The Fringe, Book 2
» Samhain Publishing
» Amazon Kindle
» Barnes & Noble Nook
His planet is his prison...and only she can set him free.
After a year, Michael "Overlord" Parker finally knows who's been pilfering his black market goods. Astonishingly, the elusive Bandit of Taiga isn't a man. It's a woman, an infuriating spitfire who's half in love with Michael's overly romanticized reputation.
Remarkably Average Mary exudes an intoxicating scent that Michael can't quite puzzle out, even with his unique ability. As long as she remains bound and blindfolded, he has the advantage—and the bonus of tormenting the bane of his existence.
Mary's deceptively innocent face has never failed her. Yet somehow she's at the mercy of a man she knows only as "Commander". His demands are simple. Surrender her methods of banditry, or surrender her body. As his essence invades her intuitive ability—and her remaining senses—she becomes increasingly frantic to escape before she yields all that and more to her compelling captor.
Their sensual sparring ignites, and Michael finds himself wanting to erase Overlord's myth from her fantasies in favor of the real man. But first he has to foil the slippery little devil's escape attempts. And find out who's been using her to unknowingly help the empire wipe him off the face of his own planet.
Warning: This futuristic medieval contains a planet-owning alpha hero, a feisty heroine who can swear in over thirty languages, a side-kick with a crackleseed addiction, witty repartee, epic space battles, sensual karate, and tight black leather pants.
Read an Excerpt
Copyright © 2011 Anitra Lynn McLeod
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
"Truth can build and destroy in the same breath."
Planet Windmere, main compound, 2478
Blindfolded, gagged, shackled hand and foot, Remarkably Average Mary stood still as she listened to her captor.
His voice edged low, acerbic, mocking. "This bit of fluff forced the bounty hunter to bind, gag and blind?"
Another man answered, conciliatory yet condescending. "He had no choice, Commander."
So far, that's all anyone had called the man she'd been caught stealing from. The title didn't narrow the field of who he might be. Lots of egotistical freaks liked to be called commander.
Sniffing deep, she got a curious whiff of old worn leather, lemon-oiled wood and her own body. Beyond that, the tang of metal and processed air. She heard machines throbbing, cycling, in the background as the two men discussed her.
Using all her honed senses, she counted four men aft; cotton, canvas and well-oiled guns, backed by heavy breathing. Definitely at least four men standing behind her, but she heard more people in the room. A big room, by the way sounds echoed.
She didn't know what to expect, but prospects for her survival dimmed. When she felt fingers fumbling at her gag, she lashed out with her only weapon-teeth.
The probing hand retreated, removing her gag.
"If you attempt to bite me again, I'll have your face shackled too," Commander said. "Understand?"
Tilting her blindfolded head as if she could see him, she took back one of her best weapons-her mouth. "Stop sticking your hand in my face, and I won't try to bite it."
After a pause, he offered, "I could stuff the gag back in."
She didn't want that filthy rag back in her mouth. If she'd kept her trap shut, the bounty hunter wouldn't have shoved the damn thing in her face in the first place.
"I'm going to remove your blindfold. No biting. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she hissed. "I'm bound, not brainless, you jackass."
After another long pause, he said, "Yes, Commander."
She straightened and grinned. "Thanks for the promotion. I always wanted to be a commander."
With a yank, her blindfold came away. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to bright light. She stood in an immense room filled with computers, operational panels, armed guards, and the most handsome man she'd ever seen in her life. Short and rather dull till now. Her life, not him. Commander-it could only be he-towered over her bound body. Red silk. Black leather. Seven solid feet of male.
Breathless, she gasped. "Oh-my-God."
Her captor narrowed sparkling golden-brown eyes. "You will address me as Commander. Comprende?" Long, tall, firm and fit, he reclined against the edge of his mahogany desk, yet still seemed to threaten.
"Sí, señor." She snickered with false bravado.
"Pardon me?" His cold tone reminded her that he could kill her with a snap of his fingers.
"Pardon me, Co-man-duuur." When she bowed, her plastimetal shackles rubbed together with a musical sound.
"Maybe she's too stupid to be afraid," said a man with dusty blond hair and mossy-green eyes. He stood six and a half feet tall and weighed a good two-forty.
"Why should I be afraid of you?" Dismissing him before he could answer, she glared at her captor. "You're obviously afraid of me."
