Highest Bidder

Spaceport Mercy, Book 1

Lexxie Couper

Prologue

New Earth

Galactic Union Calendar 210

Gods, she didn’t want to get married.

Naya Kistara stared out at the congregation, ignoring the rapt expressions on the faces of the massing hundreds. Was it too late to take off? To steal a ship and escape beyond Galactic Union space?

Reverent hands lifted her ceremonial veil from her head and she let out a sigh. Definitely too late.

The cool air of the temple kissed her naked body, rippling her scented flesh into a mass of tiny bumps. She resisted the urge to run her palms up and down her bronze-dusted arms. Any moment now the Sub-Priests would begin their mellifluous chant, the door of the temple would open and in would walk her future husband. Gloriously unclothed. Proudly aroused. Ready to take her prized virginity there and then on the Altar of the Gods.

What his mind wanted… what his lust demanded… during this first union would permanently influence the person she’d become after the ceremony. Naya hoped that, by appearing strong and confident, perhaps that’s what the premier of the Galactic Union would desire as he entered her body.

Saving the people of New Earth—her people—from brutal marauders hellbent on decimating the planet was all very well and good, but she didn’t want to become a sniveling wimp in the process. If her new husband saw a woman with dignity, spirit and strength waiting for him at the altar, perhaps that’s what he’d think of—lust for—during the Joining.

Whatever his heart and mind truly wanted in a wife, that’s what Naya would become. Irrevocably.

Suppressing another sigh, Naya lifted her chin. She could only hope her future husband wanted more than a passive, docile wife.

Gods save her if all he craved was a submissive sex slave.

It didn’t help that she was presented that way. The Sub-Priests may be eunuchs, but for men without genitalia they seemed very obsessed with the notion of sexual first impressions. What kind of holy men thought a naked woman painted only in bronze powder was in any way—?

A commotion outside shattered the worshipful silence of the temple, ear-piercing, like the smashing of a thousand panes of ancient Earth glass. A high-pitched wail came from beyond the cavernous walls, piercing and terrified, only to be whipped away and silenced by what sounded like a roaring wind. Around her, the congregation began to shuffle, shooting glances at each other. Nervous.

Naya’s heart beat faster. Her breath caught in her throat. What was going on?

There was another wail from outside—louder and filled with agony—and as one, the congregation gasped. Naya swallowed, her belly a churning mass of apprehension. Gods, was this part of the premier’s entrance?

A deafening boom rocked the temple, showering the Joining congregation with marble dust, rat shit and bird lice from the ceiling. Naya flinched, raising her arm to shield her eyes. Fine particles of grit fell on her shoulders, in her hair, and—forgetting for a moment about the ceremonial powder coating her body—she swiped it away.

A swift intake of breath to her left made her start and she turned her head, frowning at the attendant standing beside her. The man gazed at the strip of newly exposed flesh on her shoulder, horror swimming in his eyes.

Naya’s heart lurched into her throat. The powdered covering of her body was a significant part of the ceremony. It told her future husband she was untouched by the hands of others. What would he say when he saw the smudged—

“Deviant!” the High Priest behind her snapped, barging between Naya and the gaping attendant. “Do not look upon the riephia’s flesh.”

Naya flinched, giving the scowling High Priest a stunned look. His gaze met hers for a split second and his face filled with heat before he turned away, stepping past the altar and raising his arms.

“Do not be concerned.” His deep voice boomed throughout the cavernous room, bounced off the walls. “All is well. The Joining will—”

With an eruption of splinters, the doors of the temple burst open, along with sizeable portions of the surrounding walls. Naya squealed, ducking as debris flew through the room.

For a still second nothing happened, and then an icy Earth wind gusted through the gaping hole, lashing at her naked, vulnerable body, pinching her deeply bronzed nipples into rock-hard nubs of flesh.

Naya didn’t take any notice.

Because at that very moment, ten massive men covered in armor and furs stormed into the temple. Ten men with intricately scarred faces and wicked weapons.

Ten men looking at her.

Naya’s heart leapt into her throat. Mentuan slavers.

Mentuan Sex-slavers.

Gods save her, she was in trouble.

Chapter 1

Ezilia

Galactic Union Calendar 210

Dreylan Tarq was two steps into The Puckered Tip when someone tried to kill him.

