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Book 1: Marked Yours
Three hundred years ago, natural disaster reformed the face of North America, and the people who lived in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains would never be the same.
Now, the master/slave bond in New Colorado has become a sacred rite of service, protection, and, sometimes, for the lucky, love. Nick and his intended Master, Todd Ruger, a sentry of the territories, have grown up knowing that they were pledged to this bond. They’re looking forward to the ritual with both excitement and trepidation—it’s something they’ve prepared for their entire lives. But New Colorado’s institution of slavery has made dangerous enemies on a frontier fraught with trouble, and they are unprepared for the trials their new relationship will face. Their bond needs to grow very strong, very fast if it’s going to survive the collision of old superstition, new beliefs, and the ever-present danger of the natural and supernatural frontier.
PERHAPS one of the most difficult things in Todd Ruger’s life was waking up that morning and not pinning Nick down and showing the boy just how much he wanted him. After spending years watching Nick grow from afar, the only thing he’d been able to think of these past months was what having Nick would be like. He’d waited for what seemed like forever to receive Nick. He reminded himself again that to do this right would be worth it. While the kid was shy and unsure, he did seem to want to please Todd. More importantly, he seemed to like Todd.
Todd lay quietly, watching Nick as he woke up. Long limbs that carried a decent amount of muscle moved slowly. Sometime during the night he’d pressed his cheek to Todd’s shoulder, which brought out a surge of protectiveness and possessiveness Todd hadn’t known he was capable of. He stretched, and Todd watched how muscle slid under smooth skin. Nick yawned, opened his eyes a crack, and smiled, making Todd’s breath catch in his chest. Nick’s hair hung in wisps over his face. His almond-shaped eyes were deep pools of hazel Todd could easily get lost in. Todd was relieved; a good bit of the fear he’d initially seen in Nick’s face and eyes had dropped away. Now he simply watched Todd patiently.
He wasn’t sure what he liked more—Nick’s soft, gentle eyes or his sweet smile and dimples.
Brushing some of the rebellious strands from Nick’s face, Todd asked, “Sleep okay?” Wrapping his head around the thought that this marvelous creature beside him was his, would share his life and—hopefully—bed made him dizzy. He could force Nick, of course. He owned Nick, and Nick was obligated by law to do whatever Todd wished. But that wasn’t how Todd wanted this to go. He didn’t want to instill fear in Nick, as he’d seen in others’ slaves. He didn’t even want a slave. Todd wanted a partner, someone to count on and who’d count on him. Earning Nick’s trust was far more important to Todd than beating him into submission.
Nick had responded so well to Todd’s experimental touches and words yesterday, and seeing him smile like he had made Todd’s heart beat wildly. He’d been so surprised by Todd’s small gestures of care, it made Todd realize how much his own life was lacking in the affection they were both so obviously starving for.
“Yeah, I did. Did you?”
“Oh yeah.” Todd stretched and sat up. He needed to move away from Nick or crawl inside him. He poked his head outside, turned, and grinned. “They’re still out cold. We can get cleaned up in peace.”
Nick scooted across and out of the wagon and followed Todd to a small stream.
“I’ve been here lots before.” He pointed to a small bend in the stream and an outcrop of rocks. “We’ll have more privacy over there.”
With Nick in tow, Todd picked his way over some rocks and along the stream bank until they were out of sight and hearing of the others. Nick followed amiably. Todd watched how his eyes darted everywhere, taking in every detail of their surroundings. His life might have forced him to melt into the shadows and be unseen by society, but Todd realized this boy didn’t miss a thing.
From the day he turned twelve and Nick’s binding to him was initiated, Todd grew up knowing he’d have this person in his care, be responsible for him. Discovering that Nick wasn’t a mindless dolt brought Todd a definite sense of relief. If push came to shove, in any situation, he was sure Nick could hold his own. That eased Todd’s fears about what would happen if he and Nick were ever accidentally separated in a dicey situation. Todd knew Nick had been raised to be Todd’s property, but what Nick probably didn’t know or realize was that already he was becoming Todd’s most prized possession. Todd was more and more looking forward to tomorrow. They’d be home and alone to get to know each other.
