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Saving Verakko: Chapter 5

The hungry look Verakko leveled on her was almost as destructive as his intoxicating smell. It was unsettling how quickly she flipped between annoyance and curiosity for this man.

Lily lifted a slim branch from the ground and held it up in the air. “This is the kind of wood we’re looking for.”

He nodded, scanning the ground, so she walked away from the river and into the forest, knowing he’d follow, though she still didn’t understand why. He’d made it clear that women were a commodity on this planet, but it seemed like humans in particular were even more valuable. Why else would he be subjecting himself to a wilderness trip for an unknown amount of time, with a woman who so clearly disliked him? There had to be more he wasn’t telling her. She could sense it.

There was some hole he was explaining around, but she didn’t know enough to decide how to question to it. His mere presence had also made it difficult to focus. She’d felt his stare on her like a brand all day, and she couldn’t for the life of her decipher what it meant.

It appeared to Lily as if he couldn’t decide whether to wring her neck or tear her clothes off. More disturbing still, she couldn’t decide which fate she’d prefer.

A loud crack sounded behind her, and she turned to find Verakko breaking a sturdy downed limb in two over his thick thigh. He eyed her as though knowing the display of unreasonable strength would force the primitive part of her lady brain into overdrive.

“Are you ready to tell me why we’re heading downriver?” he asked with a raised brow.

What to say? It wasn’t that she didn’t want to tell him. She just didn’t think she could talk about Alex without breaking down. Lily wasn’t ready to show a complete stranger that weakness, and with her nerves already frayed to their breaking point, there was a good chance she would. She walked around the area, keeping half her mind occupied in a search for food, and answered, “The girl I was with, Alex, we got separated. We fell into the river, and I was able to make it to shore before her.”

She chanced a glance in Verakko’s direction, bracing for the sneer, and was surprised to find that he didn’t look self-satisfied but rather thoughtful. “How long ago were you separated?” he asked while bringing down another large branch over his thigh.

A mix of irritation and awe briefly swept through her. It would’ve taken her days and heaps of precious energy to break up that much usable firewood. “A little over a week ago.”

He paused in the act of breaking another branch and stared at her with widened eyes. “You’ve been living in the woods by yourself for a week? Why didn’t you go back?”

Lily studied Verakko’s face. His tone was more curious than accusatory. Her hackles, which had been primed to rise at any moment, calmed. “We’d planned to follow the river until we reached a city. Alex is smart and resourceful. I told her to stick to that plan.” She picked up some fallen nut-like spheres she’d been gathering but thus far had been too nervous to eat and muttered, “I couldn’t just leave her.”

Verakko tucked the large bundle of firewood under his arm and stared thoughtfully into the depths of the darkening forest.

The silent moment dragged on until Lily felt like she was going to burst. “What, no comment about how stupid and impulsive my choice was?” she groused. In all honestly, there was a grain of truth to what he’d said before, and that was what upset her the most. She found she cared what he thought of her decisions.

“No. I understand now. You’ve given me hope, actually, for the freed humans. If they feel a fraction of the loyalty you do and are anywhere near as brave, they might stand a chance.”

Lily’s knees quivered, and her eyes stung with tears at the unexpected and wholeheartedly sincere remark. It hadn’t been a compliment exactly, more of a statement of fact, but to Lily, that was even better. A knot seemed to loosen deep in her gut. She murmured a quick thank you and retreated farther into the forest.

He gave a small grunt behind her and followed. “However, I only saw one human male, so unless all the females have your survival skills, they still may not make it.”

And just like that, Lily’s irritation returned. She held her tongue, stewing, attempting to convince herself that his comment hadn’t been meant to undermine the female sex as a whole. Her restraint only lasted for a short time before she spun on him. “And why would the amount of men dictate how easily the women can survive? I’ve survived out here for weeks without a man helping me.”

