â€œSo you’re a badass assassin, huh? You sure don’t look like much to me.â€
Adron Quiakides paused his drink halfway to his lips. His blood rushed through his veins like lava as he narrowed his gaze on the beefy human in front of him.
His elite military training allowed him to size the bastard up in a nanosecond. Dressed in black because he thought it made him look tougher, the man wore an abundance of weapons in plain sight, which said he didn’t know how to use any of them properly. The obnoxious idiot was hoping the sheer number alone would deter anyone from messing with him.
As if . . .
His clothes were two sizes too small to show off the muscles that were out of proportion to the rest of him because of steroid abuse. He stood with his hip cocked, blustering and preening for a group of like-minded friends who were laughing at his braggadocio.
Bully. Trash. Free assassin too incompetent in his trade to pay his own bills.
In short, he wasn’t worth the cost of a blaster charge to eliminate him from the gene pool. Lucky day for him because in the past, Adron wouldn’t have hesitated to perform that public service.
Adron knocked back his drink with one gulp, then poured himself another. â€œYou have three seconds to evaporate or I’m going to spray your brain matter all over your crew behind you.â€
The man laughed as he sneered at Adron’s black silver-tipped cane resting against the table. â€œYou’re a pathetic cripple. What can you do besides get drunk and glower? I’m surprised they even let something like you in here with the rest of us.â€ He turned to his friends. â€œHelp me. Help me. I’m so scared. Please don’t hurt me,â€ he mocked. â€œLook, I’m crying like the little bitch I raped last night.â€
Adron’s fury fled as that old familiar cold seized him. Without hesitation, he kicked the table over, knocking the man back. Even though his body screamed out in agony of his movements, he rose, yanked one of the blasters from the bastard’s belt, and aimed it between his eyes.
One shot. One kill.
That was the assassin’s creed, and true to his promise he dispatched one more piece of vermin out of this plane of existence.
Too bad he hadn’t done it one day sooner before the trash had found his last victim.
Screams erupted as several patrons ducked for cover or ran for the door. Others merely looked on in curiosity of the kill. Typical Crona behavior.
Adron chucked the blaster at the man’s body, then calmly retook his seat and adjusted his coat around him.
Edsel, the owner, who was a man in his late twenties, came forward with a heavy sigh as he looked over the body. He picked up the cane from the floor and handed it to Adron. â€œI would ask what happened, but I’ve got a pretty good idea.â€ He returned the table to its previous position. â€œHow anyone with even a single brain cell can mess with you is beyond me. Not like you don’t telegraph to the world that you’re only one step this side of crazyâ€”looking for someone to kill and alleviate your boredom.â€ He glanced back at the body. â€œThen again, he has no brains at all . . . now. Impressive shot, by the way.â€
Adron held out his card but didn’t speak. He didn’t like wasting breath, and Edsel knew the card meant he’d cover all damages and buy drinks for anyone disgruntled over the bloodshed. Not to mention the small fact that it seriously hurt to speak. So he’d learned to keep his comments to the bare minimum when dealing with people.
Edsel took the card and kept bitching. â€œThanks.â€ He held the card up between his thumb and forefinger. â€œThis is the only reason why I still let you come inâ€”’cause you always make good on the messes you make, unlike the other drunken bums. Though why every few times you’re in here some asshole has to challenge you, I’ll never understand. Stupid dregs. If they can’t tell you’re lethal, they’re too dumb to live. Hell, I consider this a public service. You probably do too.â€ Edsel stepped back as a waitress brought another bottle of Tondarion Fire and set it down in front of Adron.
Edsel motioned to the patrons who were staring at them. â€œGo on, everyone. Just a little misunderstanding. The fireworks are over. You’re all safe now.â€ Then added under his breath, â€œas long as you don’t screw with a pissed-off assassin. Morons.â€
He motioned for his security to come over. â€œGuys, get this cleaned up. I don’t want see it, and I know no one else does either.â€ Then louder, he spoke to the crowd again. â€œFree drinks for anyone who has brain matter on their body or clothes. Sorry for the frayed nerves and inconvenience. What can I say? This is an exciting place.â€
Edsel shook his head as he turned to Adron. â€œI’d ask if you have a permit for that killing, but I don’t want to be lying next to him on the floor. Don’t worry. Any authorities come in, I’ll tell them you ran for the door after the shooting.â€
Adron scoffed as he knocked back another drink. He ran from nothing, which was exactly why he was here tonight.
Damn fucking bastards.
Edsel and the others faded into the crowd.
