"Try not to kill anybody today," Kai told his men and jumped from the armored truck. "Don't get killed either. I don't have time for it."
His second in command, Erik, grinned and spit a blade of grass from his lips. "We'll be at the Black River. We'll be back in...an hour?"
"Forty-five minutes. I'm just going in to have a look. It won't take long to see who has petitioned me today."
Erik shook his head and sighed, a bit louder than was necessary. "Come on, men. Let's leave our mighty leader to take on another stray. I feel like having a drink."
"I feel like getting laid," Sean said and followed the other three men across the muddy, ruined road to the only bar in the settlement. Sweetie, the owner of the Black River, had killed or scared off every man who'd tried to give him some competition.
"Bring me back a bottle," Kai yelled after them. They'd all had a long, hard day and deserved some whiskey. His decision to stop in town and pay a visit to the petitioner's hall had been last minute. He wasn't due to show up for his normal monthly visit for another two days.
He kicked some of the mud from his boots before he went inside the Velvet Box, more out of habit than any concern for getting the bare wooden floors dirty.
The inside of the huge building was a confusing maze of mysterious rooms, some of which he'd never seen and wasn't sure he wanted to. The petitioner's hall was a long, rather skinny room hung with exotic tapestries, most depicting scenes of sexual intercourse with crudely painted couples in various painful-looking poses. They'd been discovered in one of the boxes stored in the original bunker after the world war that had wreaked such havoc decades ago. The war was known as the Flash War because of the way it had flashed through the world, destroying entire nations almost before people were aware a war had begun.
The hostess smiled at him, her face betraying nothing as she led him into the holding room. The holding room was full, as usual, of women who petitioned for care and men who offered their protection.
It was a hard world, especially for unconnected females. As New Haven's commander, Kai couldn't show many weaknesses, but no one could cure him of his softness for women. Women who needed him, anyway. His strays, as Erik called them.
A man could take on as many women as he could afford. He would give his protection, his home, his bed, if they wanted it, and in turn, they would...well, they would do anything he asked.
Not that there weren't strong women protectors offering the same services to men who didn't have a chance of surviving without a little help. Just not many of them. There was only one in all the settlement. Amelia, a sweet-looking sheriff with a heart of gold, was more dangerous than almost any man Kai knew. At last count, she'd been petitioned by twenty-seven men. She'd accepted twenty-six of them.
"No." He smiled at the hostess, softening his terse refusal. "Thank you."
The entire left side of this room was taken up by the petitioners, all sitting or standing on a platform that put them just a little higher than the interested men. The women were nude. Some wore boots or shoes; some covered themselves with their hair; some wore their hair clipped and dyed vivid, strange colors.
He eyed the crowd, then slid his gaze back to the wall of petitioning females, all silent, all desperate. Any one of them could have been his sister, his mother, his wife, his child. He couldn't save them all, but he could save those who--
"What's her story?" He lifted his chin toward the beautiful girl whose long, nearly black hair covered her shoulders and fell to her hips. Several protectors already stood staring at her, and he knew if he wanted her, he'd have to move quickly. If she'd petitioned someone, he'd have to buy her petition from the bastard.
When he came here to look over the petitioners, it was never with the thought of getting a warm body for his bed, someone to help run his property or cook his meals--not really. It was his attempt to make up for his past.
But this woman... This woman made him think only of a warm body. Nothing about her reminded him of his dead mother or his lost sister. This one didn't tug at his heart so much as his cock.
The hostess smiled at his attention. "Her name is Sarah, Commander Trinder. And she has petitioned for you and only you. She will have no one else."
His heart leaped as unreasonable pride flooded his veins. She was his. "When did she come in?"
"Four weeks ago, sir. But this is the first time she's shown herself."
The brunette, Sarah, looked up and met his gaze, and it was as though the earth shifted beneath his feet. Her eyes, even from a distance, were astounding. Not because of their vivid green color, which all on its own was enough to knock a man down. No, it was because of the depth of them, the...emotion in them.
He sucked in a deep breath and tried to force his face blank. It must have worked, because her stunning gaze dimmed and dropped from his. "Let no one else near her. Do not tell her of my interest."
Confusion crossed the hostess's face, but she was too well trained to voice it. "Yes, Commander."
He'd need to think about this. He liked women in his bed as well as the next man, but wasn't in a hurry to take one who affected him so deeply. He had to stay in control. The women needed him, not the other way around. But this one made him pant and stare with his tongue hanging out like a kid who'd never known a woman. "Shit."
