Queen Ximena is devoted to her people and will gladly sacrifice herself for them, even if it means her death. Her bodyguard, Zefirino, is devoted to her and will gladly sacrifice himself to keep her alive. When a terrible enemy suddenly attacks their planet, how will they protect those they love without losing each other?
Together they survive an assassination attempt, invasion, and capture, but they both know that their duty may eventually tear them apart. How can Ximena give her life for her people when she knows that Zefirino will die trying to save her? Who does she put first: her planet, or the lover she isn't even supposed to have?
Xi smiled and sat down. The bed was soft and comfortable and the blanket did not fall to pieces. Directly opposite her sat a desk with a computer monitor built into the surface. “It is fine. Remember, our ancestors designed this ship to last nearly forever.” She watched him swallow, his natural grace eroding in the face of her insistence that he sleep with her. She wondered if he would start to fidget. I've never seen him look so uncomfortable, she thought as a pang of remorse swept through her. I should not be pushing him like this when I myself have only just begun to imagine loving him freely.
“Zef, if you do not wish to rest in here, you may choose a different room,” she offered. The bond told her he would stay, but his turmoil overrode nearly all the desire he felt for her.
He pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment then let his hands fall. His emotions pulsed and suddenly, she realized that most of his difficulty arose from his desperate need to touch her at war with his iron will to keep his hands to himself. His sense of what was proper had been trained into him until it was almost impossible to overcome, despite the kisses they’d already shared. Perhaps he didn’t expect to survive long enough to face this opportunity. Almost, she turned away, but then his emotions—so strong— crashed through her. She gasped. His inner turmoil hurt far more than his touch could. She held out a hand and willed him closer.
He took a single step inside and the door silently rematerialized behind him. “I will stay.” The light of the planet shining through the window made his green eyes bright.
The fear Xi held deep inside like a closed fist suddenly opened and relief flashed through her. “You will not regret it.”
He suddenly laughed. “Regret and risk are two sides of one coin.” He lifted a hand. “I hold that coin in this hand.” He lifted the other. “Love and joy are in this hand. Without all of these, one has not truly lived.” With that he began to unbuckle his weapons. He placed a long blade on the desk. Several knives, a wire garrote, and the handkerchief in which he’d wrapped the Cleo chip followed it. Ximena stared, dumbstruck, hardly able to believe he had given in. She had never seen anything so sensuous as his disarming himself in front of her, but when he began to unbuckle his boots, she slid to the floor and stopped him. Her body thrummed with desire so strongly she couldn't think clearly anymore.
“No, let me,” she said, running her fingers over the soft leather and fabric of his combat boots. The buckles were cold. She kissed the topmost fastener, then unsnapped them all, five buckles for each leg. His breathing increased and she smiled as she bent over his feet.
“I should be doing that for you. It is unseemly for a queen to kneel before her bodyguard,” he whispered. He'd reached out and put his hands on the wall as if he could no longer stand on his own.
Xi liked that she made him so unsteady. “Is it unseemly for a woman who loves her man to kneel? I think not.”
His breath caught. Ximena smiled up the length of his body, meeting his eyes.
“You have never said that to me before.” The expression on his face was both luminous and shocked.
Her smile faded. The implications of what loving him meant had never left her mind. She just didn't care anymore. “I know, but it is true. You hold my heart. You have always held it for me, though you did not know it.”
He fell to his knees and reached for her, hands frantic. “I knew it. I knew it and tried my best to push it aside.” He clutched her to him, burying his face in her neck. “But I knew it all along and could not help the way my own heart opened to you.”
She slid her fingers through his hair. The soft waves felt like silk against her skin. “Why are we tormenting ourselves?”
He laughed, the sound muffled in her hair. “How could we not?” He leaned back. “The royal guard does not fall in love with the queen.”
She pursed her lips. Should she tell him? “That is not true.”
He frowned. “In all our long history—”
She interrupted him. “In all our long history no one has ever known the truth.” She took a deep breath. “My great-great grandfather loved his guard. His ancestor did as well. Our two lines are interspersed with many generations of love and tragedy.” She broke off and shook her head. “Have you never wondered why so many guards and heirs stepped down from their duties before their training was complete?”
He searched her face. “But we have finished our training, have we not? It is different for us.”
She sighed. “It is. And never before in the history of our people has our world been invaded. We live in tumultuous times.”
“You completed the Vim training decades ago. Decades earlier than you should have.”
She nodded and put a hand to his face. “Yes.”
