How could her father do this to her? After everything she’d done to see the family through his many absences as he crisscrossed the stars, chasing the next war. Athena felt as if she might literally be sick all over Lugaren’s shiny boots as he hauled her up the lustrous white marble stairs to her front door. More than anything else in this world, Athena did not want to go into that house. Did not want to see the distress on her mother’s beautiful face when Athena told her what her father had done. She licked her lips and cut a glance at the man standing beside her. At least he wasn’t a troll. The fact of the matter was, if she’d met Barik Lugaren at a party, she would definitely have been interested in him. His cool gaze collided with hers, and he raised an eyebrow, then nodded pointedly at the door.
When Athena crossed the threshold, her mother rushed to her, folding her into a tight embrace.
“Your father just contacted me,” her mother whispered. “Oh, my daughter, I am so sorry it’s come to this.” Calypso Rochan held Athena at arm’s length. “Come upstairs, Athena, and I’ll help you pack.”
Barik stepped between them. “There is nothing she needs that I cannot provide for her, mistress. Might I suggest you spend the remaining time explaining to your daughter why your mate felt the need to send her away for training?”
Athena opened her mouth to berate him, but her mother placed a gentle finger on her lips. “He’s right, my love, let us spend what time remains together. Come to the solar room with me.”
Athena followed her mother down the wide marble hallway to a sun-drenched room overlooking a colorful garden. Calypso took Athena’s hand and pulled her down onto an oversized chair. Athena snuggled against her with a sigh.
“I don’t understand why Father is doing this now. Haven’t I done a good job running the company? I’ve done everything he’s asked of me and more. Perhaps I’ve done too well.”
Her mother’s gentle hand stroked her cheek. “No, Athena. Your father is very proud of you. He just wants to make sure that you’re well settled in a home of your own with a decent husband and a family. He’s not getting any younger, you know.”
Athena shook her head. “It’s cruel, Mother, to allow me the freedom to do as I please and then take it all away from me when he returns. I don’t want a husband and a family. I want to continue running Rochan Shipping. I want a life of my choosing.”
Her mother gathered Athena into her arms, rocking her side to side. “I know you do, my child, but you are an Elecian woman and have reached the age where your father must find you an appropriate husband. It is the responsibility of men to guide their women. It is our way.”
“By whose law, Mother? The men’s? Nice for them, isn’t it? We have to play by the rules they make. Don’t you ever want more? It’s not right.” Athena sobbed. “An appropriate husband? By whose definition? Someone to run every minute of my life and beat me when he disapproves of me? What kind of life is that?”
Her mother put a finger under Athena’s chin and tipped her head up to look in her eyes. “Is that what you think? That your father expects absolute obedience and beats me when I misbehave?”
Athena shrugged. “He treats you as if your sole purpose is to make his life easier. Men on this barbaric planet won’t allow women to have a single thought of which they don’t approve. All I know is that I don’t want to go with that…that…trainer
.” She spoke the word as though it were poison on her tongue. “I don’t understand why this is necessary, Mother. Why are we given such freedoms only to have them taken from us later in life? Better I’d been lowborn and raised to serve than have a lifetime of service pressed upon me after knowing freedom.”
“My sweet child. Your father is right. I’ve done you a disservice by not schooling you in the ways of the Elecian woman. But let me set your mind at ease. Your father has never hurt me. Not once in the forty years we’ve been together. In fact, there have been times when I…deliberately disobeyed his commands just so he’d take me in hand, so to speak.” Calypso sighed. “And trust me when I tell you, Elecian women have come a long way since the time of my mother’s mother. When she was young, women were still bought and sold and there were no laws governing their treatment.
“The Elecian people colonized this planet in order to escape a cruel regime on Serak. What most don’t know is that the silent revolt that led to them coming here was led by a woman named Olaine. She was the daughter of the Imperial Scion, but she was as ruthless and greedy as her father. And she knew she could never inherit.
“The people believed she wanted freedom for all the citizens of Serak, but what she really wanted was power. Knowing the planet’s inhabitants would resist following a woman, she secretly gathered together a group of men and women of like mind.
“It took years, but they finally managed to commandeer a ship and enough supplies to allow them to escape. Once they settled here, Olaine showed her true colors, turning the men of the colony into slaves. She worked them ruthlessly and many of them died. As a result, it became necessary to send out scouts to secure more men. Eventually, they captured the wrong kind of men, barbarians who soon overthrew Olaine and took control of the planet.
“Women were relegated to the role of chattel, bred to create a barbarian horde that rapidly spread across the sector. The majority of the girl children were sold into slavery. Others were kept in dormitories, forced to service the soldiers. They had no rights, no way to escape, and no skills with which to support themselves if they had.
