Science Fiction Romance Best Seller!
Escape from Zulaire
Audiobook: Amazon itunes
Narrated by Mary Fegreus & Michael Riffle
From Kirkus Reviews: “Scott, an experienced romance novelist, distinguishes herself first and foremost as a gripping storyteller; the conventional romantic undertones only distract a little from a well-constructed sci-fi escape novel. Andi’s strength and reluctant vulnerability make her a compelling heroine, but many of the secondary characters are a bit underdeveloped. However, the overall story makes up for this with a vibrant setting and an engaging depiction of Zulaire’s intricate political system. A fine work of science fiction that’s only occasionally hampered by its romance-novel conventions.”
“5 Stars Fabulous SciFi Romance…” read the rest of the review from T. Dewhirst of RabidReadersReviews at Amazon
Andi Markriss hasn’t exactly enjoyed being the houseguest of the planetary high-lord, but her company sent her to represent them at a political wedding. When hotshot Sectors Special Forces Captain Tom Deverane barges in on the night of the biggest social event of the summer, Andi isn’t about to offend her high-ranking host on Deverane’s say-so—no matter how sexy he is, or how much he believes they need to leave now.
Deverane was thinking about how to spend his retirement bonus when HQ assigned him one last mission: rescue a civilian woman stranded on a planet on the verge of civil war. Someone has pulled some serious strings to get her plucked out of the hot zone. Deverane’s never met anyone so hard-headed—or so appealing. Suddenly his mission to protect this one woman has become more than just mere orders.
That mission proves more dangerous than he expected when rebel fighters attack the village and raze it to the ground. Deverane escapes with Andi, and on their hazardous journey through the wilderness, Andi finds herself fighting her uncomfortable attraction to the gallant and courageous captain. But Deverane’s not the type to settle down, and running for one’s life doesn’t leave much time to explore a romance.
Then Andi is captured by the rebel fighters, but Deverane has discovered that Zulaire’s so-called civil war is part of a terrifying alien race’s attempt to subjugate the entire Sector. If he pushes on to the capitol Andi will die. Deverane must decide whether to save the woman he loves, or sacrifice her to save Zulaire.
This is the most absurd thing I’ve ever done as assistant planetary agent for Loxton Galactic Trading—standing in as a bridesmaid in a borrowed puce dress because some other girl failed to show up. Andi Markriss sighed, feeling the garment binding too tight across her chest. I didn’t mind representing the company as a guest, but this is way outside the line of duty.
Early afternoon on Zulaire was too warm for an outdoor ceremony, but the Planetary High Lord’s spoiled daughter Lysanda didn’t care to be ready any earlier in the day. Her guests’ comfort wasn’t a consideration.
An inch at a time, Andi shifted from her assigned spot into the shade cast by the towering stone pillars. How did I get talked into this? Oh, yes, Lysanda wept, and her mother made vague threats about her husband reviewing our shipping contracts. As the musicians played, Andi turned, watching Lysanda pace toward the dais in time to the music, smiling for her groom-to-be.
The local priest took a deep breath and launched into a lengthy blessing, invoking the deity and relating the history of the planet’s three Clans—Obati, Shenti and Naranti. Andi chanted along with him under her breath. Overlords, Second Class and Neutrals, as her boss had told her when she’d arrived on Zulaire six years ago. Easy to keep them straight that way, he’d said, but don’t ever slip and use the nicknames out loud.
“This young pair from two of the highest families will cement our peace,” the priest proclaimed, lowering his arms and beaming at Princess Lysanda and her intended. “Their offspring will embody the union of Obati and Shenti blood.”
Applause from the crowd, led by the bride’s mother, made the officiant blush. As he bowed, Lysanda blew her mother a kiss.
That ovation will spur him to more oratory for sure. Andi smothered a sigh, wiggling her aching toes, held too tight in the borrowed silver sandals. I thought the last three weeks of engagement parties, picnics and games out here in the summer compound were endless, but this ceremony tops them all.
“The bride and groom will now light the symbolic candles.” The priest led the pair to the side altar, where a trio of candles—blue, green and ivory—had been set into massive golden holders. Representing the three Clans, the candle ritual reinforced the political symbolism of this ceremony. Everything symbolic on Zulaire came in threes, Andi thought, watching the couple light each candle in turn.
