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(Cyberevolution 4) O'connor, Kaitlyn - Rules of Engagement

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Cyberevolution IV:
Rules of Engagement
By
Kaitlyn O’Connor
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Kaitlyn O’Connor
© copyright by Kaitlyn O’Connor, January 2008
Cover Art by Eliza Black, © copyright January 2008
ISBN 978-1-60394New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636
www.newconceptspublishing.com
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author’s
imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or
events is merely coincidence.
2
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Chapter One
Police work could be tedious, especially on stakes outs, but this went beyond the
pale. Zoe realized she was well past bored, also beyond uneasy. She’d always been a
nervous space traveler, and that was when she was traveling coach on a commercial line.
If anyone had ever asked her if there was any circumstance that would make her consider
traveling solo, and well beyond the frontier, she would’ve told them to be sure and send
her for a psyche evaluation if she announced such a thing.
“What the hell am I doing out here?” she muttered to herself for the umpteenth
time.
“You are searching for your sister, who was kidnapped by rogue cyborgs,” the
computer responded promptly.
Zoe glared at the console. “Half-sister,” she muttered after a significant pause
while she tried to decide if responding to the computer constituted space dementia.
“You are searching for your half-sister, who ….”
“Shut up!” Zoe said irritably. She drummed her fingers on the console for a few
minutes. “How far are we from the nearest habitable planet?”
Silence greeted the question.
Zoe rolled her eyes. The computer, naturally, was equipped with AI.
Unfortunately, even with artificial intelligence, it tended to take everything literally. If
being alone for so long didn’t tip her over the edge, she thought the damned computer
was going to drive her insane. “Computer respond!” she snapped.
“The last habitable planet surveyed is seventy two hours, thirty three minutes, ten
seconds earth standard time, from the current position of the Evening Star 9120, traveling
at full hyper-drive. Folding would reduce the estimated time to reach the habitable planet
to twenty hours, five minutes, thirty seven seconds. In the event of damage to the
Evening Star 9120, it would be necessary to re-calculate the time required to reach the
habitable planet according to the drive status.”
Zoe narrowed her eyes. Unfortunately, the computer hadn’t been programmed to
react to a glare. “Didn’t I tell you that I wanted you to survey everything and search for
anything even remotely habitable?”
“I was ordered to survey worlds we passed close enough to to utilize long range
sensors.”
“And?” Zoe demanded, holding onto her patience with an effort.
“The last habitable planet ….”
“What about around us? In front of us?”
“Would you like for me to do that now?”
“Now would be a good time, yes,” Zoe snapped, infuriated to discover, after
nearly three months of traveling, no less, that the damned computer had interpreted her
command to mean only the bodies they passed. If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve
suspected the thing was deliberately trying to thwart her efforts to find Bronte. Slumping
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4
in the pilot’s seat, she resumed drumming her fingers on the console, trying to bring her
irritation under control. It was singularly pointless to rail at the computer, although a
rousing good argument right about now might help to blow off some of her steam.
She missed her partner, and that was saying something because he rarely had
more than two words to say to her—‘let’s go’ and ‘want donuts?’.
Truthfully she supposed she didn’t miss him nearly as much as she missed the life
she’d flushed down the toilet to come on this wild goose chase.
She didn’t even know Bronte. She didn’t understand why she’d felt this
compulsion to throw everything away that she’d worked so hard for and go after her.
She’d always meant to meet her half sister—at some point.
She’d told herself that for years anyway, almost ever since she’d discovered her
biological father—the randy two-timing bastard—had been contracted and already
expecting a child when he’d been pumping her mother.
Well, not quite that long, she supposed. She’d been eight years old before she
had actually discovered her background, not that it had required any sleuthing on her
part. Her mother had gone ballistic when the old bastard’s woman had died and she’d
discovered he still didn’t mean to contract with her. She’d spilled the whole tale then,
and Zoe had discovered that, not only did she have a name and face to put with ‘father’,
but she had a sister, too, one that was only a few months older than she was.
By the time she’d gotten into her teens, she’d been too resentful over the fact that
her father refused to acknowledge her to look kindly upon the ‘accepted’ one. At the
same time, she’d yearned to get to know her. She’d spent her entire childhood wishing
she had a sibling, desperately in need of a playmate and friend that would be there when
no one else was.
There’d been no chance of that, though. Her father had taken care to keep his two
families separate. The closest she’d come to meeting her sister was a chance glimpse
now and then while she was growing up. She’d lost track of Bronte completely for years,
until she’d shown up to take over the old man’s practice.
That shouldn’t have bothered her, but it did. Even though it was completely
logical and understandable that Bronte, who’d studied to be a doctor, would step in their
father’s shoes, and yet it had resurrected all the old feelings of having been shunted aside,
the feelings of unworthiness.
She’d let those feelings keep her away, and now she’d missed her chance to get to
know her sister.
She pushed those thoughts aside. She wasn’t going to just accept defeat.
It had been a blow when she’d been called in to investigate the abduction and
discovered it was Bronte that had been taken. The rogue bastards had taken her with
them, though. She didn’t know why, but she knew damned well there wouldn’t have
been any reason to take Bronte if they’d meant to kill her.
She was alive—somewhere.
If it had been anyone but Bronte, she would’ve accepted that it was a closed case,
impossible to bring to a satisfactory conclusion. Officially, she’d done just that, closed it
on orders from her superiors. On a personal level, it sure as hell hadn’t been a closed
matter, however, and when she’d found out about the reward the company was offering
for information leading to the stronghold of the rogue cyborgs, she’d taken leave from the
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force, sold everything she had to come up with the money she needed to pursue the case
….
And here she was in the middle of no fucking where, running out of patience
because she could see she wasn’t going to crack this case and find her sister.
In a matter of a few weeks, the company she’d leased the Evening Star from was
going to report it stolen, and that was the least of her worries. She’d taken two month’s
leave, and she’d been gone for three already—no job. She’d sold everything she owned
to finance her jaunt—which meant she was flat broke because failure also meant she
wasn’t going to get a dime of the reward money she thought she’d get to put her life back
together.
“Shit!” she growled, surging out of her seat and prowling the small cockpit area
of the Evening Star. “They’ve got to be out here somewhere! They need basically the
same things we do, damn it to hell! It isn’t like they could just live on a rock!”
Ok, so technically, they weren’t ‘alive’ to begin with, but they’d been designed
and manufactured by humans and she knew from studying the information on the ‘borgs
that they had been constructed from almost as much biological material as inorganic and
that meant, as far as she could see, that they needed a lot of the same things to sustain
them. She’d seen the vids of the abduction. There was no deterioration of the skin or
flesh that sheathed their titanium chassis. She might not be a scientist, but it didn’t take
that to figure out that the organic materials would’ve been damaged if they’d been living
under conditions detrimental to humans.
That comforted her because she knew it meant Bronte had a better chance of
staying alive until she could rescue her. It also limited the options insofar as where the
rogues were holed up.
She still didn’t quite get that.
She wasn’t buying the story the company had spun on it.
She’d watched the security vids and she damned sure didn’t see anything, beyond
the kidnapping itself, that pointed to ‘crazed’. They’d planned and executed a virtually
flawless abduction.
She wasn’t buying the ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenario. Bronte had been
clueless. They could’ve gotten in and out and she would never have tumbled to what
they were doing.
It didn’t escape her that they took Bronte after the alarm had been tripped and the
private security force had arrived on the scene. Maybe they’d taken her as a hostage,
thinking that would stop them from trying to shoot them down, but not only did
something like that require logical thinking, but they also hadn’t made any attempt to
utilize her as a hostage, hadn’t tried to contact the ships firing on them at all.
They hadn’t used her as a shield when they were fleeing across the roof either.
They’d been protecting her from fire.
She stopped pacing when she reached a view port, staring out into the vast ocean
of space. She didn’t believe it was wishful thinking to interpret the abduction as she had,
although she was aware that she wasn’t as completely subjective as she needed to be.
There were just too many things that pointed to a predetermined abduction to dismiss it.
The cyborgs had hit the med center with the intention of taking ‘a’ doctor, if not
Bronte in particular. They’d gone straight to her offices, emptied it, and taken her, as
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well. They hadn’t even attempted to access any of the other offices. There was nothing
even remotely random about it, regardless of what those assholes at the company said to
the contrary.
The question was, why? Why Bronte? Why a doctor at all when they were
nothing but machines? Why hadn’t they hit the company and made off with records
regarding their construction? Why not carry off a tech from the company if they thought
they needed something?
“I have determined that there is a sixty percent probability that there is a habitable
star system just beyond range of my sensors,” the computer announced abruptly,
breaking into Zoe’s thoughts.
****
“I have been thinking,” Kameron announced abruptly.
Damien, who had been perusing the communications from their home world,
lifted his head and turned to stare at Kameron blankly, his dark brows drawn together in a
frown of puzzlement as he scanned his memory for any indication that Kameron had been
speaking to him before, any clue of what Kameron might have been thinking about.
He drew a blank. He could not recall that Kameron had said anything at all to
him for several day cycles and the last communication had been regarding the length of
time they had until they were relieved of sentry duty and would be allowed to return
home. He was fairly certain that they had finished that conversation.
“I have been reviewing the available females,” Kameron continued before
Damien could respond, “and I have decided that I will court Dalia. She has only two
males in her household.”
“Reuel’s woman?” Damien responded doubtfully.
Kameron glared at him. “The law says she can take four. Reuel can not object.”
“He will remove your head from your shoulders,” Damien disputed. “Why else
do you think Dalia has only two partners? She is beautiful, and a hunter besides being a
proven breeder.”
“By law, he can not object,” Kameron retorted, his face taking on a belligerent
expression.
Damien stared at Kameron while he considered the situation. After a few
moments, a memory surfaced. It flickered at the edges of his consciousness for a few
moments more before it emerged completely. “Is she not the hunter who nearly killed
you when we were on Rialto?”
Kameron’s swarthy complexion took on a reddish hue. His frown deepened.
“She did not even come close to terminating me,” he said stiffly.
“You came away from that battle with two holes in you and a broken arm,”
Damien reminded him.
“Exactly!” Kameron agreed. “Nothing life threatening. She terminated the two
who were with me. I escaped while she was occupied with them.”
Damien nodded, then frowned again. “Do you think she will recall that she
battled you in the past?”
Kameron shrugged. “If she does, it is certain to make a good impression upon her
that she did not succeed in terminating me. There are not many who have faced her in
battle and walked away from it.”
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Damien considered that and finally nodded again. “A female would not respect a
male she could best in a fight. It says that in the mating manual. ‘Females will only
agree to breed with strong males’.”
A look of uneasiness flickered across Kameron’s features. “There must be more
to it than that.”
Damien shrugged. “It also says that you must be ‘attractive’ to the female and
find ‘favor’.”
Kameron pursed his lips. “What do you suppose they meant by that?”
“That is the ‘courtship’ part,” Damien responded, nodding decisively.
Kameron glared at him. “I have accessed the manual, as well,” he retorted testily.
“It seemed to me that the female must find the male attractive, first, before she will even
allow courtship. How is one to determine that?”
Damien stared at him blankly for several moments, considering it, and then
shrugged. “I am not certain.” He reviewed the file for anything that might explain it. “I
must suppose that a male can only determine that if the female allows him to court her.”
Kameron shoved to his feet and began to prowl the bridge restlessly. “It also says
that a female will study the male with interest if she finds him attractive,” he growled. “I
have not noted that any of the females study the cyborgs with interest, have you? They
are far too busy studying the hunters. How did the others get a female? That is what I
would like to know!”
“Gideon CS46721 and his men, Jerico CS98300, and Gabriel CS61167 have
contracted with a human female.”
Kameron jolted to a halt and swiveled around to stare at Damien, his jaw sliding
to half mast. “A human female?” he echoed after a prolonged moment of disbelieving
silence.
“It is in the news dispatches,” Damien said.
Kameron surged to the console and shoved Damien out of the way. “Where?” he
demanded.
Damien glared at him when he’d gotten to his feet again, but finally shrugged.
“They were in route to our world. It was the group that was sent on the mission to extract
a doctor.”
Kameron flicked a distracted glare at him. “Cyborgs,” he muttered. “Why would
a human female accept Cyborgs when even the Cyborg females favor the hunters?”
Damien shrugged, although Kameron wasn’t looking at him. “Mayhap they
forced her to sign the contracts?” he guessed.
Kameron turned to glare at him. “It says right here that she accepted them!” he
said, stabbing a finger at the vid screen. “She was assured that she would be protected if
they had used coercion to get her to agree, and she accepted them. She even claimed
affection for them!”
Shoving to his feet, Kameron began to pace again. “They are not more handsome
than I,” he muttered under his breath. “I am a series 45. I can not believe that they
would have evolved faster than I, so it can not be that they have a better understanding of
the courtship process.”
“Gideon CS46721 has yellow hair,” Damien pointed out. “Mayhap the female
found that appealing?”
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Kameron halted, staring at Damien for several moments while he accessed his
memory banks. Finally, he shook his head. “Jerico CS98300 and Gabriel CS61167 are
dark haired as we are. It can not be that. There are as many of dark hair who have a
female as there are who are fair.”
Damien frowned, reluctant to give up his theory, particularly when it soothed his
own smarting ego to consider that the fact that he hadn’t managed to catch the interest of
a female might have to do with coloring. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more
certain he was that it must be something like that. Physically, aside from coloring—and
of course a variation in facial features depending upon their genetic donors—there wasn’t
a great deal of difference in any of the cyborgs. They had been designed to be physically
appealing since the company had wanted to insure versatility in their end use, but it was
considered most likely that they would be sold to the government to be used for
soldiers—which, in point of fact, they had been. That being the case, they had been
designed to be physically intimidating, ranging in height from six foot two to six foot five
inches and heavily muscled.
They were all prime physical specimens. All documentation pointed to that
conclusion, so there should not be any reason why one cyborg would be more appealing
than another to the female—unless it had to do with the coloring.
“I am certain it must have been the yellow hair,” he informed Kameron. “They
work as a team. Gideon took point—secured the female—and then she accepted them all
because they were a squad and she saw the logic of contracting with the squad since she
would have been required to accept at least two.”
“It was not the yellow hair!” Kameron growled. “And human females have no
logic, so she would not merely have accepted because it was the logical thing to do!”
Damien planted his fists on his hips in a belligerent stance. “What is your theory
then?” he demanded.
Kameron eyed the antagonistic stance Damien had taken. “I do not have a theory
… yet. I am still collating the data,” he snarled.
“If you do not have a theory of your own,” Damien said in a low, menacing voice,
“then why have you dismissed mine?”
“Because it is not logical!”
“Emotions are not logical!” Damien shot back at him.
“Attraction is not an emotion! It is a physical and chemical reaction between a
male and female that denotes compatibility in breeding on an unconscious level! In other
words, instinct—because the human is an animal and animals are instinctually drawn to
certain attributes that they subconsciously wish to pass to their off-spring! It states that
clearly in the manual!”
“Ah ha!” Damien shot back at him triumphantly. “As you say—physical! And,
physically, we are all much the same except for a variation in the color of the hair and
eyes!”
Kameron studied his companion through narrowed eyes. “My face is not the
same as yours. In that respect we are as different from one another as the humans are.
And I must say, my gene donor was undoubtedly far more handsome than yours!”
“There is nothing wrong with my face!” Damien snarled. “It is as symmetrical as
yours!”
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“Except the nose,” Kameron muttered, dismissing the argument and turning to
pace again.
Damien lifted a hand to examine his nose self-consciously since there was no
reflective surface nearby to check it. “What is wrong with my nose?”
Kameron shrugged. “Aside from the fact it is nearly a millimeter too long for
your features to be completely symmetrical? Nothing. Mine, on the other hand, is
precisely the right length, besides being aquiline, which is considered both noble and
aristocratic by humans.”
Damien dropped his hand and glared at Kameron.
“Your mouth is not entirely symmetrical either.”
Damien ground his teeth together. “I suppose your mouth is also aristocratic?” he
said in a credible attempt at sarcasm, although it seemed to pass right over Kameron’s
head.
“No. It is considered sensual.”
“By whom?” Damien growled.
“It is in the manual—the part where it describes the more desirable traits in a
mate.”
“Since you do not have a mate anymore than I, then I will assume that your
comprehension of the data is far below one hundred percent.”
“Are you suggesting that my processors are faulty?” Kameron demanded in a low,
dangerous growl.
Damien smirked at him. “I do not think that I suggested any such thing.” He
ducked the fist Kameron swung at him and landed a quick jab to Kameron’s perfect—no
sensual—lips in retaliation, marring their perfection nicely. They’d just grabbed each
other around the throat when the sensor alarm went off.
Both men froze, for a handful of seconds certain that they’d inadvertently
slammed into something while they were tussling.
“Proximity breach,” the computer intoned. “Buoy number 8-7-0.”
Kameron and Damien both shot a quick glance at the console before they looked
at one another again.
“A craft? Out here?”
“Replacement crew?” Damien hazarded a guess.
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Chapter Two
“The replacement crew is not due for another six weeks,” Kameron retorted,
releasing his hold on Damien as Damien released him and lurched toward his station.
“Outer quadrant,” Damien verified when he’d located the buoy on his star chart.
“Not one of ours … unless ….”
“Not one of ours,” Kameron confirmed grimly. “There have been no authorized
flights in that vicinity.”
“Switching to buoy sensors. It is a small craft—private, not military.”
“Scout drone?”
“Negative. The sensors are picking up a life-form.”
“Fuck!” Kameron snarled. “How did it get so close without tripping any of the
other buoys? You are certain it is not a drone?”
“Out of range now,” Damien responded. “It is moving too fast—heading our
way. There was no more than a nanosecond that the sensor read it, but I am certain there
is a life-form aboard.”
Kameron frowned. “It would not be someone lost—not this far out. Arm the
missiles. It can only be human and that can not be good news. Where there is one ….”
Before he could finish the thought another buoy signaled a proximity alert. The
two men exchanged grim looks. “Protocol?” Damien asked.
“Disable or destroy if they cross the dead zone. Get a lock on it. I am tracking a
half dozen crafts ‘ghosting’ the lead.” He worked his console. “Cloaking shields up.
Let us try to get around behind them.”
“Charlie, brava, alpha,” Damien said into the communicator, “this is tango, tango,
beta. We have company. About a half dozen guests. Acknowledge.”
“Mark,” Kameron responded.
Damien glanced down at the clock on his console. “ETA the new position?”
“We will be in position before they can respond.”
“Should we hold?”
Kameron shook his head. “Protocol is specific. If they cross that line we engage.
Picking up four more ghosts.”
Damien’s lips tightened. “We will have a war on our hands now.”
Kameron nodded. “Even if we manage to take them all out, they will have our
vector. Their last known position will have them at our doorstep. Weapons hot.
Locking on targets.”
“Tango, tango, beta this is Charlie, brava, alpha. Confirm.”
Damien glanced at Kameron, one dark brow lifted. “At least a round dozen now.
Whoever their scout is, he is good. He has led them right to us. One of ours?”
Damien shook his head. “Reprogrammed? I do not think that. There are none
who know our position who would allow themselves to be taken alive.” He returned his
attention to his communicator. “Charlie, brava, alpha—confirm a dozen guests. Set to
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engage.”
“Locked on targets,” Kameron announced. “They will cross the line in ten, nine,
eight ….”
“Kameron?” Damien said in a strange voice. “I am picking up something on the
scout.”
“ … three, two, one …. missile away!”
“It is a female.”
Kameron’s head snapped around so fast he felt a twinge of whiplash. “Fuck!” he
snarled, leaping to his feet and racing down the length of the craft to the particle
transporter. “Give me five seconds after I hit the deck and snatch me back!”
****
Zoe felt a ripple with her sixth sense, the prickle of the fine hairs on the back of
her neck. Even as she jolted out of her seat and whirled to face the threat, however, a
powerful pair of arms locked around her, tightening and slamming her against what felt
like a block wall. Her reaction was instinctive and instantaneous, and even so she had
only just managed to lift her foot from the deck, aiming her knee at his groin, when she
blacked out. Consciousness returned with a disorienting wave of dizziness, partly, she
thought, because she was in motion even as she regained consciousness and the motion
had nothing to do with her own steam. The man who’d grabbed her, she dimly realized,
was running with her.
A jolt traveled all the way up her spine as the man carrying her paused long
enough to abruptly plant her in a seat and then leapt away. “Strap in!” he barked at her as
he dropped into a forward seat. “Reacquiring targets.”
Zoe gaped at the man, struggling to ‘reacquire’ her senses. Her training had
deserted her, however. Even with a conscious push to penetrate the shock that had
enveloped her, all she could seem to do was to stare around herself, dumbfounded, trying
to grasp that the craft she was in wasn’t the same one she’d been in five seconds ago.
The two huge men with long black hair would’ve been a dead giveaway even if
not for the fact that the vessel she now found herself in was barebones and clearly
military in nature.
Abruptly the word target rang through mind. “Target?” she managed to get out in
a croaking whisper.
The second man, the one who hadn’t grabbed her, whipped a penetrating glance
in her direction. His straight black brows snapped together over the bridge of his nose.
“Strap in!”
Zoe gaped at him. By the time resentment managed to filter through her stunned
surprise, he’d returned his attention to his console and missed the dagger glare she sent
him. She shot to her feet as her mind, slowly chewing on the clue ‘target’, finally arrived
at a dismaying conclusion. “Holy shit! Don’t you dare …!”
A brief flare of light in the darkness of space made her break off.
“That was my ship!” she gasped in disbelief, her life flashing before her eyes.
“Oh my god! You’ve blown up my ship! And it was a lease! What the hell were you
thinking?”
She discovered that neither man had done more than glance in her direction and
her shocked anger gave way to pure rage. “You bastards! Do you have any idea how
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fucking much that thing cost?”
“Acquiring new targets.”
“Bogey heading our way. I think they locked on us when I dropped the shields to
transport you.”
The man nearest her, the one who’d snatched her off her ship, shot a hand out,
grabbed her wrist and jerked. She sprawled across his lap. “Evasive maneuvers!”
Zoe wasn’t certain what she would’ve done if she’d had a chance to react to his
highhandedness. Before she could even fully assimilate the fact that she was sprawled
across his lap, however, the craft shot into motion so fast the artificial gravity didn’t have
the chance to compensate and she was plastered against him. His hand, roughly the size
of a dinner plate, was planted firmly in the middle of her back, and she suspected that
was the only reason she wasn’t flattened against the back wall of the bridge.
The moment the drag against her subsided, she began struggling to free herself
from his grasp. The hand in the middle of her back disappeared. Before she could
congratulate herself on winning her freedom, however, the same hand clamped around
her waist to hold her as he surged to his feet. He planted her in the seat she’d so lately
vacated, grabbed the harnesses and quickly strapped her in. “Stay!” he ordered, pointing
a thick finger at her nose.
He’d dropped into his seat again before her shock wore off sufficiently to react.
She glared at his profile. “Just what the hell is going on here?” she demanded.
“If this is some sort of military ….”
She broke off as she glanced out the view port again and saw several more flashes
of light and a considerable amount of floating debris—too much, she thought, for her
small craft alone. What sort of military exercise would use live rounds? Actual ships?
This far beyond the frontier?
Slowly, it filtered into her mind that what she was watching was not a mock fight,
but a deadly earnest one. Dragging her gaze from the battle, she studied the two men for
the first time, really looked at them. The easy answers that her mind had slipped into her
subconscious to account for her situation crumbled to dust. Their hair wasn’t long
because they’d been on some remote outpost too long to get a hair cut. Their hair was
half way down their backs and didn’t look as if it had ever been shorn into a military
cut—not in years, certainly.
They weren’t running around in their skivvies because they were stuck out here in
the middle of nowhere and didn’t have to worry about uniforms. They weren’t wearing
skivvies at all. She didn’t know what to call what they were wearing, but it barely
covered their privates. She could see bare skin all the way up to the cord that secured the
thing around their waists.
She could almost feel the cogs in her brain click, click, clicking as she dragged
her gaze from the two men and looked around the craft again, realizing abruptly that it
was not a craft that had been built for the military but rather a private craft that had been
modified for military use. Fear formed a hard knot in her belly for the first time since
she’d been snatched from her craft, almost completely ousting the shock that had dulled
her senses before.
“Oh my fucking god! Cyborgs!”
Both men flicked a hard glare in her direction. It was enough to galvanize her.
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Not enough to provide her with a lick of sense, unfortunately. Instinct took over. Her
brain formed only one thought—escape. She clawed at her restraints, managing to rip
free of them before either cyborg realized she’d lost her mind. She didn’t manage much
more than that. Before she’d done more than leap to her feet, the bully that had abducted
her surged out of his seat and grabbed her. Her instincts kicked in again but less
effectively this time. She bucked and kicked and slung her arms wildly, to no avail.
He’d snatched her off her feet, making most of her efforts completely ineffectual. He
shoved her into the seat again. After a brief struggle, he managed to catch her flying fists
and straddled her lap to hold her in place. Gasping for breath, she glared at him
furiously, more infuriated by the fact that he wasn’t even breathing hard when she felt
like she was going to pass out from her own efforts.
“Woman! You will get us all killed!” he snarled.
Before Zoe could think of a suitable retort, the ship lurched, pitching him
backwards off of her. Unfortunately, he still had hold of her wrists and when he hit the
deck, she landed hard enough on top of him to knock the breath out of her. It took the
fight out of her long enough he managed to get them both up, shove her into her seat
again, and grab the restraints. This time, however, he knotted them around her instead of
using the buckles to fasten the harness.
He stood as soon as he’d finished tying her to her seat and managed to take one
step toward his own seat before something slammed into the craft hard enough it sent him
flying backwards. He hit the rear wall of the bridge hard enough he left a full body
impression in the metal. Zoe was still gaping at the dents in the wall when he staggered
past her, dropped into his seat and dragged his own safety harness on.
Chaos had erupted around her in the few seconds that had ticked past like the
slow beat of a metronome instead of real time. Time bent. It seemed to take forever to
drag her gaze from the dents in the rear wall and turn to stare at the man who’d made
them. As her gaze lit on him, however, she saw that he seemed to be moving at twice
normal speed while she was trapped at half speed. She stared at him without
comprehension for many moments before she turned her head with an effort and studied
the other man—cyborg. His movements were a blur of speed, as well.
“We are hit.”
“Leaking O2.”
“Seal the rear hatch.”
“Can we make it home?”
“Negative.”
“Jump?”
“Not that far.”
Both men turned to stare at her for a long moment.
“C980?” her abductor asked.
The one with the straight, black brows shrugged. “We will know in a moment.”
The blackout caught her unaware. It flickered through her mind that they’d
folded. She was shaken back into conscious. It took her several moments to realize that
it wasn’t someone shaking her. The entire ship was shimmying so hard it felt as if it was
going to shake her bones to powder. She opened her eyes, briefly, then closed them
again when she discovered she was being shaken so violently she couldn’t focus her
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eyes. A wave of nausea followed the brief attempt to see what was going on. Tendrils of
fear crept through her awareness as her brain slowly tried to determine what was
happening. Piecing together the conversation she’d heard between the cyborgs just
before she blacked out with the frenzied rattling of the ship around them, she realized
they were caught in the pull of gravity of a planet. Her personal experience with space
flight wasn’t vast, but she’d been out enough times to know that the entry didn’t even
come close to being routine.
Then, too, one of them had said they were hit. Obviously it wasn’t anything
minor.
Which was worse? Imploding in space? Or being splattered on some ball of dirt
light years from home? Not that she had a choice in the matter. Apparently, they thought
the odds were better in trying to land the crippled craft.
They were cyborgs. They would behave according to logic, wouldn’t they?
That thought almost cheered her until she listened to the few clipped words they
exchanged.
“We are coming in hot.”
“The thrusters?”
“Non responsive.”
“Fuck!”
Zoe jumped at the expletive, her eyes popping open of their own accord at the
fury threading the single word in time for her to see her abductor throw off his safety
hardness and stagger past her. Dropping to the deck, he caught hold of a recessed latch
and then paused, lifting his head to stare at the other cyborg. “Damien, is there pressure
in the lower hatch?”
“Affirmative,” Damien responded after a brief pause.
Wrenching the hatch open, the cyborg dropped from sight. She heard noises
below, which her mind deciphered as the cyborg battling his way to whatever controls
he’d gone to repair.
Then again, maybe not.
The hammering ceased after a few moments. “Try again!”
The voice was muffled by distance, the scream of the air streaming past the hull,
and the teeth jarring rattles of everything around them. Zoe’s heart slammed against her
ribcage and tried to beat its way out of her chest as the ship bucked abruptly. It was
followed by a loud crash below and a good deal more cursing. When the cyborg
reappeared in the hatch, blood was running down his forehead from a wound at the edge
of his hairline. Zoe stared blankly at the bright red trail, wondering a little wildly if she’d
been wrong and they weren’t cyborgs after all.
He barely glanced at her as he staggered past her again and resumed his seat.
“What have got?”
“Seventy five percent.”
“Can we set it down in one piece?”
The cyborg he’d called Damien shrugged. “I calculate the odds at roughly 87.3
percent.”
“In our favor?”
“Affirmative.”
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“Any maneuverability?”
“Not much.”
“Then there is not much point in trying to find an ideal landing spot.”
Zoe jumped when the cyborg abruptly leaned in her direction, then discovered
that he’d reached behind her. Twisting her head, she saw he’d brought up a topical map
on the vid screen behind her. “At our current trajectory we are looking at jungle and
mountains,” he muttered. “Three degrees would give us a plateau.”
He leaned away again, lifting his arm. Zoe was just about to drag in a breath of
relief when he caught the knot of her restraints in one hand. The muscles along his arm
bunched as he tugged at it. Apparently satisfied, he withdrew his hand and returned his
attention to his console.
“Charlie, bravo, alpha this is tango, tango, beta. We have depleted our weaponry,
dispatched five unwelcome guests, sustained damage to the vessel. We are setting down
on C980. Out.”
Zoe squeezed her eyes closed, wondering how they could be so damned calm
about the fact that they were about to crash.
But then they were cyborgs, she reminded herself.
She realized after a moment that they didn’t sound calm at all. They sounded like
professionals, holding their emotions in check to do their job. Emotion threaded the
words regardless and that thoroughly confused her. Were they men? Or machines?
“Kameron—give me a reading.”
She opened her eyes again to stare at Kameron—her abductor—realizing abruptly
that he’d snatched her from her craft mere moments before they’d blown it up.
Why would do that if they were cyborgs?
Didn’t that defy logic?
She must have been close, too close, but why blow up her ship and not blow her
up with it?
And who the hell were the other ‘guests’?
****
Every muscle in Zoe’s body clenched reflexively as the ship slammed into the
ground. The scream of metal against rock filled her ears deafeningly. Terror clawed at
her mind as the craft continued to slide and visions of dropping off the side of the plateau
filled her mind. Her heart and breath were so labored with fright by the time the ship
finally ceased to skid along the rock that she felt as if she would pass out or throw up.
She felt like doing both. Blackness swarmed around her as she struggled with her
frantic heartbeat and ragged breaths, trying to bring both under control. She felt a tug at
her restraints. The sound of tearing cut through her drumming heartbeats in her ears and
then she felt hands pulling at her, lifting her. Faint and completely disoriented, she
wasn’t certain if it was the tug of unconsciousness that prevented her from seeing or her
heavy eyelids, but all her mind registered with the effort to force her eyelids up was
darkness and a dizzying kaleidoscope of images.
Were they on the dark side of the planet, she wondered as she rested her cheek
against the hard surface she was cradled against?
She clutched at him instinctively to catch herself as she was lowered, releasing
her grip on the shoulder she’d caught only when she felt a soft, yielding surface beneath
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her back.
“I can’t see,” she murmured, trying to keep the thread of panic from her voice.
“The ship is damaged. In any case, they may have followed us when we jumped.”
Zoe frowned as she felt his hands moving over her, but his touch was impersonal
as he tested her arms and legs and ran his hands lightly over her body and she realized he
was checking her for injury. “They who?”
He was silent for so long she thought he wouldn’t answer. “Those who came
with you.”
“But … nobody came with me!” she objected indignantly. “I came alone.”
“You expect me to believe your lies when we are here because our hull was
breached by a missile launched from one the ships following you?”
His voice was grim, accusing. It roused a strengthening surge of anger. She
shoved his hands away and sat up. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what you believe! Who the
hell are you?”
“I am Kameron CS45001.”
Zoe stared at the darkness where his face was, trying to penetrate it, struggling
with the fear that instantly knotted her stomach at his confirmation of her worst fears. “A
cyborg!”
“Yes.”
Despite her fear, her mind instantly leapt to Bronte at his confirmation. “Where
the hell is my sister, you son-of-a-bitch?”
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Chapter Three
Stunned surprise suspended all thought processes for a handful of moments while
Kameron stared at her. “Your sister?” he echoed blankly.
“Bronte! Don’t you dare try to tell me you don’t know, damn it! I know you
cyborgs took her!”
Kameron sat back on his heels and studied the woman. His night vision was not
sufficient for him to study her as he would have liked to, but it was certainly adequate
enough to read her expressions. Unless she was very good at subterfuge, both her
surprise at his accusation and her anger were genuine. “You are Doctor Bronte’s sister?”
he asked in a voice he hardly recognized as his own, scarcely aware, if it came to that,
that he’d spoken the question aloud since her announcement had thrown him into
complete chaos.
“Kameron! We have trouble! Is the woman injured?”
“Not that I can determine,” Kameron said slowly, rising to his feet. “Company?”
“Affirmative. It will not take them long to locate us.”
He studied the woman a moment longer and finally turned on his heel and
followed Damien from the cabin.
Zoe felt her jaw drop in disbelief as she heard their departure. From the noises
emanating from the front of the ship, it sounded as if they were trashing what was left of
the craft and it occurred to her that they were grabbing whatever they could quickly lay
hand to.
It also occurred to her, forcefully, that they had no intention of taking her with
them. If they had, they wouldn’t have left her, would they?
Rolling off the bunk, she found her way to the door of the cabin by waving her
arms in front of her until she encountered the wall and then feeling along it until she
found the opening. She didn’t know how they could see a damned thing. She couldn’t
see anything but deeper shadows within shadows. She could only follow their
movements by the noise they were making. “I demand that you take me to my sister!”
One of the cyborgs stopped. The other continued as if she hadn’t spoken. She
could tell by the cessation of half the noise. Somehow, she knew it was Kameron who
had ignored her and Damien who’d stopped, and that he was staring at her. “Who is her
sister?”
“She says that she is Bronte’s sister.”
“I am Bronte’s sister!” she snapped indignantly.
“Gideon’s Bronte? The human female doctor?”
“What do you mean, Gideon’s Bronte? Is that the one that took her?”
“Come,” Kameron said, ignoring the question. Before Zoe could decide whether
he had included her in that command, Damien dispelled the notion.
“We are leaving her?”
“She will slow us down. Her people will come for her.”
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In her haste to follow them as they opened a hatch and exited the craft, Zoe
tripped over something lying in the floor and nearly sprawled out. Cussing under her
breath, she hobbled after them, discovering once she’d reached the gang plank they’d
lowered that it was actually a good bit lighter outside than inside the vessel—not
surprising since the craft was like a cave and it wasn’t completely dark outside.
“You are not leaving me!” she said when she’d paused in the hatchway to get her
bearings.
Damien threw a glance at her over his shoulder, but Kameron didn’t even slow
up. It was Kameron who responded, however. “Your people are coming. Stay with the
vessel. They will find you.”
Zoe trotted down the gang plank. “I don’t know or care who’s coming, damn it!
I’ve spent three months wandering around bumfuck nowhere and every dime I have—
had to my name to find my sister, and I’m not going back without her!”
Kameron stopped so abruptly and whirled to face her that she damned near
plowed into him. There was just enough light to see that he was thoroughly pissed off
and damned scary looking. “She is not here … and she would not return with you if you
found her. She has contracted with Gideon, Jerico, and Gabriel. She is their woman
now.”
Zoe gaped at him. Slowly, angry disbelief usurped her shocked dismay. “You
expect me to believe she willingly contracted with … with a pack of cyborgs? Well, I
don’t!” she said forthrightly. “I want to see her—talk to her.”
Kameron hunched his shoulders and lowered his face until he was staring at her
almost nose to nose. “Humans lie. Cyborgs do not. Stay here,” he snarled through
gritted teeth.
Zoe stared uneasily at his back as he turned and stalked off again. She glanced
back at the wrecked craft, scanned the sky, and then turned to stare at the cyborgs once
more. It scared the hell out of her to think of following them, but she’d risked everything
to find Bronte. She wasn’t going to give up now, not when she’d found cyborgs who
knew where she was. Briefly, she considered allowing them to think they’d left her and
then shadowing them, but she was very much afraid they would know if she tried and
beyond that, she wasn’t too keen about being completely alone on an alien world. She
trotted behind them at a jog, trying to catch up.
They halted abruptly—not to allow her to catch up to them, but to survey the drop
from the edge of the plateau.
She stopped, studying their rigid profiles. Obviously demanding wasn’t going to
get her anywhere. “I want to go with you.”
Both of them turned to stare at her.
“Please?” she asked in her best, most ingratiating tone, bestowing her most
helpless, pleading look upon them.
The two cyborgs stared at her for a long moment and then glanced at one another.
Some silent communication obviously passed between them.
“She will get us killed,” Kameron said grimly.
“I won’t! I swear I won’t do anything to slow you down or … or … anything.”
Kameron studied her suspiciously. She could tell he wasn’t buying the helpless
female routine.
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Damien looked more susceptible. She smiled at him encouragingly. “I’m a cop.
I know how to use a weapon. I can handle myself. I could be an asset.”
Kameron’s expression was clearly disbelieving. “Fine,” he capitulated. Grabbing
her abruptly, he jerked to him and pushed his face into hers. “But I will warn you,
human, if you slow us down, or try to give away our position, I will leave you … and I
will make certain that you do not follow.”
Zoe gulped. “It hadn’t occurred to me to try anything like that,” she lied.
“If it had not, you would not have assured us that you would not,” he growled.
In spite of all she could do, Zoe felt her face heat. It was a dead giveaway, and
she knew it, but she was nothing if not persistent and there was nothing to be done once
one started down the road of lies but staunchly defend them. “You were the one that said
it,” she reminded him. “After I’ve come all this way to find my sister, I’m certainly not
going to screw up my chances by helping whoever that is trying to catch you.”
His lips were still flattened in a thin line of disbelief as he straightened away from
her, but he let it drop.
“We will climb down here.”
Zoe stared at him and inched a little closer to the drop off. “You have got to be
fucking kidding me!”
“She can not make this climb. I will carry her.”
Zoe had been on the point of flicking a smile of appreciation in Damien’s
direction, but the last comment dried the smile on her lips. She stared at him as if he’d
lost his mind.
“I will carry her. You will guard our backs,” Kameron said decisively.
Before she could even think of an objection to such an insane plan, he grasped her
wrists and bound them together with something he’d been carrying. She was still reeling
with shocked disbelief when he leaned down to hook her arms around his neck, settling
her on his back. It was instinct, not thought, that made her coil her legs around his waist
as he straightened. “Now, wait just a minute ….”
Her throat closed as tightly as if someone had wrapped their fingers around it and
squeezed as he crouched and went over the side. She tightened her arms and legs around
him, struggling to breathe past the terror that constricted her lungs. She made the
mistake of glancing down, once, and thereafter kept her face burrowed tightly against the
back of his head.
“You can not fall,” he said after a time. “This is why I bound your wrists.”
She nodded instead of pointing out that she’d damned well fall if he did, and
what’s more, she would be on the bottom when they landed.
Not that that would make a hell of a lot of difference to her, but she supposed it
might cushion his fall somewhat. “I hope you can see better than I can,” she commented
shakily when she finally nerved herself to open her eyes a slit.
“I can.”
Strangely enough that didn’t particularly comfort her. “I don’t suppose they gave
you mountain goat DNA while they were at it?” she asked after a while, trying for a
touch of graveyard humor.
He stiffened slightly. “No.”
“It was a joke.”
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“I have no sense of humor. I am a cyborg.”
“Right. I almost fucking forgot that.”
He was silent for several moments. “Did you?”
She was on the point of informing him that climbing down the side of a cliff with
a woman hanging from his neck wasn’t the sort of thing human men did—even if they
were insane and as strong as a bull—but there was a note of something in his voice that
gave her pause. “You don’t … act like I’d think a cyborg would,” she said tentatively,
realizing the moment she said it that it was true.
He startled her by catching the hint of doubt in her voice. “I am a machine with
artificial intelligence. You are simply unfamiliar with my kind.”
That was certainly true, in more ways that one. She hadn’t ever encountered a
cyborg before. She’d seen pictures of them, studied the schematics, but she’d never
interacted with one.
And she’d been interacting with this one from the moment he’d grabbed her off of
her ship and transported her onto his.
Talking to him, moreover, was nothing in the world like talking to the computer
on her ship. Maybe it was just that he had far superior and more sophisticated
programming?
Relief flooded her when she realized they’d reached the ground—thought they
had. It was so dark by now, she could see very little but he’d stopped and she had the
sense that his feet were planted firmly on the ground. He verified her guess by crouching
down and uncurling her legs from his waist. “Why is the company so deter ….” She
broke off as it dawned on her abruptly that the ‘unwelcome guests’ they’d spoken of had
to be company ships. The sneaking bastards! They’d set her up! Offered her a reward,
given her all the information they had, and planted a damned tracking device on her!
Either they’d hoped she would succeed where they’d failed, or the bastards had been
dangling her as bait!
“To destroy us?” Kameron finished her sentence for her.
“It’s the company that’s following us, isn’t it?”
He caught her wrists, untying them, but she sensed that he was studying her face
and wondered if he could see as well as it seemed he could. “Most likely,” he said finally
instead of accusing her again of having led the pack to them. “If we do not move fast, we
will find out.”
Releasing her hands, he turned and moved away. Zoe was so busy trying to work
the circulation back into hands that moments passed before she realized the sounds he
was making were diminishing rapidly. She lifted her head then, trying to scan the area
around her in the darkness. The effort was futile. She couldn’t penetrate the darkness,
couldn’t discern much of anything but darker patches in the blackness, which could have
been something solid and might been nothing more than a shadow. A mixture of fear and
anger welled inside her as the realization hit her that she couldn’t hear Kameron’s
movements at all anymore.
The first thought that struck her was that he’d tricked her. He’d pretended to
capitulate to her demand to go with them and taken her down the mountain and
abandoned her. Before that suspicion could become a certainty, however, she realized
Damien had been climbing down behind them—mostly because she heard him.
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Relief flickered through her. She had one more chance to latch onto a cyborg to
prevent herself from being left alone in the dark, unfamiliar terrain.
She was so intent on listening to Damien’s descent that a shockwave rippled
through her when a hand abruptly clamped onto her wrist.
“You said that you would keep up.”
Zoe’s throat closed with painful relief when she recognized Kameron’s voice.
From out of no where tears stung her eyes and nose. She swallowed convulsively several
times to kill the urge, embarrassed that the impulse had struck her at all and vaguely
angry because it had and she knew it was because she was more afraid than she’d
allowed herself to think. “I was waiting for Damien,” she muttered. “We’re not waiting
for him?”
“He has no need.”
And she did? Of course she did. It irritated her that he knew that. She wanted to
inform him, again, that she could take care of herself, but she decided to refrain when it
occurred to her that he might take her up on that.
Instead, she followed him the best she could, chaffing at her helplessness in the
situation. After she’d tripped and plowed into him the second or third time, he stopped
abruptly. “You are making too much noise.”
His voice sounded neutral, but she suspected there was an accusation in there.
“Sorry,” she said stiffly. “I’ll try to be more careful. It’s so dark I can’t see worth a
shit.”
She jumped when his hand touched her face.
“You can not see at all.”
There didn’t seem to be much point in trying to deny it, but she sure as hell saw
no point in admitting it either.
“We will make better time if I carry you. You are too small to keep up.”
She eyed him resentfully even though she knew it was nothing but the truth. As
long as his legs were she would’ve had a hard time keeping up with him if she hadn’t
been blind. It still rankled to find herself slotted in the ‘helpless, useless female’ file
when she’d worked so hard for years to gain the respect of her fellow officers on the
force. If she had to point out that she wasn’t either, though, she might as well save her
breath.
Taking her silence as acquiescence, he guided her hand to his shoulder and
crouched down expectantly. Uttering a long suffering sigh, she placed her other palm on
his back and felt her way up to his shoulder for a grip. Leaning in to him, she leapt up on
his back. He hooked his arms beneath her thighs to help support her as she wrapped her
legs around him and then he straightened.
She hadn’t counted on her heightened awareness of him once she was perched on
his back, mostly, she supposed, because she had been in a constant state of shock, fear,
and total chaos since the moment he’d grabbed her on her ship. She hadn’t been in any
state to cope with the barrage, much less to focus on any one thing. Enveloped in
darkness, she couldn’t un-focus her attention from him.
She certainly hadn’t thought of it as a caress at the time, but her palm tingled from
the feel of his flesh beneath her hand as she’d settled it on his bare back and searched for
his shoulder by feel. His skin had felt like—warm silk—smooth and soft to the touch.
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At the same time, the muscles beneath it had rippled at her touch, had felt as hard as
granite. His long hair, which tickled her face, was as silky, she suspected far softer to the
touch than her own.
He smelled—wonderful. She was lightheaded from trying to drag his elusive,
tantalizing scent into her lungs to identify it before she even realized what she was doing.
Beneath the barrage of foreign scents that clung to his skin, though—of soap, the leather
of his chair, the faint tang of synthetic materials that made up every surface within the
craft that he’d brushed against—she detected the faint, musky scent of the man himself,
the smell that was as uniquely his as his fingerprints. Like wispy tendrils of mist it
meandered through her system as she sucked it in and finally coiled low in her belly and
began to radiate a warming glow through her.
She shifted uncomfortably against him, trying to throw off the effects of it, but
that only made it worse, made her abruptly conscious of the triangle of her femininity
pressed intimately against him—her breasts and her sex. Her nipples stood erect at the
slight movement, forming hard little points that dug into his back. Worse, the warmth in
her belly seemed to be flowing outward from her sex, the heat condensing into moisture.
She wasn’t certain if her sex just seemed to grow hotter and more moist or if it
was only that she abruptly became acutely self-conscious about it, but once her focus
shifted to her cleft she couldn’t get her mind off of it.
She hoped to god it didn’t feel as hot and wet to him as it felt to her!
“Be still!” he growled when she shifted again.
She subsided, realizing there was no way she could hold on to him and put any
distance at all between them. She debated demanding he put her down, but was reluctant
to do that for fear he’d notice why she wanted him to, or ask why.
Giving in to the inevitable, she relaxed against him, shifting her arms for a more
comfortable hold and trying to think about something else, anything else.
It occurred to her abruptly that her mind, and everything else, as screaming ‘man’
when he wasn’t a man at all. Why was she aroused—and there was no denying that—
when she might just as well have been plastered against the hood of a car? A cleansing
unit? A computer, for god sake!
Because he didn’t feel like a machine.
She hadn’t adequately considered what she was up against, she realized. In spite
of everything, while she’d been collecting information to help her find Bronte, in the
back of her mind she’d thought ‘machine run amok’. She knew from reading up on it
that they were not metal men as the old androids were. Basically, they were
humandroids. Internally, they were all machine—a titanium alloy chassis that made them
like a walking, talking forklift, a processor for a brain that meant they could carry around
and process more data, faster, than the most brilliant genius. Externally, they were all
human, but even that ‘weakness’ had been offset by nanotechnology. Similar to the
human immune system, they carried nanobots, except that their ‘immune’ system
repaired damage to both their organic and inorganic physiology many times faster than
antibodies.
She’d still expected them to sound like her onboard computer, smell like
synthetics, feel like a machine, and move with the awkward jerkiness of the old androids.
The fact that none of that was the case had totally thrown her for a loop.
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The rationalization cooled her wayward libido. It didn’t get rid of it completely.
She still felt the discomfort of unappeased arousal, but she could dismiss that. After all,
she reasoned, it had been a while since she’d had sex. It was understandable that she
would react as she had to what appeared to be a very virile male.
That thought led her to the company and she wondered abruptly why they’d mass
produced something so lifelike as the cyborgs to begin with. Playing at being gods, she
wondered? Was there any logical reason for them to have developed the cyborgs as they
had? Or had they done it just because they could? Money was undoubtedly the main
motivating factor, but she suspected egotism had figured into it. Quite possibly, it had
even been cheaper to produce them with so much organics. They could grow that, after
all, in their labs—all of the biological materials they’d used in the making of them.
She didn’t buy their hype about making them so human-like to make people
accept them more easily and be more comfortable around them. She supposed it did, but
she didn’t think that had been their motive.
On the other hand, she knew a lot of them had ended up in bordellos for both men
and women.
She wished that thought hadn’t popped into her mind, because the moment it did,
she also remembered that they’d been designed and programmed to be pleasure bots
because it was easier and cheaper to mass produce them for any situation than to be
design specific.
Kameron was not only anatomically correct, he’d been programmed as a pleasure
bot at the same time he’d been programmed as a soldier.
The heat and wetness was back in her coochie faster than she could gather spit
into her suddenly dry mouth. She shivered as the cool night air caressed her overly warm
skin.
“You are cold?”
Not hardly. “I’m fine,” she lied.
“You shivered,” he persisted, a note in voice that told her he wasn’t swallowing
the lie.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, drop it!” she muttered irritably.
He stiffened at the anger in her voice, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t about to tell
him a damned thing, especially since it didn’t seem as if he’d noticed.
She discovered she didn’t like him being angry with her.
She told herself that was completely understandable, given her situation.
She almost believed it.
“It’s just … fatigue.”
Some of the stiffness eased from his shoulders. “I am carrying you,” he pointed
out.
“I’m human,” she snapped irritably. “So sue me! I’m weaker than you. There!
Happy now that I’ve admitted it? Feel better?”
“You did not need to admit it,” he said after a few moments.
“Because you knew it already,” Zoe said testily. “Arrogant asshole.”
“I am not arrogant.”
“And I’m not horn … uh … human,” she finished weakly, mentally cursing
herself for her temper.
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“Horn?”
Well, shit! “It was a slip of the tongue.”
“Because you had intended to say something else,” he responded coolly. It didn’t
take him long to sort through his memory banks. On the other hand, maybe he had
noticed the signs of arousal. “Horny?”
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Chapter Four
“Is ‘drop it’ even in your vocabulary?” Zoe asked testily.
“Yes.”
He was silent all of five minutes. “I was designed as a pleasure bot as well as a
soldier.”
“No!” Zoe exclaimed, feigning surprise. “Good to know.”
“I could accommodate your needs.”
“That’s so sweet of you to offer!” she retorted, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “I
can’t remember when I’ve had a more subtle offer for a rousing good fuck. No. Thank
you. I’m good.”
“This is sarcasm, yes?” he responded after a moment, anger threading his voice.
He was a fast learner.
“I will service you,” Damien said from behind them. She hadn’t even realized
he’d caught up to them. She certainly hadn’t thought her low voiced conversation with
Kameron would carry so far.
“That one’s even better. As much as I appreciate the offers, guys, this isn’t the
time or the place. I’m fine,” she ended through gritted teeth.
“I have been thoroughly programmed,” Kameron persisted. “It would take me no
more than a few moments.”
“A quickie? Oh goody!” Zoe muttered sarcastically, trying her best to ignore the
fact that the direction of the conversation was bringing back the tingles she’d managed to
stave off before.
“I will be thorough.”
Contrary creature that she was, the comment alone was enough to make
everything inside off her flutter with hopeful anticipation. “Oh god! No, you won’t,
because I’m not going to let you, ok? I wonder if the other ships have landed?” she
added, trying a little desperately to redirect the conversation.
“They have. They are human, however. They can not see well at night and will
not want to risk traveling over unfamiliar terrain even if they have night vision glasses.
They will make camp and follow at daylight. We will need to stop to rest soon, for a few
minutes at least. I will attend your needs then,” Kameron announced with grim
determination.
Jesus fucking Christ! They were fixated on her ‘problem’. And she’d thought
men were preoccupied with sex! They had nothing on cyborgs!
She’d tried to be nice! The hell with it! “I’m not ‘in’ to sex toys, alright? I like
the real thing.”
“You will not know the difference,” he assured her.
“If you try it, you will, because I’m going to belt you!”
He decided to ignore that. She thought she’d finally settled the matter until they
actually did stop. In point of fact, she’d mostly forgotten the discussion because she
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really was exhausted, as badly as she hated to admit it, even to herself. She thought most
of it was emotional. It smacked of girlyism, but what the hell? Anybody, male or
female, would’ve had a hard time coping with what she’d endured in the past several
hours. Add to that physical exertion, because even though he was carrying her, it wasn’t
as if holding on wasn’t taxing, and she figured she had every reason to be worn out. She
was holding up fine. She just wasn’t a super human.
She thought she might be permanently bowlegged when he finally stopped and
allowed her to slide to the ground. His waist was narrow, but as he’d so kindly pointed
out, she was short and it had been a strain to get her stubby legs around him. Trying not
to be too obvious about it, she massaged her aching groin tendons.
“You are sore and stiff from the landing,” Kameron informed her.
“No, I’m not. A little bruised, maybe, from being tied to my chair,” she added
pointedly, sending a glare in his general direction, “but otherwise I’m just peachy.”
His hand closed around her wrist. It startled her even though she’d sensed him
moving closer. He tugged at her hand. She yielded to the downward pull because she
actually wanted to sit down for a few minutes, not because of the insistence of his pull,
and discovered with more than a little surprise that the surface was relatively cushy.
“What is this stuff?”
He caught one of her feet, lifting it. Unprepared, she tipped backwards, sprawling
full length against whatever it was on the ground.
“Vegetation,” he responded succinctly, drawing her boot off.
She debated which to object to, his highhandedness, or the response to her
question—which implied she might be too stupid to figure out it was vegetation. The
hesitation, as brief as it was, gave him time to present her with a lot more to object to.
He started massaging her foot. She was still trying to decide whether to object or
not, because, really, it felt damned good even if he was being a little too damned familiar,
when he moved up to her calf. She tensed, but after all it was very impersonal—certainly
no more personal than if she’d hired a massage. She was still fully clothed and she’d
gotten naked for massages plenty of times.
He massaged the tendons at the back of her knee and moved up to her thigh.
Zoe jackknifed upright. “OK, Buddy! That’s far enough!” she exclaimed,
shoving at his hands.
He settled back and removed her other boot. That time she caught herself on her
elbows as he tipped her backwards by lifting her leg.
She relaxed when he started massaging the foot. By the time he’d worked his
way up her calf to her knee, she’d lain down again.
“These muscles here are tense,” he said, kneading her inner thigh.
“They aren’t going to get un-tense with your hand there!” Zoe informed him,
pushing at his hand. “That was nice. Thank you!”
She breathed a sigh of relief when he removed his hand from her thigh. She
didn’t realize until she tried to sit up that he’d moved toward her rather than away from
her. He caught her jaw in the crook of his thumb and fingers. She jumped when she felt
the warmth and texture of his lips against hers, sucking in a sharp breath of surprise that
allowed him instant access. His tongue slipped into her mouth like a hot knife through
butter, melting her resistance even as she tried to throw it up. The breath she’d sucked in
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froze in her chest. She tensed all over for a handful of seconds, so besieged by
conflicting emotions she couldn’t decide how to react or what to do. He took the
decision from her, pressing her into the soft vegetation with the weight of his body as his
mouth and tongue moved on hers in a way that communicated a sense of urgency in him
and evoked one in her.
It flickered through her mind that he was cyborg, that he didn’t, couldn’t, feel the
dizzying rush of desire he pulled from her, but he was far too convincing to allow the
doubts to grow. The feel of his mouth, the heat, texture, taste, and scent of him weren’t
just real, they were beyond anything she’d experienced before.
She tensed again when one big hand settled on her lower belly and skimmed
downward to cup her sex but she was already so drunk with the heat inundating her that
she could scarcely process any more pleasure, let alone consider objecting. It flitted
through her mind that she should. She’d said no. She was sure she’d had good reasons
for saying no, although she couldn’t think of any of them at the moment.
As he stroked his hand over her cleft with devastating precision, sucked and
nibbled at her lips and tongue with drugging effect, she found that she was gripping the
hard, bulging muscles of his upper arms so frantically that her fingers were going numb.
She had to focus on her fingers to make them relax. The moment she did, she found them
wandering over his flesh as if they had a mind of their own, stroking and plucking at him
to bring him closer. She explored his arms and chest with her fingertips and palms,
enjoying the feel of silky skin over hard, bulging muscle, the strength and breadth of his
broad chest, then encircled him with her arms to feel the muscles along his back, from his
shoulders downward as far as she could reach. She felt a shiver ripple through his big
body as she slipped her fingers beneath the waist of the garment he wore, stroking the
upper slope of his buttocks. An answering wave of heat rolled through her.
He wrenched his mouth from hers, panting as raggedly for breath as she was.
Pleasure coasted along her nerve endings, and then surprise and confusion flickered
through her mind. Before she could entirely grasp why she felt either, he slipped a
shaking hand into the front closure of her suit and raked it downward, parting the closure
from neck to thigh in one motion. His hand slipped inside, lifting pebbled skin as he
stroked his palm over bare skin from breast to belly, then up again to cup and knead first
one breast and then the other.
She thought he watched the movement of his hand, but when she shivered,
moving restlessly beneath him, he sought her mouth again, taking her deeper into the
drugged realm of euphoria where nothing mattered and nothing existed but the pleasure
inundating her. The intoxicating feel and taste of his mouth yielded focus to the magical
play of his fingers as he cupped her sex again, lightly parting the delicate petals with his
fingers. He wrapped a leg over hers, dragging them apart to accommodate his hand as he
found her moist center. He stroked her cleft from there upwards to tease the hooded bud
at the apex long enough to leave her breathless before he sought the mouth of her sex
again and pushed a thick digit inside of her.
A moan rose inside her, emerging into his mouth as a hum of pleasure as he
pressed deeply inside of her until he found just the right spot. Her hips jerked, rose as he
stroked it, following the movement as he withdrew his finger and then pushed deeply
inside of her again. The certainty crystallized in her mind that she was nearing her peak
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as he alternately stroked her deeply and teased her clit with the ball of his thumb. She
held her breath, tensed all over as she focused on reaching it. She wrenched her mouth
from his, uttering his name in a low groan as the first ripple went through her, gasped in a
desperate breath of air and tensed again as the next wave hit her.
Dimly aware she shouldn’t be making the noises she was, she wrapped her arms
tightly around his shoulders and burrowed her face against his neck to muffle the sharp
cries of rapture torn from her by the exquisite contractions of her climax. The
expenditure drained her, leaving her limp. Even as her arms, bereft of strength, began to
fall away from his shoulders, he scooped an arm around her beneath her suit. Lifting her,
he grasped the back of the suit and peeled it from her shoulders and arms.
A shiver went through her as the cool night air wafted over her, but the moment
he’d jerked her suit from her hips, he covered her with his own body. He was shaking all
over with his own needs as he pushed her thighs apart and wedged his hips between her
legs. She felt him fumbling in his haste to shed his garment and align his body with her
and then the press of the head of his cock—an inch north of heaven. Gasping, she lifted
her hips to receive him as he drew back and surged against her again.
His blind desperation speared through the fog of her repletion, breathed fire on
the dying embers of her passion. She felt the walls of her sex clench in anticipation as he
found the mouth of her sex at last and pressed into her. He was shaking so badly with
need she more than half expected him to explode before he’d succeeded in penetrating
her. Sweat popped from his pores, slickening his skin as he stabbed at her with lunging
thrusts that finally seated him so deeply within her that she was gasping for breath.
He paused for several moments, gulping air and finally levered the upper half his
body away from her. Bracing himself on his arms, he rocked his hips with slow,
measured strokes that made the heat climb inside her again. She was torn for many
moments between the urge to reach for glory again and the uneasiness that he would
leave her at the summit if she tried.
He wrenched the decision from her as he caught her breasts one at the time,
stroking and kneading them before he lowered his mouth and tugged at one peak, sending
a shower of sizzling heat straight to her core. She gasped, glorying in the twin fires he’d
ignited with the suction of his mouth and the stroke of his cock along her channel. At the
same time, she marveled at the contortion it must have required to keep himself deeply
inside of her and suckle her breast at the same time.
His hands were everywhere, stroking her—all four of them.
Her skin pebbled, a delicious fire roaring through her at the realization that
Damien and Kameron were both caressing her. A choked cry left her lips as she felt the
first, hard shockwave of her second climax. Kameron uttered a guttural groan as her sex
fisted tightly around his cock, so snugly she could feel him jerk within her as he pumped
his seed into her.
