Kiara rolled her eyes as she refused to comment. The last thing she needed to do was encourage her near-nympho girlfriend.
“Seriously though—” Shera looked back in the direction Elfa had disappeared. “I wanted to warn you about your understudy.”
Kiara’s laughter died instantly. “What?”
“Little crab-butt got a fantastic review last night and since then, she’s been going around telling all the promoters and directors that a certain dancer is past her prime. That your fears of being replaced are what led you to a mental breakdown and that, that is why you had to pull out of the show.”
“I’ll kill her!” Kiara slammed her glass down on the table and started toward Elfa.
Shera grabbed her arm. “Not now. There are too many promoters here for you to cause a scene. If you start something, she’ll tell them you’re too temperamental and impossible to work with. You’ll prove her points.”
Kiara clenched her fists at her sides, wanting to jerk every strand of hair out of Elfa’s head.
Shera patted her arm. “Let it go, little sister. Beat her where it counts most. On the street and at the box office. I promise you her paltry review was nothing compared to the ones you get.” Shera’s laugh returned. “Besides, think of this, I had to let your costume out two sizes to accommodate her fat ass.”
In spite of herself and her anger, Kiara laughed. “Did you really?”
Shera nodded. “She’s shaped like a pineapple, lumps and all. And red isn’t that girl’s color. Looks ghastly on her.”
She shouldn’t take comfort in that, but it did make her feel better. Calmer now, Kiara retrieved her glass from the table and reluctantly allowed Shera to drift off.
Syn had vanished and she no longer saw him in the crowd.
Looking over to Nykyrian, who stood a full head taller than anyone else there, she smiled at him as she recalled Shera’s words. He was definitely the best-looking man at the party even with those shades obscuring the majority of his face. And she would like very much to do a sheet dance with him, if he would only cooperate.
“Aw, there you are. Tiyana told me you were here.”
Kiara cringed. It wasn’t Paulus, it was worse. Wicmon—her own show’s promoter, the one man she couldn’t afford to be rude to no matter what.
“Hi.” She smiled her prettiest smile for him.
Wicmon took her hand and placed a sloppy kiss over her knuckles. “I was so disappointed you pulled out of the show.” She wondered if he thought that lecherous look on his face was becoming. “I’d so hoped to become better acquainted with you.”
For the first time, she was grateful for her kidnapping that had kept her away from him. She tried to tactfully withdraw her hand, but his grip tightened. She admitted he was handsome, if he just didn’t have that cold, calculating look behind his clear blue eyes. And at the moment, she felt like cornered prey.
How was she going to extract herself from him without offending him?
Fretting, she looked up to see Nykyrian moving toward them. A smile curved her lips as he stopped next to them. “Princess, Tiyana was looking for you. She said it was extremely urgent.”
Anger clouded Wicmon’s eyes at the interruption. He turned around, then took a step back as he realized the size and width of Nykyrian.
He gulped audibly.
Kiara stifled her laughter at his reaction. No doubt he’d assumed Nykyrian would be another dancer he could intimidate and send on his way.
Kiara sidestepped him. “If you’ll excuse me, Wicmon, I better go see what she needs.”
She didn’t wait on his response. Instead, she led Nykyrian away through the crowd. “Thank you for that. How did you know to come over?”
“The look on your face said it all. Not to mention I read lips and I didn’t like what he was saying to you.”
Grateful for his intervention, she ached to kiss him. “I owe you.”
Now, he looked uncomfortable. Without a word and to her great dismay, he moved away from her to drift back into the crowd. Kiara wanted to stamp her foot in frustration. How could he be so kind one moment, then aloof the next?
Needing a moment alone to regroup with herself, she started toward the balcony. Just as she reached it, a rough hand gripped her elbow. Kiara was tempted to cry out, but assumed it was just another promoter.
Until she heard a voice that made her blood run cold. “I knew we’d meet again.”
Her heart pounded.
And he was here to kill her.
Two thoughts went through Kiara’s mind at the same time. One was the fear that Pitala would kill her, the other was the fear she would live and this episode would end her career.
She felt a sharp jab in her ribs. Without looking, she knew it was the barrel of a small blaster.
His grip tightened on her arm. “Walk outside to the hallway like you want to talk to me. No sudden moves or warnings to the others or I pull the trigger and spray your guts all over your friend’s apartment. Then I open fire on everyone here and they can join you in hell.”
Kiara nodded, her heart lodged in her throat as she shook all over. She looked about for Nykyrian, Jayne, and Syn, but they seemed to have vanished. There was absolutely no sign of any of them.
What kind of protectors were they?
Sweat beaded on her body as she moved to do what she’d been told to even though it galled her. Nykyrian’s instructions went through her mind, but he hadn’t covered what to do in this kind of situation. As Pitala had warned, he could open fire and kill half the people here, including Shera and Tiyana.
No, she couldn’t be responsible for innocent deaths.
She was the target. Not them. This was her destiny.
Kiara prayed her legs didn’t buckle and that no one approached them.
Glancing sideways, she noticed Pitala was dressed in an expensive suit, his hair slicked back. To the casual observer, he would pass for either an aristocrat or a wealthy promoter. No one would think anything of her leaving here with him.
Fear choked her as tears gathered in her eyes. Fiercely, she bit her bottom lip to keep from screaming or begging for help. She wouldn’t embarrass herself or hurt anyone else.
Kiara neared the door.
A trickle of sweat ran down her temple.
If she crossed that threshold, she knew Pitala would kill her. If she struggled inside Tiyana’s apartment, everyone would see—the promoters, the directors, everyone. And they would be next on his hit list.
She heard Tiyana’s laughter above the chattering crowd.
