THE VARANGIAN CHRONICLES 1
The compound had been buzzing with activity all day. Jolie peered out the window of her third floor apartment, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. She’d expect her father, Clark, to send for her if he was conducting some kind of business today. Or send word for her to remain in her rooms. He’d done neither. It made no sense and that made her nervous. Anxiety settled like a knot in her stomach. She had to find out what was going on.
She left the apartment and jogged down the three flights of stairs to the ground floor. Outside she stepped into the large space that usually served as a parking lot, gathering space, or playground to the kids who lived inside their walls. Today, it had been cleared of all the vehicles and bikes leaving it looking empty. It would feel abandoned if not for all the residents moving from building to building. Everyone looked like they had a purpose and no one she greeted would hold her gaze. The knot in her middle turned to rock. What the hell?
She crossed to the large building they called the hall. Basically it was a community center. The ground floor was mostly bar space and a large kitchen. The two upper floors were used as offices and additional storage when the warehouses were overfilled, which wasn’t often since the war with the Delroi had been settled. Apparently they frowned on smuggling, her father’s bread and butter. Thankfully they weren’t the only aliens who’d come to Earth, and the Varangians didn’t seem to have the same issue. She caught the door as one of her father’s men exited. He threw her a startled look that quickly morphed into pity.
“He’s in the bar,” he muttered. “Good luck.”
Why did she need luck? This couldn’t be good. Inside she squinted until she spotted Clark sitting deep in the shadows of a corner booth. He motioned her over, indicated she should sit down. She did so reluctantly. Something was very wrong and she had a bad feeling it involved her, though she couldn’t get a read off of him.
“What’s going on?”
It was unusual but not unheard for him to keep her in the dark like this. In the last few years she’d become his second in command. Sort of. He shared more with her than anyone else but that wasn’t saying much. He’d always been reserved with her. Hell, with everyone. She was years past expecting affection from him. Still, this seemed…odd. Even for Clark Hall.
“Stone is coming to get you. You’re his problem now.”
Stone. The leader of the Varangians. Jolie stared at her father. She was too stunned to speak, and that was saying something, because the news he’d just dumped on her was completely outrageous–and illegal. Not that legalities had ever stopped him before. He didn’t seem the least bothered now, either. His tone and expression were just as cold as ever.
“Excuse me?” she finally managed to force between lips that were suddenly numb.
“I owe the Viking money. He’s demanding you in payment,” he said.
He didn’t even have the grace to look offended about it.
Her father shrugged. “I had to abandon a shipment last month. I’m sure you remember.”
Yeah she did, but that wasn’t what she meant.
“No, why does he want me?”
“I didn’t ask,” he snapped, his composure breaking for a moment. “But he made it clear he’ll kill us all if I don’t hand you over.”
“Now,” he answered as she heard the roar of engines.
That was why the vehicles had been cleared. She walked over to the window, heart sinking as the Varangian shuttle circled to land. No time to escape. No time even to pack. Damn it. She turned to glare at the man who’d raised her. She didn’t know if he was her real father. He’d always said it didn’t matter. He’d barely known her mother, he claimed, but he knew she was a telepath and he kept Jolie with the hope she would be too. She could pick up thoughts and feelings if they were extreme sometimes, but it was the lesser of her extrasensory talents.
She looked around the hall. The usual ghosts were there but none stepped forward to give her information. They wouldn’t have any about the aliens, of course. They were always there, her whole life. Some took real form and talked to her. They’d been her childhood friends. She knew some that they’d lost over the years. The others were just wisps of air. She got something from them every now and then. A hint of danger. Of warning. But now? Nothing from any of them. They were eerily silent and that made her pause.
Since the Delroi invaded a couple of years ago she’d lived in a state of expectation. Anticipation. She’d thought her life was going to change. Waited for it. Looked forward to it. But everything had just gone on as usual. Maybe this was the change she’d hoped for? She didn’t want to be in charge of a band of smugglers. She wanted a different life. A better life. Were the Varangians any better than her father and his crew?
He’d always said she was his most valuable asset. So why was he giving her away like she was nothing more than chattel? It wasn’t that she wanted to stay. He was a smuggler and a thug who kept her confined to the compound most of the time. She’d never entertained the thought he might love her. Always knew she was just another one of the people he thought he owned. He controlled every aspect of her life. She’d never been allowed to have friends outside the compound, dates, or go to school. He’d bought the best tutors money could buy. Once they’d finished teaching her something they usually left and she never saw them again.
Panic set in when the aliens entered the hall. She might have expected her life to change with the alien invasion, but not like this. She looked for a way out, a direction to run, but her father’s men blocked all the exits. She tried to avoid looking at the Vikings but it proved impossible. The leader was easy to spot. She’d glimpsed him from a distance a few times, though her father had always been careful to keep her away from him.
He fascinated her. The first time she saw him she went online and found everything she could about Vikings. There was plenty in Earth’s history but very little about the alien Varangians. They hadn’t denied being connected to Earth’s Vikings but hadn’t confirmed it either. There were no explanations. If she went away with them maybe she’d finally find out. Maybe she’d discover what it was that drew her to one in particular.
Stone swaggered in like he owned the place including everyone inside. Especially her. He wore leather pants and a leather vest that zipped to his sternum. His boots reached his knees and his shoulder blade length hair was pulled back at his nape. He was covered in tattoos, mostly animals, and had a short beard. He bristled with weapons. Blades, guns, and the alien laser stuff.
His eyes blazed hot as they swept over her. Commanding and possessive. Heat spread up her neck to her face in response to the carnal promise in his eyes. She no longer wondered why he wanted her. She ought to be frightened. Yeah she lived with a bunch of criminals and she could hold her own against any of them in a fight, but she had no experience with physical intimacy. Her father would have killed any man who dared touch her. Had in fact. Once had been all it took for his men to recognize that particular line in the sand. She felt a pang of wistfulness for the boy her father had killed. He’d been new to their group. Young and idealistic and not yet hardened by years of rough living. He’d died for one innocent, stolen kiss.
There’d been another death that night too, Marie, her best friend Verity’s mother. That had been a bigger blow. Verity and her little girl were outside the compound for a few days. Jolie wouldn’t get to say good bye. That regret mingled with anxiety and expectation. She was being given to Stone to settle a debt. She should hate that, but a part of her knew this was the escape she’d been waiting for.
Her father rose and walked over to join her. For a moment she thought he might reach out for her, maybe had changed his mind. One look at his eyes disabused her of that notion. There was a bitterness she’d never seen before. His voice was heavy with it when he spoke.
“Well, you’re getting what you wanted from the beginning. We square now?”
Stone spared a glance at her before turning an angry glare on her father.
“I’m simply taking back what you stole. You should have given her to me when I asked the first time. Then this wouldn’t be necessary. I could have just stolen her. At least this way you know her fate.”
Her father snorted. “Being a Viking’s whore?”
Whatever else he might have said was cut off as Stone grabbed him by the throat.
“Watch how you speak about my mate, Earthling. It is only for her sake I am leaving you alive,” he snarled.