It was the eggs that did it.
Sophie gripped the bag of food tighter, leaning it against her chest in the hopes it would stop the sack from toppling over. The carton of eggs were balanced precariously on top. She eyed them nervously.
She could do this. She stuck her tongue out as she concentrated on walking slowly up the pathway.
Easy does it. Easy does it.
The eggs dodged to the left, and she shifted her weight, quickly rebalancing.
Whew. That was close.
She could have stopped and rearranged things, or waited for Saffron to get home to help her do the shopping. Except she was trying to assert her independence.
She was twenty-seven years old and still trying to prove to her sister that she could wear big girl panties.
God, that was pretty pathetic.
She should have asked for two bags. Where had all her assertiveness gone, huh? She’d meekly taken the overladen bag and started to trudge her way back to the house she shared with Saffron and two of the other human females, Maria and Angela.
In the shop assistant’s defense, he probably thought she had help waiting outside. You didn’t see many females around here carrying their own groceries. Well, she didn’t have help and, damn it, if she wanted to carry her own damn groceries, she would.
And damn, she was swearing a lot. And damned if it didn’t feel damn good.
Okay, now you’re just getting carried away, Sophie. She giggled to herself. That moment of inattention did it. The eggs slid right on off the top of the bag and smashed to the ground. Sophie placed the bag down with a groan, staring at the pink and purple mess.
Yep, eggs came in strange and wonderful colors here. And they didn’t come out of a chicken’s ass. She preferred not to think of where exactly they came from.
“Well, sugar.” Okay, it seemed the swearing spree was limited to her head.
Only whores swear, Sophie. We know your mother was one, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow her example.
But that’s exactly what she’d done, hadn’t she? Whored herself out. Except only one man had paid for her instead of several.
Does it matter that I didn’t actually realize I was his whore? Or does that make it worse?
She knelt and grabbed the carton, trying to see if anything could be salvaged. Didn’t look like it. There went her craving for scrambled eggs. Despite the interesting colors, these eggs were delicious. Creamy, rich, and slightly sweet.
She sighed. She really didn’t have the energy to return to the market and get more.
“What are you doing?”
She screamed, startled, and turning, landed on her butt. She gaped up at the huge warrior looming over her. For a moment, terror held her paralyzed. With his back to the blinding sun, she struggled to make out his features. But she could tell he was huge. And ripped.
Boy was he ripped.
Even in her moment of panic, a small part of her brain acknowledged that this guy was totally built.
He crouched, as though he’d sensed her fear and wanted to ease it. But then, she was sitting on her butt in a pile of raw eggs, shaking. She blinked up at Toriq. Oh God, it would have to be him. He was so hot that he turned her insides to knots every time she saw him.
Why did she have such a reaction to this particular warrior?
“I am sorry. I did not mean to frighten you.”
There was such regret in his voice that it threw her out of her momentary panic.
She was safe here.
Sometimes she still didn’t believe this place was real. A race where men put females first, protected them, sheltered them, cherished them.
She was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Sophie could see how much the human mates were cherished by their Zerconian mates. How happy they were.
It made her jealous. And a little wishful.
“It’s okay. I was obviously too involved in my egg crisis to hear you walk up.”
He stood. “I will get someone else to help you.”
He was going? But he just got here. Jesus, Sophie, he has better things to do that take care of you. And why was she disappointed he was leaving? She didn’t even know him. All of the Zerconian males were large and built. But Toriq towered above them all. He had to be over seven feet tall. And the man had muscles on muscles on muscles…yum.
Funny, she’d never been attracted to the muscle-bound type before. But there was something about Toriq that drew her attention every time he was near. It was unnerving. And exciting.
“Oh, it’s okay. I don’t need any help. I can clean this up myself.” She rolled to her hands and knees and attempted to pick up bits of shell. Gross. And now she had to clean up herself as well. Her ass was soggy, and she could feel the material clinging to her butt cheeks.
And Toriq wasn’t moving. He stood behind her, with a prime view of her wet ass and saggy clothes. She tightened her shoulders, preparing for his reprimand or disgust.
“Why are you cleaning that up?”
The genuine puzzlement in his voice made her turn. She shielded her eyes from the sun as she peered up at him. “Because I made the mess.”
