January 25, Wisconsin
Zoe Last had been trained to read the warning signs since before she’d learned to write her name, and the man who walked through the door of the Last Chance Repair Shop had danger written all over him.
She went still behind the counter of the little repair shop she now owned, forcing her feet to stay planted where they were. The urge to flee thrummed through her with each frantic beat of her heart, but if she ran now, this stranger would know who she was. What she was. If she stayed still and pretended she was human—as her father had taught her to do—at least she’d have a fighting chance.
As her gaze traveled the long distance up the stranger’s ripped body, the idea of fighting him became so ludicrous it pushed an untimely giggle up into her clenched throat. He was huge, filling the doorway so that even the cold winter wind had trouble swirling past him. His limbs were thick, but he moved with the kind of easy grace that warned her he would likely be as fast as he was strong.
The brief thought that she might be able to outrun him flitted away, completely forgotten.
There was no needless bulk about him, no awkward bulges of muscles grown simply to impress the ladies. He was just… big, like Zoe’s father had been. Like all the people raised on her home world.
For a moment, all she could think about was how much she missed having thick, warm arms wrap around her, offering her comfort. She’d been so alone for so long, even the embrace of a stranger would feel good. Assuming he wasn’t here to kill her. She couldn’t forget that possibility—no matter how much she missed the basic comfort of a hug from one of her own kind.
Lovingly hugged by leather and denim, the stranger looked entirely human—and far too handsome for her peace of mind—but the fluid Imonite markings inked onto his shaved head told another story.
He wasn’t human, and handsome or not, she had to remember the threat he might pose.
Zoe couldn’t read them from here, but she recognized the elaborate swirl of the unique script, even from across the room. Curiosity itched at the base of her skull, making her wish she could simply drag his head under a lighted magnifier for closer inspection. Maybe those marks would help her solve the last riddle her father had ever given her, before he’d died.
A pang of grief hit her hard, like a closed fist to the gut. She rocked slightly on her feet against the rush of loneliness. Only months of surviving through the dragging pain of loss—of knowing that no matter how bad it hurt, the grief wouldn’t kill her—gave her the strength to breathe through the sudden attack.
The man stopped dead in his tracks, as if he’d noticed her pain and worried he’d caused it by his proximity. She didn’t understand how he’d seen her grief or why he’d care, but he simply stood there, a few feet inside the door, watching her.
For some reason, his stillness calmed her nerves, loosening her muscles until she was able to pull in a full breath. As the seconds ticked by, her fear settled, and her natural curiosity flared.
He hadn’t attacked her yet. Maybe he wasn’t here to hurt her. Maybe he was here because the war was finally over, and the home world her father had loved so much was once again safe.
Scars lined the big man’s tattooed scalp in long furrows, as if something had tried to claw his head open. A trio of metallic chains dangled from one ear, and hanging from them were tiny, complex trinkets in various metallic shades. Behind the open zipper of his leather jacket, covering the intriguing contours of thick muscle and bone, his leather vest was covered in even more twinkling metal objects.
Zoe had seen items like those before. When she was younger, her father would sit hunched over the objects for hours, putting them together in an endless string of patterns that never seemed to please him, before tearing them apart again and tucking them away.
As curious as she was about the purpose of the puzzle, she hadn’t pursued it. Those pieces sat in his office safe at home, but she couldn’t bring herself to step foot into his sanctuary since his death. His spirit still lingered there, and she wasn’t yet strong enough to face it. It was better to leave his things as he’d left them, and pretend that room in her house didn’t exist.
Maybe those objects were what her father had meant when he’d told her to guard the treasure and not leave without it. Maybe the hidden trinkets were the key to the riddle that had been important enough to earn her father’s dying breath.
A look of concern crossed the stranger’s face, drawing his tattoos down low over his brow. His features were far too bold and angular to be considered conventionally handsome, but there was something about him that drew her in almost as much as the twinkling Imonite trinkets he wore. Despite her rude stare, he’d stood there for long seconds, letting her look her fill, but the quiet stillness he’d used to calm her fear no longer seemed to appease him.
He moved closer.
Zoe’s heart gave a heavy lurch behind her ribs, though she couldn’t tell if it was fear or a tiny thrill of excitement. The closer he got, the more she realized she was no match for this man, physically, but then neither was anyone else. If he was on her side, he was going to be one hell of a formidable ally.
But if not…
The charms dangling from his ear twinkled as he closed the distance. The smell of snow clung to his leather jacket, and she had the strangest urge to press her hands to his cheeks to drive the winter chill from his skin.
She threaded her fingers together and held on tight to keep her hands to herself. The need to touch him pounded at her, but she couldn’t tell if it was his technology or his body that pulled at her.
As she shuffled backward, she wished the checkout counter were higher. And topped with loops of razor wire and heavy machine guns. Maybe then he’d keep his distance until she could determine if he was friend or foe. As it was, there was something about him—the scars that proved he could take a beating, the square set of his wide shoulders, the glitter of determination in his pale eyes—that told her that this man would not stop until he got whatever it was he’d come for.
Zoe desperately hoped he hadn’t come to hurt her.
Someone will come one day to take us home, her father had told her. You must only go if the war is over. Only if the Loriahans won.
She shoved aside all other thoughts beyond learning the stranger’s agenda.
With a fake smile plastered on her face, she greeted him as she would any other customer. “Can I help you?”
His gaze settled on hers. Pale, silvery-green eyes, ringed with a blue so dark it was nearly navy. His pupils swelled as she watched, completely sucked in by the shocking color combination. It reminded her of something—something warm and familiar and safe.
Once again, the idea of being sheltered inside the embrace of a strong man beckoned her.
