Seven years later...
"Stand down! Prepare to be boarded!" The
harmonious command rang with Valtarie compelling demand above the blaring
klaxon horn that warned Intruder Alert.
On the battered deck of the Solitaire, her
listing war ship, Desdamona de’Lacy, better known to her few remaining
friends as Mona, braced her boot-clad feet and turned to the ragtag band
of fighters who awaited her command.
Fighters, indeed! The frightened and wary eyes of the
varied races watching her every move belonged to what remained of the
settlers and miners from Da’tarn. They were not warriors, but they had
fought at her side for months. Now, they again loyally waited for her
Hah! Like she knew what she was doing. The converted
warship listed and jerked along, not at all like the heavy mining barges
she had ferried back and forth between trader ships and Da’tarn.
Captain? Her? Not bloody likely. But she was the closest experienced
flight officer Da’tarn had left after the massacre…and the only
surviving member of Da’tarn’s peacekeeping forces. Besides, no one
hated the pirates more than she. Her hatred for them burned in a constant
flame, and the need for revenge was a faithful companion that kept her
alive. Her crew was a weapon that she wielded, cared for, and protected.
Or had, because at this moment, she was putting them in grave danger.
Mona knew the risk she took coming to Valtar, but she
had no choice. Solitaire, damaged in the last raid, badly needed
repairs and supplies. If they didn’t get both, they’d all die.
Of course, if the stories of Valtar’s inhospitality
were true, they’d soon be dead anyway. Her war-converted transport
vessel had been forced to land by a ring of Valtarie sweepers without a
single shot being fired. The damaged crystal drive was weakening enough,
but, moreover, the legends of the Valtarie instilled panic in all who
heard them. Mona snorted. She knew better. Vampires indeed. She had
learned firsthand about the Valtarie, living near two of them on Da’tarn...
Her breath hitched. Her Valtarie friends were gone, too, lost to the
No, don’t go there. She swallowed hard. It was
better not to think of her former life on Da’tarn and what had happened
"Do as they say." Mona waved a weary hand
toward her crew before carefully dropping her laser pistol on the ship’s
deck. She moved stiffly, not daring to flex her shoulder. None of her crew
knew she was wounded, and she wanted to keep it that way.
"Captain?" Her heavyset first lieutenant’s
black brows rose in hairy vees above a hawk-beak nose. Ta’baar was a
Tusken miner before he became her lieutenant. As his prominent nose fairly
twitched from side to side, he looked as if he tested the wind for an
elusive odious scent or maybe for an answer that Mona couldn’t give. The
deep scowl wrinkling his forehead darkened his ebony skin even further.
His sharp bottom teeth thrust out over his flattened upper lip. Broad
muscles jumped and flexed in his powerful forearms. His dark eyes narrowed
as he regarded her with a disturbing intensity.
"We didn’t come here to fight, Ta’baar."
Mona stared him down and waited for the low growl that meant the burly
miner agreed before she turned her back. The sound of solid clinks told
her the others had dropped their weapons.
If her First, the mighty Ta’baar, agreed with her,
the rest of the motley crew followed, just as they had done for the past
five months—five months of following raiders in a battered transport
hastily converted for war, a ship that threatened to fall apart at any
moment. Five months of fighting and failure. Their last encounter had left
Solitaire’s crystal drive severely damaged and Mona so badly
wounded that her right arm still hadn’t healed.
Like tonguing a sore tooth, Mona rolled her shoulder,
flinching before letting her arm fall loose at her side. Pain was good.
Pain gave focus. As much focus as she could get in the fog of reality that
she still refused to believe could be true. Every day she hoped she would
awaken from the nightmare her life had become. But everyday, she awoke to
move in haunted fragments of what once was…and was no more.
At that moment, fatigue caught up with her. Mona swayed
in its grip. Then she stiffened her knees with effort, fighting against
her exhaustion with a clenched jaw and tightened fists. By God, she would
stand on her own two feet to greet the ruler of Valtar. Abbie had told her
all about the ruthless Zurellius and his home world. Even though Zurellius
was Traveen’s half-brother, he had promised to kill Abbie and Traveen if
they ever returned to Valtar. Perhaps when Zurellius heard Mona’s news,
he would grant her that same kindness. She could only hope.
