Twin Savage by Sunniva Dee

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WHAT KIND OF TWISTED REALITY IS THIS?

TWIN SAVAGE COVER

Title: Twin Savage
Author: Sunniva Dee
Release Date: October 16, 2017

BLURB

Grief comes in many forms.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve… Right?
Except, what if you douse that grief with sex
in ways so culturally unacceptable
you leave it to a veritable male harem
led by the porn-star brother of your fiancé
to decide if you’ll emerge
from the jungle intact?

Twin Savage is standalone book #2 in the Porn Star Boyfriend series.

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It wasn’t a problem to be the only girl in a house full of guys.
Until my fiancé died and his identical twin took over the roost.

Sweet, easygoing Julian passed, while loathsome, bossy Luka, who pays his way through med school by getting his dick wet on film, is still alive.

What kind of twisted reality is this?

Now, Luka’s on a mission to fix both of our grief.
Like I’d ever accept anything from him.
He doesn’t understand that gorgeous and sexy mean nothing if you’re a promiscuous jerk.

If only the nights didn’t destroy me.
They’re painful and long and empty,
until, on a Monday night, my insomnia attracts Diego.
That Tuesday, it attracts Lenny.
Next, it’s Marlon, James, Nathaniel,
and on Saturday, it’s Connor.

By Sunday night, I get the picture.
This is Luka doing what Luka does: solve problems with sex.
His remote-controlled comfort leaves me in our roommates’ arms six of seven nights.
On Sunday, there’s only one man left in the house.

There’s no way in hell I’m opening my door—or my heart—to a porn star.

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EXCERPT

BED TALK

“I wish he didn’t do that,” I tell Lenny as I relax, cheek on his chest, drawing small circles around his nipple. “Luka thinks he’s the king of this place, in charge of everything that goes on here.”

“He kind of is.” Lenny’s voice is lazy. By now, I know he slides into a euphoric coma after he ejaculates. It’s adorable and a tad hot.

“No, he isn’t. Only about the rent and the utilities.”

“And about you.”

I lift my head and squint at him. “Luka is not in charge of me.”

Lenny narrows his eyes too, an easy feat. I ignore how beautiful he is beneath me. “No, but he’s who came up with our solution.”

“What are you talking about?”

He studies me, eyes widening more than usual after against-the-wall sex. “Hmm, you look like you’re working yourself up.”

“What does it matter? Just give me the lowdown.”

“Well, if you’re gonna go witch-nutty on me, I don’t know if I should.”

I lower my voice. “Witch-nutty? What does that even mean?”

“You know. All…” He lifts his hands in the air and waves them lazily while half-rolling his eyes. Not impressive.

“What solution, Lenny, or your sex life has to fend for itself from now on.”

“As if it doesn’t six days out of the week.”

“What did Luka come up with?”

“We had a house meeting.”

“Without me?”

“It was about you, so yeah. We saw how you were struggling to keep it together after Julian passed away, and Luka came up with what we’re doing now.”

“As in invading my bedroom every night? Taking turns with me?”

“I guess?” He looks at me as if he just realizes how bad it sounds.

“That’s some crazy shit. Only a pervert like Luka could’ve come up with it.”

Lenny’s brows tick in a furrow. “Well, I figured it was too obvious to work on you, but Luka insisted, we gave it a try, and hey, you went along with it. You seem better too.”

My stomach churns. “Who does he think he is? He has no right to set up some get-’er-done plan for me. I’m in charge of my own life, my own future, and…” I sigh. “Luka’s a pig.”

I mean it. Even though I’m disgruntled, I twist my arms around Lenny’s middle needing his nearness. I’m not exactly backing myself up, here, but Lenny doesn’t hold it against me. Instead he wraps me closer and nuzzles against my hair. Murmurs, “Shh, you’re okay, babe.”

“What about the days? Did he assign them too?”

Lenny nods, rocking us with his chin. “Yeah, which made sense.”

“Why, because you didn’t want to deal with me more than once a week?”

He chuckles. “It was more so that we’d all have our turns consoling you.”

Sleeping with me, you mean,” I say, feeling slutty and berating myself for it in the same thought.

“I’m not gonna lie and say it’s not a pleasure to comfort you.”

I arch an eyebrow. “So I shouldn’t feel bad for you guys?”

“You should.”

I let out a huh?

“Did you see Marlon earlier?”

I bite my lip. “Yes?”

“That’s how most of us feel the rest of the week. Tuesdays are the shit.”

“Even when I go all witch-nutty on you?”

His grin gleams white. “Have you heard me complain? Sparks are the shit too.”

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AUTHOR BIO

Sunniva Dee is a reader, a lover of everything beautifully written no matter the genre. As an author, she pens flawed characters and seeks the flip side where the soul hides. Once there, she wants to be pulled out of her comfort zone by stories taking on a life of their own.

Sunniva has written paranormal and young adult. She’s committed contemporary romance verging on erotica, and she’s dabbled in supernatural mystery. But her heart
is rooted in new adult of the true kind: young adult all grown up, with conflicts and passions that are familiar to college-aged readers and readers who remember those days like they happened last night.

AUTHOR LINKS

WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS | PINTEREST | INSTAGRAM | TSU.CO

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Organic (The Kepler Chronicles, Book II)

Organic (The Kepler Chronicles, Book II)

by

Jadah McCoy

Publisher: Curiosity Quills

Publication Date: June 13, 2017

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Jadah McCoy’s ORGANIC, pitched as Bladerunner meets Pitch Black, in which 18-year-old Syl has barely survived the genetic splicing that plagued her human body. After discovering the androids’ plot to wipe out human and Cull alike, Syl must return to Elite to warn the other survivors. However, with the realization that her group of survivors isn’t the only one, also comes the realization that some humans are just as bad as androids. Bastion and Syl grow closer, however, their relationship suffers under the weight of her past ghosts and a growing threat that endangers human and android alike.
Excerpt:

 

CHAPTER ONE

Syl

Breathing is a habit. The oxygen filters into my system, fizzles through my circuits then dissipates to nothingness. This new body is alien; it feels like my own, but I know it’s not. My eyes fall on the hole in front of me―the giant chunk of concrete ripped from the ground where the entrance to the Sanctuary used to be.

The music in my ear stutters to a stop, and the gun in my hand hangs limp.

We’re too late.

Bastion kneels beside me, leaning against his weapon as he studies the torn roots and claw marks that score the earth. His coattails catch in the dry dirt beneath him. He looks up, blue eyes lit with mechanical brightness. “I take it this isn’t the work of the Cull you’re used to?”

I step closer, peering into the hole. It’s probably fifteen feet in diameter. Gashes scar the walls all the way down until the tunnel opens up at the sewers. No sound comes from within―no sign that anyone inside might still be alive.

A frown pulls my lips down. “No.”

“Syl.” Bastion stands, prepared to stop me.

Ignoring him, I step off the uneven ledge. My body falls through the air, landing with a small splash in the sewers below. A fall at that height would have broken my human body’s legs, but the metal frame absorbs the impact and then some. I take off, running full speed in the direction of the Sanctuary. These muscles, they never grow weak, or tired, or burn with exhaustion. Bastion catches up quickly, his footsteps shadowing mine. Darkness isn’t an obstacle for us; we can see through it as if it were daylight.