Sneezing violently as the slight afternoon breeze carried colorful but pungent smoke from the burning tapers in her direction, she earned herself a glare and a hissed “Shh!” from the woman standing next to her. After taking a deep, cleansing breath of the fragrant bouquet she’d been clutching, Andi gave the other attendant a faint smile.
Lysanda had argued long and hard with her mother earlier about allowing Andi to substitute for the unaccountably missing handmaiden. Only the fact that without Andi to partner him, an important groomsman would be omitted from the ceremony swayed the decision. Good for Loxton’s business networking that I’m here. The Planetary Lord’s family owes me personally now for preserving the precious symmetry of Lysanda’s wedding party, at the cost of my aching feet. With a flash of amusement at the ludicrous situation, Andi smiled. Lucky for the princess, I accepted the invitation on behalf of Loxton, not my portly boss.
Tuning out the priest’s new recitation of more sacred writings, since the man had a nasal voice and a tendency to repeat himself, Andi studied the intricate carvings in the shiny black stone wall of the pavilion across from her, details brought to clarity by the slanting sun’s rays.
The bas-relief depicted a stylized sun above a giant, multitrunked malagoy tree—each trunk symbolizing one of the three Zulairian tribes—Obati and Shenti locked in an eternal struggle to rule the planet, jockeying back and forth for thousands of years of bloody history. All the while the Naranti stayed neutral, filling a perpetual peacemakers’ role, as their god, Sanenre, had legendarily decreed. Symbolic of their Clan’s allotted role in the planet’s history, the Naranti trunk was at the center of the tree, supporting the other two.
A skillfully carved herd of three-horned urabu grazed beneath the sheltering arms of the malagoy, the alpha buck depicted in a watchful stance, stone face staring at the occupants of the dais. The image of these legendary creatures, with their sweeping triple horns, was found everywhere on Zulaire, even on the Planetary Lord’s seal. Beloved symbol of the god Sanenre, legendary bearers of good fortune and blessings, the gazellelike animals were extinct now, of course, hunted for the ivory of their sweeping horns.
Lysanda and her betrothed were repeating vows after the priest.
Apparently as bored as Andi was, the youngest attendant at the ceremony, just a toddler really, came across the platform with unsteady steps, reaching for Andi, her favorite playmate of the last few weeks. Missing her nieces and nephews, who lived far away in her own home Sector of the galaxy, Andi had been happy to skip a few adult entertainments to amuse the young ones of the house during her stay.
After a quick hug, the little girl plunked herself at Andi’s feet, leaning against her legs. Pulling the flower garland from her glossy curls, she picked the petals off the blossoms while humming the processional tune off-key. The priest began to wrap up, raising his voice to override the toddler’s song. Andi stared out over the crowd.
Quite a few empty chairs. A surprising number of high-ranking Obati guests had failed to arrive, which had driven the bride’s mother into an angry tirade shortly before the ceremony. The failure of the missing bridesmaid and her family to show up had created another firestorm. Lady Tonkiln had a long memory for social slights.
It’s been an odd summer, that’s for sure. Andi would be glad to see fall arrive, when business always picked up and she could get back to the office, dive into the complexities of intergalactic trading and leave the socializing to others. And decide if it’s time to leave Zulaire for another assignment. Six years is too long to stay on one planet, if I want my next promotion. I wish I didn’t love it here so much.
Of course, no one had expected Planetary Lord Tonkiln to leave the important business of ruling Zulaire for his daughter’s handfasting. He’d be at the formal wedding later in the year, held in the massive shrine at the capital, to accept the Shenti groom’s petition for marriage to Lysanda. His oldest son, Gul, had been scheduled to stand in for the ruler today, but in typical Gul fashion, he hadn’t shown up.
His careless attitude to responsibilities had been one of the reasons Andi had never let their casual, off-and-on-again affair become more serious. Charming as he was, Gul was unreliable.
Glancing along the fringes of the crowd where the invited Shenti guests were sitting, she saw everyone attentive, focusing on the glowing bride and handsome groom.
The Naranti servants clustered at the rear of the outdoor pavilion looked bored. I suppose they just want to get this over with so they can clean up.
