Other women paid for him,
only she gets to keep him.
The city of Damenk never slept, but parts of it did get a little drowsy now and then. Onca strolled down a dimly lit street in just such a neighborhood, enjoying the peaceful stillness. Talwat was a residential district. No pheromones or subliminal advertising fogged the atmosphere here, and it was quiet after dark, especially in the hours just before dawn.
Although he'd taken this same route hundreds of times, this day was unique. His most recent client had seemed honored that she was his last before taking a much-needed rest. She had smiled, tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear, and told him to call on her if he ever needed help. Allowing her to feel special had cost him nothing, but really, it didn't mean a damn thing-even her name escaped him now. That session simply marked the end of a long stretch before the time when there were no appointments, no ladies waiting for the use of his body, and certainly no need to sleep at the Palace. He was going home.
There were plenty of men who would have loved his job and would never have considered taking a vacation. Onca didn't see it that way. No matter how pleasurable or lucrative it might be, it was still a job. He recalled hearing someone say that any occupation, no matter how much fun it was as a hobby, took on all the trappings and burdens of a job the moment money became involved.
That someone was right. Since his partners Jerden and Tarq had left the business, Onca had been trying to keep up with the demand, but he was finally forced to admit that even he couldn't maintain the pace forever. He had fucked six-no, eight-women that day. Although none had complained that he'd rushed them, he knew he had. Still, he doubted they would have blamed him for hurrying had they understood the circumstances. Onca's days began at ten and went until four the following morning, and he'd gone from doing one client every three hours to one every two-an hour with the lady followed by an hour to relax, plus an hour each for lunch and dinner.
It's a wonder my dick still works.
He didn't even have that excuse. One whiff of an aroused woman's scent, and he was ready to go again-all set to dive cock-first into a hot, wet pussy. He could think about it now, but without the scent, his cock remained flaccid. He'd even gotten to where he could stifle an erection if he smelled feminine desire in public, which was a useful skill for a Zetithian man to possess. Particularly one who worked in an area where the street pheromones had every passing woman panting with need.
He planned to put that skill to good use over the next few weeks. From now on, he was simply another inhabitant of a large city-anonymous and invisible. He had even donned clothing prior to leaving the Palace, something he'd rarely bothered to do before. For that matter, he didn't always go home. Roncas had long since given up trying to wake him after the last appointment, merely allowing him to sleep right where his client had left him. She would wake him in plenty of time to have breakfast and a shower before his first session of the day.
Poor Roncas. The tiny Zuteran woman would be left to deal with the calls from new customers, even though Onca had told her to stop making appointments two years ago, following his return from Jerden's wedding on Terra Minor. Instead of posting an announcement, she had opted to stay on for a week or two before taking her own sabbatical-no doubt deriving some sort of fiendish delight in telling desperate women that the resident Zetithian stud had taken an indefinite leave of absence.
She certainly didn't need the extra pay. Onca knew precisely how many credits she had stashed away, and her hefty parting bonus would allow her to live in style for the rest of her days. He could have lived like a prince himself, had he chosen to do so. However, he preferred a simpler lifestyle. Granted, he owned a house on Rhylos, which was pricey enough, but it was a modest dwelling in a neighborhood noted more for its peace and quiet than its ostentatious display of wealth.
Until the next moment, when the blessed silence was broken by running footsteps. The smack of two bodies colliding followed, accompanied by a masculine grunt and a decidedly feminine gasp.
"Let go of me, you creep!"
The man's chuckle raised the hair at Onca's nape. "Not likely, girly. You're mine now."
Onca sighed. A knight errant, he was not, although he was carrying a pulse pistol-something Jack had insisted upon if he persisted in pursuing what she considered to be a dangerous occupation for one of the galaxy's few remaining Zetithians.
"You'll end up dead," Jack had warned. "Rutger Grekkor isn't the only jealous man in the universe. You just watch yourself, bucko-especially when you're out on the street. And in restaurants, make damned sure you're sitting in the gunfighter's seat."
She'd had to explain what she meant by that, of course. Jack had made a study of old Earth's culture, with the result that her conversation was peppered with figures of speech that no one else understood, and she took smug satisfaction in insulting miscreants with thousand-year-old expletives.