The metal bars, the same ones I slipped through so long ago to escape this place, are bent open. I step over one that now lies placidly in the mildewed water. The others look like an old man’s teeth―jagged, uneven, broken.

But beyond the destroyed entrance…

I freeze, my body refusing to move any farther. Chicken feathers litter the area, dingy and bloodstained. Beneath them lie the bodies of people I grew up with. People I know. People I care about. Static fills my ears like a thick layer of cotton.

Symbols hover over a corpse, simulated by my brain―cortex―whatever it is. They shimmer and flicker before translating into letters: deceased. The word populates again and again, a dozen times, once for each body, and I choke.

 

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Jadah McCoy currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee where she works as a paralegal. In her spare time she can be found traveling the world, reading, or (surprise, surprise) writing. The last book in the Kepler Chronicles trilogy is due for publication in 2018.

 

Path of Thieves by Sunniva Dee: Cover Reveal

Path of Thieves
Sunniva Dee
Publication date: June 27th 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult

Football hero by day and thief by night, Charles “Cugs” McConnely leads a double life in the small town of Newbark, Florida. At sundown, the seventeen-year-old turns burglar, forced into the business by the man who should be teaching him the difference between right and wrong: his father.

Cugs is a pro at both games, but only one can secure him a college scholarship. It should be an easy decision, a no-brainer—if Newbark hadn’t proffered the only life he knows.

After run-ins with Nadine Paganelli, his accidental victim and the sole person to have caught him in the act, Cugs starts to realize that hearts can be stolen too.
When his long-lost sister makes contact, lies are uncovered and truths revealed. Suddenly, Cugs finds himself questioning both plans and loyalties. Because sometimes the only way to move forward is by pulling the bottom out of the past.

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EXCERPT:

“Seriously, man. Freddie’s parents are gone the entire weekend, and we’re partying it up. You’ve got to come.” Bear rocks in the passenger seat, trying to get comfortable. We both know the wreck and he are an uneven match.

“I’ll try.”

“Right, your father.” He huffs a frustrated breath. “Never, I swear. Like, ever. I’ve seen you drink freaking twice.”

Florida rain hammers on the roof of the car and hauls ass over my windshield. We’re outside Grocery-Pete’s, waiting for the floodgates to shut so we can get inside.

“Hey, I drink sometimes. With my father.” Dad celebrates good heists with a drink or five. If it’s hard liquor, he’ll loosen tight lips and talk about Mom.

“Come on, Cugs.” Bear tries to arch his back for a better position, but his head hits the ceiling. “Tell me you see how lame that is. ‘I can’t party with y’all, ’cause Imma drink with my daddy.’”

I snort out a laugh. “Whatever, fool.”

My eyes are drawn to Grocery-Pete’s gutter. It’s overflowing. The water takes the fast route over the edge, omitting the drain. I’ve stood under gutters like that, or more like penguin-danced under them in Rigita. Paislee dressed me in thick sweaters and rubber boots and topped it off with full raingear. Then we snuck out the backdoor and ran down the street before we got caught.

“Fascinated, much?” Bear grins.


Author Bio:

Between studies, teaching, and advising, Sunniva has spent her entire adult life in a college environment. Most of her novels are new adult romance geared toward smart, passionate readers with a love for eclectic language and engaging their brain as well as their heart while reading.

Born in the Land of the Midnight Sun, the author spent her early twenties making the world her playground. Southern Europe: Spain, Italy, Greece–Argentina: Buenos Aires, in particular. The United States finally kept her interest, and after half a decade in Los Angeles, she now lounges in the beautiful city of Savannah.

Sometimes, Sunniva writes with a paranormal twist (Shattering Halos, Stargazer, and Cat Love). At other times, it’s contemporary (Pandora Wild Child, Leon’s Way, Adrenaline Crush, Walking Heartbreak, and Dodging Trains, coming in late March 2016).

This author is the happiest when her characters let their emotions run off with them, shaping her stories in ways she never foresaw. She loves bad-boys and good-boys run amok, and like in real life, her goal is to keep the reader on her toes until the end of each story.

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Energy Reborn Release!

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Untold Press is proud to release Energy Reborn, the fourth and FINAL book of Lynn Vroman’s Energy Series. To learn more about Untold Press and our books, visit us at http://www.untoldpress.com

A Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy Series

Energy Reborn


The Energy Series, book 4
By

Lynn Vroman

Energy Reborn

Final book of The Energy Series

After the trauma from their final battle with Exemplar, Tarek is certain Lena is better off without him. She deserves a life without the baggage he carries. She deserves someone…real. As he fights alongside Oren in Exemplar, one thought keeps him sane: He didn’t let Lena go. He gave her an out.

Lena has spent the last eight months trying to move forward. She can’t think about Tarek; she has to raise fifteen-year-old Peter, who suffers from the same ghosts as her love. All she wants is to make Peter happy. But then Peter runs away to fight in Exemplar—again. This time is different. This time, Peter doesn’t come back.

Desperate, Lena reaches out to the one person able to help her, the person who needs saved, too.

Tarek.

For Lena, the only answer to saving those she loves is to finish what they started—end the Synod’s reign over Exemplar for good. She’ll not let Tarek or Peter hide behind a war anymore, even if it kills her.

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The entire Energy Series in sequence below. Click on image to purchase!

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About The Author

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Lynn Vroman
Born in Pennsylvania, Lynn spent most of her childhood, especially during math class, daydreaming. The main result that came from honing her imagination skills was brilliantly failing algebra. Today, she still spends an obscene amount of time in her head, only now she writes down all the cool stuff.

With a degree in English Literature, Lynn used college as an excuse to read for four years straight. She lives in the Pocono Mountains with her husband, raising the four most incredible human beings on the planet. She writes young adult novels, both fantasy and contemporary.

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Energy Reborn Excerpt

Crying didn’t bother him anymore.

Muffled sobs used to feel like weevils burrowing into his brain. He had wanted the cries to disappear, find a way to silence them so he’d have peace while killing. He hated it, yet understood where the despair came from. He didn’t take the truth that well either.

This world, his world, was full of people who weren’t real people.

That revelation caused a collective shock to infiltrate every home, every secret corner. Memories of families were manufactured lies. Parents had never existed for most. Childhood thoughts were a farce before the age of six, the median age for bodies the Creation Lab produced before implanting energy pilfered from other worlds. Most would never be able to have children. They were all biobots, synthetic carriers for strong souls.

Tarek learned how to tune out the grief a while ago, and the truth. Issues he only dwelled on when alone–when killing didn’t save him from his mind.

He adjusted his scope.

Yes, he could ignore the crying now. A perfect shot had that power.

Tarek lay on his stomach. Rooftop debris–broken syringes and jagged edges of crushed alcohol containers–dug through his sweatshirt. Sweat dribbled off his forehead to sting his eyes.

He ignored his discomfort as easily as the crying and flipped off the safety. Lights, never-ending strobes, bounced off buildings. Staring too long at the changing colors coming from billboard holograms and storefronts threatened a headache, but he managed to keep the jackasses in his sights.