The noise of the intruders drew nearer, their lack of
stealth more evidence of the Valtarie arrogance. Mona kicked aside the
loose battle debris that still littered the shattered deck and spread her
stance wider. The ragged tops of her thigh-high boots chaffed through her
thin pants, but she ignored the irritation and lifted her chin. The
half-healed battle scar that ran from her temple to beneath her jaw,
finally ending at her chin, flared with burning pain in the flushed heat
that rose to her at the thought of greeting the ruler.
In foolish vanity, Mona knew that with the jagged scar
and the odd white streak that laced her hair from where the sword stroke
had cut into the hairline, she was no longer considered even remotely
pretty. From her peripheral vision she could see the glowing band of white
hair that nearly covered the right side of her forehead. It had widened
with every month of her failure.
She knew her battle leathers hung tattered and dusty
from her body, a thin body with broad, bony shoulders that she hardly paid
attention to anymore. She’d never been known as a frivolous fashion
plate, but now she no longer bothered to comb the tangled mass of hair
that hung down her back. The leather thong that had held snarled locks in
a thick tail had long since been lost. She had even forgotten when she had
last bathed. Why bother? She lived for one thing—to find the ones who
had destroyed her life. And when she found them, she would kill them.
There would be no quarter, no mercy, for they had showed none to Da’tarn.
For a moment, Mona was lost amid her memories of the
ones who had fallen beneath her vengeance, men and women of the universe’s
varied races, young and old, handsome and ugly, who followed an outlaw
leader who cared nothing for their lives. She had been the one to end
their existence, miserable as it was. She had bludgeoned or stabbed or
lasered them into oblivion.
A sickness invaded her system. She longed to vomit up
her hatred, but beloved visions of her son and her husband flooded her
memories and strengthened her resolve. They were lost, along with so many
of her friends, young and old, who would never again breathe or laugh.
Sudden, solid boot thuds on the metal deck announced
the arrival of the intruders, then they entered the bridge. In the hush, a
deep voice chimed in the lilting Valtarie melody of quarter notes and half
notes. "You shouldn’t have come here, little hawk. Valtar is
forbidden to outsiders."
Little? Her? Mona knew that echo of command could
belong to none other than Lord Zurellius, ruler of Valtar. His melodious
statement washed over Mona in a drenching shiver. Her dry tongue stuck to
the roof of her mouth. She thought she was prepared for this meeting, but
she was mistaken. Despite his use of a sobriquet, an ominous threat had
threaded its way through his voice. Her heart leaped fearfully in her
chest, and Mona swallowed a cough, surprised at her response but glad for
the change. At long last, something pierced the cold, unfeeling fog that
surrounded her. Even fear was a welcome change.
The Valtarie drew nearer, loomed over her, and Mona was
tall for a woman, nearly six feet in height. Heat flared between them in
his closeness, but she knew she dared not meet his mesmerizing gaze. She
had been warned often enough about the Valtaries’ hypnotic eyes and
But even though she kept her gaze lowered, he exuded
the familiar Valtarie scent of sun-ripened, green apples. And he crowded
Mona’s personal space. His great silver wings rustled, but he stood
silent, waiting. She felt threatened by his intimidation. He was so
majestic, more so than Traveen, without his wings, could ever hope to be.
His skin glowed in a golden haze of a healthy restored Valtarie who drank
wild blood to survive, not the anemic silver of their previous condition.
Apparently, Zurellius had used the cure Abbie and Traveen had risked their
lives to bring to Valtar several years before. From Abbie’s stories,
Mona knew many things about Valtar’s home world, things that were,
perhaps, unhealthy to know. The invisible fist that choked Mona’s throat
grew tighter. Perhaps, it had not been a good idea to come here for help.
But the ship badly needed repairs.
Mona still refused to look up, but, through her lowered
lashes, she viewed the muscular thighs of the other Valtarie grouped
around her. Silver-winged, golden warriors armed to the teeth
crowded her ship’s bridge. Zurellius had shared the cure.
