothing like what this man was doing to her. Even knowing that if discovered he could be put to death and she would be severely punished, having this one chance at an unusual type of freedom was suddenly worth the risk.

He pressed her harder against the wall, sliding his hand beneath her dress and up her leg. The pleasure of his rough hands upon her was so intense her body shook. He moved one finger between her thighs and honed in on her clitoris.

The first touch sent her onto her tiptoes, pleasure spearing every inch of her body.

He lifted his mouth from hers and whispered, “Do you like me rubbing your hot little clit, princess?”

Yes. Oh gods yes. She gripped his arms to keep her knees from giving out.

“All slick and swollen.” He dropped another hard kiss on her mouth, his finger rubbing harder against her clit. “Just waiting to be licked.”

She moaned, and his tongue stroked deep into her mouth, taking control of hers as the finger on her cunt worked her harder and faster. The pleasure built, spiraling up higher than ever before. Lights flashed in her head and she cried out sharply into his mouth. Her legs gave out, but his arm around her waist kept her from falling.

The explosion he’d given her was ten times more powerful than the orgasm she’d had earlier just imagining his touch.

“Talia…” He lifted his mouth from hers. “You are so sexy when you come.”

Chapter 2

When you come. Oh gods! What had she done? Had she completely lost all sense of reality? Her pulse jumped frantically.

“Is there a place we can be more private, princess?” He kissed her cheek.

She pushed his hand away and smoothed her dress back down. She had to stop this before it went further—it had already escalated to a deadly dangerous level.

“No. There is not. This will go no further, and let me advise you to forget that this ever happened.”

His smile was slow. “Forget? We both know that’s not likely, Talia.”

Why would he not back off? Did he not realize what was at stake? His life? The thought of him being killed sent a cold wash of fear through her. She had to dissuade him, remove any hope he had of her being with him.

“I don’t know who you are, but let me assure you that you will never touch me again,” she said stiffly. “I am no common Rosabelle that might be shared amongst friends. I am Rosabelle to the Governing Council. And you, sir, are a nobody.”

“Is that so, princess?” His grip on her arms tightened and she reluctantly turned her gaze back to him.

“Stop calling me a princess when we both know I am not one.”

“No.” His mouth grew tight. “You’re just a slave forced to act as a whore.”

Her face burned with anger and humiliation and she raised her hand to slap him. He caught her wrist mid swing, his grip tightening painfully around her smaller bones.

“Not your smartest move,” he warned and drew her toward him again.

A series of beeps signaled someone was punching in the code to enter the corridor.

“This shall be continued later.” He released her and strode down the hall in the opposite direction, just as someone else entered the corridor.

Later? Gods. The man was audacious. Talia leaned heavily against the wall, the breath leaving her body in one ragged sigh. What had she just done?

“Mistress Natalia? Do you fare well?”

She opened her eyes and smoothed her dress over her body, before acknowledging one of the guards that routinely patrolled the Council’s headquarters.

“I am well, thank you,” she lied. “Just a bit of a head cold.”

He nodded and then bowed. “I wish you well, mistress. Have a nice day.”

She curtsied and remained where she was until he’d passed. Her heart still raced from her encounter with that man, and her nipples stabbed against the silky fabric of her dress. She must not walk back into the Council’s chamber in this state—her bottom still smarted from the punishment she’d received earlier.

She walked to the window in the corridor to look down into Dane’s chambers. The couple was no longer inside. Her sigh of regret rang through the again empty corridor. There would be no brief nap today. She would simply run to the toilet chamber before heading back to be with Council. Hopefully that would be enough time for the physical effects of her encounter with the stranger to abate.

* * * *

Ryder strode through the corridors of the Councils’ headquarters, his blood pounding through his veins. Damn. He had not intended to touch her. Had known the minute he did so that all rational thought would be history.

Then he’d come across her, and she’d been watching the two men fucking below. Her lips parted in wonder, large breasts pressed up against the glass window as she strained to see the couple. His control had snapped, and he knew he wouldn’t leave that corridor without having tasted the sin behind her lips.

He shook his head, as if the harsh movement would rid her from his thoughts once and for all. The next hour would be the true test. Once he met with the Council and—if all went well—he had Talia alone, then he could begin retribution for her abrupt and callous dismissal of him. Then…she would realize he was anything but a nobody.

“You are an outsider. Please present your badge, sir.”

Ryder glanced up and met the empty gaze of one of the corridor droids. He pulled his visitor’s pass from the pocket in his suit and allowed the droid to scan it.

“Alan Worthington. Thank you. Enjoy your visit to the Governing headquarters.”

The droid’s buttons lit up as he floated past him and down the corridor.

Ryder slipped the pass with the fake identity back into his pocket. So far the initial phase of the plan had gone smoothly, but the real test was what he was about to do.

As he wandered the headquarters to pass the time before his appointment he felt no fear, only confidence and the knowledge that his planet’s survival rested on the success of this mission.

* * * *

Talia entered the Council’s chamber one hundred percent in control of her emotions again. Ramirez and Franklin sat on the couch with mugs of coffee in their hands, while Victor paced in front of the windows that looked out over the city park.

“The amount Mr. Worthington is willing to invest in the weapons program is astronomical,” Ramirez was saying. “I feel it is in our best interest to encourage him by any means necessary.”

Victor sighed and then nodded. “Yes, yes, I quite agree.”

