Saving Verakko: Chapter 19


Lily opened the oddly warm garment bag and let out an annoyed sigh at the gorgeous frock Verakko had picked for her. Of course he has great taste. Why am I not surprised?

Bright orange fabric the color of a sunset and rich maroon fabric slid through her hands. Lily studied it, enchanted and perplexed. The style of the beautiful garment was so odd that she couldn’t figure out how exactly she was supposed to wear it.

After a few minutes of studying and toying with the golden clasps placed randomly throughout the garment, Lily attempted to slide into what she now believed to be a jumpsuit. The whole outfit began on her upper arms, baring her shoulders. The orange fabric shimmered and bunched behind her back, forming a sort of cape, while the maroon portions dipped low between her breasts and cinched at her waist. Beautiful curling patterns, the same color as the orange of her odd cape, twisted along the bodice.

Slits ran all the way from the hem of the pants to the cinch at her waist, revealing a good deal of leg and hip and leaving her feeling exposed. If it wasn’t for the thin gold chains holding the slits together just above her knees, she’d worry the fabric would billow and give anyone watching a show.

Although it wasn’t the most comfortable or modest thing she’d ever worn, Lily had a small, vain idea that she looked great in it. She took a few steps around the room, searching for a mirror, and cursed, halting. It was incredibly difficult to walk, the cinched cape restricting her movements and making her believe she’d tear something at any moment.

Lily stared hard at the door. Should she take the whole frock off and try again or suck it up and ask Verakko for help? After spending a few petulant moments arguing with herself, she carefully padded to the door and knocked twice.

As if he’d been waiting only a breath away, the door whizzed open. Verakko allowed his gaze to roam over her body hungrily. Dammit, Lily thought as her cheeks and chest grew hot.

It appeared he’d taken the downtime to change as well. His iridescent black shirt was short-sleeved and dipped low on his broad chest. It was held together in the front by thick leather laces. Loose black pants sat low on his hips and were stuffed into the tops of his well-worn boots. Lily hated how incredible he looked.

His heated gaze paused at her waist and was replaced with a look of confusion, confirming she had in fact put her outfit on incorrectly.

“I’ve never worn anything like this,” she said defensively, pursing her lips.

Verakko gave her a lopsided grin, and she stifled a curse. God, she loved that smile.

He walked toward her, and Lily forced herself to remain still and impassive. It became harder and harder to do, though, as Verakko continued moving closer. He stopped right in front of her, only a few inches away. Heart thrumming furiously in her chest, she focused her eyes on the floor.

Although she couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes, she could feel his insistent gaze boring into her. Then, without a word, he slid his hands around her waist. Her breath caught at the sensation of his palms on her back, and she had to stop herself from ardently wishing he’d pull her in close. He fiddled with something as she held her arms out stiffly.

He’s just a guy. You met him a week ago. He’s a liar. Burning cedar hit her senses, and she barely contained a sigh.

A small click sounded, and suddenly the restrictive tightness of the jumpsuit lessened. Lily peered down and saw Verakko’s hands emerge from behind her, holding two sides of a gold clasp attached to either side of her cape. He pulled the clasp under her elbows and locked it around her waist. Rather than trailing down her back as it did before, the orange fabric now draped over the side of her body and, to her relief, partially shielded the bare skin of her thighs.

Verakko remained in place, one hand still resting at her waist. She refused to look up at him. “Thank you,” she said, stepping away. He let her.

“I brought you a mokti too,” Verakko said, retrieving a small box from the chair.

“A what?”

“It’s an accessory that many females wear. It covers your neck.”

“Why?” Lily eyed the small golden item in his hand and waited breathlessly as he stepped behind her.

“Fashion, I suppose. Lift your hair.” Lily piled her hair on her head and waited. The heat from Verakko’s body seeped into her back, and his breath on her neck made goosebumps break out over her bare shoulders. “A long time ago, moktis were used to completely cover the neck for modesty’s sake, but now they’ve become more of a fashion statement and highlight the neck rather than hide it.”

