Samantha was only sixteen when her sister Abby took her on an exciting journey through space to live on a new planet. She couldn’t be happier, until her eighteenth birthday, when the king declares she must accept the claim of a Raiden warrior. No one will stand up for her right to choose a mate for herself, not even Abby, until a magnificent dragon shifter drops out of the sky, offering Sam sanctuary with his clan.
When Seraphym’s niece is abducted and claimed against her will by a sadistic Raiden prince, he vows to one day take vengeance against the House of Nekbet. Two years later, he witnesses another young female, this one human, fighting off the advances of a Raiden warrior. Seraphym can’t say no when Samantha begs him for help. He refuses to stand by and do nothing while another innocent life is ruined.
Samantha Harris walked next to Astin in the Raiden queen’s gardens, trying not to grin at how nervous the handsome physician looked. He’d been trying to court her ever since she turned eighteen last month, though mostly through a communicator that showed a life-sized holographic image. She hadn’t seen him in person for almost six months. Astin worked as a physician on board the spaceship Qadira, Nicolai Nekbet’s ship. Apparently, Nicolai, the crown prince to the House of Nekbet—and her sister’s husband—had been shielding Samantha from Raiden males until she turned eighteen. She’d been a little irritated at the time, but now half wished she could go back to those peaceful days. Lately, she’d been forced to hide from her many wannabe suitors, though she’d always thought of Astin as more of a friend, at least up until now. Hopefully, he wouldn’t do anything to ruin their friendship.
“Thanks for getting me out of the palace, Astin. Sometimes I go stir crazy in there. It’s so beautiful out here,” Samantha said, stopping to sniff a blood-red rose. “I can’t believe they have a lot of the same flowers here as on Earth. I love roses.”
“It’s probably because our ancestors brought back samples after we helped the vampires chase those Djinn vermin off your planet. We brought back some of your plants and wildlife and introduced them to Raiden.”
“I’ll be damned,” Samantha said. “I didn’t know that. What kinds of animals did they bring? Any horses?”
Astin brought his fingers to his strong, square chin, giving her question thought before he answered. “I don’t know what a horse is, so I suppose not. They wouldn’t have tried to bring anything back of any size. There are rabbits and squirrels, chipmunks and a large variety of birds. You could probably learn more about what was brought back in the king’s library.”
Samantha frowned, hating to ask the king if she could use his library. He was an okay kind of guy if you didn’t get on his bad side. Unfortunately, she’d witnessed a few who had done just that and she didn’t want to end up being one of them. Mostly, she tried to avoid King Babatondé.
“Would you like to walk out by the small lake?” Astin asked.
“Sure,” she said, falling into step beside him. Samantha took a moment to study his handsome (though alien) features. Raiden people looked mostly human. They had two arms, two legs and one head. What they didn’t have in common could be a bit shocking the first time you met one. Astin stood about seven-feet tall and was built like a brick shithouse—though her sister Abby would chew Samantha out for making such a comparison. It was true, though. She guessed Astin weighed twice as much as her, which was saying a lot because Samantha wasn’t short at close to six feet herself, and she sure wasn’t a stick-thin model type either. She enjoyed working out, which had been a source of discomfort to a lot of those macho Raiden warriors. She also liked to eat more than a salad at meals, one of the few things she and Abby had in common.
Size wasn’t the only difference between humans and Raidens, however. Most Raiden people had bronze skin, but there were also large areas covered in thick, black beaded skin they called armor. It covered key areas of their bodies, like arteries and the jugular, but it also protected vulnerable spots like their stomach and chest and the back of their shoulders. Samantha had seen many of the men without shirts when working out and knew the thicker black skin wasn’t solid. Along the edges of the darker armor was a diamond-shaped pattern of varying shades of red, orange, blue, yellow, lavender, brown, white or green. Except for red and orange, she’d learned the colors signified one of the six Houses of power on Raiden, and each represented a predisposition to certain talents.
Astin’s color was blue. Blue indicated one whose ancestors were from the House of Noble and his talents lay with medicine and healing.
Samantha glanced up into Astin’s handsome face, always a little taken aback by the curved horns erupting from his forehead. Not all Raiden men had them. Nicolai and his dad didn’t. She’d been told that the first Raiden males had all carried enormous horns, though they’d been bred out over the centuries. She guessed horns and space travel didn’t go well together—hard to fit those sharp tips and thick bases into some of their helmets. But then again, back in their far ancestors’ day, they used to fight hand to hand (or head to head, she thought, grinning), something that wasn’t necessary anymore, or at least not often. Their black eyes were also a little unsettling at the start, especially with the red vertical pupils that kind of reminded her of a cat. It was especially startling when those red pupils widened and flared, usually caused by anger . . . or lust. She learned that one the hard way after she turned eighteen. That’s when Nicolai started allowing the men access to her.
“Did you always know you wanted to be a physician?” Samantha asked, wanting to forget about all the men chasing after her for a while.
“Yes, I knew from a young age this is where my talents would lie.”
“Because of your blue armored skin?”
“I suppose. The House of Noble is well known for their abilities to heal.”
“But you were born here, right, in the House of Nekbet?”
He smiled, keeping his sharp teeth covered. All Raiden people came with sharp teeth, not quite shark-like, but along those lines. She supposed it came from their barbarian ancestors. “You can smile around me, Astin. I’m used to the way you guys look. I don’t think it’s ever really bothered me, not like it did Abby and Aaliyah.” Aaliyah was Abby’s best friend, now married to Nicolai’s first commander, Rafa.
When Astin didn’t reply, Samantha started to walk again, glad to be outside in the fresh air. “How long are you going to be on the surface?” she asked, knowing he still worked on the Qadira, Nicolai’s personal ship.
“It depends,” he said, not elaborating.