She blinked, jerking her eyes down to his wide chest to break the spell. Only there she found twinkling glimpses of the Imonite technology she was rarely allowed to study. Those shiny bits intrigued her, making her wish she could push his jacket open and get her hands on what lay beneath.
He had so much to offer. Warmth, strength, information. Connection.
He was Imonite like her—the tattoos and his size proved it—and until this very moment, she’d thought she was the only living member of her race on this entire planet. Knowing she wasn’t completely alone anymore was comforting on a level so deep it shocked her. It hardly mattered that he might be here to kill her. His mere presence was proof she might not always be alone and cut off from a home world she barely remembered.
Her curiosity drew her forward until she bumped into the counter. The jarring impact got her mind working enough to remember that he probably was here to do her harm. She could not simply forget countless warnings from her father, no matter how big and intriguing the distraction was.
She gave her head a little shake to clear it of the spell he’d cast over her and backed up as far as she could.
“I hope you can help,” he said in answer to her question. “Are you Zoe Last?” His voice was a low rumble of sound that reached all the way into her lungs, lingering there for a moment before dissipating into flesh and bone.
She shivered as that energy passed through her.
“No,” she lied. Her voice cracked and she had to clear her throat to get it working again. Lying wasn’t her forte, but it was far better to know why he was here before she revealed her identity. “She took the day off. Can I give her a message for you?”
His chest swelled on a deep breath, reminding her once again just how easy it would be for him to squish her flat. He’d made no aggressive moves. In fact, he was more still than most men, holding his position, moving as little as necessary, as if he was trying not to shake her.
She was quaking inside, though whether from fear or excitement, she couldn’t tell. One thing was sure: he could reach out and grab her at any second. The solid barrier of the counter between them was little reassurance. Even backed up against the display of tiny batteries behind her, she was still within the reach of his long arms. It took every bit of practice her father had forced on her to pretend he wasn’t freaking her out.
“Are you sure she won’t be in tonight?” he asked. “It’s important.”
Those trinkets on his chest twinkled with every slow breath he took. “That’s too bad. I know she’s going to want to hear what I have so say.”
His voice shook her, startling her into making the long voyage back up to look at his face again. On it was the unmistakable expression of frustration and disappointment, along with a heaping helping of determination.
“Do you have a pen?” he asked.
Zoe pushed a pen and note pad across the counter toward him with a single finger. She didn’t dare hand him anything for fear he’d grab hold of her and yank her right over the only barrier she had.
She wasn’t built on the same grand scale that her people were. She wasn’t sure if it was the environment here, the food she’d grown up on, or the reduced gravitational pull of Earth’s lower mass, but something had stunted her growth, leaving her smaller than she should have been. Her bones weren’t as thick as her people’s, and she lacked the strength she would have had if she’d been raised on Loriah.
Maybe if she had grown up on the world of her birth, she wouldn’t have felt so scrawny standing next to this man.
He wrote down a phone number. She watched his hand move, his big, blunt fingers clutching the skinny pen. There was no clumsiness in the effort, which surprised her. His movements were smooth and easy, leaving behind a fluid line of numbers. Each one had the same graceful flare her father’s writing had, which made some of her apprehension slide closer to curiosity.
If he was one of the evil, brain-sucking monsters her father had warned her about, would he really need nice penmanship?
His voice was quiet, his tone matter-of-fact. “My name is Talan and I’m here to help. Tell Zoe she’s in danger, and that if she wants to live, she should call me. Soon.”
The jolt of fear that shot through Zoe made her suck in a startled breath. “What?” The single word, uttered with complete disbelief was all she could manage to choke out.
His striking gaze caught hers and held on tight. She was completely sucked in, barely able to spare the mental space to remember to breathe. She couldn’t have looked away if she’d wanted, and she had the impression that was exactly what he’d intended.
There was no hint of a lie lurking there, only a silent challenge. “And give her this.”
He took her limp, clammy hand and pressed something small and hard in the center of her palm. It was warm from his skin. As he closed her fingers over it, she felt the rough, hot slide of his fingertips at her wrist. His hands completely engulfed hers, so gentle she had to stifle a shiver of pleasure.
A tiny little touch shouldn’t have had the power to bowl her over like that. She could only imagine what he could do to her rioting emotions if he wrapped those thick arms around her and held her close.
Whoever he was, Talan was the kind of man who packed a heck of a wallop in the hormonal department. She wasn’t even sure she could trust him, but already her body was quivering inside with the need for more of his touch. Much, much more.
A knowing little grin lifted one side of his mouth. “I’ll come back in an hour. Maybe by then she’ll be ready to hear what I have to say.”
He turned and left, sliding out the door as silently as he’d come in.
Zoe stood frozen in place, watching him saunter across the snowy street until he disappeared into the diner. He didn’t look back.
She was trembling all over with an odd mix of fear and excitement. Her tight grip caused the hard edges of his gift to bite into her skin, reminding her to shake off his potent effects and concentrate.
She looked down, and lying in her palm was a metallic disk made of dozens of interlocking pieces. Each one was a different color of metal, so intricately detailed she had no idea how they’d been formed. Layers of round and fluted shapes overlapped one another, forming a complex whole so beautiful she couldn’t pull her eyes away.
It was more than merely pretty. She sensed some innate function in the piece that she couldn’t quite figure out. It seemed to warm as she held it, humming so slightly she wasn’t sure if she’d really felt it, or if it was just the way her hands were trembling.
For all she knew, it was a weapon—one that could go boom any second.
She set the thing down as if it had caught on fire. The rounded bottom caused it to rock on the wooden countertop.