“Is that why Desy kept looking at my neck?” Lily asked, embarrassment flaring. “Do I look naked or something without a mokti on?”

A low growl tore from Verakko, but he quickly stifled it. “Most females choose to wear one, but some don’t. Either way, he shouldn’t have been looking.” He wrapped something large around her neck. The mokti must’ve been made of metal because when it touched her skin it was cold, and she hopped backward, surprised.

Lily hit Verakko’s chest and like lightning, his arms shot down and wrapped around her waist, pulling her to him. A rattling purr immediately started in his chest and vibrated against her back. He dipped his head to her neck and inhaled deeply, squeezing her waist.

Her throat grew tight. She wanted to relax and accept Verakko’s touch, but she couldn’t. She felt so far away from him yet so close at the same time. Without saying a word, she attempted to step forward, showing him she wanted to be let go.

His purr stuttered out, and he slowly released her. He laid the cool metal over her neck again, and she felt a tug in her hair near the base of her skull as if he’d clipped something there. The mokti was like an over-large choker or a turtleneck of sorts.

Verakko smoothed the metal and let a longer piece drape down her front and between her cleavage. She examined it and found the metal formed small delicate golden flowers that grew progressively smaller as they trailed in between her breasts. The rest of the metal flared out and followed the curve of her shoulders.

She moved away and faced him.

“You look beautiful,” Verakko said in a hushed tone.

Mental exhaustion suddenly overtook her. She was still so confused. He’d said his marriage was over because his eyes had changed and she was his mate. But he’d also said that mates stayed together for life. How could he just assume she’d agree to that? Was he so sure she wanted to be with him that she’d simply forget he’d been lying about being engaged this whole time?

“Let’s go,” he said, motioning to the door.

“Go where?” she asked weakly, following him out of the medbay and into a narrow hallway.

“To my home. You need food and sleep.”

Lily’s immediate reaction was happiness, her heart fluttering to think he wanted her to stay in his home with him, but she forced herself to ignore it. If they were going to have any shot at all, she needed to start thinking with her head instead of her heart. “No.” She forced the words out. “I need you to take me to the government housing you mentioned so I can be on my own for a while. I want you to explain yourself to me on the way, and then I want to spend some time alone to think.”

He licked a fang and narrowed his eyes on her. “No,” he said simply. He peered down the hallway, then abruptly changed direction.

When she finally hurried after him, she found herself stopped in front of a double-wide metal door. “No? You don’t have the right to tell me no, Verakko. I’m going to live wherever I want to live.”

Verakko shot her a nervous glance and removed a small black device from his pocket. “There are things I need to explain to you first. I’m taking us on a roundabout route so we can talk without anyone listening.”

Lily balled her fists. “Can’t take a chance that your betrothed will hear about us?”

“She’s no longer my betrothed.” Verakko grimaced and pulled the two edges of the small square he held apart until a holographic screen flickered to life in the center. Then he placed the screen on the door and typed on it using symbols she’d never seen before.

Her brows shot up in question. “Does she know that? Or are you still technically engaged?” He remained silent, giving Lily her answer. “That’s what I thought. I don’t even know where to start. There are other things you kept from me, aren’t there?” Lily ground her teeth and poked Verakko in the shoulder when he didn’t answer.

She glared at his back. How could I have just ignored all my instincts that told me he was keeping something from me? Lily thought back to her first few days with him in the woods and recalled thinking he’d been explaining around something. How could she have ignored that?

A low pinging sounded, and she tensed. The noise was awfully similar to an alarm, yet Verakko seemed unperturbed. “Are we supposed to be here?”

“No,” he said simply. “The alarm’s new. Just give me a second.”

Lily glanced up and down the pale blue hallway and took an instinctive step closer to Verakko. She realized then that although she was beyond angry with him, she still trusted him to keep her safe. Lily couldn’t recall ever trusting anyone else as much as she did Verakko. Maybe that was why his betrayal hurt so deeply.

The pinging stopped, and the doors whizzed apart just as Verakko removed the screen and slid the device closed. “Let’s go,” he said, motioning into a small room as wide and deep as the doors themselves.

