·SERIES: The Jekh Saga Book 4
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After sixteen lonely years on Jekh, ex-soldier Jasper Escobar resorts to drastic measures to land one of the most sought-after women in Little Gitano. Access to the mysterious Sera Merridon comes at a steep price, because behind the scenes, solitary men like him bid huge sums of money for chances at romance.
Untrusting Sera has spent more than half her life being traded from one Terran space pirate to the next. When schoolteacher Marco Cipriani helped to liberate her from her traumatic existence as a space station courtesan, she wondered if perhaps not all of Earth’s men are the same. Sensitive Marco chases her fears away, so of course she wants him to be her lover and companion.
If only he weren’t so clueless.
He’s nobly standing aside for the more aggressive Jasper, but after learning about the tasteless wager scheme, Sera’s not inclined to play nice. That is, until Jasper reveals that he’s just trying to belong to someone. He can belong to her. In fact, both men can.
Although romantic trios are the norm on Jekh, her two human men hadn’t planned on sharing. And if they can’t share her, not only will the men forfeit the companionship Sera desperately wants to give them, but on the friendship the extraordinary men need from each other as well.
2038 – Little Gitano, Planet Jekh
Jasper Escobar twirled his credit chip between his fingers and stared at the wager board. The cost to enter Kent Taylor’s so-called “Approach Pool” had increased twofold in the past couple of weeks, and he was second-guessing whether he really wanted to give up his hard-earned dinero to feed the monster. After enduring more than fifteen years without a meaningful romantic relationship, he was nearing the point of desperation.
He simply didn’t know if he was two-months-rent desperate.
Cutting Kent a glare across the crowded barn, Jasper rubbed his beard and shifted his weight.
Twenty-three hundred credits.
Back home in New Mexico, that would have converted to a cool three thousand dollars. The fact Jasper had the money to spend at all had more to do with the fact he hadn’t had anything to spend it on than him actually earning a decent wage. Before accepting a newly minted peacekeeper gig, his last job on record had been police detective in the city of Buinet. He’d barely earned enough money to get his hair cut every two weeks by the time all was said and done. Then shit hit the fan, and the Jekhans took their planet back from guys who looked liked him. Didn’t bother him much. He’d been working for the resistance since soon after his arrival on the planet with the armed forces in 2022. His reward for not being a complete dirtbag was not getting kicked off Jekh.
After a year of skirmishes between profiteering holdouts and the militarized Jekhans in large cities like Buinet and Yarnte, peace was nearly achieved, and the Jekhans were restoring the pre-invasion order. The Terrans who didn’t have special permission to stay were being escorted off the planet at a brisk rate by the temporary government.
Jasper had more than earned the right to stay, and if for some reason he had to do the past sixteen years over, he wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe to have never enlisted in the Air Force in the first place. If he hadn’t enlisted, he wouldn’t have been deployed to help suppress a planet of people that hadn’t done shit to Earth. He wouldn’t have had to make hard choices after being shipped off to Jekh. He wouldn’t have deserted his unit, or accepted a job that made his fellow deserters judge him harshly when he was really working under cover.
He didn’t have shit to go home to. Abuela was dead, his parents were perpetual no-shows, and he’d never had a sweetheart in his hometown. No one was waiting and watching the sky for his return. Jekh had been his sweetheart for sixteen years.
He was ready for more.
“But twenty-three hundred credits?” he murmured. “Que broma.”
“I have no idea what you said,” Tevo, a fellow peacekeeper and the surliest Jekhan male Jasper had ever met, said. Jekhans were pretty even-tempered on the whole, but Jasper had reason to believe that they were polite because culture demanded they be, and not because their dispositions naturally fostered the state. After all, they were half human. Humans didn’t have the greatest reputation for sunshine and smiles, either.
“Que broma,” Jasper repeated and leaned against a nearby support column. “Means this is a joke.”
Tevo grunted. “I’m inclined to agree.”
“I mean, yeah, Kent is probably losing an hour or two of free time every week to maintain the system. Updating the files about all the unattached women in and around the village of Little Gitano has to be done for the scheme to work.”
The dossiers on the women were almost as thorough as Jasper’s military file, fully annotated with timelines, psychological profiles, and family tree information. Kent, being the OCD motherfucker that he was, left no stone unturned. If there was information out there about his “merchandise,” he had it on offer.
