Tempting Auzed: Chapter 28


Alex instinctively moved to twirl her ring around her finger but only touched bare skin. She sighed and wrapped her arms around her waist instead. Her ceremony aide, an older, reserved woman named Blina, had explained each round of the ceremony to her. In this round, something they called the Viewing, she’d look at a parade of men and pick out the ones she liked.

Emptiness echoed in her heart, thinking about the only face she wanted to see. Ever since her and Auzed’s passionate encounter, she’d begun to hollow out. No more tears sprung to her eyes. Nothing made her laugh. Even the idea of her family back home no longer warmed her like it used to. She was dead inside. Stone.

“Hey there, scaredy cat.”

Alex turned at the voice and spotted Vanessa. Had she been living at the Temple this whole time?

Months ago—it now seemed like lifetimes—she and Vanessa had broken out of their underground prison together. Battling their way to the surface past their Insurgent abductors.

She and Vanessa had only spoken briefly once they’d escaped, but the memories Alex had of the woman weren’t fond ones. She could accept that perhaps neither had been in a completely rational state of mind at that time, though. Their actions had been spurred by terror, too wrapped up in the scramble to figure out what to do next to be polite to each other.

When Alex and Lily had wanted to take their chances in the forest, fearing they’d be re-captured if they didn’t—a reasonable reaction which she would argue for to this day—Vanessa had scoffed, calling them insane.

“Hey…you.” She nodded as the woman approached. She was almost positive her name was Vanessa but it’d been so long, and she didn’t want to be wrong.

“Vanessa.” The woman smiled.

Alex studied her and noticed that despite Vanessa’s confident attitude, she looked worn and unhealthy. Her skin was waxen and drawn, and her slight frame, which at one time would’ve made any model jealous, was gaunt. What had happened to her?

The lights dimmed, and the hallway on the other side of the glass illuminated.

A small man with a warm smile and bright excited eyes sped toward Vanessa. “You understand what you’re supposed to do, yes?”

“Yes, Zikas, you’re a doll.”

Alex smothered a smirk. She could tell from Vanessa’s tone that she was actually trying to be nice, but a hint of sarcasm colored her words anyway.

The man seemed to hear it too because his brows drew together briefly, but then he grinned again and walked away.

One by one, men filed in front of them, stopping at planned intervals to gaze through the one-way glass. Alex tried to concentrate, but what did it even matter? She should just pick one and be done with it. She’d already made it clear to the Queen that she’d be doing nothing with her husband at all. A part of her felt bad for whomever she picked, knowing how important being selected for marriage was, but if this was what it took to give Auzed even a bit of happiness, she’d do it. When the marriage was over, she’d just lie and gush about how amazing the guy was at everything. Hopefully that would make him more interesting to women for the next time he signed up.

A sharp needle pierced her heart as she wondered what Auzed would say about her plan to lie.

Suddenly, she spun to Vanessa, their setting finally registering in her brain. “Wait. You?” Alex sputtered. Obviously, Vanessa was here, wasn’t she? But her brain still had trouble computing. “You’re getting married? Voluntarily?”

Vanessa’s jaw clenched as she stared at a new man who’d just started posing behind the glass like a swarthy playboy pirate. “Yeah, to that arrogant, cocky, overdressed meathead.”

Alex snorted. “Sounds like you two are really in love.”

She studied the man to understand why Vanessa wanted to choose him despite her obvious irritation. He was good-looking enough, that was for sure. Broad-shouldered and tall with smooth, bronzed skin and a dark messy mop of hair—almost as black as Vanessa’s straight hair. He was dressed in a heavily embroidered plum coat with pounds of jewelry dripping from his throat, ears, and hair. More jewelry topped his fingers as well as the soles of his boots. His thousand-watt smile practically lit up the room all by itself, not to mention his single dimple rakishly popped whenever he smirked wide enough.

Alex glanced back at Vanessa. It was clear she knew him. Nobody could be that irritated by someone they didn’t know. “He seems like trouble—but the sexy kind,” she said matter-of-factly.

Vanessa watched as he sauntered down the line, then, with a quick glance over her shoulder at Zikas, she leaned in close and whispered, “He’s my ticket out of here.”

Alex’s gaze flew back to the handsome stranger. “Really? What do you mean?”

Vanessa raised her brows. “He has a ship and spends most of his time off-planet. And does some underhanded stuff. Like going to planets he’s not supposed to.” Vanessa lifted her brows, forcing the consequence of her words to register in Alex’s mind. “He’s supposed to leave for another trip this week, and so help me, I’m getting on that ship.” She gestured around the room. “This seemed like a better plan than trying to sneak on. I’d probably fuck it up and end up in the trash room or something and get sucked out into space when they dump it.”

Heart thudding in her chest, she digested that. If Vanessa was going home, that meant…could she go too? Sneak onto the ship with Wilson in Vanessa’s luggage or something? A slice of pain, sudden and crippling in its intensity, tore into her heart at the idea of leaving. She probably wouldn’t even be able to say goodbye to Auzed. He’d spend his life wondering, and…

Shocking clarity overcame her. Now, confronted with the real opportunity to go back to Earth, she couldn’t do it. Physically couldn’t stomach it. Even thinking about the possibility of hopping onto a ship next week made her roil with nausea.

