Beloved Stranger: Gaian Series, Book 5

Dedication

This is dedicated to my mother and grandmother who are with us in spirit if no longer in person, and to my family members who have pulled together in their absence.

Also I want to thank Steph, who read this before anyone else did and gave me words of wisdom on improvements, and my editor Jennifer, whose work made this book shine.

Chapter One

The worst part of any marriage meet was the wait. Lined up with the other men, dressed in the same dark brown pants and shirt and face-concealing robe, a featureless mass among the many, Roan leaned against the wall of the darkened corridor and tamped down his irritation over the wait. The women would come through when they were ready, and besides, he didn’t have a choice.

The meet was illegal. Inmates of Gaian prison planets like Ares Five weren’t permitted into legal meets, and Roan especially would never be allowed, not with his crime. But other than its illegality, there was nothing all that unusual about this marriage meet. Gaian men had been attaching to their wives this way for over a hundred years. The concealing robes and dim lighting forced men and women to sense each other without sight, for a woman’s pheromones to activate a man’s dormant sexual drive.

Not for the first time, Roan wondered how the women soon to walk this corridor felt about how Gaians found their mates. A woman raised on their world would understand. But these women weren’t Gaian. Roan wasn’t sure where they came from, only that he was glad they were here. After six fruitless meets he was anxious to meet the woman he could claim as his bride.

How many women would there be this time? There hadn’t been many at the last meet, and from what Roan had heard, this time there were fewer still. It made no sense. It wasn’t like the demand for women at the Gaian prison mines had gone down, but something was interfering with the supply. That was something he understood well, supply and demand, and he wondered what the problem was.

Roan leaned back against the wall, thoughts racing through his head. He’d been waiting for this moment it seemed forever, far more than just the nine years, six months of his sentence here on Ares Five. Another six months and he’d go home to Gaia, a man who’d served his time and redeemed himself to his family. But unless he found a woman here, he’d leave the mining colony without a wife, and chances he’d find one on Gaia were slim. He’d finish his life alone if he wasn’t lucky enough to attach soon.

He’d attached once, a long time ago when he’d been too young to really handle it. The sudden rush of passion had overwhelmed him and he’d behaved stupidly, but he still remembered the feel of it, the sudden desire for a woman, the need for her, something he’d never experienced before or since. Attachment was how a Gaian man found his mate. One special woman, one he could take for his wife.

Roan lifted his chin as determination filled him. He wasn’t going to return to Gaia without a wife. He’d bought his way into this meet in the hopes of attaching like he had the earlier ones, and he’d buy his way into the next one and the one after that if needed.

His father claimed that every man in the Duman family had successfully attached and married for as long as they’d been on the planet Gaia. Roan wasn’t going to be the first to fail.

A stir down the long corridor caught his attention, a ripple of soft sound coming his way. Men straightened, and what little noise they’d been making quieted, but the tension in them grew until Roan felt it crawling across his skin.

The wait was over.

The first woman passed by the men lined along the corridor, a white figure moving slowly along the brown. He couldn’t see her face past the concealing veil but her movements were hesitant, as if frightened, and Roan frowned. He’d noticed that before, that the women often acted frightened at the meets, and he didn’t understand that.

Weren’t they as eager to find a mate as the men? Even if they weren’t Gaian, a meet was for the woman’s benefit as well. Perhaps they weren’t prepared enough to be comfortable, but why would that be?

Who would send a woman to a meet unprepared?

Roan breathed deep as she passed by, but nothing happened so he focused his attention on the next white gown down the hall. He heard the man next to him groan the unmistakable sound of attachment and turned to see him bend over, the sound of his breathing rasping in and out. The woman hesitated and stopped, her head lifting higher. Roan watched with envy when after a few moments of recovery the man moved out into the hallway to join her, and they walked together towards the meeting room.

Two more women came by, the second with two men already following her. Many more white-robed figures followed, each with at least one man in her wake. Roan had counted fifteen so far and none had stirred him. One more woman came down the hall, and after that were no others. A sad excuse for a marriage meet, sixteen women to the fifty men lucky enough to have won the lottery, or like him, who’d purchased their way into this week’s meet.

The final woman came close, and Roan fixed his attention on her, struck by how different she seemed from the others. At first glance he noticed she was on the short side and even though the robe hid her body, it seemed slender. But it was the confidence in her walk that caught his attention. Her head was held high, and tiny as she was compared to the bulk of the brown-robed men near her, she strode with the attitude of a queen. After the creeping, timorous manners of the others, her appearance made him smile.
This
was a woman to be proud of.

She marched near him, and then suddenly he couldn’t breathe. Bending at the waist, he gasped to bring air into his lungs, laboring to fill them. For a brief moment it felt like his heart stopped, and then it began pounding hard, and he grew hot as blood sped faster through his body. His hands and feet tingled, waves of sensation racing down his arms and legs.

Finally his shaft tingled and swelled, and once again Roan knew the pain and pleasure of having an erection. It had been nearly ten years since the last time it had happened, but he knew immediately what he was experiencing. The woman he’d admired was his match, and he’d attached to her.

She waited for him. Roan moved into the hallway to follow her.

He’d barely recovered enough to congratulate himself when a second man fell into line as she went by.