The blade sliced through the space just to the right of his head, so close he felt the dank air ripple in its path. Growling silently, he snatched the short, lethally sharp blade from the air and sent it back through the sex club’s heady artificial environment with just a flick of his wrist.

Straight into the ridged forehead of the Prijchan who’d thrown it.

The Prijchan’s eyes widened, and then an ear-splitting squeal silenced the raucous club. The crowd reeled as one, seconds before the hulking blue-skinned Prijchan fell flat on his back to the filthy floor with a ground-shuddering thud, black hilt jutting from between his bulging eyes.

Dreylan turned away from the jerking form, casting an almost bored look over the gaping, silent partiers. “Anyone else want a go?” No one said a word. Or dared draw a breath. “Good.” He nodded. “’Cause I’m thirsty.”

He continued to make his way to The Puckered Tip’s bar, ignoring the gawking patrons as they parted before him.

Resting his elbows on the bar, Dreylan studied the rows of bottles and decanters lining the wall before him. Not one bottle of Ozio to be seen. He let out a dramatic sigh and shook his head. Little remained of Ezilia from before the violent interplanetary wars that gave birth to the Galactic Union, and what did was often putrid, mutated and diseased. A few cases of Ozio, however, had survived the GU’s swift and draconian “cleansing of moral decay and filth”. If a man were lucky, he could find a bar that had a bottle and indulge. After coughing up an obscene number of credits, that is.

Dreylan had the credits but it seemed he didn’t have the luck. Not today at least. “H-Two,” he ordered, flicking the barkeep a quick look. Behind him, the crowd had begun to move. To whisper.

Hearing his name in the hushed murmurs, Dreylan rolled his eyes. Gods, couldn’t he go anywhere without being recognized?

The bartender returned, trying not to stare as he placed a filthy glass on the counter. Dreylan looked at the murky, crap-brown liquid. “What the hell is this?”

The Myxmak swallowed, all four of his eyes blinking rapidly. “H-Two, s-sir. I mean Sir Tarq. I mean—”

Dreylan shook his head. “Get outta here,” he snarled, waving the quivering bartender away. Picking up the glass, he studied the contents through its grimy sides. No Ozio. No H-Two. So much for quenching his thirst. The Puckered Tip had not impressed him so far.

Returning the glass to the counter, Dreylan counted to five.

Then pulled his disruptor on the fat Terran suddenly joining him at the bar. “Hello, peace-keeper.” He leveled the gun at the man’s flabby gut. “What do you want?”

The Terran grinned. “Long time no see, Tarq. I see you took care of Blegd.”

Dreylan cast a look at the motionless Prijchan, still sprawled on the floor. Someone, he noted with a smirk, had pulled the bounty hunter’s blade from his forehead. Someone else had balanced a glass of what looked like Itillian ale over the spot where the wound would be. “These dolts get slower and more stupid every cycle.” He turned back to the bar, re-holstered the disruptor and picked up his glass. “Seriously, Mak, what idiot paid that fool to bring me in?”

Mak Wylsen chuckled, his enormous gut wobbling. “That idiot would be me, Tarq.” He slid his own weapon from its harness and placed it on the counter facing Dreylan. “He wasn’t supposed to stick you, of course, but I guess you get what you pay for. Hate to do this to you, good buddy, but by order of the Galactic Union, you’re under arrest.”

Dreylan glanced down at the peace-keeper’s neutralizer, shaking his head in disgusted contempt. “Are you sure you want to do this, Mak?”

“Not at all.” Mak pulled an apologetic face, but the gun didn’t move. “But ever since my partner got himself kicked off the force, I’ve been doing all sorts of things I don’t want to do.”

Dreylan’s grip on the filthy glass tightened and a surge of anger rolled through his chest. “I wasn’t kicked off, Mak. You know that.”

“Yeah, I know that, but anyone who wants to keep their nuts attached says otherwise.” Mak adjusted himself on the barstool, a look of guilt flashing across his fleshy face as his hand moved to his gun again. “I’m a bit fond of my balls, Tarq. I plan to keep them a few years longer, no matter how much of a fuckwit my boss is. Or how good a partner you were.”

“Which is why you’re doing exactly what the premier orders, huh?” Dreylan studied the murky liquid in his glass. “No matter how stupid…or dangerous.”

