Claimed (Box Set) by Ashlynn Monroe

Claimed (Box Set) by Ashlynn Monroe

Claimed Part One

Claimed, Book 1
by Ashlynn Monroe

Changeling Press

eBook ISBN: 07362-02374

Roan’s strange companion Jenner is convinced Lexa is the key to their freedom. Surviving and keeping her alive is just part of the challenge. Making her love them — both — is the truest contest. Will they be they willing to risk their lives for the love of a woman they’ve just met?

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Chapter One

“Hey, Lexa! Wait,” Dom called.
Lexa stopped and let her friend catch up with her. “I didn’t think you were going to make the flight,” she said, turning to him as he came up beside her. Something in her oldest friend’s big eyes made her step falter. “You okay?” She reached out and touched Dom’s sleeve.
“I’d never let you make your first interplanetary trip all alone. I want to be there to laugh when you embarrass yourself.”
“Gee, thanks,” she said, rolling her eyes. That was her Dom. She ignored the strange moment of preflight jitters and readjusted her carry-on bag to a more comfortable position on her shoulder.
“What are friends for?” Dom asked with a chuckle. “I remember how sick the Mag Train made you when we visited Prosperity City in the fifth grade for our consecration to government. I can only imagine what a wormhole will do to you.”
Lexa punched him in the arm, and he feigned injury. Something was up with him. There was still something different in the way he spoke, a stiffness she couldn’t understand, and he seemed nervous but she didn’t push. He’d tell her when he was ready. Dom always told her his problems, but sometimes it took him longer than others to open up.
“It’s common for magnet resonance travel to make people sick. I’m not the only one who can’t tolerate it. I’m sure I’ll do fine this time. Interplanetary travel is making great strides in safety and comfort. I’m twenty-three so I’m sure my stomach has toughened up a bit since the fifth grade.” Her explanation sounded weak. Crap.
She was in her last year at university. Legally children had to live with their parents until their twenty-fourth birthday. She couldn’t wait to graduate and get away from her mother. If she scored her dream job, she’d be traveling a lot. She had to prove she could do it.
Shutting Dom’s mouth about the long ago trip would be an added bonus. They might not be kids anymore, but some things never changed. Her friend loved to tease her, and he brought up her greatest embarrassment every chance he found. Dom was her rock. He was the only friend she’d ever fully trusted because his dad’s political service made his life as miserable as her mother’s service made hers. Dom got her.
Lexa looked into his eyes. “I’m glad you agreed to come with me.” As she spoke the shadows in his expression returned.
“No worries,” he muttered, but she noticed he looked down to break the eye contact.
“Are you really okay?”
Dom flushed slightly. A small frown marred his handsome features. “No one is ever really okay in this idiot filled world. Don’t worry about me. There are many things more important than feelings.”
She frowned at him, but he refused to look at her.
The person behind them cleared his throat, and Lexa saw she was holding up the line. She shrugged and hurried towards the scanners. Several tough looking guards stood behind the banks of monitors. Even fiercer uniformed men ran handheld scanners over people and directed them into lines for a full inspection. Lexa went to stand in the shorter line. Dom stood behind her. She watched the woman in front of her step into the glowing light bouncing between the skinny, metallic walls of the full-body scanning unit.
The glow illuminated the woman as multiple darts of blue, pink, and green light crisscrossed her body and bag. The woman stood still, and the beautiful patterns played across the white synthetic fur of the short coat she was wearing. Her ass-less white leather pants looked ridiculous with the coat, but the style was all the rage on Alpha One.
Lexa rolled her eyes. What the people of Alpha One desire so should we all. How many times had her mother said those words to her? The mantra of soulless consumerism and conformity never felt right to her. She refused to bleach her hair blond and shave her eyebrows. Her eyes were naturally brown. She didn’t wear contacts to make them silver, purple or pink, which was the fashionable thing to do. Her distaste for the artificial made her a freak in a world of the freakish, but Dom remained her friend. A warm wave of affection for him filled her heart as she looked back and gave him a smile. She noticed he was sweating.
“Are you sick? You won’t pass the scan if you have an infection. Do you need to sit down?” she whispered.
“I’m fine,” he replied tersely.