Synod authority harassed a group of men on the street, demanding signed pardons most wouldn’t have. The elders considered everyone a traitor.

They were right.

People in this sector were guilty of blowing up the capital building and crashing the satellite feeds. Heterodox citizens fought when Oren asked eight months ago, with a promise of truth. Truth, most had come to realize, wasn’t such a great prize. Ignorance really was a gift.

Tarek had warned Oren not to tell them, not to reveal the true nature of how most citizens came to be. No Exemplian he had ever met wanted to find out their whole existence was a lie. But Oren believed differently. The man’s belief cost them an army. Stupid to tell a mass of people who already dreaded life–beaten down by having too many lives–that what they struggled with wasn’t even real.

Get it together.

None of that mattered. What mattered was getting a clear shot between the eyes. His finger hovered over the trigger, the sniper rifle firm in his grip. Zander’s rifle. His aim wasn’t as precise as Zander’s, but he did all right. Tarek had adopted the gun seven months ago when the Guide decided to go back to Earth.

No, don’t go there.

He couldn’t handle that part of his life–the part who went to Earth with Zander.

Lena.

No.

He peered into the scope.

The second an authority Protector pulled out his gallium cuffs, about to cinch them around the wrists of a man begging on his knees, Tarek shot. Before the other Protector could pull out his weapon, Tarek took him out too.

The deaths didn’t create a frenzy, not even when two energy orbs released from the Protectors’ bodies and sailed to the sky, ultimately finding their way into the apartment building where Tarek hid. The would-be victims dragged the useless bodies into the shadows, to the garbage incinerators hidden there. Exemplians in this sector had their turmoil to deal with, and what was left of the Synod against them. They weren’t cowards, though.

They refused to fight outright since the initial attack on the Creation Lab. But no one had ever complained when a mysterious bullet punctured the skull of an authority Protector. His shots seemed to wake up some of the citizens from a stupor, bringing them to action for a few minutes to get rid of the bodies. Tarek would take that; it’d be enough.

He refused to move from his spot. Where there were two, there were ten more. He searched the crowd through his scope, sweat turning his hoodie to soggy cotton against his back. There, right below the blank screens, were three more Protectors picking through the crowd to inspect the source of the commotion.

They plowed through braver citizens willing to stand in their path, tasing them. People dropped to the dirty pavement, their bodies spasming from the high voltages.

Tarek remained steady.

Three…

Two…

One…

Pop! Pop! Pop!

The crowd swallowed up the bodies as the Protectors’ energies raced into the building. For once, the noise quieted. All that echoed up to his spot was the distant hum of the incinerators, gobbling up bone and blood and flesh. Tarek squinted into his scope, his even breathing rhythmic, relaxing. No other authority assholes rushed the crowd.

A minute passed by.

Fifteen more followed.

No more targets were willing to meet his bullets.

Shame.

Five dead authority Protectors wasn’t even a dent in the grand scheme of things.

Plus side, those he’d killed wouldn’t be coming back for another go at life.

Their little army made sure of it eight months ago.

Tarek gave one more cursory search of the crowd in case any Protectors stepped from the shadows to scout the rooftops.
Nothing.
As he lowered his gun, a familiar dark blond mop coming toward this building caught his eye. He looked through his scope one more time.

Sonofabitch.

Not again.

Groaning, so he wouldn’t give in and shoot the boy in the leg for being a pain in the ass, Tarek pushed to his feet and stalked to the rusted metal door. Eight flights of stairs separated him from the boy who refused to keep his scrawny butt on Earth, where it was safe.

Peter. Dumb boy.

Dumb, brave, anger-filled boy.

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The Pairing-Chapter 10: Interference

chapter10

Chapter 10: Interference

The ride to Shalen remained quiet. Not because neither of them wanted to continue the conversation he started in Lena’s dorm, which he didn’t at that moment, but authority even rigged the shuttles with listening devices. Only personal dorms were free from prying ears, the one law elders gave in favor of Synod members.

Privilege…

Tarek landed close to Nan’s tree, killing the engine. Here they were, ready to take the biggest risk in their history together. As her Protector, he was failing. Lena deserved someone stronger—someone who didn’t love her as thoroughly as he did.

An issue he couldn’t solve. Loving her was as natural and necessary to him as his heart beating.

Without a word, he got out and headed toward Nan’s tree, Lena right behind him. Once they sat, he again broke their no-touching rule and brushed her cheek with a fingertip, memorizing her as he always memorized her, taking mental snapshots of each moment. “Are you sure about this?”

She turned into his hand before he could pull away, surprising him. “No.”

“Then why do it? We can wait, try to get an assignment there, talk to Teenesee without any fear of repercussions.”

Tears slipped down her cheeks and wet his palm, killing him. “I’m so tired, Tarek. Tired of being this thing who steals life. Thinking about the lives that I’m going to live here, working for them as a monster, it makes me sick. I just… I don’t want to lose me.” Her hand came up to cover her heart. “But I’ll do it, live here life after life, as long as you do because…I don’t ever want to live without you, even at the danger of losing myself.”

His heart stopped. She had never… Not since that night, so many years ago. He knew they both felt the same, an unspoken pledge to each other. But she had never said it.

Now, more than ever, he wanted take her from this world. Hide her. But he couldn’t, an impossibility due to their Exemplian “privilege.” So he gave her the only promise he could keep, a promise not even Exemplar could steal from them. “Wherever you are is where I’ll be. In this world or another, I’ll always find you.”

Tears shimmered brighter in her eyes, and she snuggled to his side. “You know you can’t.”

He wrapped his arms around her, wishing his faith could absorb into her skin. “I can, and I will, Lena. You will never have to be without me. I won’t let them take that.”

Silence filled the air, except for her quiet sobs. What to say? How to make her believe? Maybe he needed to stop this now, stop the emotion before they couldn’t go back to their normal, to the secrets Exemplar forced them to keep.

But then she gave him everything.

“I love you, Tarek. I wish I had told you that every day. I wish so many other things.” Her confession was a whisper, but powerful enough break his heart and mend it at the same time.

Why did this moment have to be the first time she said those words? Yet, he’d take what she gave and lock her words away, refuse to give them back.

He leaned over and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. “And with every breath in my body, I love you. I will always love you, no matter how many lives we live.” He told her with his lips touching her skin, as he always wanted to tell her.

Her body quivered under his touch. “So, what do we do now? How do we…?” She pulled back and met his gaze. “How, Tarek?”

Hope sprouted in his chest. “We just do it, love.” This, exactly this, was all he had ever needed from her. He wanted to yell toward the star-lit sky, thank whatever it was that made her change her mind.

But then he looked at her, really looked at her.

Her smile fell, as if reality barged into her mind. “Wait. I…Wait. I don’t thi—”

“No, Lena. No. Trust me.” He covered her balled fists, massaging her fingers until they relaxed.

“I do trust you.”

“Then don’t say what you were going to say.”

Worry still stained her face, but she nodded.

He said nothing else for a moment, afraid to break the connection. Afraid to give her a reason that would change her mind. But he had to make one thing clear.

