“Leo Eyler, Teran Interstellar Force.” Leo flashed the guard his credentials. Security at this event was pathetic. Anyone could stroll in and take a potshot at Princess Sera Placido. Shit, they had
taken shots at her.
He’d avoided her. He had to. Princess Sera Ellysa Placido, last in the illustrious line of a royal family that was thousands of years old; he had to stay away.
Immediately he sensed a danger from her. He was drawn to her, and not just because she was beautiful. The vulnerability he spotted in her was like a magnet to him. But she was infamous. Her face was on every vid screen, every data streamer. Her exploits were plastered in every news bite in every corner of the galaxy. The last thing he wanted to do was to become enthralled with her the way the rest of the universe seemed to be.
A Brotherhood attack had left him scarred and bleeding two months earlier. It had been Princess Sera Placido who had helped to save him. And now he was here, on Teran Three, trying to find out why Brotherhood assassins wanted her dead.
Every one of his leads had dried up. The two generals they’d captured turned out to be only front men, faces to put with the horrors of the Blueshift Brotherhood’s killings. Two months later, the Brotherhood was still operating, still intact. Leo had thought he’d cut off the head of a snake, but it turned out, he’d missed.
Princess Sera Placido was the only link that didn’t fit the profile. The other targets were political powerhouses, high-ranking officials with access to sensitive planetary material.
The princess was a ruler without a planet, the head of a people with no home. Why her?
He glanced around the venue. The circular room was a nightmare. There were too many artifacts, too many places for an assassin to stash a bomb or hide a laser gun. Leo didn’t like it. The crowd was mixed; Terans, Ardasians, and several other alien races milled around and stared at the artwork. He shook his head at the security measures. They were woefully inadequate.
She was a force to be reckoned with. After all, she’d helped rescue him from Brotherhood assassins even when she’d been their target. Bloody, filled with knife holes, and about to die, Leo had thought Princess Sera was an angel. Perhaps it was the white evening gown. Angelic wasn’t a word that came to mind when he thought of her now.
He shifted his weight. Yes, she’d saved his life. Conner Mitchum and his mate, Rhea, had teamed up with the princess to take out a Brotherhood cell on Sethos Five. Leo had delayed the cell long enough for Conner and Rhea to save the princess, intending to sacrifice himself for his friends.
Without Princess Sera, he might have died from his wounds. Perhaps he should have thanked her in person. But she had moved on after saving his life, vid streamers in her wake. The last thing he’d wanted at the time was publicity.
He gazed at her in her signature white dress, her blue eyes hard and searching around the room. The woman was stunning. Lines around her full mouth denoted anger. What had pissed off Little Miss Shameless? The smile she bestowed on the priest shuffling behind her didn’t reach her eyes. Leo was amazed the man didn’t recoil from the waves of hostility.
With a flourish, Princess Sera began the ritual.
Leo knew very little about the event he was attending. Sponsored by Teran Three, religious in nature -- but nothing prepared him for the vision that appeared.
“The old ways bind us, restore us, renew us. We are Starchildren wandering among the heavens seeking the Source.” The princess’s voice cut through the low murmurs in the room until they fell silent. Leo stared at the woman’s face. The hollows in her cheeks were emphasized, and muscles in her jaw tightened to a hard line. The delicate bones in her face seemed to shift until they were sharper, stronger. Power. She exuded power.
Her hands, long and slender, grasped the sides of the pyramid-shaped altar. Light spewed from the markings, and sparks flew from the tip. The princess’s face lit up with an eerie glow, bluish and frightening.
Apparently Princess Sera was full of surprises. Her blue eyes glittered like fire.
Her voice murmured words in a language he didn’t know, and the stones all over the walls pulsed with light. Her hands rose, her white dress now a bluish hue in the flashing light. He had to shield his eyes from the strobe effect. The crowd around him seemed stunned, frozen in place.