“It wasn’t until millennia later, when Ratta the Wise took power that cooler heads prevailed and women’s lots began to improve. It was Ratta who declared that all women who desired it should be educated so that they might control their own destinies if they lost their husbands. Some were content with their lot in life and chose the old ways, but all had a choice. Today, all women are educated. I call that progress, Athena. Yes, men continued to rule, but with a gentler hand, until we reached the point we are today.”
Athena snorted. “Progress? Granted, I’m educated, but what good does it do me? Father rules my life, and when I’m forced to marry, so shall my husband. How is that any different than today? Granted, we are not sadistically beaten and kept ignorant, but other than that, it doesn’t seem to have changed much. The general decrees that some barbarian will train me as a submissive sexual acrobat, and when I return he will choose a husband for me. He will choose, not me. Why bother to teach me the business if I’m to be relegated to a life behind the walls of some petty tyrant’s home?”
Her mother smiled. “So that you will be prepared to take your father’s place should he die in the line of duty. So that Rochan Shipping will live on when he is gone. So that you and your children will be able to live comfortably should something happen to your husband. It is written into the law, sweet child. Every Elecian female will be educated and taught a skill that will allow her to care for her family should something happen to her mate. That’s why so many of your contemporaries are allowed to work outside the home. It’s meant to protect you whether your husband dies or his behavior forces you to set him aside.”
Athena sat up. “Set him aside? You mean as in I don’t want to be married to him anymore?”
Calypso patted her hand and nodded. “That’s exactly what it means, but you must have cause to put him aside. You see, a husband can demand your compliance in all things sexual, such as spanking and other types of sensual pain, but he must take care that he does not physically hurt you, Athena. Should he do so, you have but to present yourself to the local authorities with proof.”
Athena cocked her head, interested now. “And once harm is proven?”
“Why, the marriage is nullified, your bride price is returned, and your mate must compensate you for the loss of your lifestyle. And you will never be forced to marry again. This is why most men are very careful of their Elecian brides.”
“But it’s possible to get out of a marriage if you are unhappy,” Athena said.
“It is possible, but let us hope your father finds you a mate you can live with, hmm? My greatest wish for you is that you find someone who makes you as happy as your father has made me. Perhaps it is selfish of me, but I long to hold your children in my arms.”
“Oh, Momma.” The words came out on a sigh. Athena never wanted to disappoint her mother, but didn’t see how it would be possible for her to be happy in such a union. Not when she’d had a taste of freedom. And especially since she now knew there was a way she could always be free.
“Come along now.” Her mother urged Athena to her feet. “The sooner you begin, the sooner your ordeal will end.” Taking Athena’s face in her hands, her mother kissed her forehead. “I want you to cooperate with your trainer, my sweet. Try your best to do what he asks of you. Your father says he’s the best in the business. Learn what you must, and while you’re away, I will try to convince your father to allow you some choice in whom he considers appropriate prospects for a mate.”
Athena nodded, curving an arm around her mother’s waist as they walked back to where Barik Lugaren stood waiting. “What choice do I have? The general says if I fail he will disown me and I will never see you again.” The threat didn’t seem to disturb her mother. Did she have that much faith in her rebellious daughter, or did she have more control over the general than Athena thought?
“I’m ready,” Athena told Lugaren. Truly, she would rather take a beating than leave her home with the handsome trainer. What he did for a living was barbaric, and she had to admit, at least to herself, that she was terrified of what she’d be expected to learn. She hadn’t lived her life in a vacuum. She’d heard things—alarming things—about what she’d be subjected to sexually, and the prospect both terrified and intrigued her. Worse yet, looking at the big man cooling his heels by her front door, she couldn’t help but wonder: Would she like the things he did to her?
* * * *
Barik kept his fingers wrapped around Athena’s upper arm throughout the entire transport. He knew from experience that as soon as they reached his quarters, she’d take a swipe at him with those long, sharp fingernails. The spoiled rich ones always thought they could intimidate people they believed beneath them, but Barik had news for Athena Rochan: Spoiled rich girls were his favorite kind. There was no challenge in training a meek, frightened mouse. No. Give him a fiery woman like the general’s daughter any day. Barik couldn’t wait to have her bare-assed over his lap. His hands practically itched to heat those delectable cheeks before he slid his cock into her hot little cunt. Might as well start now.
As they arrived in his rooms, she lunged at him with those claws.
“Uh-uh, little cat.” He grabbed her wrists and smiled mirthlessly while she shrieked in frustration as he propelled her across the room and pressed her against the wall. “You signed a contract agreeing to obey my every command.”
“You haven’t made a command, Lugaren.” She snarled as she spoke, showing him her teeth.
He conceded the point. “Well, I’m making one now. Pull in those claws.”
He watched her struggle against her urge to strike out before nodding. He released her, and she dropped her arms to her sides.
“Now, take off your clothes.”