Ren - Nancey Cummings - E-Book

Ren E-Book

Nancey Cummings

0,0
3,99 €

oder
Beschreibung

The red guy. Again.
Emry thought she was done with alien Romeos who made promises and then ditched you, but their paths continued to cross. What’s a girl to do when the same guy keeps turning up like a bad penny?
Steal his ship.
The wrong thing for the right reason.
Four years ago, Ren made the mistake of choosing his clan above his mate, a weak human female unsuited for his toxic planet. He sent her away and has searched for her ever since.
Now fate has brought them back together. She might have stolen his ship and abandoned him, but he won’t let her get away a second time.
The chase is on.

Das E-Book können Sie in Legimi-Apps oder einer beliebigen App lesen, die das folgende Format unterstützen:

EPUB
Bewertungen
0,0
0
0
0
0
0



Ren: Warlord Brides

Warriors of Sangrin #11

Nancey Cummings

Copyright © 2021 by Nancey Cummings

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Created with Vellum

Contents

About Ren

The Story So Far

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Epilogue

Afterword

About the Author

Also by Nancey Cummings

Available in Audio

About Ren

The red guy. Again.

Emry thought she was done with alien Romeos who made promises and then ditched you, but their paths continued to cross. What’s a girl to do when the same guy keeps turning up like a bad penny?

Steal his ship.

The wrong thing for the right reason.

Four years ago, Ren mistakenly chose his clan above his mate, a human female unsuited for his toxic planet. He sent her away and has searched for her ever since.

Now fate has brought them back together. She might have stolen his ship and abandoned him, but he won’t let her get away a second time.

The chase is on.

The Story So Far

When aliens arrived on Earth, it happened with an invasion—just like the sci-fi movies taught us to expect.

The vicious Suhlik meant to enslave Earth and rob her of her resources. Only the Mahdfel warriors stood against them.

Once the enslaved by the Suhlik, the Mahdfel won their freedom. But as a lingering reminder of their oppression at the hands of the Suhlik, they cannot have female children.

Now, in exchange for protecting Earth, the hunky alien warriors demand only one price: every childless, single and otherwise healthy woman on Earth is tested for genetic compatibility for marriage with a Mahdfel warrior. If the match is 98.5 percent or higher, the bride is instantly teleported away to her new mate.

No exceptions.

Years ago, Havik and Ren left their clan and their home planet. Havik needed to escape the lies of his father.

Ren needed redemption.

Chapter 1

Ren

Before

The vehicle rolled to a stop outside the departure terminal. The female shifted on the seat, clutching her rucksack like a shield.

He turned off the vehicle. The engine ticked as it cooled. “I will accompany you inside,” he said.

“No, that’s fine,” Emmarae said, her voice stiff and her eyes forward. From this angle, he studied her profile. She was Terran. There was no way to avoid noticing, with her pale beige skin that seemed like no color at all and could not be healthy, the speckles of sun damage scattered across her nose and cheeks, and her hair so pale it was nearly white, like a shimmer of a mirage on the horizon.

Her narrow, thin blade of a nose kept drawing his eye. How could anyone draw enough air with such a feature? Rolusdreus would never produce someone so obviously ill-adapted for survival.

Ren hated this, every moment of this.

“Look at me, female.”

“My name is Emmarae.”

“Look at me, Emmarae.”

She sighed, turning to face him. A jagged scar pulled at the corner of her mouth, turning it into a ludicrous grin. “Why? Is eye contact going to change anything?”

“No,” he admitted. “This is for the best. The warlord—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck what your warlord has to say. This is between you and me, and right now, big shocker, you suck,” she snapped.

“This is for the best,” he repeated. The planet had high levels of radiation. His Mahdfel physiology was designed to thrive in the harsh environment, but her fragile Terran body could not survive. When the first Terran females arrived to be mated to the warriors of the clan, many were skeptical of their value. They could not venture outside the domes without wearing protective armor or tolerate the extreme temperature fluctuations. Even the sun was too harsh and burned delicate skin.

When the warlord forbade any more Terran females, Ren reluctantly agreed. His closest friend and his Terran mate suffered the loss of their unborn son. He would not wish that suffering on anyone, even if he thought it dishonorable the way his friend Havik sent the female back to Earth.

