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Freeing Luka: Chapter 17

What had she gotten herself into? Shortly after their negotiation, Luka had announced that if she wanted to go to the reserve before dark, they’d need to leave soon.

He’d been touching her arms and hands nonstop since then.

Arms and hands. That’s a safe bet. How sexual could holding hands be? Idiot. When it came to Luka, Alice apparently felt every brush of his hand was sexual.

They rode in silence for a while. Luka seemed lost in thought, and Alice was clenching her entire body, forcing herself not to lean into his touch.

Her hand rested, upturned, on his thigh, almost close enough to his shaft to make her pull away. He gently traced the lines of her palm and the soft padding of her fingers. His other hand circled her wrist firmly. The combination of the soft, gentle caresses and the possessive, tight grip was driving her crazy.

She knew he could smell her arousal. He’d been able to identify it through the thick underwear she’d worn before; now that she was without, she could only imagine how easily he understood what he was doing to her. It felt like manipulation, and having been manipulated so often in the past, Alice loathed it.

When he brought her hand up to his mouth for yet another torturous kiss, she pulled away. His hold on her wrist tightened and he studied her. “You said I could touch your hand.”

Tugging again, she snapped, “Yes, but I didn’t say you could attach yourself permanently to it. You’re rubbing it too much. The skin is getting raw.”

Releasing her, he chuckled. “Why do you lie when you know I can scent how you’re really feeling?”

Heat bloomed on her cheeks, and she petulantly crossed her arms, angling away from him. “Why do you keep trying to turn me on when you know I don’t want you to?”

“I’m assuming you aren’t presenting your back because you’d like me to rub your shoulders, but I think it’d help you relax.”

A backrub sounded wonderful. Just a small one wouldn’t hu— No. Bad Alice! She crossed to the cruiser bench opposite and sat facing Luka, out of reach.

He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees, and studied her again as though calculating what his next move should be. Finally, he said, “Come back, Alice. I won’t touch you anymore.”

A small smile tugged at her lips and washed away her annoyance. She felt a familiar warmth spread through her, making her chest tighten. “You used to say that to me, you know. At the outpost.” She imitated his deep baritone and repeated, “Come back, Alice.”

Luka raised his brows. “Did you listen then?” he asked with a teasing smile.

Despite herself, she chuckled, but then her smile faded and she tried to really look at him, past the charm he was trying to wear like a mask. “Do you honestly not remember anything?”

He glanced away and hiked his shoulders. “I remember a little. More and more every day.”

“I’m sorry for what he did to you,” she whispered.

“I’m not,” Luka said seriously. His eyes rose to meet hers again. “If he hadn’t, you would’ve been put in a cell like the others and may have never escaped. Because you did, we have a lead on finding the other outposts, and I found you.” He peered at her with brows drawn. “I don’t know if you can understand the lengths a Clecanian would go to, to recognize their mate. I’d do it again if I had to.”

Alice didn’t know what to say, so she just held his stare, seeing the truth of his words reflected in his eyes.

The intense silence was broken when the cruiser gently lurched, alerting them they’d arrived. Luka hunched and retrieved a large bag from the ground. While his back was turned, Alice took a few calming breaths and tried to slow her hammering heart.

He’d do it again? For me?

The hiss of the vehicle door sliding open preceded a rush of warm air. Inhaling, she picked up a familiar scent. Not quite pine, but…it smelled like Luka. How often does he come here?

When she emerged from the cruiser, a sprawling forest greeted her. As she looked closer, she found that “forest” wasn’t quite right. Luka hefted his large bag, wrapped his hand around hers, and guided her into the tree line.

The foliage here was a verdant green. Not as cool and deep as a typical forest. More vibrant and rich, like she imagined a jungle would be. The ground was covered in large fallen leaves and neon-green moss. Her eyes wide, she tried to take in every detail as Luka pulled her along.

The setting was familiar yet eerily different. The texture of the tree trunks was similar to the trees on Earth, but the color varied from trunk to trunk. While many were the typical hues of brown found on most trees, others were assorted shades of teal swirled with light brown. She also spotted a few farther into the forest that had shades of pink, yellow, and blue.

Animals and insects remained hidden in the dense foliage, but their calls echoed around her in an otherworldly chorus. Calls she would’ve normally associated with an amphibian were loud. Much too loud. Birdsong rang out from all around her, and when she raised her eyes, she could see bright flashes of color racing across the treetops.