“I don’t know.” Franklin stood, having caught sight of her, and crossed the room toward her. “I’m still not certain we can trust this man.”

Tension ran through her body as he suddenly jerked her hard against him. The breath caught in her throat as he grabbed the hem of her dress and jerked it above her hips. His fingers plunged between her legs.

A slow satisfied smile spread across his face. “You are dry.”

She swallowed hard, grateful that she’d taken a few moments to compose herself after the intimate moment with the strange man in the hall.

She lowered her gaze. “Of course. Did you think I would not be? I was away from you three.”

“Yes, you were.” Franklin’s tone indicated he didn’t trust her, and his fingers moved a bit more roughly inside her.

“Franklin,” Victor’s voice held a warning. “We agreed to keep things on a lighter note this afternoon with Natalia, due to our meeting.”

“Yes. So we did.” Franklin released her with narrowed eyes and her dress fell back to the floor.

She was unable to stop her shoulders from sagging with relief. His touch, even as he’d stroked her clitoris, had failed to bring forth any arousal.

Had he kept his fingers within her long enough to discover her lack of desire, there would have been anger and endless questioning.

Fortunately, “lighter note” meant keeping their attention above the waist. There would be no more little tests any time soon.

“How did Mr. Worthington come about his riches?” Franklin queried. “Surely he is not old money?”

Ramirez made a loud snort. “Old money? I think not.” He patted the couch and gestured for Talia to come sit beside him. “The man has made an obscene fortune as an oil tycoon on the planet Earth.”

Automatically she crossed the room and sat down on the white leather couch, curling her legs under her bottom.

“Earth,” Franklin grumbled. “That shithole? Now I really don’t trust him.”

“What’s not to trust?” Ramirez reached behind her and unbuttoned her dress, pulling the fabric down to bare her breasts. He caressed the right breast, toying with the nipple. “If the man is willing, then by gods we should do it.”

“It doesn’t seem odd to you?” Franklin demanded, but his glare was targeted on her.

Talia lowered her gaze. It was apparent he wasn’t pleased that he’d been forced to release her, yet Ramirez took the liberty to fondle her breasts.

Her stomach knotted and heaviness settled in her heart. How many more hours were in this day until once again the men had taken their pleasure with her and she was granted the freedom to sleep? To drift off into that alternate reality where she could be free for the six hours of sleep—monitored by Dane—that she was allotted.

“Look, gentlemen, the bottom line is Mr. Worthington is considering making an offer to back our expansion in our weapons and military.” Victor shook his head. “Without that backing, the planet’s deficit will quadruple by the time our attack on Belton is complete.”

“Yes, but what does Mr. Worthington gain by doing this for us? Surely he wants something in return.”

Victor was silent for a moment. “He would like to become the fourth member of the Governing Council.”

“Have you lost your fucking mind?” Franklin demanded. “No. Absolutely not. We make the attack with the resources that we have—”

“I agree with Victor,” Ramirez interrupted quietly. “We have little choice.”

The intercom buzzed, stopping any response Franklin may have had.

Victor walked around to his desk and pressed a button. “Yes?”

“Alan Worthington has arrived for your meeting,” a gruff voice announced.

“Give us two minutes and then send him in.”

Victor walked back to the center of the room and looked at the other two men.

“Are we agreed that we will do whatever it takes to gain Mr. Worthington’s backing?”

“Reluctantly,” Franklin muttered. “You know my thoughts.”

“I am in agreement.” Ramirez nodded and squeezed her nipple between his fingers one last time. “Cover yourself, Natalia.”

She nodded, closing her eyes against the threat of tears. Why was it so much harder today to bear the Council members’ touches? She slipped her arms back into the sleeves of the dress, and the door swished open as she reached behind her to button it.

“Welcome, Mr. Worthington,” Victor boomed in a bright voice. “Thank you for coming today.”

“No big deal, boys. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.”

Talia’s muscles tensed and the blood drained from her face. He was Alan Worthington? She lifted her gaze and saw it was indeed him—the man from the hallway. But his voice was different. He had an accent that she hadn’t noticed earlier. He still wore the suit, but now had some strange looking hat on his head. It looked familiar, like the same style she’d seen in old western movies.

He was watching her in such an intimate way that she was certain the Council would notice. Would he expose the two of them? Terror clawed at her throat and her nails dug into the arm of the couch.

“Well, aren’t you a pretty thing?” he drawled and winked at her.

She was as good as dead! It was a miracle she hadn’t fallen to the ground in a faint. Her pulse throbbed. She was sure the frantic beat of her heart could almost be seen through the silk of her dress.

“Yes, she is.” Victor’s voice held a bit of an edge, but then he smiled. “Natalia, please bring in more coffee for the Council and our guest.”

She gave a jerky nod and stood—her legs wobbly as she made her way out of the chamber. In her mind, she prepared for the severe punishment that doubtless would come.

*

Ryder watched her leave the room, her head held high and her ass swinging lusciously. His eyes narrowed when the doors swished shut behind her.

Talia. Or no, Natalia. It took everything in his power to not allow himself to get a mammoth-sized hard-on. He knew his interest in her was not discreet, but then that was not necessarily a bad thing. Though the sensual Rosabelle had no idea, she would be the key game piece in his plan.

“You seem quite interested in Natalia.”

Yes, I am. He turned to face the man who’d spoken. Victor Owens. One of the Council members and the man behind so much destruction and violence. It would be all too easy to simply kill the man now—all three of the men, actually.

