I won't let my captor claim me as his mate.
I’ve been swept off my feet before, and I’ve got the bruises to show just how badly that ended. I’m not about to fall at the feet of the next man – or alien – to cross my path. Especially not when he steals me away from home and wants to use me as his broodmare.
Kloran is intense and sometimes scary. A prince of his people with a duty so deeply ingrained it’s hard to see where it ends and he begins. But the glimpses of the man beneath the hardened warrior prince make me wonder if there’s something more. It doesn’t help that his big muscles and strong masculine protective instincts bring out an uncontrollable attraction within me. It doesn’t help that in his arms I feel like his queen. But I’ve been fooled before. He is going to have to prove to me that he wants me for more than just a broodmare slave.
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Chapter 1 - Bria
We all make bad decisions in our lives, but when it came to me? I was the freakin’ queen of them. Wrong career. Wrong husband. In the glistening, glimmering high-class world of Sector One, I’d even looked wrong. The women there had all been immaculate bottle-blondes, all legs and collarbones, with no hips to speak of. My dark brown hair and ample curves had made me look practically mousy by comparison.
Then again, I wouldn’t have done much better as a mouse, either. In the twisted labyrinth of Sector One’s society, if there’d been a wrong turn to make, I’d taken it. Maybe it was something about being born and raised in Sector Six. If I was a mouse, growing up in the trailer parks and garbage dumps there had left me pretty much genetically incapable of tracking down the big cheese.
But as I chased the sunrise down the highway out of Sector One for good, for the first time in a long time, I finally felt like I’d made one decision that was completely right.
I had to grip the steering wheel tight as I pulled up into the border crossing line. If I hadn’t, my hands would have shaken so bad that it would have given me away immediately. What I was doing wasn’t exactly against the law—but it wasn’t exactly legal, either. The guards at the crossing would want to see my ID badge when I reached the front of the line, and when they saw it, they’d want to know exactly what someone of the gray class thought they were doing leaving their sector.
Which meant that I had to be charming. I had to look honest. And most of all, I couldn’t look afraid.
All things considered, not exactly the easiest thing in the world right now.
I glanced down at my Sector One badge where it gleamed on the passenger seat next to me. Sure, marrying Michael had plucked me up out of Sector Six, but there was no shaking that gray stripe next to my name. In our world, you could marry up, but you could never marry out. You couldn’t even buy your way out. My only dealings with the black market had taught me that much.
People here didn’t care who you were on the inside. They only cared about where you came from.
That stripe told the whole world who I really was.
Bria Monroe. Thirty-one. Daughter of a garbage collector and a low-level hairdresser. Michael had bought me the education that I’d hardly even been able to dream of in Sector Six, but even a blue-class training as a registered nurse hadn’t mattered when I was the only one on any floor I served on with that relentless gray-class stripe.
In the end, nothing about my life with Michael had turned out the way he’d promised it would be. When I’d agreed to marry him, I’d seen his blue-class status as a way out.
In the end, all I’d really agreed to was a prettier cage.
“Papers, ma’am.” My border guard nursed a steaming metal cup and blinked tiredly as I pulled up to his kiosk. The scent of scorched coffee wafted in through my window. Somehow, it only reminded me of how tired I was.
“Here you are, sir.” Politeness, I’d realized a long time ago, was always the best policy. Some of the blue-class women I’d met in Sector One could’ve launched an entire navy by complaining loud enough and dropping the right name, but I’d never had that kind of confidence. Instead, I made sure to mind my Ps and Qs, and my Rs and Ss too, just to be safe. I handed my documents and badge over to the guard with a soft, pleasant smile.
A forced smile, sure, but if I’d learned anything while married to Michael, it was how to fake one of those.
“What’s your business in Sector Two, Miss…Warner?” The guard stared down at my badge through the half-moons of his glasses. He was an older man with bushy gray eyebrows and kind-looking eyes. Old enough that I’d half-hoped he wouldn’t care about my class. Some people who remembered the time before the sectors didn’t. But then, I saw his gaze fall on my stripe. His eyes narrowed immediately—a bad sign. “Not often that we get grays coming out this way.”
“Just passing through,” I assured him, chipper and bright-eyed.
Ugh. Of course, he’d want more explanation than that.
“I’m a nurse, sir. You’ll find a copy of my certification there beneath my official approval to travel.” The words came easy—mostly because they were true. I was a nurse. And I did have an approval to travel. I’d blown nearly every last credit I’d secretly hoarded away from my paychecks on it. The problem was, all of my documents were fabricated ones, which meant my next words were a little harder to say. Just like the last name on my badge, they were lies. “My services are required at a hospital in Sector Three. You’ll find a letter from the hospital’s administration with the rest of my documents as well.”
