Authors: Angela White
Tags: #futuristic love story, #apocalyptic romance, #angela white, #action romance, #Fantasy Series, #romantic horror, #apocalypse rebellion
I waved a bloody hand. “Eat.”
I dug into my own bowl and then enjoyed the sweet taste of the milk that was being served with it. Hard to come by, real milk was a treat. The males ate quietly, carefully, eyes darting to mine in brief seconds of concern.
I did my best to ignore them at first, thinking their faces were too thin, shrunken. Perhaps the generous meal was only for the benefit of the live, soundless cameras? Were they not fed properly unless on display? Anything was possible in this apocalyptic hell.
The male on my right, seat subtly moved away, was adorable. Perfectly neat teeth, with clear skin, and his smell! Like a fresh rose, only meatier.
Aware of my attention, he was very precise in his movements, likely so that he didn’t trigger my instinct to hunt. I knew aggressiveness was often erased in males by denying them testosterone, and I wondered if the same were true of the prize bachelors. According to the Network, these few were pure of chemicals, and even felt privileged to be here, where each week brought the hope of a kind owner.
And then there was me
I smothered a Candice-like grin at the thought and moved on. To the right of pristine male, came three more pretty faces - two blondes with rippling locks and a sexy brunette with stunning gray eyes. He was the one who had lifted his chin to me and my gaze lingered…
Next to these, more perfection - seven unblemished faces.
What did they do with the ugly ones?
There certainly weren't any of those here.
I turned to the male on my left. Our curious gazes met, and he flushed as he dropped his head. He'd been staring at my nearly naked body.
I had to hide yet another snarling grin.
The Change was zinging my hormones, being so close to their bodies opening the flood valves. Some women snapped when it became too much, attacking the closest one when it happened and often hurting them before the drugs could take effect. Because of the Change, men were now the ones afraid to submit and be hurt, or even killed.
Full of these thoughts, shivers of need slid up my thighs to curl around my spine in a flickering wave of agony. My grip tightened on the table.
The males tensed, feeling my reaction, and I forced a bite of food into my mouth, chewed and swallowed.
After another minute of breathing calmly, I was ready to take it a step further, testing myself. Part of the reason for the males to be so dependent on the Den Mothers was that it eliminated the need for them to speak to us. For Changelings, the sound of a male voice was like a match to kindling.
“I have questions.”
My casual words sent a fresh wave of tension through the group of nine, heads turning to each other and dark doorways for protection. None of them spoke.
I took another drink of the sweet milk, gently picked up my fork. “Do you sing?”
I wasn't sure any of them had the courage to respond, not even the one I'd caught ogling me, and so it was something of a surprise when
of them answered… at the same time.
“Yes. We all sing.”
A confusing jumble hit my ears and I blinked, looking around the table.
They were confused, but dutifully echoed themselves.
"Yes, we all sing."
Slightly out of harmony this time, I was able to understand the illusion that had distracted me. It was a defense they'd developed to temper our reaction to their voices.
I could order them not to do it, put a stop to each thin shield they tried to throw between us, but why would I? I liked games. Wasn't I a contestant on one even now?
The males shrank back and I made myself reach for the cup instead of snapping my teeth at them like the need was advising.
It would feel
to lose control!
I shook my head at the green-haired Den Mother in the doorway, and was glad when she and her shit-shaded dreadlocks backed out of sight to resume hovering in the shadows of the next room.
I thought. I was on the edge.
I took a last bite, savoring the meal, and the bachelors went back to their own barely-touched bowls. Not wanting them to miss out on the good food, I lingered at the table, letting them have their fill. And I kept testing, pushing them and myself.
“You're all registered breeders?”
That was a question they couldn't answer as one and I braced myself… but not nearly hard enough.
There was shame in his voice, the pristine male on my right, but I couldn't help his pain. I was in shock at the waves of Change spiraling through me.
Like a bell, the rolling tones of his voice slid straight into my guts and twisted the need up, sending a vicious flare of lust through my body. I shivered, slamming my eyes shut. If I looked at him right now,
I'd be lost.
Just breathe - in and out
. And I could, a bit, because of the fear. It was so
I could smell it radiating from their perfect bodies. I inhaled deeper of it.
. It bothered me to see them so scared. In. Out.
I opened my eyes, eased my grip on the fork as I braced again - much harder this time.
The males shared twitchy, darting glances up and down the table in surprise.
“So am I.”
Seated across the table, both of their voices pierced me, and then sank into that bubbling mix and caught fire. But I'd been ready this time and I went on.
There was silence and I could feel them all wondering if that now made those three safe from me or more wanted. “I am not.”
My words sent mutters around the table that teased, tempted. It was a surprise at all for me to have told them that, drastically different from the treatment they were used to, but I was after other ends than most of the females they’d had contact with. “It makes my control on myself much harsher than what I would be with a mate.”
There as another round of shocked murmurs, and blasts of sweet pain. Tenderness coming from a warrior bathed in blood was another rarity in their world. “If I'm too… frightening, switch out.”
None of them went to trade places with the few I hadn’t seen yet. I would have been surprised if they had, but two of them were solidly off my list. The relief on their pretty faces had been clear.
