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Stolen Bride


Angelique Anjou

( c ) Copyright by Angelique Anjou, January 2019

Cover art by Jenny Dixon

ISBN 978-1-60394

Smashwords Edition

New Concepts Publishing

Lake Park, GA 31636

This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author’s imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.

Chapter One

It was probably the most bizarre reason to volunteer for a mission in the history of the Star-Troopers, but Charlotte Black needed the job and, like a lot of people—well women—getting the chance to drop a few pounds without a lot of effort and misery had a definite appeal.

She certainly wasn’t a big woman because she wanted to be!

Nature had conspired against her.

She’d inherited all of the traits that led to a lifelong battle with her weight.

She’d had treatment—what she could afford to pay for—for all of it, but with indifferent success.

When she’d heard about the plan for the newest Earth colony, she’d decided it was her destiny. Even if she never lost weight and got down to that dream size, she would at least be in the same boat as everyone else who was going. At least she wouldn’t have to put up with the insensitive assholes that were always commenting on her size perfectly audibly—and that was the polite ones! There were way more that almost seemed to see it as their duty to harass the fat, depressed woman!

Hey! Was it her fault that she was way more efficient than the skinny assholes?

Because that was what it boiled down to. Efficiency.

Her body worked more efficiently than theirs and she worked more efficiently than they did.

Finally, a group of scientists had agreed.

This mission to colonize a super Earth required that the colonists had reached adulthood carrying around at least twenty percent to thirty percent more weight than was considered ‘average—desirable—healthy’ for their height. Their bones would be far denser to carry around the additional weight and even their organs would be accustomed to moving a heavier mass so, less strain.

That had been the theory anyway and, as it turned out, it seemed to be sound.

It did suck a big hairy one that she’d lost forty pounds in stasis and still weighed, on this planet, the same thing she’d weighed on Earth. But she looked thinner and she felt great!

She didn’t think it had worked out quite as well for everyone as it had for her—some of the colonists were having a really bad time adjusting to the heavier gravity/air density. But, for once in her life, it seemed she had landed in the Goldilocks zone. She’d been just the right weight to maximize the effectiveness!

Of course, she was way taller than average and still stood out wherever she went, but at least she knew the criticism was aimed at her height rather than her mass.

And in sixty years they calculated she would settle three inches from the weight of the gravity in her new home! Whoopee!

A shift in the pitch of their engine and the sensation of dropping jerked Lt. ‘Charly’ Charlotte Black out of her reverie. They were approaching their destination. The cruiser was descending.

Instantly, Charly tensed with a combination of fear and excitement. Her hands tightened on her rifle.

Their mission was a tricky one—politically speaking.

The quarry they’d tracked to the doorstep of the planet Bacsheer was suspected in the murder of the governor of the planet Athena in the next quadrant over. And not only did they not have an extradition treaty with the Oloote of Bacsheer, they barely had verbal agreement of friendship and cooperation.

In point of fact, she thought it would be safe to say that the Oloote just hadn’t slaughtered any human visitors yet because they weren’t convinced they could pull it off and not face total annihilation.

They weren’t likely to cooperate with their team—which had been assembled specifically for their current mission to extricate their suspect without, hopefully, creating an ‘incident’.

The rangers had point—jurisdiction—but nobody, even them, had thought it would be a good idea for a pair of rangers to show up on the barbarians’ doorstep and demand they hand over the culprit, Ginko Nldick. Her team, which was a specialized group of investigators for the Star-Troopers, generally only investigated crimes in connection with the military, but since they were soldiers and they were investigators, they made the perfect backup for the prima donnas—uh—the rangers.

They at least had a better chance of fighting their way out of a violent disagreement with the Oloote if it came to that.

And it easily could.

In the first place, Ginko Nldick, their suspect, wasn’t human and didn’t look human and the Oloote might object to them taking him for that reason alone—since he didn’t look like anyone they should have dominion over.

In the second—well they were barbarians. They might not see his murder of the governor as a murder, or punishable by law—particularly since the governor was human.

There was just, unfortunately, way more they didn’t know about the Oloote of Bacsheer than they knew.

