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Freeing Luka: Chapter 16

Alice silently berated herself. Don’t I have any self-control at all?

She clutched the gleaming black countertop in the bathroom, and glared at her reflection in the mirror. So embarrassing!

Alice felt as though she’d temporarily lost her mind out there. She’d acted like a nymphomaniac, unable to resist a sexy man. How could she face him again now that he knew the effect he had on her?

Cursing under her breath, she gathered her clothing, laughing humorlessly at the destroyed underwear circling her waist before tugging the ruined fabric off. Shoving her shorts and top on, she crossed her arms and leaned against the counter.

It wasn’t right that he could smell whenever she was turned on. A downright dirty, unfair advantage was what it was.

She slumped. Alice didn’t want to fall into bed with Luka too fast. Sex always made her feel more deeply and more quickly than she should. In the past, she’d made the mistake of sleeping with men too early and growing too attached before she’d really known who they were.

For both of their sakes, she couldn’t let that happen with Luka. A mate wasn’t a girlfriend or boyfriend who could be broken up with. Once she consented to be with him, she knew he’d never let go. She needed to be sure about him, about them together, before signing on for forever.

Luka had been showing a thoughtful side of himself, but she didn’t know if that side of him was just an act to lure her or if that was who he truly was. Did he only want her because the mating bond told him so? Because he wanted to have sex with her? Alice didn’t think so, but her instincts had been woefully wrong many times before. It’d break her in two if she found herself in love with a man she could never leave, only to learn he was drawn to her body and nothing more.

Get to know him. Figure out if you like him!

Already replaying their sexual interlude in her mind and wishing she could do it again, she stomped her foot. Pointing at her reflection, she said, “You will lay down ground rules. You will be firm. You will be strong. You will be in charge of your future.”

Nodding, she stormed through the bathroom doors, ready to lay down the law and…he wasn’t there. Alice threw her head back and let out an exasperated huff.

“It’s fine. I’ll just talk to him when he comes back,” she whispered.

Muttering to herself and encouraging her nerve to stay in place, she once again explored the room.

The long, curving wall held hundreds of tacked-on papers and pictures. Alice squinted at the text on the papers, wishing she’d paid more attention in class today. Tremantian writing was beautiful. Unlike many western languages on Earth, this writing didn’t read left to right or right to left but rather up to down. The letters curved delicately and attached to the letter below, producing a flowing script. It reminded her of an East Asian written language she’d seen once.

As she continued to study the papers, however, she found that not all of the writing looked the same. Some contained the Tremantian symbols she was learning, but others were vastly different. She raised her brows. How many languages can Luka read?

Not wanting to feel impressed by any more of his talents at the moment, she began studying the pictures. The romantic in her gave an unwelcome swoon as soon as she realized what she was looking at. Mated couples.

Hundreds of pictures of mated couples of all kinds were scattered around the pages of text dotting the wall. She frowned and walked along the room, surveying the happy, glowing faces of past Clecanians.

One picture made her steps falter. A tall, blonde beauty stood regally in a red Grecian-style dress. A large man stood next to her, dressed in what Alice assumed was Clecanian formal wear. Blue mating marks were visible on their intertwined hands. They were a gorgeous couple, but what made Alice pause was the look on the man’s face. While the woman beamed toward the camera, the man gazed down at his mate. The love and pure joy in his eyes made Alice somehow feel both full with empathetic joy and hollow.

She stiffened when she heard the soft sound of a door closing. The warmth that spread over her back told her Luka was behind her well before he spoke.

“Do you like this picture?” he rumbled, sending chills through her.

Did she like it? It made her heart ache. “Why do you have all of these pictures?” she asked instead. “Come to think of it, why do you have so many pieces of paper? Isn’t this a technologically advanced planet?” She gestured to the room at large. “Shouldn’t all these books and pictures be digital?”

“They’ve been loaded to many databases, but I’ve always found physical pages to be easier to organize in my mind. I enjoy the feel and smell, as well.” He moved to stand next to her, hands clasped behind his back, nodding toward the image of the happy couple. “They’re all pictures of Clecanian mates from the past. Whenever I find an account of a mating, I gather their story along with their picture and put it on this wall.”

She glanced at his handsome profile. “For research?”

“My field is modern reproduction, not mating,” he said after a moment.

“Then why do you have these everywhere?”

His jaw clenched and his brows drew together as though he was wondering why himself. After a long pause, he turned to her, peering down into her eyes. “I suppose,” he began slowly, “I like to have a reminder of what could be. I liked to imagine a world in which coupled Clecanians could go back to being happy together. Their stories push me to work harder.”

Crap. He is a goddamned closet romantic! She could barely handle her sexual attraction to Luka as it was, but now he revealed that he had a romantic side? She could practically feel her ovaries yelling at her to say, “We can be happy together!”

“So, what’s their story?” she grumbled, forcing her gaze away from Luka’s intense stare and pointing to the picture of the handsome couple. She could feel Luka looking down at her for a moment longer. Their stance felt like the unhappy mirror of the man and woman in the photo.

“They were mated for eighty years, a long time in those days, before our medical advances. He was a gardener, growing plants for use in our medicines. She was a soldier. At the time, Clecania was at war with the Tagion species. During a particularly brutal battle, she was injured and had to be hospitalized. He saw her while delivering plants and recognized her as a potential mate. She recognized him as well but didn’t want to abandon her fellow soldiers, so she refused to be near him, knowing if she was, her mating marks would appear, and she’d never want to leave.”