Well, me, too. I want to get out of this dress. What a wretched color Lysanda picked! Andi sighed. I’m glad I can wear my own clothing tonight at the reception, when I present the Loxton corporate bride gift.
And still the ceremony continued. The bride gazed soulfully at her fiancé while he knelt, serenading her with a traditional Zulairian love song. As if she hadn’t been making fun of this very part of the ritual less than an hour ago. What a little actress.
This was a coolly negotiated union of the ruling Obati family and an influential Shenti house to further cement everyone’s power. Lysanda and her groom are doing an excellent job of portraying lovebirds for the crowd. Both loving the spotlight. How fortunate he can sing—the family didn’t have to hire someone to carry the tune for him. Andi blinked, turning her full attention back to the couple as her own most favorite moment of the handfasting ceremony arrived—the giving of the bridal shawl. In the old days, she knew, these shawls had been hand-woven, selected by the groom with much care to symbolically enfold his chosen one in his love. Lysanda’s shawl followed current fashion in the capital – machine-made, trimmed with three kinds of lace, the two family crests outlined in semiprecious gems—all about the show, not the emotion. Two attendants carried the unfolded shawl to the groom, displaying the embroidery and jewels for the guests to admire.
Still, it was the most romantic aspect of this particular ceremony. Andi suppressed a somewhat wistful mental picture of an unknown man wrapping her in one of the traditional, simple shawls. She took another deep breath of the flowers’ perfume. What is with me today, all this nostalgia for the dreams I had as a kid? Romance, a husband, children… Traveling around the Sectors doing business for Loxton is the wrong career if I want to settle down. I already made that decision, no looking back, no regrets. Maybe after I make Sector vice president, I’ll decide on a different course. No telling how old she’d be by then.
After adjusting the shawl to her satisfaction, Lysanda leaned toward the groom for a brief kiss before the couple turned to face the applauding audience. Scooping the bored flower girl into her arms, Andi juggled her own flowers, plus the toddler and her tiny basket. Arm in arm with the prominent Shenti man she’d been rushed into the puce dress to accompany, Andi walked down the aisle behind the happy couple, in time to the music.
As soon as the ceremonial party had left the pavilion, Andi searched for a maid or family member to take charge of the toddler. Another of the bride’s attendants, a haughty girl from the capital, brought her the Tonkilns’ youngest son, Sadu, who’d been a restless member of the wedding party too. “Here, you may as well tend them both, outworlder,” the other girl said. “How do boys get so messy?” She turned on her elegant heel and walked away before Andi could protest.
“Hungry,” Sadu proclaimed loudly, tugging at her skirt with one grubby hand.
Lady Tonkiln hurried by. “Oh, good, you have the children, Andi. Thank you.”
“But I should be getting out of this dress, getting ready for the evening’s reception—”
“You know the nurse left suddenly for her village this morning. I’ve no idea why, and she needn’t bother coming back, begging to be rehired.” Lady Tonkiln reached to untangle an errant flower from the girl’s curls. “Do take the children to the house for me, won’t you? The maids can watch them. No one will care if you’re late to the dance as long as you’re in time for the presentation of the gifts.”
And with that barbed insult, her hostess was off to greet more guests before Andi could protest. Shaking her head, she stared after the older woman. Typical. The “overbearing Obati” clan indeed!
Giving Sadu an awkward pat on the shoulder, she tugged him in the direction of the waiting Naranti servants. “All right, Sadu, walk with me and we’ll find Cook. I know I saw her earlier —she can take you both back to the house, get you a snack before you and your cousin here take your naps.”
After handing Sadu and the flower girl over to the family’s genial cook, Andi decided to walk back to the Tonkiln mansion, rather than take the shuttle. She’d had enough of the family and their guests for right now. I need some time by myself. Taking off the too-tight sandals, Andi breathed a sigh of relief and strolled into the forest that surrounded the ceremonial glade. The path was clearly marked, and the hard-packed dirt felt soothing to her abused feet.
