On the eve of her appointment to the ranks of the elite Queen's Guard, Alna Lomig bumps into Gared ab Einif. Her wariness of the handsome Pruxnæ melts under his roguish charm, softening her resistance to his gentle courtship. When he sneaks into her room in the House of Jakuv, she offers one night of shelter and nothing more, certainly not the kiss he's come to claim.
Gared has more than a single kiss on his mind. He's searching for the one woman who can give him his most secret desire. To get it, he's not above kidnapping a beautiful Lady Warrior and hiding her away in her home planet's dense jungle.
The jungle holds more than refuge. Within its verdant foliage lurks a danger even a wily Pruxnæ isn't prepared for, forcing Alna and Gared to face the truth lying within their hearts before the jungle destroys them both.
Released September 2015. Published by Bone Diggers Press, copyright 2015.
Excerpt from Thief of Hearts
Alna Lomig skipped down the stairs leading out of the House of Jakuv onto the busy, midday streets of Elaria. The Prime City’s residents bustled along the wide sidewalks, preparing for that night’s celebration. The Queen’s Guard was being renewed with fresh-faced candidates straight from their secondary training courses.
And Alna would be among them.
She forced the excitement bubbling within her down and assumed a sedate pace through the scurrying throngs. The Jakuv were elegant, refined, dignified. They didn’t dance in the streets or scream their joy into the air, no matter what the cause of their happiness. Had Mother Jakuv herself not instructed Alna as to the proper decorum? Had it not been reinforced during years of training and practice, years spent away from home among the Sisters Mother Jakuv had hand-selected for membership in the prestigious house?
Years of study, now bearing fruit in the opportunities presented to Alna. She paused in front of a statuette of the goddess Xi and offered gratitude for the honor bestowed upon her, and for the sacrifices her parents had endured on her behalf. Her fingers touched the Jakuvian crests pinned to the shoulders of her uniform, holding her ceremonial capelet in place. Not every child presented to a House was accepted, even when her family could afford the requisite bribes to ease her path.
Alna whirled and spotted Sister Creti Flenig, and grinned in spite of her good intentions, mirroring the smile dancing on Creti’s wide mouth and in her black eyes. They met in the middle of the street and clutched each other’s elbows, tall warrior maidens equally matched.
Alna touched her forehead to Creti’s. “Tell me you made it.”
“No thanks to your mischief.”
“My mischief? I wasn’t the one who snuck a kiki into Mother’s bedchambers.”
“It wasn’t poisonous. Besides, you dared me.”
“I dared you to ruffle the Maidens’ feathers, not set a lizard loose on them.” Alna eased away from her friend and tilted her head toward the bridge leading out of the city proper. “To the market?”
“Yes! I’m dying to celebrate.”
“You mean flirt.”
“That, too,” Creti said, her smooth voice filled with humor. She hooked her arm through Alna’s and matched her pace. “Don’t tell me you’re not eager to try your new status out on the jocknies.”
“Only if they’re handsome. I swear, if one more weak-chinned, elitist fop approaches me, I’m going to put my training to good use and break his kneecap.”
Creti slid a coy glance at Alna out of the corners of her dark eyes. When she spoke, her words were tinged with Mother Jakuv’s rounded, aristocratic tones. “Darling, it is your duty to breed with the elite and propagate the next generation of guards.”
“If Mother wishes us to breed guards, she’d be better off sending us to the jocknies.”
They wended their way down the sidewalks past festooned houses and shops, through the massive gates protecting the inner city, then across the bridge into the open air market cushioning the residents from the port on Elaria’s outskirts. Here, the people were relaxed, friendly. There was no stiffness or formality, no protocol to follow or rules to obey, merely shoppers and stall keepers haggling their way toward a mutually beneficial trade.
Creti pulled Alna to a halt in front of a cloth merchant’s stall. The jockney manning it winked at her and subtly flexed his biceps, bared by the simple leather vest he wore over a sleeveless, gray tunic.
Flirtatious Creti winked back. “What goods today, Master Trader?”
“Only the finest for the House of Jakuv and her aspiring candidates.”
“Aspiring no longer. We fill the Queen’s Guard on the morrow.”
The jockney’s pale eyebrows arched toward his trader’s cap. “And whose bed do you fill tonight?”
Creti grinned. “Maybe yours.”
Alna rolled her eyes and guided a reluctant Creti away from the stall. “Our first night as free women, and you already have an offer. How do you do it?”
“By opening myself to the grand promises of the universe. You should try it sometime.”
“I’d rather eat a kiki.”
The lively strains of music drifted to them from deeper within the market. Creti snagged Alna’s hand, and together, they raced through the growing crowd toward the stage. As they passed a flower stall, a man stepped into Alna’s path, too quickly for her to avoid. She stumbled into his hard strength and rebounded away from him, and in the process, lost her grip on Creti.
Gloved hands shot out, catching her arms, and the man steadied her. “Careful,” he said.
Alna jerked her eyes up and met the brown-gold gaze of her savior. His eyes were warm above the black, homespun cloth covering the lower half of his face, hidden in the shadows of his hooded coat. He was broad of shoulder and long of leg, and held himself with the arrogance of a man accustomed to taking what he wanted.
Her heart skipped a beat and settled into a fast gallop. A Pruxnæ, in the flesh. She’d lay odds on it. Of all the men for her to run into on her first night of freedom, she had to pick a woman-stealing brigand.
She eased away from him as politely as she could, and succeeded only in loosening his hold on her. His hands slid down her arms and caught hers in a firm grip, and his slanted eyes crinkled at the corners, as if he were smiling under the cloth hiding his features.
She cleared her throat and tugged gently on her hands. “My apologies, good sir.”
"My lady.” He bowed and pressed the backs of her hands against his forehead. “I’d always heard the women of Zinod were beautiful, but I never believed it until I saw you.”
A woman-stealing brigand and a flatterer. Just her luck. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m expected elsewhere.”
He straightened to his full height, a full head taller than her. “By a man?”
“By a friend,” she said evenly. “Good day.”
She slipped out of his grasp and lost herself in the crowd. The skin on the nape of her neck tingled, the instincts of someone being watched, but when she turned around, the Pruxnæ was gone. Disappointment sighed out of her on a long exhale. Oh, well. It was better not to attract a Pruxnæ’s attention anyway. They had a nasty habit of stealing women whenever they pleased, whether the women wanted to go with them or not.
And she had a life to live, beginning first thing on the morrow.
Alna smoothed her uniform down over the nerves fluttering in her stomach and stretched her neck around the gawkers blocking her view of the musicians playing on the central stage. Creti had to be around here somewhere. She’d get a hoot out of Alna’s run-in with the Pruxnæ, if she hadn’t already paired off with a handsome jockney. Good thing the Pruxnæ had already disappeared. Otherwise, Creti would throw Alna into his path at every opportunity, and no telling what trouble that would bring.