The damp, heavy scent of the forest lessened slightly, and she lowered her gaze to find they were approaching a wide, glittering stream.

Releasing her hand, Luka crossed to an enormous ancient tree at least a hundred feet tall. Its gnarled roots weaved in and out of the ground, creating dark holes for all manner of creatures to hide.

Without warning, he reached into one of those black pits. Alice covered her mouth, her skin crawling to think what might be lurking in there. He shot her a lopsided grin over his shoulder. “Scared for me?”

Alice pursed her lips and lowered her hands. “The fear you’re smelling is from possibly witnessing a grown man get his hand bitten off because he was dumb enough to reach into a random hole in the woods.”

He gave a chuckle and continued rooting around in the depths of the tree. A small squeak sounded before he withdrew his hand, now holding a small furry animal.

“What are you doing! Put it back,” she cried, running over. What was he thinking, tearing an animal out of its home like that?

He sat on the ground, placing the small creature on his lap. To Alice’s surprise, it didn’t try to bolt as soon as he let it go. “Calm down, female. This guarsil needs medication.”

“What?” she said softly, kneeling down to study the creature.

The guarsil, as he called it, was the size and color of a pomegranate, its round body covered with dark red, wiry hair. As Luka reached into his bag and retrieved a small green tablet, the guarsil snuggled into his lap, trying to burrow between his legs.

“Its mother left recently, but he hasn’t moved out of the nest like his brothers and sisters. A few days ago, when I checked on him, I noticed he had a bit of a cold.”

“A cold? You’re treating him for a cold?”

He held the green pellet out to the animal, and Alice watched as long arms she’d thought were cute little hands shot out from its round center to snatch the tablet. “Guarsils are pack animals, and they’re endangered. I know where his nestmates have moved to, but if he doesn’t get better soon, I won’t be able to return him to their pack. A cold won’t kill him, but being alone when he gets better will.”

Alice watched as the tiny animal nibbled the edges of the green object. Its small, sharp teeth attacked it the way a human would corn on the cob. “It’s kind of cute.” She smiled.

Luka gave a humorless laugh. “Cute now, but in about two months when it reaches maturity, it’ll be vicious. Their small size is deceptive. Animals will come by sniffling around a waiting guarsil, thinking it’s a fallen wanget fruit. When they get close enough, all the pack members attack. They’ve brought down animals a hundred times their size.”

Like some kind of terrifying out-of-water piranha. Alice leaned away from the creature and glanced around.

“Don’t worry. I won’t let anything get you,” Luka said, smirking up at her under dark brows.

The retort that bubbled up evaporated on her tongue. He would protect her. She felt it. No man from her past had ever made her feel quite as safe as Luka did.

Unaware of her open regard toward him, he dropped the squirming guarsil back into the roots of the tree.

“Why are you trying to help it?” Alice asked, recalling that healing animals was her passion, not his.

He shrugged. “Because I’m here all the time and I can.”

She held his stare. Would all Clecanian men go out of their way to help an unlikeable, vicious animal? She thought not.

“How often do you come here?”

“Before you?” he began, peering at her meaningfully. “Every day or every other day. As often as I can. Sometimes other researchers schedule work, which means I’m not able to visit.”

Ignoring his first comment, she asked, “What kind of research are you doing out here? I thought your field was Clecanian reproduction?”

He surveyed the area with a lopsided grin. “I study the mating habits of different animals to see whether there are any noticeable patterns in their rate of reproduction and their mating practices. Do their bodies produce more of a certain chemical while in heat that could be harnessed and used in Clecanians? Does the time of year or their diet result in more or less births? That type of thing. Mostly I just come and watch. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but the interesting ways in which they couple helps me brainstorm.”

“What kinds of interesting ways do they couple?” she asked curiously. Some creatures on Earth were known to mate in odd ways. Would they be similar here?

“Well…” He pointed to the water. There are certain types of suu who are hermaphroditic. When they choose to mate, they’ll attempt to stab each other with their reproductive organs and inject the other with their seed. They sometimes die from the wounds sustained.”

“I think that’s very similar to slugs on Earth.” She laughed, recalling the first animal science class she’d taken after a year of uninteresting general ed courses. “I don’t know how slug mating habits could help your research, though.”

With another slanted smile, he hiked his shoulders. “If you look hard enough, you can always find similarities that could lead to some useful piece of information. Hermaphrodites are rare among Clecanians, but battles for dominance aren’t unheard of. The Rotun in the East wrestle to decide who their spouses will be. Whoever wins becomes the lead of the marriage and makes the majority of decisions with input from their partner.”