Zoe held her breath, torn between needing to know what the device was and fearing that the only way to find out would be by having it detonate in her face. Sweat trickled down her spine, and her tongue clung to the roof of her mouth. After a few uneventful minutes of staring at it, her curiosity grew until there was little room left for fear or the strange thrill his touch had given her.
She’d always been too curious. She’d killed a lot of appliances and computers by taking them apart over the years. Her father had always said her curiosity was her greatest, most dangerous asset. And when he did, his words had been filled with an odd combination of pride and fear.
As she stared down at the complex object—one she was going to dissect until it either revealed its secrets or killed her—she finally understood what he’d meant.
Carefully, she picked the disk up and cradled it in her palm as she went to her workbench in the back room of the shop. The entrance was covered by a yellow curtain, hiding the clutter of her workspace from her customers. She had an hour before the huge stranger came back, and before he did, she needed to be long gone.
She wasn’t sure if Talan had been lying about wanting to help her, but her safest course of action was to flee. She only needed ten minutes to be ready to leave town for good. Five minutes to drive back to her house. Another five to collect her emergency bags filled with clothes, cash and a new identity.
Certainly she could spare just a couple of minutes to play with this new puzzle before she left this town forever, abandoning his intriguing gift.
Maybe it would hold the key to her father’s final, confusing riddle. And then again, maybe it would kill her and she’d no longer have to worry about riddles.
Or anything else.
Talan almost felt bad for playing dirty with the woman. He would have felt bad if she hadn’t asked for it by lying to him.
It had taken a considerable dose of will not to snort at her in derision when she’d said she wasn’t Zoe. He knew who she was. She couldn’t hide behind the slender, fragile disguise this planet had cast over her. He knew better.
The signs of her Imonite heritage were unmistakable, lurking all around her, all the way down to the way she arranged merchandise on her shelves. The only thing that kept him from calling her a liar to her face was knowing that it would have put another barrier between them. She was skittish enough without him making it worse, so he’d played along.
There was no time for unnecessary hurdles. He needed her cooperation. Fast.
He glanced out the window as he drank his coffee, peering into the Last Chance Repair Shop. She was nowhere in sight. The lights were still on, along with the open sign. Her battered car was still parked along the side of the brick building. He’d melted the lock on the back door of her shop earlier today, fusing it shut, leaving her only one exit—one he had been watching carefully.
No, she was still in there, a slave to her Builder curiosity. His trap had worked perfectly.
If she’d been human, she would have fled within seconds, as soon as he was out of reach. He’s seen the flare of recognition in her eyes, proving she knew what he was.
But she wasn’t human. And now he had proof to go along with his instincts.
Only a Builder would have been so completely sucked in by the puzzle he’d given her. Only a Builder would linger in a dangerous situation when presented with the opportunity to run, simply because they wanted to play with a complex trinket.
As each second slid by, he became less smugly satisfied with his success and more infuriated. Anyone could have distracted her as easily as he had. She probably wasn’t even monitoring her surroundings. The shop door was unlocked. Anyone could walk in. She had no way to run out the back door, thanks to him.
It was a wonder she was still alive. If the Raide had found her first…
Talan pulled out the other half of the item he’d given Zoe and shielded it from sight with his hands. Displayed in the depths of the screen was an image of her graceful fingers stroking over the monitoring device. Like a camera, the transmitter collected images and sent them across the street to where he sat, watching. The clarity wasn’t as good as human technology, but there was one way in which it was far superior.
He could smell her.
The scent of her skin rose up to him, both womanly and floral at the same time. He isolated the traces of soap on her fingers and had the device filter that out until all that was left was her.
Primal urges rose up from the base of his brain, making his skin heat and his pulse speed. He’d expected to feel protective toward her—it was his job to see her safely delivered home—but he hadn’t anticipated the rest.
This slow burn of hunger quivering along his bones, this need to curl himself around her and bare his teeth at the world in warning—those feelings had taken him by surprise and left him speechless for long seconds after seeing her.
He wasn’t sure how to handle those feelings, so he simply shoved them aside, ignoring them.
Zoe turned the device in her fingers, giving him a dizzying view of her workspace. He couldn’t see more than a blur of color and light before the motion stilled and he was gifted with an unobstructed view of her face.
She studied the disk, bringing it close to her eyes. Talan swore he could feel the warm sweep of her breath pass by his cheek, dragging more of her logic-stealing scent to his nose. He breathed her in, craving the real thing over this artificial reproduction.
A little frown line appeared between her brows, and the sudden urge to massage it away had his fingers curling around the receiver.
Shadows lurked beneath her eyes—a sure sign she needed more sleep. There was something troubling in her gaze he couldn’t quite place. Her expressions had been easy to read so far, but there was something he was missing here. Something important. He needed all the information he could find, because if he didn’t convince her to trust him, it put her at far greater risk.
The Raide would find her. It was merely a question of when.
Talan wanted to rush in, scoop her up, haul her to the nearest window back home and shove her through. Instead, he resisted the urge and stayed in his seat, drinking coffee. He had to give her time to mire herself so deeply in her own curiosity that she had no choice but to turn to him for answers.
This mission wasn’t as simple as his others. He didn’t just need the woman. He also needed the data sphere her father had stolen when he’d brought her here twenty years ago. Her father was dead, and the device was small enough to be hidden anywhere, which meant Talan needed her cooperation to find where it was. Assuming she even knew.
He’d learned from experience that tearing someone from the life they’d spent two decades building to send them back to a war-torn planet was not the kind of thing that won him any favors. He needed that sphere before he did anything that would cause her to hide it from him. Or to run.
