It was a four-hour drive north to the Alpha Elite military base where the woodlands gave way to a mix of savanna and semiarid bush, and the city morphed into sparse villages. Holly parked her car outside the compound and walked through the open gate, surprised no one stopped her. Then again, the Alpha Elites weren’t a typical military operation.
She spied Commander Bane Ojore and could not stop staring. His tight white T-shirt highlighted his dark tan and provided a tantalizing showcase for his impressive biceps and chest. His fatigues did nothing to hide his heavily muscled thighs and rear, and when he raised his arms overhead to grab a pulley rope and ease a huge canister to the ground, his rippling back muscles made her mouth water.
She wiped the sweat trickling down the back of her neck, finding it difficult to catch her breath, the air stifling and dry. Yet perhaps it wasn’t the climate. She waited for Ojore to finish his job. When he did, he strode past her, ignoring her completely.
“Excuse me,” she called out, but if he heard her, he made no outward sign.
Holly exhaled in frustration and followed him to the command post building. She trudged across the uneven ground, slowing down when she tripped on an protruding tree root. At least she’d been smart enough to wear sneakers. She entered the building and was immediately assailed by the odor of sweat, leather, and gasoline. Nose wrinkling, she breathed through her mouth and followed the signs on the walls to the main office. The door was ajar, but she knocked to announce her presence. No response. She knocked again.
“Excuse me? Mr. Ojore?” She peered around the doorway.
He didn’t bother looking up at her. “What do you want, Miss Ainran?” he asked curtly.
She rocked on her feet, taken aback by both his demeanor and his question. “How do you know my name?”
“It’s my business to know everything that goes on here.”
“Yes, of course,” she replied. Perhaps he recognized her resemblance to her brother. She entered his office uninvited and took a seat. “That’s why I have come to you. I want to know what happened to my brother, Fix Ainran.”
Her composure faltered, and she shook her head to chase away the fears in her mind. “I want to know if you have any information about where he is.”
The Alpha Elite commander looked up and studied her. He was in full human form, his black, wavy hair longer than she would’ve expected for a military officer, much less a commander. There was an ethnic flavor to his dark, brooding features, although Holly couldn’t identify his mixed ancestry.
For a moment the expression on his face softened. Then he clasped his hands together, all business. “Unfortunately, Miss Ainran, I have nothing to tell you.”
Holly sucked in her cheeks. “I did not drive all this way to be told nothing.”
Bane Ojore’s dark eyes narrowed slightly. “I made it clear to your father on the phone that I had no further information about your brother’s whereabouts.” The man paused and glanced out the tiny window in his office. “Miss Ainran, we may never know what inner demons possess even those who are closest to us. Our work here in the colonies is extremely stressful and physically demanding. Some leave injured; some are evicted. Sadly, some are killed in action. And some believe the decision to leave should be on their own terms.”
“Something must have happened to my brother before he left, Mr. Ojore.”
. You must have some idea why Fix did not return.”
He refocused his gaze on her. “Is that important?”
“It is to me.”
“The week before your brother failed to report back,” Ojore began in a clipped tone, “we lost an entire squad during a hyena attack. Twelve men were killed or severely injured.”
She couldn’t begin to imagine how traumatizing such an ordeal would be for a soldier to witness. She wiped her brow, feeling the confines of the small office. “I’m deeply sorry, Commander, about the loss of your men. But are you implying my brother abandoned his obligation to the Alpha Elites and his family because he feared for his life?”
She squared her jaw, resolve strengthening her. “I know my brother. He’s seen death before. He’s faced
death before. There has to be another reason Fix would have failed to report to you and has not reached out to his family or friends. You may have been able to sidestep this matter with my father, but you will not keep the truth from me.”
The commander leaned back in his chair, saying nothing, his piercing gaze intimidating, bordering on hostile. Growing uncomfortable with his attempt to unnerve her, Holly returned his stare defiantly to prove she was no pushover.
“I will look into the matter,” he said finally and rose to his feet. He peered down at her, his mouth compressed. “This is a treacherous area, Miss Ainran. You should not have come here alone. You are unmated.”
It wasn’t a question or worse, an accusation, but she sighed. She wasn’t ashamed of her unmated status, yet she knew most males found it odd due to her high caste.