Surprise at the sudden reply to his comment registered on his face for a moment before his eyes narrowed. “You, little female, are an enigma. I just assumed the male of your species would have learned how to fight in school as our males do and would therefore be helpful in this circumstance.”

“Guys here are taught how to fight in school?”

He shrugged and tromped past her, taking the lead. “Depends on where you’re from. I had to learn when I was in husbandry school, but not all cities require it.”

Lily scanned her memory. She’d never attended a real school, but she was pretty certain fighting wasn’t part of most curriculums. “So, you’re a farmer?”

“A farmer?” He studied the area, not really paying attention to her, and gestured to a clear patch of earth. “Will this spot do?”

“Not unless you want to be impaled by that widow-maker,” she said quickly, pointing up to a dead limb near the top of the tree that hovered precariously above the clearing. “Husbandry school. That’s for farmers, right? Animal farmers.”

Verakko scowled up at the branch as if willing it to fall. Then, her words seeming to register, his brows knit and he faced her. “It must be an odd translation. There may not be a direct equivalent in your language, so sometimes the translator will use an approximation or an outdated usage. We learn to manage a wife and household in husbandry school, not livestock.”

Lily watched his retreating back as he moved farther into the forest and had to prevent herself from recoiling. Manage a wife? No wonder this guy had a low opinion of women; they trained misogyny into boys at an early age.

She shuffled behind him. Keep it to yourself. Not your planet, not your culture. You don’t have enough information to judge. And who are you to judge anyway?

“What about here?”

Lily scanned the spot with a clenched jaw. A few feet away, she spotted puddles of stagnant water. “If mosquitos don’t exist on this planet, then sure.” Her tone came out a little more curt than she’d meant.

He frowned at her. “Do you have something you’d like to say to me?”

Before she could stop them, words burst from her lips. “Manage a wife? How do the women feel about being managed like a bank account? What do they even teach? How to calm a wife’s inevitable hysteria, or how to guide her in making you the perfect meal?”

To her utter disbelief, a wide grin spread across Verakko’s face, and he barked out a laugh then gave his head a little shake of disbelief. “You don’t even understand how far off the mark you are.” He resumed his search for a camp location but over his shoulder added, “And for the record, out of all the females I’ve ever met, you are by far the most likely to dissolve into hysterics.”

Lily snatched a small brown nut from her sack and pelted him in his broad back.

Stiffening, he eyed the fallen nut. He stooped while managing to hold the firewood and scooped up the small orb. Holding her furious gaze, he cracked the dried husk with his molars, then popped the bright yellow nut into his mouth. “You just made my point.”

Steam must surely be whistling out of her ears. Crossing her arms, she closed her eyes and breathed. In. Out. In. Out. Lily tried to focus on her father and all the ways he’d taught her to be master of her emotions, a lesson she’d never truly exceled at. When she opened her eyes again, she saw Verakko waiting impatiently.

“Can you help me find a camp now, since you seem to have a problem with every one I choose?”

She donned a smug grin. “That’s because you’ve made terrible choices.”

The vein in his neck pulsed again, and she felt a modicum of satisfaction.

She strolled past him, ignoring the enticing whiff of cedar as she did, and forced her mind to focus on the task at hand. After a few minutes of silence, she spotted a clearing set among a grouping of large boulders and, without saying a word, began setting up camp.

Verakko dropped the logs nearby. Lily could feel his eyes on her but didn’t want to lose her newfound calm by acknowledging him. What he’d said was true in some ways. She’d never been closer to hysteria since being in these woods. Not even when she’d woken up in a cell.

The hardships of the last month finally seemed to be catching up with her, and this man did nothing but heighten all the emotion she’d been suppressing. In a situation like this, that was dangerous. Lily distracted herself by wondering what Alex would think of Verakko. She grinned and imagined all the random movie comparisons she’d make to the handsome teal guy.

Her grin fell; Verakko would probably like Alex more than her. He could take care of her, and she’d allow it. That had always been a problem in Lily’s relationships. Too independent to make men feel comfortable. Why did they always want her to need them? Wasn’t it better if she didn’t?