The princess hummed, her sweet lips pressed together, and her eyes drifted closed. He strained to watch, dropping his hand, and the illumination stung his eyes. His gaze was riveted by her face and the shift of light across her features. Her fragile beauty was replaced by something stronger, something even more seductive and attractive to Leo.
Her hands connected together over her head, the clap
resonating off the walls. A blinding light flashed, and Leo fell to his knees. He shaded his eyes and glanced around. The woman had knocked them all down with just the clap of her hands.
Could this be why the assassins wanted her dead?
Her hands now reached out toward the crowd. “Blessed be the stars that guide us. Blessed be the Starchildren in their wandering. Blessed be.” She brought her hands together again, and the light receded from the room.
What did you do?” The priest staggered toward the princess and gripped her arm.
Leo didn’t think. He didn’t consider. Before her guards stepped in, Leo was beside her, twisting the priest’s arm behind his back, dropping him to his knees. The man cried out.
The princess shot him a glance; her eyebrows rose to her hairline. She turned and gave the priest her full attention. Leo almost shivered at the rage on her face. The lines around her mouth deepened, and her blue eyes glittered. “I performed the ritual as it was done by generations before me.”
The priest glared up at her. “Where is the altar? Where are the candles? The sacred chests?”
Leo glanced around. Well, shit.
The room had definitely been stripped. He hadn’t noticed the altar and the other items were gone. He was willing to swear no one had come in or out. The blinding light hadn’t lasted long enough to remove the items.
had removed them.
He held the princess’s gaze. She met his steadily. Still staring at him, she answered the priest’s question. “I sent them back to Placido where they belong. The ritual you demanded was the Star Blessing. I performed it. The items used are drawn to their home. Surely God would not allow such a thing to happen unless he blessed it.” Her glance swept over the priest. “I’m sure you’ll be thankful that God has restored his tools back to their rightful home.”
Leo didn’t miss the edge in her tone, and neither did the priest. When Leo released his arm, the priest groveled. “Yes, my lady. Of course.”
Ah, and the bodyguards arrived too late. One of them glowered at Leo. He glared back. The princess ignored all of them and spoke to the priest.
“I thought so.” Without another word, she swept into the crowd, which parted for her, leaving Leo and her guards staring after her.
“My superiors were right about her.” The priest’s gaze followed her as he slowly rose to his feet. “She is her mother’s daughter,” he spat, fear and loathing mixed in his glance.
Leo loomed over the smaller man. “Why the hell did you ask her here?”
The man shrank back. “You know what happened to her mother.”
Princess Sera’s mother? He’d heard the woman had died on Placido, trying to bring her people back to their home planet. There weren’t many details. “I’ve only heard rumors,” he said.
The priest’s nostrils flared. “?Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’”
“And that doesn’t answer my question.” Leo crowded the man, and the priest shrank from him.
“O-o-our order hoped she would d-donate to our cause.” The man stumbled over the words.
Leo didn’t believe him.
For a moment, Leo stared at the priest, then shook his head and followed the princess out the glass doors.
A huge crowd of vid streamers shoved their small cameras right in the princess’s face. “Princess, are you sleeping with Steed Jarvis?” Four or five Teran reporters sidled closer to her. The only sign of frustration the princess showed was flared nostrils.
She smiled. “I don’t do much sleeping,” she quipped and winked for the cameras.
Even Leo felt an electric response to her comment. Her smile, her knowing glance combined to reduce any man to a puddle of desire. Leo studied her closer. She was pale beneath her makeup, and her hands shook slightly. Everyone else focused on the long legs, the fantastic cleavage, and the glorious hair. They didn’t notice the woman beneath all of it. Leo didn’t want to either. He wanted to believe in the facade she presented to the universe: oversexed, reckless, and a bit brainless. He wanted to...but he didn’t.
“Do you have a comment on the latest video released from your session at the Star of Pleasure?” Another reporter shouted. “Does your council know you prefer menages?”
