He thought he was beyond the need for physical pleasure—until he met her.
Paige Sloan thought dedicating her life to protecting Earth’s ecosystems meant dealing with human mistakes—until her latest test samples put her on the hit list of an invasive species of aliens. As if that’s not enough to deal with, there’s a huge, hunky alien soldier demanding she leave the planet with him. But she’s not about to leave until she’s figured out what’s really going on.
Khel’s assignment to bring Paige Sloan to the Coalition spaceship orbiting Earth should be simple, if only she would comply. She’s determined to unravel the truth behind the Tau Ceti’s presence on Earth, even though they’ve killed everyone else who knows where her samples were taken. Her passion for her planet is strong enough to burn down the walls he’s created in himself to be the perfect Sadirian soldier—and it lights a flame of desire in him unlike any he’s ever known.
But the longer they work together on Earth, the more danger they’re in, and soon their hearts are on the line as much as their lives. Can Khel convince Paige to accompany him to safety, or will her quest to protect her planet lead them both to destruction?
Main Content: Approximately 25,982 words, 127 (5.5 x 8.5) pages
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BUSINESS OR PLEASURE
(THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMEWORLD SECURITY, Book Three)
Copyright © 2016 Cassandra Chandler
All rights reserved
Paige led Khel to the back of the bus and sat near the window. He filled the space at her side, his sheer size a comforting presence. It would be hard for any “Tau Ceti” to see her past Khel, let alone attack her.
Space frogs. Cyborg space frogs.
She had to be dreaming. That would explain Khel too, with his delicious physique and intriguing mix of hot-and-cold reactions to her. Stripping hadn’t seemed to register with him at all. But showering in front of him…
He had watched her like he wanted to devour her. Before the stupid space frog attacked, she was getting ready to invite him to dinner.
Space frogs. Killer space frogs.
She shook her head, as if that would help her process things. No matter how much she wanted to not-believe, she couldn’t discount the evidence of her own senses. She had seen that man cling to the tile of the locker room walls with nothing but his hands and feet. She had felt the mix of steel and flesh when she attacked him. She had seen his menacing fangs.
These aliens had crashed Jim’s plane on purpose. If she hadn’t volunteered to help out with a colleague’s cleanup site—which turned out to be much more involved than she was led to believe—she would have been on that plane with him. And now the Tau Ceti wanted her—alive.
She shivered at what Khel had implied earlier. Brendan wasn’t the only scifi fan in the family. She had seen plenty of movies that gave her horrifying possibilities of what capture might entail. She had also seen tons of movies that showed what might happen to the planet after aliens invaded.
Not on her watch.
“I’m the project lead.” She wiped at her eyes and sniffed. “And I’m between interns at the moment. Jim and I—the senator—we were talking about bringing in more full-time staff. I’ve been buried in paperwork for the past few weeks, trying to figure out how to bring my new team up to speed as quickly as possible with the resources I was supposed to get.”
She snorted and shook her head. No team. No champion. It was just her and Khel. She reached over and put her hand on the fist he was resting on his thigh.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Trying to hold your hand.”
He stared down at her with those cold blue eyes. She had seen the fire in them, white-hot. He would probably be amazing in bed—if he could let go of some of his repression. She pried open his fist, then interlaced their fingers and set their hands back on his leg.
“What is the significance of this?” he asked.
“Reassurance, closeness… Don’t you Sadirians seek physical comfort from each other?”
“Our culture is different. We have moved beyond the need to obey our base instincts.”
“Base instincts?” She snorted again. “That’s just sad. No hugging? Kissing?”
His lips pulled into a thin line as he looked over the people on the bus again.
He glanced over to her, then turned away. “Some Sadirians still seek physical pairing. Most are content to use Coupling.”
“A drug that takes the body through the stages of arousal to culmination. It’s generally used alone, but some Sadirians prefer to use it with a partner.”
“You only have sex while you’re on drugs?”
He glared at her. “I don’t use Coupling.”
“Okay. You just made it sound like people only have sex if they’re on it.”
“So wait… You’ve never… I mean…”
She couldn’t even say it. It was so outlandish. This amazingly hot guy—with a body she’d love to turn into a carnal carnival—had never had sex. Even with himself.
She shook her head. “Seems like a waste of natural resources to me.”
His scowl deepened.
He lifted their entwined hands and said, “Is this meeting your need?”
“For physical comfort.”
He turned back toward the other passengers. She followed his gaze to a young couple snuggling a few seats ahead.
She was tempted to ask for more, but that would be taking advantage. Instead she said, “I’m fine.”
He extricated his hand and put his arm over her shoulders. He pulled her tight against his side, surprising her with the gentleness of the gesture. For someone who wasn’t used to touch, he was a pretty good side-hugger.
“Is this better?” he asked.
He was sitting perfectly straight. His muscles were rigid against her. Did he even know how to relax?
That was a question for another time.