When she reached the halfway point, out of sight of both the glade and the house, Andi took a detour to the east to a meadow she’d discovered a few days ago. Heedless of the borrowed dress, which she knew would never be worn again by anyone, Andi hiked the skirt up enough so that she could sit comfortably on the moss under a big malagoy tree and relax for a few moments. Leaning her head against the rough trunk, she closed her eyes and listened to the soothing hum of the pollen-gathering insects and birdsongs overhead. Just have to get through this one last reception tonight, and then I can return to the capital. I can do that.
Close to drowsing off in this peaceful spot, Andi suddenly became aware that the meadow had grown quiet. Opening her eyes with a flash of alarm, she found herself staring at a myth come to life.
An entire family of majestic urabu stood in the center of the lush meadow. To Andi’s knowledge, no one had seen a living urabu on Zulaire in hundreds of years.
Behind the proud alpha male were three females, a younger buck showing nubs for horns, and a baby. As if they came just to find me. Andi chuckled at the idea as the buck swung his head in her direction, nodding once. Standing guard, he watched the perimeter of the small meadow as his brood spread out to nibble the dense stand of grass and flowers. From time to time the buck lowered his head to snatch a few mouthfuls of fodder, before going back on the alert. A vivid green, his eyes were fringed by thick, black lashes.
She wasn’t sorry to claim this incredible experience all for herself.
Trotting forward a few paces, the fawn stopped to check on its mother’s whereabouts, then wobbled straight to Andi on spindly legs. Amazed, she held out her hand for it to sniff before stroking the little urabu’s muzzle and playing with the soft, tufted ears. The fawn’s golden-brown pelt was warm velvet under her fingers.
The buck made an impatient huffing sound. Startled, jerking her hand back, Andi watched as the fawn took three awkward jumps, to press against the biggest doe’s flank. Leaving the clearing, the herd bounded off to the northeast in a flowing line, buck first, fawn struggling valiantly to keep up at the end of the procession.
A wave of longing engulfed Andi as they left her. I wish they’d stayed longer. Taking a few tentative steps away from the tree, she peered hopefully into the jungle, but the urabu family had gone on their way without a trace.
With a breathless little laugh, she pinched her forearm. “No, I’m awake all right.” She studied the imprint of the hooves in the rich soil. Crushed, fragrant grass was already springing back to hide the evidence. “When I think how many times I was told the urabu didn’t really exist, or had been hunted to extinction—”
Well, this experience certainly redeemed my day. Frowning at a grass stain as she dusted stray twigs and leaves from her skirt, she shook her head. I’m not telling the Tonkilns about this magical encounter or they’ll be out here hunting the poor things. My secret, my gift from Zulaire’s god.
Thinking of her imperious hosts reminded Andi to check the time. Whistling at how late in the afternoon it had become, she set out in a slow jog, skirt hiked above her knees. At the forest’s edge, she stopped, planning to put her sandals on again. One of the gardener’s legion of young helpers hailed her. Running along the center of the path, he made big summoning gestures. “Miss, miss, you’re wanted at the house!”
“Why all the fuss? Were they afraid I’d gotten lost?” Andi said.
Coming to a halt in front of her, the boy tugged at her sleeve, trying to draw her along the path. “Men have come from the capital for you. Outworld soldiers.”
“Soldiers?” Andi was startled, her heart beating faster. “What do I have to do with the military? There must be a mistake.”
“We must go. The leader of these soldiers, he demands to speak to you.” Lowering his voice, her companion intoned with relish, “At ONCE!” The skinny boy chortled at his imitation of the outworlder’s less-than-exact accent. “He said it’s important, a matter of utmost urgency.”
Maybe something had happened at the office? Or to her boss? But why send the military out here with the message? The capital was hundreds of miles away, yes, but there were excellent comlinks between here and there. Breaking into a run, she covered the ground faster than the gardener’s assistant’s stubbier limbs could carry him.
Leaving the winded lad well behind, Andi sprinted the last few yards of the path, onto the main house’s driveway. Skidding to a stop to catch her breath, she craned for a better look at a pair of military vehicles parked off to the side, between her and the mansion. One was a squat, two-passenger groundcar with an ominous-looking blast cannon mounted on the rear. Behind that was a much larger armored personnel carrier, also bristling with weapons, lights and scanners. Both vehicles were the gray, green and black camouflage design favored by Sectors troops on this planet.
Offworld troops seemed jarringly out of place in this idyllic playground of the Obati elite.