After relieving himself and keeping a keen ear out for Nick, who’d disappeared behind a tree, no doubt to do the same thing, Todd peeled his coat and shirts off, leaving just his jeans and boots on. Nick followed suit and stripped to the waist. They were both shivering, and their teeth were chattering when they’d washed, though Todd seriously enjoyed the view of Nick’s muscled body glistening with water droplets.
Just as he yanked his T-shirt over his head, Todd heard movement through the bushes. He lifted one hand to his lips, telling Nick to keep quiet. Nick nodded; he understood. Moving slowly, Nick pulled his own clothes on and glanced around. Todd eased his pistol from the shoulder holster that was gripped in his hand. He only marginally relaxed his stance when a man stepped through the trees and brush.
“What are you doing here, Ruben?” Todd lowered his gun but didn’t put it away. He shot a quick look at Nick, who’d finished dressing and stood motionless, watching Todd and the other man.
“Just came to check on you boys.”
“We’re fine. Go back to the wagons.”
Ruben gave Todd a look that made him wonder if his pants were zipped. He had to concentrate on not squirming under the other man’s intense gaze. Stepping around Todd, Ruben moved closer to Nick.
“Thought maybe you’d be sharing some of this fine stock you’ve gotten yourself.”
When Nick didn’t move away, just stood there staring at Ruben, Todd felt a swell of pride. This boy—his boy—was definitely no pushover. If Ruben intimidated him, he certainly wasn’t showing it. Todd was doubly pleased when he realized Nick already trusted in Todd enough to follow whatever choice Todd made for them.
Just as Ruben reached out to run a hand down Nick’s face, Todd closed the distance between them and smacked Ruben’s hand away. Todd’s eyes met Nick’s, and he saw a flash of relief, and something else, in the younger man’s eyes. “I don’t share well,” Todd ground out.
He kept Nick well away from the others until they broke camp. He didn’t trust them; he wasn’t even sure he trusted his father. As they continued on their trip, a cold wind whipped up. For the first part of the day, Nick quietly watched the scenery go by. He looked thoughtful, worried. Todd didn’t know what to say to him, or if he should say anything. He simply let the incident blow by.
Finally, Nick spoke.
“Thank you,” he said very quietly.
When Todd glanced sideways at him, Nick huddled down into the heavy shirt.
“What you did this morning.”
Todd patted Nick’s knee, drew in a breath, and sighed it out long and slow. “Nicky, like I told you yesterday, it’s just you and me. I’m not handing you off to anyone. I don’t believe in that shit. They’re a bunch of assholes, and honestly, my father, even though he’s a great hunter, he’s not much better. You stay away from them. And if they or anyone else ever lays a hand on you, I want you to tell me.”
“What is it you can do?” Todd asked. “I was never clear on that.”
“I can see when someone has evil inside.”
“What’s it look like?”
Nick shrugged. “Mostly black. Sometimes a person’s face looks funny, distorted, frightening. Once when I was really little, I saw the evil leave a girl and she died. My village thought I’d done something. If you… your father hadn’t put in a bid for you and me to….”
When Nick swallowed hard and his voice trailed off, Todd nodded. He understood. Nick would have likely been killed. Todd shifted the reins to one hand and put his arm around Nick’s shoulders, tugging him closer. “It’s cold,” he muttered, pleased when Nick nudged into his side and relaxed against him. “Have you practiced using your ability to see evil?”
Nick shook his head, and Todd felt how his hair rustled softly against his coat. “I was told it would be important to your family; that was why they let me live.”
“Okay, we’ll work on it and figure it out. I grew up being told I’d have you and there was an ability you had I could use and that without the right master you might not survive.”
Todd felt Nick shift so he could look up at him, but said nothing. Their ride was quiet but comfortable to Todd, with Nick leaning against him as if they’d known one another forever.