She eyed his large frame, glad she hadn’t been taken to a Rotun city. There’d be no question about who’d win in a wrestling match between her and Luka. “Seems like the men would have an unfair advantage.”

He hissed a laugh through his teeth. “You haven’t seen a Rotun female. They may not be as big, but they’re strong and are trained to be excellent wrestlers.” Squinting into the sky, he said, “Let’s go. I thought we could take a walk and see what we can see. I’ll tell you what I can about the animals if we spot any.”

Alice nodded and began to rise, one hand on her bent knee. Luka took hold of her other hand, helping her the rest of the way.

“Thanks,” she muttered when she was on her feet. His hand twitched in hers, but he released her, stepping away to retrieve his bag. She attempted not to ogle his ass as he bent to grab the bag. “What’s in there, anyway?”

He tightened the loose strap over his broad chest before giving her a vague answer. “A few things I thought we may need.”

Rolling her eyes, she motioned for him to lead the way.

As they traipsed through the forest, Luka kept reaching out and briefly touching her. While she was annoyed at first, after a while she began to wonder if he truly couldn’t help it. He’d be in the middle of describing an animal or plant and would suddenly run his hand down her arm or quickly squeeze her hand without any explanation. Alice wasn’t even sure he knew he was doing it.

Her awareness of the confusing male ebbed, however, as they ventured further and the wonders of an alien forest revealed themselves. She could see many similarities in the fauna of Clecania and Earth, but some of the animals they came across were completely alien.

Alice was extremely thankful she’d been smart enough to wear boots when little green seed pods on the ground began hopping and biting at her ankles. Luka explained that the little insects had evolved to resemble the seed pods of native bushes. They’d wait on the ground by said bushes and nip at any creatures happening by, hoping to draw blood.

Luka’s senses were keen, and every so often he’d branch off and examine a track or a broken limb she hadn’t thought anything of. He seemed so at home here.

“Is this what you do when you come here every day?” she asked as he scooped a small amount of sap from a purple vine.

He stashed the sap in his large bag and then walked back over to her, his eyes lit with excitement. “A variation of this. I come to observe and note any differences. After four years, I’ve finally put together the fact that wadefs go into heat when the wyret vine’s sap begins leaking.” He threw his hands out, a delighted smile lighting his face. “I can’t believe I’d never realized it before. It’ll be exciting to see what properties this sap has. I’m wondering if they eat it or if it gives off an undetectable smell of some kind.” He held out his hand to her. “Come here, see if you can smell anything.”

Alice couldn’t hide her smile. Luka’s enthusiasm for his work was a palpable thing. She took his hand and let him direct her to the deep purple vine oozing green sap. Leaning in, she inhaled. “It smells like black licorice!

She grinned up at him, and his eyes locked on her mouth. A heartbeat passed, and then she hastily cleared her throat and moved away.

Damn gorgeous man with his rugged Indiana Jones scientist-explorer thing.

“What’s licorice?” Luka asked from behind her, interrupting her internal griping.

“It’s a candy. People either love or hate black licorice. It has a very distinctive smell and taste.” She glanced at him over her shoulder and fought the urge to glare at the sun for highlighting his chestnut hair so perfectly.

“Do you love it or hate it?” He sped up until he was striding along next to her.

“Hate it. But I like some drinks that have that flavor for some reason. There’s this cocktail I created at the bar that has just a dash of anise…” Her words faltered for a moment when Luka briefly placed his hand on her lower back and guided her to the right. She swallowed and tried to remember what she’d been talking about. “Uh, anise is where a lot of the flavor in black licorice comes from, but if you put just a little in a mixed drink with ginger beer, it really brings the whole thing together.”

“Did you enjoy creating drinks on Earth?”

Alice frowned. From anyone else, that question might’ve sounded like he was putting down the profession, but Luka looked sincere as he waited for her answer. The corner of her mouth lifted. “I did. I mean, it wasn’t my dream job. The pay sucked. My boss sucked. And some of the customers sucked, especially during the school year when the college kids are in town. But I liked talking to the people who came in, and I liked making up drinks I thought they’d enjoy. Are there bars here?” Maybe she could go back to working in a bar while she tried to become an alien veterinarian.

“There are, but most of them have automated bartenders.”

Who did the lonely souls who needed a drink and a listening ear talk to, then?