Tentatively lifting her gaze, Mona received another
shock. They all stared at her—directly at her—with their swirling blue
gazes, not with the proper lowered glances Abbie had told her were
demanded by Valtarie Law.
She shivered under their bland stares that revealed no
emotion. What did they think of her? She couldn’t glimpse a hint of
their thoughts behind their combined neutrality. She knew male Valtarie
possessed the ability to bind females to their will with just the use of
their eyes. Abbie had told her only the royal members of the Cai were
allowed to wear protective lenses and look at females directly. Apparently
that was no longer the law.
"I see that Valtar has changed." Somehow the
flat words escaped Mona’s dry mouth. "Shielded?" She nodded
toward the winged warriors who gazed so openly at her.
"Of course. All our males wear protective lenses
now." The proud words rumbled over her head where his chin towered
over her. The lyrical vibrato brought an added tightness to her throat.
Mona had never believed she would respond to the blatant sexuality of the
blended harmonics that composed Valtarie speech. After all, she knew
Traveen and his sister Fayella well, and they’d never had this type of
affect on her.
Da’tarn. Mona breathed the name of her destroyed
home and inadvertently drew in Zurellius’s scent again. Despite her
grief, her heart leaped in response to the Valtarie’s virility. Mona
didn’t welcome the reminder of what she had lost.
Haunted by memories best forgotten, she abruptly
demanded, "What are you going to do with us?" Her jaw tightened
in the long silence that followed, but she dutifully awaited Zurellius’s
answer. When none came, she finally raised her gaze to meet his. The sight
of him took her breath.
Zurellius’s commanding beauty filled her vision.
Bold, slanted eyes, swirling blue behind the protective lenses, pierced
her from above high sculpted cheeks. Sharp bones and smooth planes were
graced by a wide sensuous mouth that neither smiled nor smirked but
enticed just the same. God, he was big…and beautiful, but it was a cold,
cutting beauty. His shiny silver hair lay tightly braided at the base of
his neck in a warrior knot similar to the style worn by the leonine Kasar.
Without his majestic wings, Zurellius could almost be human in appearance.
A very special human, for no human man could ever hope to achieve the
golden muscles that rippled across his body as if he pumped iron and had
swallowed every known steroid for years. And those eyes...
A shudder went through Mona, and a weakness gathered in
her stomach. Zurellius was the epitome of the male animal at his best.
Overwhelmed, she clamped her teeth together in denial of her feminine
response that rushed to the surface. Although she’d been alone for
months, she no longer had the emotional capacity to feel what she was
experiencing at the moment. Abbie should have been more explicit about the
Valtarie males and their allure. Apparently, just being near them caused a
woman to respond to their sexuality.
As Mona struggled for composure, Zurellius folded his
arms across his wide, bare chest, flexing his biceps while he stared at
her with a mocking sneer. Obviously, he was trying to intimidate her. She
realized, quite suddenly, that he didn’t wear the royal purple robes of
his high office. Only a thin strip of gold bordered the white sash that
draped his lower body. Except for that mark, Zurellius was dressed as
simply as the others, with their laser swords strapped across their backs
between their wings. Only their thin, silk oachas covered the
essentials of their masculinity.
But Zurellius loomed larger than the other statuesque
Valtarie, more threatening with his half-lidded, lens-protected, heavy
Still holding her gaze captive, Zurellius spoke to his
guards without turning his head. "Take them to the palace. The
Council will decide their fate."
"We came in peace, Lord Zurellius," Mona used
his name and title, revealing that she knew he was Valtar’s ruler. For
years, Abbie and Traveen had fed her stories of the stoic leader. In the
background, she heard the grunting and shuffling of her own troops who
waited for some sign from her. She flicked her fingers in a silent
Ta’baar growled low in his throat, a dangerous,
guttural sound that most took seriously and backed away from, but even he
waited, obeying her signal.
"You knew the danger. You ignored the posted
sentinels." Zurellius lifted one arrogant brow, and his nostrils
flared when he spoke. For some reason, Mona felt that he held his anger at
bay with only the slightest control. She jumped when he spoke again, his
voice booming. "Valtar is a forbidden port. Forbidden to all
"But I need to speak to you...privately."