Mak had the decency to look uncomfortable. “Are you coming in on your own or do I need to restrain you?”

Still studying the cloudy glass of H-Two, Dreylan cocked an eyebrow, a knot of dark anticipation squirming in his chest. “I think I can come in on my own. I’ve been wanting to have a word with Premier Ipari for quite some time now.”

Mak shot him a disgusted look. “I’m not taking you in so you can break the premier’s nose, Tarq.”

A grin stretched Dreylan’s mouth. “I wasn’t planning on breaking his nose, Mak. I’ve already done that, remember?”

Mak raised his pistol from the bar and jabbed it at Dreylan’s shoulder. “Listen, you go in there with Aimyl on your mind and you’re asking to be shot. You may have escaped with your life the last time you and Ipari met but he’s not going to put up with any shit now.” The barrel of Mak’s pistol tapped once against Dreylan’s chest. “You start trouble,” Mak went on with a serious expression, “and I won’t protect your sorry ass.”

Hot anger scorched Dreylan’s veins as he gave his ex-partner a flat glare. “Aimyl hasn’t been in my head since she walked out of our house, Mak,” he growled. And it was the truth. His wife hadn’t entered his mind since she’d left him for that conniving, power-hungry fuck Pretorik Ipari seven cycles ago. He hadn’t given her a second thought.

Pain—tight and bitter—squeezed at his heart.

Really?

Yes. Really. Maybe. Okay, fine. The absolute last time he’d thought of his deceiving, traitorous wife was when he’d identified her body at the morgue. After the Mentuan slavers had—

A sharp crack cut through the macabre thought and Dreylan looked down at his suddenly wet hand, watching a stream of bright red blood mingle with the spilled fluid from the shattered glass in his clenched fist.

Mak snorted, re-holstered his gun and pushed his sizeable frame from the stool. “Yeah, you’re Mr. Cool-and-Detached. I can see that.”

Dreylan stared at his blood as it seeped from the jagged gash in his palm. There should have been be pain but there wasn’t. The moment his wife had left him, Dreylan had begun to detach from his emotions.

The moment the Mentuan slavers highjacked the shuttle transporting Aimyl to her new life and lover—a mere three hours into the journey—and slaughtered everyone aboard, Dreylan Tarq, once the highest decorated peace-keeper in the GU, had lost the ability to feel pain.

To feel anything.

Premier Pretorik Ipari was responsible for that.

It was time for the treacherous bastard to make amends.

* * * *

The manacles dug into her flesh.

Naya looked down at her hands, causing her long hair to slide over her bare shoulders in a feathery caress. The bronze powder dusting her body clung to the fine strands, turning the tips into a burnished copper curtain that brushed against the thick gray manacles around her wrists. The ship’s harsh light glinted off the polished steel, highlighting her situation better than words ever could. Gods, what was going to happen to her?

“So, Terran,” a guttural voice growled in front of her. “What would you like to do?”

Naya raised her head, glaring at the hulking Mentuan standing before her. “Slit your throat.”

His red gaze roamed over her, a leering grin slowly stretching his mouth. “Mmm. A little rougher than I’d expected for a riephia. Perhaps you’re not as pure as they say.”

Naya lifted her chin. She was petrified, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to let him know that. “I’m more pure than you could imagine, slaver, but just because I’m a riephia doesn’t mean I don’t know how to fight.”

The Mentuan slave master took a step closer, his breath hot on her face. “I’ve been watching you, Naya. And you’re right. You do know how to fight. Hence the manacles.”

He threaded his fingers through her hair, inspecting the dark-brown strands with a critical eye. A grin played with his mouth and he returned his attention to her face. “Those cockless fucks who were guarding you all this time thought they’d kept your existence from us, but they were wrong. Empathic mesomorphs aren’t exactly commonplace in the universe. When your people discovered your existence, the heavens shook with their excitement. New Earth’s one and only chance for salvation, to buy a place in the oh so duplicitous Galactic Union, born to two worthless humans. A savior and sex slave in one innocent package. The contradiction is quite delicious, isn’t it?”

His hand snaked out and slid over Naya’s right breast. She gasped, repulsed fury pouring through her. “Get your hands off me!”