“Yes,” she replied. Her lips nearly twisted into a sneer before she caught herself. As the daughter of a member of Parliament, she was schooled in proper decorum, even in situations where it was clearly not reciprocated. She laid her hands primly in her lap, taking a deep breath. “I am determined to choose my own mate rather than share an alpha male in a pride.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I did not require nor request an explanation.”
Well, isn’t he just full of himself?
She pretended to brush a spot from her pants.
“An unmated female is a distraction to the young male lions here,” the commander continued, clasping his hands behind his back, “preventing them from doing their jobs.”
Obviously she should have thought of this before she visited the Alpha Elite compound. Again, she tempered her reaction.
Ojore rounded his desk, and Holly stole a sideways glance. Yowza
. Granted, she hadn’t intended to check out the contours of his package. It certainly wasn’t appropriate, particularly considering the purpose of her visit, but his hips were directly at her eye level, and his fatigues were quite fitted. A brief image flashed in her mind of how that impressive girth would feel inside her, and her thighs pressed together involuntarily.
Heart pounding, Holly averted her eyes. Had she been staring outright? She peered up and found him regarding her, his lips curved in a bemused smile. So much for him not noticing.
Her first instinct was to bolt upright and make a hasty exit, but he blocked the path to the door. He stepped closer, fists on hips, which had the effect of tilting his pelvis forward, almost as if offering himself to her. Holly gripped the arms of her chair, her lion senses detecting his primal male scent. She had to fight the urge to rip off his pants and devour his cock whole.
Damn, she needed a boyfriend.
BANE HELD HIS breath, the tension building inside his chest until he thought he would explode. Her scent had been driving him crazy ever since he inhaled the sweet, feminine aroma of her heat when she entered the base. Then he got a look at her, and it was all he could do not to take her right there and then. Her luminous eyes were the color of rich, dark gold naturally outlined in black, contrasting with her clean-scrubbed ivory skin. Her lips were rosy pink, and when she blushed, a pink veil spread across her cheeks. He thought of where else she’d be pink, and his groin tightened painfully.
When she shook her head, sandy-blonde wisps escaped her long braid, and he had to shove his hands behind his back or he would’ve reached out to tame the errant strands.
She could be his poison. But she was a mere babe, an innocent, and he felt a knot in his gut. She’d never know the truth about her brother or what her brother had done.
“Another message, sir,” a corporal announced, entering Bane’s office. The man spied Holly and grinned. “Excuse me, sir. Wasn’t aware you had company.”
Bane gave his underling a withering look, and the corporal’s grin vanished. “Th-the message, sir,” the man stammered, extending an envelope to Bane.
The corporal nodded and hastily vacated the office.
Bane had aimed his order of dismissal at Holly as well, but given the way she tilted her head, a wry smile on her pretty face as if challenging him, she wouldn’t leave unless he forcibly evicted her. He held back a smile as he pictured her fighting him as he dragged her out of his office, her warm body wriggling against his, her indignant cries giving way to passionate begging.
His heart rate wasn’t the only thing that spiked. Damn the woman and her heat scent. She might as well be sitting in his office naked.
However, the message couldn’t wait. Weighing his options, he tapped the envelope against his hand. Ultimately he decided to open the envelope and pull out the folded paper. He quickly scanned it, then set the paper on his desk, and rubbed his mouth in frustration.
He didn’t bother looking at her. “Unknown. The message is coded.”
“Let me help,” she said, sounding bright and earnest. “I have experience cracking code.”
Bane sighed. “Miss Ainran, you are young. I’m guessing eighteen? First time away from home--”
“I’m twenty-six,” she interrupted dourly.
Bane lifted his gaze, and she shrugged. “I’ve always looked younger than I am.”
She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, which had the unfortunate effect of outlining her breasts and nipples. He forced himself to ignore that.
“I’m not a kid, Commander Ojore. I know how to handle myself. I spent my childhood on border patrols with my brother Fix and his friend Kipper before they joined the Alpha Force.”
The name rang a bell. “Kipper Lumbwi?”
Holly nodded. “You’ve worked with him?”
“Not directly.” Bane stared at Holly until she fidgeted in her chair. Finally he asked, “Kipper Lumbwi is a friend of yours?”
“Kipper was my brother’s best friend when they were young. He was at our house all the time, until they both joined the Alpha Force.”
Bane frowned. The situation with Fix Ainran was more complicated than he’d thought.