“Go where?” Lily peered into the dark room, unable to see any outlet.

“It’s a service lift. We’re going to travel through the storage floors.”

Lily tentatively stepped inside, only to have Verakko move in beside her, too close for comfort.

“Ready?” he asked.

Before she could question him, the floor beneath their feet moved, propelling them upward. Lily squeaked and gripped Verakko’s hand without thinking. The rattling sound of a purr and a squeeze of his fingers brought her back to the present.

She peered up to find his gaze fixed on her. The hope and warmth in his eyes as he beamed down at her and gently ran his thumb over her hand tore at her chest. She quickly tugged her hand out of his and looked away. “You could’ve warned me,” Lily grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest to prevent herself from reaching out to him again.

The platform stopped, and a new set of doors hissed open to reveal the oddest-looking warehouse she’d ever seen. For one thing, the items stored in the expansive area were on the ceiling instead of the floor. Beds, shelving units, and all manners of furniture were positioned on floating stands hovering near the ceiling.

Lily watched as a short table flew across the room and then disappeared through a dark opening in the ceiling. “How…?” She was lost for words. All she’d seen of this planet was the inside of a cell in a bunker and the forest. It was only now hitting her that she was on an advanced planet full of wonders she couldn’t even begin to imagine. A sudden wave of excitement rolled through her. What did the city really look like? Where was all the furniture going? Were there floors like this in between every floor of the building? When would she be able to explore out in the open?

“Lily,” Verakko said gently, rousing her from her transfixed stare. His fingers fidgeted as he spoke. “I went to see my mother while you were unconscious, and she refused my request to be your guardian.”

Guardian? Lily pinched the bridge of her nose, not following in the slightest. “You said I’m your mate.”

“Yes. You are. But I didn’t tell her that. She still thinks I’ll be marrying Ziritha in a few weeks.”

A frustrated sob built in her throat, and she wanted to stamp her foot in irritation. “Have you changed your mind about me being your mate?”

“No! Never. I just… If my mother learned the truth, she’d force us to be together.” Verakko pressed a hand to the small of her back, urging her forward.

“What?” Lily halted in her tracks and stared at him in horror. “And what if I say no?”

“Then,” he said slowly, the corners of his eyes crinkled as if he were stifling a wince, “I’ll have to marry Ziritha, and you’ll be forced to marry someone else.”

Lily scanned the room around her, unseeing. “What?” she yelled.

“I’d better start at the beginning. There is a law on this planet,” Verakko began.

She tried to listen past the ringing in her ears.

“I didn’t mention the law when we met because I didn’t want to alarm you,” he added quickly, leading her through the gently curving room to a lone door identical to the one they’d emerged from. “The city that comes across a Class 4 being is the one obligated to take care of them and integrate them into society as they see fit. Many cities have decided they’ll force their new human citizens to marry, the same way they do with their Clecanian citizens.”

Lily tried and failed to form words until she finally latched on to something he’d said in the desert. “You told me Tremanta was giving more rights to humans than other cities. Is this what you meant?”

He nodded.

“But you were leading me here long before that. You knew this would happen? That I’d be forced to get married?”

Verakko urged her forward again, darting nervous glances over his shoulder. “I didn’t know for sure that that would be my mother’s decision, but I suspected.”

Lily shrugged off his hand. “So you decided that instead of explaining things to me, you’d take the chance of me possibly being forced into a marriage by your people?”

“Well…” The guilty look on Verakko’s face told her everything she needed to know.

“This is my life. How dare you decide something like that for me!”

Verakko’s hand shot out to grip her wrist. “But it doesn’t matter anymore because you’re my mate.”

“Let me go,” Lily grated.

When he only stared at her, she lifted her palm to her face, twisting his wrist, then snatched his wrist with her free hand and wrenched it away. Verakko stepped back and circled his wrist, breathing deeply. Lily stomped toward the closed door and waited with crossed arms.

Verakko followed, removing the small square from his pocket again and planting it on the metal doors.

