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Grace haltingly re-entered the stage. Every other woman ahead of her up for auction had fairly flown off the stage. She couldn't figure it out.
She was in serious trouble if she wasn't attractive enough to get a single desperate guy to bid. Even with her nearly non-existent pride, she had hoped for more than one offer besides Danny's today. But she hadn't even gotten him to bid. And he'd laughed when she'd exited the stage the first time. She'd know that whiney nasal snicker anywhere.
As each subsequent woman was snapped up, Grace formulated a plan to beg. She didn't care if she wasn't supposed to speak. She wanted her daughter back. Once they found out about the identity of Emma's father and her inability to have any more children, she'd have a hard enough time keeping any other man interested. She'd deal with that when the time came.
The auction was all she could manage for now.
"Here is the last female we have up for auction today. So you'd better get her while you can. Now, what's my bid for this lovely, young girl?"
Again, every man became mute. Grace couldn't help the angry tears tumbling over her lower lids. Emma's forlorn little face at yesterday's tearful separation swam in front of her eyes.
"Surely one man among you is willing to bid on this female. Look how pretty she is."
Tears fell copiously, and she sniffed loudly at the very moment everyone was supposed to see how pretty she was.
"Please," she whimpered. "Please."
"Little lady, you can't speak. I told you already. Now why won't anyone bid on this sweet little girl?"
"Because she's frigid and terrified of sex. Plus she's got another bastard's kid already, and shecan't have any more children. She's completely worthless. Give it up. No one's bidding on her," said a callous voice from the audience Grace didn't recognize.
How did the man in the audience know all her secrets?
Grace squinted through her tears to search for Danny. He smiled in that superior way he had, making her feel small and valueless as a human. He apparently had made sure no one would bid on her today. She should have known. Now when she went to the Institution, they would pay him to marry her, but Emma would be gone to her forever. She fought the urge to run into the audience and strangle him.
"Please, someone, bid on me!" she screamed in anguish, not caring that she wasn't allowed to speak.
"Hush now. No more talking," the auctioneer admonished her again and then turned to the audience to seal her fate.
"No one willing to bid on this female? Not anyone in this room? You are all a bunch of damn fools." The auctioneer shook his head and raised his gavel to seal her fate as an institutionalized female. She covered her ears to muffle the sound of her doom.
The doors to the back of the room burst open and bounced off the interior walls. Grace lowered her hands. A huge lawman strode through the door and shouted, "I bid ten dollars over the standing floor bid for this woman."
"Sold to the lawman for ten dollars," the auctioneer said, not missing a beat, as if he'd expected the bid all along. He banged his gavel to complete the deal. Grace bent over in grateful disbelief. She was sold. Thank heavens. She didn't care if it was the devil himself who'd just bought her. She could have Emma back. She straightened quickly and looked to see who owned her. Her future husband would not be Danny. She found that a huge relief too. She didn't know what her future husband would want, but she knew exactly what Danny expected.
"Wait, I'll bid twenty dollars for her," Danny's friend Walter called out.
"Too late," the auctioneer said, "You gave up the right to bid when I asked the room."
"Well, the other guy was in the room earlier too, and he left. He shouldn't get special privileges."
"I'm a federal interstellar lawman. I was called away momentarily on official business. What's your excuse for not bidding the first time?"
Walter snapped his lips shut, pressing them flat, and gave the lawman a sullen look, as if he were the one being treated unfairly.
Grace listened to her savior speak, and a tingle of recognition brushed against her memory. She put a hand up to her brow to block the floodlights above her and to get a glimpse of the lawman soon to be her husband. He looked vaguely familiar.
"What's your name, Lawman?" the auctioneer asked.
Grace sucked in a breath.
"Well then, this little lady is about to become a lawman's wife." He banged the gavel again. "Sold for ten dollars to the lawman, Jonathan Brent."
Walter started to protest again, but Grace ignored him, still stunned at the name of her intended husband. Jonathan Brent.
