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Using Fejo: Chapter 1

Vanessa couldn’t recall a time in her life when she’d been so unhappy about shopping. Gazing into the crowded trinket tent with shelves upon shelves of wondrous items found on planets throughout the Alliance, she couldn’t muster any enthusiasm.

Growing up, she hadn’t had the option to shop much. Browsing through a bin of hand-me-downs in the various foster homes she and her sister had grown up in was the closest she’d come to shopping as a youth. Then, after Julie, her older sister, had turned eighteen and moved them both out, shopping had been a luxury. Necessary items only.

“Let’s go in,” Daisy urged from her left.

Vanessa shot her a weak smile, knowing Daisy was only trying to make her feel better. Since stepping foot on Clecania almost a month ago, Vanessa had been itching to leave. Not because she’d been abducted from Earth, locked in a cell, and almost experimented on by the rogue aliens she and her friends liked to refer to as PRIC. But because she needed to get back to Julie.

Julie, the one who’d sacrificed and watched out for Vanessa her whole life. And the one she’d said unspeakable things to in the heat of the moment mere hours before her abduction. Vanessa swallowed. Julie, who might already be dead.

At Daisy’s insistence, she stepped into the large tent. She’d been told that every four weeks, the main road bisecting the city of Tremanta became crowded with pop-up tents and stands. Some, like the one she was in, were simple fabric structures. Others were fantastical things somehow collapsible and constructed of glass or, in the case of the winged Clecanian a few tents down, bone and feathers. Talk about zero waste.

“Hey, Luka wants to check out what off-world animals that trader down the street brought this time,” Alice yelled from the grassy, flat area they called a street. Since the Clecanians jetted around in floating cruisers, it made sense that the so-called roads were just cleared sections of land and not paved. Still, it was odd to behold towering, twirling skyscrapers glittering in the sunlight all around and then see grass running between the buildings. As if nature was taking the city back.

Daisy bounced on the balls of her feet and darted her gaze toward Alice. “Let’s go see the animals,” she chirped. “Remember when we walked by? There was that weird cat thing. It was sooo cute.”

“Cute?” Vanessa chuckled. “It was five feet long and had a detachable jaw. Not exactly a kitten.”

“It was adorable, and you know it,” Daisy argued, inching in the direction of the exit. “You coming, or are you gonna be okay on your own?”

Vanessa waved her away. “I’m fine—go.”

Daisy all but skipped out of the tent and locked arms with Alice, her brown curls healthy and shining in the afternoon sun. Vanessa had glimpsed her reflection in a large, dusty, round mirror as they’d entered the shop and saw her hair was flat. Dull. Her complexion like chalk. Long, sleepless nights had done a number on her.

It wasn’t like Daisy didn’t want to go home too. She had family she missed and a life of her own, but unlike Vanessa, Daisy had set her mind to acclimating, and over the past three and a half weeks, she’d succeeded. Vanessa envied her. She envied all her friends, really.

They’d been able to enjoy the astounding things Clecania had to offer without reservation. The wonderful food and technology. The beautiful clothes and incredible architecture. Every time happiness sparked in Vanessa, guilt immediately snuffed it out. Joy was not something she deserved, nor would it be until she got back home to Earth and made things right.

The hair on her neck prickled, and she spotted the shop owner staring at her from the corner of the shop. She was an older woman but gorgeous, with bright orange hair and fawn-colored eyes. Her deep navy skin was smooth and even, and the glittering markings curling over her body shone like veins of gold.

With a tight-lipped nod, Vanessa turned and ventured farther into the store. The air was heavy and the warm, woody smell of old books filled the tent, though there were no old books in sight.

The hair on her neck remained lifted, and she frowned, knowing the woman was still watching her. Normally, she’d assume the owner was checking on her to make sure she didn’t steal anything, but not on this planet. These aliens watched because they were curious.

Vanessa could understand their curiosity. It wasn’t every day an advanced species in danger of becoming extinct discovered an entire planet of people descended from them. Humans, as it turned out, had ancestors in common with the Clecanians. So much so, the leaders of this world thought of them as Clecanians.