Luka stopped her with a hand on her arm and pointed to a tree canopy. Thousands of colorful birds, each smaller than a grape, nested in the branches above. He cupped his hands around his mouth, making a loud, high-pitched shriek. The birds bolted from the trees in a mass of bright pinks and oranges. Once in the sky, they re-formed like a school of fish. Their small bodies flying so closely together gave the impression that a much-larger bird was hunting for its prey.

Alice’s gaze settled on Luka’s face, smiling up at the birds as they flew away. “What do you do for fun when you aren’t working?”

He glanced at her with raised brows and then began walking again. “I work more or I exercise.”

I bet you do. “Do you have any hobbies?”

He thought for a moment. “I collect stories of matings and I read papers from other researchers in my field.”

“What about your family? Do you go and visit them a lot? Do you ever get frustrated doing so much work? Do you take many vacations?” Now that Alice had started to feel more comfortable with Luka, she found she had a million questions for him. “What kinds of things do you do to stay happy?”

He laced his fingers behind his back, opened his mouth, and then closed it, as if unsure what to say. “I’ve always been very focused on work. Eventually, I’d like to stop working and move out of the city. I’d like to see my family more often, maybe visit my nephews. I haven’t seen my sister’s children since they were young.” He stared at the ground, brows drawn.

“You shouldn’t wait to do those things. Family’s important.”

“What’s your family like?” Luka asked, absently running his knuckles down her arm.

Should I get into this right now? Talking about her past was always painful for Alice. That’s why I’m here, right? Give him a chance.

“My mom was…tough. She worked a lot and wasn’t a very happy person. I shouldn’t be too hard on her. She was just a single woman trying to be strong and do what she thought would make our lives better, but she ended up missing out on a lot.”

Alice felt her throat tightening and tears beginning to form in her eyes, and she blinked them away. Luka reached for her but then dropped his hands abruptly. At that moment she almost wished she hadn’t made her rules.

“We had a difficult time understanding each other. She tried, but she couldn’t figure out why material things didn’t make me happy. I would’ve preferred to spend a day with her than a day shopping, and that just didn’t make sense to her.” Alice lifted her hand clock, sighing at the foreign symbols. “I remember always sitting in front of this big grandfather clock we had in our foyer, waiting for her to come home from work.”

“I understand what you mean. My father had a hard time raising six of us after our mother died. I knew he loved me and did what he could. I would’ve liked to have spent a whole day alone with him too.”

Alice stopped walking and studied Luka. His muscles were tensed and there was a lingering concern in his eyes. He searched her face with a clenched jaw but didn’t say anything. Something told Alice he wasn’t used to speaking about things like this, being vulnerable in this way.

She reached out and clasped his hands in hers. A low purr stuttered and then stopped as if he’d quelled it. “I’m really sorry about your parents. Thank you for telling me.”

His shoulders relaxed at her words, and a purr rumbled through him. “Would you like me to explain the way we tell time as we walk?”

Alice brightened. “I’d love that. Nobody seems to care about telling time here.”

Luka’s chest expanded, and he grinned. Over the next hour, they continued to walk and he patiently explained the complicated method for telling time. Alice was becoming flustered. Not only did she have to first understand the movements of the moons in relation to each other in order to understand their equivalent of a.m. and p.m., but she also had to wrap her head around the fact that they didn’t count up in hours, but down.

“You don’t have time zones, either?” Alice asked, her head pounding. “So if it’s four before prime, that means it’s getting dark here, but in other places it’s light out and they still say the same thing?”

Luka chuckled. “Yes. It’s a planet-wide system.”

Alice was relieved when they came to a sun-speckled clearing along the stream. She needed a break, and this spot looked perfect. Glancing across the water, she recognized the roots of the tree housing the guarsil. Apparently, they’d made a large arc around the stream and had come to the banks on the other side.

I guess it makes sense to count down from thirty-two but—”

Suddenly, Luka crouched down, pulling Alice with him. Putting a finger to his lips, he pointed toward a large tree with thousands of reed-like branches arching over the water.

Overall, the tree looked similar to a weeping willow, the spill of leaves creating a curtain around the base. Alice peered at Luka for reassurance, fearful he may have spotted a predator hidden by the tree.

He grinned and grabbed her hand, motioning for her to look back at the tree. Her eyes searched and searched, but she couldn’t find any birds or insects lurking that may have prompted Luka’s sudden interest.