He was the lawman in the elevator from three years ago. Not a single day had gone by that she hadn't thought about his strong body hugged close to hers. The initial brush of his firm lips sliding over her mouth in the dark had crept into her dreams more than once.
She wiped the tears from her face and prepared to face him. Squinting into the dim light, she saw he was even more gorgeous than she had remembered. He exceeded six feet by several inches. His dark hair looked wiry and coarse, but she knew from personal experience it felt very soft sifting through her fingers. She couldn't see his eyes from this distance or in this light, but knew they were a comforting gray.
Grace waited onstage for him to come fetch her, but instead he crossed to where Danny and Walter were standing. She looked over at the auctioneer, who motioned for her to greet her soon-to-be husband. She wiped her face again, took a deep breath, and went to face her future. It was the first moment in a long while that she wasn't absolutely terrified. Grace's new-found courage lasted only until she saw her future lawman husband pull a set handcuffs off his belt.
She paused, waiting to see what he was going to do with them.
Was he about to handcuff her?
"Walter Dennis, I have an order from a magistrate to bring you in for criminal activity."
"What?" Walter looked at Jonathan as if he'd only just noticed he was a lawman and then turned to run. The tall, menacing, yet gorgeous Jonathan clamped a hand on Walter's arm and stopped him. He had the handcuffs around Walter's wrists in no time. She brushed away the dread that came with her fear of being handcuffed and started moving toward her now bright future.
"How did you find me?" Walter asked.
"Someone ratted you out and called in an 'anonymous' tip as to your whereabouts. I wonder who knew you'd be here today?" Jonathan asked.
Walter turned to Danny. His big, goofy face turned red. Grace wasn't the least bit surprised. She'd be willing to bet her last two hundred and sixty-three hidden dollars it was Danny who had ratted her out to the Tiberius Family Group too. She wanted to smack Danny, but decided she had already expended too much effort on him. It was time to move on to a better life as the wife of a federal interstellar lawman. She smiled for the first time in two days.
"Thank you. Thank you so much," Grace said to Jonathan, stepping close to him once she realized the handcuffs he brandished weren't for her.
"Sure. Listen, I hate to do this to you, but unfortunately, Walter will have to accompany us to the wedding ceremony."
"It doesn't matter. I'm so grateful you bid on me. You saved me--again."
Jonathan Brent tilted his head and gave her an engaging smile. "Come on. I need to get going." She wanted to throw her arms around him and bury her face into his throat. She knew she would be safe in his arms. He was a lawman. That was what lawmen did. They protected people.
"Wait a minute. Don't you want to know what you're getting for a wife? She has serious sexual problems, and she's got a kid too."
"Danny, shut up. You have no right to say a word." Grace operated under the hope that Jonathan didn't know all of her secrets. He hadn't entered the room until after the loudmouth in the audience had announced her life story. Perhaps she still had a chance to keep him.
The tempting and wicked thought of sex with him already danced around her brain. She remembered begging him for amazing sex in the elevator. He had turned her down then, but perhaps not because he wasn't interested. Perhaps her future husband had bid on her today so he could take her to some quiet place to make fabulous and amazing love to her. A buzzing sensation vibrated her long-buried sexual arousal wide-awake. It was about damn time for some amazing sex in her life.
Jonathan turned a ferociously lustful gaze toward her and winked. "Believe me, I know exactly who I'm getting for a wife." Grace smiled and held his stare. She relived the kiss in the elevator as if it had happened a minute ago. Her tongue slipped out to wet her lower lip. She couldn't wait to get him alone.
"But she's frigid." Danny insisted, as if Jonathan were too stupid to understand his brilliant analysis. Grace frowned at him, willing him to shut his fat face and leave her be.
"Not with me, she's not." Jonathan averted his gaze from her and scowled at Danny. "I know everything I need to know about her. You, on the other hand, are trying my patience. Get lost."
"Don't come crying to me when she won't have sex with you. I'm warning you, you'll have to handcuff her to a bed to cure her sexual deviance." Danny put his hand on his waist as if to suggest the lawman was the most obtuse human ever.