Commander tilted her a slight, sardonic smile filled with perfect teeth. "How do you figure that?"
"I'm the one shackled hand and foot with four guards on me."
Unfurling like a great flag, Commander pushed away from the desk that dominated the middle of the room. Towering, bigger than any tree on Taiga, he smiled condescendingly down into her face. "I see I'm going to have to make it abundantly clear to you who's in charge."
She looked him over from his bare feet to his face. Only an idiot would doubt who stood in charge at the moment. She worked her exhausted body and her sleep-deprived brain into gear.
"What're you going to do? Beat me up while I'm chained?" She inhaled, tasting the tang of his cologne. When she found the maddening scent distracting, she leaned back. "That really won't impress your men. It wouldn't impress me, either, but then again, my opinion of you couldn't get much lower."
A smile hinted about his face. "A bandit with a smart mouth."
"I'm not a bandit." She knew what she did and why. Glory to the cause overshadowed a vulgar truth.
"What would you call someone caught red-handed with a shipment of goods that didn't belong to them?"
She touched her tongue to her lips. "Unlucky?"
One corner of his mouth pulled up in a quirky half grin. "Still makes you a bandit. An unlucky bandit, but a bandit nonetheless." His penetrating gaze made her feel naked.
"I didn't steal. I-liberated." Reduced to arguing semantics, she looked away from him.
"A modern-day Robin Hood. Pray tell, good lady, why did you liberate my goods?"
She shut her mouth tight and scowled at his marble floor.
"I'll make you a deal, Remarkably Average Mary."
Suspicion narrowed her eyes and her scowl deepened. He mocked her, just like everyone else. If he thought she would live up to her nickname, he was fooling himself. And he had her permission to do so. "What deal?"
"My Runner told me he had a difficult time subduing you." Graceful as a cat, he moved to stand close enough for her to touch. Clinging Dardinian silk and smoldering Byzantine leather echoed every part of a dangerous male body. He not only showed himself off with the most expensive fabrics in the Void, but he made it clear she would be an utter ass to challenge him physically. "The bounty hunter said you're well versed in the forbidden arts."
Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Jujitsu-she knew street fighting too. Hands, feet, teeth, whatever she had. Whatever it took. Just knowing how to fight could get her thrown in jail.
"So? Fighting isn't a crime-oh, wait. Yes, it is. But so is possession of IWOG goods." She sneered. "If you turn me in, you'll have a lot more explaining to do than I will."
"I have no intention of turning you in." A dark challenge filled his gaze. "I'm going to unshackle you."
Her mouth dropped open. He was going to let her go? Hope dried up as fast as it spurted. "Unshackle me and then what?"
"We fight." He moved back to sit on the edge of his desk.
Incredulous, she gaped at him for several moments before her eyes narrowed. "Fight for what?"
"If you win, I set you free. If I win, you tell me why you were stealing my goods."
A shiver of fear ran from the tips of her bound hands to the toes of her bound feet. He had a foot in height and at least a hundred pounds of muscle on her. Not only that, but he had a solid ton of armed guard in the room.
"You really want to fight me?"
Swallowing a lump in her throat, she lifted her chin. "For you, yes. I wouldn't want to embarrass you in front of your men by kicking your ass." Nothing like flaming arrogance to mask trembling fear.
He flashed her a wicked smile. "You're mighty impressed with yourself."
"Look who's talking." She rolled her eyes. "Do you think I believe for half a second you'll actually keep your word?" She laughed in his face. "You're as likely to set me free as you are to set fire to yourself."
His eyes blazed brighter than a flash grenade.
"She's sounding more and more like Kraft," the dusty blond said.
"Who?" She glared at Commander. "Kraft? She the last woman you abducted?"
Commander pulled back ever so slightly, and she pounced.
"Is this how you get your jollies? Hiring Runners to bring you women to fight with?" She let out a long sigh. "You know, there are a lot of hobbies in this wide old Void. Since you seem to like spreading fertilizer, you and your pack of boot-licking toadies should try gardening."
Commander smiled, but it looked forced. "Take my deal or not. Decide."
She assessed him. Just because he was bigger didn't mean he would automatically win. His cocky attitude could be an attempt to psych her out. What would her hero, and secret fantasy lover, Overlord, do in this situation?
