Saving Verakko: Chapter 4


Lily cracked her eyes open, and the flush of anger and embarrassment from the night before returned. That alien, Verakko, had called her stupid. Had implied she’d been reckless. Well, what the hell did he know? She’d dragged him to safety, cleaned his wounds, and made sure he didn’t die. How had he repaid her? By being a self-important bastard.

What now, Lily? What do we do now?

No matter how badly she wanted to, she couldn’t just leave him. He didn’t even know how to get clean water on his own. He may be useful in identifying edible plants, but how much did he know about what plants were edible to humans?

Was it stupid for her to be so worried about this alien? Probably. He’d said he knew Alice, but why should she believe him? For all she knew, he could’ve been part of a group who’d recaptured Alice and then tortured information out of her. Lily tried to cling to the image of him as a villain but couldn’t. He just didn’t seem the type.

She inwardly groaned. No, she couldn’t leave him behind, but she also couldn’t free him, which meant she’d have to tow a large bound man through the forest. Emotion welled in her throat. Would she ever find Alex moving at that pace? All I can do is try.

She stretched her arms in front of her and winced. At the time, sleeping in the tree far away from that infuriating man had seemed like a grand idea. All through the night, she’d felt less and less proud of her decision. Although the limb itself was soft, lined with moss and small flowers, it was still a limb, dozens of feet from the ground. She’d barely slept a wink, worrying she’d roll in her sleep, the rope binding her to the limb would snap, and she’d tumble off the tree into the fire. It’d also been chilly so far away from said fire, and small bugs that thrived among the tree plants had nipped at her exposed flesh all night, redoubling their efforts as the fire died out.

She’d argued with herself to simply climb down, feed the fire, and sleep near the warmth of the flames, but her pride wouldn’t allow it. He’d already treated her like a child, and she had no intention of letting him see how wrong she’d been.

She lifted her head and peered down to where he slept, only…he was gone. She shot upright, almost losing her balance in the process, and scanned the ground for any sign of him.

He was nowhere in sight. Had he left? Been eaten? Was he on his way back with reinforcements even now?

Lily untied herself, scrambled over to her makeshift rope, and slid down to the forest floor. Dashing around the camp, she stuffed her meager belongings into her woven bag.

“Going somewhere?” came a deep silken voice from behind her.

She turned, keeping her legs tensed to run.

Lily had to contain her shock. He was standing a few feet away and watching her, but he looked different. His skin was no longer dark blue but a pleasing combination of teal and seafoam green. Could he change color? His sling was also gone, yet his shoulder seemed to be working perfectly.

His vivid peridot eyes traveled down her figure, leaving her skin heated in their wake. She silently scolded her traitorous body. Even last night while fuming and flushed with embarrassment, he’d elicited much the same reaction. His deep voice was smooth and velvety, and images of darkened bedrooms had manifested in her mind whenever he’d spoken. She’d only been able to shake off the continual goosebumps at hearing him when he’d begun to berate her choices.

“How did you get free?” she demanded, attempting to focus on her dislike for the arrogant man and not the way the sun highlighted light-blue streaks throughout his hair. Had he colored it that way on purpose, or was it natural?

“Without much difficulty.” He nodded toward the snapped remnants of his bindings.

He sauntered over to the cold remnants of the fire, and her insides burned with frustration. That was strong rope, dammit! And her knots had been tight. Curse her bleeding heart. If she’d just hog-tied him like she’d wanted, he may not have gotten free so easily. But no, she’d felt bad about manipulating his injured shoulder in that way.

Sitting, he pulled a bright red fruit from his pocket and tossed it to her. She fumbled, then caught it. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “I say we eat and then start heading back up the river.”

“Wha— I—” Lily’s mind stuttered along with her words. The impertinence of this guy. “Who do you think you are? I’m not going up the river. I need to head downriver.”

He frowned, his full lips pulling into a devastating pout. He spoke slowly as if she were an idiot, ratcheting her anger. “Upriver is where my people are. We’re going that way.”

Lily’s chin dropped. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I need to head downriver, so I’m going to head downriver. You can do whatever you want.”

“Why?” he demanded, slicing a piece of fruit with…a knife.

Her gaze zeroed in on the small silver blade, locking in place. He has a knife.

Lily eyed the tool covetously. She’d been making do with sharp rocks. What she wouldn’t give for a knife. It’d make everything so much easier.