Jonathan frowned at him. "You're one sick bastard, you know that? Trust me, I won't cry to you for anything. She's not frigid. I suspect she told you that so she wouldn't have to endure your soft, clammy hands. Back up." Jonathan took a menacing step in Danny's direction, dragging Walter behind him. Danny frowned and took a shuffling step away.
Jonathan turned to her. "Ready to go?" She nodded and fell into step behind him. He had earned her eternal gratitude for telling Danny off the way she had wanted to for years, but couldn't. In her position as second-class citizen, she had put up with loads of crap and endured years of biting her tongue to keep silent. She enjoyed giving Danny a smug smile on her way past him as she followed her delicious future lawman husband.
They filled out the paperwork, and a few minutes later, for the pitiful price of ten dollars, she was married to a man who made her heart pound in her chest. A cheap hamburger at a fast food joint cost more. Ah well, it didn't matter.
Her new lawman husband held onto Walter during the ceremony, but she didn't care. She could get Emma back, which was the only important thing. She'd get a honeymoon, which was another thing gathering importance low in her belly. A heart-pounding vibrancy radiated through her at the thought of a real honeymoon night. Sex with Jonathan would certainly be the pinnacle of her sexual experience, as long as he didn't handcuff her or hold her arms down. She spoke her vows to love, honor, and--most importantly to the Tiberius Group--to obey her new husband. She wondered what he might require of her in the bedroom. They were pronounced man and wife. Thank heavens.
"How are you going to fulfill the forty-eight hour consummation dictate, Grace?" Danny asked.
Danny lingered several steps away, approaching her only after the marriage vows had been spoken. "You know the minute he snaps the handcuffs tight you'll faint. You should have let me cure you a long time ago..."
She didn't have time to answer. Jonathan pulled the regulation-issue weapon off of his belt, checked the load--presumably to make sure it was ready to fire--and gave Danny a positively satanic glare. His wicked-looking gun was pointed at the floor, but the threat was unmistakable. Grace wondered if Jonathan was going to shoot him.
"I've heard enough out of you. Grace and I will be at your residence later on to pick up her things. I don't need a reason to shoot you. Quit trying to give me one. Grace is my wife. She was never yours. I suggest you leave. Now." He tightened the grip on the gun's handle.
Jonathan radiated an aura of anger she could stick a fork through, and even she could tell he was trying to calm down and not kill her ex-roommate.
Danny gave them both a sour look and retreated, finally figuring out he shouldn't aggravate a grumpy lawman.
Jonathan promptly leveled the gun at Walter's chest. "Don't move, or I shoot to kill. Do you understand me?" At Walter's fearful nod, Jonathan wrapped his free arm around her waist and pulled her close before she realized his intent. His firm lips landed on hers in a passionate kiss. Even this early in the morning, he had a tantalizing five o'clock shadow on his face. His delicious scent wrapped around her with his sizzling, warm body pressed close.
Grace melted into him as her knees weakened. Her hands went to his chest first, then circled around his neck and anchored herself to his strong warrior body. She ran a hand up the back of his head, through his silky hair. Unlike the vigorous, eager kiss in the elevator, this one was lazy and thorough. He kissed her tenderly, stroking his tongue slowly and methodically against hers as if he had all the time in the world to make love to her mouth. She sagged in his arms, unable to hold herself upright any longer, and heard moaning.
Oh God, she was moaning!
He didn't stop his sultry assault of her lips, even at her noisy response. Several long moments later, he released her mouth, then kissed her chastely once or twice more before releasing the clench they shared, as if he hated to let her go. Grace didn't want to let him go either. She held onto his free arm while instructing her legs to work. Jonathan winked at her, turned his head, and gave Danny a satisfied smirk.
"Thank you so much," she whispered before peeling away.
"You're welcome. Come on, I need to go. We've got to drop off Walter at division headquarters, pick up your things, and then I imagine you'll want to get your child back."
