“Go on,” he said with a tenderness that shocked her even more. “I ate earlier today and you need your strength to heal.”
As she took it, Thia came in with the water. She was still highly agitated as she faced her uncle. “Can I please make him lick up the mess?”
“I’d rather you not since I’d have to listen to him bitch about it all night.”
“Then can I kill him?”
“Please don’t. I want to do it myself. I think I’ve earned it more since I’ve had to tolerate him longer.”
Finally laughing, Thia handed the water to Sumi.
When Hauk started to leave, he tugged gently at Thia’s arm. “C’mon, sweetie. Let’s give her time to rest.” He held the tent open for Thia, who quickly made her exit.
He hesitated as he pinned a sharp glare on Sumi. “Do we need to move camp tonight?”
She shook her head. “I’m here alone. I told you. I’m on the run from The League. Unless someone hunting me stumbles on us, we’re safe.”
Suspicion darkened his glower. “Truth?”
“I swear. Had someone else been with me, I wouldn’t have been left for dead out there, and you’d be dead already.”
That finally succeeded in getting him to relax. “All right. Just remember, whatever your intentions, Thia and Darice both have parents who love them as much as you love your daughter.”
And then he was gone.
Sumi didn’t miss the fact that he said nothing of his own parents and how they’d feel about losing their son. Both of whom, she knew from her research, were very much alive.
Nor had anyone ever attempted to surrender to her before. In the past, her targets had gone out kicking and screaming, trying to take her with them.
Hauk’s actions were more akin to a parent guarding his young than an uncle. And it said a lot about the male’s integrity and decency.
How can I convict him now?
What choice do I have?
Sickened by her cowardly assignment, she dropped her gaze to the plate and water. How long had it been since anyone had been nice to her, never mind kind?
Honestly, she couldn’t remember.
No, that wasn’t true. Her sister had always been kind to her. But Omira had died a long time ago.
Unshed tears constricted her throat as she thought about Thia, who was obviously part human. Omira’s worst fear had been having a hybrid baby. Half human. Half Andarion.
Too bad her sister hadn’t known how beautiful her child could have been. In Omira’s mind, she’d pictured a monster that would devour her should she try to feed it. But Thia wasn’t a monster.
Never had Sumi seen a prettier young woman.
In a weird way, Thia reminded her of her sister. They both had that inner fire that warmed you and drew you close to them. She only hoped Thia didn’t lose her spark the way Omira had.
And all because of a Hauk. Brother to the one outside, which made her wonder if one of the kids was Fain’s.
Thia was too old. But the boy…
Dancer had said his father was dead. Could Fain have met the same fate as her sister?
She didn’t know why, but that brought another wave of tears to her eyes. Even though she hated Fain now, she’d loved him as her brother-in-law. She’d been just a kid when her sister had married him. And he had treated her with the same respect and regard that Dancer had shown her thus far.
“Sumi! Come here and meet the male I’ve been telling you about!”
Closing her eyes, she remembered the smile on Omira’s face as her sister and Fain had picked her up from school the first time. Because Andarions weren’t human, they couldn’t stand being referred to as men, women, or people. They were male or female.
And scary as all get-out.
Sumi’s eyes had widened as she looked up and up and up at her sister’s boyfriend. Barely sixteen, Fain had been huge for any human male, and given her much smaller size, he’d seemed even larger.
But as soon as he’d seen Sumi’s fear, he’d knelt down and given her a sweet, tight-lipped smile to hide his fangs so that he wouldn’t frighten her any worse. “Hi, Sumi. I’m Fain. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
She’d swallowed in terror. “Are you going to eat me?”
He’d narrowed his eyes on her with a frightening intensity. “Are you made of chocolate?”
She’d shaken her head.
“Then you’re safe from me.” Smiling tenderly, he’d taken her hand in his and led it to his warm cheek so that she could see that though he wasn’t human, he was humane. “I promise I don’t bite without an invitation.” With the kindest touch, he’d picked her up and carried her home.
In that instant, she’d fallen in love with him as a big brother.
Even though Fain had been forced to work three jobs to pay for her sister’s school and their living expenses, he had always made time for Sumi. Whenever she’d stayed with them, he’d gone out of his way to make her feel like she was his blood sister, too.
And all the love she had for him had died when her sister had taken her own life because no human would have her once they found out her ex-husband was Andarion.
None of them.
Either their prejudice got in the way, or their fear that Fain would stalk and kill them for being with her. Omira had been a total anathema to everyone. Male and female.
Unable to deal with it and her own fear that Fain would hunt her down and kill her, she’d overdosed on painkillers.
And left Sumi with no one and nothing… only the remnants of a shattered heart that refused to heal. Something Fain had promised her would never happen. He had said he would always be there for them both. But instead of protecting her like he’d promised, he’d done more harm to her and her sister than anyone else.
All because Omira had told him that she didn’t want any children in their marriage. For that single reason, he’d walked out on his vows and left Omira to fend for herself.
After that selfish breach of trust, Sumi’s love for him had turned to pure hatred. If Fain had never come into their lives, she’d still have her sister, and none of these last few horrid years would have happened.
Everything would have been different.
She would have been different.
Fain had lied to her and Omira, and no doubt his brother was lying to her as well. No male of any species could be trusted. They were violent and selfish. Both of her live-in boyfriends had taught her that with the back of their hands.