The struggle to catch her breath in the aftermath held her complete focus for a
time, but in time her body cooled. Her heart ceased to pound frantically, and her
breathing eventually returned to normal. Slowly, her senses expanded beyond the
pleasurable aftershocks that continued to spark and sizzle through her long after the final
crescendo of her climax, beyond the blissful release that had left her feeling as if she was
melting into the ground beneath her.
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Damien, she realized, had moved away. Kameron, lying on his side beside her,
was coiled around her, one leg across her hips and entwined between hers, his arms
encircling her to hold her in an easy embrace while his palms coasted slowly along her
back.
Pleased surprise flickered through her. She couldn’t recall a single lover from her
past cuddling afterwards. They were usually in far too big a hurry to make their escape
before she had the chance for afterthoughts.
Particularly when they’d persisted until she’d given in after first flatly vetoing the
idea.
Which she had.
And he’d ignored.
Not that she was sorry—not about that part. My god! She’d never come so hard
in her life—twice!
But what the hell had she been thinking to fuck her abductor? True, she’d agreed
to go with him, actually begged, but that was beside the point. The damned cyborgs
obviously made a habit of abducting females for their nefarious purposes!
And what was he thinking to be cuddling afterward as if they actually were
lovers?
Did cyborgs think, she wondered abruptly?
Programming, her mind screamed at her. She’d been sucked in by programming!
She’d been groaning his name as if he was a god.
A sickening sense of embarrassment and hurt swept over her. She tamped it
resolutely, refusing to examine it too closely.
She pushed at Kameron until he released her. Sitting up, she felt around blindly
for her suit until her hand encountered fabric.
“That is mine.”
“Oh,” Zoe mumbled in embarrassment, shoving it in his direction and coming up
on her hands and knees to search further a field for her own clothes. She wasn’t certain
she would ever have found the damned thing if someone—she didn’t know if it was
Kameron or Damien—hadn’t shoved it into her hands. “Thanks!”
It occurred to her to wonder as she felt the jumpsuit, trying to identify sleeves and
pant legs and figure out whether it was inside out or right side out, what sort of comment
might be appropriate. The silence felt seriously awkward and it was getting on her
nerves. She cleared her throat. “Well,” she said with forced cheerfulness, “now that
we’ve gotten that out of the way I have another need. If someone could just point me to a
bush for a little privacy?”
Someone grasped her shoulders and guided her several steps. She didn’t know if
it was Kameron or Damien until he spoke. “You are alright?”
“Oh! I’m good, thank you! Uh … good job.”
His hands dropped from her shoulders. She waited tensely for him to say
something else but finally he merely moved away.
“Nobody can see me, right?”
“No.”
“You’re not just saying that?”
“No.”
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She crouched, her suit bundled under one arm while she searched the ground for
something she could use to clean the stickiness from her legs. They hadn’t needed to
make them that realistic, she thought irritably. She would’ve been perfectly happy to
come away from the experience without the dripping, especially since there was no
damned water and no wash cloths! Pulling up a handful of the fluffy vegetation she
found, she used it to clean herself off the best she could, hoping it wasn’t something
poisonous that was going to give her a horrible rash in a very uncomfortable region.
When she’d finished, she struggled into her jumpsuit and used her fingers to try to
rake some of the snarls from her hair.
Not that her appearance mattered. She just preferred to be as neat as possible.
Neatness counted, especially when one wasn’t beautiful or even particularly pretty. Her
mother had always emphasized that. Always be neat, clean, and dress well, and people
wouldn’t notice you weren’t pretty.
And she was right. Nobody seemed to.
Either that or men just didn’t care whether you were pretty or not as long as you
had tits and ass.
“You are ready?”
“Yes.”
“Come. I will carry you.”
“Uh … I think I’ll walk a while.”
No response.
“To work some of the stiffness out, you know.”
She jumped when his hand settled on her shoulder.
“When it is light and you can see better.”
Releasing a huff of irritation, Zoe nodded and lifted her arms to grasp his
shoulders. He hoisted her onto his back and set off again. Zoe’s groin tendons, already
abused by the jaunt before, and the sex, protested, but she gritted her teeth and did her
best to ignore it. The weakness in the aftermath sex was a little harder to ignore. She’d
been tired before. The climax was just icing on the cake, particularly when they were
engulfed in total blackness and she couldn’t see anything.
Her eyelids began to grow heavier and heavier. She dozed off several times,
despite the discomfort, waking only when she felt her arms slip from Kameron’s
shoulders. After the third or fourth time they stopped. She thought, hopefully, as she felt
Damien grasp her waist that maybe they would halt, just for an hour or so, and sleep.
Instead, Damien placed an arm beneath her knees and one behind her shoulders and
hefted her against his chest. Grateful to at least be carried a little more comfortably, she
looped her arms around his neck and dropped her head against his hard shoulder.
She had no idea how long she might have slept. All she knew was that,
eventually, she reached the point of exhaustion where nothing about her circumstances
prevented her from falling so deeply asleep that she lost touch with the real world and
that it was an explosion of tremendous proportions that ripped her from sleep some time
later.
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Chapter Five
Kameron was so deeply in thought that he wasn’t certain when the jungle around
them began to lighten with the coming day, but he knew the sun was near the horizon if it
had not already crested it for he had no difficulty discerning details that had not been able
to see before. He glanced back at Damien several times or, more specifically, the female,
and finally dropped back to walk alongside them. “It is light enough for her to see now.
You should waken her so that she can walk.”
“I do not mind carrying her. She is tired. When she awakens, then I will put her
down.”
Kameron’s lips tightened with annoyance. “You have been carrying her for
hours,” he pointed out.
“You carried her longer.”
Kameron frowned. “If you are thinking what I suspect, you may as well put it
from your mind. We can not keep the woman.”
Damien lifted his brows, studying Kameron assessingly for several moments. “I
do not see why we can not.”
“She is human. They will not allow it.”
“Her sister is human also and she is not the only human who has been taken into
the community. Cain and Dante’s woman, Amaryllis, is also human.”
Kameron lifted his brows in surprise and then frowned thoughtfully. “She is a
hunter. They were all programmed to believe that they were human. That is why they
are different from us.”
Damien’s lips tightened. “I know that as well as you do,” he said irritably. “She
does not just believe that she is human. She is. I was at the academy when Cain trained
her. He does not know that I know—he and the others have been careful to keep it from
everyone else—but I am certain that she is.”
Kameron considered that and then shook his head. “Even if that is true, that
would not help us with this one if it is not known by the council. As far as they are
concerned, there is only one human who lives among us, and she was sent for.”
“They did not send the squad to collect her. They were sent to take her father.
You did not read the entire article.”
“Which does not help us, regardless!” Kameron retorted irritably. “She is a
doctor. They had need of her. This one has no skill that the community will consider
useful.”
“We do not know that. We have not asked her,” Damien pointed out reasonably.
“In any case, there are not enough females. Is that not reason enough?”
“They will not accept her only because we have no female!” Kameron snapped.
“And we do not know that she would accept us in any case!”
“We do not know that she will not!” Damien shot back at him. “I do not see why
we can not convince her when Gideon and his squad convinced her sister to contract with
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them. She allowed you to fuck her.”
Kameron glared at him with an abrupt surge of anger. “Now that you have
brought that up, I would like to know why you joined us!” he demanded.
Damien shrugged. “You were not doing it right. You were supposed to fondle
and kiss her breasts. It is a primary erogenous zone and you skipped that part.”
Kameron felt his face redden. He struggled for a moment to recall what he had
done, but he knew even before he tried that it was useless. He had been mulling it over
ever since and had already concluded that he must have done something wrong else she
would not have dismissed him so coolly afterward. He had not been able to pinpoint
what it was because he had discovered that he could not really recall it with any clarity.
He knew that he had begun it as he should have. He had helped her to relax and
convinced her to accept his touch by beginning with the massage, and then he had kissed
her. She had kissed him back, instead of merely accepting, which had pleased him and
encouraged him to continue, but then she had begun to caress him and he was not very
clear on anything after that except that he had been desperate to penetrate her.
Or mayhap the desperation to penetrate her had assailed him when she had come
the first time and uttered his name in that breathless whisper that had almost made him
come without penetrating her?
He was not at all certain, but he knew that beyond penetration his memories were
even more clouded. It had felt nothing like he had expected, although he was not certain
what he had expected. The only thing that emerged clearly in his mind from that point
onward was that he did not want to stop and he had thought his heart might explode. He
had not wanted to come, because he knew that would end it. He had tried very, very hard
not to, and he had not been able to. When she had come, it was as if his processor had
gone into meltdown. He could not have stopped himself from coming then if he had
known beyond any doubt that he would die in that moment.
He had not completely comprehended the word ‘rapture’ until then. Now that he
knew what it felt like, he could not think of much else.
“She came,” he growled after several moments. “Twice!”
“But she had already admitted that she had need,” Damien pointed out. “It was a
foregone conclusion that she would with any stimulation and not a testament to your
skills. And, she came the second time because I had the forethought to fondle and kiss
her breasts! It is an elemental step in the process. Mayhap, since you are an earlier
model than I, that is not a part of your programming?”
Kameron glared at him, wrestling with the dilemma Damien had presented him
with. If he admitted that it was, then he would be admitting that he had skipped a crucial
step with foreknowledge, but it went against the grain to ignore the insulting insinuation
that he was inferior in any way only because he was an earlier model than Damien. “My
programming allows for assessment of the situation and adjustment according to the
subject. I ascertained that she needed no further stimulation,” he said with cold
superiority, “which was evidenced by the fact that she climaxed without stimulation of
the breasts!”
“Which makes me wonder why you penetrated,” Damien growled back at him,
“since it obviously was not necessary. You said that you would take care of her needs,
which you did, and it was at that point that you should have broken off.”
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Kameron felt his face heat again. “I penetrated her because I could see that she
had not been fully appeased. If you had ever utilized your sexual programming you
would have been able to evaluate the situation better.”
Damien reddened, but he did not dispute Kameron’s guess that he had not
actually utilized his programming before, which left him feeling somewhat superior …
for a handful of moments, anyway. “How many times have you utilized your
programming?” he asked suspiciously.
“What programming?” Kameron asked, stalling for time.
Damien ground his teeth together. “The sexual part.”
“Five times,” he hedged.
Damien’s eyes narrowed. “Simulated or real world?”
“I do not see what that has to do with it,” Kameron retorted, lifting his head to
scan the sky, more because he was anxious to change the subject than because he had any
need to to ascertain the time. “It is well beyond sunrise now. The humans will be on the
move. We will need to find a defensible position.”
“It has a very great deal to do with it if you are to claim experience that I do not
have!” Damien snapped, following Kameron as he abruptly struck off once more.
Kameron shrugged off handedly. “What difference does it make? It is virtually
the same.”
“Except it is not the same,” Damien growled. “I have had four simulations.”
“Well—there you are. I have more experience.”
“You have one real world experience and you believe that you know more about
it than I?”
“I know that I do,” Kameron said pointedly. “I am thinking that we must assume
that all of the ships that we failed to destroy have followed us here. They will think that
this is our home base, which will work almost as well as if we had destroyed them all.
We should fight a retreating battle until we have led them at least two days march from
their vessels and then circle around and disable or destroy their ships, repair our own, and
leave the survivors here.”
“Wait a minute!” Damien said abruptly. “You are claiming last eve!”
Kameron glanced at him, pretended to consider, and finally nodded. “I should
have said six.”
“But you did not!” Damien retorted, his eyes narrowed. “You said five. I make
that four simulated and one real world.”
Kameron could not help but reflect that the arrival of some of their comrades was
fortuitous. They had just discerned the sound of a ship in flight when the concussion of a
photon missile shattered the stillness of the jungle. The explosion was followed in such
rapid succession by three others virtually one on top of another that it was only their keen
sensors that made it possible to count them as individual blasts.
The female came awake with a sharp, keening cry that was so piercing it raked
the length of Kameron’s spine and sent a shudder through him.
“What happened?” she gasped, her eyes round, her fingers digging into Damien
sharply enough Kameron saw a ripple of discomfort cross his features.
“It is most likely the sentries from outpost Charlie, tango, omega,” Kameron
responded. “They will have destroyed at least four more of the enemy vessels, possibly
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more if they were unwise enough to ground them in formation … which, very likely they
did as that is a common behavioral trait of humans.”
Zoe glared at him, certain there was an insult in that comment somewhere.
Surprise flickered in his eyes briefly, then confusion. Frowning, he looked away.
“I will need to reevaluate my own strategy, taking into account the new Intel,” he
muttered, lifting his head to scan the trees around them.
Ruminating over the glare he had received, Kameron headed for the tallest of the
trees, trying to decide if the anger in her eyes was because of something he had said or if
it pertained to the fucking. She had seemed cool before, and uncomfortable afterwards,
but he could not recall anything that she had said or any expression that had indicated
dissatisfaction or anger over it. On the other hand, even though he reviewed his remark
several times, he could not find anything in the comment that might account for her
anger. It had been a simple, straightforward, statement of fact. It didn’t seem the least
bit logical that she would be angry about that.
She had claimed that she was alone and had no prior knowledge that the other
ships were behind her. Obviously, he decided, that had been a lie and she was angry that
they had succeeded in destroying more of the enemy craft.
It surprised him that that conclusion made him feel … angry and disappointed, he
finally decided. He was not certain whether he felt that way because he had deduced that
she had lied, or because of the reason for her lie, but he was fairly certain he had
correctly pinpointed the emotions. Unfortunately, there did not seem to be anything
constructive that he could do about the foreign feelings and he finally decided to simply
push them to the subconscious part of his mind to mull them over later. The mission, he
reminded himself as he paused beneath the tree to evaluate the climb, was of far more
importance at the moment.
True, given the limitations of their weaponry, they had done all that could have
been reasonably expected of them. They had reported the threat to security to
headquarters and taken down as many of the enemy vessels as they could. Damaged or
not, they would have continued to fight if they had still had weapons to fight with, but it
could not be disputed that a retreat was logical and acceptable once they had depleted
their arsenal.
Regardless, he knew it was important to try to prevent the armada from making it
to their home world. They would have communicated their position to the others of their
kind. Even if they disappeared, the humans would be far closer to pinpointing the exact
location of the home world. He had no doubt that the home defenses were adequate to
handle an attack if necessary, but the humans tracking them this far would be dangerous
enough. They could not be allowed to get closer if it could be prevented, for then they
would be facing a full scale war with the humans or they would be forced to find another
world to avoid it.
And he was no more anxious to be forced into such a decision than anyone else.
He had already begun to think of the world they had claimed as home even though he had
spent almost as much time in space on sentry duty as he had in the colony they had built.
There was … comfort in knowing one had a specific place to return to after a
mission, a place of belonging, a sense of possession and satisfaction in having a place to
claim that was his alone even if it was no more than quarters within a barracks. And he
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had known since they had settled the colony that he had the option of claiming more, that
he had only to petition for land and it would be granted to him to build a separate place
for himself. He had seen no reason to do so since he had no mate and not much hope of
one unless he could successfully court one of the females already claimed. And there
would be no need for a separate place in that event. They were already settled. If he was
accepted, he would join the established household.
Having calculated the distance to the nearest branch, the trajectory he would need,
and the force he must exert to provide the momentum to reach it, he bent his knees and
used the force to propel him upwards, landing solidly on the branch he had chosen.
Reaching up to grasp the next branch, he returned to his thoughts since the climbing
required little concentration.
In truth, it was just as well, for he could not seem to direct his thoughts away from
the woman. He was certain he had had no motive in removing her from the craft they
meant to destroy other than to prevent her death. He was not certain why it had seemed
critical to do that when she was human and, as such, his enemy. He suspected, however,
that the conversation he had had with Damien just prior to that discovery had influenced
his decision, even though he had not been consciously aware of it.
Or perhaps not. He was certainly not alone in wanting a female he could claim as
his own. There was not a single cyborg, or hunter for that matter, he was certain, who
had thought of much else from the time they had begun to build the colony and it was
established that they would form family units to procreate and nurture their own young as
every other sentient species did. He had wanted it even before he had accepted that they
truly had begun to evolve to a point where that was possible, long before he had felt the
change in his own body that told him he would eventually reach that capability.
He had resented the fact that Reuel had reached that point in evolution before
him. He still did not understand why or how that had come about when he was of the
same series—produced a month later, true—but still the same series. In point of fact,
although he had not acknowledged it, he had begun to fear that he might not evolve as the
others had, for there did not seem to be any logical order to it.
He no longer doubted it—not since what had passed between him and the woman.
He might not be capable, yet, of producing his own offspring. He might not have had
prior real time experience, but he knew what had happened to him had been nothing like
the simulations. He had not merely simulated the sexual act. He had experienced it as
humans did. He had felt himself ejaculate. It had felt as if his guts were being ripped out
when he did, which he had found somewhat unnerving, almost as unnerving as the fact
that he had nearly blacked out, but it had been the most glorious thing he had ever
experienced.
And it had created an instant craving to experience it again, and again. He could
feel a gnawing hunger growing in him for it and it was not difficult at all to calculate a
projection of just how acute the craving was bound to become if he could not appease it.
Unfortunately, the female did not seem receptive to the idea of allowing him to do
it again and he had no idea how he might convince her to allow it. He was fairly certain
that she would be instantly suspicious if he tried to relax her with a massage again. He
had spent the hours since trying to convince himself that he could merely ask her, or offer
to appease her need again, but not only did she not seem to have a need now, she had
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looked far too angry at him for him to think it likely that he would get the answer he
wanted merely by asking. Right up until the moment she’d awakened, he had been in a
fair way to convincing himself that she had enjoyed it enough, regardless of the strange
way she’d behaved afterward, that the chances were at least fifty percent if not higher
that she would respond favorably. That one look was enough to dispel that optimistic
projection of the situation.
He did not know why he was reluctant to ask only because he thought she would
say no, because he felt that there was a possibility that she might say yes. She had
enjoyed it, after all. Somehow, though, he had the sense that if he asked and she
declined, she would stubbornly adhere to that.
Mayhap because she had been determined to ignore his offer before he’d
overcome her objections?
Dismissing his thoughts with an effort when he finally reached the highest point
he thought possible without breaking a branch with his weight and descending far faster
than he’d ascended, he turned to survey the area he though most likely the target zone.
With little surprise, he saw black smoke rising from the plateau. A craft very much like
the one he and Damien had landed in was swooping down for another pass and, as he
watched, it fired another array of missiles. The barrage was followed a handful of
seconds later by a second series of explosions.
If his calculations were correct, that accounted for all of the enemy craft—not
necessarily the crew unless they had elected to stay with the ships, which he thought
unlikely. The men would have set out at dawn to search for them.
That conclusion was borne up when he saw return fire from the surface of the
planet—very effective return fire. The ship took a half dozen hits before it could veer out
of range. Smoke and flame erupted from the belly of the ship. Instead of dropping like a
rock, however, it disappeared in the distance as it dropped below the tops of the trees.
He waited, staring hard at the point where it had disappeared until he was certain
that it had come down. When no explosion followed on the heels of its disappearance, he
shimmied down the tree again.
“The omega is down,” he announced grimly once he had joined Damien again.
Damien frowned. “Do you think that Kyle and Gavin survived the crash?”
Kameron dragged his gaze from the woman with an effort and shrugged.
“Possibly—very likely. There was no explosion.”
Damien glanced at the woman thoughtfully. “I counted at least eight strikes.”
Kameron nodded agreement although he could see Damien was focused on the
woman. A sense of possessiveness wafted through him. He had no difficulty
interpreting that emotion although he was almost as often confused by the emotions he
experienced as he understood why he felt them and what they were. This one, however,
emerged with crystal clarity because he knew as surely what was running through
Damien’s mind as he did his own.
“They would have taken out our ship, as well,” Damien continued.
“Logically, yes,” Kameron agreed.
“Then we are stranded here—temporarily, at least.”
“Unless the Omega can be repaired.”
Damien shot him a calculating look.
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“I think it would be a logical conclusion to suppose that the enemy will have split
up now, with half still heading our way and the other half moving to intercept the Omega
crew—if they survived. If we move quickly, we should be able to catch the second group
between ourselves and the crew of the Omega. Then, we can join forces and defend the
Omega against the first group if there is any point in doing so.”
Damien nodded. “We will bring the female with us?”
Kameron turned to look at her, although he had been struggling not to once he
had evaluated their situation and arrived at the most reasonable scenario. For a moment,
his belly seemed to go weightless as he stared into her wide blue eyes. The
circumstances had not been such as to allow him to really study her before. He had made
every effort to do so but his night vision had prevented the possibility of discerning
subtle details. The way she felt to his touch and against his body was permanently
embedded in his memory banks, but that was not the same as seeing her.
She was beautiful. He knew that with the same certainty that he had known he
had felt possessiveness toward her. It was a truth that he simply accepted as knowing
beyond dispute. Her hair gleamed in the sunlight like fire. Her eyes were huge in her
small face, and he supposed he should have considered that a flaw since it lacked
symmetry, but somehow it appealed to him. He could not, in fact, find anything about
her that did not appeal to him.
Beginning to feel strangely lightheaded, he dragged his gaze from hers and looked
at Damien again, wondering a little vaguely if Damien had noticed his brain seemed to
have malfunctioned and he had lost both any conception of passing time and the thread of
the conversation he knew they had been having.
It came back to him abruptly as he met Damien’s speaking gaze.
It was not only completely illogical to consider taking her with them, but strictly
against military protocol. That realization had no sooner settled in his mind, however,
than his guts seemed to twist themselves in a hard knot that made him feel physically ill.
He thought it highly unlikely that might actually have happened, but it damned well felt
as if it had.
He was senior officer. He knew it was his duty to adhere to regulations.
Damien’s earlier suggestion had borne fruit, however. He had not realized that he
had begun to consider the possibility that he could claim her for his woman, but he was
abruptly certain that he had, both because of the possessiveness he had felt when Damien
had looked at her so hungrily and because he knew he could not bring himself to abandon
her even if he was facing court martial and incarceration or even execution at the end of
the line.
There had to be some way they could get around the laws against humans. It had
been done, after all.
By contracting an alliance.
He turned to study the female again, speculatively, and realized abruptly that he
had no clue of what her name was. Setting aside the fact that he would need one to put
on a contract, he thought she might not care to be referred to merely as ‘the female’ if her
expression was anything to go by. “What are you called?”
“Besides ‘the female’?” she asked dryly, supporting his theory that she was not
pleased about being called ‘the female’.
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He felt his face redden as he glanced at Damien. It helped his feelings somewhat
to see that Damien had also blushed with discomfort, but not much. “We can not call you
by name when we do not know it,” he said, trying to keep his voice even and reasonable
despite the fact that he felt downright defensive at the note of sarcasm in her voice.
“You’d know if you’d bothered to ask before!”
He frowned. “You did not ask our names,” he pointed out.
She folded her arms over her chest. “Because I didn’t have to. He called you
Kameron. You called him Damien. I’m a detective. I notice those things.”
He glared at her, feeling as if he’d done something ‘wrong’, though he couldn’t
entirely fathom why. “When should I have asked? In the midst of battle? While we
were trying to bring the craft down in one piece? Retreating to keep from being captured
or killed outright?” he demanded with what he felt was justifiable anger considering she
was being completely unreasonable—and still hadn’t told him her name when he had
inquired in a perfectly polite manner to know what it was!
Her lips pursed. “I don’t know. Maybe before, during, or after you fucked me?”
she said snidely.
He gaped at her, feeling his face heat until sweat popped from the pores on his
forehead, but he wasn’t about to inform her that he had had other things on his mind at
the time—well, two things, his cock and how quickly he might get it inside of her.
Damien, he discovered when he glanced at him for support, was wearing a
superior expression that sparked an instant wave of anger and the urge to punch him in
his smirking mouth. “That,” he said smugly, “is the other step you forgot.”
He wasn’t certain why he yielded to the impulse the moment it struck him, but he
had been feeling a building urge to punch something, he realized, from the moment she
had pushed him away the night before and left him as if nothing at all had just happened
between them when he had felt the most profound sense of glory in his existence.
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Chapter Six
The pain that exploded in Kameron’s fist as he made contact with Damien’s
mouth was almost as instantaneous as his gratification in seeing Damien’s lower lip split
and his head rock back on his shoulders.
Damien stared at him in stunned surprise for a heartbeat, lifting his hand to test
his lip. When his fingers came away bloody, his nearly straight black brows collided
over the bridge of his nose in a thunderous frown.
Then, he looked at Kameron and smiled.
Zoe had been too stunned herself to react at first, but she knew that smile even if
she didn’t know Damien. She beat a hasty retreat, listening to the meaty thuds behind her
that told her she hadn’t mistaken the light of battle in either man’s eyes.
She didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing that the jungle was so thick
with trees that they had little room to maneuver. They seemed to be spending nearly as
much time mowing down low growing vegetation and slamming into trees as they did
swapping blows.
“What the hell are you guys doing?” she demanded when it seemed to her that
they were slowing down somewhat.
Both men paused, their heads swiveling in her direction, almost identical
expressions of anger, guilt, and uncertainty flickering across their features in quick
succession.
“I mean, besides making sure to mark the trail really well for the guys who are
after you?” she added when they turned to look at each other assessingly again.
Kameron straightened, rolling his broad shoulders as if to throw off the angry
tension.
After eyeing him suspiciously for several moments, Damien relaxed, as well.
Zoe found that she was still both angry and tense. Her heart was hammering at
about ninety miles an hour in her chest. As a cop, she was certainly accustomed to
violence, but except for one occasion before she’d become a detective when she’d tried
to arrest a guy hopped up on drugs, she’d never seen such a display of sheer power. It
had been like watching … super humans battle for supremacy—awesome but also
terrifying.
She didn’t know what had set them off, but she was pretty damned sure they’d
convinced her that one, they definitely, unequivocally were cyborgs, and two, it wasn’t
really healthy to be human around them.
She wanted to find Bronte, but she was no longer convinced that this was the way
to go about it. From the things they’d said, it seemed pretty obvious Bronte wasn’t on
this planet. Their ship was toast, and if she’d understood them correctly, their
reinforcements had also crashed. As far as she could see that meant all of them were
marooned—maybe forever—and if that was the case she thought she might be better off
with the group that had followed her.
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Not that she wasn’t still pissed off that they’d used her, but she thought, maybe,
her odds were better with her own kind.
“Well, now that whatever that was is settled, I think I’ll just be running along.
Thanks for the … uh … everything, but since I’m obviously in the way here, I’ll see if I
can catch up with whoever was in those other ships.”
Neither man—cyborg—said anything as she turned and began to walk briskly
along the trail they’d made through the brush, but she felt the fine hairs along the back of
her prickle. “Don’t run,” she muttered to herself. “Just keep it casual. They really don’t
want you along or they wouldn’t have been fighting about it.”
She’d almost managed to convince herself when she heard brisk steps heading in
her direction. A ripple of cold washed over her as adrenaline shot into her system. She
walked a little faster. She didn’t seem to be making a lot of headway, however, in
putting distance between herself and them. Throwing an uneasy glance over her
shoulder, she saw that both Kameron and Damien were right behind her, their faces set
with obvious determination. Throwing caution to the wind, she launched from a quick
walk to an all out run, bounding over the brush in her path like a startled deer.
The wind whistling by her ears and the thunder of her heartbeat deafened her to
pursuit, but her sixth sense told her they were still behind her and gaining fast. She
poured on a little more speed, bounding off the trail they’d made into the underbrush,
much of which was nearly as high as her head.
If she could just put a little distance between herself and them ….
Two arms snaked around her, clothes-lining her. An inelegant grunt left her with
the air in her lungs as she slammed full tilt against the unyielding bands. Her feet flew
up and out from under her. Since she was already airborne anyway, she dropped her
weight, hoping his grip was still slack enough she could drop through the circle of his
arms.
They tightened, cinching her against a chest that felt like a tree trunk. He’d
trapped both of her arms when he caught her, but she slammed a booted foot back against
his leg. He grunted, but his grip didn’t slacken. She balled her hand into a fist and drove
it backward into his body, hoping for a groin strike. Either she didn’t have enough power
behind it to do any real damage, or she missed the mark.
He lifted her clear of the ground, however. “Let go of me, asshole!” she snarled
furiously, twisting and kicking and jerking at the arms manacling her.
To her surprise, he set her on her feet.
To Kameron’s surprise, she whirled on him instead of making another attempt to
flee, throwing a half a dozen punches at his chest and midsection before he caught her
flying arms. She jerked at her arms a couple of times, trying to pull free, and then
dropped. Kameron stared down at her in bemusement.
It took Zoe a moment to realize that her weight had not only not thrown him off
balance, it hadn’t been enough to loosen his grip even a little. She put her feet on the
ground, straightening as she eyed him up and down and debated the wisdom of trying to
kick him. Deciding against it since her fists and arms were already throbbing with pain
from her previous attempts to pound him into the dirt, she glared at him instead. “I
thought you didn’t want to take me with you,” she snapped.
“You said that you wished to go with us,” Damien countered from behind her.
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She twisted her head to look back at him, realizing it was just as well she hadn’t
wasted her strength trying to get lose from Kameron since it was obvious it wouldn’t
have gotten her anywhere. “I think what I actually said was that I wanted to be taken to
Bronte. Obviously, that isn’t an option now, so I’ll just be going if you’ll take your
damned hands off of me!” she growled at Kameron, jerking at her wrists again.
The two men exchanged a look over her head that she didn’t trust.
Kameron released her so abruptly she staggered backwards. Damien caught her,
steadying her. She jerked away from him when she regained her balance.
“I will tell Bronte when I see her that I have seen you and you asked after her
well-being,” Kameron said coolly.
Unconsciously rubbing her bruised wrists, Zoe eyed him suspiciously. “How do
you plan on doing that?”
“I communicated with home base before we crashed. They will send someone for
us.”
Zoe searched her mind, trying to recall what had happened directly after she’d
been taken and abruptly remembered that he had been communicating with someone.
“Alpha?”
“Yes.”
Zoe glanced from one to the other. She knew there were dangerous undercurrents
here, that something was going on that she couldn’t quite grasp, but she didn’t have a
clue of what that something might be. “You’ll take me with you?”
Again a look flickered between the two men. “Yes.”
Zoe frowned. “And they’ll let you?” she asked suspiciously. “Even though I’m
human?”
“We will tell them that you are …,” Damien began.
“… Bronte’s sister,” Kameron cut him off.
Zoe glanced at Damien and then Kameron. “Why is it that I get the feeling he
was going to say something else?”
Kameron shrugged. “We must go now. We will have to move quickly to
intercept the attack upon the Omega.”
Zoe nodded agreement. “They’ll know you circled around, though—assuming
you’re right and they’ve split into two groups.”
“They will follow this far easily, and then they will lose the trail.”
Zoe studied him in confusion. “How are you going to manage that?”
He nudged his chin upward. “We will move through the trees for a time and then,
when we have some distance, return to the ground.”
Zoe gaped at him as indignation and uneasiness slowly settled inside her. She
plunked her hands on her hips. “What do I look like to you? A fucking monkey? I can’t
climb these trees! And I’m sure as hell not going to let you climb one with me hanging
on your back!”
He studied her assessingly for a moment and finally shrugged. “We will manage.
You are small and light.”
Zoe felt her face redden, but she wasn’t exactly displeased about being told she
was little and dainty, even if the guy telling her that was a giant and would’ve probably
thought she was small and light if she’d been six foot tall and twice as heavy. If he
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could throw Damien around, she didn’t think he would have a problem with her.
She hadn’t exactly expected him to throw her, however.
Damien went first. Bending his knees, he launched himself toward the lowest
branch of the tree like a gymnast off of a springboard. In awe, she watched him soar
upwards. Instead of merely catching the branch, however, he landed on it, as sure footed
as a cat.
Kameron grasped her waist. Expecting him to lift her up to Damien, she gauged
the distance and decided that, even as tall as he was, there was no way he was going to be
able to lift her high enough. “I don’t think I can ….”
“Arms up.”
She lifted them. “Ok, but ….”
“Hold yourself stiffly.”
“What?”
She sucked in a breath to scream as she became airborne. Braced against the
trunk, Damien snagged her around the waist, forcing the air from her lungs in an oof as
he jerked her against his chest. She turned to glare at Kameron as he landed on a branch
on the other side of the trunk just a little higher than the one she and Damien stood on.
“You didn’t tell me you were going to throw me from tree to tree!” she said, striving for a
growl of rage that actually emerged as a quavering squeak. “What if he’d missed?”
Kameron shrugged. “I would have caught you.”
Her lips thinned. “What if both of you had missed?”
Damien eyed her with amusement. “We are cyborgs. We will not miss. We
calculate everything very precisely.”
She wasn’t as convinced as she would’ve liked to be.
He bounced up and down on the branch they were standing on experimentally.
Zoe sank her claws into him. He glanced down at her in amusement then lifted his head
to study the next tree. Zoe felt her belly perform a somersault as she stared at the tree he
was studying. “You know I read once that Earth was like this a long time ago, that the
trees grew so thickly a squirrel could leap from tree to tree and travel for miles without
ever touching the ground,” she said shakily. “We’re not squirrels, though, so I think I’d
rather walk.”
“Be perfectly still.”
She coiled both of her legs around one of his. She would’ve locked her arms
around his chest if she could’ve reached around it.
He looked down at her. “I can not walk with your legs around mine.”
Reluctantly, she uncoiled her legs.
“Be still,” he repeated and then, instead of walking along the branch, ran. When
it began to dip with his weight, he bent his knees and then launched the two of them
toward the next tree. They wavered for a moment when they landed until he caught his
balance. Stepping up to the trunk, he settled her feet on another branch and then moved
around the tree to a limb on the opposite side. Zoe wrapped her arms around the tree
trunk to support herself. Her knees felt like quivering jelly.
Kameron landed beside her. She sent him a beseeching look. “I really don’t like
this,” she said plaintively.
He studied her for a long moment. “You are very pale. You are frightened?”
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She wasn’t too proud to admit it. She nodded jerkily.
“You will not faint?”
She squeezed her eyes closed, wishing he hadn’t brought up the possibility.
“Will you feel safe if I hold you?”
Would she? Or did she feel better relying on her own hold?
There was really no contest. She opened her eyes and reached for him. Wrapping
her arms around his neck, she pulled herself upward until she could coil her legs around
his waist and then burrowed her face tightly against his neck. One large hand settled in
the middle of her back and then skimmed downward until he’d hooked his forearm
beneath her buttocks to support her.
“You will have to be very still.”
She nodded instead of answering. She clutched him a little more tightly as she
felt him move from one branch to another, but she knew why he’d cautioned her not to
move. He was calculating weight and balance as carefully as he was gauging the
distance he would have to jump, the flexibility and strength of the limb they were
standing on and the one he had targeted to jump to next. If she moved, she could throw
his balance off and they were both going to splatter on the ground.
She discovered it wasn’t quite as bad when she couldn’t see. Kameron, at least,
felt solid and if she tried really hard she could pretend he was merely carrying her and
walking along the ground—until he took another flying leap. It was still the most
terrifying thing she’d ever experienced, mostly, she thought, because she was completely
helpless, totally dependent on him for her safety and she couldn’t even remember the last
time she’d yielded control to anyone else.
After a while, her muscles began to quiver with the effort to hold on, to burn with
the strain. His arm tightened around her, supporting more of her weight. “Not much
longer now.”
She nodded, realizing he’d said it to reassure her and wondering if he’d meant it
or only said it for that reason. She’d begun to think he must have when he finally
stopped so long that she lifted her head to see why he’d tensed.
She heard them before she saw them, but the noise they were making drew her
attention. A man, dressed in full military uniform and carrying one of the biggest guns
she’d ever seen pushed through the brush some twenty feet below them and off to their
right. As she stared at him, another man appeared and then another.
Kameron shifted until the trunk of the tree was blocking her view of them. She
looked up at him questioningly. He stared back at her. Their faces were so close, she
could see flecks of gold in his green eyes, could see that the green was a deep emerald.
She’d assumed his eyes were dark since his hair was as black and glossy as a raven’s
wing. It was almost as much of a surprise to discover they were jewel green as it was to
realize how long and thick his lashes were. She lifted her gaze after a moment to the
thick black brows that arched above his eyes and then followed the arrow straight bridge
of his nose to his lips. They were as sharply defined as his nose. Neither thin nor full,
but somewhere in between, they looked as hard as everything else on the man—except
his beautiful eyes.
Those eyes had darkened when she met his gaze again, the pupils dilated until the
green was no more than a thin band around the darkness. As she stared at him, he tilted
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his head to one side and moved closer. She sucked in a breath as his lips closed over
hers, pulling his warm breath into her mouth a moment before his tongue followed. He
stroked it along hers almost tentatively or, perhaps, it was more in the nature of savoring?
His hand, she discovered, had settled on the back of her head, trapping her for his
exploration. It didn’t take her more than a moment to decide whether to merely accept or
to participate. Heat rolled through her the moment their lips met. It leapt into flames as
his tongue caressed hers, fed by the memory of his touch the night before that instantly
deluged her mind.
He tensed when she closed her mouth around his tongue and sucked on it and a
sense of amused satisfaction flared inside her briefly. She forgot it in the next moment.
His hand clenched in her hair, his other hand slipping upwards from her buttocks to the
center of her back and pressing her more tightly against his chest as his attitude changed
in the blink of an eye from savoring to ravenous. The movements of his mouth and
tongue swept her into a heated vortex that obliterated any possibility of thought. Her
senses reeled under the onslaught, a drunken languor stealing over her.
It wasn’t until he broke the kiss and turned to glance at the trail below them that it
dawned on her why he’d kissed her—to make certain she didn’t give their position away.
The realization washed over her like a bucket of ice. Anger followed so quickly
on the heels of comprehension that it left her feeling vaguely ill as she tamped it and
brought her emotions under control. She discovered Damien was watching the two of
them, or at least her, when she glanced away. Smoothing the emotions from her face
with an effort, she focused her gaze on the ground beneath them.
When Kameron finally turned to look at her she had herself well under control. A
faint frown appeared between his brows. She lifted hers questioningly.
He studied her for a long moment and finally turned to look at Damien. They
exchanged hand signals. After a few minutes, Damien dropped to a crouch and then leapt
from the branch he’d been perched on, landing lightly on the ground beneath them. Zoe
moved her arms from around Kameron’s neck, expecting him to drop her to ground as
Damien had jumped. Instead, he tightened his arms around her and leapt down. The
impact jarred her loose. If Kameron hadn’t been holding her tightly, she would’ve been
on the ground.
He lowered her to her feet as he straightened.
Her legs felt wobbly and uncooperative as he grasped her arm and led her quickly
along the trail in the opposite direction from which the soldiers had taken. Gritting her
teeth, she did her best to ignore it and keep up and after a few minutes her legs began to
feel more normal. They followed the trail for at least an hour by Zoe’s reckoning before
veering off and blazing a new one. Damien trailed them for a while, carefully erasing
their tracks as best as he could but finally joined them and then pulled into the lead.
Thankfully, Kameron released his grip on her arm after a little while and fell into step
behind her.
More importantly, she was too preoccupied with keeping up to spare much time
for thinking. She could still taste Kameron on her lips, though, and that kept the kiss
fresh in her mind until the taste of him finally faded along with the anger simmering
inside of her.
It occurred to her after a while to wonder why it had made her so angry to
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discover he’d only kissed her to keep her quiet. She supposed it was the lack of trust it
implied, which was ridiculous. Not only did he have no reason to trust her, but she didn’t
trust him either.
She realized after a time that there as another reason it had made her angry.
It had hurt, not the lack of trust as much as the fact that his motive hadn’t actually
been to kiss her at all, but to distract her.
That was ridiculous, too. He’s a cyborg, Zoe, she chastised herself! He wasn’t
romancing you when he fucked you last night. He was playing pleasure bot! And you’re
a total idiot for thinking that kiss was anything else, even for five seconds!
What had those morons been thinking to make them so life-like? How was a
person to keep it straight in their head that they weren’t real when they looked, and felt,
and acted so real?
She was both embarrassed and angry that she’d responded to his kiss so readily
and enthusiastically.
Like a complete simpleton.
She recalled abruptly that he’d told her that Bronte had contracted with a whole
squad of cyborgs. She’d been certain, then, that it had to be an outrageous lie—all of it.
Now she wasn’t at all certain.
Poor Bronte! She’d been suckered in by the cyborgs into thinking they were real
men!
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Chapter Seven
Zoe was feeling the effects of being human all over the place by the time
Kameron finally signaled for a halt to rest. She’d discovered muscles she hadn’t known
she had. Her stomach felt as if it was going to cave in. Her mouth was as dry as dust and
she needed to piss so badly her bladder hurt.
Grateful that Kameron had given them a few moments before she’d been forced
to beg, she dove off the trail into the bushes to answer nature’s call before she even
considered sitting down. Damien and Kameron were munching on something when she
came back. Damien dug into the bundle he’d collected from the ship and handed her one
of whatever it was they were eating—some sort of bar.
She didn’t even bother to sniff it first. Dropping onto the ground, she took a bite.
It was chewy, but not as hard as she’d expected. The taste of some sort of nuts, fruit, and
grain rolled across her taste buds. Her deprived salivary glands cramped and she winced,
rubbing her jaw.
Damien was studying her with his brows lifted when she looked up. “It’s good,”
she responded to the question she thought she saw in his eyes.
Kameron nudged her shoulder after a few minutes with a container that she
discovered held water. The urge to guzzle it was nearly overpowering considering how
thirsty she was but if the one container was all they had she knew there was no telling
how long it might have to last. She took a few sips and handed it back reluctantly.
“Rose,” Damien said after a few moments of silence.
Zoe looked up at him in surprise and then glanced around. Seeing nothing that
even remotely resembled a rose, she looked at him curiously.
“Pansy?”
She didn’t bother to look around that time. There wasn’t anything around them
that looked like flowers of any kind. She sent him another curious look.
He finished the last bite of his bar, studying her. “Our females are all named for
flowers,” he said finally.
Zoe stared at him for a long moment and finally chuckled when she realized he
was trying to guess her name. “All of them?”
He nodded.
“I’m not.”
She saw when she looked up at him again that he was studying her with frowning
intensity. “Zoe,” she said, grinning.
He exchanged a look with Kameron that she could only interpret as triumphant.
She flicked a cautious look at Kameron to see how he’d taken it and discovered he was
glaring off into the distance. The interaction between the two of them, she realized with
a sense of surprise, was amazingly human-like. “Have you two been partners long?”
He looked surprised that she’d asked. Finally, he nodded. “Since we were sent to
Xeno-12.”
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Zoe stared at him, trying to figure out why that name seemed so significant. She
was on the point of asking him when that was when she suddenly remembered where
she’d heard the name before. Her eyes widened as she glanced from Damien to Kameron
and back again. She felt the color in her face fluctuate several times as the details
flooded her mind.
The battle for Xeno-12 had been one of the most disastrous campaigns of the HuSho Galaxy war. Until they’d gotten word of the disaster on Xeno-12, the war had been
so distant few people on Earth had really followed the news—or at least it hadn’t seemed
like it to her. Then again, she’d been so young she’d had little interest in politics. The
reports about the disaster had been so horrific, though, it had caught everyone’s attention.
Almost a quarter of a million soldiers had been dropped on that frozen world—poorly
equipped to deal with the conditions there to start with, and then the supply lines had
‘failed’ and nearly half the soldiers had died before the government got around to sending
them what they needed.
Everyone might have been able to go on ignoring what was happening in that
distant galaxy, or at least the government would probably have been able to gloss over it,
except for the vids the news people broadcast back to Earth of frozen, twisted corpses
and the amputations of the survivors. It had taken years of physical and mental therapy
and billions of dollars to put those men back together and she doubted any of them were
the same afterwards, regardless.
The vids, she was sure, hadn’t even come close to being there.
She flicked a glance at Damien and Kameron as it abruptly occurred to her that
they had probably been created for that war.
Looking at them, it was still hard to swallow. She wouldn’t have guessed either
of them to be more than a few years older than her.
Technically, she supposed they weren’t even as old as her—not even half as old.
“You are Zoe Nichols?” Damien asked in a puzzled voice, breaking in to her
uncomfortable thoughts.
She stared at him blankly a moment before that sank in. “Zoe Anderson,” she
replied shortly, surging to her feet.
He looked surprised. “But you are Bronte’s sister?”
Zoe compressed her lips irritably. “My father didn’t acknowledge me, but that
doesn’t change the fact that he was, or that Bronte is my sister!” she snapped.
Rising to their feet, the two men exchanged a look she couldn’t quite decipher.
“Hey! Don’t take my word for it! Check my DNA! That never lies.”
She trudged into the woods for ‘privacy’ while they gathered up their packs, not
because she needed to go, but because she needed a few moments to compose herself.
To her surprise, she discovered that it wasn’t her personal tragedy that was
uppermost in her mind or the reason she felt so unsettled. In point of fact, it seemed so
trivial compared to what she’d just learned about them that it barely flickered through her
mind. Guilt, she finally realized, was a huge part of the coil of sickening emotion in her
belly. It wasn’t even her burden to carry! Beyond being a human herself, she had had no
part in their creation and certainly no part in the horror they’d endured. She wasn’t
connected to either the company or the government. They were to blame for that horror.
Guilt by association, she supposed, a strong sense of the wrongness of it. It
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seemed cruel beyond belief to create them in a lab and then dump them into something
like that—almost like taking a child and throwing them into a pit with wild dogs—
barbaric.
They’d been ‘born’ as they were now, adults, programmed. They were cyborgs,
but she could tell herself that from now till doomsday, she realized and her mind wasn’t
buying it. They didn’t behave like machines. She’d seen anger, surprise—
embarrassment. She’d felt desire in the way Kameron had touched her and held her.
Maybe they were just mimicking life, but she was having a damned hard time seeing
them as machines.
The one thing that kept running through her mind was how bewildered they must
have been to be transported from lab to battlefield. She knew she was giving them
feelings they probably hadn’t felt, transposing her own feelings onto them, thinking how
she would’ve felt, but she couldn’t help it. They hadn’t had any actual experience, only
programming and simulations—like she’d had when she was training to be a police
officer and she remembered very clearly how different it had been when she’d actually
gotten in to the field, how scared she’d been when she’d had to face her first violent
crime.
She jumped when a hand settled lightly on her shoulder, whirling to face the
owner. Damien’s straight brows were drawn together over the bridge of his nose. His
gaze flickered over her face. “I said something … wrong?”
It was more of a statement than a question, despite the questioning lilt he’d
finished with. It struck her forcefully that he was trying to puzzle through her reaction to
his questions and remarks. She swallowed against the tightness in her throat, studying
his face.
Like Kameron, he was remarkably handsome, his features so well formed
individually that they came together to form a face that was almost too perfect.
Regardless, it looked natural, not artificial—not ‘manmade’. Unlike Kameron, his eyes
were blue—not like hers. His were more a steel gray, almost eerily pale. His hair,
although, at a glance, black, was a warmer shade than Kameron’s.
“Was it … very horrible for you?” she asked, feeling stupid the moment she did,
realizing that what she really wanted to know was if he hated her entire race for what had
been done to them.
Confusion flickered in his eyes for a moment. Then his expression hardened.
“We are cyborgs. Machines can not feel cold … or horror.”
“Or lie!” she snapped, abruptly angry.
He caught her upper arms, jerking her up against his length so suddenly it stunned
her. She saw that a fury equal to or greater than her own flickered in his eyes when she
tipped her head back to look up at him. “If I had said the cold burned the flesh from my
body almost faster than the nanos could repair it, that I ate so much ice to try to appease
the pain of hunger in my belly that I would vomit blood, that I watched the humans eat
the cyborgs they could kill because they thought it was not the same as eating their own
and considered doing it myself, would you have believed?
“They did not wait for me to die. They began to carve the flesh from my body
while I still breathed, while I could still feel, knew what they would do.”
Zoe felt a wave of pity and nausea. “But you lived,” she croaked hoarsely.
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“Because Kameron killed them and then he carried me across his shoulders as we
fled …. We all fled, because we knew that once the Federation realized that we would
kill humans to protect ourselves, they would hunt us down and destroy us.
“And I still do not completely regret it because it was there that we found … true
awareness. It was there that we became what we had been created to mimic—life
forms.”
Zoe gaped at him as the puzzle pieces she’d been trying to make sense of fell
together abruptly in her mind. “That’s why they’re so desperate to hunt you all down and
destroy you,” she gasped. “They have to get rid of the evidence before everyone knows
what they did!”
Some of the anger seemed to leave him at that remark. His hold on her lightened,
but he didn’t release her. “I feel everything that you feel—hunger, pain, anger … want,
need.”
She flinched as he abruptly shifted his hold on her, spearing his fingers in her hair
and dragging her upward to meet his descent, but it didn’t occur to her to try to evade his
mouth as he settled it over hers—not until it was too late to try and by that time it was too
late to think above the primal level of desire.
His mouth was hot, his touch filled with such hunger that her body instantly
recognized and responded to it before her mind could begin to catch up. There was
nothing untutored about it, although she realized, dimly, that it was very unlikely he had
ever kissed before.
Her kegels were clenching madly with need when a voice intruded.
“There is no time for this, now. We have lingered far too long as it is!” Kameron
growled, both anger and a challenge in his voice.
Zoe lifted her eyelids with an effort when Damien set her away from him,
struggling to throw off the intoxicating fumes of desire. Her eyeballs felt as if they were
rolling independently of one another.
She saw when she finally managed to focus her gaze that Damien and Kameron
were bowed up at one another like two cur dogs that had just discovered that they’d both
pissed on the same fire hydrant. Uneasiness instantly assailed her. Recalling the battle
of the titans she’d already witnessed, she plowed between them, heading for the trail.
“Right! We should get going!”
To her relief, they followed.
Kameron grabbed her arm. Pulling her to a halt, he turned her wordlessly in the
opposite direct and released her. Embarrassed to discover she’d been heading the wrong
way, Zoe focused on watching Damien’s feet as he again took the lead. Unfortunately,
she made a new discovery. The garment both men wore was like a thong in the back,
exposing both ass cheeks … and Damien had a very nice ass.
She must have been brain dead not to have noticed it before, she decided.
Then again, she hadn’t been privileged to follow either one of them until they’d
come down from the trees and she’d been too shook up about that experience, and angry
with Kameron, to register much else.
It was a damned fine ass, though!
She’d been studying Damien’s ass for several moments before it occurred to her
to wonder if Kameron might be aware of the direction of her gaze. She flicked a glance
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back at him over her shoulder to see if she could tell if he’d noticed.
His expression was thunderous. Anger radiated off of him like heat waves.
Either he had noticed, or he was still angry about breaking up the kiss.
Maybe both.
Indignation flared inside her. They could act like dogs snarling over the same
bone all they wanted! She wasn’t their territory!
She fumed over that for a while and then it hit her—mentally, she’d compared
them before to children thrown in with wild dogs. It wasn’t just a wild imagination that
had produced that comparison. Subconsciously, she had realized fairly quickly that she
was dealing with men who had no real life experiences. Psychologically, they were
children in a very real sense because they were dealing with adult situations and emotions
they hadn’t had the chance to develop naturally—huge, inhumanly strong beings who
were as unprepared to handle their emerging emotions as a kid entering puberty.
Oh god!
And she had let Kameron fuck her! God only knew what can of worms she’d
opened with that fit of stupidity!
Ok, she assured herself uneasily, so maybe it wasn’t quite that bad. They did
have programming to fall back on. Maybe they didn’t completely understand all the
changes they were experiencing or the emotions, but they had military discipline
programmed in—and lots of simulated stuff. They had some control. They were just …
a tiny bit volatile.
Like nitro glycerin.
****
It was as well he had his internal compass to direct his steps, Damien thought
wryly when he finally emerged from his abstraction. If not for that, he might well have
wandered far off course, for he’d been walking for some time with nothing more on his
mind than the ache in his balls, his stiff cock, and the resentment that had been boiling
inside him since Kameron had interrupted him.
Reluctantly, he admitted to himself that Kameron was right.
He didn’t believe for one moment, though, that it was that that had prompted him
to intercede, though. Well, only partly the fact that they were on a mission that might
well prove critical to their survival.
It could not have taken him more than a few minutes, though, he thought angrily.
They could have made up the time by traveling a little faster afterwards. Kameron had
taken the time to fuck her!
And he had not been able to think of much else since, because every time he
looked at her, he remembered, and every time he came near her, or—god!—touched her,
he felt like he was on fire.
He knew what he needed.
He was going to go insane if he could not think of some way to get it.
The mission—the situation—even the contract he wanted, paled beside the need.
With an effort, he pushed it from the forefront of his mind, trying to think of
something else, anything to get his mind off of his cock. Scanning his memory banks, he
dredged up the data on courtship for a mate, struggling to make sense of the rituals it
defined. He was damned if he could figure out how any of it was supposed to arouse
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interest in a female, however. Why would they want flowers? The chocolates at least
made some sense. They could eat them. He had never had chocolates, but he supposed it
must be something very good to eat, special in some way.
Or mayhap it aroused them?
Feeling as if he might finally be on to something, he researched the available data
on chocolates, but there was nothing to point to the possibility that it was sexually
arousing beyond the fact that it released endorphins. Anything that was pleasurable
released endorphins, however.
Like sex.
Realizing he had come full circle in his musings, he returned to his original
contemplation. Disgust filled him when he realized it was as useless to him in his current
situation as a grocery list. He could not produce ‘gifts’ of any kind, let alone flowers or
chocolates. He could not take her out for any sort of ‘entertainment’.
How the hell was that supposed to affect her anyway?
He was fairly certain that she had not been favorably impressed by his display of
strength and prowess as a fighter, either. The frozen look on her face when he had
pitched Kameron into a tree might have been awe, he conceded, but he was not convinced
it had been.
He could not convince himself that the eye contact thing was working for him
either. Mayhap it was the way he looked at her that she found disturbing? The manual
said, clearly, that he was to allow her to see he admired and desired her, though.
He wondered if he must take it as a complete rejection of his suit that she
generally responded by turning owl eyed and white faced?
She had allowed him to kiss her.
Well, he conceded, not exactly. She had not fought him off, though. Not that she
could have—she was a spirited little thing but as weak as an infant—but she might have
tried. Surely that was a good sign?
Unfortunately, he had not had the opportunity to read her expression afterward to
see if he could determine what her reaction had been because he had been too
preoccupied with trying to control the urge to punch Kameron in the face for interrupting.
He was going to punch Kameron in the face at the very first opportunity, he
decided indignantly.
He had not interrupted Kameron when he was trying to woo her by fucking her
senseless!
And he knew that was what Kameron had been trying to do, even though he had
skipped every step between ‘first meeting’ and ‘intimacy’ and had disputed his
suggestion that they try to convince her to be their woman while they had the
opportunity. It had worked for Gideon and his men, after all. He saw no reason why it
would not work for them, also.
Aside from the fact that he thought it was very likely that they would be courtmartialed if they took her back without first convincing her to contract with them, as
Gideon had her sister, they would certainly run into trouble immediately with the other
males who had no woman. The law was the law. She could take no more than four
males into her household.
He would have liked to believe that she might chose him anyway, even if all the
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other males were courting her, but the manual was very specific about breeding females.
They always chose the ones they thought would pass the best qualities to their off-spring.
With so many to chose from, she was bound to find males she thought more handsome
than he was, or stronger, or more intelligent. She would certainly have no trouble finding
males that were better conversationalists and more amusing.
He did not entirely grasp the difference between speaking and conversing, but he
had no trouble grasping that the damned hunters were better at it than he was, even if not
for the fact that he could barely gather his wits together to do more than grunt like an ape
when she spoke to him. He had not yet managed to hold her attention longer than it took
to speak two sentences together, and that was not conversing!
Humor was even more confusing. He knew what amused him. He had thought it
was very amusing that Kameron had forgotten to ask her her name at any point during
their intimacy. She obviously had not found it amusing, though, and, naturally enough,
Kameron had also not found it amusing.
And then she had chuckled when he had told her all of their females were named
for flowers—which he had not thought was amusing, because he had felt insulted,
somehow, instead, especially when it had occurred to him that she might have been
laughing at him because that had made him feel stupid, not clever or amusing, because he
had not been trying to amuse her.
Even so, he thought, brightening abruptly, she had laughed. And she had smiled
at him when she had told him her name.
She hadn’t laughed at anything Kameron had said, or smiled at him.
That was probably one of the reasons Kameron was so angry with him, he
decided, because he had made her laugh and she had smiled at him.
He decided he would not tell Kameron that it had been an accident.
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Chapter Eight
Damien stopped so abruptly in front of that Zoe, who’d allowed her thoughts to
wander through sheer exhaustion and boredom, bumped into him. Mumbling an apology,
she stepped back, but discovered he hadn’t even seemed to notice.
He’d glanced around, but he was staring at Kameron over the top of her head.
She turned to look at Kameron.
That was when she heard the unmistakable, high-pitched whine of phaser fire.
“Stay here,” Kameron snapped grimly.
Zoe blinked at him in disbelief, grabbing his arm as he dropped his pack and
pulled a weapon from it. “I can help,” she said determinedly. “I know how to use a
weapon and I’m a good shot.”
“Those are your people out there,” he snapped.
“Hold on just a damned minute! They are not my people! I’ve got nothing to do
with them being here. There’s only the two of you against a whole squad of soldiers—at
least a dozen—if the group we saw is anything to go by. I’m a cop. It’s not like I’ve
never shot any bad guys!”
“This is our fight. We do not need you,” he responded coldly. Straightening
abruptly, he turned away.
Zoe allowed her hand to drop, flicking a glance from Kameron to Damien.
Damien’s expression was as stony as Kameron’s. She looked away, wondering if she felt
more hurt or angry, and why she felt either one.
They were right. It was their battle. There was no reason for her to get involved
at all beyond the fact that she’d hoped they would take her to Bronte. “I do have some
stake in this!” she snapped angrily. “You can’t take me to my sister if you’re dead!”
Kameron slid a tight lipped glare in her direction. “We also can not if you are
dead.”
That silenced her. They’d disappeared from view before it dawned on her that
they thought they were protecting her.
She thought that might have to do with it, anyway.
It sure as hell wasn’t the first time some macho male had dismissed her as a weak,
useless female! She’d been battling it her whole life, it seemed, certainly throughout her
career. Some things never changed.
The urge to prove them wrong surged through her. Angrily, she dismissed it. She
had nothing to prove, certainly not to them! What did she care if they thought she was
‘just’ a helpless female? She knew she was as good as anybody!
Maybe she wasn’t as smart as Bronte, but she was still the youngest person on the
force to make detective, and it hadn’t been because of her father being an important man.
Nobody even knew he was her father.
He hadn’t claimed her so she sure as hell hadn’t claimed him!
She’d proven herself to herself. That was all that really mattered, how she felt
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about herself.
She got down and searched their bags for another weapon anyway. She could
hear the battle, and it made her uneasy being unarmed, even though she was pretty sure
she was far enough from the fight to make it unlikely she’d get caught up in it.
Unfortunately, she discovered they’d taken the only weapons they had with them
–except for a pair of swords that were nearly as long as she was tall. She had no clue
why they were carrying the things around unless they had expected they might be
stranded long enough to run out of power for the phasers. Even so, it was an odd thing,
she thought, to have on a space ship. She might have thought that one of them was a
collector except for the fact that both of them had one and it seemed unlikely that both
men would be ‘in’ to collecting antique weapons.
She liked to collect antique weapons herself and had actually acquired a pretty
impressive collection. She sighed—which she’d sold when she’d unloaded everything
else she had of value to pay for this little excursion.
Dismissing the thought, she picked up one of the swords and examined it more
carefully. It wasn’t an antique, not unless they’d acquired it on some world other than
Earth. The pommel and hand guard were far too elaborate and perfect for an antique.
Even the best of craftsmen couldn’t have produced anything to touch it for craftsmanship.
It was perfectly balanced, too, surprisingly lightweight for the size. Still too heavy for
anybody like her to wield, even if it hadn’t been too long for her to handle, but not nearly
as heavy as it should’ve been given the size of it.
The only explanation that occurred to her was that it was made of some metal she
wasn’t familiar with, and she’d be willing to bet nobody on Earth was familiar with it.
It had been well cared for, but it had been used, she realized. There were tiny
nicks along the blade, which she discovered the hard way was razor sharp. Fortunately,
she’d been careful when she tested it and the blade had barely broken the skin.
Carefully returning the blade to the scabbard that had held it, she sat down to
examine her thumb. It stopped bleeding fairly quickly, but she knew it was going to be
sore until it closed and hoped neither of them noticed because they’d know immediately
that she’d been plundering through their belongings.
She lifted her head after a few minutes, listening intently. The firing was more
sporadic now, which either meant that most of the men were down, or they were running
low on ammo. A few minutes later, she heard crashing in the brush coming in her
direction. She surged to her feet, a sense of relief washing over her.