In some ways the aliens were frightening—their penchant for violence, for instance. In other ways not so much.

Physically, they were very human-like. In fact they might almost have been mistaken for humans—except for the skin and eye color.

They were very similar in size, as well.

But, like the gorilla on Earth that appeared to be about the size of an adult male, the size of the Oloote of Bacsheer was deceptive. Scientists guessed them to be two or three times stronger than humans—even the females—due to the fact that they were native to a significantly denser world than humans had come from.

Fortunately, humans had technology.

The suits they were wearing made them equals.

More or less.

Without surprise, they discovered when they had landed and disembarked that a party of the king’s guardsmen was there to greet them. They had announced their arrival, after all, which seemed the safest route to take since the Oloote looked upon subtlety as sneakiness and sneakiness as treachery, and they were violently opposed to that sort of behavior, by circling the castle before they’d settled on a landing spot in the cleared pasturage between it and the river that fed their fields and very likely supplied the castle itself—with sewage removal if nothing else.

The castle was actually a pretty amazing accomplishment, to her notion, for people known to be pretty damned primitive. Built mostly of stone and enormous timbers, it rose up from the rocky soil several stories high and was surrounded by an inner and outer wall for defense that was nearly as tall.

It looked ancient.

And it looked a lot like the castles that had been built on Earth.

How they’d constructed such a mammoth structure with nothing more than blood, sweat, and hand tools—well possibly animal labor, as well—was almost unbelievable.

Except there it stood, defying disbelief.

They stood at attention once they’d descended the gangplank, staring back at the primitives … waiting to see if they would be welcomed.

Or attacked.

Not that they could fight off a whole damned planet, but they were carrying enough firepower to make the Oloote deeply regret taking on soldiers of the Confederation of Planets—win, lose, or draw. That comforted Charly somewhat. She was still tense and alert, but that came with the job, and the certain knowledge that no technology guaranteed success in this kind of situation.

In any case, the Oloote of Bacsheer were tentative allies of the Confederation. They might be barbarians in the eyes of most of the Confederation and more inclined to settle disputes with physical violence than diplomacy, but they hadn’t met a delegation from the Confederacy with violence … yet.

One member of the group, clearly the leader, advanced when they’d formed up at the foot of the ramp and spoke.

Unfortunately, this is when Charly realized her damned translator wasn’t working.

The urge to race back inside and get a replacement hit her, but she quelled it.

The Oloote were liable to see such an act as a prelude to attack and then all hell would break loose. Even if she could explain, she couldn’t. The Oloote were technologically challenged—didn’t have a clue about the technology humans had—which, she supposed, was why they called them ‘gods’. They wouldn’t understand if she tried to explain and it was strictly against policy to introduce them to technology in any sense.

So she was screwed.

Forced by circumstance to rely on her other senses, she discovered something really disconcerting.

The lead barbarian was a total knock out.

He was wearing a helmet, of course—fully decked out in armor—which concealed a good bit of his face, but the square, clean shaven jaw was impressive and the finely etched lips made her belly execute flips, leaps, and twirls.

It would have been helpful if she could’ve focused on something else—anything—but he was speaking and that drew her attention.

And then she couldn’t drag her gaze away.

No damned clue what the guy said, but it seemed to be a greeting of some sort and when he’d finished speaking he turned and led the way toward the Oloote castle in the distance and Charly merely followed everyone else.

Released from the strange effect of being caught up in admiration of male beauty, Charly reverted to her training.

It may have been the fact that she was operating ‘blind’ that made her feel something that wasn’t actually there, but she had the sense as they progressed that there was a good bit of tension in the alien warriors around them, almost a sense of dread, and that made her uneasy.

Tense enough she jumped when someone touched her arm and whirled toward them.

She relaxed fractionally when she saw it was Neal. He touched his helmet above his ear and looked at her questioningly.

Evidently, he’d noticed she was having technical difficulties.

She shook her head.

He let it drop so she wasn’t certain of whether he’d realized she was flying by the seat of her pants or if he interpreted the shake of her head to mean she had no problem, or if he was waiting, she hoped, for a better time to address the situation.