Grace was so overcome by joy at his understanding of the situation, she couldn't speak. Mouth opened in shock, she recovered to throw her arms around his neck, pulled him back down, and buried her face in his throat. She trembled against him as silent tears of gratitude fell onto the sleeve of his gray and black uniform jacket. "Thank you so much," she said as another tremor of gratitude shook her voice. He patted her back as she got her emotions under control again.
Thank heaven's she was the lawman's wife. A nagging voice reminded her she wasn't his wife permanently until they consummated the union. Apprehension and longing vied for attention at the thought of the conjugal rights he could now demand.
She couldn't help the wicked smile that shaped her lips in contemplation.
Jon held Grace's soft body and wondered what in the hell he was doing with a wife. But then, she had cried and thanked him after he'd mentioned picking up her kid. She wanted her child back, understandably enough. He didn't fool himself about her ultimate motives, but kissing her a moment ago had been very gratifying. When she'd moaned into his mouth, it was all he could do to stay vertical. He wanted her desperately, just as he had in the elevator during their first kiss.
The memory of her request for sex on the floor of the small, darkened space slid into his mind. He knew her demand was fear induced because she thought she was about to die. He'd almost done it too. His hand had gone to the fastener on his trousers, his libido ready, willing, and able to comply with her wishes. He imagined how exceptionally good it would feel to plunge his cock into her soft, grateful flesh. How volcanically amazing it would feel to take her with him to heights he'd only experienced a very few times in his own past. It would be paradise to share his life with a woman he wanted more than any other. He'd be able to forgo the injections and allow his sexual urges free rein.
Kissing Grace was inherently more satisfying than the whole of his past sexual encounters combined. The vision of her trusting face popped his bubble. He shook his head and told his libido to calm down. He wasn't having sex with Grace Maitland. He'd find a better man for her. Someone stable, who didn't jet off at a moment's notice to fight crime across the interstellar galaxy. He ignored the longing that erupted at the thought of losing her. Grace deserved a better life than he could provide.
He planned to discuss this issue with his eldest sister Sophie's husband, Matthew Westland. Matt ran his own import-export business and employed thousands of men. Surely he knew a stable junior executive who wanted a wife. He ignored the pain pinching his gut at the thought of Grace submitting herself sexually to a stable low-level businessman from Matt's company.
He hustled Walter out of the Justice Center with Grace following them. Jon shoved Walter into the back of his Interstellar Lawman's Thorium-Z cruiser, also known as his IL T-Z cruiser vehicle. Every lawman had one issued to him. It was a standard sedan with a clear, synthetic laser-resistant and bulletproof partition between the front and back seats. The outer windows were equipped with similar protective glass, and like all government vehicles, it ran on Thorium-Z, the clean-burning replacement for fossil fuels.
He opened the front door for Grace to get in and then circled to get in himself. By the time he slipped behind the wheel, she already had her seat restraint on. He regretted having to drag her along to the Law Enforcement Detention Center before they could proceed.
"Once we get to the LED Center, stay close to me."
She nodded and smiled warmly. He had no doubt she'd do anything he asked. He tried to tamp down his libido. He didn't get to keep her. A temporary marriage would not include imminent sexual activity. His lust, unfortunately, was not convinced, and he knew he'd have to find a way to inject himself with medication to control his now rampant urges. He would usher Grace and her child into his spare bedroom right before he locked himself securely in his own room.
Jon punched the vehicle start code on the numbered pad and pressed his thumb on the biometric print reader, turning the vehicle's engine over. He put his foot on the pedal and revved the engine a time or two, listening to the satisfying roar. Thorium-Z was a great replacement for gasoline vehicles from days long past.
Jon flipped the sirens on and sped toward the LED Center. He loved to drive fast and took every opportunity to do so. He loved being a lawman. It was all he'd ever wanted to do.