He forced his gaze away from the petitioning woman and back to the hostess. "What do you know about her?"
"Shall we sit? I'll fetch her file."
"Yes. But not here."
"We can go to an empty room." At his nod, she snapped her fingers and motioned for another hostess. "I'm stepping away for a few minutes."
Unable to help himself, he slid his gaze once again to the petitioning woman. She was watching him.
"Damn you," he muttered.
"Come with me, Commander. I'll tell you what I know of her and show you her file."
"I'll take her file," he said, glaring. "She's mine now."
The hostess cringed but caught herself immediately and faced him coolly. "As soon as you've paid for her, you may have her."
He almost apologized for causing her to fear him. "I'll pay, but I don't want to take her just yet." He held his hand up as the hostess started to speak. "I'll pay for her keep here until I'm ready to bring her...home."
She inclined her head. "Of course." Leading him into a small room, empty but for a long table and some scattered chairs, she avoided his stare as she spoke. "I'll be back in two minutes with the girl's file. Sit, please. Would you like anything to--"
"Just the file."
He stood at the dirty window, staring sightlessly into the muddy, enclosed courtyard, a place where the petitioners might get some fresh air and stretch their legs between display times. All he really saw, however, was the girl Sarah's pale face as she'd watched him.
Most of the women made several petitions. That way they had a better chance of gaining the interest of at least one man. Women were only allowed six months in the hall. After that, they were considered impossible to place and were sent packing. Not that such a thing happened with Kai around. Unless he found a woman to be manipulative and unfriendly or hard on the other women, he'd take her if she really needed him.
Not that the settlement was such a bad place. Of all the settlements in the territory, his settlement was the best, the richest, the most crime free. Springland was the worst.
But some of the women had no skills or resources or family. They found it a difficult existence and would petition a man who was capable of taking care of them.
He looked at the girl who'd caught his eye. What was it about this one that got to him? She was beautiful, sure, but the hall was packed full of lovely women.
"Fuck," he whispered. It was her eyes. Her haunted fucking eyes. He groaned, rubbing his face with hard fingers. What had happened to her?
He wished he didn't give quite so big a damn. New Haven was packed full of hurt people. He had enough to worry about trying to keep this settlement intact and under his command.
He didn't need to take on a woman who'd snagged his interest without even half trying. Thinking of what she could do to him if she did try caused him to break out in a cold sweat.
If he accepted her petition, she was going to be more than under his skin. She was going to be in his life. He shouldn't take her. If he did, he was sure to regret it. He could feel it like a layer of slime on his skin. Something was not right with this woman.
He sighed, closing his eyes at the sound of the hostess's footsteps on the wooden floor.
The hostess patted her perfectly coiffed brown hair before sitting at the table. She placed the slender file carefully before him. "Sir?"
"Never mind. I don't want it. I can't take her."
"But, Commander, she's refused to petition anyone else. What shall I do with her?"
"If she refuses to petition anyone else, then that just makes her foolish. Not my problem."
She stood, her eyes blank. "As you wish."
He hesitated at the door. "Why did she wait four weeks to show herself?"
"When she first came in, she was...unfit for viewing."
He clenched his teeth, hard enough to hurt. "Why?"
Again, the hostess flinched. "She'd been beaten, Commander, and though her wounds were semihealed and her bruises had faded, they were still noticeable. It took this long to ready her."
He pinched the bridge of his nose, then stared at the wall for a long moment. Finally, he walked back to the table and sat down. "Give it to me."
He could almost feel the hostess's smile. "I'll tell you everything I know. I was curious as well. She seemed different. Secretive. She refused to answer most questions and lied about the ones she did answer."
"So I went looking for answers."
"And what did you find?"
She stared at him, her manner hesitant. "She belonged to the commander from Springland. I'm sure that's where she was mistreated. He's known for his cruelty. Especially to women."
Her face darkened with shadows from the past, her gaze turning inward. Kai figured she'd had a few encounters with Commander Sampson. The bastard.
A vision of the porcelain-faced Sarah swam through his mind. Brutalized by that fucking swine Sampson.
Rage cut through him, nearly taking his breath. Something about the girl called to him, dragging him into a trap of emotion and want as grasping and sucking as any pool of quicksand. He'd have to grab on to his cold sanity and pull himself out before it was too late.
Fuck it. He was already in too deep.