He pushed to his feet, lifting her with him. “Let’s go.” He hesitated. “But this will be the only time, Lena. I won’t put you in danger again to clear your conscience. I want to love you, without any threat outside of keeping it from the elders.”

She tilted her head to meet his gaze. “I want that, too. I…need it.”

Tarek smiled. “Good.”

Her hand came up to his cheek, drawing small, fiery circles on his skin. “Your dimples… I dream about them. I dream about you.”

Love. The word was too small, not colorful enough. He pressed a lingering kiss against her lips, a chaste touch, reverent. If he had it his way, they’d spend the night under different circumstances. But her morals wouldn’t allow either of them to forget.

“Starting tomorrow, I’m going to build you that cottage,” he said. “With a fireplace made of your stones, right here, away from everyone.”

She scrunched her brow. “But, how can we do that? Live together? Not to mention buy this land?”

“I have three hundred years of funds I’ve never spent.” He shrugged, his mind made up. “And Protectors live with their Guides all the time.”

“Not up here, they don’t.”

“Well, we’ll just have to change the status quo, won’t we?” He smoothed a thumb across her cheek, her velvet skin causing his to spark. “Ready?”

She inhaled, and exhaled slowly. “Wherever you are, right?”

“Right.”

Yes, they’d have to be careful, and yes, they were about to blow the cap off some shady Exemplian activity. In reality, they’d always have to look over their shoulders now—a small price to pay to be able to love her. Finally.

Finally.

He should’ve known better.

“What’s wrong?” Lena looked up at his outreached hand.

He didn’t answer, sweat now pouring from his skin. Even as he tried to force the tear open, he knew the struggle was futile. Someone blocked him. Someone a hell of a lot stronger than he was.

“Tarek?” Lena’s fingers curled into his shirt, the hum of his suit underneath adding to his panic.

He lowered his hand, shoved her behind his back, and pulled his taser from his holster. “Someone’s blocking me.” As the words left his mouth, an authority shuttle hovered close to the ground before landing silently beside his.

“Oh, no.” Lena clutched his sides, her fingers digging into his skin. “Oh, no, oh, no.

Tarek held his taser, waiting. He couldn’t reassure her, tell her everything would be fine. No one had ever bothered them up here. Not once.

Somehow, some way, authority knew everything. And now they’d pay for it.

The shuttle door opened, and he almost lifted Lena over his shoulder and took off running. It would’ve been pointless, though.

No one got away from Winston.

“What’s going on here, big man?” Winston sauntered over, calm and completely deadly. “You planning a trip?”

Tarek backed up, one arm behind him grasping Lena, whose shaking body vibrated against his back. “Obviously you know, don’t you, sir?”

The tattoos peeking from the collar of Winston’s suit stood out on his dark skin, evidence he’d spent some time in Heterodox. He nodded, crossing his arms, no weapon in his hands. He didn’t need one. “You got to be careful where you talk about things.”

What? They were careful. The only place he and Lena discussed anything was in Shalen and in their dorms—Oh, no. “They tapped our rooms.”

Cassondra tapped your rooms. She has a knack for that covert shit. Believe me.” Winston tilted his head and looked behind Tarek. “Come on out, Lena. I ain’t going to hurt you.”

When Lena moved, Tarek stopped her. No. He didn’t trust anyone, especially the authority captain.

Winston smirked. “Cute. But you holding her behind your back wouldn’t do anything if I were in a different mood.”

Still, she stayed behind him as he said, “If you have no plans to arrest us, then why are you here?”

“Because I like you. And you’re lucky Cassondra likes me. Woman confides in me more than I care to admit.”

Tarek spared a quick glance behind him at Lena, knowing what Winston’s revelation would mean to her. Excitement lit her eyes. Yes, exactly. Of course he knew her. The authority captain just made it onto Lena’s list of people for future interrogation. He faced Winston again, grateful that for whatever reason in the past, he made a decent impression on the guy. “Thank you, sir.” What else could he say?

Winston unfurled his arms and gestured to the sky. “Don’t thank me yet. After I unblock you, and you still decide to take off for Empyrean?” He waved his hand, and instantly Tarek felt the lines open up to him again. “When I come after you there, I won’t be so friendly.”

The wind was still and the birds quiet, as if understanding the severity of the situation. Apples and lilacs that usually comforted him turned his stomach inside out, the odor too sweet, to innocent.

Damn.

This was it, then. Nothing else they could do.

Lena pushed on Tarek’s back until he let her by his side. “It’s illegal to tap our rooms.”

Winston laughed. “So is snooping around in the archives rooms. What’s good for you, gotta be good for her.”

Lena stood closer to Tarek’s side, her body a delicate flower in a windstorm. “I didn’t—”

“You did, and she knows. And the only reason she hasn’t had authority snatch you up is because her curiosity led to illegal activity of her own. Last thing she wants is to go to the elders with info she got from personal chambers.”

“Well, I’m willing to deal with them.” Lena stood taller, moving away from Tarek, making his nerves jump. Winston might be an impossible foe, but he could be the front line if the captain decided to get pissed, giving Lena a slim chance to get away. “My infraction is mild compared to hers. No Exemplian willing to sacrifice their life to the cause shou—”

“Save it, Guide.” Winston raised a brow. “Whatever you found, she don’t like it. Don’t care what you know, either, but it bought you her personal attention, and that ain’t good.”

Lena’s face paled, and she said nothing. She only shared her secrets with Tarek.

Winston leaned back on his heels, his tone carrying nothing but calm truth. “So again, since I like your Protector, I decided to cut you a break, warn you to knock your shit off.”

“Why?” Lena stepped forward. “It can’t only be because Tarek’s a good guy. You risked a lot coming here for a simple ‘like.'”

Winston was silent for a moment, staring holes into Lena’s unflinching face. When she dug for information, she forgot everything else, including potential danger. Then he said, “You ain’t the only one who knows the truth about things. And you ain’t the only one who hates it.”

Yes, the man definitely made her list.

But now he also piqued Tarek’s interest. Kendal’s depressed visage slid into his mind—and so did her new habit of spending time with Winston. “People like who?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Winston’s eyes hardened. “I’m telling you this as a favor.” He pointed at Tarek, some of his calm evaporating. “Don’t. Go. If you do, I’m coming for you.”

“But, but we were invited,” Lena said, her voice airy. “Teenesee asked me to come to her.”

“That won’t go over well with anyone; the treaty has no bend in it.” Winston turned, heading back to his shuttle. “She knows what you’re planning, and she’s already got my platoon waiting for that moment you punch through Empyrean’s line. Satellites are pointed and ready, shooting every angle of Teenesee’s keep. Don’t go.”

Lena ran after Winston, her desperation causing her to stumble in the tall grass. “Wait, please! What truth do you know? What? You can’t just leave!”

But he did, without even a backward glance.

She spun to him as Winston’s shuttle jetted into the night. “What now? What do we do?”

Tarek holstered his taser with an unsteady hand. “Nothing. We do nothing. It’s over.” All of it was over. This fucking place would never let them live. Ever. Cassondra heard everything. Everything.

“No, it can’t be over. There has to be another way.” She hurried to him, bunching his shirt in her fists. “We can’t let her win.”