“Now I understand why you were so comfortable with me getting naked,” she said.
“On stations and ships, citizens and soldiers alike live in close proximity. Viewing each other’s bodies is a common occurrence.”
“On my planet, nudity often precedes sex. We take it a bit more seriously.”
“Noted. I’ll be sure to update our base-line cultural overview to that effect.”
She nestled against him, resting her hand on his thigh. He sucked in a breath and held it. Poor guy. Touch was obviously something he wasn’t comfortable with. But he was doing it to help her feel better.
“Thanks,” she said.
“I am merely performing my duty.”
“I seriously doubt snuggling was part of your orders.”
“Snuggling. No.” He glanced at her briefly before returning to his continual survey of their surroundings.
“Tell me more about the Tau Ceti. What do they want with Earth?”
“They want something from Earthlings.”
“I’m guessing this isn’t an Earth Girls are Easy kind of situation based on what happened in the locker room.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s a movie about aliens who come to Earth basically looking for sex.”
He let out a brief snort. So, he was capable of finding things amusing. Very good.
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” she said.
He stared at her for several long moments. She held his gaze, letting herself smirk as she cocked an eyebrow at him. If he was interested in experimenting…
“They’re siphoning off hormones humans generate when they’re happy,” he said.
Well, that killed the moment.
She remembered the sharp fangs in the Tau Ceti from the locker room and Brendan’s nickname for the aliens. Vampire space frogs. A chill ran down her spine. She turned away and looked out the window as she pulled herself together.
Shit. This was real. And these things were feeding on people.
“When they…collect…what does it do to the person?”
“We aren’t sure. We can only guess it disrupts the Earthling’s body chemistry, leading to sadness or depression.”
Great. As if there wasn’t enough of that in the world already.
She took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips. “I still don’t see how I’m involved.”
“The Tau Ceti have set up at least one base of operations on Earth. We were able to intercept a record of some samples you took that match the ecosystem on Tau Ceti 6—their homeworld.”
“How different from Earth’s natural ecosystems are we talking?”
“Different enough. Tau Ceti 6 is warmer than Earth and covered in dense foliage and moisture. It’s similar to an equatorial swamp on Earth, but there are key chemicals the Tau Ceti need to thrive. Those chemicals are not harmonious to indigenous lifeforms.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
It was bad enough that she had to protect the Earth from humans, but now she had to fight to get vampire space frogs to stop messing up the environment, too?
“Where were the samples taken?” she asked.
“We weren’t able to determine that.”
“Well, then, let’s see if we can figure it out.”
The bus pulled up to the curb near the office building where she worked. She and Khel stood and made their way back out into the sweltering day. As the bus pulled away from them, she glanced around. It was creepy thinking that any of the people walking by could actually be aliens.
“Is this what you really look like?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You look like an Earthling. Is it a disguise?”
“No, this is how I was made.”
His lips thinned again. “Sadirians are genetically engineered.”
“Oh wow. Please tell me everyone looks like you where you’re from.”
“They don’t.” The words were clipped and he was glaring at her again.
“Okay. Sensitive topic.”
She headed toward her office building and he followed. Somehow, she had to get Khel past Harry, the security guard at the front desk. Since barely anyone used the building on weekends, Harry was always the only one on duty. Budget restrictions.
The building didn’t house anything that was deemed classified, so a single guard paid for by the building’s management worked for everyone. Her group of environmental scientists had one floor, and the others were occupied by various businesses.
Nobody on Earth thought her work was important. She couldn’t believe people from outer space were so interested.
“The process isn’t infallible,” Khel said.
He spoke so abruptly that she had trouble tracking him at first.
“Genetic engineering. Mistakes are made.”
“Is that what happened with the Tau Ceti?”
They looked like the same species to her. Hell, all the aliens looked like humans, until they started to do things like stick to walls.
“No, the Tau Ceti are a different species entirely. Their engineers have been highly successful in crafting individuals who appear Sadirian. The Tau Ceti who attacked you looks much more Sadirian than I.”
“I’m considered an unsuccessful specimen.”
She laughed at that. Hard and long.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re serious? You realize on Earth you’re considered absolutely gorgeous, right?”
His scowl deepened.
“I’m not teasing. You could have your pick of partners.” Hell, he could have her in a heartbeat. “That’s not why you haven’t experienced Coupling, is it?”
She wanted to know why this was such a sensitive subject for him. The thought of him being rejected because of how he looked was baffling and tragic. His society must have really different standards of beauty.
“I’ve had opportunities. The Arbiter is populated entirely by glitches like myself.”
And there it was—the real reason it was an issue for him. A label conveniently marking him and others like him as being of less value. Glitches.
“I don’t like that word,” she said.
He paused briefly. “Neither do I.”
She reached out and held his hand, smiling when he looked down at her. He smiled back. It was over so fast, she thought she might have imagined it. She hoped she hadn’t.