Nila is a space-aged princess with a problem. Though she's managed to wrap her parents around her naughty little finger, palace life leaves a lot to be desired.
Her boredom finds an answer, however, when a group of royal-targeting pirates sneak into the palace. Nila's pretty sure they're up to no good, and she's almost certain she should trigger the alarm, but one look at their dashing leader leads her straight into trouble.
Before she can cry damsel in distress, she's in his arms and in danger of losing more than her heart. Abducted by pirates, caged like an animal, and falling fast for the rogue who caused it all, Nila might be thankful for the bars between them, but her body has other ideas.
“You didn’t engage the security parameters.” Her father scowled at her and then let his gaze wander out across the courtyard. “Nila, you understand that we only want to keep you safe?”
“Yes, Father.” They wanted to keep her under their thumb, more likely. Safe meant boring. It meant no chance of anything interesting happening to her...ever.
“Three break-ins this month alone.” Now he mused to himself. The crime wave, pointedly aimed at the system’s more prominent families, had both her parents worried. Her mother had insisted she take a full bodyguard with her just to visit the tailor that morning.
“We have excellent security.” Nila sighed. Too excellent. “I’m perfectly safe.”
“Perhaps. I’m sure that boy thought he was safe. The one from Zyran. His parents were on the news again this morning.”
“He wasn’t exactly a boy, Father.”
“Exactly. Not much older than you, Nila, and I’m certain, just as secure.” The prince’s disappearance had preceded the crime wave by a month, but it didn’t stop her father from using it to keep her locked in her rooms.
The distant dome glinted in the fading light. She watched the transports slide along the tracks, carrying their people to places without state of the art alarm systems and overprotective parents. Beyond the dome, three separate spaceports brought passengers from other worlds, and took them away as well.
She wasn’t a child. They’d marry her off in the next year or two anyway. The doting parent act didn’t make much sense, to her thinking. More likely the rumors of lost revenue, of stolen art and treasure from other royal halls had them on edge. Jumpy. Watching her like a hawk.
“I’m fine, Father. Really. I come out here every night to watch the city. It calms me down.” Plus, she had a packet of tri-smokes hidden under the lip of the railing not three paces from where he leaned. It had been a long day, and she tried not to imagine pushing him over the edge to get at them. “Just a few minutes, Daddy?”
He sighed. His big shoulders sagged exactly the way they had years ago when she’d talked him into getting her Beauty. She’d won, as she usually did when it came to her father. He looked left and right, as if her mother might be hiding nearby, as if they were under surveillance. His dark eyes softened and he held out his arms.
Nila rushed into the hug. Let his strength enfold her for a second and remembered what it had been like to be seven, to have wanted Beauty so bad that she’d resort to manipulating her poor father. She should be ashamed of herself. The cigarettes beckoned, however.
“Don’t tell your mother.” He released her and lifted her chin with one finger. “Or we’ll both be in the dog house.”
“And don’t stay out here too long.”
“Thanks, Daddy.” She was too old for the endearment, but it made him happy.
Nila waited for him to cross the terrace. She smiled when he looked back over his shoulder, a nostalgic glint in his eye. When he’d vanished through the sliding door, however, she bit back a tickle of guilt and dove for her smokes. The force field around the terrace let a shadow of the planet’s breeze trickle through, and she leaned out and let it riffle her long, ebony hair.
She plucked a smoke from the packet, tucked it between her lips and replaced her stash under the railing. A simple magnetic chip inserted between the papers kept is secure, kept her secret safe. Her nightgown hugged her curves in a film of girlish satin, and she had to hike it up on one side to wriggle into a lounging posture across the railing. From there, however, she could really watch the city. From there, she spent most nights marking the foot traffic, the skimmers darting between buildings, and imagining who rode in them.
The chill of the breeze lifted tiny bumps along her exposed legs. It felt dangerous, delicious to be free and exposed even a little bit, hanging over the edge of her world.
The smoking lulled her into a gentle calm. With security shadowing her every day, the thread of nervous tension through the palace kept them all on edge. Nila wouldn’t have been surprised if Daddy had a secret stash of smokes somewhere as well.
She sighed and rolled onto her stomach, kicking her legs up and exposing even more skin to the night air. Not proper, her mother would have called it. But then, her mother would have dropped into a faint on the spot if she found out Nila smoked, and swore, and looked at the dirty pictures she’d found in the guardroom computer banks.
Thinking about the pictures made heat blossom between her legs. It made her squirm a little against the railing. She bit her lip and tried to remember exactly how they’d looked, how the arms and legs had locked together, the angles and logistics and the expressions on the people’s faces—all theory to her so far. She’d done her best to memorize them, but her mind went fuzzy when her body heated up.
She dragged hard on her cigarette and propped herself up on one elbow, parting her knees enough to let the breeze tickle farther up her skirt. Her education had been lacking in so many things, and she had a feeling it would stay that way so long as she was stuck under lock and key.
Nila let her head fall back, imagined the expression on one of the women’s faces and sucked on the cigarette until her head spun. She’d fall off if she wasn’t careful. The thought brought her eyes down to the slick side of the building where a skimmer that had no business inside their force fields scooted right along the level below her.
Her heart paused. Her body froze and the warm feelings disappeared. A skimmer inside the force fields, one with no insignia, no call marking whatsoever on its hull to give it any affiliation—pirates.
How did they get in? She pressed her chest close to the railing and watched the wedge-shaped craft hug the palace wall. It slipped toward the nearest docking clamp, one level down and two bays over. Nila’s chest fluttered. A voice in her head reminded her that she should warn someone. She should trigger an alarm or something, but the excitement of it held her in place.
She’d never seen a pirate before, but in her mind they all looked a bit like the men in those dirty pictures. All sweaty and muscled like the workers who cleaned out the furnaces in the underground levels. When the skimmer stopped, when it engaged its docking clamps, Nila slid off the railing and tossed the last bit of her cigarette into the force field. It sparked and disintegrated, and she held her breath as if one of them might have noticed.
Her heart pounded. She just wanted to see one first. Then she’d sound the alarms, alert the guards and let security catch them in the act. Maybe she’d even get her name in the paper, a heroic mention for foiling the string of royal robberies.
She stood up, tossed her hair over her shoulders, and skipped her way back across the terrace.