Based on what he’d been told about her father, Talan was going to need every advantage he could find with the daughter.
Zoe Last had grown roots on this world. She owned a business, a home. She had friends. Ripping her from all of that would make her see him as the enemy, when what he really needed was her trust. At least long enough to find the sphere and get her back home.
Where he was taking her, there were no quaint, small town, main street shops like those here. The best she could hope for would be to be stationed in one of the towns not yet ravaged by war. Perhaps deep underground where the Raide wouldn’t find her and suck from her mind the knowledge they wanted. She’d work long, hard hours, along with the other Builders, striving to find some way to fend off the advancing armies before there was nothing left of their world to save.
It would be a hard life—nothing like the quiet one she’d created here—and as soon as she realized he was the one responsible for fundamentally changing her world, she would hate him. Just like all the others did.
Talan refused to let it bother him. He did his duty and obeyed orders. It was the only way the people of Loriah and House Imon would ever stand a chance against the Raide. As long as his people lived, he would pay whatever personal price was required.
His entire family had been taken, their minds shredded for whatever small scraps of information they possessed. He’d been ordered to leave the front lines of battle and come here to Earth, while the few friends he had left risked their lives in combat, without him there to guard their backs. And since coming here, he’d been injured countless times, taken captive, tortured and nearly killed. What more could one woman, made frail by growing up on this lightweight planet, possibly do to him?
He shoved to his feet, tossing a few bucks on the table to pay his bill. He didn’t like having Zoe out of his reach, not when he knew it was only a matter of time before she was found by their enemy.
He tugged a knit cap over his tattooed head to cut down on the leery stares he received, and went out into the cold.
Within seconds the wind sucked the warmth from his skin. His leather jacket was little match for the freezing temperatures. But the cold cleared his head enough for him to remember that his feelings about his mission didn’t matter. Only results mattered. Without results, hundreds of thousands of his people would be killed or enslaved by the Raide.
That was something Talan refused to allow, even if it meant destroying the life of another innocent woman.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’d ripped someone away from the only home they’d ever known.
Dusk grew and deepened. Antique replica streetlamps with scrolling, curvy lines began sparking to life as he hurried between the cars waiting for the stoplight to change. Red ribbons and fake greenery twined around the intricate poles—remnants from the recently passed holiday. Last night’s snow had been scraped away, but clumps of it still remained, lining the edges of sidewalks and streets.
As he neared the door to Zoe’s shop, his pace sped.
He entered her shop, but his target was nowhere in sight.
Her store was cozy, the walls stocked with belts and filters for small motors, oddly-shaped light bulbs, tools, and cleaning supplies. On one wall was a huge mosaic mural depicting a mountain range pieced together from discarded bits of circuitry and hardware. The air smelled of solvent and flux, along with something sweet and citrusy, like oranges. Behind the counter where a cash register sat, there was a doorway hidden by a simple yellow curtain. Through a narrow opening where the curtain didn’t quite close, he saw Zoe sitting at a workbench, bent over the device he’d given her, with a soldering iron in hand.
Talan went still, feeling his stomach clench in anticipation. She was pretty—too pretty for his comfort. He’d thought his mind had just been playing tricks on him earlier. He’d never really noticed whether or not the other men and women he’d found were attractive. It hadn’t mattered.
It shouldn’t have mattered now. And yet he stood there, staring, drinking in the sight of her. Like a boy seeing his first naked woman, he couldn’t pull his eyes away. The curve of her cheek was too perfect. The slight swell of her breasts beneath her soft, clinging shirt made his fingers curl against the need to touch her. He could still remember the way her hand had felt in his, as it trembled with a slight chill he wanted to drive away. Her skin was soft and smooth. And the inside of her wrist had been even softer, pulsing with the too-rapid beat of her heart.
If he cupped her breast in his hand, he wondered if he would be able to feel her heartbeat there too.
Talan shoved the fantasy away with a silent snarl of contempt. She wasn’t going to want a warrior’s hands anywhere near her. He was stupid to even entertain the notion. And yet now that he’d imagined it, the image was part of him, hunkered in the back of his mind, mocking him. Taunting him.
He needed this job to be done. Now. Before she wormed her way into his head any farther than she already had.
Once again he considered simply tossing her over his shoulder and throwing her into his vehicle. The next window to Loriah was scheduled to open in less than two hours. He could shove her through and be one step closer to getting back to fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow Imonite warriors.
If it hadn’t been for that damn sphere, that’s exactly what he would have done.
A frown of concentration lined her forehead as she went about her work. Smoke from the soldering iron curled around her shiny, brown ponytail. With her hair pulled back, Talan had an unobstructed view of the side of her face. Smooth. Pale from lack of sun.
He stared, trying to figure out what it was about her that tugged at him. There was something he was missing—some vital bit of knowledge that was right there. Like a flicker of motion seen from the corner of his eye, every time he tried to focus on it, it flitted away, out of sight.
She lifted her hand, sliding a few stray strands of glossy hair back behind her ear. She had the long, delicate fingers of a true Builder. Every move was precise, as if it had been planned years in advance. Her hands never once faltered as she went about her work. Even the intricate job of trying to disassemble the device he’d given her seemed as effortless as breathing.
Talan envied her skill, even as he admired it. He glanced down at his own hands—big, hard, blunt instruments shaped for battle. It was no wonder that he’d been deemed a destroyer rather than a creator.
A years-old lump of shame sat in his gut, cold and useless. His path had been laid out before him at birth, his parents’ disappointment a distant memory. No good could come from dwelling on his station. At least hands like his would see hands like Zoe’s protected and left free to do as she was born to do. In that, at least, he found a small bit of solace.