“You only just learned I’m your mate! You were leading me to this city before your eyes changed. You were going to bring me here, knowing I’d likely be forced into marriage. Even after I told you specifically that I didn’t want to get married on this planet.” Her nostrils flared at the heady scent of cedar wafting from him. “And on top of all that, you were engaged! So you brought me here, thinking I’d be forced into marriage and knowing it would be to some other man! How could you keep that from me?”

“If I had told you, you would’ve never come with me. I tried to get you to go back to Tremanta that first day, and you refused.”

“You tried,” she scoffed. “Did you try by telling me that if I went to any other city but Tremanta, my freedom would be taken away and I’d be forced to marry some stranger? Or did you try by simply demanding we go to Tremanta? A city that was an unknown distance away in the opposite direction from Alex?” She placed her hands on her hips and studied his bunched shoulders.

“Would you have gone the other way and abandoned Alex if I had explained it all to you?” he shot back.

Lily ground her jaw, knowing he was right. She would’ve continued down that river either way.

Verakko leaned down until they were at eye level. “Exactly my point.” He returned to his screen and started typing into it again. “What was I supposed to do? Allow you to live in the forest until you eventually died? How much longer do you think you could’ve survived out there?”

Lily reared back. “That’s not the point. You took away my choices. If you had explained this right from the beginning, I might’ve decided to return to Tremanta with you. Or maybe I would’ve stayed in the forest. It doesn’t matter. Even if every option presented to me was shitty, I had the right to make my own shitty decisions!”

The door whizzed open, and another platform stood waiting. Lily stepped onto it, too focused on Verakko’s tight expression to worry about the sudden jolt of upward motion.

“You’re right. I should’ve told you about everything. At the time, my reasoning all made sense. I was just trying to keep you safe.”

Lily’s argument died in her throat as emotion swelled. She’d trusted Verakko more than she’d ever trusted anyone. She understood why he’d lied about the laws of his city. Even if she didn’t agree, she understood that he’d been attempting to keep her safe. Frustrated tears blurred her vision, but she continued to blink them away. She didn’t feel safe. She felt exposed and vulnerable and powerless. And the person she thought she could count on to navigate this terrifying new world had kept so much from her. Was her life even her own anymore? Or would these aliens decide everything for her?

The platform stopped again, but the doors didn’t immediately open like before. Verakko peered down at his screen, which was displaying an opulently decorated hallway occupied by a thin, bright-blue man and child. They walked slowly, chatting about something she couldn’t hear.

When they’d disappeared from view, Verakko covered his lips, miming for her to remain silent. He opened the doors and guided her out. The hallway, like the odd warehouse level, was curved, and circled an incredible sight. A tower of water pouring through the center of the building, just as Verakko had described, visible through a wall of glass.

They reached one of the few doors on their left, and Verakko released her, planting his hand on the surface. Whirring and buzzing sounded, and the door swung open.

As they entered the dark space, small floating balls of light began illuminating near the ceiling, like silver bubbles. The room was large and dominated by a collection of cream-colored pillows and cushioned couches as wide and deep as king-sized beds. Clacking from her right suddenly sounded, making her jump, and she watched in awe as a stairway comprised of glass and glimmering metal dropped from the ceiling. Her eyes followed the stairs to a second story high above.

The home was beautiful and well appointed. The furnishings immaculate. Silver finishes glinted everywhere, and odd pieces of sculpted art were scattered about.

Lily frowned; this house was beautiful, but it didn’t feel like Verakko. It was too…perfect. Staged, like a gallery display of the ideal futuristic living room. “I thought you lived in Tremanta. You have a house here too?”

Verakko stared at the floor for a moment, licking a fang, and then leveled a miserable look on her.

“Oh,” she choked out as realization hit. “This is for her, isn’t it?”

He shrugged. “I purchased the home weeks ago after signing the contract. I had to make sure it was ready in time for…”

“Your wedding,” she finished numbly as his voice trailed off. She shook her head. “I really don’t think I should stay here. I want to go to the other housing.”

He released a deep breath through his nose and stared at her. “I understand you’re angry with me, but you aren’t ready to be on your own yet, I need to help acclimate you to our city.”