Because they had to be damned careful about their behavior around the Oloote.

They might refer to them as sky gods, but that wasn’t a sign of worship or trust. They were deeply distrustful of the humans and only, she suspected, tentative allies because they knew they weren’t in a position to annihilate them.

They damned sure weren’t stupid regardless of how primitive they might seem to most people.

Charly wanted to dismiss the sense that something was very wrong, but as they reached the gates of the castle the pall over the place only seemed to deepen. There were people sprinkled here and there inside the walls, but only a smattering when she knew from her Intel that there were some five to ten thousand souls within the walls of the castle and keep. That was enough to create a bustle.

That just wasn’t there.

She struggled with the urge to rest her hand on her weapon, wondering if something had happened that had turned the Oloote against them and they were walking into a trap, but she didn’t want to trigger an incident if her imagination was playing tricks on her.

The moment of truth came when they left the bulk of their escort behind in the keep and entered the Great Hall of the castle.

They had to remove their helmets or risk looking as if they were expecting an attack.

Which Charly saw they clearly did since everyone hesitated significantly before they pressed the retractors that collapsed their helmets into the neck rim of their suits.

Charly discovered when she had removed her helmet and turned to Neal that the leader of the men who’d escorted them in was staring directly at her.

Actually, she wasn’t convinced of that at first, but when she’d cast a quick look behind her and found no one, she decided that he must be staring at her.

Particularly since he looked amused when she glanced back at him.

She supposed the stare was because it was the first time he’d been able to see her face and, hopefully, detect that she was female. Because she was sure that must be a shock to him.

For her part, she felt the jolt deep in the pit of her belly.

Maybe lower.

She’d thought he must be handsome from the view she’d had of his face.

Without the helmet ….

He was extraordinarily handsome for his species—which was saying something when his species tended to be well above average in looks. Unusually tall even for an Oloote, his features were well formed, pleasing, and symmetrical, his jaw square and manly, his physique impressive.

Her kegels went haywire. Despite her best efforts to ignore the force of attraction, she discovered she was fighting a losing battle between intelligence and raw animal attraction.

He looked like a noble—must be since he was clearly the leader of the soldiers who’d greeted them when they’d arrived.

Which only made him more off limits.

Disconcerted, she looked away before she was tempted to smile back at him.

It wouldn’t do to encourage any of the bad old barbarians to think she was interested in being dragged around by her hair, thrown to the ground, and ravished.

And that seemed to be their concept of romance!

Not that that thought didn’t titillate—especially when paired with a hunk of male like that! But she had business to take care of.

She couldn’t afford to play.

Damn it!

Not that she thought for a second that he was actually attracted to her!

He was probably just wondering if she really was a woman since she was damned near as tall as the men in their group.

“Problem with the com unit?” Neal asked quietly as he moved up beside her.

Chapter Two

Charly’s lips tightened. “Yeah. Can’t hear a damned thing. What’s going on?”

Neal shrugged. “Sickness. They suggested we leave, but you know the rangers. Hallie insisted that we were immune to anything they could throw at us—or words to that effect. And that we were seeking audience with the high king.” He shrugged. “So—here we are and I don’t know what’s going on. The high king doesn’t seem to be here, though.”

Jurisdictional arrogance.

They were military police and so that made them inferior because they were jarheads.

The rangers were the real investigators.

And they weren’t going to let a little thing like the possibility of a political shit storm deter them from getting their man.

Not that she was willing to turn tail and take off just because of a little bug that seemed to have everybody on edge!

But it seemed to her that the rangers were all about grabbing the glory of solving the case and relegating the military ‘escort’ attached to their team to the realm of grunts.

They stood around for what seemed a very long time to Charly—waiting. She wasn’t even sure what they were waiting for and she was fairly certain nobody else did either. Finally, an older, very self-important looking man approached Hallie and Lee, the rangers, and spoke to them.

The conversation was low voiced and under ordinary circumstances no one would even have expected to hear what was being discussed, but the rangers were still wearing their communicators in their ears and they hadn’t thought to close the channel.

“Uh oh,” Neal muttered under his breath a few moments later.