He had officially infiltrated the highest-ranking form of government on this small planet—the opportunity was perfect. But it would also diminish his chances of leaving this building alive.

“She’s a hot filly,” Ryder replied with a broad grin.

“Hot filly?” The man on the couch—Franklin, he knew from the file they had on him—stood and approached him.

“Well, sure. Meaning she’s a beauty.” Ryder scratched the back of his neck. “We got the same problem back home that you folks got. The women all started dying off ‘bout a couple hundred years ago. Sure, we got a few. But I don’t think I’ve ever been with a woman who didn’t look like horse manure.”

Franklin’s mouth twisted with obvious disgust. Good. It meant they believed him to be what he portrayed: just a horny, dumb, oil tycoon.

“Why don’t we get down to business, gentleman?” Ramirez spoke from the couch. “Have you considered our offer, Mr. Worthington?”

“Yeah, I’ve been considering it.” He shook his head. “But I’ll be real honest with you boys. I’m not so certain that I won’t be getting the short end of the stick.”

“We have agreed to your terms. What more could you possibly want?”

Ryder’s lips curled into a smile and he glanced toward the door Talia had just exited. “Well, now that you’re asking…”

* * * *

Talia took a deep breath as she made her way back down the corridor. Her pulse still raced, her stomach felt all fluttery.

Would the man—Mr. Worthington—have told them what had happened between the two of them? Surely he wouldn’t be that stupid. She had warned him that his punishment could be death. And if they were to learn that their precious investor had forced a kiss on her…by gods it would not be pretty.

She balanced the four mugs on a tray with one hand and used the other to press the code to enter the Council’s chamber.

The doors slid open with a hiss and she stepped into the room. Immediately she noticed the change in dynamic. It was uncomfortably quiet, and all eyes focused on her as she made her way across the floor.

“Your coffee,” she murmured, lowering her gaze as she set the tray down on Victor’s desk. “Mr. Worthington, do you take cream and sugar?”

“Always with cream.”

She looked up. The way he’d said that made the word cream seemed dirty. His gaze bore into hers, and her hand that held the pot of coffee trembled.

“Do we have a deal, boys?” He spoke to the other men, but never took his eyes off her.

His question was met with a heavy silence. She paused in the midst of pouring the coffee and glanced over at the Council. Something was wrong. All three appeared reluctant to answer, but Franklin appeared absolutely livid as well.

Victor finally gave a terse nod. “Yes, Mr. Worthington. You have a deal.”

The words chilled her and a sense of foreboding took root.

“That’s right decent of you.” He grinned and then crossed the room toward her. “Oh, and I should warn you, I like things a bit rough.”

A strangled gasp escaped her throat as he reached out and cupped the back of her neck. Her gaze flew to the Council—sure they would be reaching for their weapons.

Ramirez nodded. “You may use her as you wish, but do not leave lasting marks.”

Use her as you wish. The words spun in her head. Use her as you wish.

“Victor?” Her voice cracked as she turned to the head Council member.

He ignored her, instead kept his focus on Alan Worthington. “The agreement is for two hours.”

“Sounds great, boys. And we can use her bedding unit?”

“Ramirez?” She tried to get the older man’s attention, but he lowered his gaze. “What is happening? Please, someone explain.”

“I’ll explain, princess.” Mr. Worthington touched her cheek, his face so close to hers she could see the mocking amusement in his eyes. “I get to do whatever the hell I want with you for the next two hours.”

The room spun and she was unable to breathe. No… He had permission to bed her? Heat spread through her body as she thought of that moment they’d shared in the hall. How firm and confident his mouth had been on hers, how knowing his fingers. How he’d coaxed a fire within her that she had never experienced.

That one encounter had lasted less than ten minutes, yet had subtly changed her ability to respond to the Council’s touches. Two hours with him would ruin her for good—which could only lead to the most hellish of punishments.

“No.” She shook her head and fled across the room, falling at Victor’s feet. “Please, no.”

“Stand up.” He jerked her to her feet, looking annoyed. “You’re disgracing yourself.”

“Please. You cannot mean to do this…” She was babbling, tears in her eyes now.

Never had they given her away for another man’s personal use. The thought of it sickened her—validated the term of whore Alan Worthington had called her earlier.

She shook her head. “I can’t do this. I won’t.”

A hand gripped her elbow, spinning her around. She noted Franklin’s furious glare before his palm slapped across her cheek. Her head snapped to the side, the sudden stinging pain shocking her into silence.

Her gaze connected with Alan’s and she didn’t miss the anger that flashed in his narrowed gaze or the tightness around his mouth.

“Franklin,” Victor protested.

“No, she must learn.” Franklin gripped her shoulders and glared down at her. “You have no freedom, my dear. You are our possession. And if we decide to lend you out for a business deal or even to the Council’s entire army, you will spread your legs without protest.”

Everything inside her went numb. Her emotions went strangely flat. She was a whore. She was. Stick the term Rosabelle on her all you want, she was a whore.

“I will take Natalia to her bedding unit now,” Alan said and crossed the room, sliding an arm around her waist.

She didn’t protest; was almost grateful for his strength that held her upright.

“Now?” Victor’s voice rose. “What guarantees do we have that you will not take use of Natalia and then go back on your word to back us?”

Almost to the door, he stopped them and turned around. “I have instructed my accountant to transfer five million tremas to your account in one hour as a gesture of goodwill.”

