Tempting Auzed: Chapter 23


“Alex, wake up.”

Gentle fingers brushed the hair off her face and traced a line down her back. Pleasurable goose bumps raced over her skin. She kept her eyes closed, hoping he’d do it again.

She was rewarded with a soft kiss to her bare shoulder.

“We slept through the morning. If you want to watch the last round of the games, you need to get up.”

With a deep groan of indecision, Alex stretched her arms, still sprawled facedown on the warm mattress. She grinned; it smelled like him. “Okay, I’m up,” she said without rising.

“I made breakfast,” Auzed rumbled from above her, pressing another soft kiss to her shoulder before lifting off the bed.

She heard him walk out of the room and forced her eyes open. If she didn’t, she’d accidentally drift back to sleep. Her body was stiff and sore yet boneless with satisfaction at the same time. They’d made love long into the night and few times in the early morning as well.

He was just too much. Too good. Too sexy. Too honorable. She’d already started wondering if it would be possible to see him every day and not be reduced to a sobbing puddle of tears and hormones. He was the head guard at the place she was expected to live after all. That wouldn’t do. She wouldn’t be able to look at the man she loved day after day and not have a breakdown.

She’d need to find somewhere else to live. Maybe a nice apartment—if those existed here—with a few of the other humans who wanted to get back to Earth. If it really proved to be too unbearable, she could always look into moving to another city. One where the marriage laws were similar to Tremanta and she could choose to remain single. No one would ever compare to Auzed. She was sure of it. He’d ruined her for all other men.

With a sigh, she rose and got ready. Love, fear, guilt, frustration, confusion. They all churned in her belly, creating waves. The warmth of love would crash through her and she’d feel lighter than air one moment, then a tide of heartache would wash the warmth away, leaving stark loneliness.

The only thing she could think to do at the moment was ignore it. As she ventured to the first floor and found Auzed exercising on the deck with Wilson rolling around his body as if his one-handed push-ups were the best type of game, she knew it’d be impossible.

After a hurried breakfast alone while Auzed cleaned off and dressed, they set out on their way to the final round of the marriage games. He held her close as they glided toward the arena, making her pulse quicken with awareness. At least Meg would be with them again today to help distract her.

Because they were late, their daily walk around the arena was more of a jog. She politely greeted everyone who came toward her, but, with a quick apology about the time, she forced each suitor to all but power walk alongside her if they wanted to say more than a sentence.

When they reached the entrance to their seating area, Alex was surprised to find Meg and Daunet hadn’t arrived yet either.

Her shorts rode up as she settled into their familiar seats. She’d worn the white silky two-piece set she’d mistaken for pajamas their first night here. Auzed wore bright-blue pants and a tight vest of the same color that dipped low on his chest and exposed his magnificent body, now tinted with a hint of color from their day on the lounger.

The electric blue of his clothing reminded her of the cloudless sky from yesterday. Her body heated as other memories assailed her. He stilled, then turned to her with a raised brow and flaring nostrils.

“If there weren’t cameras watching your every move, I’d take care of that need for you. But since I cannot, I’d kindly ask that you control yourself, female.” He shot her a wolfish grin, flashing white teeth, and she blushed. She kept forgetting he could smell her arousal.

Crossing her legs to camouflage the scent, she reached over and slipped her hand into his. He squeezed her palm and purred.

“Who we rooting for today?” Meg cheered, skipping toward them with her hands raised.

Daunet sauntered behind Meg and shook her head in amusement. “This human never settles.”

Both women relaxed into seats next to them. Daunet was wearing an outfit similar to Alex’s, except hers was a butter yellow that enhanced the beauty of her pastel pink hair and pale skin. Meg, on the other hand, looked stunning in a fluorescent-pink dress that flowed around her shapely hips and chest.

Alex glanced around the whole stadium and saw that the bright neon colors were typical for the last game of the year. Auzed had explained it had something to do with old traditions involving games being played in relative darkness back on the old world. Bright colors were easier to see in the dim forest.

“Gosten is still in the game, so we’re rooting for him,” Alex called.

“Ooh, nice. What about enormous Sparta man?”

“Him too.” Alex grinned, recalling how enthralled they’d both been with the large brute who’d bowled through opponents that first day.

Auzed’s grip on her hand tightened a fraction and lines appeared around his mouth as he contained a frown. Her chest expanded at the slight show of restrained jealousy. She didn’t particularly gravitate toward jealous men, but in her mind, there was nothing wrong with a person getting a bit peeved when their partner showed interest in someone else.

She ran a soothing hand along his forearm, and his shoulders relaxed. He shot her a quick look that said, You’re killing me.

“The Queen allowed you to be off duty?” he asked Daunet.

She grinned. “Yeah. I’m not going to relax completely, but she made it clear that my trip here with Meg was more of a test run than strict guard duty.”