Thought of them as their own people, but wouldn’t give them the freedom to go back to Earth. The familiar surge of helpless frustration rolled through her, and she clenched her jaw. On Earth, she had a bank account with three hundred sixty-two dollars, a crappy detached garage turned studio apartment, and a supermarket job she’d been about to be fired from. Her life was no prize, and she wished she didn’t feel the anxiety-inducing need to return home, but she couldn’t help it.

Deep in the back of the crammed tent, she paused at a long table piled high with random items. She didn’t need to ask whether it was the sale table. Even on an alien planet, she could spot a clearance area from a mile away.

A decorative purple box inlaid with ivory stone caught her eye. Dragging the box forward through a sea of oddly thick buttons she was sure weren’t actually buttons, she lifted the lid. Inside, she found a stubby metallic cylinder with a narrow handle on the bottom. It reminded her of a squashed push-up popsicle. As a kid, whenever she could scrounge enough change together, she’d get one from the ice cream truck that chugged around the city during the summer.

She turned the cylinder, squinting and trying to figure out what it was. Awareness washed over her, prickling the skin at the back of her arms and skittering down her scalp. She knew someone was close behind before she turned.

Expecting to see the shop owner who’d been eyeing her, she was surprised to find a man instead. He was closer than she’d anticipated, though she couldn’t understand how he’d snuck up on her. Vanessa had spent a good portion of her life learning to be aware of her surroundings, and the fact that this guy had somehow gotten within two feet of her before she’d noticed soured her mood further.

“Hello there. Shopping?” he asked in a deep, smooth voice.

Vanessa bit her tongue to hold back the sarcastic retort she had ready and waiting. Her “bad attitude” and “poor people skills” were a few of the many reasons she couldn’t hold down a job for long. But why was it her fault that people asked dumb questions?

“Yes. Are you selling something, or do you just enjoy hovering and asking women questions you already know the answers to?” And, as it always did, her attitude had come out. Self-sabotage was what her sister called it. Julie claimed Vanessa used her defensiveness to ward off anyone and everyone.

For a moment, she fought with herself over whether to apologize, but the man grinned. Awareness of a different kind swept over her skin as she noticed the dimple popping in his right cheek and his even, white teeth. He was large, as were so many of the men here, and handsome. His disheveled black hair was tied up in one of those ridiculous man buns. In truth, she loved the way they looked, but in reality, every guy she’d met who had one had been intolerable. A hipster or a conceited gym rat who spent more time taking pictures of himself than speaking.

Judging by his outfit, this guy landed somewhere in the middle. His loose brown tunic dipped low on his tanned chest and rode high on his arms, showing off his muscular figure and smooth, olive-toned skin.

The shirt was perfectly rumpled and worn enough to make it difficult to tell if he’d purchased it that way or had had it for a while. The dark brown pants the shirt was tucked into, and the black boots laced up to his knees, gave him the appearance of a dockworker or sailor from an old-timey movie.

Her eyes caught on a long, thin, reddish-brown line running down the length of his sculpted arm. There was an identical line on his other side. The marks seemed to begin on the sides of his neck, just under his ears, then traveled over the tops of his shoulders and disappeared beneath the loose collar of his shirt. They reappeared at his cuffed sleeves and extended down the length of his outer arms, all the way to his wrists. They were the only marks to be seen, unlike the swirling, glittering marks of many Lignas Clecanians in the city.

His thick biceps flexed under her scrutiny, and her attention snapped back to his face. He stepped closer, and the scent of salty sea water wafted off him. Was he actually a sailor? She’d heard of some oceans on this planet, but she didn’t know of any nearby.

“Apologies. I saw you staring at that object and wondered if you needed help.” He grinned at her again, a rakish, lopsided grin that made the shriveled girly part of her swoon.

Vanessa glanced down to the shining push-up popsicle she still held. “I’m fine. Thanks.”

He raised a dark brow. “Oh? Are you going to purchase it?”

