A hush of expectancy fell over the room and the crowd parted. Ty looked up as curiosity got the better of her glum mood to see who would command such a response. A man dressed entirely in black had entered the room. His garb was the same hue as hers but that was all they had in common. He was one of them and she remained an outcast.
A cheer erupted from one side of the room and quickly spread as if the crowd had become infected with joy. Shouts that could have been a name or just a word of praise in their foreign tongue came from every corner but hers as she sat silently watching. He was taller than the others by at least half a foot, perfectly proportioned from broad shoulders to muscular thighs. Unlike most feline males his hair was cut short, almost to the scalp, the planes and angles of his square face clear to see. Another anomaly among his kind was his perfect skin. Not a scar in sight.
Ty briefly closed her eyes against the sight of the sexiest man she’d ever seen in her life. Of course he would be. Most felines oozed sex and sensuality like a natural scent. His unmarked face either meant he was royalty and others fought for him, or he was so good no one ever got close enough to mark him. She’d guess it was the latter. He didn't carry himself with the stuffy self-importance of the royals.
Shame and guilt immediately speared through her as she gazed at Cassandra, her host. The empress held her clasped hands to her breasts, a smile beaming from her perfect face as the newcomer approached and sketched a perfect bow before her.
“Zachariah! We had no idea you would return to us so soon. What a wondrous surprise.”
He grinned and Ty wondered how any woman could remain standing in the onslaught.
“Empress Cassandra, I simply couldn't stay away. What excitement have I missed in my time away from the city?”
Her smile faltered and for a moment Ty thought the empress might glance her way. However, Cassandra quickly recovered and turned in the opposite direction, motioning a group of tittering females toward them.
“Ladies, present yourselves to Zachariah so he can begin the dance.”
Couples began to form as the beautiful, single females approached Zachariah. A stab of envy pained Ty’s chest as he turned to charm the females. He’d never once looked her way, hidden in the darkened corner of the large room. She shouldn't have expected him to, but disappointment filled her just the same. As her host it was Cassandra’s duty to introduce them, but she obviously didn't want Ty meeting Zachariah this evening.
Through the remainder of the festivities Ty watched in silence as the sexy feline danced with every female in the room, single and mated alike. He’d never once glanced her way, or even seemed to notice her sitting alone at the small table pushed aside for her use. Halfway through the evening Darius and his mate Eleanor arrived and Ty felt a glimmer of hope that she might have someone to talk to. The feline doctor was the only one who had been nice to her throughout the entire journey from Earth to Erestes.
Darius glanced around the room until his gaze fell on her and he took a single step in her direction. But then Eleanor clasped his arm and her tight smile of warning was clear even from across the room. Without hesitation he turned away and followed his mate in the opposite direction. Ty swallowed the lump of humiliation in her throat. She’d grown used to such treatment from her human peers. Why did it seem to hurt so much more from feline strangers on a world so far from home?
The celebration did eventually end and Ty stood as the ballroom slowly emptied. Cassandra glanced her way once, a silent signal to approach, and Ty quickly weaved through the empty tables.
“What is this? Did I actually miss a dance partner?”
She froze as Zachariah’s deep voice slid down her spine. He’d come from behind silently while she’d been distracted by making her way to the empress. Startled, Ty glanced up to see the displeasure on Cassandra’s face and took a deep, even breath. She was a diplomat, damn it. It was her duty to meet every feline in the city regardless of their delicate sensibilities. It was time to grow a backbone and do her duty. Just as she was deciding on what to say, Zachariah walked around to stand before her.
“Oh, Zach, this is our human visitor. A diplomat from Earth.” Cassandra’s dulcet tone held a hint of humor, as if hiding Ty in the corner all evening was the normal way of doing things.
Ty tilted her head up to look into Zachariah’s eyes through the dark veil. They glowed emerald with gold flecks around the deep black pupils. His easy grin of before was gone, replaced by obvious confusion.
“Human? Where have you been all evening and why am I just now hearing of your arrival?”
Cassandra actually laughed as Ty stood silent. She had no clue how to answer without upsetting either feline.
“Ty doesn’t dance, especially as we do. And how were you to hear of anything while traveling in parts unknown?” Cassandra asked.
Zachariah studied Ty’s veiled face a moment longer before allowing Cassandra to pull him away with a delicate hand on his arm. The tightness in Ty’s chest eased and she took in a lungful of air before following the couple out of the ballroom.
“She is staying with me for the moment. Darius brought her to us when he returned from their lands. We are in the midst of working on a trade agreement I think you’ll find most interesting.”