Lily sighed and retrieved her bow drill kit and a tinder nest from her pack.

“What can I do?” he asked from behind her.

She peered over her shoulder and nearly chuckled. The look of pure male frustration was almost enough to make up for his earlier comments. If he truly was a misogynist, this whole ordeal would be just as frustrating for him. Lily knew exactly how it felt to let your pride get the better of you—her insect bites from last night proved as much. It must be killing him that he has to rely on a woman.

Or maybe she had it all wrong. She’d let him rile her up to such a degree that she hadn’t actually bothered to learn anything about him. Lily let out a defeated sigh. “You can explain what I’m missing about husbandry school while I start a fire.”

“If you tell me how, I can start it instead.”

He looked so…earnest. “Just watch while I do it, alright? I’ll let you give it a go tomorrow.”

He plopped down, seeming frustrated but resigned.

“So, what do you learn in school?” The wooden bow ate into her newly healed callouses as she began to use the drill.

“Cooking, childcare, sexual health and proficiency, pampering, self and family defense, finance management…those kinds of things. Things a wife might look for in a husband. I learned more about how to fight while serving in our infantry for a few years after finishing school, but they taught the basics in school. My curriculum wasn’t nearly as rigorous as the husbandry school of my current city, Tremanta, but I learned enough.”

Lily’s hand rested atop the bearing block, her task forgotten at the words cooking and childcare.

Verakko smirked. “I told you, you were far off.”

“Why is the schooling in Tremanta more difficult?”

He blinked at her, perplexed. “You never ask the questions I think you will.” He shook his head. “Well, in Tremanta, the males are expected to use their grades from school to attract a wife, whereas in Mithrandir, the matriarch of the family organizes our marriages. Our grades are still taken into account, but if a female head is able to negotiate well, males with subpar grades can still find a wife.”

“Are women’s grades taken into account too?”

Verakko tipped his head from side to side. “Yes, but they bear less weight on marriage negotiations and more on their chosen professions.”

Lily returned to her task, making sure not to meet his eyes. “And are you married?” Why do I care?

In the periphery of her vision, she saw Verakko shift in his seat. “Not yet. My mother will choose for me when the time comes.”

“Subpar grades?”

“The majority of my grades were excellent,” he hissed.

She took in his bunched shoulders and the thin set of his mouth. “I didn’t mean to offend. I only meant…” He doesn’t deserve a compliment. “It doesn’t make sense that you wouldn’t be married otherwise.”

“Because I’m attractive?”

She kept her gaze averted but could hear the smile in his voice. “For an alien,” she evaded. “But your crappy attitude drops you a few notches on the hotness scale.”

He sighed. “Yes, my grades reflect the same. All high or acceptable marks, except for communication.”

“I’m glad it isn’t just me.” Lily chuckled. “I hope you and your mom are close.” A small curl of smoke rose from the base of the thin wooden spindle she was spinning with the bow. Almost there.

“Close in what way?”

Lily chanced a glance to Verakko. Over the last few hours, she’d noticed his coloring darken to an inky blue again. Maybe the change happened every night? He appeared confused. “You know, close. Your relationship. I hope you guys talk a lot and she knows what kind of women you like.” When his brows remained furrowed, she huffed, “So she’ll pick someone good for you.”

He blinked at her, the corner of his mouth lifting into a comic display of confusion. “Whoever my mother chooses will be a match based more on what she thinks is important in a pairing and who she believes will produce ideal offspring. A male’s feelings on the matter are taken into consideration but not by much. My mother is…powerful. She’ll want to make sure my wife is a strong female so our children will be strong.”

A muted guilt suffused her. She’d misjudged Verakko. He may be rude, pushy, and stubborn, but he was no misogynist. “So, what? You’re supposed to spend your whole life with a woman your mom picks out, and you have no say?”