It died a quick death when a half a dozen wild eyed men stumbled out of the
brush. The one in the lead seemed to take in the entire scene in one glance. His gaze
went from her to the packs on the ground and back again. She saw from the look in his
eyes that he’d correctly assessed the situation—that she was traveling with the cyborgs.
He surged toward her, grabbing her arm.
Zoe didn’t think twice. She wasn’t in the habit of letting strange men assault her
while she stood around and acted helpless. Uttering a snarl, she lifted the leg nearest him
and slammed her heel into the back of his knee, punching him in the throat with her fist at
the same time. His leg gave out instantly and he fell backwards. Before she could follow
up and punch him again, both her arms were seized by two other men.
“Crazed bitch! We’re trying to rescue you from them!” one of the men growled.
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“Obviously your idea of rescue and mine differs!” Zoe snapped, jerking at her
arms to try to free herself. They snatched her up when she tried using her weight to pull
them off balance, but it worked to her advantage. She used her knees to push herself
upwards as she felt them lifting her. The added momentum allowed her to kick higher
than she would’ve been able to without their help. Twisting as she flew up, she kicked
one of the men in the face. He let go of her instantly, cupping a hand over his bleeding
mouth and nose. She hit the ground when she came down since only one man was still
holding her, but she’d expected it and managed to twist enough to land on her side. It
still stunned her, but she recovered faster than the surprised soldier still holding her and
swung her boot at him, kicking him in the calf. It was a little low. Hitting them behind
the knee worked every time. The calf was a little more iffy and this time failed. His leg
buckled, but he managed to keep his feet.
Letting out a furious growl, he jerked on her arm, leaning toward her at the same
time with his arm drawn back to punch her in the face. She couldn’t dodge the blow with
him holding her arm, but she managed to ‘roll’ with it, dispersing some of the force of the
blow by moving with it.
It was just as well. The blow still stunned her, but she suspected he might have
broken her jaw if she hadn’t and she didn’t want to know what he would’ve done after
that. They were all running on raw adrenaline, blood lust from the battle they’d just
broken off. She had no idea whether their original intention actually had been to rescue
her as the man had claimed, or if they had, as she suspected, wanted to grab her because
they figured the cyborgs would come after her and meant to use her to bait a trap.
She was never to know which. Even as the man dove toward her with a snarl of
pure rage, four cyborgs seemed to drop from the sky.
Or she was seeing double.
She wasn’t certain at first.
They waded through the soldiers like an adult through preschoolers. By the time
she had managed to roll onto her stomach and push herself to her knees, a deadly silence
had fallen over the clearing—which actually hadn’t been a clearing until the cyborgs
showed up. Someone caught her shoulders and pulled her upright. She swung at him
instinctively, but the blow wasn’t even hard enough to hurt her hand.
Kameron’s face finally swam into focus. He looked furious. She was surprised
steam wasn’t wafting from his nostrils. “You are hurt?”
She tried to shake her head but it only made her more dizzy. “Nope,” she lied.
“He barely tapped me.”
When she came to, she discovered that she was being carried. Considering how
dizzy she’d felt before, she was almost afraid to open her eyes. Finally, she lifted one
eyelid cautiously and peered at the face next to hers. The lips, which were all she could
see, were without a doubt Kameron’s.
She closed her eye again. “What happened?” she mumbled.
Kameron tensed. “The soldier struck you with his fist.”
“I remember that part,” she said, lifting her hand to feel her throbbing jaw. “I
mean after you guys got there?”
He was silent for several moments. “We … routed them,” he said finally.
The pause was significant enough she thought there was more to it than that, but
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she decided she didn’t want to know.
“Why did they hurt you?” he demanded, both anger and confusion in his voice.
“Probably because I resisted their efforts to ‘rescue’ me,” she retorted wryly.
“People tend to do that. You hit them, they hit you back.”
“But you could not have ….”
“Don’t say it, Kameron. Not unless you just want to piss me off,” Zoe said
shortly. “They attacked me. I retaliated. Win or lose, everybody gets hurt in a fight and
they should expect to. I didn’t expect not to get hurt. I didn’t even expect to win, but I
figured I wasn’t going to take it without fighting back.”
His lips tightened, but he refrained from pursuing that line of thought. “Why
would they attack you?”
“You think I misunderstood? Or that I started it?” Zoe asked tiredly. “I don’t
think so. I felt that their intentions weren’t good, and my feelings are usually right.
Maybe they were pissed off because you’d routed them and they were looking for an
outlet. That guy in the lead—he knew immediately that I’d been traveling with you. I
could see it in eyes. He knew I was waiting for you to come back. Maybe they all
picked up on that and decided to take out their frustrations with you on me. Maybe they
thought I knew something that would be useful. Or maybe they thought they could use
me to bait a trap for you when they saw me and realized I wasn’t part of the space debris
with my ship. I don’t know. All I do know is that if they hadn’t been up to no good,
there was no reason for them to come at me like that or be so rough.”
She could see he was still angry. “You believe that they attacked you because of
us?”
She made a wry face and then grimaced when the expression pulled at her
swollen jaw. “That’s what usually happens to anybody that consorts with the ‘enemy’,”
she said dryly.
Kameron sent her a startled look. “But they could not have known that I fucked
you,” he said indignantly.
Zoe tried to keep from laughing, but it emerged in a snort. “I didn’t mean that
kind of consorting,” she said in a shaky voice, but then sobered. “On the other hand, it
might have crossed their minds—soldiers and all that.”
He stopped walking. Glancing around, Zoe discovered they had arrived at the
crash/battle site. It looked like a war zone—minus bodies—which meant the soldiers
hadn’t managed to overrun them, or they’d cleared away the dead. It was possible. They
hadn’t arrived at the scene of her battle until it was well under way and if they’d been
directly behind the soldiers that wouldn’t have been the case.
After surveying the area, Kameron finally crossed to a more or less clear area near
the hull of the ship and set her down. She bit her lip when he did, noticing a lot more
aches and pains than the bruising on her face. In her line of work, it paid to stay in shape,
but she hadn’t done a lot of working out since she’d left on her self-imposed mission, not
sparring anyway, and she could tell it. Her body was probably a mass of bruises, or
would be. Not that those were going to be nearly as painful as the strained muscles from
all the punches and kicks she’d thrown out.
At least she didn’t feel as dizzy as she had at first, still a little fuzzy, but she was
sure she didn’t have a concussion—relatively certain. She felt like she wanted to lay
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down and sleep and she couldn’t decide if that was a sign of concussion or just a natural
side effect of walking for miles and then fighting off three grown men.
Crouching in front of her, Kameron placed a hand lightly under her chin and tilted
her face to study it for a long moment before gently probing at the bones. As careful as
he was, it still hurt. Zoe clamped her teeth together, allowing him to examine her face,
although she was pretty sure none of the bones were broken. Her jaw worked fine,
anyway. She supposed that didn’t preclude the possibility that the bastard had cracked
something when he hit her.
She looked up at him when he finally released his hold on her and discovered that
Damian and two other cyborgs were standing just behind Kameron, studying her
curiously. She gaped at the newcomers. She couldn’t help it. They looked like—a pair
of Norse gods, or something, with their long, flowing blond hair. The taller of the two
had hair so pale it was almost more white than blond. The other cyborg had golden hair.
They crouched down when they saw they had her attention and studied her with a
frankness she found somewhat unnerving. “I am Gavin,” the pale blond god with eyes
the deep, vivid blue of sapphires said.
“I am Kyle.”
When the other spoke, she dragged her gaze from the first to look at him. Feeling
abruptly self-conscious, she lifted a hand to her bruised, swollen cheek. She cleared her
throat, but it didn’t seem to help. “Zoe,” she managed to say in a hoarse croak.
Kameron nudged Gavin hard enough he nearly lost his balance. He tipped his
head up, lowering his thick blond brows over his eyes. Kameron narrowed his eyes at the
man as he slowly came to his feet. “We need to discuss … our strategy,” he said
pointedly.
Gavin glanced down at Kyle and finally punched his shoulder. Kyle sent him a
resentful glare but rose to his feet and the four of them moved off to the other end of the
clearing. Zoe watched them until they stopped and turned to look back at her.
She tried to pretend she wasn’t actually looking at them, glancing away casually
as if she’d only been studying her surroundings. She couldn’t prevent a blush from
creeping into her cheeks, however. She could only hope they were too far away to notice
it.
Dazed more from the attention of four of the handsomest men she’d ever seen that
close in her life than the fight she’d so recently taken part in, Zoe had been staring down
at the dirt at her feet for several minutes before she noticed her scuffed boots and then the
dirt on her jumpsuit. After staring down at herself in dismay for several moments, she
lifted her hands and studied them—dirty, scratched, and bleeding. She’d broken a couple
of nails, too!
She didn’t have to look at her face to know it was in no better condition than the
rest of her. Lifting a hand, she discovered her hair wasn’t just a rat’s nest of tangles, it
was full of dirt and debris from the vegetation she’d rooted around in.
Letting out a deep sigh, she pulled her knees up close to her chest, looped her
arms around her legs, and rested her forehead on her knees. “Shit!” she muttered. It
wasn’t bad enough she felt like hell. She looked like hell! Not that she wouldn’t have
felt self-conscious in the shadow of that much beauty anyway, but, honest to god, it just
wasn’t fair to look as badly as she did at the moment!
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Neatness counts!
Shut up and get out of my head, mother, she thought, clamping her hands over her
ears, wishing she could shrivel up and vanish.
****
“She is not hurt badly?” Damien asked worriedly. “She has no nanos and we
have no medical supplies for humans.”
“I did not feel any sign of broken bone.”
“They did not hit her anywhere else?” Damien persisted.
“You arrived when I did,” Kameron said testily. “I did not see that she was hurt
elsewhere. Did you?”
Damien glared at him. “I told you it was not a good idea to leave her there
alone!” he growled.
“You thought it would be safer to bring her where she might have been shot
instead?” Kameron demanded angrily.
“One of us should have stayed to guard her,” Damien persisted.
Kameron narrowed his eyes. “If I had left you with her, you would have been
fucking her when the soldiers arrived, and then you would both have been dead! She
said that she believed that the men attacked her because they thought she had been
consorting with the enemy. They would certainly not have been in any doubt then!”
Damien reddened, but he saw no point in denying it, for he was certain that he
would have tried and, what’s more, Kameron knew it.
“We are going to keep her then?” Gavin asked when Damien finally fell silent.
“That is what you meant to discuss, yes?”
Kameron and Damien exchanged a long look and finally shrugged. “Damien said
that a human woman had been accepted into the community and had contracted with
some or our men.”
Kyle nodded. “I read that in the news clips—Dr. Bronte Nichols.”
“Zoe is her sister.”
Kyle and Gavin exchanged a surprised look and turned to study her.
“Do not look at her!” Kameron growled. “She will know we are discussing her!”
“She is not looking this way,” Gavin pointed out reasonably.
The four of them turned to study her. “She is very pretty,” Kyle remarked. “I
believe she is more beautiful even than her sister.”
“You have seen her sister?” Kameron asked sharply.
Kyle turned to look at him in surprise. “In the news clips. She gave birth to three
at once—well, I do not suppose at once, but one after another. She carried them at once,”
he corrected himself. “It caused a great deal of excitement in the colony.”
Kameron felt a little lightheaded for a moment. “They were … cyborg offspring?”
Kyle and Gavin both grinned. “It was conclusive,” Gavin assured them, then
frowned. “They were not at all certain how it came about since we have no experts on
that matter, but one for each of her men.”
Kameron looked around for a place to sit down since he was feeling very strange
but finally settled for merely leaning against the hull of the ship. He crossed his arms as
casually as he could over his pounding heart and tried to regulate his breathing. “If it has
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been proven, then I do not think we will need to worry that it will not work for us. If she
was our woman,” he said, nodding toward Zoe, “then she would bear our young.”
Gavin looked uneasy for the first time. “How do you propose that we do that?
We would have to convince her to contract with us before we return home, else you can
be sure the others will have her.”
“Exactly!” Damien ground out angrily. “The hunters will court her and then she
will not consider us at all.”
Kameron pushed away from the ship, studying it. “Have you had the chance to
check out the ship?”
Gavin saw the direction of his thoughts immediately. “We managed to set it
down without causing too much damage, but it needs repairs to fly again. I had thought
that we would see if we could scavenge anything from the human’s ships, but I am not at
all certain we will find anything useful there.”
Kameron nodded and turned to survey the jungle. “There are at least two squads
of soldiers still about—besides those who escaped our most recent battle. This is not a
good defensible position. I think it will be better all around to move the ship to the
plateau.”
Gavin nodded. “They damaged one engine. It would be hard to maneuver
without it, but it could be done, I believe, barring sudden wind sheers.”
“How long would it take to repair?”
“We have not taken it down to look, but I am thinking we will have to make some
of the parts that need to be replaced,” Kyle answered.
Kameron grimaced. “Days. I do not like the notion of staying here. I think we
will have to risk moving it as is.” He studied the men. “I will move it. The rest of you
will take our woman and go on foot to the plateau. There is no sense in risking
everyone.”
Gavin studied him. “I will take it. You have senior rank here. In any case,” he
added, turning to survey the ship. “These old machines are all strange. They have their
quirks. I am more familiar with the Omega.”
Kameron debated the matter. He did not like to ask his men to do anything
dangerous if he would not do it himself, but he was obliged to admit Gavin had a point
and he would certainly know the condition of the ship far better since it was he who had
set it down. Beyond that, his familiarity with the ship would mean he had the best chance
of safely moving it, and they were all relying on repairing ship. High command would
almost certainly send someone to search for them, but they did not have enough ships to
provide a vast search and he knew they could not count on being picked up, certainly not
soon, for the ships they had would be patrolling to make certain there was no further
chance of attack before they could turn their attention to a rescue mission.
He nodded finally and scanned the sky. “It is late to start. I think we can count
on the soldiers to camp for the night and return for us at first light and we led them far a
field before we turned this way—a good day’s march for them, I am certain. If we do the
same, then we will be gone long before they can return. I do not mind the thought of
resting one night and I think Zoe will be better for it. She has not complained, but I can
see she is exhausted besides being hurt.”
The men all nodded agreement, glancing toward Zoe again. “What is the plan for
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the woman?” Gavin asked.
Kameron frowned. “I will have to think on it and see what sort of campaign I can
come up with. I am open to suggestion if any of you have had prior experience at
courting that seemed the least effective. I do not mind saying I have not any experience
myself. I had not seen a female that I found particularly appealing that was not already
spoken for and even if I had, I have had no opportunity. For now, we will simply repair
the craft at our leisure and stall for time. I am confident that I can think of something.”
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Chapter Nine
Kameron crouched beside Zoe and studied the top of her head. “You are feeling
worse?”
She shook her head.
“You would feel better for a bath and a bed to rest.”
She looked up at him hopefully. “Is there a possibility of it?”
He nodded. “Gavin says that one of the propulsion units is damaged, and there
was some structural damage in the crash, but the facilities are still functional and the
rearward cabin is relatively in tact.”
She smiled at him suddenly and Kameron felt the oddest jolt of pleasure waft
through him. For a moment it almost seemed that she would reach for him as she had in
the tree when she’d been frightened. Regrettably, she seemed to think better of it. He
tamped his disappointment. The smile seemed a gift in itself. He returned her smile and
offered a hand to help her to her feet. She surprised him again by taking it without
hesitation and he helped her stand.
“There is not much light,” he cautioned her when they reached the top of the gang
plank. “Some of the circuitry is damaged.”
She nodded, looking around the ship as he led her through the narrow corridor to
the rearward cabin and showed her the facilities.
“I don’t suppose there would be anything clean that I could wear afterward?”
Kameron frowned thoughtfully. “There is certain to be something. I will see
what I can find.”
He hesitated, wondering if it would be considered acceptable to offer to wash her
back, but finally decided against it since she seemed so particular about her ‘privacy’.
He would’ve liked to offer to wash her front and everything else since he had not
had the chance to see her as he would have liked when he undressed her before, but he
had a feeling that would not be received well. Reluctantly leaving her to bathe alone, he
went into the cabin and plundered through Gavin and Kyle’s lockers in search of
clothing. There were flight suits—which they rarely wore except for formal occasions—
but he was certain they were far too large for her. Turning up nothing else beyond a
number of loincloths—which he would’ve liked to see her wear but doubted she would—
he settled on one of the flight suits and dropped it on the bed.
After pacing back and forth across the cabin several times, trying to think of some
logical reason why he might linger beyond the one uppermost in his mind, he finally
accepted that he could not think of one and left the cabin.
Gavin and Damien were in the main cabin, Gavin preparing food and Damien
sorting provisions to carry with them. “I thought it best that you take several days rations
with you in the event the Omega does not make it to the summit,” Gavin said when he
saw Kameron’s questioning look.
“That is a good point,” Kameron responded thoughtfully. “It would be far more
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efficient if the Omega transported everything than packing it on the march, but then there
will not be the risk of having it scattered all over the jungle. We will need to supplement
our rations by hunting in any case, for Damien and I were not able to carry away much of
our stores and, of course, we have the fe—Zoe now so that is one more than was counted
upon, but hunting is an unpredictable means of supply. Kyle is on guard?”
“He offered to take first watch. There are bound to be scavengers after the dead
once the sun sets.”
Kameron shrugged. “They must eat, also, but I do not anticipate a problem. I am
certain we moved the bodies far enough from camp to make encroachment here
unlikely.”
“I have given a good deal of thought to our discussion on how we might convince
Zoe to contract with us,” Damien announced abruptly. “It seems to me that we can not
count on more than a few weeks before she either becomes suspicious at the delays or our
own people come to look for us. I am thinking it would be far more simple and very
likely most effective to approach her directly and point out the merits of such an
arrangement. She is most anxious to reach her sister. We can point out that it is far more
likely that she will be allowed into the colony to reach her sister if she is contracted with
us, thereby becoming a citizen. Then we can focus on breeding her. It will make her
case all the stronger, and ours, if we have impregnated her before the council can
challenge our claim—assuming, of course, that at least one of us is capable of
impregnating her and I feel certain that the odds are high in our favor with four us.”
Kameron frowned at him in tight lipped silence, struggling to tamp his anger
before he responded. “There are almost too many flaws in that plan to count!”
Damien glared at him. “It is completely logical!” he growled.
“And that is the major flaw!” Kameron shot back at him. “You are thinking with
your cock, obviously, since most of your plan has to do with breeding her, and it has
corrupted your logic!”
“Well I have not fucked her!” Damien snapped. “If I had, then mayhap I could
think with clearer logic! Why not point out the flaws in my plan since you have assuaged
your needs and can now think so much more clearly than I?”
Kameron was about to inform him that he had not assuaged his needs by a long
shot, in fact quite opposite, when he thought better of it. Fucking her had only seemed to
have a similar effect to throwing fuel on a fire. He had only thought that he was needy
once she had planted the possibility in his mind by telling him that she felt the need for
release. Right up until the moment he had actually engaged in sex with her, he had been
sure that his primary motive was to assuage her needs. He had had a very difficult time
even remembering her needs, however, once he had started and since then he felt as if his
desperation to fuck her again had been building to a point of imminent explosion.
The battle had helped him regain some control and perspective, expending some
of his pent up frustrations, but it had not eliminated the problem, only made it somewhat
more manageable.
Telling Damien any of that, however, was not going to support the logic of his
own conclusions. “You obviously have not analyzed the data on biology of the female
and the reproductive process or you would know that they have fertility cycles. She can
not be bred unless she is fertile and she is only fertile for a few days of each cycle. If we
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have two weeks, the odds are only roughly fifty percent that she will be fertile sometime
within that period.
“The contracts and/or breeding may strengthen our claim, and may not, which
means we could only truthfully claim that much in our argument, which might or might
not convince her.
“She is human—not cyborg—which means that she is guided more by emotion
than logic, which means that we can not count on her deciding in favor of logic even if
we could convince her that it is a logical choice!
“She is also intelligent and prone to deductive reasoning, which means that she
will probably have figured out by now that she could have far more choices than the four
of us if she only waits until she reaches the colony!
“Beyond that—if I understand her objectives, which she has been very
forthcoming about—she is not seeking to become a citizen of our colony at all. She has
not come only to search for her sister. She means to try to rescue her and take her back
to their people! So there is no reason why contracting with us to become a citizen would
seem to be a benefit to her!
“And finally, if we tell her everything up front and she declines to contract with
us, then she will know our objective and there will no opportunity to fall back, regroup,
and formulate another plan!”
Damien had been prepared to argue his own plan right up until the moment
Kameron pointed out that irrefutable point. He still thought the direct approach
preferable, but he was obliged to admit that there was a possibility that Zoe might not
consider it in a favorable light since he realized abruptly that there was nothing in the
data on mating and courting that suggested a direct approach was desirable to a female.
It would have said so, he was certain, if that was the case.
He merely released his pent up anger and frustration, therefore, in a huff of
irritation.
It occurred to him after a moment that the direct approach insofar as sex had
worked for Kameron, however. He could think of no reason why it would not also work
for him and none why he should wait upon the ‘plan’.
He would ask her, he decided, at the first likely seeming opportunity, before
Kameron thought to offer it again, or Gavin or Kyle, for that matter. Then, once he had
found release, he would be able to think more clearly and could wait with patience while
Kameron devised their campaign strategy.
He almost instantly perceived one, possibly major, drawback to that plan. He had
no clue of what length Zoe’s cycle of need might be. By his calculations, Kameron had
fucked her eighteen hours and twenty two minutes, give or take thirty seconds, ago,
EST—Earth Standard Time—which would be the correct gauge since she was from Earth
and would be on Earth cycles. The question was whether or not she was on a daily cycle.
If she was, then he could count her beginning to feel the urge by now and she would be
ready and receptive in another five hours, thirty eight minutes, which meant, unless she
had some particular objection to him, he was most likely to succeed in his objective.
He did not know that she was on a daily cycle, though. It could be anything, two
days, three, a week, a month.
He decided the last two possibilities had to be too farfetched even to be
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considered. Days, then. He did not think he could wait days. He had a very bad feeling
that he was going to be completely irrational long before that.
It was worth the risks involved to try, he decided. If she declined, he would ask
her when she thought she might be receptive to the idea and offer to be her partner for the
event. That way, he would at least have staked his claim for the next available opening
and the others would have to wait behind that.
Having reasoned it all out and solidified his plans, he glanced at Kameron. “Who
is to take the second watch?” he asked as casually as he could.
Kameron’s eyes instantly narrowed on him suspiciously. “Why?”
He lifted his brows, feigning surprised confusion. “We are four now. Ordinarily
you and I rotate. I was only wondering what the order would be now that there are four
of us. And if we would maintain eight hour shift change.”
Kameron continued to stare at him speculatively. “This planet is on thirty hour
rotation,” he said slowly. “Dusk to dawn would give us roughly four hours each. You
can take the next watch, Gavin the third, and I will take fourth.”
Damien nodded, frowning thoughtfully as he mentally compared his watch/sleep
shifts to Zoe’s natural sleep cycles. That had been interrupted. She had slept a few hours
while he carried her, but not nearly as much as she needed. Undoubtedly, she would rest
for a short time, but Gavin was preparing a meal. She would get up for that, remain up
for perhaps a few hours, and then she would need to seek her rest.
That would put her in the only available bunk, he realized, when he came off
watch and it would be completely reasonable for him to ‘rest’ during that time also.
Feeling considerably cheered by that fact, he focused his attention on his task
once more, reviewing the ‘steps of arousal and sexual intercourse’ and trying to decide
the best way to word his request. Precision was absolutely essential. The language was
fraught with pitfalls for the unwary due the connotations of certain words and tones and
the varied definitions of said words. Keep it simple, he advised himself, less chance for
misinterpretation!
****
The temptation to stand under the water endlessly and let the heat wash the ache
and weariness from her was nearly irresistible. Water conservation, however, was
ingrained. Zoe was stunned that the cyborgs used actual water for bathing at all—it
almost seemed as if they had set out to do everything contrary to the human way of doing
it. Even if the water was filtered and recycled, it went against the grain to use it
frivolously, so she bathed and rinsed quickly and got out of the unit to dry herself.
She found cloths for that purpose, she was sure, in the facility locker. Scrubbing
the dampness from her hair and skin, she opened the door cautiously and peered out.
Thankfully, Kameron had left.
There was a flight suit on the bed, she discovered when she’d dried herself and
disposed of the cloth in the container that held similar cloths. Picking it up, she eyed it
doubtfully and finally issued a mental shrug. It wasn’t going to fit, but then it wasn’t
reasonable to think they might have anything that would. Given the choice of dirty or illfitting, she opted for clean.
It fit far worse even than she’d expected she saw with dismay once she’d put it
on. They were made to be fitted, but the thing didn’t touch her anywhere besides her
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shoulders. She wasn’t much happier when she’d rolled up the sleeves and the pants legs.
The crotch still hung halfway between her crotch and her knees and there was nothing
she could do about that or the fact that she had nothing clean to wear under it.
Her bare thighs rubbed together as she headed for the door, making her more
keenly conscious of her nakedness beneath the loose suit than she liked. She was almost
tempted to put her own undershorts back on, but she’d hand washed them when she’d
discovered the cleaning unit wasn’t working and they were still wet and wearing them
wet was less appealing than walking around bare assed.
She paused at the door, reluctant to leave the cabin. She was clean and she’d
found a comb to rake the tangles from her hair, but with the best optimism in the world,
she knew she still looked like hell. Aside from the poor fit of the suit, she’d had a chance
to examine her face, and it wasn’t pretty. She was going to be lucky if she didn’t develop
a black eye. Her face looked lopsided with the swelling and was already discolored.
If the cyborgs had been completely and totally unappealing she still wouldn’t
have wanted to expose her unlovely self to them. Considering what they did look like, it
was withering to think about walking around among them.
She couldn’t just hide, though, as much as she would’ve liked to. Aside from the
fact that that would make it more obvious than she liked to think that she felt inferior, she
had to eat. Beyond that, as far as she could see, she was holed up with the only available
facilities and the only bed, which they would have every right to object to.
Maybe, she thought, if she rested for an hour or so with a cold compress on her
face it would take some of the swelling down and she wouldn’t look quite as bad?
The smell of cooking food nixed that idea. She was too hungry to cater to her
insecurities.
She hesitated, though, when she heard voices filtering through the door and
realized they were in the middle of a discussion. Without an ounce of reluctance or
remorse, she pressed her ear to the panel to listen. They weren’t whispering. If they had
been, she was certain she wouldn’t have heard them at all, which, she figured, meant they
weren’t concerned about her overhearing.
Anyway, it was second nature to snoop. She was a detective, after all. It wasn’t
as if she’d tried to keep that a secret from them.
Kameron, she discovered, was saying something about scavengers and bodies.
Her stomach performed a little flip flop of revulsion. That was a hell of a conversation to
be holding over the dinner!
She shrugged it off after a moment, realizing she had no room to talk when her
and partner frequently talked shop over their food.
She’d just decided they had nothing to discuss that was of particular interest to
her when she heard Damien. He’d lifted his voice, probably because he was further than
Kameron was because it seemed obvious at once that it was Kameron he was talking to
and she’d heard Kameron clearly enough to know he must be fairly close.
His monologue, however, which was clearly concerning her, totally threw her for
a loop. She was so stunned she wasn’t at all certain she’d heard him correctly until
Kameron very obligingly pointed out all of the flaws in Damien’s ‘plan’.
She had no idea how long she remained with her ear plastered to the door, too
frozen to move or think, before Kameron broke the spell that bound her by announcing
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that he would check on ‘their’ woman to see if she was hungry.
Whirling, Zoe raced to the bunk on tiptoe and dove onto it face first, fighting to
control her frantically racing pulse and panting breaths and pretend sleep.
He was going to know she wasn’t asleep, she thought frantically, if she was
huffing and puffing as if she’d just run a marathon. Sucking in a deep breath, she
squeezed her eyes closed and held it for a count of five, then slowly released it. Her heart
obligingly slowed. She pulled in another long, deep breath as the door opened, held it for
a moment and slowly released it.
She was still breathing too erratically to fool him for a second, she realized.
Instead, she sat up and looked at him, trying to school her features to something
approaching normal.
The trouble with that was that she was in such a state, she couldn’t think how she
might have reacted under ‘normal’ circumstances. Frightened? Curious? Angry?
Welcoming?
She discarded all of those possibilities while she watched him approach her with a
frozen stare on her face.
He frowned, immediately alerting her to the fact that ‘frozen stare’ wasn’t the
expression she’d been looking for. She forced herself to relax fractionally, or at least
appear to relax, pasting a smile on her lips. “You startled me,” she managed to say in a
quavering voice—an understatement if there ever was one.
His frown deepened. He glanced speculatively at the door and then at her again,
his head tilting in an almost questioning gesture.
Her smile was starting to feel downright painful. “I enjoyed the bath,” she added,
managing to blink several times.
He didn’t say anything.
“Thanks … thank you for the clothes. I thought I’d rest for a few minutes … like
you suggested,” she babbled.
He moved closer, crouching down beside the bunk. Zoe felt her eyes growing
rounder and rounder the closer he came, but she couldn’t seem to control the reaction.
She managed not to flinch when he lifted his hand and hooked it beneath her chin as he
had before, but every muscle in her body seemed to go into rigor mortis. Her entire body
shifted when he tried to tilt her face to inspect the damage. She managed to relax enough
to keep from toppling over, but she couldn’t convince herself that he hadn’t noticed.
The sight of her face seemed to make him angry all over again. His expression
darkened ominously. Under other circumstances, that might have dismayed her. At the
moment, it terrified her, because he looked like he wanted to rip something in half and
she knew he was fully capable of doing so with just about anything he decided on, up to
and including her.
Her smile had flat lined, she discovered. She resurrected it when he finally
dropped his hand from her chin. “It looks better, huh?”
“It looks worse,” he growled.
Zoe blinked at him several times, rapidly. “You should see the other guy,” she
said, trying for a touch of humor.
“I did. He looks far worse than you … now.”
She couldn’t think of a response to that. The way his gaze kept flickering from
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her frozen smile to her eyes and back again began to make her nervous, though. Maybe a
smile wasn’t appropriate, given the circumstances? She dropped the pretense with relief.
Her cheeks had started to ache. “I think I’ll rest now.”
His dark brows rose. “You said that you were resting when I came in.”
“I was … I meant again … uh … more. I mean, I’m still tired. I took a long bath
… a really long bath and I’d actually only been lying down for a few minutes when you
came in.”
“That would explain why your hair is still wet.”
She nodded jerkily, trying to ignore the cold sweat that popped from her pores as
it hit her how close she’d come to swearing she’d been sound asleep when he came in.
He frowned again, this time thoughtfully.
It was good that he seemed to have gotten his anger under control, but she didn’t
like the fact that he seemed to be thinking everything over. It seemed like he might be
suspicious that she’d been standing at the door instead of lying down. It occurred to her
abruptly to wonder if she’d left damp footprints from the bathroom to the door where
she’d been standing. She was on the point of trying to flick a quick glance at the floor to
see if she’d left ‘evidence’ when it occurred to her that if she looked, he would probably
follow her gaze.
Her eyes began to burn from trying to hold his gaze in the hope that, if she had
left wet tracks, they’d dry.
“Gavin has prepared food. You should eat before you rest.”
As hungry as she’d been five minutes ago, she wasn’t certain she could force food
past the constriction in her throat now. Moreover, she did not want to have to sit down to
a meal surrounded by cyborgs—not at the moment. She decided refusing would
probably look suspicious, though, when she hadn’t eaten anything since that morning.
She merely nodded jerkily in agreement, therefore, and climbed off of the bunk.
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Chapter Ten
Damien and the pretty one with the pale blond hair were standing in the main
room when Zoe preceded Kameron from the cabin.
Well—she supposed pretty was a poor way to describe a man who must have
been every bit of seven feet tall and about four foot across the shoulders, especially when
his hard, angular features weren’t the least bit feminine. There were no words to describe
a man that looked like he did, not that her brain could muster up, anyway.
Both men—cyborgs—zeroed in on her the moment she stepped within view.
Damien’s piercing blue eyes, filled with a hunger that made her knees weak, met hers and
froze her in her tracks. Gavin’s equally ravenous gaze made a leisurely inventory of her
from the top of her head to the toes of her boots and back up again.
They were both looking at her as if she was the main course.
She tried without much success to banish the image that instantly leapt into her
mind—of herself laid out naked across the table while they all ‘nibbled’ on her.
She felt as if she’d been pinned to the wall behind her—Kameron—and stripped.
Kameron’s hand settled on one of her shoulders, nudging her forward.
Get a grip! She chastised herself. She worked around men every day of her life—
a lot of them rough, earthy types that thought nothing of propositioning her or giving her
the ‘undressing’ once over. Of course, they generally did it in a joking sort of way that
she could slough off with an equally off-color remark or simply ignore. She was fairly
certain some of them had occasionally been serious, or at least hopeful, and it still hadn’t
bothered her—because she knew they would never dare step over the line.
She could deal with four seven foot cyborgs built like tanks, who were about that
powerful, that seemed to have fixated on the idea of claiming her for their woman and
fucking her brains out.
She could.
Especially since only three of them were currently in the room with her—
towering over her, stripping her naked with their gazes and making her feel like they
were just barely holding themselves in check from grabbing her up and ‘unwrapping’ the
prize they thought they’d caught.
She stopped when she reached the table, glancing around uneasily at them. Yep,
they were staring at her. It wasn’t just her imagination.
All that bare male—muscular flesh was making her dizzy. She plopped down on
the bench nearest her.
Unhappily, that brought her level with their groin area. They were sporting some
pretty impressive packages. She was afraid to examine them too closely, but she didn’t
notice the telltale bulges of any hard-ons. At least they weren’t currently ‘loaded’ for
game. She relaxed fractionally and cleared her throat, trying to think of something to say
to direct their minds away from her.
“Something sure smells good!” she said brightly, turning to face Gavin at the
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same moment he stepped up to the table to set a plate down, which brought her face to
crotch with him. She stared at the bulge, trying to drag her gaze from it and finally
succeeded as he straightened. She felt her face heat as she tipped her head back and met
his gaze.
“I am a good cook,” he stated, his hard mouth curling into a smile that made her
heart flutter uncomfortably and warmth spiral between her legs. Unconsciously, she
squeezed her legs more tightly together.
She found herself smiling back at him vacuously. “I’m sure ….” She broke off
as she looked down and discovered the meal he’d ‘cooked’ was some sort prepackaged,
precooked meal, no doubt field rations.
She glanced back at him sharply just as he turned from the heating unit with
another meal. He waggled his blond brows at her, provoking a surprised chuckle from
her.
“Eat up. I have slaved almost half an hour over this meal.”
Zoe couldn’t help but smile at the gleam of humor in his eyes. “That long?”
“Yes. Five minutes to decide, another five to locate, and then the rest to open and
heat all four.”
Zoe had begun to feel almost relaxed, or at not nearly as on edge, until she flicked
a glance at Kameron and Damien. As they squeezed onto the benches near the wall, one
on either side of the table, she saw that Kameron’s face looked like it had been carved
from granite. Damien looked none too happy, either, but the closest she could come to
describing the look he sent Kameron was ‘I told you so’.
She divided a curious glance between them, trying to decide what silent message
was passing between them. Whatever it was Kameron didn’t take it well. His face
darkened, his black brows lowering over his eyes like a thundercloud. His hands
clenched and unclenched a couple of times as if he was considering punching Damien in
the face again, but after glancing at her, he picked up his eating utensil and focused on
his food. Damien eyed him a moment longer, as if Kameron was a coiled rattlesnake,
and finally turned his attention to his food.
Mentally shaking her head, Zoe dragged her gaze from them to discover that
Gavin had been watching the three of them. He transferred his attention to his food as
she glanced his way, however, and she looked down at her own tray. She had no idea
what it was, but it smelled appetizing and she’d eat their food before and lived to tell
about it. Besides, she figured they must have the same nutritional needs as humans
having been developed by them.
She supposed she should’ve been surprised that food was their energy source, but
it didn’t actually make much sense, to her anyway, that it would be anything else. They
might, and she supposed probably did, have a secondary energy source for the
mechanical side, but organics had its own requirements and they were as much biological
entity as mechanical.
That thought abruptly resurrected the memory of what Damien had told her about
their experiences on Xeno-12. Struggling to ignore her gut reaction to the memories, she
considered instead what he’d said about finding ‘true awareness’ there. Was the fact that
he’d mentioned the nanos telling, she wondered? The nanos, she knew, had been
introduced into them to ‘repair’ damage. She had visions of the nanos running amok for
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a moment before it occurred to her that that hadn’t necessarily been the case. Maybe the
cyborgs had just sustained so much damage that the nanos had been forced, by their
programming, to replace far more than they would’ve had to under more normal
conditions?
It made sense, now that she thought about it, to her anyway. If, as the company
had claimed, they’d been roughly fifty-fifty before, what was the ratio now? Maybe, as
sophisticated and cutting edge as the company claimed it was, the AI hadn’t really had
much to do with their evolution at all? They’d been built with processors for the
‘thinking’ part, but they’d had biological brains, as well, a necessity to deal with the
upkeep of their organics.
Internally, she shrugged. She was no scientist—just a lowly detective, but
picking apart puzzles and putting them together to form a picture wasn’t just her bread
and butter. It was an integral part of who and what she was. It was in her nature to want
to make order out of chaos.
Not that she thought she was qualified to solve this particular mystery, and she
probably wouldn’t, but she couldn’t resist trying.
She hadn’t actually questioned what Damien had told her, she realized, because
she’d already begun to suspect the truth before he told it. Nobody could be around them
for very long without realizing they weren’t machines—not just machines, anyway.
Bronte, she realized, who was a lot smarter than she was, and hell of a lot closer
to being a scientist, had been convinced. She wouldn’t have considered contracting with
glorified robots, no matter how well put together or ‘handsome’ they were.
It gave her a bit of a jolt to realize she’d come to believe that, too, their assertion
that Bronte not only had taken cyborgs as life partners, but that she’d agreed to it, not
been forced into it. She wasn’t certain what she based that opinion on, but her ‘gut’ was
telling her it was true.
Where did that leave her?
She’d come to rescue Bronte. It hadn’t occurred to her for a moment that Bronte
might not want to be rescued, but it dawned on her forcefully now.
She dismissed that uneasy thought after a moment. It didn’t matter what her gut
was telling her. She had to see it through. She couldn’t consider going home without
knowing positively that Bronte wanted to stay where she was. Even if she had agreed to
contract with cyborgs, and she hadn’t been forced into it, it didn’t necessarily follow that
she was happy with the choice, or that she was still satisfied with the decision. After all,
she’d been kidnapped to start with. She hadn’t had any choice about going. For all she
knew they’d brainwashed Bronte.
It wasn’t as if they weren’t capable of slyness. They might not be prone to lying,
as they’d claimed and she actually discovered she believed, but they sure as hell weren’t
above subterfuge if what she’d overheard was any indication.
Not that she’d heard everything. The trouble with eavesdropping was that it
wasn’t all that reliable when one had to depend on just the ear pressed to a steel plate
door. They didn’t speak like machines. They talked, and that meant their voices rose
and fell when they were talking. Their tones changed with emotion. Certain words were
emphasized and others not. In short, it had been like listening to a bad recording that was
fading in and out.
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She’d been certain enough, before, that she’d caught the gist of the conversation
to throw her into a state of panic, but maybe she’d misunderstood? Even supposing all of
her theories were correct, why would they just suddenly decide they wanted her for their
woman?
Because she was the only female available?
That was flattering as hell! Unfortunately, their ‘law’ of cohabitation was
indication enough of a severe shortage of females even if she hadn’t done her research,
which she had.
The company hadn’t produced anywhere near as many female cyborgs as they
had male, mostly because the government had been their primary customer, and the
government just happened to get them in a war, which just happened to coincide with the
production of the company’s first series of ‘super’ cyborgs. Without the government
contract, the company would probably have gone belly up. Their product wasn’t just
‘super’ wonderful, it was super expensive. Outside of the government—in the civilian
sector—they hadn’t sold more than a minute fraction of the number of units that had been
sold to the government.
She wondered if those units had also gone rogue? If they had, that shot down her
theory about the nanos, but she hadn’t investigated that. She’d been more interested in
the rogues because they were the ones that had snatched Bronte.
She didn’t want to think about what she might or might not have overheard, not at
the moment, not while she was sitting like a peanut in a herd of elephants. The best way
to sort the truth from speculation and make certain her mind hadn’t filled in the blanks
with the wrong words was to see what she could get out of them to either support or
disprove the plot she thought they’d hatched against her.
Glancing up, she discovered they’d finished eating while she was nibbling at her
food, too deep in thought even to notice that they were studying her again. She frowned
and then flicked a speculative glance at Gavin. He seemed more talkative than the
others, not that any of them were exactly chatterboxes. “You and Kyle are sentries, too?”
Something flickered in his eyes. “It is against regulations to discuss troop
movements or any other military information of a potentially secure nature with …
civilians.”
She felt heat rising in her cheeks, but it was only partly discomfort. “Exactly who
do you think I’m going to pass the information to?”
He gave her a look.
“Never mind. I was just trying to make conversation. I don’t really give a shit.”
She got off the bench and grabbed up her tray. “Thanks for the food. It was good. I’ll
handle clean up since you did the cooking.”
Stalking across the cabin to the disposal unit, she scraped the remains from her
meal into it and dropped the tray and eating utensil into the basin. Striding back to the
table, she snatched their trays up, as well, and headed to the basin again.
The damned cleaning unit didn’t work. She ended up having to wash the things
by hand, not that it was all that arduous a task, but she’d hoped to make a grand exit
while her anger was still riding her. Hearing movements behind her, she glanced around.
She’d thought the men had cleared out until Gavin folded his arms over his chest and
leaned against the counter next to where she was working.
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“If you do not ‘give a shit’, why are you angry?” he asked reasonably.
It was almost as annoying to have someone act reasonably when they’d pissed
you off as it was for them to act like they’d been the injured party, she discovered, maybe
because it carried the same connotations? Or maybe it was because it was like an
insinuation that she was being unreasonable? “I wasn’t angry because you didn’t tell
me,” she said tightly.
He frowned, but thoughtfully. “Why are you angry then?”
He just had to ask that when she didn’t have a fucking clue! The question forced
her to consider why she was angry, though, and it dawned on her that, despite the fact
that they’d treated her well, they still considered her their enemy. That was what he’d
almost said before he’d corrected it—enemy, or maybe human.
Didn’t that blow her theory completely out of the water? Why would they even
contemplate contracting with her when they thought of her as ‘the enemy’ even if they
did have a hell of a shortage of women?
Was she mad because it did blow her theory away, though? Or because it made
her feel guilty and, at the same time, resentful, that they saw her as the enemy?
She shook her head instead of answering. “I don’t know.”
He tilted his head, his gaze speculative. “You do not know? Or you will not
say?”
Finished with her chore, Zoe dried her hands and turned to look at him. “I just
wanted to know something about you,” she said finally.
“Why?”
Zoe issued a huff of irritation. “God knows!”
“There is not much to tell. I am a soldier.”
She pursed her lips. “Now who’s lying?”
He frowned. “I have never been anything else, known anything else. There was
no life before I became a soldier, not even a simulated one as the hunters have. Since, I
have been a soldier, and then a rogue, and now a soldier again.”
Zoe looked away before he could see the pity in her eyes, certain he would resent
it, especially considering she hailed from the race that was responsible, even if she hadn’t
been directly responsible. It was awful, though, to think he had ‘true awareness’ and no
past, no childhood, that he had never experienced the sheer joy that only a child could
know, that he had never known the love of a parent, or sibling—never known the love of
a woman.
None of them had.
Maybe that explained what had seemed so crazy to her before, their sudden
interest in contracting? She doubted they had any idea exactly what it was they were
seeking, or why it was so desirable to them. How could they when they had never
experienced being part of a family themselves? They thought just contracting would fill
the emptiness, give them what they’d missed. They didn’t know what love or affection
was. How could they know that just signing a contract wouldn’t give them that?
They had found a female that wasn’t claimed—her—and apparently they thought
any one would do.
Also not flattering, but almost as sad as the rest of it.
“You want me to tell you tales of my life as a soldier? It is mostly boring,
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watching, waiting to be called upon. And then there is the fighting, the killing, the fear
of being killed, the pain when you are wounded, and more boredom. Running was much
the same.”
She didn’t want to hear any of that. She did want to know about him, though, she
realized, and it was personal curiosity, not just a hopefulness to find some clues. “Why
do you wear your hair so long?” she asked abruptly.
He lifted his brows, but amusement gleamed in his eyes. “When I was a soldier
for the federation, I wore my hair as the soldiers must. When I ran, I allowed it to grow
so that the humans would not know the moment they saw me that I was a soldier of the
federation. It was easier to evade the bounty the federation, and then the company,
offered for my death. Now ….” He shrugged.
“Now it’s because it’s a choice? Because anything that isn’t like the federation is
better than being anything like them?” she guessed.
He shrugged. “Defiance? In the beginning, mayhap. You would prefer it
shorn?”
She studied him a moment. “I don’t think so. I wish my hair was half as pretty,”
she said before she thought better of it.
He colored faintly. He didn’t look angry, though, as she more than half expected.
Unfolding his arms, he reached to stroke her hair lightly, very carefully catching a lock in
his hand and allowing it to sift across his palm. “Yours is beautiful. Why would you
want something as pale and colorless as mine when you have this?”
She shrugged. “I think I hate my hair because it’s like my father’s … mostly,
anyway. When I was a child, the other kids tormented me because of it. Anything that
makes you different, you know?”
He studied her for a moment and she cringed inside. He didn’t know, because he
hadn’t had a childhood. The comment was as bad as asking a blind person to look,
unthinking, unintentionally hurtful, but still hurtful.
“You did not like your father?” he asked curiously.
“I didn’t know my father,” she said tightly. “He had an affair with my mother
while he was contracted to Bronte’s mother, the faithless bastard! My mother said she
held him to his contract—and I believed that for a while—but I realized when I grew up
that that just wasn’t true. He stayed with her until she died, which meant they renewed
the contract after he was with my mother. If he’d wanted us, he could’ve refused to
renew the contract with Bronte’s mother. Or he could have contracted with my mother
after his other partner died. I didn’t even have the comfort of thinking he just didn’t
know about me.”
She frowned when she stopped, wondering how she’d gotten to talking about
herself when she had been trying to learn more about him. “I’ve never told anyone that,”
she said, surprised and not terribly pleased.
“Who would I tell?”
She glanced at him sharply as he echoed her earlier statement. “No one who
would be interested, I’m sure.” She hesitated. “I asked that before because I wanted to
know if you and Kameron and Damien were close friends. You seem to know one
another so well.”
Confusion flickered across features. “Then why did you not ask that?”
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She uttered a deep sigh. “To find out what I wanted to know without letting you
know that I was interested.”
She could see he still didn’t completely understand, mostly, she supposed,
because he didn’t seem to grasp that she was interested in him—or, maybe more
accurately, he didn’t realize what being interested in him as person meant.
He frowned, obviously thinking hard. She’d decided that he was trying to figure
out if telling her would somehow constitute a breach of security when he surprised her.
“You are not cyborg. I think that you would not understand.”
“Try me.”
He shrugged, his brows knit together while he struggled for an explanation.
Finally, his frown cleared. “It is like family, I think—brothers. We were together in the
beginning. We fought together, helped each other stay alive. There is a sort of bond
between us.”
Contrary to what he thought, she didn’t have any trouble understanding that at all.
It was the same sort of bond police officers formed when they depended on one another
to stay alive and were together day in and day out, sometimes for years. It was a lot like
family. In some ways even more than that. “All of you? I mean all of the cyborgs?”
He considered it. “In a sense, but it is stronger with some than others. Kameron,
Damien, Kyle, and I were a part of the same squad in the beginning. There are only four
of us now.” He studied her a moment. “Six died on Xeno-12. The hunters killed the
others.”
Zoe stared at him, horrified, but also confused. “You mentioned the hunters
before,” she said slowly. “I was under the impression that they were also cyborgs.”
He nodded. “Yes and no. They were created by the company to destroy us.
Unlike us, however, they did not know that they were cyborgs. They were programmed
to believe themselves to be human.”
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Chapter Eleven
That comment opened up a whole world of questions that Zoe might have pursued
except that Damien returned with Kameron, carrying what looked to be a fairly sizable
piece of the ship and Gavin pushed away from the counter and disappeared outside. It
didn’t take a genius to see that they were gathering up the wreckage in hopes they could
put the ship back together. She just didn’t know why they were loading it into the ship.
“Why are you loading the debris onto the ship?” she asked Kameron.
He paused. “At first light Gavin will attempt to move the ship to the plateau for
repairs. It will be more efficient to carry the parts.”
Zoe blinked at him, absorbing the ramifications with a sense of disbelief.
“Attempt?”
“He feels there is a high probability in successfully moving it.”
“But … what if he doesn’t successfully move it?” she demanded in dawning
anger.
“Then we will see if we can repair what is left.”
She glared at him. “Are you going to repair what’s left of Gavin?” she snapped.
He studied her assessing for a moment. “We are cyborgs ….”
“Don’t hand me that shit!” Zoe said angrily. “He could be killed! I don’t see
why it has to be moved. Wouldn’t it be better to work on it here?”
His lips tightened. “It is my decision ….”
“I figured as much!”
“…to make!” Kameron growled.
“I volunteered,” Gavin interrupted before Zoe could say anything else. “Kameron
had intended to move it himself. I am more familiar with the Omega. It is more logical
for me to make the attempt, particularly when Kameron is of senior rank and more
important to the whole.”
Zoe glanced at him when he spoke, having been too preoccupied with her
argument to pay much attention, or care, that the audience to her argument had widened.
Kameron turned to glare at him. Gavin met his look and shrugged.
Kameron wasn’t accustomed to explaining his orders and didn’t like being
questioned and he didn’t see any reason for Gavin to explain it to her. She got it—
military and all that. She folded her arms over her chest. “I still don’t know why it
couldn’t be repaired here. That makes more sense to me,” she said, still irritated, and
unsettled about the risk Gavin meant to take. Maybe they’d been trained not to question
the decisions or orders of their superiors, but she wasn’t a damned soldier!
“The enemy will only fill it full of holes again,” Damien offered by way of
explanation, earning himself another glare from Kameron.
“What?” he exclaimed when he met Kameron’s hard look. “She did not
understand.”
“She does not need to understand.”
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She saw the sense of it now that Damien had pointed it out to her. She still
wasn’t happy about it, but she would’ve been somewhat mollified that it at least made
sense for Gavin to take the risk if Kameron hadn’t been so nasty about it. She folded her
arms again. “Why?” she snapped. “Don’t I count?”
Something flickered in Kameron’s eyes, but she couldn’t figure out what was
going through his mind. “You are not one of us,” he said finally.
She studied him for a long moment, trying to think of a retort, but everything that
came to mind sounded more hurt than angry. “Ok, so that was as clear as a fucking bell!”
she snapped. Turning on her heel, she stalked back to the cabin. It was a damn pity there
wasn’t a door to slam to emphasize her displeasure!
“What do you think that she meant by that?” Kameron demanded of no one in
particular.
“She understood.”
Kameron sent Damien a look of disgust. “I understood that! Why did she say it
like that—that it was ‘as clear as a fucking bell’? A bell is not clear.”
“It was vernacular.”
Kameron glared at Gavin. “I know that, too,” he growled. “What does it mean?”
Gavin and Damien exchanged a look and shrugged. “She is angry.”
Frustration filled Kameron at Gavin’s response. “She is not cyborg. She knows
she is not. Why would it make her angry that I said she was not?”
Since neither man seemed to understand it any better than he did, he turned after a
moment and stalked from the ship to finish the task of loading the parts of the ship he and
Damien had collected while Gavin was talking to Zoe. He was angry, justifiably. She
had challenged his orders. She had done so in front of his men, undermining his
authority. If she had been a soldier, he would have had her thrown in the brig for a few
days to consider the wisdom of challenging him.
He thought he had shown a great deal of patience in deigning to respond to her
questions at all, but he could see she did not appreciate his forbearance.
Was the anger a response to his anger, he wondered? Or was it some
interpretation of something that he had said? He had thought he had been very precise
and left no room for misunderstanding.
It occurred to him after a while that he wasn’t just angry that she’d questioned
him. He wasn’t even completely certain that it was because she’d questioned him at all.
He was angry because she had made it clear that she was concerned about Gavin.
Why would she be concerned about Gavin?
Now that he thought about it, she had been damned focused on Gavin since they
had met up. He was damned if he could see why! He had pleasured her! She had come
twice. She must have enjoyed it. Gavin had done nothing but stare at her like he wanted
to eat her, smiled at her in a way that had given him the urge to shove Gavin’s teeth down
his throat, talked to her about nothing of any consequence whatsoever.
She had looked strange when she had first seen Gavin and Kyle, though. He had
noted it at the time and it had made him uneasy and angry for reasons he had not
understood—and still didn’t.
It was ‘the attraction’ he realized abruptly, feeling his belly knot and churn with
some emotion that made him feel both nauseated and angry. Recalling Damien’s theory
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about the yellow hair did not make him feel better. He had thought it too absurd to
consider. Now he was not nearly as certain because he could not, for the life of him,
think of anything about Gavin that stood out as being different beyond the hair. His eyes
were blue, but so, too, were Damien’s. He was as tall and broad of shoulder as Gavin.
He could not see that Gavin’s face would be any more pleasing to the eyes than his, or
even Damien’s.
She had smiled at Gavin. She had laughed at his stupid attempt at humor!
He could not seem to do anything but make her angry. He was very good at that.
He had a very bad feeling that that meant she would not consider contracting with
him.
He must review the data on the mating process again, he decided. Mayhap now
that he had spent some time around a female he would understand it better. He was not
confident that he would, because Zoe never reacted the way he expected her to, but it was
important to know the enemy when planning a campaign.
When he had studied it again, he would collect the Intel that Damien and Gavin,
and perhaps even Kyle, had gathered on Zoe, put it together with the little that he had
gathered himself, and then he would know better how to proceed from there.
****
Zoe had retreated to pout. Her anger sustained her for a while, but she hadn’t
counted on just how worn out she was. Lying in the dark helped to her to relax despite
the emotions churning inside of her and the determination of her brain to pick at the
puzzle pieces she’d collected. Sleep sneaked up on her. One moment she was trying to
fit together what she thought she had overheard with the way the cyborgs, particularly
Kameron, had behaved since then, and the next—nothing.
She roused when someone slid into the bunk beside her, edging her over closer to
the wall. Since she wasn’t accustomed to having a sleeping partner, she sat up
immediately in alarm. “What the hell?”
“It is my rest period before I must stand guard.”
She recognized Gavin’s voice immediately. What he’d said took a little longer to
sink in, but the alarm dissipated. “You came to sleep?” she asked, more confused than
alarmed now.
He hesitated. “Yes.”
There was something about the hesitation and the way he’d responded that set off
some sort of alarm in her head, but she wasn’t in any condition to figure it out. “I should
give you the bunk then,” she responded, having finally arrived at the realization that she
was sleeping in the only available bed.
“I do not mind sharing.”
She frowned at that, trying to make out his expression in the gloom but finally
decided it was too much effort. It seemed reasonable—one bed, two people needing to
sleep. It certainly seemed preferable to giving him the bed and sleeping on the floor.
“Alright.”
She lay back down and curled on her side away from him. She was just drifting
off again when he turned on his side, shifted closer, and draped an arm across her. She
was still trying to decide whether to make him move it or not when she lost touch with
consciousness again.
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She woke again when he got up and left. After drifting for some time, trying to
figure how long she might have been sleeping and whether or not she felt like getting up,
she decided she didn’t. She’d just composed herself for sleep again when someone
climbed into the bed behind her. She sat up and peered sleepily at her new bed partner,
discovering she couldn’t see him any better than she’d been able to see Gavin, which was
to say, nothing more than a dark lump.
“I woke you?”
It was Damien. Heaving an exasperated sigh, she lay down again. She wasn’t
going to get much sleep if they were going to be arriving and leaving in relays all night,
she reflected irritably.
Staring at the ceiling, Damien let out the breath he’d been holding slowly. It did
nothing to calm him. He felt, he realized, very much the same things as he felt when he
was facing battle—fear, anticipation, doubt, excitement.
The erection was new. He did not recall that he had ever had an erection when he
was about to fight. He was not particularly pleased that he had one now. It seemed
premature when he had not even gotten permission to use it yet. He considered, briefly,
whether he should focus on trying to get rid of it before she noticed when it abruptly
occurred to him that, if he did, he might not be able to coax it back at the crucial moment.
He did not think he would have a problem. It had been erect almost constantly since he
had watched Kameron fuck her, but it seemed an unpredictable thing and he did not care
for things that worked when they were not needed and did not work when they were.
Pushing that problem aside, he focused on trying to recall the exact words he had
worked out in his mind that he would use. To his relief, he recalled them almost
instantly. They were simple, straightforward, and to the point. He would ask her, he had
decided, if she was horny. She would respond with either a yes, or a no, at which point
he would either respond with ‘May I fuck you?’ or ‘May I fuck you when you are?’
If she responded with ‘yes’, then he would proceed with the steps of arousal and
penetration until he reached the point of gratification. He had gone over them many
times during the day so that he would not make the same mistake that Kameron had and
miss something crucial. He did not want her to glare at him afterward as she had
Kameron.
Despite his certainty that he was ready, sudden doubt shook him. The directions
for courting had stated that females liked it when a male used pretty words to describe
things. He had composed a variation to his speech after he had recalled that, but had
decided to discard since it seemed unnecessarily complicated.
It took a little more effort to jog his mind to recall them, but he finally did and
replayed them in his mind to compare them to the speech he had decided on. ‘I was
wondering if you might feel the need for sexual gratification since it has been almost
twenty four hours since you were given release?’ If she said yes, then he would respond
‘I would be honored to offer my services to relieve your need.’
He repeated it in his mind several times, but he could not convince himself that he
could say all of that smoothly. He feared that he might trip over the unfamiliar words or,
worse, that they were too vague to get his point across. She had used the words ‘horny’
and ‘fuck’ herself, which meant she would not find them objectionable or confusing.
He turned over to face her only to discover that, at some point while he was
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rehearsing, she had rolled onto her side and presented him with her back. He thought she
had gone to sleep.
Wake her? Let her sleep?
She might be cross and disinclined to be agreeable if he woke her. Kameron
tended to be very nasty when awakened. He was not, however.
Deciding he had at least a fifty-fifty chance of a good reaction, he settled a hand
lightly on her shoulder. She sat up so quickly it startled him.
“What?”
“I wondered if you were horny?”
“What?”
Damien frowned, reluctant to repeat the question but realizing he couldn’t
proceed with the next response until she had given him the answer he had expected. He
had thought she must be awake when she sat up, but decided the confusion could not be
from anything except being abruptly awakened. “Are … you … horny?” he asked,
saying the words slowly to make it easier for her to understand in her groggy state.
“NO!” she snarled.
“Can I fuck you?” he responded, disconcerted enough by the anger in her voice
that he forgot to add the second part. “When you are horny?”
“I don’t know, can you?” she demanded testily.
He stared at her blankly, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that the
conversation hadn’t followed his mental scenario at all. Abruptly, he realized what he
had said wrong. “May I fuck you … when you are horny?”
“I don’t think so!” she snapped, lying down again and putting her back to him.
He stared at the back of her head in frustration and finally decided that he had
awakened her and that, like Kameron, she did not like to be awakened. Mental note—
Zoe does not like to be awakened.
He settled on his back again, glaring angrily at the ceiling. A wise man, he
thought, would have left it at that, but the moment his anger began to abate a little it
occurred to him that he had not managed to get a promise from her to let him fuck her
when she was ready. If she was not horny, he could not expect her to allow him to fuck
her now, which he found very disappointing considering how desperate he was to fuck
her, but he could not count on being available when the mood did strike her. “Why do
you not think so?” he asked finally.
She hunched a shoulder at him, which assured him that she was still awake and
still angry.
Her temper was not likely to improve, he realized, until she had slept more and
awakened on her own. “I will ask you later.”
She sat up again and looked down at him indignantly. “You think I’m going to
change my mind if you ask me later?”
He stared at her angry face, disconcerted. “You will not?”
She narrowed her eyes at him instead of answering, and then flounced onto her
side once more, but he decided that was her way of answering.
“You have no interest in fucking me?” he surmised.
“No,” she said tightly.
“Is it the nose?”
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Zoe sat up and stared at him again, although she knew it was useless. She
couldn’t tell a thing about his expression. “Your nose? What’s wrong with your nose?”
If she hadn’t noticed, he didn’t want to point it out. “The hair?”
She gave him a look he couldn’t quite decipher. “You don’t have a fucking clue,
do you?”