Glancing at the trunk of the tree, she mused about how oddly shaped it was. The base started out small, but as her eyes continued up, the trunk bowed wildly then returned to a normal width. It looked as though the tree had eaten a very large animal who was now trapped in its center. The trunk also appeared to be split in two vertically. The long halves twisted around each other all the way until they vanished into the canopy.

They crouched there in silence for a few minutes. What was he waiting for? She tugged at his hand, eyebrows raised. He rolled his eyes then retrieved a large box from his bag.

The box rested on his lap, and he grinned at her before flipping the lid open to reveal a mound of small black insects. Alice reared back, losing her balance and landing hard on her ass.

Luka lifted one, showing her they were no longer alive, while his shoulders shook in silent laughter. Unable to stop it, a grin spread across her face too. She pushed on his shoulder, hoping he’d lose his balance as well and spill the box all over himself, but he only swayed in place.

Silently, he held up a hand, telling her to stay, and crept toward the tree, box in hand. When he got within a few feet, he gave the box a hard jerk, sending dead bugs flying all over the leaves, then retreated at a sprint. Alice cocked her head. The bugs should’ve drifted to the ground but instead they peppered the leaves, like they were stuck there.

When Luka returned, he dashed to sit behind her and quickly scooted forward until her back was to his front, his legs bent on either side of her hips. She turned to him and started to scoot away, not liking how easily she could sink onto his warm, inviting chest, but he grabbed her head in both hands and turned her face toward the tree again. She was just about to scold him for touching a red zone body part when the tree began to move.

Once she sat frozen in place, unable to look away, Luka removed his hands and ran them down her arms, resting his chin on top of her head.

The curtain of leaves started to spin slowly, then faster and faster. An image of a carnival swing ride popped into her head. The once-arching branches became horizontal with the force of their rotation. They kept spinning, now moving upward like a tornado, the tube of the twister growing narrower and narrower until the branches formed two vertical cylinders right above the twisted trunks of the tree.

Alice was both afraid and excited to see what would happen next. She leaned against Luka and gripped his knees. Placing his palms over her hands, he lifted them and crossed their overlapped arms around her abdomen. In essence, he was hugging her against his body without ever touching her waist. A corner of her mouth lifted at the clever workaround.

When the massive trunks of the tree began to unwind, all bets were off. Alice scooted back as far as she could and tried to stand so she could get away from the gargantuan creature emerging before them. Luka held her fast and leaned down to whisper in her ear, “I’ve got you. They won’t hurt us.”

“They? What is it?” she breathed.

A mated manta pair. Our city is named after them.”

She watched in astonishment as two separate creatures emerged. Like a shot, the swirling green leaves were sucked down into the trunks. After a moment, the trunks themselves lowered and they stood, quietly ingesting their meal.

Luka spoke again at her ear. “They send their tongues out to catch wandering insects. The green bits that look like leaves are incredibly sticky. Sometimes they’ll stay frozen in place for days, waiting until they sense they have a full meal.”

Now moving and not pretending to be a tree, she found that the creatures were not so scary. Once relaxed, their long trunks made them look similar to stubby-legged, camouflaged elephants. As she watched, the larger of the two manta rubbed its trunk against the other. Alice tilted her head. The touch almost looked loving.

“When they’re alone, their leaves are sparse and they can’t catch as much food, but when they find a partner, they stand together, creating a full, thick canopy.” He nuzzled her ear gently. “They mate for life.”

Ah, shit. She was curled up in his lap, and he was telling her love stories. How the hell had this happened? It’s like they were watching a nature documentary together. This was supposed to be serious research for my job, not Netflix and chill!

Now done with their meal, she witnessed the two manta inch their way back in place, lifting their trunks and twisting them together gracefully.

Luka gave her a gentle squeeze. “This part is fun.”

Before she could ask what he meant, the green shoots exploded out of their trunks like a firework, making Alice jump. If he weren’t holding her, she would’ve probably cleared the ground.

A laugh rumbled through his chest, and she chuckled with him.

This felt good. She liked laughing with him. They’d had a wonderful afternoon together, and he’d kept his word except for a few brushes against her ear and the hands on her head. He’d definitely bent the rules, she thought as she reclined against his chest, but he hadn’t broken them, and she found she enjoyed his tricksy side.

When her pounding heartbeat slowed, she relaxed into him, allowing his body to envelop her. His arms tightened around her as he let out an exhale. Had he been holding his breath? A purr rumbled through him, and she grinned.


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