Friday, August 13, 2010
Ronan Macaulester had never believed in love at first sight.
His opinion wouldn’t change today.
However, despite his dire need for haste and his mortal peril as an Otherlander on the unfriendly planet of Ares, he drew rein at the sight of a young woman kneeling by the side of the dusty road. Her hands were clasped to her chest, and her eyes flashed at two men who taunted her.
“Take off your top,” the older of the two men shouted. His booted foot stamped the ground. “You know the rules.”
Ronan’s bird squawked loudly, as if annoyed by his rider’s stop. More likely, the sensitive animal had picked up the hint of violence hovering in the air, as dark as the line of woods edging the far side of the green meadow.
Big Boots moved closer, crushing the delicate flowers which bloomed around the woman’s spot like a beautiful, but ineffective, moat. He raised one leather-gloved hand, fingers clenched into a fist.
Ronan straightened in his saddle and reached for the cool comfort of his knife. He’d use the high-tech, highly lethal Tazzrak gun hidden beneath his travel-worn shirt only as a last resort.
The woman leaned back against a large boulder, even as her eyes flashed a warning.
“Don’t touch me.” Her strong, melodious voice rang out, and the men halted as if the sound were a tangible, physical barrier to their assault. “You can see enough to know what you’ll be bidding on.”
Shock raced through Ronan’s body. Bidding on? This woman was a whore, offering herself by the side of the road?
Her dress, shimmering in a peach shade almost identical to her skin tone, covered her from neck to ankle, conveying an overall impression of luscious beauty rather than sex for sale. Her golden brown eyes fairly sparkled with intelligence and determination. And the pride that stiffened every inch of her slender body gave her a look of dignity he’d never seen in a prostitute.
But her feet were bare, and her long pale hair flowed down her back in a waterfall of temptation. Though neatly bound close to her head with silk ribbons intertwined in a pattern comprehensible only to women, the hair fell in sensuous abandon where it had been let free. Ronan squashed the memory that intruded in his mind—of another young woman he’d known who’d worn her hair just like that. Another time. Another planet. He refused to remember.
Closer inspection of this woman revealed that her garment was sleeveless, and the neckline in fact plunged narrowly to her waist, yielding a teasing glimpse of cleavage, more than enough to be a distraction. His body stirred.
His eyes glittering with anticipation, the booted man took another step closer to her.
“We have a right,” he repeated, his voice as gravelly as the dusty roadside under the restless feet of the large emu bird on which Ronan was mounted. The emu had an uncanny sensitivity to humans and, if provoked to attack, the nine foot tall, three hundred pound bird could kill a man. But, after two weary months of constant travel, Ronan had grown to admire and trust his bird Griffin. He leaned over to stroke the soft black feathers on the neck of his agitated mount.
The distraction also gave him a moment to decide what he should do about this woman. His instinct shouted that a woman this beautiful, and gutsy enough to try to face down two men, would never offer herself as a common whore. But she knelt there in the flower-strewn meadow almost calmly, making no attempt to escape. And the men seemed confident in their behavior, unalarmed by Ronan’s presence, a stranger and a witness to their actions.
Ronan had learned long ago not to make snap judgments. Here, on the isolated and little-known planet Ares, caution seemed even more important than usual. He’d traveled widely and knew that what was forbidden on one planet could be a sacred religious rite on another.
“Show us your breasts,” the younger man called out. His blond hair spiked back from his forehead in contrast to the long thin nose jutting aggressively from his face. “Or we’ll expose them ourselves.”
The woman glanced for the first time at Ronan as if wondering what role he would play here. Her gaze halted at his hand, now stroking the black feathers of his bird, as he soothed the restless animal. A delicate pink flush bloomed suddenly in her cheeks and Ronan’s hand stilled. What was she thinking?
His other hand tightened on his knife even as he felt despair squeeze his heart. He didn’t have time to rescue a damsel in distress. He’d tracked his brother to this planet, found him murdered, and needed to return home with his painful news before his impatient father launched an attack to rescue his missing sons.
Why couldn’t he simply accept that the woman sat there voluntarily, turn his back and make good his escape from this benighted place? This was none of his business.
But the voice of his mother sang the theme of his rearing, even as he hesitated here by the meadow. You are the blessed son of a strong family from a wealthy planet. Your obligation will always be to protect the innocent.
While his father had taught him to defend his family and planet from any enemy, his mother had reminded him of the reverse side of his strength, his duty to protect the defenseless.
With an inward sigh, he raised his voice. “What’s happening here?”
The two men turned as one. One of them spat in the road. “Leave us, ferengi.”