Adron narrowed his gaze on the dead man’s friends who’d been laughing. Their faces were pale as they tried to come to terms with what had happened and the speed with which he’d eradicated their sick buddy. They might have wanted to avenge the dead man, but their common sense prevailed, and one by one they walked over to the bar to claim their free drinks.
The waitress cast one last terrified glance at him, then scurried off to what she perceived as a safe distance. Once upon another life, he could have tracked her to the farthest corners of infinity and killed her.
But those days were gone.
Adron poured himself another drink and savored this one a little slower than its predecessors. His pleasures in life were minimal, and consuming buckets full of the yellow-orange liquid gave him the solace his battered soul craved.
Because tonight, more than ever before, his memories hurt.
He glanced at his chronometer and winced. This very hour marked the eighth anniversary of the night he’d made the â€œnobleâ€ decision he would spend the rest of his life paying for.
Fuck all of you.
But in the end, the only one who’d been really screwed was him.
Adron gripped the bottle tight in his right hand, unable to believe it’d been so long since he’d last walked without a pronounced limp. Moved without pain. Spoken without his throat aching from the effort of it.
Eight years since he’d experienced any comfort or peace whatsoever.
He’d lain in bed for hours trying to sleep. Trying to forget, and finally he’d realized the only way to silence his demons was to drown them out. And nothing worked better than Tondarion Fire, which he’d been out of at his place.
Forgetting the glass and the manners his mother had drilled into him, he tipped the large bottle to his lips and let the fire pour down his throat.
â€œHey, baby,â€ an attractive redhead said as she sauntered over to him and propped a thin hip against his table. â€œYou want some company?â€
He tried to wave her away, but she didn’t take the hint. Angry over her stupidity, he cleared his throat and braced himself for the pain of speaking. â€œI have company.â€ His deep raspy voice grated on his ears. â€œMe, myself, and I.â€
She raked a hungry look over his body, then leaned across the table to show him her ample breasts. â€œWell, there’s enough of me to make all three of you happy.â€
There had been a time, once, when he wouldn’t have hesitated to take her up on that offer.
But then life was nothing if not ever-changing, and usually it altered on the hairpin of a second.
She licked her lips. â€œC’mon, handsome, buy me a drink.â€
Adron glared at her. She wasn’t the first woman to proposition him tonight. And in truth it mystified him that any woman would bother, given the vicious scars on his face. But then, the women in The Golden Crona weren’t all that discriminating, especially not when they sensed money.
â€œSorry. None of us are interested.â€
She sighed dramatically. â€œWell, if any of you change your minds, you let me know.â€ With one last wistful look at him, she headed back into the human and alien crowd that drifted through the packed bar.
Adron shifted uncomfortably in his seat as a bone-deep pain shot through his left leg. Clenching his teeth, he growled low in his throat.
One would think the amount of painkillers he lived on, when combined with the alcohol, would squelch any amount of ache or kill him. But it barely numbed his physical hell.
And it did nothing for the burning agony in his heart.
â€œDamn it all,â€ he snarled under his breath, and then he threw his head back and finished off his drink.
He grabbed a passing blue-fleshed waitress and held the bottle up with two fingers to let her know he wanted more.
A lot more.
As he waited for her to return, he saw another woman headed his way. The fierce glare he narrowed on her sent her fleeing in the opposite direction.
He was through playing around. Tonight he intended to get fully flagged, and he pitied the next fool stupid enough to approach him.
Unless they came bearing more alcohol.
Livia typpa Vista had lived the whole of her life in protective custody. More hostage than princess, she’d long grown weary of everyone’s dictates for her behavior, and at age twenty-six, she’d had enough.
She was not a child.
And she was not going to marry Clypper Thoran in two weeks. Not even if he were the last male in the universe.
â€œYou will do as you are told and you will not question me. Ever.â€
She winced at her father’s imperious command. High Eminence he might be, but she, not her older brother, had inherited his stubbornness. No matter the cost, she refused to marry a Territorial Governor sixteen years her father’s senior. The very thought made her flesh crawl.
Since Clypper had demanded a virgin for his bride, she knew a way to thwart them both.
After tonight, she would be a virgin no more.
Tomorrow, her father would kill her for it. But better to die than to be married to a cruel, goat-faced ancient who groped her with cold hands every time he got near her. That will not be my future. The one thing she had control over was her body, and as of tonight, she was taking charge of it.
As the cold rain poured over her, Livia stared at the sign above her head. The Golden Crona. Her maid, Krista, had told her about the club. Inside it held all manner of heroes and villains, and though she would rather surrender her virginity to a hero, she honestly didn’t care. So long as he was passably attractive and gentle, he would be good enough for the night.