“Test run?” Alex questioned loudly above the sound of horns announcing the game was soon to start.

Meg leaned forward in her seat and beamed. “Yeah! A while ago, the Queen announced she wanted to send a few humans out traveling so the rest of the Clecanians could get to know more about us. Not many wanted to sign up, but—”

“But of course you did.” Alex chortled.

Meg rolled her eyes in exasperation. “It’s an all-expense paid trip around the world, where I get to meet new people and be fawned over. Of course I signed up! I was the first to sign up, and I’ve been nagging the Queen’s aid, Metli, about it ever since. I wouldn’t be surprised if the trip was finally approved because Metli threatened to murder me otherwise.” Meg chuckled.

Daunet chimed in. “The Queen wants each female to have a chaperone. I’ll be able to enjoy my time as well, but I’ll need to keep an eye on her. Explain customs and money and help keep the suitors at bay.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” Alex said, her brows knitting together. Meg sought to enjoy life in whatever ways she could, and that included lots of talking and drinking…and flirting. How was that going to work with the reserved cultural norms of this planet? “Aren’t you worried some person will recognize you as a mate? I’m sure that’s half the reason they’re sending you out at all. They probably assume it’ll happen.”

She let out a breath. “Not really… I wouldn’t say I’m soul-mate material.” At first, Alex assumed Meg meant she wasn’t cut out for long-term relationships because she preferred the single life, but the brief glint of insecurity shining in the woman’s eyes had Alex questioning that assumption. Did Meg think she was undeserving of a soul mate?

Before Alex could question her, Meg eyed Daunet and said, “But just in case, we’re working on a plan to deal with that little inconvenience.”

Daunet’s expression went sour, her lips pursing. “You are working on a plan. I want no part in it.”

Meg waved her away. “It’ll probably be fine anyway, though, ’cause from what I’ve learned, all the couples were mated after spending a bunch of time together. Ipso facto, I limit my dalliances to one night—” she clapped her hands together as if performing a magic trick, “no marks!”

Alex shook her head. Meg was going to leave a wake of heartbroken Clecanians wherever she went.

Daunet leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. “That is not how things are done here.”

Auzed turned to Alex and smirked at the comment. He’d said almost precisely the same thing to her countless times. She narrowed her eyes at him and stuck out her tongue.

Meg continued to argue with Daunet as if they’d discussed this many times over already. “Well, the reason I’m going around the world is to show everyone how humans do things, right? Are you—” Horns, louder than normal, blared through the arena, cutting her off, so she shouted over the noise and continued, “Are you going to be a buzzkill for the entire—”

Meg and Alex screamed as the seating suddenly dropped. She clamped onto Auzed, holding on for dear life. When she heard the warm rumble of his laugh, loud and hearty, she opened her eyes.

The seating was indeed moving downward, but it appeared only she and Meg had been surprised by it. She caught sight of Meg, and laughter wheezed out of her. Meg’s arms were spread wide, one hand gripping the table in front of her and the other hand clawing Daunet’s forearm. The look on her face was not dissimilar from that of a cat being scared by a cucumber.

Face pale and eyes bulging, her gaze flashed to Alex now clutching her sides. “Not. Funny.”

Alex shook her head and covered her mouth with her hand but could not form any words through her laughter.

Meg leaned back in her seat, a small chuckle escaping past her resolutely annoyed expression.

“You could’ve warned us,” Alex said when her laughter finally fizzled out.

Daunet and Auzed grinned at each other. “Where would be the fun in that?”

“What’s going on anyway?” Meg said through tight lips.

As they’d descended, a column of ropes, platforms, and various items Alex couldn’t identify came into focus and stretched up toward a large golden ring the size of a semi-truck.

“The third round is an obstacle course. Competitors start on the ground and have to climb to the top. Whoever makes it first wins the most points.”

“Whoever has the biggest arms, you mean? For the climbing?” Meg muttered, leaning over the rail to get a better look at the lower section of the obstacle course.

“Not necessarily,” Daunet replied while fiddling with the view on her screen. “There are traps and mental obstacles you have to complete along the way. Some platforms require you solve a puzzle to move them. Some ropes are not attached as securely. The course is meant to be a test of both strength and intelligence.”

Without asking, Auzed brought Gosten up on their screen.

Alex pouted. “Aw, he looks nervous.”

The massive sections of seating came to a halt near the bottom of the forest, where the competitors crouched, waiting for the signal to start. The air was thicker down here. Cooler but heavier too. And the herbal smell of lush foliage and dew was more concentrated than it was in the high city.

It was odd being so low to the ground, not seeing the emptiness below and above. After spending a week in the treetops of Sauven, it felt almost claustrophobic to have the impenetrable ground so close.