“It’s not about winning,” he whispered, untwining her fingers from his shirt. “All it’s ever been about is surviving. Something we forgot.” He dragged his body to their shuttle, trying to keep the fury inside, keep it from exploding.

“I won’t accept it. I won’t.”

He lifted the doors then turned to her. “Get in, Lena.”

She glared at him, her face so white it reflected the moon. “There are other people, more information to know. Winston said so. Maybe we can find out who, and—”

He held up his hand, done with this. Done with all of it. Her death flashed in his mind, a waking nightmare—and the fuel he needed to ensure it didn’t happen. She wouldn’t persuade him of anything, not anymore. The only worry he had now was protecting Lena from Cassondra’s wrath. “Whoever he’s talking about is as chained to this place as we are. Don’t you see that?”

She shook her head. “Maybe not.”

Yes. Done.

He lunged for her, sweeping her up and carrying her to the shuttle, dumping her into the passenger seat.

“Hey!” Lena pounded on her door to no avail. He had it locked and secured.

When he jumped in, he said, “You want to know who he’s talking about? Kendal. Trust me. And that woman hasn’t been okay since her rebirth.” He smacked the steering lever with a yell. “We’re finished! No more. This has to stop now.”

She swallowed, her throat bobbing as fat tears dripped from her eyes. Defeat drained her face even more. She understood. Kendal didn’t have enough sanity left to help anyone. “Are you certain it’s her?”

He lifted the shuttle into the sky. “No, but that’s one thing we can find out.” Tarek steered toward home. “Stop talking. Her ears are everywhere.”

Hours later, he paced his dorm, Lena mute on his bed, afraid to go to her own room, afraid to speak in his. In the silence, his comp system dinged. “You’ve a new message, Protector Tarek Montigue, from Dimension Development.”

Tarek stopped in front of his machine, glanced at Lena, and then read the screen.

Assignment Update: Collect weak energy from Andor. Distribute to Arcus. Leave at dawn.

The Pairing-Chapter 9: Plan B

Chapter9

Chapter 9: Plan B

Empyrean Request Rejected. New Assignment: Collect from Parturit Arbos. Distribute to Parvus/strong, Cavae/weak. Tomorrow before dusk.

Tarek stared at his comp’s screen, the flashing red letters blinking, blinking, blinking.

Four times in the last week, the same three words dinged into his room from Dimension Development after Tarek put in the request. Except this time, they attached another assignment to it, a subtle “Shut the hell up and stop bothering me.”

Jackasses.

Tomorrow was Empyrean’s quarterly collection day. Now they’d have to wait another three months before attempting to get to Teenesee. Until then, he’d have to try to keep Lena from the archives rooms. What she discovered about Cassondra and her brother wouldn’t sit tight for too long. No, she’d want more information. More evidence to prove Exemplar was the evil overlord unjustly ruling the universe.

Yes, Lena had appointed herself humanity’s savior a long time ago, taking the Exemplian oath to an entirely new extreme.

Tarek rubbed his scalp, his empty laugh filling the room as his stomach turned sour. Cassondra’s punishment all those years ago continued to haunt them both. Three decades later and Lena still hadn’t forgiven herself for sending that Empyrean woman’s energy to Andor—the world full of nothing but misery and hate. Retribution fueled Lena’s drive, but now she’d have to put that on hold, which would undoubtedly piss her off.

If only her quest for justice didn’t supersede everything else.

He sighed and booted down his machine. She had waited thirty years to go back to Empyrean. Hopefully she could wait a while longer—and he’d make sure she kept her tenacity at bay until then.

Now for the hard part: breaking the news to her.

Food he’d hydrated earlier now sat like stones in his gut, his nerves tumbling it about until he had to give in and inject a nausea blocker. Okay, breathe. No puking, not yet, anyway.

After his stomach finally decided to listen, Tarek donned a shirt, tucked in the hem, laced his boots, smoothed back his short hair, and went through about a hundred more needless tasks before leaving his dorm for Lena’s.

The looming conversation wasn’t exactly high on his list. More than likely, he’d have to talk her out of storming Cassondra’s office to demand she change their assignment to Empyrean. That definitely wouldn’t go over well. Not. At. All. Perhaps he’d carry out his usual threat of tying her up until reason overrode retribution.

The halls buzzed with hive-like efficiency, everyone ignoring him as he rounded corner after corner. Everyone except for some floor authority drones scouting the halls. One even stopped him with a few arbitrary questions when he drew closer to a screening room, different worlds flashing on at least fifty screens while Guides from Dimension Development studied them. Their faces were expressionless as they watched unknowing people drudging through their day, people with no clue about reality, believing their world was the only one in existence.

Exemplar had eyes everywhere, the universe’s watchdog.

Finally, he reached Lena’s wing, her door last on the left. Despite the anxiety rippling through his nervous system, approaching her dorm always filled him with longing. His life dwelled beyond that barricade of metal and stale technology, his everything.

Tarek paused at the end of the hall, adjusting his wrinkled shirt—stalling. Enough. Go tell her. He shuffled forward, his gait slowing with each step, the cowardice attacking him not ready to relinquish its spot.

Once he made it to her room, he lifted his hand for the access panel, though his clearance was unnecessary. The door opened to Lena standing on the other side. She dragged him in by his rumpled shirt without a word. Not that she had the strength to move him, but he went along with it. Any excuse for her to touch him.

Pathetic.

But pathetic was fine with him, had been for a long time now. Gave him character—something he tried to convince himself of during those endless nights without her.

“So?” she said as soon as her door shut. “Was it another ‘no’?”

Tarek pursed his lips and nodded.

He expected rage, anger at least. Shouting and maybe throwing things around her cramped dorm.

He didn’t expect her calm.

This reaction scared the shit out of him.

She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin, her face resolute. “Well, all right, then. Time for Plan B.”

“Plan B?” He stepped forward, ready to—damn. He had no clue. “Lena, whatever you’re thinking…”

She rushed to her bed and yanked open a box sitting at the end. “I’m done with thinking.” She turned to him, a contego suit in her hands. “We’re going there. Tonight.”

“No. Absolutely not. That’s the exact opposite of what we’re doing.” He gripped her shoulders and hunched until they were eye-level, trying to emulate her calm on the outside while terror scorched him inside. “If we get caught, and if Teenesee doesn’t kill us, we’ll be marked Tainted.” He gave her a shake when her gaze slid behind his shoulder, his terror now squeezing his lungs. “Listen to me! They’ll execute us and send our energy off to a low-level world, or worse. Put us in one of those damn rooms, turn our minds against us.”

“I know the risks.” She focused on him again, and lifted a hand to his cheek. “But everything will be fine. Teenesee… She invited us.”

He squeezed her shoulders tighter. “Thirty years ago. Why? Why is it so important to talk to her this minute?”

Red stained her cheeks and her eyes narrowed to slits. “Are you serious?” She shrugged from his hold. “I’ll tell you why, Tarek. Because I’m tired of being a monster!”

“You’re not a monster, Lena. And this…this fight, or whatever it is, we can’t do it alone.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frustrated. All he had to do was tell her no, and this matter would drop. She couldn’t leave without him. Just tell her no!

