For disgraced nobleman and accused murderer, Ramsey DeKieran, a pardon is an unobtainable fantasy. When the High Lord of Verdantia offers the prize, Ram knows there’ll be a catch. He accepts the impossible mission – the off-world rescue of a Verdantian noblewoman, one of the last of her kind. The one bright spot: Elite mercenary, Steffania Rickard, is ordered undercover to help DeKieran – posing as his sexual submissive.
For Steffania, assisting the dominating Ramsey on this insane mission will be challenge enough. The damn rogue trips all her triggers – good and bad. But infinitely worse, on the planet, Vxloncia, she must submit as Ram’s sex slave, and there’s no faking it. Bent at his knee, serving his every command, Steffania doubts her carefully hidden desires will remain concealed.
Their mission takes on new urgency when they unmask a heinous program of enslavement, long cloaked in secrecy. Together they must find a way to overcome their initial animosity and recover a woman vital to the future of their race.
In the maelstrom of sex, savagery, domination and submission, they will need all their wits and strength to survive.
N.T. Solar Date 4637
Captain Steffania Rickard of the elite Blue Daggers fumed silently as her eyes scanned the seedy brothel’s dark, empty, upstairs room. Damn-it-all. I was certain I’d finally caught up to him. She’d wasted the better part of two months looking for this man. Her shoulders slumped in fatigue. She’d expended no small amount of energy slipping into this absurdly well-guarded bedroom. Any number of disreputable fighting men watched the rooftop, the hall outside and the stairs to the upper levels. No one had watched the building’s exterior walls, however, so she scaled the three-story brothel’s ragged bricks and entered by a poorly secured window.
A small prick at her carotid, from what was certainly a razor sharp stiletto, froze her in place. She hardly dared to breathe. Her heart leapt like aspringbok eluding a hunting cat. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You know not to let down your guard.
“You are not my type, Steffania. I like my women submissive and kneeling at my feet – not contentious and sneaking behind my back. But if you want me bad enough to break in here, I’ll accommodate you.”
Ramsey DeKieran’s deep, arrogant voice drawled low in her ear. He jerked her close, and his hard body pressed into her back. His hand roamed freely, intimately, between her thighs, across her abdomen then higher to fondle her breasts. He paused to toss her hidden blades and throwing crescents to the floor. She couldn’t mistake the prodding at the middle of her back for anything other than it was – a truly impressive erection.
“You conceited ass, I’m not here for that,” she hissed as his fingers rolled one of her nipples, sending sensation zinging to her lower region.
His knife still at her throat, he growled, “Turn very carefully. I need to check your back for weapons.”
With a snarl of her own, she complied. Unusual eyes of glacial blue with an outer ring of darker blue locked with hers. An unfriendly grin stretched a full, generous mouth on a gaunt, chiseled face of high cheekbones and a straight-bridged aristocratic nose. An unkempt comma of black hair hung in the middle of his forehead. A day’s worth of dark beard shadowed his cheeks. He looked feral, undomesticated.
His free hand roamed her back and buttocks, his arousal pressed into her soft abdomen. He found the knife at the small of her back and tossed it to the growing collection. To her horror, the flesh between her legs began to moisten. Damn him!
He leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Are you getting wet, sweetheart? Does dominance do it for you?”
“Bastard!” She shoved herself violently away with both hands, angered further by his oh-so-accurate taunt. It had to be a guess. She’d kept those desires carefully hidden. She retreated several steps to face him, gasping in air. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
A dark eyebrow arched slowly. “If you don’t want a good fuck, then what do you want, sweetheart?”
Steffania prided herself on being a good liar. The trick was to weave in some truth with the lie. In truth, ever since she fought beside DeKieran in the Haarb wars, the scoundrel had headlined in her sexual fantasies. “I’m not your fucking sweetheart. You’re the last man I’d want.” She threw her head back and glared. “High Lord DeTano wants you. I’m just his messenger.”
“Why would I do anything for Ari DeTano?”
“For a pardon.”