Whatever else happened, she couldn’t let herself forget that she was alone in this world. And regardless of what others said, they didn’t care. They were too busy with their own lives to waste time or energy on someone else.
She looked down at her wrist where she’d been branded.
Kill or be killed. That was the way of this harsh world. And she would much rather be a killer than a victim.
At the end of the day, no Hauk was worth her life or her daughter’s well-being. She would complete this mission, get her daughter free of League custody, and then she’d find some way to join Kalea, and raise her daughter so that no one would ever be able to harm her baby the way they’d harmed Sumi.
No lies. No feeling lost and alone. Adrift.
Kalea was all she had in this universe, and she wouldn’t fail her child.
Sumi came awake with a start. She’d been trying to stay up and listen for Hauk and the others. But her pain had proven too much, and she’d dozed at some point in the night.
Now that pain was back, and it’d brought friends to join in and sing a symphony of agony through her entire being. Every inch of her body throbbed in protest. But unfortunately, her bladder took no pity on her. And it couldn’t care less how much she hurt. It wanted attention, and it wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Stupid, crappy, inconsiderate body.
Grinding her teeth, she forced herself to her feet. She whimpered as the urge to sit back down overwhelmed her. I’ve got to go…
It really was not a choice. Not unless she wanted to embarrass herself.
She made her way slowly to the flap, and brushed it aside to find it early morning outside. But that wasn’t what held her attention.
With his back to her tent, Hauk stood near a small fire, holding a towel to his face. Stripped to the waist, he was absolute male perfection. Every bit of him… and she could see quite a percentage of that lush, rippling body. Never in her life had she seen so many highly defined muscles on one person. Muscles that were covered by a wealth of scarred caramel-colored flesh.
She frowned as she realized just how many scars marred his body. From his left shoulder down across his back were vicious burn scars. Those would be bad enough, but over them were a large number of claw marks, as if he’d been held down by a wild animal and brutally mauled. Numerous times. For a human, those scars would be bad.
For an Andarion, they were shameful. Their species valued beauty and strength above all things. Any kind of physical imperfection, except scars sustained in honorable battle, or tattoos designating military service or family lineage, could result in their being abandoned by their family and sterilized.
Was that why Hauk had never married? He was long past the age when most Andarions took mates. But with those scars, no female of his species would consider him desirable or handsome.
Nor would an Andarion female’s family give permission for a joining of bloodlines to someone who would be considered deformed on their world.
Lowering the towel, Hauk turned as if he sensed her presence. As he moved, she saw even more scars on his chest and arms. Some from knives and blasters, and others she could only guess at. But the one that really stood out appeared to be a diagonal claw mark over his left biceps and shoulder and down across his pectorals. From the depth and pattern, it looked as if it’d been done intentionally.
Maybe as a punishment?
The moment their gazes met, she saw clearly the shame he felt at having been caught undressed like this. He immediately dropped the towel and retrieved his leather shirt so that he could cover himself.
Completely mesmerized, she watched as he fastened the front and wound the intricate straps and buckles down his arms, leaving parts of his skin exposed while covering enough to give him protection without inhibiting his movements or holding body heat. In fact, the leather cloth was a strange mesh-like texture that gave as much protection as battle armor while venting the wearer so as not to overheat them while fighting.
Andarions certainly knew how to battle and design clothes for it.
In an almost bashful manner, Hauk stepped over his damp shaving implements to approach her. “I didn’t know you were conscious.”
She gestured toward the small copse of bushes. “I… um… you know.” As she started for them, she stumbled slightly and winced.
Suddenly, Hauk was by her side to help her.
“I can do it.”
He snorted at her bravado. “You’ve lost a lot of blood, and while I’m not a human medic, I’m pretty sure it takes more than a day for those kinds of injuries to heal.” He swept her up in his arms and carried her to the bushes, where he deposited her. “The kids are off, probably trying to kill each other, but in theory they’re supposed to be hunting breakfast. So you can take your time and not worry they’ll return soon. Experience has shown me that the whole concept of hurry has eluded them.” He indicated the camp over his shoulder. “I’ll get you some supplies and when you’re finished, if you want, I can help you wash.”
Again, she was mystified by him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“But you think I tried to kill you. I can see it in your eyes that you still don’t trust me.”
Hauk shrugged nonchalantly. “Don’t take it personally. I trust no one. Not even me.” He gave her a charming, lopsided grin that was completely at odds with his massive size and intense stare. “Besides, you haven’t killed me yet.”
Cocking her head, she scowled at him. “That makes no sense. In any universe or capacity.”
He laughed deep in his throat. “To a human, probably not. In my culture, we tend to let overt attempted murder slide.”
And still it made no sense to her. “Andarions are supposed to be vicious warriors. I thought you killed over any insult.”
“Insults, yes, but we’re not Partinie, humans, or Phrixians. There’s no honor in attacking women or children, or anyone who’s weaker. That isn’t our way. Trying to kill me would be thought of as a challenge to my species – meaning you consider me a worthy opponent. So it’s not an insult. It’s actually a high compliment.”
As he walked away, she suddenly remembered Fain telling her something very similar when she’d been a child. “Andarions intimidate. We verbally and physically test everyone we meet. And we live to fight. But never against lesser opponents. There’s no glory in winning a fight when you know the other person is unequal to your challenge. Victory is only sweet when it’s properly earned. And that is when you’re either equally matched or your opponent has an advantage over you.”