Fight it out.
Even if Commander didn't keep his word, she'd have one hell of a hold over him if she won. If being the operative word. If she won, she would grind her victory in his face until he became so disgusted he'd force her to leave.
His guards didn't even have to clear the floor space. She could hold a barn dance for the entire village of Pine Glenn with room to spare in his office. One of his men came forward to melt the plastimetal shackles off her wrists and ankles. Even though her hands and feet throbbed, she crouched into a fighting stance-feet shoulder-width apart, her arms up, open and ready.
"Take a moment to work out the kinks." Commander watched her with amused eyes as he leaned against his desk. He didn't even ready himself. He mocked her by observing her stance and deliberately relaxing his.
Using the moment to yank off her battered boots and ratty socks, she let her bare feet grip hard against the cool marble floor. Did he know that gave her a tremendous advantage? If he did, he didn't seem to care.
"Mighty kind of you, considering I've been shackled for two days on your orders." Maybe she could shame him out of an actual fight.
"Granted." He acknowledged the truth of her dig. "You didn't give the bounty hunter any other option."
Smiling sweetly, she said, "Your Runner is lucky all he got was a knee in the nuts. If I'd had more leverage, I would've slammed his testicles straight up to his tonsils."
A quickly stifled laugh sounded behind her as Commander's intense gaze sharpened.
"Captive or no, I'm not a doormat. For anyone." She settled into a fighting stance. "You want to fight me? Fine. You want to gear up first, or will you be wearing your fancy silk-and-leather threads?"
He laughed so hard he rolled back against his desk and clutched his sides. "You are worth every bit you've ever stolen from me and triple what I paid to bring you here."
She wanted to sink into the floor. He laughed, like everyone. Who would take a woman nicknamed Remarkably Average Mary seriously? Imagining every nasty Pine Glenn inhabitant who'd ever flung the name at her, she squared her shoulders.
"Laugh all you want, but I swear I'll pin you. F'idiot."
"Explain to me that word." He stopped laughing long enough to ask.
"F'idiot? F-ing idiot. Reverse contraction. You think I'm nothing? I'm not nothing. Laugh all you want, but we'll see." She knew he'd crush her, had not one doubt about it, but she'd make him earn it. "I'm not going down without a fight."
"Indeed." He considered her no more than an annoyance, a pesky no-see-um. He stepped toward her with aplomb, leaving his big body wide open for an attack. "Would you like a day of rest before we begin?"
She looked from his mighty bare feet to his massive bare hands. He could snap her like a twig. "Aren't you the generous host?"
"If I am not, you will claim the fight unfair."
"So you say." Standing tall, she dropped her hands to her hips. "I think you're afraid to fight me." She couldn't believe such blatant bullhocky had just come out of her own mouth.
With one long stride, he stood right in front of her and peered down into her face. "You know, we don't have to fight at all." He cupped her chin with a possessive hand.
When she felt herself melting into his touch, she knew she had to act. She stomped on his instep and rammed the heel of her hand hard into his chest. He let out a whoosh of air, then a gasp of pain as her palm blasted an inch shy of his solar plexus.
He crashed into the sharp corner of his important desk.
The massive chunk of mahogany screeched across the marble tiles, but kept him upright long enough for him to grab her shirt and yank her down with him.
She landed atop him.
Fumbling, she got her knees on his hands but didn't have the leverage to keep him down. He rolled over, taking her with him in a tight bear hug. His body squashed her flat to the floor. She grabbed his hair but couldn't get a solid purchase on the short, silky strands.
"I've got you pinned." Commander grinned down at her, his face close enough to kiss.
"No, you don't. 'Sides, I pinned you first." She smashed her hand up, below his chin, flipping his head back. Shoving against his chest, she wriggled out from under him and crawled away but didn't get far.
He grabbed her ankle, yanked her flat and then flipped her over, landing her on her back with a thump that knocked the wind out of her.
Hand over hand, he dragged her body across the slick marble floor until he pinned her hands down with his knees and settled himself on her chest.
"A bandit who fights dirty. What a surprise." He didn't even breathe hard as he smiled down at her.
Unable to breathe at all, she struggled against a body hard as durosteel.
"No!" What should have been a loud vocal belt of indignation came out as a pathetic squeak.
