Ashlynne sighed as Falkon hugged her close. Never, she thought, never had she imagined love would be like this. Never had she dreamed it would be as wonderful, as thrilling, as soul-shatteringly beautiful.
She ran her fingertips over his chest, lifted her hand to his mouth, felt his lips move against her palm.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "I didn't hurt you?"
"No." She felt herself smiling and couldn't stop. "You didn't hurt me."
He turned on his side. "What are you thinking?"
She ran her hand over the collar at his throat, her smile widening. "I'm thinking you're still my slave, Number Four."
"Am I?" His voice was a growl.
"Yes, and as such, you must do my bidding."
"Ah," he said. "As always, your wish is my command, princess, only tell me what you want."
He watched her cheeks turn pink as she whispered, "Then I wish for you to make love to me again."
"So soon?" He lifted one brow, unable to resist teasing her, yet pleased beyond words that she wanted him again, as he wanted her.
"The thought doesn't please you?"
"I shall always do my best to please you, my lady," he replied fervently.
"Only tell me what you wish me to do."
She sighed, as if she were giving it some thought. "Kiss me, then," she said.
"Here." She touched her lips with her finger. "And here." She touched her cheek. "And here." She touched her left breast, moaning softly as his lips moved from her mouth to her cheek to her breast.
"Surely a good servant need not be commanded in all things," she whispered breathlessly.
"Then I may do this?" His hand stroked her leg from knee to thigh. "And this?" He drew his hand slowly upward, over her belly until it covered her breast.
And then he rose over her, his eyes hot with desire as he made love to her again.
She had thought the first time the most wonderful, the most magical experience of her life.
But with every kiss, with every caress, he showed her that she still had a lot to learn.
Ashlynne rolled onto her stomach, her elbows propped on his chest. "We really have to find a way to get rid of that collar," she said. "I'm sorry, you know, for all the times I hurt you."
"It's all right. I probably had it coming."
"Oh, you did," she said, grinning. "But I'm still sorry." She ran her fingertips over the collar. "How will we ever get it off?"
"I'll find a way. I'm sure there's someone on Trellis who'll remove it, for the right price."
"We'll have it done, no matter what the cost."
"I don't have any credits, remember?"
"I do, remember?"
He shook his head. "No. I'll find a way."
"I think you forget yourself, Number Four," she said.
"Is that right?"
"Indeed," she said imperiously.
He laughed softly. "Very well, my lady, I am at your command."
"Good. I find that dreadful collar offends me deeply, and I wish you to be rid of it as soon as possible."
"For once, my lady, we are in complete agreement."
"Falkon, how did you ever put up with me?" With her finger, she traced the number four branded on his arm. "I treated you so horribly." Leaning down, she brushed her lips over the brand. "Did it hurt very badly?"
He grunted softly. "Bad enough."
"I wish there was some way I could undo all the pain you've endured, all the misery I caused you."
"Come here, sweetheart," he said, tucking her beneath him, "and I'll show you how you can make it up to me."
She smiled up at him as she gathered him into her arms. "Your wish is my command."
Ashlynne woke in his arms, smiling. It had been a night she would never forget. They had made love and slept and loved again, and each time had been more wonderful than the last. Never had she felt so treasured, so beautiful or desirable. He made love to her with infinite tenderness, arousing her, filling her, completing her.
She glanced out the window. The sun was just rising. Turning her head, she looked at the man sleeping beside her. How handsome he was! And how much she loved him. When had it happened, she wondered, when had he become important to her? Maybe she had loved him all along, she mused, for he had been in her every thought since the day she first saw him lying in a pool of his own blood.
She felt her cheeks grow hot when she realized he was awake and watching her.
"Morning, princess," he drawled.
"You all right?"
"I'm better than all right," she replied, and felt her cheeks grow even hotter.
He grinned, looking inordinately pleased with himself.
"You don't have to look so smug about it," she muttered.
"No? Tell me I'm not the reason you're blushing."
"You're not. I just feel good this morning."
"Uh huh. And I guess I had nothing to do with that, either."
"Oh, all right, you had everything to do with it. Are you happy now?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied.
He was laughing now, and she was laughing with him. Happiness bubbled up inside her, warm and effervescent. What more could she ask of life, she thought, than to wake up in his arms every morning for the rest of her life? "What are we going to do now?" She hadn't meant to ask, was afraid to hear the answer.
Falkon took a deep breath, let it out in a long sigh. Until this very moment, he had intended to go after Drade, to exact vengeance for the deaths of his wife and child, even if he lost his own life in the process. But now... he looked at Ashlynne and knew he couldn't leave her, knew that without her, life would not be worth living.
He heard the tremor in her voice, knew she was waiting for his answer.
"If I asked you to go away with me, would you go?"
"Yes." She answered without hesitation.
"And if I asked you to marry me, would you still say yes?"
He laughed softly. "I'll hold you to it, you know."
"I hope so."
"Very well, princess. Tomorrow we'll leave this rock and go to Cherlin Four. I have a friend there. We can stay with him until we decide what to do."
Cherlin Four. She had never been there, of course, but she had heard of the people. She had seen pictures of them once. They were a tall race, covered with very fine hair from head to foot, save for their faces. Oddly, the men were unable to grow beards. "Can we get married there?"
"Sure." He grinned at her. "Now that that's settled, I could use a shower."
She nodded, feeling somewhat disappointed. She had been hoping he would make love to her again.
He stood up, turned, and lifted her into his arms.
"What are you doing?"
"I told you. I need a shower."
"So do you." He carried her into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and stepped inside.
"Yes, princess?" He gazed down at her, his eyes filled with silent laughter.