Then the warlord put an ultimatum to his warriors that anyone with a Terran mate had to refuse the female or leave the clan. Ren kept his opinion to himself as good warriors left the clan, choosing their mates over an egomaniacal warlord. He admired those males, doing what was correct and honorable.

He never imagined what he would do in that situation. Why would he? Everyone knew Ren was inferior. He was small, the runt of the clan, and obviously defective. Generations of genetic engineering and adaptation crafted the perfect warrior to thrive on the harsh planet, and all of that failed to manifest in Ren.

No female would be matched to him; if they were, the hubris he would need to claim her, to defy the scorn of his clan and his warlord. He could not imagine their sons.

“You deserve to be where you will thrive,” he said.

Perhaps if the warlord’s son, Havik, had kept his mate instead of sending her back to Earth, then other warriors in the clan would have resisted the warlord’s push to remove Terran females. Ren grew angry at the way his friend had been fortunate enough to be matched to a mate and then reject her, angry at the way he, himself, had been pressured to refuse his own Terran mate, and even angrier at himself for not resisting that pressure.

He was a failure in every way conceivable.

“You may file for a divorce. I will not contest your decision. It is for the best,” he said.

“You keep saying that, but I don’t think you know what that means.”

He understood. Every moment of this day irritated him like sand in the joints of his tail, but he could see no other way. Faced with only poor choices—keep his female and be outcast from the clan while the very planet slowly poisoned her or reject his mate to keep her safe and healthy—he chose the wrong action for the correct reasons. He hated it, but he would have to learn to live with the consequences of his actions. Her well-being was more important than his ego.

“I understand,” he said, even if she did not.

“Do you?” She turned to face him, the scar lifting her top lip in an exaggerated grin, but that was the only thing about her face that appeared amused. “How much humiliation do you think I deserve? I go back to whoever’s in charge, the alien bureau, and I explain that I didn’t cut it. They match me again. I get rejected again. For fuck’s sake, how pretty do you need me to be?” She pressed a finger to the corner of her eyes.

Ren realized with alarm that she had grown emotional. “Do not cry,” he said, unable to stop the female’s tears.

The tears he caused.

“Oh, fuck you. I’ll cry if I want to. I mean, I know what I look like.” She waved a hand to her face. “I get it, but I also figured that all cats are gray in the dark, so it didn’t matter much. Butter face. Put a bag on my head. Ha-ha. Well, the joke’s on me.”

“I have excellent night vision.”

She tossed him a sharp look. “Really? That’s what you have to say?”

“I have miscalculated—”

A bitter laugh tore from her throat.

“If you believe your appearance is the cause of my rejection, you are mistaken.” He liked the scarring and the sun damage. It was interesting in a way he was not used to seeing. Mahdfel healing prevented skin from being marked in such a manner, barring severe damage was caused by a poison or some other caustic agent.

She leveled a flat stare at him, full of challenge and resentment.

“This planet is not suitable for Terrans,” he added.

“Whatever. Is this going to take long? Because it’s boiling in here.”

He turned the engine over. Cool air rushed out of the vehicle’s vents.

“I’m not doing the test again. Going through this once is enough,” she said.

He disliked the idea of her being matched to another. He had no right to feel possessive, but Emmarae was his match. His mate. No one else should have her, even if he could not keep her.

He disliked himself even more for his greedy, grasping thoughts.

“Some males send their mates to a safe location when the environment is unsuitable or an active battlefield,” he said, a proposition half-formed in his mind. The wide collar of her tunic slipped off her shoulder. His gaze lingered on the curve of her neck where it joined her shoulder.

There. His mark would go in that patch of unblemished, sallow beige skin. The thought pleased him immensely.

“It is not unusual. No one will remark on your return to Earth if they believe you are mated,” he said.

She gathered the fabric of the shirt in one hand, pulled it to her throat, and covered that intriguing location. “What do we have to do to make that happen? Consummate the marriage?”

Consummate. Such an interesting Terran word, combining consume and mate.

Yes, he would very much like to consume Emmarae, but he said, “A bite mark would suffice.”

“Here?” She looked around the cabin of the vehicle.

“Here.” He reached for her shoulder but halted when she flinched. When she relaxed and gave a slight nod, he lightly touched where her neck joined her shoulder. “And here.”

“Will it hurt?”