Ronan didn’t flinch at the galaxy-wide epithet for a foreigner. He’d been called worse in his travels.
“Mistress?” he inquired, hoping the appellation carried the same mark of respect here that it held elsewhere. “These men appear to be bothering you.”
“Rogues,” she said. Her full mouth tightened as if to hold in more contemptuous words. And, for the first time, Ronan noticed the beautiful moonstone necklace that gleamed around her throat like a blessing from the gods. Cool, translucent stones sparkled like stars on her golden skin. The mystery deepened. A necklace of that quality was literally priceless anywhere in the universe.
He subtly urged his bird closer to the woman.
Three more men clattered over the hill and into view. As if they bore doom in their wake, a dark cloud scudded overhead and obliterated the weak sunlight. A sudden chill raced down Ronan’s back as the mounted trio drew rein sharply at the side of the road, raising a swarm of choking dust. He could smell danger, as if the sharp, acrid tang of a lightning bolt had struck nearby.
As if emboldened by potential reinforcements, the first two men exchanged a glance and then sprang simultaneously at the woman. Each pulled one side of her dress, and the garment tore open, revealing her perfect, golden, pink-tipped breasts.
For a moment, no one drew a breath as the dust settled. Even the birds remained silent as if in homage. Then a soft breeze exhaled a sigh over the valley, and Ronan moved, vaulting off his bird and racing toward the woman. In spite of himself, his eyes latched onto her perfection. An assault of lust almost stopped him in his tracks, but he used it to knock the two men sideways, one with each hand. Springing past the downed men, he tore off his vest and dropped it over the woman.
“Stand up,” he ordered quietly. “Stay behind me.”
He met her gaze briefly, reading the disappointment there. She knew he’d looked at her nakedness.
Casting off a vague sense of regret, he turned to face the three mounted men, hoping to read their intentions. Right now, they remained on their birds, but the burly black-haired one grinned widely, as if he intended to enjoy whatever happened. A smaller, slender man with silver hair sat at his ease in the middle of the group. The third man, as drab as the cloud of dust, licked his formless lips and waited.
The silver haired man locked gazes with Ronan. His eyes signaled contempt and arrogance, a look Ronan had endured before on this planet.
But he couldn’t stand by and watch five men do whatever they intended with this woman. Not when they’d already started by half-stripping her. If he had to, he could probably take down all five of them. But, as tempting as that prospect seemed right now, he didn’t have time for that, either. Ronan held up a hand.
“Move on,” he shouted. He injected into his voice all the habits of command he’d learned in twenty years of military service.
His bird squawked suddenly, as if she urged her mates to action. The birds ridden by the three men moved restlessly, harnesses jingling, pink beaks prodding the air.
The silver haired man jerked on the reins of his bird, yanking her into stillness. He spoke slowly, his thin mouth curving in a slight smile as if he already enjoyed his victory.
“We’ve come to view the sacrifice,” he said.
“What sacrifice?” Ronan demanded.
“You don’t know our customs, ferengi,” the burly man shouted. “Be off!”
Suddenly, the woman stepped to Ronan’s side. He smelled her perfume, a faint floral bouquet, as if the flowers at her feet had transferred their scent to her.
“The fault is mine,” she said woodenly. He heard her take a deep breath, and then she flung off his vest. Her torn dress gaped wide.
“Observe, gentlemen.” The second word was laced with bitterness. “Plan your bids.”
The incipient violence in the air braked to a sudden halt as all six men stared again, transfixed.
“Allow me.” She brushed past Ronan, her skirt rustling softly in the silence. “I must do my duty.” Sinking gracefully to the ground once more, she resumed the kneeling pose she’d held when he arrived. Except for the breasts bared to the gaze of every man.
Ronan gathered his wits and squatted down in front of her, shielding her from the view of the other men. With a supreme effort of will, he kept his eyes fixed on her face.
“Would you please explain what is going on here?”
“She doesn’t owe you anything!” one of the men shouted.
Ronan turned, and for the first time, his large knife gleamed visibly in his hand. “You may attack me,” he said softly. “But I’ll kill the first who try.”
“Enough.” The woman spoke sharply though her voice chimed musically in the still air. “These men are enjoying what is theirs by right, the custom of our land.”
“Your custom requires you to strip before any man who passes by?” Ronan heard the anger in his voice and fought to control his emotions. He wasn’t sure why this spectacle disgusted him so profoundly. He didn’t inhabit this planet, knew nothing of its customs, and had neither the time nor the right to interfere.
But he simply couldn’t turn his back on this woman, no matter that she now seemed compliant in this strange tableau.