He waved the blade in front of his face, recapturing her attention. “Why do you need to go downriver?”

“That’s none of your business.” She glared, not yet trusting him enough to reveal that Alex might still be alive.

Not at all cowed by her death stare, he studied her, taking another bite of fruit from the tip of his blade. Dammit, she always loved when men did that. “Fine. I’m coming with you.”

“What? Why?” Lily tried to keep the annoyance in her voice, but a small part of her rejoiced at the thought. She’d been alone for so long, and life had been difficult. And he had a knife.

“Because you’re my responsibility now.” He gestured around the forest with a superior air that made her head start to pound. “I need to make sure you don’t make any more rash decisions and get yourself killed.”

A disgruntled heat crept over her limbs. “I’ve been doing just fine, thank you very much.”

He snorted. “Oh yeah? Well, I was under the impression that there were two of you. If you’re doing so well, then where’s your friend?”

The air whooshed out of her chest, and she took a step back, as if someone had punched her in the gut. “Go. To. Hell,” she said, masking sudden tightness in her throat.

Swiping her bag from the ground, she turned and marched away. Screw him. He has no idea what he’s talking about. The balloon in her chest welled again, and a stray tear leaked down her cheek. He wasn’t right. What had happened to Alex wasn’t her fault.

Pounding footfall sounded behind her. She refused to face him and give him the satisfaction of seeing her tears.

“Hey, you forgot your…this.”

She whirled, and her heart sunk into her stomach. Her bow drill. She’d forgotten the one tool she had to make fire. The tool she’d spent days perfecting.

Lily wanted to shriek. She needed to get a hold of her emotions. Her parents would be so disappointed if they could see her now. Letting some man work her up into a frenzy. It was life or death out here. She couldn’t let this alien make her doubt herself.

She reached for the drill, but he hoisted it into the air and out of reach. His brows furrowed, and he scanned her face, likely seeing the evidence of her tears.

Her cheeks heated with embarrassment, and she focused on the ground. “Can I have my drill back, please?” she said, biting out the last word.

He stepped forward, crowding her, but she refused to back away. Her whole life, she’d made sure she was a self-sufficient woman. She could survive in the wild as well as she could survive in a city. She knew how to defend herself, but this situation wasn’t fair. She’d studied both Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and aikido, yet something told her if Verakko wanted to hurt her, she’d have no way of stopping him. Not in her current, malnourished state anyway. “I’m coming with you whether you like it or not. Get used to it. I won’t leave you alone out here. It wouldn’t be honorable.” He held the drill out for her, and she shoved it into her pack.

She closed her eyes and took a calming breath in and out, trying to wash away all her emotion and assess the situation.

He’d gotten free, probably could’ve gotten free last night too, but he hadn’t. A flicker of hope bloomed in her chest. If what he’d said was true, that meant there were good aliens on this planet. Ones who didn’t want to abduct women. And he was one of them. He’d claimed he was honorable, and so far he’d done nothing too concerning, other than proving himself to be a twat. It didn’t matter if she didn’t like him, though; the question was could she use him to help her find Alex and safety? Could he be trusted?

She caught his determined stare, then eyed his body, attempting to keep her perusal professional and failing. The biceps she’d uncovered last night after removing his sleeves were well defined and seemed even larger in the light of day. He was strong. Very strong. That strength would be useful for gathering firewood and carrying extra supplies. Having someone else to feed the fire at night would be helpful too. And God knew she could use a break from the bow drill. It depleted almost all of her energy reserves to start a fire each night.

“Can you hunt?”

“Better than you, I’m sure.”

Lily let the insult slide off her decidedly slippery emotional shield. She would not let him get to her anymore. Instead she eyed him, making it clear she was waiting for him to elaborate.

A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I haven’t done much hunting in the forest, but I could give it a shot.”

“Can you identify edible plants?” she pressed.

His frown deepened, and he crossed his arms over his large chest. “More easily than you.”

She smirked. “So, you can’t hunt, you can’t gather, you don’t know how to purify water, and you don’t know what a bow drill is. What I’m hearing is that I’m now going to have to provide for not only myself but a six-foot-something, two-hundred-fifty-pound man.”

His eyes seemed to glow brighter, and a vein bulged in his neck. Good. He needed to be taken down a peg.

“I’ll make you a deal.” She crossed her arms, mirroring his stance. “You answer all of my questions, and I’ll let you come with me. I’ll even make sure you don’t starve or freeze to death. How’s that?” Fury flared in his eyes, and she had to stop herself from scrambling away on instinct.