Undoubtedly. Usually, the bite happened mid-mating, when the female would be too euphoric to notice—if he did his job correctly.

A tapping at the window interrupted his thoughts.

“Not now,” he barked at the figure on the other side of the vehicle’s window.

“You can’t park here. You’re blocking traffic,” the person said.

Ren looked at the empty road and gestured broadly. The spaceport had no traffic. Rolusdreus was not a tourist destination and had few exports.

“Either drop off your passenger or move your vehicle,” the person said.

Grumbling, Ren pulled the vehicle into a lot on the other side of the road. They were only a few meters from their original location.

“What do we have to do for the bite? I don’t want an infection,” Emmarae said. Despite her stern tone, her hands twisting in her lap gave away her nervousness.

Ren produced a med kit from under the seat. “I will clean the skin and apply a numbing agent. Your discomfort will be minimal.”

She eyed the kit. “And people will think we’re married?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t have to be matched again,” she said with a relieved-sounding exhale. “Okay. Fine, but since we’re on biting terms, call me Emry.”

“Emry,” he repeated. He enjoyed the shape of her name on his lips. The moniker suited her much better than the florid Emmarae.

“Let’s get this over with.” Emry tugged down the collar to bare her skin and gathered her hair in one hand. She tilted her head to one side and screwed her eyes shut as if anticipating pain. A pale silver scar, faded with age, ran along the clavicle.

Ren opened the cleansing packet and gently applied the swab. A chemical odor filled the vehicle’s cabin but quickly evaporated. Next, he applied a numbing gel.

“Ugh, my nose tingles. Is it supposed to tingle?” Her free hand scrubbed at her nose.

“No, but do not be alarmed. Terran epidermis is thinner than a Mahdfel’s.” Most were. Ren and his ilk had been genetically engineered to be superior warriors with accelerated healing, increased muscle mass, heightened senses, enhanced reactions. A durable epidermis was part of the package.

“Is it safe for humans?”

“Yes,” he said with fake confidence.

Emry searched his face. She sighed, either believing his bluff or deciding she could not be bothered to question him. Squeezing her eyes shut, she said, “Fine. Just do it.”

“I will touch you now.”

Another sigh. “Spare me the play-by-play. Make with the biting.”

Ren stroked her shoulder and watched her for a reaction or a flinch. Nothing. The area must have been sufficiently numb.

He brushed back her hair, tucking it behind a rounded ear. The pale strands were fine and flowed like water. His thumb brushed along the clavicle scar. “What happened here?”

“Same thing that happened to my face,” she snapped. Then sighed. “Sorry. A car accident. Broken collarbone. It was a long time ago. It’s… a sensitive subject, and it’s been a hell of a day.”

Yes. His fault, again.

Leaning across the vehicle, he pressed her face into the curve of her neck. His tusks dragged across her skin, and he breathed in. If this would be his only opportunity to touch his mate, he would savor the experience. Underneath the antiseptic chemical, he caught the scent of lush, damp earth and green. So much green. Her scent was unknowable, born of a gentler planet and forbidden to him.

Longing pierced through him, and he bit down, sinking his fangs in until he tasted blood. His tusks dug against her clavicle but did not puncture her skin.

Emry gasped. “That’s so weird. It’s wet and I feel pressure, but nothing else.”

Ren withdrew and made quick work of cleaning and bandaging the bite.

“That’s it?” Her fingers touched the gauze covering, as if in disbelief.

“That is it. We are mates,” he answered.

“Fake mates.”

“Legally mates. You cannot be bound to another,” he said, knowing he spoke a half-truth. She could still petition for divorce and mate another male if she so chose. Ren had the feeling that once Emry set her mind to a task, nothing, not even a half-truth, would be an obstacle.

“So, this is goodbye.” Again, a touch to the gauze covering.

“It is for the best.”

Eventually, he would believe the lie.

Chapter 2

Emry

There were bad days, and then there were no good, very bad, horrible days. Putting your underwear on backward was a sure sign that the day had already been ruined and the safest bet was to crawl back into bed and wait it out.

Emry dressed and hauled her butt out the door because the proverbial donuts would not make themselves. Her day started at four, and she rolled up to the bakery before the birds and anyone with sense was awake. In the summer, the early hours were cool and quiet. In the winter, she questioned her life choices that involved a bakery and letting her sister take the apartment above the shop. Gemma just rolled out of bed and she was ready for work.