Talan pulled his knit cap from his shaved head, and shoved away all thoughts but getting his job done.
He took a step forward and reached out to push the curtain aside, stopping midstride.
There it was, that illusive, flickering something he’d been missing. Right there, plain as day, lingering around her dark eyes. It was so obvious, he wondered how he’d missed it before—a deep, innate sorrow clinging to her so close it was like a second skin.
All those smiles she’d given her customers as he’d watched her today… they’d never reached her eyes. He could see it now in his mind, each smile imprinted clearly in his memory. They were as fake as Talan’s American accent, meant to fool others into believing a lie.
His first reaction was that of a Builder: fix what was wrong. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t truly a Builder—that he’d never made the cut. Instincts that went as deep as his bones screamed at him to do something. It hardly even mattered what, so long as he didn’t stand here, useless and idle.
He slipped silently behind the curtain, entering her private domain. At first glance, the place was a chaotic mess, filled with jumbles of wires, tools and gutted machinery. But as he stood there, still and silent, a sort of order began to speak to him, teasing him with his inability to grasp it fully.
Before he had time to learn the secret, Zoe lifted her head. Her dark brown eyes widened with fear. Her pink lips parted slightly, letting out a stifled yelp. The soldering iron in her hand fell to the monitoring device he’d given her. The searing tip hit a plastic bottle of water nearby, melting it instantly. As water leaked out over her workbench, steam hissed up from the iron.
She seemed frozen in place, unable to deal with the mess that was spreading across her workbench, threatening to ruin all the bits of circuitry strewn about. Talan grabbed up the bottle, and covered the leak with his thumb as he tossed it into a nearby trashcan. He then lifted the pieces of the device out of harm’s way and set them aside.
Zoe shot to her feet, sending her rolling chair careening off behind her. Her nimble fingers splayed over her heart as if to hold it in place. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You were busy,” he said as he reached over to set her soldering iron back in its curling wire stand.
The action brought him close to her. Too close. He’d invaded her personal space, shoving his body within arm’s reach of hers.
She was taller than most human women, the top of her head coming up to his mouth. She still had the slender bones of a human, due to the reduced gravity of this world. Had she been raised on Loriah, she would have been sturdier, with thicker bones and muscles. Instead, this world had shaped her differently, leaving her far too fragile for his peace of mind.
Breaking her would have been easy, and if the Raide got their hands on her, they wouldn’t hesitate to do just that.
A cold sweat formed along his scalp, reminding him of the scars he now bore. Even the huge, hulking Dregorgs had been broken by the Raide and forced to fight. Talan had only been held captive by the Raide for a single night, and he’d nearly died. Someone as delicately built as Zoe wouldn’t even last an hour.
The thought had him inching closer to her, fighting the need to wrap himself around her so that anything that came for her had to go through him first. It was a foolish idea. He knew that. But his baser instincts kept coming out to play whenever he got near her, as if she had some sort of field around her that shorted out his brain.
Maybe it was her scent. He could smell her shampoo, and beneath the floral fragrance, a lighter, intriguing scent he couldn’t get enough of. It bypassed all logic and slipped into the deepest parts of his mind, making protective, possessive feelings rear up and take over.
Perhaps her father had found a way to protect his frail daughter by giving her a perfume that made men everywhere willing to sacrifice themselves to keep her safe. But if that was the case, then Talan had no idea why she wasn’t surrounded by men right now, tripping over themselves as they scurried to do her bidding.
Suspicion narrowed her eyes. “You said you’d come back in an hour.” She took a step to the side, closer to a bench lined with sharp tools.
Talan watched her mouth move, completely drawn in by the sight. He was close enough to feel the heat coming from her skin, adding another dimension that consumed his complete and total attention.
She wasn’t just a target. She was a woman. One who was starting to put off the vibes of a cornered animal.
He struggled to focus on her words as her fingers settled casually on the handle of a screw driver. She’d scolded him for something….
As her supple fingers closed around the tool, he realized she intended to use it as a weapon.
The idea that she would fight sent a wave of appalled shock rushing through him, pulling him out of this odd fog faster than being doused with ice.
Builders didn’t fight. They didn’t destroy. They didn’t risk their lives for something so barbaric—something men like Talan were meant to do on their behalf.
And then, on the heels of that indignation, he realized two things. First, she was intending to wield the weapon against him; second, she was doing so because he’d shifted even closer to her, drawn in by her scent until he was leaning down slightly to breathe in the air around her.
Talan took a long step back, chiding himself for being an ass. He didn’t sniff women. Especially women who were clearly uneasy about being alone in a room with a stranger. Even he knew better than that.
He cleared his throat as he ripped his gaze away from her mouth. If she was afraid of him, he’d already failed. Once that wall of fear went up between them, gaining her trust was going to take a lot more time and patience than he had.
Talan lifted his hands slowly, palms out to show her he held no weapons. He didn’t need to be holding a weapon to inflict damage, but he was counting on that thought not occurring to her. “It has been an hour.”
She went pale, and a fine trembling shook her slender body. “It has?”
Talan was standing between her and both doorways. “It has.”
She glanced around. He wasn’t sure if she was looking for a clock or an exit. “It’s closing time, then. You should go.”
His gaze drifted to where the gutted monitoring device lay. “I asked you to give that to Zoe.”
Her cheeks pinkened, though whether from embarrassment or anger, he couldn’t tell. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a bomb.”
“So you melted the joints with a soldering iron? Didn’t it cross your mind that using a tool that hot on an explosive device might be dangerous?”