Lena’s bottom lip trembled, even as she held her chin high. “If we talk to Teenesee, tell her everything, get her support, we can stop Cassondra from sending any more undeserving energy to Andor.”

Wait. No. This wasn’t the plan, truth spreading. If Lena told Teenesee what they did to her people all those years ago, what Exemplar was still doing to them…? No. She couldn’t.

Tarek closed his eyes for a moment, his fists clenching and unclenching, not answering at first. Panic wouldn’t let him. “You can’t tell her,” he whispered.

She paced the tiny room, her excitement palpable. “I can. And after I tell her the truth, show how I want to help, she’ll tell me what I need to know, too. Exemplians being Wardens… I need to know if it’s true.”

“Lena—”

She stopped in front of him, acting as if he hadn’t tried to speak to her. “And if the elders are aware of Teenesee’s anger, they’ll be forced to stop Cassondra. No more strong energy to Andor and definitely no energy to Arcus. Exemplar can’t survive without Empyrean resources. Our entire healthcare system is dependent on those emerald rocks they pull from the ground.”

She regurgitated everything he already knew—and nothing he cared about above her life. “None of this matt—”

“It does matter! If Wardens are actually Exemplians, then…then all the energy collecting has been one big lie.” She threw her hands in the air, a suit leg whipping her cheek. “Please. I have to know.”

He stared at her, not speaking, trying to grasp onto control, refrain from tossing her floating bed into her ticking comp system.

“There’s no law against being truthful with a Warden,” she said, now twisting the contego suit into a ball. “We can’t be marked Tainted if, during our invited trip, the truth accidentally comes out.”

He exhaled as her logic soaked into his growing anxiety. Faulty logic, but she made enough sense. No laws did exist, seeing as most Exemplians sent on collection assignments had apathy that rivaled Cassondra’s.

And they could leave Exemplar. Go to other worlds, as long as they were back in their dorms at curfew. Only Empyrean had a no-trespassing stipulation in the treaty…

Which happened to be the biggest problem. The chance of Teenesee killing them was a high probability.

Yet, she had invited them, something she had never done that he was aware of, and thirty years was like days to a Warden who had lived for probably as long as her world existed.

Tarek scrubbed at his hair. All of this had become too complicated, and he wanted to tell her no.

But he never could.

His gaze landed on the bunched suit in Lena’s hands. “What’s this?”

“A contego suit.”

He rolled his eyes, pissed that he was actually contemplating her idea. “I know what it is. Why do you have it?”

“Contrary to your belief, I’m not looking to die, and since we won’t be collecting…” She smiled and raised a brow.

“You’re completely, annoyingly impossible.” He gestured to her bed where the box sat. “How’d you get it—wait, just…” He shook his head. “Don’t tell me.”

She clapped her hands together and excitement sparkled in her sherry eyes, as if she were years younger. “So, are we going?”

Damn it! When she looked at him like that, all hopeful and trusting, he had no power. None. He sighed. She had the magic to persuade him to do about anything. “Well, today’s good as any to die, I guess.”

She laughed and lifted the hem of her robes, shimmying into the suit. “You’re such a worrier.”

“That makes one of us.”

Her robes lifted to her thighs, and he caught the hint of creamy flesh, undoing him. He forced himself to face the door, although Lena was an expert at switching wardrobes without revealing too much skin. But the tiniest glimpse shot lightning through his nervous system. He couldn’t even swim with her anymore unless she wore a bodysuit. Pathetic was one thing, self-torture he could live without.

While she fussed with her clothes, he worked to slow his breathing, and said, “I don’t want to open a portal at the collection post, too many people.” If only a portal block didn’t exist in all the dorm wings. “The safest place without a block would be—”

“Nan’s.”

Right.

The sound of her heavy robes landing on the bed echoed behind him. “You can look now,” she said. “I hate talking to your back.”

He turned, and almost stumbled backward. She looked vulnerable and strong at the same time.

So perfect, different.

Always different.

Something came over him while staring at her thin body drowning in that too-large suit. Courage? No, more like desperation. Maybe going on a potential suicide mission stoked the fire he had kept on embers for years. But regardless, words left his mouth before he had a chance to swallow them.

“Well, I don’t hate when you undress in front of me.” He moved to press the button on her waist, her heat seeping through the fabric as the suit shrunk to fit her. Her scent, what saturated her dorm as well as her skin, assailed him. Lilacs, like the flowers blooming in their orchard.

“Um…” She gaped at him, little gasps escaping her mouth when his fingers skated across her side.

He leaned in next to her ear. “My willpower can only stretch so thin.”

Rarely did he ever bring up their “pretend.” But times like this, with his anxiety high, and danger so, so close, he needed to remind her. Make her understand how she affected him.

“I…” She paused, swallowing. “Maybe… I mean, we—”

“Don’t.” He dropped his hand, defeated. Stupid of him to bring it up now. Stupid. “I’m not satisfied with ‘maybe.’ Never is better, easier to deal with.”

She closed her mouth and nodded.

He’d fight to transform their pretend to reality until every ounce of life left his body—but only if she gave him more than a “maybe.” Yet, asking that of her before running toward probably the least intelligent decision he had ever made was unfair to them both.

“Put your robes back on. Don’t let anyone see the suit.” He went to the door and palmed the access panel. “I’ll get mine and meet you in the hanger.”

She said nothing else, and he didn’t expect her to.

The Pairing, Part III-Chapter 8: Secrets

Chapter8

Part III Thirty More Years

Chapter 8: Secrets

Synod life wasn’t all work. Exemplians celebrated things, not many things, but every year, citizens from all sectors—except Heterodox—celebrated Sine Custode.

Celebrate.

Right.

Who wouldn’t want to rejoice the day Exemplar’s advanced population figured out how to function without a Warden? Whatever happened to the guy—disregarding the fables many passed to younger citizens, the lies—the end of nature became the beginning of a new standard. A synthetic nature.

Tarek threw back the rest of his whiskey and grimaced from the burn. The low murmuring of “celebrating” in the commons wing of the main building aggravated him. So many people crammed in here: Synod members from both Cynosure and Shalen, and retired members from Abrogation. People from all levels of the Synod hierarchy attended to thank…well…each other for science and the nonexistence of those pesky miracles nature always provided.

Everyone, excluding the elders.

No one ever saw them, knew who they were, or how many hid behind opaque shields from the rest of the world. They could have been anyone, since talking to them in their little room with their omniscient voices piping in through the speakers—

No, damn it. Thinking about all this shit only made his aggravation escalate.

The origin of the one Exemplian holiday, or the mystical elders, wouldn’t get his attention tonight. None of these people interested Tarek, either, not Farren hitting on some Guide in a far corner or Mateusz in deep conversation with a few other overseers, including Avery Larkin.

Only one person concerned him now.

Lena.

She should have been here an hour ago. No doubt she used this opportunity to pry. Everyone who was anyone corralled themselves in this room, away from their computer systems and confidential information. She’d become stealthier these past thirty years, since that day in Empyrean, knowing when to snoop and when not to. He clenched his fist tighter around his glass. That night, after they returned from their first collection, was the best and worst of his life, and another something he didn’t want to think about.