Victor gaped, practically salivating. “I see. Well—”

“If you haven’t got the money after one hour, then come get me.” His grip around her waist tightened. “But only if it hasn’t arrived. I plan to have the fuck of a lifetime with this little filly, boys.”

Little Filly? Some of the numbness dissipated and Talia blinked. Fuck of a lifetime? Anger filtered through her blood and she clenched her teeth. She would not make this easy for him. To hell with the punishment she’d receive later.

“So unless you boys have any more protests, I’m going to make use of my gift here.” Alan smacked her ass and then squeezed the flesh, his palm nearly covering an entire cheek.

Her blood burned hotter. What weapons were in her room? To be more exact, what would be best to gouge his eyes out?

“No, no more protests, Mr. Worthington.” Ramirez went back behind his desk and began toying with his computer. “Enjoy your time with Natalia. You’ll find her quite agreeable.”

“Thank you much, boys.” Alan tipped his hat and then led her out the doors into the corridor. He leaned down, his quiet voice tickling her ear. “I promise that he will pay for hitting you. Lead me to your room, princess.”

Why did he care if the Council hit her? “Do I have any choice?”

“No, Talia. You don’t.” All lightness in his tone vanished and it almost sounded as if his accent had disappeared for a moment.

But wait, that made no sense. Confusion warred with her frustration.

“Don’t call me Talia,” she muttered, attempting to pull away but his grip simply tightened.

“In the corridor you told me that was your name.”

Her laugh rose to semi hysterical. “In the corridor I was out of my mind.”

“Perhaps you were in the state of mind you have always deserved to be in.”

What did he mean? And yes. The accent was gone, and his words were more formal now than that bizarre slang he’d been speaking to the Council with.

They arrived outside her chamber and she turned to him, her brows drawn together in a frown. When she hesitated to open the door, he grabbed her hand and placed it on the palm recognition security box. A few men passed by them in the corridor casting curious glances their way.

The door slid open and he pushed her inside.

She stumbled to the middle of the chamber, swinging around to face him. Her breasts rose and fell beneath the fabric. “You need to explain.”

A predatory smile crossed his face and he reached for the tie around his neck. “I don’t need to explain anything, princess.”

His voice was cold, not even a trace of the accent. Who was he? A shiver ran down her spine and she took a few steps backwards.

He pulled off his suit jacket and dropped it to the floor. “Take off your dress.”

Her pulse slowed and then accelerated right back up into double time. The heat that spread throughout her brought a flush to her body.

She ran her tongue across her lips. “No. I will not.”

“Agreeable indeed.” He raised an eyebrow. “All right. If you will not remove it, then I will do so for you.”

He lunged and her scream reverberated through the chamber. Her dress ripped as he caught the hem and jerked.

“No!” She twisted away, causing the dress to split halfway up her hip.

He jerked hard on the fabric he held in his fist, catching her off balance and sending her sprawling to the floor.

“Barbarian!” she screamed trying to scurry away.

He fell to his knees and straddled her, grabbing her wrists in one hand and forcing them above her head. With his other hand free, he grabbed the bodice of her dress and ripped hard. Her breasts spilled free and she closed her eyes with a groan.

The room went quiet, with only the sounds of their ragged breathing to break the silence.

“By gods, Talia,” he rasped. “You’re more beautiful than I imagined.”

She shook her head and tugged at her wrists. She tried to hold onto the anger inside her, but there was a more dominant emotion fighting to take hold. Hot fire spread through her body, locking the breath in her throat and hardening her nipples.

“Oh gods. This makes no sense,” she confessed huskily. “I should not want this.”

His eyes darkened. “But you do.” The calloused pad of his thumb smoothed over one nipple and she gasped, heat moving between her legs. “You do, princess.”

He lowered his head and nuzzled her throat, kissed the pulse that beat there before sliding up toward her ear. His palm, wide and rough, cupped her breast. He caught her earlobe between his teeth and bit gently.

Talia’s hips arched off the floor, a guttural cry escaping past her lips. It was back, this strange heat and almost drunken state of arousal she got when he was near her.

He rolled her nipple between his finger and thumb. Another tremble rocked through her body and hot cream gathered in her pussy.

“I can smell your desire for me.” His fingers moved between her legs and rubbed lightly between the folds—the sensation so intense the muscles of her cunt clenched. “Unfortunately, fucking you will have to wait.”

“I…I don’t understand.” She squirmed, desperate with the need for him to press his fingers inside her. “Alan…please.”

His lips moved against her ear, his words just a whisper. “My name’s not Alan.”

The odd response brought her up from the thick depths of desire. “W-what?”

His hand moved away from her pussy and slid over to wrap around her right thigh. His expression turned somber, hard. “I’m sorry, princess.”

She saw the flash of the needle, just before it swung down and jabbed painfully into her thigh.

“No!” She struggled again, panic slicing through the fog of desire, but it was too late. Her flesh burned from whatever he was injecting into her.

Oh Gods! What had he just done? She struggled harder, managing to free one wrist because of the terror—induced adrenaline.

“Hold still.” He recaptured her wrist and held her down, kissing the tears that rolled down her cheek. “Just relax.”

She shook her head, but the movement made her dizzy. The lights above her head left tracers. Opening her mouth to speak, she found her tongue thick and the words stuck in her throat. Why? Why had he done it?

“That’s it, princess. Close your eyes,” he whispered and smoothed his thumb over her lips.

Her eyelids grew heavy, too heavy, and finally she closed them, almost certain she would never wake up.