DeKieran straightened his relaxed posture. Not shrinking under his piercing examination took discipline. She stood motionless until the space between them vibrated with almost visible tension. Damn you, Ramsey. Say something.
Finally, he shrugged. “I’ll hear what he has to say.”
~ ~ ~
The royal chambers for the Second Tetriarch. So this is how the nobility lives. Ram ran his eyes along the heavily carved, spice-wood paneling and then to the marble floor covered with a thick rug of tribal design in vibrant hues of red, cobalt blue and gold. He contrasted it with the rough timber walls plugged with rags and paper that enclosed his room at the whorehouse. The wafer-thin, shit-brown rug on the plank floor of his room had long ago lost its original color to noxious stains and ground-in dirt.
His mind mentally tallied the worth of the gold picture frames holding miniature scenes covering an antique occasional table and the unusual vase made of a precious-stone geode. A ten thousand credit vase holding common wild flowers. Pft. Someone has no regard for the rarity of that item. I wonder if it would be missed? He considered liberating the vase after he heard what Ari DeTano wanted. That one item would pay for his food and lodging, and that of his men, for the next five years.
Ram was a stranger to this part of Verdantia’s capital. He knew only the underbelly of Sylvan Mintoth – the places where the filth of their planet collected – human and otherwise. He’d never imagined a time when he’d sit in Queen Constante’s opulent antechamber – the evident wealth an unwelcome reminder of a life that should have been his. It is what it is. Deal with it. He idly worried a toothpick, flipping it from one side to the other in his mouth. Two members of the ruling Tetriarch, High Lord DeTano and his lover, that blond devil of an assassin, Doral DeLorion, appraised Ram in silence. Ramsey returned their focused examination with cool self-possession. If they thought to make him nervous, they could think again. Only those with something to lose got nervous.
Ram grinned at the feminine mercenary, Captain Steffania Rickard – a stunning, savagely competent soldier with breasts that begged fondling and lush lips that… Yeah, he knew where he’d like that mouth. Her unusual eyes of honey-gold glared back at him. Redheaded spitfire. He’d love to have her to himself for several days. The thought of taming the proud beauty speared heat through his groin. His dominance had aroused her. Ram knew it. He had an unerring instinct for detecting women who enjoyed what he delivered.
With a long-suffering sigh to indicate he didn’t have all day – well, he did, but those three didn’t need to know – Ram addressed DeTano. “Rickard said you wanted to talk to me. I’m here.” He crossed his legs with a casual indolence and rested an ankle on his knee. “What can a dispossessed nobleman and accused murderer do for High Lord DeTano?”
DeTano nodded at his blond lover and second in the ruling trio. Other business occupied their beloved queen, or Fleur Constante would have been present, too. “We have an issue. Segundo DeLorion suggested your name as a solution. The Senzienza, in her obscure, mystical way, has indicated Lady Alessa DeAlbero is critical to the future of our world.”
“So? You don’t need me to find a lost noble woman with invaluable genes. You command the resources of the Second Tetriarch. I’m just one man.”
DeLorion crossed his arms, and his rich voice fell softly into the room. “We’ve tried for almost a year to recover her. We sent others – many others. They turned up dead – or not at all.”
After a moment of silence, High Lord DeTano continued. “The Haarb sold Lady DeAlbero to Veacon Narr. We located her but before we could move, Narr hid her.”
Ramsey grunted. “What makes you think the most notorious slaver in the Hyperion Galaxy is going to let me waltz in to extricate the woman if all your efforts have failed?”
Again, DeLorion’s voice fell quietly in the room. “We just need you to find her and get her to a rendezvous point. We’ll get her off-planet. I have approached the League of Federated Planets for assistance. But it is as I suspected. Our galactic peacekeepers won’t act unless I can document serious violations of galactic law. They won’t act for the recovery of just one person.”
Ram shook his head. “Still, why send me where others have failed?”