Charly sent him a questioning look, but he shook his head fractionally and she had to wait with what patience she could muster until the conversation had concluded and the alien turned away.

Her heart leapt into her throat when she saw that Hallie and Lee obviously had every intention of leaving with the man. She pushed her way through the crowd and caught Hallie’s wrist. Hallie’s lips tightened, but her irritation didn’t color her voice. “We have an audience.”

“You know damned well we’re supposed to stay together.”

“Well, it didn’t work out like that,” Hallie said tightly, twisting her wrist to free it from Charly’s grip. “We have our weapons and our communicators.”

Charly had no choice but to let the stupid bitch go. She had no way to communicate with the Oloote herself since her damned translator was on the blitz.

Neal joined her after a moment. “The king is indisposed. That guy is taking them to speak with the king’s advisors.”

“Great,” Charly muttered, but there was nothing she could do about the situation. She had no idea where the rangers were being taken or what danger they might be in—or if they could do anything to help if they got into trouble. That being the case, she focused on the investigation and directed her people to see what they could do about collecting information from the Oloote—not by questioning—which probably wouldn’t go over well, but by listening.

Fortunately, the beautiful man followed the rangers as they left and Charly was able to focus on her job.

* * * *

“The king isn’t ‘indisposed’,” Hallie said bluntly when she’d joined Charly in the room assigned to her after their group was finally escorted upstairs. “He’s dying—some illness that no one has seen before. The physicians, naturally enough, haven’t been able to improve his situation at all. And the two people they know of that came down with it before died. So the king isn’t expected to recover.

“And, of course, it isn’t just the state of the realm that has everyone on edge. They’re terrified of the disease. A good portion of the people that were living here have already sneaked off to other parts.”

Charly felt a jolt run through her at the intelligence. She struggled with her own fear of alien disease for a few moments. “There were two others?”

Neal jumped in with his report before Hallie could continue since he doubted she knew much about the rest of it. “It sounds like the first one to come down with it was a kitchen maid. I’m not really up on their calendar—you know they organize by weeks, not months—but I think that was maybe a month ago. Maybe a month and a half. The king’s closest advisor came down with it next and within just a few days. He died before she did and that’s really the source of the panic, I think. The fact that two people had it and died so quickly. But that was weeks ago, from what I understand and everyone had just begun to relax and dismiss it when the king came down with it.”

Charly frowned, thinking, but it didn’t sound like any disease progression she could think of. Living as tightly as they did with community dining and sleeping, for the most part, there should have been more people who came down with it if it was in fact a disease. “This doesn’t sound right to me. I know this would be something unfamiliar to us, too, but it just doesn’t seem to follow the infection progression. If it started with somebody that worked in the kitchen, one would think it would be all over the castle in this length of time—unless either the king or his advisor or both were screwing the kitchen maid?”

“Because it’s more likely its poison,” Hallie said.

Charly sucked in a gasp. “Ginko Nldick is here?”

Hallie’s partner, Lee, responded that time. “Yeah. He replaced the ‘advisor’ that died,” he said dryly.

“Which is why I couldn’t convince them to allow us to see what we could do for the king,” Hallie added.

Annoyance flickered through Charly. The announcement that they’d found their quarry should have been the first thing out of their mouths. “Positive identification?”

“Yeah,” Lee responded. “Via genetic heat signature. He’s in disguise—had something done to alter his appearance and his voice. But it’s definitely him. And up to his old tricks—which helped me pinpoint him.

“The governor was just the first assassination we caught him at. Fortunately for us, he isn’t as good at covering his tracks as he likes to think.

“Unfortunately, that isn’t because he’s sloppy and left evidence. It’s because he had the ‘uncanny bad luck’ of being in the proximity of nearly a half dozen victims who appeared to die of natural causes or from an accident and then were later determined to have been murdered.”

That was news to Charly and it thoroughly pissed her off. There seemed little point in venting over being kept in the dark, though. “Well, as long as we’re sharing information …. Is there anything else that’s really, really important that wasn’t included in our report?” she asked tightly.