His glowing green eyes remained intent on her actions. “No. Our marriages don’t last that long. A typical contract would last anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on what the females have negotiated.”

Lily set the bow drill aside and gently transferred the small burning coal she’d created to her tinder nest, then softly blew, feeding the small ember with oxygen. Before long, a flame crackled to life within the bundle. Gathering kindling from her bag along with the logs Verakko had collected, she built the fire.

When she was done and the flames snapped and sizzled happily, she sat back, thinking. “I have to say, from an outside alien perspective with no real right to comment on the customs of another culture, that sounds…unpleasant.”

A low, rumbling chuckle emanated from him, causing goosebumps to break out over her forearms. “I suppose to a human it may seem that way.”

“What about being mated? You said Alice was. Does that mean she’s with that guy for only a few months?”

Verakko’s lips thinned, and he stared at her as if he were trying to decide something. “No, mating is forever. It’s different than marriage. Marriage is a contract. Mating is what would be considered a love pairing. Something unbreakable. They’ll be together forever.”

“Forever?” Lily asked, unease bubbling under her skin at the finality in his words. “What if she wants to leave him later?”

“That isn’t how mating works. Our people view it as sacred. Marriage is more of a duty.”

“No offense, but neither sounds very appealing to me. It’s either a business arrangement or promise your life to someone without any kind of safety net. I’m surprised Alice agreed to that. I don’t know her well, but…no chance of divorce? Yikes.”

Verakko stared at the flames and rested his elbows on his knees.

Shit, did I offend him again? Gotta stop doing that. Keep your opinions to yourself, Lily!

“Must mean you’re a good cook, though,” she said brightly, trying to lighten the mood. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out the last two red fruits and tossed one to him. “Think you can do anything with these?”

“Alas, my skills lie in a real kitchen with appliances and seasoning.”

“Hmm.” Lily crossed to the other side of the fire and sat with her back against a broad purple rock. “Can I ask you a serious question without you biting my head off?” she said, nibbling at the tart fruit she’d once loved but had grown to despise.

“Odd choice of words for the alien you thought ate human flesh.” A spark of humor twinkled in his eyes, and she stifled a grin.

“If you were raised in what I can only assume is a female-run society, and trained on how to make a wife happy, then why have you been so bossy with me?”

The glint in his gaze faded. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it again. Finally, he said, “You aren’t my wife.”

Lily took a gulp of water, choosing not to tug at the thread of disappointment that statement made her feel. Instead, she held the water canteen out to him and frowned when he refused it. “You have to eat and drink. I did my best to clean that wound while you were unconscious, but your body needs calories and water to fight off an infection.”

“You forget. I’m not human. I don’t need as much as you.”

“Fine, but you need to drink soon.” A wave of exhaustion hit her, dissolving her urge to argue. “We’ll gather more supplies tomorrow.” Stifling a yawn, she continued, “I only have one full canteen of water left, and these were the last two pieces of fruit. All that’s left are those nuts, and I still don’t know if I can eat them.”

“They’re a common food, guren. You can eat them.” Verakko gathered the pile of wood and dragged it closer. “Sleep. You barely got any rest last night. I’ll keep the fire fed. Tomorrow I’ll hunt and find us some real food.”

She narrowed her eyes at him but stretched out on the ground anyway. “How do you know whether I slept or not?”

“Do you really think I was able to rest with you teetering on a branch like you were? I spent the night making sure I was prepared in case you fell.”

Lily’s brief flare of annoyance at his distrust of her judgment was quickly quelled. The image of an aggravated Verakko, pacing under her tree and wringing his hands, made warmth spread through her chest and shoot all the way down to her toes.

“No sneaking up and cuddling with me while I’m asleep,” she commanded out of good sense, ignoring the larger part of her that wanted to use the big guy as a blanket.

He settled onto a large boulder. “Males and females don’t often cuddle on this planet.”