“Oh, on what?” she asked when the silence lengthened into that uncomfortable zone.
Astin stopped walking and reached for her arm, turning Samantha to face him. “It depends on you, Samantha.”
She frowned, studying his face, though he kept his expression carefully blank. “Why on me?” she asked, not liking the direction this might be headed.
“My shaprata has begun to swell. I’m going to have no choice but to take a mate soon.” He stepped closer to her, invading her personal space, his grip on her arm tightening. When Samantha tried to take a step back, Astin reached out for her other arm. “I’ve already spoken to Nicolai and our king. They agree a union between you and me would be a good one. We have the blessings of our royal family to mate now that you are finally of age.”
Her heart began to race, and Samantha began to sweat. She didn’t for one second believe it had anything to do with the hot sun. “Uh, I don’t know what to say, Astin. I mean, I feel for you about the shaprata deal. It’s gotta suck knowing you don’t have a choice about it, but I’m not even close to being ready to get married. I just barely turned eighteen, you know, and I was kind of hoping Nick might give me a job aboard the Qadira.”
“But there is no reason why you can’t still do that. It’s why I said it was up to you on whether I returned to space. The king will give me a job in the palace if you’d rather stay close to Abby and Aaliyah, but we can return to the ship too. I will make you happy, Sam. Please consider my offer.”
“I will, I promise,” she replied, knowing her first plan of action would be to chase Nicolai down and ask him what the hell he thought he was doing trying to make a decision like that for her. She would yell at the king too, but he still kinda scared her. “How long before…?” She waved toward his mouth, knowing the shaprata, a gland,would swell beneath his tongue.
“Not long. We were forced to bring the Qadira back a month early because of it. I’ve been speaking with Nicolai and your sister from space. I’m surprised they haven’t mentioned it.”
Samantha froze. “Wait a minute. What do you mean you’ve been talking to Abby? Does she know about this?” Samantha reached up nervously to touch her eye patch. She’d lost the sight in her left eye in a car accident back on Earth shortly before Abby and Nick came for her. “What did Abby say . . . exactly?”
“Your sister understands Raiden is much different from Earth. We can’t control when the shaprata swells. Unless we mate with a female who is not Raiden, healthy children are not possible. There will be many males who will try to claim you, Samantha. Nicolai and I agree it would be best if it were someone you already knew and cared about.”
“Don’t you think someone should have talked to me about this?” she said, her temper rising. Samantha jerked away from Astin, then pulled her long blonde hair over her shoulder, beginning to braid it. She needed to do something with her hands before she slapped the idiot. She could tell by his puzzled expression he didn’t understand why she was upset.
“I thought that’s what we were doing. You are of age now, Samantha. You will be expected to mate with one of our warriors. I would like it to be me. I wasn’t required to speak with anyone before I claimed you. It is the Raiden way once a female comes of age, but I prefer you come to me willingly. If you feel uncertain, just know that my shaprata, my essence, will make us compatible. Love will come later.”
Samantha’s mouth dropped open, too shocked to reply at first. She backed up when Astin reached out for her again, realizing then that she’d never really known the man. Not a man, she reminded herself. He was an alien, one with a completely different set of rules. It didn’t matter how many times they’d walked together like this or spoke over the holographic phone. Astin thought it was within his rights just to take her, claim her, like Nicolai had claimed Abby, and Rafa claimed Aaliyah.
“I’d like to go back to the palace now, if you don’t mind. I have a lot to think about.” She cringed inside, knowing she’d sounded a bit snarky. This wasn’t Astin’s fault. It was Nick’s and Abby’s for leading him on. Samantha took a deep breath before she added, “Nick said there’s a dragon coming in this morning and I’d like to see him. I’ve never seen a real shifter before.”
Astin scowled, refusing to release her arm. “Serpents are dangerous, Sam. I forbid you to go anywhere near him.”
“Excuse me,” she said softly, head cocked as she narrowed her eye. “You did not just say that. Look, Astin, I get that you guys are used to bossing around your women, but I won’t stand for it. It’s not my way. You need to find yourself someone else to claim because this kind of shit is not gonna happen with me. Not now, not ever.”
His lip curled briefly, exposing sharp teeth as his red pupils flashed red.
Ah-oh, Samantha thought, glancing around in hopes of seeing someone who could help her. She wasn’t a lightweight, my any means, but Astin was far, far stronger. She hadn’t asked for an escort today, not having expected to run into problems with him.
“You have no armored skin to protect you from serpent fire, Samantha. I’m only trying to keep you safe. Nicolai won’t let Abby go anywhere near one either.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, I happen to know for a fact that Abby stayed with one for three whole days and he never once tried to hurt or burn her. Dragons can’t be all that bad. I bet they don’t go around trying to force women to mate with them against their will.” She cringed inside again, telling herself to stop antagonizing him.
Astin sighed, wrapping a powerful arm around her waist and tugging her up against his hard chest.
“What the hell, Astin? Let me go. I told you I’d think about it, and that’s as far as I’m willing to go right now.”
Astin smirked, his pupils flashing again, brighter this time. “It’s already been decided,” he said softly. “I see no reason to put this off any longer. You’ll be more open to our union once I inject my shaprata.”
Her mouth went dry as she broke out in goosebumps. Samantha tried to fight as he lowered his mouth to hers, crushing her tender lips in a brutal kiss. She screamed, the sound muffled by his mouth.
Astin fisted his hand in her hair and angled her head as his tongue pushed hers aside.
No, no, no! Samantha screamed in her head, feeling the tip of his stinger prod against the vein under her tongue. Please don’t do this, Astin! I’ll hate you for the rest of my life if you force this on me!
But he couldn’t hear her frantic cries. Raiden warriors were not capable of telepathic communications. But then again, neither was Samantha.