Ryder waited until she was limp on the floor and then glanced around the room. He reassured himself there were no cameras, even if the room was almost certainly bugged for audio. It was the reason he’d told the Council he liked it rough, so her screams would be taken as a woman in pain. Not as a woman being abducted.

He hadn’t expected her to succumb to his touch so quickly—to be trapped under the web of arousal. He’d only spoken in whispers, so low the bug would not suspect anything more than whispers of passion. Her moans had been real, and thankfully aided him in his quest. Surely the Council would have no doubts that she’d been a willing lover enjoying a moment of passion with a stranger.

He’d wanted to give her the injection when her mind was clouded by passion, and it had worked. She had not even realized his intent until the needle had already pricked the skin of her creamy thigh.

Ryder turned his glance back down to her. She was lying on her back, with her knees bent to the side and her arms limp on the ground above her head. Her thigh bore the small red mark where he’d plunged the needle. He kissed two of his fingers and then pressed them against the inflamed flesh.

Now came the final part of the mission. He glanced at his watch to assure himself he was on schedule. He was, though just barely. He’d taken the seduction stage just a little further than intended. She goes to your head, be careful around her.

He stood and went into the bathroom, kneeling down near the east wall and prying open the grate over the heating vent. Inside was the bag he’d stored earlier. He picked it up and went back into her room.

She was still on the floor, out cold just as he’d left her. Unzipping the bag, he pulled out the small incision knife and another syringe already loaded with the numbing agent.

Only a few minutes had passed since she’d been injected, but too long a period of silence might raise the Council’s suspicions.

He cleared his throat, infusing a bit of huskiness into his voice. “That’s right, princess, use your mouth on me. Oh…yes…just like that.”

Gods, he sounded like an idiot.

Lifting her foot onto his lap, he traced the pad of his thumb over her heel. The skin was buttery soft, no calloused skin anywhere. His mouth drew tight. Obviously she was a pampered, kept woman. He kept searching until he felt it. The slight ridge under the skin.

He grabbed the syringe, inserted it into her heel, and pressed the plunger. She groaned loudly—fortunately it sounded a bit sexual. He glanced at her, making sure it had just been a reflex. Yes, she was still out cold.

He recapped the syringe and dropped it into the bag, then grabbed the small incision knife. He tapped the point of the knife lightly against her heel, watching her face to see if she’d react. Nothing. She was completely numb.

He pressed the knife into her heel, cutting a small square around the area of the ridge, wiping away the blood that appeared. Peeling back the skin, he found it. The tiny tracking device that was so carefully implanted.

Using the tip of the knife, he lifted the plastic device out of her foot and set it in the bag. He pulled a small bottle out and removed a capsule, breaking it over the wound, knowing the gel inside would stop the bleeding within minutes.

He quickly bandaged her heel and then grabbed a small cotton jumpsuit—common dress for a male on this planet—from his bag. He quickly dressed her in it and then glanced at his watch again. His pulse sped up. A half hour had passed since they’d entered the room. The clock was ticking.

Time to appease the Council again, play up the dumb cowboy image.

“All right, princess. We’ve still got plenty of time. Let’s have some good old-fashioned shower sex.” He whooped. “Cause, whooo eee, did we get sweaty.”

He slid his arms under her limp body and scooped her high against his chest. After walking them into the bathroom, he laid her on the carpeted floor and turned on the shower.

He took the tracking device and placed it on a high shelf in the shower where it wouldn’t get wet, but would give the illusion of Talia taking a shower with him. He stripped off the rest of his suit and changed into the lightweight clothes he’d packed.

Grabbing his transmitter mobile, he punched in the code to signal for the pickup. A few seconds later the confirmation signal came through.

A light sweat of sheen broke out on his forehead as he went to work removing a metal panel from the wall.

The governing Council on Zortou had let the planet enter a state of poverty and near decay. Bribing a guard to create an escape route from Talia’s chamber had been easy enough. The offer of money and asylum had been all the convincing he’d needed.

The metal finally fell away, leaving a short and narrow tunnel in the wall. Almost there.

Ryder walked back into the bedroom, checking to see if he’d left anything behind and then went back to the bathroom.

He picked up Talia and slung her over his shoulder, then hunched down and moved into the tunnel. He ran the few steps and kicked out the panel of metal on the other side. Blinding sunlight filled the tunnel and he blinked, searching for the escape pod.

Nothing. His blood pounded harder. Where the fuck was it?

He coughed, the air from the atmosphere already clotting in his lungs.

There was a whirl of noise and then the black, sphere like pod pulled up front. The door slid open and Dillon stood with his arms outstretched. Ryder handed Talia over, waited as Dillon settled her in, and then climbed in after them.

They’d done it. A small smile played around his mouth as the pod shot straight up and into the atmosphere of the planet. The skin on his body went taut at the speed they moved.

“Everything go well, my friend?” Dillon asked, casting him a sideways glance.

“Very well.”

“Did the Council suspect anything?”

Ryder’s mouth twisted. “No. They were too focused on the expansion of their money accounts. In about fifteen minutes they’ll figure it out, though.”

“I imagine they’ll be fairly enraged.”

“Most likely.” Ryder glanced back at Talia. She was slumped over in the back. “But worse will come when they realize their precious Rosabelle is gone.”

“I’ll bet. Losing your personal whore can really shit on your parade.”