The slave master’s stare rose to her face, evil delight igniting his eyes. “I don’t think so. Not yet, at least.” He squeezed her breast again, pinching her nipple between his fingers.

Another surge of raw hatred tore through Naya and she thrashed in her restraints, glaring at the Mentuan.

“Oh, you are going to make me a shitload of credits,” he murmured, pressing his body to hers. “An untouched riephia with the spirit of a viper. What other sins does that delectable body of yours hold?”

“My future husband will pay good money for my return.”

“True,” the Mentuan agreed. “But not as much as I’ll make selling you at the Port Mercy Slave Market.”

Naya clenched her jaw, refusing to break his stare despite the icy fear rippling through her veins. Spaceport Mercy? Gods, wasn’t that on the edge of the universe? “Since you know everything about me,” she replied, “you also know who my future husband is.” She swallowed down a sudden lump of distaste. “If you don’t return me to Earth, he’ll bring the full force of the Galactic Union’s peace-keepers down on you.”

“The peace-keepers don’t concern me, and neither does your husband.” The Mentuan trailed his fingers over her breasts in slow circles. “I am Taipyr, captain and master of the slave ship Control. I am outside Union law. The GU cannot touch me.”

“Bastard.” Naya hissed, fury exploding in her chest. She lashed out again, her shackled wrists snapping to an abrupt halt inches from Taipyr’s smirking face. Sharp pain tore through her shoulders and she cried out in frustration and dismay.

“Spirit.” He nodded, lips curling away from jagged yellow teeth. “The spirit of a warrior queen and the body of a Slessorian concubine. Gods, I could fuck you myself here and now.”

Revulsion filled Naya but she held Taipyr’s leer. “You know what happens if I have sex with someone, slaver? I change. My psyche transforms until I’m emotionally, mentally and psychologically what a man wants in his perfect mate. My soul bonds to their soul—and theirs alone. Forever.” She glared at him, desperate to hide her fear. “I’m worthless to you once that happens.”

The Mentuan chuckled again. “Now, now, Naya. Do you question my intelligence? The second I learned of your existence, I researched everything ever recorded or known about your kind. Do you know what I found the most interesting?”

He paused as if allowing her to answer, his fingers working down her belly to splay over the curve of her sex. She stared at him, unable to respond.

“Not that the riephia mutation gene manifests only once every five hundred years…not that it only presents itself in human females. No. What I found most interesting was the fact that only penile penetration will trigger the empathic transformation. That means I can fuck you with anything I want. My fingers, my tongue, the hilt of my whip—anything that will fit inside your tight cunt—and you won’t change. I could sell you battered and bleeding and you would still be worth money to the right buyer. Without a cock to take you, you’re still a riephia waiting to transform, yes?”

Fresh terror erupted in Naya. Icy cold and consuming. He was correct. She was at his depraved mercy. He could do whatever he wanted, violate her in a hundred ways, as long as he didn’t penetrate her body with his penis.

Her stomach churned. Her mouth went dry.

She stared at him, determined not to show anything but strength. “Fine. Do your worst, but I want you to count the money you’re fucking away as you do. I may not be totally worthless when no longer a sexual virgin, but I am…how did you put it? Worth a shitload of credits as an ‘untouched’ riephia.”

Taipyr smiled, the expression hideous and chilling. “The body of a Slessorian, the spirit of a viper and the brains of a master merchant.” He chuckled, sliding his hands back up to her breasts. “The monks really did prepare you well for your future husband.” With one final flick at her nipples, he took a step back, studying her with a gaze that made her flesh crawl. “What a shame he will never get the chance to enjoy you.”

He crossed the room without another word, taking up watch against the opposite wall.

She closed her eyes, forcing her heart to return to its normal pace. Gods, what was she going to do? What could she do? He’d left her untouched, but who knew what the slaver would do the next time he entered the room.

She’d led a sheltered life. Growing up in the Temple of the Gods, spending every day being prepared to be the perfect wife by eunuchs who both revered and reviled her. Through no fault or plan of her own, she was a creature born to a sexual destiny, raised by men who chose to destroy their sexual ability.

And despite being unspoiled, she knew what sex was. Oh yes…

Since reaching adolescence, she’d dreamed every night of a man who introduced her to a rapturous bliss she couldn’t fathom but hungered for nonetheless. A man with smoldering eyes who entered her dreams and made her scream and cry with pleasure by just the touch of his hands and mouth and tongue.