Lee looked uncomfortable, but Hallie sent Charly a gloating smile that made her long to punch the bitch in the mouth.

Neal stepped in to distract and de-escalate. “Rumors are circulating that either of the young princes could be behind the king’s sudden illness. One of them with inherit the throne so they both have a lot to gain if he dies.” He frowned. “But I suppose it could be another player entirely, someone who believes they can seize the throne from the ruling family.

“There’s a stipulation that, to inherit, the prince would have to be wed and neither of them are.”

Hallie frowned, clearly struggling to access her knowledge of Bacsheer. “The eldest son wouldn’t inherit automatically?”

“No. Nothing automatic about it. The king determines his heir. And he was much fonder of his second wife, and their son, than the first. His stipulation that it would be whichever son had wed was his way of making the decision fair—even though most people appear certain that he favors his younger son,” Neal said. He shrugged. “But then again that might not be the case at all. It could be because the younger son is more popular with the people and they want to believe he’ll inherit the throne.”

Charly dismissed it. “Hopefully, that won’t matter to us. We need to figure out some way to grab Nldick and get out of here before the shit hits the fan.”

Hallie stared at her. “I’d heard you were a loose cannon, but that takes the cake! Grab him and run? You can’t be serious!”

Charly tamped her anger with an effort. “Sooo…. You think you can talk the Oloote into handing over a man they’ve appointed as their father’s advisor? Who are you going to talk to about it? The king? We can’t get near him and, if he’s dying, the chances are he’s too weak to deal with it.”

“The princes?” Hallie pointed out, her voice tight with her own anger.

“You mean possibly one of the conspirators in the assassination? And, I might add, the advisors actually have more power at this point since the king is still alive. So maybe you think we could convince the other advisors to hand him over?”

She shook her head. “Any suggestions? Anybody?”

“I’m in charge!” Hallie said tightly. “I don’t need to ask for suggestions.”

“So you are planning on meeting with the other advisors? I know you can’t be stupid enough to approach either one of the princes when they could be prime suspects!”

Hallie stared at her stone faced for several moments and then just turned and stomped out with Lee on her heels.

“You’d better go, too,” Charly said tiredly. “They separated us for a reason other than our comfort. Things might get ugly if we’re found together.”

Neal looked like he wanted to argue, but after a long moment, he shrugged and let himself out.

Absently rubbing at the headache she could feel forming, Charly settled on a stuffed chair to think, to see if she could figure out some way around their dilemma.

It really sucked to be stuck in the middle of a barbarian world without access to her computer or any way to communicate with headquarters. Because, regardless of what that ego maniac thought about the situation, this was not going to be easy to solve and it was her experience that anything this fucked up should be passed up the chain of command so somebody else could get axed when it went sideways.

Because it would.

She could feel it in her bones.

And I’d just like to know who the fuck called me a loose cannon!”

Chapter Three

Galen didn’t have as long to wait as he’d feared he might.

He’d thought the stupid bastard would be more cautious and that might make it impossible to catch him, but he was clearly too arrogant or in too much of a hurry to be cautious.

The sky gods—whom he had learned had come to search for an assassin—had scarcely been escorted away when he dismissed the physicians attending the king. As soon as they had departed, he had locked the door and crossed the room to unearth a small box of glass vials filled with various potions. From the box, he had taken a strange looking dagger. It looked like a needle attached to a narrow vial.

He had plunged that into one of the vials of potion and withdrawn a colored liquid.

Galen tensed, but he had to be certain before he acted.

He waited until the bastard had crossed the room and lifted his father’s arm.

He managed to cross from his place of concealment by the window in time to intercept—barely—but, thankfully, the assassin was not able to pierce the skin before he grabbed his wrist and stopped him.

The man he’d come to know as Blazig sent him a terrified look that told its own tale. “What are you doing?”

“I was about to ask you that question.”

Blazig blinked at him. “I was about to give your father a treatment for the malady that has brought him down.”

“A treatment? You are also a physician?”

Blazig licked his lips uneasily. “Nay. But I have potions that are for various illnesses that I got from the sky gods. I am convinced this will make him better.”

“Are you?” Galen asked coldly, squeezing the wrist he held until Blazig released his hold.