It was her best friend’s birthday. She wouldn’t let it be the last time Tiyana drew her breath.
With that final thought, she opened the door.
Pitala shoved her into the hallway, then slammed the door shut behind him and threw her to the ground. Her entire body trembling, she looked back to see Nykyrian grabbing Pitala’s blaster from his hand.
He slammed Pitala back so hard, it dented the wall.
He brought his own blaster up and held it under Pitala’s jaw. “Listen to me, you bastard. I’m only going to say this once and I will speak slowly so that even you can understand. Kiara is under the protection of The Sentella and I’m getting really tired of seeing your face around her. If you harm her, threaten her, even look at her again . . . even a f**king picture of her, you’re going to have a visit from Nemesis. And when he gets through with you, your own mother will have to run what’s left of you through a DNA sift to identify your remains.”
Even Kiara cringed at the threat.
Nykyrian’s lips curled into a ferocious snarl. “You’ll find your partner down the hall locked in a storage closet. Take him and leave. And if you value all the pieces of your body remaining in their current positions, you’ll revoke your contract on her life tomorrow and never hunt her again.” He clicked back the release of his blaster. “Do you understand?”
Sweat covered Pitala’s face. “My retraction will be posted tomorrow. I swear it.”
Nykyrian replaced the latch on his blaster. “Good.” He shoved Pitala away from him.
Kiara watched the assassin hurry down the hall away from them. She looked up at her savior, her breathing labored, her head light in panic.
Nykyrian holstered his blaster, then held his hand out to her. She grasped it with her shaking hands, and he gently pulled her off the floor. “I’m sorry we didn’t help you sooner. But I didn’t think you wanted your friends to know what was going on. Darling warned us Pitala was coming in so we thought it best to let him make his move to extract you from the party and then deal with it out of sight of your colleagues.”
Before he could move away and before she could stop herself, she put her arms around him and hugged his lean waist with all the relief coursing through her body.
She was alive and, once again, he was the reason.
Kiara leaned her cheek against his chest, listening to the soothing sound of his strong, calm heartbeat. Though his body was rigid, he made no moves to push her away or to even hold her.
He just stood there awkwardly while she trembled, knowing Nykyrian would never let anyone hurt her. She was safe with him.
Nykyrian reveled in the feel of her arms holding him close. He put his arms around her, trying not to hurt her in any way. Since the only person he’d ever hugged had been her, he had no real knowledge of how much pressure to apply or exactly where to put his arms.
So he loosely enclosed her as her scent stirred his body to a level of desire he’d never before tasted.
Her arms tightened around him and she leaned her head back to look up at him, her eyes bright with gratitude. Unconsciously, he moved to kiss her, then caught himself just before he complied. That would be disastrous.
Her breath fell against his lips and it took all of his self-control not to complete the one thing he wanted to do most.
“We have to get you home,” he said, pulling away.
Kiara nodded as she tried to calm herself.
Without a word, he led her down the hall, checking every few steps to make sure Pitala wasn’t still hovering. Syn joined them at the lift that Jayne had secured and was holding for them.
Kiara was strangely numb as she followed, her thoughts drifting over the entire party and the assault.
Maybe she was just getting older. Maybe it was the fear of what had happened with Pitala happening during the party for all the promoters to see. That must be why she didn’t enjoy herself today when she normally would have had a good time. Maybe it was why Elfa’s biting comments cut her more this afternoon than they had last year when her understudy had said the same thing.
She studied Nykyrian’s back as he led her out of the building. At least there was now one less assassin after her. With any luck, Nemesis would be able to bully the rest of her pursuers into leaving her alone, then she could return to her old life.
Kiara swallowed the clump of tears. She was just tired. A little sleep and everything would be fine. She’d be fine.
But inside, she knew instinctively that she’d been altered by all this and that nothing would ever be the same again.
Two hours later, after she’d bathed and tried to sleep to no avail, Kiara sat curled in her favorite chair, watching Nykyrian check the spring loaders for his weapons. Death had become a morbid fascination to her as she wondered how many people had lost their lives to the weapons he carried.
“I didn’t think experienced soldiers broke apart their weapons and cleaned them.”
“Some don’t. I do. These are highly sensitive devices and one speck of dust can interfere with their timing mechanisms. Since my life and now yours depends on them working in synch with me, I’m a little anal about making sure they’re oiled and reliable.” He picked up his blaster. “There was a slight tug in the release today and I wanted to double-check it.”
That made sense to her. She didn’t want a weapon malfunction either.
He changed the battery pack on his blaster. The sharp click raised the hair on the back of her neck.
She closed the small gap in her robe that exposed her bare feet. “Why didn’t you kill Pitala today or at the theater?”
He screwed another piece back into the blaster. “Would you rather I had?”
A chill stole up her arms at the blandness of his tone. “No, I guess not. But it seems strange to me that you allowed him to live given your . . .”
“I was going to say past.”
He pulled his other blaster out and ran through its settings. “You can call me an animal. You won’t hurt my feelings.”
How many people had insulted him with that word that he was immune to it? “You’re not an animal.”
He didn’t respond to that. “Since Pitala didn’t draw blood, I couldn’t officially kill him.”
“But he was there to kill me.”
“And had you killed him, you could go before the Grand Justices and explain that you were trying to protect yourself. For you, they would be lenient and forgiving and let you go. I’m a trained assassin, a lethal weapon, and therefore have another set of standards to live by. Unless I was bleeding and could prove he was coming at me with grave intent and that I really did have to use deadly force as the only means to protect myself, I would be executed immediately for his death, which would be fine by me, except I wasn’t there alone today.”