Zachariah lifted a brow but said nothing as Cassandra continued on about the trade agreement she planned to implement with the humans. Ty followed silently, wondering about the lofty plans the empress had yet to put down in writing. So far nothing had been done to progress trade between the species. She was surprised the empress still entertained such an idea. The hostility she’d faced every day was so intense she’d remained safely tucked away in the small room assigned to her by Cassandra since her arrival. Ty only ventured out for meals and an occasional walk in the gardens, but even that was dangerous.
Zach walked away from Cassandra’s private sitting room with her words still echoing in his ears. Their people hadn't taken the arrival of the human diplomat as well as she had hoped and were threatening to kill the woman. Anger sparked in his gut. How could they be so stupid as to think killing the human would be a good thing? Intergalactic trade was their only hope as resources slowly dwindled to nothing.
They had realized the problem too late and conservation efforts hadn't been enough. Finding intelligent life in another galaxy had been their saving grace and last hope. With the advances humans and felines alike had made in the past few years, portals could now be opened and trading goods in a reasonable time-frame was a real possibility. The human diplomat had been the first to walk through the portal. He was still in awe of her bravery and it angered him all the more that his people weren't as well.
Cassandra had faltered when he’d asked her to explain why the felines disliked the human so much. All he knew for certain was the ridiculous outfit Ty had been wearing was part of it. But he refused to believe his people were so vain as to care about the differences in human and feline physiology.
As he approached the front door, movement from the corner of his eye stopped him in his tracks. He turned to see a lone figure slipping through a side door and out into the private gardens. Knowing everyone else was already in their rooms for the night, he decided it must be Ty. Curiosity and admiration prompted him to follow.
Moonlight danced across her raven locks, causing them to gleam like polished onyx. They flowed in curling waves to her waist and took his breath away. Felines were naturally light-haired and fair-skinned. The images he’d seen of humans had blown him away with the diversity in their coloring. They had all colors of the rainbow it seemed. He’d never admit aloud that he’d longed to know a dark-haired woman.
He quickened his step to catch up to her. She seemed lost in thought and he deliberately crunched the gravel beneath his feet to announce his presence. He knew the moment she realized she wasn't alone by the tensing of her shoulders. However, when she immediately bowed her head he frowned in confusion.
She stopped at a large fountain sitting in the center of the garden and he slowly walked up beside her. He expected her to at least look to see who had joined her, but she turned her face away from him instead. He frowned but thought maybe it was just a human reaction.
“Good evening again, Ty. I hope you don’t mind if I join you.”
She cleared her throat but didn't turn to face him. “Good evening, Zachariah. No, I don’t mind.”
Her deep, sultry voice caressed his senses and he wanted to purr as his body instantly hardened. He’d known thousands of women in his thirty years of life, but never before had just a woman’s voice given him an erection. He bit back a groan and turned to face her fully, hoping she would do the same.
“I’m glad to see you've removed the veil. Is it a human custom to wear one?”
His question had the opposite effect of what he’d hoped for as she turned to give him her back. Her head lowered further and his frown deepened.
“No. The empress insisted…for my safety.”
Cassandra had said as much, but he’d hoped she’d been wrong. Now his curiosity was too great to ignore and he grasped Ty’s shoulder, turning her to face him before she could protest. The surprise on her face was the first thing he noticed, the scars were the second. Small white lines covered her skin from brow to chin as if someone had taken the tip of a knife and slashed indiscriminately.
Ty gasped and threw her hands over her face before jerking away from him. Anger burned in his gut, too much to pinpoint as he considered what she must have gone through in the two weeks since her arrival. The felines were a proud and vain race. Zach had no doubt the death threats to this imperfect human were very real.
“Why?” He wasn’t even certain what exactly he was asking, but Ty seemed to think she did and answered in words that left him cold.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think my superiors realized sending me would make everyone here so angry. I've tried to tell them, but they won’t listen. I was sent to get me out of the way.”
Zach shook his head, not quite understanding what she meant but knowing she’d misunderstood his question. He stepped toward her slowly, giving her time to run, but his brave little human only straightened her spine and lowered her hands to face him head on. Her bravery made him grin. Confusion filled her gaze as she watched him smile down at her. If he didn't know better, he would think no one ever smiled at her.
“That isn't the question I was asking, but now I have to know why you were sent away.”
The slight blush that stained her cheeks was barely visible in the moonlight, but feline vision helped him see it well enough. Her humiliation was so obvious he had the insane urge to hold her. That urge gave him pause. Had any female ever affected him so quickly and to such an extent? Even without considering the many bed partners he’d had over the course of his adulthood, he knew the answer was no. Something about this human called to a primitive urge in him felines whispered about in awed voices. The silent beast within was very interested in this female despite her not being feline, and despite her obvious physical imperfections.