When Emry found her twin sister bloodied and bruised outside the bakery’s back door, she knew she should have gone back to bed. This was a no good, very bad, horrible kind of day.

“Did they…” Emry’s mind blanked at the blood smeared across her sister’s mouth. So many bad things could happen to a woman, and she didn’t want anything like that ever happening to Gemma.

Gemma shook her head, tissue pressed to a corner of her mouth. “Sent a message with their fists this time.”

Emry fetched the first aid kit from the bakery. She set about cleaning up Gemma. Her hands shook with anger, but that was fine. Anger kept her focused because fear didn’t do her any good.

The blood smeared across her cheek looked terrible, but it cleaned up easily. She pressed the alcohol swab to Gemma’s split lip, dabbing at the mess. Gemma hissed but did not flinch. “What happened?”

“I went out with Charlie last night.”

Emry’s back went up. Gemma’s friend always had a smug grin that made her dislike him. “I hate Charlie.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I hate him if he hit you.”

“This wasn’t his fault. He got busted up, too.” She repeated a familiar story. She went out for drinks with her friend and ran into a bill collector. Not the respectable, works-in-a-call-center kind of bill collector. “I told Charlie to be chill, but he went all white knight on me, which made it worse. So, they had to slap us around to make their point.”

“Oh, Gemma. None of that is okay.”

“It’s just money. We’ll find it,” Gemma said.

Just money.

“Because we’re rolling in it, Gemmy-bean,” Emry said with no small amount of sarcasm.

She briefly had a fortune after her match to an alien, but she returned promptly to Earth and opened a bakery with Gemma. Before the Invasion, before their father had grown ill from cancer, the LeBeaux Bakery had been a neighborhood institution. Two generations of LeBeaux-baked bread and decorated cakes in a small storefront. Reopening the bakery had been Gemma’s dream for as long as Emry could remember.

When their father lay on the sofa, too tired to do anything more than nap, Gemma planned. When the aliens dropped bombs, Gemma held her hand and whispered about the delicacies they would make. Such beautiful and astounding pastries that they had to be magic, sprinkled with stardust. They concocted fantastic recipes, unicorn cookies, and pixie cupcakes.

The money paid to her as compensation for upending her life and shipping her off to a radioactive planet—even if her stay only lasted two days—was a windfall. While the bakery had always been Gemma’s dream, she was glad to bring unicorn cookies and pixie cupcakes to life.

The Draft hung over Gemma, as it did every woman on Earth. Some of Emry’s alien cash went to a fixer who made Gemma’s name vanish from the Mahdfel database. That cost a pretty penny, but hey, problem solved. Money well spent.

Illegal? Hella. Uncommon? Not really.

Understandable? Very.

Only those shady people now had dirt on Gemma and threatened to report her if she didn’t pay. The blackmail demands had been steadily increasing for the year, growing from something they could budget for into something that broke the bank.

But then people who removed Gemma from the Draft blackmailed her. A payment here, some money there, and no one would suggest that the Feds look closely at Gemmarae LeBeaux.

Why not blow the whistle on the greedy bastards? Because prison. Anyone caught manipulating the genetic tests—either via DNA, database hack, or plain old no-showing for testing—was sentenced to prison. The punishment far outweighed the crime, in Emry’s opinion. Policy left too many people vulnerable and afraid to call the authorities for help.

“You know what I think we should do,” Emry said.

“I’m not a snitch,” Gemma said.

“It’s not snitching when you’re being blackmailed.”

She knew they were codependent, and it wasn’t exactly a healthy coping mechanism. As kids, they survived an honest-to-goodness alien invasion after watching their father fade away from a cruel illness. But they survived and everything would be okay. And it was until one night, long after life had returned to normal, a drunk driver took their mother.

Welcome to the new normal.

It was just her and Gemma and their damn bakery against the world.

“We’ll figure it out,” Gemma pleaded, dark eyes wide. “Come on, say, ‘Gemmy-bean, we’ll be okay.’”

Emry couldn’t, though. They couldn’t bake enough cupcakes and croissants to keep from drowning. These people had their hooks in Gemma and Emry. Nothing about this was okay.

“Change into something clean. The donuts aren’t going to make themselves,” she said.