She shrugged. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
It was a wonder she hadn’t killed herself. Her father was a hero for seeing her through her more curious, formative years. Talan wished he knew how the man had accomplished such a formidable task, because Talan needed her at his side, trusting him, obeying his orders and answering his questions. And he needed it now.
“How long are you going to keep lying about who you are?”
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t have time for this. I know who you are, Zoe.”
Her shoulders drooped in surrender and she turned away. “How long have you known?”
“Since before I walked through the door.”
“Then why play along? What’s your angle?”
“I already told you. You’re in danger. I don’t know how much your father told you before he died—”
Before he finished speaking, Zoe flung an open box full of craft knives at him, and sprang toward the back door.
Talan saw each of the eleven knives speeding at him, their trajectories bright, glowing streams of light that made their paths as obvious as if they’d been on rails. He processed the data fast and calculated his possible moves.
As good as his reflexes were, even he couldn’t dodge all of them—not in the split second he had to act.
His mind flowed through the options to reduce the damage he’d sustain, plotting the best course. As soon as he had the optimal solution, he spun and arched his body, letting only one of the knives hit him.
It stabbed through his jeans, imbedding itself into his thigh. He ignored the flash of pain and stalked to where Zoe was tugging on the back doorknob with all her strength.
There was no way she was wrenching the door open without a crowbar or a blowtorch. He’d been thorough in his efforts to keep her contained.
Talan paused for a moment to control his instincts before he dared to touch her. His blood was running hot. The metallic tang of battle lingered in the back of his throat. His senses opened up, making everything brighter and louder. His whole world narrowed down to the space between him and his prey until nothing else mattered.
Zoe must have sensed his approach. She turned around, lifting her hands to either protect herself or hold him at bay. Either way, those hands were delicate, weak, and completely unfit for the job.
He let her strike him, waiting until her hands were at the peak of their backward arc, preparing for another blow. As soon as it was clear he had an opening, he closed the distance between them, putting himself well inside her guard. He refused to let her hurt herself by beating on him. He still had a craft knife sticking out of the side of his thigh, and it wouldn’t be hard for her to knock it out and cut herself in the process.
His hips met her body first, followed closely by his chest. He pinned her against the metal door, gathering her wrists in his fists.
Her slender bones shifted inside his grip, reminding him to ease up on the pressure. Doing so allowed room for her skin to glide against his, so soft and warm it distracted him for a moment, giving him a flash of what it might be like to hold her for reasons other than to keep her from trying to rip his eyes out.
Her scent wove through him, sending his mind flying into forbidden territory. Would she fight to free herself so she could touch him, or would his hold on her body excite her? Either idea worked for him, making his spine tingle with possibilities. He’d give her whatever she wanted, whatever she needed to go along with the untimely erotic demands his body was suddenly making on him.
What the hell was wrong with him? He didn’t allow thoughts of sex to come anywhere near his work. He’d turned his cock off two years ago when he’d been assigned this position, and until now, it had obeyed his commands.
And yet now, the weak squirming of one irate woman was enough to destroy all his self-control. As she rubbed against him, he was even feeling the first tingling stirrings of an erection—something he hadn’t had to fight for a long time.
Her lips parted as she gasped for air. Her skin flushed with the effort of her struggles. Her hips wriggled against his body, lighting up his mind with images of taking her against this door. Right here, right now.
With no effort at all, he could have had her out of those jeans, freed his cock and shoved up inside her. Even the thought was nearly enough to make him climax, and he hadn’t even kissed her yet.
A low, feral scream ripped from her throat, dousing him with a bucket of reality.
She didn’t want him. She didn’t even want him touching her. She sure as hell didn’t want him fucking her against a cold metal door.
Talan forced himself to remember the hours he’d spent being tortured, having his skin clawed open and ripped from his skull. It wasn’t a time he enjoyed thinking about, but the end result was effective, ridding him of all thoughts of sex and deflating his cock back into submission.
Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to let her go. Not yet. Not before he was sure she wasn’t going to run off, screaming because he’d lost his head. For all he knew, she’d run right into the waiting arms of any Raide stationed outside.
So rather than letting her go, he held her there, forcing his face to maintain a serene, neutral expression.
“Calm down. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Let me go!”
It took her several seconds of struggling before Zoe accepted that she was completely outclassed. Tiny drops of sweat stood out along her hairline, and her skin had gone from frightened, pasty white to an angry red.
For a moment, his body mistook her coloring for the flush of arousal, and his cock twitched with interest. Again. Apparently his visit to tortureland didn’t have lasting effects.
Talan gritted his back teeth and ignored his poorly-timed arousal.
“I swear I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice came out as a growl, rather than the gentle, coaxing tone he’d meant to use.
Through clenched teeth she said, “I can’t promise you the same thing. Let me go!”
He shifted his weight, leaning against her a bit harder. The press of her small, firm breasts distracted him from what he’d intended to say. The thought flitted away, lost and forgotten as he stared down at her.
Her mouth was tight with anger or fear. He couldn’t tell which, and it suddenly became intensely important that he know. Her anger he could stand. She could scream and hit him all she liked so long as she stayed safe. But her fear? That grated against some deep, primitive part of him he hadn’t even realized he possessed until this very moment.
He was supposed to make her fear go away—slay it with brutal force until she was sure she was safe. Only then would she be free to create as she had been born to do.
Sadly, since he was the cause of her distress, he had no idea how to calm her fears without walking away, and that was simply not something he could do twice. Every minute he spent trying to convince her she was safe with him allowed the Raide or their war slaves to draw closer.
Just the thought was enough to have him baring his teeth in challenge.
Zoe flinched against him, letting out a little squeak of panic.