One blink and then she grinned. “I don’t know that I have a preference. The council is well aware that I enjoy my downtime.” She swept past the reporters. “I have to stick to my flight plan, my friends.” She said the last two words with an edge. “I’m sure you’ll understand if I cut this short.” She nodded at the two security guards who had done nothing to prevent the vid streamers from crowding her.
A reporter kept following her down the long corridor. “Is it true that your people blame you for your mother’s death?”
Leo had a glimpse of the princess’s profile and noted a flash of pain, of grief fly across her face. It was gone in an instant, replaced by a solemn expression. “It was a tragedy, and I’m doing everything I can for the surviving Placido people.” She strode away, and the security guards pushed the man back. Leo slipped around them. He shook his head. The woman was vulnerable, exposed constantly. Why wasn’t she dead?
One of her guards managed to elbow around Leo, glaring at him. He bent to the princess’s ear and whispered to her. Finally, she glanced back at Leo. “Yes, I know him. Leave us alone,” she told her guards.
The guards bowed and backed away from her. She stopped and waited for him. “Leo Eyler.” When he reached her side, she resumed her progress toward her suite. “I’m leaving. Now. I can’t stand Teran Three and their self-righteous bullshit. You can come with me or not.”
She was still pissed. That much was pretty obvious. She’d hidden it during her encounter with the reporters. Her hands were clenched, her face was white, and her back was stiff. Enraged might be a better word. Funny. He’d seen the vid streamers get in her face and ask some of the most obnoxious questions, but she responded with class. She rarely allowed anyone to goad her into anger. He’d believed it was due to lack of brains. Beautiful? Yes. Smart? Probably not. Women like Princess Sera were spoiled, indulged, and foolish. Everything he’d discovered about her reinforced his opinion.
Now he wondered if he’d been duped like the rest of the galaxy. That little display of power showed she had more layers than he’d originally thought.
He followed her into the suite and expected to find clothes, makeup, and various feminine items scattered all over the room. Instead her things were neatly put away. The only item out of place was a hairbrush, which she picked up and placed in a small white bag. In five minutes, she had packed her things and placed them on a small hovercart. “Let me change, and I’ll be ready to go.”
When she disappeared into the bathroom, he studied her bags. Utilitarian and easily maneuvered, they weren’t the bags of a rich woman. And Princess Sera was loaded. He’d thought, as many did, that she grew rich on the sale of Placido artifacts. Instead he’d discovered she had grack
mines on several planets, along with investments in sex clubs on Sethos Five and Teran Five. She certainly had a reputation.
“Let’s go. This planet reeks.” She’d changed into a skintight flight suit. It didn’t do anything to relieve the hard-on he’d been sporting since he’d laid eyes on her. Damn her. Why did she have to have those perfect lips and that beautiful red hair?
She didn’t wait for him. Her fingers punched the console on the hovercart, and it lurched forward. She opened the door and allowed the cart to speed ahead of her. Her guards followed her at a distance. They should be closer.
He had come this far and he wasn’t going to let them walk away. When they reached a few steps ahead of him along the corridor, he asked, “Who’s in charge of your security force, my lady?” The stiff backs of the two men revealed much. They didn’t like his tone. And the way they looked over their shoulders and glared at him, they didn’t like him asking questions either. Too fucking bad.
“Riordan Bari,” she answered. “He wanted to cancel all of my appearances. Luckily for me, he has no balls.” They reached the shuttle bay. The huge enclosed docking area was connected to the hotel and cathedral, so they didn’t even have to leave the building. Leo wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
“I have balls.” He hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but something about her demeanor made him want to make her laugh. “I would have made you cancel an appearance like this.” This wasn’t the best way to get in with her.
She turned to face him, and her gaze swept him from head to toe. What did she see? He hadn’t changed much since their encounter on Sethos Five. Oh, his hair was longer now, a silent rebellion against the Primarian military cut he’d sported for three years undercover. He was a Nyral male, taller than most men, and a nasty scar on his left cheek.