She forced her lids to remain open. Was it smart to be defenseless in front of this stranger? Why was she having so much trouble staying awake anyway? Every other night, she’d been exhausted around this time, yet still alert. Lily’s ears suddenly pricked and she listened to the sounds around her, but it was oddly quiet.

The gentle buzzing of the fuzzy insects could still be heard, but the scratching and snuffling of the animals that nosed around her camp each night were gone.

Lily studied Verakko and wondered if he had something to do with it. Did the creatures of the forest recognize that a threat had joined her? Were they keeping their distance from him? A flutter started in her stomach, and she nibbled her lip. Why did that possibility only make her feel safe and not terrified? If she had any sense, she’d be scared of what other animals were scared of, after all.

“I can trust you, right?” she whispered, her eyelids becoming too heavy to fight any longer.

“With your life.”


Verakko watched as Lily’s breathing became deep and even. She’d fallen asleep almost immediately. In the green light of the fire, he could make out the dark circles under her eyes. Her clothing was stained and bloody. His blood.

Lifting his shirt, he examined his injury again. Only a purple scab remained. Verakko hadn’t thought much of it. He’d healed from worse. But the knowledge that she’d used her precious water to clean his wound, in an attempt to keep him alive, made his chest ache. He wasn’t used to being cared for in that way.

Verakko shook off the feeling. Reaching for a long branch he’d found, he began carving a spear tip with his knife. His gaze kept returning to Lily.

Her skin was dirty and scratched. Her clothes hung off her in a way that indicated she’d lost weight. Even so, she was beautiful…and terrifying. If she was this enchanting to him now, he could only imagine how much more so she’d be when not surviving on wanget fruit.

Would the weight she put on fill out her delectable hips and ass? Would her pale, chapped lips become pink or red?

He heard a crack and looked down to find a pile of shavings under a broken spear tip.

He let out a long sigh. There was no use in fantasizing about this female. He couldn’t have her. He was meant for another, and Lily wasn’t his mate.

When she’d asked him why he hadn’t doted on her as he would with any other female, he’d lied. In truth, he’d never been so unguarded around a female. Maybe it was the fact she didn’t know their culture, or maybe it was that Lily gave as good as she got, a trait he’d never experienced from the emotionally distant females of Mithrandir.

He refocused his efforts on whittling a spear tip. If husbandry school had done anything, it’d given him the instinct to care for a female. Make sure they were content. Although he’d always considered this urge tiresome and annoying, the instinct to provide for Lily in every way didn’t feel like a chore. It felt like a need. An unyielding need for her happiness to be brought about by his actions alone.

Maybe that was why her continual ability to care for herself left him so cantankerous. She may not need him for much, but he knew if he set a large piece of delectable meat down in front of her, she’d smile at him and thank him. She might even kiss him. As if on cue, his cock pulsed.

He’d seen a couple of the human females kiss each other on the cheek in greeting. Was kissing on the mouth only reserved for romantic partners? Or would he be able to experience the act in a platonic way that wouldn’t dishonor his betrothed?

Verakko clenched his jaw. He’d lied about that too. When Lily had asked whether he was married, he should’ve admitted that in a few weeks he would be, but he hadn’t.

The tip of the spear began taking form as he whittled in irritation. It wasn’t as if he even knew his future wife. He knew of Ziritha, of course, but he’d never so much as spoken to her. From what he gathered, she preferred not to interact with her husbands outside of her ovulation cycles. The rumor was she had a favored male of her own who wasn’t eligible for marriage, but Verakko had no way of knowing whether the rumor was true.

Ziritha was close to his mother, though, and he knew she wanted Ziritha to take her place in Mithrandir one day. Negotiating a contract for her son with a female she thought of as queen material made sense.

There was no need to tell Lily. Why was he even worrying about it? It wasn’t as if she’d care about whether he was unattached. Would she?

The ghost of the scent of her arousal flitted through his memory. She was attracted to him, a dangerous prospect.


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