He shot his hand out and gripped her crossed forearms, binding them together. Lily pulled at her arms, attempting to wrench them down to break his hold, but it was no use. His one massive palm was an immovable iron band. Why had she taunted him? Had she lost her mind?

Pulling her in close with a quick tug, he growled, “Watch yourself, female. If I wanted to, I could haul you over my shoulder and take you in whichever direction I please. Don’t push me.”

Lily tried to scan her memory banks for all the techniques she’d learned in her self-defense classes, but his damn scent kept distracting her. I can knee him in the balls— Wood smoke? Was that it? But if I knee him, he might crumple on top of me and break— No, cedar! Burning cedar? Focus, woman!

His gaze strayed to her mouth, and the glowing bright green of his eyes darkened. The hand trapping her wrists together squeezed, dragging her forward another inch.

The intoxicating scent of cedar wood smoke intensified, and her breathing hitched. She felt almost dizzy. Lily had always loved that smell.

A memory from the night before played through her mind. “Are you doing something to my head again?” she murmured, eyes locking on his mouth.

“No,” he said simply, meeting her gaze. “Maybe you just don’t want me to leave as much as you claim.” Heat suffused her core, making her cheeks heat in embarrassment. His eyes widened, almost as if he could tell.

He released her, stepping away. Lily had to stop herself from inching closer to him.

Outrage suddenly flared in her. He obviously had some kind of alien mind-control gift that was making her lose all reason. “Just stay away from me. And keep that weird smell-lure thing to yourself.”

A slow, predatory grin spread across his face. “I told you, I wasn’t doing anything. You must just like the way I smell.”

Her face flamed. So much for controlling her emotions. “Keep dreaming.”

***

Oh, he would keep dreaming. The sudden luscious scent of her arousal had surprised him and sent an answering rush of blood to his shaft. There was something more about this human, though. Something that had his hands burning to pull her close again. It didn’t matter that they’d done nothing but argue. Everything about her called to his baser instincts. Was that just how it was with humans?

He thought back to Alice. She was attractive, to be sure, but he’d never felt anything near the unquenchable thirst he felt for this female. If he didn’t know better, he’d assume she was his mate. But the fact that his eyes hadn’t changed and his hands were still mark-free invalidated that thought.

Wouldn’t he know if she were his? A small part of his heart pinched at the idea she could be, but he ignored it. He was already intended for marriage in less than three weeks. His betrothed, whom his mother had selected only a month ago, was a sensible choice. Still, if the human was his mate, he’d have a valid reason to deny the betrothal.

Lily turned and walked along the river, muttering under her breath. His translator was only able to decipher some of it, inserting its closest approximation to unfamiliar words. Something about a creature that drinks human blood to survive. Verakko grimaced and trailed behind her along the soft riverbank. He tried to force his gaze to remain on her head and not on her perfect ass, the outline visible underneath her thin pants.

“Tell me more about how you know Alice,” she said, shooting a suspicious glance over her shoulder.

He couldn’t blame her for not trusting him yet, but her distrust still rankled. “A few weeks ago, she and three other females were rescued from an Insurgent facility and brought to Tremanta, the city in which I currently live.” Not for much longer, though. Once he was married, he’d be expected to return to his home city. He’d have to leave his job as Head Technologist to the Queen of Tremanta and settle into a dull role in the much less forward-thinking city of Mithrandir. One of the reasons he’d sought to leave in the first place was their sluggish acceptance of emerging technological innovations.

With a pointed click of his tongue, he continued, “Two others escaped and should’ve been rescued, but they chose to slink into the woods and somehow avoid all rescue personnel assigned to find them.”

Lily raised a smug brow in his direction. “You think that was accidental? Please.”

So, this female also knew how to cover her tracks. Interesting.

“There are more humans here? How many facilities are there? What are Insurgents?”

Verakko took a deep breath then told her everything he could about the rescued humans and the Insurgents. He glossed over certain details he wasn’t at liberty to share, such as the human Jade’s pregnancy.

He’d also made the decision not to explain mating or mating marks. Her eyes had grown wide and anxious when he’d explained the current ratio of males to females was twenty to one, and he feared that explaining the intensity of a Clecanian looking for a mate might push her over the edge. The female before him seemed fiercely independent. If she knew how relentlessly males would pursue her in order to call forth mating marks, she may never want to leave the forest again.