Ryder’s jaw clenched and he resisted the urge to defend her. But why? She was exactly that. Whore to the Governing Council that was planning an attack on his home planet. No. She didn’t need his defense. If anything she would need protection from him by the time he finished with her.

“When will we arrive on Belton, Lieutenant?”

“Approximately two hours of travel and then the half hour of detox after arrival.”

He nodded and closed his eyes. “Good. She’ll be out for at least the next five hours.”

Chapter 3

The money has not arrived.” Ramirez glanced up from the computer, his expression worried.

“Son of a bitch.” Franklin pounded his fist into his desk, his blood pounding as he stood up. Gods, he had known from the beginning what a shit idea this was. “I told you we could not trust him. We must bring them back at once.”

“Wait.” Victor paced the floor and glanced at the hologram clock on the wall. “It is only a few minutes past the hour. Perhaps we should give him the grace of a few minutes more.”

“No, perhaps we shouldn’t,” Franklin snapped harshly. “There was never going to be any money transfer, it was all just a ruse to convince us to offer him a complimentary hour-long fuck with our property.”

“We don’t know that for certain.” Victor hesitated and looked out the window. “If we interrupt him and he becomes angry, he will likely withdraw all support.”

“You idiot, surely you cannot be that naïve,” Franklin snarled.

Gods, he regretted the day he’d signed on as one of three members in the Governing Council. Victor was often too soft, and Ramirez was growing weak as the years passed. His eyes narrowed. But that would all change soon. Being one third of the highest power just wouldn’t do anymore.

“Franklin may have a point.” Ramirez sighed and stroked his chin. “Worthington did tell us we may come get him if the transfer had not gone through.”

Franklin strode to the middle of the room. “Yes, he did. And as we speak that filthy Earthling is probably tainting our Rosabelle.”

Having to share Natalia with Victor and Ramirez was maddening as it was, but to have given her over to some filthy Earth pig brought his blood to boiling point. Natalia was his, and when the day came when he became the absolute power she would be touched by no one save him.

Already, he intended to bring her to his chamber tonight and spend time alone with her. He had not missed her reaction to the foreigner—she had been attracted to him. His fists clenched at his side. That was completely unacceptable and she needed to be punished. The blood in his cock stirred as he imagined the marks he would leave on her skin, right before he fucked her sweet ass.

“I must agree with Franklin at this point,” Ramirez finally agreed wearily. “We should speak with Mr. Worthington.”

“All right. We should go speak with him.” Victor nodded. “But if this deal goes bad—”

“It will not go bad.” Franklin strode toward the door, confident the other two men would follow.

He walked through the corridor, heading straight for Natalia’s chamber. Perhaps the rich Earthling should be taught a lesson in what consequences could come from lying to the Governing Council of a planet.

Franklin pressed his hand against the palm recognition security box and waited until the doors slid open. He strode into the room, but one glance around showed it was empty.

“I hear the shower running.” Ramirez spoke from behind him. “Should we wait for them to finish?”

Irritation pricked at Franklin and he swore under his breath. The last thing he wanted was to walk in on the two of them going at it. He growled and strode forward, pounding on the door.

“Mr. Worthington, we must speak to you.”

There was no answer, nor did the shower turn off.

“Mr. Worthington.” He pounded again and the door slowly swung inward. “No.

From the gaping hole in the wall it was obvious that Alan Worthington had disappeared and taken Natalia with him.

Ramirez stepped past him and then paled. “Oh Gods, this is not good.”

Victor stood in the doorway, shaking his head but remaining silent.

“Trust the oil tycoon?” Franklin snarled and spun around, grabbing Victor’s jacket and shaking him. “Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“What we have done.” Ramirez pried him away from Victor. “We will take equal responsibility for the error in judgment.”

“Error in judgment? Talk about the understatement of the fucking millennium.” Franklin pressed his palms to his throbbing head. Gone. She was gone. There’d never been any money, and now Natalia had been taken.

Unless… His body shook and a growl or rage grew thick in his throat. Unless Natalia had left willingly, had known of the deception.

“I will send trackers to Earth to locate them.” Victor thrust a shaking hand into his hair. “We will fix this.”

“There is more to this.” Franklin shook his head and left the bathroom, yelling over his shoulder, “Send your trackers, but I will be searching for other leads. I don’t believe for one minute Alan Worthington is who he seems.”

* * * *

Ryder stepped out of the detox chamber and stretched, attempting to ease the stiffness of his muscles.

Intergalactic travel was more sophisticated than it had been years ago, but it still had its drawbacks.

He walked back to his office with just a towel slung around his waist and went to his desk, pressing the button that would summon his assistant.

Going to the closet, he pulled out another uniform. It would not be wise to stay in a near naked state this evening, not with Ines on her way.

His mind conjured up the image of the rather plain, olive-skinned soldier with whom he’d indulged in a brief love affair. He cringed, slipping his arms into the sleeves of his shirt. It had not been one of his wiser moments.

She had been forward in her interest in bedding him, had ultimately been the one to initiate the affair. In the bedroom she had been an aggressive lover, one who had enjoyed anything and everything.

Initially he had enjoyed the affair, but soon the constant demands and growing possessiveness grew tiring. What had eventually ended the relationship was the day Ines had arrived with another man, intent on a ménage à trois. Ryder was not one to share his women in general, let alone in bed with another man.

He’d ended things with her shortly after and she’d seemed to take it in stride. Last he’d heard she was dating a sergeant in another unit.