Zach had never questioned his instincts and didn't do so now. When the urge to reach out and touch her cheek had him curling his fingers into claws, he immediately relaxed one hand to do it. Her sun-kissed skin was softer than the silk the humans had sent over as a part of their first diplomatic gift. She gasped at the contact but didn't move away from his touch. He was so pleased he nearly growled in delight, but fought the urge to keep from frightening her.
In theory the humans might understand what the felines were on a genetic level. However, all of his research showed that the closest Earth had to his race was a known predator without the ability to communicate with humans. His Earthly cousins were the base form of what his race had evolved from over a millennium. It wouldn't do to remind Ty of that before he bound her to him.
Her eyes slid to half mast as he brushed the tips of his fingers over the slight ridges of her scars. If anything, the sign of her strength made him crave her more. There was nothing more attractive to a feline male than a strong female. Often the feline women used their words and position in society to display that strength. Zach had never cared to have a sharp-tongued woman or one more interested in social standing than pleasing him. Too often that left him with weaker females than he craved. Ty seemed to be the best of everything in one enticing package.
“Regardless of why you were chosen to come here, Ty, I think I definitely want to know more about you. The empress won’t notice if you slip away for the night. Come with me.”
Zach’s deep, sexy voice slid like warm chocolate down her skin, sending a chill up her spine. No man had ever looked at her with such obvious desire in his eyes. If she hadn't already heard whispers about this honorable man from the house staff, Ty might have thought he was playing some kind of joke. However, stories of his honor and integrity had been on nearly every tongue since her arrival.
Even her loudest protesters had claimed Zach’s return would be a deciding factor. The felines looked up to this man. He wasn't royalty, but his strength and courage were legendary. He was a scientist and soldier, an integral part of the negotiations between the felines and humans.
She shivered from his intimate touch and weakened under the sensual assault. She couldn't possibly refuse him and didn't question why it never entered her mind to do so. After her silent nod of approval, he took her by the hand and led her through the back gate of the garden. The streets were empty and silent, but she didn't fear the darkness with Zach holding her hand. Nothing in the small feline city was very far away, and they reached his house quickly. She looked around as they walked inside, but didn't see much as he led her to his living room.
He turned and pulled her close but then released her hand. They stood a breath apart, not touching. She marveled at how his feline eyes held so much intelligence and desire, but didn't frighten her with his intensity. Arousal swept through her body and she shivered at the need clenching her belly. He was a stranger not of her species, but the need to be in his arms had quickly become essential to her survival.
“What’s happening to me?” she whispered, unable to keep the tremor from her voice.
He frowned and cupped the side of her face with one large hand. “Don’t be frightened, sweetness. I feel what you feel. We were meant to find each other.”
She gasped and stepped back from his touch. She couldn't remember the last time a man had willingly touched her and this one couldn't seem to stop. His words rang in her ears, but she was afraid to believe them. How could he say such a thing when he didn't even know her?
“But I have scars,” she blurted, heat immediately flushing her face in humiliation.
His sad smile only lasted a heartbeat before he closed the distance between them again. This time he grasped her shoulders and held her in place.
“Who doesn't You must be a very strong person for having worn them on your face for all to see.”
Her tears came without warning and she tried to turn away but he wouldn't allow it. His warm lips captured hers, startling her with the first kiss she’d ever known. A low growl filled the room as he wrapped his arms around her body. Her breath caught while new sensations assaulted her. He tasted like mint and exotic spices, his masculine scent filled her lungs.
She gripped his shoulders and held on as her knees began to wobble. Still the passionate kiss went on and on until she lost all sense of time and self-preservation. Her next coherent thought came as Zack broke the kiss and lifted her into his arms. She didn't protest, even as he carried her to his bed. A rational part of her mind screamed in denial as he began to undress her. What would he think of the many scars covering her entire body? Every feline female Ty had seen was flawless.
As if sensing her fears, he kissed her again and her thoughts scattered. Her shoes, socks and jeans disappeared quickly, her t-shirt clenched in his hands when she whimpered. Zach looked into her eyes and slowly removed the shirt without once releasing her gaze. He licked away the last of her tears before looking down to see what he’d uncovered.
Anger was the first clear emotion on his face. Next came acceptance. Ty was trembling in humiliation and fear that he would push her away. He smiled at her and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.
“You may not be flawless, my love, but you are still very beautiful to me.”
She released a breath she hadn't meant to hold and threw her arms around his neck. He kissed away the rest of her doubts and pulled off his own clothes. His body was the perfection she had expected, with the exception of four slashes across his right hip. Ty traced them with her tongue before he returned the favor on every inch of her skin. By sunrise they had learned each other well and lay sated in each other’s arms.