A string of bitter Imonite curses rattled through his head.
All he’d done since meeting her was make things worse. He had to find a way to prove to her that he was no threat. Which meant letting her go.
Slowly, he released one of her wrists and cupped the side of her face. His hand was rough and square against the curve of her cheek. He stroked his thumb over the skin beneath her eye, reveling in the silky texture.
He’d once held an infant he’d found inside the remains of a crumbled house. The baby’s family had been killed instantly by a Raide blast, but the child had miraculously survived. Talan had heard his squawking little cries over the sound of battle, and found him lying in a pile of rubble. That infant’s skin had been like hers, too soft to be real, and so delicate he was sure his hands would leave behind ugly marks.
Even so, Talan couldn’t help himself. He had to touch Zoe. The compulsion to stroke away the fear he saw in her eyes was too strong for him to resist. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
She gripped his wrist as her eyes met his. That contact shot through him, slicing as keenly as the finest sheeng ever created. It left him still and speechless, helpless to do anything but stare back at her, caught completely in her gaze. He couldn’t even breathe for fear of giving her a reason to look away.
Her fingers brushed across his skin, and for a moment his mind was filled with sensory overload. Warm, soft skin. Slender, delicate lines. Subtle strength and the slightest vibration of something. Fear? Anger? Excitement? He couldn’t tell.
She stared at him for a long moment, as if searching for a lie. He let her look as long as she liked, knowing she’d see no subterfuge lurking in his expression.
Slowly, her erratic breathing started to even out. The tightness around her mouth eased. Her pupils expanded and her color shifted, leaving behind pools of soft pink lingering in her cheeks. Her grip on his wrist relaxed, as did the tension radiating through her slim limbs.
Good. That was exactly what he wanted. What he needed.
Talan shifted his weight back until his body was no longer plastered against hers.
As intellectual as Builders were, they were also highly sensitive. Just as a slight shift of an enemy’s hips signaled intent to Talan, every little silent cue he gave her would be processed and analyzed—whether or not she was aware she was doing it. Reading body language was one of the few defense mechanisms Builders had, and right now, he was practically shouting that he was no threat to her. He wasn’t even holding her. She was holding him.
“Let’s pretend I believe you.” Her voice was quiet, soft, with a hint of warmth that made him feel like he was more than some random stranger. Maybe that was one more lie to go with her fake smiles, but he let himself believe otherwise.
Even small moments of pleasure were worth treasuring among the bleak string of pain and loss his life had become since the invasion.
He moved until no part of him was touching her except for the loose shackle of her fingers at his wrists. The slight contact was a delicious form of torture, making him want more—even as he reveled in the warmth of her smooth, bare skin on his.
“What do you want from me?” she asked.
So much. Too much. He wanted things from her he didn’t understand, things that surprised even him. “I’m here to bring you home.”
“Your real home.”
“My father said someone would come, but…” She looked away, but not before he saw sadness shadow her eyes.
“I never thought it would be today. I’m not ready. I don’t want to go.”
She was afraid. He could feel it in the way her fingers trembled against his skin.
Talan smoothed his thumbs along the inside of her wrists in an effort to soothe her. “It’s time, Zoe. You’re needed at home.”
“I’m needed here too. I have a business to run. People are depending on me to finish the work they gave me.”
He tried to keep his voice gentle, but everything inside of him was shouting at him to gather her up and hurry her to his truck. “None of that matters now. Someone else will finish your work here. But there is no one else who can do your work on Loriah.”
“This is the only home I know.”
She looked up at him, her expression filled with so much uncertainty and fear it was all he could do not to pull her against his chest and rock her like a frightened child. It wasn’t like him to offer comfort or to be soft on those who sought to avoid their duty, but there was a fragility about Zoe. He worried that if he pushed her too hard, too fast, she might shatter. And she was far too important for him to damage.
“Everything will be fine. You’ll see. There are others just like you. They’re waiting for you now, eager to welcome you to your new home.”
“I always thought I’d have more time.”
She didn’t, and the time he could allow her to adjust to the surprise was running short. “Let me take you to your house so you can gather a few things. We’ll talk on the way, and you can ask me any questions you like. I want you to feel safe with me, Zoe.”
She shook her head and dark, glossy strands of hair escaped from behind her ears. “There’s something I have to do first. I promised my father.”
“Then let me help you. What is it you have to do?”
“It’s the kind of thing I have to do on my own.”
“How long will it take?”
Her gaze slid away, giving away her incoming lie before she even uttered it. “Not long.”
Before he could press her for the truth, the air pressure in the room shifted, and he heard the faint scrape of the front door opening. A second later, the little bell on her counter chimed, demanding her attention.
She swallowed twice. Her fingers slid over his skin as she released his wrist. “I have a customer. I should go see what they want.”
Talan turned his head and peered through the slit in the yellow curtain. An older human man stood there expectantly.
Talan stepped out of her way, giving her silent permission to pass. She tugged her shirt down as if adjusting her armor, and wiped her palms on her jeans. After blowing out a quick, hard breath, she marched through the doorway, brushing the curtain aside.
Talan should have followed her, but there was still the matter of the knife sticking out of his thigh. Besides, he didn’t want to leave this space. It was hers, and he liked standing inside of it, surrounded by the workings of her mind. Maybe other people wouldn’t see it the way he did, but the proof of her Builder’s intellect were all over the place, lingering in the smallest details, all the way down to how she lined up her tools. The fact that they were human tools did little to hide what she really was.
Many of those human tools were now scattered all over her spotless floor, and one was lodged in his thigh.
Quiet voices flowed to his ears as he cleaned up the mess. The craft knife was stuck in his skin. He pulled it out and wiped the blood away on his jeans before placing the tool back with its mates.