There was a knock on the door and he glanced at it, fastening his trousers. He walked across the room and opened it.

Ines stood on the other side, giving him her usual sultry smile before striding into the room.

“You called?” She raised an eyebrow and went to his desk, sitting down on the edge.

Damn. And this is why you did not fuck your subordinates. They showed you absolutely no respect afterward.

“I was curious about the status of our prisoner. Have you checked on her?”

Ines’s eyes narrowed and she crossed one leg over the other, the skirt rising high on her thigh.

“I did a check a few minutes ago. She has been removed from the detox chamber and is still unconscious.”

“Excellent.”

“She is very attractive, sir.”

Well, at least she still called him sir. Ryder fastened the cuffs of his shirt and glanced up at her again.

“Is she?”

“Of course you have noticed.”

“Perhaps she is,” he admitted. “But she is a prisoner, nothing but business. She will provide me with the answers we have been seeking.”

“Just business? Does that mean you have no desire to bed her?”

“And what concern of yours would it be if I did?” Ryder’s temper flared and his gaze hardened on her. To question him in such a manner was not only disrespectful, but completely out of line.

“I suppose none, seeing as we’re no longer together.” She shrugged and slid off his desk, approaching him with a slow sashay. “Unless…you have changed your mind?”

Gods. His fists clenched at his side and he glanced over her shoulder. “No, Ines, I have not changed my mind.”

“Well,” her fingers straightened the lapel of his shirt. “If you need an outlet for any sexual frustration, you know where to find me.”

“I have a few errands to run before I check in on the prisoner myself. Thank you for your time, Ines.” He dismissed her with a nod, stepping away and seating himself behind the desk.

He could see the annoyance and hesitation on the woman’s face, before she gave a brief nod and left his office.

Gods. It was useless. He had not thought it would be necessary, but it appeared it may be best to inconspicuously transfer her to another unit.

The trick would be pulling it off without offending her. A promotion might be the only way.

He sighed and shook his head, logging onto the computer.

* * * *

There were rocks in her head. There had to be. Why else would it feel so heavy and throb so fiercely?

“Oooh.” Talia pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and opened her eyes just a crack, so the light wouldn’t hurt them.

Her heart leapt and her brows drew together. Surely she was seeing things. She lay on her side, and directly in front of her gaze was a large glass window. Beyond the window was lush foliage and a colorful sort of flower that she’d never seen before.

She bolted upright in the soft feathery bed, not caring that it spread the throbbing fire in her head through the rest of her body.

Oh gods. Where was she? What had happened? She looked around the room, then scrubbed her fists across her eyes. Surely it would clear the images from her head, because how could they possibly be real? She opened her eyes again.

“Where am I?” she asked aloud, though there appeared to be no one around to answer.

Plush white carpeting covered the expanse of the room, with cozy-looking wicker chairs near the window, which rose from floor to ceiling.

Was she in the fantasy chamber? Never had she been in it before, but the Council had often spoken of the room that created an alternate reality. A favorite of the Council had been programming in the code for Hawaii, the mythical islands of paradise that were rumored to have once existed on Earth.

There must be a programming remote around here somewhere. Perhaps the Council had placed her here to recover after the time with Alan Worthington…

But his name wasn’t Alan. Had he really told her that? Visions flashed through her head. Her dress being ripped from her body, his hands all over her and inside of her, the surprising pleasure…and then nothing.

Something heavy settled in her gut and it became hard to swallow.

“Turn off this stupid fantasy,” she muttered and swung her leg out of bed to run toward the door. “Oooh!”

Her scream of pain filled the room as she fell to the floor in a heap. Oh gods. Her foot, why did it hurt so? She lifted the hem of her dress—wait, this wasn’t her dress. Ignoring that fact for a moment, she studied her ankle. And the white bandage that surrounded it.

Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. She looked around the chamber again. This was no fantasy room.

The heaviness in her gut increased and nausea rolled in her stomach. Though the room was not overly warm, a sheen of sweat broke out on the back of her neck.

There were a series of beeps from the door and then it swung open.

“No.” She shook her head. He was supposed to be gone. Two hours of her time was all the Council had allotted him.

Alan walked slowly into the room, until he towered above her where she had fallen on the floor.

“Good morning, Talia. Did you sleep well?”

“What is happening?” she demanded huskily. “Where am I?”

“You mean you don’t remember?” He lifted an eyebrow questioningly.

“Of course I do not remember! Whatever you injected—” Her eyes widened in horror. She remembered. “You drugged me.”

“Yes, princess, I did.”

“You can’t get away with this. The Council—”

“Is doubtless up in arms over the fact that you chose to run off with an oil tycoon.”

“Run off…” The blood drained from her face. “They’ll never believe it.”

“Won’t they? Even after they find the note you left?”

The room tilted. The Council may very well execute her for this—shortage of women be damned. Her lips trembled. “W-What have you done?”

“I have done what needed to be done.” His smile was humorless. “My name is Ryder Jacobs. I am a Colonel in the planetary army of Belton. And you, Talia, are my prisoner.”

Ryder’s jaw clenched as he stared down at her. She’s guilty. It was the way she’d blanched when he’d stated who he was. Then she’d quickly dropped her head and stared at the floor.

There was information behind that pretty head of hers, and she would give it to him. No matter what means he had to use.

“Stand up.”

She didn’t move, just sat stubbornly on the floor and avoided looking at him.