Twenty years before his birth, in the mid-2020s, the U.S. government had made a surprising yet decisive move and combined all law enforcement under a single command hierarchy. This served to eliminate with one fell swoop not only redundant efforts by law enforcement in general, but also all jurisdictional in-fighting among the different federal and state agencies. Thus, "the lawman," a single entity comprised of all police and law enforcement in the country, came to be.
Lawmen all wore the same black, charcoal gray, and red uniforms; the only distinction involved a delineation of experience and departmental level. A lawman could be at a local, state, federal, or interstellar department level. The patch his shoulder signified that he was at the top of the experience hierarchy. Jon had earned his stripes quickly before becoming a federal interstellar lawman five years ago. At this juncture in his career, he enjoyed the most flexibility of all his fellow law enforcement brotherhood and took pleasure in the freedom accorded to him. The downside was that he traveled--a lot. He was on the road more than at home.
The National Defense Bureau came about directly after the Tiberius Group took over and replaced the previous courtroom trials with a new arbitration system. Years later, everyone was still getting used to the new system. The Tiberius Group didn't like lawyers and were particularly intolerant of frivolous lawsuits. Ultimately, they denigrated much of the entire justice system, along with several parameters of his job.
The predominant outcome was a disintegration of women's rights. He and his fellow lawmen had spent the first several months trying to keep women from going out alone. Jon had kept his opinions to himself with regard to the new status of women. He knew several men who had spoken out and ended up in jail, missing, or worst of all, dead.
The ruling voice of the Tiberius Group would not be stifled or stopped. They told everyone the changes were necessary and promised a better system of justice in time as the laws were amended and rewritten. Jon only knew he had been very busy since the takeover.
In two short years, they had changed the greater part of judicial law to arbitration under the magistrate core. Defendants and plaintiffs stood alone against each other these days, which meant a significant reduction in work for lawyers. The district attorney's office was the last and best place left as a career option if a man wanted to be a lawyer. Otherwise, they were at the mercy of the dwindling private sector.
The private sector consisted of the rich who were still able to afford private lawyers, and many kept an attorney on retainer for consultations during significant magistrate hearings. However, those plum jobs were few and far between and the turnover rate was very high especially if a case was lost. There were still many hearings, but the frivolity of the past had given way to only serious offenses being heard by magistrates.
Technically, the charge against Walter Dennis was a minor one, but because his crime had been directed against the loved one of a magistrate, Jon didn't want to be in Walter's shoes for the upcoming hearing.
Grace remained silent and stayed on his heels as he processed Walter and turned him over to LED officials for his hearing.
"Where do you live?" he asked as they exited the center. She told him the address and grabbed his hand as they headed for his vehicle.
"After we pick up my things, are we going to go to your home before we get Emma?" she asked in a quiet voice as she stared at her feet.
Jon hadn't even known the gender of her child until this moment. He found a daughter inherently more palatable as the spawn of Andy Nelson than a son. Either way, it shouldn't matter. He would never blame the sins of the father on an innocent child. His own dad hadn't been much to brag about, but he and his sisters, Sophie and Hannah, had turned out just fine growing up without him.
"I thought you'd want to pick her up as soon as possible." Jon told her.
"I do, but..." Her cheeks turned a beautiful shade of pink.
"But I know we need to consummate the marriage within forty-eight hours, and I'd feel more comfortable if Emma weren't..."
"We aren't going to consummate this marriage," he said curtly. His groin ached at the loss. His libido wasn't too happy either.
"Why not?" Grace turned to him, releasing his hand. Her face was no longer embarrassed, but surprised and fearful. Her clear, aqua-green eyes drilled down to his soul, asking him for a reason.
"I didn't bid to keep you, Grace. The Tiberius Institute is no place for a woman like you."
She stared at him as she digested his honorable intentions. After a moment, she stepped back. The hurt registering on her face confused him.
"Why don't you want me this time? It won't be on a camera," she said in a heartbreaking voice. Her eyes glistened, boring into his with unshed tears, waiting for him to answer.