Yes, she knew what sex was. And she had no illusions—what the Mentuan slaver might do to her would not be sex. Not even close.

Don’t think about it, Naya.

She forced her body to relax. Focusing on negative possibilities wouldn’t achieve anything.

Relax. Compose. Control…

The mantra from her lonely childhood wafted through her turbulent mind and she felt her muscles begin to loosen. Relax. Compose. Control…

She sank to the floor, heavy waves of numbness rolling over her. Relax. Compose. Control…

Her heart slowed.

Her breaths grew even.

Relax. Compose. Control…

Her head drooped forward and…

Warm hands smooth up her back, heating her chilled flesh with slow, gentle care. She shifts, moving her head a little. The hands find their way to her shoulders, massaging the knots of muscles there before skimming up the curve of her neck and tangling in her hair.

She sighs.

A low hum sounds on the edge of the darkness, soft and constant.

Fingers tug gently on her thick tresses, and she shifts again, letting her head loll forward. Warm lips find her neck, charting a slow path up to the sensitive dip at the base of her skull. She shivers, the action pinching her nipples into rock-hard tips of wanting flesh. She skims her fingers over them, shuddering at the jolts of tension charging through her at the slight contact. Immediately the lips on her neck join her fingers, nibbling and playing not only with her nipples but the entire swell of each breast. First one, then the other. He eases her onto her back and then teeth join the exploration, teeth and a tongue, wet and hot.

Naya moans, the sound like a siren’s call in the silence of the night. The mouth on her body pauses before slipping down to her navel, mapping the curve of her rib cage, the flatness of her belly, as it goes.

Outside, in the black nothingness, the low hum grows louder.

She sucks in a swift breath, knowing her lover will not stop at her navel. He never does. Her sex grows wet and heavy with anticipation and she lifts her hips, eager for his mouth to find her swollen pussy lips.

He raises his head and looks at her with piercing blue eyes. Eyes the color of an ancient Terran glacier. But it is fire that burns in their depths, desire. He smiles, a grin that shouts his intention seconds before he slides his hands up her thighs and dips his fingers into her sex.

She arches, her cry echoing in the silence.

Yet even her cry is soft compared to the hum. The hum growing louder. Louder…

Her lover plunges his fingers in deeper, wriggling them, twisting. He strokes the sweet spot within the wet walls of her sex and Naya gasps, but all she hears is the hum.

A thumb finds her clit, rolling over it, teasing. Liquid tension claims the lower half of her body, setting it afire. The soles of her feet tingle. Her sex constricts, a wicked spasm that makes her heart race and her mouth go dry. She grinds her sex to her lover’s hand, staring into his oh so blue eyes. Something is happening. A wave of exquisite torment is building within her core. She can barely breathe. Gods, what’s happening to her?

Her lover’s lips move, but his words are lost to the hum—now a roar. Mechanical. Powerful. Frightening. He smiles, teeth flashing, before slowly lowering his head to the junction of her thighs. His tongue licks the outer edges of her damp folds and she shudders, another cry escaping.

The hum devours it. The humming sound of the engine devours everything.

Except her.

Her lover devours her. His tongue on her sex, in her sex, lapping and licking and laving.

The wave rolls through every inch of her body. She opens her mouth to beg her lover to take her, claim her.

The thrumming engine steals her plea, but he hears her all the same.

He rises from between her legs, looms over her, his cock long and thick and dripping with pre-cum. Desire glows in his eyes. He spreads her legs wider, teasing her clit with his thumb, spreading her creamy juices over her sex. Readying her to be filled.

He aligns his rigid shaft to her weeping sex. He opens his mouth and all she hears is the growing roar, the humming roar, the inescapable roar of the ship’s engines.

Naya jerked awake, both fear and pleasure assaulting her flushed body.

She looked up at her wrists, the consuming warmth of the all too familiar erotic dream shattered by the sight of the metal bindings still keeping her on her feet. Still keeping her imprisoned.

She bit back a sob. She wasn’t writhing in ecstasy. Wasn’t in her dream lover’s arms. She was still aboard the slave ship.

“Interesting dream, riephia?” a voice growled. “Care to share?”