“Hmm.” The guard’s shaggy brows lowered as he flipped through my papers. My pulse crashed through my veins until finally, he handed them back to me. “That looks to be in order, then.”
I had to stop myself from letting out a sigh of relief. I’d passed the checkpoint. As soon as he raised the gate arm in front of my car, I’d be free to go.
I’d be free, period.
“Thank you so much, sir.” I placed the documents back down on the seat next to me, then shifted the car back into drive. “Have a wonderful—”
“Hold on,” the guard grunted. “Gotta scan your badge first.”
In an instant, my heart fell. I’d been so eager to get going, I hadn’t even realized he’d held it back.
The papers were one thing. They were only meant to look official enough to fool border guards. I wasn’t even sure that they would have passed a cross-reference if the guard had bothered to check the name of the so-called hospital I was supposedly headed toward or the name of the administrator who’d apparently so desperately needed my aid. But my badge—faking that had cost me even more than my travel papers. It didn’t just have to fool a tired old border guard. It had to fool an entire multi-sector database.
For a moment, I felt a pang of regret. I should have just traveled under my own name. My married name, and the real badge that had come along with it. Bria Monroe existed in the database. Bria Monroe had tax records, census records, a marriage license it could reference to verify my identity with.
But that marriage license was exactly what I was running from. Michael, the life I’d had with him, all of the suffering and heartache and beatings and bruises that he’d put me through—there was no room to make bad decisions anymore. Not when it came to him. I couldn’t make bad choices, because I didn’t have a choice.
If I’d stayed there in his beautiful Sector One penthouse with him, he would have killed me. Maybe not in a month, or in a year, even, but eventually it would have gone too far. I would have said the wrong thing. He would have hit me a little too hard. And then, it would have been over. I’d have been a gray-class woman buried in a blue-class cemetery, and Michael would have had a whole host of tall, slender Sector One blondes offering him a bony shoulder to cry on.
Anxiously, I rubbed the stiff, jagged burn mark on my own shoulder. I wondered if any of those women knew that, as far as Michael was concerned, a woman’s shoulder looked best accented with a scar.
As the guard scanned my fake badge, I held my breath. With my fake name, at least Michael wouldn’t be able to track me down. Wouldn’t be able to find me, no matter how hard he looked. And if the badge didn’t pass the scan, I’d either end up back in Sector One at his mercy—mercy not exactly being his strongest trait—or sent off to a work camp in Sector Five with the rest of the people who’d tried and failed to trick the system.
At least I knew I was as good as dead either way.
The first scan of the badge nearly made me tremble as a dull, flat sound came from the kiosk. The guard frowned and my heart took a tumble off the high dive down into my stomach.
ERROR, the screen over the scanner read.
But to my relief, the guard only thumped the machine and rolled his eyes.
“Damned thing. Always acts up this early in the morning.” He leaned forward to blow on the scanner, then passed my badge beneath it again.
If I didn’t breathe soon, I was going to asphyxiate. But no matter how hard I tried, my chest was crushing down on itself too hard to allow even a gasp of air into my lungs.
There was a pause, then a pleasant, green-sounding chirp.
ACCEPTED, the scanner’s screen read as the guard handed me back my badge.
“You travel safe now, Miss Warner. Enjoy your drive.” The guard raised his coffee cup to me like he was making a little toast in my honor. I was so relieved, if I’d had had a cup of my own, I would have clanged it against his and drank deeply to it.
My drive was only just beginning—but I was finally out. All that was ahead of me now was the road ahead and the first pink rays of the morning sun.
I had to stop myself from busting out in laughter as the gate arm tilted upward. When I finally hit the speed limit, a giddy giggle burst from my throat so hard it brought tears to my eyes. As the highway ahead glistened in the light, I thought about grabbing my sunglasses from the compartment beneath the armrest, then thought better of it.
For the first time in a long time, I was actually happy to see sunrise.
Getting through Sector Two would take a little more than a day’s drive. I could have been to the second border crossing by nightfall if I hadn’t been so tired—but unfortunately, my escape from Sector One had required a lot of planning, a lot of packing, and a lot of carefully choosing my moment. I’d started to get ready as soon as Michael had left for his business trip to Sector Seven the previous evening. Add in the time it had taken to make the lengthy drive to the border between Sectors One and Two, and I’d been up all night. Instead of doing the drive in one nice, clean shot, I had to pull off at every other rest stop to nap in the driver’s seat. The last thing I needed was to fall asleep at the wheel and begin my flight for freedom with a fatal car wreck. Twice, I had to pull off so I could recharge the car’s fuel rods, which ate up almost all of my few remaining credits.
By the time night finally fell, I was thirsty, starving, broke—and only halfway to the border into Sector Three. The further I got into Sector Two, the fewer and more far between the rest stops and off-ramps were getting. And no matter how hard I tried to fight it, naps only did so much to replace a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. My eyes were starting to burn, and the glow of my headlights was starting to blur the road more than they were lighting it up.