Gemma worked the kitchen, and she worked the front. Usually, their roles were reversed. Emry was the better cook, and she didn’t need people gawking at her face. Gemma was better at schmoozing with the customers.

Today, however, Gemma jumped every time the computer chimed when a new customer walked through the bakery doors. If the people she owed money to wanted to pay her a visit during working hours, a flimsy half-wall would not stop them.

“Where’s your sister, darling? She’s always so amusing,” an older woman asked, her silvery gray hair in braids and twisted into an impressive updo.

“Zits. Like, wow, you wouldn’t believe. Now she’s too vain to show her face.”

Gemma shouted something rude from the back, and the woman chuckled.

Charming even when she was in the wrong. Emry felt a quick stab of jealousy because no one chuckled when she had a bad day and let out a few choice words. People either politely ignored her, eyes sliding over her scar and, consequently, her whole damn person, or they blanched like she was some monster that escaped the basement.

Fuck, she really hated working the front.

When the rush died down, Emry used the lull to break up the giant iceberg in the ice machine. The machine had a bad habit of shutting down overnight, causing the ice to melt and refreeze in a massive lump. It made Emry’s life easier—and let her blow off some steam—to go at it with an ice pick during service lulls.

The bakery wasn’t where Emry imagined herself when she entered culinary school with Michelin stars in her eyes, but it was a good enough place. Decent, at least.

Being in debt to people who you shouldn’t be in debt to hadn’t been the plan.

Thwack.

The ice pick stuck true, breaking off a large chunk. Gemma should have spent her ill-gotten loan on a better ice machine. Instead, she put a down payment on a larger shop with a huge kitchen, shiny new equipment, and mediocre parking. The tiny lot filled up fast during peak hours.

She told her not to worry about foot traffic. They’d do more special orders and catering.

Thwack.

The bakery wasn’t a mistake. It had eked by at the smaller location. Now they could barely afford rent and the interest on the loans. She worked all hours. Gemma worked just as much as her. Up before dawn and a few hours after the shop closed, cleaning and prepping for the next day.

Thwack. Thwack. Crack.

She was just so thoughtless. It didn’t come from a bad place, just misguided enthusiasm.

Maybe they should lose the bakery.

The thought crept in, and it felt like a betrayal. Interstellar cruise ships were always hiring cooks. She liked working in a busy kitchen more than baking bread and technicolor cookies. The more she had to make complex pastries and tiered wedding cakes, the more she craved simplicity. Stuffing people full of her favorite stick-to-your-ribs comfort foods sounded appealing.

Right out of culinary school, she and Gemma landed jobs on a cruise ship. It was busy work in a kitchen that never closed but satisfying. She worked until she felt she was chopping and prepping in her sleep, her hands jerking with the movement of an invisible blade. Gemma got to indulge herself in creating overly complex desserts that wowed the crowds.

It was good until it wasn’t, and that was all Emry’s fault. Her mouth. Again. The thing about cruise ships they never tell you is that they’re small. Even if the ship is huge, it’s small. Everyone is a passenger. There’s nowhere to go to blow off steam. When you’re sitting on the observation deck, having a drink, watching the stars, and trying to enjoy some time off, you’re still on the clock when a passenger comes along and starts making demands.

Some entitled passengers acted like the staff were personal servants, and Emry had enough. It wasn’t a huge deal, she thought, when she told the passenger she needed to ask someone else to take their food and drink order. What was a big deal, apparently, was telling off the manager who wrote her up for an adverse customer experience.

The next stop was feeding the crew on a commercial cargo ship, as long as she didn’t make any of her “strange Terran food.” That was decent enough until Gemma’s temper clashed with the captain. The smallest mistakes turned into infractions, which were docked from her—and Emry’s—pay. Unfair, true, but there was nothing to do but grin and bear it until they reached a port.

That had been a long two months, especially since Gemma couldn’t seem to keep her opinions to herself. Emry felt no remorse about walking away from that gig.

Shortly after, she was matched to Ren, and that experience turned out so well.

Then the shenanigans with the bakery. Cue two-and-a-half years later…

“Did the ice behave inappropriately?” a male voice cut in, chuckling.

Emry stabbed the ice prick into the frozen lump before turning her attention to the customer at the counter. An alien.

“Yeah, it was talking smack about my momma,” she said.