“Is there something wrong?”
“Kipper Lumbwi is involved with radical groups aimed at dismantling the caste hierarchy.”
Holly snorted in derision. “Can you blame him? The castes are archaic. Why should someone be relegated to a particular line of work or be forbidden their choice of mate solely because of the caste of their parents? What about the concepts of democracy and free will?”
Bane’s mouth thinned. “Spoken like a naive, sheltered little girl.”
Eyes flashing, she sprang from her chair. “I am not naive, Commander Ojore.”
“Social stratification is a necessity, Miss Ainran, facilitating trade and providing a sound economic institution.”
“You sound like you’re reading from a textbook,” she jeered.
Bane suppressed his reply and studied her. Perhaps she was not so much naive as stubborn. “The caste hierarchy reduces incompatible matings. By preventing lions from mating outside their born castes, the hierarchy ensures a pride’s socioeconomic compatibility. All members of a pride are on the same page, so to speak. This increases the stability of the pride.”
He turned to look out the window again. “The daughter of a parliamentary executive would be expected to join a pride led by a first-caste alpha male,” he said quietly.
“As I said before,” she said. “I will choose my own mate, regardless of what caste he’s from. I will choose him because I love him. And I will not share him.”
Bane returned his attention to her, analyzing her. “And what will your father have to say about that?”
“My father knows how I feel. He believes the system can withstand change.” She lifted her chin as if daring Bane to contradict her.
He did not. “Your father must be an unusual man.”
“He’s a good man, a good administrator. He enjoys his work and truly wants to better the lives of others. He leads by example, for the greater good, and not to obtain power.”
Bane nodded. He’d never met Executive Ainran, but her words spoke of the man’s known reputation. “Miss Ainran, do you understand the differences among the castes?”
“Of course,” she replied, nose wrinkling, clearly affronted he’d asked such a question. “The first caste is Parliament, second caste is military, third caste are the merchants, and the fourth caste are the laborers, the workers never allowed to study, serve in the military, or own a business. And then there are the untouchables--those who are not lions.”
Bane ignored the frostiness in her tone. “That is a simplistic overview. I am talking about the actual differences.”
She looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” he replied. She didn’t know. Surprising, considering her father’s occupation. But then again, Executive Ainran was not a typical member of Parliament, as evidenced by his son joining the Alpha Elites and his daughter’s willful disrespect of societal constructs, not to mention military commanders.
Again, the message on his desk beckoned him. He’d pass it on to one of his coders. But was she serious about helping? He opened his desk, pulled out an old message, and handed it to her. “Can you decrypt this?”
Her eyes widened as she inspected the paper. “On the spot? Give me some time and--”
“Time is something we don’t have,” he replied tersely.
She took a deep breath. “Hand me a pen.”
The corner of his mouth rose, and he reached into his desk. Generally, he wasn’t on the receiving end of orders. He handed a pen to her and watched her scribble on the paper, brow furrowed. After a moment, she stared at the ceiling, absorbed in thought, then returned to scribbling. Finally she set the paper down on his desk and pushed it toward him with a self-satisfied smile. “Fast enough for you?”
He picked it up and read what she’d written under the coded message. He peered at her over the top of the paper. “Yes.”
She sat back in her chair. “But that was a simple code. You knew that, didn’t you?”
Instead of replying, he gave her a handheld communicator.
“Another test?” She studied the string of nonsense characters on the communicator screen, although it didn’t seem to capture her full attention. More than once her focus flicked to him as he leaned against the file cabinet, arms crossed, biceps flexed.
He tapped his foot, and she lifted her head. “This one is a little more complicated.”
“Oh, is my presence affecting your concentration?” he asked, looking down at her.
“Your foot,” she stammered.
. It wasn’t his feet bothering her. He was used to women gawking at his physique. He was also used to taking advantage of that. Holly’s blatant staring certainly enticed him, yet she wasn’t merely another pretty girl. There was something different about her, something interesting. Something that made him want to get to know her better. Much better.
He planted his hands on his desk and leaned forward. He needed to see her again after today, even if she was
a distraction. “Take the communicator home with you, where you can study the message at your leisure. Return tomorrow at fourteen hundred hours.”
Her lips thinned as she lifted her gaze to meet his. “That almost sounds like an order, Commander.”
He raised one eyebrow. “That’s because it is.”