“Will she be angry?” Ty whispered.
He inhaled the fragrance from her hair deep into his lungs as he considered how to answer. “The empress? Perhaps. But she will take one look at us together and know it was fated. There is no arguing against a mating bond.”
He watched the movement of her slender throat as she swallowed. The confusion in her gaze worried him but he knew in time she would accept him.
“That sounds very serious. Like…like a marriage.”
He kissed her gently before sitting up against the headboard. Looking down at her on his bed, raven hair spread across his pillow, gave him such a sense of satisfaction he wanted to growl in contentment. He grinned and ran his fingers through her hair.
“It is. Very serious, very important and very rare. This wouldn't be the first time one of our kind mated outside our species, but it doesn't happen often.”
“Just like that? It’s a done deal? Or do I get to decide if I agree?”
His grin melted as if it had never been. She wasn't happy in his arms? That was a lie if he’d ever heard one. It hadn't been his imagination telling him he was the first to enter her body, and he knew she had been pleasured well. He bit back a growl and calmed his intense emotions. Humans didn't have the same instincts felines were born with. It shouldn't come as a surprise that she didn't fully appreciate their connection yet.
“Do you find me lacking in any way?” he asked. “Is there someone else, here or back on earth, with whom you’d rather spend the remainder of your days?”
She bit her lip, distracting him for a moment, before she too sat up. Rather than joining him against the headboard, she stood and strolled out of the room. Curiosity prompted him to follow as she found her way back to his front room and began to dress.
He frowned at her calm voice. She was fully dressed before he thought of how to respond.“You didn’t answer my questions.”
She kept her back to him but thankfully didn't try to leave the room. She was fully clothed while he remained naked but that didn't bother him. Nudity was not remarked upon among his kind as it was with the humans.
She turned her head slightly, as if she would face him, but then stopped. He waited patiently, hoping she would come to him and let him hold her.
“No,” she said. “I have no one. I've never had much of anyone and hadn't expected to find anyone here. Your people would never accept me to be your mate, Zach.”
He closed the distance between them and pulled her into his arms, her back against his chest. She allowed it but remained stiff in his embrace.
“My people do not dictate who I take to mate, sweetness. They would never try.”
“But the respect they have for you…all I've heard for days is about your greatness.”
He chuckled though it held little humor. “And you believe my falling in love with you will mar that?”
She pulled away and spun to face him. Anger and confusion in her gaze. “Love? You’ve known me less than twenty-four hours. Love doesn’t happen that fast.”
He grasped her arms and held her still as he looked deeply into her eyes. “Perhaps not among humans who have never evolved to the point of realizing their full instinctive nature. We are a different species, sweetness. We do not rely on years of learning each other’s faults before deciding to tolerate them for a few months at a time. We are felines and we know our mates almost at first contact. Even before I saw your face I was drawn to you.”
Tears streamed down her battered face and anger pulled at his gut again. He would learn who had hurt her and find a way to make that human pay. But for now his main concern was convincing her of her place at his side.
“But…but the empress—”
“Has no hold over me. She is royalty and I owe her family my allegiance. But that means nothing in the face of this. Please trust me, Ty. Trust that I want you, and trust that I will do everything in my power to make you happy if you will stay with me as my mate.”
She bit her lip again and he felt inclined to kiss away the sting. After a few minutes her tears had stopped and he finally released her.
“I never expected this to happen,” she said.
He grinned. “ I've been waiting for you my entire life.”
She sighed and melted into his embrace. Though he knew doubt still assailed her, he was confident everything would work out. He would announce his intentions to the empress within the hour and it would take no time at all for word to spread. As soon as everyone knew Ty was under his protection the threats would stop. Once that was taken care of he would see about securing the trade agreement. His only demand now would be for Ty to remain on Erestes indefinitely.
“Do you have family back on Earth?” he asked. “Is there anyone there you will miss?”
She appeared surprised at the question but then slowly shook her head. “I have no living relatives and no real friends. I was chosen for this journey for that reason. I had hoped for a new beginning, a place where I wouldn't be judged by the scars on my face.”
He took the time to kiss every scar he could reach before picking her up in his arms and returning to his room.
“Felines may be quick to judge based on appearances, but we are also quick to realize the better qualities in a person once they present themselves.”
She smiled weakly as he set her on his bed. “And how would you even know my good qualities? We've barely talked.”
He chuckled and began pulling her clothes off. “I have my instincts to tell me, and everything else will reveal itself in good time.”
She opened her mouth as if to argue but he kissed her until only sounds of pleasure escaped. He might have to take his time convincing her of his Mating Instinct, but he would be certain it was time well spent.