Naya started, fury hot in her veins. She raised her head, glaring at the hulking Mentuan watching her from the far wall. “Release me, Taipyr, and I’ll show you what a nightmare feels like.”

The Mentuan chuckled. “I have to admit, I’m tempted. The battle alone would be worth the scars I’m sure you’d cause.”

Incensed rage rolled through Naya but she held Taipyr’s stare. “I would rip your throat out before you had the chance to touch me again.”

Taipyr laughed. “Maybe,” he murmured. “But what a way to die.” He crossed to the door, his footfalls thumping on the metal floor like the beat of a death knell. The door slid open and he turned, casting her a malicious glare. “We dock at Port Mercy in five clicks. I’d say get ready, but trust me, nothing could possibly ready you for what awaits.”

Chapter 2

Dreylan stormed into the premier’s office, Mak almost running at his side to keep up. The premier—the biggest bastard in the known systems, by Dreylan’s reckoning—sat behind a desk roughly the size of a star cruiser, smug expression firmly in place.

Dreylan smirked. The premier’s features may have projected arrogant confidence, but his eyes projected something entirely different. Agitated apprehension.

Dreylan cocked an eyebrow. “Good to see you’re still scared of me, Ipari. Maybe you’re not as stupid as you look.”

“Tarq,” Mak hissed, puffing to a stop beside him before the premier’s desk.

Pretorik Ipari scowled. “Don’t worry, peace-keeper. I’m quite used to Tarq’s lack of respect.” He turned his flat, mud-brown gaze to Dreylan. “Just as civil as always, I see. No wonder Aimyl left you.”

Anger simmered through Dreylan. He curled his fists tightly, controlling it. Just.

“Not as poised and unflappable as you look, are you, Tarq?”

Dreylan leveled a glare at the GU’s premier. “Not even close, Ipari.”

Pretorik stared at him, a slight twitch tugging at the corner of his left eye.

You should be nervous, you gutless prick, Dreylan thought. Very nervous.

Tense silence stretched between them, Ipari’s eyelid twitching more with each heavy second. Dreylan snorted with disgust. Fuck this. He’d had enough. He turned his back on the ruler of the known systems and began to stride from the room, Mak’s exasperated groan the only sound to be heard.

“Tarq.” The premier’s voice cracked the tension. “I have a proposition for you.”

Dreylan didn’t slow his pace. “Not interested.”

“I will return your service record.”

Dreylan continued to the door.

“I’ll return your record and position. I’ll give you back what you lost.”

Dreylan balled his fists. Hate and agony and rage consumed him, painting vivid images in his mind of a once happy marriage, lost to a man drunk on power and envious lust. “I’m not interested in what I’ve lost,” he threw over his shoulder, low and emotionless. “Nor in anything you can offer me.”

“Accept my proposition, or I’ll release the truth about the famous Dreylan Tarq over the uni-com service. How the decorated GU peace-keeper lost his sanity upon learning his wife was leaving him and butchered her aboard a short-range shuttle… Her and every one of the forty passengers also aboard the transport at the time.”

“Premier!” Mak gasped. “That’s an outright lie!”

“Maybe. But that one little…story…would turn Tarq from the most idolized peace-keeper in the GU systems to the most wanted. He’d be dead within a day.”

“Jesus, Tarq!” Mak burst out. “Do the job. For the love of gods, just do it. If you don’t, you’re a dead man.”

Dreylan stared at the door, detached calm embracing him. “I already am a dead man, Mak. I died the second my wife betrayed me.”

Mak’s eyes grew frantic as he hurried over to where Dreylan paused just inside the room. “Do you really want to die before you make Ipari pay?” he muttered, the words almost inaudible. The worry in his eyes turned cold and he flicked a surreptitious glance at the premier. “You know what I’m talking about, Tarq.” His wrapped his fingers around Dreylan’s biceps, his stare hard. Pointed. “Do you really want to die before true justice is served?”

Dreylan studied his ex-partner, the man’s hate for his boss potent. Even before Aimyl’s death, Dreylan had long suspected Pretorik Ipari of having a secret relationship with Mentuan slavers. A suspicion, it seemed, Mak shared.

“Do you?” Mak ground out.

Chest tight, Dreylan turned, fixing the premier with a flat look. “You have five minutes, Ipari. Tell me what you want. And why you’re so eager for me to be the one to do it.”