The man, violet complexion, and iron-gray horns picked up a laminated menu from the counter. “Anything I should avoid?”

“Everything’s good, but if you’re asking about allergens, Earth food is safe for aliens.”

“What do you recommend?”

“If you’ve got a grudge against your cardiovascular health, I’d suggest the sunrise croissant.” A poached egg smothered in three slices of cheese on a croissant. It was disgustingly delicious.

“Terran food. How adventurous. Let’s do that and a coffee.” The man set down the menu with a flourish, and Emry rolled her eyes at the showboating.

She poured coffee while the egg cooked in the microwave. Look, the sandwich was something anyone could make behind the counter in a limited space. It wasn’t fine cuisine.

“Nice place you have here,” the alien said, perusing the treats in the display case. “What does your mate think about it?”

“I’m not married,” she said without thinking. “I mean, he’s away and—”

“Sent you to Earth. Yes. I read the file.” His fingers tapped along the glass case. “Very vague. Sent you to Earth. That could mean almost anything.”

Emry clutched at the collar on her shirt, covering up the bite mark. The alien—not just an alien, a Mahdfel—made her feel exposed.

The microwave dinged, and she slapped together the sandwich. With no pride in her work, she shoved it in a paper bag. As an afterthought, she grabbed a plastic lid for the disposable coffee cup. “I recommend that you take your order to go.”

“Does it taste better if it’s to go?” His eyes sparkled, clearly enjoying toying with her, dangling bits of information about her that no one knew besides Gemma.

“It tastes better than my foot in your ass. Leave.”

The alien grinned, as if he had some clever comeback, but he left.

That one was trouble.

Another end to a long-ass day.

Gemma sat on the wooden steps that led to the apartment above the shop. She held a worn photograph. Evening sunlight pooled around her, catching the blond highlights in her hair.

She looked up at the sound of the back door opening, hastily stuffing the photo into a pocket.

“Let me see,” Emry said, heaving the garbage bag into the dumpster before reaching for the photo.

“Gross. Hands.” Gemma moved the photo out of reach.

She rolled her eyes but wiped her hands down her jeans, like that would help.

The photo paper felt fragile to the touch, like it would crumble under the weight of time and memories. A tall man stood smiling in front of the original LeBeaux Bakery, carrying one gap-tooth kid on his hip. The other kid clutched his legs, face turned away.

Emry had memorized every inch of this photo. She did not remember when it was taken—hell, she barely remembered her father or the bakery—but she could feel the sunlight and smell the sugar mixed with yeast that always clung to her father. That she remembered.

She handed it back to her sister.

“We should sell,” Gemma said.

“You don’t want to sell.”

“But you don’t love the bakery the way I do. You’re stuck with it. With me.”

“Gemmy-bean, I’m not stuck.” As soon as she uttered the words, she knew they were true. She could leave anytime. Only obligation and a sense of duty tied her to the bakery. “If I wanted to leave, I’d leave.”

“Wow, you didn’t even hesitate. That’s cold, sis. Real cold.”

Emry nudged their feet together. “I might not love the bakery the way you do, but I don’t hate it. And I’d quit before I started hating it.”

She sighed, hanging her head forward. “I wish I still smoked. This feels like the moment for a cigarette.”

“No, you don’t, and gross.”

“I messed up, and I know you’re mad. I don’t want you to be mad anymore,” Gemma said, tucking the photo back into her wallet.

Unsaid between them was the tangible need she had to recreate something good, something from before everything went to hell. She clung to that dream, and Emry didn’t blame her. That dream gave them hope in their darkest days. She did the wrong thing for the right reason. How could she be upset?

“We’ll figure it out.” They always did.

The alien came back the next day. He waited in the back, lounging on the steps like a sleepy cat enjoying the sun.

Scratch that. Not a sleepy cat. Lounging like an alley cat sizing up a mouse.

Emry didn’t have the energy to play whatever game he thought he was playing.

“What do you want?” she asked, heaving the trash bag into the dumpster.

“I seek to insult my cardiovascular system. The morsel you prepared yesterday was exceptional.” He licked his lips. Ugh. That was just gross and unnecessary.

“This back here,” Emry gestured to the narrow alley and back lot, “is private property. You need to leave.”

He seemed unimpressed. “I know about you, Ivon Emry LeBeaux.”