“Oh, you mean acclimate me by picking and choosing the information you deem is important and lying about the rest?” Lily reproached with her hands on her hips and her brows raised.

“The city doesn’t know about humans yet. You wouldn’t even be able to converse with anyone if you needed help because no one has your language uploaded on their translators.” He pulled her down the hall and into what she could only assume was a kitchen of some sort, then strode around the room, pulling various odd foods and tools from different compartments.

“And what about your fiancée?” she shot at him. “How do you think she’ll feel when she finds another woman in her house? I know you may not be connected romantically, but she’s obviously put a lot of work into decorating this place, only to have me come and use it all first.”

Gripping a deep purple bottle, he paused and said, “I told you. In my mind, she’s no longer my betrothed.” He took a long swig of the beverage, then pushed it into her hands.

Lily tilted her head at him, indignation at his matter-of-fact tone scratching against her nerves. “Your contract is still intact, yes? That means you’re still engaged. It doesn’t matter what’s in your mind. It matters what’s in everyone’s minds.”

Verakko plucked the bottle from her hands and took another swig before replacing it; his hard stare bore into her. “Whether or not I marry her is entirely up to you.”

“Up to me?” she repeated, confusion setting in again. She laughed, raising her bottle in the air sarcastically. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

“I’m set to be married in a couple weeks. There are only one of two ways to break my contract.” Unlatching a large pocket on his thigh, Verakko produced two bottles, both visibly old and dusty. “One, I announce that my eyes have changed, meaning I’ve recognized someone who could potentially be my mate.” He poured liquid from the smaller of the two bottles onto his hands, uncaring of the drips that fell to the floor, and wrung his hands together. “Two, I announce that my mating marks have appeared, proving you’re my mate beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Verakko lifted his hands. She stared at the bright-blue designs curling across his wrists and hands that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Her breath caught in her throat. How could marks like that have appeared out of nowhere? Was there some kind of magic on this planet? When he said mate, was he being serious? Not just a fancy phrase for a wife, but a real-life honest-to-goodness soulmate. And she was his?

“I signed a contract before I ever met you,” he spoke quietly, the melodic tone of his voice gone. “There are consequences to breaking it. If I did, I’d never be able to marry anyone else in any city, and I’d be sent away. Recognizing a mate hasn’t happened in centuries. Not until Jade showed up earlier this year. You don’t understand how special it is. How rare these are,” he said, lifting his hands again.

Lily swallowed and tried to ignore the pangs of longing shooting through her.

“I felt that you could be mine when I first laid eyes on you. But I didn’t recognize you right away. I kept putting off telling you about Ziritha because I wanted to recognize you so badly, and I worried you’d treat me differently if you knew. It was selfish, but…I didn’t know what else to do. I thought maybe if I explained my situation, that perhaps we could be together after our marriages were through. But now that I’ve recognized you, you won’t be forced to be with anyone else.”

“I’ll only be forced to be with you.” Lily recalled what he’d said about mates and how it was for life. Cold fear made her stomach flip. She began pacing, a weak attempt to control her chaotic emotions. “You’re telling me this is my choice, but what kind of choice is it? Be with a stranger and watch you get married to someone else, or be with you forever? How am I supposed to make that kind of decision in two weeks?” She froze and faced him, fury and longing and fear all clamoring for acknowledgment. “You want me to make a lifelong commitment after you’ve done nothing but lie to me? How do you expect me to do that, Verakko? How do I know there isn’t more you’ve been holding back?”

Verakko lifted his hands and opened his mouth, but all that came out was a frustrated breath.

“You know how I feel about marriage. I told you I want to know my partner inside and out before committing my whole life to them. And you knew how I felt about Clecanian marriages, yet you led me here. You might’ve changed your mind at the last minute, but you were planning on bringing me here before that. Was this all some kind of game to you?” Tears burned at her eyes and blurred her vision. She tensed her muscles to keep a sob from escaping. “Humans have become a valuable commodity on your planet, so you make me depend on you. Care about you. Open up to you. So that if you recognized me, I’d be forced to agree or else watch you marry someone else? It’s only been a few days!” Lily shouted and lifted her hands protectively in front of her. “I won’t be trapped.”