Unlike the words now issuing from the captive lady's mouth. They were all explicit, succinct, contemporary terms-some of them having their origins on worlds far removed from Rhylos.
A highly diverse vocabulary for a lady.
Rounding the corner, he spotted the couple. A hulking Herpatronian with enough leather strapped to his simian body to satisfy the most perverse fetish held a struggling woman against the wall of a nearby dwelling.
At least, Onca assumed she was a woman. At the moment, all he could see of her was a mass of dark brown curls peeking out from beneath her captor's arm. Then it struck him that if her size was any indication, this was a young girl rather than an adult. Suddenly, the fact that he was armed was immaterial. A child must be defended, if only with bare hands and fangs.
However, since he was armed, he drew his pistol, set it for a light stun, and fired a shot, pinging the man in the ass. With a howl, the beast abandoned his victim and took off running.
If Onca had expected the girl to fall at his feet in gratitude, he would have been sorely disappointed by her reaction, which was more akin to the ire of a hissing, spitting cat.
"You idiot!" she screeched. "What the hell did you do that for?"
Onca stared at her, not quite believing his pointed ears. "Let me get this straight. You wanted that big ape to rape you?"
Her scowl was enough to scare off more than a Herpatronian; therefore, he concluded that she must not have been trying to escape. A quick once-over revealed a small, thin girl clad in skimpy strips of ragged green satin-attire that might have been alluring on a more voluptuous form, yet only made her look like an underage streetwalker fallen on desperate times.
"No, I did not want that big ape to rape me," she mocked. "I'm trying to find my friends."
"Peculiar method," he commented. "Unless, of course, he knows something you don't."
Her face seemed to crumble slightly. "I don't know whether he does or not. I'm trying to find out what happened to them. Three of them just...disappeared."
"Why didn't you go to the police? I'm sure their methods would be more effective-and less dangerous."
Bowing her head, she muttered something he couldn't catch.
"What was that?"
Her head snapped up, and she glared at him. "I said they'd probably lock me up if I said anything."
"You mean the police are in on this?"
"No, I mean..." With a wince, she sniffed in a breath, crossing her arms over her nonexistent bosom. "I'm the sort of person they don't like running around loose."
"Ah, I see." A homeless waif-and probably an orphan-which was one of the few things Rhylos prided itself on not having in abundance. "I agree. You shouldn't be running around loose. It's much too dangerous, as you can see. There are schools and orphanages for kids like you."
"I'm not a kid." She practically spat the words at him. "I'm twenty-two years old and I've been on my own since I was ten. I can take care of myself, thank you very much."
At least she had said thank you. Sort of. "Did you ever consider that the authorities might have picked up your friends? If they were living on the street and someone reported them..."
She shook her head. "I don't think so. I've seen that happen before. It's very official and well publicized. The cops like to advertise when they do something good-at least, something they think is good. This was different." Her arms were still crossed over her chest, and she hugged herself, shuddering. "All three of them disappeared during the night without a trace." She nodded in the direction her assailant had taken. "He was the first lead I had."
Onca refused to apologize. "Don't worry. I can report this little skirmish to the police myself. After all, I was a witness."
Squaring her shoulders, she glared up at him, sweeping her curls behind her ears in an angry, infuriated gesture as she stomped her foot. "You will not."
Onca's jaw dropped. "Mother of the gods," he whispered. "You're Zetithian."
He had originally taken her to be at least part human. Her eyes should have given her away-and they would have if he'd gotten a good look at them. The way she was glaring at him now, he could easily see the glow emanating from pupils that were vertical slits rather than round. Searching her face, he found other clues-her upswept eyebrows being one. "Smile, sweetheart."
"I said, smile."
Although her grin was more an angry baring of her teeth than anything, it proved his point.
"Fangs too. Jack will have a shit fit."
"I beg your pardon? Who?"
"Jack-as in Captain Jack Tshevnoe."
"Should I know this guy?"
"Actually, Jack is a woman-a Terran woman married to a Zetithian man. She's, well...to be quite honest, she defies description. She'll be tickled to death to hear I've found another Zetithian."
"And why would she care?"
"Don't you kids hear anything on the street?"
"Some things." She sounded somewhat defensive. "The more important stuff anyway."