Despite her control, a pleading tone crept into her voice. Hating the
sound, she straightened, took a deep breath, and chose her words before
she continued, putting as much sincerity as she could into each word.
"Lord Zurellius, I must speak to you…alone."
"What you have to say to me, you say to the High
Council. I no longer rule Valtar." He waited for her reaction, that
arched silver brow rose again, but no other expression broke the hard
perfection of his face.
"You are on the Council," Mona pointed to the
gold trim on his oacha, a bold assumption on her part. She realized
just a little too late that her finger also pointed to a region of his
body she’d rather not think about. She refused to blush, denying the
heat and raising her hand to touch the tingling scar.
The sharp tips of Zurellius’s incisors glimmered
between his lips while his lazy, insolent gaze followed the direction of
her hand. The faint expression died when she touched her half-healed
His brilliant eyes narrowed on her face, and a long
muscle jumped in his jaw. "Go with Kryos and Vladeem. Your men and
ship will be unharmed as long as there are no surprises." Valtarie
compelling tone rang in Zurellius’s melody, but his voice softened on
the truth he spoke.
"There will be no surprises," Mona murmured.
"No?" He scanned the ship’s sparsely
instrumented bridge with a quick glance.
His question made Mona’s recent past flash past her
in gruesome detail. She had lost everything on Da’tarn—her husband,
her son, her friends and her home—everyone who had depended on her as a
Peacemaker. She had failed in her police duty. But she had lived. If God
was just, she would have died too. Better death than living in this cold
"No. No one is hiding in ambush." Mona shook
her head, relegating the violent nightmares back to the darkness.
"Then go with my men."
"Later." Mona dared his gaze and gestured to
her troops, who reluctantly followed the Valtarie from the bridge. Ta’baar
turned, looking back one last time for Mona’s slight nod before he
disappeared with the rest.
Her duty as captain finished, Mona sagged. She would
have fallen if not for the quick grip of Zurellius’s two remaining
guards who rushed forward to catch her. One’s grasp on her wounded right
arm brought a sharp cry despite her rigid control.
Then, to her horror, a burst of fury flashed past her,
crying, "Don’t you hurt Mona!"
* * *
Zurellius grabbed the undeveloped wings of the biting,
kicking, and scratching whirlwind, lifting her from his cringing
lieutenants. A Valtarie fledgling? Kryos and Vladeem were always useless
when it came to fledglings. Such softhearted fools.
But this offspring was not Valtarie, despite her
fragile, silver wings. Long, dark hair, unlike the silver tresses of
Valtarie offspring, flowed down her slender back. And, although her skin
warmed to a soft golden sheen, it did not reflect the shifting emotional
power of the Valtarie.
He turned the fledgling around. Shock bit him with
mighty claws. Her gasp echoed his in identical notes of surprise.
Zurellius’s grip loosened. The fledgling slid down his body to the
floor. Once there, she threw her arms around his thigh and held on so
tightly that she nearly cut off the blood flow to his leg.
Zurellius scowled at her forbidden beauty. Even though
he knew the answer, he asked the tall, human warrior who commanded the
intruder vessel, "Who and what is this leech that has attached
herself to me?"
The female, clearly wounded and white-faced with pain,
remained standing only with the help of his guards. Such courage impressed
him. She held her right arm against her body with her free hand while
struggling to speak. Her words echoed in the near empty bridge.
"Don’t hurt her, Lord Zurellius. Please.
Auriella is Abbie and Traveen’s. She’s your niece."
Even though he expected the answer, the news shook
Zurellius. He stepped back but was held in place. The fledgling’s grip
on his leg never loosened. When he looked down, he was surprised to see
Auriella’s eyes screwed tightly shut. Long lashes lay as dark smudges on
her cheeks, and her rosebud mouth puckered into a stubborn pout. Zurellius’s
frown deepened further before he asked, "Why is she clinging to me?
Where are her parents?" He dared not speak Abbie or Traveen’s name,
the pain of remembering brought too great an ache.
The captain’s head fell back against Vladeem’s
broad chest. Her eyes closed. The words she spoke echoed so faintly that
Zurellius strained to hear them. "I don’t know. They’re…lost."