* * * *

“She’s New Earth’s emissary in their quest for inclusion in the Galactic Union.”

Pretorik’s words echoed in Dreylan’s head as he strode past the crowded slave markets on Level 7 of Port Mercy. “Our intel has concluded the Mentuans were paid by those not wanting Earth to come under the protection of the GU, including New Earth—New Planet, a rebellious faction on the planet itself. The GU can’t be seen intervening with the politics and conflicts of those planets not in the union, otherwise I’d send in my top peace-keepers to retrieve her. I need you to buy her, regardless of cost, and bring her directly to me.”

Dreylan ignored the hushed voices whispering his name. He ignored the cautious looks from stall owners and slavers lining the cramped thoroughfare. He fixed his focus on his destination—the elevated selling podium located in the level’s courtyard, where the day’s featured auctions would take place. Spaceport Mercy Security Commander Kassandra Scott had approved his docking immediately, and he’d passed through inspection and headed for the port’s dodgiest level without delay or interruption.

His reputation, it seemed, preceded him, even this far from GU space.

Which didn’t make him any less agitated. Something didn’t gel with the premier’s explanation. Something felt wrong.

“No one would question you buying her.”

Why not?” Dreylan had asked.

Ipari hadn’t answered the question. But he’d said something that had made Dreylan want to rip the premier’s head from his soft politician’s body. “Once you’ve bought her, I want you to invade her dreams. I need to know what’s been said, what’s been done to her since the Mentuans took her.”

Dreylan grit his teeth and pushed through the crowd, drawing closer to the selling podium. Invade her dreams…

Only two people knew what he was—an Ezilian dream invader, a rare warrior capable of entering the sleeping minds of his enemies. Just two. His dead wife and his ex-partner—and Dreylan knew Mak wouldn’t speak a word of it to anyone. Mak knew how much Dreylan despised his ability.

Aimyl, however, had thought it something to brag about. And it seemed, at some point before her death, she’d bragged to the premier.

While they fucked?

Dreylan ground his teeth at the tormenting thought.

“It is time.” A deep and bellowing voice echoed through the crowded plaza, and, as one, all those around Dreylan burst into a raucous cheer. “It is time for the auction to begin.” The crowd roared again, drowning out the brassy fanfare played by a Gerdician slave.

A lean Bo’aa stepped up to the podium, shimmering deep-orange scales covering his tall body. He cast a gleeful look over the crowd below, and Dreylan got the feeling he was calculating how many credits he would earn that day. His ink-black auctioneer robes flowed and billowed about his long limbs as he moved, giving him an air of authority.

He held up his hands, the three fingers on each adorned with jewel-studded gold. “We have a rare treat for you today, buyers. The most illustrious and dedicated slave-trader in the known systems, Ry Taipyr, has procured for sale—a virgin Terran riephia!”

The crowd erupted into a cacophony of cheers and whistles, surging forward in a hungry swarm. Dreylan could smell the excitement of more than a hundred slave buyers intensify tenfold.

The Bo’aa smiled, fangs glistening in the muted light of Level 7. “Yes, yes, you are right to be eager, for this riephia is young, untouched and more beautiful than the goddesses of Ba’al.”

Another roar ripped through the crowd. Dreylan heard credits clinking as buyers checked their purses. He cast a contemptuous look at the faces of those closest to him—open hunger. Ravenous lust.

He curled his fists. If he didn’t, he’d pull his disruptor and begin shooting, and a bloody slaughter was not what he was here for.

“Esteemed buyers,” the Bo’aa continued, scales shimmering to a dark red. “I start today’s proceedings with item number one, the Terran virgin, the only riephia for the next five hundred years!” The crowd grew louder, almost frantic, played to perfection by the auctioneer. “The untouched beauty guaranteed to be whatever you want,” his yellow eyes sparkled with malicious mirth, “no matter how perverse.”

The crowd cheered, Dreylan ground his teeth, and with another fanfare from the Gerdician, a leering Mentuan stepped onto the dais, dragging behind him by a length of chain a young, naked female Terran.

The buyers roared, the Mentuan bowed, the Terran slave stared at him with absolute hate…

And Dreylan felt his chest grow tight.

He knew her.