“Yes! Yes! It will make him better!”

Before he could say anything else, Galen plunged the dagger into Blazig’s neck and pushed the plunger.

Blazig gasped in horror as he felt the potion injected into his neck.

Then he opened his mouth in a silent scream and … bucked, involuntarily.

Repulsed, Galen let him go, watched dispassionately as he sank to the floor and began jerking all over. Foam flecked his lips and began to ooze from his mouth in a stream.

Struggling with a mixture of rage and revulsion, Galen watched until he stopped jerking.

“Bastard! Assassin! That would have made him better?”

“My son! What have you done?” the king asked weakly.

Galen whipped a look at his father. “The bastard meant to kill you!” he said angrily.

The king stared at him for a long moment. “He has already slain me,” he murmured. “That was not the first injection. It was meant to be the last.”

“By the gods! You allowed it?” Galen demanded.

“I was ill. I knew there was nothing any of my physicians could do to help me.” He shook his head. “I trusted when I should not have.”

He seemed to lapse into unconsciousness, but he spoke again when Galen turned to go. “You must dispose of the body. They will accuse you of conspiring with him. You can use the secret passage to remove him without being seen.”

Galen felt the blood leave his face. “Father! You do not believe that?”

The king struggled to grasp his younger son’s hand. “I do not. But your brother may use it against you.” He paused a few moments to catch his breath. “I was wrong to leave the succession as I did. It will tear the realm apart. Damek will never accept half the kingdom. You must seize the throne and hold fast. You must do whatever it takes to hold the kingdom together. Promise me!”

“You are strong. You will get better, Father ….”

“I am strong. I took too long to die and that forced his hand. But I will die,” the king gasped angrily. “I am dying. And I do not have the strength to make Damek back down now that I have allowed sentiment to overwhelm good sense. You are the better man and the most fit to rule. You will have to fight him for the throne. I expect it of you. It is your destiny and your duty.”

* * * *

Dinner might actually have been good under other circumstances. The dishes were simple but rich and flavorful and only a little on the exotic side. As guests of honor, apparently, they were seated at the high table with the nobles—which included the two young princes.

So now she knew the one who’d stared at her so rudely was the younger of the pair.

Actually, by far the better looking of the two, also.

Not that that mattered.

She hadn’t really thought he was interested in her to start with, she told herself, so it was no great shock to discover he was actually one of the heirs to the throne. She’d thought all along it was merely curiosity.

He was careful not to look at her, she noticed, after she, and her entire group, was formally introduced to the princes.

She was referred to as the Sky Goddess Charlotte.

To save her life, she couldn’t keep from turning red every time she was addressed like that.

She wasn’t singled out by any means and shouldn’t have felt so ridiculous about it. Any time any of them was addressed it was as God or Goddess. But there was no getting around the fact that it made her really uncomfortable and she was fair so embarrassment translated to furious, red blushes.

She knew that the Oloote had decided they were sky gods since they’d first made contact with the people of Bacsheer. It was the main reason they’d restricted interaction with the people of Bacsheer—that and the possibility of ‘tainting’ their natural evolution by accidently introducing technology they weren’t ready for.

Reasoning did little to make her feel more comfortable, though, because she strongly suspected that the more intelligent, better educated among the Oloote, didn’t believe any such thing. They were merely propagating the concept for motives of their own, possibly to placate the lower classes and soothe their fears, or maybe to keep them in line, to increase their own importance by association with deities.

Or they did it to stroke ‘alien’ egos.

It was a tough pill to swallow to consider that the Oloote were intelligent enough to try to manipulate them, but … they were primitive, not stupid. They weren’t necessarily less intelligent than humans, just less informed and knowledgeable.

Apparently, entertainment had been planned for their guests, the ‘sky gods’—a dance to follow the dinner—which she had no clue of until the musicians formed up and began to tune their instruments.

Charly wasn’t happy about it because she’d spent most of her meal trying to puzzle through their problem and keep up with the conversation going on around her and all she really wanted was peace and quiet to formulate a workable plan.