“No one else has ever done that.”
He put his hand over hers. “I am so sorry.”
She traced his lips with her thumb. “For what?”
“You have been alone so long–”
She shook her head violently. How could he think that? “I have never been alone. Never,” she said fiercely. “You have been by my side all along.”
He groaned and dipped his head. When his lips touched hers she trembled.
“I should have kissed you long ago.” He coaxed her mouth open and slipped his tongue inside.
No, she sent along the bond. We weren't ready. Our people weren't ready. She hoped he understood her, but wasn't sure the bond could convey her meaning properly.
He leaned back. “They are not ready now.”
She smiled tremulously. “But I am.” And she reached her hands to his shirt, unlacing the ties that held it fast against his chest. His body vibrated under her touch, his long denial of his body’s need destroyed with a simple movement.
“I don't know what I am doing,” she whispered even as her fingers pulled loose the last cord. His muscled chest peeked from between the loose plackets of his shirt. Hesitant, she put a single finger on his skin. He sucked in a breath. His heart pounded beneath her hand and the bond seemed to flare. It felt unstable, as though her Vim was no longer hers to control. A stab of fear ran through her. What if that was why Vim masters never took lovers? Her grandmother had a child, yes, but she'd never had a lover. A husband. She'd conceived Ximena's mother through artificial insemination, as was customary.
“What is it?” Zef asked, grasping her hand. “Are you afraid?”
She nodded. “My Vim, it is crackling through me. I do not want to hurt you.”
His body went still. “I can feel your bond in my mind like a golden whip.” He closed his eyes and threw his head back. “It is as if love and lightning had threaded themselves together.” When he looked back down at her his eyes sparked with golden flecks, like sparks from a hot fire. As she watched, the flecks flared and retreated then came back again. “The bond does not hurt.”
In the deepest part of her psyche she felt his thoughts tentatively stroke hers and she shuddered. What was happening to them? She'd meant for the Vim to connect them, yes, but only temporarily. Short Vim bonds weren't common, but several of her ancestors had used them in times of emergency. Why was this one spiraling so out of control?
“Your eyes have stars in them. They are dancing,” he said, dipping a finger into her mouth. “So beautiful. I want to devour you.”
She watched the sparks in his eyes flare again. His emotions were strong and thick, love and lust twined together. She couldn't control it. Her body responded, growing hot and heavy as desire pooled between her thighs. “What's happening?”
He kissed her and she shuddered. “I think your little bond is growing.”
“Into what? It was never meant for this,” she whispered between kisses. She felt drunk. She needed him to touch her and frantically unlaced her leather vest so that she could unbutton her shirt. When the soft cotton fell open under the leather vest she moaned in relief. His hands were warm and teasing as they cupped her breasts.
“I did not care what you intended when you pushed Vim into my mind. I accepted you. I wanted you there. I want you there now,” he thumbed over her nipples and she gasped.
“Perhaps that is why this is happening,” she said, her voice shaking. She held onto his arms, savoring the way his muscles flexed beneath her hands.
“I accept you,” he murmured and bent his head to kiss the side of her breast. “I accept you.” He rubbed his cheek across her sensitive flesh. The stubble on his jaw scraped, teasing her nipple into a tiny bud. He closed his lips over her nipple and sucked. “I accept you.” With those final words the bond surged in her mind and she threw her head back as pleasure raced through her.
“Zefirino, I accept you,” she gasped, struggling to keep from digging her nails into his arms. He suckled one breast then moved to the other, pushing her shirt and vest over her shoulders and down her arms. “I accept you.” She leaned over him, cradling his head. The bond was a tight, hot wire in her brain, whipping into every corner of her consciousness. She couldn't stop it. She didn't want to stop it. “I accept you,” she gasped one final time.
The bond flared white and hot and Zef groaned, his mouth falling away from her as he squeezed her clothes in his fists. Ximena shuddered as some strange spasm took over her body. Pleasure flushed through her. Was this what a climax felt like? She clutched him to her desperately. The heat and pleasure didn't fade. The bond was like a live thing stretching between their two minds. She sensed his desire and devotion so clearly—
“I feel you, inside me,” he whispered, ripping her shirt the rest of the way off her body. His fingers scrabbled at her pants, fumbling with the fastening. When he got it open, he peeled the soft leather down her hips. She shook in his hands, unable to help him. “It is like fire. Just when my mind thinks it has settled, the bond spins away, hot and unpredictable.” He paused, eyes on the juncture of her thighs.