The women didn’t actually know they were merchandise. According to Kent, that made the intrusive level of detail that much more important. “You wouldn’t step up to the plate for the first time without doing a little research about the pitcher, right?” Kent had asked a week prior while trying to sell Jasper on the service.
For three months, Jasper had resisted. He didn’t like shadowy, secretive, behind-the-curtain shit, and was trying to keep his nose clean. He’d been in Little Gitano for barely three months, and was still trying to get the locals to trust him. The last thing he needed was to have every native Jekhan in town giving him the side-eye treatment because he’d acted up too soon.
“But you’re not certain what alternative we have,” Tevo said.
“Exactly. Feels like extortion in a way. Pay the money, or get shut out. The bastard is preying on our cravings for intimacy and companionship.”
“The stakes are higher for me.”
Jasper cringed. He’d forgotten. His desire to find a romantic partner was a social yearning. Tevo’s was both social and biological. Due to their half-Tyneali genetics, Jekhan men of a certain age had screwy hormones and needed to have both a male and female partner in constant proximity to equalize them. It was an “or else” kind of scenario.
Unfortunately, even before the Terrans had landed and fucked them over, the population on the planet Jekh skewed about two men to every woman. Another gift from the Tyneali. They’d engineered the hybrid race, but had put too much of themselves into the human genome. The birthrate resembled the Tyneali’s, but it still really needed to be one male born for each female, and that way folks would have had some options. Men like Tevo were in dire straits because profiteers had kidnapped many of the “exotic” Jekhan women and sold them into slavery to other species who hadn’t been assertive enough to steal them on their own.
Sometimes Kent joked that a quarter of the atmospheric composition was testosterone. The joke was getting old fast.
Letting out a ragged exhalation, he nudged Tevo with his elbow.
One of his natural burgundy eyebrows upward. “Hmm?”
“You know how many burritos I could get for twenty-three hundred credits?”
Tevo narrowed his eyes and began to mutter to himself as if he was doing the mental math.
Jasper nudged him again. “You’re so damn literal.”
“Old habit.” Tevo rubbed at the angry burn scar that puckered the side of his face and turned his gaze to the wager slate. “When my students asked me questions, I found them answers.”
“That was a long time ago. What, twelve years?”
“Thirteen,” Tevo murmured. “I fled Buinet the first time thirteen years ago.” Looking down at Jasper from his height of damn near seven feet, he said, “I am curious about the value of a burrito, however.”
Jasper laughed. “You could buy a good burrito for a buck in some places. I haven’t had a decent burrito since I left Earth on that troop mover ship sixteen years ago. Can’t get good tortillas here.”
“Perhaps speak with Headron. Certainly, he’d be able to tell you if he could spare the time to make them. He’s the most accomplished baker in the area.”
“That’s exactly why I haven’t asked him. There’d be a fucking riot if I distracted him from making those pastries. He can hardly keep them on the store shelves as it is.”
“All right,” Kent called out, jostling Jasper from fantasies about burritos and his late abuela’s carnitas and how that woman could make meat sing. “Give the board a long, hard look and get those chips in.”
“Are we doing this?” Tevo asked in an undertone.
Jasper dragged a hand through his short-cropped hair and thought about the money again. So many credits for the mere chance at making a connection with a woman. For that kind of cash, he should have been demanding a guarantee, but there were no guarantees. They were all suckers.
With his fingers entwined behind his back, Kent paced in front of the big bucket of chips that was the sacred fount of feminine opportunity and made eye contact with every man in the room.
He barely missed Jasper rolling his eyes.
Jasper tossed the chip from one hand to the other and counted entries on the board.
Only thirteen. Seemed an unlucky number to him. Some of those names had obviously been recycled from previous pools—the men who’d won the chance to woo them had given up and moved on. A few were new, and a couple of names were familiar.
He rubbed his hand down his face and scratched at the scruff on his chin again. “Twenty-three hundred credits.”
“Thirteen women,” Tevo murmured.
“Oh, you counted too?”
“Not enough to go around. Of course I counted. There’s a shortage everywhere.”