He strode to the closest drink hydrator and punched in another whiskey. As he watched the brown powder moisten and flare with ethyl alcohol, Kendal drifted by, catching his attention.

Well, there you go. A miracle: looked like one other person interested him, and he wished like hell she didn’t—not for this reason. He missed her, the woman Kendal was before her last death. His pseudo-mother, who now refused to allow him in her home, wasn’t Kendal anymore; she was Kendal’s ghost.

Her robes hung on her thinner frame, and air blew from a vent above, lifting the ends of her limp hair to show just how sunken her cheeks had become. A year she’d been this way, since her last rebirth. She’d died three times before and had always bounced back in the month the Synod allowed for acclimation. What made this one harder? What information could she have possibly carried over into her new life that turned her so utterly different?

Tarek sighed. Too many questions with no answers. But she’d come around—she had to. Mateusz wouldn’t be able to hide her condition from the higher-ups forever.

He grabbed his drink when the hydrator dinged and watched her float through the crowd, not at all pulling off normal, until she reached Winston standing near the door. Seemed Kendal spent more time with the authority captain than Mateusz since her death.

Interesting. Sad.

And another situation he had zero control over.

He downed his whiskey in one gulp, concentrating on the burn coating his throat, his gaze remaining on Kendal.

“Is this how you spend your time now? Peeping on other people while sulking in the corner?”

Tarek sputtered, his glass slipping from his hand and landing with a splattering clunk on the spongy floor. Janitorial machines scuttled to snatch up his mess without a sound, their robotic limbs dumping the glass shards into their canister bodies. A few people glanced his way as the machines cleaned, their faces showing no interest, just mild irritation as they returned to their conversations.

Yes, those mindless drones weren’t surprised.

But his body tingled with both excitement and a fair amount of apprehension. He swallowed, attempted to turn, failed, and swallowed again. No, she couldn’t be here, not her…

“Well? You planning on growing enough balls to say hello, or are you gonna keep staring at that poor girl talking it up with Winston?”

He smiled and frowned at the same time—missed and cringed at her way with words. Her lack of couth, rather. Finally, he grew those balls she spoke of, and faced her with his hand out. “Wilma. It’s nice to see you again.” Weak, but the greeting was the only one tripping around his mind.

She snorted, not moving to shake his hand. “Is that right?”

“Yes, of course. I… It’s been…what? Over a hundred fifty years? Tarek lowered his hand, wiping his clammy palm on his breeches. “I’m surprised to see you at something so tedious.”

“Are you, now?” She crossed her arms over her chest, giving him nothing else.

What the hell did she want to hear? Not a thing came to mind, so he kept his mouth shut and stared at her, feeling like a new energy again. A new energy in the presence of greatness.

Her unruly dark curls went everywhere as they always had, framing her pudgy face. The woman was about a foot and a half shorter than he was and as round as she was tall, but her stature never fooled him.

Wilma, on record, was the strongest Protector ever to grace Exemplian soil. Stronger than him, than Winston, Cassondra, everyone.

She kept drilling him with those blue eyes full of life and power, and he cracked. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said.

Her lips twitched, and her eyes danced with what he could only surmise as humor derived from his noticeable discomfort. Finally, she laughed, a loud, obnoxious sound, and slapped him on the chest, sending him back a good inch or two. “You always were too easy, boy.”

Calling him “boy” after he had lived for over two hundred years in his first life, and fifty in his second, sounded absurd—but not from Wilma. Who knew how old she was or how many lives she lived. Simplest answer: a lot.

Tarek rubbed his now-aching chest, actually happy to see her. She was another anomaly. Strong, capable, and the most “alive” person he knew besides Lena and Farren. An oddity, especially since Wilma had lived for centuries upon centuries.

“So…” What to say to a legend? What? “Where’ve you been? What…ah…branch are you with now?”

She crossed her arms again and jutted a hip. “Well, that’d be none of your business.”

His face burned as he grasped for an inane question that wouldn’t sound intrusive, though asking her where she worked was as mindless as asking about the weather.

Okay… Let’s try this again. “Fair enough. Are you still in the north building? I hear they’ve renovated the dorms.”

Such drivel to ask her, and if he didn’t have so much damn respect for the woman, he’d literally run to the other drink hydrator across the room.

She tilted her head with a quick glance over his shoulder. “Nope. Moved on.”

“Really? Where?” He crossed his arms, too, mostly to hide his fidgeting.

“That would also be none of your concern.”

“Ah…” He let his arms fall to his sides, defeated. Talking to her was like being a newbie and going through ERP training all over again.

Wilma looked over his shoulder a second time, thankfully indifferent to his embarrassment. “Looks like your Guide made it to the party,” she said, her gruff voice a little rougher than he remembered.

“How’d you know about my Pairing?”

“I still keep tabs on you, boy.” She snorted again, a sound Tarek remembered well, despite over a century of not hearing it. “You were my least annoying student, after all.”

“I… Thank you?” he said, and then all his attention turned to his beautiful Guide.

Every color.

Even after all these decades, she was still his beacon, as if a room hid in gray and misery until her color saturated it with life. At fifty-years-old, she appeared twenty, younger than twenty. But her eyes were haunted, their collection trips stealing small chunks of her soul.

If only he could take her pain and give her back the innocence she had before Empyrean.

Relive that night, after they had returned, but under better circumstances.

He wiped the sides of his mouth, watching her as she shuffled toward him, acknowledging people here and there. Wilma went ignored, which had never happened when he occupied the same space as her.

But Lena had that magic…

She made it to his side, careful not to touch him. A precaution they had both adopted after that night. A celibacy he forced on himself that was both torture and the only other option available. No other women—none—they didn’t even exist for him anymore.

And he was certain if Lena found interest in another man, that man would no longer be breathing. Jealousy was a nasty beast, but an emotion he fortunately hadn’t had to experience in reality. Knowing Lena wanted different as much as he did, he settled with what neither of them could give.

Though tonight, Lena barely glanced at him, her cheeks flushed and awe turning her sherry eyes to jewels. He didn’t put that reverence on her face. No, her veneration belonged to the irritable, paunchy Protector in front of him.

Lena bunched the front of her robes in her fists, gawking at Wilma is if she were a hologram exhibit. “Protector, it’s… Wow… I’m…”

Wilma squinted, nodding with every broken word Lena spit out. When she finally gave up, Wilma raised a brow, and said, “You got some sort of stuttering problem, girl?”

Shock rounded Lena’s eyes, her hands clutching tighter to all that white cloth. “N-no?”

“You sure?”

“Um… Yes?”

Tarek moved as close to Lena’s side as possible without touching her. Yes, he protected her from everything, even her stuttering tongue. “Nice seeing you again, Wilma,” he said with a smile; he couldn’t help it. The woman’s lack of filter was refreshing. “I hope we can get together, catch up.”

Wilma ran a hand through her messy hair, getting her fingers stuck at her nape. “Yeah, don’t hold your breath. Ouch, dammit!” She yanked her hand from her head, bringing with it a clump of black hair she let fall to the floor for the janitorial machines. “As much as I’d like to stay and listen to your Guide try to speak, I gotta go deal with some of these blowhards.”