She frowned at him. He had one of those charismatic personalities that was inherently charming. Even when he wasn’t smiling, you could hear the grin in his voice. He radiated warmth and humor, as if everything he did was worth celebrating and laughing over. She’d bet he had a magnificent laugh. Full and hearty to match that devilish smile.

He was far too good looking for her to deal with right now. Men like him, the ones with drool-worthy looks and panty-dropping charm, knew how they affected women, and the flirtatious grin in his voice told her he knew too. He was a textbook ladies’ man, and she had no patience for guys like that. Not that she’d made time for any man of any kind in a while, always finding something or other wrong with them.

“I don’t know whether I’ll buy it, and I don’t know why it matters to you one way or another.” She laced her tone with a chill, trying to make it clear she was uninterested.

He tipped his head from side to side. In one smooth step, he crowded next to her. Between the shelf at her back, the table on her side, and his towering frame, she had only one route of escape, but she refused to run. This guy was interrupting her depression shopping, and if anyone should leave, it was him.

He lowered his voice, gazing down into her eyes with a simmering intensity that didn’t quite line up with their conversation so far. “Ah, well, I saw you inspecting it and thought I’d offer my services instead…if you’re looking.”

Services? She held the metal push pop to her chest, her fist wrapped around the stick on the bottom, like someone was going to steal it from her. She leaned her head and neck away, tipping as far back as she could with the bookcase at her spine as he leaned forward.

“You smell wonderful, by the way,” he rumbled.

Vanessa had no words all of a sudden. Not a snide remark or defensive utterance to be found. This guy, with his dark, piercing eyes, was trouble. The kind of trouble naïve women fell for. Vanessa wasn’t naïve, but even she was having a hard time deciding if she wanted him to move away.

He focused on the item in her hand. “This is an outdated model anyway. It’ll get the job done, but my research on humans makes me think I could get it done better.”

“Huh?” was all she could manage. What the hell was he talking about?

He tipped his head just a fraction, narrowing his eyes and searching her face. After a moment, the corner of his mouth lifted in a mischievous grin. He reached between them and wrapped his fingers around her fist, then gripped the fat portion of the cylinder with his other hand. The place where their skin touched sizzled. The feel of his strong, rough palm around her hand had her taking a deeper inhale than normal.

He tightened his grip so the stick she was holding wouldn’t rotate, and twisted the upper cylinder. Vanessa jumped when the item began to grow and bend in time with his twisting. She gazed at the newly revealed object, a long, fat cylinder that curved upward near the tip, and her brows drew together. Was it a backscratcher or something?

She peered up at the man, whose heated gaze was both hungry and amused. He lifted a heavy black brow and pressed a button on the underside of the object she hadn’t noticed before. It began to pulse.

“Holy fuck!” Vibrator. It’s a vibrator. It’s an enormous metal vibrator. She pushed it away from her chest and would’ve dropped it if it weren’t for his hand still wrapped around hers.

He let out a loud bark of laughter, and she stilled, glaring at him. What a presumptuous ass. Now his flirtatious tone made so much more sense. She knew Clecanian men were forward—especially with humans—but this was something else.

He’d been trying to get her to choose to sleep with him over buying a sex toy. Well, that was none of his business. She hadn’t known it was a vibrator. Even so, if she were actually shopping for one, she wouldn’t want to be bombarded by some guy claiming he could “do it better.”

It was clear from the humor glinting in his eyes that he realized she hadn’t known what it was, but he leaned toward her anyway and rumbled, “So, are you thinking of buying it? I humbly offer myself as a suitable replacement if not.”

Vanessa gaped at him. “You arrogant, presumptuous—”

“I feel you should judge whether I’m arrogant or confident based on research. I’d be happy to support my claims for hours if that’s what it takes to convince you of my abilities.”

Vanessa’s insides heated, and she couldn’t decide if it was from anger or something else. A flush broke out all over her skin and heat rose on her cheeks. Blushing? Was she fucking blushing?