There were plenty of women on Earth, and in New Mexico. He thought about his old stomping grounds every day, and was heartsick every time he flew over the Sisten Desert. It wasn’t like the desert at home. The landscape colors were different. The plants were different. But the landscape still, somehow, managed to evoke memories of the parched ground he used to chase after his baseballs on.
Jasper had no idea what New Mexico looked like anymore, though. He didn’t know if he’d recognize home if he went back, and he didn’t know anyone there anymore.
He sucked some air through his clenched teeth and studied the board once more, trying to imagine if he could see himself with any of the women listed. He hadn’t had so much as a conversation with a single one of them. He’d been too busy running down fugitives with the peacekeepers, and running errands for his old boss from the Buinet Police and the Jekhan Alliance, Lil Devin. She was a woman he’d never say no to. She had a good heart, Lil. Pathologically optimistic, but definitely one of the buenas gentes. If anyone could help the Jekhans fix their population issues, she was the lady.
Refusing to let his gaze linger too long on the headshots, he gave serious thought to backing out, and hated that he’d even walked into that barn. He was going to screw up his bank balance in a nauseating way if he drew a woman who was too young for a thirty-eight-year-old ex-soldier, or one who was known to be a hard prospect. Jekhan women were notoriously hard to lure, and there were only two Terran women on the board for the week. They were ages twenty-four and twenty-six.
Even for women who’d been on the planet since childhood and had hardened to the environment, that was sickeningly young.
He knew “Twenty-six.” Her name was Brenna Zachary. She’d been an admin at the police department in Buinet and now lived on the Beshni farm. She’d escaped the powder keg in Buinet during the riots started along with the McGarry siblings, who now served as her hosts.
She’d arrived on Jekh as a kid with her father—the typical sort of sellout asshole looking to make a quick buck on Earth’s first space colony—and he’d tried to make an example of her to earn political Kool-Aid points. She’d ended up in jail for a crime she didn’t commit, and he’d probably gotten a fistful of cash.
He was gone.
All those assholes were gone now. Strapped into long-haul shuttles, put into stasis, and sent back to Earth.
Brenna was smart, warm, and funny, but too. Damn. Young.
He grimaced, stepped up to the bucket, and stared down. There had to be forty wager slips in there.
He glanced around the room. Most men in attendance were Terran, but there were a few Jekhan men besides Tevo there, as well. Most of the folks in town didn’t know about their little scheme, and Kent wanted to keep things on the hush-hush. They weren’t gambling, in the strictest sense of the word, but the ladies might have thought differently if they’d known they were even peripherally connected to the scheme.
“Here are the rules again,” Kent called out, “in case you forgot them, and in case you didn’t hear about the new changes.”
“Oh, boy,” someone muttered.
Jasper shook his head and settled in against his support column for the lecture. Kent was constantly tweaking the rules. He probably went home every night and schemed ways to squeeze more credits out of people. Jasper had only had a Buinet address for three months, and in that time, Kent had changed the rules six times.
“The more credits you put in, the better your chance will be of getting an early pick.” Kent paced some more. “Of course, this is a system of chance. You have no way of knowing who you’ll pick no matter when you pick, so spending more isn’t necessarily going to get you the gal you’re hoping for. Spending more does, however, increase the odds of that gal still being in the pool when your time to pull comes, okay?”
“That’s not new,” Devin Dale called over from the makeshift bar Kent had set up—a recycled door laid atop two oak barrels from Earth. “What’s the new part?”
Kent snapped his fingers and pointed at him. “I’m getting to that, oh ye of so little patience.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “As I was saying, a win doesn’t buy you a lady. I have to keep reminding you assholes of that. There are no guarantees. This is a gentleman’s arrangement. All you get for a win in a guarantee that no one in this barn is going to try to step up to any woman on this list until after the wager-winner has signaled that a hookup ain’t gonna happen. She’ll go back into the pool then. Anyone caught sniffing around the ladies they didn’t win will get a swift kick to the nuts and also banned from future drawings.”
Kent walked to the bucket, reached in, and mixed up the slips a bit.
“The new catch this week is that you can make multiple wagers. You want to try to mack on more than one lady at once? Well, god help ya, but feel free to try. Of course, multiple wagers doesn’t guarantee you’ll get more than one name, or even one at all. There are still way more of you than there are of them. Understand me?”
Everyone muttered agreement except Jasper.