“You can choose like that?” Alice asked, enthralled.

Luka shrugged. “It’s been known to happen. Mating is an instinct, but we still are who we are. We still have goals and ambitions.”

“What happened next?”

“She returned to the front lines. He stayed in Sauven, another city near here. He couldn’t communicate with her often, but he’d sneak into her home to feel close to her. Every time he did, he’d bring a flower or plant.” The corner of his mouth lifted in a small smile. “She said when she finally returned home, she felt like she’d walked into a forest.”

Alice’s chest swelled and her throat grew tight. Luka had given her plants every day too. She took a few calming breaths, and something he’d said jumped out at her. “She said it was like a forest? Was this paper written by her?” Alice reached out to gently graze the yellowed page with her hand.

He gave her a lopsided smile then pointed to the man in the picture. “His name was Atheon.” His finger moved to the woman. “And her name was Illukia.” Raising his eyebrows at Alice, he added, “I was named after her.”

Alice gasped, glancing from Luka to the picture. “Those are your ancestors?”

“My grandparents. I never met them, but my father told us endless stories about them when we were children.” He grinned back toward the picture.

Out of all the pictures on the wall, how had she found the one connected to him? Unsettled, Alice asked, “What happened to them?”

He exhaled slowly. “They were happy and mated for eighty years, but then the plague swept through. Like many females, she was taken.”

Her head snapped back toward the elated, loving gaze of Luka’s grandfather. Tears sprang to Alice’s eyes. How devastated must he have been?

Luka glanced toward her, then did a double-take. He grabbed her gently by the shoulders, twisting her body to face him.

Along with all of her other weaknesses, Alice was also a crier. Movies, shows, Hallmark cards. Give her a sappy commercial, and watch her start to well up. She kept her head turned, eyes focused on the picture, not wanting Luka to see how silly she was being.

Turning her face toward him with a soft hand on her cheek, he gazed down at her, worry in his expression. “They spent a happy lifetime together. That’s more than any Clecanian alive today can say.”

She nodded, tears running down her cheeks. “That’s really sw—sweet,” she said, her voice breaking.

Luka grinned down at her again, the corner of his eyes crinkling, then pulled her into a hug. “You feel everything so deeply, don’t you? That’s wonderful.”

Alice stood stiffly for a moment, emotion still clogging her throat. When he tucked her head under his chin and began petting her hair, she relaxed, pressing her cheek into his chest. A low purr emanated from him, soothing her frayed nerves.

She hadn’t prepared for this caring, sweet side of Luka, and she didn’t quite know how to handle her feelings. He hadn’t laughed or mocked her show of emotion, and he hadn’t clammed up or become uncomfortable, either. He acted exactly the way she wished people would act with her, and that scared the ever-loving shit out of her.

Pulling away, she wiped at her eyes. With a deep inhale, she glanced up at him, trying to be stern. “We need to talk about some things.”

“Okay.” He absently ran his hands up and down her arms, and she regretted that she’d need to put an end to the affectionate gesture.

“If you want to keep seeing me, you’re going to have to follow some rules. I want to get to know you, and you’re making that very difficult for me.” When he made to argue, she held up a finger, quelling him. “One, no more touching me.” She glanced pointedly at his hands.

The motion of his hands stopped on her shoulders, and his contented smile morphed into a frown. She felt his fingers briefly squeeze before he removed his hands, as though he’d had an internal battle to do as she’d asked and almost lost.

Emboldened, she continued, “And two, no more watching me. I mean it. No more.”

His brows drew together and he clenched his fists at his sides, but said nothing.

Her gaze hopped around the room nervously while she waited for his response.

Finally, he stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can’t do both,” he said simply.


“No touching and no watching? I can’t do both.” He shook his head. “It’s an instinct, and what you may not understand is that it’s painful to ignore.” He gestured toward his grandparent’s photo again. “That’s why she didn’t allow their mating to go further before leaving. After the marks appear, it physically aches to be away from you. The feeling lessens when I’m near you and when I’m touching you. So…I can manage one of your requests but not both.”

Alice stood with her mouth hanging slightly open. She hadn’t expected a negotiation. Realistically, she’d expected him to ignore her rules entirely and do whatever he wanted. That’s what she was used to from other men, but Vanessa was right—he was different and this situation was different. Her brows drew together. She didn’t want to cause him pain.

What did she care more about? His watching had been unsettling at first but now oddly made her feel safe. Touching her was dangerous, though. He knew exactly how to make her resolve weaken, and she couldn’t have that. Maybe there was a third option.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “You can’t watch me from the woods, but you can come visit me once a week, and you can touch me, but only in the places I say are okay. Everything else is a red zone.”

He raised his brows expectantly, waiting for her to continue.

“You can touch my arms and hands.”

“And your back and face. Also, I want to visit you every other day,” he argued.

Face equals lips. One kiss, and she’d be begging him to touch her everywhere. Can’t have that, she thought quickly.

“Just my back. No face. Every three days. Final offer.”

“Fine,” he grunted.

Instinctively, she stretched out her hand, then recalled Clecanians didn’t shake hands.

Before she could lower it again, Luka snatched it, gently massaging it in his hands. Stepping closer to her, voice as smooth as silk, he said, “You are more than welcome to touch me anywhere you want.” Bringing her upturned hand to his mouth, he slowly kissed her wrist, her pulse jumping at his touch.

Her sex clenched. I’ve made a terrible mistake.


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