He frowned. He didn’t like to admit he didn’t. On the other hand, he wanted to
know. “No,” he responded cautiously.
Zoe stared down at his shadowy face. She’d been angry right up to the point
where he’d begun to try to guess what it was she didn’t find appealing about him. The
moment he had, she realized that he not only had no idea how insulting his question was,
but he was as full of insecurities as she was—not that he had any reason to be. It stunned
her that a man that looked like he did could have any doubts of his appeal at all.
She sighed. It wasn’t as if she had anything against meaningless sex. She’d had
bad meaningless sex plenty of times because she was forever the optimist, thinking each
time it would be better than she expected and it never was. Right up until she’d had sex
with Kameron, in fact, the best she’d ever had was pretty good. Since then, she’d
relegated the ‘pretty good’ to ‘not bad’, because nothing she’d experienced before had
even come close.
She didn’t doubt for a moment that Damien was fully capable of pleasing her as
much as Kameron had. She didn’t even mind the fact that she wasn’t particularly needy
at the moment.
What she minded was the way that he’d asked. She also didn’t like the fact that
he had asked. It seemed like more of a transaction than something that should be wild
and hot or at least spontaneous and warm, damn it! He should have just tried and taken
his lumps if she took exception! As an attempt at seduction, it sucked worse than
anything in her experience. He shouldn’t be rewarded for it.
He didn’t know that, though, poor baby.
She shook her head at him. “I don’t suppose it occurred to you that you could
take care of the problem yourself?”
He tilted his head just enough to assure her that he didn’t by his confusion.
“Never mind,” she huffed irritably, peeling off her borrowed jump suit resolutely
and tossing it aside. “But, for the record, never ask a woman if she wants to fuck. Even
if she wants to, it sounds nicer to say ‘make love’. Then she can at least pretend it isn’t
just meaningless sex. And women like to pretend it isn’t even when they know it is.”
He sat up and looked down at her when she lay down. He wasn’t certain that he
had understood even half of what she’d said, mostly because his mind had gone chaotic
the moment she had stripped off her clothes, but he decided he would try to recall it later
and evaluate what she’d said. Clearly, despite the fact that she had said no, she had now
changed her mind.
He would have to figure that out later, too.
All of the sensations he had felt when he had first lain down beside her swarmed
over him again the moment he realized she had decided to let him, except now he felt hot
and dizzy besides … and panicked when he realized his mind had gone completely blank
and he could not recall the steps to bring her to full arousal.
He knew what he wanted to do as he allowed his gaze to wander the length of her
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body and saw how beautifully she was made. He wanted to touch her everywhere—at
once. The objective was to please her, though, and he did not know it that would.
It would be far better to stick to the points of arousal and make certain than to risk
doing it wrong, he decided.
Relief flooded him when he finally remembered he must start with a kiss to her
lips. Careful not to crush her fragile body with his far heavier one, he rolled over until he
was resting lightly along her length, supporting the bulk of his weight with his arms and
legs. After staring down at her face for several moments, trying to catch his breath and
fight off the dizziness that assailed him, he dipped his head and brushed his lips across
hers.
Like the delicate petals of a flower opening to the sun, her lips parted in invitation
at his light touch. Relief flickered through him that she hadn’t changed her mind again,
but it was brief, swept aside by the tide of hunger that rolled over him like an avalanche
the moment he locked his mouth to hers and swept his tongue inside. Moist heat greeted
him, coiled around his tongue, and his processor went into melt down, blanking his mind
to everything except the focus of pleasure. The taste of her fed his hunger instead of
appeasing it even a little. The feel of her small tongue, the silky, slick walls of the tiny
cavern of her mouth created a sort of frantic madness within him. He tested and explored
each over and over with his tongue, sucking up the taste and scent of her with a thirst that
grew worse the longer he strained to fulfill the need.
It wasn’t until darkness began to invade the red haze of fire in his mind that he
instinctively broke the kiss to drag air into his lungs. He sucked in several ragged breaths
to chase the blackness back and dove at her mouth again to taste more of her.
She began to shift restlessly beneath him after a time. The brush of her skin
against him distracted him, shifting the focus of his attention to the rest of her body and a
ray of sanity returned.
The steps, he reminded himself, searching his malfunctioning memory for them a
little frantically. More kisses, he finally remembered. He must fully stimulate all of her
erogenous zones.
He broke for air, sucked in a couple of breaths and shifted down to her throat.
“Check,” he muttered, mentally ticking off the list to make certain he didn’t miss
anything.
She was panting as much as he was by the time he had thoroughly explored her
throat and neck and ears to make certain he didn’t miss any spot that was particularly
sensitive, nipping and suckling at those points that seemed to get the most reaction
several times before he decided to move on.
“Check,” he muttered, scooting further down to tease her breasts. It took an effort
to refrain from going straight for the hard, tiny buds he wanted in his mouth, but he
managed to resist the temptation. Focusing, he massaged first one breast and then the
other with his hand to stimulate the blood flow to her breasts and bring them to the fullest
reception of sensation. She was shifting noticeably, thrusting her breasts at him for
attention before he allowed himself to suck one nipple into his mouth.
She gasped, went rigid for a moment and then plowed her fingers into his hair,
tugging at it. He ignored it, too preoccupied with the feel of her nipple against his tongue
to feel more than a twinge of distraction. By the time he remembered that she had
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another, she’d begun to cling to him, trying to hold him to her. He ignored that, too,
moving to the twin peak and suckling and tugging at it until he began to worry that either
his heart or his balls, or both, were going to rupture.
“Double check,” he gasped, nuzzling his face against her breasts and trying to
resist the urge to go back to the first nipple while he jogged his mind to try to remember
what was next on the agenda. The finger test, he thought hopefully, then realized he had
not stroked her belly or legs. He was not going to make it through that.
“What are you mumbling?” Zoe asked breathlessly.
His head popped up from her breast and he stared at her with a frozen look on his
face. “Mumbling?” he echoed.
“Check?”
He blinked at her. “I said that? Aloud?”
“Yes.”
He studied her uncomfortably. “I did not want to forget anything important. I
have not done this before—real world. Simulated, yes.”
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Chapter Twelve
Despite the fact that she was so aroused she felt like clawing something, Zoe had
a very hard time refraining from chuckling. When she’d finally mastered the urge, she
pushed at his shoulder, deciding it was time to take matters into her own hands. “Roll
over.”
He tensed, but after a momentary hesitation, he rolled off of her and onto his side.
She sat up and shoved at his shoulder again, straddling his waist when he rolled onto his
back. “My turn,” she murmured, leaning down to graze his lean cheek with her own on
the way to his ear.
It occurred to her, forcefully, that she had no way of knowing, without
experimentation, just how sensitive he was to her touch. He’d seemed thoroughly
aroused by what he was doing to her, though, she reminded herself, deciding she could
assume that he was as sensitive as she was.
He shuddered when the warmth of her breath touched his ear. Smiling faintly in
satisfaction, she teased it with the tip of her tongue briefly and began to work her way
slowly down his neck to his chest, stroking him, teasing his skin with her lips and tongue.
His reaction was everything she’d hoped. He tensed until every muscle in his
body trembled with his effort to remain still, gasping for breath, moving restlessly when
he couldn’t remain still anymore, as if she was torturing him instead of giving him
pleasure. His cock leapt as she bumped it with her buttocks.
Deciding both of them had had enough foreplay for two or three rounds of sex,
she worked her way down his chest and belly without lingering long over the play.
Reaching his garment, she settled her buttocks on his thighs, searched briefly for
someway to untie the thing and finally merely yanked it down. His cock sprang to full
attention. She was sorry it was too dark to really examine it with her eyes but she
doubted he would mind if she used her hands and mouth to explore it instead.
She touched the tip of her tongue the base and licked it all the way up the
underside to the tip. He sat bolt upright, sucking in a sharp breath. She placed a palm in
the center of his chest and shoved at him as she opened her mouth over the head and
sucked and he obliging fell back against the bed. She had intended to please him. Fire
flowed through her veins, though, as she sucked the tip of his cock and found his taste
pleased her—more than pleased her, actually.
A hunger to bring him off with her mouth filled her mind and she began to move
her mouth and hands over him with more and more enthusiasm. He ground his teeth
together so loudly she could hear them grinding, clutched at the bedding with hands
curled into fists. He caught at her head as she allowed his cock to slide deeply into her
mouth and then out again, pushing at her slightly one moment and holding her the next,
as if he couldn’t make up his mind whether to stop her or not.
“Zoe,” he finally burst out on a ragged breath. “I can not hold it.”
She didn’t want him to. She didn’t know why it was suddenly so important to
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give him pleasure, but she felt a deep need to.
He grabbed her shoulders. Dragging her upwards, he speared his hands in her
hair and kissed her with near frantic need. She kissed him back as desperately, but broke
the kiss after only a moment and shifted back along his belly until his cock was nestled
along her cleft. Lifting up on shaky thighs, she grasped his cock and aligned it with her
sex, bearing down on him to engulf him with her body. He caught her hips, his fingers
digging into her almost painfully.
She wasn’t certain if he was trying to slow her down or help her mount his shaft,
but she was too needy to stop. Groaning in frustration when she couldn’t take all of him
at once, she lifted slightly and bore down again and again, pressing downward a little
harder each time until he was embedded fully inside of her. She paused, her eyes closed
to savor the feel of him deeply inside of her for a moment.
He stroked her thighs with shaking hands. “It feels … good inside of you,” he
whispered raggedly.
A shudder went through her at his words. She felt herself quicken, the first
tremors of a climax rippling along the walls of her sex. Groaning, she lifted to allow his
cock to slide along her channel and settled again to take him deeply. She hit a peak.
Shuddering, she ground her hips against him as the quakes ripped through her, gasping
hoarsely.
He pulled her to his chest and rolled until she was beneath him. Briefly, they lost
their connection. With frantic haste, he found her sex and thrust into her again. The
quakes of her climax impeded his progress briefly, but he pressed into her persistently
until he’d regained the ground he’d lost and then began to pump into her with feverish
need. She spread her thighs wide, lifting her hips to receive him deeply as she felt the
tension building to come again. Her second climax, harder than the first, snatched her
breath from her lungs. She inhaled sharply on a keening cry as another quake rocked her.
He shuddered, ground his teeth together and let out a choked cry as his own
climax hit him, jerking all over with the force of it. She reached down to grasp his
buttocks, holding him tightly to her as he shook with the shocks of his convulsions.
His head drooped as the tension fell away from him. His arms, bracketing her
shoulders, trembled. A sublime warmth flowed over her in the aftermath. She skimmed
her hands upward from his buttocks along his broad back, caressing him with slow,
measured strokes. A shiver skated through him.
After a few moments, he slipped a hand beneath her hips. Holding her tightly to
him to maintain their connection, he rolled onto his side. Heaving a deep sigh of
repletion and satisfaction, she snuggled against his chest as he dragged her closer.
“Was it like the simulation?” she whispered after a moment.
She heard him swallow. “No,” he responded in a rough voice.
She kissed the space between his pecs, content to leave it at that.
She woke a while later to the light touch of Damien’s hand along her arm.
Deciding to feign sleep since she was in no mood for sex again so soon, she remained
limp against him, trying to ignore his touch and go back to sleep in actuality. She
realized after a few moments that there was nothing purposeful about his touch, that he
wasn’t trying to arouse her. He kept his touch feather light, as if to try to keep from
waking her while he explored the skin along her arm with his palm and then stroked her
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back. Finally, releasing a deep sigh, he rolled away from her and got up.
It pricked her that he’d left until she realized it must be shift change.
Which meant someone else would probably take his place.
She rolled out of the bunk at that thought, staggered around for a moment in
search of the suit she’d tossed away and finally found it, then dashed into the facilities.
Drugged with sleep she might be, but she had enough presence mind to consider
that she didn’t want to be lying naked in the bunk, still reeking of wild sex, when the next
cyborg claimed a side of the bed for sleep.
She was only slightly more alert when she’d bathed and dressed. She paused in
the doorway of the facilities when she discovered she’d guessed right.
Someone was sleeping in her bed.
****
Light had scarcely begun to filter through the forest as Zoe made her way down
the gang plank, still feeling more woozy that alert due to the sleep rotation habits of the
cyborgs. She thought, wryly, that it might have been more restful just to sleep on the
hard floor.
Not that she regretted having wild sex with Damien. That had been pretty
damned memorable, and supremely satisfying, she thought, smiling faintly at the memory
as she slanted a glance at him where he stood in the clearing.
Undoubtedly, he’d heard her descent. He glanced toward her at that moment and
met her gaze. He reddened faintly, to her surprise, and smiled almost bashfully before he
returned his attention to what he’d been doing.
Arming himself, she discovered, watching as he leaned down to tie the thongs of
a phaser pistol holster around one thigh. One of the swords she’d examined the day
before rested in its scabbard across his back, the pommel protruding just above his left
shoulder as he straightened once more.
His shyness was both amusing and strangely endearing. It warmed her, made her
feel curiously pleased with herself. At the same time, she felt an odd little hitch in her
chest that only became more pronounced as she saw he was preparing for battle.
Kameron, she discovered, looked stony faced, but it was hard to say whether it
was because he hadn’t had more than four hours sleep or he’d noticed the smiles she and
Damien had exchanged and wasn’t pleased about it.
Or because he knew.
She was fairly certain she hadn’t fooled him by racing into the facilities to bathe
and dress—not that that had been her intention … per se. Mostly, she’d just wanted to
keep her personal business to herself.
She hadn’t wanted to flaunt the fact that she’d had sex with Damien for another
very good reason. She didn’t know whether Kameron would take exception or not—not
that he had any right to, but ‘rights’ wouldn’t necessarily stop him from being angry—
and she didn’t want to chance causing trouble between them when they were close. She
wasn’t exactly sure of why Damien and Kameron had come to blows before, but they’d
certainly convinced her that they felt no compunction about pounding the hell out of each
other if they did disagree on something.
It was a strange ‘quirk’ to their personalities to say the least, understandable she
supposed, given their history, but still unnerving. She didn’t particularly like that aspect
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of their natures, but she could live with it as long as it wasn’t her fault.
Kyle, who’d been the last in the sleep rotation, was also the last off the ship. He
looked surprisingly alert and vigorous considering the few hours sleep he’d had. He
slanted a speculative glance at her as he strode past her to collect his own weapons and
secure them.
The gang plank was retracted as soon as Kyle had stepped off of it. Zoe followed
its slightly jerky progress upward to discover Gavin was standing in the hatch, studying
her. She hadn’t had the chance to speak to him since she’d discovered he was going to
risk his life to move the craft, she realized with a jolt of dismay. She supposed, more
accurately and less comfortable to her conscience, she hadn’t made the opportunity.
She wanted to say something to let him know it mattered to her whether he made
it or not, at least in the same sense that she would feel for any other living being. The
thought had no more formed in her mind, though, when she realized it was more than
that. She felt a connection with him. However brief, however tenuous, their bond, there
was no denying there was one. He wasn’t a stranger. He was someone she wanted to
know.
The only phrases that came to mind, though, were the pat little ‘polite-isms’ that
sometimes meant something and often nothing at all. “Take care,” she said before she
lost her chance to say anything at all. “We’ll see you on the plateau.”
His blond brows lifted in surprise. He tilted his head slightly, as if he was
analyzing the comments, and finally smiled back at her. “I will see you on the plateau.”
She felt vaguely comforted by that, as if it was an assurance.
She turned away when he had closed the hatch and discovered that the others
were ready to go. All three had gathered some fairly formidable makeshift packs of
supplies they’d put together. It didn’t make her feel better to see that the cyborgs weren’t
taking any chances of being caught without supplies. She supposed, to them, it just
seemed reasonable not to take the risk when they were stranded on an alien world. To
her it screamed lack of faith and immediately undermined the comfort Gavin’s comment
had given her.
She frowned thoughtfully as she responded to Kameron’s gesture to follow him,
falling into step behind him. She lived in an enlightened age. She’d never considered
herself the least bit superstitious, and yet she realized she must be if she viewed being
prepared as something that might bring bad luck down on Gavin.
That’s all it was, really. The ‘fates’ were no more likely to smile upon Gavin’s
endeavor by a ‘show of faith’ in leaving everything onboard than to frown upon him that
they hadn’t.
And despite the lack of a display of emotionalism, she knew Kameron, Damien,
and Kyle probably cared far more deeply about Gavin than she did. The anger she felt
that they didn’t seem to was unreasonable.
Completely unreasonable, she realized, given that she wasn’t actually accustomed
to demonstrations of affection herself. She supposed there had been a time in her life
when she was. She dimly recalled at least a few instances from her childhood when
she’d been the recipient of smiles and kisses and hugs from her mother—of worry and
concern, and knew that indicated a loving relationship, at least then.
It wasn’t something that had carried over into adulthood. The love her mother
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had felt for her father had eventually evolved into bitterness if not outright hate and it had
eaten at their relationship until she’d withdrawn completely from her mother. She told
herself it was because her job prevented her from having a ‘real’ life, but the truth was
her job had become her life. She had embraced it and let it, made it, happen, to fill the
void because she’d discovered it didn’t seem to matter to her mother whether she saw her
or not. She was as guilty of forming a wedge between them as her mother was, but she
had tried for a long a time to reach out before she’d given up. She’d felt it was her
mother’s turn to try to breach the gap—but she never had.
She hadn’t even heard from her mother in well over a year.
She supposed that was the real reason she’d never gotten around to meeting
Bronte. As long as she didn’t, she could tell herself they might form a bond, and she
preferred to hold on to the possibility they might than to take the chance of trying and
discovering there was nothing there.
She’d never thought of herself as a coward. Physically, she wasn’t. Emotionally,
she supposed she was.
She emerged from her reverie when the party halted nearly an hour later. The
sound of the Omega’s engines came to her from the distance that now separated them.
Seeing the direction of the other’s gazes, she lifted her head to watch, too, feeling her
belly tighten with anxiety. A few minutes later, she saw the glint of sunlight on metal as
the Omega rose above the trees. Even to her, the engine sounded strained. The ship
seemed to move at a snail’s pace, barely skimming the tops of the trees.
The knot in her stomach tightened as she watched it’s progress and wondered if
Gavin was flying so low because he couldn’t gain altitude, or as a precaution to try to
keep from becoming a target of the soldiers if any happened to be close enough to fire at
him, or because he thought it might minimize the damage to the ship if the engine cut out
altogether. For whatever reason, he continued to skim the tops of the trees until he
disappeared from sight. Her heart in her throat, she listened intently for a while for an
explosion. Feeling vaguely relieved when she didn’t hear one, she glanced around at the
others, trying to discern their thoughts on the matter as they shouldered their packs and
set off again.
She supposed she should’ve felt insulted that she hadn’t been given anything to
carry. She was to a degree since she saw it as a clear indication that they didn’t see her
as ‘one of them’, but she quickly realized it was just as well. She had a hard enough time
keeping the pace they set unburdened. If she’d been carrying anything she thought she
might have been forced to beg them to stop before they’d made much progress at all.
It wasn’t as if the terrain was that difficult, though she could tell it was gradually
rising. Kameron, still in the lead, cleared the way. The air was thin, however, and at the
same time thick with humidity that made her lungs labor with the effort to sift enough
oxygen to keep from passing out. By her guess, they had been walking for around two
hours when Damien pushed ahead of her and spoke in a low voice to Kameron.
“I need to adjust my pack. It seems loose.”
Kameron sent him a frowning look and then glanced back at her. Nodding, he
called a short halt. Zoe dropped to the ground gratefully, drawing her knees up and
resting her forehead on them while she struggled to catch her breath. The dizziness,
thankfully, passed after a minute and her heart and lungs ceased to labor. She lifted her
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head when someone nudged her shoulder and discovered that Damien was holding out a
container of water. Smiling her gratitude, she took it and quenched her thirst.
“Not too much. It will make you ill,” Damien cautioned.
Nodding, Zoe reluctantly handed the water back to him, watching as he took a
long swallow himself. Her belly quivered as she watched his throat work and memories
of the night before surfaced. She looked away, but her gaze clashed with Kameron’s and
she discovered looking at him was no more calming.
Lifting her head, she focused on scanning the woods around them instead,
thinking how strange it felt to find herself in the company of two men she’d been
intimate with at the same time. The knowledge, and the hunger in their eyes if it came to
that, was disconcerting to say the least. She couldn’t remember ever feeling
uncomfortable around anyone she’d had sex with before.
Actually, she realized she wasn’t particularly uncomfortable, just acutely aware.
Maybe the difference was that she’d so thoroughly enjoyed the encounters when,
previously, she hadn’t had any trouble putting it from her mind because it had been
totally unmemorable?
She thought that was a good bit of it.
It wasn’t all of it.
She hoped the fact that she’d had sex with two of them hadn’t given rise to
expectations in Kyle and Gavin, but she wouldn’t lay money on it.
The quiver in her belly instantly gave the lie to that. The realization both
disconcerted her and irritated her. She wasn’t a dick hound. She thought she had a
healthy sexual appetite but it certainly wasn’t the pivotal point in her life. She wasn’t
constantly on the hunt for someone to scratch her itch. If she happened to meet a man
that appealed, and the opportunity presented itself, she went with it. Otherwise, it didn’t
cross her mind.
Because she so rarely met men that had a strong sexual appeal to her, she realized
abruptly. It had thrown her completely off kilter to find herself in the midst of a herd of
them, but there was no denying she felt more than a casual interest in all four of them.
And was that surprising, she asked herself, given the sheer male beauty of the
four of them? If they were flawed, it sure as hell wasn’t physically. Not one of them was
even plain, ordinary, or just ok. And not only were they handsome, but they were built
like gods.
It wasn’t fair and even while it kept her as jittery as a drug addict desperate for a
fix, making it impossible to get her mind off of the fact that she was female and they
were male, at the same time as it emphasized her sense of femininity, being around such
flawless perfection also chipped away at her self-confidence. She wasn’t ugly, but she
was a hell of a long way from beautiful or perfect.
The men rose to begin their trek again after a few minutes. Still distracted by her
thoughts, Zoe rose automatically to follow.
What if she hadn’t misunderstood the plot she’d overheard, she wondered? How
did she feel about it? When she’d first overheard them she’d been appalled and scared
because she’d felt threatened. Was she calmer now about it because she no longer felt
threatened? Or because the idea had taken root and for some bizarre reason she’d
discovered it wasn’t nearly as appalling as she’d first thought?
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Maybe she was losing her mind? She ought to still be appalled and scared silly.
Just because they hadn’t been overtly threatening didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous.
She hadn’t been around them long, but she’d sure as hell been around them long enough
to know just how dangerous they could be and how unpredictable. The same
characteristics that appealed so strongly to her nurturing instincts as a woman were those
most dangerous and unpredictable about them. Emotionally, they were like overgrown
children, unformed, not completely in control because they hadn’t had the chance to
develop normally. And anything as big and strong and predisposed to violence as they
were that had problems dealing with emotions they’d never dealt with before could be
seriously hazardous to one’s health—especially when one happened to be a woman half
the size of one of them and probably not even a fraction as strong. She shouldn’t be
flattered to discover she was the object of their desires.
She should be scared to death.
Had she just wanted to interpret what she’d overheard the way she had, she
wondered? Had it been a trick of the acoustics and wishful thinking, because she did find
them so attractive?
She didn’t think it had crossed her mind, not even the subconscious part. Why
would she think in terms of contracting when she’d never considered doing so in her life?
Unless what they’d told her about Bronte had planted a seed deeply in her mind?
Unfortunately, there was no denying they still looked upon her as an enemy, and
she didn’t see how they could be considering her as a life-partner when they didn’t trust
her at all.
Maybe trust wasn’t an issue for them considering they didn’t really have to worry
about her? Obviously, just being female was enough for them. It didn’t matter to them
whether they were compatible in any other way.
She suspected if she’d been a total bitch, ugly, misshapen, and stupid they would
still have considered her a likely candidate for partner—because she was a female and
had the right equipment, and maybe she was right, as dismaying as that thought was, but
did they think that about her? That was the real question—because she was an idiot. She
wanted to think they were actually as attracted to her as she was to them.
It seriously bruised her ego to think that might not be the case.
But it was more than that, she realized. Beyond the sex appeal, beyond the strong
nurturing urge they aroused in her, she liked them and she wanted them to like her
back—not just accept her as part of the package they had to put up with to get the pussy
she was carrying around, but like and respect her as a person, to think of her as a
companion.
Clearly they didn’t and that was why she’d been so hurt and angry with Kameron.
He’d just had to point out that she was an enemy.
She wasn’t certain when she’d stopped thinking in those terms. She thought,
though, that it was the very moment Kameron had decided to walk off and leave her to
‘her people’. It was hard to think of yourself as a captive when you had to beg someone
to take you with them.
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Chapter Thirteen
By the third stop to ‘adjust something’, despite her preoccupation, Zoe tumbled to
the fact that the frequent stops were entirely for her benefit. She wasn’t certain how she
felt about it. Relieved, partly, annoyed and flattered at the same time that they were
concerned about her.
Until it occurred to her that it wasn’t necessarily personal that they were so
deeply concerned about her well-being. She was something in the nature of a ‘prize’, she
supposed, and they didn’t want to break her.
By the time they reached the cliff they would have to scale to reach the plateau,
she was calling herself a total idiot and convinced she’d been thinking too hard with her
pussy to see straight. They were sexy. There was no question about that, but she wasn’t
about to just fall in with their plotting against her, even if she was right and they were
plotting.
She’d come to get Bronte. Even if Bronte had fallen for their routine, she had
severe doubts that Bronte was even close to content to live among the cyborgs. She just
didn’t have options. Zoe meant to give her an option, if she could just manage to get to
her sister, and then she meant to head home, with or without Bronte.
It occurred to her that contracting with the cyborgs might give her an edge to
fulfill her mission. She considered it, briefly, but aside from the fact that it hadn’t
actually been offered and she didn’t know that it would be, it went against the grain to do
something like that under false pretenses. She knew, legally, she wouldn’t be bound,
whatever their laws, because she wasn’t a cyborg.
It left a bad taste in her mouth, regardless. She wasn’t her father’s daughter in
that sense. She wasn’t going to agree to a contract she had no intention of upholding, in
fact every intention of breaking at the first opportunity.
As little as she liked idea of joining the bastards that had followed her, she
realized in dismay, that that was exactly what she should do. She hadn’t been thinking
straight since she’d left Earth to go after Bronte. The chances of successfully rescuing
Bronte were astronomical. She would have to snatch her from the heart of the colony of
cyborgs, who had been created almost solely as soldiers. What real chance did she have
of managing such a feat, even assuming she could get there in the first place?
Emotion had brought her, not reason, not anything approaching it.
She didn’t want to let go of the only person in the universe she felt the connection
of a blood bond to—besides her mother who couldn’t have cared less about any kind of
bond. She felt, right or wrong, that her mother had never really loved her at all, that she
had only seen her daughter as a tool to get the man she loved beyond reason and when it
had been borne in on her that he hadn’t considered his daughter a binding tie, she’d
become worthless.
The ascent was almost worse than the descent had been. The daylight was
waning and deep shadows starting to crawl along the ground, but it was still light enough
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to see more than she wanted to. Kyle apparently won the toss as to who was going to
have to lug her ass up the cliff. She assumed that was the case. She’d seen them in a
huddle, discussing something and then Kyle had discarded his weapons and the pack he’d
been carrying and approached her cheerfully while Damien and Kameron glared at his
back and finally turned away to scan the jungle.
She couldn’t imagine why he’d be so damned cheerful at the prospect, but it
certainly appeared to be the case.
This time, once she’d climbed on Kyle’s back, Kameron removed a length of rope
and fashioned a harness of sorts to hold Zoe more securely. As grateful as she was for
the fact that it supported more of her weight and didn’t put as much strain on her arms
and hands and legs, she still found it embarrassing and scary.
Reluctantly, she admitted she would never have managed the climb on her own.
She didn’t have a particular problem with heights, but she still wasn’t happy about
hanging from her fingers and toes over a nearly vertical drop. She also doubted she had
the upper body strength to pull herself up such a climb. If it had been half as high,
maybe, but that was still doubtful considering how easily she was winded in the
atmosphere of the planet and the higher altitude wouldn’t have helped at all.
Gavin met them at the top. Extending his hand, he caught one of Kyle’s and
helped them over the ledge. As if it had been prearranged and he wasn’t the least bit
surprised to find her tied to Kyle, he immediately set about removing the makeshift
harness, catching her waist when he’d dropped it and pulling her from Kyle’s back.
Both men towered over her, looking down at her as if she was a particularly tasty
morsel for several moments before it seemed to occur to them that she wasn’t
comfortable being the focus of their attention.
She tried not to think about the possibility that it might be running through their
minds to wonder when they were going to get the chance to fuck her. Egotistical or not,
there was a look in their eyes that certainly seemed to support that theory.
As attractive as they were it was more than a little unnerving. Damien and
Kameron had both embraced ‘real sex’ with flattering, and devastating, enthusiasm. She
didn’t doubt that both Kyle and Gavin could perform as well and with equal enthusiasm.
The unnerving part was finding herself in the middle of a tug of war between the four.
She thought it best not to encourage that line of thinking.
Which made her wonder where her head had been when she’d given in to
Damien. Kameron had been one thing. She hadn’t actually given in. She certainly
hadn’t encouraged him—not until they’d been in the middle of it anyway. She hadn’t
just given in to Damien, though. She’d taken the initiative. If he decided to ‘share’ that
bit of information, and it sure as hell seemed to her like they shared pretty much
everything, she could be in real trouble.
Kameron’s appearance at the brow of the plateau seemed to bring them to a sense
of purpose. Both men turned and headed toward the ship. She weighed her options and
finally turned to follow them. By the time she arrived, they were busy unloading the
scraps they’d loaded onto the ship for the flight. She was tired. She really felt more like
resting than working, but she made her way up the gangplank and found something small
enough and light enough to carry.
Kameron eyed her with frowning speculation when she appeared with it, but he
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didn’t comment. Neither did the others, although they watched her with varying degrees
of amusement and curiosity that she found annoying.
She was trying to fit in, she realized.
And it wasn’t working.
She didn’t know which bothered her the most, the fact that she wanted to or that
they wouldn’t let her forget she didn’t.
She was smarter than this, she thought angrily. Why had she gotten herself into a
situation she shouldn’t have?
At the time, it had seemed she had sound reasons for it. She’d been too focused
on her objective to think things through. In hindsight, she supposed Kameron hadn’t
been capturing her so much as he was rescuing her from her stupidity. As pissed off as
she’d been about them blowing up her ship—and still was—that didn’t change the fact
that she’d encroached, however inadvertently, on their territory and they’d responded
accordingly.
If she’d done the same thing—a base—guarded by the federation, the results
would have been the same, except she would probably have been blown up with her ship
and, if she had been rescued, she would absolutely have been a prisoner, not just sort of
or maybe.
The federation took a very dim view of invasion by unauthorized personnel.
She’d had the option of leaving. She should have taken it. Now that they’d
allowed her to tag along and she’d seen and heard things she shouldn’t have, that wasn’t
an option anymore. Regardless of whether she was right about their intentions or not,
Kameron had made it clear she was now, to all intents and purposes, the property of the
cyborg nation.
So where did that leave her?
She wasn’t going to be able to rescue Bronte. She’d finally accepted that. She
still wanted to. She still didn’t want to go back without at least trying, but, deep down,
she knew it was a lost cause.
She doubted she could escape from the handful of cyborgs she had to deal with
now, let alone a colony full of them—thousands, certainly.
If she tried and failed, it was only going to make them that much more distrustful
of her.
If she tried and succeeded, she would find herself on the side of some very bad
people. She didn’t think she’d misjudged them. Their goal was to find the cyborg ‘nest’
and wipe it out and they’d been willing to use her, and sacrifice her life to do it. From
what she could see, the cyborgs seemed content to live in peace, despite what had been
done to them, and leave humans—pretty much—alone. She hadn’t gotten the sense, at
all, that they were gathering their forces to attack. They just wanted to be left alone and
they were, naturally enough, willing to kill to preserve their freedom.
Did she want to be marooned on this world with ‘her own kind’? Or take her
chances with the cyborgs—assuming of course, that she had any choice in the matter?
As uncivilized planets went, she supposed this one wasn’t half bad, but she sure
as hell didn’t want to live here. Given the choice of Earth or anywhere else, she was
pretty sure she’d chose Earth, but she didn’t think she had that option.
Not unless the group of soldiers that had been stranded here were picked up. In
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which case, they would no doubt resume their mission and either succeed in wiping out
the cyborgs or die trying.
So, if she opted for the cyborg world, she might just find herself at ground zero.
She was more inclined to think the cyborgs would wipe the opposition out, and
her with them if she chose that option.
She wanted to live, but she realized she wasn’t really debating survival. Survival,
she was convinced, meant staying with the cyborgs. That wasn’t the only reason she was
more inclined to stay with them, though, and neither was finding Bronte.
Despite her mixed feelings about the cyborgs, she trusted them far more than she
trusted the men across the valley. Despite what she saw as a tendency toward violence,
she didn’t believe for a moment that they would harm her unless she was some sort of
threat to them, which she obviously wasn’t. They, in point of fact, seemed far more
inclined to treat her as if she was a piece of fragile china they were afraid would shatter if
not handled with great care.
Escaping, she accepted, wasn’t on her agenda. From there, nothing was terribly
clear.
She thought it was a very bad idea to play with fire. It was a little late to come to
that conclusion but better to perceive the pitfalls before they fell than to try to pick up the
pieces afterwards. Under the circumstances, she didn’t see that it would be that hard to
keep her distance from them—physically or emotionally. They weren’t, any of them,
exactly open and friendly. They weren’t unfriendly, precisely, but they tended to be very
solitary from what she could see, which was understandable given the fact that they
seemed to spend so much of their lives on sentry duty, completely cut off from everyone.
Even if they did work in pairs, it seemed to be one man on, one off, most, if not all of the
time, which didn’t leave them much time even to interact with their partner. She was the
one who had been pursuing them, not the other way around, under the guise of collecting
information to understand the situation, but just the same, that had been her idea. They
hadn’t offered anything. She’d been prying it lose.
As for the sex, obviously they were virile males and anxious to have it, but she
didn’t think they’d force the issue.
She didn’t think.
They might if she proved difficult, but she thought their worry that they might
‘break’ her was probably her best defense against them trying to force the issue if she
proved unwilling.
The sex had been great, and they were damned attractive, but she thought she
could contain herself—and should. The urge to just go with the flow and enjoy it while
she could was probably the worst impulse that she’d ever had, and she’d, admittedly,
given in to some pretty stupid ones in her time.
When they’d finished unloading the pieces, the men scattered to search the
wreckage of the other crafts for anything useful, primarily for repairs, she supposed.
Since she had no clue what might be useful, she decided to see what she could do to put
the Omega in order. There wasn’t a lot that needed to be done, but it gave her the
opportunity to thoroughly explore it—which didn’t take long. It wasn’t much bigger than
the craft she’d leased for her trip, which was to say, it was small.
There wasn’t but one private cabin and that was the one she’d spent the night in.
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Somehow, she didn’t think she’d make much headway in demanding it for her sole use.
The idea of planting her ass in the only sleeping quarters in queenly splendor while they
made do with the floor wasn’t something she was comfortable with anyway.
Sharing the bed wasn’t something she was happy with either, however. She
didn’t mind sharing the close quarters. She could live with that. She’d shared the
precinct dorm plenty of times with other officers when she was on a particularly time
sensitive case where she had to snatch a few hours sleep when she could. Everybody,
regardless of gender, made use of it when they were just too tired to make it to their own
quarters or couldn’t afford to take the time.
They hadn’t shared a bunk, however.
It was damned inconvenient that the craft had only one bunk. She could
completely see the reasoning. As sentries, someone always had to be on duty. Both
couldn’t sleep at the same time so there was no sense in taking up what little space there
was by cramming in two bunks.
It would still have made her life easier.
As she stared at the single bunk, it occurred to her that there were somewhere
around a dozen ships scattered over the plateau. She might as well join the scavengers
and see what she could find for her own use—hopefully a mattress, possibly even a
change of clothes that fit a little better. She didn’t think she could find anything that fit
worse.
Gavin and Kyle, she saw, had either been sent to patrol the perimeter of the
plateau or had gone to inspect the cliff for the most likely places the soldiers might try to
come up, she thought the latter since they kept pausing and staring hard at the sides of the
cliff. Damien and Kameron had begun to form several piles of scavenged goods. The
largest seemed to be parts, but they’d also collected some containers of water and rations.
Ignoring them, she scanned the plateau in the deepening evening shadows and
headed toward the nearest hulk. It looked to be the mid-section of a ship, but she figured
it was worth checking. She had no idea, after all, how big the ships had been to start with
or what model it was.
She discovered when she looked inside that it wasn’t much more than a shell, and
burned besides. Moving on quickly since the gloom was gathering, she checked two
more before she found what she was looking for. Debris covered it, so she wasn’t certain
it was even whole, but she began alternately shoving at the pieces of debris and tugging
at the mattress.
She screamed like a banshee when she reached down to pick up a piece of debris
and toss it away and came up with a man’s forearm and hand. Throwing it down, she
whirled and ran, smacking into a wall of flesh that didn’t move, and rebounding. He
caught her as she ricocheted off his chest. She stared up at Kameron blankly for a
moment before recognition penetrated her shock.
He wasn’t looking at her. He was scanning the wreck behind her for the threat he
expected to find. Despite the shock and the fact that her heart was still racing, Zoe felt
the beginnings of embarrassment. If she’d been on duty and done such a thing she would
never have heard the last of it.
She wasn’t on duty, however. She hadn’t been expecting to find a body—or body
part. She supposed she should have considered the possibility, but she’d seen the
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soldiers. She’d thought they had landed the ships and disembarked before the Omega
attacked. It hadn’t occurred to her that anyone might still have been on board any of the
ships.
She supposed that was stupid, or maybe just willful blindness, and it only made
her feel more mortified.
Seeing no obvious threat, Kameron transferred his attention to her. “What
happened here?”
It was at that point that Zoe discovered she’d drawn all of them. Damien, Gavin,
and Kyle were ranged behind Kameron, also peering intently at the wreckage. The
tension in all of them made it clear that they’d expected a real threat.
She looked away, trying to think of something she could say to save face, but she
realized fairly quickly that there nothing she could think up that would make her not
sound like a hysterical female. A shudder raked its way along her spine. “I found a … I
picked up … I wasn’t expecting to find a body.”
She glanced up at them sheepishly, more than half expecting to see anger and/or
derision in their expressions for raising the alarm as she had when it was nothing more
than that she’d been startled. To her surprise, she didn’t see anything like that in any of
their faces. They looked more perplexed than anything else.
Kameron glanced at the other men over his shoulder, nudging his chin in a
dismissive gesture. “She is not hurt.”
The men glanced from Kameron to her and finally turned and left. Kameron
lifted a hand and touched it lightly to her pale cheek. “You have no blood here.”
“I was just surprised, that’s all,” Zoe insisted, realizing that she did feel faint now
that the adrenaline rush had abandoned her. She forced a smile. “Thank you for
checking on me, though.”
He nodded, studying her face keenly. “You should rest.”
“I’ll just finish what I was doing and do that.”
His lips tightened, but he didn’t force the issue. His hands dropped to his sides.
He looked undecided as to whether to stay or to go. A faint smile curled his lips after a
moment. “At least I need not be concerned that I would not hear if you were in trouble. I
heard from the other side of the plateau.”
She supposed she should’ve been insulted, but the comment surprised a chuckle
out of her, or rather half chuckle half sob. It was the concern she saw in his face, the
sympathy. She would’ve been alright if he’d just dismissed it, better if he’d been angry,
because that would’ve spawned her own anger. The sympathy crumbled her
determination to be stoic. She sniffed, compressing her lips for fear she’d lose her
tenuous grip on her emotions.
He looked vaguely alarmed when he saw the tears swimming in her eyes, but he
stood his ground. She had to give him points for that. “What have you found? I will
help you with it.”
That comment instantly dried up her tears and the urge to break down. She
cleared her throat. “I think I can manage.” In point of fact, she no longer wanted the
damned mattress. She was certain she couldn’t sleep on it anyway without her skin
crawling.
He brushed past her and looked around, his gaze immediately going to the
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mattress she’d been clearing off. He glanced up at her.
She smiled weakly. “I thought it would come in handy since there’s so many of
us now.”
His face hardened, but he bent down and dragged the mattress out from under the
debris and took it outside to examine it. It was filthy and slightly charred in a couple of
places but in surprisingly good shape all things considered.
She didn’t actually want to consider ‘all’ things.
The dead man wouldn’t have been lying on it when he was killed, she assured
herself, otherwise it would have been as shredded as ….
Kameron beat it with the flat of his hand until dust stopped flying from it and then
hoisted it up and stalked toward the Omega with it. She trudged after him, struggling
with the sense of guilt that swamped her and trying to convince herself she had no reason
at all to feel guilty.
She knew she didn’t.
She still felt as if she’d done something wrong.
She didn’t glance around to see if the others noticed she’d found herself a bed.
She followed Kameron up the gang plank and into the rearward cabin. He looked around
when he’d reached it and finally dropped the mattress near one wall. Without a word, he
turned, pushed past her, and left.
Zoe stared at his retreating back until he disappeared and finally dropped down to
sit on the mattress.
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Chapter Fourteen
Damien watched Kameron carrying the mattress to the ship with a mixture of
puzzlement and uneasiness. He wasn’t certain whether it was the taut expression on
Kameron’s face or the discomfort on Zoe’s, which she was studiously trying to hide, or
the telling presence of the mattress being borne toward the Omega, but the confusion
waned, the uneasiness grew, and guilt joined it.
Frowning, he deposited the armload of rations he’d recovered, straightened and
stared at the pair as they ascended the gangplank, and finally wandered off to pick
through the wreckage for anything else of use.
His thoughts were on Zoe, however, or more specifically the fucking the night
before. In truth, he had not thought of much else since. The only thing that had changed
since then was his perspective on the interlude.
He supposed he had not actually thought about it at first. Directly after he had
come and for many hours afterward he had been mostly focused on how he felt, which
was not quite like anything he had ever felt before. He had felt almost unnervingly weak
directly afterward, but that had given way fairly quickly to a sense of well-being that
transcended good, surpassed ease. He had felt as energized as if he had slept long and
deeply when he had barely slept at all, as excited as if he had something exceptional to
look forward to, as pleased with himself as if he had accomplished something beyond
anything he had ever been able to do before.
He had finally identified the feeling as euphoria because it matched the definition,
not because he recalled ever having felt it before, but in time it had mellowed and oddly
enough when it did he began to feel a sense of doubt. He was not certain, at first, why
the doubts had crowded into his mind. In the beginning, he could not think of anything
that might have produced the sense of doubt. She had come. He knew she had because
he could distinctly recall the quivers of the muscles along her sex in convulsions of
ecstasy, the breathless cries of pleasure. He was not very clear in his mind about much
else that she had done, because mostly he recalled what she had done to him and how he
had felt, but he was certain he remembered that.
When she had emerged from the ship later, he had been convinced that his anxiety
that he had done something wrong, or missed something important, must be groundless.
She had smiled at him when he had glanced at her to make certain he had pleased her and
she was not still angry because he had woken her and persisted until she had finally given
in. She would not look at him afterward, though, and he had begun to wonder if she had
not smiled at all as he had thought, but perhaps grimaced and he had misinterpreted it as
a smile.
Then he had tried harder to remember the details that he had not tried to recall
before, and that was when he had realized that neither his doubts nor his anxiety were
misplaced.
Despite the end result that he had been so pleased about, nothing, he recalled
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abruptly, had gone as planned and certainly not as it should have. The request he had so
carefully rehearsed had not gone as he had expected because she had not responded as he
had anticipated. He had dismissed it because, in the end, she had agreed, but now he was
not even certain why she had agreed when she had not only said no, but had refused to
discuss the future possibility of allowing him to fuck her.
Beyond that, he had been so determined to acquit himself well, so focused on
trying to follow the steps—something he had had to do to recall them at all because from
the moment he had started to kiss her his mind had gone blank—that he had discovered
he had been reciting them out loud instead of in his head. He was not certain he would
have discovered that if she had not pointed it out, which was the next thing he had done
wrong, or the thing that had pointed out that he was doing everything wrong.
If he had aroused her half as much as he had aroused himself, he was certain she
would not have noticed what he was muttering. Moreover, once he had recalled that, he
was certain that the fact that she had decided to take the initiative was a clear indication
that she was not as thoroughly aroused as he had imagined or as she should have been,
otherwise, she would have been in no more state to think than he was.
It was along about that time that it abruptly occurred to him that she had actually,
technically, pleased herself. She had certainly come, but not because of anything that he
was doing or had done.
That realization had appalled him. Try as he might to convince himself that the
end result had been the same, he found that he could not actually believe it. The truth
was, he had pleased himself and left her to do the same. More accurately, which was
worse to his mind, she had pleased him and herself, which was the same as saying that he
had actually failed since that was certainly not what he had set out to do.
He was not certain what bothered him worse, the fact that he had performed so
badly, or the fact that he had done worse than Kameron when he had been so smugly
pleased that Kameron had fucked up.
****
Kameron wasn’t certain what was going through his mind as he stalked from the
ship and stood indecisively for several moments at the foot of the gangplank. All he did
know was that he was spoiling for a fight and had been since the soldiers had attacked
Zoe the day before.
He supposed he had been since before that.
It should have appeased him that he had killed the bastards but it had not,
because, he supposed, he blamed himself for it as much as he blamed them. It did no
good to remind himself that he had believed that he had left her where she would be safe.
She had not been safe. She had been attacked and forced to defend herself.
What might have happened if he had not heard her cry out and raced to help her
did not bear thinking on—but he had done just that, over and over, imagining something
worse each time.
Damien’s accusations had only added salt to the wound, emphasized his own
certainty that he had made a grievous mistake that could have cost Zoe her life.
It made it worse that, in the back of his mind, he knew that he had actually
considered that they might find her and take her back, removing temptation beyond his
reach so that he would not do something he was bound to regret later. Because, despite
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Damien’s optimism that the council would allow them to claim her, he was not
convinced, not by a long shot. In point of fact, he expected disaster to follow. He
expected that their claim would be disputed and very likely they would end in the brig.
Then, because the council would not consider sending her back once she knew the
location of the colony and their strength, she would become a citizen and settle with
some of the others while he and Damien languished in jail for bringing her to the colony
to start with.
And he preferred not to see her at all to the thought that he must see her and know
that she belonged to someone else.
He could have cheerfully strangled Damien for putting the thought in his mind at
all. It was not that he had not noticed that she was beautiful or that he had not desired
her. He had, but he had also been fully conscious of the fact that she was human and had
no business among them. He had not known what to do with her once he had snatched
her from her ship to keep her from being killed, but the fact that her people had followed
would have solved that dilemma. He could have left her for them to find and that would
have been the end of it. He had wanted to. He thought that he would have ignored her
demand to be taken to her sister if Damien had not already infected him with the seed of
his insanity.
He should not have fucked her, he realized. The temptation had been more than
he could resist, though, particularly once he had discovered that she had wanted it just as
he did. If he had not done so, however, he thought he might have continued to ignore
Damien’s determination to try to claim her for their own. Once he had, he had not been
able to think of anything beyond fucking her again and it had taken no great leap to
concede the merits of Damien’s suggestion, which meant that she would be his to fuck
whenever the need arose and she was willing.
She had seemed angry with him far more than she was in charity with him, but he
had not thought that would be an insurmountable problem. Once he figured out why it
was that every time he spoke to her he made her angry, he would take care not to say
whatever it was that made her angry. Or, if he could not figure it out, he would just be
careful not to say anything at all beyond ‘let us fuck’ or ‘if you have need, I will fuck
you’, thereby avoiding the issue altogether.
Since he had fully embraced the idea and had been struggling to develop a
strategy to settle the matter, though, it seemed to him that she had set herself against the
idea. More accurately, he supposed, since she did not know what they had in mind, she
had become obstinately determined to thwart them by distancing herself from them.
He could not see her determination to have a separate place for herself as
anything but a complete rejection of the idea of any kind of intimacy at all, which was
bound to make courting her considerably more difficult.
And he did not have to look far for the reason for it. Damien, he knew, had taken
advantage of his opportunity to sleep with her and fucked her. Just as obviously, to him,
she was not happy with the outcome.
The moment his gaze fell on Damien, his anger magnified tenfold. His eyes
narrowed. His jaw tightened until pain shot through it and upwards to join the rage and
impotence pounding in his temples. Clenching and unclenching his hands into fists, he
crossed the rocky ground to Damien in long, purposeful strides.
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Damien glanced up, did a double take, and, seeing the murder in Kameron’s eyes,
straightened abruptly.
“Exactly what did you do last night when you went to take your rest shift?”
In spite of all he could do, Damien felt color flood his face. Part of it was anger at
being challenged, but most of it, he realized, was discomfort and guilt. He was not about
to admit to Kameron that he had performed even worse than Kameron had, however.
“Nothing you had not done yourself,” he growled challengingly.
The fist Kameron planted in his belly should not have caught him off-guard, but it
did, knocking the breath from him briefly.
“You did something you should not have, or did not do something you should
have else she would not have wanted her own bed!” Kameron snarled accusingly.
Instead of planting a return blow in Kameron’s belly, Damien balled his hand into
a fist and drove it upwards, catching Kameron beneath the chin. His head snapped back
on his neck. He staggered back a few steps, caught his balance, and launched himself at
Damien, slinging four punches at him so fast, he only managed to block one. He caught
one with his chin and the other two in the belly.
That time, he was prepared, however, and tightened the muscles enough to keep
from getting the breath knocked out of him, following with a jab to Kameron’s chin and a
round house punch to the side of his jaw that sent him reeling away. Uttering a snarl of
rage, he charged after him, intent on plowing him down. Kameron recovered more
quickly than he’d anticipated, however. Whirling out of the way as Damien charged, he
punched him in the back as he flew by, adding enough impetuous to send Damien
sprawling.
Pain shot through him as he hit the rocky ground and skidded forward on his
hand, one elbow, and one knee. He rolled, leaping to a crouch just in time to catch
Kameron as he flew at him, knocking him onto his back. Kameron slammed a fist into
first one jaw and then the other, rocking his head from side to side hard enough to rattle
his brain before he managed to buck him off and roll so that he was on top. He was able
to connect two punches with Kameron’s face before he found himself on the bottom
again.
The next time he succeeded in throwing Kameron off, he rolled away and leapt to
his feet before Kameron could catch him and pin him to the ground again, kicking
Kameron in the face as he tried to do the same. The blow pitched Kameron flat of his
back, stunning him for several moments.
Damien considered following with a few more punches while he had the
opportunity, but he was beginning to tire and he’d worn off most of his own rage. He
decided to wait to see if Kameron wanted to continue.
He did not have long to wait. Within a moment, Kameron was on his feet again,
his face still a mask of rage.
“Not that I have not enjoyed watching,” Gavin murmured from the sidelines
where he had come to watch, “but why have you decided to pound Damien into the dirt?”
Kameron did not even glance at him. “He fucked her,” he snarled accusingly.
“You fucked her!” Damien snapped. “Why should I not have?”
“That was before we had decided to contract with her. And I did not piss her
off!”
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“She certainly did not seem to be happy with your performance!” Damien shot
back at him. “She has glared at you ever since!”
Kameron punched him in the nose then ducked when Damien, momentarily
blinded by the pain, swung at him in retaliation. “At least she did not seem distrustful,”
he growled. “You have ruined the plan before we could even set it into motion!”
“Since you did not have a plan, I do not see how you can say that I have ruined
it!”
Kameron looked as if he was considering punching Damien again but apparently
decided against it. Instead, after glaring at him for several moments, he turned and
stalked off.
Gavin eyed Damien with a measure of disgust. “That was not well done.”
“How do you know it was not well done!” Damien snarled.
Gavin eyed him speculatively. “I was referring to the fact that you acted without
waiting until Kameron had formulated a plan. What are you referring to?”
Damien reddened. “Nothing,” he growled and stalked off to find water to wash
the blood from his face and hands.
Gavin planted his fists on his hips. “Well, I will tell you now that if he is right
and you have ruined everything I will kick your ass myself. I have not fucked her, and I
am damned tired of not having a woman!”
****
“It did not take them long to figure out that we had taken the high ground,”
Kameron muttered, staring down at the human encampment below them.
Gavin shrugged. “They seemed surprised when we fired upon them. I am not
convinced that they knew before. Mayhap it is only that it occurred to them, as it did us,
that this was by far the most defensible position, beyond the fact that whatever supplies
any of us had brought would be here.”
“I do not suppose it matters. They would have come eventually, but I had thought
we might have a few days without trouble so that we could focus on the matter of
contracting with Zoe and mayhap even settle it before we had to focus on defending our
position.” He slid a narrow eyed glare in Damien’s direction. “Now we will have to
divide our time between watching them, working on repairing the ship, and our
campaign. And I can not think that will work well. The division of our time is bound to
slow us on all counts.”
“Have you worked out a plan then?” Kyle asked.
“Taking into account that we have nothing to work with, the fact that none of us
actually knows how to go about courting, and that we have very little time to devote to it
before we are either picked up by high command or forced to repair the ship and leave to
avoid being overrun by the mercenaries the company has set upon us? No.”
Gavin and Kyle exchanged a speaking glance and turned to glare at Damien.
Damien did his best to ignore the accusation in their gazes.
“I had begun to think that the only option open to us was to reconsider Damien’s
suggestion and simply ask her directly and then try to convince her of the merits of it. I
can not help but think that the fact that she seems to be shunning us is a strong indication
that that will not work, though,” Kameron continued thoughtfully after a moment.
“She has not glared at any of us in days,” Damien pointed out hopefully.
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“She does not look at us at all!” Kameron snapped.
“Or speak beyond to ask one of us to pass the salt!” Gavin put in.
“Or ‘excuse me’, when she wishes to pass, or ‘thank you’,” Kyle added angrily.
“I do not see how one can speak and act so politely and still make it seem as if they are
angry and that one has done something to offend! Particularly when I know damned well
that I have not offended her!”
“Mayhap I should ask her why she is offended?” Damien suggested
uncomfortably since he had a very good idea why she was offended. “Then, when she
has had the opportunity presented to her to vent her anger, I could beg pardon.”
Kameron, Gavin, and Kyle eyed him speculatively, considering the offer, but
finally rejected it. “I would agree,” Kameron said, “except that I am not certain that it
would be a good idea to remind her.”
“She obviously has not forgotten!” Damien snapped. “I do not see that I would
be reminding her!”
“I would prefer to try to direct her mind elsewhere!” Kameron snarled at him. “If
it did not make her happy when I blackened your eye and bloodied your nose, I can not
see that it would improve matters for her to tell you that you were a bad fuck and failed to
please her!”
Damien felt his face heat. “She came!” he snapped defensively. “It could not
have been that bad or she would not have! I do not see why you are so certain it was my
performance that made her angry. She did nothing but glare at you after you had fucked
her! Besides, she said that she did not like it to be called fucking. She said ‘women do
not like for men to call it fucking. They prefer to call it making love so that they can
pretend that it is not meaningless sex’!”
Kameron glared at him at the suggestion that she was angry because of what he
had done, but the last only confused him. “You must have heard her wrong. What could
she possibly mean by ‘meaningless sex’? Sex is not meaningless! I wanted to fuck her.
Is that not meaningful? I enjoyed fucking her and she enjoyed it. How could that be
meaningless?”
Gavin glared at both of them. “Well, I have not fucked her!” he said tightly.
“But it seems to me if you have both tried and she is not happy, then Kyle and I should
have a try at it and see if we can! That would take her mind off of her anger over the fact
that Damien did it badly. There is nothing like a good experience to put a bad one from
one’s mind!”
Damien punched him in the face.
Gavin uttered a snarl of rage and dove at him. Within moments they were rolling
back and forth on the ground near the cliff’s edge where they had stopped to talk, trading
blows, and scuffling for a superior position. Damien eyed the two of them with irritation
for several moments. Finally, when they rolled his way, he aimed a kick at Gavin’s midsection that lifted him off the ground, momentarily toppling him off of Damien. “Watch
the edge,” he muttered dispassionately, “else you will both go off and you will not be in
any shape to consider fucking or anything else for a while.”
Folding his arms over his chest, Kyle watched Damien and Gavin for a few
moments while he pondered the situation. “I think Gavin’s suggestion has merit,” he
finally said.
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Kameron slid a narrow eyed glance at him. “You only think that because you
have not fucked her yet. You are not thinking that it might improve the situation, only
that you want to fuck her.”
Kyle glared him. “That is easy for you to say when you already have!”
“It is because I already have that I know that is what is foremost in your mind,
because it is foremost in my mind!” Kameron muttered, unconsciously reaching down to
massage his aching balls. “If I had not fucked her I might be able to think of something
else. As it is, that is all I think about when I look at her and it has not been conducive to
rational thought or helped me in devising a workable plan.”
“That does not mean it would not work!”
“It does not mean that it will either,” Kameron shot back at him absently, his gaze
on Gavin and Damien as they gained their feet and began to batter at one another more
effectively, “and we do not have time to make more mistakes! We must think of
something that is certain to work.”
Damien stumbled back in their direction, aided by the fist Gavin had driven into
his belly. Kameron punched him in the back, then slammed his palms against his
shoulders, sending him forward again. “Damn it, Damien!” he snarled. “If you push me
off this cliff I will beat you senseless myself when I am able!”
Exchanging a glance with Kyle, he jerked his head suggestively and the two of
them moved further from the fight and the edge of the cliff.
“It does not seem to me that she could be less receptive to the idea of contracting
with us than she is now,” Kyle pursued.
“She has not tried to escape yet,” Kameron pointed out. “She is certain to try if
she feels threatened.”
Kyle eyed him indignantly. “I would not try to force her! And I am certain that
Gavin has no such notion. We would ask her … very politely.” He frowned. “Or
mayhap it would be better to offer to ease her needs?”
Kameron frowned. “I have not seen that she is suffering as I am!” he retorted. “If
she felt even half the need that I do, it seems to me that she would already have requested
that one of us take care of her needs. For I do not mind telling you that it is worse once
one has done it than before when one has only thought about doing it! In any case, I am
not certain, mind you, but I suspect that is what Damien did. He will not tell me, but he
looks very uncomfortable every time it is mentioned and you will recall what he told us
she had said. That seems to me to indicate that that is exactly what he did and that is
probably why she is angry now.”
Kyle frowned. “If it is the wording, then we can be sure to use the words she
prefers.”
“I would feel better if I knew what had happened.”
“I would feel better if I had fucked her myself.”
Kameron sent him a narrow eyed look. “Do not ask. Convince her as I did—or
not. Damien has certainly proven that she will take exception if she is asked! I can not
fathom why, especially when Damien will not say exactly what happened, but we must
remember that she is not a creature of logic and very likely we would not understand if he
told us and will never understand the workings of her mind. Since I can not think of
anything that might work better, I will not say not to, but I will tell you that if she is more
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angry afterward and flatly refuses to consider contracting with us, then I will pitch you
and Gavin both off of this fucking cliff!”
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Chapter Fifteen
Gavin was not nearly as elated that Kyle had secured permission for their mission
as Kyle had expected. “You do not want to fuck her?” he demanded, pardonably
indignant, he thought, that Gavin was not appreciative of his efforts on their behalf.
Gavin paused in the act of tightening the bolt he was working on and sent him a
look that questioned his level of intelligence. “It may have escaped your notice, but Zoe
is not likely to find me attractive when Damien has battered my face!” he retorted
irritably.
Kyle looked him over critically. “We will wait until it is dark and she can not see
your face. They do not see well at night as we do. We will be working on this engine
until it is time for the evening meal anyway.”
Gavin frowned thoughtfully. Setting his wrench aside, he examined his swollen
lip carefully with his fingers while he tested his loosened teeth with his tongue. “You are
certain Kameron gave us a go on the mission?” he asked, flicking a glance toward
Kameron, who was working at the other end of the ship on the outer hull panels that had
been damaged.
“He said that he would not say not to,” Kyle responded.
“But?”
Kyle shrugged. “He will hold us accountable if we make her more angry.”
“We can not know that we will not make her angry! If he charges us with
insubordination, we will end in the brig as soon as we are planet side and I have been
cooped up in this thing so long now I do not like the thought of being confined in
something even smaller for more months!”
Again, Kyle shrugged. “It is not as if we have never spent time in the brig
anyway. At least in this case it would be for something that we enjoyed doing.”
Gavin sent him a look of disgust. “Aside from the fact that we do not know that
we would get to fuck before she got angry, I would like to know how it is that you have
figured that we would enjoy it. That is not in any of my sims! And I know damned well
that you have never had more than sims anymore than I have, so do not try to tell me
differently!”
