Jade’s hands shook, even as she rocked Clementine in her arms, praying her sweet baby would stop crying and fall asleep soon. The last time Clem had cried, the og’dal guard in charge of the cells in the warlord’s palace had threatened to take her from Jade. She had promised to keep her baby quiet, but Clem was ten months old and hungry. The moment she laid Clem down on the cement slab that served as a bed, the guard had reached for Clem.
Jade had leapt onto the guard, bit his shoulder, dug her nails into his arms, and scratched his faced. She’d do anything to keep him from touching Clem. The guard had turned his wrath on her, striking her across the face hard enough that she slammed into the stone wall of her cell. Then he’d left—without Clem—which is all that mattered. The next time she might not be so lucky.
Time was not on their side. Jade needed to find a way out, or at least a way to save Clem. These barbarians cared nothing about life, even one as innocent as a baby. Clem had been a happy child, babbling, cooing, and getting ready to take her first steps. That was before everything went south. The Coalition had attacked the settlement in New Toronto, killing dozens. Jade and Clem had been separated from the rest of the resistance, without explanation, and sent to Los Angeles, to the palace of the Coalition’s leader on Earth, Warlord Ghazi himself.
First, Jade’s sister Ruby had been sentenced to death in absentia, and now Jade and Clem were at the mercy of the warlord. She hoped Ruby had escaped Earth. Jade had laughed at Ruby’s plan to sign up as a mail-order bride, but now that Jade looked back, it had been a good choice. Anything was better than staying here, where the warlord and the Brotherhood—a band of humans as vicious as the aliens who now ruled Earth—used the planet as their personal playground.
With a crash, the cell door swung open and slammed against the rock wall, causing Jade to jump and Clem to start wailing. Her sweet girl had finally fallen asleep despite the hunger and cold, and now the brutes had come to terrorize them.
Except this time, they’d sent an enormous blue beast with white horns that looked sharp enough to pierce her flesh quicker than the guards’ knives. And his hair, stark white, wild and unkempt about his shoulders, gave him a crazed look. She could ignore the male’s disheveled appearance and the powerful muscles that framed him from head to toe, but the blood… so much blood on him, had her clutching Clem and turning her back as the lunatic entered her cell.
“Please don’t hurt my baby,” she cried out when a heavy hand gripped her shoulder.
Except his touch wasn’t rough like the og’dal who’d struck her yesterday, or the human who’d attacked her the day before. With a firm hand, the towering wall of blue muscle applied just enough pressure to coax her to turn.
“I would never harm a youngling,” he said in Common, his voice gentle and calm.
Cautiously, she turned, exposing not just herself, but her child as well. Somehow she saw past the blood splatter long enough to look into his face and see the warmth of his pale blue eyes. He was so different from the aliens she’d seen so far. She didn’t know what he was or what he wanted with her. She’d learned long ago not to trust anyone. Only her sister. But there was something about this giant—a calmness, a confidence… a gentleness—that she couldn’t dismiss.
“Come,” he said.
“Away from here. Unless you prefer to stay as the warlord’s guest.”
Was he trying to be funny? Nothing about this situation was funny. “You’re covered in blood,” she said, not sure why she was commenting about the state of his clothing. She should be thinking of a way to get her and Clem past this alien whose large frame blocked her from escaping.
“The guards objected when I asked for you to be released into my care. And I asked nicely too.”
“Are you trying to make fun of me?”
Smart, real smart, Jade. Challenge the big blue alien with horns. Keep your trap shut and keep Clem out of his reach.
Except Clem was fussing, squirming in her arms and starting to wail again. Again? She just realized her daughter had quieted when the alien had approached them.
“The youngling is loud,” the alien said, craning his neck as he tried to see over Jade’s shoulder. She’d hunched over Clem, hiding her baby from him. There was no way she was going to expose Clem to this brute, no matter how pleasant his voice was.
“She’s a baby. Babies cry.”
“You need to quiet her.”
“I’m trying!” Jade’s anxiety overwhelmed her. “Quieting a hungry, cold baby isn’t easy.” Jade was so tired. But she couldn’t give up. She promised Clem she’d never give up.
“Give her to me.”
“Stay away!” Jade said as she backed into the cell as far as she could go.
He stepped closer, and that’s when she lost her temper. She placed her palm against his leather-covered chest and pushed. It was like pushing on the iron door of her cell, that’s how hard and unmovable the giant was.
Without hesitation, the male took Clem from her arms.
“Don’t take my baby!” she pleaded, punching him with her fists until he grabbed both of her hands in one of his, all while holding Clem against his shoulder with his left arm.
That’s when she realized her Clem was cooing and swatting at the lower portion of the alien’s left horn as if it was a toy drum.
“I will not harm you or your youngling, Jade,” he said as his horns moved—moved!—so the sharp, pointed ends were high and out of Clem’s reach. “But we must go now, and it would be best if you keep Little Citrus here quiet.”
Little Citrus? Okay, it made sense if he’d translated her name from Clementine into Common, but where had he learned their names?
“Who are you?” she asked finally. “How do you know my name, and what do you want with us?”
“I’m Havok, a friend of Ruby’s.”
Ruby was gone. She’d left months ago, before the attack on the settlement in New Toronto. Even if Ruby had sent someone to rescue her and Clem, there was no way she would know to find them in the warlord’s palace in Los Angeles.
“Prove it,” Jade said, not sure what had gotten into her to speak so boldly to the alien. Except that he held her daughter. Speaking back could earn her a punch to the face, or worse, and yet there was something about this male—man?—that gave her the courage to speak up, to challenge him. God knew she could not resist him if he wanted to force her. Hell, he didn’t even need to force her to do whatever it was he wanted with her. He held her baby. She’d do anything to make sure he didn’t harm Clem.
“Ruby has flaming hair and green eyes.”
“Anyone could have told you that.”
He cocked his head slightly as if listening to something in the distance. Suddenly, he shoved Clem at her and exited the cell. Blaster fire echoed through the corridor.
“We’re out of time, female. If I return without you, Ruby will cut off my cocks, and I’d like to keep them.”
Cocks? That og’dal must have struck her too hard yesterday because now she was hearing things. Or imagining it all. That made the most sense. Because Ruby was gone, aliens weren’t blue—they were red or near-transparent with black veins like Warlord Ghazi—and males didn’t have more than one cock. None of this was real. She was having a nightmare or something. At least that’s what she told herself as the giant blue guy scooped her and Clem up together as if they weighed nothing and ran down the hall.
Little Clem’s hand played with Jade’s lip like this was just another day to play and laugh. “She has your eyes,” the blue guy said. “A deep blue, like your planet’s oceans. You are fortunate to have her, human. Now, hold on.”
“Hold on?” she asked as he slipped some leather straps around her legs and waist, and another set around Clem, locking her tight to Jade’s chest.
That’s when she looked down from the window where they stood. A blue arm locked around her waist and the blue man—the crazy blue man—jumped out the window, with Jade and Clem still in his arms.