Onca couldn't imagine anything being more important to a Zetithian than the death of Rutger Grekkor. Onca had been one of a hundred refugees flying around in a starship for twenty-five years waiting for it to happen. This girl had obviously never heard any of the story.
"Zetithians used to have a bounty on them. Not sure how much was paid, but it was enough to have Nedwuts hunting us down all over the galaxy." He peered at her closely, noting the seedy, hunted look of a street urchin. "I'm guessing that's what happened to your family."
"Maybe," she conceded. "What's it to you?"
"Nothing, but it could mean a lot for you. There's a Zetithian trust fund paid out of the estate of the man responsible for destroying our planet."
"The whole planet was destroyed?" she echoed. "Really?"
"Really. If you want your share of the money, you'll have to come forward and claim it."
Eyes that had been wide open with curiosity a moment before were now shuttered and wary. "I don't believe it."
He shrugged. "It's easy enough to prove." If he lost sight of her now, he would probably never find her again, and Jack would never forgive him. The best way to lure her to safety was obvious. With the most disarming smile he could muster, he asked, "Are you hungry?"
Kim had never seen a man like this one. At least not since the day her family was wiped out by Nedwuts. He was like her father-tall and well-muscled, with hair that hung to his waist in spiral curls. In the growing light, she could see that his hair wasn't the same color as her father's. His had been dark brown, almost black, whereas this man's hair had a reddish tint to it. He also had green eyes rather than brown, but with the same glowing pupils. His ears were like hers too, curving upward to a point.
Those characteristics alone should have made her trust him, and Kim certainly needed someone to trust. She and her gang had managed to elude capture for years, although lately their numbers had dwindled until only she and Jatki remained. The Kitnock girl had been Kim's insurance, shadowing her while she roamed the streets hoping to discover what had become of the others. No telling where she had run off to now, although if what Kim suspected was true, it was a safe bet Jatki hadn't been taken. When it came to sex slaves, there wasn't much of a demand for Kitnocks.
Kim eyed the man warily. Whether he was Zetithian or not didn't matter. In her experience, nothing was ever truly free. "What makes you think that?"
He was right, of course. She and Jatki weren't nearly as effective when it came to creating diversions as the entire gang had been, which made stealing food from street vendors difficult, sometimes impossible. She had been grateful in more ways than one when the Herpatronian had followed her as she skirted the brothel district.
It was hard to admit, but even knowing that was probably the best place to discover what had become of her friends, she had been afraid to go there, preferring to stick to the commerce and restaurant districts. Earning her keep with sex was possibly the worst fate Kim could imagine, and she had decided long ago that men were all pretty much alike. Except her father, which might be why she leaned toward trusting the man standing before her.
"Just a guess," he said. "I'm hungry as a bear myself, and I've got a nice batch of stew waiting for me at home."
"Your wife made it for you?" If there was a woman involved, she might actually get fed rather than fucked.
He shook his head. "Nope. Made it myself a while back. It's been sitting in my stasis unit, calling to me for several days now."
"Why haven't you eaten it yet?"
"Been too busy to go home," he replied. "I'm on my way there now, though." He smiled again. "Sure you wouldn't like to come with me?"
She rolled her eyes. "Get many girls with that line? It's pretty damned obvious what you want from me."
His eyes narrowed and his lips formed a grim line. "Yeah, well, you don't know everything, sweetheart. But if you're looking for a safe place to sleep and some hot food in your belly, you know where to find it."
With that parting shot, he turned and walked away. Although his motives were unclear, in her gut, she knew it was a ploy. Kim had never known a man to toss out a lure like that and then leave her to make her own decision. But then, she had never met a Zetithian man before. And he had just offered her the two things she wanted more than anything.
He might have been intuitive enough to know that, although she didn't get the greedy, self-serving vibe from him. Was it possible he actually wanted to help her? Even after mentioning police, schools, and orphanages? If he intended to nab her and turn her over to them, she could always escape-she knew others who had done it.
He hadn't gone far when her stomach betrayed her with a loud, persistent growl. She heaved a sigh. "What kind of stew is it?"
"Does it matter?" He didn't even bother to glance over his shoulder.
"Guess not." She considered yelling for Jatki, but immediately thought better of it. Her friend might still be out there, watching, and if this guy tried anything funny, it might be best to keep her options open.