He shook his head. “You do not need to be on your knees cleaning.”
“No, you will rise.”
“I will?” she asked, feeling slightly annoyed. But she could also see the funny side. Was she really going to argue that she wanted to clean up this disgusting mess?
But then, it wasn’t fair someone else should do it.
“You will. Rise now.”
She half-expected him to reach for her and pull her up. But he remained still, keeping his distance.
“Does everyone do what you say?” she asked.
She snorted out a laugh. “Guess I walked into that one.”
“Walked into what? Did you walk into something? Did you hurt yourself?”
She stood. “No, it’s just a saying. I’m fine. Just a bit clumsy.” She grimaced. “And wet.”
“Yeah, ah, never mind. I really should clean this up myself, though. I don’t want someone having to pick up after me.”
“They will not pick that up.” He stared at the mess. “Best to wash it away.” He spoke briefly into his communicator.
“Oh, right. Yes.” She had to bite back a grin. He was so serious, and she didn’t want him to think she was laughing at him. She wasn’t. Not really.
“Are you comfortable with me escorting you home or do you wish me to call for someone else?”
“Someone else?” she asked.
“Someone you are less frightened of.”
Sophie frowned slightly. “I’m not frightened of you. You just startled me before.” And okay, she was a little wary, but in her experience, wariness was a good thing.
“All females are afraid of me.”
“They are?” she asked, startled. “Why?”
He was silent for so long she didn’t think he was going to answer her. “I really don’t need anyone to escort me ho—”
“Because of my size,” he interrupted. “My size does not make you fear me?”
His voice was devoid of all emotion and yet she felt this meant a great deal to him. She’d always been small. People thought that meant they could take advantage of her. She’d never thought about it from the other side.
“I’ll be honest, you’re kind of intimidating, with all those muscles and the way you tower over me. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll hurt me. I used to think that all men were bastards and users. I’ve come along way with some help. One of the biggest pricks I know is only slightly bigger than I am. Size shouldn’t matter. A person’s personality should.”
Were they really having such a deep conversation while she stood here with a wet butt and smashed eggs that would start smelling if they were left too long in the sun?
“That is not how everyone thinks.”
“No. But then not everyone’s as smart as me.” She winked at him, inviting him in on the joke.
“Is something in your eye?”
“No. I was just making a joke.”
He frowned. “You were?”
“Yeah, saying I was smart. I’m really not.”
“When you said you were smart, you meant the opposite?” he asked, looking puzzled.
“Well, kind of. I haven’t made many smart decisions in my life.”
“You came here.”
She laughed. “I did. You’re right. Maybe I’m getting smarter.”
“You should not put yourself down. Do not do it again.”
Sophie shook her head and reached for the bag of groceries. “I better get the rest of my food home before it all wilts in the sun. And I wasn’t putting myself down, not exactly. I—hey!” She reached for the bag as it was plucked into the air.
“You should not be carrying things around.”
She paused, fear making her stomach tighten and trapping the air within her lungs. Did he know? How could he know? She wasn’t even showing yet.
“Sophie? I have frightened you again. I will send for someone else.”
“No,” she managed to say. “I’m not frightened. You just surprised me. Umm, why can’t I carry them?”
“Because you are female.” He took off, and she hurried to catch up to him and her bag of groceries.
“You know that women can do anything men can do, right? We’re not helpless or waiting on a man to take care of us.”
Really? Wasn’t that exactly how I ended up in Maxwell’s clutches? Because he promised to take care of me?
He stopped abruptly, looking down at her. “Of course you can. But why should you if a male can take that burden from you?”
“I wouldn’t call carrying a bag of groceries a burden.” Although her insides did a little dance of delight at his words.
“The bag was too big and heavy for you. You could have tripped and fallen or slid in the capra eggs and hurt yourself. It was not safe.”
“You guys really are super protective. Even over women you don’t know.”
“Um, could you slow down a little, though? My legs are a bit shorter than yours.” She puffed for breath as he slowed. “Thanks. I’m a little unfit too.”
She walked beside him, towards her house, which was in an area set aside for visiting human females. She’d come to Zerconia on a transporter with around fifty other women. She’d been here for close month now, and she loved it. The weather was warm. The people, for the most part, were welcoming. And best of all, she felt safe.