Gathering her courage, she opened the door and stopped dead in her tracks.
Never had she seen anything like it. A sea of aliens and humans danced and bobbed through the smoky bar that smelled of sweat from many species and of cheap alcohol. The obnoxious music was so loud, it made her ears throb.
A big, orange reptilian male gave her a frown as she hesitated in the doorway.
â€œIn or out,â€ he snarled. â€œMake a choice quick. I ain’t got all night and it’s cold outside.â€
She took a deep breath to fortify her courage. That, and she mentally conjured an image of Clypper’s fat jowls and beady, lust-filled eyes. Shuddering, she stepped inside and let the door pulse closed behind her.
The reptile man blocked her from entering. â€œTwenty-five credits.â€
What was he talking about? â€œExcuse me?â€
â€œTwenty-five credits. You pay or I toss you out on your ass.â€
Livia arched a brow at him. It was on the tip of her tongue to put him in his place, but then she remembered he had no idea who she was. And she must keep it that way.
If anyone learned she was a Vistan princess, she’d be sent back to the hotel where they were staying and her father would beat her just for having left without proper escorts and chaperones. For that matter, he’d beat her for being in public dressed like she was.
Not to mention the fact that her time was short. She had to find a man before someone missed her and started a search.
Pulling out the money she’d stolen from her brother, she paid the fee.
The alien put an iridescent mark on her hand before he allowed her access to the bar.
Her heart pounding in fear, dread, and a dash of excitement, she surveyed the large room full of people. â€œIt’s time to find him.â€
She walked through the crowd and flinched as several unwashed humans eyed her with interest. They definitely weren’t any better than Clypper.
Livia quickly amended her list of qualifications to include a man who bathed.
A tall, dark human male smiled at her, displaying a set of black teeth. Okay, she would also add one who knew how to use a toothbrush.
As she crossed the room, she saw a brunette at the bar who looked like a hopeful prospect. She headed for him. But as soon as she drew near enough to see his face clearly, she froze.
It was her father’s personal runner.
If she knew how to curse, she would definitely curse at her luck.
Just don’t let him see me.
Falling back into the crowd, Livia kept an eye on him while trying to scan the beings around her for her target. Surely, there was someone here who could . . .
A commotion in the entrance caught her attention.
Livia turned to look.
No! She panicked at the sight of her father’s royal guard swarming into the bar. Immediately, the gray-clad soldiers began questioning patrons as they spread out to cover as much of the bar as they could.
Fear tore through her. For them to be here in force and that grim meant Krista had volunteered her location, and no doubt her intent as well. She groaned at the very thought.
Father’s going to kill me.
How could Krista betray her? Her maid had been so helpful in the planning and execution of her escape.
But then for some unknown reason, Krista lived in fear of Livia’s father, and one scowl from him would have easily caused her maid to tell everything.
Right down to the grittiest of details.
She cringed at the thought of her father’s reaction. But at least Krista, unlike her, would be spared his outrage. Krista was protected by their laws. Only a male of her own family could punish her, and since Krista had no living male relative . . .
Livia was not so fortunate, and there was no telling what her father would do to her for this.
Chastity was one of the highest virtues any woman could possess on her world. In fact, men and women were allowed to mix only during meals, at chaste royal functions, and when married couples performed conjugal duties. For a woman to seek out a man not related to her was strictly forbidden.
And punished severely.
She shook the fear away. She’d known the consequences before she set out. Either way, she was going to pay for her indiscretion, and if she had to pay, then she was going to make sure she completed the deed.
Clenching her teeth, she scanned the room for a hiding place. At the back of the club were a line of booths. She headed for them.
Unfortunately, all of them were occupied.
â€œHey, babe.â€ A rough-looking man stopped her as she tried to move past him. â€œYou want some company?â€
She considered it until he reached out and roughly grabbed her arm. He pulled her toward him, his hand biting fiercely into the flesh of her upper arm. â€œC’mon.â€ He gave her a slick smile as he roughly ran his hand though her wet hair. â€œWhat say you and me head to the back?â€
She jerked away from him before he hurt her any more. â€œNo, thank you.â€ Turning, she saw the guards heading her way as they skimmed the crowd.
Her heart hammering, she ran to the last booth and sat on the empty bench before the guard saw her.
â€œWhat the hell are you doing?â€
She shifted her gaze from the guard to the man who sat across from her. Livia’s breath caught in her throat as her gaze focused on his face.
Oh . . .
My . . .
He was more than passable.