Sweet Gaia
. Competition, and he knew from experience nothing good would come from that. He crowded closer to the woman, hoping to warn the other man away.

If they’d been back on Gaia, the decision of which one of them she’d accept would have come down to her. But they weren’t on Gaia, and decisions were often made differently on Ares Five.

They reached the meeting room, which was lit brighter than the corridor. Couples already were scattered around the backless couches that filled the room. The women sat while the men who’d attached crowded around them.

Roan’s woman stood hesitantly for a moment, so he gestured to one of the empty couches at the edge of the room, well away from the others. She nodded and led the way, Roan and the other man in her wake. She sat, and he tried to take the place next to her, but the other man grabbed his arm and held it with a hard grip.

“Back down,” he whispered.

Roan stiffened. “We both attached. Let her decide which of us she wants.”

“I said,
back down
.” The man leaned closer, and Roan felt the menace coming off him. He also smelled miner’s home brew, a potent whiskey. Drinking before a meet was ill-advised as it made a man reckless during attachment.

If he didn’t back down, this man would fight him, right here in the meeting room. On Gaia this would mean expulsion from the meet. Roan knew this all too well.

But they weren’t on Gaia, and no one would interfere with a fight here unless things got bloody. The man was bigger than he was, and from his attitude most likely someone used to using his fists to get what he wanted. Roan could probably take him, but it wouldn’t be easy.

If they fought, someone would be hurt, possibly even the woman. He glanced over at her and knew she was watching them, probably wondering what he was going to do.

Roan pulled his arm from the other man’s grasp and took a step back. He’d made himself a promise long ago and wasn’t going to break it now. He wouldn’t start the fight, but even so, he wouldn’t back down. If the other man began it, Roan would finish it.

He gestured to the place by the woman. “Fine, you go first.”

The other man growled an unintelligible warning, but he sat on the couch next to the woman. “You’re a little thing, but that’s okay. I like little things,” he said, reaching for her.

Roan decided to wait for the woman to reject his rival before making his own move. That’d be the safest way to avoid a fight. From the proud way the lady walked, he was certain calling her a “little thing” wasn’t going to win her heart. She’d reject the brute, and then he could take the man’s place.

But the woman’s gasp of pain made him step forward.

“Let me go,” she said, and Roan saw that the other man had grabbed her arm. Even if he was only using half the grip he’d used on Roan’s arm, it was bound to hurt.

He hovered over them and the other man looked up. “What do you want?”

“You’re hurting her.”

“I’ve had three wives. I know how to treat women.”

Three wives and Roan hadn’t even had one? That wasn’t fair. Even assuming they’d died of natural causes, which in a mining community wasn’t impossible, it didn’t bode well for any future wife the big man had.

He’d proven himself a bully and was now manhandling Roan’s woman. Roan’s good intentions dissolved.

He grabbed the man’s wrist on the woman’s arm and squeezed hard, focusing the pressure where it would do the most harm. With a yelp of pain, the big man let go, and the woman moved quickly away from both of them. Roan winced as she rubbed her arm.

But his adversary didn’t let him spend time indulging in sympathy for the lady. With a roar, the big man launched himself at Roan, arms and fists swinging.

Roan backed away, the robe catching around his feet. Fighting in the masked robes made things difficult, both to move and see your opponent, but taking it off would get him kicked out of the meet. At least he knew his opponent had the same limitation.

Roan sidestepped the first blow and managed to land one in the bigger man’s stomach before backing off.

“I’ll kill you for that,” the big man said.

A bad-tempered drunk. Roan doubted the man was innocent in what happened to his earlier women. The lady would be far better off with him than with this brute.

Besides, he wanted her badly.

“You can try.” Taunting could be a mistake, but the man was bigger, stronger, and it made sense to drive him into fury. An angry man made mistakes, and this one would be no different. Another roar, and the man jumped at him, swinging wildly.

Roan answered with hard blows of his own, but controlled, timing his punches and putting them where they’d do the most good. He put several of the hardest into the man’s side, focusing on the ribs to break the bones.

The woman they fought for stood closer to the combat than Roan liked, as if she intended to interfere. He wanted to tell her to head for safety, but his opponent wasn’t giving him a chance.

One more blow, and the bigger man groaned, holding his side. He was hurt, and a brief surge of exultation swept through Roan. He was going to win.

The other man pulled back for a moment, and Roan wondered if he was going to give up. But there was a flash and the woman cried, “He’s got a knife!”

Roan’s blood turned cold. Fighting with fists might be permitted, but knives were not. Flashing a knife forced the meet’s officials to interfere with their stunners, and that meant Roan was in real trouble. The other man no longer had anything to lose.

A meeting room from another time long ago came into his mind, and a white gown stained with blood. The result had been two people dead, including the woman he’d attached to. He hadn’t pulled the knife then either, but he’d ended up in prison as a result.

The woman they were fighting for could be injured, and above all he needed to protect her. Roan grabbed the woman and pulled her behind him just as the knife slashed downwards. It bit deep on Roan’s upper arm, sharp pain speeding through him.

Still he kept between her and the knife. Ignoring the pain in his arm, Roan twisted and charged the other man, using the edge of his hand to hit the wrist that held the knife. Fortunately, it was the same one Roan had injured earlier when freeing the woman from the other man’s grasp. The man cursed, and the knife fell and slid towards the woman.