Before he explained the significance of humans to their slowly dying species, he needed to ease her worry. Make her understand that not all Clecanians were evil. He wondered how the males of Earth might’ve handled a sparse female population. If her continual nervous glances in his direction were any indication, not well. Winning her trust would be a battle hard fought.

Although he still wanted to return to Tremanta and report to the Queen as soon as possible, the urgency didn’t seem quite as desperate in the light of day. After he’d been carried off, Kadion would’ve only had to bring down one other Strigi. Verakko was certain the general could’ve done it even without a Yulo glove. It was unlikely Verakko had been the only one to survive.

His current mission was to see this human to safety. It had absolutely nothing to do with her wide, sparkling-brown eyes or the way her quick comebacks lit a curious fire in his belly he refused to acknowledge as anything other than ire.

As the sun made its way across the sky and the day grew hot and damp, they continued farther along the river. For the most part she remained quiet, processing what he’d told her, then surprising him with insightful questions. All of the other humans had asked about things related to returning to Earth and had argued endlessly when they’d learned it was against the law for Clecanians to interact with their Class 4 planet. But not Lily. She’d seemed…thoughtful, as though she didn’t fully believe him, or maybe she didn’t accept it. She hadn’t argued; instead, she’d asked thoughtful questions about how the law had come to be in the first place. He hadn’t rightly known the answer.

“We’re the same species?” she asked, eyeing his fangs and pointed ears.

“Yes. And we’re a very old one too. I’m assuming humans are descended from the first Clecanians, before our ancestors started experimenting with genetic engineering.” He ran a hand through his hair, marveling at how unique Lily was.

“They wanted to upgrade themselves, did they? Normally I’d advise against screwing with Mother Nature, but what do I know?”

“I don’t recall the specifics, but I believe they isolated traits from other creatures living in similar environments on our old planet. My people became better suited for hot, dry climates, while others were altered so they could live in cliffsides or on islands far out to sea. Although the scientists of that time made miraculous progress, they also caused the extinction of many native species on Clecania in the scramble for advancement. Genetic engineering was outlawed before we ever left our old planet. Many believe the experimentation done long ago is in part a cause of our infertility, so maybe you’re right about ‘screwing with Mother Nature.’”

“So you and that winged guy from the underground bunker are really the same species?”

“Me, that winged guy, and you are all the same species.”

Lily pondered this for a long while, her dark brown brows knit in concentration.

As they walked and she asked more questions, he only continued to feel inept.

“Who makes the laws? How many planets are in the Alliance? How many representatives from each species are there? What constitutes each Class?”

As a person who’d never been very interested in politics, he answered as best he could.

Despite himself, Verakko found he enjoyed watching her mind work. She nibbled her bottom lip and furrowed her brows in such an intriguing way. When her features were clear of suspicion or annoyance, he was able to witness her intelligent eyes dart as she worked through the information she was receiving. He recounted the battle at the cabin and their plan to release the trapped humans, casually playing up his role in the rescue in an attempt to win her approval and rebuild his ego. After he’d finished, she remained silent, and a twinge of annoyance ran through him.

“What happened to that crazy guy who carried Alice off? He was obviously unwell, judging by his black eyes.”

“Black…?” Verakko suddenly recalled his lie and realized what Lily must’ve seen. Luka’s eyes black from recognizing Alice. “Yes, he was quite unwell when we found him.”

 Not a lie. He’d been unwell at the time, after all, Verakko argued with himself, feeling a twinge of guilt.

“Was he punished for doing that?”

“More like rewarded. They’re now mated.” Verakko chuckled and leapt over a large boulder, landing gracefully at her side. She failed to appear impressed.

She lifted a brow in confusion. “You mean, like, married?”

They’d come to a rocky area of the river, and she kept her head down and concentrated on traversing the slippery boulders. Though impressed by her sure, calculated steps, he still had to fight the urge not to offer her an arm. He hadn’t known her long, but he felt certain she wouldn’t appreciate the gesture.

“Married for life, I suppose,” he hedged, careful not to go into too much detail on the mating bond.

She appeared satisfied with his answer, and he recalled that humans thought of marriage differently than Clecanians, yet he couldn’t remember exactly why. He’d been focused on working through a way to free Insurgent prisoners for the last few months and hadn’t felt it necessary to waste his time researching human customs that didn’t relate to his work. As he watched Lily skip from one rock to the next, a small smile tugging at her mouth, he suddenly wished he had.