He put her on her feet and reached for the soap. Her eyes widened as he began to wash her. It was the most erotic sensation she had ever known, feeling his rough soapy hands move over her skin. She felt herself blush from head to toe, but made no move to stop him. And when he was through, she took the soap from his hands and washed him in return. And then they made love, there in the shower, standing up with the hot water running over them.
She was washing him for the second time when she heard a loud knock on the door. "Who could that be?"
Falkon shook his head. "I don't know."
"I'll go see." Stepping out of the shower, she put on a fluffy white robe,
wrapped her hair in a towel, and went to the door. "Who is it?"
Niklaus! She stared at the door. It couldn't be! "Ashlynne, open the door."
"I... I just got out of the shower." She glanced over her shoulder. Falkon was standing in the doorway, water dripping from his hair. "Give me a minute to get dressed," she called, and turned away without waiting for his answer. "What are we going to do?"
"Get dressed," he said, reaching for his trousers. "Hurry."
She did as he asked, and when they were both dressed, he handed her the controller, then held out his arms. "Do it."
She shook her head.
"Do it, Ashlynne."
At his urging, she depressed the control to lock his wrists together. He followed her into the living room and sat on the floor, his knees drawn up to his chest. "Activate the controls on my ankles," he said, "then open the door."
Again, she did as bidden; then, slipping the controller into the pocket of her pants, she opened the door. Three men stood in the hallway. She recognized Niklaus at once.
"So," he said, "we meet at last."
"Yes." Ashlynne glanced at the other two men, then looked at Niklaus.
"Brill, Tallman, wait outside," he said, and, stepping into the room, he closed the door. He studied her for a moment, his gaze moving over her as if she were an animal or a piece of furniture he was thinking of buying. "You're even prettier than your photo," he mused aloud.
He looked around the room, his gaze settling on Falkon. "I was told you weren't alone."
"Oh? By whom?"
"The guard at the port of entry. I would have been here last night, but I was away, and only learned of your arrival this morning."
"I was coming to see you."
"Yes, I'm sure you were, but I couldn't have you traveling the streets alone."
"I'm not alone."
"So I see." Niklaus went to stand in front of Falkon. "I've heard about you," he said.
Falkon bit back the sharp retort that rose in his throat and forced himself to look properly humble and subdued, as befitting one who was supposed to be a slave.
"Commander Gasman told me about your escape." Niklaus looked over his shoulder at Ashlynne. "You must have been quite frightened."
She hesitated a moment before answering. "Yes. Yes, I was."
"I was told this man took you against your will, yet here he is, shackled hand and foot. Would you care to explain how that came about?"
Ashlynne glanced at Falkon, her mind whirling. "He took me prisoner and stole a cruiser. When he learned that you and I were engaged, he decided to come here and... and hold me for ransom. He said you would pay whatever
he asked to get me back."
"After we landed, I managed to get the controller away from him."
"Why didn't you call me when you arrived?"
"It was late,"and I was tired. I wanted to be rested before we met. I bought some new clothes so you wouldn't be ashamed of me."
Hassrick's gaze moved over her once again. The blue velvet pants and matching soft silk top were obviously new, as were the matching soft leather boots.
"I see. And what were you going to do with him?"
Ashlynne paused. She wanted desperately to look at Falkon, but she didn't dare. "Keep him, of course. He is, after all, my slave, and quite a good worker."
"I was told you appeared quite fond of him. Gasman said you were quite adamant that he shouldn't be hurt."
"Number Four is my property," she replied. "And all that I have left of value, now that my home is gone."
A shadow passed over Hassrick's face. Was it regret? "Number Four is a valuable asset, you know," she went on, "for all that he can be troublesome at times."
Hassrick grunted softly. "Yes, I'm sure that's true. Several people have been inquiring as to his whereabouts."
"Yes. Well," Hassrick said briskly, "let us be on our way, shall we? Where's the controller?"
"I have it."
Hassrick smiled as he held out his hand. "I'll take it."
"I'm quite able to manage, thank you."
"I'm sure you are, my dear, but there's no need for you to be bothered with him any longer."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I'm in charge now."
"What are you going to do with him?"
"I've not yet decided. For now, we shall take him with us." He waggled his fingers. "The controller, Ashlynne."
She could think of no reason to refuse.
Hassrick took the controller from her hand, stared at it a moment. "I've heard of these, of course, but never had the opportunity to use one."
Falkon went suddenly tense as Hassrick ran his thumb back and forth over the controller.
"Let's see," Hassrick mused, "this activates the manacles on his wrists, and this the shackles on his feet. And this... What does this do?" he asked.
Ashlynne felt suddenly sick to her stomach as his thumb hovered over the top of the controller. She screamed, "Nicholas, don't!" as his thumb depressed the top of the controller, but it was too late.
With a strangled cry, Falkon went rigid as the pain reflex was activated.
She watched in horror as he writhed on the floor, unable to escape the pain, his body convulsing, his face a mask of anguish. She clenched her hands into tight fists, her own body trembling, as the punishment went on
and on. She looked at Niklaus, stunned to see that he was actually enjoying Falkon's pain.
Niklaus looked at her and smiled. "It's always wise to remind subordinates who is in charge, don't you agree?"
Knowing it wouldn't do to appear overly concerned and knowing, somehow, that Falkon would suffer for it if she did, Ashlynne nodded. "Yes, of course."
She looked back at Falkon. His face was damp with sweat, every muscle in his body was trembling violently. He lay on the floor, panting, his body gradually relaxing as the pain decreased and finally ended.
She watched him gather his strength, watched him rise to his feet on legs that still trembled, his face expressionless, his eyes dark with unspoken fury.
"Well," Niklaus said, slipping the controller into his pocket. "Shall we go?"