Tarek laughed even as Lena stiffened beside him, forgetting how idiotic this holiday was, and forgetting Kendal’s depression. If only they all could view life as Wilma did. “Try not to hurt anyone while you’re at it.”

“I’ll do my best.” She punched him in the shoulder on the way to a huddled group of overseers. “They’ll be sorry they demanded my presence, I’ll tell ya that!”

Tarek tried not to wince as he pressed against his throbbing shoulder. Damn, the woman could throw a punch.

“Oh, no.” Lena covered her face, shaking her head. “I made a complete ass of myself.”

Tarek pulled her hands away, chuckling. “I wouldn’t say complete.”

“How do you know her? You never told me you knew her?”

“I don’t know, know her. She was one of my instructors many, many, many moons ago.” Tarek shrugged, finding Wilma with her dull audience, some of them with bulging eyes and pursed mouths. Whatever she said to them was enough of a surprise to garner real emotion. “She’s rough around the edges but smart.” He frowned, rotating his shoulder. “And strong.”

“More than that! She has telekinesis and telepathic abilities. Her skill with manipulating minds is legend—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” He blocked her view of everything in the room but him. “How do you know all this?” Dumb question.

Lena lifted a dainty shoulder, her blush deepening. “I found her file.”

“Really? Because I’m almost positive her file is classified.” He bit the inside of his cheek to curb his smile.

“Oh, come on! How could I not look? I didn’t see all of it, just the important things—her history. Her background is so much like mine, and she’s so different. Plus—”

Tarek tamped down the air. “Okay, all right. Save the excuses. I get it.” Wilma, like Lena, had no given last name—both original Heterodox citizens. Difference between the two was Wilma had refused to take any arbitrary last name, opting to maintain her one-word moniker. “Anyway, where have you been?” Another dumb question.

Color drained from Lena’s cheeks as her Wilma-envy left to make room for worry. She glanced at Cassondra, who held court with some of her minions across the room. “I found out something.”

“What?” That look, thinned lips and hardening eyes, meant one thing: whatever she discovered wouldn’t be good. Hell, it usually never was.

She tugged on his arm for a split second to get him moving toward the exit. “Not here.”

“Where, then?”

Lena didn’t answer until they were out of the room and in the lift heading toward the underground shuttle hanger. “Nan’s.”

Perfect. Where else would they go? He glanced up at the lift’s ceiling, counting the cameras pointed at them. No one lurked over shoulders in Shalen, not at their spot, anyway.

Ten quiet minutes later, Tarek landed in the orchard. Lena had already shed her robes to reveal her usual Shalen attire underneath—breeches and a form-fitting top that most Protectors wore. And before the engine cut off, she had her door up and her feet on the ground.

She beat him to Nan’s stone and placed the rock she took from Lyrion, a mid-evolved world they had collected from days ago, on a pile of others. A habit she’d begun after their only trip to Empyrean. One stone from every world, and now she had about thirty in her little collection. Some so large he had to hold both the rock and Lena during their return trip home, while others were small enough to fit in her palm. And so many colors made up her pile, from vermilion to onyx to colors so exotic, Exemplar didn’t even have a name for them.

They’re for our pretend house, she had told him. We’re going to build our pretend fireplace with these real stones.

Their pretend. A pretend saturated with love as tangible as those stones.

“So,” he said, sitting beside her as she dug in the center of her pile until she found her book. “Tell me.”

“Wait. Let me get it down first.”

His skin itched as she wrote in her book before speaking, knowing she wouldn’t say a word until everything she’d learned sat on a page. Those books were her back up, her “just in case.” In case of what, he really didn’t know and a question Lena hadn’t been able to answer clearly.

What he did know was her mission for most of the last thirty years had been to peel away the lies surrounding Exemplar’s nucleus. In their rock pile, right in the center, Tarek constructed a compartment for what had to be at least ten books full of the info she excavated not only on Exemplar, but different worlds, more worlds than he knew existed.

Finally, she slammed the book shut and tucked it into its hidey-hole. “You’re not going to believe me.”

“Doubt that.” Of course he’d believe her.

Lena smoothed back her hair, the wind catching it and flapping it around her pale face. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and focused on the glowing moon, hovercrafts blinking occasionally with the stars. The only sounds penetrating their small piece of bliss were night birds cawing to one another and the sporadic plop of an apple dropping from its branch somewhere in the orchard.

After a few moments, she focused on him, breathed in deep, and said on the exhale, “Cassondra has a brother.”

He froze, the twig in his hand falling to the ground. A sibling? Births were rare, but—a brother? “Explain.” This wasn’t the worst of it. Knowing Lena, she saved the most horrid detail until the very end.

She bit her lip, her face shaded with the undulating shadows that always accompanied the trees at night. “I…I didn’t believe it at first. I thought it was some sort of mistake, a glitch, but then I kept reading the histories.”

“What histories, Lena?” he whispered, not sure if he really wanted to know.

As if on reflex, her hand moved to still his bouncing leg. “Arcus’s. He…he lives there.”

Instantly, his body began to tremble. So, so bad. The world populated with giant tree-squid, the dominant species. Not one human lived there, except Casimir—the Warden.

“Lena—”

“No, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.”

Tarek stood, too fueled by…what? Anger? Fear? “Impossible.” He paced, the birds’ song now screaming in his ears. “How could that be? Humans can’t live there. Only Casimir can survive the elements.”

She stood, too, her eyes shining with excitement. “Exactly.”

“What? No.” He backed up, as if the distance would separate him from her words. “That’s—no. Casimir couldn’t possibly—”

She straightened her back and lifted her chin.

Oh, no, that look. Not good. Not good at all. “What are you thinking?” he asked, leery.

“I’m thinking this is why Cassondra has given Andor good energy and why elders keep allowing it, no matter how many of us complain. I’m thinking she wants to show those crotchety bastards it can be done. You know, save a world from itself, evolve it into a functioning part of the universe.”

He stared at her, not comprehending. Then, as if the answer slammed into his brain, everything clicked.

Why the elders denied his request to stop distribution and collection for Andor.

Why Mateusz got nowhere with them, either.

Why Cassondra sent good energy to Andor, energy like the Empyrean woman who still invaded Lena’s dreams.

“She wants to get permission to do the same with her brother’s world,” he said. “Start with the most dangerous, change it, and then maybe…prove Arcus won’t be as difficult?”

She nodded so vigorously, he feared her neck might snap. “Yes.”

But humans can’t survive there,” Tarek repeated, as if that were enough information to argue the point. “And… if you’re right, Casimir’s Exemplian. How could he be Warden of a different world?”

“I don’t know, but going to the elders is out. I’ve no doubt they know already, and asking them would only put me in danger of a Tainted judgement for infiltrating classified files.” Lena went to him and cupped his cheeks. “Only a Warden could give us the answers.”

“And which Warden do you propose we ask?” But he already knew the answer, and it terrified the hell out of him. He covered her hands, absorbing her warmth and selfishly holding onto her touch for a few stingy seconds longer.

Lena moved her hands from his cheeks to rest on his chest—another clear violation of their unspoken, no-touching rule. “You know who. It’s time we go back to Empyrean—and finally have that talk with Teenesee.”