Unfortunately, she discovered she’d imbibed a lit-tle too freely of the fermented berry brew that had been served with the meal, though it didn’t hit her immediately.

It made itself felt at the worst possible time.

Neal had warned her. And she thought she’d been very careful, but apparently she’d been just a tad too distracted to be as careful as she needed to be.

* * * *

Galen was in danger and he knew it. His father was dying and he was surrounded by men whose first loyalty was to the king and whose second was to his brother, Damek. He had men loyal to him, as well, but, under the circumstances, he could not count on that covering his ass.

He had followed the sky gods because he had heard enough of their conversation to know that they were looking for an assassin—and there was only one stranger among them. He had no idea why his father had accepted the creature, but he had not trusted the bastard from the start. And now he knew his instincts had been right, it was too late to change anything—at least as far as he could see at the moment.

Then again, he was in no state after what had transpired in his father’s room to think clearly. He was well aware, though, that his distraction would be noticed and create speculation he could not afford.

It was impulse that carried him to the vicinity of the sky goddess, Charlotte—the need for a diversion, both for himself and for those who may have noticed his distraction. Showing interest in the woman would be explanation enough for most of those present.

Unfortunately, that was no pretense. He was interested in the woman, had felt an instant, powerful attraction that was distracting in and of itself.

It got worse.

Apparently, she didn’t handle her drink well—or it had a more profound effect on her system because she was not Oloote. Either way, it loosened her tongue in a way he had not expected and had a good bit of difficulty dealing with since he had, per force, to continue his charade of having no understanding of the tongue of the sky gods.

Chapter Four

Prince Galen foiled Charly’s half formed plot to slip out while everyone else was occupied by rising from his seat as soon as the musicians began to tune their instruments and offering his hand for the first dance. “Goddess Charlotte, will you do me the honor of a dance?”

‘Goddess’ Charlotte stared at his hand in dismay and then looked up at his face and pasted a smile on her lips, struggling to think if there was any way she could turn him down without pissing him off.

Not that she’d understood the request, per se, but the demand of the hand and the music in concert were pretty good prompts even if the language eluded her.

And she was a little tipsy from the brew.

And stoned on attraction pheromones.

She thought she might have managed well enough if she’d had a different partner, one she wasn’t already feeling the effects of from across the room. But such was not the case. Prince Galen across the room upset her equilibrium. Prince Galen up close and touchy sent her senses into overdrive and was way more debilitating than a few swigs of their potent punch.

She tried to erect barriers, but he was way too good at dismantling them. One smoldering look from those electric purple eyes and she felt like she was having a meltdown.

Unfortunately, no acceptable excuse for declining came to her. “You may regret it when I stomp all over your feet with my boots,” she murmured, rising. “I’m not the least familiar with any of your dances.”

His smile had stiffened when the first part of her speech was translated by Neal, but he recovered quickly when Neal pointed out that she wasn’t familiar with their dances. “It will be my pleasure, then, to teach.”

Charlotte thought it doubtful he was going to find it the least bit pleasurable and she felt pretty graceless in her military boots and armor, but she saw no alternative to accepting and doing her best not to make a complete fool out of herself.

She knew that bitch, Hal, was probably strangling on the urge to laugh.

Well, she hoped she choked, damn her!

She’d faced battles that didn’t unnerve her as much as standing in the middle of the floor with a prince of Bacsheer!

She damned near tripped with her first step, but, fortunately, the prince was big and strong and didn’t want to look like a fool. He gripped her more tightly and guided her through a series of simple dance steps.

And left it at that.

As demoralized as Charly was by the situation, she managed to retain that much, and, as she relaxed, she was able to refrain from stepping all over him or tripping over her own feet.

If only she’d been able to master control of her tongue!

“Clever girl!” the prince said encouragingly.

Unfortunately, she had no idea what he’d said. The tone and the smile that went with it seemed to imply that he was satisfied with her performance, though, and that plus the realization that her ordeal was almost over was enough to encourage her to relax and move more fluidly.

She relaxed way more than she should have, unfortunately. The moment she discovered she didn’t have to focus on where she was putting her feet, the nervous energy transferred to her tongue.

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