I did a quick calculation in my head. I might’ve been gray-class Sector Six trash, but I’d always been pretty good at math. Minus the fuel and the bottle of water I’d bought from a vending machine at one of the stops, I’d have just enough credits for a cheap meal, a cheap hotel room, and—if I was lucky—one more refuel.
Once I got to Sector Three, I knew I’d be able to find a little farm town in need of a nurse. The car—a wedding present from Michael with shiny new fake plates—I’d need to get rid of anyway, just to be safe. It wouldn’t be hard to trade it in for an old junker and enough cash for a deposit plus my first month’s rent on a new place. I’d be cutting it pretty close, but once again, I didn’t really have a choice.
If this was what my new life cost, then to heck with it. I was willing to pay.
I pulled off into the next town that I found a sign for. It was a desolate little place, practically a ghost town compared to the big city lights I’d grown accustomed to in Sector One. But the motel on the road in had the word VACANCY lit up in red in its front window, and the green neon sign of a diner called the Galaxy Cafe glowed just a little way past the city limit sign.
It wasn’t exactly Nobu or the Four Seasons, but I couldn’t afford either of those anyway. Honestly, I was too tired and hungry to care. It’d have to do.
“Ooh, honey. You look like the cat dragged you in and right back out again.” A plump, pink-cheeked waitress with hair the same color and texture of steel wool clucked down at me as she handed me a menu and guided me to a booth inside the Galaxy Cafe. “You all right?”
I hesitated for a second, prepared to lie and tell her, “Of course.” But her brown eyes were warm and friendly, and her hips swung like they meant business. After all of the sharp elbows and cold stares I’d gotten in Sector One, she was the most comforting thing I’d encountered in years.
Instead, I let out a little laugh as my shoulders slumped forward. “You know…I’m not actually sure that I am.”
Just admitting it felt…good. Like I’d been walking around with this huge weight on my shoulders ever since the day Michael had brought me home with him. I’d been twenty-one then, all starry-eyed and excited to begin the life he had promised me. I’d thought I’d be able to handle all of the pressure of being a gray-class wife to a blue-class business executive.
I’d never imagined that ten years later, the only way to save my life would be to run away from it.
“Aw, sweetie.” The waitress frowned and put a hand on her hip. “Go on then. You tell Norma-Jean what’s wrong and we’ll see if we can’t fix you up right again.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. It felt wrong, dumping all of my problems on someone. Especially a stranger like Norma-Jean. But she’d asked, and after all…
As much as I hated to admit it, she felt less like a stranger to me than my own husband had over the last ten years.
“I…I just left my husband.” My lips twitched, not sure whether they should smile or frown at that. After the day I’d had, things could go either way. If I kept talking, I was probably either going to burst into madwoman laughter all over again or dissolve into tears. “He…he beat me. Badly. Often. So I finally filed for divorce and now I’m here.”
“That’s a lot for anyone to handle.” Her eyes were still soft and warm. Sympathetic. And she wasn’t judging me, which was nice for a change. “At least you got him to sign the divorce papers, though. Lotsa men like that won’t.”
“I, uh…” I cringed. Legally, the sectors only allowed for divorce when both spouses agreed on it, or when there had been a breach of contract. The latter would have led to a lengthy legal battle to prove Michael had broken his oath to love and protect me—one that I couldn’t risk sticking around for, and more importantly, couldn’t afford. The papers I’d left on his desk right before I hopped in my car and took off had my signature on them, sure. His, on the other hand, was still lacking for exactly the reason Norma-Jean had just mentioned. “I couldn’t exactly wait for him to sign.”
“Oh, baby. You poor, sweet thing.” Norma-Jean shook her head mournfully. “At least you’ve got somewhere to go though. Family who can take you in, keep you safe while you get things sorted out.”
“I, uh…” This time, when I tried to answer, my voice cracked in my throat. Something inside me finally broke. The tears welled up along my lower lashes before I even had a chance to try and fight them back. My sinuses burned, and the next sound to escape my lips was a sob. “No. I have n-no one. I’m… all alone.”
Just like that, the floodgates were breached. They came crashing down against a massive wave of emotion, one that had been held back for so long I couldn’t have fought it anymore even if I’d had the energy to try. My shoulders rose and fell with every pathetic sob. My chest contracted, only releasing as I let each blubbering cry free.
But if it fazed Norma-Jean at all, she didn’t make any indication of it. Instead, she reached into the pocket of her apron and handed me a hankie. Her plump fingers curled around my shoulder—my good one—and gave me a comforting little squeeze.
“There, there, honey. You let it out. No shame in havin’ a little cry, after what you’ve been through.”