"I could sit here all day, Mary. Yield."
She wanted to let fly a string of expletives, but she couldn't get enough air. In the end, she nodded.
He got off her and offered her a hand up. She stood, grabbed his wrist, turned, but he'd expected her move. He twisted his body the same direction until he stood behind her.
Wrapping his arm around her neck, he squeezed.
Her vision swam gray. She couldn't breathe, couldn't move, and blackness edged her consciousness.
"You're good." He released her and let her slump to the floor. "You've been studying fighting for what, five years?"
"Ten." The one word came out in a squeaky, pained gasp. She'd studied the forbidden books but rarely had the opportunity to put her forbidden arts into actual practice. Just her luck to run into a man who put them into practice on a daily basis.
"Ten?" He sounded surprised. "I've been doing so for twenty."
He offered her a hand up. She pushed it away and stood, brushing herself off. Not that a tumble on the pristine floor could do more damage to her battered clothes.
Commander shoved his desk back into place and settled into his chair behind it. From the way he moved, her blows hadn't hurt him much, if at all.
"Now, tell me why you liberated my goods."
"Those goods don't belong to you any more than they belong to me." Unwilling to meet his incisive gaze, she kept her attention on the gold-veined marble floor while using her peripheral vision to find the nearest exit. Over sixteen guards blocked her path to the ornate double-hung doors.
"I'm probably going to regret this, but how do you figure that?" Commander's voice sounded like velvet-covered gravel, rumbling and smooth.
"You're not a member of the InnerWorld Government," she said. "You're not IWOG."
"Those goods are." She looked at him then, full in the face. "If I'm a bandit, so are you."
"I never said I wasn't." He leaned back. "You're the one who has a hard time admitting what you are, not me."
"And just what are you, Co-man-dur? I don't know any bandit with enough script to hire a triple-platinum Runner."
"Let's just say I'm a very successful bandit."
"Yeah-huh. How good can you be when I've been picking your pockets for five years?"
Commander almost snarled as he gripped the edges of his desk. "You really think it's wise to remind me of how long you've been a thorn in my side?"
She looked around his vast office. Wealth and power oozed from every corner. Holoplas screens for windows, banks of sensors, hand-carved mahogany furniture, gilded frames around genuine oil paintings, barely trod oriental rugs, and guards practically up her ass.
Pointedly, she asked, "How much of a thorn could I have been?" She eyed his guard and considered a blitz. If she could get her hands on a gun, she might be able to fight her way out.
As if he read her mind, Commander said, "Duster, give her your gun."
With a grin, the dusty blond tossed her his rifle.
She caught and inspected the weapon. Slim-Shot Thirty with hollow-point ammunition-rounds designed for horrific destruction of human flesh. Coffin fillers. Too bad the goods she'd swiped from him had never included any of these.
She considered. Too easy. He wouldn't just hand over her salvation like this. She inspected the grip of the gun more closely. "Smart guns." Shaking her head, she tossed the rifle back to Duster. Handing her the weapon had been no more dangerous than handing her a pointed stick.
"Correct. Every weapon on my planet is smart. If you're not authorized, it won't operate."
His planet? "I know what smart guns are."
"Just wanted to clarify."
"You mean rub it in." She folded her arms.
"That too." He leaned back in his chair with a smug smile on his arrogant face. "Nothing like having your ego taken down a notch. Or in your case, about two dozen."
His comment stung and she blasted back, "At least I'm doing something with my life. I'm not sitting around a prissy office with a handful of boot-licking toadies doing my dirty work."
She must have hit a nerve, because his jaw clenched so hard his face turned crimson. If he didn't kill her, he'd kick her out. Most folks couldn't stand her vicious tongue after five minutes.
"Mouthy little thing," Duster said from behind her, his gun once again secure against his shoulder.
"I should have whacked you over the head with your rifle when I had the chance."
"You're not going to get the chance now." Commander stood. "And, since you obviously have no intention of telling me who you're working for or why, I'm going to have to keep you here until you do."
He stepped around his desk and slipped a plastimetal bracelet on her wrist. Once her flesh warmed the cool gray link, it molded itself close, seamless and smooth.
"Let me guess." She sighed. "Combination locator and locker?" Even if she managed to get into a ship, it would do her no good. The ship's computer would scan the bracelet and instantly lock down. Give her location too.