“I told you to stand up.” He grasped under her arms and jerked her to her feet. Her sharp cry of pain almost distracted him from the softness of her breast against his thumb.

“Please,” she begged, leaning her weight on one leg. “My foot is in pain.”

“Ah…yes, so it would be.” He slid one arm under the back of her knees and the other around her waist. Lifting her up, he carried her to the bed.

He laid her gently on the down comforter. “Let me check your wound. Lift your dress.”

She hesitated and he lifted his gaze to meet hers. She must’ve seen the intent in his, or remembered that last time he’d requested she remove her dress. After a terse nod, she gripped the edge of the dress and pulled it up to her calves.

His breathing hitched. He clenched his fists to avoid pushing the dress higher, to follow the trail of her pale smooth skin to the curve of her thigh.

He turned his focus to the white bandage and took a deep breath. Here’s your focus. Reaching out, he began to unwrap the bandage to see the injury.

“What did you do to me?” Her question was feather light as the bandage pulled away to expose the wound. “Oooh.” She closed her eyes and weaved a little.

She was afraid of a little cut? His brows drew together.

“Lie back on the bed and do not watch me if this distresses you.”

She flopped back so fast he could not hold back a quiet laugh.

“I removed the tracking device that was implanted in your heel.”

She was silent for a moment. “Tracking device? You can’t be serious.”

“I am.” Ryder turned his attention back to the wound. The flesh around the cut had faded to a healthy pink. It would heal fine; her foot would likely be smooth and flawless again within twenty-four hours. “You were not aware that you had one?”

“I would have known,” she protested.

“It was likely implanted when you were an infant. Is it still tender?” He drew his thumb across the wound and she made a little moan of protest.

“A bit.”

“I’ll send for a numbing leaf that we may wrap around it.” He stood up and made the mistake of looking away from her foot and up her body.

She leaned back on her elbows, the thin fabric of the pale dress drawn taut over her breasts. Her areola hinted at a slight berry shade, her nipples just a bit lighter.

His blood flowed heavier and his cock stirred beneath his pants. Gods, he wanted her. Her tongue darted across pink lips, before she drew the bottom one between her teeth.

“Ryder?” She said his name hesitantly. “Where have you taken me?”

“You mean you do not know?” He quirked an eyebrow and walked slowly toward the head of the bed. He sat down on the edge, noting the way she eyed him warily. “I have brought you to my home on Belton.”

“Belton? But I cannot be here!” The horror on her face pounded another nail into her coffin of guilt.

“Well, princess, I could hardly hold you prisoner on your own planet.” He shrugged and reached out to touch the throbbing pulse in her neck. “Why do you look so afraid, Talia? Our planets are allies, are they not?”

She slapped his hand away and turned her head to look at the other wall. “If so, then why do you hold me prisoner? There is nothing you can want from me.”

Her rejection of his touch stung more than he cared to admit. His jaw clenched. “You think not? There are many things I want from you, Talia. And I intend to have them all.”

He returned his hand to the pulse on her neck, felt the blood pounding furiously.

“I have many questions. Questions that you will answer.” Slowly he trailed his fingers down to her collarbone and then just barely onto the top swell of her breast.

“What makes you think I have the answers?” Her breasts lifted as she took an unsteady breath.

“Because, princess.” He leaned over her and strummed his thumb over her nipple. It tightened eagerly and she let out a tiny moan. “You have information about the Council’s plans that I need.”

He lowered his head and licked the tip of her breast through the dress. The thin cotton, now damp, clung to her pink nipple. He closed his lips around the tip and drew it into his mouth, tasting her sweet flesh even through the fabric.

Her fingers laced into his hair, her breathing grew more ragged. “W-what makes you think I can answer your questions?”

“Because you are their whore, princess.”

Her sharp indrawn breath echoed in the room. “And now you intend to make me yours?”

His mouth twitched. “If I do, I promise that you will enjoy it.”

“Never.”

The fingers in his hair now tried to push him away, but he had no intention of letting her go just yet. He gripped her arms, pinning her to the bed and met her glare.

“You sit within their chambers day in and day out.” He pointed out, looking into her eyes, which nearly spit fire. “There is no one else on your planet, save for the Council itself, who would have access to that kind of information.”

“Really? Let me just save us both some time. What I do know will stay firmly in my head,” she snapped. “I owe you nothing—certainly not the betrayal of my home planet to a callous imbecile such as yourself.”

“You think not?” He lowered his head again, paying heed to the opposite nipple. He drew it between his teeth, smoothing his tongue over the now-hard tip. He lifted his head again and used his fingers to toy with the peak. “You will tell me all, Talia. You may give the token protest—I would respect you less if you hadn’t—but we both know you will tell me everything.”

Her cheeks flooded with color. “And you mean to use seduction as a means to make me talk?” she scoffed, but there was fear in her eyes. “Sex means nothing to me. As you pointed out more than once, I am nothing but a whore.”

He was silent for a moment, then reluctantly released the breast he cupped. A warm confidence spread through him, knowing that he’d gotten to her. Had begun to pierce through that thick shell she retreated behind when a man touched her.

He ran the pad of his thumb over her lips. “No, Talia, I think not. When you are in my bed, you will be willing and eager—be damn near begging me to take you. You will not be playing the role of Rosabelle.”

He stood up, noting how pale she’d become. “I will send food and the numbing leaf in shortly. Tonight we will begin the first line of questioning.”

At the door he turned and gave her a slight smile. “Until then, princess.”