I wiped my tears away with the hankie and blew my nose into it. I wanted to tell her thank you—that she had no idea how much it meant to me, how kind she was being—but as I glanced up at her, I saw a light catch in her eyes.
“Hey, now. I know just the thing for you, darlin’. Just what you need to take all your pain and worries away.”
“I—wait!” I called out after her, my thoughts shooting to my dwindling stash of credits as she bustled away. “No, I’m sorry, but I d-don’t have much money. I don’t know that I can afford—”
“Oh, don’t be silly, girl.” Norma-Jean winked at me. “This one’s on the house.”
I sat in the booth, trying to get hold of myself while Norma-Jean disappeared back into the diner’s kitchens. She couldn’t have known how much I appreciated even just that little squeeze on my shoulder. If she had, she would’ve known that a special on-the-house treat wasn’t even necessary.
But when she returned to my booth with a big plate of still-steaming apple pie, a scoop of vanilla ice cream already beginning to melt against it on the side, I was too grateful and too hungry to turn her down.
“There you go, baby. This’ll fix everything. Trust Norma-Jean—she knows what she’s talkin’ about.”
She set the plate down in front of me. From a distance, the pie had looked positively mouthwatering. But now, up close, I could see that it had been expertly made, too. Even by Sector One standards, it had obviously been crafted with the finest ingredients. I could even see little flakes of vanilla bean in the ice cream. And apple…
I sighed. Apple had always been my favorite.
“Eat up, now,” Norma-Jean urged me, and after the day I’d had—the decade I’d had—I didn’t need to be told twice.
I scarfed the pie down so fast, the way the first few bites scorched the roof of my mouth barely even registered. I cooled myself down with a few spoonfuls of ice cream, then dove right back in. The apples were soft and caramelized, ooey-gooey and spiced with cinnamon. The latticed crust crumbled then melted on my tongue, dusted with sugar and perfectly sweet. I lost myself in it so completely that by the time I finally realized what I was doing, my tongue was lapping the last of the ice cream off of the plate.
“Oh, my gosh.” I grabbed a napkin to dab at my lips and leaned back into the booth, cheeks burning hot pink. “Sorry, it was just so good, and I—”
Norma-Jean only laughed. “Honey, you don’t gotta apologize. Not to me, anyway.”
I blinked as I placed the plate back down on the table. That pie had been addictively good. And even though my stomach had been practically yowling for food when I first sat down, now I felt completely full and pleasantly warm. Norma-Jean’s kindness and that one little treat had heated me all the way through.
“Thank you. That was just…incredible,” I said, still a little embarrassed. But if Norma-Jean didn’t want me to apologize—well, like she’d said, Norma-Jean knew what she was talking about. “I should…um. I should find a place to sleep for the night…”
I blinked again, feeling the warmth in my belly radiate all the way through me. Only, it wasn’t just warmth anymore. It was sticky, dizzying heat, curling its fingers around my body and tugging my consciousness down toward a soft, dark sleep.
“You okay, honey?” Norma-Jean stared down at me, but she didn’t look concerned anymore. Just…interested. Like I was a fly stuck to a long strand of Section Six flypaper, and she was just studying whether I’d be able to flap my wings hard enough to get free.
“I’m…I think I must be more tired than…than I thought…” I turned my head, trying to fight the sensation. The motel was just down the road, but first I’d have to get to my car, and then…
“Aww, baby. It’s okay. You’re okay.”
I looked up at her again, hoping the sound of Norma-Jean’s voice would help keep me from nodding off right there in the booth. But as my eyes met hers, I didn’t find those comforting chocolate browns staring back at me anymore. Now they were…orange? Had they always been orange? And her skin…it looked…It looked yellow. That couldn’t be right. Her cheeks had been pink when I came in, but now…
“Smthins wrng,” I slurred, reaching out for her as I tried to stand.
But my legs wouldn’t hold my weight. My body was suddenly a sack of bricks, and my limbs felt like they’d been sunk into concrete.
Drugged. I’d been drugged. I’d seen a hundred different patients come into the ER in Sector One just like this—workers who’d taken a little too much of something to take the edge off at the end of their days, party girls who’d taken a sip of something awful after someone had spiked their drink.
“No, no,” Norma-Jean reassured me as the edges of my vision began to soften and fade out. “Nothin’s wrong, darlin’. In fact, everything’s just right.”
“Wht wz it?” My tongue was so heavy, it might as well have been made of lead. Every time I tried to open my lips, they felt like they’d been glued shut “Th ize crem, or th pie?”
The last thing I heard as my vision faded to black were her words, distorted and deepened, slow as cold molasses to my ears.
“Oh, honey. You know better than that. It was both.” A laugh like a haunted clown doll’s echoed all around me. “But don’t you worry, girl. I’m about to take you out of a whole world of pain. Just like I promised…”
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