"It's not personal. I just don't lead the kind of life favorable to permanent marriage." The truth sounded lame to his own ears. His libido told him he was an idiot and promptly sent a scandalous picture of what Grace might look like in the throes of passion, back arched in ecstasy--Stop it.
He wished they could go someplace private to discuss his true motives, both personal and work-related. Unfortunately, he didn't trust himself to be alone with her. With her current let's-hurry-and-consummate-the-marriage attitude, they'd be rolling around on his living room rug before the front door closed behind them. Convinced he wouldn't be able to resist her if she instigated things the way she had in the elevator, he took a mental step away.
"What does that mean?"
He sighed deeply. "Could we discuss this in the vehicle instead of in front of the detention center?"
She looked around as if only just noticing they were still in public. Her face softened and she nodded. Taking her hand, he led her to his cruiser, opened the passenger door for her, and circled slowly to his side, trying to think of something that might placate her, but his mind was blank.
He slid inside and as soon as his door shut, she jumped on him. She twisted her body to face him, pinned him to his seat, and planted her warm lips on his before he took his first breath inside the vehicle.
God Almighty, she tasted good. He surrendered to her exuberant kiss because he couldn't help himself. His libido told him he was a fool not to take advantage of her offer. Her tongue slipped between his lips and he sucked it further inside his mouth to tangle with his own. His arms wound around her torso, crushing her closer before he devoured her mouth the way he'd wanted to since he'd known it was her on the auction stage.
She was so soft and she kissed like an angel. She was his own personal angel. As if it had a mind of its own, one of his hands slipped around to cup her breast and knead it, making his fingertips tingle in delight. Her sultry response was a sweet moan of mirrored pleasure and acceptance. He flicked his thumb over the peak of her nipple, which rose under his palm. He slipped his hand underneath her shirt to test the softness of her skin. His exploring fingers found it even more satiny than he'd expected.
Stroking her breast, he inhaled deeply at the softness he told himself he couldn't really feel through her lacy bra. Her unique scent captured him as she pressed closer, giving his body no choice but to respond. His pants tightened painfully across his dick. His libido won as he realized he wanted her with a single-mindedness he could no longer subdue. Jon plucked her nipple once again, and the sound of her moan ripped through him. He would take her and make her his permanent wife. She could be his family, his partner in life. He'd finally have someone to welcome him home with enthusiasm from his exhausting trips.
A vehicle horn sounded on the street, breaking his lustful romp with her in the front seat of the cruiser. What was he doing? He pushed her away, breathing hard, and stared at her now very moist and swollen lips. His cock was fully erect and ready to go. If they'd been alone in any sort of private place, he had no doubt she would already be his wife in the most intimate sense.
His permanent bride.
Her hand slipped from his shoulder, trailing slowly to his lap. He jumped when her fingers slid over his throbbing cock, caressing it through his uniform.
"I think you want me after all," she said in that low, husky, passion-filled voice.
"I never said I didn't want you." Jon thought his voice sounded sort of satanic, it was so deep in tone.
"Then why won't you make me your wife"--she gripped his erection and stroked her hand down the length of it--"in the flesh?" The scent of her skin, laced with the musky undertone of her arousal, pounded his senses.
He couldn't stop the growl when he responded, "I'm a lawman. I travel. A lot. I leave the country regularly, and I go off-world even more. I wouldn't be here to take care of you or protect you." But I want to.
She smiled at his confession, as if relieved. "I can take care of myself. I have for years. I want to be your wife. Please, take me and make me yours permanently. I've wanted you for so long." Her hand squeezed him as if to punctuate her need.
Her aqua eyes mesmerized him. Her hand, stroking rhythmically up and down on his cock, ultimately convinced him. Or at least it won over his lust-filled libido, which then forced him to nod at her in complete acceptance of her plea. He needed to calm down before they got to his home ... and the privacy it would offer him. Otherwise he'd have to think of a way to protect her whenever he was forced to leave to do his job.
And who did he trust to protect his unexpected new wife while he was away?
The short answer was no one.