She’d assumed when the opportunity to leave finally arrived, she’d be so stricken with homesickness and concern for her family that, although sad, she’d also be relieved and excited to go home. She didn’t feel that way at all—just the opposite. The thought made her skin crawl.

The knowledge that her family was suffering and would continue to suffer stole her breath, but to her surprise, leaving Auzed felt the same way. He was her family now too. One day, Earth would be accessible again. Until then, her family would survive. They had each other after all.

She’d make it her mission to change the laws protecting Earth. If she had to annoy every last politician on this planet each day of the rest of her life, she’d do it. But she wanted to do it with Auzed by her side.

Suddenly all the reservations she’d had were washed away. But then…despair roared to life in its place. She’d turned him down, and now she was here. Required to pick a man to marry. A man who wasn’t Auzed.

Her gaze darted around the room, searching for an escape. How the fuck had she let this happen? A door against the far wall caught her eye, but so did Zikas and Blina, who were gazing at her warily.

“God, he looks like shit,” Vanessa grumbled from nearby.

Out of instinct, Alex glanced at the person Vanessa was talking about and did a double take, staggering back a step. She stared hard, not quite believing her eyes.

Haggard, out of breath, and more than a little furious, Auzed stalked into the hallway. He glared at the glass as if he could crack it with only the power of his mind and blind fury.

She grinned, a goofy, lovesick grin. Her heart throbbed at double its usual pace, and happy tears blurred her vision.

“God, don’t tell me you want that one. He’s a guard at the Temple, and he’s so uptight.”

“And you’re a bitch.” Alex chuckled and elbowed a shocked Vanessa in the arm. “But I still like you.” She shot her a wink. Then as if on a cloud, she floated to the glass, wishing she could reach through it and squeeze her disheveled mountain of a man.

In the distance, she heard Vanessa chuckle. “Touché.”

Before Alex knew it, the Viewing was over, and they were taken to a separate but identical room for the Choosing. Blina reminded her she’d need to remember the numbers of the men she wanted to test in the next round. Alex kept her eyes peeled, not trusting herself enough to even blink.

Vanessa sidled up to her again and whispered, “I’m collecting letters with addresses from as many humans as I can. Want me to try to get something to your family?”

Alex’s eyes flashed to Vanessa, and she threw her arms around her in a crushing bear hug.

“Okay. Alright. I get it.” She shook out her limbs when Alex released her. “Write it and give it to me as soon as you can, and if I get to Earth, I’ll make sure it finds your family.”

If? “Didn’t he agree to take you back to Earth?”

Vanessa’s shoulders slumped. Her lips pulled to the side in annoyance. “Well, not exactly. He doesn’t even know I’m planning on bagging him. But he’s my ticket out. If I can get onto his ship and off Clecania…” She shrugged. “Even if he doesn’t agree to take me, I’m still off this planet and one step closer.”

Alex wanted to point out the many ways in which that plan was doomed to fail, but the desperation in the woman’s eyes had her snapping her mouth shut. It was unlikely Vanessa had planned all this without coming to that realization herself. If she still wanted to take the risk? Well, that was her decision. Just as it’d been Alex’s to run into the forest after escaping from that bunker.

The knowledge that she’d never actually had a shot of going back to Earth rang through her mind. She grinned. That fact changed nothing. The way she’d felt when she thought she could leave told her everything she needed to know. 

She pulled a stiff Vanessa to her and wrapped her in a tight hug again. “Thank you.” She sniffed.

With an awkward pat on the back, Vanessa muttered, “Yeah, no problem.” Her eyes lit on the flashy man entering the hall, and she squirmed out of Alex’s hold.

She chuckled when Vanessa walked away and in a firm voice directed at Zikas said, “That one. I want that one.”

That poor guy had no idea what was about to hit him.

***

Alex was practically bouncing as Blina led her to the Testing room. They passed Vanessa, who gave a small wave while barring the entrance to the room the man she’d picked was presumably in. “Keep moving, he’s spoken for!” she hissed to an annoyed teal-haired beauty who tried to enter, apparently having picked the man as well.

Alex chuckled. She’d checked and rechecked with Blina that no one else had selected Auzed. She supposed his bedraggled appearance worked in her favor because she wouldn’t need to fight off any women of her own.

They reached the door, and suddenly her nerves got the better of her. What if he didn’t want her to choose him? What if he was doing this to get back at her or something?

She shook off the worries as soon as they entered her brain. Her deal with the Queen had been very clear. Alex had to get married, and then Auzed would get his job back. If he was here, that could only mean one thing. He’d turned it down. Not only that but he’d turned it down and come here. Laying himself bare to her again.

The last time he’d offered her a life with him, she’d crushed him. She inhaled a deep breath. Not this time.

“Remember,” Blina said in a rehearsed tone. “He’ll be blindfolded, and he won’t know who it was who picked him.”