“If you love someone, I'd also have you go.”
Again, no movement, but another was eliminated by the indecision in his expression. It was very common for slaves to fall in love with their regular renters and try to avoid being awarded as a prize so that they could make it to the 25-year-old age limit for bachelors. After that, they were listed for sale to the public, and could be bought by their lover.
Thunder crashed outside, almost loud enough to make me flinch in surprise, and it sent one of the bachelors from his chair to crouch on the floor. Terrified, the shivering skin-head ignored my frown, but the others took note and leaned away so as not to share his fate.
I smoothed out my face and waved a hand. “Go back to your cell if it eases you.”
He and his clean-shaven scalp were gone an instant later, and I met a Den Mother’s surprised face with a hard frown. “Aren’t they allowed to have a spine?”
She shook her pink head, tone giving nothing away. “No.
I wasn’t ready to see a new temptation yet. I was still working through these.
I continued with my questions as our hour passed, throwing the males surprises in forms that they had to answer for themselves, and with each stunning blast of their voices, I grew stronger, more immune.
“You have five minutes.”
The blue-haired Den Mother retreated and I leaned over my bowl, lowered my voice. Like my infamous cousin, I was always one to encourage dissension among the ranks.
“Singing has a very calming effect. All of you together might be very hard to resist, even for a Changeling.”
Satisfied from their reactions that they would figure out the new defense I’d given them, I slid my chair back and stood up.
Need flared from both sides of the table as they stared at my nearly naked body and I returned their looks with a desperate longing that all but two of the bachelors shied from. I let the huntress out again, scenting.
That chocolate over hot coals aroma drifted into my brain again and started to burn. I inhaled deeper. It was intoxicating.
“Good night, Bachelors.”
“Have a nice evening, Angelica.”
Even with all their voices together, hearing my name from a man took me straight into hell and I narrowed in on that scent again, breathing deeper. Which one was layered in that delicious odor? Was it natural or a spray? It was powerful enough to twist my brain into complete confusion.
“No cologne next time I come.”
“I’ll see to it,” a Den Mother, orange hair this time, appeased me from the darkness.
My eyes went over them one last time, counting those I hadn’t mentally marked off the
on gray eyes and silken black hair. I liked that one. I’d be sure to make him speak to me next time, so that I could judge the level of heat he brought out. Whichever drew me the
was the one I would chose.
It was hard to make my feet turn, but I did, proud that I could. One of those bachelors would be mine - after I executed more women who were suffering like I was.
I lingered outside the cell door, seeing my guards, but still searching for threats while I regained complete control. I’d known it would be hard, but it was…
I grunted bitterly. It was like sitting at a buffet and not being allowed to eat anything. Damn the old ones who’d caused this!
“She’s the one.”
win it all.”
“Remember, whatever it takes to get her to go to the rebels - even if the Pruetts aren’t helping them.”
We know how to service them and the Network gives full medical care to bounty hunters. Get listed as a member of the crew, be friendly, and find Baker.”
Standing in the shadows of the doorway, I didn’t add a comment to the talk of the other bachelors, still thinking about how controlled Angelica had been. We’d agreed to try to warn the rebels as soon as we heard there was a Pruett listed, but with this one, I sensed that wouldn’t be an easy task.
We hoped to manipulate our new owner into doing what we needed or even run away to accomplish our goal, but I didn’t think this one would let a mate out of her sight long enough to escape. She was burning too fast, which meant a lot of service time… and then there was the clear feeling that once bonded, a man might not
to leave her and that infamous family. It was an impression I was instantly terrified of. I already had one ghost that rarely left my mind. I didn’t want a new one. I also didn’t want the old one, but on my own, there was only one thing I could do - run and hope the odds fell on my side.
The other males in this lot wanted to be free, to fight in the growing rebellion with Baker. I did too, but there was another reason I had to get out. I was turning 25 in a month. If males in these Games didn’t get chosen by then, they were put into the renters program or sold - usually to a brothel. Those were the same thing in my mind, but I had something worse hanging over my head.
Katherine Rankin, the Network’s new Head Defender, wanted me and it wasn’t casual. I’d been surviving her visits before she’d been more than a lowly Games guard and each time, her rage grew worse. Nearly all of the scattered, drop-shaped scars on my legs and back had come from her fondness for screams, for blood under her nails. Some nights, I hadn’t been sure I would survive.
Despite the Network’s unforgiving hold on my body, my life, they’d been unable to erase the images I had of loving
. My father and mother had cared deeply for each other, and that was the future I secretly longed for. Most males were kept away from their children, but my mother had encouraged our relationship. I’d loved him… mourned him when Rankin ripped his throat out. That was right after I’d found them in the barn and started screaming.
I’d always assumed her lack of control over the Change had caused my dad’s death, but it hadn’t mattered. I’d attacked Rankin in my grief and she’d taken me, in more ways than one.
I struggled angrily, not afraid of the bloody woman with the red hair. “You killed him!”
She shook me until I was cowered against her arm and then jerked me off the ground. I was held in the air above her while she stared at me.
“You look remarkably alike…”
I saw her again, claws plunging into my dad’s throat… Fresh hatred consumed me and I kicked out, catching her in the stomach.