“My wedding day is tomorrow,” she said, her voice as colorless as the now sunless day.
“It is our custom to auction every bride on the eve of her wedding.”
“Auction?” he repeated hollowly. “What exactly are you selling?”
“My virginity.” Her soft voice traveled no farther than his ears.
“By all the gods.” He drew in a sharp breath. “That’s barbaric.”
“It is our most honored religious custom. No bride is exempt.”
“Whom does this action honor?” He cast a derisive look at the listening men whose eyes remained fixed on what they could see of the woman. “The god of depravity?”
“It is our custom,” she repeated. Her fierce gaze met his and held it. “I don’t like it. I don’t believe in it. But I have more important battles to fight for my countrywomen.” Her hand waved through the perfumed air. “Go. I see you’re anxious to be off.”
“And what will happen to you?”
“The same thing that would have happened if you hadn’t come along.”
“Enough!” The silver haired man urged his mount forward. “You’re a stranger here, an Otherlander by your dress and your ignorance. You will not disparage our Mother Goddess. It is her command we follow, and our women are pleased to do her bidding.”
Ronan snorted with contempt. “Who interprets the Goddess’s wishes? And who gets the money generated from the auctions?”
The man stopped directly in front of Ronan. “The ministers interpret her wishes, of course.” His smooth voice resonated with self-assurance. “And the money goes directly to the Temple of the Goddess.”
“Fine.” Ronan switched tactics with the ease of a warrior known as much for his political acumen as his battlefield prowess. “I presume any man can participate in this auction?”
“Yes,” the man answered slowly, a small frown darkening his pale face. “Though for a woman such as this one, the stakes will be very high.”
“I can see that.” Ronan nodded. “And I am prepared to meet them. So there’s no need for her to continue exposing herself here.”
He picked up his vest and placed it over her shoulders again, an impulsive gesture he’d undoubtedly live to regret.
He would stay until tonight and attend the auction even though it would force even more haste into his journey. If he didn’t make it back to his port of entry before the night moons vanished from the sky approximately three days from now, he’d be trapped here for at least two years, a harsh price and one he had no wish to pay.
He knew well, both from his own bitter experience in tracking down his murdered brother, and from whispers that hissed throughout the galaxy, that the planet Ares harbored only death for those few who dared to tarry on its unfriendly soil.
But he’d traveled inward by this same route, tracking his brother. So he knew that his return schedule, though tight, had several hours of cushion built in. If he didn’t use those hours to help this woman, he’d never forgive himself.
He kept his attention focused on the men as the woman rose gracefully to her feet, ignoring his outstretched hand.
“What are you doing?” she asked in a low voice.
He raised a brow. “I’m taking you out of here.”
“You deserve better than this.”
He looked down at her, alarmed by a sudden rush of protectiveness. The vulnerability of her bent head contrasted sharply with the tension in her stiff shoulders. Her silvery blonde hair framed a strong face softened by intelligent brown eyes and soft, sensuous lips, lips he suddenly and inappropriately wanted to taste. Lust at first sight was something he definitely believed in.
Pushing the thought aside, he spoke harshly. “Where’s the man you’re supposed to marry?” He should be here protecting her.
“He’s not allowed to interfere.”
Was that a trace of defensiveness in her tone? “I’m not either,” he pointed out. Placing a hand lightly on her waist, he urged her toward his mount. “Let’s go.”
“You can’t take her away.” The booted man jutted out his jaw, as if to buttress his courage. “She’s supposed to sit there all day.”
“Show’s over.” Ronan stared the bully down, letting his hand flex idly on the still visible knife. “You don’t want to be my first victim, do you?”
Deliberately, he moved toward the man, forcing him to either give way, or risk a physical confrontation.
The man waved at his comrades. “Come on, guys. We can take this ferengi.”
“Harrah!” The burly man kicked his bird forward.
“Stop!” The silver haired man held up his hand. “We could deal with him here and now. But it might be more amusing to let him attend the auction tonight.” His cold gaze rested on Ronan. “If he’s so anxious to participate.”
“I’ll escort you home,” Ronan said to the woman. When she hesitated, he added, “Your presence here will only cause more trouble.”
She looked from Ronan to the five men watching her, as if wondering which choice would be the lesser evil. A tendril of hair blew across her face, and she turned her head into the breeze, facing the group of men who stood on the roadway.
“You belong to us, Lady Galatea.” The silent man spoke for the first time, softly.
Ronan dropped his hand to her waist and squeezed gently. He leaned forward to murmur in her ear. “You belong to yourself, Galatea.”
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