“I can take the blindfold off, though, right?” Alex asked, smoothing the drab russet romper-like garment she’d picked for the day when she’d been miserable and wanted her attire to match her mood.

“Take it…” Blina reared back and stared at her as if she had two heads. “Why would you want to take it off?”

A slight annoyance that she was spending one more second talking out here when she could be in that room reuniting with Auzed made her words a bit more clipped than necessary. “Can I? Please, just yes or no.”

Blina grimaced at her and stepped away, rustling through a low cabinet. She produced an odd handheld tool and dropped it into Alex’s upheld palms. “Press the button on the left to soften the covering,” she drawled.

“Whatever that means!” Alex beamed, giving an appalled Blina a quick hug before rushing to stand in front of the door.

She took a long, shaky breath in and out. Butterflies bombarded her stomach, and her cheeks hurt from grinning so hard. You got this.

She swung the door wide. There, in the middle of the room, was Auzed. He paced with his hands slammed onto his hips. The clunking of his shoes vibrated through the whole room. He must’ve been lost in thought because he didn’t immediately hear her come in until the door shut behind her.

He paused and sniffed at the air. Checking to make sure it was her? The black tar-like substance covering his eyes would make spotting her impossible. She now understood what Blina had meant about softening it.

As soon as he identified it was her, he erupted. “What were you thinking? I didn’t ask you to offer yourself up to some stranger for me. Being impulsive…again! After everything we went through!”

He continued to bark and blunder, but all Alex could do was grin. He looked so cute standing there like a blind volcano of a man. Angled just far enough to the right, not quite facing her, to undermine his furious tone.

“Alex. Are you listening to me? How dare you choose to marry—”

She ran and leapt at him, wrapping her arms and legs around his body as he let out an oof and took a step back. Before he could say another word, she kissed him.

He stood still for only a second before he came alive underneath her, crushing her against his body and devouring her kisses. She slid her fingers through his shaggy hair, now longer than she remembered.

“No! Stop. We aren’t done.” He forced her down, gripping her biceps and setting her away.

Quickly, she wiggled out of his light grasp and retrieved the tool needed to remove his eye covering. “I’m so glad you’re here, Auzzy.”

The hard lines marring his face with anger flickered, then softened. He shuffled in place, unsure how to act now that he wasn’t still brimming with anger. She gently guided his head down and held the tool over his eyes.

“Really?” he breathed.

Damn, she’d wanted to wait until they could look at each other to say what she needed to say, but the hope shining on his crinkled brows and parted lips broke her.

“I love you, Auzed. More than anything in all the universe. I want us to be together. Whatever way we can be.”

His mouth remained open as he digested her words. She pulled at the odd tar, but it was still too hard. He winced.

“Sorry.”

“But…what about Earth? What about your family?” She could hear the pain in his clipped words and hated it.

“Long story short, I thought I had the opportunity to go home today, and I just couldn’t.” She cupped his cheek with her free hand. “I love my family. I always will. But I can’t live without you.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. Then, a handful of different emotions flitted across his face. A flash of doubt, anger, then pure joy, then reserved joy. He still didn’t quite believe her. “What if they let humans go back?”

“Unless you go with me, I’m not going. But I’ll do whatever I can to let my family know I’m safe and that I’m completely”—she pressed a kiss to his right cheek—“perfectly”—she kissed his other cheek—“and incandescently happy.”

His purr rumbled through him in time with his wide grin. “I love you so much, Alejandra.”

Dragging her grinning mouth to his, he kissed her slow and deep just as the tar over his eyes softened. She peeled it off and pulled away to look at him fully.

With a shriek she stumbled back, falling hard on her ass.

“What?” he roared, crouching into a fighting stance and blinking around the room in the bright light, searching for the danger.

She stared, unable to process what she was seeing.

His attention focused on her still on the ground where she’d fallen, and he knelt. She gazed into his eyes. His worried eyes. His black eyes.

“Alejandra, what’s wrong?” he rasped, taking her hand.

She gave a shrug and beamed at him. “Looks like we don’t have to get married, after all.”

A moment of hurt flashed over his features before he registered her grin. His brows drew together.

She peered down in wonder to where he clasped her hand in his and, sure enough, bright-blue markings started to appear, twining their way around his wrists and up along his fingers.

Following her gaze, he stilled. He muttered something under his breath that she couldn’t quite make out.

“What, Auzzy?”

He peered up at her, grinning like an idiot. “You’re mine.”

He said it as if he didn’t quite believe the words himself, and she wanted him to believe them. Needed him to because somewhere deep down, she’d known it all along.

“What was that?” she goaded with a hand to her ear.

“You’re mine,” he said again, crawling over her until she was forced to slowly lie back.

She wrapped her arms around his neck. “One more time for the folks in the back!”

“You’re mine!” he bellowed, then descended on her in a hard, passionate kiss that vibrated along with his deep purr.

He pulled away and shot a disbelieving glance back to his hands, then back to her.

Alex stroked his cheek, tucking his hair behind his ears, and marveled as the black in his eyes faded to the soft mossy green she loved.

“I’m yours,” she whispered, her chest so full it could explode. “And you’re mine.”

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