That’s impossible, Tarq. If she’s an empathic mesomorph like the Bo’aa claims, she’s spent her life in a temple on New Earth, a planet you’ve never been to.

He clenched his jaw, letting his gaze roam over the female, ignoring his body’s immediate reaction to her lithe yet lush form. Or at least trying to.

The Bo’aa lifted his hands and the crowd fell to a quivering hush. “Let the bidding commence.”

*

Naya stared at the horde before her. Their depraved gazes slid over her body, assaulted her breasts, hips and the junction of her thighs. Her stomach roiled violently. This wasn’t a nightmare. This was real. This was happening. Gods, she was about to be sold to the highest bidder like a piece of meat.

Which is exactly how everyone here sees you, Naya.

Rage poured through her. She glared at the crowd below, burning the greedy face of each bidder into her brain. May the gods send out her contempt to each and every one. At the very least, may they cause their dicks to grow fat with diseased pus and fall off.

“50,000 credits.”

“50,500.”

“50,725.”

“50,900.”

The bidding continued, each shouted offer a lash to Maya’s nerves. She stood tall, refusing to cower or cover her breasts with her arms, despite the stares making her skin crawl. Without being touched, her nipples burned with pain, as if knowing what every being in the arena wanted to do.

Icy terror ruptured in her chest. Any moment now the Bo’aa would call final bid and it would no longer be just eyes mauling her flesh.

Gods, please save me.

A brutal hand captured her right breast. “They feel divine,” Taipyr called to the crowd, rolling her nipple between two cruel knuckles. “Heavy and full and round. Ready to be squeezed and sucked and bitten to your heart’s content!”

The crowd cheered and surged forward.

“70,000 credits,” a short, fat, sweating Trelletian with green saliva on his three chins shouted, waving his bidding wand in the air.

“71,000.”

“71,500.”

“75,000.”

Numbness rolled over Naya. She closed her eyes, unable to look any longer at the sickening sight beneath her. An image of her dream lover came to her—the mysterious, silent man who’d haunted her sleeping moments from the second she’d reached puberty.

Her heart twisted. He would never climb into her bed, gently spread her legs and explore her sex with his tongue again. He would never worship her nipples with his mouth until she moaned and squirmed beneath him.

The very moment her new master stabbed his cock into her virginal pussy, she would know nothing in her heart and dreams but what he wanted her to know. A sexual puppet.

Naya suppressed a soft cry as the bidding soared higher, fixing her dream lover’s smoldering blue stare in her mind, making her miss it already.

“205,000 credits.”

“207,000.”

Taipyr mauled her breast some more, no doubt to push the bids higher. She didn’t flinch. Didn’t respond. She wanted to turn and scratch out his eyes, break his nose. Hell, she’d be happy with splitting his thin bottom lip, but instead she stared—eyes closed—into her lover’s blue gaze.

“215,000 credits.”

“500,000 credits,” a deep voice growled. A new voice. A voice that made Naya’s stomach clench and her nipples pinch into inexplicable points of rock-hard flesh. “And I will continue to bid in 50,000 increments until the riephia is mine.”

The crowd fell to stunned silence. A single word seemed to breathe through the arena—Tarq—before silence reclaimed the buyers again.

Naya opened her eyes, just as the Bo’aa asked for any more bids.

None came.

“Tarq.”

The collective reverent breath whispered the word—the name?—again and Naya explored the crowd, following the almost fearful and furtive glances and stares of those on the arena floor. Hunting for the owner of that deep voice.

Her stomach grew tighter, her nipples harder. Fear ate at her composure. Fear, trepidation and anger. She scanned the crowd, jumping from face to pale, awed face.

“No more bids?” the Bo’aa asked.

Silence.

“Sold!” the Bo’aa shouted, just as Naya’s search fell upon a pair of unreadable eyes.

Eyes she knew very well. The eyes of…

“The famous Dreylan Tarq!” the auctioneer crowed with delight. “The new owner of the only riephia in the known systems!”

Naya stared at the massive man in the crowd. Watched him run an indifferent inspection over her body before beginning a slow saunter toward the dais through the parting crowd. Her body grew tenser with each arrogant step he took.

She swallowed, mouth dry, heart hammering.

Dreylan Tarq, her new owner, her new master, was the man in her dreams.

Dreylan Tarq was her dream lover.