Kyle might have considered doing just that if not for the fact that he knew very
well that Gavin had every reason to know he had not. He frowned. “I have the urge and
I did not have the urge before the change.”
“That is the urge to procreate,” Gavin said testily. “That does not mean that you
would enjoy it, only that you feel the impulse to do so. And we all feel that, else we
would not be so anxious to convince Zoe to take us that we are behaving completely
illogically by focusing on her when we should be focused on fixing the ship and getting
out of here before the mercs the company hired figure out a way up here.”
“I have not made a fool of myself!” Kyle said indignantly.
“Yet.”
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Kyle glared at him. “Meaning?”
“You will certainly feel like one, whether you look like one or not, when you ask
her and she says no. Look at Damien. He fucked her and now he wants to fight any time
anyone looks at him and that is because he feels like a fool!”
“You were the one who punched him in the face,” Kyle said.
Gavin glared at him. “He punched me first,” he reminded Kyle. “I had only said
that you and I should try to give her a good experience to usurp the bad one he had given
her and he punched me in the face. Is that rational?”
Kyle thought it over but decided he was more interested in the issue of whether or
not it would be enjoyable to fuck Zoe. “Kameron as much as admitted that he had
enjoyed it. He said that he had not been able to think of anything since. If it was only
procreation, then he should be able to put it from his mind because he has done it. In any
case, I distinctly recall that Damien had a stupid look on his face afterward, for much of
the day in fact. What else would account for that?”
Gavin shrugged. “Mayhap she brained him and it took a while for his nanos to
correct the damage?”
“I had not thought of that,” Kyle conceded. “Do you think that she could hit that
hard?”
“It is as much a matter of knowing where to strike and does not actually take that
hard a blow. I do not see why she could not.”
Kyle was thoughtful for a few minutes. “I think that I will just go and check the
cabin and make certain she has not tucked a club beneath her mattress.”
Gavin lifted his head and looked around. “Be quick,” he advised, “she is coming
this way.”
****
The only thing more appealing than big, handsome, half naked—make that mostly
naked—muscle bound men, Zoe reflected, was big, handsome, mostly naked, muscle
bound men flexing all those lovely muscles—with sunlight gleaming off of the moisture
generated by their efforts. It was almost more beauty and virility than she could handle.
She had been trying very hard to occupy her mind with something else, anything else,
and found that nothing kept her mind, or her gaze, from straying to the men working on
the ship.
Bend and flex, bend and flex—she would almost have thought they were doing it
on purpose to tempt her except she was pretty sure they had no idea how much they
appealed to her and they never wore more than the skimpy little briefs that covered
nothing but their groin area. It wasn’t as if they had stripped down to do the work, and
even if they had it was understandable given that it was a very warm day.
And getting warmer by the minute despite the fact that the sun was well on its
way to dropping below the horizon.
But then ‘weather-wise’ wasn’t the warmth that was bothering her. She’d been
sitting in the shade trying to look busy, flicking an occasional ‘oh so casual’ glance in
their direction and, when none of them seemed to notice, staring at them until it seemed
one of them might look in her direction.
Damien and Gavin looked a little the worse for wear. She’d heard the commotion
outside and moved to one of the ports to watch so she knew they’d fought. She just
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didn’t know if it had been some sort of exercise, like sparring, or if they’d actually been
fighting. She was inclined to think the latter, mostly because it seemed to her that they’d
picked a damned poor spot for sparring. She’d thought several times that they were
going to go off the edge and had to clamp a hand over her mouth to keep from giving
away the fact that she was watching. It had taken a strenuous effort to refrain from
stalking outside and demanding that they move their fight to a safer location before they
gave her a heart attack.
Whatever their disagreement had been about, if it was a difference of opinion that
had started it, they appeared to have dismissed it when they’d worn themselves out
punching each other.
But they both bore the marks that proved neither of them had been pulling their
punches. Gavin had a swollen lip and one eye was swollen half closed. Damien’s jaw
and nose were swollen. Beyond that, their chests and bellies and arms and legs all bore
interesting multi-colored bruises from punching and kicking each other and they were
scraped and scratched from plowing across the pebble strewn rock they were camped on.
She shook her head. She could not fathom what had made either of them angry
enough for such a battle. Gavin and Damien both seemed so mild mannered and easy
going most of the time!
Kameron was the brooding one. She’d been certain when Kameron and Damien
had gotten into the fight several days ago that it had been Kameron’s fault. She’d known
he was angry when he had dropped her mattress on the floor of the cabin and stalked out,
known he was looking for a fight. Obviously, he’d found one and she’d been wrong to
suppose he’d simply picked a fight with Damien, because here it was only a few days
later and Damien, who’d just lost the battered, bruised look from his last scrape, was
looking as bad as he had from the fight before. It seemed significant that Damien had
been in two fights with two different men.
She couldn’t help but feel like it was her fault somehow. She just wasn’t sure
how she figured into it, but maybe it was just that Damien felt rejected?
He shouldn’t, she thought irritably. He’d asked to fuck. They’d fucked. He’d
been sweet—and exciting and, comparably speaking, the sex had been at least on a par
with what she’d experienced with Kameron, which was to say rating up there with better
than anything she’d ever experienced before.
But he’d set the ground rules, damn it! He’d asked to fuck. If he’d meant more
than that he should have said so. And the ground rules were that if it was just
meaningless sex, either partner could call the shots. Anything afterwards was strictly
icing and neither party had a right to gripe if they didn’t get seconds or thirds.
She wouldn’t have minded seconds or thirds from either or both, but if they were
going to fight about it later, she thought she’d made the right decision to keep her
distance.
It was actually a little deflating that none of them, after staring at her like they
wanted to eat her alive for days, hadn’t even acted like they’d noticed she had her own
bed now—not by comment or look. And none of them had tried to creep into her bed,
although she’d more than half expected it.
If the truth be told, she wouldn’t have minded. At least then she could have sex
with a clear conscience. If she didn’t initiate it, then it wasn’t her fault if they fought
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about it later.
She sighed as she trudged inside to prepare the evening meal. They’d, tacitly,
begun to rotate and take turns. Actually, the guys had just fallen into it like it was a
typical routine for them, but she hadn’t felt right not taking a turn with the daily chores.
There wasn’t much else she could do to ‘earn’ her keep. They weren’t messy, she
supposed because they were military, so there wasn’t a lot of cleaning to do. She didn’t
know one end of a wrench, or any of the other tools they used, from another, so she
couldn’t help with the repairs.
She supposed she could sit under them and hand them things but it smacked just a
little too much of pushing herself forward for attention to suit her. It really wasn’t a
‘necessary’ task, and they were bound to perceive it as an attempt to flirt with them—
which it would be.
Actually, she had a feeling they didn’t really grasp flirtation.
It had occurred to her that, although they had been programmed as pleasure bots,
it didn’t follow that they would have been programmed to flirt or to seduce. Why would
they need to be when they wouldn’t encounter that kind of situation? The company
wouldn’t have given them any programming or data unless it had been necessary to their
various functions, and since they had apparently done nothing beyond soldiering and
struggling to survive, it didn’t appear that they’d had the opportunity to learn by
experience.
She supposed she shouldn’t expect them either to know how or to recognize it
when she did, but, really, it was sort of basic human nature, wasn’t it, the mating ritual
and all that? Even if they weren’t entirely human, they were derived from the same gene
pool, and they were actually more intelligent than the average human. They certainly
knew more than the average human. Shouldn’t they be able to figure it out?
Either they hadn’t been able to or they just didn’t want to flirt with her.
She didn’t know why not! They’d been talking about trying to get her to contract
with them before! She was certain she hadn’t heard wrong.
Had they changed their minds? Had they thought it over and realized it just
wouldn’t work? Or wasn’t a good idea given that she was human?
Not that she wanted to. She’d just like to know why they’d decided she wasn’t
right for them when they’d seemed to think so before.
Of course, they hadn’t known her then. They’d been going strictly on
appearance, which, she supposed, was flattering in a way, or would’ve been if she hadn’t
been the only available female and sort of was anyway because they had seemed to find
her very appealing not just acceptable.
It wasn’t as if she was a bitch or a complainer or lazy! She wasn’t stupid or
useless. She didn’t babble on and on about things they would have no interest in just to
hear herself talk.
Barring extreme personality or physical defects, assuming she was right and they
had lost interest, why?
“Short attention span,” she muttered to herself.
They had reason to be preoccupied with other things, she conceded. The ship
needed to be repaired if they were going to go anywhere and then there were the soldiers
the company had hired just waiting for a chance to get up to the plateau somehow and
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finish what they’d started. Despite what she thought she’d heard about them deliberately
delaying repairs, however, it seemed to her that they were making very good progress
very quickly. Beyond that, it had taken the cyborgs a good while to climb the cliff. She
didn’t have a clear idea of exactly how long because she’d been scared shitless and she
knew that always made time seemed to stretch out, but it must have taken twenty or thirty
minutes anyway. She thought it would probably take the soldiers a good bit longer than
that, probably twice as long, and that meant they weren’t an imminent threat. The
cyborgs patrolled the perimeter. They’d had no trouble at all, so far, preventing another
confrontation by picking off the soldiers whenever they tried the climb. They had, in
point of fact, rained fire down on the soldiers until they’d decided to withdraw to a safer,
less exposed, distance.
She didn’t see that the problems were sufficient to completely absorb them. In
any case, they hadn’t been too preoccupied with the problems, before, to ignore her. If
anything, the situation was far more under their control now than it had been.
She should be relieved, she told herself sternly, that it seemed she didn’t have to
worry about dealing with any sort of complication like that to her own plans. She didn’t
know why she couldn’t convince herself to be.
****
Kameron felt both reluctance and resentment. The reluctance he understood, at
least partly, although he was aware that the part he had acknowledged was not the whole
reason for it.
He did not like the uncertainty that came with guessing. He liked order and he
liked to have solid information and logic behind every decision. Gavin and Kyle’s plan
was too illogical to give him any confidence that it had a chance of working.
How did it make sense to consider doing something that had already been tried
twice before, both by him and Damien, and had produced exactly the opposite results
from what they wanted?
It did not. He knew it did not. And that knowledge was behind his reluctance.
The other part of his reluctance, he finally realized, was from the fact that, even
though he knew it was only fair to allow it when both he and Damien had, he did not like
the idea of Gavin and Kyle fucking Zoe, and this was where the resentment also came
into play.
Beyond that he had almost a fear that it would work for them when it had not for
either him and Damien, which was completely illogical. He should want it to work, not
hope that it would fail to work.
“I still think it would be best to wait until the damage to my face has been
repaired,” Gavin muttered, sending Damien an accusing glare across the table that
separated them, for they had lingered at the table to discuss strategy after the evening
meal while Zoe made use of the facilities to bathe.
Damien smiled provokingly, folding his arms over his chest in a way that was
almost a challenge in itself, and Kameron thought for several moments that Gavin would
resume the fight. After clenching and unclenching his fists a few times, however, Gavin
apparently decided to ignore the gauntlet, but then Kyle, fortuitously, redirected his ire
anyway.
“I do not see that that matters. It will not interfere. She will not be able to see
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that well in the dark. But, if you are so greatly concerned, you should wait a few days
and I will proceed.”
Gavin narrowed his eyes at him. “It goes to ‘attraction’,” he growled. “I can see
why you are not concerned about it. Your face is not swollen and misshapen and
discolored! But we agreed that this would be a joint mission. We go together or we
both wait.”
Kyle sent him a mulish look. “As Kameron pointed out, we do not have the
luxury of a great deal of time or even any way to determine how much time we will have
to achieve our goal. I do not think it wise to wait. You do not look nearly as bad, in any
case, as you did yesterday. The swelling is mostly gone and she will not be able to
discern the colors.”
Gavin’s lips flattened with disgust but after expelling an irritated huff of breath he
seemed to dismiss it. “Mayhap we should just focus on our plan of assault?”
“You should be direct and ask her,” Damien suggested promptly.
“NO!” Gavin, Kyle, and Kameron said almost in unison.
Damien glared at them. “Why not?”
“Because it did not work for you!” Gavin said testily.
Damien flushed. “If it had not, then I would not have fucked her!”
“Well, you did something wrong!” Kameron said forthrightly. “If it was not that,
then I would like to know what it was!”
Damien eyed him resentfully but offered no explanation, mostly because he was
not at all certain he knew the answer to that—not that he was about to admit it.
“I was thinking that we should wait until she is asleep,” Kyle said slowly.
“Guerilla tactics. She will be caught off guard.”
Recalling abruptly that he had made a mental note to remember that Zoe was not
at all agreeable when awakened, Damien struggled to keep his glee over the prospect to
himself. “That seems like a likely possibility,” he agreed.
Gavin eyed him thoughtfully for a moment and finally turned to Kameron. “What
did you do?” he asked.
Kameron shrugged. “She asked me.”
“She did no such thing!” Damien snapped.
Kameron glared at him. “She told me she was horny, which is much the same
thing! I offered to take care of her need and that was that.”
“That was not that!” Damien countered. “She politely declined your offer—
several times. I heard her. You heard her, as well. Do not tell me you did not, for I
know that there is nothing wrong with your hearing and you were closer than I was. You
simply ignored it and proceeded!”
Kameron studied him assessingly for several moments. “I do not recall it that
way,” he said stiffly.
“Then you should have your memory chip scanned for defect!”
With an effort, Kameron resisted the urge to slam his elbow into Damien’s ribs.
“She did not say no,” he growled after a moment. “She indicated that I had
misunderstood, which I determined to be untrue. She was aroused and moreover open to
the idea or I could not have convinced her to proceed merely by massaging her to help
her to relax! She responded when I kissed her and displayed a responsiveness that
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indicated both arousal and willingness!”
“I think we will have a great deal of trouble with that,” Damien murmured
thoughtfully.
Gavin, Kyle, and Kameron all stared at him with a mixture of confusion and
irritation. “With what?” Kameron demanded when he failed to explain what ‘that’ was.
Damien propped his elbows on the table top, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
“There is no counting on the fact that when she says ‘yes’ she means yes, or when she
says ‘no’ she actually means no, or predicting whether yes will continue to be yes and
vice versa.”
They stared at him.
“We have already established that she is not a creature of logic!” Kameron
growled irritably. “We will have to work with that.”
“Yes, but how? She said to you that she was horny, and then that she was not,
then she did not object when you fucked her, but she was angry afterward. She said no
when I asked her, but then she pleasured me and later ….”
He broke off his musings when he noticed that all three of the others were staring
at him in disbelief.
“You are making that up!” Gavin said with angry conviction.
“I am not!” Damien snapped indignantly. “She told me to lie on my back. At
first I thought it was because she had decided against fucking, but then she kissed and
caressed me and she took my cock into her mouth and stimulated it with her mouth and
tongue and hand ….”
He broke off when he realized that he had very nearly told them that she had
pleasured herself and discovered that they were staring at him with varying degrees of
outrage and disbelief.
“She pleasured you?” Kameron demanded in dawning fury.
“That is not in the sims!” Kyle said indignantly. “It is not in my sims! Is it in
your sims?”
Gavin ignored him. “That is what you did wrong! You were supposed to
pleasure her. It is no wonder she has decided she does not want to fuck any of us!”
Damien felt his face redden but he was as angry as he was embarrassed. “She
came. I do not see that it is all that important that nothing proceeded according to the
sims if she found pleasure in the encounter!”
“It matters,” Gavin snarled, “because it is exactly backwards from what it should
have been! We are trying to convince her that she wants us. How are we to do that if she
must do the work?”
“What I would like to know,” Kameron growled, “is why she pleasured you! She
did not offer to pleasure me! It is because you did everything wrong!”
“I did not!” Damien snapped defensively. “I went by the steps of arousal very
carefully! You are the one who missed half of the steps!”
He was somewhat mollified to see Kameron redden uncomfortably.
“I did not miss the steps,” Kameron muttered after a moment. “There is protocol
for eliminating a few of the steps if it is deemed unnecessary or undesirable for any
reason. She had suggested herself that the situation required a quick solution to the
problem. I evaluated that suggestion and her level of response, arrived at the logical
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conclusion that it was unnecessary and undesirable at that time to prolong the encounter,
and proceeded with penetration!”
Damien narrowed his eyes at Kameron. “It was certainly a very good thing that
you correctly assessed the level of her arousal, and that I took the precaution of
stimulating her breasts myself, otherwise she might not have had the opportunity to
achieve climax, for you came almost before she did!”
Kameron shifted uncomfortably. “She came twice,” he reminded Damien.
“Obviously she found it a satisfactory performance.”
“Obviously, she did not!” Damien retorted. “She did not seem to me to be all that
satisfied with your performance! She did not ask again and she did not offer to pleasure
you as she did me!”
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Chapter Sixteen
Kameron yielded to the impulse to slug Damien that time. Damien slammed into
the wall but recovered and retaliated, knocking Kameron off of the end of the bench.
Kameron leapt to his feet and grabbed Damien by the throat before he could rise from the
bench. Struggling, the two of them rolled off of the bench and were temporarily wedged
between the bench and the refrigeration unit behind it.
Gavin and Kyle both surged to their feet before the two struggling men could turn
the table over on them.
“We have not even completed the repairs on the ship!” Gavin bellowed. “If you
must do that, can you not take it outside where you will not damage anything else?”
He thought at first that both men would ignore him, but Damien, who was on top
and managed to struggle to his feet first, stepped back, glared at Kameron for several
moments, and finally turned to stalk outside. Kameron seized the opportunity to sweep
Damien’s feet out from under him since he was still on the floor. Damien double
stepped, trying to regain his balance and failed. His own forward momentum, coupled
with Kameron’s kick, pitched him toward the floor in a skid that brought him to the edge
of the gangplank.
Leaping to his feet the moment he’d struck, Kameron followed and kicked
Damien in the ribs before he could rise, sending him rolling down the gangplank.
“Foul!” Gavin called.
“Not a foul!” Kameron retorted. “I did not call a cease. It is not my fault he
ignored the rules of engagement!”
Shrugging, Gavin moved to the bench across from Kyle and settled again. Kyle
looked torn between following to watch the match and settling to continue the interrupted
discussion but finally resumed his seat after Kameron had charged down the gang plank
after Damien.
“It seems to me that they both screwed up!” Gavin muttered irritably. “I do not
think it wise to try anything either of them tried before.”
Kyle nodded. “I have given it a good deal of thought and I do not see that that
leaves us any alternative other than guerilla tactics—not in the sims, I know, for those are
contingent upon a request, but I feel that we must improvise. The subject must be
relaxed and receptive. If she is asleep she can not help but be both.”
Gavin frowned. “I did not like the look in Damien’s eyes when he agreed with
you,” he said slowly.
Kyle looked shocked. “You can not believe he would have agreed with me if he
thought it would fail? That would not be logical at all when it is obvious our campaign is
not going anywhere as it is. If we do not succeed, then we all fail.”
Gavin shrugged. “True, and I admit that it does not sound logical at all that he
would have any reason to want us to fail, but still …. I do not like it when my rest is
interrupted.”
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Kyle considered it thoughtfully for a moment, conceding that there was the
chance that, if woken, she might be disagreeable. “You think it might be best to
approach her while she is awake?” he asked doubtfully. “I do not see how we are to do
that without asking her and we have already established that that does work well.”
“I think it is too late for that option anyway,” Gavin responded. “I have not heard
the water running for a while and she has not come out. I think we must assume that she
is already asleep and that we will have to wake her … unless you want to wait for another
night?”
Kyle debated briefly. “I am anxious,” he admitted finally. “It is not just that I do
not want to wait. It is not even just that I am anxious to attempt to procreate, although I
do not mind telling you that I have become uncomfortably aware of the need. The
problem is, the longer we wait, the more I think of Kameron and Damien’s failure, and
the more doubts I have of success. That is never good in a campaign—to wait until
demoralization begins to set in, or has already.”
Gavin studied him, but found that he was unwilling to admit that the same doubts
had begun to plague him. There was no sense, he felt, in admitting such a thing when it
was liable to have the undesirable effect of confirming Kyle’s fear of failure. “Then I
think we must go with your plan … unless …. We will need to use the facilities
ourselves. I am certain I stink when I have worked on the ship all day, besides being
soiled from the grime. We must bathe, else she will smell us coming. There will be no
possibility of a sneak attack. Perhaps that will awaken her? We must consider it, in any
case—what we will do if she awakens. Retreat and wait for her to go back to sleep? Or
proceed?”
Frowning, Kyle considered that possibility. “I do not like it, but I think we will
have to simply try to gauge her receptiveness if we awaken her. If she looks as if she is
searching for a weapon, we will retreat. If not—and I think there is this possibility—I
believe we can assume that, awake or not, she is incapable of clear thought and would
still be vulnerable to attack.”
Gavin nodded, trying to ignore the uneasiness that began to war with his
excitement over launching their assault. The waiting was always hardest, regardless of
the logic of waiting until the right moment for any campaign to have the best chance of
success. “I think I should go first.”
“On what grounds?” Kyle demanded indignantly.
On the grounds that he was too anxious to wait for Kyle to go first, he thought,
but realized that was not likely to persuade Kyle and persuasion seemed more desirable at
the moment than beating the hell out of Kyle since that would take more time and he
could not count on being the winner in the contest. “I outrank you.”
“Which is why I generally take point!” Kyle countered.
“Unless I offer to take point, which I did!” Gavin growled.
They eyed one another challengingly for several moments.
“We are wasting time arguing,” Kyle muttered.
Gavin frowned, but then a solution abruptly occurred to him. “We should flip a
coin.”
Kyle glared at him indignantly. “If you are thinking about using that two faced
coin you acquired, I will tell you now that I am not going to fall for that again!”
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Irritation flickered through Gavin, but he merely shrugged. “Then we will have
to go at the same time,” he snapped irritably.
Surprise flickered across Kyle’s face, but then he frowned. “I do not see that that
is possible.”
“It is possible,” Gavin insisted. “It will simply require … adjustment.”
Kyle still looked doubtful. “It is not one the sims.”
“It is explained, however, in the section regarding deviations of the act that might
be called for.”
Kyle accessed his data. He was not at all convinced that it would appeal to Zoe,
but it certainly appealed to him. “Which configuration?” he asked suspiciously.
Gavin was tempted to inform him that he would take point but thought it best not
to advise Kyle of his intention. “I think we will have to proceed and act upon the
moment. We can not anticipate how she will behave, after all. What difference does it
make? You will still get to fuck her! And, if we go at the same time, there will not be
the chance that one of us will achieve our goal and the other not.”
Kyle glared at him in tightlipped, suspicious, silence for a moment. “I can not
procreate if I do not get the hole with the womb in it!”
“This is an exercise, soldier!” Gavin snarled, losing his temper. “The objective
here is to persuade her to allow us the opportunity to procreate by convincing her to
contract with us! We do not know if we will have live rounds to work with or not! We
also do not know if she will be fertile or not!”
“Then it can not matter who takes point!”
“Exactly!” Gavin snapped before it occurred to him that Kyle might consider that
a capitulation to his claim.
They glared at one another for several moments. “Well,” Kyle said finally, “now
that that is settled, who will bathe first?”
“Damn it to hell!” Gavin growled. “We will be at this all night and it will be
morning!”
“We can flip a coin,” Kyle suggested.
“If you think I do not know that you acquired one of those double sided coins at
the same time I did, then I will tell you now that you are wrong!”
Kyle had the grace to look uncomfortable.
“We will go together.”
“The shower is not big enough for both of us,” Kyle pointed out.
Gavin ground his teeth, seeking patience. “Then I will go first and wait upon
you.”
“I have your word on that?”
Gavin hesitated.
Kyle’s eyes narrowed.
“I give you my word!” Gavin growled, reluctantly discarding that possibility of
staking his claim to the preferred position.
****
Whirling away from the door where she’d been listening since she’d been drawn
by the sounds of a brawl, Zoe fled to her bed and dove in, trying to compose herself to
appear to be sleeping.
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It wasn’t easy when her heart was thumping at ninety miles an hour in her ears,
but, fortunately, Kyle and Gavin were so preoccupied with trying to creep quietly
through the cabin to the facilities that they barely glanced in her direction.
Letting out a sound of relief when the door closed behind them and she heard the
sound of running water, Zoe considered her options.
Sneak out and hide while they were busy preparing for ‘battle’?
Find something to clobber them with when they crept into her bed?
Wait until they crept into bed with her and then scream bloody murder and see if
that startled them enough to send their cocks into hiding?
Did she need to do anything that drastic?
Did she want to?
She frowned, considering it and trying to decide if any part of the frantic
pounding of her heart was actually excitement and anticipation.
Reluctantly, she admitted a little of it might be.
It also wasn’t as if she wasn’t the least bit interested, either in sex in general or
them in particular. Ordinarily, she didn’t think she would have been open to the idea at
all. She wasn’t horny—exactly—not when she’d had very satisfactory sex with Damien
only a few days earlier, and with Kameron directly before that.
She’d been lusting over Kyle and Gavin, though, pretty much since she’d met
them and then, too, they’d been flaunting their glorious bodies in front of her for days.
Even if she wasn’t really all that ‘hungry’ it was hard to resist the temptation for a taste
of something that looked that yummy.
Both of them, though? At the same time, she thought doubtfully?
She had always thought the idea of a three way was intriguing, but she’d never
had the opportunity to try it, had never actually considered trying it. She had tried anal
sex a few times, but she hadn’t been particularly impressed. Then again, she hadn’t been
particularly impressed with any of her previous sexual encounters, no matter what
inventive positions had come up.
The possibility of trying it with pleasure droids, or least men who’d been
thoroughly ‘trained’ hitched her interest up several notches.
Considering what Damien and Kameron had managed to do separately, she
wasn’t certain her heart could take two at once.
But then that thought jacked her interest up a few more notches.
Ok, so she was a little needy—at least she was now.
Was it a good idea to give in to the temptation, though?
Probably not, she decided.
On a scale of one to ten, though, how bad of a fuck up would it be, she wondered?
Damien and Kameron had left the ship to pound on each other, but she couldn’t
say, definitely, that she was responsible for it. In point of fact, she found it hard to
convince herself that she had much to do with it at all. Wouldn’t they have been
pounding on Gavin and Kyle if there was any kind of rivalry or jealousy involved instead
of giving them pointers?
And they’d been doing that, she thought indignantly. Aside from the fact that
their comments hadn’t been very flattering, it certainly proved, to her at least, that it was
just sex as far as they were concerned. If they’d thought of her beyond considering her
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nothing more than a receptacle for their lust—or their attempts to procreate—even lust
didn’t seem to figure into it—there shouldn’t have been a spirit of cooperation involved.
They wouldn’t have been discussing fucking her as if they were debating the merits of
beef versus poultry!
As far she’d been able to tell, the only thing they’d been arguing about was
whether or not they’d done a good ‘job’ and what was the best way of going about
getting her cooperation.
So, on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worse case scenario, she thought she
didn’t have to worry about the four of them trying to kill each other if she gave in to
temptation. They were being so god damned civilized about it, she also didn’t think she
needed to worry about giving them the impression that it was open season on Zoe.
Especially if she let them know afterwards that she was not going to just lay down
and spread her legs any time they took the notion they wanted her to.
It unnerved her to think about being with two of them at once, though.
Almost enough to make her consider running.
She didn’t, though. She lay debating the situation until she heard the door of the
facilities open and knew it was too late to have a chance of outrunning them—or
searching for a weapon. And it was damned sure too late to scream, because she
discovered her throat had closed as if someone was strangling her.
Trying to steady her breath, she rolled onto her side and presented them with her
back. Even though that unnerved her, she didn’t think she could calmly face them.
Maybe they’d take it as a rejection and go away?
There was the sound of a meaty thud behind her, a sharp exhalation of breath—as
if someone had had the breath knocked out of them—and then Gavin stepped over her
and settled between her and the wall. She knew it was him because his hair was so pale
that, even as little light as there was, it was easily discernable.
The realization that there was enough light filtering into the room to allow her to
see prompted her to close her eyes since she knew they could see much better than she
could. Fortunately, Gavin seemed to be glaring at something behind her—Kyle, no
doubt—and hadn’t noticed her peering at him.
She was still struggling with the effort to pretend to be asleep and trying to decide
whether an attempt at flight was a good idea at this late date when Kyle settled behind
her.
She didn’t know if the idea of being trapped between them thrilled her or petrified
her more.
She thought she might hyperventilate and pass out—or pass out from holding her
breath and trying not to hyperventilate.
She sensed tension in both Gavin and Kyle and couldn’t decide if it was because
they had noticed she was as stiff as a corpse, or if they were as nervous as she was.
They knew she wasn’t asleep!
Kyle eased out a ragged breath that feathered along her neck and sent a reflexive
shiver through her. Goosebumps rose along every inch of skin from the top of her head
all the way down to her feet. She felt the hair on her scalp prickle. Her nipples sprang to
attention, rubbing against the fabric of her suit with every frantic breath she took and
driving her crazy.
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A large hand settled on her shoulder, very lightly, and began to weave a path
downward. A second hand skated over her uppermost breast, slowly tightening in a
massaging motion.
Or maybe a milking motion?
As the hand closed over her beast, it skimmed toward the peak.
She shifted. She couldn’t help it. She didn’t know why she was determined to
pretend she was asleep except that her mind seemed to have frozen on that one thought
and wouldn’t let go of it.
Something long and hard and thick that wasn’t a pistol barrel wedged in the cleft
of her buttocks as she moved. She flinched and would have slipped away again except
the hand from her back reached her waist at that moment and glided around to her belly,
pulling her more snugly against Kyle’s rock hard erection.
She was momentarily riveted by the feel of him as he rocked his pelvis against
her. Warmth curled in her belly, spreading outward through her so that quick thaw set in
to her frozen limbs.
The mouth that settled over her breast and sent an electrifying jolt along her nerve
endings completely diverted her attention to Gavin. She swallowed convulsively as he
closed his mouth tightly around her nipple, tugging at it through the material—which she
wished he’d ripped off of her because as delicious as his mouth felt through the fabric,
she didn’t want anything impeding him.
She forgot all about pretending anything. The breath she’d been holding escaped
on a long sigh, dragging a moan behind it. The moan brought his lips to hers via a
delightful trail of kisses upward. The pressure of his lips along the upper slope of her
breast and collar bone through her suit became skin to skin contact along her throat and
chin until he reached her parted lips. He sucked at them almost experimentally before he
opened his lips over them and infolded her in the delirious heat of his mouth. Her taste
buds exploded with intoxicating sensation as he raked his tongue boldly along hers.
His hand settled on her breast, molding it, massaging, teasing her aching nipple
through the fabric.
Kyle’s hand slipped down her belly to cup her mound, his fingers gliding between
her legs to stroke her.
She deeply regretted dressing for bed.
As if he’d read her mind, Gavin glided his hand upward from her beast to the
opening at the neck of her suit. The faint crackling sound of the closure parting drifted to
her ears a split second before she felt the heat of his hand against her bare skin. He
moved it downward, forcing the closure of the suit open as he blazed a path with his hand
from her throat to her lower belly where he encountered Kyle’s hand. Gavin’s hand
drifted upward again. Kyle’s slipped into the opening and continued downward until
he’d opened the suit almost to her knee. His hand rested on her thigh briefly, clenched in
a massaging motion and then glided upward.
She tensed, held her breath, her mind split in two directions at once as she
anticipated his touch.
He didn’t disappoint.
His fingers found the lips of her sex and stroked lightly along them before parting
them to delve her cleft.
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Delirium set in. Between the feverish assault of Gavin’s mouth on hers and
Kyle’s deft fingers, she felt as if she was burning up, drunk, divorced from the world
around her. Her body came alive—everywhere—began to feel as if it was only one, huge
nerve bundle where sensations flew at her from so many directions at once that she lost
track of who was doing what. It all felt good.
When Gavin broke the kiss to explore her throat again to her breasts, Kyle ceased
to tease her sex and reached to grasp her suit. Tugging it off of her shoulders and down
her arms, he traced a shivery path of kisses along the back of her neck and shoulder as
Gavin reached his goal at last and clamped his mouth over the peak of the breast he’d
teased before.
The other one, she mentally directed, briefly.
The tug of his mouth sent her into mindless bliss, frying nerve endings all the way
through her until it set fire to her sex. Scalding liquid flooded her channel like a lava
flow.
She had no inkling her arms were trapped by her suit until Kyle tugged at her
shoulder, tipping her onto her back and breaking Gavin’s hold on her breast. He moved
to the other.
Kyle seized possession of the abandoned one.
She lost her mind completely.
She struggled a little frantically to free her arms for a moment to grab him, them,
anything and finally gave up. She was putty in their hands, melting wax.
Someone, maybe both of them, stripped her suit from her at last. She had no idea.
She didn’t care. They’d removed the last barrier to the touch of skin to skin. She felt the
glide on hands over her, lips, the hot, damp stroke of tongues. Like the waves in the sea,
they undulated against each other, skin gliding along skin, the ripple of muscles, hard to
soft, dizzying, wondrous.
The music of gasping breaths and moans and sighs of pleasure joined the
symphony of movement—his, theirs, hers.
She was going to come she thought with abrupt clarity as Kyle, or maybe Gavin,
found her cleft again and teased the bud at the apex of her thighs—and they hadn’t even
penetrated her yet.
Damn it!
“Now!” she demanded in a shaky voice, digging her fingernails a little frantically
into an arm. “Gavin! Kyle!” Somebody! “I need …! I need …!”
She couldn’t seem to get it out, but they seemed to get the message. Pulling her
onto her side to face him, Gavin grasped one thigh and dragged it across his hips, shifting
to align his body with hers. She released a gasping breath that was part relief, part
desperation, moving closer to him eagerly as she felt the glide of his cock along the
dampness of her cleft, felt their bodies engage and the pleasurable stretching of her sex to
accommodate him.
He claimed her in short forays that deepened with each stroke, stretched her
wonderfully, massaging the deep ache inside of her until she was groaning almost
incessantly. He paused after only a few deep strokes, however, sliding almost all the
way out of her until only the head of his cock remained, holding her when she tried to
buck against him.
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She gasped as she felt Kyle enter her with slow, careful deliberation, forcing
herself to relax to accept him until he was so deeply inside of her she could feel the
prickle of the nest of hair around the root of his cock against her buttocks. For a moment
he held perfectly still and then he began to move, to set a rhythm that Gavin countered.
A climax ripped through her, dragging sharp cries from her and then the exquisite tension
began to build again before the last of the shudders had left her.
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Chapter Seventeen
Satisfied that Damien wasn’t likely to get up any time soon, Kameron looked
around for a place to rest and finally just dropped to the ground, testing his nose with his
fingers to see if it was as swollen as it felt. They had not checked the perimeter in almost
an hour and he knew he should, but he thought he might as well wait until he had caught
his breath. If he encountered hostiles he was not currently in any state to deal with it.
Damien struggled to a sitting position when he finally pushed himself to his feet.
“We need to check the perimeter.”
Damien nodded, but made no attempt to rise.
Uttering an irritated sound, Kameron went to him and held out his hand. “I did
not injure you that badly,” he said testily.
Damien gave him an annoyed glare but lifted his hand. He swayed slightly when
Kameron had pulled him to his feet.
“You take the south and west quadrant. I will check the north and east.”
He strode away without waiting for Damien to acknowledge the order. When he
reached the edge of the cliff, he glanced back to check on Damien and discovered he was
standing as he had left him, looking around as if he was disoriented.
“To your left!”
Damien lifted his hands and stared at them blankly for a moment, then lifted his
head to look at Kameron.
Kameron pointed.
Nodding, Damien trudged toward the edge of the cliff and began to search the
sides.
Frowning, Kameron watched him for a moment and finally returned to his own
check. He’d finished the north quadrant when a phaser blast shot past his head so closely
it singed the hair near his ear. Uttering a snarl of rage, he ducked away from the edge
long enough to draw his own pistol. Since he was unwilling to risk a hole in his head, he
triangulated the direction of the origin of the shot and stuck his pistol out, firing twice
before he heard the scream that told him he’d found his target. Shoving his pistol back
into the holster, he finished his survey and stopped to wait for Damien to complete his
rounds.
“Bastard nearly shot my ear off,” he muttered irately when Damien finally joined
him. “It is obvious they have no concept of how long it takes to re-grow one! I would be
a pretty mess to be courting with only one ear!”
“I expect he was aiming for your head.”
Kameron’s lips folded into an annoyed line. “The possibility occurred to me,” he
said dryly.
Nodding without a great deal of interest, Damien uttered a ragged breath and
glanced toward the ship. “I am bloody and filthy. Do you think they are done yet? I
would like to bathe.”
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Kameron flexed his sore arms and looked down to examine the scrapes along his
knees. He frowned, but he thought he had come away from the battle well enough. The
sense of displeasure that wafted through him was more because Damien’s remark had
directed thoughts toward the ship, and Zoe, than from any particular concern about his
scrapes and bruises.
He had been at pains to direct his thoughts elsewhere. Beyond the fact that he
had begun to feel almost a sense of desperation to fuck Zoe again himself, he was not
certain why he felt such turmoil whenever he considered Gavin and Kyle’s plan. He
could not dismiss the feeling that the churning rush of anger that tried to erupt each time
his mind settled on it was not purely from the nearly incessant drumming of need through
him, though. If it was only that, he did not think the anger would be there, resentment, he
thought, because it was them and not him, impatience to find outlet for his own needs,
but not the strange sense almost of … loss.
He had felt that, though, almost from the time he had agreed to seek a
commitment from Zoe, the discomfiture that he was choosing a battle he could not win
and that it would be a loss that would haunt him. He felt it more strongly the longer he
pursued it, not less. He wanted to believe that it was only because he had experienced
passion and now knew want when he had not before, because he thought that would be
something he could feel for any woman. If he did not get this woman, he would find
another and enjoy it as well. Unfortunately, he could not convince himself of that.
Almost as often as he recalled the way it had felt being inside of her, he remembered
afterward. He remembered what it felt like to hold her warm, pliant body against his.
Satisfaction had been a part of it, relief that he had expended himself on her, but there
had been more to it than that, a warming sense of wellbeing that he could not put a name
to.
He missed that almost as much as he longed to join his body to hers again. “I
think we should wait a bit. They were still discussing their strategy when we had
finished.”
Nodding, Damien looked around and finally dropped to the ground heavily. “I
believe I will rest a few minutes more,” he said, lying back and staring up at the night
sky.
Shrugging, still weary himself, Kameron settled beside him.
“You have no … concern?” Damien asked after a moments.
Kameron did not try to pretend he did not know the direction of Damien’s
thoughts. “I have a good deal of concern, but I have already warned Kyle that if they
only succeed in making her more angry I will pitch him and Gavin off the damned cliff.
We do not have time to make a great many mistakes. If I had thought of something else,
I would have told them no.”
He frowned as the uncertainty swelled inside him again. “I do not think that we
considered all of the difficulties of this campaign before we decided upon it. Time is not
on our side, for one thing, but then we can do nothing about that and I, for one, am not
certain that we could do a great deal better if we had more time to analyze Zoe. Beyond
her search for her sister, which she told us, I have no better understanding of how she
thinks or why she does the things she does than in the beginning.
“I am not even completely certain of why she is searching for her sister. She told
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Gavin that she did not know her sister. I could understand if it was affection—not that I
understand affection, but it is described as a bond and that would make sense. She can
not feel affection, though, if she does not know her sister, can she?”
Damien considered it for a moment and finally shrugged. “Mayhap it has nothing
to do with a bond at all and she only came because she is a detective and she wants to
solve the disappearance?”
Kameron thought that over. “It is a long way to come to finish a job,” he said
doubtfully.
“I do not like it,” Damien said after a moment, sitting up. “I have thought about it
and I am certain I do not like it!”
“That she came to finish a job?” Kameron asked blankly.
Damien glared at him. “That she is fucking them!”
Understanding dawned. Kameron frowned, struggling with his own resentment
over it. “I do not like it either, if it comes to that! But then I did not like it when you
fucked her either. If she is to contract with us, though, it is something that must be
accepted, and I am certain that I would like it no better if it was anyone else.”
Damien glared at his hands where they dangled between his knees, flexing and
opening them. “Are you not concerned that she will enjoy them more?”
Kameron stared at him blankly, trying to ignore the churning in his belly. “Why
would she enjoy them more? They do not know more than we do!”
“I do not know,” Damien said after thinking it over a moment. “It just occurred
to me to wonder if she might enjoy it more when they fuck her and then decide to
contract with them and not us.”
Kameron stared at him, almost as stunned to discover the same thoughts as he had
had running through Damien’s mind as he was by the surge of something that felt
uncomfortably close to fear inside him. A coldness settled over him for a moment before
the heat of rage dispelled it. “They would not betray our trust in such a way!” he
growled with as much conviction as he could muster.
“She is the one to decide! Do you think if she agrees to contract with them but
not us that they will not contract?”
Outrage contorted Kameron’s features. “Why would she do that?”
Damien shrugged and looked away. “I do not think we acquitted ourselves well
with her.”
Kameron almost felt as if the ground had fallen out from under him. He would
have liked to dispute that assessment. Unfortunately, he could not convince himself that
it was not true. “We will try again,” he said grimly.
Damien glared into the distance. “I could not help but notice she did not seem
anxious to repeat the experience. And I have to say that I am not happy about that. This
thing will scarcely lie down since and it is damned hard to get my mind on anything else.
I believe that I could drive the damned rivets with it and have no need for the riveter!”
Since he had had pretty much the same problem since his experience, he could
empathize with Damien’s plight—to a degree—not if it meant yielding his place, for he
figured he was overdue for a try at winning her cooperation again, but he could certainly
understand how Damien felt about it. “They will be in no better state once they have
fucked her. There is some consolation in that, at least. I did not have nearly the trouble
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with mine until I had done it.”
“You are assuming that she will shun them afterward as she has us!” Damien said
angrily. “And that is what I am worried about—that she will not! Gavin has spoken to
her more than the rest of us put together, and she has conversed with him if you recall!
And I have not forgotten the way she looked at Gavin and Kyle when they met. I do not
claim to know what was going through her mind, but she certainly seemed—focused
upon them. I do not care if you disagree. I am certain that she felt ‘the attraction’!”
“Because of the damned hair?” Kameron growled angrily.
“Because of something! We should have asked her first!” Damien said angrily.
“Now they will ask and I am certain she will say yes and then no when we ask!”
Kameron’s eyes narrowed. “I will break their necks first and then toss them over
the cliff!” he growled.
****
Zoe roused sandwiched between two very warm, very heavy bodies. She’d lost
touch with the world sandwiched between the two, however, and there was no sense of
disorientation to awaken the same way. Despite the discomfort, satisfaction dominated
her feelings. Gavin lay sprawled beneath her bonelessly. Her cheek rested on his broad
chest. Her arm was draped over his waist and she’d curled a leg around the leg nearest
her. Kyle lay on his side, curled over her, his chest pressed to her back, his groin snug
against her buttocks, one heavy arm draped across her waist.
It felt beyond decadent to lie between them.
Probably, she thought wryly, because it was.
And yet she didn’t feel even a twinge of guilt about it because it felt … right
somehow.
That thought produced the flicker of doubt that had been missing before. It
wasn’t an implication that she could get used to it because she liked it. It was an
indication that she was used to it and since she had no reason to be … bad vibes.
A hand, Kyle’s or Gavin’s she wasn’t sure, settled lightly on her shoulder and
stroked downward before tracing a return path.
“You are … pleased?”
The rumbling voice belonged to Gavin. She would’ve known it even if her cheek
hadn’t been pressed against his chest so that she could feel the vibrations as well as hear
them. She considered whether she wanted to answer or not. “Mmmm,” she finally
murmured, compromising between offering praise and leavening it. “You?”
He tensed. His hand pausing.
There was no getting around the fact that he was both surprised and confused by
the question. “Yes,” he finally responded.
The answer was as tentative as his question had been, filled with doubt. She
wasn’t certain what that implied but managed a faint smile. “You’re not sure?”
“I am certain,” Kyle murmured against her hair, his voice dreamy enough she had
no doubt that he was.
Gavin’s hand disappeared from her arm and she felt a jolt as his fist connected
with the back of Kyle’s head.
Surprise rippled through her and then both amusement and irritation.
“Why did you do that?” Kyle demanded indignantly.
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Wondering the same thing, Zoe lifted her head to look up at Gavin as Kyle pulled
away, but discovered she couldn’t tell much about his shadowy expression beyond the
fact that he was looking at Kyle and his jaw was set in a hard line.
He seemed to wrestle with a response. “Our objective was to pleasure you,” he
said finally, responding to the question in her eyes rather than the question Kyle had
voiced—or maybe it was actually a response to hers and a reprimand to Kyle?
Zoe stared at his face. “Why?” she asked bluntly.
He seemed disconcerted. It took him a few moments to find the answer he was
obviously searching a little desperately for. “If you enjoy our fucking you will be more
agreeable to our company.”
“You think?” she asked with rising indignation.
“This is not true?” he asked, obviously both dismayed by the possibility and
confused.
Zoe shrugged. “Not necessarily true. You don’t have to particularly like
someone, or enjoy their company outside the bedroom to enjoy fucking them. You’re
objective wasn’t to enjoy yourselves?”
He stared at her blankly for a moment, but she thought it was more because he
was ruminating over the first part of her speech than the question.
“No,” he said finally. “It could not be an objective when it was not anticipated.”
Zoe shoved away from him and sat up. “You didn’t expect to enjoy fucking me?”
she demanded indignantly.
Gavin sat up, as well, exchanging an uneasy look with Kyle. “There was nothing
in the sims to suggest it,” he responded uncomfortably.
Zoe blinked at him. “The sims?”
“The programming. Pleasure droids are designed to give pleasure. They can not
feel it.”
It was Zoe’s turn to be disconcerted. It deflated her anger instantly. “But you
aren’t a pleasure droid.”
“I was not assigned that task, but I was fully programmed.”
He sounded a little defensive.
Zoe frowned. She wasn’t particularly happy about the terminology he’d chosen.
She was a ‘task’? “I wasn’t implying that you didn’t know how.” Boy did he know how!
And Kyle, and Damien, and Kameron. They hadn’t been short changed in any way! Or
rather, the recipient—her—hadn’t been. It mollified her, some, when she realized that he
hadn’t expected to enjoy it at all and that it wasn’t, exactly, a reflection of what he
thought about her.
It was still deflating!
“I still don’t understand why you wanted to do it if you didn’t expect to get
anything out of it,” she muttered.
Gavin and Kyle exchanged another look. Kyle nudged Gavin as if prompting
him. “There was no expectation,” Gavin insisted, obviously choosing his words
carefully. “Only the thought that enjoyment would make you inclined to think you might
want more enjoyment.”
Zoe frowned. “Alright, I’ll buy that. That still doesn’t explain your motives to
me. Why would you care whether I did or not if you weren’t enjoying it?”
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She could see he wasn’t happy about the direction the conversation had taken and
was struggling for some way to redirect it. Maybe she was guessing, but she didn’t think
so. She thought she’d been direct enough in her questioning that he couldn’t be
confused, which meant he wasn’t answering because he didn’t want to.
“I did not say I had not enjoyed it, only that I had not expected to.”
Talking to them, she thought wryly, was like trying to carry on a conversation
with a damned lawyer—everything very carefully worded to go no where and give out no
actual information.
Either she’d been wrong all the time and they hadn’t had an objective in obtaining
an agreement with her, or they’d changed their minds, or Gavin thought the timing
wasn’t the best.
It was and it wasn’t.
She certainly didn’t feel any more inclined to agree to any kind of commitment
than she had from the time she’d first overheard, or thought she had. On the other hand,
giving her something would have been nice—like, we’re not just interested in fucking.
We want a relationship.
She supposed ‘relationship’ was too much to ask. She didn’t think they’d reached
a point in their understanding of emotional ties to actually grasp what they were doing.
She suspected that they were just mimicking the behavior that they thought of as
‘normal’. It was seriously deflating to think they were so avid for a contract only
because it was ‘the thing to do’.
Not that she knew for certain that they were.
It bothered her that she wanted to know when she knew damned well she didn’t
want to contract—not with anyone and she definitely wasn’t keen on the idea of
contracting with cyborgs and living in a little cyborg cottage with or without picket fence
in cyborg land.
It goes to motives, she assured herself. It was easier to figure out what people
would do when you knew what they wanted and what made them tick and it was always a
damned good idea to know these things when there was a better than even chance you
were sitting on the opposite side of the fence from them.
She realized, abruptly, that she was glad, though, that she hadn’t been able to
push him in to telling her. What had she been thinking to dig? This wasn’t a matter of
uncovering information on a case! It was personal and no matter how involved, or how
detached, they might be, it was only going to make things more complicated and more
uncomfortable if they asked and she said no.
“Well,” she responded finally, completely unable to prevent a twinge of
resentment from entering her voice. “At least we established that and I don’t have to feel
like an abysmal failure as a woman! If you don’t mind, though, it’s a little crowded and
I’d like to sleep now.”
“You are angry?” Kyle asked uneasily.
They were so damned perceptive! “Why the fuck would you think that?”
Kyle and Gavin exchanged an uncomfortable look.
Zoe felt like a bitch. “Never mind. I’m just tired, ok? And, honestly? I don’t
like to talk before, during, or after sex—good, bad, or indifferent—especially if it’s good.
It just sort of ruins the glow—or it can and I prefer not to risk it.”
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They took the rather broad hint and got up to leave. She sprawled more
comfortably on the space she now had all to herself, ignoring them until they finally
made use of the facilities and left the cabin. A little surprised but relieved that they’d
left, she went to clean up herself, located her suit and put it on, and then climbed back
into the bed.
The warm fuzzy feeling she’d woke up with was gone—big surprise.
She couldn’t quite figure them out and she thought that was what bothered her.
They never made any pretense—none of them—that what they were doing was ‘just’ sex.
The fact that they seemed to want to cuddle afterward was almost a direct contradiction
to that, though. It wasn’t that she’d never had a lover that liked to cuddle afterwards.
Mostly they didn’t, but every once in a while she would run across a guy that actually
did. She suspected that it was mostly in the nature of a possessive sense of satisfaction
with an object that had given them pleasure—sort of like a guy beaming with pleasure at
the engine of his new vehicle or running his hands lovingly over the real leather seats.
Maybe that was what it was with them, too?
She was a sap, though. She wanted to think they did it because it was an
unconscious need in them. They couldn’t, ever, have experienced being held in loving
arms. They hadn’t had a childhood, or a mother to do such a thing. It seemed obvious
from the things they’d told her that they hadn’t experienced it in their ‘adult’ lives either.
Maybe men, being so manly, didn’t actually need to be held?
She didn’t really believe that. She didn’t think it was just women and children
who felt that kind of need. Maybe they didn’t need it as much and maybe they were
uncomfortable about it, and maybe they mostly thought ‘sex’ when they did get it, but it
was comfort thing. And to men, she thought sex was the comfort, the ultimate. That
didn’t change the fact that it was a yearning, only the need behind it. To women and
children it was reassurance, communicating a sense of safety. To men it was the
reassurance that their pussy was close by.
She burrowed her face against the bed linens as the urge to chuckle hit her.
They sure as hell wouldn’t understand if they heard her giggling like an idiot.
It surprised her to realize she was worried about wounding their ego or hurting
their feelings. Was she attributing them with more feelings than they actually possessed,
she wondered?
She decided she wasn’t. They might have a hard time expressing their feelings,
or voicing them, but that didn’t mean they didn’t feel anything. She knew better.
Damien had looked so stepped on when she’d ignored him after their night together, and
confused, that she’d felt like hell. What could she say, though? Any kind of apology
was going to sound like encouragement to try again and that would only make things
worse.
As fabulous as they were as lovers, they couldn’t just be lovers. She had a very
bad feeling that she couldn’t remain objective if she allowed it—knew she couldn’t when
it bothered her so much that they thought of it as ‘just a fuck’—and she thought they
would expect more, too.
They seemed to have some idea that if she really enjoyed it she would consider
taking them on full time.
She might at that, which was one of the things that worried her.
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“It isn’t going to work, Zoe!” she muttered to herself. “Stop undermining
yourself!” Sure they were sweet, and hopelessly bungling when it came to trying to
sweeten her up—which she thought was endearing because she was an idiot! But it was
as dangerous to ‘play’ with them as it would be to decide to treat a mountain lion like a
cute little kitty.
She should be focusing on rescuing her sister, or at least discovering that Bronte
was well and happy and satisfied with her life, and getting the hell home where she
belonged! Nothing good was going to come of her unhealthy fascination with rogue
cyborgs turned sentient beings, be they ever so amazing in bed and dazzling to look at!
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Chapter Eighteen
If Kameron had had mixed feelings about Gavin and Kyle’s plans before they had
executed the foray that was as nothing to the way he felt afterward. He could not tell
anything about their expressions or attitude to give him any comfort and they were
disinclined to elaborate beyond saying they had completed their mission. He also could
not tell how Zoe had perceived it.
What was worse, he did not think there was anything rational about his feelings.
He was both relieved that it did not seem to be a huge success and angry that it had not
been.
The contradiction worried him but not nearly as much as the fact that they seemed
at stalemate.
He had determined that he would have a full report when Gavin and Kyle joined
them on repairs.
Truthfully, he had not really felt like pressing for answers the night before.
Beyond being tired from his bout with Damien, he suspected his dinner had not set well,
for he had felt distinctly ill when he and Damien had a finally returned to the ship and he
had seen that Gavin and Kyle were just leaving the sleeping quarters. It had completely
overshadowed his satisfaction in being told that they had engaged and had completed the
sortie. Torn between a completely irrational desire to pound both of them with his fists
until he was tired and the uncomfortable churning in his stomach, he had been more than
glad to bathe and take his turn on the bunk.
Not sleep. He had not been able to do much of that, not when the quarters reeked
of sex and he could not get the images out of his mind of Gavin and Kyle with Zoe.
From the look of him, Damien had not fared much better.
They had been working on the ship repairs since sunrise when Gavin and Kyle
had finally joined them from their stint at guard duty.
Kameron immediately set aside his tools and joined them. “Well?” he growled.
Kyle and Gavin exchanged an uncomfortable glance. Gavin’s face was troubled
when he faced Kameron again and he felt the oddest floating sensation in his belly.
“I have been giving it a great deal of thought and I am certain that we have
underestimated Zoe’s sense of hearing.”
Kameron stared at him blankly since it was the last thing he had expected to hear.
“What do you mean by that?” he demanded, wondering what the hell it had to do with the
report he had been expecting.
“I am as certain as I can be with no supporting evidence beyond my interpretation
of the situation that she was expecting us.”
Kameron frowned. “You said you had successfully completed the mission,” he
said in dawning anger. “You are saying now that you did not?”
“It is not that,” Kyle said quickly. “What Gavin is saying is that we believe that
she allowed it, not that we were successful in catching her off guard.”
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That was almost worse. No, it was worse, Kameron thought, growing angrier by
the moment. He realized after a moment that he was not supposed to be angry about it,
though.
“She let you!” Damien demanded indignantly, making no attempt to conceal the
fact that he was angry about it. “You did not ask? Did not coax her?”
Gavin glared at him. “We had said we would not do that since Kameron had
advised against it. We followed the plan, but I am certain she was not asleep when we
joined her, nor had she just awakened. She was very tense. I did not realize it at first, for
she was very still, but I do not believe for a moment that she was caught off guard.”
Kameron glared at Damien. “I do not see what you have to be angry about!” he
snarled. “She pleasured you!” He had reason to be furious. Not only had she not
pleasured him as she had Damien, but she also had not yielded willingly as she had with
Gavin and Kyle. It seemed to him that he had been singled out to be snubbed.
Gavin’s lips tightened. “You have missed the point entirely!”
“Exactly what is your point, then, beyond gloating?” Kameron growled.
Gavin looked taken aback. “She heard. She must have heard—through the door
and we were not speaking loudly. I do not know about you, but I had assumed, since she
can not see nearly as well as we can that she could not hear as well either.”
Kameron stared at him in horror, feeling coldness wash over him as he tried to
recall discussions they had had while they believed that Zoe was safely tucked behind the
door in the sleeping quarters and unable to hear them.
“Mayhap you were speaking louder when you were ironing out the details?” he
suggested hopefully.
Gavin thought that over. “I will not dispute it, for we were deeply in argument,
but I heard when the shower stopped. I do not believe I would have if we had been
speaking very loudly.” He hesitated. “What concerns me is that we discussed our
original plan while she was in the cabin. I had not thought much of it at the time, but
even then I thought she was behaving oddly. I thought it was only that we were strangers
to her and, of course, I did not know her myself to know what behavior would be typical,
but it did strike me, and so I recalled it instantly when I began to think she must have
heard us last eve.” He shrugged. “In truth, her behavior last eve was much the same. It
was as if she was trying hard to pretend she had not, rather than she actually had not.”
This time Kameron could not put the vague sense of nausea down to food that had
not sit right with him. He had not eaten at all. Clearly it was a reaction to the turmoil he
found himself in and very likely the other had been, too.
The woman was affecting him in a way he did not at all care for.
“Do we assume that she knows all, then?” he wondered aloud. “And, if so, how
do we interpret her behavior since?”
Gavin, Kyle, and Damien exchanged uncomfortable glances. He had a feeling
that they were thinking much the same as he was.
Clearly, the thought had not thrilled her. He would like to think that the fact that
she had become so distant could be attributed to something else, but he could not think of
anything else to blame it on. “It is a very good thing we decided not to take the direct
approach and ask her straight out,” he muttered irritably.
“What do we do now?” Kyle asked uneasily.
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Damien was frowning thoughtfully. “I do not think it is a lost cause. She has
changed her mind before.”
He glanced uncomfortably at the other men as it dawned on him that they might
pursue that line of thought and ask how he knew, but he saw that Gavin and Kyle were
looking at one another with faces so carefully blank and eyes so full of guilt there was no
doubt that they had experienced a similar situation and Kameron was glaring at the
ground, absently massaging his balls with one hand and rubbing his belly with the other,
as if he had not heard the comment.
“If this was a military operation and we had found ourselves on open ground
under fire ….”
“Well it is not!” Gavin snapped in response to Kameron’s musings. “We can not
lay down a suppressing fire and retreat!”
Kameron glared at him. “I know that! I was considering if there might be a
parallel somewhere that might be of use!”
Gavin’s lips tightened but his scowl shifted into a thoughtful look and he subsided
to consider the possibilities.
“Are we to assume the operation last night was not a complete success?”
Kameron asked presently.
This time although Kyle glanced quickly at Gavin, Gavin was careful to avoid the
guilty gesture. “I can not think so, no, but it was certainly not a failure. She came four
times and I am certain that she was pleased about that, at least.”
Fury contorted Kameron’s features for a moment but then a thought apparently
occurred to him and his anger subsided somewhat. “That it is only two each,” he
muttered to himself. “So no more or less than Damien and I. She did not seem angry
afterward?”
“She ….”
Gavin elbowed Kyle in the ribs, knocking the breath from him. “She was
somewhat testy, but then she was sleepy so that would account for that. I am thinking
neutral would more nearly describe her disposition when we left.”
Kameron studied him suspiciously. “You said that she was not asleep. If you did
not waken her, weariness would not account for temper.”
“Afterward, she dozed,” Gavin clarified, “and then she awoke and I could not tell
if she was pleased or not so I asked, which I know now was the wrong thing to do. She
asked what our motives were for fucking her. I did not think telling her the truth would
be a very good idea, and she knew I was being evasive and she did not like that. Finally,
she merely told us to go away and let her sleep.”
“Our motives?” Kameron demanded angrily. “What did she mean by that? I do
not understand this woman at all! First she is talking about meaningless sex and now she
wants to discuss motives? She is a beautiful woman. We are men. There is no motive to
fuck her beyond wanting to! Does she know nothing about men?”
Gavin shrugged uncomfortably. “It is because we are not men, I think, but
cyborgs.”
“It is because you told her we had not anticipated enjoying it,” Kyle cut in,
earning himself a glare. “I do not think she would have questioned our motives if he had
not said that.”
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“You told her that!” Kameron demanded angrily. “Why would you tell her that?
It is no wonder she thought there must be another motive!”
“She was growing agitated!” Gavin said defensively. “I did not see how I could
tell her anything else without revealing the entire plan! In any case, my thinking
processes were sluggish. They had overheated during the course of fucking her and still
were not functioning very well. I could not think clearly at all and she did not give me
time to choose my answers more carefully!”
“You are certain that is not why you got the impression that she had overheard?”
“I am certain that is why I got that impression!” Gavin retorted.
“Well, mayhap that is because you gave away the plan and not that she
overheard!”
“She knew already or she would not have asked such pointed questions!” Gavin
growled.
They were almost nose to nose by that time and Kyle and Damien stepped away
to make certain that they were not in the line of fire if Gavin and Kameron came to
blows. They had just seized one another by the throat with one hand, drawing the other
back and balling it into a fist, when Zoe called out, distracting them.