“Who the hell is Ivan Emry?” she asked, knowing full well that the alien was talking about her. He had an accent, but it wasn’t that thick.

“Ivon Ren is your mate.”

“And?” Emry resisted the urge to fold her arms over her chest because she once read that was a defensive gesture and made you look vulnerable. She leaned against the cinderblock wall. “Is this blackmail? Buddy, you are barking up the wrong tree. I am fed up with blackmailers.”

“Terran idioms. No one is barking.”

“But you are lurking and skulking. Scram.” She turned to leave.

A hand on her arm stopped her.

She glared at the purple hand holding her. His grip was loose, but he could easily tighten it into a crushing grasp.

“Not until you hear my offer, female.”

Ah, there it was. A squeeze, light, but just enough to let her know he had raw muscle and superior size on his side to make her do what he wanted.

“I am so fucking sick of you aliens!” She jerked away, giving herself a bruise. “You think just because you’re so big and mighty, that you can do whatever you want. Well, fuck off! You can fuck right off. I have a mate, and I got rights.” The words poured out of her, her frustration venting in a blue cloud of swears and threats. “So what if Ren’s not here? You can’t touch another male’s mate. I’ll report you to the FBIA and your warlord.”

The Feds, the Federal Bureau of Interstellar Affairs.

A slow grin spread across his face, the alley cat readying to pounce on the poor mouse.

She really hated being the mouse in this scenario.

The back door swung open.

“This guy causing problems?” Gemma emerged from the back, wiping her hands on a towel. Tossing it over her shoulder, she glared at the lilac alien. The bruising on her face gave her a certain air of badassery, like she was the foul-tempered pastry chef your momma warned you about.

Okay, no one’s momma warned them about foul-tempered pastry chefs, but they should have. Pastry chefs slung around huge sacks of flour like they were nothing, and dough was tough to work. They had serious upper-body strength.

Emry groaned. She felt safer just having Gemma at her side, but that safety was an illusion. Fronting to an alien warrior like she was a badass was the fastest way for Gemma to get herself hurt.

“No problems. I merely convey a message from her long-lost mate,” the alien said, continuing to lounge casually on the steps.

A message? Damn her for being curious.

Gemma put the pieces together faster than Emry did. “Is that the guy? Tell me that’s the guy.”

She tried to push past Emry. A hand on her chest kept her in place.

“That’s not him.”

Gemma narrowed her eyes. “Are you saying that to avoid a scene?”

“The guy,” she said, stressing the words with sarcasm, “was red like a devil with a tail. Does he look red to you?”

“He’s got horns.”

“Wrong alien.”

“Bet he’s got a pitchfork too.”

A laugh burst out of Emry. When she returned to Earth, she gave Gemma a quick and dirty rundown on what happened. Her skimpy details did paint Ren to be a cartoon devil. “That’s not Ren.”

Gemma searched her face, then nodded. “Well, I don’t like that one. You can’t trust him.”

She nodded in agreement. “Do you really have a message, or are you screwing with us?”

“I have a proposition.”

Right, now it was a proposition. Emry did not appreciate the way his story kept changing. Nailing down hard facts with this guy was probably as easy as catching a greased pig.

“I’m listening,” she said.

“Enough money to pay off your blackmailers and then some.”

“Yeah, right.” Money did not fall from the sky, and blackmailers did not go away once they caught the scent of cash.

“I have a friend. Pashaal. Good head for business, but not much else. She likes novelties. Toys. And she recently expressed an interest in a Terran chef.”

“You want me to be some sort of pet trotted out for dinner parties?” Emry had worked in worse conditions.

“Consider the credits to pay off your… associates as a signing bonus.”

Gemma cocked an eyebrow. “When you say enough to pay off our associates, how much is enough?”

The alien quotes a figure large enough to make her gasp.

More than enough.

“What’s the catch?” Emry said, because there was always a catch.

A slow smile spread across his face. Emry shivered. “A small favor. Minuscule,” he said, pinching two fingers together to demonstrate. “You work in her kitchen and tell me who attends her parties.”

“That’s it? You want the guest list?” There had to be more. He didn’t need a plant to get a guest list.

Emry opened her mouth to tell the guy to get lost when Gemma snagged her attention.

“Can we talk?” She jerked her head to the door.