Her gaze lingered on his dick, which had a mind of its own and hardened noticeably while she studied him. Her eyes were half-closed when she met his gaze. “Really? And just how would you have done that? The last time I saw you, there were about twenty holes in you. I don’t think you’re up for a fight with me.”
Okay, she wasn’t going to play nice. “I suppose I wasn’t properly grateful, is that it?” He couldn’t help the caustic tone. She irritated him, damn it.
She shrugged. “I don’t care about what’s proper, Mr. Eyler. Why are you here?” She strode down the corridor, turning her back on him.
His long legs kept up with her easily. “My government sent me to protect you.”
“Why would the Nyral government want to protect me?” She didn’t really sound interested.
“The Blueshift Brotherhood interests them. They want to find out why the Brotherhood still wants to kill you.” This was hopeless. She was not going to cooperate.
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh? How would I know?” she asked in a cool tone.
Leo jerked his thumb toward the temple replica. “How about that show you just put on? How much of that is razzle-dazzle?”
If she’d been cold before, she was freezing now. “That’s none of your business.”
“It is if I’m going to keep you from getting killed.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So, you’re here for a job? I don’t need any more bodyguards.”
His lips lifted in a humorless smile. Blunt. He liked that. “No, you don’t need another bodyguard. You need a babysitter.” She took too many risks, exposed herself to danger.
Her nostrils flared, and color flushed her cheeks. Oh yeah, that was better. She was prettier when she was pissed. As quickly as the color rose, it receded, and a sweet smile crossed her face. “Why, thank you, Mr. Eyler.” Her tone was a rich honey. “I’m sure that’s what you do well, but I have plenty of men willing to...take care of me. With your experience
, I’m sure you can find someone else to babysit
.” She glanced at the other two men. “This appointment is over.” She whirled around and strode toward one of the shuttles.
He started forward, but the two men held up their hands to stop him. His eyes narrowed. The first man smiled, and Leo gripped his hand until that smile disappeared. Two seconds later, the man was on his knees, tears in his eyes. The second guard attacked, but Leo used his other hand to strike the man’s carotid, rendering him unconscious. The man on his knees gritted his teeth and tried to lash out.
Leo pressed his fingers on the pulsing vein in the man’s neck. The guard slumped to the floor.
He followed the princess into the shuttle. She’d been so confident the two men would stop him that she hadn’t waited. When Leo closed the door, the engines flared to life, and the docking-bay doors opened.
The shuttle shot through the Teran Three atmosphere and into space. One glance around the small shuttle revealed two disturbing facts. The princess flew the shuttle herself, and he was alone on this vessel with her.
And she flew the way she did everything else: fast and reckless.
Leo grabbed the handhold in the wall near the entrance to the bridge. Then he almost lost his balance when the woman twisted the shuttle upside down and flipped back around. The engines screamed, and he used all his strength against the g-force to get into the copilot seat.
The princess glanced at him, but the only sign of her surprise was a jerk of her hand off the accelerator. Then she glared at him and yanked the shuttle into an arc, shooting through Teran space at incredible speed. He forced his hands to relax so he wouldn’t reveal his anxiety. “How far to the nearest gate?”
“Turn on the autopilot. We have to talk.” He wasn’t taking no for an answer. She was going to have to give him the information he needed.
“I don’t have a thing to say to you, Dom Boy.”
Dom Boy. What did she really know about Nyral doms? So she was aware of his cultural heritage from the planet Nylar. What she didn’t know was how much of that dominance had been twisted by his time as a Primarian soldier. Sethos Prime had taken his natural need to control up a notch. Uh-huh. Time to show her who was in charge. He hit the autopilot, deflecting her flying fists. Barely.
His hand gripped her arm and pulled her from the chair. He didn’t expect her to end up in his arms, her lips locked with his.