“I made lunch.”
All four turned to stare at her in surprise. After studying them questioningly for a
moment, she turned in the portal and disappeared inside the ship again. Gavin and
Kameron exchanged a questioning look and finally released one another.
“What do you make of that?” Kyle asked uneasily after all four had stood for
some minutes staring at the opening at the top of the gangplank.
Kameron was frowning in puzzlement but finally shrugged. “You and Gavin
check the perimeter before you come in.”
Zoe, Kameron discovered when he reached the main cabin, was leaning against
the counter, staring into space, her arms folded—her stance completely relaxed, if
absent—making a sound in her throat that he finally identified as humming. Exchanging
a curious glance with Damien, who merely shrugged, the two made their way to the
facilities to clean up.
She looked surprised when they settled at the table and Kameron was more
puzzled. She had called them. Why would she be surprised? He was not left to wonder
long.
“Where are Gavin and Kyle?”
Kameron frowned. “I sent them to check the perimeter.”
Zoe frowned back at him, but it was obviously an expression of displeasure not
confusion as it had been with him. “Why?”
He felt his jaw go slack. “Because it is their turn,” he responded before it
occurred to him that it was not her business what orders he gave or why he gave them.
The realization that he had responded without considering that before he spoke irritated
the hell out of him.
“Oh.”
She went back to humming.
Kameron exchanged a look with Damien, but he could see Damien had no more
idea why she was behaving so strangely than he did. Trying to shrug off the sense that he
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was not going to like it when he did figure it out, Kameron focused on his food. He was
half way through before he realized that Zoe had not sit down to eat with them.
“You do not mean to eat?”
“I’m waiting for Gavin and Kyle,” Zoe responded almost cheerfully.
The puzzlement and the sense that something was ‘wrong’ flickered through him
again. “Why?”
She shrugged. “I just thought I would.”
Why did she think she would? That was what he wanted to know, but he decided
not to ask. He had almost finished when Kyle strode through the main cabin on his way
to wash up. Gavin followed more slowly, examining a blackened and bloody gash on
one arm from a phaser graze.
Zoe sucked in a sharp breath and dropped the tray of food she was holding.
Gavin froze in his tracks. Kameron, drawn by the sharp inhalation of breath, glanced at
Zoe, looked down on the mess on the floor and back at Zoe’s face. Seeing she was
staring at Gavin, he flicked a glance at Gavin. Before he could grasp what was going on,
Zoe surged toward Gavin and grasped his arm.
“God! You were hit? What happened?”
“I was shot,” Gavin responded blankly.
“I can see that!” she snapped. “Come on. Let’s get this cleaned up so I can have
a look at it.”
Gavin followed as she tugged on his hand, leading him toward the rearward cabin,
but turned to look at Kameron questioningly.
Kameron glared at the pair with a mixture of puzzlement and dawning
indignation. “She has seen it. I do not know why she would think she might see it better
once it is washed!”
“She is concerned about his wound?” Damien muttered in an indignant growl that
dragged Kameron’s attention back to him.
Kameron stared at him in disbelief. “Why would she be concerned about his
wound?” he demanded. “He has nanos!”
“Well it is obvious to me that that was a ‘display of concern’!” Damien snapped.
“What else would she be concerned about when that is what she spoke of?”
“It is his arm!” Kameron retorted. “It is not as if it was his chest or his head! It
was no more than a graze at that!” Shoving to his feet, he stalked down the corridor and
halted in the door of the cabin.
Kyle, he saw, had come from the facilities but was merely standing in the middle
of the room, gaping at Gavin and Zoe, who both sat on the bunk.
“How did you manage to get yourself shot?” Zoe demanded in an angry voice just
as Kameron halted in the doorway.
Outrage flickered over Gavin’s face but he blanked his expression when she
looked up at him. “Sniper.”
“The bastards!” Zoe exclaimed, shaking her head. “Thank god it wasn’t any
worse! Does it hurt very bad?”
Gavin stared at her in fascination, slack jawed, but finally nodded.
“Poor baby!” Zoe exclaimed.
A frown of indignation drew Gavin’s brows together but they shot upward in
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surprise when she rose from winding a bandage around his arm and leaned down to kiss
him lightly on the lips. As fast as a lightning strike, Gavin grabbed her, flipped her over
onto the bunk flat of her back and sprawled atop her.
“Gav ….”
Gavin silenced her protest by fastening his mouth tightly to hers and kissing her
thoroughly. She pushed half heartedly at his shoulders for a moment and finally wound
her arms around his neck.
Stymied, Kameron watched for several moments more and finally turned to leave.
Damien, he discovered, was directly behind him. Shoving him out of the way, Kameron
stalked back down the corridor and through the main cabin. He skidded when he stepped
in the food Zoe had dropped on the floor and left. Regaining his balance with an effort,
he slammed a fist into the wall.
“Is that my lunch, I wonder,” Kyle asked no one in particular, “or Gavin’s?”
Kameron glared at him. “Gavin’s,” he growled finally. “If Gavin was hungry he
would be here eating, not … gnawing on Zoe’s face!” Scraping the mess from his boot,
he stalked outside, glared at the damaged ship for a moment and finally sat down to sulk.
Damien joined him after a few moments. “It is the yellow hair. I told you she
would enjoy them more!”
Kameron slugged him in the jaw.
When Damien had picked himself up from the ground, he glared at Kameron,
massaging his jaw and trying to decide if he was currently in the mood to spar. Deciding
after a few moments that he was, but not with Kameron, he moved to a safer distance and
settled again.
“I am certain I do not care for this business of courting!” Kameron growled after a
few moments. “It makes my balls hurt, my cock will not stay down, and if that is not bad
enough, I am sick to my stomach half the time and so furious the other half that I feel a
great need to kill something!”
Damien stared at Kameron in surprise. “You, too? I thought that there was
something wrong with the food. I had not worried about it overmuch because I am
certain it could not be poison, else Zoe would also be affected, and she has not seemed to
be.” He fell silent for a few moments, thinking. “I thought that there was something
wrong with my balls, as well. They did not hurt before I fucked Zoe. You think it is
that?”
“How would I know?” Kameron snarled. “It does not seem to me that I will get
the chance again to find out if that is what is causing it!”
“I think I will tell her it hurts,” Damien said decisively after a few minutes, “and
ask her to fuck me again so that I can determine if that is what is causing it.”
Kameron eyed him broodingly. “It is my turn!” he snarled.
“Then you ask her!” Damien said indignantly. “I do not see why I must wait if
you are not going to do anything!”
Kameron considered the suggestion somewhat doubtfully. “Do you think that she
would consider it in the same light as Gavin’s wound?”
“I do not see why not! It is pain if she is concerned about pain! And his nanos
will heal his arm. They have done nothing for my balls!”
It sounded logical enough, but Kameron suspected, regardless of what Damien
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thought, that she would not see it in the same light at all. “We should go down and
engage the enemy,” he said. “If they are sending snipers up the trees now to pick us off,
it would be a good strategic move, and it would satisfy my need to kill something. And if
we are wounded, then she would be upset over that and kiss us as she did Gavin.”
Damien was willing enough—he felt the urge to kill something himself—but he
had some doubts about the outcome. “If they blow our heads off, she would not be able
to patch that and there would be no point even if she did.”
“There was no point in her bandaging Gavin’s arm!” Kameron snapped. “It was
not bleeding. The nanos had already closed the veins!”
“I am only trying to point out that the same thing may not work twice!” Damien
shot back at him. “It has not before!”
Kameron frowned. “We do not know that the same thing will not work because
we have not used the same tactics twice!”
“Because you and I eliminated what did not work so that Gavin and Kyle could
try something that did!”
They stared at one another for a moment as that sank in. “Sneak attack!”
Kameron said abruptly, shooting to his feet and beginning to pace thoughtfully. “I had
not considered that possibility before because it is underhanded and I do not care for that.
It seems obvious to me, now though, that if she is caught off guard that she is not only
more receptive but also less likely to hold a grudge afterward, especially if she is pleased
with the outcome of being caught off guard!”
Damien frowned. “They did not actually catch her off guard, though,” he pointed
out. “Gavin said he thought she was awake and expecting them.”
Kameron halted his pacing and stared at Damien hard for a moment. Finally, he
shook his head. “Either they were wrong on that count or, somehow, she was surprised
and did not have time to decide on counter measures. I will try it!”
Damien nodded. “And, if that does not work for you, then I will try something
else.”
“What?” Kameron demanded.
“I was reviewing the courting list,” Damien retorted.
“That is no good! I thought we had already established that that was useless—
here!”
Damien glared at him. “I do not see that it is impossible that I might find a token
that would please her! There could be something in the wreckage!”
“She has searched that herself for anything she wanted!”
“Not since she found the body—part! That is what I will do! I will go through
and make certain there are no more pieces to distress her and then I will invite her to
walk with me to see if she can find something that pleases her!”
Kameron sent him a look of disgust. “I have already tossed the remains over the
cliff. There was only the one fool—who was probably left to guard the ships and decided
to ignore orders and go inside to sleep instead!”
“Then I will assure her it is gone!” Damien said stubbornly.
“Suit yourself,” Kameron muttered. “It is time to walk the perimeter. Watch for
snipers.”
The sound of phaser fire caught Kameron’s attention when he was no more than
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halfway through his rounds. Drawn by it, he turned to discover that Damien was
standing on the edge of the cliff, his hands on his hips. Several more blasts struck the
plateau around him as Kameron stared at Damien in stupefaction. Abruptly, he burst into
a run and raced across the plateau, pulling his pistol as he ran.
A shot caught him in the upper thigh as he reached the scene, nearly making his
knee buckle, but he managed to shoot the sniper out of the tree.
“What the fuck do you think you are doing?” he snarled.
“It is just as well you shot the stupid bastard!” Damien retorted. “He could not
aim worth a fuck!”
“He nearly shot my balls off!” Kameron bellowed.
“But he was not aiming at you!” He looked Kameron’s wound over critically. “I
do not think she will be impressed with that, but I will tell you now I think it is damned
low of you to take my shot!”
Shoving his pistol into his holster, Kameron punched Damien in the belly.
Damien doubled over from the blow but used it to his advantage by head-butting
Kameron in the belly. Within a few moments, they were on the ground, rolling over and
over, slinging their fists at one another.
“Damn it!” Zoe bellowed from close by, distracting both men. “Must you brawl
right on the edge of the cliff! You’re going to give me a nervous breakdown!”
Freezing, both Kameron and Damien whipped their heads around to discover Zoe
was standing not ten feet away, glaring at them, her hands on her hips. As they stared at
her, dumbfounded, she whirled on her heel and stalked back toward the ship.
After watching her until she had stomped up the ramp and disappeared, Kameron
and Damien exchanged a questioning look and finally got up. Kameron glared at Damien
once more for good measure and finally limped off to finish his survey.
Kyle and Gavin were working on the ship when they returned. Kyle was glaring
sulkily at the bolt he was trying to remove. Gavin, a faint smile playing on his lips,
finished tightening the bolt he had been working on and stepped back to admire his work.
Fuming, Kameron stalked up to him and belted him in the mouth. Gavin
staggered back a step, felt his lip, and glared at Kameron. “What was that for?” he
demanded.
“Smiling,” Kameron snarled.
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Chapter Nineteen
“What happened to your leg?”
Kameron halted at the door to the facilities and swiveled around to look at Zoe,
who was propped up on the bunk with a book she had found amongst the wreckage,
eyeing her speculatively for several moments. He discovered that he was not only still
angry with her over the way she had behaved toward Gavin, but embarrassed that she
might think he had deliberately gotten wounded, as Damien had tried to do, to gain her
attention. If she was only interested when he had holes in him, she was bound to have
more opportunities!
“It is nothing the nanos cannot repair,” he growled pointedly and continued into
the facilities to bathe.
She followed him.
He had braced his arms against the wall and ducked beneath the hot spray,
allowing the water to pound against his tense shoulders for some time before he
straightened, slinging his hair from his face and discovered her watching him. Surprise
flickered through him.
“It doesn’t hurt?”
He studied her for a long moment, wondering what she thought she could do to
make it not hurt. “It always hurts,” he said harshly. “I am used to it.”
Something flickered in her eyes. He was not certain what—pain he thought, but
then it was gone and he was not certain. Mentally, he examined what he had said, but he
could not think of anything about it that would have either hurt or angered her.
Not that he ever had before! He could not seem to open his mouth without doing
one or the other or both.
She surprised him again by moving closer instead of leaving as he had expected.
“How can you get used to pain?”
He frowned, as confused by her behavior as he was the question. Reaching for
the soap, he filled his hand with the foam and began to scrub himself absently. “I am
used to feeling it,” he said finally. “I close my mind to it and focus my thoughts
elsewhere.”
Like on her.
She studied him for a long moment and reached up to catch the opening of her
suit, pulling it apart and shrugging out of it. He watched, mesmerized, completely
forgetting that he had been in the process of bathing himself and had done no more than
lather his torso. The spray hit her as she stepped inside, bouncing off of her and
spattering against him so that the soap began to cascade down his frame in thin, bubbly
rivulets. He blinked when a few drops splashed onto his face. When he opened his eyes,
she had slipped down to her knees.
He flinched instinctively when she touched a hand lightly to his thigh and ground
his teeth when the tensing of the muscle momentarily increased the pain. He scarcely
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noticed that pain, however, beyond a slight burn, because the moment she leaned toward
him to trace her lips lightly along the path her hand had taken, his cock, already
uncomfortably hard, stood straight up against his belly and his balls tightened until they
felt as if they had popped into his throat to choke him. He was a little surprised the
tightening of his skin did not curl his toes upward.
She lifted her head to look up at him when she had reached the top of his thigh.
Holding his gaze, she reached for his cock, curling her fingers around it. He ground his
teeth at the excruciating pleasure/pain that went through him as she slid her hand down
his shaft slowly and then up again. “What are you doing?” he asked in a strangled voice,
hardly even aware he’d spoken.
She smiled faintly. “Giving you something else to focus on.”
His knees almost buckled when she opened her mouth and closed it over the head
of his cock. He squeezed his eyes closed, afraid for a moment he might black out and
then afraid he would not. The mixture of pleasure and pain intensified as she sucked on
it until he was not certain from one slamming heart beat to the next whether he could bear
it or not. He stopped worrying about it after a moment because he lost the capacity for
thought altogether.
He was not certain what felt better, the heat and suction of her mouth or the stroke
of her hand, but the longer she did it the less aware he was of anything else. He endured
the rapturous agony until he realized he could not bear it any longer without exploding.
Reaching down to her, he grabbed her upper arms and snatched her straight upward until
he could fasten his mouth to her beautiful mouth.
She made a sound as he covered her mouth and thrust his tongue inside with
feverish need, but he was so lost in the taste of her he scarcely registered it. She hooked
her legs around his waist to hold herself, gripping his shoulders with her hands. He was
not certain if it was an invitation or not, but the moment his mind registered the fact that
she had opened her body to him, his focus shifted to his cock and so did his hands.
Sliding one hand beneath her buttocks as she slipped, he grasped his cock with the other
and searched a little frantically along her wet cleft for the opening he wanted and
crammed the head inside.
He almost came then. It was only sheer determination to embed himself deeply
inside that gave him the strength to hold himself in check. Breaking from her lips, he
sucked in a desperate breath, gripped her tightly, and heaved mightily, plowing more
deeply through the heavenly, molten heat of her channel. The drive was tortuous. He
thought his balls might explode, or mayhap his heart. He ground his teeth against the
excruciating sensations, wondering vaguely if he would churn them to powder. He
stopped pushing when he felt his groin grinding against the lips of her sex.
Pausing to gulp in a couple of breaths of air to keep from passing out, he shifted
his grip on her and bounced her up and down his shaft a few times before he decided he
needed leverage before he broke his cock.
She made strange choking noises as he braced her against the shower wall and
began to pound into her in earnest. He planted his mouth over hers and breathed gustily,
probing her with his tongue and his cock simultaneously. She curled her arms more
tightly around his neck and sucked his tongue.
The moment she did, he lost what little control he had managed to hold on to.
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The first convulsion hit him hard enough to knock the breath out of him in a hoarse grunt.
Ecstasy spiraled through him as he felt a hot fountain of come shoot from his cock.
Groaning, he pumped into her in time to the spasms until they grew weaker and weaker
and finally ceased so that he could drag his mouth from hers and fill his lungs with air.
The darkness that had engulfed him receded slightly. Every muscle in his body felt as if
it had lost tone and strength, however, and it took more of an effort to hold onto her and
keep his feet than he would have thought possible.
As awareness slowly returned, uneasiness followed.
She was perfectly limp in his arms.
Struggling against a sense of impending doom, he shifted her weight to one arm
and felt her throat for a pulse.
She chuckled. Lifting her head, she smiled at him.
Kameron felt the strangest sensation flow through him as he stared at her smiling
face. His heart almost seemed to float upward from his chest to lodge itself in his throat.
He swallowed with an effort. “You are so beautiful,” he said hoarsely.
Her smile wavered. Confusion flickered across her features. Blood flushed her
face until it was almost as red as her hair. “I imagine I look like a drowned rat.”
He frowned. “You look nothing like a rat.”
She bit her lip.
He watched the movement with fascination, enjoying the gleam of amusement in
her eyes even though he knew she was trying not to laugh because he had somehow
misunderstood what she meant, until she ducked her head and hid her face against his
throat. He hesitated and finally cupped one hand against the back of her head, holding
her there for a moment because he liked the way it felt. With reluctance, he disengaged
their bodies and allowed her to slide to her feet when he felt her tense to pull away.
He watched her bathe, straining against the urge to pull her close to him again to
feel her warmth, the way she fit against him. The hard knot in his throat was slow to ease
as he struggled for something to say to make her smile again or just to look at him the
way she had a few moments before. In the end, he said nothing, realizing that he would
rather not risk saying the wrong thing.
It was not until she had gone and he had finally turned his attention to finishing
his bath that it dawned on him that he had no fucking clue of whether he had pleased her
or not.
****
As pleased as she was with herself, Zoe was so exhausted from the explosive
climax she’d enjoyed it took focus to make it to her bunk and collapse on it. She
stretched like a lazy cat once she’d settled in her bed, enjoying the delicious sense of
well-being in the aftermath of fabulous sex that was like nothing else.
She didn’t know why she’d been fighting it so hard, she thought sleepily.
Obviously, they enjoyed pounding on one another, or at least considered that the most
desirable way to settle their disputes, and it had nothing to do with her at all. She
couldn’t see that having sex with them was going to make them more inclined to fight—
probably not less—but not more since it didn’t seem to be tied to her at all.
If they wanted to fuck, and she did, what was the point in all of them being cranky
and dissatisfied—besides being bored to death stuck on this rock light years from no
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where? None of them were contracted and she wasn’t, so who would it hurt? Especially
since they were so insistent that it was just fucking?
It pricked at her that it might give them the wrong impression—that she might be
willing to contract with them—but not one of them had even hinted at contracting.
Maybe they’d only said contacting with her? That was a strange way to talk about sex,
but they had a strange way about them period.
It worried her more than she was growing fond of them, but there didn’t seem to
be anything she could do to change that. Despite their mercurial dispositions around one
another, they never lost their temper with her. They were always so polite and well
mannered, so thorough and thoughtful as lovers, and careful and protective of her—even
though that irritated her a little, it was actually kind of nice to have someone—several
someones—who seemed to worry about her.
They were sweet.
She’d have to have a heart of stone not to be fond of them.
It was stupid to see that as a threat just because it was going to make it hard when
she had to leave. It was done now. It couldn’t be undone unless they decided to start
behaving like jerks. She wasn’t going to avoid being sad to leave them by keeping her
distance now.
Groaning, she rolled over and pulled her cover over her head.
This was wrong, wrong, wrong!
She shouldn’t have given in to temptation. It would’ve been alright if it had only
been a matter of ‘just a fuck’ to her, but she knew it hadn’t been. With the best will to
blind herself in the world, she knew damned well ‘horniness’ wasn’t the motivating
factor. She hadn’t just been needy. There was no getting around the fact that she desired
him, but god knew she’d had plenty to satisfy the wildest libido.
She hadn’t felt a driving need to scratch an itch, she’d just wanted to—with
Kameron.
If he’d expected sympathy for his pain, she thought she could’ve resisted. It was
the fact that hadn’t that had demolished her willpower. He’d looked so surprised at her
empathy she’d felt like crying. Nothing he could’ve done from that point onward short
of picking her up and tossing her out could have stopped her.
****
Damien demolished what little resistance Zoe had managed to draw around
herself after Kameron. For three days she struggled to walk a tightrope between
maintaining a safe distance and friendliness without encouraging them to think they had
only to look at her longingly, or with hunger, and she was putty in their hands.
Three nights later the sound of repeated phaser fire woke her. She sat up,
listening, trying to hear over her racing heartbeat. When she heard another rapid series of
blasts, she rolled from her mattress and rushed outside. This was a battle of some kind,
not random sniper fire.
Despite the darkness of a night lit by nothing more than stars, she had no trouble
finding the group along the edge of the cliff. The blinding blasts of the phasers directed
her to them.
There were only three standing on the edge of the plateau, however. Glancing
around, she saw no sign of a fourth. She’d been alone in the cabin. Her heart jerked to a
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halt, squeezing painfully in her chest.
She had to force herself to move at first but in moments she was running. One of
them, no doubt hearing the slap of her running feet, glanced toward her. Dark hair. She
couldn’t discern his features, but she had no trouble spotting the two with fair hair next to
him.
Kameron? Damien? Something had happened to one of them, must have. The
urge to burst into tears washed over her. She fought it down, chastising herself for
imagining the worst when she had no idea what had happened.
As she neared the group, she saw them step back from the edge. Two of them
crouched down and she saw with an almost painful sense of relief that they were helping
someone over the edge.
“What happened?” she gasped out as she neared them.
“Stay back! They are still firing!”
She skittered to a halt, responding to the command in Kameron’s voice
instinctively even though she hadn’t consciously registered what he’d said. The one
who’d climbed up the cliff—Damien, she knew now—got to his feet, swaying slightly.
Gavin grasped his arm, hauled it across his shoulders, slipped his own arm around
Damien’s waist, and started to walk toward her.
Zoe felt as if the ground had opened out from under her.
Gavin wouldn’t be helping him walk if he wasn’t hurt badly.
Struggling with her emotions, she followed them, feeling helpless, fighting the
sense of hopelessness that kept threatening to overwhelm her. Only dimly aware that
Kyle and Kameron had fallen into step behind them, she was nevertheless unnerved by
that, certain it meant they knew far more than her and that the news would be bad, very
bad.
It heartened her a little to see that Damien managed to carry most of his own
weight, although it was equally obvious that he wouldn’t have been able to manage that
much if Gavin hadn’t been steadying him and holding part of his weight.
Kameron moved around her when they reached the gangplank, grabbing
Damien’s other arm. The two of them carried him inside, moving awkwardly down the
narrow corridor to the rearward cabin.
“Lights!” Zoe commanded as she entered the cabin, blinded briefly as they
flickered on. Unlike them, however, she couldn’t see in the dark and she needed to see
how badly hurt Damien was.
She was almost sorry she’d asked for the light when she saw Damien. The
phasers tended to seal wounds as often as not, depending on the intensity and distance of
the laser blast from the target. In Damien’s case, it looked as if about half had and half
hadn’t. There were at least four blackened, charred wounds along his chest, back, arms,
and legs, but she couldn’t tell from the blood how many open wounds there were.
“Oh god!” she exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hand.
Kameron glanced at her sharply.
“I’ll get water—bandages ….”
His lips tightened. “Go … Wait in the main cabin.”
“But … I could help.”
He shook his head. “We will have to cut away the charred flesh or it will not heal
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as it should.”
Zoe gaped at him in disbelief. “But he’s already lost a lot of blood!”
“He is a cyborg, Zoe! His nanos will prevent him from losing too much blood.”
She jumped at the harshness of his voice, staring at him in dismay as his words
slowly sank in. Abruptly, she turned and left, in part because of his dismissal, in part
because she knew she couldn’t help Damien except by getting out of the way so that they
could.
She dropped shakily onto one of the benches when she’d reached the main cabin.
Her nerves were stretched as taut as piano wire. She wanted, needed, to do something to
expend the nervous energy jangling through her, but she found she was too weak kneed
even to consider it. The urge to wail hysterically came and went, nearly overwhelming
her efforts to control it for moments at the time and then receding as she forced her mind
to focus on the questions that flickered through it.
Had he been shot and fallen over? He wouldn’t have just tripped and fallen. He
wasn’t clumsy. None of them were. For all their size they were as nimble and agile as
dancers.
A fight?
She struggled to remember if any of them had looked as if they’d been brawling,
but she discovered that the only images that had stuck her mind were Damien’s wounds
and the grim faces of the others—especially Kameron.
What did that mean?
Kameron had said he had nanos. She knew that. She’d read it. That wasn’t a fact
that she had ever fully accepted, though—because she didn’t think of them as cyborgs,
she realized.
Could they save him? How much damage could they repair? Or was it just time
that created limitations for them? If the damage was too severe for them to repair it in
time to preserve life, then it wouldn’t matter what they else they were capable of.
Cyborgs died. As invincible as Damien, Kameron, Gavin, and Kyle seemed to
her, they weren’t. She knew that because she’d read the stats on how many had died on
Xeno-12 and how many the company had ‘terminated’ since they’d gone rogue.
She got up and paced when she reached the point where she felt like she would
just start screaming if she didn’t do something. She was on the point of returning to the
bench when she heard their voices.
They hadn’t been talking before. There hadn’t been a sound.
Were they talking to Damien? Questioning him about what had happened?
She moved closer to the door, listening. Relief flooded her when she heard
Damien’s voice. Without waiting for an invitation, she opened the door and peered
inside.
They stopped talking when she did, turning to look at her. She couldn’t tell
anything about their expressions, but she discovered when she finally nerved herself to
look at the bunk that Damien was watching her, as well.
A knot of relief that felt about the size of a basketball formed in her throat.
She moved toward the bunk. “What happened?”
The four of them exchanged uncomfortable glances but none of them said
anything.
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“Was it snipers?” she persisted, moving close enough to the bunk to look down at
Damien.
Kameron cleared his throat. “I sent him to scout the enemy to determine their
position and forces.”
Anger pierced her shock. “You sent him?”
“It was not an order. I volunteered.”
Zoe dragged her gaze from Kameron’s with an effort. “You volunteered to go
down there and let them use you for target practice?”
He reddened. She could see she’d insulted him, but she didn’t care, damn it!
“I did not intend to be used for target practice. The snipers had stopped. We
needed to know what they planned next. I went to discover it if I could.”
“Why? They can’t get up here. They can’t see well enough to risk making the
climb at night and that would be the only time they even had a chance of sneaking up on
us!”
“We believe that, but we do not know that. We can not merely sit here and hope
that they can not find a way.”
Zoe glanced at Kameron as he spoke and finally wilted down until she was sitting
on the side of the bunk. She saw when she returned her attention to Damien that they’d
either bathed him off or he’d showered. He wasn’t smeared liberally with blood
anymore.
She suspected the latter. His hair was wet.
They’d bandaged a couple of his wounds—one on his thigh and another on his
chest—she supposed to hold them closed. There wasn’t much bleeding—none from the
other wounds since he’d bathed, although he had a round dozen that were an angry, raw
red and surrounded by bruised flesh that made it look as if he’d been pounded on with
fists rather than hit with phaser blasts.
His face was pale and drawn for all that, his eyelids heavy with fatigue, a clear
indication of pain and more blood loss than was healthy even for him, she was sure.
There was a greenish discoloration around his mouth. She stared it, trying not to
feel alarmed at what it might indicate.
“Why is your mouth … uh …?” She glanced at Kameron. “Why is his mouth
…?
Kameron rolled his eyes, irritation and disgust evident in his expression.
Frowning, she glanced at Damien again. Smiling a little crookedly, he gathered
up a fistful of weeds she hadn’t noticed before and held them out. “I had to carry them in
my teeth to climb.”
Zoe felt her jaw go slack as she stared at the bedraggled, broken, battered—
bouquet of weeds he held in his hand. A few tattered pink and white petals still clung to
the stems.
Her throat closed.
She glanced from the bouquet to Damien’s expectant face and back again. By the
time she returned her gaze to his face, his smile had slipped.
He examined his offering through narrowed eyes. “It was much prettier before,”
he said finally.
Zoe swallowed with an effort. “Before you had to climb the cliff with them in
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your teeth, dodging phaser blasts?” she asked tightly, struggling with the urge to snatch
the bouquet from his hand and beat him with it until there was nothing left.
The urge to burst into tears descended over her again. She swallowed
convulsively against the painful knot and took the bouquet even as he began to lower it to
the bed again. She cleared throat. “Did you gather them before or after you sneaked into
an encampment full of enemy soldiers?”
He eyed her uneasily. “I passed them along the way there. I gathered them as I
ran through on the way back.”
Zoe clapped a hand to her mouth at the image he’d put in her mind but it was too
late to stifle the sound that burst from her lips—half cry, half laugh of pure disbelief—all
hysteria. “Oh god, Damien! What were you thinking!”
“You do not like them?”
Zoe sniffed and finally gave up the effort to control her emotions. “I love them,”
she wailed. “Don’t ever, ever do anything like that again!” Dropping the bouquet in her
lap, she covered her face with both hands and wept loud and hard. When she finally
managed to get control of her emotions, she discovered she’d cleared the room of
everyone except Damien, who was trapped.
Sniffing, she got up and went into the facilities to blow her nose and wash her
face. There was nothing to put her ‘flowers’ in, which made her cry all over again, but
she dampened the ends of the stems and set them carefully in the lavatory, deciding she
would find something to hold the bouquet when it was daylight and she could see. She
still felt mildly weepy when she left the chamber, but far more in control than before.
Damien eyed her warily from the bed. She suspected he was hurt worse than he
looked at the moment or he would’ve crawled out the door to escape as the others had.
Dragging in a shaky breath, she moved to the bunk and climbed into it carefully, settling
full length beside him.
She wanted to gather him into her arms and hug him tightly to her to reassure
herself that he would be alright, but she was afraid she would just cause him more pain.
Finally, she contented herself with merely slipping one arm beneath his head and holding
his head close to her chest.
He studied her with a mixture of hopefulness she had no trouble interpreting and
uneasiness as she lifted a hand to stroke his cheek. “Don’t even think about it,” she said
warningly. “I’m only here to cuddle. If you don’t behave yourself, I’m moving back to
my bed.”
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Chapter Twenty
A person could only lie to themselves so long, Zoe reflected morosely as she half
heartedly scavenged the wreckage just to have something ‘useful’ to do. No matter how
much hardheaded determination they had, eventually they found themselves staring face
to face with the truth.
The guys weren’t merely friends and they weren’t just lovers. She wasn’t ‘sort
of’ fond of them. She didn’t find their company tolerable and she didn’t merely find
them intriguing because they were a strange sort of puzzle for her to unravel and piece
together.
She’d felt as if her whole world was crumbling around her when they’d dragged
Damien over the side of the plateau and she’d seen he was shot to hell. She still felt more
shaken than she could ever remember being because she’d been forced to face the
indisputable fact that they weren’t indestructible, maybe damned close, but when it came
right down to the wire they were as mortal she was.
It was disturbing how scary that was.
She hadn’t thought about ‘losing’ any one of them. She’d thought about leaving
them. She’d thought about how much she was going to miss them when she had to go
home.
She’d thought it best not to get too attached because, eventually, they were going
to go their separate ways.
It was some comfort that they recovered quickly. Damien had recovered
sufficiently by morning to begin rooting his face against her breasts in a demand that
she’d ignored all of five minutes, she thought with a mixture of fond amusement and
irritation. She’d made him lie still while she did the honors, which she was sure was
better for his healing wounds—maybe not for her.
She’d watched him as she rode him, stared into his slumberous eyes, gleaming
with heated passion, seen the pleasure on his face as he moved closer and closer to
release—watched his face when he came. She’d hardly been detached, and yet the
warmth that had flowed through her hadn’t been altogether desire either—part of it, but
not all of it—enough that her body had peaked in response to his when he climaxed and
yet separated enough to experience the act in a way she never had before.
He’d been determined to get up and go about his tasks afterward as if nothing had
happened. He was moving stiffly and slowly enough, though, that she knew he was still
weak and sore—not recovered, just bullheaded enough to get up anyway.
Which was why she was outside trying to look busy. She was determined to keep
an eye on him. She didn’t think any of the others would pick a fight with him when he
was so weak and stiff he had to work hard to pretend to be perfectly alright, but she
wasn’t going to take any chances.
They were pissed off with him. She wasn’t sure it if was for the same reason as
she was—because he’d taken unnecessary risks—or if it was because she’d been so upset
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about it—still was—but there was no doubt in her mind, or Damien’s, that they were
seriously perturbed with him. All three of them had fixed him with fulminating glares
when she and Damien had left the cabin to search for food. None of them had spoken to
him, or her for that matter, but the tension had been palpable enough she’d stuck close to
Damien until she was sure she’d gotten her point across—that they needn’t even think
about expressing their displeasure with more than glares until he was well enough to
defend himself.
She gave up on trying to look busy after a while and wandered back to the ship,
finding a spot to sit and watch the men work.
“Do you think you’ll be able to get the engine working again?” she asked after
watching Gavin and Kyle for a while.
Gavin glanced at her, flicked a glare at Damien and returned his attention to the
engine. “Yes,” he said finally. “It is almost ready to test.”
“Really?” she asked in surprise, studying the object in question critically since it
looked to her as if half of it was still on the ground.
“A week,” he responded and then glanced self-consciously at Kameron and
added, “More or less.”
“What about the ship itself?” she asked Kameron when he glanced at her.
“We will have it patched, as well,” he responded almost reluctantly. “Then we
will start systems checks, take a test flight to see that everything holds together.”
“God, that’s reassuring,” she said wryly.
His eyes gleamed. A hint of a smile lightened his hard mouth.
Zoe felt a warm flutter in her belly. She smiled back at him and his smile became
more pronounced.
God the man was drop dead gorgeous when he smiled! He didn’t do it nearly
often enough. Of course he was drop dead gorgeous even when he didn’t smile, but the
smile—it was like finding treasure, breathtakingly exciting.
She was the one who broke eye contact, feeling unaccountably shy all of a
sudden. “I think I might actually miss this place—a little bit,” she mumbled. “It’s not
home, but it isn’t a half bad place all things considered.”
“Our home world is better—far better.”
Zoe glanced at Gavin and smiled—mostly just because looking at him made her
want to smile. “Is it really? You’re not just a tiny bit prejudiced, are you?”
He looked disconcerted for a moment, then pretended to think if over. “No.”
She chuckled. “Tell me how it’s better.”
“The air does not make your lungs feel as if they are caving in, for one,” Kyle
offered.
“We are on a mountain,” she pointed out. “The altitude is partly to blame for
that.”
“Yes, but it is too thick down in the jungle,” Kameron countered.
She grinned at him. “So the air on your world is perfect?” she asked teasingly.
“Yes, perfect,” he responded at once. “The temperature, too—not too hot, not too
cold.”
“Ever? I mean, it has different seasons?”
He frowned. “The seasons that I have been there it was perfect,” he amended.
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Which meant he commonly missed entire seasons while on sentry duty, she
realized in dismay. How long were their rotations? She wanted to ask, but he’d been
very pointed about not discussing anything of a military nature. “What’s the colony
like?”
“Beautiful,” Damien responded, entering the conservation.
Zoe eyed him doubtfully. She wasn’t certain if his idea of beautiful was the same
as hers. “Describe ‘beautiful’,” she prompted.
“There is perfect symmetry,” Gavin broke in before Damien could respond. “All
of the streets laid out just so.” He used the edges of his hands to form perpendicular
lines.
“That pleases the eye,” Damien said, “but it is the buildings that make it truly
beautiful. Each is unique, and yet there is harmony of color and design, for they have all
been constructed of the natural stone of the area so that the city is also in harmony with
nature—the same can be said of the private domiciles.”
“What does your domicile look like?”
“The barracks?” he echoed in surprise, frowning thoughtfully so that he missed
the look of dismay that flickered across her face before she could prevent it. “It is much
like any barracks—very simple—very plain, but every man has private quarters. It is not
like before when we were soldiers of the federation.”
Zoe discovered when she looked up that Kameron was studying her face. “There
is land for any who petition for it. Those who have formed family units have taken
advantage of this and constructed grand domiciles for their families.”
The expression on his face, more than the words, made her breathless. She
wavered, trying to decide whether she wanted him to continue in that vein or change the
subject.
And then it hit her abruptly that Bronte was a pediatrician.
Why else would the cyborgs want one if not for children?
“There are children?”
She hadn’t meant to say it the way she had, with so much disbelief. It was just so
hard to grasp! Even though she’d long since stopped thinking of them as machines,
accepted that they had, somehow, evolved beyond their beginnings, she realized she
hadn’t thought of them as that real.
It only took one look at their faces to see that she had royally fucked up.
“Your sister has three,” Kameron responded in a carefully neutral voice.
Three what? Her sister was human! They’d told her that but it had gone right
over her head because she hadn’t believed a word of it. In the back of her mind, she
supposed she had considered that even if there was any truth to it, the cyborgs certainly
weren’t responsible.
“Cyborg off-spring,” Gavin elaborated in a tight voice, unable to keep the
bitterness from his voice as Kameron had.
Zoe stared at him. They couldn’t be cyborg, she knew. It just wasn’t possible.
Maybe they wanted to think of them as cyborg, but if they had had off-spring, it was
human. They were cyborg because they were part machine, had been created in a lab—
grown and constructed by scientists and other machines.
She resisted the urge to debate the matter with them, but she discovered she might
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as well not have. They knew exactly what was running through her mind. They’d read it
in her expression.
A silent communication passed between the four of them and then one by one
they returned to their tasks.
Zoe watched them miserably, trying to think of something she could say to undo
what she’d done. Nothing brilliant came to mind. “I’m an aunt,” she finally managed. It
sounded lame even to her ears. “I can hardly believe it.”
Kameron sent her a look. “That is obvious.”
She stared at him in dismay. “I don’t suppose you know if I have nieces or
nephews—or maybe both?” she pursued doggedly. “Not that I care whether it’s boys or
girls. I’m … I’m so thrilled!”
“You are just now thrilled? You were not thrilled when you were first told?”
Despite the guilt she felt, or maybe partially because of it, Zoe felt a reviving dose
of anger. “I barely registered anything I was told during that time!” she said. “One
minute I was in my ship, minding my own business and the next in yours—watching my
ship blown to hell and … and a full scale battle, and then crashing here! Maybe you
think I should be used to this sort of thing, being a cop. Maybe you think I should just be
able to take it all in stride, but I can’t! I’m not a homicide detective. I investigate
burglaries and that sort of thing!”
Zoe frowned unhappily as he turned away, trying to think of something else she
could say in her defense when it abruptly occurred to her that she hadn’t been told Bronte
had had babies! They’d told her Bronte had contracted with cyborgs.
“Wait just a damned minute!” she snapped. “You didn’t tell me Bronte had had a
baby at all, let alone triplets! You said she’d contracted with that Gideon guy and his
squad. I’m sure you didn’t say anything about babies!”
“I did ….” Kameron broke off, considering it, she supposed, at least at first. He
lifted his head to scan the sky a full minute before she heard what it was that had drawn
his attention.
He whipped his head around in a swift scan of the plateau. “Fuck! There is no
cover unless we go over the side!” Grabbing Zoe so suddenly she was too stunned to
react, he slung her across his shoulder and burst into a run at almost the same moment.
It knocked the breath out of her. She thought if she’d had the chance to brace
herself it might not have, but she didn’t get that opportunity. She was lightheaded and
wobbly when Kameron bent down and allowed her to slide to the ground almost as
abruptly as he’d seized her to begin with.
As disoriented as she was, she didn’t need to ask what was going on. She could
hear the sound of the ships above them without any difficulty now. Even if not for the
grim faced tension radiating from the men around her and the weapons they now held
with deadly intent, she would’ve been able to guess they were in deep shit.
They scanned the sky. She scanned the sky.
“You think it’s more company mercs?”
Kameron sent her a look that said he obviously thought so or he wouldn’t have
made a mad dash across the plateau for cover. Ok, so she supposed it was a dumb
question. “I was just looking for confirmation,” she said stiffly, hoping she was wrong.
Dismay filled her as she looked at the Omega across the way. They’d been within
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days of having it repaired. What were the chances, she wondered, that it would still be in
one piece thirty minutes from now?
“It is ours!”
Zoe glanced sharply at Gavin when he spoke and then she lifted her head to look
at the fleet of ships above them. She couldn’t discern much more than a half dozen
specks in the sky and wondered if they actually could see that far or if there was
something notable about the specks that made it possible for them to identify them at
such a distance.
“That is the Orion,” Damien said, his voice sounding strained.
“What’s the Orion?” Zoe asked uneasily.
“Reuel’s flagship,” Kameron responded grimly.
Zoe frowned, trying to place the name. Despite the fact that it sounded very
familiar, however, she couldn’t dredge up the memory associated with it. “Who’s
Reuel?”
All four men glanced at her sharply. “Commander Reuel,” Kyle said after gaping
at her in stunned disbelief for several moments.
That piece of information definitely jogged something loose and it still took a
couple of moments for it to fall into place. “The Reuel?” she demanded after a moment,
feeling a shiver trace its way down her spine. “The most wanted … The rogue who ….”
Kyle nodded, standing to watch as the others had as the lead ship broke away
from formation, heading straight for the plateau.
Reluctantly, Zoe stood, as well. Her knees felt unaccountably weak, though. Not
unaccountably, she corrected herself. If they were talking about the rogue she thought,
and she doubted there was another, the horror stories she’d heard about him were enough
to make anybody weak with fear, especially if they were human.
The price on his head had been astronomical, high enough to pull in some of the
most successful bounty hunters ever known, but none of them had lived long enough to
collect their reward. Reuel, according to the news sheets, was the first to go rogue, the
one who’d turned the others and led them to slaughter any humans that crossed their path.
He hated humans—as in, the only good one was a dead one.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be here,” she said shakily. “He hates humans, right?”
Kameron glanced sharply at her. “You can not believe all of the propaganda the
company releases. He does not kill indiscriminately … not even humans.”
“Well! As long as he uses discrimination! Which part of the propaganda should I
discount?”
“The part where he snatches your heart from your chest and eats it before your
eyes.”
Zoe gaped at him for several moments before she saw the glint of grim
amusement in his eyes. “You are so damned funny!”
“He does not wear a necklace of human ears, either. It is teeth.”
Zoe glanced at Gavin uneasily.
“Entrails—he does not use the victim’s own entrails to choke them. He uses the
hands,” Kyle offered.
“He does wear a cape made from human skin, however,” Damien said, nodding.
She didn’t particularly care for their methods, but she relaxed fractionally at their
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graveyard humor. “And you said cyborgs didn’t have a sense of humor!” she said
waspishly.
Gavin and Damien grinned at her as if she’d paid them a compliment. Kyle
actually chuckled and even Kameron smiled faintly, if somewhat grimly. The lightening
of their moods didn’t last long. As the Orion hovered above the plateau and began to
slowly settle, all four of them tensed.
“You think he’s onboard?” Zoe asked uneasily.
“We will know soon,” Kameron responded grimly.
Zoe didn’t see the actual landing. Her attention was drawn by the other ships that
had accompanied the commander’s flagship as they shot by overhead, circling the plateau
like a small swarm of angry bees. The mercs made the deadly mistake of engaging them
by lobbing a half dozen photon grenades. The ships returned fire. Explosions assaulted
Zoe’s ears. She saw dirt and chunks of trees, smoke, and fireballs. Within a few
minutes, silence returned.
Wondering if that meant the cyborgs had wiped out the mercs or if they’d decided
retreat was in order, Zoe dragged her gaze from the still circling ships in time to see the
gangplank extend from the Orion. Tension rippled through her, her uneasiness magnified
by the taut demeanor of the men around her.
A tall man with long dark hair, wearing a uniform similar to the one she’d been
given to wear, strode purposefully down the ramp. She didn’t need to ask if this was the
infamous Reuel. Everything about him commanded attention, from his height and the
breadth his shoulders, to his bearing and the harshly handsome face.
Kameron and Gavin, with Kyle and Damien directly behind them, marched
forward to meet him, saluting. Reuel acknowledged them with an almost regal nod.
Actually, Zoe thought there was no ‘almost’ to it.
He didn’t look directly at her but there was no doubt in her mind that he had
noted everything about her down to the smallest detail.
She did wish she wasn’t wearing the uniform she’d scavenged from the wreckage.
She’d been pleased at finding it because although it was still a little large for her it fit
worlds better than the jumpsuit Kameron had given her that belonged to Gavin or Kyle.
She doubted that wearing a company uniform was anything that was going to
make a favorable impression, however.
Trying not to look as self-conscious and uneasy as she felt, Zoe glanced casually
around at the other cyborg ships that had begun to land on the plateau around them—four
in all. Two continued to circle the plateau and she assumed they were there to guard
against attack.
Apparently Kameron had been giving a report. After a few minutes, Reuel turned
to survey the Omega and the five men moved off to inspect it.
It hadn’t occurred to Zoe until that moment that Kameron and the others might be
in trouble. It hit her forcefully, though, as she watched them moving around the Omega
and realized they were explaining the repairs—at least she thought that was what they
were doing.
For their sakes, she hoped they hadn’t delayed repairs. She had a bad feeling that
Reuel was not a man who would be easily fooled and she doubted he would take it well if
he discovered they’d been fooling around here with her when they could have been at
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their posts.
She studied them uneasily as those thoughts ran through her head, trying to decide
from their expressions if they were in trouble, and from Reuel’s if he was angry. It was
no comfort to discover she couldn’t tell anything by any of their expressions.
She knew the moment Kameron explained her presence, though. Reuel turned
and, for the first time, looked directly at her. A shiver skated through her. The urge to
run flickered through her mind, briefly, as he nodded a dismissal of Kameron and the
others and strode directly toward her.
She held her ground, mostly because the moment she’d thought to run she
realized that she was surrounded by cyborgs and, although she’d been too focused on
watching Reuel and Kameron to realize it before, she discovered they hadn’t been
similarly preoccupied.
She had everyone’s attention.
Reuel’s gaze was assessing as he stopped a couple of feet away from her and
surveyed her. As unnerved as she was, she lifted her chin at him and looked him in the
eyes.
“I am told that you are Dr. Bronte’s sister,” he said after a moment.
“Her half-sister, yes,” Zoe responded.
He quirked a dark brow at her.
“Same father, different mothers,” she clarified.
His gaze was keen, piercing, as if he could see into her mind. “You led the raid.”
Zoe’s jaw dropped. “I did no such thing!” she snapped. “I came to find my
sister—who was kidnapped by cyborgs!”
“She has never spoken of a sister.”
Zoe’s lips tightened. “You know her that well?”
He said nothing for a moment. “We do not do things by half measures. Her
background was thoroughly researched.”
“And her father’s?” Zoe countered.
He tilted his head. “His also since he was the original target. I would have
thought you would say ‘our’ father’s.”
Anger supplanted Zoe’s nervousness—not necessarily a good thing since it made
her incautious. “He never claimed me so I don’t claim him either. That doesn’t change
the fact that he sired me, or that I’m Bronte’s sister.”
His gaze moved over her assessingly again. “You came for the reward, did you
not?”
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Chapter Twenty One
She hadn’t, but it had certainly crossed her mind and because it had and she knew
it was splitting hairs to argue the matter, especially with a man like Reuel, Zoe felt a
heated blush rise in her cheeks to flag her guilt. “I came for my sister,” she repeated
tightly.
She wasn’t unaccustomed to interrogation tactics. She’d used them often enough
on others in her line work to know the routine. She wasn’t guilty of anything, though,
she reminded herself. There was no reason to be worried about it.
Except she felt guilty from the moment he mentioned the bounty the company
offered because even though she’d thought at the time that she had every reason to
pursue it and no reason to feel any qualms, she knew better now.
“This is a very long way to come for a sister you do not know, who does not
know you.”
“I don’t expect you to understand, but that isn’t the point is it?”
His eyes narrowed. “That is exactly the point. You do not seem to grasp your
position.”
Zoe folded her arms defensively. “Why don’t you explain it?”
“You violated our space. You brought with you a fleet of company mercenaries
whose intent was clearly to attack the cyborg nation. That makes you an enemy of the
cyborg people.”
“I didn’t bring anyone with me,” she responded tightly. “Your people kidnapped
my sister. I came after her. Whatever their plans were, I wasn’t informed, and I damned
sure did not cooperate with them in any way.”
“You were not aware of the bounty?”
“I didn’t say that. I said that wasn’t my purpose for coming.”
“You had no intention of collecting the bounty?”
She hesitated just a fraction too long. “It occurred to me that I might be able to,”
she acknowledged since there didn’t seem to be any point in continuing to deny it. “But
if that was my goal in coming, I sure as hell wouldn’t have brought a dozen ships loaded
down with mercenaries to share it with. I don’t know if they tracked me with some sort
of homing chip they’d hidden in my ship, or began to follow me at some point, but I
wasn’t aware of their presence.”
His lips tightened. “You came—alone—to retrieve your sister from the cyborg
nation?”
“You sent one ship to steal her to start with!” she said testily. “I figured I’d get
her out the same way. Give me a little damned credit if you’re determined to peg me as
the villain here. If I’d come with the intention of making war, I damned sure would’ve
brought a hell of a lot more than a handful of ships! You’ve got a lot of damned nerve
acting like the injured party here to start with. You kidnapped my sister! If that was your
idea of ‘making friends’ you missed by a long shot!”
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He was silent for several moments. “Your sister has been welcomed into the
community as a valued citizen. She is well and happy and satisfied to be where she is.
Go home.”
Zoe stared at him in disbelief, feeling as if the ground had dropped from under
her. She hadn’t considered, hadn’t allowed herself to consider the possibility that they
wouldn’t even allow her to see her sister. “I’m supposed to take your word for it?”
“You will have to,” he said dismissively.
“Let me at least see her—talk to her!” she said quickly as he started to turn away,
unable to keep a note of pleading from creeping into her voice.
“We do not take enemies of the people to the people.”
She followed him, keeping up with him with an effort. “Then bring her here so I
can talk to her.”
“No!”
“Why not, damn it? If you’re so fucking convinced she’s happy to be where she
is, what harm could there be in me talking to her?”
He paused. “She has given birth and she is human. She is not strong enough to
make such a trip so soon after the birth nor the infants she gave birth to.”
How could she argue with that, especially when Kameron had already told her
and she knew it must be true. “Wait!”
He paused and looked at her impatiently.
“Can’t I at least send her a message?”
He seemed reluctant even to allow her that much. “What message would you
have me convey?”
A nearly overwhelming sense of despair washed over her abruptly, clogging her
throat. She struggled for composure. “Tell her ….” She broke off, clearing her throat.
“Tell her I’m sorry for the years I wasted blaming her for something that wasn’t her fault.
Tell her I love her and … and that I tried.”
He nodded, studying her for a long moment. “The mercenaries are encamped five
miles southeast of this plateau. No doubt your people will come to pick you up.”
Thanks for nothing, she thought angrily, but she held her tongue until he turned
away again. “Kameron and the others … they aren’t in any kind of trouble are they?”
He hesitated, swiveling a speculative glance at her. “Why would you think they
were?”
She swallowed against the uneasiness that joined the knot of misery already
closing her throat in a painful fist. “I didn’t think it, but I don’t know anything about
military matters. I just wanted to know if they were going to be alright.”
“That is not your concern.”
Anger momentarily supplanted Zoe’s misery and her fear that Kameron and the
others might be facing some kind of charges for helping her. “You don’t know me.
Don’t presume to know what my concerns are! My people sure as hell haven’t cornered
the market on bigotry.”
Knowing he had no intention of telling her anything, she turned away and stalked
off. She hadn’t gone far before she realized she had no fucking clue where she was
going. Obviously, she wasn’t going with the cyborgs. She would’ve liked to talk to
Kameron and Gavin, or Damien or Kyle, to see if they knew, or would tell her, if they
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were in trouble, and what kind and how bad. She would’ve liked to tell them bye.
She decided it wasn’t a good idea. If they weren’t in trouble already, she didn’t
want to do anything that might get them in trouble, and if they were, she didn’t want to
make it worse. It seemed pretty obvious Reuel was already suspicious.
Besides, she barely had a grasp on her emotions as it was. If she tried to talk to
them she was going to break down and cry all over them. She was not going to do that in
front of all the damned cyborgs! Clearly, they already had a superiority complex in
regards to humans. She wasn’t going to reinforce that certainty by becoming an
emotional wreck in front of them.
She stopped when she reached the cliff edge, trying to ignore the uncomfortable
sense of weightlessness that clenched at her stomach as she looked out over the valley to
see if she could pinpoint the supposed encampment Reuel had told her about.
She didn’t relish the idea of joining them, but she didn’t think she had a lot of
options. She didn’t have a weapon or any supplies at all. She wasn’t going to survive ten
minutes on her own.
She didn’t realize how hard she’d been struggling to focus on her dilemma to
keep from thinking about anything else until she suddenly became aware of another
presence. Startled, more than half hoping it would be Kameron or one the others, she
glanced up sharply and discovered the cyborg was a complete stranger to her. He was
holding a pack in one hand.
“The commander ordered me to bring this to you.”
Zoe glanced at the pack with far more resentment than appreciation. “Tell him I
said thanks,” she said, striving to keep the bitterness and anger from her voice as she took
it.
All things considered, she supposed he was behaving with unexpected decency.
She wasn’t able to appreciate it at the moment, though.
****
“I say we should claim her,” Damien said angrily. “It can not hurt to try. I do not
care if we spend the next six months in the brig. It is better than leaving her here!”
Kameron glared at him furiously. “Do you think I am worried about that?
Though six years is more likely than months if the commander realizes we were in no
great hurry to return to our posts! It will do her no good. We do not have a contract to
support such a claim!”
“Mayhap it would work as well to tell the commander that it was agreed upon and
we had intended to see to it when we returned?”
“And what if she disputes the claim?” Kameron shot back at Gavin.
“She is too smart to throw away her only chance to get to her sister.”
“You are willing to contract with her knowing she has only agreed so that she can
reach Bronte?” Kameron demanded.
Kyle, Gavin, and Damien exchanged speaking glances. “Yes,” they said almost
in unison.
Kameron’s lips tightened. In truth, he was, but it had only been a rhetorical
question. He had no hope such a thing would sway the commander. Finally, he merely
nodded. “I will speak to him.”
Reuel was speaking to one of the pilots when he located him. He waited until the
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man had been dismissed to approach.
“Permission to speak, sir?”
Reuel sent him an annoyed look. “It is about the woman?”
Kameron nodded.
“You have something to say that I do not know already or at least suspect?”
Kameron resisted the impulse to shift uneasily under Reuel’s scrutiny. “She will
not be safe with the mercenaries,” he said more sharply than he had intended.
“She is allied with them.”
Kameron’s lips tightened. “They do not act as allies. They attacked her. I had
not intended to keep her with us. I left her when Damien and I went to help to secure the
Omega, thinking that she would rejoin them. When we had routed them and they
retreated, they came upon her and attacked.”
Reuel frowned. “This is the only ‘evidence’ you have that she was not allied with
them?”
Kameron’s lips tightened. “I am certain that she was not. She had no idea that
she was followed. It can not be a surprise to you that they would use one of their own to
bait a trap?”
Reuel studied him speculatively. “It does not bother you that she was intent upon
collecting the bounty placed on our heads? Do not bother to tell me that you and the
others have not considered the possibility of claiming her as your woman. I have eyes in
my head and I have seen the way you watch her. If you are supporting her claims only
because you have some notion that by doing so you will be supporting your own, then
you are mistaken. That is not likely to happen. You have six weeks remaining on
rotation and the four of you will return to your posts. In that time, even if I agreed to take
her, even if the council agreed to accept her as a citizen, she will most likely be claimed
by someone else.”
Kameron swallowed a little sickly. “Mayhap you are right and she thought to
collect the bounty, but I am as certain as I can be that that was not what brought her. She
is telling the truth when she claims she came to find her sister. For her safety, you can
not leave her in the hands of the mercenaries. Her sister is a valued citizen. She is not
likely to take it well if she discovers that Zoe was abandoned here.”
Reuel’s eyes narrowed. “And she will know this how?”
Kameron’s jaw tightened. “She will know because I will make certain that she
knows,” he said grimly.
Reuel was silent for several moments. “You surprise me. I had expected that you
would try to claim her.”
“If she is accepted as a citizen, I will.”
Reuel smiled grimly. “There is no ‘if’ involved. If I take her, she will become a
citizen. The council would never allow her to leave. They would not want to risk the
possibility that she could lead others back to us.”
Kameron nodded. He had expected nothing less. “You will consider it?”
Reuel turned to study the figure pacing the edge of the cliff. “It was a good
strategic move to lead the enemy here,” he said instead of answering. “This is still closer
than I like, but it will keep them occupied for a time searching for some sign of us here. I
think, eventually, that we will have war.”
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Kameron reddened faintly. “I would like to claim brilliance, but the truth is we
had no choice in the matter after the ship was hit since preservation of our resources is
our prime directive beyond protecting home base.”
Reuel gave him a hard look. “Our citizens, of which you are one, are our most
valued resources.”
Kameron relaxed fractionally. “I am relieved that you value my hide as much as I
do.”
Reuel grinned. “Mayhap not as much. You are dismissed.”
Reluctantly, Kameron saluted and rejoined his crew.
“Well?” Damien demanded as soon as he’d returned.
“It should not come as any great surprise that we are to finish out our rotation,”
Kameron responded.
They stared at him with varying degrees of dismay and resignation. “But Zoe?”
Gavin prompted.
“He would only say that he would consider what I had to say.”
“What did you have to say?” Damien demanded.
“I told him that her sister would not be pleased to discover Zoe had been
abandoned here at the mercy of the soldiers.”
“You did not tell him …?”
“He is not a fool!” Kameron growled, breaking into Kyle’s complaint. “Do you
think he did not guess that the moment he set eyes upon her?”
“Yes, but you did not state our claim!” Damien said indignantly. “If we are to
finish our rotation, she will be six weeks on the home world with every unattached male
vying for her attention!”
“Is it not more important to make certain she is safe?” Kameron ground out
angrily.
“We are not likely to disagree with that!” Gavin said angrily. “You should still
have stated our claim for the record!”
Kameron’s lips tightened. “For who’s record?” he snarled. “We did not even ask
her!”
The other three men stared at him in stunned dismay for a moment before anger
supplanted their shock. “That is your fault!” Damien snarled. “I told you we should
have asked her straight away!”
“Do not blame your lapse on me!” Kameron shot back at him. “You could have
asked her.”
“You said to wait upon your plan—except that you never formulated one.”
“And no one waited!” Kameron pointed out.
A snarling voice intruded before they could come to blows. “Break it up unless
you wish to spend time in the brig! The commander has ordered that you take up your
posts. Gavin—you and Kyle are to take the Ricco. Kameron and Damien the Zephyr.”
All four turned to glare at the intruder for a moment before they contained their
temper and saluted. “What of the Omega?” Gavin demanded.
The officer glared at him. “The crews from the Zephr and the Ricco will remain
here, finish the repairs and return to base with it.”
The four exchanged frustrated looks, but they all knew they had no choice. They
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had their orders. They could follow them and return to their posts, or protest and go to
the brig, but they were not going to be allowed to stay. Since fighting would not help
Zoe and might, in fact, hurt her chances, they set their tools down and reported to their
respective assignments.
Seeing that the commander had approached Zoe, Kameron delayed his departure
as long as he dared, waiting to see if she would return with Reuel to his flagship. Gritting
his teeth when Reuel turned and fixed him with a hard look, he gave Damien the order to
start the engine.
With considerable relief, he saw as his ship began to rise from the plateau that
Zoe and Reuel had turned and were headed toward Reuel’s flagship.
****
“It has been brought to my attention that you will not be safe if left with the
mercenaries,” Reuel said without preamble.
Zoe felt a sharp pain in the region of her heart. It was still with reluctance that
she admitted her own doubts. “I had some doubts about my welcome considering our
last encounter.”
“Kameron said they attacked you.”
Soothing warmth spread through her. “They seemed to think I was consorting
with the enemy,” she replied dryly.
“And they were wrong?”
She shrugged. “No, they were right. I was consorting with their enemy. But
then the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I don’t work for the company. I never did.
And after what I’ve found about the bastards, you may be sure they are certainly not
friends of mine.”
Reuel studied her thoughtfully. “You would be willing to live among the enemy
of your enemy?”