The lights shut off and the woman stepped out and continued on her way. It was Lexa’s turn. She stepped inside without a moment of hesitation. She only had three changes of clothing and her toiletries in the bag. The lights shone brightly so she closed her eyes to shut out the irritating high spectrum waves. A loud bleeping sound caused the lids to flutter back open.
A second later, she found herself wrestled to the ground by one of the previously statuesque guards. Everything was happening too fast. Confusion filled her mind. People waiting in line cried out fearfully. She tasted blood. She’d bitten her cheek as they tackled her to the floor. Lexa couldn’t register what was happening. Dom grabbed her bag and started running.
Lexa didn’t even have time to scream as she watched her friend die. One blast and Dom no longer had a head. Red. The pristine metal and marble terminal was no longer the sterile pure white symbolizing the right and might of her people. She stopped struggling. Fear kept her immobile. Contraband was bad — very bad. People traveled light out of fear.
Why had Dom grabbed her bag? She didn’t have anything illegal. He’d died for nothing. She fought tears. He’d been trying to protect her. Pain made her chest ache.
She watched as one of the security guards opened her bag. They slashed the lining and spread her things out in an embarrassing mess right on the floor. People watched curiously. The checkpoints, other than the one she’d just gone through, continued as if her life wasn’t precariously close to ending.
“I found it,” said one of the men.
She had no idea what he thought he’d found.
“Joe Happy. Look, it’s even branded with the double X symbol. Damn Spirit Worshipers,” the man muttered.
“That’s not mine,” Lexa cried. She certainly wasn’t a Spirit Worshiper. She didn’t even know what they worshipped. All she understood about religion was claiming any kind of affiliation with one would get you executed — quickly.
One of the men spit on her. “I haven’t had a single one of you Spirit Worshipers claim your gods or contraband when you’ve been exposed. If you’re going to terrorize good people at least have the guts to admit it when you’re caught.”
“Take her inside for trial.”
The men jerked her to her feet.
“No, not a trial, please, my mother… I want to call my mother,” she begged.
The guard didn’t give her a moment more of his time. She’d be going straight for sentencing.
Dom was gone. The pain twisted and writhed inside of her like a snake.
How had he known they’d find the drugs in her bag? Joe Happy… the stuff was death in a pill. The double X symbol was incredibly incriminating. Its sale was the monetary force behind all the recent terrorism. Her whole body shook. If they charged her with smuggling, she’d be stripped of her citizenship.
She thought of her mother sitting in her big office in the Commerce Tower building with all the other Lawmakers. She’d sit in a room surrounded by white and dressed in the same pristine color. Her gold plated stylus was probably slipping across the touch screen surface of a signature line right now, approving some new legislation. This would kill her. Even with an acquittal, the stain would mar her political career forever. Her mother would never be re-elected now. Perfection was too important. The smallest mistake was all it took to give a political rival the power to destroy a career.
Shame and fear battled for supremacy inside of her. “I need to talk to my mother!” Lexa wailed.
Her mother’s power could save her, but Lexa had to get word to her before sentencing. She hoped there’d be a long line. This intergalactic travel center was no different from any other busy public place. It would have a judgment kiosk. To her dismay, there was no line.
“Please, just give me five minutes,” Lexa begged.
“You know the planet motto. Get in the box,” snarled the shorter man. He nudged her with the barrel of his gun.
Swift justice for all. Her mother had the motto painted above the door to her office at home. Lexa had seen the motto a hundred times but had never really thought about what it meant until now. The words didn’t hold the same meaning anymore. She’d be happy to take some slow, old-fashioned jail time.
The guard pushed her inside the tiny kiosk and closed the door, locking her inside. She hated the tight space and fought to breathe.
“Calm down. It will be fine,” said a voice to her right.
She squeaked with surprise and turned to see the floating disembodied projection of a head. It was her electric lawyer.
“My mother is a Lawmaker. If we could just wait a moment, she would see I have a human lawyer.
“I’m not going to take that personally. I’ve been doing this for seventy years. My personality program is comprised of hundreds of traits and memories from human lawyers. I have far more experience doing this than a human would. I’m quite capable of defending you,” said the robotic head.