“I guess he wasn’t going to eat her, then.” She laughed.

The sound sent a pleasant surge of electricity through his shoulder blades, but then Verakko halted in his tracks and cocked his head. “Eat her?”

Lily slid over a large boulder and began walking along a smooth, moss-lined path. He rushed to catch up with her. “Yeah, some of us guessed that maybe that’s why you guys took us. As a delicacy or something.” She glanced at his mouth sidelong.

Was that why she’d been studying his fangs last night?

He scowled. “We aren’t barbarians. We don’t eat sentient beings.”

“Oh. My apologies. Your kind is okay with stealing defenseless humans and locking them up for God knows what, but they draw the line at eating sentient beings.” She turned to look at him and pulled a long, rounded object, the same length as her forearm, from her bag.

Verakko balled his fists. “Those aren’t my kind. Those were a group of traitors who broke the law.”

Lily pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. She pulled at a round stopper in the top of the object, and he realized she’d somehow crafted a traveling water container. He was torn between praising her ingenuity and throttling her for continued suspicion. How did she know so much about surviving in a place like this? Even if she’d been an expert back home, was Clecania really so similar that her skills translated to this environment? Or was she so resourceful that she’d adapted?

She took a long draw, then handed the makeshift canteen to him. “Water?”

He glared. Had she not been listening to a word he’d said about his role in the rescue mission? “You have to acknowledge that I’m not the same as the cretin who took you.”

When he still made no move to take the proffered water, she released an exhale and returned the canteen to her bag. “I don’t have to acknowledge anything. You’re not human, and I’m just getting to know you. For all I know, you could be lying about everything. I’m not saying you are, but I’m not going to blindly believe a man I’ve known for all of a day. So far, you’ve tossed me around, forced me to fight you off, insulted me, excreted some kind of hypnotizing spell, and tried to use crazy mind powers on me. I trust you enough not to eat me, at least. Does that make you feel better?”

She turned away, and Verakko felt as if his whole body was flushing indigo.

For the next few hours, he trailed well behind her. She appeared not to care. Didn’t even attempt to ask him any more questions. The little tishti had a way of heating every part of him to a boil.

After his temper had cooled to a simmering indignance, he focused on her comment about his smell, and his mind wandered to devious places. He hadn’t lied when he’d said he’d done nothing, but he’d failed to mention his scent’s ability to change, like his skin.

It was a predatory response, one he couldn’t control even if he wanted to. The scent his body produced was a luring aroma unique to whoever was near. While a person might smell a sweet confection from their hometown or another scent that made them feel relaxed, an animal might smell a particular flower or plant they liked to eat. Occasionally, when hunting or with heightened emotions, the scent became stronger. The adaptation was used in the old times to lure prey. The only way to control it was to control his emotions, which he seemed unable to do around her.

The image of her docile and heavy-lidded after he’d pulled her close re-formed in his mind. Maybe he could finally get some use out of the ability.

Their progress was slow. Although she moved at a reasonable pace, considering her short frame and scrawny build, he knew they could cover ground much faster if she’d just let him carry her.

When the sun began to make its descent, she turned back to him. The soft orange light lit her eyes, revealing flecks of gold in the brown depths. Averting his gaze so as not to be drawn in by her beauty, he glanced down her body and had to stifle a groan.

Verakko’s people didn’t lose much water through perspiration like many Clecanian races, but he could see that humans did. The dampened material of her white shirt clung to her curves just enough for Verakko to make out the swell of her breasts and an odd covering. The faintest hint of black fabric molded to her small breasts teased his eyes.

Blood flowed to his shaft, and his palms itched to tear away the damp material and inspect the covering more thoroughly.

“I think we should start moving through the forest. We can try to find some food along the way if possible, and we can also look for a place to camp.”

Thankfully, his focus returned at her words. “Already?” he said with a sharpness he hadn’t intended.

The amiable smile she’d plastered on her face, in what he assumed was an attempt to be cordial, fell. She placed her hands on her hips with an annoyed glare. “If we wait too long, then we’ll be searching for supplies and building a fire in the dark. If you want to make yourself useful, you can use those muscles of yours to gather firewood on our way.”

He straightened, a masculine spike of pleasure pulsing through him at her acknowledgment of his strength. The anger and frustration he’d been carrying all day seemed to melt in the light of her compliment, and Verakko found himself wondering, could she sway him too?

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