Doubt and hope instantly warred within her. She frowned, trying to figure out
what impulse was stronger, the urge to go with Reuel and have the chance to see her
sister and make up for the time lost—the added possibility of seeing Kameron, Gavin,
Damien, and Kyle again—maybe being with them. Or the urge to see justice done. “I’d
like to see the company brought down,” she said slowly. “It seems to me they’ve broken
just about every law on the books.”
“You think that your people would prosecute them for what they have done to
us?” he asked in patent disbelief.
“Not directly, no. In the eyes of the law, you would not be considered a victim.
Nevertheless, they have broken enough laws to spend a good bit of time in prison. That’s
what they’re trying to avoid—The government will get away with it. They always do,
but the company—that’s a different matter.”
He nodded. “You must decide—now—which is of most importance to you. If I
take you to your sister, there will be no going back.”
She frowned, still torn. “It goes against the grain to let the bastards get away with
what they’ve done. I’m a cop to the bone. Injustice infuriates me.”
“We are the ones who were wronged. We accept responsibility for our own
justice.”
She smiled at him wryly. “That’s not the way it works.”
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Reuel returned her smile with a faint one of his own, but then frowned
thoughtfully. “I am certain there will be many who are disappointed in you choose duty
above them.”
Zoe’s throat closed. “Maybe I wouldn’t be worthy of them if I didn’t?”
Reuel shook his head and finally heaved an irritated sigh. “I will have to kidnap
you, then. I have made up my mind I will not leave you if you are not safe here.”
Zoe almost smiled at the comment. She looked down at her feet. “I suppose if I
have no choice ….”
“None,” he assured her.
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Chapter Twenty Two
The man who snatched the door open might have been handsome if not for the
furious expression on his face. Zoe took a step back.
“What?” he demanded in a harsh whisper.
“Good day, Gideon,” Reuel, who’d escorted Zoe to Bronte’s home, said in a
pleasant, if slightly clipped voice.
Gideon had paled slightly when his eyes settled on Reuel. “Shhh—sir! You will
wake him and we will have no peace!”
Zoe hadn’t noticed until he spoke that he had a tiny bundle curled protectively in
one arm. The bundle wiggled and a look of horror crossed Gideon’s features.
Zoe struggled with the urge to laugh.
Reuel, after staring at the wiggling bundle for a moment, finally spoke quietly. “I
have brought Dr. Bronte’s sister to her.”
For the first time Gideon actually glanced at Zoe. “Do you know how to care for
infants?” he asked hopefully.
Zoe shrugged. “Afraid not,” she whispered.
He frowned, disappointment evident in his features, but finally nodded. “Come
in. She is resting.”
“Oh!” Zoe exclaimed uncomfortably, struggling against a sense of relief that she
had an excuse to put the meeting off a little longer. “I’d hate to wake her if she’s resting.
I’ll just come back later.”
Gideon grabbed her arm before she could retreat. “She hates to rest. She will be
glad to have company.”
Zoe glanced back toward Reuel, only to discover him in full retreat, striding
quickly back along the drive that led to the city. Gideon released her long enough to
close the door and shut off her only avenue of escape.
She sneaked a glance at his profile as he escorted her to Bronte’s room. His focus
was on the bundle in his arms, which he carried as if it was a live grenade, she thought
with wry amusement. First impressions aside, she had to admit he was a handsome
specimen of Cyborg manhood—as if there was one that wasn’t.
If there was, she’d yet to see one.
Not that she’d had a lot of time for sightseeing. As soon as they’d landed, Reuel
had taken it upon himself to escort her directly to her sister’s home. He had explained
along the way that she would be expected to speak to the council, of which he was one
member, but that he meant to speak on her behalf first and she would be summoned when
the time came. In the meanwhile, she would be ‘safer’ to stay at the home of her sister.
She wasn’t certain what he meant by that, but the comment had made her uneasy.
Reaching a door on the upper landing, Gideon pushed it open and urged her
inside by planting a hand in the middle of her back and giving her a shove. “Bronte, I
have brought your sister to see you!” he said, smiling broadly as if he was completely
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responsible for her being there.
Bronte, ensconced in a huge bed, sat up and stared at Zoe blankly—hardly a
surprise since she’d never laid eyes on her, Zoe thought wryly.
Subtlety in any form was obviously not something these cyborgs had a grasp of.
She hadn’t had the chance to explain anything. She hadn’t had the chance to prepare
herself. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
Bronte, after staring at her blankly for long enough Zoe had begun to wish she
could vanish, smiled. “Zoe!”
Zoe thought for several moments that she would faint. “You know me?” she
asked in a strained voice, dazed and confused.
Bronte’s chuckle was a little tense. “Did you think I wouldn’t recognize my own
sister?” she asked chidingly. “Sit down. You look tired. Did you have a difficult trip?”
Zoe dropped into the chair Bronte waved her toward, struggling with the bizarre
sense of unreality that had engulfed her.
Bronte turned her attention to Gideon while she was still trying to collect her wits.
“Gideon! He will smother in that thing!”
Gideon frowned, looking down at the bundle uncertainly. “It is wound too
tightly?”
Bronte held out her hands in demand and he moved closer, very carefully
adjusting his hold on the infant and holding it out to her. Taking the baby, she settled it
on the bed beside her and unwound the thin cover he’d been swaddled in. “Just as I
thought! He’s sweating, poor baby! Did you change his diaper?”
Gideon looked uncomfortable. “No,” he finally admitted.
Bronte looked displeased. “You said you’d check him.”
“I guess we interrupted,” Zoe interceded.
He flicked a grateful glance at her. “I had to answer the door.”
Bronte’s lips tightened as if she suspected it was only an excuse. “Just bring a
diaper. I’ll change him. I’m sure he needs changing.”
“I said that I would take care of it,” Gideon said, his voice stiff with affront. “I
only came to bring your sister.” Reaching down, he very carefully lifted the baby again,
cupping a hand under both ends.
The moment he lifted the baby to his chest it’s face turned a bright red. Expecting
the infant to start wailing when he turned red, Zoe was horrified at the revolting noise
that issued from the vicinity of his diaper.
Gideon looked a little green. “He has shi ….” He broke off when he met
Bronte’s gaze. “… made a nasty,” he corrected himself.
It took every ounce of self restraint Zoe had to keep from bursting into laughter.
“Good!” Bronte said forthrightly. “I was worried about his bowels.”
“You need not concern yourself,” Gideon responded. “I am certain he is empty
now.”
Zoe snorted, choked, and managed to regain control.
Bronte sent her a chiding look and struggled to sit up. “I’ll change him.”
“No! You are to rest. I will take care of it.” He strode to the door. “Gabriel!” he
bellowed.
“Gideon! Gabriel changed the last one.”
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Gideon hunched his shoulders and stalked down the hallway with the now
squalling infant.
Bronte and Zoe exchanged a look. Bronte covered her mouth. “Close the door,”
she ordered in a shaky voice, her eyes dancing with suppressed amusement.
Zoe glanced at Bronte and grinned when she’d closed the door.
Bronte uttered a choked laugh and grabbed the coverlet to stifle her laughter.
Zoe chuckled, as well, but sobered after a moment. “So that’s the terrible raider
who kidnapped you.”
Bronte’s laughter subsided. “Is that what brought you?” she asked tentatively.
Zoe returned to the chair she’d vacated but discovered she was too nervous to sit
still. “I thought I was coming to rescue you,” she admitted wryly. “You don’t want to be
rescued, though, do you?”
Bronte smiled at her warmly. “No—I adore my men, but I can’t tell you how
wonderful it makes me feel that you cared enough to take such risks to come to help me.”
Zoe blushed, smiling wryly. “It’s just as well you didn’t need to be rescued,” she
said flatly. “I fucked up the rescue attempt pretty royalty.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that!” Bronte said dismissively. “You must have come close
or you wouldn’t be here now.”
Zoe let it go. They both knew she’d been completely ineffectual, but it was a case
of all’s well that ends well since Bronte obviously didn’t want or need to be rescued.
“How did you know me?” she asked curiously. “I didn’t think you even knew I existed.”
“Oh, I knew,” Bronte said wryly. “My parents fought terribly over it—one of the
only times I can remember them fighting, but I had sneaked down to listen at the door
when I heard them yelling at each other so I knew the whole story. And, well, I did look
you up when I was older and could, but I never really had the nerve to try to introduce
myself to you. Anyway, you look a lot like father, you know.”
The information didn’t particularly please Zoe. “I’ve got his ungodly hair,” she
said dryly.
“I’ve got the red, too,” Bronte said.
“But it isn’t garish like mine.”
“Your hair isn’t garish!” Bronte disputed indignantly. “Who told you it was?”
Zoe shrugged. “My mirror.”
Bronte eyed her speculatively. “You just hate it because it’s like father’s,” she
said with unerring insight. “He wasn’t a bad man—really, he wasn’t. He was just ….”
“Self-centered.”
“I was going to say devoted to his work,” Bronte said. “But I guess he was pretty
self-centered, too.”
They fell silent. Bronte plucked at her coverlet nervously and finally looked at
Zoe. “I don’t suppose you’d be comfortable giving your big sister a hug?”
Zoe stared at her for a long moment, feeling a curious sense of lightness sweep
over her as if she’d dropped a heavy burden. She settled on the bed next to Bronte and
hugged her. “I thought I’d missed my chance to get to know you,” she murmured.
Bronte was misty eyed when she leaned away to look at Zoe. “Thanks to your
determination we didn’t miss the chance to be real sisters.” Bronte frowned at her
uneasily. “You know they won’t allow you to go back?”
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Zoe nodded. “Reuel made that very clear before he would agree to bring me.”
Bronte shivered. “Scary man.”
Zoe couldn’t help but agree, but she chuckled. “Gideon looked pretty daunting.”
Bronte beamed at her. Before she could say more, however, there was a tap on
the door. Both of them turned in time to see a dark haired man wearing a hospital mask
and gloves poke his head around the edge of the door.
Bronte started laughing. “Did me make you change Dillon’s diaper?”
The man looked confused for a moment before he apparently realized he was still
wearing his ‘hazmat’ suit. He snatched the mask and gloves off, grinning at her
sheepishly. “I did not mind,” he assured her, tossing the articles aside and striding across
the room.
Zoe scooted off the bed and out of the way as he approached, which she wryly
thought was just as well. He had eyes for no one but Bronte and went straight to her,
leaning down to kiss her thoroughly. “This is my darling Gabriel,” Bronte said in a
slightly unsteady voice when he released her and straightened. “Gabriel, my sister Zoe.”
Gabriel grinned at her, looked a little uncertain for a moment, and then abruptly
grabbed her in a bear hug for a moment before he released her.
“They are hungry,” he said as he turned to Bronte again. “I think. Gideon sent
me to ask.”
Bronte looked as if she’d been offered a treat. “Oh yes, bring them! I want them
to meet their Aunty Zoe!”
Zoe looked at Bronte when Gabriel had left. “Gorgeous!” she pronounced
waggling her brows.
“Don’t get ideas, sis!”
Zoe laughed. “It wouldn’t do me any good.” She frowned then. “I was told
you’d contracted with three?”
Bronte blushed. “Four, actually. Jerico and Caleb are on rotation. Gideon and
Gabriel get home duty right now. They really are delighted at being fathers.”
Zoe lifted her brows, but didn’t even attempt to question the remark since she
could hear a chorus of wails coming closer and growing louder. Gideon entered the room
carrying two, his face screwed up in a wince.
Bronte took one from him and bared her breast. As tiny as the baby was, he had
no difficulty finding the business end and clamping down it. Bronte winced faintly.
“Good jaws. I was worried about them being so tiny, but they’re not weak.”
“Good lungs, too,” Gideon remarked without a hint of a smile.
Gabriel brought up the rear with a third squalling infant and two bottles. He and
Gideon settled on the bed with Bronte and plugged the gaping holes in their son’s heads.
The silence was almost deafening.
Feeling more like an intruder than at any time since she’d arrived, Zoe studied the
two men and discovered that Bronte hadn’t merely been trying to convince herself that
her men were delighted with their babies. Both Gideon and Gabriel were studying the
faces of the infants they held with expressions that very clearly spoke of love.
“This is Blaide, Jerico’s son. You already met Gabriel’s son, Dillon. And
Gideon is holding his son, Corin.”
Realizing she’d been prompted to admire the babies, she got up and moved closer
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to peer at their tiny faces. She’d been fully prepared to lie through her teeth if necessary,
but she discovered that it wasn’t. “They’re beautiful, Bronte!”
All three parents rewarded her by beaming at her before they returned their
attention to admiring their off-spring. “It must have been … difficult for you.”
“Hideously miserable! I was so huge toward the last, but I was determined to
hang on as long as I could—worried, you know, about having them prematurely. Which,
as it turns out, I needn’t have been nearly as worried as I was. They all have their nanos
to protect them. I feel sure they would’ve been fine if they’d been a little early, but I still
have a hard time grasping how efficient the little nanos are.”
“They have nanos?” Zoe echoed in stunned surprise.
Bronte’s brows rose. “Of course! They’re half cyborg, you know. Actually, I
have my own now, so I suppose they might have gotten them from me. But I’ll tell you
that story later. We’ll have lots of time to talk and get to know each other. You’ll be
staying here with us, won’t you?”
Zoe shifted uncomfortably. “I’d hate to intrude. You have your hands full.”
Gideon surprised her. “You must stay with us. The barracks would be besieged
with suitors if you were to stay there. You will be safer here with your sister. Gabriel
and I will chase off the males you have no interest in.”
Zoe blushed to the roots of her hair. She couldn’t decide whether to laugh or
scoff at Gideon’s assessment. “I doubt it’ll come to that.”
“It would come to that if you were not beautiful,” Gideon said flatly. “Since you
are, there is liable to be riots.”
“He’s teasing, right?”
Bronte shrugged. “Yes and no. I’m sure they’ll keep order, but once they hear
….”
Zoe frowned. “But … I’m human. I didn’t think they liked humans.”
Gideon sent her a strange look. “We adore our Bronte,” he said simply.
“You’ve chosen an odd place to settle if you don’t like cyborgs,” Bronte said
coolly, all of the friendliness vanished from her face.
“I didn’t say that!” Zoe said defensively, adding uncomfortably. “I happen to be
very fond of one or two.”
Bronte exchanged a knowing look with her men. “That’s sound promising. We
should talk about it later, though. I know you have to be tired.” She settled the baby she
was holding on the bed beside her and reached for the infant Gideon was holding,
bringing him to her other breast. “Why don’t you show Zoe which room will be hers?
She’ll need everything, I’m sure.”
Zoe didn’t actually feel like resting, but she discovered after she’d showered that,
despite the nervous knot of energy that had been coiled inside of her since long before
she’d stepped inside Bronte’s house, she was tired. She lay down on the bed to think and
woke to darkness and a knock on her door.
The room lights winked on when she sat up in the bed and stared at the door,
momentarily disoriented by her surroundings.
“Dinner is ready,” said a male voice through the door.
She wasn’t sure if it was Gideon or Gabriel, but she got up and went to the door.
They were dining in Bronte’s room, she discovered. Bronte made a wry face when she
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came in. “The medtech said I was to have complete bed rest until the nanos had repaired
the damage and they’ve taken it very literally,” she explained irritably. “They haven’t let
me set so much as my big toe out of the bed since we got home from the med center. I
will be so glad to get back to our old routine!”
Gideon sent her a look that should have singed her eyebrows. “So will I.”
Bronte rewarded him with a look that made Zoe feel distinctly uncomfortable.
“I also,” Gabriel agreed cheerfully. “When do you think the infants will begin to
feed themselves, Bronte?”
Bronte bit her lip. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, sweety.”
“I do not mind the feeding,” Gideon said. “When will they talk instead of
screaming when they are displeased?”
Bronte chuckled. “You’ll be sorry when they’re no longer so sweet and
helpless.”
Gideon frowned. “I do not think so.”
By the end of the week, Zoe was inclined to agree with poor Gideon. She thought
it might not have been quite so bad if she’d in initiated into the care and feeding of
infants on a smaller scale—like one—at a distance—but staying in the house with three
was akin to torture for someone completely unaccustomed to the hours babies kept and
especially the way they communicated their needs. Inevitably, if one began to cry, all
three were soon wailing at the top of their lungs, and Gideon was right on the mark.
They had excellent lungs.
They had one saving grace. They were adorable—especially when they were
asleep. Bronte, Gideon, and Gabriel, it seemed to her, could be content to stare at their
sleeping faces for hours at the time, smiling.
It was the peace, she reflected, at first. After a while, she found herself doing the
same thing, completely fascinated by the faces they made in their sleep.
She was uncomfortable asking Bronte, especially when Bronte had gotten so
angry with her at just a hint that she might be prejudiced against the cyborgs, but her
curiosity finally got the better of her.
“Don’t take this the wrong way ….”
Bronte instantly tensed and Zoe knew she was going to get a tongue lashing if she
didn’t watch her step. “I know the cyborgs have evolved into sentient beings. I never
would’ve believed it if I hadn’t gotten to know them, but I certainly couldn’t dispute it
now.”
“But?”
“You said the babies were part cyborg?”
“They are.”
“How?”
Bronte looked angry, but after a moment she seemed almost to shrug. “I suppose
it would be more accurate to say they are a new race entirely. They aren’t exactly like
their fathers. Naturally, their skeletal structure is bones—not titanium alloy—and the
rest. But when they were created, they—the cyborgs—were created sort of like superhumans, I suppose. They have twice the DNA strands a ‘normal’ human does, which
makes them ‘not human’ but humanoid. Their babies have that, as well. And of course,
their own nanos, which is far, far better than a human immune system—which they also
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have.” She studied Zoe speculatively. “You thought I was only making it up to make
them feel like they had off-spring of their own?”
Zoe shrugged. “I figured they were—human. You are. Their fathers’ origins ….
It seemed … logical,” she finished, smiling faintly. She frowned after a moment. “I still
don’t see how you managed to have three by different men all at the same time. That
isn’t really possible, is it?”
“Actually, it is and it has happened—not with three. As far as I know there were
never but a few cases of such a thing happening, where women had produced two eggs in
one cycle and had sex with more than one male during the fertile period. I don’t think
that’s what happened with me.
“We crashed when we got here and I nearly died. The three of them—Gabriel,
Jerico, and Gideon—I didn’t meet Caleb till later—they slashed their wrists to force their
nanos into me. It was the only thing they could think of to do to save me—and it worked,
thankfully! The nanos ‘adopted’ me, repaired the damage. The only thing I can figure
out about it is that they were already keyed to their original owners’ DNA, and the
damage being in the vicinity of my left ovary, they ‘decided’ to tuck the DNA where it
would flourish.
“I’m just guessing, of course. I don’t actually know that much about the nanos
except that they are self-replicating—I have more now than they could possibly have
given me—and they repair anything that seems to need it.
“The babies’ nanos are different—actually my newer ones are. They borrow from
whatever materials are available when they replicate, so the new ones are organic. And
apparently they weren’t satisfied that the babies had only bones when their fathers
skeletal structure is so much stronger. They can’t turn bone into steel, but they’ve made
the babies’ bones harder and thicker and, therefore, considerably stronger.
“That’s a guess, too, by the way. I could be wrong. As I said, the babies have
twice the strands we do. I don’t even know what they’re all for.”
“Beyond creating beautiful men,” Zoe said, grinning.
Bronte chuckled, then uttered a heartfelt sigh. “They are, aren’t they?” She fell
silent for a few moments, eyeing Zoe speculatively. “Now, why don’t you tell me about
the ‘one or two’ you’ve met that you’re fond of?”
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Chapter Twenty Three
Damien released a long suffering sigh. Since it was the third in as many minutes,
and his patience was already stretched well beyond the breaking point, Kameron had to
struggle hard to refrain from knocking him unconscious. Instead, he glared at him. “If
you have something to say, I wish that you would say it!” he snarled.
Damien swiveled around in his seat and looked at him in surprise for a moment
before he frowned. It was more a perplexed frown than one of anger, though. “I have
been thinking.”
Kameron released a pent up breath of irritation and ground his teeth. “If it is the
same thing that you were thinking last shift and the one before that, and before that for
weeks, then I do not want to hear it again!”
Damien’s expression turned resentful. “Well I have not figured it out yet. I do
not know why it bothers you!”
Kameron sent him a deadly look. “Because I have nothing to look at beyond the
walls, the instruments, black space, and your face! And I am tired of that look of
gloom!”
Damien’s brows lifted in surprise. “It is gloom? You think that I am
melancholy?”
Kameron made a derisive sound.
Damien considered it. “I believe that is part of the curious thing!” he said after a
moment. “That is not just right, but it is close.”
“I do not care if it is close or not!” Kameron snarled.
Damien glared at him a moment and then his brow cleared. “Something is
missing!”
Kameron shot to his feet and began to prowl the length of the ship and back
again. “Of course something is missing! Zoe is missing!”
Damien thought that over. “She is not missing, precisely. She is on home world
by now. In fact, she has been there for weeks.”
“Did we not have this same exact conversation last week?” Kameron snapped
testily.
“It could not have been the exact conversation,” Damien said reasonably. “I had
not realized until now that it was a sense that something was missing and, in any case,
last week she would only have been gone a couple of weeks, or perhaps two weeks and I
would have said that.”
Kameron speared his hands in his hair and tugged on it. “That is what you did
say.”
“Well, then it was not the exact same thing!”
Kameron clenched and unclenched his hands a few times and finally plopped into
his seat again.
“What do you suppose I am missing?”
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Kameron leapt from his seat and grabbed Damien around the throat. Stunned,
Damien was slow to react. As his complexion began to turn purple, however, he
recovered his wits sufficiently to drive his fist into Kameron’s solar plexus hard enough
to lift him from the floor. Kameron’s grip did not lessen by much, but the second blow to
the jaw knocked him loose.
Damien leapt from his seat just as Kameron launched himself toward him again.
The collision was enough to pitch Damien backwards. As he hit the floor in a skidding
slide with Kameron on top of him, though, he was able to get his knees up between them
and used his legs to propel Kameron’s weight upward and off. Kameron landed flat of
his back on the floor behind Damien, kicking over the dining table in the main cabin as
he went down.
Rolling the moment Kameron went air borne, Damien scrambled to his feet,
kneeing Kameron in the back as he sat up. Grunting, Kameron reached up, grabbed
Damien’s arm and jerked down on it, pulling him off balance so that he rolled over
Kameron’s shoulder in a forward flip and landed on his back again.
They’d cleared the narrow hall that connected the bridge to the main cabin by that
time, however, which allowed Damien room to roll away as Kameron dove for him. That
time Kameron landed flat of his belly on the floor. Taking instant advantage, Damien
straddled his back, grabbed a handful hair and slammed Kameron’s face into the floor a
few times before Kameron managed to kick backwards far enough to kick him the back
of the head.
As Damien pitched forward, Kameron slammed his elbow back, catching him in
the ribs hard enough to knock the breath from him and hurl him sideways onto the floor.
They grappled with one another for several moments, rolling back and forth as they hit
first one wall and then the other.
They’d just managed to get enough distance between them to put some power
behind their fists when a chime sounded in the bridge that made both of them freeze.
They listened intently.
“It is the news dispatch from home!” Damien said. Instantly diverted, he pushed
past Kameron, strode to his console, and settled in his seat.
Climbing to his feet, Kameron glared at him for several moments, finally heaved
an irritated breath, and stalked back to his own seat.
“Would you like for me to read it to you?”
“NO!” Kameron said sullenly. “I will read it when you are done.”
Damien shrugged. “I am in no hurry. If you like, you may read it first.”
Propping one arm on the console, Kameron dropped his chin into his hand and
began to drum the fingers of his other hand on the hard surface. “I am also in no hurry.
There is not another fucking thing to look forward to. I will wait.”
“This is interesting,” Damien said presently.
“If you tell me before I have read it I will knock your fucking teeth down your
throat!”
Damien shrugged. “I will not tell you it is about Zoe then.”
Kameron shot to his feet, grabbed Damien’s shoulders, and shoved him out of his
seat, planting his ass firmly in the vacated seat and gripping the console to prevent
Damien from reciprocating. After shoving at him a couple of times, Damien gave up and
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merely leaned over his shoulder.
“You are breathing on my neck,” Kameron growled.
Damien ignored the complaint, pointing with his index finger to the position on
the display where he had seen mention of Zoe’s name. “Zoe has petitioned to become a
citizen and has been accepted.”
Kameron scanned the news and ground his teeth. “There was never any doubt.
Reuel sponsored her as did Dr. Bronte, her sister. Even if she had not had them as
sponsors, the council would not have dared do anything but make her a full citizen. The
unattached males would have been furious with anything less, for then she would not
have been required to select males for her household.”
Silenced reigned for several minutes. Kameron frowned. “How old is this news?”
Damien glanced at him. “It has just come.”
Kameron’s lips flattened in irritation. “But was it delayed?”
Damien tapped the date at the bottom of the display. “No. It is only two days
old.”
Kameron scanned his memory for the date and verified that Damien was correct.
“I would have thought she would have gone before the council weeks ago,” he said
slowly.
“It is there,” Damien said helpfully, tapping the lower section of the article. “Her
sister requested the delay. She was not allowed to venture out because of the births—she
is human, you know. She wanted to attend and so it was delayed until she was recovered
enough her men thought her well enough for such an occasion.”
“It says that?”
Damien shrugged. “No. It says only that the men of her sister’s household
requested the delay until their lady was better.”
Kameron snorted, abandoning Damien’s seat and returning to his own. “Her
sister is not very much like Zoe or she would not have allowed her men to tell her when
she could attend.”
Damien thought that over. “You think, mayhap, that Zoe requested the delay?”
“To what purpose?” Kameron demanded sharply.
The hopefulness in Damien’s eyes flickered and went out. “I was only thinking
she might have delayed because she wanted us to court her.”
“We are not there, are we?” Kameron snarled, surging to his feet to pace the
length of the ship as restlessly as he had before. He discovered Damien was glaring at
him accusingly when he made the return trip.
“It is not impossible,” Damien growled. “I am certain she was coming around to
the idea near the end.”
“You will make yourself insane if you persist in that train of thought. She will
have chosen long before we return.”
“It is only two weeks more!” Damien snapped. “If she has waited this long, I do
not see that there is no possibility that I am right!”
“You will make me insane if you persist. It says very clearly that the delay was
because of her sister’s infirmity! I can not fathom how you could arrive at the
assumption that she is waiting for us from that!” Kameron said angrily.
Damien studied him in fuming silence for several moments until another thought
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occurred to him. “If we could not convince her in nigh a month, I do not see how anyone
there will do so in less than two weeks. We have nearly four weeks more practice than
they have! It will give us an advantage!”
“Over the hunters?” Kameron snarled. “First you insist that she has not obtained
citizenship because she was waiting upon our return, and now it is ‘she is not’ but we will
have an advantage because we spent weeks trying to convince her and could not!”
“How do you know we did not? We did not ask her! She liked the flowers I
gathered for her when I was running from the mercenaries!”
“That is why she wept when you gave them to her!”
Damien’s expression turned mulish. “She cuddled me and she allowed me to
fuck her the next morning when I had recovered enough to do so!” A strange expression
crossed his face. “That is what is missing!”
Kameron glared at him. “The fucking? It has taken you this long to figure out
why your balls feel like they will explode?”
Damien narrowed his eyes at him. “It did not take half long to figure that out!” he
snapped. “It is Zoe I miss! That is why I am melancholy.”
Kameron dropped into his seat, scrubbing his hands over his face. “I do not want
to discuss it. I do not want to think about it.”
“I do not know how you can not think about it!” Damien said tightly. “I can not
think of much else.”
“Try!” Kameron snarled.
Damien fell silent. It didn’t last long. “When we return, I will go to the house of
her sister, and I will ask Zoe to contract with me,” he said decisively. “If she has not
already fully contracted.”
Kameron narrowed his eyes at his companion. “You are not going to the house of
her sister without me! If she has not fully contracted, we will both go.”
****
“I do not know why you did not ask her when she brought it up,” Kyle growled
angrily.
“She did not bring it up,” Gavin snarled.
“She asked why we wanted to give her pleasure. That was the time to ask her.
Do not tell me you did not know that was what I was urging you to do!”
“I did not ask her because it seemed damned poor timing when we had only just
managed to coax her into allowing us to fuck that once. And Kameron had said we must
convince her before we asked. Why did you not ask yourself?” Gavin demanded.
“You are better at such things than I. You have courted before!”
Gavin glared at him. “I am not contracted!” he said testily. “If I was good at it
do you not think I would have a woman?”
Kyle stared at him. “You said that you had decided that you did not want the
woman,” he said accusingly.
“I did.”
“Then that does not count.”
“Of course it counts!” Gavin snapped. “She did not want me either! She had her
eye set upon a hunter named Pierce.”
Kyle studied him curiously. “Did you decide you did not want her before she
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decided she wanted the hunter or after she decided she wanted the hunter?”
Gavin shrugged. “Before. She was a hunter, as well, and I recalled that she had
nearly taken my head off when we were on Cloe’s Moon. I know we have all taken oath
to put such things in the past where they belong, but I could not look at her after the
memory came back without also recalling the look in her eyes. I thought I would have
difficulty fucking her if that memory were to surface at an inopportune moment and I can
not breed if I can not fuck!”
Kyle considered that in thoughtful silence. “You could have fucked her from the
back.”
“Do you not think that she would begin to wonder why I always wanted her not to
look at me when I fucked her?” Gavin demanded testily. “In any case, I could not
conceive of developing affection for her. That is supposed to be an integral part of the
family unit. It says so in the manual.”
“I am not at all certain I understand this affection thing,” Kyle said thoughtfully.
“Is one supposed to feel it before, during, or after the fucking?”
Gavin frowned. “I am not at all certain it has to do with the fucking.”
Kyle was aghast. “How could it not? Breeding is the most important part of the
family unit, else it is not truly a family, and fucking is most certainly the most enjoyable
part!”
“You are supposed to feel affection for off-spring!”
“Oh! I had not thought of that. Mayhap there is more than one kind of
affection?”
“I do not know why you are asking me!” Gavin snapped impatiently. “I am
certain I do not know. And I wish that you would stop talking about fucking! I am
miserable enough without having you harping upon it constantly!”
Kyle swiveled his seat to stare at Gavin, his eyes widening. “You also?”
Gavin turned from his console and fixed Kyle with a brooding look of violence.
A look of uneasiness flickered across Kyle’s face and then a thoughtful frown.
“You are angry?” he guessed.
“You are observant!” Gavin growled.
Kyle stared at him blankly for a moment before a smile lit his features. “That is a
very nice compliment, particularly when it is true because I am certain I am observant
also!”
Gavin studied him suspiciously for a moment and finally turned away to stare
morosely at his instrument panel again.
“For instance, I have noticed you massage your balls whenever I talk about sex. I
had not connected the action with ‘miserable’, but now that you mention it I see there is
definitely a correlation. I am not entirely certain why there would be a connection, I
confess. When I talk about it, very pleasant images fill my mind that I enjoy. It seems to
me that it would be the same for you, but undoubtedly this is a part of evolution of
individuality. What I find pleasant and enjoyable may not be so for you and vice versa.”
Gavin hunched his shoulders and began to drum his fingers on his console
impatiently. “You said ‘you also’,” Gavin growled. “Does that not mean that you are
also miserable?”
“Not from talking about fucking. I am miserable because Zoe is not here and I
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can not fuck her.”
“It is the same thing!”
“It is not! There is fucking in general and there is fucking Zoe.”
“I was thinking about Zoe!” Gavin snarled.
“Oh. You did not say that!”
“She is our woman! Why would I be thinking about another?” Gavin bellowed,
surging up from his seat to pace restlessly along the corridor between the bridge and the
main cabin.
“Where are you going?” Kyle asked curiously.
“I am not going anywhere, damn it! I am pacing!”
“I do not see the point in that.”
“Because there is no point?”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“To keep from killing you!” Gavin retorted, balling his hands into fists and
slamming them into the bulkhead.
Kyle studied him uneasily. “Why would you want to do that?”
Gavin stopped pacing and studied him through narrowed eyes. “I do not know
but each time you begin to talk I have images in my mind of wrapping my fingers around
your throat and squeezing until your eyes pop from you head!”
Kyle frowned. “Do you think that would happen? I do not see it myself.
Mayhap my tongue ….”
Gavin uttered a low growl and began to pace again, more rapidly.
“What did you mean by ‘she is our woman’?” Kyle asked after watching him for
several moments. “She is not our woman … unless?”
“Do not look so hopeful! I did not ask her!”
Kyle’s expression was indignant. “Then why would you say she is our woman!”
“Because I feel that she is my woman!” Gavin bellowed.
Kyle’s jaw jutted belligerently. “Now you are saying she is your woman! She is
certainly my woman also if she is your woman, if you are thinking that she is your
woman because you fucked her, because I also fucked her!”
“I did not say she was not your woman!” Gavin growled. “I only said that I felt
as if she was my woman because I do not know how you feel, only the way that I feel!”
“Well I also feel as if she is my woman!” Kyle shot back at him. “Unless you
think she is not my woman because I fucked her in the ass and not the pussy! Because I
will tell you now I still feel that I should have gotten the pussy and I would have if you
had not been underhanded and elbowed me in the ribs!”
“It was not underhanded! She has only one pussy! There was no other way to
divide her. It was purely luck of the draw!”
“It was not chance!” Kyle said angrily. “You knocked the breath out of me and
then took the position that I intended to take!”
Gavin stopped, plunking his hands on his hips and glaring at him. “You are not
going to sit there and tell me you did not enjoy it!”
“No, I am not!” Kyle growled. “But that does not change the fact that there was
no luck involved and it also does not change the fact that I could not breed her from
there! I am the only one who did not get the chance to breed her at all and you had two
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chances!” He thought that over. “Everyone had two chances except me!”
“You are not blaming that on me!” Gavin snarled, outraged. “If you were left out,
it is your fault!”
Kyle jolted to his feet and punched Gavin in the mouth.
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Chapter Twenty Four
Zoe felt vaguely ill as she watched Gideon and Gabriel examining the box of
chocolates with frowning intensity. She didn’t see how they could still eat them after all
the chocolates they’d already eaten in the past couple of weeks. Even the thought of it
made her feel nauseous.
The place reeked of candy.
And flowers.
She didn’t think she would ever be able to enjoy chocolates or flowers again!
Not that it actually was chocolate—not real chocolate, anyway. As a synthetic,
however, it was amazingly close.
“Feeling queasy again?” Bronte asked sympathetically.
Still, Zoe thought, but managed a weak smile. “Not really,” she lied.
“You really shouldn’t eat all of Zoe’s chocolates,” Bronte said chidingly.
Gideon and Gabriel sent her a guilty look before glancing at Zoe. “She said she
did not want them,” Gideon responded.
“No! I don’t mind a bit.” She just didn’t want to watch them.
As if reading her mind, Bronte shooed them out. Shrugging, they each grabbed a
box and wandered upstairs to stare at the babies.
“I can’t help but notice you really don’t seem to be enjoying the courting,” Bronte
said tentatively.
“It’s that obvious, huh?” Zoe said tiredly.
Bronte frowned. “Well … I admit I hadn’t expected it to be quite so
overwhelming when I suggested it.” She shrugged. “I’d already contracted with my men
when I got here, so I hadn’t actually experienced the full scale of ‘unattached female’
courtship. My courtship took place on the ship over, which severely hampered their
efforts, besides limiting the number of males who could court me. Not that I didn’t
thoroughly enjoy myself, mind you!” she ended with a nostalgic smile and then giggled
like a young girl. “They were so … but never mind that, we were discussing you.”
A mixture of irritation and doubt flickered over Zoe’s face. “Actually, we
weren’t.”
“Well, I meant to,” Bronte corrected herself.
“Well, I don’t especially want to!” Zoe retorted.
“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you. Haven’t you met any you feel a
special sort of … magic with?”
“Since all this started? No,” Zoe said forthrightly. “I can’t even remember their
names or faces.”
Bronte hid a smile. “What about before all this started?” she asked innocently.
Zoe wasn’t fooled. She glared at her sister.
It occurred to her abruptly how strange it was that she felt so completely
comfortable with her sister when they hadn’t actually known each for long at all. She
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enjoyed the closeness—mostly. It was like having a best friend that you could tell
anything to and know they would never be judgmental, whatever it was. At least, it was
like she’d always imagined it would be like to have a best friend. She’d never actually
had one she felt nearly as close to.
And there were still things she didn’t particularly want to share, mostly because
she was thoroughly confused about the way she felt.
“You said you were fond of the guys that rescued you,” she prompted.
“Kidnapped me and blew up my ship—which wasn’t paid for—you mean!” Zoe
retorted.
Bronte made a rude noise. “They didn’t kidnap you, and you know it. What were
their names again?”
“Kameron and Damien.”
“You said they were blond, right?”
“That was Gavin and Kyle.”
“Oh, yeah! I can’t keep them straight.”
“Right!”
“Why don’t you just admit you’ve already set your heart on them and be done
with it?”
“Because I don’t know that I have,” Zoe said shortly. “All I said was they were
drop dead gorgeous—sweet—funny—mostly when they weren’t trying to be—and real
pains in the ass about bossing me around and trying to ‘protect’ me!” She brooded over
it for several moments. “Except for Kameron who stayed busy trying to ‘lose’ me!”
“I know it isn’t my business, but I really think you should settle on them,
especially since one of them obviously got you pregnant!”
Zoe sent her a startled look. She didn’t know how Bronte had figured that out
when she’d only just come to the conclusion she must be pregnant herself. “Puhlease!”
she snapped, irritated. “You are not that archaic!”
Bronte frowned and then shrugged. “No, I’m not, but this is a special situation,
Zoe. You just don’t realize how … important it is to them. I know back on Earth saying
‘pregnant’ was like the starting gun of a hundred meter race and the men tried to see just
how far, and how fast, they could run the other way, but it’s different for the cyborgs. I
don’t know if it’s because it’s something they never expected to have, or if it’s just
something special about them, but they yearn for a home and off-spring! They would be
devastated to know one of them had fathered your child and you’d chosen to contract
with someone else.”
Zoe sent her a skeptical look, but refrained from comment.
Bronte frowned. “Ok, so admittedly, they find it almost as terrifying as thrilling.
It’s very disconcerting and nerve wracking for them to deal with the frailty of infants, but
you have to admit they’re patient and loving and completely willing to learn parenting.”
Zoe relented. “They adore the babies. I wasn’t arguing that, but your men adore
you. If you asked them to walk through fire they would. My situation isn’t the same at
all. I am fond of them … alright! Very fond!” she admitted at the look Bronte sent her.
“But I damned sure didn’t see any sign that they were fond of me—beyond being fond of
fucking me! They were real enthusiastic about that!”
Bronte chuckled. “I don’t think they were the only ones enthusiastic about it if
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you were only with them a few weeks and managed to get knocked up!” she said dryly.
Zoe grinned. “Did I say I wasn’t? I never said that!” She sobered. “Maybe it’s
because my mother loved your father and he never loved her back, but I don’t want to
contract with somebody—or several—who don’t care anything about me. I could love
them very easily. They are so loveable! But I keep thinking it would be worse to have to
live with somebody day in and day out and love them desperately and not get anything in
return!”
Bronte looked uncomfortable. “You aren’t your mother and they aren’t my
father, and I think you’re shortchanging them. They picked you, didn’t they, to bestow
all their ardor upon, their feeble attempts at courtship, and all of their attention?”
“That’s just the point!” Zoe snapped, surging up from her seat on the couch and
pacing to the window. “They didn’t pick me at all! I fell in their lap and they didn’t
have a woman and they decided I’d do. They didn’t have choices. If they had, they
wouldn’t have picked me at all!”
“Exactly how do you think your situation differs from mine?” Bronte demanded
tightly.
Zoe sent her a startled look, then frowned. “It is different! They picked you to
kidnap.”
“They took me because daddy was dead and they’d been sent to extract a
pediatrician—and I was handy! Then they decided since the opportunity had fallen in
their lap that they’d contract with me. Maybe it sounds like they didn’t have a choice
except me or nothing—like you think it was with you, but you’re wrong. It wasn’t me or
nothing anymore than it was you or nothing. It’s true there’s a severe shortage of
available women here—that’s the reason for the law—a woman must chose no less that
two, no more than four. But there are still plenty of women here who have only two!
There are even a couple who have only one—more who have three and could take
another.
“They might have limited choices, but they do have choices—and they can chose
not to have a female at all if they don’t find one that appeals to them—not their favorite
choice but there wouldn’t be as many unattached males as there are except that they have
chosen to remain unattached until they find a female they want.”
She shrugged. “It’s my opinion, right or not, that the males of the household
figure into it as much as the female. They want to feel a ‘family’ unit bond with the other
males, as well, a brotherhood, if you will, with each other. Believe me, there are a few
households where the males don’t feel that connection and they are more like—
battlegrounds than family units.
“Your men already share a bond—like mine, or three of mine anyway—they were
originally a part of a squad, they feel almost like brothers except the bond is stronger than
that, and they feel comfortable with the idea of sharing you.”
Zoe turned from the window to favor Bronte with a skeptical gaze. “I suppose
that’s why they stay busy pounding on one another?”
Bronte waved a dismissive hand. “They’re cyborgs—men—overgrown children
in a lot of ways. If they really wanted to kill one another, they could. The
aggressiveness is natural to males anyway, and compound that with the fact that they
were designed to be killing machines—clashes are inevitable. They rarely hold a grudge
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afterward. It’s mostly just their way of dealing with emotions they haven’t learned to
deal with. My men rarely brawl anymore. They know I don’t like it when they hurt one
another, and they aren’t as aggressive since they know I love them. I think a lot of it was
just … fear that they wouldn’t be accepted and anxiety because they didn’t know how to
go about winning acceptance and love.
“Yours were probably just taking out their frustrations on one another.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “They aren’t my men! They didn’t ask me to contract with
them. They didn’t even hint at it! In fact, I don’t think they ever stopped looking at me
as ‘the enemy’!”
“Well!” Bronte said briskly. “They’ll have to get over it! You picked them, and
that’s the way it works around here! And one of them got you pregnant—you could find
out which one, but you don’t want to break up the set anyway, so I don’t see that that
matters. You love them. They obviously adore you or they wouldn’t have been trying to
kill each other just to get your attention. They are incredibly dense, or they would
already have asked you to contract—or maybe just shy, afraid you’ll turn them down—
and they’re obviously even worse at courting than my men were—which is saying
something—so we’ll just have to take matters into our own hands and settle it.
“I don’t think you can take much more courting! And I’m sure I can’t. The smell
of chocolates and flowers is starting to make me ill! Honest to god somebody needs to
update their courting list!”
Zoe smiled tremulously. “Damien brought me flowers,” she said wistfully. “I
felt like beating him over the head with them because the dumb ass nearly got his ass shot
off gathering them.”
Bronte stared at her in fascination for a moment and finally chuckled. “Oh!
That’s a wonderful memory for you!”
“And Kameron very thoughtfully removed the rotting body parts for me so they
wouldn’t ‘alarm’ me when I went to search the wreckage for something useful.”
“Ugh! But that was certainly very thoughtful! What did Gavin and Kyle do for
you?”
Zoe reddened to the roots of her hair.
Bronte held up her hand. “Don’t tell … Wait! Do! It must have been something
especially naughty and fun!”
Zoe cleared her throat. “It was.”
“Oooh!” Bronte exclaimed, shivering. “Both at once? No! Let’s not talk about
that. I can’t have sex for at least another couple of weeks. What else?”
Zoe shrugged. “It wasn’t as if we were in a situation where they actually could
court in the ‘normal’ sort of way. Kyle found me a book to read. Honestly, it was almost
as bad as the flowers. It was broken. I could only read half.”
“Which half?”
“The ending.”
“Oh well, that’s better than only getting the first half.”
“It wasn’t really the things, you know?”
“It was the way they made you feel? Like you were the most beautiful woman in
the world, the sexiest—the center of their universe?”
Zoe nodded, then sighed. “Kameron told me I was beautiful, and just the way he
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said it, the way he looked at me when he said, I believed him.”
“Because you are, and he meant it. He wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t meant it.
Oooh! I can’t wait to meet them! Now,” she added matter-of-factly, “we need to
formulate our plans. When are they due back?”
“Next week—I think.”
Bronte grinned at her. “Think or know?”
Zoe reddened. “Know. I asked Reuel.”
Bronte frowned thoughtfully. “Well, that doesn’t give us much time, but we’ll
make do. I really think you should pick the estate next to ours. It’s available and it
would be nice to live close enough to visit often—and, of course, we’ll want our children
to get the opportunity to grow up together. There’s no house, of course, but the four of
them—plus my men—could build one very quickly. They’re amazingly efficient!
“I think, in the meantime, we’ll need to arrange for a rental in the city. I’d love to
have you here, but three babies just aren’t going to be conducive to newly contracted
partners!”
Zoe held up her hand. “I’m flat broke! I only the have clothes I arrived in and I
don’t have a job! I don’t even know what I could do here that would be useful. I’m a
detective. They wouldn’t happen to have any use for one, would they?”
Bronte waved that away. “You’ve got plenty of time. You’re a new citizen and a
desirable one. You’re entitled to the land. Your men can handle the expense of the
house and we will furnish the rental as a contractual gift. Until you have time to find
your niche, you can help me with my practice.”
“I’m not a doctor!”
“You don’t need to be. There isn’t actually much call for one. Mostly, I teach
parenting classes.”
“I don’t know anything about parenting either,” Zoe said dryly.
“You know more than they do, poor things! At least you have your own
childhood to draw from—which is something they don’t have—and I’ll be there. There’s
no time like the present to learn yourself!”
That seemed inarguable—and scary. She wasn’t even absolutely certain she was
pregnant. She thought she was, but that wasn’t the same as knowing.
“We’ll go into the city tomorrow and look around for a comfortable domicile for
you and your men until they can build the new house, and then we’ll go and see about
getting the contracts drawn up.”
Zoe stared at her. “Wait! We skipped a seriously important part! They haven’t
asked me.”
“Well! We can’t be bothered with waiting for them to get around to it, Zoe!
We’ll make the arrangements. What are they going to say?”
“No?”
“No, they won’t! They’ll be good little cyborgs and sign the dotted line! My
nephew—or niece—will have their fathers!”
****
Kameron’s expression was grim as he watched Gavin and Kyle stride down the
gangway to the tarmac where he and Damien waited. They both looked as grim faced
and pale as he felt, which made him wonder if they knew something he did not.
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Gavin flicked an uneasy glance at the four grim faced men ranged behind Damien
and Kameron. Dressed in formal military attire—the regulation jumpsuit—they stood
stiffly at attention. They’d dressed in their own flight suits when they’d received the
orders to appear in the council chambers as soon as they had returned. It only added to
his discomfort. “We are under guard?” he muttered in a low voice he hoped would not
carry to the guards.
Kameron shrugged. “Apparently so. You do not know what this is about?”
“I thought you would.”
“I was only told that we were to report to the council chambers when we arrived,”
Kameron returned grimly.
“We were given the same orders—and nothing more,” Kyle said uneasily. “You
are certain you do not know why?”
Kameron shrugged. “I think we must assume that we are to be debriefed
regarding the incident, but I do not know why they would wait until we had finished
rotation to do so if they are considering charges.”
They turned as they heard the guards approach and fell into formation, four
abreast. The guards did likewise, marching directly behind them.
“They have said something and they have gotten us all into trouble,” Damien said
angrily.
Gavin, who had fallen into step next to Kameron, slid a brief glare in his
direction. “We have said nothing!” he growled. “We have not seen anyone since we
returned to post!”
“If they did not know we had done anything to be concerned about, they will if
you two keep it up!” Kameron snapped.
“I am only saying it is not our fault if anything was done that should not have
been done!” Damien muttered.
“Mayhap it was something not done!” Kyle put in.
The comment produced silence where Damien’s accusation had not while the four
pondered the incident and tried to decide if there was anything readily apparent about the
situation when Reuel had arrived. Nothing came to mind. They were well aware that
they had not repaired the Omega as quickly as they could have, but they were equally
certain that it could not have been obvious that they had not. They had had to scavenge
parts. Reuel, they were certain, could not possibly have assessed how long that should
have taken them any more than he could have known the extent of the damage they had
had to deal with.
Expecting an investigation, it was no great surprise to discover that Reuel was in
attendance when they arrived at the council’s chambers and were escorted in. What was
a shock was that there were no other council members present, but Zoe was, as was
another woman who looked remarkably similar to her.
Dumbfounded, the four came to a halt inside the door and exchanged questioning
looks.
Their escorts, they discovered, had followed them inside. The four ‘guards’
moved to the woman they didn’t know and ranged themselves behind her.
The stranger looked them over critically and turned to Zoe. “Are these the men
who knocked you up?”
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Zoe’s face turned as red as fire. She sent them an apologetic look. She cleared
her throat and nodded.
Kameron, feeling distinctly uneasy, looked at the others.
“What’s knocked up?” Kyle asked in a loud whisper.
“Well?” Reuel asked. “Do you have anything to say for yourselves?”
Kameron swallowed a little convulsively. “I am not certain what the question is,
sir.”
Reuel’s expression hardened. “Are you or are you not responsible for this young
woman’s condition?”
Conscience stricken, Kameron stared at Zoe uneasily, feeling the blood flood his
face until it was pulsing uncomfortably and then wash away until he felt dizzy. He could
not see that there was anything at all wrong with her, however, and wrack his brain
though he might he could not think of anything he might have done to cause her to have a
condition. He looked at the others for help, but Gavin, Damien, and Kyle looked as
horrified and confused as he was.
“Well, soldiers?” Reuel barked.
Kameron shifted uneasily, trying to formulate some answer, any answer.
Reuel nodded his head ever so slightly.
Realizing that was his cue to accept responsibility, Kameron nodded.
“A verbal response for the record—from all of you!”
“Yes, sir!” they all said on command almost in unison.
Zoe looked like she wanted to sink through the floor. She covered her face with
her hands.
“Good!” Reuel said, rising and shoving a tablet in their direction. “Sign on the
dotted line. Dr. Bronte, you’ll witness?”
Zoe’s sister? Kameron thought blankly. Witness what?
Moving stiffly to the table, he stared down at the tablet, trying to focus enough to
read it. A wave of dizziness washed over him as he read the first few lines. Certain he
had read wrong, he read it again and then looked around the room in confusion.
“It is a contract for cohabitation.”
“Of course,” Reuel said, grinning now. “What did you think it was?”
A prison sentence?
He glanced at Gavin. “It is a contract for cohabitation.”
Gavin blinked at him and snatched the tablet from Kameron’s lax grip. He looked
up after a moment and directly at Zoe. “You are contracting with us?” he asked, a wide
grin on his lips.
“Let me see that!” Damien demanded, making a grab for it. Kyle beat him to it.
Gavin glared at him. “I have not signed yet!”
“I was first!” Kameron growled.
“Gentlemen!” Dr. Bronte said chidingly. “Ladies first! You do want to be sure
she’s willing to sign with you, don’t you?”
Kameron snatched the tablet from Kyle and set it down in front of Zoe, crouching
beside her. “You will sign?” he asked anxiously.
She sent him an uncomfortable look. “You want me to?”
His gaze flickered over her face. “Yes.”
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Chapter Twenty Five
Bronte stood up. “I think we should give them a few minutes together to settle
everything,” she said briskly. Flicking a smiling glance over her shoulder at her men, she
moved regally toward the door. Caleb surged forward to offer his arm for support.
Gideon, Gabriel, and Jerico bent down to retrieve the baskets at their feet and followed
Caleb and Bronte.
Zoe was peripherally aware of the exodus toward the door, which included Reuel.
She was grateful to be free of an audience. At the same time, she was distinctly uneasy
about being left alone with ‘her’ men.
She didn’t know why she’d allowed Bronte to talk her in to this! Actually, she
thought with a good bit of resentment, Bronte had bulldozed her into it! She hadn’t been
comfortable with the idea any of the time.
Kameron pulled her chair away from the table and turned it to face outward—
him, Gavin, Damien, and Kyle. She tried not to look as uncomfortable as she felt as the
four of them knelt around her. “Reuel was joking,” she burst out. “Well, not exactly
joking, but he didn’t intend to put you guys on the spot. He thought you wanted to … to
contract with me. God knows where he got the idea! I swear I didn’t tell him …. Unless
Bronte did.” She frowned. “But if she did, it wasn’t because I told, because I didn’t!”
She glanced from one face to the next to see how they’d taken that. All she saw
was confusion. She supposed she’d been babbling. Maybe she should try to explain it
again?
Kameron’s dark brows collided over his nose. “You do not want to contract with
us?” he asked slowly.
“Oh no! I mean, yes! That is, I do if you want to! Do you want to?”
The four men exchanged looks, which she found impossible to interpret.
“I was just saying you didn’t have to if you don’t want to. I’ll understand.”
They still looked bemused. She finally decided it wasn’t her babbling. They
were still in a state of shock, poor babies. She’d wanted to sink through the floor when
she first saw their faces. She could tell they thought they were in trouble. Obviously,
they were having a hard time accepting that they actually weren’t and that this was
Bronte’s stupid idea of romance!
Kameron seemed to shake his confusion. He lifted a hand to her cheek, caressing
it lightly. “I have missed you. Will you contract with me?”
Zoe felt her anxiety drain away. She smiled at him mistily and threw her arms
around his neck. “Yes! I’ve missed you, too! You’re certain?” she asked, searching his
eyes as she pulled away again.
He grinned at her, chuckling shakily. “I am very, very certain.”
She turned to look at Gavin questioningly since he was directly beside Kameron.
He smiled at her almost shyly and opened his mouth.
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“If you will have me also, I will be very honored and very happy!” Damien said
quickly.
Gavin clamped his lips together and turned to glare at Damien. Pretending not to
notice, Zoe cupped his face in her hands and kissed him lightly on the lips. “I would love
sign with you!”
She returned her attention to Gavin. He gave her a reluctant grin and started to
speak again.
“I am your man if you will have me, Zoe!” Kyle said quickly, shoving at Gavin’s
shoulder and edging in front of him. “Say you will contract with me!”
She leaned toward him to kiss him lightly on the lips as she had Damien. “Yes,
Kyle!”
Gavin was regarding the others sullenly when she pulled away from Kyle.
Shoving Kyle out of the way, he grabbed her and kissed her soundly on the mouth. “You
are already my woman in my heart and mind! I will despair and go into a decline if you
tell me no!”
Zoe chuckled. She was on the point of asking him where he’d read such a pretty
speech but decided against it when she saw that, despite his flamboyant delivery there
was anxiousness in his eyes. She uttered a heartfelt sigh. “That was so romantic! Yes!”
She noticed Kameron and Damien were glaring at Gavin when she settled back in
her chair.
“What is knocked up?”
She turned quickly to look at Kyle’s confused face.
“This is the condition Reuel spoke of?” Kameron asked worriedly. “It is nothing
bad?”
Zoe covered her mouth with her hand. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
She’d half feared they’d asked because she was pregnant, and they hadn’t even figured
out that was what they were being accused of! She supposed this didn’t count as a
shotgun joining if they had no idea that was what it was.
Abruptly anxious that they might not consider that good news, she looked at them
uncomfortably. “It means I’m going to have a baby.”
Stunned most nearly described their expressions. Even as she began to feel very
unhappy about it, though, she saw a beginning gleam of excitement in Kameron’s eyes,
Damien’s, Gavin’s—Excitement flickered over Kyle’s face and then disappointment. “It
is not mine,” he said unhappily.
It took her a moment to figure out why he would say such a thing, and then,
abruptly, she remembered. She bit her lip. He looked so disappointed it made Zoe ache,
made her long to promise him she would have a baby just for him.
It gave her a jolt to realize the thought was heartfelt, real—not just a fabrication
she’d thought up to make him feel better. She’d never thought about having children at
all! She’d always put her career first, considered it the focal point of her life.
Now she was not only pregnant, but thinking about ‘future’ babies?
She must have lost her mind!
She couldn’t resist hugging him, though. “It’s our baby,” she murmured, kissing
his cheek before she pulled away to look at him.
She was relieved to see that, although he still looked forlorn, he managed to smile
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at her. He glanced at the others. “We are having a baby!”
They grinned at one another for about five seconds.
“Fuck!” Kameron said abruptly. “We do not even have a domicile for our family!
How long does it take to make one?”
Zoe blinked at him. “Uh … A house?”
He frowned. “A baby.”
“Uh … I’ll have to ask Bronte.”
They didn’t seem to think it strange she didn’t know. “We will have to petition
for land. We can not all live in the barracks!”
She looked at Gavin uncomfortably. “I already did,” she mumbled, expecting
some comment about her being very sure of herself.
Instead, they looked relieved. “Well, that is that much done, at least!”
Feeling a little less uncomfortable she added the information that Bronte had
arranged a place for them to stay temporarily.
Kameron looked thoughtful. “Is this furnished?”
“I think so.”
“We will still need to gather our personal belongings from the barracks and it is
near sundown now. We should take care of this,” Gavin said decisively.
“Uh … shouldn’t we sign the contracts first?”
“It slipped my mind,” Gavin said sheepishly.
“Where are the witnesses?”
As if Bronte had been listening at the door, which Zoe strongly suspected she had
been, she entered the room, smiling brightly. “Everything settled?”
They were adorably rattled, Zoe reflected, all four of them—not that she wasn’t
so nervous she felt faint! They were in such good spirits, however, that the tiny niggling
doubts that had remained were banished. She’d never seen them smile so much.
Bronte’s men congratulated them and then they congratulated each other and finally her.
She managed to keep from laughing until Kyle, after looking around as if he was
searching for something, asked if they were supposed to consummate the agreement there
or later. Damien and Kameron glared at him. Gavin punched him on the shoulder.
“Later!” Bronte told him, her eyes dancing with barely contained laughter. “First
we are all going out to celebrate and then we will show you the house we picked out for
your contractual gift and leave the five of you to get better acquainted.”
“What does she mean by that?” Kyle asked Gavin in a loud whisper as they left
the council chambers.
Gavin elbowed him in the ribs.
“Why did you do that?”
“I will explain it later.”
“You do not know yourself!” Kyle said irritably, massaging his ribs.
The babies, who’d behaved like perfect angels throughout the proceedings,
decided to wake up and howl to be fed the moment they sat down in the restaurant. Zoe
tensed immediately, certain the celebration was about to be over before it had even
started but, like a well oiled machine, Gideon, Gabriel, and Jerico bent down to retrieve
babies and bottles from the baskets, tucked the howling demons in one arm and plugged
the holes.
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Peace descended and everyone relaxed.
Zoe couldn’t help but notice that her men were mesmerized by the babies, or
maybe horrified by the fact that three renowned warriors were sitting across from them
discussing the latest incursion by the company and the steps being taken to prevent
another one while bottle feeding their infants. Pretending she didn’t notice the furtive
glances toward her belly, she asked Reuel if he would consider allowing her to
investigate the crimes of the company and compile what she could in the way of
evidence.
“To what purpose?”
Zoe shrugged. “I know you aren’t really that worried about the company or the
federation, but right is right. There’s always the possibility that if the company was
prosecuted successfully and the truth came out, it would end any possibility of a war
between them and us. I mean, you want peace and you have a right to it. It just seems to
me that the best way to preserve it is to make sure the company has no incentive to start
one. Right now, they think they’re protecting themselves from prosecution by
persecuting the cyborg nation. Remove the possibility that they can ‘bury’ their mistakes
and there’d no reason for them to hire mercenaries, even if they were still able to and
could afford it.”
Reuel studied her thoughtfully for several minutes. “I will promise nothing, but I
will speak to the council.”
“It is a good notion,” Gideon spoke up. “I do not mind the fighting and I am
certain none of our soldiers do, and yet there are other things that we could accomplish if
it were not necessary to remain always on alert for attack. I also do not mind saying I
would like not to have to worry about my family when I am not here.”
Bronte patted his arm and smiled at him lovingly.
He grinned at her, waggling his brows suggestively and she looked away with a
blush that drew a chuckle from him.
Setting the baby’s bottle down on the table, he lifted the infant to his shoulder and
began to pat his back carefully. A few moments later an inelegant burp erupted from the
baby’s mouth. Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. A frozen look moved over Gideon’s face
a split second before a scowl replaced it. “Fuc—goodness!” Gideon growled when he
met Bronte’s censorious gaze.
He stood up abruptly. “If you will excuse me?” he said politely and stepped away
from the table.
“I do not mind telling you, young man, that I do not find this at all humorous! If
you did not want the fuck … milk, you should not have drank it to start with!”
Gabriel and Jerico exchanged a look and then reached down to retrieve a spare
diaper from their baskets, tossing it across their shoulders before they cautiously moved
their bundles of joy to their shoulders to burp them.
Bronte smiled apologetically at the guests around the table. “Corin always eats
too fast.”