A quick dab from a vial of liquid skin he carried disinfected and closed the wound. The few drops of blood he’d gotten on the floor he cleaned away until there was no trace left.
After tonight she was never coming back here again, but leaving behind signs of a struggle after her disappearance would only complicate his future efforts to find more of the Taken.
His job was difficult enough without the added hassle of evading human law enforcement.
The skin at the nape of his neck prickled, warning him of danger.
The cadence of Zoe’s voice changed. Her tone rose higher, her words choppy and sharp. Frightened.
Talan rushed out through the curtain to find the man gripping Zoe’s hands so tight her fingers were all mashed together at awkward angles. He was dragging her toward the open end of the counter, despite her struggles.
The man appeared human, a couple of decades older than Zoe, wide-eyed with panic, his face twisted with desperation. In one shaking hand, he held a gun pointed right at her chest. “You have to come with me.”
Talan didn’t stop to think. His body went into battle mode. A series of possible attacks flowed through his mind as he launched himself high over the counter. He grabbed the man’s throat in one hand and the gun in the other as he passed overhead. His momentum carried them both to the ground. By the time they’d stopped skidding along the shiny tile, Talan had complete control of the man’s body, pinning him to the floor with a knee to his chest.
Dimly, he was aware of the crack of bone and the man’s high-pitched cry of pain. The gun clattered uselessly to the floor. The man’s arm bent at an awkward angle above his wrist, where Talan had broken it.
He shoved the blade of his forearm against the man’s throat.
Instantly, the stranger stopped fighting. “Please. He has my son.” The words came out choked and breathless, but Talan understood them all the same.
He eased his hold on the man’s neck, but didn’t let him go. “Who has your son?”
Tears slipped out from the corners of the man’s eyes. “He’s not… human.”
“A Raide,” said Zoe, her words breathless with fear.
And for good reason. The Raide were ruthless, cunning and deadly. If this man’s son was truly being held captive by one of them, he was in grave danger.
The man continued. “The creature called himself Krotian. Told me to come here and bring him the woman who worked here.” Anguish tightened the wrinkles between his brows. “He has my son. He’s… hurting him.”
“Did he send anyone else besides you?” Talan demanded.
“I don’t know. His eyes. He just looked at me and the pain…” The man trailed off, unable to finish. “Please let me go. He’s got my boy. He’s hurting my baby boy.”
“Take me to him,” Zoe said. Her tone was firm. Determined. “I’ll teach him what happens to assholes who hurt children.”
Talan pushed to his feet and collected the weapon before sparing her a brief glance. “Like hell. You don’t know what you’re dealing with. For all we know, there is no child.”
“Did you see that man’s face?” Zoe asked. “There’s no way to fake pain like that. A Raide has his son. I’d bet my life on it.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
The human tried to reach for something. “Davy’s picture is in my wallet. I’m not lying.”
“See?” said Zoe.
Talan wasn’t convinced. He pressed his boot against the man’s chest to hold him in place on the floor. “It doesn’t matter if he’s telling the truth. The danger to you is still the same. I was sent here to keep you safe, not let you dive headfirst into danger by going after a Raide.”
“My dad said they’re frail. There’s a gun right there. I’m not planning to negotiate with him. I’m just going to shoot him in painful places until he lets the boy go.”
“They might be frail, but they wear armor. And all it takes is one look at Krotian and you’ll be completely incapacitated. You won’t have time to get off a single shot.”
“You don’t know that.”
Talan couldn’t look at Zoe. He knew if he did, his control would snap and he’d whisk her away to the nearest window to Loriah, sphere or no sphere. “I do know. I also know that if you go to Krotian, you’ll be dead within the hour.”
“Oh God,” moaned the man lying on the floor. “Davy.”
Zoe’s tone chilled. “I’m not leaving some innocent child to suffer when I’m the whole reason he was kidnapped to begin with. I’m going after him.”
Talan grabbed the man’s unbroken arm and hauled him to his feet. “Is he watching you?”
“What?” Tears were streaming down his face, his eyes wild and darting around.
Talan gave him a shake. “Can Krotian see you right now? Is he nearby?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t think so. I drove twenty minutes to get here. Unless he followed me.”
“I doubt it. A Raide won’t get close to danger if he can avoid it.” And it was a Raide. The glimmer of terror in the man’s face when he talked about pain and eyes was enough to tell Talan that much. There was nothing quite like the agony the Raid could inflict with their gaze alone. It stripped away a person’s defenses, leaving them willing to do anything to make it stop.
And now one of them had a child.
Talan went through the options, sorting through them between one breath and the next. The Raide knew who Zoe was. They knew where she worked. Chances were they knew where she lived too. Anywhere she went, she’d be in danger.
“I’m going after the boy,” Zoe said. She was moving around behind the counter, collecting things, preparing to leave.
No way was he letting her go on some rescue mission. She wasn’t equipped to fight, no matter how many guns she carried. “No. You’re not. But we’re also not leaving that child to suffer.”
The man’s knees gave out, and he would have crumpled to the ground had Talan not held him up.
He didn’t dare leave Zoe’s side now, not even for the life of a child who may or may not still be alive. There was too much of a risk she would be taken captive and have her mind searched for the location of the sphere. He had no idea what was on it—he didn’t need to know—but whatever it was had to be important. And that meant he couldn’t allow it to fall in the hands of the Raide. And that meant Zoe couldn’t either.
He had to keep her away from Krotian. Period. But there was one thing he could do—the only chance the human boy had for survival.
Talan pulled out his cell phone and dialed Radek.