“I hope I’m not holding you up from anything important. Where were you headed to?”
“Oh. I hope you won’t get in trouble for being late.”
He glanced down at her. “I’m running the session.”
“Right. Guess you would be. You’re like a commander or something, right?”
He stopped in front of her house.
“Thanks for helping me.”
He nodded. Right, he was probably impatient to get back to his job. Let the man go, Soph.
“Thanks again.” She reached out and took the bag of groceries from him, wishing she was brave enough to touch him. He turned and walked off.
Wow. The man was intense. And serious. And he had a butt you could bounce quarters off.
Sophie walked inside with the bag of groceries.
“Sophie? Is that you?” Her sister came striding out of the living area. Everything Saffron did, she did with purpose and energy. “Where have you been?”
“Got some food from the markets.”
“You should have let me do that.” Saffron grabbed the bag from her and carried it into the kitchen.
“I can do the grocery shopping, Saff,” Sophie said gently.
“But you shouldn’t go alone.”
“I wasn’t alone. There’s a whole planet of people out there.”
“Exactly!” Saffron glared at her. “It’s not safe.”
“Actually, I think this place is the safest we’ve ever lived.”
Saffron snorted. “That’s not saying much, considering the hellholes we’ve lived in.”
Sophie nodded. She was right. Still. “There’s something special about this place. About the people who live here.”
Saffron stilled as she was placing things in the cooling unit. “You like it here?”
“Well, yeah. What’s not to like?” Sophie asked defensively. “The weather is great. There’s no pollution, no crime. The people are—”
“Bossy, overbearing, and interfering.”
Sophie smiled. “Protective. Friendly. Well, some. The women don’t seem to like us much.”
“They think we’re poaching their men.” Saffron sniffed. “As if.”
“Saffron, I like this place.”
“Don’t get too settled. We’re going to have to leave.”
Saffron blinked, looking at her like she’d developed two heads. “Um, have you forgotten that we’re here under false pretenses? These guys expect us to mate them or they’re going to ship us back to Earth.”
Her sister’s condescending tone bit at Sophie’s patience. She took a deep breath in and let it out slowly, reminding herself that Saffron didn’t mean to be sharp. She just had a lot on her mind.
Besides, Sophie owed her. Big time.
“I know. But even if we’re not mates I don’t think they’ll force us to leave. The Joyadans are allowed to live here, whether they’re mates or not.”
The Zerconians were desperate for mates. Their population was long-lived, and the ratio of women to men largely favored men. If they didn’t find their mates, they succumbed to mating fever, which drove them insane. Sophie felt ill as she thought of that happening to Toriq. Her mind wandered back to the other day when she’d seen him training outside with no shirt, just a pair of really tight pants.
Boy, the man could move.
“Sophie! Sophie! Are you listening to me?” Saffron snapped, clearly annoyed.
“Of course I am. Um, what were you saying?”
“I think the sun has zapped your brain. The Joyadans are allowed here because their planet was destroyed and the Zerconians felt guilty. They have no reason to offer us sanctuary.”
Sanctuary. It was what they needed. Because of her relationship with Maxwell they were on the run. Hiding.
“I know. But Rich needs my help. We can’t leave yet.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to help him, Soph.”
“What? Why not? He’s the one who brought us here.” She owed him like she owed Saffron. Sometimes she felt like she was drowning in guilt and regrets.
“Because he wants to use you, Sophie,” Saffron told her.
Sophie sighed. “Of course he does. But that’s Rich. And you can’t say he hasn’t been upfront about wanting to use what I know for his gain.”
“So he’s a sneaky, manipulative bastard, but it’s okay because he’s upfront about being a sneaky, manipulative bastard?” Saffron asked.
“Something like that. Saff, I know you worry. But you don’t need to. I’ve leaned on you too much, I’ve asked so much of you, and I’m so grateful. But I think we should just relax and take a breather for a bit. We’re safe here.”
Saffron looked skeptical. “I know you like to see the best in everyone, Soph. I just hope that you’re not being naïve and too trusting.”
“It will be fine. You’ll see.”