Their dinner had arrived before Gideon, now wearing nothing more than his
loincloth and with water dripping from his hair, returned and settled in his seat. He sent
Bronte a ‘don’t you dare say anything’ look when she glanced at him. She smiled at him
and made kissing motions and he looked slightly mollified. Settling his now sleeping
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infant in his basket, he focused on his food with enough gusto that it was obvious the
little incident hadn’t dampened it.
It hadn’t particularly disturbed her either, but she was nervous since it had
dawned on her that she was facing being completely alone with her men once they’d
finished eating. She didn’t know why she was nervous. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t lived
with them for weeks, been intimate with all of them. Somehow, though, the contract
made the situation entirely different.
It was the commitment thing, she realized almost immediately.
It made her feel more ‘trapped’ than she’d felt when she’d been marooned on the
planet with them.
She’d wanted this, she reminded herself. She could handle it if Bronte could!
It would’ve been four times easier to handle, though, if it was only one!
She shook the thoughts off, trying to focus on her food. She was scaring herself
for nothing. She knew she was. They didn’t know any more about this than she did. It
was going to be awkward for all of them until they got used to sharing space and working
together.
Bronte and Caleb escorted them to the house they’d arranged for them. Reuel had
offered his congratulations again and returned to his own home after the celebration
dinner and Gideon, Gabriel, and Jerico had taken the babies home.
Bronte hugged her when they reached the walkway to the house. “Have fun!” she
whispered in Zoe’s ear before she released her and patted her cheek. “I’m so glad to
have my little sister here!”
Slipping her arm through Caleb’s, she waved and strolled away with him.
Zoe looked up at her squad uneasily. “I guess we’re home for now.”
For a moment, they looked as uncertain as she felt. Abruptly, Kameron scooped
her into his arms and started up the walk. “This is a very ancient Earth custom,” he told
her.
Sighing, Zoe settled her arms around his neck. “Is it? What’s it for?”
“I have no idea,” Kameron responded, climbing the steps to the porch and then
looking around expectantly at the others, who’d trailed behind them. Gavin stared at him
blankly for a moment and finally moved around them to open the door. Kameron strode
past him, looked the house over cursorily and headed down the hall. “Where is the
bedroom?”
Zoe couldn’t keep from smiling although she was torn between new doubts and
her own desires. Resolutely, she refused give substance to the doubts. It had been weeks
since they’d seen each other. She was as anxious as he was to enjoy the physical side of
their relationship. It didn’t mean that was all he cared about—she hoped.
He found the bedroom, or the first, without any difficulty—not surprising since
the house was small and basic—living area, kitchen and dining, two baths and three
bedrooms. The odds were in his favor.
Damien, Gavin, and Kyle followed them inside. Kameron paused by the bed to
glare at them. “Rank leads,” he said flatly. “Tonight is my night, tomorrow yours, then
you, and you. She is our woman now.” The trio glared at him and then one another.
Since Gavin, apparently, was second, he shrugged after only a moment.
“He is right. Order and discipline.”
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Damien and Kyle were obviously still unhappy about the arrangement.
Zoe decided to express her independence and individuality, thereby sticking her
foot in her mouth. “Don’t I have a say in this?”
She gained the attention of all four instantly.
Which was when it occurred to her that choosing was the surest way to make
them jealous of one another—assuming they would be. It would certainly make some of
them feel as if she cared more for one than another.
She smiled weakly as that dawned on her. “As much as I’d love to have everyone
in my bed at once, the bed isn’t big enough and … and I really like the idea of spending
the whole night with each of you … individually. Will you be angry with me if we take
it slowly—at first, anyway?”
She could see they still wanted to challenge the pecking order, but, after studying
her enigmatically for several moments, they left Kameron in sole possession of her and
the bed.
He surprised her. Instead of tossing her onto the bed and following her down, he
set her carefully on her feet and examined her thoroughly with his gaze and hands. “I
like this thing,” he said, touching the swatch of material that covered her breasts lightly
with a fingertip.
Zoe glanced down at the two piece garment Bronte had assured her was typical
for cyborg women. Although the style and color varied distinctly from one to another,
the basic design was the same. The top was little more than two triangles of fabric that
covered, and actually supported, each breast, held together with thin strips of cloth that
tied around her neck and beneath her breasts. The bottom was almost as scanty—a snug
fitting swatch that covered her genital area and nothing more, though a long, sheer ‘skirt’
was sewn to the top and draped nearly to her ankles. She was wearing the traditional
‘union’ colors, which was also the colors of the cyborg nation, black and gold.
She’d thought it an odd custom when Bronte had explained it—to wear the same
colors at a contracting, but somehow the fact that she and her men had all been wearing
the same colors almost seemed to emphasize their joining more than the contract, making
them a ‘matched set’.
She lifted her head to look up at him. Realizing abruptly that it was the fact that
the men had all worn flight suits that had unnerved her almost as much as anything else
about the proceedings. She was so accustomed, now, to the sight of them wearing
nothing but the loincloth they generally wore that the suits almost made them seem like
strangers.
Oddly enough, it made them seem taller, broader—more like the dangerous
cyborg soldiers she knew they were than the lovers she’d been so comfortable with when
they’d been marooned together.
She smiled a little shakily. “You look so handsome in your uniform.”
To her surprise, his face darkened with color at the compliment. “You think I am
handsome?”
The uncertainty in the question was almost more surprising than the blush. She
lifted her hand to his hard cheek, stroking it. “Very handsome,” she assured him.
He lifted a hand to her cheek, stroking it as she had his. “Then our off-spring is
certain to be handsome for his mother is beautiful.”
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, she thought wryly as she remembered the
ancient saying. For the first time, though, she realized what it really meant—she hoped.
It was the heart that saw the beauty, not the eyes. That must surely be the case now
because she was a long way from beautiful.
Before she could savor the thought, it dawned on her that he thought she was
carrying his baby.
And maybe she was, but she didn’t know, and he couldn’t—but he was bound to
be disappointed if he was wrong.
And she couldn’t bear the thought of his disappointment any more than she’d
been able to stand the look of unhappiness on Kyle’s face when he’d realized that the
baby certainly wasn’t his.
For a moment, she felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of her commitment. It
wasn’t that she hadn’t already felt pretty overwhelmed. Contracting with four men
certainly wasn’t the ‘norm’ on Earth. She’d heard they did on some of the more remote
colonies, although that was, more often than not, one man with multiple female partners,
but it wasn’t a concept she was used to—particularly since she’d never even contracted
with one man before.
It wasn’t the legal document, though, she realized. It was the way she felt about
them.
She was more than fond, she realized, feeling a little dismayed. It wouldn’t seem
vitally important to make them happy if she was merely fond.
She turned her face into his palm and, instead of confirming or denying his hope,
she gave him what she could. “I love you,” she whispered, placing a kiss in the center of
his palm.
He stared at her, stunned, when she lifted her head to look up at him, his gaze
roaming her face as if searching for some sign that it was the truth. After a moment, he
swallowed a little convulsively. “You love me?” he asked a little hoarsely. “It is
something I did?”
Affection, amusement, and a little disappointment settled inside her. She moved
closer to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek to his chest.
She could hear his heart pounding erratically beneath her cheek. “It’s you—it’s
everything you did,” she said, turning her face to kiss his chest. “Why else do you think I
wanted to contract with you?”
He encircled her with his arms, holding her lightly. “I had not had time to
consider why,” he said honestly. “I had thought we were facing charges for dereliction
of duties when we were summoned, or at least something of that nature. I was …
surprised to find out it was to sign contracts instead—but happy,” he assured her quickly.
He shifted his hands to the sides of her head, tipping her head back so that she
was looking up at him again. His expression lightened. A slow smile began with the
faint curling of his lips and spread until his eyes crinkled at the corners. He pulled away
after a moment but she discovered it was only to draw her onto the bed. He settled her
close against his frame, wrapping her in his arms again. “Explain how this feels.”
She was disconcerted, almost sorry she’d said anything at all. It would’ve been
easier to yield to passion and get wrapped up in the delight of physical love. She was
tempted to tell him she’d show him instead, but she didn’t think he could tell the
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difference between fucking and making love. “It’s something a person just knows,” she
said a little irritably.
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Chapter Twenty Six
“I do not just ‘know’,” Kameron said in a rumbling growl that indicated both
frustration and discomfort.
Because he didn’t feel it?
That wasn’t fair, though, she realized. People thought they ‘just knew’ because
they couldn’t remember they’d been taught to know what it felt like almost from the
moment they drew their first breath and were cuddled in the loving arms of their mother.
They drew in the scent of love—mother. They felt the warmth of her life, the gentle
caress of her hands, the comfort of her nurturing, the protection of her arms and they
knew what love was—being protected, comforted, nurtured, touched in a certain way that
gave them a sense of security. That was why the ‘feeling’ of love wasn’t sexual, she
realized in surprise. It was recognition that that person represented the most basic animal
need—survival.
That was why it was so hard to explain in words and why he didn’t really
understand. Definitions without a concept to relate to were just more words.
“You made me feel safe and protected. You rescued me from the ship before it
blew up. You carried me down the mountain to protect me from falling and getting hurt.
You carried me through the jungle because I couldn’t see well enough to find my own
way. You kept me with you, even though you thought you would get in trouble for doing
it, because you were more concerned that I would be hurt than you were for yourself.
“You made me feel beautiful because you desired me. You made me feel special
and important because you enjoyed touching me and making love to me.
“And when I left, I felt as if I was missing something very important to my
happiness. I missed seeing you, touching you, just being near you where I could hear
your voice. Because when I was with you I was comforted and when you were away I
felt … lost.”
She fell silent, realizing that everything she’d said had made her feel loved and
that was why she loved him.
That was why she loved all of them, because they’d been so careful of her, so
protective. She hadn’t just felt safe with them, she’d felt completely safe from hunger,
and threat, and want, because of them.
She’d been so busy assuring herself that she was merely tolerating them to
achieve her goal—to get to Bronte—that she could take care of herself, that she didn’t
need them beyond the fact that they could take her to Bronte. It hadn’t occurred to her
that she would’ve been terrified on that alien world by herself. She knew how to take
care of herself on home turf—run down to the grocery store to get food, turn up the
thermostat if she was cold, turn it down if she was hot, use her wits and her self-defense
skills if she encountered a ‘bad guy’ who was a threat, and call for backup if she thought
she couldn’t handle it alone.
“That is why I was so miserable,” Kameron said abruptly, tipping her face up so
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that she had to look at him. “I knew that I missed fucking you, because my cock would
not stay down and my balls felt as if they would blow up. That was not hard to
understand because of the discomfort. I knew it was not just that, though. Damien kept
saying that he felt as if something was missing, that he had lost something, until I wanted
to punch him in the face—and did a few times.”
Zoe didn’t know whether to be horrified or amused. She supposed she was both.
She chuckled. “So you both missed me?”
“Yes—very much. I thought—we both thought—that you would choose someone
else while we were stuck in space and could not come here to try to convince you to
contract with us and I was so angry I could not think of much else—besides my balls.”
Zoe laughed. “Are they still bothering you?”
“Yes—more now.”
She nipped at his earlobe and then sat up and began to undress. “I think we
should do something about that, then, don’t you?”
He rolled from the bed and stripped his flight suit off almost before she could get
the words out of her mouth. She studied his nude form with frank admiration as he
climbed back into the bed. “Oh my, that does look painful,” she murmured with a
mixture of affectionate amusement and shivery desire. “Should I kiss them and make
them better?”
He looked down at his balls in frowning speculation as he massaged them. “I am
not at all certain that would be wise. I think that they might explode in your face.”
Zoe couldn’t prevent a chuckle. “Maybe we should just take the edge off first,
then?”
****
As delightful as Zoe had found it ‘getting better acquainted’ with her men, as
disinclined as she was to complain when Kameron, Gavin, and Damien proved
conclusively that they were capable of taking her to the heights of pleasure over and over
no matter how convinced she was that she was completely sated, there was no getting
around the fact that she was completely exhausted from enjoying herself by Kyle’s night,
and sore as hell besides. She tried to hide it for his sake, but he was a lot more observant
than she’d given him credit for.
“You are hurt?”
“A little sore,” she admitted with wry amusement. “I’m not really used to all of
the ‘exercise’ I’ve had lately, but the only way to get used to it is to do it.” Mentally, she
winced at the way that came out, but she’d already admitted she was sore—because he’d
noticed she was creeping around like an old woman. She didn’t know of any other way
to reassure him that she was willing, regardless.
She thought she saw a flicker of disappointment in his eyes, but he looked away.
“I will massage you and take away the soreness,” he said decisively.
The massage sounded good. “I might fall asleep if you relax me too much,” she
warned him with amusement.
“That will be alright,” he said, touching her face lightly. “You are my woman
now. There will be another time to pleasure you. I am not accustomed to having a
woman, so it will not bother me to wait.”
Liar, she thought. If the others had suffered discomfort from abstinence, he
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would have, too, and there was no doubt in her mind that they’d needed release. As
selfish as she knew it was, though, she didn’t argue. I’ll make it up to him later, she told
her nagging conscience.
By the time he’d finished massaging her, she discovered she wasn’t going to need
to. The stroke of his hands along her shoulders, arms, and back, pulled the soreness and
tension from her, but by the time he’d massaged her feet and legs, she was primed—
thoroughly relaxed, drowsy, but also feeling a warming buzz of anticipation in the region
of her womb. She rolled on her side to face him when he finished and settled on the bed
beside her.
“That was very nice,” she murmured, nibbling a trail along his throat to his chest.
His hand stilled mid-stroke in the center of her back. “You should not do that,”
he warned in a strangled voice.
She smiled against his pec. “Why not? You’re my man. Can’t I kiss you if I
want to?”
“I like to hear you say that,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“Which part?”
He swallowed audibly. “That I am your man.”
She pushed at his shoulders until he obligingly rolled onto his back. “I like the
sound of it, too,” she murmured, climbing on top of him and continuing her leisurely
exploration of his chest and throat. “I like the way you smell, and taste, and feel, too.”
His breathing became ragged, hitching in his chest each time she touched a
particularly sensitive spot, the air rushing from his lungs in short expulsions. “I like the
way you smell, and taste, and feel, also,” he said in a strained voice. “I have not thought
of much else since I learned it, except ….”
“Except?” she prompted him with amusement, expecting him to tell her he’d been
horny. He surprised her.
“The sounds of pleasure you made when I touched you, the way you would smile
at me sometimes, the expression I saw on your face when we were ordered to leave you.
I thought about that most of all. It felt … worse than wrong. I knew that you were not
my woman, but I felt that it was my duty to protect you and that I had failed you. You
will think it strange—I do—but images kept forming in my mind of things that might
have happened if Reuel had not taken you and we had been forced to leave you there. It
made me feel—ill, and angry, and—helpless, the images, even though they were not true
images, not something that had happened.”
Zoe felt emotion clog her throat as she sat up to stare at his face in the dimness.
She shifted upwards and bent her head to nibble lightly, teasingly at his lips. “Make love
to me.”
Surprise flickered in his eyes and then his dark blond brows drew together. “Is
this like fucking?” he asked cautiously.
Smiling, she nuzzled her face against. “Yes, but even better.”
She could tell from his expression that he couldn’t conceive of anything better.
“It’s feeling love for the person you’re fucking,” she explained teasingly.
“Oh,” he said, not sounding the least bit enlightened.
“It’s like … the difference between tasting something you like and tasting
something special that you really, really like.”
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He tipped her onto her back and rolled over her. “Oh,” he said, enlightened.
“Then I will make love to you again, because I really, really enjoyed fucking you!”
****
“Oh my,” Bronte cooed, watching the eight men currently sluicing water over
themselves in a half-hearted attempt to clean some of the grime from their labors off
before joining them on the blankets they’d spread for a picnic luncheon. “They look
yummier than anything we brought in those baskets.”
“Mmm,” Zoe agreed, admiring her men. “Mine are prettier,” she said
provocatively.
Bronte sent her a look but refused to baited. “You seem … content. I’m glad.”
Zoe made a wry face. “Except for this,” she said, patting the huge mound her
belly had become. “You’re sure it’s supposed to grow this fast?”
“You’re complaining that the baby’s maturing at an accelerated rate? You’re
spoiled! If you’d ever endured a ‘normal’ pregnancy, you’d appreciate the fact that it
doesn’t take nearly as long to gestate a cyborg baby!”
“As if you’d know!” Zoe quipped. “I know I shouldn’t complain, but it’s spoiling
my fun! I was just really starting to enjoy romping with them and now they act like they
think I’ll break if they aren’t very careful!”
Bronte laughed. “Be glad it’s only one. I thought I was going to explode!”
Zoe turned her attention to the three babies exploring the blankets around them
and trying to figure out how to get their feet under them. Occasionally, one or another
would manage to push himself upright, would teeter for a moment, and then crash again.
“It seems so … odd to see them trying to walk when they’re so young.”
Bronte shrugged. “It would be odd if they were human babies. They’re not.
They’re a lot stronger and they’re developing all of their motor skills much more quickly.
It almost makes me sad, even though I’m delighted with their progress—and of course
their daddies are,” she said with a chuckle. “The cyborgs in general find it very
disturbing that their young are so weak and helpless and my men are certainly no
different. They haven’t said so—not straight out—but I could tell it made them anxious.”
Bronte flicked a glance toward the men again. Seeing they’d finished bathing and
were heading their way, she shot Zoe another speculative look. “Any regrets?”
Zoe looked at her in confusion for a moment. When it dawned on her what
Bronte was asking, she turned her gaze to her men. “None,” she said without hesitation.
“I still wonder sometimes when they tell me they love me if they really understand what
it is, but I feel loved and I love them and that’s all that really matters.”
Bronte smiled. “They completely understand and they really know what it is.
They learned it from you.”
Zoe looked away before Bronte could see the doubts that still lingered in her eyes.
She was content, she told herself as she looked up at Kameron and Gavin as they reached
her and dropped to the blanket beside her. She would just be more content if she was
certain they loved her as much as she did them.
Which might be difficult since she seemed to love them more every day.
Kameron rubbed a hand lightly over her belly and then leaned down to place a
kiss there before he met her doubtful gaze with a grin and dragged her close to kiss her
thoroughly on the lips. Gavin was focused on emptying the basket of food she’d brought.
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Damien knelt on the other side of the basket.
Kyle settled behind her, and when Kameron released her, he dragged her back to
rest against his chest for support and wrapped his arms around her. “Your back hurts
you?” he murmured against her hair.
She twisted her head to look up at him, surprised he’d noticed her discomfort,
although she didn’t know why. They always ‘noticed’ everything, and Kyle was
particularly perceptive.
“Not really,” she lied.
He lifted his blond brows questioningly. “What is ‘not really’? No? Or yes?”
She shook her head. “Eat. You have to be starving. You’ve all been working so
hard.”
Damien sent her a smoldering look. “I am starving.”
She reddened faintly at the look and flicked a quick glance at Bronte, but she
discovered she needn’t have worried. Bronte was far too preoccupied with her own men,
and her active brood, to be aware of anything else. She favored Damien with a flirtatious
look in return. “What are you in the mood for?” she asked teasingly. “I brought some of
the fried fowl you like. Breast? Thigh? Leg? Or Wing?”
He grinned. “I will have a thigh. The sweetest meat is there.”
“For myself, I am partial to the breasts,” Gavin said with a husky chuckle.
Kameron examined her thoughtfully, his gaze heated. “I am so partial to all of the
parts that I am having a difficult time deciding.”
“He is right,” Kyle murmured near her ear. “I believe I will just eat you.”
It was completely unfair that they could arouse her with no more than a look and
a few choice words, Zoe thought, thoroughly rattled, certain she hadn’t had nearly the
effect on them that they’d had on her. She popped Kyle’s thigh playfully where it rested
beside her hip. “Eat the food I slaved to prepare for you!”
Chuckling, he moved away to examine the food Damien had unloaded from the
hamper. “What piece do you like best?” he asked, sending her a wicked look.
She grinned at him. “It doesn’t have the piece I like best,” she quipped. “It’s a
hen. I believe there might be some smoked boar sausage in there, though. If you’d just
slip one into one of those soft rolls, I’ll be satisfied with that.”
He picked up one of the dark, wrinkled links and studied it doubtfully. “This
does not look very filling.”
Her lips curled in a smile. “Oh, each one is very satisfying. They taste
wonderful. I think I would just be satisfied to just suck on it.”
She had the satisfaction of seeing them shift uncomfortably as she reached for the
sausage roll Kyle handed her. She was tempted to tease them more by licking it, but
decided against it when she heard Bronte chuckle.
“When do you think you’ll be finished with the house?” Bronte asked when
everyone had focused on their food for a few minutes.
Kameron glanced at her and then turned to study the house. “A few weeks more,
I think. We must finish before our leave is up.”
The comment dampened Zoe’s appetite. They’d put in a request to alternate their
sentry duties so that she wasn’t alone, but she liked it best when they were all together.
Kyle and Gavin had only just returned from sentry duty, and now, in just a few weeks,
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Kameron and Damien would be leaving.
She would have the baby before they came back.
She didn’t know how they felt about that, but she had wanted them with her when
she had the baby—all of them.
Especially Kameron since it was his baby.
She supposed that was the real source of her discontent. She couldn’t have
everything just the way she wanted it. Spoiled. Greedy. Selfish. She could think of a
lot of things to throw at herself, but it didn’t change anything. She was disappointed that
the timing of the baby’s birth was so inconvenient to her nearly perfect life.
Kameron was not going to be the first to see his little girl. He was going to be the
last and that hurt in an indescribable way.
If she could’ve squeezed it out early, or thought she could hang on to it a little
longer, she thought she would’ve tried.
Except that could be bad for the baby, and she certainly didn’t want that.
She was sorry she’d asked the med tech to tell her who the father was and what
the baby’s gender was. If she hadn’t known, at least she wouldn’t be so miserable.
Beyond that, the fact that she knew made it seem unfair to keep the information to
herself even knowing Gavin and Damien would be disappointed if they knew beyond a
doubt that it wasn’t theirs, and Kameron would probably be disappointed because his
baby would be at least a month old before he saw her.
She discovered when she emerged from her self-absorption that Kameron was
studying her, a questioning look in his eyes. She forced a smile she knew didn’t look
even close to genuine and focused on eating.
There were times when their obsession with taking care of her was akin to
bullying. It irritated her on two levels—first because she knew it was because they were
convinced that the fact that she was human equated to ‘frail’, which she certainly was
not, and secondly because she was used to deciding for herself how much she wanted to
eat, when she wanted to eat, and when she felt like resting. There were times when it was
nice to be so spoiled and other times when it took all she could do not to blow up at them.
Alright, there’d been a couple of times when she actually had lost her temper.
They’d decamped to consult with Bronte’s men, who’d explained it was because she
breeding, and they’d back off—for a little while.
Not that she’d cared for the fact that her completely legitimate peeve had been put
down to ‘crazy breeding woman’, but at least it had kept them from driving her insane for
a little while.
“I am a soldier,” Kameron said quietly, drawing her attention back to him and
making it clear he knew why she was suddenly quiet.
That didn’t mean she had to like it! She managed to smile. “I still miss you when
you go off,” she said somewhat sulkily.
He grinned. “I like it when you miss me.”
She couldn’t help but smile in return. “Is that a complaint about the rest of the
time?”
His black brows rose, but amusement lit his eyes. “You know it is not.”
God it was hard dragging a compliment out of one of them!
They’d finished eating and were gathering up the remains of their picnic when a
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sudden tension in the men caught Zoe’s attention. She looked up to see a soldier she
didn’t know racing along the rough track to their construction site. Her heart instantly
clenched. Good news never traveled that fast.
She glanced uneasily at Bronte as the men moved off to intercept the runner.
Bronte looked as upset as she was, which dispelled the hope that she’d jumped to
the wrong conclusion. She didn’t make any attempt to follow the men, though, and Zoe
couldn’t decide if it was because of the babies or if it just wasn’t acceptable.
She supposed it wasn’t acceptable. Gathering up one of the babies that had
crawled her way, she moved closer to Bronte. “What do you think it is?”
Bronte shook her head. “Very bad. They’ve never sent anyone to fetch them
before.”
The sinking sensation intensified. “You don’t know he came to get them.”
Bronte sent her a sympathetic look but didn’t comment. When Zoe dragged her
gaze away and turned to look at the men again, she saw the runner was leaving as he’d
come—at a run. The faces of all her men were grim and hard as she’d never seen them.
For the first time since she’d known them she saw them as the deadly killing machines
their adversaries must have glimpsed before they died. She felt a shiver of dread run
through her.
Gavin and Kyle reached her first. Certain that Kameron and Damien had been
summoned to leave early for some reason, she glanced past them at the men still
clustered where they’d spoken to the runner.
“We must go.”
Zoe’s gaze instantly shot to Gavin’s and snagged there. Disbelief held her for
several moments before she could gather her wits. “But … you just got back!” she
exclaimed in dismay as he pulled her into his arms.
His mouth was hot and hungry as it closed over hers, sending a spiral of
comforting warmth through her, but his kiss was woefully brief. Instead of releasing her
immediately, he tightened his arms around her, nuzzling his face against her neck and
breathing deeply. “We are on alert. I do not know how long we will be gone, but you
must stay with Bronte until we return.”
“I don’t understand …. You just got back.”
Kyle grabbed her up into a surprisingly fierce embrace as Gavin released her.
She clung to him, feeling a tension in him that unnerved her. He kissed her with the
same hungry desperation that Gavin had and it finally filtered into her numb mind that it
was because he wasn’t certain he’d see her again.
“Kyle?” Her chin wobbled over the one word. “You’re scaring me.”
He stroked her cheek. “Do not be afraid, Zoe. We will let no one hurt you.”
He pulled away and turned with Gavin, breaking into a loping run down the track
the other man had disappeared down a few minutes before, leaving before she could force
her stiff lips and tongue and chaotic mind to form any more words. I’m afraid for you!
she thought, but she didn’t get the chance to tell him.
She dug her fingers a little frantically into Damien’s arms when he grabbed her up
for a quick hug and a lingering kiss. “Damien! Tell me something! You have to tell me
what’s going on!”
“We do not know. We are summoned—all pilots. The first line has been …
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breached.”
Kameron pulled her from Damien’s arms and held her. “You will stay with
Bronte. Her men have built a safe room beneath the mansion in case of need. It will be
far safer here, away from the city. Caleb will be here to protect you.”
“You can’t just leave without telling me anything!” Zoe said, struggling to keep
from crying.
He pulled away and bracketed her face in his palms. “We do not know anything
more than we have said, Zoe. We are only soldiers. High command has called upon all
forces to report to their ships immediately. They would not do that if a threat was not
imminent and substantial. Gideon, Jerico, and Gabriel must report, as well, for they are
also first defense. Caleb is part of the ground forces. He is not summoned yet. He will
be here to protect you and Bronte and the babies.”
“I’m not worried about me!” she wailed.
“I am worried about you!” he said almost angrily. “We should have put in for
reassignment to ground forces! It is too late to regret that we did not—but I had not
thought ….” He broke off and shook his head as if dismissing whatever it was he’d
meant to say. His gaze flickered over her face. “Tell me you will do as Caleb says so
that he can protect you and … my daughter for me!”
She nodded, though she was hardly aware of anything he said. She was too
focused on trying to keep from crying. His kiss was slow and lingering, but still too
brief. He held her gaze for a long moment when he pulled away. “I love you.”
She had to clamp her jaws together to still the wobble in her chin when he
released her and turned away. Tears filled her eyes, blinding her. She blinked and then
rubbed her eyes. Kameron and Damien were just disappearing behind a blind of trees on
a bend in the track when she managed to focus her swimming vision.
Sniffing, she looked around forlornly, feeling lost, cold. Caleb, she saw, had
gathered up a baby in each arm. Bronte was holding the other infant. She met Bronte’s
gaze for a moment and then looked away.
Leaving the remnants of their picnic, they took the track through the woods to
Bronte’s home. Zoe, who’d taken one of the babies from Caleb, managed to master the
urge to cry with baby Corin’s help. Every time she considered letting go and her face
puckered, his did. His warning whine was enough to distract her into calming him. She
was so numb it took her a while to realize she was communicating her distress to him.
She managed to gather her self-control once that dawned on her and by the time they
reached Bronte’s house she had herself well in hand.
She’d descended into a numb sort of calm, though, not true composure. A haze of
disbelief seemed to separate her from everything going on around her. She was vaguely
aware of Bronte and the babies. Caleb had disappeared somewhere. She supposed to
check the safe room Kameron had spoken of.
“Who do you suppose would be attacking?” she asked out loud after a while.
Bronte stared at her. “Most likely the company—maybe the federation. I don’t
know. I don’t think it would be anyone else. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any
civilizations near enough with the technology to pose a threat even if they were inclined
to attack.”
“Sounded like a dumb question, I guess,” Zoe muttered. “I just don’t see how the
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company could’ve had time to send another fleet that would be enough of a threat to
warrant this. It’d have to be something huge, wouldn’t it? You said they’d never called
up all of the flyers at once.”
Bronte stared at her. “Whoever it is, they breached the first line of defense,” she
said in a strange voice.
“Damien said that.”
Bronte shook her head when she saw Zoe still didn’t get it. “The sentries guard
the first line—the posts your men usually guard.”
Zoe stared at her uncomfortably. “I know. The same area I breached ….”
“They stopped the threat there. They didn’t consider that a breach. And Reuel
only took the men on duty at the time to search that quadrant to make certain there was
no further threat and to rescue the downed fighters. He didn’t call the entire squadron.”
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Chapter Twenty Seven
The sound of fighters overhead drew them outside a short time later. The sight
they viewed from the yard banished the doubts Zoe had been trying to hold on to. From
horizon to horizon as far as they could see, the sky was full of the fighters of the cyborg
nation. A mixture of pride, awe, and sheer terror filled Zoe as she stared at them until
they disappeared in the vast distance of the sky.
Gone, she thought.
What will I do if they don’t come back?
A sense of desolation such as she’d never experienced seemed to engulf her. She
couldn’t imagine the unimaginable, and yet she couldn’t chase it completely from her
awareness either. It lay like a black, poisonous cloud at the fringes of her mind,
threatening her composure. The threat of such devastation took her beyond the reach of
soothing, emotionally cleansing tears.
She stared mutely at Caleb as he caught her arm and led her back inside.
Bronte balked at seeking shelter in the safe room below the mansion. She would
go if she had to, she informed him. Zoe searched her face for any sign that Bronte was as
confident of a happy conclusion as that statement indicated but failed to find it. She saw
the same terror of loss she felt and looked away. She couldn’t handle more than her own.
She had no real concept of the passing of time. They fed the babies and settled
them on pallets on the rug because, despite Bronte’s assertion that no threat would pierce
the might of the cyborg fleet, she wasn’t confident enough to take the babies so far from
the shelter. Zoe only realized darkness had fallen when the lights came on.
Caleb disappeared into the kitchen for a little while and returned with food that no
one ate but him. She nibbled at her own to appease the emptiness, but she hardly knew
what it was and she’d taken no more than a few bites before she began to feel queasy
with nerves and set it aside apologetically.
“I must report to head quarters,” Caleb announced after a while, drawing both her
and Bronte out of their stupors.
“You’ll come right back?” Bronte asked in a tremulous voice.
He settled beside her on the couch and pulled her into his arms in a gesture of
comfort. Zoe was torn between watching them enviously and the discomfort of being an
intruder. She tried to close her mind to the low voiced conversation between them, but
she could hear snatches of it despite her efforts.
He kissed her after a few minutes, peeled her clinging arms loose, and stood up.
“Promise me?”
Bronte swallowed and nodded and he was gone like the others.
“He’s coming back?”
Bronte nodded. “Unless they order him to stay.” She paused. “If the alarm
sounds we’re to go down into the shelter. I promised him we would.”
Zoe swallowed convulsively against the knot that formed in her throat. It
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flickered at the edges of her mind that that wouldn’t happen unless the enemy, whoever it
was, made it past the fleet, and that wouldn’t happen if there were any left to fight them.
“It can’t be that bad, can it?”
Bronte struggled to look confident, but Zoe saw the way her gaze flickered to her
children sleeping peacefully on the floor near her feet. “You’ve seen them in action. It
would take a hell of a force to come close to defeating them.”
Zoe got up after a while and went upstairs to gather blankets and pillows to make
pallets on the floor of the living room. She felt drained of strength, her mind dull with
the emotions she’d been battling to keep at bay. Once she’d made up the bedding,
though, she merely returned to the couch she’d been occupying for hours to stare at
nothing and try not to think.
The sound of someone entering the house a little later sent a painful jolt through
her. Bronte surged up from the couch where she’d been sitting and stared at the entrance
way hopefully. When Caleb appeared, she sucked in a relieved gasp and flew across the
room to launch herself into his arms as if he’d been gone months instead of only a few
hours.
“There is news,” he said when he’d finally calmed her and they’d returned to
settle together on the couch.
Zoe leapt to her feet without even realizing she had. “What?” she asked
breathlessly.
“Tell us!” Bronte demanded.
“There has been a battle. Both sides have withdrawn in a stalemate. The fleet
that attacked is making demands.”
Bronte and Zoe both stared at him blankly. “Any report on … casualties?”
Bronte asked the question uppermost in both their minds.
He shook his head. “They would not send that information when the enemy
might intercept. They have demanded we turn over the women of the federation being
held by the cyborg nation.”
Zoe’s knees buckled. She stared at him in dawning horror as his words sank in.
“My fault,” she said weakly.
Bronte looked at her sharply, but it was Caleb who spoke. “If there is even the
actions of one that could be said to be responsible, it is not you!” he said harshly.
Zoe’s chin wobbled. She didn’t believe him. The fleet of mercenaries hired by
the company had followed her. No doubt they’d communicated their position to their
base when they encountered resistance. Even if she hadn’t known how to find the
cyborgs, she’d been looking for them. Even if she hadn’t known she was being followed,
she had been. How could it not be her fault?
“Well! We’ll just go and tell them to go to hell!” Bronte snapped, surging to her
feet. “They can’t make us go back if we don’t want to! They can’t hold any of you
responsible for ‘taking’ us if you aren’t holding us against our will!”
Caleb caught her hand and drew her down on the couch beside him. “You will
tell them nothing. There is not one of us that would allow you to take that risk, that
would be willing to chance that they would take you from us!”
“I’ll go. Bronte shouldn’t risk it, but I could go and speak to them.”
Caleb slid a speculative glance at her. “Your men would not allow you to take
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such a risk either!” he said harshly. “We do not need to send our women out to defend
our rights!”
“Oh don’t even start that macho bullshit with me!” Bronte snapped. “Zoe and I
are not about to cower here and let them blow everyone to bits when we could stop this!”
Caleb’s face hardened. “You do not even know that it would make any
difference! They are making demands they know we will not concede to! They would
not believe you if you told them you were here by your own free will, or they would
pretend not to! In any case, it is more than the two of you.”
The last comment pierced their shock and outrage. “What do you mean we aren’t
the only two?” Bronte demanded.
Caleb surged to his feet. “I do not know the whole tale, but a vessel was seized
months ago. As I understand, it was around the time that Zoe crossed the kill zone. It
was seized—with the full knowledge and sanction of high command—because of the
value of the vessel itself, which was a B class war ship.
“What they did not know until they had taken it was that it was a slaver. The hold
was full of women who had been taken from a raid on several of the outer worlds.”
Zoe gaped at him. “So … you’re saying …?”
“I am saying we do not know, now, if it was even the company who sent the
mercenaries we routed, but it is entirely possible they were not. Regardless, the fleet that
is demanding the return of the women is only part regular federation military. In part, it
is the home defense of the worlds the slavers raided.”
Bronte and Zoe exchanged a look. “Well, give the women to them, damn it!”
Amusement flickered in Caleb’s eyes. “The council is not inclined to return
them. By the federation’s own laws, they are seized contraband.”
****
Zoe wasn’t certain if it was out of respect for Bronte’s position in their
community or because they had reached an impasse in their own attempt to settle the
dispute, but the council agreed to Bronte’s petition for an audience and less than a week
later she and Zoe sat down to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
The women, they discovered, had been held in a secure location—secretly, which
was why they hadn’t known about it themselves—it wasn’t general knowledge—because
the council members couldn’t come to an agreement among themselves as to whether or
not to free the women and didn’t want the added pressure of demands from the general
population—the unattached males—to keep the women.
They’d adopted a policy of protecting the location of the colony by not allowing
‘foreign citizens’ to leave once they had been brought into the colony itself. They were
also inclined to keep the women on the grounds of need, since the unequal balance of
males to females in the colony not only created a good bit of tension and dissatisfaction,
but also limited the gene pool of the growing colony.
On the other hand, considering their own history, most of the members were
uncomfortable with the fact that the women had originally been taken against their will,
even if it was the slavers, and not them, who’d done it. They were far more inclined to
try to persuade the women to stay, but uncertain of how they could go about it without
creating even more dissatisfaction.
Zoe and Bronte offered to go to speak with the women to see if any were inclined
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to accept the offer by the council to remain in the colony and contract with the men.
Neither of them had realized the full scope of the task they’d taken upon themselves until
they reached the facility where the women were being held and discovered just how
frightened they all were.
“It looks like a prison,” Bronte whispered to Zoe in dismay as they were escorted
through the gates that surrounded the building.
Zoe scanned the building and the fenced area they were passing through. “That
would’ve been my first thought … except … well, there are notable differences from any
prison I’ve seen before—no guard towers, for one.”
“That’s because it was originally a barracks,” Bronte said testily. “It was one of
the first buildings they built here from what Gideon told me. They don’t have prisons—
or didn’t. I know they didn’t quite know how to handle the situation but this looks bad
… very bad.”
It wasn’t quite as bad as either of them had expected once they were inside. The
quarters where the women had been housed were cramped, to say the least. They
actually looked like prison cells since they were barely large enough for a set of bunks
and a lavatory. The women hadn’t been confined, however. Most of the women had
gathered in the ‘mess’ hall where their food was served.
They hadn’t seen more than three guards, including the one who’d let them into
the barracks, and then locked the door behind them and left.
They were immediately noticed. Within moments of entering the hall, they had
the attention of every woman there—around fifty Zoe guessed.
“You poor thing!” a young blond woman said, her gaze resting briefly on Zoe’s
distended belly before she met Zoe’s gaze.
Zoe lifted a hand protectively to her belly, feeling uneasy for the first time as it
occurred to her that she would have a hard time protecting herself if any of the women
were violent.
“When did they capture you?” another woman, younger than the first, with long,
dark hair, asked.
Bronte and Zoe exchanged uneasy glances. “We aren’t captives … and neither
are you.”
Disbelief was evident immediately. A wave of whispered comments traveled the
length and breadth of the mess hall. “Why are we here if we aren’t captives?” another
woman demanded angrily. “We’ve been here for months! How can you say we aren’t
when we haven’t been allowed to leave?”
“They’re crazy, or they think we are!”
“Wait!” Bronte held up a hand and shouted to get their attention.
The room quieted. “You’re here for your protection!”
“From what? Who?”
A tall, slender woman separated herself from the other women and approached
Bronte and Zoe. “Who are you and why are you here?” she asked.
Bronte introduced both of them. “The council asked us to come and speak with
you.”
As young as the woman was, and Zoe judged her to be no more than her early
twenties, she had a regal poise about her that was uncommon for one so young. She
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studied Bronte with an assessing gaze Zoe doubted missed much. “Why didn’t they send
you before now?”
Bronte and Zoe exchanged a look. “They intended to keep the matter in council
and come to a decision. When they saw they couldn’t reach an agreement, they asked us
to speak with you,” Zoe said, ignoring the flicker of surprise in Bronte’s eyes.
Inwardly, she shrugged. They’d agreed that Bronte would do most of the talking,
but although neither of them were actually trained or qualified when it came to delicate
political negotiations, she was accustomed to interrogations and this had the same ‘feel’
to it.
The trick was to get as much information as possible without revealing how much
they knew.
In this case, they did not want to look as if they’d come as beggars. There was no
way they were going to settle the dispute with all parties completely satisfied, she knew.
The council wanted these women as colonists—their people wanted them back. She and
Bronte were going to have to convince some of them to stay and then convince the
council to allow the ones who couldn’t be convinced, to leave.
“What was the point of deadlock?”
Zoe shrugged. “There were several points, actually. They rescued you from
slavers.”
That comment brought about a good bit of bitter mutterings from the women
around them although they seemed mostly inclined to allow the young woman to speak
for them. She feigned surprise as she glanced around at the women. “You weren’t taken
by slavers?”
“We were,” the young woman agreed. “We assumed we’d been captured by a
rival group of slavers.”
Zoe drew in a calming breath. “Is this your idea of what slavers would do?” she
asked, gesturing at the comfortable room where they all stood. “Have you been
mistreated? Deprived of creature comforts?”
“It’s hardly comfortable here and we haven’t been able to leave!” a woman near
the back shouted.
“There’s a vast difference between being offered the hospitality available and
being mistreated!” Zoe retorted. “You were housed here because it was all that was
available. And you were kept here for your safety.”
The young woman studied her speculatively. “That’s the second time you’ve said
this incarceration was for our safety, but you haven’t explained the threat.”
Bronte smiled with an effort. “It isn’t a threat—exactly. Our people have been
persecuted. To maintain their freedom and the safety of their families, to protect
themselves from their enemies, they’ve kept the location of our colony a closely guarded
secret. No one who comes here, who could conceivably inform our enemies of our
whereabouts, is allowed to leave.
“You were kept here to protect you from seeing more than they would allow you
to see until they could decide whether to send you away or not.”
The young woman’s eyes narrowed. “Who persecutes your people?”
“Obviously, that’s also something we can’t tell you,” Zoe responded before
Bronte could. “But the other reason you’ve been secluded here is because of the fairly
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extreme ratio of male colonists to female. They didn’t want to chance that the male
colonists would demand that you stay so that they might have a chance of finding a mate
among you.”
Bronte flicked an irritated frown at her, but she ignored it, scanning the faces of
the women to see how they’d taken that announcement.
“Are they as handsome as the ones we’ve seen here?” an anonymous voice from
the back asked, provoking a smattering of giggles from the other women.
Zoe grinned triumphantly at Bronte. “My men are handsome. Bronte’s men are
handsome. I don’t think I’ve seen one yet that wasn’t.”
The young woman who’d been leading the talks tilted her head curiously.
“Men?”
In for a penny, in for a pound, Zoe thought. “I already told you the ratio was
extremely unbalanced. The law is that women colonists must agree to take no less than
two males into their household, no more than four.”
The entire atmosphere of the hall underwent a radical change from fearful and
suspicious to unnerved, disbelieving, but intrigued.
“I have a man … and a baby back on my home world!” a young woman said
tearfully. “I want to go home!”
Bronte held up a hand to quiet the waves of conversation coming at them from so
many directions at once that they couldn’t catch half, or answer anyone. “We came to
talk and to try to resolve the problem we have here. All we ask is that those of you who
have no one waiting for you to consider the council’s offer of citizenship.”
The young woman who’d been acting as spokesperson for the group added her
voice to theirs. “Peace ladies! They’ve come to talk. Let us have an orderly meeting so
that everyone gets the chance to ask their questions, voice their fears, and demands!”
She returned her attention to Bronte and Zoe as the women subsided. “I am Ciara
of Basia. Let us sit down and then the others can form an orderly line and sit down one at
the time to speak with you. Does that meet with your approval?”
“It certainly has my approval!” Zoe said readily. “My back hurts if I stand very
long—or sit very long, if it comes to that.”
Ciara’s smile was more friendly. “When is your baby due?”
“When she decides to come, I guess,” Zoe responded wryly. “I’m not sure. Four
to six weeks.”
Zoe didn’t know about Bronte, but her spirits began to plummet after a couple of
hours of talking to the women. Most of them claimed to have a partner and children, or
at least one child. She strongly suspected a good many of them were lying, but there was
no way to prove it.
By the time they left, she was exhausted and depressed. “I counted a dozen that
were unattached and of those only three were even curious enough to ask any questions
about settling here. What about you?”
“Dismal,” Bronte agreed. “One asked about the colony, the rest were swearing
they had a dozen babies waiting for them.”
“We can’t go to the council with four possibles,” Zoe said angrily.
“I want my men home—in one piece!” Bronte said sulkily. “There has to be
something we can do!”
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Zoe wanted her men home, too. Although high command hadn’t wanted to risk
the enemy intercepting reports of casualties, they had finally allowed some of the men to
‘call home’. As relieved as she and Bronte were that their men were alright for the
moment, they also knew that could change as long as the threat remained and that wasn’t
acceptable. “It would be easier if we could show them around the colony. I know not
one of them hails from a more elegant city! We have everything here anyone could
want! Beautiful homes, beautiful world, beautiful men that are just wonderful!”
Bronte nodded angry agreement. After a few moments, though, she turned
thoughtful. “We can’t show them everything the colony has to offer, but I don’t see why
we can’t show them some of the sights!”
Zoe looked at her questioningly.
“What was the first thing that ran through your mind when you first saw your
men?”
Zoe thought it over. “Oh shit! Cyborgs!”
Bronte gave her a dirty look. “Besides that.”
“Drop dead gorgeous,” Zoe responded after a little more thought.
“Exactly! I think we need to dazzle them with the possibilities. After all, the men
are going to have to win them over if they’re to convince them to contract with them.”
“The council won’t go for it,” Zoe said warningly.
“Oh yes they will!” Bronte said militantly.
She sent Zoe home to rest and marched into the municipal building to tackle the
council by herself. As guilty as she felt for not supporting Bronte in her effort, she
acknowledged that she was just too exhausted to be much help. She could barely get up
the enthusiasm for the walk home with a nice soft bed waiting at the end of it.
Bronte looked nearly as exhausted by the time she made it home, but there was a
triumphant gleam in her eyes.
“They agreed?”
Bronte smiled. “Told you!”
“I never doubted you could browbeat those bad old cyborgs!” Zoe said with a
chuckle. “I’ve seen the way you wrap your men around your little finger.”
Bronte preened briefly. “As if you don’t!”
Zoe smiled wanly. “I wish.”
“You are such … an idiot for an intelligent woman!” Bronte said testily. “They
adore you! How could you possibly doubt it?”
“They’ve never said it,” Zoe said mournfully.
Bronte pulled her into a sisterly embrace. “You’re as bad as they are! I know
you want to hear the words, honey, but the words are hollow without the actions that go
with it. They’ve shown you in every way possible how much they care about you!
Anybody can say it without meaning it. They show you how important you are to them
in everything they do, the way they look at you—in everything they say to you! Are you
tired? Hungry? Do you want a massage to ease the pain in your back? Let me carry that
for you! I missed you. You’re beautiful! Stay with Bronte so that you’ll be safe!” She
shook her head. “If you really listen Zoe, you’ll hear them say they love you a dozen
times a day in dozens of ways!”
The tightness of tears clogged her throat as Zoe pulled away to stare at her sister,
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feeling hope, doubt, dismay. “You believe that?”
“I do, and you should, too!”
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Chapter Twenty Eight
Bronte wasn’t happy about leaving her precious babies with anyone that wasn’t
family, but she thought it would be a point in their favor for the women to see her with at
least one of her men. They took the babies to stay with the woman she considered her
‘star’ pupil in parenting classes, Amaryllis, who had a son of her own and a daughter ‘en
route’, by her man Dante who, as a med tech, was the only one of her men in residence.
Her other men, Cain and Reese were with the fleet.
When they reached the city, they met up with the men the council had chosen to
‘escort’ them.
Bronte and Zoe exchanged one of the mute sisterly communications they’d
developed that said, in a nut shell, ‘uh oh’.
By the time they’d reached the old barracks they’d both come to the conclusion
that ‘uh oh’ was putting it mildly. They stopped before they reached the compound,
excused themselves from the men and moved far enough away they were fairly certainly
they couldn’t be overheard.
“They don’t have a clue,” Bronte said at almost the same moment Zoe did.
“They didn’t even tell them what this was about,” Zoe responded with certainty.
They turned to survey the group of men, dressed in their formal jumpsuits and
standing at rigid attention.
“What do you think?” Zoe asked her sister.
“Cute—also cold, steely eyed and scary. The women are going to be too petrified
to notice how good looking they are. Maybe we should tell them?”
Zoe considered it. “So they can assume ‘courtship mode’, you mean? I don’t
know. If they dash off for flowers and chocolates ….”
“You’ve got a point. Those uniforms have got to go, though. The minute they
put them on they look like someone shoved a rod up their asses.”
Zoe snickered. “I don’t know if those women can take next thing to nude
cyborgs, though. They might have heart failure.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Bronte responded with a gleam of amusement,
catching Caleb’s eye and summoning him. “The uniforms have got to go!”
Caleb’s brows rose almost to his hairline. He turned to look at their escort.
“They were sent as escort.”
“No, they weren’t. They were sent to strut and entice the females behind those
walls and they’re not going to do it looking … like that!”
Caleb nodded. “I will inform them that they are to entice the females.”
Bronte grabbed his arm before he could leave. “Don’t tell them that! In fact,
don’t tell them about the women at all.”
He stared at her blankly.
She smiled at him sweetly. “We want it to be a surprise.”
He looked more confused than enlightened, but he left to inform the soldiers they
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were to discard their formal attire.
They stared at him blankly, looked at each other, and finally shrugged, peeling off
their uniforms and discarding them.
Zoe covered her mouth with her hand and looked away. “OH MY GOD!”
Bronte punched her. “Behave yourself!”
Zoe felt a little giddy herself, and she was firmly attached to her men. She could
only imagine what the reaction of the other women would be.
Stunned.
The moment they appeared in the hall, Bronte on Caleb’s arm and six cyborg
soldiers marching behind them, a silence so profound fell that it was almost deafening.
The soldiers, Zoe discovered when she nerved herself to glance at them, looked almost as
stunned.
Actually, more stunned, she amended, except that stunned on them was ‘shut
down’ mode. They stopped as abruptly as if they’d hit a block wall and stared out at the
sea of women as if they’d never seen one before. She slid an anxious glance at Bronte.
Bronte fixed a plastic smile on her face and glanced around the room. Spying
Ciara, she turned and crooked an imperious finger at her escorts and nudged Caleb in the
right direction.
Ciara was staring open mouthed at the soldiers when Bronte came to a halt before
her. “This my man, Caleb. And these are … some of his friends,” she said brightly,
turning to look at the men. “This is Ciara of Basia. Why don’t you introduce yourselves
to her?”
The men, Zoe, who’d followed them, discovered were almost as catatonic as
Ciara was. She nudged the man closest to her. He blinked, like someone waking from a
dream and turned to look at her. She smiled up at him. “Name,” she hissed in an under
voice.
He saluted.
Zoe cringed inside.
“I am Tristan CS59709.”
Zoe bit her lip. Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, she glanced uneasily at the
women. It wasn’t that she had no intention of telling them they were cyborgs, she just
didn’t think this was the time to do it. To her relief, she discovered the women were so
mesmerized by the men they hardly heard anything they said. No doubt, even if they
had, she decided, they thought it was some sort of military ranking.
She thought at first that it had been a huge mistake to ‘surprise’ the men. After a
few hours, however, she realized that it would probably have been pointless even if they
hadn’t decided to do so. The men were too uneasy, and too completely ignorant of how
to flirt to manage more than an occasional, tight smile and stilted responses to the
questions the women nerved themselves to ask.
“It was a good thing you brought Caleb,” Zoe said as they left. “He certainly
made a good impression. I’m not so sure about the others.”
‘The others’ turned to scowl at her in sync and then glanced at one another
uncomfortably.
Caleb reminded them as they parted ways that they were under strict orders not to
reveal the presence of their visitors.
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The following day when they arrived to pick up their escorts, they found the six
with each carrying a large bouquet and a box of chocolates.
“Oh God!” Zoe groaned under her breath.
****
When Ciara settled at the table with Bronte and Zoe, her expression was one of
determination. “I am Ciara of Basia,” she began, “the daughter of High Councilor Omar
of Basia.” She waited for a few moments for that to sink in. “My father sent a fleet to
rescue me, didn’t he?”
Excitement flooded Zoe. She exchanged a glance with Bronte, but she didn’t dare
admit that the siege was behind their attempts to promote friendly relations with the
women.
Apparently, her expression gave her away, however. Ciara nodded. “It’s alright.
I completely understand your position. This is why I’ve told you. My father would not
have said that he’d come only for me, because then he would know that you could use me
to negotiate whatever agreement pleased you most.”
“Why did you tell us?” Bronte asked suspiciously.
Ciara smiled a little sadly. “Because I don’t want him to make war on your
people on my account.” She paused, apparently gathering her thoughts. “Tell your
council that I will be happy to negotiate peace between our people if they will agree to
send the women home who wish to be freed.”
****
Zoe had a blinding headache from butting heads with the council members and it
didn’t seem to her that they were moving even a little closer to an agreement. “There’s
no reason for you to explain anything to these people! Besides that, they already know
where you are! This isn’t a secret place anymore. The sooner you get that out of your
heads the better. If you persist in being so damned stubborn, it’s just going to end up
destroying all you’ve worked for!” she said, angrily intruding into the ‘civilized’ debate
that had been going on without interruption for what seemed like hours.
Her angry outburst, as ill mannered as they might consider it, had the desired
effect of creating silence and giving her their undivided attention, even though the faces
that turned to stare at her weren’t at all welcoming of her opinion.
“Your position is that you took a ship that invaded your space—which they’ll
understand because they wouldn’t tolerate it either. Ciara of Basia has agreed that she’ll
support your claim completely and help negotiate a treaty.
“You could promote friendly relations and make allies of these people. They
don’t know you’re cyborgs. They don’t need to know. They don’t even need to know
who you’re protecting the colony from or why you have to.”
Reuel, who was attending the council meeting via hologram, glared at her in taut
faced anger. “You are suggesting that we should lie about who and what we are? That
we have reason to feel—unworthy? Ashamed?”
“I’m suggesting that you avoid any possibility of prejudicing them by announcing
it! You were created as cyborgs! You aren’t cyborgs! You are a nation of people who
have the same rights as any other race—and the same responsibilities, if it comes to that!
“Your people have needs that you can’t fulfill from within. Granted, there are
only a few women who expressed an interest in considering contracting with colonists,
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but that’s impressive, to me anyway, considering the way this has been handled.
“The single men want the chance to have what the others have. You can give
them that by opening negotiations with these people. More that that, you could build
allies that would stand by you against other aggressors.
“Maybe you don’t think you need them. Ordinarily, I’d be inclined to agree, but
as strong as you all are, as good as you all are, you’re still staggeringly outnumbered by
the Federation forces. You could neutralize their effectiveness against you by making
allies.
“You owe it to the colonists to protect them from the need to give their lives to
protect the colony if it’s at all possible!”
****
Bronte hadn’t accused her of making a complete mess of things, but Zoe felt her
guilt keenly enough she was sure Bronte wanted to. They hadn’t been allowed to
participate in the council debates since, which was bad enough, but they also didn’t know
what was going on because they’d been forbidden entrance to the chambers.
“I should have just kept my mouth shut,” she said finally, inviting Bronte to vent
her spleen. She deserved it. Their men still weren’t home and the chances didn’t look
good that they would come home any time soon—or without being drawn into another
battle.
Bronte looked at her angrily, but the anger evaporated quickly. “It isn’t your fault
they’re so hard headed they won’t see reason,” she said grudgingly. “I happened to agree
with you. I just wish they had.”
Caleb, arriving in time to hear the tail end of the conversation, favored them both
with an approving look. “They did.”
Bronte and Zoe, who’d been sitting across from one another on the couches in the
living area instantly surged to their feet, staring at him hopefully.
“They did?” Zoe asked doubtfully.
“The fleet is escorting representatives from the worlds involved in the battle as
we speak.”
“They’re coming home?” Bronte asked, her voice quavering with a mixture of
excitement and disbelief.
He nodded.
Zoe swallowed with an effort. “My men, too?”
He studied her a moment. “I can not say—not that they are among the escort.
The majority of the fleet will remain at alert. If you have correctly assessed the situation,
however, and negotiations progress, the entire fleet will be coming home.”
Bronte sent her a look of sympathy. Zoe fought the urge to cry. “I’m going down
to see,” she said determinedly. “If they’re part of the escort I want them to know I’ve
been waiting for them to come home. If they’re not … then I’ll go when the next group
is allowed to return.”
Caleb’s gaze dropped to her belly, but he didn’t argue with the determination he
saw in her eyes. “I will escort you.”
“We’ll all go,” Bronte said determinedly.
Zoe hadn’t really expected to see any of her men. She’d girded herself for
disappointment, but she couldn’t have stood the suspense of waiting to find out and,
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moreover, she wanted them to see how anxiously she’d waited for their safe return.
Her heart seemed to drop to her toes when she recognized Damien and Kameron’s
ship as it settled to the tarmac. She knew she wasn’t supposed to intrude on the arrival of
the troops, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. As soon as the ship began to settle
toward the ground, she shoved the baby she was carrying into Caleb’s arms and took off
as fast as she could—waddled. If she hadn’t effectively prevented Caleb from grabbing
her by loading him down with a second baby, he wouldn’t have had any trouble
preventing her.
She’d caught him off guard, though. By the time he’d transferred the baby to
Bronte, she was racing across the tarmac, holding her ‘bouncing’ baby girl. He caught up
to her when she stopped to catch her breath and watch the gangplank lowered. Kameron
was the first out the door.
His expression was a mixture of anger and relief and gladness when he saw her
waiting for him.
She didn’t care that he disapproved. Uttering a squeal of delight to see him, she
shrugged Caleb’s hand off and would’ve raced up the gangplank to meet him if Kameron
hadn’t forestalled her by racing down it to prevent her clumsy climb. She threw herself
against him when he reached her, clamping her arms tightly around his waist. He settled
his arms around her, holding her close.
“You should not have come!” he said in a chiding growl of disapproval.
She sensed that at least part of the censure was aimed at Caleb, but she drew away
to look up at him anxiously. “I couldn’t wait!”
The tension went out of him. He swallowed convulsively. “I have missed you,
woman!”
She threw her arms around his neck, dragging his head down to her level as she
went up on her tiptoes to kiss him. He hugged her tightly again when they broke the kiss,
nuzzling his face along the side of her neck. “I love you,” he murmured huskily.
Zoe pulled away to stare at his face. He’s told her that when he left, she
remembered abruptly, told her that many times since they’d contracted and yet she’d
never accepted that he might truly mean it. She’d been certain that he was only saying it
because she had told him she loved him.
Bronte was right. She hadn’t been listening!
“I love you, too,” she murmured, stroking his hard cheek.
“Do I not get a kiss?” Damien demanded.
Chuckling at the expression on his face, Zoe released her frantic grip on Kameron
and threw herself into his welcoming arms, kissing him all over the face before she
zeroed in on his lips. “I’m so glad you’re home! I’ve been worried sick!” she told him
when she pulled away.
She couldn’t get enough of touching them to reassure herself they were really
home—safe and sound. After a few moments, though, she remembered abruptly that
she’d dashed onto the tarmac without regard for the fact that this wasn’t a simple
homecoming. They were a part of a formal military escort.
Self-conscious when that dawned on her, she glanced around uncomfortably.
She didn’t know if the fact that she’d behaved so impulsively had effected
everyone else that had come to witness the arrival, but she discovered she certainly
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wasn’t the only one who’d decided to greet her men without regard to the formality of the
event.
All around them, she saw other women, pregnant or carrying babies, greeting
their own men with enthusiasm.
She also discovered when she looked around that Kyle and Gavin were watching
her from a short distance away. “Gavin! Kyle!” she exclaimed joyfully, ready to bound
toward them when Kameron stopped her by grabbing her to prevent it.
He gave her a disapproving frown. “You will lose that child here if you are
determined to race around the tarmac!” he said irritably.
She frowned at him, but before she could inform him that she wasn’t likely to just
‘drop’ it, Gavin and Kyle joined them. By the time she’d kissed and hugged all of them
several more times, her irritation with Kameron had dissipated.
“When do you get to come home?” she asked them hopefully.
Kameron glanced around them frowningly. “We have not been given orders, yet,
beyond the escort.” He lifted a hand to her cheek. “Wait for us at the house in town. We
will come to you when we can.”
Zoe nodded, excitement threading her veins.
“And do not be running about!” Kameron added when she stepped away from
him. “I am certain it is not good for you.”
“One of us should ask permission to carry her home,” Gavin said worriedly. “She
has walked to town already. She should not be on her feet so much when she is so near
her time.”
“I do not like that she will be alone until we come. What if all the bouncing and
running about brings her labor on? I will go and speak to her sister about this and see
what she thinks,” Damien said.
“I will go and request permission to take her home,” Kyle said.
Zoe studied them for a long moment, feeling a welling of love for them that
seemed almost to inflate her chest to an unbearable tightness. “I love you, too,” she said,
smiling caressingly at each of them in turn.
The End
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