His gaze roved over her cheeks, which she imagined were bright pink, and a lazy smile curled his lips. He took an exaggerated inhale of satisfaction. “Now that’s a sight to behold.”

Her stomach flipped. Think of something snarky to say. Quick, show him he wants no part of this. But nothing came to mind.

“Vanessa! You ready to go?” Alice’s familiar voice called from the street.

“Coming!” she yelled back almost instantly, her voice a fraction more squeaky than normal. With a tug, she tried to pull her hand out from under his, but he held firm.

“Vanessa,” he crooned, rolling the syllables over his tongue as though tasting them.

She wrenched her hand free, flustered and shaky in a way she couldn’t ever remember feeling. “Yup, that’s my name. Now you can forget it.” She dashed away, hoping she didn’t look as startled as she felt.

“Unlikely!” he called after her with a chuckle.

Once outside, she joined Alice, Luka, and Daisy, and they walked toward the exit of the market, where a line of cruisers waited to take customers home.

“So, he didn’t have that cat, but—” Daisy stopped when she examined Vanessa’s face. “Are you okay? What happened?”

Vanessa brushed the hair from her warm cheek and tried to shake off the lingering hot flash that man had caused. “Yeah, fine. It was just stuffy in the back of that tent is all.”

Alice and Luka walked ahead, hand in hand. Luka, Alice’s mate, chattered about one of the animals that’d been on display, and Alice beamed up at him as if he were the most interesting man in the world. Daisy continued to gaze at her sidelong.

“Really, I’m fine,” Vanessa repeated, shaking out her shoulders. They loaded into a cruiser and took off, dropping Alice and Luka at their apartment before continuing on to the Pearl Temple, where she and Daisy currently lived.

Daisy chatted happily about the new things she’d seen at the market today while Vanessa attempted and failed to listen. Her mind kept latching onto dark eyes lined with thick, sooty lashes, and the smell of saltwater. When she finally said goodbye to Daisy and closed the door of her house behind her, she let out an exhale that was embarrassingly close to a sigh.

Halfway through preparing a meager dinner she’d likely end up only eating half of, a chime sounded, alerting her to someone at the door. Probably Rita. She came over most nights.

Rita claimed it was because she hated being alone, but Vanessa knew the truth. She and Daisy took it in turns to check on Vanessa, make sure she was eating and not dissolving under the weight of a bout of depression.

When she opened the door, she found no one. Glancing down, she spotted a box. Anticipation curled in her belly as she lifted the wooden cube. A note, one printed on actual paper, was inside the box, covering the contents. She hadn’t yet mastered reading Clecanian writing, so she rushed inside and retrieved the small magnifying glass-shaped object that translated written words into a programmed language. Her heart thundered in her chest as she stared at the words through the rectangular screen.

Breathtaking Vanessa,

From the research I’ve done, I expect this model will suit you much better. Think of me when you use it.

Your arrogant admirer

For a moment, her mind stuttered, wondering how he could’ve known where she lived. But then she remembered the heavily guarded Pearl Temple was where almost all the human women lived. All he’d have to do was give the package and her name to the guard at the gate, and they’d know exactly where to deliver it.

She peered into the interior of the box and found another metallic object. Liquid heat sluiced through her core, and she gulped. Why the hell was she so turned on right now? The idea of him searching for a sex toy for her and having it delivered while asking for nothing in return was one of the hottest things a man had ever done for her.

Well…he’d asked for almost nothing. Her eyes devoured the note again and latched on to the last sentence. Think of me when you use it.

An image of his delicious grin and sharp jawline popped into her head, and she eyed the object in the box for a long while before finally huffing out a breath and slamming the lid closed. She stood and paced around her home. She had to get off this damn planet and back to Earth, where men were easy-to-decipher assholes.

She thought back to the trinket shop encounter. He didn’t look Lignas, the race who populated Tremanta by a large percentage. It’s likely he was from a different city and was just there for the day.

She let out a relieved breath and eyed the box. Yes, she could rest easy, knowing the chances of meeting him again were beyond slim…even if a small part of her wanted to.


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