The smile DeLorion bestowed on Ram would have shriveled lesser men. “I would prefer you dead. My sister seems to think you deserve a second chance.” Doral lifted a shoulder in a shrug and shook his head as if to say his sister’s desires were incomprehensible. “Why you? You demonstrate a remarkable penchant for self-preservation coupled with a reputation for accomplishing the impossible – all while eluding capture. Besides, I am tired of consoling the families of good men. You are more...expendable. No one will mourn your death.”
Ramsey chuckled and returned his smile, in kind. “I did allow your sister to escape.”
“You kidnapped her in the first place.”
Ram shrugged. “I was paid to do a job. I did it.”
Doral held Ram in an icy stare. “And yet you still live.”
DeTano interrupted their innuendo-laden exchange and tossed a rolled parchment into Ram’s lap. “Read it. It absolves you of all crimes recorded against you, past or present. Find Lady Alessa DeAlbero, and we will sign it.”
Ram picked it up and scanned it casually. DeTano was correct. The unsigned pardon was broad-sweeping. Ram’s eyebrows rose at the minutely detailed list of criminal involvements he’d thought no one else knew about. “Someone has been very interested in me for a very long time.” He smiled without humor and tapped the scroll on his knee with an assumed air of boredom. “How will you convince our good queen to sign this?”
DeTano looked at him thoughtfully. “Supreme Commander Eric DeStroia uncovered evidence that may cast doubt on your conviction.” Ari shrugged. “The case can be reopened.”
A resurgence of pain at Desiree’s death and anger at his unjust conviction flooded Ram. Hell’s breath. Thought I had left those emotions behind.His sardonic gaze rose and caught first DeTano then DeLorion. “If I’m successful, you have Lady DeAlbero, if unsuccessful, my dead body, and all it costs you is a piece of paper.”
A feral smile pulled at DeLorion’s face. “Yes. What I call a ‘win-win’ situation – for me.”
Ramsey threw his head back and laughed. When he sobered, he observed, “Vxloncia is a hi-tech planet. I have never been off the surface of our primitive Verdantia. My lack of familiarity with anything technical will handicap me.”
“Yes. We are aware of that. A Blue Dagger will accompany you,” DeTano said.
Ram considered the elite off-world mercenaries who had remained on Verdantia at the end of the Haarb war. His illicit, paramilitary group assiduously avoided Captain Steffania Rickard and her Blue Daggers. If Doral DeLorion was Ari DeTano’s right hand, then Steffania Rickard was his left. The Daggers had earned their reputation as galactic ‘bad-asses’ in spectacular fashion during the Haarb wars. Ram had fought side-by-side with Steffania and her Daggers during one campaign. As much as he would trust his life to anyone, he’d trust it to the Daggers – particularly their red-haired commander.
Ram grunted his acceptance. “It is also a world where male domination and female submission is enforced. I think their terms are dominus andslaaf. They hold their women close. Where do you suggest I start?”
“With Narr, himself,” said DeTano. “One of our contacts said Narr was infatuated with Lady Alessa. He knows we look for her. He keeps her well hidden.”
“And just how do I get close to Narr?”
DeLorion uncrossed his arms and tossed another paper into Ramsey’s lap. “The planet holds ‘gladiator games’ as entertainment. Narr, the primary sponsor, is obsessed with the bloodshed and spectacle. He always invites the winner of the games to his compound for an orgy of celebration. That will be your best chance to find Lady DeAlbero.”
Ram sighed and rubbed his face tiredly. “Gladiator games.” Shit.
“We took the liberty of entering your name,” DeTano said. “It’s ‘no holds barred’, but the only weapons allowed are archaic. You will be familiar with all of them.”
“Should be right up your alley, DeKieran. You get to fight dirty.” Captain Rickard’s feminine lilt spat the insult at him. “But this presupposes you’ll win.”
He’d forgotten her presence. At her challenge to both his honor and his fighting prowess – all right, perhaps he had no honor, but the slur to his skills stung – Ram rose to his feet and turned to look at her. A wickedly satisfying thought formed. He threw a quick glance at DeTano. “A Blue Dagger goes with me, yes?” DeTano nodded. “I’ll take your job, on one condition.” Ram pointed at Steffania. “That Blue Dagger goes – as my sexual submissive.”