Alex searched the faces of the men, all ready and waiting, and found Gosten hovering near the far side of the stadium. It was difficult to see him between all the items hanging along the course, but she could make him out.

“Ooh, there’s Hulk.” Meg sighed, pointing to the large man they’d gushed over earlier. She propped her hand on her chin. “I bet he wins.”

“Not likely,” Auzed said without malice but like there was something he knew that they didn’t.

“Why not?”

“The competitor listing says he’s competing for eligibility.” When both humans shot him confused glances, he went on. “It means he got into trouble and his marriage eligibility was taken away. If the crime was minor enough and the allotted time has passed, some males can petition to compete for reinstatement of their eligibility. But they rarely win. The other competitors are expected to try to knock him out—sabotage him if they can.”

Meg’s wide eyes turned back toward the man, and she grinned dreamily. “So, he’s a bad boy on top of everything else? I might not want to marry him, but I could definitely make him feel better if he loses.”

A sharp blast sounded, and the men all jumped into action, leaping superhuman distances to snatch the hanging ropes. The men who were smart grabbed multiple ropes, but a few only grabbed one. Just one rope proved to be a phony, though. The man holding it roared as it snapped free. He fell, shouting obscenities as an invisible net caught him.

Just as Auzed had said, a group of five began swinging in a coordinated attack against the solitary giant, who was attempting to dodge his way past flashing tails and legs aiming to knock him off. Meg and Alex both stood and booed.

Luckily, Gosten didn’t seem to be interested in knocking out any other player. He was slowly but carefully jumping from rope to nearby platform to hanging bar, his actions as calculated as they’d been in the last round.

He leapt for a bar and missed, falling in midair. She let out a gasp, her heart fluttering to a stop as he fell. With his tail and a flailing palm, he caught a nearby rope and slid for a few feet before coming to a halt, his teeth clenched. She hissed. The insides of his palm and tail would be raw.

She hadn’t realized how tightly she’d been gripping Auzed’s hand until he tugged his fingers out of hers with a chuckle. He shook out his hand with an exaggerated wince of pain. She slapped at his arm and rolled her eyes.

“Careful. I need that hand for other things,” he whispered into her hair while wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her against him.

She caught Meg’s joyous gaze and grinned when the woman gave her a ridiculously nerdy thumbs-up.

The seats in the arena rose in time with the climbing men in order to keep them in view. One by one, the competitors fell until ten remained. Unfortunately, under the pressure of four against one, the large hulking male had finally been knocked out. The roar he released rattled the audience, and some spectators applauded his ferocity even though he’d lost.

They were only a few feet from the golden ring now, and a lanky forest-green man with an exceptionally long tail was in the lead. Gosten was second.

“If Thren gets to the top first, he’ll win,” Daunet said, leaning in toward her and Meg and staring at the lanky man. “He has enough points that the bump in score would put him far in the lead.”

The other six men had been delayed below, trying to work out a projected puzzle not unlike an Earth Rubik’s Cube.

The lanky man paused when he reached the top of the attached ropes. They ended short of the golden ring. In their place were two shining metal hoops spaced too far apart to be of any use.

Everyone in the crowd seemed to lean forward as the lanky man in the lead tensed to jump. He sprung toward the hoop, airborne, and the crowd sucked in a collective inhale. He’d never reach it.

At the last second, he flipped in midair, catching the hoop with his tail. Using the momentum of his swing, he propelled himself up toward the final hoop. With an unnecessary flourish, he flipped onto the stage above the golden ring and raised his arms in triumph, taking in the booming cheers that thundered all around him.

A loud jangling sounded from the crowd rather than applause, and Alex looked around to find the source. The Sauvenians, now on their feet, had begun to swish their tails rapidly like rattlesnakes, creating a cacophony of jingles from the rings circling them.

From a pocket under the table, Auzed pulled out a collection of gold rings bound by a leather rope and handed a bundle to each of them. They shook the bundles in the air, joining in the applause.

The sound only grew louder when Gosten, using pure power, propelled himself directly to the hoop, not needing to use his tail, and climbed onto the stage with the other man. He smiled and waved. Meg put her index finger and thumb in her mouth and whistled loud enough to make both Daunet and Auzed flinch. The boisterous cheering carried through until the fifth man climbed onto the stage with a slight limp.

The bride, dressed in a gorgeous multicolored gown, floated to the stage, smiling at the man who’d won. His grin was wide and infectious as he watched her approach. She walked up to him and demurely wrapped her tail around his. The cuteness of the gesture sent Alex’s brain into overload, and her heart fluttered. Meg had much the same reaction, releasing a squeal and pressing her hand to her chest.

After a while the stage was cleared, but the loud chattering of the crowds continued as people filed out of the arena toward various gatherings around the city.

“You guys ready for a party?” Meg shouted, excitement lighting her grin.

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