“I never wanted to make you feel trapped, Lily.” His gaze darted around, and he clutched at his hair with both hands. “I’m not explaining this right.”

“You’ve explained it fine. I’m angry, but I understand why you did what you did. If you’d told me about your fiancée, I would have treated you differently. If you’d told me about what might happen to me here, I would’ve never agreed to come. And now, I can see you want me, want us to be together, but…” She took a deep breath, then continued. “I understand, but it doesn’t change how I feel. I feel hurt and betrayed and stupid. And I feel like I don’t know you anymore.” Lily swiped a tear off her cheek. “And that makes me feel even more stupid, because I only met you a week ago. I don’t know you.” Verakko’s chest shakily rose and fell, and the look of misery and pain in his eyes cut through her like glass. “If you’re asking me to make a lifelong commitment to you right now…I can’t.” Lily recalled Verakko saying the exact same thing to her, and a sob tore from her throat.

Verakko crossed to her before she had a chance to blink. She tripped back a step, and a blast of smoky cedar hit her nostrils, but instead of the calming effect it normally had, she only felt angrier.

“Do you care about me?” He cupped her cheek, and she wanted to melt. “Be honest,” he added. His voice rang through her mind, and fire seemed to shoot through her veins.

“Don’t you dare try to sway me!” Lily shoved at him with all her strength.

Verakko gazed into her eyes, the intensity of his bright-green stare sending chills down her spine. “If I show anyone these marks, it’ll get back to my mother, and she’ll force you to be with me. If I don’t make that announcement, I’ll have to marry Ziritha to avoid punishment, and you’ll have to negotiate a contract with some other male. If it were up to me, I’d have claimed you as my mate already. But I acknowledge I’ve already kept too many things from you, and I also realize you don’t feel the mating pull the way I do. So, I lied—to my mother, the Queen—in order to give you time to decide what you want to do. It’s up to you.”

“I need a minute alone. Where can I go?” Lily asked quietly, biting the inside of her cheek to keep the tears threatening to fall at bay.

Verakko pointed to the stairs, and she silently followed him up. She barely took in the second seating area overlooking an expansive view or the framed screens playing a short movie on the walls, what she assumed was their version of art. Lily didn’t want to acknowledge the mystery woman’s impeccable tastes. She just wanted to be alone.

Verakko led her into a large, bright bedroom dominated by a tall bed, and her eyes locked onto the soft mountain of blankets and pillows. She felt Verakko lingering behind her and inhaled deeply.

She didn’t want to look at him or his handsome, grief-stricken expression anymore. It wasn’t fair. He’d been lying to her from the start, yet every time she looked at him, she wanted to forget she’d ever learned about his betrayal. She wanted to run into his arms and pretend everything would be okay.

The pull to forgive and forget angered and terrified her. Would she always forgive him this quickly? Always brush any indiscretion under the rug because she couldn’t bear the thought of life without him?

She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced toward the ceiling covered in silver glowing orbs before turning to face him. His dark brows lifted in the center with worry and pain. He ran his gaze over her body not with lust but with barely contained longing. He stared at her like she was on the other side of thick glass. As if he wanted to touch her with every fiber of his being but could only look.

“I’m going to make us some food. Come down when you’re ready.”

Lily swallowed and nodded, not trusting her own shaky voice. When he silently left, she sank to the ground, pulling her knees into her chest. She didn’t know what to do. A part of her wanted to drag him back in the room and agree to be with him, but the other part was scared. How could she promise to be with a man who’d already betrayed her trust so thoroughly?

How could she be with someone who made her feel so dependent and helpless? She never wanted to need anybody, yet here she was, sleeping in his house, wearing the clothes he’d bought for her, and relying on him for almost every aspect of her future. She’d put all her eggs in Verakko’s basket and now remembered why she’d never done it before. Trusting someone wholly and completely was terrifying.

She allowed a few quiet sobs to escape her, then attempted to focus her mind. In. Out. In. Out.

 

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