"Locator, locker and luller."
"Luller? That's a new one on me." She scrutinized her bracelet. Keeping up with technology had never been her strong suit. On a backwater world like Taiga, she didn't even have electricity in her cabin, but she knew weapons. Far as she knew, a plastimetal bracelet wasn't a weapon.
"You attack me again, and it'll pump you full of Baka."
Swallowing hard, she looked down at her bracelet with horror. Baka was the most dangerous drug in the Void. One dose would make her screaming crazy, but only in her own mind. To the outside world, she'd become a drooling vegetable. Nothing guaranteed her passivity more than the threat of Baka.
"I think you and I are beginning to understand one another."
She hung her head. "I'm beginning to understand that you're a ruthless bastard."
Commander cupped her chin, lifted her face and peered at her for a long time. He just stood there looking down, breathing deep and steady. She didn't dare flinch. Baka hung on her wrist. He lowered his mouth a breath from hers.
"What did you call me?"
She trembled, partly with fear, but also with a strange flush of excitement. Do I have some twisted submissive bent in me? Something about his dominance excited her. In turn, her excitement embarrassed her. He'd succeeded in doing exactly what he set out to do. He made it perfectly clear who was in charge, and it sure as spit wasn't her.
"I called you a-Commander."
"You're a quick study." He pulled back, flashing her a quirky half grin.
"Death is a remarkable motivator."
"Tell me what you live for."
"I may be a bandit, but I am not a traitor."
"We'll see." He leaned close. If he moved just a bit, he would kiss her.
Simultaneously, lights and alarms went off. At first, she thought they were in her mind, but the entire office surged with activity.
"Get her out of here, Duster. I'll take care of this."
As Commander turned to the operational panels, Duster hustled her from the room. Side by side, they walked down a wide hall paved with polished blue-veined marble. Duster's sharp-shined boots clacked cadence to her silent bare feet. At the middle of the hallway, he turned right, strode forward and stiff-armed aside a set of doors twenty feet tall.
Mary entered a vast room that looked like a grand ballroom from a medieval picture book. Huge pillars held up a fifty-foot-high, fresco-laden ceiling from which crystal chandeliers dangled on thick, golden chains. Sumptuous velvet-covered couches and chairs flanked dark wood tables. Clusters of them littered the sides of the room. Between each massive pair of pillars loomed a huge, elaborately rococo door, eight of them, pastel hues hinting at the colors beyond. Across from the row of pillars and doors stood a line of twenty-foot-high windows that reflected the room back at her in wavy shapes.
"What the hell is this place?" It was the most disgustingly opulent room she had ever seen.
"Your prison." Duster yanked the doors closed.
"You scum-sucking sycophant!" She twisted and pulled on the gigantic gold doorknobs.
"Access denied," a lush female voice said.
Mary looked around. "Hello?" Her voice echoed.
"How can I serve you?"
"Who are you?"
"I am House. How can I serve you?"
"You could let me the hell out of here." Commander must be the most successful bandit in the Void to have a techno-house.
"You are not permitted to leave."
She glanced at her bracelet. Would it inject her if she tried to smash her way out? It might. Any aggressive move might trigger a dose of Baka. "I can't do a thing if I'm dead."
"Are you in need of medical care?"
"No. Shut up, stupid House. I need to think." Everything had gone to hell in two days. She'd had a bad feeling about that last haul, and her intuition had been dead-on. Who leaves 5K of goods unattended? Someone setting a trap, that's who. But she'd needed the goods so badly, she'd decided to take the risk.
"And now, it's all over." Five years, a hundred plans, the fate of millions... Her shoulders slumped with the weight of her obligations.
Commander wanted to know who she was working for and why. As soon as she told him, he wouldn't have a compelling reason to keep her alive. Therefore, she would live as long as she didn't tell him, and all she had to do was escape.
She looked around. "Who am I kidding?" Flinging herself down on a puffy velvet couch, she dropped her head into her filthy hands. "I have no chance at all."
If she managed to get the bracelet off without getting killed, she had to find her way to a ship without getting killed. Then, she had to get the ship airborne without getting killed. After that, she had to get home to Taiga without getting killed. Never good at math, she didn't think she needed it to calculate the odds.
"A billion to one. In favor of me getting kill.