In fact, she’d never in her life seen a man so incredibly handsome. His features were sharp and aristocratically boned. His dark-blond eyebrows arched finely over the most piercingly blue eyes she’d ever seen.
Dressed all in black, he had long white-blond hair tied back into a neat queue. Clean-shaven and washed, he was gorgeous. An air of refinement and power clung to him.
But his eyes were cold while he watched her. Guarded. They warned her that he was lethal in nature. And by the set of his jaw, she could tell he didn’t want company.
He tugged at the black gloves over his hands as he eyed her with malice.
She should get up and leave, especially since he had a fierce scar that ran across his cheekbone to his hairline and then down along his jaw. It looked like someone had intentionally carved it there, which made her wonder just what kind of man he was.
What had he done to deserve such a wound?
Biting her lip in indecision, she glanced back to the guard who was steadily headed this way.
What should she do?
Adron arched a brow at the woman, who had yet to leave him.
He was drunk, but not so drunk that he didn’t realize the wet little mouse sitting across from him didn’t belong in this dive. He could smell the innocence on her.
And it turned his stomach.
Her dark-brown hair was loose, spilling over her thin shoulders in waves.
She had large, angelic eyes. Green eyes that had no past haunting her. They were completely guileless and honest.
A shiver ran over him. Who in this day and age had eyes like that? And what right did she have looking at him with them?
â€œI’m hiding from someone,â€ she confided. â€œDo you mind?â€
â€œHell, yes, I mind.â€ He gestured to the door with his bottle. â€œLeave.â€
Livia frowned at the stranger. His angry tone set her back, and if it weren’t for the fact that one of the guards was scanning the booths, she would have left.
Think of something. Because if she didn’t, she was sunk.
The guard stopped two booths up and held out a small palm frame she knew had to contain her royal portrait to the aliens sitting in it. â€œHave you seen this woman?â€
With her plan in ruins, she knew only one way to thwart her father. She got up from her seat and sat next to the stranger.
He scowled at her.
Before he could say anything, Livia leaned forward and kissed him.
Adron sat in stunned silence as she placed her tightly closed lips over his. It was the most chaste kiss a woman not related to him had ever given him.
By the way she held his head in her hands, he could tell she thought this was the way a kiss should be given.
But worse than the innocence he tastedâ€”he hadn’t kissed a woman in over eight years, and the feel of those plump, full lips on his was more than his drunk mind could handle.
And her smell . . .
Gods, how he’d missed the sweet, intoxicating smell of a woman. The warmth of a body pressed up against him. The feeling of a gentle hand on his flesh . . .
Closing his eyes, he let go of the bottle and cupped her face in his hands as he took control of the situation.
Livia trembled as he opened her lips and slid his tongue into her mouth. She’d seen people kiss like this in plays and movies, but no one had ever dared such insolence with her before.
She tasted the sweet, fragrant alcohol on his tongue, smelled the warm, clean scent of him as he ran his hands over her back and held her so gently that it made her shiver.
Her body burned from his gentle kiss. He’s definitely the one. This was the man she would give her virginity to. A man with tormented blue eyes and a tender touch. A man who made her breathless and weak, and at the same time hot and strangely powerful.
In his arms, she truly felt as if she had control of her life. Her body.
And she liked it.
Adron had never tasted anything better than her mouth. He felt her inexperience as she hesitantly met his tongue with hers. His body roared to life with a long-forgotten heat that demanded more than just her lips. The fact that she could arouse him through his pain . . .
That in and of itself was a miracle.
No, it was heaven and he’d lived in hell for so long that he’d forgotten the taste and feel of it.
â€œExcuse me,â€ a man said as he stopped in front of them. â€œHave you seen thisâ€”â€
Adron broke away from the kiss only long enough to pass a lethal glower at the newcomer. â€œGo away or die.â€
Fear flickered across the man’s eyes. It was a look Adron was used to.
Without another word, the man left them.
Adron returned to her lips.
Livia moaned as he deepened his kiss. The guards and her fear forgotten, she sighed in pleasure. Foreign emotions tore through her as he buried his lips against her neck and sent white-hot chills through her. His arms tightened around her waist as her breasts swelled.
What was this deep-seated throbbing she felt?
This unbearable ache?
He made her light-headed and breathless. And she wanted him desperately.
â€œWould you make love to me?â€
Adron pulled back in surprise. Had he been sober, he would have sent her away, but there was something about her that called out to him in a way he’d long forgotten.
It’d been an eternity since he last slept with a woman. Years of bitter, aching loneliness and pain.
And here she was offering herself to him.
Send her away.