Lexa looked at it suspiciously. It had a very neutral voice sounding neither male nor female. The facial features were also gender neutral. Its tone lacked inflection. She didn’t know if it was being snarky or just trying to alleviate her worries.
“Sorry,” she muttered, though she felt strange apologizing to a machine.
“The judging program is listening to everything we say. I must know how you’d like to plead.”
“Not guilty! I was framed. I didn’t know there were drugs in my bag.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to look at the camera footage. The man was your companion, and he clearly knew the drugs were there.”
Lexa’s lip trembled. Her knees shook. If her legal counsel was against her, she didn’t stand a chance. She held onto the side of the box for support. “I didn’t know. I don’t know how Dom knew. I’m not sure why he’d run off with my bag.”
“The coroner just sent word to my program that the male, Domnikoli Arbusi, has a double X symbol tattooed on his upper arm. Tattoos are illegal. The Double X symbol is illegal. Conclusion, you associate with criminals. Conclusion, you are a criminal.”
The head gave her a disapproving look. Lexa felt her anger rising. “Whose side are you on? I want a human lawyer! I had no idea about Dom’s tattoo. I don’t know why he did it, but I’m not involved with Spirit Worshipers. I didn’t know my friend was one of those people. What if there’s been a mistake?”
“This won’t help your defense, not at all. I think we should make a plea bargain.”
“I’m innocent! I’m not going to bargain.”
The head shook sadly and made a disappointed clucking noise with the tongue it didn’t really have.
“You’re my lawyer. Help me! Can we request time to contact my mother? She will help clear this up.”
“I’m sorry. The law is clear. Once you enter for judgment, you’ll be tried and sentenced within sixty minutes or less.”
The screen in front of her lit up. A pair of big blue holographic eyes filled Lexa’s field of vision. She flinched.
“Guilty!” shouted the bodiless eyes.
“What?” Lexa questioned, stunned.
“Alexana Mercer, your sentence is thirty days or death,” declared the eyes. The sound of a ghostly gavel slamming echoed in the box.
“What does that mean?” Lexa asked.
Her legal electronic counsel wouldn’t look her in the face. It disappeared.
“Come back here!” she cried out in a shaking voice.
The door opened and a guard jerked her out. “That was quick. I think you’ve made a new record. Fifteen minutes and you were sentenced to death.”
“Death?” her voice quavered with confusion and sadness. “The judgment program said thirty days or death. How do I get thirty days?”
“You don’t. You’ll be going to Nariasma,” he said a little more gleefully than was necessary.
“Nariasma? Like the reality show? Are you joking, the space station where rich guys hunt criminals? They only send dangerous people there. I’m innocent. Please, I don’t want to go there!”
“Spirit worshiping terrorists don’t deserve anything better. Don’t worry, you’ll be waking up ready for battle.”
He gave her an injection. The guard moved so quickly she never even struggled as the needle pricked her skin. Her vision became blurry.
“My mother… please.” Her knees buckled. She didn’t feel anything as she hit the floor.
Justice… Her whole life she’d been raised to believe in the virtue of swift justice without appeal. Her eyes blinked, a few times and the sound of the busy intergalactic travel center dulled. “I’m innocent,” she mumbled.
This was a mistake. She was a good person.
Lexa closed her eyes.
* * *
Lexa’s mouth felt dry. She tasted a bitter metallic tang on her tongue. For a few seconds she lay, hurting, with her eyes closed. Her head ached as she sat up. She didn’t remember much at first, but then the horror of Dom’s death and her sham of a trial came rushing back in a torrent.
She groaned and opened her eyes. The room was small. Bright light shone down from a single fixture in the ceiling. She was dressed in a dark brown leather corset and matching — too tight — leather pants. She ran her hands over her backside. The horrible pants weren’t ass-less, and she was glad of that, at least. There was a black nylon utility vest over her shoulders. A row of silver and gold sequins sparkled on the hem of the vest. The combination of style and material was strange. Glam survivalist?
She closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose in an attempt to clear her foggy mind. Her stomach rolled. Someone had seen her naked when she’d been at her most vulnerable. Shivering, she forced herself to stop thinking about how dirty having been stripped made her feel. Pushing herself up, using the wall, she managed to get to her feet.
The door slid open with a whoosh. Whoever designed the room had hidden the door so well she’d never even noticed it until it opened. A tall woman watched her mutely.