Twenty-three hundred credits minimum, and Kent had thought up a brand new way of potentially screwing them. He’d worked in military intelligence before defecting. He understood all too well how to manipulate people.
A few more men stepped up to the credit swiper and put in their bets.
Jasper held back, glancing again at the ladies on the board. He had no way of knowing if any were worth the risk, but he was sick of being lonely, and if he didn’t put in his wager, he’d have no shot in hell at getting close to any woman in the directory. The participants banded together and shouldered out any prospects who hadn’t paid up. If he so much as said “Hi” to a lady in front of the feed store, one of those assholes could swoop in and either distract her or shame him until he went away. He’d witnessed that firsthand at least three times with men who were out of the loop.
“If you see guys outside of our little cabal trying to cozy up with ladies you know are on the list,” Kent said, as if he’d been reading Jasper’s mind, “you’re obligated to steer the suckers away the best you can—and peacefully, you hear me? We’re not trying to start blood feuds over this shit.”
Jasper ground his teeth, ready to be done with the ordeal.
In or out?
He still hadn’t decided. There were some beautiful women on that board, but beauty didn’t guarantee a love match. He wanted stability, not just possibility. Guys like Tevo could be less picky. Jekhans were used to taking whatever partners they could get.
“One more change,” Kent said, holding up a hand.
There came a collective groan from the room, including from Jasper.
Get on with it, already.
“New this week, if a guy does a draw and doesn’t like the name he picks, he can chose to double his buy-in and toss her back, assuming there are any ladies left. Naturally, doing so may get you someone you like even less, but that’s the price you pay for gambling.” Kent clasped his hands together, and grinned like a shark. “All right. Three minutes to buy your entries. Chances depend on number of entries and so on.”
Jasper looked once more at the board, and his gaze tracked immediately toward carmine skin, violet-colored eyes, and hair the color of his abuela’s Black Velvet variety of roses. Red with some smoke in it.
The Merridon sisters held a certain appeal to a sex-starved savage like him, but they were notoriously closed off. After what they’d gone through, they had the right to be.
Putting a face to the scheme made the betting so much more personal. Made him want to invest more so he could he could take a woman home and love on her the way she needed. He’d show her that there were men capable of worshiping her the way she deserved, and that they weren’t all the same.
He’d never make her regret giving him the chance.
Any of the three would have been the right age, and their brother had a Terran woman as one of his partners. They wouldn’t be completely hostile toward Jasper simply for him being from Earth, though they certainly had the right to be disgusted by him for a host of other reasons.
Valen. Ara. Sera.
He would have been thrilled for a chance with any of them. If one didn’t like him, maybe she’d warm up her sister for him instead.
The way he was thinking—like some kind of perverse opportunist—was unrecognizable to him, but he stepped up to the swiper. He had no way of knowing how much the other men had bet, only what the minimum was. He bet twice that to get two shots at a single draw, and hoped that investment would be enough to at least be able to pull a slip. He would likely be digging into his old MRE stash to feed himself by the end of the week unless his supervisor decided that Jasper deserved a spontaneous bonus.
Forty-six hundred fucking credits.
“All right!” Kent tapped the lid onto the bucket, picked up the container, and gave it an energetic shake. He set the bucket down, pulled the lid up, and pushed a lamp closer to the bucket. “Let’s get this party started. Lala?” he called over to his wife.
The Jekhan woman behind the makeshift bar crooked up one of her reddish eyebrows.
“You want to update the board for me? Please and thank you and I love you?”
Lala sighed, corked the bottle of Gitanan ale she’d been pouring, and then cut one of the drinkers a side-eye. “Don’t touch that when I walk away.”
“Scout’s honor,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means, but I don’t think you have an honorable bone in your body.”
“Aw, why you gotta be like that?”
She gave the man a sardonic bow, and Jasper snorted.
“Welcome to Jekh,” she said. “How long have you been here?”
“Ten years,” the guy muttered.
“Then you should know how we are.” She moved to the board and picked up a piece of red chalk. Jekhans were fond of red, being fairly red themselves. The Tyneali had been dickering with the gene pool for a thousand years or more. The hybrids were, for the most part, human-appearing, but their coloring was redder than humans’. The Tyneali were red from their hair down to their toenails, not that he’d ever seen their toenails, but he could guess.
