Cover Tamsin’s Choice
 
a Quickie by Mardi Ballou
from Ellora’s Cave

Here’s an excerpt. Enjoy!


Prologue
Planet Nowemapo
3746 C.E.


“What in blazes—” Karloutria, Empress Designate of Nowemapo, ran to rescue her elderly father from the claws of a huge, hairy creature. How had this abomination gotten past the palace guards? She shrieked her outrage and pummeled the monster.

He flicked her off as if she were a flea. “Foreplay already, my dear? With your father watching? Naughty, but I’m open-minded,” the beast rasped in tones that set Karloutria’s nerves on edge. It bared long, gleaming yellow fangs in a parody of a smile.

Karloutria stilled her ineffectual fists. “Who are you and why are you holding my father prisoner? Let go immediately or you’ll die an ugly death.”

The creature barked a laugh. Worst of all, her father cringed but did nothing to free himself. Had he been drugged or somehow bespelled? Karloutria felt for the panic button secreted next to her heart and pressed hard to get help. None came. She pressed again and again to no effect. Shards of fear threatened to knock her off her feet.

Her father, the Emperor of Nowemapo, looked on the verge of collapse. Karloutria willed herself to assume the icy mantle of royal prerogative. “Unhand my father and leave. You are not welcome in our palace.”

The creature laughed again. The emperor turned a pathetic shade of gray, as if he was in immediate danger of losing his morning meal.

“Since this is now my palace,” the creature intoned, “it’s not your place, my betrothed, to pretend I’m unwelcome.”

“What? How dare you speak such lying impertinence. This is our palace. As to my being your betrothed—” She gagged.

Her father raised a feeble, trembling hand. “Don’t waste your words, Karloutria. Hard as it is to believe, he’s telling the truth.”

The creature grunted with pleasure and opened his mouth even wider, subjecting her to a panoramic view of dagger fangs and murky drool.

Now, damnation, was not the time for a maidenly swoon. Was her father using some esoteric code in an effort to communicate? Her brain swirled in confusion as she tried to make sense of the disaster. It was too much to take in at one shot. Instead, she divided the catastrophe into manageable parts. She pointed to the interloper and, as if they were at a normal reception, asked her father, “Who is this?”

“Allow me to present myself,” the creature interrupted. “I am Drukmurkreet. You may know me better by my proud title, the Tyrant of Raptosphere.” Plumes of smoke poured from its visible orifices as it inclined in a derisive bow.

Heavenly goddesses. The Tyrant of Raptosphere. How had her father managed to get them enmeshed with the nastiest, most violent and brutish maniac in their quadrant of the galaxy? She’d find out later, when she got them out of the current trap.

Obviously the tyrant wasn’t about to murder her father or her, which meant she had some leeway to maneuver them to safety. On the other hand, there was no sense testing the limits of his famous temper. “Your reputation precedes you.” Karloutria intended her clipped tone to underline the intended insult.

“As does yours. You’re even hotter in person than my spies indicated—a worthy fiancée.” The tyrant leered at her and ran his spiked tongue over lumpy fat green lips. Karloutria’s stomach lurched at the prospect of those lips and teeth, that weapon-grade tongue anywhere near her.

“Father, explain.” Her voice remained steady.

A shiver of shame contorted the emperor’s patrician features. “Forgive me, my dear. You see, I turned to the tyrant at a moment of need, when my portion of the imperial treasury resources had run perilously low.”

“Due to gambling debts incurred—” the tyrant gleefully pointed out.

Both Karloutria and her father glared at him.

The tyrant rolled his massive shoulders in a mock shrug. “Just wanted to be accurate on details. Give my betrothed the big picture.”

“I am not your betrothed,” she spat out. Whatever other disaster she had to face, being this beast’s betrothed would never be part of the package.

“You are. But I’ll let your father explain.”

“That I have allowed my damnable weakness to bring us to this day.” The emperor shook his head. “My darling daughter. The tyrant bailed me out of an…an embarrassing situation.”

“More than once,” the tyrant added.

The emperor nodded. “Yes, yes. More than once. But now the final accounting has come due, and we find ourselves at another embarrassing crossroads.”

“Terms of the agreement,” the tyrant began to enumerate. “Emperor of Nowemapo defaults, tyrant takes over. Nowemapo becomes a colony of Raptosphere and the empress designate will have the great pleasure of being my next bride. Lucky number seventeen. According to your customs, on your marriage date, the emperor will abdicate and turn all power over to you and your lord consort. A mere formality.”

None of this could be happening. None of this. But a glance at her father’s face confirmed that this horror was their new reality. How could her father have done this to their people—and to her?

“I don’t consent to any of this. We will find a way to repay the debt, a way that doesn’t involve losing our identity. A way that doesn’t make me your bride.” Please, Goddess of Kindness and Mercy, there has to be a way.

“You will be my seventeenth bride,” the tyrant exulted. He reached to cup her chin, but Karloutria ducked away and managed to resist kicking him in the— No way would she let that slovenly monster touch her, let alone be her husband.

There had to be a way… “Wait. According to our Sacred Marital Process Code, any empress designate must give first consort option to an Earthling. This supersedes all other stipulations.” Goddesses be blessed, therein lay her salvation.

“Not true,” roared the tyrant. “The Empress Designate Euflenmia married a Martian-Venusian.”

“Yes, but she chose love over duty and abdicated. I’m not about to. I’m obligated to search for my mate on Earth. It’s in the code.”

The emperor nodded. “It’s true.”

The tyrant growled again. “I have my own code.”

“You would willingly transgress the Pan-Intergalactic Marital Guidelines?” Karloutria raised a brow. No one, not even an outlaw like the tyrant, would willingly mess with the Pan-Intergalactic Guidelines. The ensuing tangle of red tape was guaranteed to make any being’s life unending misery.

The tyrant roared. “Forty-eight hours on Earth. That’s all the guidelines demand. You have forty-eight hours to find a mate and bring him back. You’ll fail. That’ll get the Pan-Intergalactic scum off my back.” He got into Karloutria’s face. “Then you and Nowemapo are mine.”

Forty-eight hours wasn’t enough. But she’d make it work. Either that or face a fate a million times worse than death.

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