Lexa flinched under the scrutiny. “Why are you here? What’s happening to me?” Lexa screamed the questions at the woman as her hysteria rose.
“You’ll have a ten second head start. Go right to avoid the desert. Get to the trees, and you’ll have a better chance. Here is your pack. It’s all any of the contestants start out with. Inside you’ll find a utility knife, canteen and matches. Millions of fans will be watching you. Take solace in knowing you won’t die alone.” The woman spoke without any hint of emotion or remorse.
“I don’t plan to die at all,” Lexa said. She hated how this woman had written her off. She wasn’t doomed. She wasn’t going to give up. Just because wealthy men had paid for a license to hunt her didn’t mean she was automatically condemned. “I’m going to serve my time and return home.”
Sympathy flickered across the woman’s features, but she quickly covered the expression with a scowl. “Few have lived long enough to serve their time. No woman has left this place alive. Many find it easier just to walk out and wait for the end.”
“I’ve never been good at taking the easy way out. I’ll take my chances with the woods. Why are you giving me advice?”
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a woman as young as you on the show. I’d like to make the most of your time.” The tall stranger’s words held the ring of truth.
Lexa shrugged. “I’ll do my best to outlast my sentence. I’d hate it if Interplanetary Broadcasting lost ratings due to my untimely demise. How bad can a month be?” Lexa spoke as sarcastically as possible. She didn’t know if the cameras were already watching her, but she had a feeling they might be. Hatred for the mindless people watching her injustice boiled in her core. Until now, she’d been just like them. The reality of how meaningless human life was hit her with shocking force.
The woman’s eyes darkened. “May the enlightenment of justice guide your path.”
Her sentence had begun. The cameras were watching. The woman’s use of words made that clear. “Um, thanks, I’ll make my own light. I’ve had a taste of justice, and it wasn’t for me.” Her new reality was a terrifying example of how deep a lie could burrow to masquerade as truth. She glared at the woman. No matter how afraid she felt she refused to let her fear show.
The emotionless expression taking over the woman’s face made her shiver. “What happens now?” Lexa asked.
“Now you survive, or not. Either way, it’ll be good TV.”
Lexa’s eyes widened as the woman shoved her out the door. She ended up on an elevator and not in a hallway as she’d expected. As her brain kicked in, she realized it was now or never. With shaking hands, she took the items from the pack and shoved them in the few pockets her thin vest offered. She’d seen this show a few times — enough to know the bright orange backpack was a good way to die.
Now she wished she’d watched more often. Her mother hated the show and always said it was low class and not what her daughter should watch.
Just as she put the last item into a secure place and dropped the bright bag, the elevator stopped. Her heart raced. Her heavy breathing was the only sound she could hear.
The doors opened and bright sunlight flooded the dark space to blind her. She took a shaky step and saw trees in the distance. She took the woman’s advice and ran toward them. In her mind, she started to count. One… two… three… The ten seconds would be over long before she reached the trees. She didn’t look back, afraid of what she’d see. They’d be waiting. Men had paid for the privilege of killing her for the entertainment of bored television viewers back home.
A breeze ruffled her hair. Everything felt so real here, but it wasn’t a planet. It was a space station. Terror hit her in the stomach so hard she stumbled. Horrified, she watched the ground coming at her face as she fell forward. She was giving her life to those bastards too easily. Her eager executioners would be upon her in seconds.
Eight… nine… ouch. She landed as her ten seconds ended. Rolling to her back, she sat up only to see three well-armed men wearing body armor aiming old-fashioned high-powered automatic rifles at her.
Death. She wasn’t ready. Hands grabbed her roughly. The brutality of their grip caused her shock to turn into terror. She didn’t scream or struggle. The raw panic kept her still. She was standing because those large hands hand pulled her to her feet.
“Run!”
She spun around and her breath hitched in her throat. He was glorious.
Roan of the Northlands, one of the sexiest men on TV, was rescuing her. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her forward just as the first shot rang out. Dirt erupted next to her foot. “Go!”

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Changeling PressARe ‖ CTR ‖ KindleKobo ‖ Nook

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