“All right.” Kent turned on the randomizer on his tablet and, with a flourish, tapped the screen. Every bet was connected to that application.
Jasper’s heart stuttered.
Please, not Black Velvet.
“You’re up, Vin.”
“Fuck yeah!” Vin sauntered up to the bucket, shoved his hand in, and rooted out a slip.
“Well, who did you get?” Lala called out.
“Gerti.” Vin nodded and pursed his lips. “Okay. Cool.”
“You keeping her?”
Vin shrugged. “May as well. Can’t afford to bet again.” He carried his slip to Lala and then moved toward the bar. He couldn’t get a drink, but there were pastries set out for anyone to take.
Jasper leaned against his support column once more with his arms crossed and watched two more men pull names. One was Brenna.
He grunted again. Even Tevo scoffed, likely thinking the same thing as Jasper. Brenna wasn’t gonna give that guy the time of day. She was such a nerd. There was no way in hell she’d even be able to carry on a conversation with a guy who, by his own admission, hadn’t seen the point of reading a book in the last six years.
“All right…” Kent tapped the screen again. “Jasper! You’re up.”
He stood dumb, staring. He’d been hoping, of course. After all, he’d transferred a shitload of credits into Kent’s bank account, but part of him hadn’t believed he’d get a draw, much less such an early one.
“Come on, man,” Ken said. “Let’s go.”
Jasper dragged his tongue across his lips and pushed away from the column he was holding up. He’d gotten a pull. He actually got to pull a name.
He approached the bucket and, closing his eyes, dropped his hand into the bucket and let his fingers walk a bit. He felt far more of the bucket’s plastic than he did paper. There were only ten names left. He said a prayer to whichever god would hear him that he hadn’t wasted his money, and then asked for forgiveness for praying for such petty shit in the first place.
Jasper hoped that whomever he pulled would be receptive. He didn’t want to make a second pull, and if he were impulsive again and decided he had to, he’d be broke until his next paycheck. He’d thought he’d left that “living poor” shit behind when he’d left Earth.
“Well? Who’d you get?” Kent asked.
Jasper unfolded the paper he’d pulled and smoothed it against his knee before reading.
“What’s the name?” Lala called over impatiently.
Jasper furrowed his brow and read the name again. His brain made sense of “Merridon” first, and his heart gave a triumphant gallop.
“Jasper!” Lala nudged.
“Shit. Sorry.” He walked the slip over to her.
“Sera Merridon,” she called out.
He peered up at the board to confirm her stats. She was the youngest of the three sisters. Lala took the bio down and filed the poster into the portfolio case before Jasper could get his fill of looking at the woman.
“Good luck,” someone muttered. “I hear she’s been in the pool for nine months. No action.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kent said. “Just like her sisters. I suspect that her big sisters aren’t gonna settle down until she’s squared away.”
“Why’s that?” Jasper asked.
“Nope. Don’t make up pretty words to tell me. Give me the truth. I don’t know anything about those women.”
“Okay, normally we’d tell you to read the deeper dossiers in advance, but I guess you’re new enough that you haven’t seen them all.”
Lala rolled her eyes. “For goodness’ sake, she has a small child and an arm that doesn’t work. She was sold into sex slavery and got brutalized so badly that the nerves in her left arm stopped functioning. Would you like to throw her back and re-pull?”
Jasper pushed a hand through his hair and stared at the bucket.
He’d read a lot of the files in a hurry, and hadn’t known that about her. He knew the Merridons had gone through some shit, but hadn’t known about the injury.
Or the kid.
Granted, all women on Jekh, save for the most isolated, had likely endured at least a little during the long Terran occupation, but he knew that some ladies had to have been in worse straits than others. The last thing some needed was a dead-end courtship with a chick who’d already been tossed back a few times, and good for her for protecting herself.
But…her sisters. Rules or no rules, he could try to soften them up if Miss Sera shut him out. Three chances for the price of one.
Maybe he wouldn’t be lonely by the time all was said and done.
Lala sighed and cocked her hip impatiently. “Well?”
He stared at the bucket again, drummed his fingertips against his biceps, and then shrugged. If push came to shove, he could say later on that he’d merely taken one for the team.
An expensive one.
“Okay,” he said. “Sera Merridon, it is.”