Their camp was tense that night, and Todd was happy they’d be back in the city by midmorning the next day. He told Nick to stay with their wagon while Todd got their food for the night. He’d seen how the other men, his own father included, watched Nick, watched him. Waiting until his father was closer to his own wagon and alone, Todd confronted him.
“I want to do this my way. You said—”
“I said”—John turned to face Todd fully, hands gripping a branding iron already turning red—“that I’d see what I could do. This has to be done. You know that, and Nick does too. We have to follow what the city elders want, and they want it done before he’s in the city.”
“Fine, but not like this. He’s just starting to trust me. The only thing he probably knows is he has to wear my mark. Not—” Todd pointed to the large iron. “—not that.”
John’s jaw clenched. “You’re talking like he’s someone. He’s property, nothing more than horses or cattle.”
“He is someone. Hell, I’ve seen the work those two do!” Todd shouted. His arm shot out, pointing at two other men sitting with Ruben. Branders. “It’s cruel, not necessary, and he could die.”
“Then he’ll die. I’m sorry, son.”
Todd’s only warning was John’s eyes dropping. Grabbed from behind, Todd was thrown off guard. He kicked out, hitting nothing but air. There was one of him and eight of them. “Nick! Run!”
“Todd, stop it!” John snarled at him. “You’re making it worse.”
Nick looked up, bewildered. His eyes widened for a few seconds. He didn’t run. In fact, he stood up and clenched his hands to fists. “What are you—”
“Nicky, run! I mean it. Run now!” Todd glared at his father and then at the other men. “There’re better ways.” He bucked and kicked wildly, trying for freedom. “Hurt him and I’ll—”
“Shut up.” One of the other men, someone Todd had known since childhood, shouted and hit him hard enough in the side of the head to make his vision explode in a starburst of color for a few seconds.
Todd was tied and shoved against one of the wagons, and then tied to it. A rag was wadded up and forced into his mouth, but that didn’t stop him from shouting obscenities at them. Nick had just begun to trust him, and now they were doing this. What Todd had built between them was going to be wrenched away in a few brutal minutes.
With Todd out of the way and Nick having no idea what was coming, Nick was easy prey. Four men descended upon him. While Nick tried to rip his arms from their grip, he didn’t hit any of them. Striking anyone was a death sentence to slaves. His shouting turned to pleading when he was dragged to a spot near the center of the wagons and forced to his knees.
One of them grabbed him by the face and forced a bottle of whisky into his mouth. “Believe me, boy. You’ll thank me for this.”
Todd shouted threats and pleas. If Nick vomited, he’d drown.
Stripped to the waist, Nick was tied spread-eagle on the ground. Ruben yanked his belt off and strung it around Nick’s neck. When the first brand was pressed to Nick’s left wrist and he howled in pain, shouting for Todd, Ruben pulled the belt tight, cutting off his air. A second, matching brand was put to Nick’s right wrist. Todd saw how Nick’s eyes went wide with terror and pain when one of the men took the larger brand John held.
Putting one foot on Nick’s chest, the man held up the iron and turned it, inspecting it closely. His face split into a grin as he pressed his foot against Nick. In the next instant, the brand was driven down and held against Nick’s chest. His entire body bowed up as far as the restraints allowed, and his scream shattered the night air.
Elizabeth Noble started telling stories before she actually knew how to write, and her family was very happy when she learned to put words on a page. Those words turned into fan fiction that turned into a genuine love of M/M romance fiction. Being able to share her works with Dreamspinner is really a dream come true. She has a real love for all things sci-fi, futuristic, and supernatural and a bit of an unnatural interest in a super-volcano in Wyoming.
Elizabeth has three grown children and is now happily owned by an adorable mixed breed canine princess named Rosie, and two cats, Murphy and Yeti. She lives in her native northeast Ohio, the perfect place for gardening, winter and summer sports (go Tribe!). When she’s not writing she’s working as a veterinary nurse, so don’t be surprised to see her men with a pet or three who are a very big part of their lives.